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. 

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