Interview: Mark McNay, Author
Mark McNay was raised in a mining village in central Scotland. After fifeen years doing odd jobs, McNay entered the University of East Anglia Creative Writing Course in Norwich, England. He graduated from that program with distinction and, in 2007, he received the Arts Foundation Fellowship for New Fiction.
McNay’s debut novel Fresh was published by Canongate in the UK and MacAdam/Cage here in the US. The Guardian said, “Menacing, witty, with snappy no-nonsense dialogue and an unambiguously shocking ending, McNay’s debut is every bit as fresh as its title.” And The Scotsman said the book “is a novel whose edgy energy carries you forward. The picture of blight and of deprivation within which choices are made and determined, is shown in the round… A hugely entertaining, sometimes disturbing, fiction debut.”
McNay was kind enough to chat with me about awful jobs, British creative writing programs, and avoiding caricature.
Slushpile: You’ve had a number of jobs including factory work, building work, and window cleaning among others. What was the worst job you ever had?
McNay: For a summer I worked as a hospital cleaner. It was kind of gross. The worst part was when they assigned me to work in Geriatric wards. The elderly can find it difficult to control their bowels and bladders. I heard an old lady scream for days on end. She was in torment only she could see. I seen an old man suckle on a bottle like a baby. I realised that one day, I may end up like that.
Slushpile: Some writers like doing more manual labor jobs because they can think of their stories all day long and then write at night. Others are too exhausted by the physical labor to get any writing done. How did working construction and in factories affect your literary efforts?
McNay: I was mostly too tired to read decent books never mind write. All I would do was drink beer and watch telly. Although I did read the Beckett about the man who is a worker in an asylum, Murphy.
Slushpile: You’ve mentioned that storytelling is a family thing amongst your kinfolks. Every family has the same handful of stories that get repeated at every holiday and gathering. What’s the funniest story that circulates through your family history?
McNay: My mother says she came into our room one morning to find me and my brother covered in each other’s shit..
Slushpile: What was your earliest literary love?
McNay: I read The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. That was the first that seemed kind of clever, yet wasn’t a chore to read.
Slushpile: How did you decide to pursue literature? What made you say, “I’m going to be a writer!”
McNay: I read some Charles Bukowski short stories and thought, I’ve had an interesting life that could be written like this.
Slushpile: What was the best thing about attending the University of East Anglia creative writing program?
McNay: I could access experienced writers and get hints and tips about the writing world. They would read my stuff and re-assure me I could write. They told me it’s hard to make a living writing. They told me the truth about writing.
Slushpile: Creative writing programs here in the US are somewhat controversial. Some authors think they are valuable tools for teaching the craft. Others think they are overly-political and cliquish and that they churn out writers who are all the same. What is the opinion of creative writing programs in Great Britain?
McNay: Pretty much the same. I think they teach something that is mostly craft. I look at writing like playing guitar. The more I practise the better I get. Sometimes lessons are useful.
I don’t think I write like others who took Creative Writing classes. Sometimes the people who take the classes are all peers who did school, usually literature, around the same time, so the background culture is the same, and therefore the product can look similar.
Slushpile: What publications (essays, short stories, articles, etc) did you have before Fresh?
Slushpile: Your British publisher is the highly-respected Canongate. How did you submit your novel and ultimately sign a deal for publication?
McNay: I got an agent and she did the submitting. I was offered three deals from different publishers but chose Canongate because they are so cool.
Slushpile: How has Fresh been received in the UK?
McNay: I’ve had some good reviews in the Times and the Guardian, The Scotsman and the Glasgow Herald. I’m fairly happy with how it is going.
Slushpile: So how did you hook up with MacAdam/Cage? Once you had the British publisher, how does it work to line up international publishers?
McNay: Canongate own the world rights. They sold to MacAdam/Cage. One of the reasons I chose Canongate is that they try hard to sell their product around the world.
Slushpile: What differences do you see between the British publishing industry and the American one?
McNay: I don’t know that much about the American one. Hopefully I’ll sell more books there and that will give me the opportunity to find out.
Slushpile: In Fresh, there are these cinematic references when the protagonist Sean imagines himself a soldier or a cowboy. During these interludes, he is narrating a “scene” where he plays the part of a movie hero. What led you to include these passages?
McNay: Sean is in a position of powerlessness. People like this tend to fill their lives with omnipotent fantasies. Sean is informed by television and film culture so these tendencies would combine and he would imagine himself occupying a heroic position that refers to movies and television.
Slushpile: Sean’s brother, Archie, is the villain of the book. And he’s a pretty evil guy. How do you know how far to go with Archie’s cruelty? If you push it too far, the character will just become a caricature, right? So how do you know how far to go without going so far to make Archie absurd?
McNay: I write what I write and then go back to check and make sure the characters are portraying what I want them to. With Archie I took a lot of his stuff out because he was becoming a caricature. I realized he had done the intimidation so I could just let him frighten people by being in the narrative.
Slushpile: Fresh combines present day action with numerous flashbacks to Sean and Archie growing up. Did you write the flashbacks as they occur in the book? Or did you write all the flashbacks, then cut them up, and insert them throughout the present day action? How did you handle the writing chores of both present day action and the flashbacks?
McNay: I wrote some as I wrote the main story. Others I wrote as they came to me in the night. The writing process meant that I had to insert them in different places because I wanted the past narrative and the present narrative to be thematically consistent.
Slushpile: Who are your favorite writers right now?
McNay: I’ve just read The Road by Cormac McCarthy and it has blown me away. One of the most amazing books I’ve read in a while. Reminds me of Beckett.
Slushpile: Who is a British writer that you wish had more fans here in the US?
Slushpile: What are you working on next?
McNay: I’m writing a story about a man who suffers from a narrsisistic personality disorder. He has a girlfriend who is a prostitute and a social worker who is trying to take her away.
Slushpile: What is your can’t-live-without, must-have, single-most-important writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?
McNay: Write. Don’t wait for inspiration, just write and feel the inspiration arrive with the process. Get the fingers on the keyboard, or wrapped round a pen, and write.
Slushpile: What is your can’t-live-without, must-have, single-most-important publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors struggling to break into print?
McNay: I got an agent and she did that for me. Before I sent her my work I made it as perfect as I could. She pointed out what she thought was errors. My job was then to put my pride to one side and listen to her, and make a judgment about what she said. Eventually it became good enough to send to publishers.
Photo credit: Sarah Lee