Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Alice and anorexia - interview with author Fiona McClean

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Alice loves to paint pictures of fish. Her only problem is her addiction to cakes and pastries. To feed this obsession, she steals ...and to rid herself of her spoils, she makes herself sick. Stick thin, Alice puts her fragile mind into the care of a psychiatrist, Professor Lucas, and tries to learn the rules people should live by. But her recovery soon brings a new and dangerous addiction - Brendan. As Alice struggles to cope with Brendan's violent outbursts, her dying father and poverty, she takes solace in her job at a massage parlour where she finds comfort with motherly Helen. But these are just temporary respites as her life with Brendan spirals downwards becoming a nightmarish maze.

When I first met Fiona McClean I didn't know that three years later her debut novel would win the rare double of  praise from literary critics and  from readers who relate to the anorexic character, Alice - but I am not surprised. Fiona turned up at the writing group I supposedly run, in this small French village, and told me she was following a distance course in Creative Writing but wanted to learn from our group too. I was daunted at the prospect of being challenged over everything I said that clashed with the university certificated voice of authority but I needn't have worried. There are indeed clashes of opinion within our group but it is typical of Fiona that she enjoys diversity and certainly never claims the voice of authority to be on her side. She writes instinctively and originally but wants to learn all of the craft that she can, to improve her writing. From my point of view, it's like teaching anatomical drawing to Van Gogh.

Fiona McClean - photo Jean Gill

I have this fantasy that in the future, some biographer will look back on the mix of writers and artists who form our group, and marvel that such a small French village fomented all this creativity. Our tiny bookshop venue will be as famous as the Left Bank Parisian cafe where Sartre and de Beauvoir argued. If it is, it will be thanks to the work of Fiona McClean, although I know she'd rush to contradict me and point out the others' talents.

It was fitting that the launch of Fiona's novel 'Under the Bed' was in that same bookshop, so crowded that people spilled onto the street outside to hear Fiona read extracts and answer questions, with Lesley, a friend from the group.

Book launch - photo Jean Gill

Bonjour Fiona,
Your first novel is now out in paperback and had a rave review from 'The Bookseller' so it seems a good time for me to interview you for my Blog. Although 'From Under the Bed' is fiction, you've been open that it draws on your own experience. What was it like for you to write about those experiences, some of them very painful?

My experience of Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia happened a long time ago. I was curious to rediscover that difficult period and see it in hindsight, with a new perspective. I don't remember writing about it being traumatic, but yes I did feel tired sometimes and I left long gaps between writing each chapter. It was not so traumatic for me perhaps as the book is partly autobiographical and partly fiction. I saw my role in writing it as a storyteller.

Alice intrigues me as a character because, as I see her, she is so fragile and yet she doesn't want to be rescued. How do you see Alice?

Alice doesn't want to be rescued because her illness is her identity and she is afraid to lose that. Without it she may feel empty and lonely. Alice at the beginning is not mature enough to cope with responsibility and her illness provides an escape from that. Like many illnesses bulimia and anorexia are addictive, leaving the person helpless and if without resources, unable to give up the addiction.

Like Alice, you are a talented painter. How did you discover you could paint? How did you career as an artist progress? How does your visual art combine now with your writing?

I discovered painting at school and was encouraged to paint by my parents. Since school my dream has been to be a painter. I had an experimental period at art college when I specialised in performance for my degree, but afterwards I continued to paint. After several years I was taken on by The Merriscourt Gallery and the New Grafton Gallery, both of whom encouraged and supported me. Recently I have concentrated on drawing a series of sketches based on life at the hairdressers. I hope to do some paintings based on the drawings.

My writing is visual, using metaphors and descriptions directly as an influence from painting. My paintings are partly inspired by colours and the work of the Fauvists

What do you hope readers will take away from reading your novel?

I hope people who have read 'From Under the Bed' will be aware of how fragile life can be.

When you've given readings, what questions arise? What are your answers?

