Rowena Macdonald writes about her new collection ‘Smoked Meat’
Smoked Meat was inspired by the year I spent in Montreal at the turn of the millennium. I went out there in December 1999 with my friend Lucy a couple of years after graduating from Sussex University. I had a job as a reporter on a local newspaper which was far too much like hard work and Lucy persuaded me Montreal would be an adventure so I ran away with her. She had been persuaded to go there by Mark, a flamboyant literature student at Concordia University, whom she had met on holiday in Scotland the previous summer. Even though we couldn’t get work visas, Mark assured us it would be easy to find casual jobs, in the Canadian phrase, ‘under the table’, and he said he would put us up for the first month or so. When we got there everything was closing down for the winter and, as neither of us could speak fluent French, no Francophone establishment wanted to employ us. We found cash-in-hand jobs eventually but inevitably they were for dubious employers in grim parts of the city. It was an exhausting struggle – at one point I had five different part-time jobs – but it was exciting. I had never lived abroad before and everything seemed new and fascinating. I loved Montreal’s combination of Frenchness and Americana. The inhabitants had a New World gusto and a European bon vivance. At that time it seemed like a poor city – its economy blighted by the French Separatist policy and the withdrawal of Anglophone investment to Toronto – but this meant people made their own entertainment so it had a great underground arts scene. I liked its bohemian shabbiness. To me, it felt on the edge of the world stage; I remember standing in the snow in a down-at-heel section of St Laurent Boulevard and having the distinct sense I was on a frontier town with nothing but uncharted Arctic wastes beyond. My senses were sharpened with the adrenaline of hustling to survive and life felt filmic and heightened. I wanted to pin it all down in words and I filled notebook after notebook with descriptions of every last detail.
I started writing Smoked Meat in 2002, a couple of years after returning to England. My time in Montreal had been so vivid I knew I would write about it eventually but I had to let my experiences ferment as I wanted to avoid writing something too autobiographical. (To me it’s boring writing about someone I know inside out and events where I know the outcome.) ‘Double Take’ was the first story I wrote. Its catalyst was a poem by August Kleinzahler, titled ‘Montreal’, that I came across in the London Review of Books. It captured exactly the mood of languor and stylish dilapidation in the area known as the Plateau, where I had lived. Corinna, the girl in the poem, was wistful and romantic and reminded me of my friend Chloé, who I could imagine growing gardenias and drifting around in a ‘wrapper’ (although I must point out that Chloé is not Corinna; like all the characters and events in Smoked Meat, Corinna is an almagam). From Corinna I went on to write about her ex-boyfriend Henry, who runs off with a man, and then I wrote about Jason and Amy, the supposedly happy couple she watches enviously from her window. Each new story had a minor character I could focus on next. A subtle theme began to emerge; of characters being hardened by their struggles in the big city; of people moving from innocence to experience, turning from ‘green’ to ‘smoked’ meat, like Montreal’s signature dish.
My time in Montreal ‘smoked’ me to a certain extent and from a sensible career point of view it was a bad idea but I met some friends who were real soulmates and it was a turning point in my life; the year decided to become a writer. Ten years later I am thrilled that Flambard is publishing my labour of love.
Smoked Meat will be published by Flambard Press on the 30th of November 2011.