"When we read, we start at the beginning and continue until we reach the end. When we write, we start in the middle and fight our way out." - Vickie Karp
Tuesday, 1 February 2011
Author Visit: Susie Maguire
Susie Maguire is a former actor, comedy performer and TV presenter, who now writes fiction.
She is deviser and editor of Little Black Dress, an anthology of short stories by women on the theme of the ubiquitous and iconic frock, published March 2006. Her own stories are published in two collections: Furthermore (2005) and The Short Hello (2000). Her pamphlet of poems 'How to Hug' was published by Mariscat Press in 2009.
My dearest Susie, thank you for coming to have a chat with us in our abode [aka book forum] we very much appreciate it. Pull up a chair, grab a glass of wine and a canapé. Yum.
Mmm, these papier-mâché vol-au-vents are delicious, thanks. I like the Bleak House filling particularly.
So. How did you make the move from comedian/TV presenter into writing short stories and poetry? Have you always written?
I fell into comedy by accident, when I was asked to join a feminist theatre company in Edinburgh in the early 1980s, and found through improvising that I could channel voices/characters, be ‘not me’, and in so doing make people laugh. For a very shy person, that was a huge gift to discover.
I used one of those characters, Marina McLoughlin, as a stand -up persona, at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, & Gilded Balloon, and London’s Comedy Store, and from that (and via an irreverent impersonation of Muriel Gray) I got asked to do some TV.
I co-presented Arts programmes between 1987 & 1991, mainly for STV, most of it ‘as’ Marina, with the wonderful, late Tony Wilson (Factory Records & Hacienda). Then I hit a dry patch, coinciding with becoming a step-mother (you should see my stretch marks); I had no work, began writing ideas down, some of which turned into stories, though I had no idea what I was doing really. The second of those stories was shortlisted for a prize, which astounded (and encouraged) me, as did the flashy gold pen I was awarded. Bling!
I sent my 3rd story -‘Tomb’ - to a producer at BBC Radio Drama in Edinburgh, who asked me to narrate it for Radio Scotland; so I inhabited other characters, wrote more. Some of them, in the Marina persona, were a considerable hit on Radio 4, and one (*The Day I Met Sean Connery) was later televised.
Obviously I’ve edited out of that the ghastly periods of utterly miserable waiting, unemployment and self doubt. Many, many times I’ve thought ‘why am I trying to do this? Who cares what I’m writing about?’ Something made me stubborn enough to keep at it. There are still days and weeks when I need to locate and hang on to that stubbornness…
Have I always written? Yes, all kinds of things, but early efforts were belittled by those to whom I dared show them, so I had no confidence. I consider myself only to have started writing with any intent in my late 20s, when audience response or broadcasting professionals told me I had something entertaining or acute to offer. The trick, though, is to get past what others might want you to be or to write, and find who you are, and what you have to write.
I very much love your collection ‘How to Hug and other Poems’ – what’s your favourite poem from there? Could you give us a couple of lines?
Thank you, Jen! Today, my favourite is Senor El Cuervo; the whole thing came to me, imagery, personality, transformation theme, in one fell swoop!
A crow, at the window, stands
Smoking a twig cigarette, feet
Splayed, black waistcoat fluttering
In the evening heat. ‘Hola, amiga!
Por favor, tiene usted un poco de pan?
Jamon? Chorizo?’ Turning his beak, his
Bold bright eye, in query.
What does short story writing mean to you? Why do you write short fiction?
The little men in my head who operate the levers to extrude stories seem to prefer economy & compression. I got used to the shape of short stories from writing for 15 minute slots for radio but continue to enjoy writing them because of what can be left out, pared away, implied. A good story can be like a fast ride in a fast car, or like a slow smooth drift down a calm river. It can have all the scope of a ‘long’ story (a.k.a. novel) but compressed, and it gives the reader some work to do, too.
What’s your favourite writing form?
When it’s going well, any of them. When it’s not going well, a short story can be pulled round with less agony than either a poem that’s flawed or a novel that’s so big and heavy it’s like trying to steer an oil tanker. But...if I remind myself that everything is just ‘story’, then the shape or format matter less than the contents, direction and speed.
