9780307477477I just finished Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, a novel in stories about an aging record executive and the young woman who works as his assistant. I hesitate to read books that have collected as many awards as this one has, because I always feel I’ve failed somehow if I don’t like them. But no fear this time. I loved the wry-edged ennui, the leaping structure, the warmth and complexity of the characters—and the language. Gorgeous language.

After I’d finished, I rated it on Goodreads and browsed through to see what everyone else thought. So many one-star reviews, which leave me baffled. I understand we all have differing opinions. We each come to a novel with a unique and personal set of expectations. But one star? One star to me means the book is unreadable. Fifty Shades of silly. I don’t understand a reader screaming Garbage! at a novel that, whatever else it might be, is clearly not garbage.

There’s a big question here, related to the psychology of internet behavior and the unsettling things it reveals about us. Honestly, I don’t have the energy for that one—it’s 5am for god’s sake—though you’re welcome to bat it around. I only wonder what sort of coping mechanisms you have developed.

How do you deal with hostile forms of criticism? Do you read reviews of your work?


Two things happened last week: my galleys arrived, and I was invited to sign them at MPIBA next month in Denver.

First of all, holy shit, the book looks great. All laid out with pretty shards of broken glass at the chapter headings, the pages wrapped in their slick little galley cover with the marketing deets on the back. Amazing, all of this. I can’t get over it. Now I see why people have pages of thank yous at the end of their books: it’s what you feel like doing when you see it all come together.

Today I wrote this snippet for some of the marketing materials we’ll be using at the show:

“Do I know you?”

It’s a throwaway line, something we say when faced with a stranger who seems just familiar enough to make us pause and look again. But it can be a tricky question. Knowing takes many forms, from the passing recognition of a stranger, to deepest carnal knowledge, to the shadowy, sometimes unpleasant awareness of self. We all want to know. We watch, we listen. We form the most intimate connections in pursuit of the desire to see and be seen. But what if we make a mistake? What if we only think we know?

This is the question at the heart of Alice Close Your Eyes. I wanted to see what would happen in a story where every character misunderstands every other in some fundamental way. I wanted that fact to taint some aspect of a remembered crime and send the victim’s plot for revenge tragically sideways. As the characters strain to see each other clearly, I wanted their vision warped and obscured by their own misguided apprehensions. But most important to me was the urgency of the question behind it all. The plea, the obsession, most poignant and persistent of all human longings: Do I know you?

What is the question at the heart of your story?

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Guest Post – Catherine McNamara

You may remember that I interviewed Catherine McNamara last year to talk about The Divorced Lady’s Companion to Living in Italy—a sexy little cannolo of a novel, about which I carried on to anyone who would listen. I’m so pleased to have her back again to talk about her new short story collection. And sex. You’ll be shocked to know that we’re talking about sex.

We’re just made that way.

~ Averil


I like sex. I like language. I like stories. It’s very simple and it has always been that way.

But I’m not an erotic writer like Averil. I don’t consider myself very raunchy – well, maybe a little – and yet somehow the sex just seeps in. An English colleague interviewing me in Penzance said, But Catherine, you write about sex with such ease – I could never let that all out!

How embarrassing! And the audience making me feel like an Aussie tart.

And yet. Weren’t we raised on D.H. Lawrence, the great English master of man, woman and nature? Didn’t this writer spend a few good years in Paris absorbing Anais Nin and ‘The Story of O’? And hasn’t she recently fallen in love with James Salter’s work, who brilliant blog reviewer John Self says writes about sex ‘as though he really gives a damn’? -1

I just looked through the titles of my collection ‘Pelt and Other Stories’ to see if there was just one story that doesn’t mention sex, or where the act of sex does not occur.

Oh dear. There are a few. Well, a couple where it doesn’t even happen (phew!).

What does it mean, Averil? When one constantly has this four-legged monster in the room?

What John Self says about Salter’s ‘pornography’ is that the author writes ‘not primarily of sex, but of living: everything is at a height, fully-realised and rich in colour. The characters enjoy lives of significance and meaning: events, roles, status.’

