"Before I could read, I loved books and liked to collect piles of them ..." Michelle McGrane in conversation with Finuala Dowling
Michelle McGrane: Finuala … it's a beautiful, unusual name. Where does it come from?
Finuala Dowling: My name is Irish. It means "white shoulder" and has something to do with a myth involving a swan. Though my father wasn't born in Ireland, he identified strongly with the spirit of his ancestral home.
Kalk Bay seems the perfect location for a writer to live - the sea view, pavement cafés, enchanting curiosity shops, and winding streets. How long have you lived in Kalk Bay?
I've called Kalk Bay home for 34 years, even though for eight of those I was actually living in Pretoria or Riebeeck-Kasteel. I'm not sure I could write anywhere else in the world.
Do you enjoy walking on the beach? Do you find poems come to you while you're walking along the sand?
I walk or swim every day and I find that something about these simple, rhythmic exercises tends to release the mind and enable it to make unexpected, unforced connections. When I was going through a particularly productive period, whole poems would come to me as I walked - image, rhyme, lineation, everything - I'd say them over and over in my head, trying to keep track of the editing changes I was making in the unreliable ink of thin air, anxious to get home and write them down, but reluctant to interrupt the process. Yet I never go to the beach thinking, "Now a poem will come."
What were you like as a child and what was it like growing up in a large family?
My mother says of me, "She never spoke to us." I was the seventh child of two very strong, clever, articulate personalities, so there always seemed to be plenty of noise, conversation, playing, theatrics, excitement and laughter going on. In the midst of all this hubbub, I would frequently withdraw. At first into the garden, where I played with an imaginary friend and her (also imaginary) family. Later, I'd spend hours in my room drawing or making things or writing satirical newsletters. In our teenage years and early twenties, we siblings shared friends and had almost a kind of salon society with people just dropping in for tea on Sundays and staying for drinks and watered-down soup to which my mother added every leftover in the fridge. I sometimes think my writing comes from a feeling of having had something to say, but no opportunity to say it - partly because everyone else was talking so much, but partly because of a degree of habitual introversion.
Were you always clear about what you wanted? What did you believe about your future?
Before I could read, I loved books and liked to collect piles of them around me, sometimes pretending to read or teach from them. When I could read, I read everything. All the books my mother brought home to review, all my brother's university set works, library books, the back of the cereal box, newspapers, graffiti, joke books, books from fetes, old books gathering dust. We also had a strong culture of the spoken word at home: my mother reading aloud to us every night in her beautiful, Guildhall-trained voice; listening to comedy records or poets' voices; evenings where friends and family told or acted out hilarious anecdotes. But there were other possibilities, apart from writing. I remember in Standard 3 our teacher going around the group and asking every girl what she'd like to be. There were, of course, some who wanted to be air hostesses and hairdressers, but I said I wanted to be an archaeologist. I think I changed my mind because I was worried that digging in Egypt would be very hot. Then I had two very influential art teachers who made me think I might take up painting as a career. I still sometimes miss that feeling that comes over you when you have a brush or 2B pencil in hand. In matric, I was studying a special literature course in addition to English - we did everything from Beowulf onwards. When the literature teacher asked me what I'd go on to study, I said I was hoping to get into Michaelis Art school. She said, "That will be a great loss to literature." Those words, plus the fact that we couldn't have afforded expensive art materials, set me on my course. I thought I'd train to be a writer by studying great books … ag shame.
Who have been the most influential people in your life?
People who've helped me to see who I am and what I can do. Family, teachers and lecturers, friends, publishers. Apart from my family, the people who've had the greatest impact on me were (and continue to be) colleagues at Unisa. I worked with a group of women there under Margaret Orr, and they never doubted for a moment that I'd be a published author one day; they helped me to firm up that vision of myself. Years later I sent my first poems to another Unisa colleague, Leon de Kock, who edits the journal scrutiny2. Not only did he publish 11 poems of mine ("Send me everything you've written," he said, after reading the three or four I'd humbly submitted), but he showed my poems to Gus Ferguson. Gus invited me to read at a few events, helped me to understand that I was a poet, and of course, he published I Flying.
At what age did you start writing poetry?
I'd love to say I was a child prodigy, but I only began in my very late thirties. I'd always imagined myself being a novelist.
Which poets have inspired and influenced you?
