Tuesday 16 July 2013
A Chat With... Julie McDowall
Julie McDowall is the author of Casting The Net, a memoir about her time internet dating. Julie has kindly agreed to answer a few of my questions.
Why did you decide to write a memoir?
Entertainment and revenge.
The book deals extensively with mental breakdown. (It’s certainly no girly account of meeting Mr Right.) I was sunk in a depression and couldn’t gather the will to pull myself out. My friend set me up on a blind date with one of her friends and I found that the anxiety of meeting a stranger and simply being forced back out into the world again helped to shift some of the depression.
As I began dating more and more men, and finding them to be strange, exciting, infuriating and funny, I began to take real pleasure in bursting into the office on a Monday morning – that drab, air-conditioned place – and telling stories of the freaks I had met at the weekend. I loved having the power to shift my own depression - and the general Monday morning office gloom - through my stories.
I started a blog to write my stories and that began to spread through Twitter and Facebook and I began getting feedback and followers and fans and there was such joy to be had in telling these stories, but also a great sense of relief. I was purging myself of the anxieties and humiliations of internet dating by splattering it all shamelessly in print. I wanted to capture my monstrous experiences and pin them on paper before they could flutter away; before I could grow sober and mature and calm and look back thinking, ‘no that couldn’t have been’.
Had I written it as a novel, rather than a memoir, I’d have given myself permission to be shy and retriring. I’d have told an appalling story and then laughed it off and said ‘don’t be silly, it’s not true’. By writing a memoir, I was shoving myself out into a spotlight and declaring to the world that these hideous, funny, destructive and sad things happened to me. I also found that memoir writing encourages a certain honesty and bluntness due to the principle of ‘in for a penny, in for a pound….’ I may have hesitated over including something excruciating, but then I’d flick back a few pages and see the other shameless things I’d written things and say ‘there’s no point getting coy now.’
I also mentioned writing the moir for revenge. In the book, you’ll read about a monstrous man I dated, known as The Clown. I fell for him in a devastating way. I became utterly obsessed: consumed, relentlessly, by thoughts of this man; being exhausted and worn down by my desperation for him. He could change the whole flavour of my day just by sending me a text. Well, I embarrassed myself horribly with him, and went to terrible lengths to find out how he felt about me (I cringe now when I think of it). Part of my motivation for writing the book was to prove to him that I’m not the clinging, pining creature he knew. I’ve taken his appalling treatment of me and turned it into gold (if I may say so!) I’m free of him and the sad, cloudy thinking and pining and weeping he forced me into, and I’ve written a book about it.
Can you tell us a little about your journey to publication?
I started a blog on Wordpress, which is free and simple and anyone can do. I began telling my stories there, and would post once a week, and then share it out on Facebook and Twitter. It grew through social media and word of mouth, and my confidence grew likewise, so I decided to e-mail my local newspaper to ask if they’d be interested in publishing it.
They didn’t bother to respond to my e-mail.
I must have been in a very spiky mood that day because, rather than feel chastened and meek, I immediately aimed higher and contacted The Herald newspaper, which is Scotland’s most popular broadsheet, as they publish bloggers on their website (heraldscotland.com).
After e-mailing The Herald, I felt a bit silly: if the tiny local rag didn’t want me, what hope did I have with The Herald?
A few days later, the Digital Editor of The Herald e-mailed me and asked to meet. I didn’t dare hope he wanted to meet with a view to publishing so I tried to flatten my expectations, and my friends and I joked that he probably just wanted to tell me to shut up and quit badgering him. We had our meeting and within a few weeks my blog was proudly on the front page of their site, and where it now appears every Monday.
My blog on Heraldscotland.com was a success and so the editor suggested I approach a publishing company called Blasted Heath. He said they mainly published crime – being leaders in tartan noir fiction – but they might be interested….
Indeed, they were and they offered me a contract to publish my blog in two volumes, both as paperback and e-book.
So, my road to publication depended on two things: on me being bold enough to approach The Herald and then in the editor giving me a platform for my writing and in putting me in touch with Blasted Heath.
Your book is about internet dating. What was your best experience?
My best experience had to be my obsession with The Clown. It was a very unhealthy obsession as he had no real interest in me and was a very unworthy man, prone to lying and cold treatment, but I simply adored him. Although he hurt me horribly, I still say it was the best experience as it helped raise me out of my depression. I found that it was impossible to be slumped on the sofa, being slowly suffocated and pulled under by depression, when faced with the mad panics and nerves and excitement and hope and lust and joy he brought me. He introduced true anxiety into my life as I was never sure how he felt or if he’d turn up for a date or if he’d cancel or if he was a liar. I became utterly obsessed and would analyse and exhaust every aspect of him and drive my madness higher and hotter. In such an anxious mental state it is impossible to be depressed: the two simply cannot co-exist. I see now that I simply traded depression for anxiety, but anxiety is easier to conquer than depression as the latter represents a complete loss of spirits, light, life and the simple ability get out of bed and open the damn curtains, because who wants to see another day, just the same as the last one?
And your worst?
I hated the revelation that internet dating brought me: that I am willing to hand over responsibility for my happiness to men. As I was depressed, and the cure for depression seemed to be dating, if a man went cold on me, I would feel myself sliding back down to misery, and so would frantically cast around for other dates. I felt I had to be furiously busy all the time to keep depression at bay. I must always be dating and texting and dressing up and going out and ordering drinks and getting hair done and telling stories and laughing and hoping. It was only once I had encountered a true nervous breakdown - where I was having panic attacks and couldn’t leave the house – that I began a slow road to recovery and the eventual writing of this book.
Looking back I see how absurd it is to hand power to someone else like that. But I was so flimsy at the time that I couldn’t take responsibility for myself. So, that awful realisation that I was once so vulnerable was quite disturbing.
What would be your top tip for internet dating?
Don’t be too picky. When you first sign up to a dating site and start receiving e-mails from people, be brave enough to look beyond your own limits. For example, the site will ask you what you are looking for in a partner so they can try to match you with someone. This forces you to specify an age range and hair colour and what height you want them to be etc. Some sites even ask you to specify what occupations you want them to have! I say only specify the bare minimum and allow yourself to consider people who are perhaps a few centimetres smaller, or a year or two older, than you would have hoped for. Don’t be hemmed in by a meaningless age range or a demand for a GSOH and own home and car. Cast the net wide and you may catch something unexpected and wonderful.
Finally, what is coming up next for you as a writer?
Casting The Net will be written in two volumes, so I need to write the second and I’m also writing a novel about sexual obsession and mental disintegration. Yes, I’m clearly basing it on my experiences with The Clown, but they say write about what you know.
I also continue to publish blog posts each Monday on Heraldscotland.com and I now run my own online literary magazine, The Puffin Review. You can find out more about my projects and plans on my website at www.juliemcdowall.com