Maria McCann has published two highly acclaimed novels
that draw upon events of the English Civil War. As Meat Loves Salt was completed on the MA in Writing, University of Glamorgan. The Wilding, published this year, was long-listed for
the 2010 Orange Prize.
Here, she talks about her fascination with the Civil War and how, alongside historical research, her compulsion to acquire practical skills - rowing, bicycle restoration, food preserving, gardening - helps her create vivid fictional worlds.
PJ: Why did English Civil War so capture your imagination?
MMcC: It's the sense that people were politically passionate then. They thought things really mattered and were willing to fight for them. I found the Putney Debates and the writings of Gerrard Winstanley particularly fascinating: ordinary people, living in an age of Divine Right, groping towards notions of political justice and equality. I'm frustrated by the political stagnation in the UK and the way that spin and image have replaced ideas but I hope I don't romanticise the seventeenth century. I'm not saying I would have liked to live then. On the purely physical level, any modern person would find that period intolerable. Few things amuse me more than 'historical' films in which everybody has perfect teeth, clothes (including stays) that slither off during love scenes to reveal tanned, honed bodies (no fleabites) and no sense of the sheer discomfort of being alive before the age of insulation, anaesthetics and washing machines. Except during scenes of childbirth, of course - plenty of howling then.
PJ: At the heart of The Wilding is a real and shocking incident that occurred during the Civil War [to say more would give too much away]. I gather you discovered this while researching As Meat Loves Salt. Did you always know it would grow into another novel?
MMcC: No, I didn't. I didn't even make a note of it at the time, but the incident stayed with me. Even though everyone concerned had died centuries before, I couldn't think of it without pain. The first glimmerings of the novel grew out of the question: How could such a shocking thing have happened? The person involved either lacked protectors or had fallen foul of the community _ or perhaps a powerful individual within it. I read a blog entry this week in which a reviewer noted her 'amazement' at this incident. While 'it really happened' is not a defence of fictions, I found it ironic that this is the only part of the book that has any basis in fact. I've recently been contacted by a Mr Joe McCann (no relation) whose wife's ancestors lived in Doulting (the village concerned) during the period I was writing about; apparently the real-life victim was from another village, not Doulting, which might partly explain what occurred.PJ: The Wilding is set 30 years on from the Civil War, during the Restoration period. What drew you away from the King to explore restoration of a different kind?
MMcC: Charles II is a gift to historical novelists: traumatised in youth, witty, libidinous and unreliable, surrounded by libertines and power-mongers. I'm not immune to the appeal of the Merry Monarch, but I'm more interested in how people lower down the feeding-chain conducted their lives. That means giving up the gorgeous descriptions of palaces and feasts (and I'm not immune to these either) but it also confers greater freedom in that readers don't already 'know' the characters from history or from other novels.
Also, I'm always interested in denial, both in fiction and in real life. In the Restoration period there was considerable hushing-up and rewriting going on. The Restoration court ostensibly championed Shakespeare's plays but in fact the plays were rewritten to geld them of potentially subversive elements and used as Stuart propaganda. Further down the pecking order, Englishmen who had fought in the Civil War had to live with the knowledge that they had killed fellow English, perhaps people known to them or even related; there were families who divided along political lines during the war. How do you get over that afterwards?PJ: 'Respectable and corrupt, like the times' says your character at one point. Was writing about those times a way of commenting on our times?
MMcC: Somebody wrote
that there are two kinds of historical novel: the kind that shows how different
'they' were from 'us' and the kind that brings out our essential
similarities. I'm interested in
this distinction, though I think that any novel that doesn't at least attempt
to bridge differences will fail to engage its readers. I didn't set out to comment on our
times but at some level I think most times are 'respectable and corrupt'.
MMcC: I recently read an introduction to
Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles which suggests that Hardy's most intense
imaginative connection is with the love triangle, in which he 'is' Tess and
also Alec and Angel. In the
process of writing the novel, this primal material is to some extent overlaid
by other interests: archaeology, the question of divorce, Darwinism and so
on. I don't know if this is really
true of Hardy's mental processes but I recognised it as a good description of
my own. I become intrigued by a
character, often at a moment of crisis, and identify emotionally at some level
with their dilemma. As I ponder
the how and the why the plot begins to crystallise.