When I was young I was largely dependent on the "syllabus" for the poetry I encountered, though my mother was working as a drama teacher at the time and introduced me to some much more fun stuff. I remember one poem in particular that began "A year ago last Thursday, I was strolling in the zoo/ When I met a man who thought he knew the lot/ He was laying down the law about the habits of baboons/ And the number of quills a porcupine has got", and I thought, "So poems can be natural, funny, quirky!" But generally, though I read many different kinds of novels beyond the prescribed Lord of the Flies, choosing freely from the library, the poetry I read was limited by the list set out by the Department of Education, and that list was in turn limited by the available anthologies. Luckily in South Africa we had Robin Malan and his anthology Inscapes. But the real problem was that I seldom came across a whole volume of poems by just one poet - apart, of course, from Longfellow, Wordsworth and Tennyson in frighteningly large, dusty tomes at home. At university they were obsessed with teaching us the Metaphysical poets and the Romantics. We never got to hold in our hands and cherish that wonderful thing: the slim volume of verse by a living poet. Although I think syllabus poetry is often great poetry, poetry that one comes back to, it did not speak directly to me as an eighteen-year-old. I responded to Ogden Nash, William Carlos Williams, Stevie Smith, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, WH Auden, ee cummings, Thomas Hardy. Today I think Billy Collins is marvellous, also Sharon Olds, Paula Meehan and Eavan Boland, Douglas Dunn, Roger McGough, Wendy Cope, Denise Levertov, Maya Angelou, Grace Nichols, Antjie Krog. In the struggle days, my favourite poet was Mzwakhe Mbuli. I want to teach courses which involve students buying real poetry books, not anthologies.
You were awarded the Ingrid Jonker prize for your first volume of poetry, I Flying. Where did you get the inspiration for the collection's title?
The title comes from the poem of the same name. In this poem a group of us are walking down to Kommetjie beach on a bitterly cold, blustery and stormy winter's evening, with my nephew Gabriel in the pram. The wind is almost gale force, and I'm feeling sick with an old sadness that the weather is doing nothing to improve. The little girls are happy, though - they're pushing Gabriel's pram really fast, so fast that he stretches out his arms and cries "I flying."
Are there people you feel comfortable sharing your work with when it's in draft form, people you can use as sounding boards?
Probably not quite in the way you mean. These days we exist in a workshop culture - everything is a collaboration. I don't feel happy with that at all. I'm enough of a critic of my own work. But that doesn't mean I don't need people. Sometimes when I'm writing or speaking in a normal way - just saying something aloud or conveying a thought or anecdote by email - my interlocutor or correspondent will say, "That's a poem!" More often I show people my poems once they've been published. But there are two notable exceptions. The one is public readings - I find these very useful places to test drafts. Not that I'd welcome members of the audience coming up and making editing suggestions, but just being able to listen to my own poem as I read it, and to see its effect, that helps me judge. Some poems that I thought were marvellous have sunk and been relegated in this way. Others have completely come into their own because of a lively audience response. There is one person in particular I sometimes send drafts to, more as an act of intimacy than as a request for feedback.
Is a poem an almost immediate creation for you, or do you put poems away in a drawer and return to rework them months later?
Poems are quite immediate with me; I find it hard to return to the exact mood of the first writing later, so I tend to work straight through on a poem until it's complete, rather than shelving it.
When you're putting together a collection, how do you decide which poems go into the book and which to exclude? Do you find it difficult to put personal feelings about some poems to one side?
By answering this question I must reveal a shocking fact about myself: very few - fewer than ten or fifteen poems - have been left out of any collection of mine. In fact, I Flying consists of every single poem I'd written up till that point barring two which I just knew were bad. I find the ordering more difficult - which poems to place side by side and which ones need to give each other a wide berth. There are poems that I secretly like but which seldom come up in discussions as readers' favourites. I don't think that matters.
Tell me a little about Fay Weldon's Fiction.
This is the book that came out of my doctorate. I chose Fay Weldon because I found her novels (from Down Among the Women to The Life and Loves of a She-Devil) funny, experimental and punchily feminist. The problem was that Weldon's fiction started to change almost the moment I started to write about her. I found her later novels flip rather than witty, and trendy rather than current. I loved her self-conscious style (she addresses the reader directly) and produced a novel that bristled with Weldonian tricks, which I now find quite irritating. I'm pleased to say it was rejected and I hope it never sees the light of day. Still, the whole experience of writing a thesis taught me discipline, and the publisher who rejected my novel attempt wrote to say I should please send her anything else I might write. That was Alison Lowry, and ten years later I sent her What Poets Need.
And your comedy, Bungee Writing Finals, won the Audience Vote at the PANSA Reading of New Writing Festival in 2002 and went on to a full production. How do other genres of writing affect your poetry? Is it difficult to keep your hand in so many different forms, or do they feed off one another?
