Friday, August 25, 2023

Q&A with Mhairi McFarlane



Mhairi McFarlane is the author of the new novel Between Us. Her other novels include Just Last Night. She lives in Nottingham, UK.


Q: What inspired you to write Between Us, and how did you create your character Roisin?


A: I wish I had much better and clearer histories for how my novels were worked up into the full final idea. I’m always horribly fuzzy-vague on it! And the story of how any novel came into being is probably as much told by the versions that fell by the wayside.


There’s two reasons I think, firstly, until I am at the “outline to my editor” stage, nothing much gets written down, and secondly – I actually used this line for Joe in Between Us – I have this fast metabolic rate where I ruthlessly “memory hole” the ditched proposals, and move on very fast.


It’s hard to explain why, it’s almost like mentally, I can only work in a very tidy room with no clutter, does that make sense?


Anyway, from what I *can* recall: I had wanted to write about a writer’s process for a while. I knew it wouldn’t sit right with me to create a sympathetic one. The risk of coded vanity was just too high! When I struck on the idea of a selfish, narcissistic, strip-mining writer: bingo!


Choosing screenwriting as Joe’s job was a total gift - close enough to what I do that I can describe it with confidence, but no risk of talking about myself.


Roisin: I knew as his girlfriend-antagonist (!) she had to be a smart, resourceful, popular person, with a wholly different and respectable career. Not bedazzled by him hitting the big time. Someone Joe had begun to take for granted, but certainly no sidekick or pushover.


For some reason I’m always slightly ashamed of admitting plot comes before character for me, but I think it generally does. You design the adventure and decide who’d be interesting, tackling it.


Q: How would you describe the dynamic between Roisin and Joe?


A: Fraught. I love asking questions in my books that I don’t have easy answers to myself, and I suppose Roisin’s big question throughout is: how could I have missed that he’s Just Not Very Nice?


I mean the divorce courts are FULL of people who think this very thing, yet it’s still kind of a lifetime mystery to us all. And then Roisin wondering: did he change, or have I changed into someone who can see it?


The negative energy swirling around is obvious in that Joe only snaps into attention when Roisin is fighting him, when he’s losing control of her and the situation. He’s very into control. I’m making this sound a real fun romantic comedy aren’t I!


I do provide detail of the early years of their relationship: when they were a dynamic and cool team, back in the “cheap tablecloth & candles in wine bottles” dinner party days. You can see them as a “power couple” even before Joe’s career took off.

Q: Did you know how the story would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: Absolutely I knew how it ended because the cat and mouse with Roisin trying to catch Joe out really demanded proper plotting. (More’s the pity! ) I asked myself: what would I find satisfying as the revelations?


I wanted the reader to always be stuck roughly where Roisin is: I know something’s wrong, but what is it? How do I catch him?


Changes…hmmm that’s a good question. I think Joe’s show Hunter was originally supposed to have a “clue” per six episodes, but that became too onerous and surprisingly flat! Once the Croatian waitress siren clue was out there, it didn’t need many more like it. It’s like pulling at one loose thread.


I always think the best suspense plots keep things simple so the shocks aren’t lost in a haze of: “Wait, who’s he again? And when was this supposed to have happened…?” sort of homework headache.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the novel?


A: I just hope they enjoy it! I never really see my books as having the responsibility or gravitas of conveying messages.


Something I’ve developed as I’ve gone on is a real joy in describing bad behaviour or interpersonal knotty challenges we’ve all witnessed or experienced, but ones with nuance. The ones that don’t often get teased apart. The shady stuff that goes on in the corner of our eyes, but is rarely named. Not goodies or baddies, but the shades of moral grey we dwell in most of the time.


The best example I can think of in Between Us is the tricky politics of staying friends with someone you’re in unrequited love with. Is that always going to come to grief in the end? Hah, an Arctic Monkeys lyric comes to mind: “Maybe I’m too busy being yours / to fall for someone new.”


There’s two characters that make a case for it not being a consolation prize, but in fact putting your life on hold. Let the book groups take it from here!


Basically I would love to be the queen of “talking points among women friends once the second bottle of wine is open, and the solar fairylights have come on” fiction.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: A script of my fourth novel, Who’s That Girl?. Wish me luck! It’s weird going back to a book I wrote seven years ago. It’s half yours, half a novel by a total stranger but they’ve weirdly stuck your name on the cover.


Q:  Anything else we should know?


A: When the Secret Service come to take senior White House officials to its underground bunker during a major crisis, they don’t say “Sir / Madam, come with me.” They reach over the desk and bodily lift the person up out of their chair, and carry them to it. Presumably because conversation and debate wastes vital seconds.


I found this out from a George Bush documentary and it blew my mind! Picking Dick Cheney up like a giant baby! (Apologies if you meant something about the books.)


--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Mhairi McFarlane.

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