Anneliese Mackintosh on Blending Memoir & Fiction

By Benjamin G. Wilson

One of our blogging team was lucky enough to catch up with author Anneliese Mackintosh after her performance at the festival’s Cream of Cornish event. Here, Benjamin G. Wilson talks to Anneliese about genre bending, memoir, and the different types of truth.

For people who don’t know your work, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what you do?

Sure. My name’s Anneliese Mackintosh. I’ve got  a short story collection out called Any Other Mouth, published by Freight. I’ve been writing since I was teeny-tiny, but getting stuff published for the last few years. My debut novel is coming out next year with Jonathan Cape.

I know one of the really interesting things about your work is the ways it straddles genre, or is in lots of ways unclassifiable. Can you talk a bit about that?

Yeah, I love work that falls between genre. If I had my way, I’d abolish genre. My book is ‘officially’ described as a short story collection, but in reality it’s also part fiction, part memoir, part novel, part personal essay collection. I’m really interested and invigorated by stuff that blends all that together. It makes it difficult to enter stuff into prizes, or to get publishers interested in what you’re doing. But for me, it wasn’t until I started to blend those genres that I really started to feel the magic.

It’s interesting that you talk about the blending of memoir and fiction, modes that might be seen as incompatible. How do you deal with that tension in your work?

Funnily enough, this is what I’ve just written a PhD on. For a start, there’s a difference between memoir and autobiography, though that difference is often unclear and difficult to define. Generally, you can get away with a lot more fictionalisation in memoir, because it’s based on memory. It’s often associated with more flowery, literary work. There’s a tradition of memoir being a bit of a grey area.

In my work, I like to push that even further. At the start of Any Other Mouth there’s a page that says something like ‘One, 68% happened. Two, 32% didn’t happen. Three, I will never tell.’ What I write is mostly true. It’s 100% emotionally true, if not 100% factually true. There’s such a thing as the ‘aesthetic truth’, or what Werner Herzog calls the ‘ecstatic truth’, that argues that you can get closer to the truth by including fabrication and stylisation.

I suppose it must be quite difficult to reconcile your aesthetic truth to the experiences of the people you are writing about. Do you have problems showing your work to the people who are mentioned in it?

I have huge problems! In fact, I don’t show them. But unfortunately, they still look! My sister hasn’t read my books, she will never read my books. She said she’d find it too upsetting. But my mum has.

We were at a family party, and my uncle said ‘I read your book’. I said something like, ‘Oh wow, I didn’t expect anyone to read it.’ My mum, sat on the other side of the table, just looked at me and said ‘Big mistake. Your mother’s read it.’ It was an awkward moment. I had wondered why she’d been angry at me for the last four weeks.

It’s difficult. She feels proud of me, but she also feels I’ve perhaps revealed some family secrets. But I’m very protective over which parts are true. Which is why I put that disclaimer at the start of the book. But for me, it was very important to tell my own story. It was a huge part of my recovery from mental health problems. I love my mum. I’m very strongly aware of treading the fine line between what’s mine to tell and what’s not. I’m doing my very best to stay on the right side of that, but it’s not easy. The things that are most interesting to write about are the most horrendous, the things you wouldn’t necessarily want to reveal.

In terms of that aesthetic truth, is there a wider agenda beyond expressing your experience? Is there an idea of an audience as well?

There’s definitely an idea of audience. I perform my work at reading nights a lot. There was no way, when I was writing this book, that I wanted to be standing up reading ten minute segments of the most awful parts of my life without trying to make it at least interesting, or funny. Funny is a big thing for me. I use a lot of dark humour and I do make things very stylised. It helps distance me from the work, but I think it also helps make it more accessible and interesting for people to read.

It’s really interesting to hear that side of things. Tell us a bit about your upcoming work.

My novel that’s coming out next year is So Happy It Hurts. Any Other Mouth, my short story collection, was about how I dealt with immediate trauma in my life. This book asks the next question: once you’ve dealt with that trauma, how do you find happiness? It’s about a woman called Ottila, now she’s quit drinking, to become monogamous and a happy person. But life doesn’t always work out like that.

Ha, no. It doesn’t. Thanks Anneliese.

Photo credit: Daniel Hall Photography