Do you have a writing routine?
When I’m in the flow, I don’t think about routine at all, miss meals, forget the time, date. When I’m not, I mutter to myself about listening to all the very good advice about routines.
I know that you’re off on a writing retreat at the moment – do you find escaping the ‘norm’ helps creative flow or, like me, do you try and eliminate all other distractions to force yourself to stop procrastinating and actually bloody well get on with it? Ha.
Ha, indeed. Eliminate! Exterminate! Some of the best writing time I’ve had recently has been writing three linked radio stories while staying with my sister; I was able to ignore the doorbell, phone, shopping, etc, because I knew she was dealing with it, and when I needed a break there was someone to talk and laugh with.
I think of writing as being rather like swimming in the sea. You start out in a tight, uncomfortable, brand new, dry swimsuit, a bit self-consciously and nervously, dipping your toe in the grey froth of the edges of the ocean. You stand there and dither. Eventually you’re so sick of your own terror and goosebumps that you plunge in, gulp, gasp, start to swim, get further out, begin to get warm, to love it, to roll around like a seal. Every time someone on shore beckons you out on land again for some reason, you emerge reluctantly, wondering if you’ll ever be able to re-enter the sea now in your horrible damp, sandy swimsuit, shivering, indecisive… well, that’s how it is for me. If I’m swimming, I’ve got to keep swimming, as much as possible. Real life events threaten my concentration on the swimming, until I have a strong grip on the story.
When someone asks you ‘what do you do’? What is your response?
For years, if someone asked that, I would just cough and mumble, look at the floor, shuffle my feet. If I ventured that I was an actor or comedy performer, there’d be a joke, a challenge, as if I were giving myself airs, or the question‘So, should I have heard of you?’ How do you answer that politely?
Before the publication of my first story collection (2000), I never claimed the status of Writer, it sounded far too grand. Now, I say ‘I write’, or ‘I write fiction.’ Sometimes I match the statement with a fixed look to quell frivolous questioning.
I don’t like to talk about what I’m doing. The energy needed to write, to sustain an idea, particularly a novel, needs to be kept charged up, not let out in friendly chatter, as I’ve found to my cost.
Writing is part of a spectrum of creativity, for me - I like painting, making things, sewing, practical non-wordy stuff, and impractical objects and dioramas, which all replenish the imaginarium.
Are you able to tell us what you’ve been working on/what you’ve got in the pipeline at the moment?
A novel, which after some painful months I realise isn’t ‘there’ yet - there’s a better book to be pulled out and re-made from that draft.
There are stories, for a possible third collection. Poems tiptoe in, asking to be written. There’s an outline for another adult novel, one for a book for young adults, and ideas for more radio stories... various ethereal projects! I’d like to do more collaborative work, including theatre, would like to use my voice and comedy skills again. I’ve started offering writing workshops (in Edinburgh, with screen & radio writer Colin MacDonald, as ‘Finding Voices, Telling Stories’), because I like working with and mentoring other writers.
Mainly, though, I want to finish this novel, climb this mountain, see what’s over the other side.
Finally, on our Book Forum, we have a Book Tree, where members choose their favourite book and post them round in a circle, so everyone reads each one and writes comments in them as they go. If you were to take part in our Book Tree, what book would you choose and why?
I have huge affection and respect for Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The blending of fantasy and reality, the way he uses language, his perspectives, his authority. The writing is rich, colourful, clear and exhilarating, and the daemon is such a brilliant invention for indicating the inner experiences & feelings of diverse characters, who spend much of their time in the stories alone, that reading the books actually changes how you see this world and the people in it.
Jen Campbell is the author of the best-selling 'Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops' series. She's also an award-winning poet and short story writer. Her poetry collection 'The Hungry Ghost Festival' is published by The Rialto, and she lives in London, where she works at an antiquarian bookshop. Her new book, 'The Bookshop Book' is forthcoming autumn 2014.