An interview with Smoked Meat author Rowena Macdonald
Writer Rowena Macdonald talks to Eleanor Hirst about her first collection of short stories Smoked Meat.
1.A lot of the cafes, restaurants, bars that form the settings of your stories recur throughout the collection. Are a lot of these based on your haunts in Montreal? Do you think there was a particular atmosphere to the city that inspired you to write the stories?
Every cafe, restaurant or bar in Smoked Meat is based on somewhere I worked, apart from La Cabane. My French wasn’t good enough to work there. My friend Chloe, who was one of my muses, worked at La Cabane. I used to hang out there sometimes when she was working. I really wanted to work there because you got good tips and it was on the Plateau, which was the cool area, but I only ended up working in Anglophone places or horrible Francophone places in obscure parts of the city where no one else wanted to work. I got sacked from my best job at the Cock and Bull pub. The owners gave my shift to a friend of the family. I was gutted.
Atmosphere and sense of place is, for me, one of the most important aspects of a novel or short story, and it was wanting to capture Montreal’s very particular ‘vibe’ that led me to write the stories. I wrote an extensive journal while I was there and used this as the basis for much of Smoked Meat. I wanted to pin down the city before I forgot it because my year there was an inspiring turning point in my life. It’s hard to sum up the atmosphere of Montreal in a few words – which is why I had to write a collection – but it’s a combination of bohemia, stylish poverty, a Frenchy kind of Americana, lo-fi underground creativity, pretentiousness yet also earthiness and down-home Canadian wholesomeness, multiculturalism (I hate this bland word but I can’t think of a quicker way of phrasing it) and sexuality. It’s a very flirty, sexy city. Very unlike London in that way. I now live in London.
2. Being a waitress must have allowed you to encounter a huge variety of different characters. How much do you draw upon people you have known/ met in your work?
I draw a great deal on people I have known and met. But I mix things up. I draw on aspects of people and create amalgams. Sometimes I draw on famous people or people I’ve never met but have heard about through friends. Sally, for example, is partly based on my impressions of the singer Pink, who was popular at the time I was writing Smoked Meat, and partly based on the ex-girlfriend of an ex-boyfriend, who I had never actually met. I also draw on aspects of my own character, though none of the characters in Smoked Meat is me.
3. You say you didn’t want to write anything too autobiographical but do you sometimes see yourself in any of your characters? For instance, Esme in ‘Slow Burn’ writing away in her journal?
I see aspects of myself in many of the characters, even the men and even the characters that may seem very different from me to an outside observer.
Esmé is similar to me as a kid as I was always writing things – though actually I mainly used to draw and I’ve never thought of myself as like Esmé until you mentioned it. The inspiration behind her came from a character in a children’s book I vaguely remember about a little girl in New York who went round spying on people. The Kids From Degrassi Street, an 1980s children’s TV series set in Toronto that I loved as a child was another inspiration for Esmé and her world. As was Suzanne Vega’s song ‘Luka‘. The rest I made up.
4. Over the collection you trace the changing of the seasons. Do you feel the essence of a place changes with the weather? Particularly in a place like Canada when the seasons are more distinctive?
I think weather has a great influence upon the character of a country and its people, even when the seasons are not distinctive. The essence of Montreal didn’t change exactly despite its extreme weather conditions as it was well set up for harsh cold and people didn’t hibernate as much as you might expect – they still went out a lot at night, wearing snow gear which they took off to reveal their flimsy finery underneath.
But I suppose there was a feeling of freedom and lightness once the snow had gone. It was disorienting actually – the winter went on for months and then boiling humid summer weather came in the space of a week. I didn’t like that sudden change and I missed the gentle flow of British seasons. I remember having a very vivid dream about autumn while I was there. I woke up crying. However, I found the Canadian winter exciting and the snow was really romantic to me. Even though I am a summer person I find snow inspiring. Mind you, who doesn’t?
Smoked Meat is available to order from Inpress and other online retailers and high street bookshops.