An Interview with Martine McDonagh, Author of Narcissism for Beginners

NfB Hi Res Front Panel small

Narcissism for Beginners by Martine McDonagh is a book that really appeals to me but I just haven’t had time to read yet. However, I am lucky enough to have interviewed Martine all about it.

Published by Unbound on 9th March 2017, Narcissism for Beginners is available for purchase in e-book and paperback here.

Narcissism for Beginners

NfB Hi Res Front Panel small

Meet Sonny Anderson as he tips headlong into adulthood. Sonny doesn’t remember his mother’s face; he was kidnapped at age five by his father, Guru Bim, and taken to live in a commune in Brazil. Since the age of ten, Sonny has lived in Redondo Beach, California, with his guardian Thomas Hardiker. Brits think he’s an American, Americans think he’s a Brit.

When he turns 21, Sonny musters the courage to travel alone to the UK in an attempt to leave a troubled past behind, reunite with his mother and finally learn the truth about his childhood. With a list of people to visit, a whole lot of attitude and five mysterious letters from his guardian, Sonny sets out to learn the truth. But is it a truth he wants to hear?

Narcissism for Beginners is a fresh, witty and humane take on the struggle to make sense of growing up.

An Interview with Martine McDonagh

Welcome to Linda’s Book Bag Martine. Thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions on my blog about your writing. Firstly, please could you tell me a little about yourself?

Thank you for having me! I live in West Yorkshire and work in West Sussex (not the easiest commute) and am naturally nomadic, fortunately. I love herons. Until a few years ago I worked as an artist manager in the music industry, managing the careers of a number of bands, including James and Fujiya & Miyagi. A couple of years ago, I designed and now run the MA Creative Writing & Publishing at West Dean College in Sussex.

Without spoiling the plot, please could you tell us a bit about Narcissism for Beginners?

The main character in Narcissism for Beginners is Sonny, a 21 year-old living in Redondo Beach, California, with his guardian, Thomas when the novel begins. Sonny was kidnapped at age five by his own father, a self-made guru, and taken to live on a commune in Brazil. He’s had no contact with his mother since and doesn’t even remember her face. When Thomas gives him a list of names and addresses on his birthday, of people who knew both his parents, Sonny plucks up the courage to go to the UK in search of his mother.

When did you first realise you were going to be a writer?

I knew when I was very young that I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t really have any concept of what that meant besides just enjoying writing. I suppose I’ve always preferred writing to talking and have always written stuff down, although not always in a structured form, but I’ve had a go at everything: poetry, screenplays, short stories. I was in my mid thirties when I realised that if I didn’t start taking writing seriously then, I probably never would. Now I definitely prefer the long uphill climb of a novel.

Which aspects of your writing do you find easiest and most difficult?

I wouldn’t say I find any of it particularly easy. I love writing the first draft because I write that longhand and uncritically and there’s an aesthetically pleasing aspect to dragging a pen over smooth clean paper. Most enjoyable is that sense of being completely immersed in the story and those times away from it when it just runs riot in your head, but those are often just moments!

What are your writing routines and where do you do most of your writing?

I don’t have a fixed routine as I’m rarely in one place for longer than a week, but I do have an ideal that I managed to achieve a few times while writing NfB when I wrote in blocks of three months, first in California and then in France. The ideal is to start work around 9am and work undisturbed by anyone but myself until lunchtime. After lunch, I like to walk and think for 2-3 hours, after which, depending on where I’m at in the writing process, I might go back to my desk for another hour or two. I like to write about places I’ve been, but find it easier to write about them when I’m somewhere else.

You have an MA in creative writing and you also teach creative writing. How has that impacted on your style?

I wrote the first draft of my first novel while doing my MA at MMU in Manchester and believing (wrongly) that it would probably never be published, I allowed myself to be as indulgent as I pleased. As a result I think my style in that novel is more ‘overwritten’ and perhaps more opaque than I would allow myself now, but I still follow one rule that I set back then: only use an adverb as an absolute last resort. Teaching has made me tighten up on theory and read more critically again, but what’s been lost from my process is my precious thinking time.

Narcissism for Beginners is your third novel. How has your writing process evolved over time?