During readings people often ask if its autobiographical.
It is so far as I had the illness anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Some of it is fiction, though I often don’t know where to draw the line between them both. Alice is not me nor does she completely represent my experience of anorexia, but yes there are many parallels, her love of painting being the main one. 

Why are the characters in the book written without depth?
Alice didn't relate to people in much depth showing that she was not yet capable of mature relationships. Her relationship with her parents was detached as she was unable to connect with any real feelings for them. She was a person obsessed by her illness and art.

What is the reason for the anorexia in Alices life?
There are many possible reasons for anorexia including, chemical imbalance, problems in the family, fashion related, work related- if you are a model for instance or a ballet dancer you are already on a severe regime which may tip the balance. Alice was obviously affected by what is fashionable. I did not want to specify any particular reason and especially did not want to point a finger at the family.

In these changing times, how did you find a publisher?

I put my book up on an online creative writing group created by Harper and Collins. It was read by the publisher Roman Books who after seeing the manuscript accepted it for publication.

You belong to a local writers' group. Would you recommend other writers to join one? What are the advantages and disadvantages of online writers' groups versus those which meet up in the real world?

The writers' group is a life line and the once-monthly meetings the highlight of the month. You don't get tea and biscuits and the chance to chat live in an online group but you do get many more readers reading and reviewing your work. In my local writing group I find it is more likely I will continue to attend; with an online group I am less motivated. There is something to be said for seeing people rather than reading about them.

What are your writing habits?

I often write in a friend's house as at home I am distracted. To limit distractions when I do write at home I write in the night or in bed even. Caf├ęs are a good place to write too. I often stop writing for the day, at a place in the story unresolved so that I have something to work on the next day.

What are your other top tips for other writers?

Read books on how to write a novel, this helped me a great deal, especially one book called 'Stein On Writing'. Go for walks whatever you need to recharge your batteries. You need breaks. I allow people to read my novel as I write because to some extent I lack confidence and need good criticism and encouragement. Be careful who you show it to! And definitely join a writers group.

What have been your best moments as a writer? Why do you do it?

In the night, after a glass of wine – just one or two though! Helps the writing flow and of course giving talks, nerve wrecking but they are rewarding. I feel good though after finishing a chapter I am pleased with. The best moments are when someone contacts me to say they like the book and even better if they say why.

I am three-quarters of the way on my second book called 'The Cappuccino Kiss'.  It is about Juliet, a woman afraid of dust. I am working on it every day and hope to finish by September. I have heard the second book is the hardest and certainly I am finding it a challenge.

Thanks for dropping in, Fiona, and for the scoop on the new book. Good luck with 'From Under the Bed' and with the next novel. See you at the Writing Group.

 My review of 'From under the Bed'

Surprisingly enjoyable, given the themes of anorexia and domestic abuse. The central character, Alice, might be naive, and at times there is the urge to 'sort her out', but the reader learns to appreciate Alice as she is and question the society that wants to change her. It is a pleasure to see life through Alice's eyes. The style is very much that of an artist, finding exactly the right image to bring a character, a place or a detail alive for us. Highly recommended - a book that you won't forget. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Depression and a baby deer

I let myself get bogged down in judging books for a competition, in support and feedback to other writers, in thousands of photographs both for a client and for me, after an amazing but hectic trip to Venice, and of course in a million tedious domestic chores that I'd been putting off. I felt I was scrambling to meet self-imposed deadlines and forever chasing unkept promises, keeping no-one happy, least of all me. I was starting to feel guilty before I checked my mail, knowing that there would be a reminder for something to do. It was too long since I'd spent time in the 12th century and I saw little chance of getting back there. In those trivial ways that matter to a novelist, life was getting me down.

Then my husband yelled for me to look out the window. He'd just seen a mother and bambi sauntering down the drive and I caught them bounding into the field opposite. The mother came back to collect her little one who'd lost her in the long grass, poppies and wildflowers. Then off they sprang, the baby's ears appearing and disappearing in the greenery. Peace returned. Looking at two pairs of ears is more important that the things I don't get done. 

