Author Q&A: Martine McDonagh

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Former drug addict Sonny Anderson wakes up on his 21st birthday and is handed a bag of letters by his guardian, Thomas in Narcissism for Beginners (Unbound, £12.99). The letters hold answers to questions about Sonny’s dysfunctional upbringing, and he leaves his home in Southern California to head to the UK on a journey of self-discovery. 

Narcissism For Beginners was funded by the website Unbound. Tell us about the initiative. Why did you decide that it was the best way to publish this particular novel?
Unbound is a publisher that operates in the same way as any other in terms of their selection and publishing processes, but where they differ is that, once a book has been accepted by them, the production costs are crowdfunded before the book can be published. A friend of mine, David Bramwell, was published by Unbound a few years ago, so I’ve been aware of them and interested in this model for a while. As I’d parted company with my agent in the early stages of writing Narcissism For Beginners and couldn’t face the potentially long, drawn-out process of finding another, I was looking for a good trade publisher who would accept direct submissions from authors, and Unbound is one of the very few who do. I think coming from a music business background has perhaps made me more immune to the prevailing snobbery in publishing about how and by whom, books get published.

The book is a classic coming-of-age story exploring themes such as identity, addiction, narcissism and neuroticism. What inspired you to write about these topics?
My starting point was a desire to research and write about extreme narcissistic character traits and the effect they can have on those closest to the narcissist, particularly their children. So, if narcissism is the cause of the novel, expressed to some degree or another through some (not all) of the adult characters, all those other issues you mention are the effect, embodied in Sonny, the 21-year-old protagonist and son of Guru Bim. I met an 18-year-old man in LA who’d become addicted to crystal meth at the age of 14, which is a huge problem over there among middle-class kids. After a really difficult few years, he’d managed to pull himself out of it and was incredibly generous about sharing his experiences with me when I was working on Sonny’s character.

You previously worked as an artist manager in the music industry. Are any elements of the protagonist’s personality inspired by musicians you have worked with?
Well, I’m sure it’s no great revelation to say that narcissism is, or at least used to be, rife, if not positively encouraged, in the music industry. I’ve been out of it for a while now but when I was involved that behaviour certainly wasn’t restricted to musicians. In fact, I’d go as far as to say I encountered as much, if not more narcissism on the business and executive side of music, in management, record labels etc. than in the artists I worked with.

Sonny harbours a lot of traits that young people will be able to relate to. Did you write the book with a young adult audience in mind?
I didn’t set out to write a YA novel. Sonny is a few years older than is usual in a YA hero, and I don’t think I have exclusively written for any particular age group, as I have characters of all ages in there. Sonny’s age is important in that he is at a crossroads in terms of identifying those tendencies and deciding whether or not to reject them in adulthood. In the broader themes of the story I was interested in exploring how it might be for young people now, growing up in an established narcissistic society such as ours is. I read somewhere that capitalism is absolutely dependent on encouraging individuals to be concerned with the fulfillment of our own perceived needs over the needs of others, in order to keep us buying stuff we don’t need. This rang true to me and so in some ways the narcissistic adults in NFB are representative of the state, but that’s more an underlying, secondary theme.

Your first novel, I Have Waited, And You Have Come, is a dystopia set in the not-too-distant future. Why did you choose to move away from the genre for your next two books?
What interests me more than writing in any particular genre is exploring how different characters cope with the more extreme situations they find themselves in. So, in I Have Waited, I looked at how living in a climate-changed environment might affect someone who was already
a tiny bit unhinged.

You currently work as programme leader on the creative writing and publishing MA at West Dean College. What are your top tips for writers?
The best writing tip I’ve ever come across was from Margaret Atwood who advised all writers to do back exercises. Writing is such a horribly sedentary occupation – it’s really not good for you! Besides that, I would say the most important thing is to keep writing, no matter if it’s poetry, observations, letters, diaries – anything at all. And, apparently, using a pen and paper has a different effect on the brain to working on a computer, so it’s important to do both. Also to read everything and anything you can and learn how to distinguish what makes a great piece of writing work. Writing is a continual learning process, no matter what stage you’re at. It’s different for everyone so find what works for you – take courses, meet other writers, whatever helps you keep going.

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