Today I’m pleased to welcome Rowena Macdonald to the blog. Rowena is the author of the short story collection Smoked Meat. Her debut novel, The Threat Level Remains Severe, was published by Aardvark Bureau on 10 July 2017 and has been shortlisted for the Not the Booker prize run by The Guardian newspaper.
Rowena kindly answered a few of my questions.
1. Tell us a little about The Threat Level Remains Severe.
It’s a black comedy with thriller elements set in the House of Commons about a love triangle between three back office workers, one of whom may not be quite what he seems.
2. What inspired the book?
The House of Commons. I’ve worked there for sixteen years and I wanted to capture the arcane, absurd, cosy yet claustrophobic atmosphere of the place. As the plot developed I began to explore themes about work and dating – particularly the personas we assume to seem acceptable to our colleagues and potential lovers. These themes tie in with the way contemporary politics is all about presentation and spin, although ‘big’ politics, as opposed to office politics, is a very minor part of Threat Level.
3. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you? How long does the process take you from first line to completed novel?
I usually have an end point and I write the first draft in a linear way towards that end point, blocking out the next few chapters in note form as I’m going along. But often the plot changes as I’m writing and with this novel, it went through at least ten drafts and the arrangement of the plot changed radically from the first draft to the last. It took about five years to write this novel, but that was alongside doing my day jobs. If I didn’t have to earn my living, it’d be a lot quicker.
4. What have you discovered about the process of creating a novel that surprised you?
That the quirky literary novel I thought I had written has been able to be packaged quite commercially (although I don’t mind – I want sales, obviously, and to reach as many readers as possible). Also, that I find it fairly easy to ‘kill my darlings’. You forget your darlings once you’ve killed them.
5. How does it feel to be shortlisted for the 2017 Not the Booker? What does it mean to be recognized this way?
I’m thrilled. I’m incredibly grateful to all the readers who voted me onto the shortlist. They made my day, my week, my month…possibly even my year. I really like the Guardian’s books’ pages, so it’s brilliant to be in them. One of my main characters, Grace, is a big Guardian reader (to the derision of her colleague, Brett, who sneers at her for being a ‘bleeding heart liberal’), so actually it’s right and proper I’m getting Guardian review because I’ve given the paper a lot of free product placement.
6. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?
I’m mainly doing my day jobs – working at the House and teaching creative writing at Westminster University – and also looking after my daughter, Leah, who is two and a half. So I don’t get much time to relax. But when I want to get away from it all, I go to the Isle of Wight, where I was born, and where one of my brothers and my aunt lives, and I swim in the sea. The sea is where I feel most at one.
7. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?
What a difficult question! It would have to be something very long, full of characters and that absorbs me into a world entirely different from my own. Maybe Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. I read the first volume about fifteen years ago and it was very good, so good that I remember copying out quite a few of the sentences (although I’ve obviously never looked at them again), but I haven’t got round to reading the rest.
8. I like to end my Q&As with the same question so here we go. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?
Another difficult question. I can tell you the one question I don’t like being asked though: are you the main character in your novel? No, I’m not, and, thankfully, you haven’t asked it.
Actually, I’d liked to be asked about the moment I decided I wanted to be a writer. It was a greyish afternoon, September, I think, on a beach off the west coast of Wales in 1998, during a writing retreat at Tŷ Newydd. The retreat was the prize for a competition I had won, along with fifteen other young writers, for one of my first short stories. It was a real road to Damascus moment. Not long after I gave up my proper career as a journalist and started on the journey which led to where I am now.
About the book
A new colleague and a mysterious admirer make life infinitely more interesting for House of Commons secretary Grace, but is everything really as it seems?
Grace Ambrose, Brett Beamish and Reuben Swift appear to have little in common, but as each of them negotiates metropolitan life, they find their fates entwined.
Arty, liberal-minded House of Commons secretary Grace has been counting the tea breaks in the same dull job for approaching a decade and feels she could do something better … if only she knew what.
New recruit Brett, a smooth, high-flying Australian, is on a mission to shake up the dusty backrooms of power – and on a collision path with Grace. Office life begins to look up when Grace receives an email from an admirer with musical and poetic talents … but is soulful, enigmatic Reuben Swift really who he says he is?
About the author
Rowena Macdonald was born on the Isle of Wight, grew up in the West Midlands and now lives in East London. Her debut collection, Smoked Meat, was short-listed for the 2012 Edge Hill Prize.
Her short stories have won various prizes and been published by Galley Beggar Press, Influx Press, Ambit, Unthank Books and Serpent’s Tail, among others. Her second short story collection will be published by Influx Press in 2018. Her debut novel, The Threat Level Remains Severe, will be published in summer 2017 by Aardvark Bureau.