Agility in Writing – From Literary Fiction to Comedy and Back

Reader Logo by Catherine Mcnamara

My first published story was called ‘Elton John’s Mother’ and though the curious reader might expect to find some gossip about the great star’s mum, the story had nothing to do with David Furnace’s talented husband. Instead it was a take-off of welfare mothers living in a caravan park along the Queensland coast, one of whom named her kids after pop stars. Though it seemed funny and was written in local slang with some sharp humour, the narrator suffered from post-natal depression, a child was kidnapped, kids were produced for welfare cheques and little else, the boyfriends abused the women and the women abused the system. It was an environment that provided absolutely no hope. To my surprise the story was included in the publisher’s big anthology, along with the biggie Australian authors of the time. Comedy? Literary Fiction? What was really going on there?

It’s hard to classify your own work when it changes form according to the idea that springs to mind, the idea that drives you at night and makes you snap on the screen in the morning. I’d always thought I was aiming to publish literary fiction, and with pieces in a Virago Anthology (Wild Cards) and various English and American literary magazines and anthologies. I’ve often been guilty of heavy-headed and introspective work - especially when I was less agile with the computer - and it’s taken a while to find a balance of lightness and heaviness within the framework of a story, where every instant counts.

After a decade of working with photography and graphic design in West Africa I moved back to Europe nine years ago and returned to writing. What was I to write? Who was I? Neither European nor African, I began writing stories that wound around the edges of my experiences. In my first successful story, ‘Pelt’ (published in Pretext and Ether Books), I thought I had written something bordering on humorous, but when my first reader came back to me deeply disturbed, I was puzzled. Was it funny or was it tragic? In the story the narrator is a pregnant Ghanaian woman who realises her German lover is being tugged back to his wife. The tone is snappy. She finds a way to get her man back. But this story is not about man-snagging, in truth it is about the original pained German couple, who we view through the young woman’s eyes in a ruthless post-colonial context.

After a few stories I wrote a literary novel which was big, messy and African. I was told by an agent that Africa didn’t sell. I was told to go back and revise. The novel stalled.

I think the internet has a lot to answer for with what came next. Writing emails – without realising it – one finds a voice. A friend noted that I took the mickey out of Italy (where I live) in a hilarious way, time and time again. I didn’t take her very seriously, as I had more serious ambitions. I guess this occurred when I started to notice what they call ‘chick lit’ on the shelves. My friend pushed. After a long hot night at her place one summer I began the drive home on a baked local road under the white sun. By the end of that trip I had a title and a first line. Next, I settled in the old chicken shed at my place and wrote until winter.

I wrote a romance set in Italy. I laughed all the way. I felt an enormous release as I wrote about sex, monuments and food, rather than illness, sex and death. Ultimately, any good short story involves a subtle and enlightening transition, while my romance novel was a wildly-paced in-your-face transformation equipped with exquisite Italian settings, a Latvian waif model, a bisexual Hong Kong benefactor and a spread in Hello! magazine.

I was disturbed at first, by how easy and enjoyable I found the process. But was this really me? Had I betrayed my serious self? Would I ever have an idea for a short story again?

When this novel was accepted soon after I decided I had produced a solid manuscript I was thrilled. Like all writers, I could fill a wall with my rejection letters and near-misses. So many times I have been told that a collection of short stories was intriguing and original but they never sell/sorry we don’t do them/come back when you’ve written that thumping novel with a twist. (I am still determined to have my collection published.*) So to have a novel accepted with the crazy title ‘The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy’, did this mean I had accomplished something more easy, or more difficult? Did more commercial mean less worthwhile? Am I allowed to wear both hats?

I don’t read a lot of comedy myself and yet we thrive upon it and it is essential in our bitter world. And while DLC is incredibly amusing (I laughed through the editing as well), I think the language is richer than a typical woman’s novel, and aims for ‘the thinking woman’ rather than a quick airport fix. What I am certain of, is that it takes a combination of observational skills, inspiration and bravado to invent and sustain comedy, and I would not want to be writing it every day!

Ultimately, for both reader and writer, publisher and editor, there are different ways of packaging human nature, whether it be through a kid called Elton John in a caravan park in Australia, or a young French woman called Nathalie attacked on a Ghanaian beach (published in The View from Here, issue 26), or kooky divorced Marilyn finding a part-time job modeling leatherwear in Milan, but if the author finds a voice that is true, surely there is no reason why forms of fiction cannot shift.

* Catherine’s short story collection ‘Pelt and Other Stories’, a semi-finalist in the Hudson Prize, has just been accepted for publication by Indigo Dreams and will be released in 2013.

 (The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy is available for pre-order on Amazon here, release date April 16th 2012)

Butterfly picture top: Amypalko

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