Booksquawk interviews Martine McDonagh, author of Narcissism For Beginners. We talk teenagers, narcissism, weird cults, crowdfunded publishing, and designing the greatest t-shirt ever (in our opinion, and almost officially the nation’s, too).
Interview by Pat Black
Pat Black: It seemed to me you were taking a lot on with the character of Sonny – adopted; raised in the US; a former addict; just 20 years old. How did you approach the character?
Martine McDonagh: Well, naturally he didn’t arrive fully formed, or I might have been more inclined to shy away from the challenge! When I wrote the first draft of NfB, Sonny wasn’t in the picture at all; he came along when I realized his father, the Guru Bim wasn’t sufficiently three dimensional as a character to carry a novel. Developing the third dimension would have diminished him as a narcissist, who at the most extreme are typically two-dimensional characters, and so Sonny was born, the child of narcissistic parents.
As I’d already imagined and built the world Sonny would be born into in my first draft, who his parents were, where and how they lived and who with, the main task really was to work out how those characters in that world might interact with and affect Sonny growing up. I did a lot of reading on the subject and drew to some degree on my own experiences. Emotional and material neglect seem to be common features of narcissistic parenting and the children of narcissists are generally considered to exist to serve the perceived needs of the parent. To his Guru father, Sonny is a possession, an extension of himself, who has to be stolen back from his mother and returned to his rightful owner. Once that’s been achieved, Sonny is allocated an alternative and completely unsuitable ‘mother’ and left to find nurture where he can and develop some resilience to all the dysfunctional stuff that’s going on around him. It’s only in teenage, when Sonny is in a place of relative stability that he crumbles and gets into all kinds of trouble and has to use that resilience to fight his way out of it.
At the start of the novel, Sonny doesn’t remember or doesn’t know much about his more distant past, and believes that unless he unravels the truth, his transition into adulthood will be hampered.
Once I decided to write him in, Sonny really just seemed to grow organically out of the story; but he couldn’t just be a victim of circumstance, he had to develop a personality and voice of his own as he unravels his own identity. Most importantly, I wanted him to have a sense of humour so that he could always lift himself out of despair and it took me a while to get that right.
PB: Was the cult of Bim a comment on how gullible we are, or how manipulative people tend to get on in life?
MM: A mix of the two, I think, but perhaps more about the latter. Narcissism has become a bit of a buzzword in the past couple of years, with the explosion of social media and Trump’s election to president, but I first became aware of narcissistic personality disorder about 15 years ago, after my father died, while reading Alice Miller’s The Drama of Being a Child and trying to make sense of my own childhood; in particular my relationship with my mother. For a long time prior to that I’d been interested in people who set themselves up as gurus, and after reading Anthony Storr’s Feet of Clay: A Study of Gurus the two subjects collided. One of the central questions about gurus is how on earth seemingly rational, intelligent people can be persuaded to follow, sometimes even to their death. Storr says that the guru’s absolute conviction of his own authority can make children of us all.
PB: Was it difficult to get inside a modern teenager’s head?
MM: Well I’ve no idea how well I’ve managed that, but it definitely helped to have been a teenager myself, albeit more than a few decades ago. I grew up expecting to have died in a nuclear holocaust by the age of 35, which I don’t think is so different to the anxieties and issues that teenagers have to contend with now: climate change, unemployment, increasing infantilisation through lack of independence, and of course the prospect of being wiped out in a nuclear holocaust, which appears to be back on the menu.
As the single parent of a son now well into his twenties, I’ve spent a lot of time in the company of teenagers and as the manager of numerous bands over the years, I’ve spent more time than I probably should have enjoying the tour van banter of young men on the road. While I was writing NfB, I lived with friends in Redondo Beach whose teenage son was a brilliant source of inspiration. My own son, who was living in LA at the time, was also a huge help and we spent a lot of time in cafes eavesdropping on teenage conversations.
PB: The book was part of an unusual publishing initiative. How did it come about?
MM: Quite early on in this project, I realised I didn’t want to continue working with my then agent, so we parted company, and rather than take on the distraction of looking for a replacement, I decided to keep on writing. When I’d finished, I researched which publishers would accept submissions direct from authors – it didn’t take long, there aren’t many! – and decided to submit to one or two of them before embarking on the exhausting process of looking for another agent. I’d already started writing the sequel to NfB and wanted to keep the momentum going.
Unbound is a crowdfunding publisher who behaves in the same way as any other trade publisher (trade publication is through Penguin Random House) except that once a book has been accepted by them, the author has to crowdfund the production costs before it can be published. Having come from the music industry I’ve always found the publishing industry in general to be a wee bit elitist and closed, and I liked that Unbound was doing things differently and having considerable success and industry acceptance as a result. I think the theory of having a band of grassroots supporters behind a book who will champion it after publication is brilliant, even if it doesn’t always work out that way in practice. Anyway, I submitted to Unbound, they accepted it and off we went. Not that it was easy, I found the crowdfunding process quite stressful, it’s not in my nature to ask for support, but I got there and I know other authors who’ve managed that side of it really well. I’m very pleased with the end result in terms of production values and the quality of the finished product.
PB: What are you working on at the moment?
MM: I’m now writing the third draft of the sequel to NfB, set 21 years later. It’s been slow going because of other work commitments, but I’m getting there and hoping to finish it by the end of the summer. I’m also thinking about and collecting snippets of information around an idea for another novel, but I’ve no idea when I’ll get stuck into that, because I’m starting to think that Sonny’s story might actually be a trilogy.
PB: I heard a rumour you were behind the design of an iconic piece of pop culture art connected to one of the best-known British bands of the 1990s. Is it true, and if so, care to comment on how it came about and what it means to you today?
MM: I’d shy away from using the word ‘design’ as I’m definitely no artist, but yes I drew the James flower motif, when I was the band’s manager, initially to brighten up a boring poster and then used it in various t-shirt designs. To be honest, it means very little to me now, but I was pleased that it came second (to Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures) in a BBC6 poll of iconic band shirt designs last year; it’s always nice to get some credit for something you’ve done, even decades later!
Read the review of Narcissism for Beginners here.