Rowena Macdonald talks about Smoked Meat (part III)
8. A number of Smoked Meat’s characters could be classified as outsiders: artists, homosexuals, musicians and others who find themselves on the fringes of mainstream society. Did you find that being a British woman living in a new country that you empathised with these issues more?
At the risk of sounding like I am trying to be cool, homosexual and artistic activities never seem that marginal to me because I have always known a lot of gay people and ‘artistes outside the bourgeois conventions’. Partly this is because I went to university in Brighton, the gay capital of the UK. Also both my parents work in the art world and I have always been involved in the arts in one form or another. Mark, who put me up when I first went to Montreal, was involved in the Montreal arts scene, and I just naturally gravitated towards les artistes because I was interested in them, plus I worked quite a bit as a life-model there; it was a great way of making relatively good easy money working in a nice respectful environment away from some of the sleazy restaurant and café owners and customers I had to deal with.
To my chagrin I’ve never had much money, so I’ve always empathised with poverty – well, not empathised exactly, just suffered it. I had quite a reasonable standard of living in Montreal, considering I was only doing menial jobs. It was cheap to live there.
Though I’ve worked at the heart of the Establishment for the last ten years (at the House of Commons) I’ve always felt more akin to the underdog. It’s probably low self-esteem or something. But I am drawn to off-beat individuals, who tend by their very nature to be outside the mainstream and I am dismayed by hierarchies and all the aspirational trappings of the mainstream, corporate, commercial world. I don’t fully understand mainstream people, though I try to as there are so many of them around. Sometimes mainstream people can be quite relaxing. Very marginal people can be a bit knackering and alarming; preferable to write about from afar rather than spend too much time with. I like to have a foot in many camps.
The novel I am currently finishing off is actually about the divide between public and private life; between the mainstream and the marginal; the Establishment and the excluded; lately I am beginning to be quite fascinated by ‘normality’ and somewhat tired of ‘alternative’ hipsters and weirdoes. I might write something set in suburbia in future. When you are younger you are more likely to be attracted to ‘the edges’; I finished writing Smoked Meat six years ago and I think I’ve grown up quite a bit since then.
My experience of Montreal has definitely made me more empathetic towards immigrants to the UK. Though I was lucky enough to have a nice, safe country and a lovely, supportive family to come home to, my heart goes out to people from other countries who end up having to do grim, low-paid jobs because they don’t have any other options. Also from having to hustle like a demon to find work in Montreal I can understand how those on the fringes of society can end up doing awful things to make money because it seems the best solution for survival. Not that I did any of those awful things that you are now imagining.
9. You also talk of characters being ‘hardened by their struggles in the big city; of people moving from innocence to experience’. Do you think that this is true of all cities? Did you find being in a foreign city makes you look at it in a different way than if you were native to it?
Yes, being in a foreign city definitely made me look harder at things. Everything was so new and different that I noticed a lot more than I do in London, for example, although I was excited and observant about London when I first moved here. When you are a native or live in a place a long time, you get blasé and too consumed by the endless grind of work to notice much.
I think all cities are more of a struggle than being in a small town or the countryside, which is where I’m originally from. The stress and pace of cities definitely hardens people; makes them more impatient and cynical. Especially if you don’t have much money. Although Montreal is actually a laid-back, easy city to live in – mainly because rents are cheap (or at least they were then).
It was just my situation without a visa, without fluent French, and without a solid relationship or family there, that sometimes made it tough and which was why I ended up associating with some ‘marginal people’. But life in general is a movement from innocence to experience, wherever you live. It’s good to retain some innocence if you can. I’d like to be less sensitive than I am but I wouldn’t like to be so hard that nothing ever affected or moved me.
10. Your experiences in Montreal were obviously a great source of inspiration for you. Where would you recommend a newcomer to Montreal to visit?
Montreal has probably changed quite a bit in the ten years since I was there. I’ve heard it’s become richer and more glitzy, especially the Plateau area where I lived and where many of my stories are set. This is a shame; I hope it hasn’t been totally blanded out by money. I would recommend a newcomer go to all the places I mention in Smoked Meat and tell me whether they are still there and what they’re like now.
Smoked Meat is available now. You can order it from Inpress, other online retailers and your local bookshop.