Rowena Macdonald talks about her forthcoming collection ‘Smoked Meat’ (part II)
Eleanor Hirst talks to Rowena Macdonald about her experiences of living and working in Montreal, the setting of her new collection Smoked Meat.
5. The collection is prefaced by ‘Montreal’ by the American poet August Kleinzahler. Did you read a lot of poetry/ fiction based on Canada or by Canadian writers during your stay in Montreal? Did you have any particular favorites? Did you find that there is a distinction between English and Canadian writing?
I read a lot of fiction in general while I was there but in terms of Canadian or Montreal-based fiction I only remember reading Leonard Cohen’s novel The Favourite Game, which I loved. It may have subtly inspired me though my memory of it is hazy. The book that inspired me less subtly was A Moveable Feast, Hemingway’s memoir about his time in Paris, which my mum sent me while I was there. I liked the way Hemingway wrote about cafés and food.
I read a lot of poetry these days but I barely read any poetry at that time in my life. I happened upon that poem by August Kleinzahler in the London Review of Books just after I came back from Montreal. It captured exactly the atmosphere of the city and I was so struck that I wrote to him c/o Faber. We had a long correspondence and I eventually met him and he kindly allowed me to use that quote for Smoked Meat. I guess we are literary associates, though that is probably bigging things up from my point of view.
I haven’t read enough Canadian writing to work out if there is a distinction between it and English writing. All I know is that Canada seems to have an excellent literary scene, which is far more encouraging of short stories than the UK. In terms of Canadian authors I like Margaret Atwood though I have only read a few of her novels. Cat’s Eye is a particular favourite, as is The Robber Bride; those two novels have certainly influenced my writing as I am interested in women’s friendships and rivalries with each other. I liked The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx, set in Newfoundland. I like the specificity of her writing, and the way she’s into blue-collar Americana.
6. You also reference a number of writers within the collection such as J.D Salinger, Jean Genet and Jean Rhys. Were you influenced by anyone particular when writing ‘Smoked Meat’?
My biggest influence is Katherine Mansfield. I love her short stories, the economy and modernity of them. I’m also very influenced by Jean Rhys; I’ve read all her novels and I like her prose for the same reasons I like Katherine Mansfield’s. Certainly the girls in Smoked Meat are not dissimilar to the women in Jean Rhys’s books, though hopefully they are less self-indulgently feminine and less irritatingly dependent on men.
James Joyce’s Dubliners was an influence, though I feel self-aggrandising to say it. The final story in Smoked Meat is a homage to ‘The Dead’, the final story in Dubliners, which is widely acknowledged as being one of the most beautiful pieces of writing ever. I’ve never got round to reading any Jean Genet; he was just someone that my Montreal friend Mark used to talk about, specifically The Thief’s Diary. Mark probably fancied himself as a Jean Genet type, though since I have never read any Jean Genet I don’t really know what his type was. I read The Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger when I was a teenager. Clichédly, I liked it a lot. I haven’t read anything else by him.
7. French is Montreal’s first language, which you use throughout the collection. Was it important or problematic for you to include it in the stories? Did you have any difficulties when it came to using it?
I wanted to include some French in the stories as it is an essential part of Montreal and of my experience there. It seemed natural to include certain words like vernissage or dépanneur as these were the words that people used, even when speaking English. All Anglos threw French phrases and sentences into conversation, if only for effect. People swore a lot in French – esti de câlice de tabarnac – actually I wished I used some French swearing in Smoked Meat as it is so much prettier than English swearing. Damn: a missed opportunity.
The only problem I had including French was my lack of fluency in the language and, despite checking it repeatedly with various friends and colleagues, mistakes kept coming in the proofs. There’s bound to be some mistakes in the final book, despite everyone’s efforts to get it right, but I’m praying they won’t grate on fluent French readers too much. French is such a drag to get right what with all its accents and genders and having to agree the endings and whatnot.
Smoked Meat is available to order from Inpress and other online retailers and high street bookshops.