Sarah Gilmartin interviews writer Mhairi McFarlane about her new book Here’s Looking At You.
‘It was an infuriating fact of life that having large things to worry about didn’t manage to cancel out lesser concerns.’
This and other universally acknowledged truths mean that there’s more than a whiff of Jane Austen to Scottish writer Mhairi McFarlane’s new novel Here’s Looking At You. McFarlane pays homage to the pin-up of the romantic fiction genre, approaching her own contemporary fictional world with the same satiric tone for which Austen is so highly lauded.
Following last year’s award-winning debut You Had Me At Hello, which has undertones of Persuasion in plot and character, McFarlane’s new novel uses Austen’s most popular book Pride and Prejudice as a template from which to loosely carve out an original and highly entertaining version of present day London, replete with brave heroines, ditzy sisters and warring love interests. Mutual dislike is an excellent starting point for any successful romance and when former school tormenter James Fraser comes back into Anna Alessi’s life, the conflict is immediately apparent. History lecturer Anna is a single thirty something who bucks the trend of the chick lit heroine stereotype, the cliché who yearns for something – marriage, children, money, career – so much that it comes to define her existence. Taking a leaf out of Elizabeth Bennett’s book, Anna is aware that there are certain things in life she’d like, but she’s unwilling to compromise her hard won sense of self to get these. Not even for Neil, the BDSM loving online dater who’s into ‘piss play’.
It’s that kind of irreverent humour and eye for contemporary ludicracy that makes Here’s Looking At You so refreshing. Written in less than twelve months, and as the rapid success of her debut resulted in a demanding promotional schedule, how did McFarlane find time to sit back and take in the world around her? “I’m like a demented magpie for stealing things,” she says from her home in Nottingham, which has apparently gone to ruin for the sake of her writing over the past twelve months. “Twitter in particular is brilliant for that. I see lines or posts and I think – yes please, I’m having that. You can’t just mash together a load of stolen one-liners but in terms of making it contemporary, the odd comment form Twitter works really well.”
Drawing a distinction between contemporary and disposable, McFarlane feels the former is something her genre has been lacking. “Name-checking shows like Made In Chelsea will age horribly so you need to find another way of making it real. There was that huge explosion of Bridget Jones and after that books that were coming out seemed to follow a pattern, falling into certain traps that to me didn’t seem to reflect the way women today think or talk. Obviously there are some brilliant women’s fiction writers out there like Marian Keyes, Lisa Jewell or Jenny Colgan but it felt to me that in the wider genre there was a lot of the type of ‘women’s humour’ where it’s all got to be about Tampax, or breaking stiletto heels and hot bankers with rock-hard abs. This wasn’t particularly speaking to me, or to my sharp and funny female friends, about what I found interesting so I saw space to write something that hopefully does.”
A former journalist, McFarlane had a dream run with her debut You Had Me At Hello, which was taken on by Harper Collins and launched first as an e-book, a clever marketing scheme that saw it land the Christmas number one spot in the UK e-book charts, months before the paperback version was even released. Having met her deadline to write and launch her second novel within a year of the first, and with two more scheduled for Christmas 2014 and 2015 respectively, how has the experience of writing subsequent books compared to the first?
“The publishing experience is a wild ride and it is very different for the first and second book,” she says. “You have years to finesse your debut, and then the second one suddenly hits you like a sledgehammer. I’m aware I might sound as if I’m complaining that my diamond shoes are cut too tight, but I didn’t expect You Had Me At Hello to be as successful as it was, and although it’s exactly what we wanted, from a writing perspective the success and all the distractions that go along with it happened at exactly the same time I was supposed to be knuckling down to book two. I delivered seven months late with the first draft and they were very understanding as it was a pretty pressured edit process from then on.”
One of the things often touted to emerging writers is that their heroines, particularly in romantic fiction, need to be sympathetic. Agreeing that this is important, McFarlane says she had to modify her protagonist in her first book. “Rachel the main character was initially a much bigger bitch. She has quite a difficult job to win the reader’s affections as essentially you’re rooting for her to break up a marriage so I had to tone her down to make her more sympathetic. I think it’s absolutely essential with my novels to have this. Maybe a better writer than me could create a brilliant anti-heroine, someone that you can’t stand but you root for anyway, but I would find it difficult. A rom com character is not trying to save the world. Los Angeles isn’t about to blow up. It’s about whether she gets the guy and you need your reader to want her to.”
Articulate and intelligent Anna is indeed a sympathetic character as she braves the troubles of her past without resentment and puts up with her younger sister’s Bridezilla antics with little exasperation or jealousy. An array of other colourful and interesting figures populate Anna’s world, but the standout character in McFarlane’s new book is humour. Plenty of genuine laugh out loud moments arise from both Anna’s witty observations on the trials and trivialities of modern society (wedding debts, the hipster generation, marital infidelities, online dating) and also in her sparring relationship with James Fraser, an equally well-drawn and believable character. McFarlane says she uses herself as a litmus test when it comes to judging humour: “There are subsidiary characters in You Had Me At Hello called Mindy and Ivor who bicker a lot and I found when I was writing the manuscript that I was giggling to myself a lot with their scenes. It’s a very good sign when you’re enjoying things yourself. That’s the test I use. Am I genuinely laughing or am I straining? It’s important to ask yourself that.”
Here’s Looking At You was published on December 5, 2013 and is available in all good bookshops and online here.
Find out more about at her blog http://www.mhairimcfarlane.com/, or follow her on Twitter @MhairiMcF
And a last note from Mhairi:
Writer: David Nicholls
Book: Pride & Prejudice
Poem: Innocence by John Hegley
Drink: Aperol Spritz (“Because if you say champagne you sound like a twat, and prosecco only a slight fraction less of a twat, so I’ll just go full pelt towards total twat with Aperol Spritz”.)
Hangover cure: Full fat flat Coke with a tuna, cheese and caper toastie from Pret.
Writing habits: “At the moment I’m writing in my dining room at home in Nottingham, which has blue wallpaper with gold wisteria on it and looks as if it’s been decorated by Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. I call it my ‘dandy on brandy’ decorating phase. Other than that, and very boringly, I’m afraid I’m one of those idiots with a Mac Book in a Caffé Nero. I’m also a real night owl, and this may make my poor editors cringe, but a lot of Here’s Looking At You was written at two or three in the morning. This productivity could be linked to the fact that no-one is awake on the internet at that time of night.”
(c) Sarah Gilmartin
Fed up with austerity, Sarah Gilmartin abandoned her career as a business journalist in favour of UCD’s creative writing masters in 2011. As part of the programme she helped edit and launch an anthology of short stories and poetry, Everything Its Own, which includes her own story, Alarm Bells. Sarah’s poem ‘Questions and Answers’ was published in Ropes Literary Journal, launched in conjunction with the Cúirt International Festival of Literature. Her short story Well was a winning entry in the Irish Writers Centre Lonely Voice competition and she has been shortlisted for the Fish Anthology in both the poetry and short story categories.
A freelance editor and writer, Sarah contributes books reviews to the Irish Times, Ireland AM and Bord Gais Energy Book Club, edits a banking magazine, and writes theatre reviews for No More Workhorse. Her first novel, The Winters Tale, was shortlisted for an Arts Council grant in 2013, has been taken on by HHB Agency London and is currently looking for a publisher. In the meantime Sarah is working on her second novel and enjoying an evening playwriting course with Fishamble. In January 2014 she will begin a monthly column for the Irish Times. Reviews and other views @PandaPolitics.