To add to my newly-recovered zen state, I've had several messages all at once, suggesting that my time wasn't wasted, so I can combine feeling virtuous with returning to the 12th century.

Congratulations to the winner of nine signed first editions from different authors names from all over the world went into the draw and the lucky reader lives in Spain.. Books are heading your way from all the authors.

If you want to help me choose my 'look', pop along to Kristin Gleeson's website where you'll see 3 author photos - I can't choose between them. A strange fact is that amazon.fr  doesn't allow author photos with pets. Other amazons have no such prejudice. 

This made me wonder about cultural differences, to which I am more sensitive than usual after being asked for passages from my books 'suitable for a GCSE English comprehension in a textbook for 2nd language English learners in other countries.' Further detail required that the passages 'be demanding but have 'no politics, no sex, no religion, and definitely no pigs in their content'. Searching 14 books with these criteria in mind, you'd be surprised how full my books are of politics, sex, religion and  pigs. I hadn't realised how controversial my work is, and I feel very proud.

After one dead end - dogs would be considered dirty in some of the cultures using the textbook - I did find something suitable but the whole exercise left me bemused. I'm not sure what my cultural background is but I know it 'allows' me to read work written in cultures which impose all kinds of behaviour and topics that I find unacceptable. Two questions come to mind; if you are studying a language but everything in that language which doesn't fit with your culture is censored, are you really studying the language; and, should tolerance accept intolerance? The old paradox. My answer is always that you reach people in closed cultures by reaching them at all. If that means not mentioning pigs, or dogs, so be it. It doesn't mean I like it though.

I'm nearly half-way through the year and 43,000 words through my follow-up to 'Song at Dawn', which has kept its working title of 'Bladesong', announced for the first time in my recent interview for Kristin. She asked some hard questions!

Extract from the interview. Read the full interview here
K- One interesting aspect of the novel is Dragonetz’s paper manufacture and the vatican’s determination to prevent it.
Is this based on fact?

J- You've reminded me! Yes! Completely! This was one of the
facts that really fixed the choice of period for me. I am still absolutely incensed at the various ways the Roman Catholic Church destroyed scientific, medical and engineering progress for centuries. There really were paper-mills created by Christian Europeans, who learned the skills from their Arab neighbours in Al-Andalus (modern Spain) but 'the work of the devil' was successfully eradicated from Christian countries. Needless to say, the Church preserved a profitable monopoly on reading and writing this way.

I was a teacher for many years and someone who inspired me was the great Brazilian educationalist Paolo Freire. I attended a talk he gave at York University, where I was a trainee teacher. He was exiled for teaching peasants to read and write, and I never forgot what he taught me - that literacy is power. Making paper was a revolutionary step, which is why the Vatican stopped it as long as possible.

Exploring the twelfth century led me to understand how highly developed some civilisations were, and the ways in which individuals shared this knowledge even when institutions were out to prevent them.

To return to where the Blog started, with my mind elsewhere:-
Venice was amazing. Worse and better than I'd remembered. A hundred thousand people invading St Mark's daily at 9am and returning to their waterbuses at 5pm, having seen  only the 2hour queues for the Basilica and the Doge's palace. Those lucky enough to time their trip for a day of torrential rain saw even less, with the additional pleasure of likely death by umbrella spoke on overcrowded waterbuses.

However, there was also the 5am shoot in breathtaking dawn solitude, the unexpected glitz of the Americas Cup and the Sensa Festival (where the Doge symbolically married the sea in olden times), lunch with a dear Austrian fiend also in Venice, and the personal demonstration by a master glassmaker on Murano, as we were the only tourists who visited that particular atelier. He said my photos were 'bellissima'. I was happy.

I didn't take these photos. Venice made them.

Bridge of Sighs

Romance in Venice

More of my Venice photos