I'm not sure that I have it in me to be a dramatist - I'm too much of an introvert and that's not good for stagework. Bungee Writing Finals was based on my experiences as a creative writing teacher, so even though it's a play, it's still very textual. It's a theme I'd like to come back to some time. I'd also like the play to get a proper run one day. Dramatic elements work very well in poems, as do prose moments. I think I like the interplay of different genres. What Poets Need was a conscious attempt to break those artificial boundaries, to make a novel-addicted public take another look at poetry.
Do you type your work straight on to your computer or do you use pen and paper until you're happy with your draft? Do you have different processes for getting down poetry and prose?
I work straight onto the computer except for desperate moments in the middle of the night or on holiday. I treat prose as a job - I report for duty and work to deadline and word limit. Once I'm in that disciplined environment, all kinds of wonderful creative ideas can and do flow, but I have actually forced myself to be there in the first place. Poetry is different. I come here to write a poem because the poem itself, or the thought that is about to become a poem, has completely seduced me.
You're a mother too! How do you juggle the demands of motherhood and a busy writing career? Is there a certain time of the day or night when you work your best … do you find yourself creeping to your desk in the small hours of morning when the house is asleep?
I can't work at night - I rarely if ever have written after 9.30 at night. I get up at 5 or 5.30 a m to write. My daughter does struggle sometimes with this unavailability, though I make it clear that she may interrupt me at any time. It's not something I've resolved, or that I feel on top of, this motherhood-writing-teaching thing. But Beaty's started to write very passionate poems herself, so I'm pleased.
Penguin South Africa has published your strongly original and skilfully crafted novel, What Poets Need, this year. Are you happy with the reviews and public response you've received for the book so far?
I'm delighted. The response has been beyond my wildest hopes. I've had all kinds of unsolicited fan mail and phone calls. It's wonderful, but also frightening.
I love that you managed to integrate poetry so seamlessly into the novel …
I do think of poems as being continuous with life. In my family, a quote from a poem or a pause to listen to a poem will happen in the middle of ordinary discourse.
You begin What Poets Need with lines written by Alice Walker from How Poems Are Made/A Discredited View:
I should say first of all that I don't advise poetry as a dumping ground for raw emotion. What I think happens, and I think Walker expresses this, is that you sit down to write in a mood of utter despondency and hopelessness. You are beyond coping. You are going under. Then, as you write the poem, something is released inside you - a set of unconscious images or unexpected connections. The poem takes on the loss, but produces a gain - because of an insight, an ironic twist, a sleight of mind, a twist of wry humour, the very proficiency of language itself in the face of the abject spirit. And these gains are actually your own inner resources, only you didn't know about them before, or you'd discounted them. Well, they're not quite yours: they belong to the poem.
Margaret Atwood once wrote "… it's a feature of our age that if you write a work of fiction, everyone assumes that the people and events in it are disguised biography …" Is this one of the reasons you decided to use a male protagonist, John Carson, in What Poets Need, as opposed to a woman who may be identified with you?
Pretty much everyone has identified me with John Carson, so if it was my intention to disguise myself I've failed miserably. There were a number of reasons affecting my decision to write as a male. First, I wanted to give myself a feeling of absolute licence, of allowing my character to say/do/eat/think anything he liked without my worrying, "Would a woman say this?" The idea of a younger woman being lovelorn for an older, married man: that was so clichéd to me, it didn't appeal at all. On another level, something that interested me a lot at the time of writing was my perception that there are men out there who are never represented in books or the media - straight men who cook, feel sensitive, do housework, look after children, respond emotionally/artistically to the world. Adverts, for example, often play on a particularly irritating binary opposition between the "he-man" that's into sport, sex, tv, etc and the "nerd" who is unappealing to women, klutzy, a loser. I wanted to depict a man who would show up the artificiality of traditional gender distinctions and stereotypes. Finally, it was just such an empowering thing to write as a man, such a liberation for me. John is NOT me in all kinds of ways. He's not nervous about walking on the mountain alone; he expresses thoughts that I keep hidden; takes time out for coffee breaks; he's more outgoing; less driven … I liked being him. He got to me. Right at the end of the last set of revisions for Penguin, when I'd been inside his head for 72 hours non-stop, I opened my wardrobe one morning and thought, "What the hell are all these dresses doing here?"
You raise the issue of eating disorders through John Carson's niece, Sal, a gorgeous, intelligent nine-year-old who becomes unhappy with her weight and refuses to eat. Are you concerned with the prevalence of eating disorders and society's preoccupation with a largely unrealistic ideal in terms of female shape and attractiveness?
The normalisation of anorexia/ bulimia concerns me deeply. By "normalisation" I mean that our society accepts and silently, implicitly, encourages the idea of perpetually hungry women. The media depict underweight women, those without breasts, hips, tummies or thighs, as beauties deserving of praise and reward. The alternative is always represented as morbid obesity. But somewhere in the middle, under erasure for the most part, is the now abnormal-normal, slightly rounded, woman. Every now and then the media allow us to reflect on the special, radiant beauty of the normal size 12-14 woman - Nigella Lawson, Marilyn Monroe, Kate Winslett. But then it comes back with its mouth spitting full of vitriol about "piling on the pounds". Renee Zellweger is described as "piling on the pounds" in order to play the role of Bridget Jones, who is to my mind a slender to normal-shaped woman. To eat normally, to have a normal weight is seen as a moral failing. Interestingly, round, plump or normal-sized women have gone underground, have become the secretly desired, the quiet lust of men pushed towards boniness rather than bonniness. Statistics show that while men marry thin women (leaves more for them to eat? Looks like a more pliable option?) their lovers/mistresses tend to be plumper.
In the novel, John communicates with Theresa, the married woman he loves, by email. Do you correspond with people mainly via email? Has writing letters become a thing of the past and do you miss it?
I confess I don't miss letters very much, though I still love getting them. I love the immediacy of email, the secrecy, the possibilities for record-keeping. Emails for me double up as diary entries. I also hate, hate, hate the telephone, so I'm trying to train everybody to communicate with me this way.
In your experience, do you think people generally have preconceived ideas about poets, about their emotional make-up, the sort of lives they lead?
The only really funny idea I find people entertain about me personally is the notion that I go around seeing absolutely everything as an opportunity for poetry. "I suppose you'll write about this," they say, or "I'm going to find myself in a poem." I would say that there is still some residual mystique attached to the label "poet". I notice that Gus Ferguson always refers to himself as "a pharmacist", which is true of course, but also an oblique, ironic reference to that mystique thing, a side-stepping of it.
What has writing a novel taught you?
That when you are writing most personally about yourself, you are actually writing most universally.
Tell me about a few of your favourite books and why they are important to you.
I have a special affinity for the confiding tone of first-person narration, the "I" of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier, Mariama Bâ's So Long a Letter. That kind of intimacy you feel when the narrator trusts you so deeply: it is like friendship. My favourite books are also all in some way concerned with the creative process; they are metafiction: Possession by AS Byatt, Pale Fire by Nabakov, Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood, Colm Tóibín's The Master, Unless by Carol Shields, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. I'm not a big fan of elaborate plots: I love interiority. I love books about reading too: Dai Sijie's Balzac & the Little Chinese Seamstress; Bernard Schlink's The Reader, Tobias Wolff's Old School. Like all sane people, I regularly reread the entire works of Jane Austen.
Do you consider yourself a feminist? What does feminism mean to you?
Yes, though I reject the negative stereotype associated with the word. A feminist is someone who believes that women should have equal rights - this is the dictionary definition, and by that definition, most South Africans are feminists.
Do you think age is a factor in becoming more confident, more accepting of oneself? As you get older, have you found yourself mellowing to a certain extent? Do you ever find yourself worrying about ageing?
As I've aged, I've definitely improved. I was way too sharp, almost acerbic, in my wit as a young woman, and intolerant of non-intellectuals. Now I feel much fonder of the world in general, and actually delight in the kind of people I used to scorn. I have less ambition now, yet I get more done and some quite astonishingly wonderful opportunities have come my way. I worry about the far side of ageing, the way it seems to me that we have been given so many more years to live (if 80 is the average life span of a woman, many of us must be living to 100), but without guarantee of physical comfort, financial security or mental agility.
Finuala, what are you passionate about? What moves you, what inspires you, what brings you joy?
I'm not a very passionate person on the outside - I think I appear quite reserved. I'm nervous about hugging and kissing: I always seem to bash noses when pressed to someone's cheek. But I do feel strongly on the inside. I love to laugh, I love sudden shared insights among friends or moments of delicious absurdity. I love letters or visits from friends, winter walks in the Karoo or just on the mountain; in summer swimming in big bashing waves. Calm, pearly evenings when the whole family gathers for champagne in the garden. Family shows and theatricals - spontaneous or rehearsed, especially if they involve our children. Sharing a wonderful poem or novel I've just discovered. The way it feels when a poem arrives. Planning parties or skinnering with my sisters. Finding unusual beautiful romantic clothing in velvet or chiffon. Being alone but not lonely. An early night with a hot-water bottle.
What book is sitting on your bedside table at the moment?
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.
What can we look forward to next, Finuala? Are you working on something new?
A second book of poetry, which I'm finalising now for publication early 2006. Then I'm also taking notes for novel #2, which will only be published early 2007.
What would you like to be remembered for?
Encouraging people between Muizenberg and Simonstown to read and love poetry.
LitNet: 02 August 2005
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