Australian Women Writers Challenge,  Journalism,  Projects

AWW 2013: Interview with author Marj McRae

Last week’s review for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013 was Marj McRae’s Not A Man. This week, I got to ask Marj a few questions about her writing process and about the novel itself.

Marisa: Where did you get the idea from? It’s about an eunuch. 

Marj: Not a Man is about a eunuch, and so many people have been astounded that I should have thought of such a thing. But for me, it was not such an outlandish concept. Humans are animals as well, and coming from a farm background, as I did, the castration of male animals is routine – some because the meat is better from a castrate, such as beef, lamb, and pork, others because the castrated animal is more biddable and less aggressive – geldings. Our pets are routinely desexed – it is regarded as the responsible thing to do. It reduces the tendency to wander, reduces aggression, and reduces the numbers of unwanted kittens and puppies. Like most of us, I never thought much of it.

But then there was my dearly beloved dog. He was a highly intelligent dog, and not at all impressed at being changed. He sulked for several days and then forgave us. After all, what choice did he have? But what if it was a human boy? What if he depended on the one who’d done that to him? How would he react? The idea teased me for years before I started to write a book about the boy I could see in my mind.

Shuki is a child from the slums, tough, cunning and with the pragmatic view of life of one who has known real poverty. He has seen siblings die of hunger. He very much likes having enough to eat, and while he did not intend to stay around for what was described as ‘a very small operation,’  it was done before he had a chance to run.

Before a boy is twelve. That gave him nearly a year and a half. Maybe he could say yes, receive the present, and then run away before. A small operation. Shuki had a feeling that it might mean more than becoming more beautiful.

– Excerpt from Marj McRae’s Not A Man

What then? It was done, there was no turning back. There is no choice but to accept it, take as much as he is given, and make a life for himself, the best he can. This is what Shuki does, and this is what makes him a hero that people find appealing.

Only after they’d both finished their refreshing drinks did Stewart start to talk again. Shuki listened in silence, only querying when Stewart explained that he would not grow as strong as a normal man. His instincts had been right. He would not ‘stay beautiful’ forever, and unless he could be useful, for instance as a secretary to Hassanel, he would be likely to find himself homeless. And with his status as a eunuch, he could not expect to be accepted among men, and maybe not strong enough to do heavy manual labour as his father did and his brother was destined to do. If he grew up. He reminded himself again that at least he had a good chance of growing up.

– Excerpt from Marj McRae’s Not A Man

Marisa: What has the reaction so far been to the Shuki series?

Marj: The reaction has been mixed. Many people love it, and reviews on Amazon and the other selling sites have been almost all 5 star. But before Not a Man was published, it was on the Harper Collins  Writers’  site, Authonomy. There have been reviews on Authonomy that had me cringing, ones that labelled it pornography, for instance. It is a long way from pornography, but it does contain descriptions of sex acts, and sex acts between a man and a boy.

But throughout the first third of the story, Shuki is what I have called a ‘bed-boy.’  It is his job, and so the sex is a part of his life. When relevant, the sex is spoken of in the same way that his stint as a kitchen-boy is spoken of, or the way he made friends with the sons of the Master. There are no lurid descriptions of sex just for the sake of it.

Marisa: There’s a lot of research clearly been done – how long did it take?

Marj: I found it quite difficult to research the subject. I’d seen lambs castrated, (or ‘marked’)  hundreds of them, but I could find almost nothing on humans except in regard to treatment for prostate cancer.  But that is quite a different matter to a normal boy who is castrated pre-puberty and not treated with hormones. I think it might occur sometimes in backward countries – I know that slavery does – and I discovered in the course of my research that some choir boys want it in order to preserve the soprano voice. It is even rumoured that some famous singers might have had it done, but if so, they are not talking.

So there was research, as much as I could do, plus reasonable supposition based on what I know from animals.

Marisa: Shuki is a very persistent character – very admirable. As an author, do you find it hard to put your characters in such tough situations? Does it get difficult to write those scenes and moments of tragedy?

Marj: At such moments, my fingers type quickly, playing out the events in my head. And yes, sometimes, I cry as I type. There is one scene, the rape that occurs at Oxford, that I cry over when I read it again now, even though I’ve read it many, many times, writing, editing, changing slightly, re-editing. And yet it is the story. Sometimes, the story just takes on a life of its own.

