8 Great Questions: Annalena McAfee

The novelist discusses evocative favorite Scots words, and how her husband comes second to Updike (in her book club, anyway).

Annalena McAfee

In Annalena McAfee’s Hame, Mhairi McPhail is commissioned to set up a museum there and to write the biography of the island’s celebrated poet and chronicler. Slowly drawn in by the complicated life she is uncovering and writing about—that of the Bard of Fascaray—she finds herself being transformed, awakened by the ferocity and power of the island.

In McAfee’s rich novel of invented island life, she interweaves extracts from Mhairi’s journal entries, her discoveries and writings of the lauded poet Grigor McWatt, and tales of Fascaray itself into a resonant, compelling, dimensional narrative that at its heart explores identity, love, belonging and the universal quest for home.

Recently, Annalena spoke with Read It Forward, espousing the distilled value of poetry, books to encourage mischief in our children, and the joy of a jewel box bookshop.


Featured image: Lorenzo Gritti; Author Photo: © T. Bucknell

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What’s the book on your bedside table?

A novel by a contemporary Scottish woman called The Missing Shade of Blue. It's a philosophical love triangle set in Edinburgh. The writer, Jenny Erdal, I read her nonfiction memoir some years ago, and I absolutely loved it because she was a translator of Russian, and she was also a ghostwriter for one man who was a figure in publishing. She wrote his newspaper columns. She wrote fiction. She wrote love letters for him. So, she wrote this memoir and I loved it. I had the pleasure of meeting her recently in Scotland and I found that I'd missed this novel, and it's just like her, clever and subtle and funny.

What’s the one book you tell everyone to read?

This is a sort of deeply unfashionable choice, actually: Anthony Trollope. When I was a young woman, I was from a Catholic working-class background. What could be less interesting than English Church of England politics? But I started to read the Chronicles of Barsetshire in order recently, starting with The Warden and I think he's a genius and all humanity is here. I think he is better than Dickens. I loved it.

Name three characters from literature or authors (dead or alive) that you’d want in your ideal book club?

I thought about the characters from literature, and the ones that fascinate us, we would want them nowhere near the home. Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, forget it. Raskolnikov, stay away. They're not having your e-mail, let alone your home address. So, I took the easy option and went for authors; George Elliot, Maryanne Evans—you have to have her. Shakespeare, that’s too obvious isn't it? I’m going for John Updike, the man who conjures the world. I re-read Seek My Face. An Updike novel, a young journalist interviews an old woman artist. In that, he completely inhabits both characters, but also gives us a history of post Second World War American art that is glorious. He writes so well about painting. If I could have a fourth person, I'd have my husband. But I guess that's not possible.

What word do you love and why? What word do you hate and why?

The Scots' language is full of fantastic words. As I say often, onomatopoeic. One I love is stravaig. Stravaig is to wander aimlessly, to roam. Working-class people use it in Scotland, and it's a common parlance just stravaiging the hills. Or, to stravaig intellectually. To stravaig the web, I suppose. There is actually a restaurant in Glasgow called Stravaig, which is global cuisine, of course. Another Scots word I love is houghmagandi, which is sexual intercourse. Words that I hate, that's hard to say. I don't hate, but I try to avoid words that one's tempted to overuse. Like, epic or iconic now. The other thing is nominalization, where you create nouns from other parts of speech, from verbs, often in management talk, legalese. So, to talk about a fail or worse, an epic fail.

What’s the one book you love to give as a gift and to whom do you give it?

The Living Mountain, a book by a Scottish modernist writer and poet, a woman called Nan Shepherd who was born in 1893, died in 1980, '81. She was a poet and a novelist, and a keen walker. She lived in the northeast of Scotland and walked in the Cairngorms. And she wrote this beautiful little book, I think it was a pioneering work. It wasn't actually published until the seventies, but it's got a real reputation now. She's really being championed. It's an exquisite meditation on being in the landscape. And I give that to friends, family, anyone who has a heart, a head, eyes to see.

What’s the one book you read as a kid that has stuck with you?

There's one that I can cite by somebody called Captain Mariette, The Children of the New Forest. And it was an account of the English Civil War. That was a fine adventure. But there was a series of stories my mother used to read us called Little Donald and it was about a boy on an island, his adventures, the confusions of grownups, and that sort of thing. I've tried to track it down and I've never been able to find it, which is very sad. The other children's books that I love are The Just William Stories by Reginald Crompton. They're delightful encouragers of mischief among children; mischief and anarchy.

What’s the one book that never fails to delight or inspire you?

That's harder because re-reading is an undertaking. What I tend to re-read is poetry, go back to poems that I loved when I was 15 and that set me alight then and continue to perform the same task. And that would be John Donne, metaphysical poetry, A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning. Or even, and perhaps he would suffer under the me-too movement, Andrew Marvell's To His Coy Mistress, a seduction poem. I always go back to them and love the intricacy of them and the conceit behind them. As to books, well, Shakespeare was one's constantly revisiting, and marveling was this all conjured by one man?

If you could only read one genre for the rest of your life, what would it be and why?

I think it would be poetry actually, because it’s distillation, and access to world culture in distilled time. I'm assuming I just have my allotted span if I'm lucky. So, I'd be cramming a lot of world literature in in an economical fashion with poetry, which I think is the highest form.

ANNALENA MCAFEE was born in London to a Scottish mother and Glasgow-Irish father, and was educated at Essex University. She is the author of The Spoiler and eight children’s books. McAfee worked in newspapers for more than three decades. She was arts and literary editor of the Financial Times and founded the Guardian Review, which she edited for six years. McAfee lives in London with her hus­band, the writer Ian McEwan.
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