Interview by Annabel
Narcissim for Beginners is Martine McDonagh’s third novel, reviewed by Annabel here.
A: Firstly, how did you find the whole Unbound experience? (See our Spotlight on Publishing feature on Unbound here).
M: I have to be honest and say I found the crowdfunding aspect of it really hard – not that I had expected to be easy. It’s not in my nature to ask for money, help, anything at all, so it was a huge lesson in overcoming that particular obstacle. Once the funding was over, the editorial and production team was an absolute delight to work with and I couldn’t have asked for a better cover design than the one Tree Abraham came up with.
A: Originally, on Unbound, the book was going to be called Things you can’t undo – but you changed it to Narcissism for Beginners. How did that change come about?
M: Things We Can’t Undo was already the third, possibly fourth, title I’d had for this book and while it was the best up to that point, I still wasn’t completely sure about it, it seemed a bit ‘soft’. So, in the final editing stages I asked a few people who’d read the book for any suggestions and it was copy editor Linda McQueen who came up with Narcissism for Beginners. I was unsure about it at first – I’d already rejected similar titles earlier on, mainly because I wanted something that referred directly to the story rather than one of the themes of the book – but I loved its directness and cheek and after a few hours and some great feedback from other people, I decided to go for it.
A: I have to ask you about Shaun of the Dead. What made you pick that film for Sonny to be obsessed with? (it is a personal favourite of mine too, I love the attention to detail – and Bill Nighy, naturally).
M: Well, like you, I love the film. I was a huge fan of Spaced and pretty much everything Pegg and Frost did following that. SOTD is an absolute classic in my opinion, the script is perfect and I love the running jokes that continue on through Hot Fuzz and The World’s End. If I’d been a teenage boy when it came out, it would have been one to watch on repeat without a doubt. In NfB, it’s important to Sonny because its release coincided with him being in deep trouble and the film’s central message about growing up was key to helping him through his difficulties. At 21, it’s still an important touchstone for him – and he needs it! NfB is also a story about identity and Sonny is particularly rootless. SOTD appeals to his sense of Britishness at a time when he’s struggling to work out where he fits in.
A: I thought it was very clever of his guardian Thomas to give Sonny searching for the film locations as a fall-back reason for the trip, should his search for truth about his family not work out. Would he have got on the plane without that alternative mission?
M: No, he definitely wouldn’t have. Sonny has always been too fragile to have that conversation with Thomas and Thomas has always been sensitive to that, so his quest is an unspoken one. Visiting film locations is a metaphor for his other, deeper search.
A: Sonny’s ‘sperm father’, (love that term!), the Guru Bim is simultaneously a character that makes us laugh with his ‘trembling leaves’ style of meditation – resembling the Shakers’ from the 18th century mixed up with TM and bits from elsewhere, and then he scares you stiff with his manipulative and tyrant behaviour in his little cult. Was there a particular inspiration behind him?
M: In some ways, Bim is a fairly generic character in that he absolutely fits an archetypal profile of a fraudulent ‘spiritual’ leader, whose principal agenda in any given situation is the fulfilment of his own perceived needs. I spent a long time researching different cults and their gurus, and Bim and his group is a composite of many, with a bit of some I’ve had direct experience of thrown in. I actually wrote the first draft of the story from Bim’s point of view, but soon came to realise that those extremely narcissistic types aren’t three-dimensional enough to carry a whole novel and are generally fairly humourless. What’s interesting (to me at least) about them is the effect they have on the people around them, and in particular, the damage they do to those unfortunate enough to be their children. And so, I rewrote, switching to the child’s point of view.
A: One fun theme that recurs throughout is Sonny discovering new favourite words. His favourite of all is ‘fungible’ – I have no idea what that means!
M: Well it turns out Sonny doesn’t really know what it means either – the dictionary definition is interchangeable, and Sonny uses it more to mean flexible, changeable in that sense. I’ve no idea how he came to that misuse, I’m sure he must have looked it up at some point. I think his interest in words stems from having lived in so many different places and among people of many different nationalities, and is symptomatic of his own lack of identity.
A: Given that Narcissism for Beginners is a mere 184 pages of text, you pack so much into this novel and the suspense is palpable as Sonny visits the people who knew his mother, and reads Thomas’s letters. Your previous two novels are also not long; I’m a big fan of shorter novels with text unburdened by over-description and unnecessary diversion. Do you set out to keep your novels concise, is that just your style, or could you write a longer book if you needed to?
M: This is a long novel for me, a whopping 73,000 words! When I started it, I thought it would be longer, but I’m not sure I’m capable of writing a long novel. Just as I switch off listening to people who take ten minutes to say something that could be said in two (or often, could go without being said at all), so I lose patience with writing that rambles on and says little. I’m really not a fan of novels that seem to be long for the sake of it, or because the author has achieved such godlike status that no editor dares touch it. One danger with overwriting and / or under-editing is that it can close down the reader’s imagination. It’s the writer’s job to find the story’s natural length and when that happens the reader doesn’t notice how long it is. For example, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is short and perfect, and Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet is long and perfect.
A: And finally, we always ask this: What are you enjoying reading at the moment?
M: I’ve just finished reading Stephen May’s new novel, Stronger than Skin. It’s coming out a week after mine and we’re doing several events together around the country, but I would have read it anyway because I’ve read his others. He’s a brilliant writer, and it was a treat to get to read it before it’s out. Besides that, I’ve been re-reading a couple of the books I used to research NfB for discussion on the Papertrail podcast: Deborah Layton’s Seductive Poison, her autobiographical account of life in Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple cult, and Georges Simenon’s The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, which has a fantastically narcissistic protagonist. I’m looking forward to reading George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, which has yet to join the three, metre-high piles of unread books in my study….
Thank you Martine.
P.S. See Martine’s Pinterest board for the book here.
Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and pledged towards Martine’s novel which was crowdfunded.
Martine McDonagh, Narcissism for Beginners (Unbound, 2017) ISBN: 9781783523443, Hardback, 208 pages.
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