If you read my blog posts, you know how much I’ve enjoyed attending the Matera Women’s Fiction Festival, held each September in southern Italy. But it’s not just for the great information and advice you receive about the publishing industry today, or even the one-on-one meetings with agents. The real plus to this conference is getting to know the fabulous authors on hand.
This past September, I was lucky to meet Australian ex-pat and author, Catherine McNamara. Catherine now lives in northern Italy, but she arrived there via France, Somalia, and Ghana. As if that’s not enough, in addition to working, writing, and piling up languages, Catherine also happens to be a mother of four.
Catherine, I’ll be thinking of you next time I’m groaning to myself that I don’t have any time to write!
Catherine’s novel The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy is a wonderfully fun read. I found myself racing through it to find out what adventures and mishaps our heroine would get herself into.
I enjoyed the book even more because I spent my first two years in Italy living in Milan. Although, when I compare my experiences to those of the novel’s protagonist, Marilyn, I hardly know what I was doing with my time. Studying economics and finance certainly kept me far away from the more… er….more ‘original’ social circles in which Marilyn travels. And just for the record, I learned Italian in a far more traditional way. : )
I was very pleased that Catherine decided to join me to discuss her wonderful book that I hope you’ll all enjoy. Over to Catherine…
What is the plot of The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy?The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy is an erotic comedy with a classical chick lit plot. Philandering husband (Peter) dumps wife (Marilyn) in England. Marilyn hears a rumour about a neighbour (Jean Harper) who found ‘love’ on a singles trip to the Andes and was swept away to live in Milan. Marilyn follows Jean to the glamorous Italian city, where she undergoes a transition involving internet dating, a kinky modelling job, a dodgy Australian redhead, love affairs with a spicy young agronomist and an older Swiss model agency director, and a good deal of prosecco, caffè corretto, exquisite heels and gorgeous architecture.
In a contemporary Italy flavoured with migrants, sexy TV showgirls and Prada handbags, Marilyn addresses the age-old issues of the older thinking woman: how to age with grace, how to reconcile sexuality with the obligations of a mother of teens, how to earn money. She falls in and out of lust and love, rediscovers her erotic persona and redefines her wider needs, while searching for – and finding – a place to rest her heart.
How did you come up with the idea? What was your writing process for this novel? The idea sprang from the title and the first line. I was caught up in a big literary novel set in Ghana and a friend said, Why don’t you write something funny, something set in Italy? Even though I’d been living in Italy around five years at the time, I’d never set any work here. I drove home from her house – I still remember, a white hot day and empty Sunday roads – and set up my computer in the chicken shed next to the house. I spent the rest of the summer writing and most of the time my kids had no idea where I was.
There was no real process. I think I had as much fun as Marilyn did, in the writing of DLC. It unfolded very quickly and each chapter leapt into the next one. There is a lot of coincidence and many improbable things happen, and I think I enjoyed making the plot ever more far-fetched and hilarious. I certainly laughed a lot on my own out there. I don’t think anyone could hear me!
Okay, your tagline begs the question – more vast experience or more wild imagination in writing this book? And, um, while we’re on the topic, was your Italian-learning experience in any way similar to Marilyn’s? : ) I do have an active imagination, but when a woman clocks up forty years, well, she’s usually seen a thing or two. I love juxtaposing things, and setting off on an unplanned, illogical course. I also did some crazy clubbing in Berlin some years back, and met a lot of marginal people while moving about abroad. I also talk a lot and love piecing together people’s stories. My main concern in the writing though was humour – keeping the reader in the loop and having readers laughing out loud.
Umm, no, I didn’t learn the Italian language the way that Marilyn did. I realise I am probably not going to sound convincing here, but it’s true! However I do think that the bedroom is a great place for learning a foreign language.
How did you get your publishing contract? I wrote to a couple of British agents (my protagonist is English) and gave up pretty quickly when it wasn’t taken on. You see, I wasn’t sure if this book was a one-off or a potential series, or whether I was going to head straight back to literary fiction, so I wasn’t even clear about what I was hawking. For most agents you are a brand or a product, and have to be able to identify yourself as such. Also, I’m used to working on my own so the idea of committing to a certain path with an agent scared me slightly. Acquiring an agent is like looking out for a new husband – so many boxes have to be ticked.
Then I started reading up about small presses in the UK that accepted un-agented submissions, thinking it might be easier to dodge the slush pile this way. I read an interview with my publisher online and he seemed genuine, with a streamlined selection process. He was also just beginning with a fiction line (they mainly do poetry), so I think I also came in at the right time. They accepted the manuscript immediately.