Okay, that’s where I’d like to put up my hand. Many of my stories deal with displacement, migration, living in another person’s skin, rubbing up against another person’s skin, discomfort, aftermath. Colour, gender; landscape and history. Some of you may have read my blurb over on Betsy’s an age ago: ‘Two foolhardy snowboarders challenge the savagery of mountain weather in the Dolomites. A Ghanaian woman strokes across a hotel pool in the tropics, flaunting her pregnant belly before her lover’s discarded wife…’

So you see? Just stories. Catherine-rattling-on-stories. But now – because I want Averil to pull out a beautiful photo we can all swoon over – I’m going to give you some Pelt Sex Scenes (I feel like I am leading you into a darkened room, mauve light in the corner; a field at night, a kitchen table..)

Well, if you insist...

Well, if you insist…

‘She was thirsty, the two beers at the hotel had brought it on. Now she was clammy with his liquid and everything felt flawless. She looked at him as he drove, wanting to rub herself harder into his skin once again, wanting to lick his eyelids and use her tongue to feel his teeth. She wanted to chase him, bring him down, feed on the spurting from his neck.’ (Where the Wounded Go)

‘I found Corinne weeping on the boot of my car after a hard night in the city. Mine is a dull area and finding a beautiful sobbing French woman in the night was akin to finding a real fairy at the bottom of the garden. I couldn’t get it out of her, what had happened, whether she’d been gang-raped by punks or her cat had been flattened by a car. Despite being in incredibly bad shape and having an early start the next day, I urged her into the house, made some strong tea and set her upon the couch. As I took my last look at her wilted eyes and pale forehead settling under the emergency duvet, she beckoned me.’ (Young British Man Drowns in Alpine Lake)

‘..this is Stromboli, the love island of Rossellini and Bergman. Reece hasn’t reminded me yet, but I know this is what makes him so heated and distinct. He holds my face inches from his, keening into me. We cradle, we leak on the flowering tiles. The unshuttered windows admit a breeze carrying the scent of rotting figs. Behind the house the volcano spills into the fields.’ (Stromboli)

Thank you for having me Averil! And readers, I have started a secret, lyrical work (title begins with ‘A’) and I am savouring every word.


Out on Kindle shortly!

Congratulations, Cat!

White Space

My friend Josey wrote a lovely post today about the stacks of books beside her bed and how they reflect her self-image. She says:

There was a time when I made excuses about the way in which I buy books, one after another, no discipline, no waiting until I’ve finished one before buying another one or two or three or four. Whether or not I read them right away (or ever) is no longer a consideration. I cherish books. They comfort me in the same way looking at art can give someone a sense of themselves. Books reflect back to me something about myself, something I consider sacred. Something that has been with me since the beginning of me. I do not remember a time when there wasn’t a book on my nightstand.

I like this sense of connectedness, especially to the idea of a book we have yet to read. The story is so pure at that stage, so pristine in its tidy jacket—not unlike the beginning stages of the book before it’s written, existing only in the writer’s mind. The story is better at this point than it ever will be on paper. Every writer knows this is true, but before today I never stopped to think that it could be the same for the reader.

For me, the books I want to buy reflect as much about my personality as the ones I’ve read a dozen times. Because I write thrillers, I want to love them as a reader; I imagine myself gobbling them up as fast as they hit the shelves, knowing all the characters’ names and back stories, all their psychic wounds. I dream of a collection of memoir from far-flung points with exotic names and historical significance. I try hard to love the classics, the brainy books, the fat literary hardbacks with distinguished names on the covers and authors who show up on national TV. I want to love erotica. And cozy mysteries. And science fiction. And romance.


Photo by Mary Ellen Mark

And I do love them, that’s the thing. Whether or not I choose those books for myself, I love that they exist, that they’re part of our culture, that other people have devoured them. I feel as connected to the books I haven’t read as the ones that I adore.

