Welcome to Jean McNeil and the blog tour for her novel, Fire on the Mountain which was released on 15th February by Legend Press.
Hello Jean. Thank you so much for joining me on Novel Kicks today. Your latest book is called Fire on the Mountain. Can you tell me a bit about it and what inspired the story?
Hi Laura, thanks very much for your interest in the novel and for your questions.
Fire on the Mountain is a contained and intense story about masculinity and desire. It focuses on three men: Pieter Lisson, a celebrated writer in an unnamed post-colonial country who has never quite found the fame and acceptance he might have experienced had he been a more ‘serious’, political writer; his son, Riaan, who lives in the desertified north of the country, and Nick, a British (although he has grown up all over the world) NGO worker, who comes to stay with Pieter and his wife for a few days and ends up staying for four months. He and Riaan develop a wary friendship, then a much closer mutuality, and finally their relationship is transformed into something neither of them every would have expected.
The inspiration for the story is the landscapes of southern Africa, in particular Cape Town, where I lived on and off for years, and Namaqualand, the Kalahari and the Namib deserts. Another inspiration was the years I spent gaining professional safari guide qualifications. This wasn’t a completely masculine environment, but the sort of masculine consciousness I encountered in men in southern Africa fascinated me. Strength and an awareness of vulnerability are both needed to survive in the bush. You have to be intuitive and attuned to other creatures. It’s a way of life that creates a different kind of man than I had encountered elsewhere. I wanted to try to capture that in the novel.
If you could drop into the life of any fictional character which one would it be and why?
My characters are me and I am them, so I do live their lives. Like Pieter I am a writer, and like Riaan I know the African bush. Like Nick I’ve worked in NGOs and international development. I consider that I live all their lives, simultaneously.
What’s your writing process like – from planning to edit.
I write quite quickly, meaning I can write a novel within a couple of months if I really put my mind to it, as well as working. But then I tend to rewrite very extensively, doing at least 12 drafts, adding and subtracting and crucially getting the structure right. Because I’m a fast and intuitive writer I rely on sane, intelligent people called editors to help smooth out contradictions and fill gaps. I wish I could be more methodical, punctilious, perfectionist, but I’m just not. Thank god for good editors…
Do you have an writing rituals or routines?
No, I can write anywhere and at any time. I do like to be able to see the sky as I’m writing. My flat in London has a good view so I can stare at seagulls and the Shard.
What’s your favourite word and why?
Aha, tough one. There are so many choices… Orphic, probably, as in musical, but also a tinge of the quality of underworld, or submerged – from Orpheus. Closely followed by heliotrope.
What authors have influenced you?
Probably everyone I’ve ever read, but here are a few top choices: Henry James, for the kaleidoscopic density of his sentences (which I definitely can’t emulate), Malcolm Lowry for his headlong passion, Anne Carson for her brilliance with metaphor, Coetzee for his often chilling density of moral purpose, Damon Galgut for the taut blankness yet suspenseful quality of his sentences.
In your opinion, is plot or character more important? What elements make up a good story?
I think plot is character and character is plot. By writing characters forward, simply sentence after sentence, plot emerges. As you can tell I’m not a plot-driven writer. But I do believe that something has to be at stake, on some level, even in the most refusenik or experimental fictions. That to me is plot: what’s at stake?
Are you able to tell me a bit about what you’re currently working on?
I seem to have written half a novel very quickly, in about three weeks. It’s about cinema and desire. It’s set in the now, literally right now – it begins in January 2018 and will end about a year and a half from now in the future. I might not wait until then to finish it though.
What advice do you have for new writers?
Writing is easy, publishing is tough. You have to locate your reserves of self-belief and tenacity. Also to be clear about your vision – what some call ‘agenda’ – you have to have something to bring to the table and offer illumination about our existences. Mere self-expression or desire to see yourself in print won’t cut it. Writing is a rigorous art form in that way.
About Fire on the Mountain:
Jean McNeil is a prolific fiction and non- fiction author whose work has been nominated for and won several major international awards. She is Reader in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Her first novel with Legend Press, and 12th overall publication was The Dhow House (2016).
Legend Press published Jean’s thirteenth novel, Fire on the Mountain, in February 2018.
Follow Jean on Twitter @jeanmcneilwrite