INTERVIEW by Steven Lovatt

NWR Issue 99

Mary-Ann Constantine

Mary-Ann Constantine’s ‘Lake Story’, an exclusive preview from her forthcoming short story collection, All the Souls (Seren), is published in NWR 99 on 1 March.

NWR: Some of the stories in your second collection, All the Souls (published in April), would not seem out of place in your previous one, The Breathing, but many others differ in both style and scope. Did you have the sense with this new collection that you were venturing into new territory, perhaps to places you hadn’t known you could reach before?

M-AC: Yes, very much so. ‘The Collectors’ [the Brittany-set novella published in the new book], for example, is quite different from my previous work. It comes from a different place, has a different kind of genesis and was quite different to write: more deliberate, for one thing. With the short stories, everything coalesces around an image, and ‘plot’ tends to lurk around the edges. ‘The Collectors’ has a more traditional narrative line, and required planning in ways I’m not used to. I’m not sure I was quite in control, and still feel a bit uncomfortable about it. As you’ve probably noticed, my stories are usually very short indeed, so this novella is the longest sustained piece of creative writing I've done. I write slowly.

NWR: Many of the stories in All the Souls have to do with objects that reflect people’s assumptions about the world, and the ways in which the fates of people and objects intersect. The objects become contested, and in doing so reveal the incommensurable systems of value within which the characters interpret them. In ‘The Collectors’, for example, a woman’s finger excites very different kinds of interest in a scientist, a religious believer and an ethnographer. Each of these figures could easily be allegorised, but is it your intention to show allegiance to one or another of these world-views?

M-AC: Allegiance, no. With ‘The Collectors’ quite the opposite, in fact. Le Coadic (the ethnographer) is a more sympathetic figure, and I found him easier to imagine as a person, but I made him guilty too. As for objects, yes, I was surprised how many of the stories centred on them. ‘The way in which the fates of people and objects intersect’ is exactly right. I’m not very good at abstract thought, I tend to need things to think with; metaphors, objects, images. I find people at the obsession-end of the spectrum interesting.

NWR: What if I had said 'sympathy' instead of ‘allegiance’: would you have given a different answer?

M-AC: Yes, sympathy would elicit a different answer. More sympathy for Le Coadic because I couldn't get anywhere close to inside the other characters. So harder on him too, in a way: because he is a writer as well as an ethnographer, I can chastise him for doing things that make me, personally, uncomfortable (turning people into texts, for example).

NWR: You have a distinctive way with opening lines, which often throw the reader with disorienting abruptness straight into the middle of someone's story, obliging us from the off to try to make sense of it all, piecemeal. I appreciate the tension in your stories between the strictness you show in determining where a story should begin and end and your readiness to suggest that the same story could be told in a thousand different ways. If you believe that we inhabit and are constituted of myriad stories, all in flux, then where do you find the courage to begin fixing a story on paper at all?

M-AC: The short answer is that I often don’t begin at all! Also, I dislike it when writers explain too much, but I’m aware I probably err on the mean side when it comes to context, to back-stories, and the like. I know what’s going on, and expect readers to work it out (which isn’t quite the same as letting them make it up, is it?). Beginnings and ends tend to look after themselves, I find.

NWR: Does your academic work ever inform your fiction?

M-AC: No, not while I'm in the middle of it, but there are exceptions. ‘The Collectors’ is an example, and started with an article I read twenty years ago when doing my doctoral research. I knew at the time I needed to come back and deal with its disturbing strangeness.

NWR: I'm interested in the idea that you felt compelled to return to the strangeness that the article described. Do you now feel that ‘The Collectors’ really has ‘dealt with’ that strangeness? Are you ever aware of writing in order to settle accounts with something? Does the fact or process of reimagining this strangeness make it yours in a way that then enables you to leave it behind? If this is all wide of the mark, then perhaps you could explain that ‘dealt with’ in your own way?

M-AC: I’m glad you asked this. When I said I earlier that I didn’t feel quite in control of ‘The Collectors’, this had something to do with the business of ‘dealing with’ the material. With my sternest literary-critical hat on I would say that the story itself is in thrall to many of the unpleasantnesses that brought about its genesis in the first place: it is, basically, an 1890s package. It’s Orientalist (wicked man with olive skin comes from the East), homophobic (Aubry not much of a role model), antifeminist (women objectified, and how!) antipopulist (the people smell), quite possibly anti-Catholic, and, for good measure, Romantic (flawed hero makes error of judgement, walks about in lousy weather, is redeemed... sort of). I’m not sure the author succeeds in sufficiently ironising all of this. The dangers of historical fiction, I suspect.

NWR: As its title suggests, All the Souls is much concerned with the supernatural. Yet, despite some unnerving sections, you seem to resist the urge to ‘tell a ghost story’. Your dead are phlegmatic, wry and plain-spoken. Where tradition would have them gobbling asphodels or dust, yours express a fondness for cake. In short, your dead seem pretty human. Why did you choose to write them in this way?

M-AC: Not strictly true, only one of them eats cake, and there are reasons for that. As for ‘pretty human’, what else could they be?

NWR: Okay, I may have been led astray by the cake. But my question remains: is there a reason why you have your dead express themselves so as to shorten the distance between them and us (the living)? I had a friend who possessed the sort of ‘sight’ that you describe in ‘Lake Story’: she could see the dead everywhere, sometimes only as lights but more often as full figures, dressed as in life, and according to the era. But there was always the sense that their world operated according to very different laws, and communication between the two was difficult. To misquote Nietzsche: ‘Human, but not too human’.

M-AC: Yes, I see. Well, in the Breton story [‘The Collectors’], the immanence of the dead is part and parcel of the source material. In the other stories it is pure need.

NWR: I enjoyed the neatness with which your use of narrative foreshadowing in some of the stories paralleled the theme of predestination. Is there a non-conformist inheritance working itself out in these stories? (You can tell that I've been reading Wynn Thomas'] book on the subject!)

M-AC: None whatever! Unless soaked up unsuspectingly after many years living in mid Wales. But there’s a kind of predestination involved in the way traditional narrative patterns sometimes, uncannily, fit real events.

NWR: Yes, I’ve often marvelled at that. Dorothy Edwards’ stories, for example, seem to anticipate her life in some very peculiar ways. But to return to religion; many of the stories in All the Souls touch on themes of penance and expiation. Is your interest in these themes just one department of your concern with ‘the obsession end of the spectrum’, or were you aware of wanting to address forms of psychology and behaviour that are usually seen as explicitly religious?

M-AC: I think if you're writing about nineteenth-century Brittany, it is hard not to be deeply influenced by the mentalité, and I do find a lot of the imagery generated by popular, traditional ‘takes’ on orthodox belief fascinating and very suggestive. But having the doctors in tow as a rationalist-obsessive counterpoint does point up the parallels, I think...

In other places, Christian imagery absolutely functions as shorthand for the human condition, rather than the other way round. A Virgin and Child image is a conduit for, an expression of, grief and loss; not remotely a consolation, or a way of coping with it. Of course the woman in ‘The Hostage’ is furious with the Virgin Mary: and so she damn well should be.

NWR: A theme that recurs in The Breathing is care, in two of its senses. Many of the characters seem afflicted by care from without, by forces or circumstances beyond their control, but one of the ways in which they reclaim agency for themselves is by the care they show for other people. Would you agree that your stories affirm the human values of curiosity and compassion, even when these reveal themselves in seemingly absurd and trivial ways?

M-AC: That’s a very encouraging interpretation; I would be delighted to think so.


previous interview: Tristan Hughes
next interview: Writing your way out – an interview with Matthew Francis


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