As a Canadian living in England, I am always drawn to stories of ex-pats and outsiders. So it was no surprise that I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy. In this debut novel Marilyn Wade, an English woman, flees to Italy when her husband leaves her for another woman. Last month I had the great pleasure of meeting the book’s fabulous author, Catherine McNamara, when she visited London. I’m thrilled to have her with me today on the blog.
Welcome Cat. Thanks so much for being here today. Born in Australia, you have lived in Paris, Ghana and now in Italy. How did you draw on your experiences as an ex-pat when describing Marilyn’s life in Italy?
Although I didn’t set out to be, I’ve been an expat now for more years than I spent growing up in Australia, which is a strange and isolating thought. Just about everything I have written has to do with crossing over to another culture, whether it be African or European. I’ve always been drawn to mixed and mixed-up people.
With Marilyn, her story came about through observation rather than experience, though her language mishaps are a distillation of years of speaking Italian, hearing other foreigners mangle the language, being teased by my own kids. Certainly the vicious staring and judgement of the immaculately dressed Italian urban woman is something I’ve experienced – just come with me to my kids’ school gate. And of course the more travelogue parts – the chapters in Rome and Venice – come from visiting those places although in different circumstances.
Probably Marilyn makes more of an effort to blend in with Milanese dress codes as the city is shamelessly swish. Whereas I only dress ‘like a signora’ when I really feel like it or have good reason to. I did used to teach English as Marilyn begins to, but I’ve certainly never modelled racy leather wear!
One of the characters in the book, Fiona Miller, is an Australian who befriends Marilyn when she first arrives in Milan. Is Fiona anything like you (or like you used to be?)
Fiona is a naughty girl. Superficially, she could seem to be a composite of myself and a series of people I’ve known or imagined. But I’ve never worked in a corporation or produced television reality shows and I have zero business acumen and pretty tame ambitions. But Fiona’s feisty nature and ‘no flies on me’ attitude is common to – I think – many Australian women who call a spade a spade. She just popped up when I needed a non-Italian woman who would contrast with Marilyn’s many inhibitions and her passive character, and also lead her into the fray when she reaches Milan.
Fiona is pretty fearless sexually and gets what she wants in that sphere. I don’t honestly think I’m as gung-ho as Fiona! But, like Marilyn, she’s also been betrayed and her sexual ruthlessness is her coping mechanism. Unlike Marilyn, she has a strategy for growing older and finding happiness and finds a way to make it happen. I wish I had a clear solution for that!
We’ve both experienced life as an ex-pat, with its ups and downs. What does the future hold for Marilyn? Does she find la dolce vita in Italy?
For Marilyn, I’d like to think her dolce vita is on course. As she is an older woman I didn’t want the novel to end with fireworks and swooning sunsets – although that could be very easy to do given Italy’s exquisite locations. After all, a woman who has hit forty often has a tricky past at her shoulders, demanding teens and a tarnished self-image. My message – if there even is a message – is that we are all a work-in-progress. There are not happy endings but happy cadences (sorry I’m a musician and I love cadences and movements). Every character needs redemption and Marilyn has redeemed herself big time. She has grown. Her kids have grown up. She has a future where before she just had a mess.
In fact I’d love to write a sequel. I really had too much fun with the characters. We’ll see. Vedremo!
Your situation is an interesting one. You live in Italy but your book has been published in England. Has that posed any particular marketing challenges for you?
It would be so much easier to live in England to promote the novel! That way I would have a neighbourhood bookshop, local newspaper, a more tangible reading crowd and more writer mates. But I don’t. Fortunately we have the internet which is where much of the buzz now occurs about new books, writers and reviews – not to mention purchases. So I have been working hard with that.
And there are advantages. The internet tosses up marvellous occasions and allows you to build up friendships and unexpected writing rapports. I recently arranged a guest post with a Scandinavian woman (11,000+ Twitter followers!) who works in southern Italy. I also have good contacts within the expat/writer world over here, which is another vast market. And there are also some gorgeous international bookshops in Italian cities where the book will be stocked and I will be doing some readings.
I think that if you look at the internet as providing you with a community of readers and writer colleagues that things happen. Through blogging I’ve met inspiring writers such as yourself and I’ve arranged to take part in the Penzance Literary Festival this summer. In the end, you realise that in big cities and between countries people are constantly in touch either online or on Facebook or Twitter, so my off-site location while seeming disadvantageous is quite easily overcome.
I know you have a book of short stories coming out next year (‘Pelt and Other Stories’) How did you approach this genre? Do you think your audience will be different in this case and will you market it differently?
The short stories were written before and after the writing of Marilyn’s story. When I was swept up with the novel-writing it was all I could think about and I had to keep my ideas clear. Short story writing is compulsive in a different way, not so much of a journey as a definite path. If writing a novel could be like a wander through the woods, writing a short story would be like a cliff-side hike, where one wrong step could send you flying. Rather extreme, that?
Some people have commented on similarities in language between the novel and my short stories, but I think the stories are wired differently, probably a little over-written. (I am beginning editing now so I must kill some of those darlings!). While the novel has a very specific audience – the over-40 dissatisfied mother with a penchant for Italy – the stories are more international in flavour and the audience will hopefully be much broader. The novel is a romantic comedy, designed to entertain and deliver relief, while the stories are meant to tantalize the reader, make him or her enquire about certain issues and wish for more.
I do worry that it may be difficult to connect the two different genres and I was even surprised when my publisher gave the go-ahead for such a different project. But it’s not as though I am Stephen King who is suddenly writing Sophie Kinsella books. I don’t think the world will collapse in dismay!
What is your typical writing day like?
It depends on where I am with a project. Like most writers I try to disregard the internet all morning, but I glance over emails and some blogs though I shouldn’t. If I am on a first draft I soldier away in a room with no connection. But if I am on promotion or submission or competition entries I tend to wander all over the shop. Lately I have been sending out book review submissions to bloggers and trying to smarten up my blog. Very time-consuming. I usually take a break to swim and remember to eat, go back to check what I’ve written in the morning, do piano practice, prepare food for the tribe.
I am starting revision of the short stories now so all internet activity will be for the end of the day. I hope!
Finally, what question did I not ask you that you wish I had?
Which actors will be starring in the film version of your novel? I know – a very dumb question but wouldn’t it be lovely to answer!
Not dumb at all. Can I be on the casting couch for Federico?
Thanks Downith for having me here and good luck with your own novel which we all look forward to reading!
*Dimmi means “so tell me” in Italian. (or so I’m told)
Catherine McNamara is an Australian writer who grew up in Sydney, migrated to Paris and ended up in Ghana running a bar.She has dabbled in photography, selling traditional African art, translating physics, raising a brood and now lives in quiet Veneto surrounded by Palladian villas. She writes, plays Chopin, free-heel skis, swims, has a daunting shoe collection and adores /loathes Italy depending on the moment. She blogs at The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Italy. You can buy Cat’s book on amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, through Cat’s publisher Indigo Dreams or from The Book Depository.