Interview with Catherine McNamara

Q: Congratulations on The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy. The novel is a wonderful blend of fun and sexy plot with lyrical, literary prose. How did you find the voice for Marilyn’s story?

It wasn’t planned! I just started off with the title and first line. I knew I wanted to write in the first person for immediacy and intimacy, and I knew I had qualms about Italy I wanted to work through by seeing this place through a female visitor’s eyes.

I think she is a blend of women I both know and have imagined. I know I wanted her to be far far away from myself and my other writing. In that way she is curvy and yet hesitant (I’m skinny and these days I know exactly what I want), she hasn’t allowed herself much (I have probably demanded too much of others and myself), despite being a sexualised teenager years back (I was a saint then!). I think she is the voice of many a mother who’s become too passive, too neglected, too dull. She has accepted a life where the protagonists are other people – her teenagers, her philandering husband. In this book she returns to take up a rather kinky centre stage.

Q: And you wrote it in a chicken shed one summer. Why not the house?

Summer school holidays in Italy are long and stinking hot. My house is big and old with very thick walls but thin wooden floors you can hear everything through – snores, cereal in a bowl, more reruns of The Simpsons. I have four kids, three of them are male and there are often extra friends or cousins staying over in summer. Can you get the picture?

Plus the chicken shed is on the cooler side of the house, so far away that they could never find me. I had silence, just the breeze through the trees. It was bliss.

Q: Your descriptions of Marilyn’s initiation into the highly sexualized Italian culture are terrific. Right away she’s shopping for underwear. But she’s also terrified!

Compared to Australia and England (not sure about the US) there is a lot of eye-cruising going on. Always. I have friends who won’t go out into the street unless they are glamorously dressed. People – especially men – are not afraid to look you in the eyes and drink you up. It works well when you are older and given the illusion that you are still on the market. But worse if they are perving at your sixteen-year-old daughter!

I’m used to it now and generally ignore. It can be irritating if you want to have a lazy, don’t-you-dare-cast-your-eyes-over-me day. Or if you think how sexist it all is.

Q: There is an almost surprised sexuality that we see in Marilyn, a reawakening. Why does she need Italy to find it?

I don’t think women in the midst of their lives necessarily need Italy to revive their sexuality (although Italy is full of men who ride this notion). It is just that this is where I am living now, and after wading through a literary novel set in Ghana, a friend suggested I write something set in this country. It’s true that a great portion of Italian men pride themselves on their grooming and do dress well, and are very open to getting to know foreign women. So Italy – where a lot of flirting goes on – does provide a great stage for a sexual awakening such as Marilyn’s.

Q: The book is filled with colorful, eccentric characters. (I’ll admit to a fondness for Federico and a sudden desire to learn Italian.) Do you have a favorite?

This may sounds nuts but my favourite has to be Brett, the bi-sexual benefactor from Hong Kong. The fact that he has a merchant bank wife and a son called Percy, knows all of Europe’s leather haunts and yet offers poor homeless Marilyn a bed and employment – he still makes me smile. Probably too many Jackie Chan films and my kinky mind.

Q: What has surprised you the most about readers’ responses to the book?

That the sex factor, the weird club in Milan that Marilyn stumbles into, the vibrator scenes, just don’t seem to shock anybody. Even my seventy-year-old aunt!

Q: What did you need to change from your original concept in order to see this novel published?

Oh gosh, the concept never really wavered. My almost-agent said to tone down the sex because she didn’t know how to market the book. I think I did. Technically I also did a long run of 5am rewrites to clarify language, pace and detail. It’s so important to keep everything even. I did a lot of putting it aside, then concentrated revision. I was so pleased when I first met my editor and he said the book was well-written and wouldn’t need a lot of work.

Q: You have a short story collection coming out next year. Can you talk a bit about that?

I’ve been publishing short stories on and off for years between having kids and going in and out of the working world. I started with a new batch several years ago and was thrilled to publish well and receive good feedback. But I’ve always been told by agents or editors, Go write a novel then we can look at your stories. Or, I’m sorry but short stories don’t sell, couldn’t you turn these ideas into a novel? Luckily, there seems to be an upswing in short story collections and my publisher – who is an independent – is very supportive of my work.

The short stories are mostly set in Ghana, where I spent nine years before coming back to Italy. I am deeply interested in the effects of colonialism, the clash between developed and lesser developed worlds, cultural displacement, families. There is also quite a lot of sex and death! Without planning it this way, many of the stories are interlinked, as I just couldn’t let my characters go. I am really looking forward to getting this book on the road although I am dreading the long editing process – it is never-ending as you know!

Q: What advice would you give Marilyn over the Chenin blanc in Chapter One?

Hmmm. To any friend of mine who had just been dumped I would tell her to move away from her immediate surroundings for a while. Indulge. Experience. I would tell her to remove herself from the source of pain and examine herself when she is ready, but to look after her well-being first. Italy is always a good destination because on the surface it is not too contemplative, the weather is generally uplifting, and there are many beautiful vantage points (cafés, art galleries, gorgeous gardens, glamorous cities, the list is endless) to observe a people who seem attractive, vibrant bon viveurs. Also the language is not too difficult, the food and wine are soothing, and who can resist Italian footwear?

Thank you for having me Averil, and the best of luck with your new book!

* * * * *

Cat’s fabulous book is available through the link below, but I also have two copies to give away–and you know you want to read more about Federico. Just leave a comment below, or email me directly if you’re feeling shy. I will have my semi-honest 10-year-old pick the names from a coffee can to determine the winners.

*** UPDATE  *** The coffee can says . . . Sarah W. and Mary Lynne are the winners of Catherine’s new book! Email me your addresses, ladies, and the books will be on their way to you.

Buying link

Twitter: @catinitaly

Facebook: Catherine McNamara

18 responses

  1. Congratulations again, Catherine, on your success.

    What is it with agents/editors/publishers and sex? Anybody who looks at the history of, oh, I don’t know, the past hundred years or so of advertising knows that if nothing else in the marketplace is true, it is true that sex sells. Nowadays you can’t hardly get through a movie or a cable TV show without being treated to a fuck scene. But try to get a piece of writing published that is not smut and not porn and not erotica, but has open, literary depictions of sex, and see how far you get. You’ll get told, “Too much sex,” or “You’re a pornographer.”

    Yes, it has happened to me, and that is why I’m bitching about it.

  2. With my first trip to Italy coming up in the fall, I am eager to read Catherine’s book. How can anyone deny someone named Federico? Nice interview, Averil.

  3. I was going to comment that this book is the first thing on my Next Paycheck list, but maybe I won’t have to wait?

    I’ve also sent the link to out general fiction selector for the library, but I want my own copy!

  4. Cat,
    Reading this makkes me want to hop on a plane and hunker down in an old Italian house. Can I assume the chicken shed is free now?
    Congratulations dear Cat.

    • Thank you for the lovely responses. I know my buddies will enjoy your book as much as I did–particularly those bits about the Italian lessons.


  5. Hurray for Averil’s author interviews! And congrats again to Cat. And I’m glad your aunt wasn’t scandalized by the vibrator scenes (for her own sake?).