I travelled to the University of Southampton last week and stayed overnight. This was for two reasons. I had an appointment with my supervisor and was attending Writers in Conversation with Shena Mackay at the Nuffield Theatre on the Monday evening.
This was a very special event because firstly Shena MacKay is the mother of my supervisor, and secondly Shena rarely gives interviews, so I knew it was going to be a very special evening. When I mentioned the event to a writing friend, she said Shena was very much the ‘it’ girl of her generation.
Carol Burns organises the Writers in Conversation events and was the host for the evening. Carol introduced Shena to the audience.
Shena Mackay was born in Edinburgh in 1944. Her writing career began when she won a prize for a poem written when she was fourteen. Two novellas, Dust Falls on Eugene Schlumberger and Toddler on the Run were published before she was twenty. Redhill Rococo won the 1987 Fawcett Prize, Dunedin won a 1994 Scottish Arts Council Book Award, The Orchard on Fire was shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize and, in 2003 Heligoland was shortlisted for both the Orange Prize and Whitbread Novel Award. Her latest book, Dancing on the Outskirts, Selected Stories (Virago) was published in November 2015. She has three daughters, Sarah Clark, a teacher, Rebecca Smith, a writer, and Cecily Brown, a painter, and five grandchildren. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and lives in Southampton.
Shena Mackay has been described as one of the very best short story writers in the world. She began the evening’s conversation by reading a short story from The Atmospheric Railway. (2014)
“Mackay’s observational precision is outstanding; she writes like an angel wielding a scalpel, dissecting her characters with sublime, sharp-edged prose… Her stories are grand entertainment” (Guardian)
The collection contains not only thirteen brilliant new stories, but a selection of twenty-three more from her previous collections, making it a delight for her existing admirers and the perfect introduction to her work for newcomers.
How do you know if a piece of writing is going to be a short story or a novel?
There is a difference between the novel and the short story but it is the germ of the same thing. It’s [a writer’s] instinct that says this is going to be a short story. Have to compress and compress.
How many drafts do you tend to write?
Shena replied she tends to write only one, working on one sentence at a time. Not liking to leave it and come back “in case you might die and somebody would find it.”
Do you think of yourself as a feminist writer?
Shena replied she had an innate knowledge, “I am a feminist, not polemical”. Like the writer or painter, you can become neutral, writing with the ‘artist’s gaze’ and hopes she can see the point of view of other characters.
How many short stories have you written?
I’ve never counted. Shena added, ‘…though I am thought of as that now. I never set out to be a short story writer.’ She would hesitate to embark on a novel now as it takes so long to do.
What do great writers have?
Empathy, imagination and patience.
Do you have that?
Yes all three. It’s hard graft.
You write a lot of short stories. How do you choose a worthy idea?
Sometimes a sentence, image or title comes to me. I have lots of ideas, every day.
Do you know your endings?
Sometimes I know my endings. Though, I’ve never plotted out a novel. The characters grow.
How many drafts do you write?
I try to get the essence right the first time. There is no first draft. For each stage I tend to get the sentence right before moving on.
Virago Classics are about to publish some of my older works. And I’m working on a Memoir. [As well as the memoir, Virago have in fact acquired the whole back list.]
How is memoir different to fiction?
It’s proving to be extremely difficult. The older you get, you realise everything is autobiography. It takes you down memory lane, psychologically, confronts you. It’s harder and easier. I get lost in memories and thinking about things.
Shena doesn’t believe in using other people’s material, their memories, or personal stories. ‘Some writers use somebody else’s story and say tough. If a writer is born into a family, it’s the end of that family!’ Shena spoke about cannibalising family material and said: ‘You don’t have a devine right to use it.’
The memoir came out of a piece for The Guardian about D-Day. Born on 6 June 1944, Shena was nearly called Deeday. “Although I’m relieved that I wasn’t called Deeday and that I haven’t had to go through 70 years explaining my name, it always seemed an honour to be born on that historic day, and the date had an intrinsic beauty to a synaesthetic child who saw letters and numbers in colour. For me, June and 6 share the fragrant crimson of summer roses, while 19 is white and rich amber and 44 blazes in yellow gold. My birthday was a day of roses and gold even though D-day itself is starkly black and all the newspaper photographs are monochrome images of sailors and soldiers in combat gear, planes, tanks and landing craft.”
Has publishing changed since you first started writing?
Shena replied that it had changed out of all recognition. It used to be a gentleman’s profession. Publishers would take a writer and nurture them. They can’t do that now. Makes it harder to get published now. Bears no resemblance. Different expectations on a person nowadays, writers are expected to go online and blog.
Do you keep notes?
I have a notebook, like an artist’s sketchpad, and make jottings.
Do you have a favourite piece of your own writing?
I have favourite sentences and endings.
Shena said that she had been re-reading some of her work for the memoir and that she would have written the exact same sentences.
There is an afterword in Music Upstairs (1965), written in 1988 where MacKay discusses this subject: ‘As to the book, there is nothing I could alter now if I wished to do so. There are, inevitably, parts of it which I can see could have been handled more skilfully, sentences which glare at me from the page. I could advize Sidonie on how to deal with certain situations and relationships, how not to fall victim to her predators, and I might have less sympathy with her passivity and more for Pam’s domestic circumstances and situation;’
You have often been described as a humourous writer. Are there any writers that make you laugh?
I don’t think there are enough funny writers now.
Reviewing Mackay’s new collection of short stories, Dancing on the Outskirts (2015), in The Independent, Michele Roberts said: ‘This new collection of short stories (some drawn from previous publications) showcases her genius for building comedy from terseness and compression.’
Have you enjoyed being a writer?
I feel lucky and privileged. I get to meet wonderful people.
Would you recommend it?
Yes, it’s wonderful.
And it was also a wonderful evening for the audience to hear Shena Mackay talking about the writing process and her work. Just to add, [my disclaimer] I took notes throughout the evening, but this blog is more of an impression of the Writers in Conversation event. It is not a word for word reproduction, so my apologies to Shena and Carol, if I have misheard or misinterpreted anything that was said.
Carole Burns is a fiction writer, journalist and lecturer. She is head of creative writing at the University of Southampton. A journalist for more than 20 years, Burns crafted her first book, Off the Page: Writers Talk About Beginnings, Endings, and Everything in Between, from her interviews with forty-three of today’s foremost writers, including Colm Tóibín, A.S. Byatt, Jhumpa Lahiri, Anthony Doerr and Alice McDermott. She continues to interview authors and review books for The Washington Post, and has also written for The New York Times. Her fiction has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and published in Ploughshares, Puerto del Sol and The Lonely Crowd, and supported by The MacDowell Colony and the Virginia Center for the Arts. The Missing Woman is her first collection of stories. Born and raised in Danbury, Conn., she lived for many years in Washington, D.C. She now lives in Cardiff, Wales, where she is also co-founder of the xx women’s writing festival.
You can follow Carol on Twitter: Carole_Burns