We had a chat with Mary-Ann Constantine about her debut novel, Star-Shot, which is out today!
Mary-Ann Constantine studies Romantic period literature, with an emphasis on Wales and Brittany, at Aberystwyth University and has published widely in these fields since 1996. Her short stories have appeared over a number of years in New Welsh Review and Planet and her first collection, The Breathing, was published by Planet in 2008. Her second collection, All the Souls, was published by Seren in 2013. Star-Shot is her first novel.
Part fable, part mystery, Star-Shot is a stylish debut novel set in and around Cardiff’s National Museum in a time that is almost, but not quite, our own. As their paths cross in a circumscribed world of benches, parks and galleries, a handful of characters reveal their stories of obsession, loss and recovery, creating a fragile network of relationships which will help to resist the inexorable channels of silence eating into the city.
A brittle young woman sits on a bench in Gorsedd park, conscious of the powerful building behind her; a tall man carries a box full of a strange organic substance up the entrance steps; a young father explains the formation of stars to his tiny son. As university researchers try to map and understand the destructive silence snaking around them, it becomes clear that the linked lives of these and other marginal characters offer ways of countering its effects. Poignant and humorous, Star-Shot is an exploration of how objects and images can focus our grief and desire; it is also a meditation on the regenerative power of garden ponds, and the cosmic significance of frogs.
Was it your intention from the beginning to write a story in which Cardiff’s National Museum plays such a huge part, or did the museum gradually seep into the story while you were writing?
I think it was there as a physical presence from the beginning. The image I couldn’t get out of my head was the first one, of the girl on the bench with a building behind her. Once I realized which building it was, I knew it would be a central character.
Magical realism is a very divisive term. Would you describe your work as magical realism and, if so, what is it that draws you to the genre?
Why is it divisive? Like ‘sci-fi’? Not proper literature? I like stories where odd things happen; and I like fiction that doesn’t completely opt for one side or the other along a border you could loosely call realism. I’ve always liked the work of the Portuguese writer José Saramago and the Italian writer Italo Calvino. They introduce ‘impossibilities’ into everyday life and then – sometimes ruthlessly, far more ruthlessly than I could ever do – see them through. You can read the impossible elements allegorically, metaphorically, but they have to be convincing in the world of the novel or story itself.
Throughout Star-Shot we follow several different characters. Were any of them particularly difficult, or particularly easy, to write?
I have no idea why this happened, but they all just appeared, one at a time, and started talking to each other; and I took an instant liking to them. I’ve not written anything this long before (and yes, I know, it’s pretty short for a novel), but the only other sustained narrative involving a clutch of characters was ‘The Collectors’ in All the Souls, and I had to fight them the whole time – I found them all, in their different ways, unpleasant or failing in some way. This lot (and they really aren’t based on people I know, either, which makes the whole thing even stranger) seemed extremely sympathetic. Even the Professor figure and Luke, both of whom started off as slightly caricatured secondary characters, turned out to have hidden depths. I was worried that the absence of what my kids call ‘bad guys’ might make the story rather insipid. Hope not.
Which skills that you learned from writing short fiction helped you to write longer fiction, and which skills, if any, were more of a hindrance?
I found it a very different process. Stories work round a central image or kernel – and that was what I assumed the girl-on-the-bench-and-building was for a long time. I had the final scene clear in my head too. I was surprised when the distance between them turned out to be not a few hundred words but several thousand. The scenes kept unrolling, short and cinematic. Once I knew who was in them it was a matter of listening in to conversations, and the writing came much more easily than usual.
Finally, what’s the best book you’ve read so far this year?
Tricky; I tend to get absorbed in whatever I’m reading at the time – and I hate ‘best’. But I think possibly the hugely powerful, dark and weird Housekeeping, by Marilynne Robinson; and two crystal-clear collections by Tove Jansson, The Winter Book and The Summer Book. Perhaps the most important book, though, was Naomi Klein’s discussion of climate change, This Changes Everything.
Don’t forget to enter our competition for a chance to win a signed copy of Star-Shot!