It’s been different each time, changing with my circumstances. I wrote my first novel, I Have Waited and You Have Come, as a single mother of a young child while also working as an artist manager in the music industry. My second, After Phoenix, was written in the blur of grief following my father’s death. Narcissism for Beginners was written during a three-year post-house-sale sabbatical travelling and focusing solely on writing. The one I’m writing now has so far been squeezed into free time when not running the MA and guess what, it’s not as good – yet.

Narcissism for Beginners has truth as one of its main themes. Why did you choose to explore that theme?

Truth wasn’t consciously one of the themes as I wrote, but more those flipsides of truth, delusion and deception. The central theme of the novel is the effect that extremely narcissistic characters have on the people around them, and in particular on their children, and by default those characters are manipulative and dishonest, using whatever means necessary to achieve the best outcomes for themselves regardless of the effect on others. My own dealings with such characters sparked my interest and a desire to explore further.

How did you go about researching detail to ensure Narcissism for Beginners was realistic?

Naturally I read a lot. Popular psychology books were a great help in understanding the basics and more specific studies of gurus such as Dr. Anthony Storr’s Feet of Clay and first hand accounts such as Deborah Layton’s Seductive Poison really helped to get deeper into the kind of experiences my characters might have had. I also spent some time in the places my main character, Sonny, has lived, mainly because it was important to pitch his voice correctly. My own son, who lived in LA at that time and the sons of friends I lived with in Redondo Beach were an incredible help.

Narcissism for Beginners has an intriguing cover, making me think that life doesn’t always pan out as we hope! How did that image come about and what were you hoping to convey (without spoiling the plot please)?

I had very little input into the cover design, other than to state a preference for simple, colourful and bold covers, so all the credit goes to the designer Tree Abraham, who I think did a fantastic job. So much is implied by that dropped ice cream! The cornetto image also relates to Sonny’s love for the film Shaun of the Dead, which has helped him make sense of his life.

If you could choose to be a character from Narcissism for Beginners, who would you be and why?

That’s a tricky one, not least because there’s probably something of me in all the characters, which probably goes without saying. But I think of all of them, it would have to be Thomas because he’s really lived through some extremes and come out the other end as a reformed character, albeit not entirely voluntarily.

If Narcissism for Beginners became a film, who would you like to play Sonny and why would you choose them?

Until a couple of days ago I wouldn’t have been able to answer this question, but then I saw Shia Laboeuf in American Honey and thought he portrayed the absolute perfect mix of vulnerability and cynicism. He’d be too old though, so whoever the next Shia Laboeuf is. Can’t believe I just wrote that.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?

I read a mix of fiction and non-fiction, mainly related in some way to what I’m writing about at the time, but I love those random finds in second-hand bookshops. I used to read poetry but now I hardly ever do and that’s something I need to remedy. I also used to read a lot of plays. Without meaning to sound pretentious (but probably sounding it anyway) I like to read French novels in French, partly to keep improving my French, but also because it challenges my writing brain in a way I don’t think reading in English does. French novels are often more experimental stylistically too, less genre-bound, which makes for more interesting and challenging reading in my opinion. And films are important too.

Do you have other interests that give you ideas for writing?

I’m a strong believer in the writer-as-magpie cliché – ideas can come from anywhere and it’s important to have curiosity switched on at all times. My main interest that produces ideas is my love of wandering around in strange and familiar places, especially at night. I’m not the first to say this, but there’s something in the rhythm of walking that seems to have a kind of peristaltic effect on the brain.

If you had 15 words to persuade a reader that Narcissism for Beginners should be their next read, what would you say?

Narcissism for Beginners is for anyone who’s ever been 21, a parent or a child.

Thank you so much for your time in answering my questions.

Thank you Linda, really interesting questions!

About Martine McDonagh


Martine McDonagh has published short fiction in Quick Fictions, The Brighton Book, The Cheeky Guide to Walks in Sussex and the Illustrated Brighton Moment and contributes occasionally to Writing magazine.

Martine has an MA in Creative Writing from MMU and currently runs the MA Creative Writing & Publishing programme at West Dean College, Chichester. She previously worked as an artist manager in the music industry.

You can follow Martine on Twitter and visit her website. You’ll also find her on Facebook.

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