And besides, a story that captures a reader has to have drama.  Try this:  ‘Jack was born, grew up with nothing bad happening to him, had an uneventful life, and finally died painlessly in his sleep.’  Jack might be happy, but it’s not much of a story.

My characters do not have an easy time, but they cope, and always, I ensure a happy ending. I am a believer in happy endings.

Marisa: Did you always intend to publish via Samray Books and Smashwords? I know Night Publishing published it in 2011 – what has the path to publication been like for you with all the options available now?

Marj: I was thrilled when I had the offer from Night Publishing. I asked a few whom I knew were published with them, they told me they were fine, and I signed the contract. I did not realise at the time what a small concern it was, and did not know how prone small publishers are to ceasing operations. Night Publishing no longer exists, and so my books are now completely under my control.  I like it better that way.

Marisa: There’s one more novel in the Shuki series The King’s Favourite and a third to be released To Love and Protect?

Marj: That’s right. I hope to release the third in April this year, and am working quite hard on it.

Marisa: You have two other books with similar themes – children in disadvantageous, if not dangerous, situations and what happens to them...

Marj: The two Penwinnard books are quite different from the Shuki series – not nearly as intense, much lighter in nature.  They are set in a Boy’s Home. No child winds up in a Home unless things go wrong, whether it is the death of parents in an accident, or abuse, physical or sexual.  But it is not the abuse that is the focus of these stories, but the boys – the characters, the scheming, the mischief and their aspirations.

The first is Angel No More.  It is the story of Bob, once called ‘Angel’  and used for sex. There is a brief prologue which shows a very little of that, but the actual story does not start until after his escape. He is no longer ‘Angel,’  and refuses to admit that he ever was Angel, thus the title.  He thrives at Penwinnard, and the perpetrators of past abuse are brought to justice.

The second is You Gotta Have Manners. This is the story of Sid, who sets his heart on replacing the parents he lost. He works hard at it, and as he says, ‘You gotta have manners.’

I did take notice of the criticism about the sex in the Shuki books, and while I have no intention of compromising with those ones, when I wrote the Penwinnard Stories, I put all the sex strictly ‘off screen.’

small all books

Marisa: Are there plans for more books?

Marj: I expect to write a set of six Penwinnard books, maybe more. There are so many stories just waiting to be told. Penwinnard has space for twenty-four boys, so there are at least that many stories – not that Iexpect to write twenty-four of them. Some would say my boys are romanticised. They are to some extent, as while I say they swear far too much, for instance, I sprinkle the actual swear words around with a meagre hand. After all, I want people to read it, and for myself, I hate books that have too much swearing.

Marisa: How does the writing process work for you? Do you work in stages? Or do you write and edit and do research as you go? 

Marj: That’s a difficult question to answer, so much so that I went away for an hour trying to think about it. I guess it’s different for different days, sometimes my fingers can barely keep up with the picture playing out in my head, and yet this morning, I spent an hour just writing and rewriting three paragraphs of an opening chapter. I can say that even the lighter Penwinnard books take me a lot of work before I am satisfied, and the Shuki ones take a year or so each. I am a perfectionist, and when I finally publish, I do not want to see a single error or clumsiness left.

Marisa: Good luck with the next Shuki novel and the Penwinnard series. Thank you for agreeing to being interviewed for AWW 2013!

Marj: Thank you, Marisa, for the opportunity to talk about my books. Like all authors, it is a subject close to my heart.

You can get Marj McRae’s books from both series as ebooks via Smashwords here. Read more book reviews, check out the rest of my posts for the AWW 2013 challenge or find answers to your writing questions. To know when my next post, book or article is out, sign up to get email updates in the box at the top right hand corner of the screen.

Marisa is a globetrotting freelance writer, journalist and editor with cat for hire (her, not the cat). She is usually based in Melbourne but is currently flouncing around in Perth for a week for the Inaugural 2018 KSP - Varuna Foundation Fellowship. She will be at Melbourne's Continuum and online running a Writers' Bloc course in the coming weeks.

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