What did you learn in the process? Many things! That there are advantages and disadvantages in working with a small press versus a huge publishing company. With a small press you can feel – as I do – looked after and appreciated, where with a bigger outfit I think you would be pressed into becoming a brand quite quickly. There is more latitude in this way with a small press – I’ve been able to change genre and go from romantic/erotic comedy to literary short stories – and yet I know it is almost impossible to have a big publisher even consider short story collections, unless you are a prize-winner or have a stash of published novels under your belt. And I also doubt I would be ‘allowed’ to switch genre with a bigger deal in place.
That said, the print run and commercial span of small presses are considerably less, and promotional verve is fundamental if you want your book to get out there. You really have to put in a lot of hours online, talking to people, organising events (while wishing you were back in your room writing at your desk). It’s very hard to have your book reviewed in big newspapers as there are an astonishing amount of books coming out every week – now that self-published books are climbing the book charts as well – so it’s essential to build up an (groan) online presence. The only comforting thing about this is that authors with big publishers are just about in the same boat, as publicity and promotion have been scaled back extensively in the past few years.
So basically, after the book is written, accepted, edited and published – then the real ‘work’ begins.
How do you handle promotion and marketing? I run two blogs, one for each book, and try to keep these vibrant and regular. I comment on a lot of related blogs and attend as many events as possible. I participated in the Penzance Literary Festival this summer and had my first interview on stage (with a glass of water, microphone and lights, legs-crossed religiously) and have done many online interviews, guest posts on blogs and even a national radio interview in Italian in Australia. It’s important to understand where your readers are hanging out – really important. And to seduce them with just enough information to make yourself sound authentic and interesting. It’s really true Stephane Marsan’s comment you picked up from the Matera conference, about the writer being someone you want to sit down with and share a glass of wine. In fact I’ve met quite a few blogger readers over the past few months – something I couldn’t have imagined doing a year ago.
My publisher organises distribution and sales and has made the book available as an e-book, where I think it is doing very well. It’s also available in quite a few countries through Amazon or its equivalents.
What are your plans now? I know you have a short story collection coming out in 2013. What stage are you with that? Future projects underway? I’ve been asked by a few readers for a sequel to The Divorced Lady’s Companion and I think that could be on the cards – if I can ever foresee five or so vacant months where I can retreat to the chicken shed. I have a big novel manuscript I’d like to revise first however, and see if I can pull it into shape. But right now I am editing the short story collection which is up for publication in 2013. Most of the stories have been published in international reviews and I’m now working on story order and going nuts! The stories are set between Africa and Europe and involve some interlinked characters, mostly people coming to terms with cultural discomfort, illness, lust and history. I’m thrilled because I have two writers I adore who have agreed to write cover blurbs, and my test readers all came back to me with positive comments and useful ideas. I’m about to start work with my editor and then there will be promotion to begin for Pelt and Other Stories.
What’s your advice to aspiring authors hoping to publish? I think attending events like the Women’s Fiction Festival at Matera can be essential for several reasons. Firstly, to realise you are not alone in your endeavours to publish, as the rejections you will inevitably receive can feel like a personal blow, whereas accepting criticism, picking yourself up and moving on, is central to the writer’s experience. Secondly, the amount of information you are given about the pulse of the publishing industry on different continents is crucial to an understanding of where and how to submit your writing. Standard practices have changed, new opportunities continue to arise for the astute writer.
However. In order to write the aspiring author must read, and commit him or herself to a process of learning, thinking, producing and editing. It is essential to experiment, to copy other writers to find yourself, to cringe at your first efforts, to learn how to believe in what you create. I think it is a long and lonely process, with very few rewards. Some days I don’t know why I even do it! Then of course you must submit pieces to magazines, earn your stripes, aim for a prize, decide what type of product (are you aware of your market?) you want to assemble. Some people are very talented and intuitive and everything clicks when they are young, others lead more distracted lives, or skirt success for years, or give up even. I don’t think it’s ever too late to try. Better that than announce to people that You Have a Novel Inside of You – one of my pet hates.
Thank you, Catherine, for joining me today, and congratulations on The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy! I can’t wait to read what you’re working on next. Thanks so much for having me here Kimberly and good luck with your own writing. I’d love to be back here next year when Pelt and Other Stories comes out. Ci vediamo a Roma!
You can learn more about Catherine McNamara at Catherine’s websites: thedivorcedladyscompaniontoitaly.blogspot.com and peltandotherstories.blogspot.com, Facebook: Catherine McNamara, and Twitter #catinitaly .
To order The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy, take a look at the following links: