NWR: The title story takes the concept of women being addicted to ‘unavailable men’ to extremes, even turning the phenomenon of the blow-up doll on its head by creating a woman’s fantasy hero, resurrected and fast-decaying as he waits for a new nose to be grown from cells on the back of a lab mouse. This and other stories such as ‘My Cousin’s Breasts’ and ‘Girl on a Pedestal’ suggest you have a fascination with the body escaping its physical parameters. Can you suggest a source for this and are you developing the theme in current work?
Maria Donovan: All the stories in Pumping Up Napoleon have something to do with the body: (the working title for that collection was Falling Apart). The body as a physical entity, its animal biology, does fascinate me: I’ve studied anatomy and physiology and am interested in medical developments and how ideas about the body push the creative impulse. I’m also aware of the body as the vessel that contains our conscious selves. Looking back, it all stems from my first realisation that I would die one day. I was four or five and outraged as well as frightened to discover that I couldn’t count on existing indefinitely: I just hadn’t realised there was a beginning and an end to me. I’m not consciously developing that theme at the moment in quite the same way, but death and how to live with it does matter to me: the story ‘Pumping Up Napoleon’ is meant to be funny as well as sad. On the whole, thinking about the time when I won’t be around anymore is what drives me to write. The act of writing (particularly if it ends with publication) is partly, for me, about transcending boundaries.
NWR: Vanity (also related to the body) is important in ‘The New Adventures of Adromeda’, while a similar flaw of self-regard, pretentiousness, is the focus of ‘Girl on a Pedestal’. I like the way its protagonist, an art critic back home working on the local paper, allows her sense of context (fame, importance, community) to expand and shrink as physical considerations (such as being in a small place or a crush on art agent) come into play. Is this manipulation of focus (from navel to horizon) important in your writing?
MD: Though there’s often some bigger idea behind the stories, I like to see how that plays out in the detail. Sometimes what happens is that there’s an agglomeration of detail that amounts to something bigger. Also, when I was writing those stories I used to rest my eyes by looking at the distant mountain. Then back to the screen or page.
NWR: What I hesitate to call Catholic guilt seems heavy in ‘My Cousin’s Breasts’ and ‘The Real Thing’ (the latter’s sibling witnessing an incomprehensible sexual world reminded me of Atonement). Do you regard yourself as an Irish Catholic writer or have you gone thoroughly native?
MD: I was brought up a Catholic in a small seaside town in England and I think that kind of religious education stays with you. My first school was a convent and when I was young my belief was very strong. I spent hours in church waiting for statues to give me a sign. Though my family’s Irish connections are obscured in the past, the parish priest was usually Irish in those days and there were other Irish Catholic families around. It was all part of the things I knew and had an intense effect on me. I think when I write about that kind of Catholic guilt I’m acknowledging it and at the same time trying to purge it from my psyche. I like being in Wales for many reasons, not least because it allows me to be someone else.
NWR: You have a specific sharp, economical and visual humour. ‘Harvest’ has farcical elements but the power of its ending (poor dog Brandy as prawn-bait) is in the way it potters along then veers into that last sick image, ‘“Waste not, want not, Michael,” said the Commander. “I’ll hold her and you pluck.”’ Do you think that any specific type of humour especially suits the short story form?
MD: This question made me think about some of the writers who have influenced me: Ray Bradbury, Katherine Mansfield, Maxim Gorky, P.G. Wodehouse. Though they all seem to be quite different, they are all economical, revealing of human nature, and in P.G.’s case, very aware of how to put words in the right order to make them sound funny.
I particularly like humour that is playful but leans on something heavier that underlies and instigates the need for humour. Sometimes I think you can be humorous and fierce at the same time. I think of the domovai in ‘The House Demon’ (Sing Sorrow Sorrow, Dark and Chilling Tales, ed Gwen Davies) tearing off the doors and eating them like biscuits. It’s not a laugh-out-loud moment, but it’s a little incongruous and that works for me, in a story that’s mostly about loss and anger.
NWR: The stories ‘Burying Dad’ and ‘Transit of Moira’ indulge individual fantasy with wish fulfilment taken to an extreme (this is also true to a gentler degree of the mother’s deathbed scene in ‘Invitation’). Was it a conscious decision to combine naturalistic stories with speculative ones as a means to stretching degrees of fantasy in this way? Were your publishers happy to market the mix of genres your collection covers (naturalistic, fantasy, comedy, romance, myth)? Are you likely to write more speculative fiction?
MD: The mix just came naturally and I’m very glad the publisher accepted that. I’m aware that in marketing terms it’s helpful to have a theme and it might have been easier if I’d stayed with my working title and made obvious that all the stories are linked by ideas about the body. Then we’d have known what hook all the different forms are hanging from.
All these ideas float around or are lodged in my head and I’m usually glad if I can just fish one out and give it a life of its own. Sometimes sitting down to write can seem daunting and so to be playful, to amuse myself (and then, I hope, others) is a way of getting things going. At other times it’s a question of externalising something I would really like to communicate.
I have already started to write more speculative fiction (for example a story called ‘My Own CVA’ that appeared in The Lancet and the more recent ‘The House Demon’) though I’m aware it makes it harder to put me in a category when these run alongside more naturalistic stories. To me, it’s all speculation.
I’m engaged in writing a novel at the moment, but I do have ideas about theming, perhaps another collection of stories around place and displacement: my time in Holland, a year I spent moving around Europe. I’d like to have one set under the heading ‘Strange Dorset’.
NWR: ‘The House Demon’ featured a subset of sprite, the buca. May your interest in escape and wish-fulfilment be explored via the fairytale in future?
MD: The wish to write something about the house demon was in my mind for several years before all the elements came together in that way. I published a very brief story with the same title (quite different in style) a while ago, in a collection of what I like to call my short shorts, Tea for Mr Dead. It includes some variations on Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel and so on, making use of various ideas I had jotted down that didn’t seem to have the legs for longer stories.
For my MPhil in Writing at Glamorgan I produced a study called Good Enough to Eat: cannibalism in history, myth and fiction that includes some work on ‘Hansel and Gretel’. I’m interested in the way fairy tales originate, have been passed on, collected and written down. I do have a long-term idea for an historical novel in which one of the characters disputes the Cinderella model as an ideal for women, but no other immediate plans. That might change the next time I take the dog for a walk.
NWR: The setting of ‘The Disappearance of Baby Joe’ is a futuristic Amsterdam. This reminded me, as did your new story for the current issue (92) of NWR, ‘Slaughterhouse Field’, that you have spent some time in the Netherlands. Did you think much about settings when you put the collection together? Do you think fantasy settings can sometimes militate against qualities such as a sense of place and atmosphere that are associated with the short story tradition in Wales?
MD: The funny thing there is that ‘The Disappearance of Baby Joe’ does have a realistic setting. It’s just a bit unusual. The igloo Baby Joe lives in is based on the kind of bubble that people with extreme allergies are sometimes confined to for their own protection, but the warehouse that smells of cocoa was a real place, as was the artificial island in Amsterdam Harbour, which provides the wider setting of the story. I lived on that island for a year or two in the late 1980s. Of course, ‘Slaughterhouse Field’ was also set in a real place. Maybe it’s the fantasy that militates against the real setting?
In the collection Pumping Up Napoleon most of the settings exist, if only in my memory – or as a combination of memory and imagination. ‘Harvest’ has its place on the Dorset coast, though the house is not there. It’s where I’d like there to be a house, preferably one I might live in!
If I do make a place up, I try to inhabit it. So even when I use fantasy settings I like to have some kind of realistic detail as an anchor: in ‘Transit of Moira’ the spaceship is imaginary, but it has a layout I can describe and then there’s the idea of scuffed plastic, stale air, and fingermarks on the glass, space travel turned into the everyday as coach travel. The later story ‘My Own CVA’ is about a doctor who’s suffered a stroke and is being kept in a kind of pod, stacked up with all the other patients. One thing he can hear is the call of a chaffinch, like an ice pick in his head. It’s a long bird call very familiar to me. The constant repetition was a joke my late husband and I shared because when we lived in west Wales we were so thrilled to recognize it at first and then it started to get on our nerves. We then recognised it in all kinds of settings: it leapt out of TV dramas and came through the open window of the car when driving. I put it into the story to bother the character of the doctor and to help me feel what it would be like in his situation.