But for the most part, the nightstand collection I imagine for myself is not the one I’ve actually accumulated. The books I’m drawn to have a certain look about them: they’re slim and dark, trade paper usually, and when you look through the pages you’ll see a fair amount of negative space. They almost all involve deep character studies of precocious children. (I’ve only just realized that. Children are the common denominator.) They are usually light on references to the establishment; the characters exist on the periphery, and they tend to start and resolve their problems amongst themselves. The communities are often poor. The settings are rural. And people get badly hurt, but they fight like hell going down.

I don’t read widely, or with any particular emphasis on the kinds of books I like to write. My tastes are narrower than I wish they were, more limited in scope than they probably should be. I get passionately attached to certain books and reread them obsessively, which means that I don’t get through as many as I’d like to. But that’s okay. There are no shoulds in reading that truly influence me. There are only books, wonderful books, in all their prim (or raggedy) jackets, waiting for me to crack them open.

What does your bedside book collection say about you?


Alice Close Your Eyes has gone to print. Just galleys at this point, but still, people will soon be reading my story and judging me it. After all these naughty hours in a snug dark corner, it seems that Dad has crashed the party and is reaching for the lights. 521d6ae0ca617327b75d636e5adb85d8

For comfort, I reread one of Betsy’s old posts about how success almost never happens, how the publishing world is sleepy and indifferent, and most books fall right through the cracks without leaving so much as a claw mark on the floorboards. I admit I sometimes wish for that. Failure ensures anonymity, it’s predictable and safe. It’s darkness for a lemur. The center of a school of sardines, a chalk-blue gannet’s egg in a cliffside nest. It’s the palest, weakest, coldest moon no earthly soul longs to inhabit, which therefore makes it home sweet home. I have no more fear of failure than I do my living room sofa.

But I’m not in this alone anymore. For the sake of my book, I have to learn to hope for success, and allow that toxic optimism back into my mind. Recently I was emailing to catch up with an old friend, telling her about my books and whatnot, only to realize after hitting send that I sounded not only foolish and starry-eyed, but even more self-centered than usual. I hate myself for every sanguine word I wrote. I fucking hate to play the rube. Promotion is inherently optimistic, at least it seems so from the outside, and for that reason alone it scares the hell out of me.

How do you manage your psychological quirks when it comes to writing and promoting your work?


My copyedits are finished. One final run through proofreading and the book will be out of my hands.

I had no idea what I was in for when I started this process. I’d always assumed that the novels I loved were great because of the author’s talent, that they came into being as the direct and uncomplicated result of a brilliant mind at work. Utter bullshit. Talent is nothing more than the bounds of possibility in a writer. It’s a separate thing, unrelated to the production of a novel.

Books, I now feel, are distinguished by the craftsmanship behind them; they come about by sheer tenacity, not only of the writer but of the agent and/or editors who converge on a project and really pound the shit out of it until that book is solid. I wrote draft after draft of Alice Close Your Eyes. I thought it would never end. I jollied myself along by thinking, as in the optician’s chair: better, or worse? Writing is really just making that choice over and over and over until there are no more choices to be made, until someone wrests the manuscript from your hands and breaks it to you: This is as good as it’s ever gonna be.

How do you keep yourself going with a project? How do you stay motivated to finish the work?

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth


Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Photo by Ellen Von Unwerth

Yesterday I received an email from my editor. The cover concept for Alice Close Your Eyes is here! I wish I could show you, because I’m freaking out right now. The title will be debossed in huge red letters over a rumpled white bed sheet, my name at the bottom, and the whole thing will be scattered with what looks like shards of broken glass, done with a combination of gloss and embossing. This is one tricked-out motherfucking cover, let me tell you. And MIRA must be thrilled with it, too, because even the galleys are going out with a fully executed cover treatment, embossing and all.

I think this may be my proudest day as a writer. (Well, except for the day August gave this book the thumbs up, when I sat on the floor sobbing for two hours, memorizing his emails.) But the cover is different. The cover is something that was made for me, for the book. It’s the tangible evidence of my editor, pushing hard on my behalf; it’s someone else saying, I get what we’re doing here and I can help. We work so much on our own as writers that it comes as both relief and vindication when a whole team assembles around the project and it begins to take off.

Happy, happy day.

What’s your high-water mark?