The process of writing the novel seems to spark more
abstract notions which then become incorporated into the work. While writing As Meat Loves Salt I
became interested in the idea that the English Civil War was 'a war between
brothers' and the struggles between the Cullen brothers were played out against
the backdrop of a wider political struggle. I had nearly finished The Wilding
before realising that it's about a man who thinks he's living in a pastoral
idyll but who is actually embroiled in something much more gothic. I was pleased that at least one
reviewer picked this up. However,
the spark for the book was my wish to explore what happened in the Guild Hall
and how the community behaved afterwards: a specific, harrowing incident.
PJ: Cider-making seems equally as 'necessary' as the Guildhall incident; was the research for that more recent?
MMcC: Yes. Glastonbury, where I live, is in a cider-making area and there was no shortage of ciders to try. I became interested in the different kinds of apple and what you can do with them. There's something magical about cider. Unlike beer, it doesn't need anything added to it. Provided all goes well, and the juice doesn't become contaminated, it 'just happens'. Cider was extremely popular in the seventeenth century (there were special glasses for drinking it, like the ones owned by the Dymond family in the novel) and that made from the Redstreak apple was said to rival wine. Unfortunately the Redstreak is now extinct (the modern Redstreak apple isn't the same cultivar) so we'll never know what it tasted like.
PJ: With his travelling cider press Jonathan is free to 'investigate' family secrets, almost as if he were an undercover detective. His cider press 'enables' the story - did you invent it or did such things exist?
MMcC: I invented it, but I don't see why such a thing couldn't exist. A few years ago I took some students to Thomas Hardy's house, Max Gate. When it was built the plans included a room for seasonal workers and one of these might have been the itinerant cider maker mentioned in Hardy's poem 'Lengthening Days at the Homestead'. There were travelling cider-makers in the nineteenth century. They had machines for mashing up the apples, rather than pressing them. In the 1970s I encountered a hair-washing machine at a salon in a Durham village. It washed my hair efficiently but I haven't seen such a machine since. The salon still exists so I phoned to find out if the famous hair-washing machine is still in business. 'I've been told about it,' said the receptionist, 'but we don't have it any more.' That's how I think of Jon's cider-press, as something that would disappear from history in a generation or two.PJ: I'm curious about your chapter headings - do they come after the chapter is written, or are they there as you draft to keep the episodes focussed? And do you know the whole of the plot before you start?
MMcC: My instinct is to write any narrative in one long unbroken flow, and if publishers would let me get away with it that's doubtless what I would do (oh, to be Daniel Defoe writing Moll Flanders!). As Meat Loves Salt was initially written in this way and the chapter structure was imposed on it later, though I can't remember how much had been written when I started putting in chapter headings. I was writing that novel for five years. I had no plot in mind. I didn't know what was going to happen (apart from a few narrative climaxes) and kept on writing to find out. The Wilding was written in a much more orderly fashion. I had chapter sections (but not titles) with a rough idea of what would go into each. It greatly simplified the writing process, but I still hanker after the adventure and intensity of 'writing blind'.
PJ: Can you talk about your drafting process - what is a typical writing session? Do you work in longhand, keyboard or a bit of both?
MMcC: I always write at the computer. Longhand is just too inflexible for me; I want to be playing about, deleting, inserting right from the start, and my script is messy, full of exhortations and questions _ FORKS IN 1644? or PUT THIS IN LATER. Apart from the fact that I always start with revising the last thing I wrote, I don't have a typical writing session, though I'd like to. I used to work until very late at night then get up and go to my day job, but I can't do that any longer. I'm more likely now to write in the early evening during the week and in the mornings at the weekend. I don't write every day. The pressure of all the other things I have to do (like most writers, I still have the day job) sometimes wins out. Sorry, that should be often wins out.PJ: What is the day job?
MMcC: I'm an English Literature lecturer in further education. Since being published I've also run creative writing courses. Even though I only work part-time, and do enjoy the teaching, the thinking and paperwork use up the creative energy. You have to preserve your creativity. Those of us who don't have servants or a private income always have to ring-fence time for the writing.PJ: Was that one of the benefits of doing the MA in Writing at University of Glamorgan - learning to ring-fence time?
MMcC: Yes, and knowing others were going to be scrutinizing my work. There was that sense of not wanting to be shamed by not having produced. Over the two year course I was having to meet the same group of people who would know whether or not I'd been writing. Over that time you also build up trust in the feedback they give you.PJ: I understand you're involved with the allotment movement - how does gardening, a different kind of creativity, relate to writing?
MMcC: Digging does relieve tension built up by sitting in front of a computer. I used to think gardening would clear my mind, help me meditate, focus, whatever. It doesn't seem to work that way but it does give me the conviction that things go on: plants, unhampered by the egotism that afflicts humans, continue in their cycles of beauty and fertility. It provides a seasonal framework: as the Chinese proverb has it, 'Even after a bad harvest there must be sowing.' I'm an atheist, so this natural continuity is the nearest I get to the comfort some people find in the notion of divine order.
People often comment on the physicality of my novels. If I become aware of a practical skill I could learn (organic gardening, sourdough, refurbishing an old bicycle) there's something in me that is driven, and I do mean driven, to master it. I gave up learning to row in January (perhaps fortunately, I had no natural ability) but a friend recently gave me a book on food preserving and the compulsion is now breaking out into this area. All this spills into the novels, intensifying their sense of lived experience. However, I often think that if I spent more time blogging and reading literary theory I would seem much more impressive intellectually, more of a Proper Writer.
PJ: For your next book will you stay with The Civil War?
MMcC: No, the next book is set in the eighteenth century ( I am furtively moving towards writing a book set in the present day, but don't tell my agent). It concerns the life of a 'Corinthian' (debauchee and swindler) as seen through the eyes of his wife, his mistress and the black servant he brings into his wife's family.
PJ: Which writers feed the writer in you and inspire you to write?
MMcC: There are three writers who give me deep joy: Margaret Atwood, Michele Roberts and Angela Carter. I love the suppleness of Carter's prose, one minute bawdy then she can modulate into melancholy. It's fabulous, so playful. Atwood has a combination of acid wit and blackness, and in Michele Robert's work it's the sensuousness and constant exploration of what it's like to be female that inspires.
PJ: What are you reading at the moment?
MMcC: I never seem to read books when they first come out. This is not affectation but lack of organisation. I tend to have lots of different books on historical background on the go simultaneously. Right now I'm dipping in and out of Dorothy Hartley, Made in England (about traditional crafts, first published at the start of World War II) and Paul Baines, The Long 18th Century. Fiction: I've just finished DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little, which I adore. I was about to pick up Peter Carey's Parrot and Olivier in America, which I've been wanting to read for ages, when a friend brought Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses, so that one has jumped the queue. My fiction reading is no more orderly than my non-fiction research.
PJ: What would you say to someone who is about to start a first novel, particularly one based on historical fact?
MMcC: Adam Lively, who was my tutor on the Arvon course where I had the first ideas for As Meat Loves Salt, told me: 'If you're writing a historical, don't do all the research first, or you'll never get started. Write the novel first, then you'll know what research you need.' I'd like to qualify this excellent advice by adding, 'Except for hard data like geography and dates.' Historical and geographical facts with a direct bearing on the story can cause endless trouble if you have to change them at a late stage, whereas foodstuffs, clothes and manners can all be tweaked with comparative ease.
On my bookshelf there's an example of what can go wrong if you don't do your research - an old edition of Fay Weldon's The Heart of the Country, set around Glastonbury. Its cover shows a line drawing of Glastonbury Tor...only it isn't Glastonbury Tor. To anyone living in this area it's Burrow Mump, several miles away. I suspect the illustrator came up on the M5, saw a hill with a ruined chapel on top, and looked no further. I mean, there couldn't be two of them, surely? Welcome to the West Country...