Infrequently Asked Questions
I’ve been around James McNamara for essentially every moment of the past 34 years – except when he’s asleep – so have become a pretty fair judge of his work and character. For this interview, we met at his book-lined West Hollywood office (a couch), where McNamara was dressed casually for a writing day (a 10-year old hoodie, shorts with torn pockets). He offered me coffee straight away, knowing that I share his exact preference for how to make it (don’t care, just make it strong and keep the sugar out). The interview was partly in conversation (internal) and partly written.
What’s your drink?
An old fashioned or a dry gin martini.
I used to admire the Queen Mother’s drinking habits, but I soon realized you can’t knock back neat gin and limes unless you’re a superannuated monarch with nothing more to do than wave off corgis.
Who would be by your side in a literary bar fight?
Beowulf for muscle – can’t go past a fighting companion who goes straight from “I’m quite annoyed” to ripping a monster’s arm off.
Jeeves for strategy – to pop the quiet word in that resolves the tangle, just as things look sticky for your good narrator (and to mix his famous restorative for the morning after).
Elizabeth Bennet because she’s sassy as fuck, she probably started it, and I imagine that at one point she’d get fed up with the ruckus, pick up a chair, brain the assailant, then walk calmly back to her cocktail.
Who’s the better literary pirate, Jack Sparrow or Long John Silver?
Oh, Long John. I used to live across the road from Robert Louis Stevenson’s house in London. I’d sort of “fist pound” it every time I passed on the way to work. The owner didn’t – quite see where I was coming from.
Also deserving special mention for literary piracy (actual, not intellectual) is John Donne, who put on a floppy hat, some chi chi tights, and gallivanted off to loot Cadiz with Sir Walter Raleigh. I think he was a bit shit. Which is why he’s not on the “Literary Bar Fight” list. That, and he’d be completely incomprehensible, even when sober:
INT. BAR – NIGHT
McNamara, E Bennet, and Beowulf sit having a quiet one. Jeeves hovers in the corner.
John Donne kicks the door open, flicks his cape and declaims:
DONNE: Triangle flea, the mary scissors!
McNAMARA: John, just sit down mate and have a pint.
Which literary figure would you personally like to punch?
Actually, I suspect he’d be the chump that started the bar fight.
I’d also like to have stern words with George Eliot about Middlemarch.
What would be your ideal literary job?
Shakespeare’s dogsbody at The Globe. Or working for Alan Coren on Punch.
Who’s at your literary dinner party, living or dead?
Well I’m going to do a dead list then a living list.
Hemingway and Fitzgerald – they could bicker eloquently til Scott slid off his chair and Hem got into a fight with a hatstand
Shakespeare – notorious piss-head, quite good writer
Jane Austen – she’d be an absolute badass
Alan Coren, to banter with – Christopher Hitchens
I wouldn’t invite PG Wodehouse because he’d fling bread rolls about the place.
I wouldn’t like to speculate as to their behaviour on account of lawyer’s bills.
Do you prefer funny books or serious books?
Well I dispute the premise of the question (says the man trying to win friends and influence people). Funny books *are* serious books. As the old anecdote goes, when a mate asked Plato for a good book about Athenian society, he told him to jog off and read Aristophanes. Swift’s A Modest Proposal is still cited today. And beyond satire – which has a critical function at its core – straight humour is harder to sustain over time, meaning that the truly good examples of it are – well, truly good. Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat is as fresh and hilarious as if it were written yesterday. It was published in 1889.
I do like the serious ones too. Hard to avoid saying, “Well I mean it’s quite good, isn’t it?” about Hamlet.
This supposedly jovial “infrequently asked questions” has turned into a literary diatribe, hasn’t it? A bit like you questioning yourself for a pretend Paris Review interview – a sort of “acceptance speech in the shower”?
Yes it has. Let’s turn to simpler things.
Do you like pies?
Very much. I have a Mrs Miggins’ Pie Shop t-shirt. I wear it to the gym.
What do you do for a crust (see what I did there?)
Um I write. More specifically, a mixture of TV and banter about books.
Oh TV? What are your favourite sho…
Too hard. We’d be here all day. Save to say that Blackadder is the undisputed king, Buffy remains wonderful, The West Wing is a beautiful fantasy, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag is currently popping my mind, and all the usual golden age suspects are epic. I’m talking to you, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos.
Too many. And probably evident from my dinner party lists.
Ok, what if you had to bring one book with you to a desert island?
Well, probably the SAS Survival Handbook. But if I could have another, Shakey’s collected works.
Thing people find surprising about you?
I love cats.* Whenever I see one on the street, I stop and say hello. Which usually doesn’t go down well with old mate cat, who sees a 6 foot 4, 240 pound monster lumbering across, yodeling “HERE KITTY KITTY”.
*Why that surprises people I don’t know, but suspect it isn’t flattering.
Where have you lived during the past 10 years?
Oxford, a Spitalfields shit-heap, by a graveyard in Hampstead, Sydney, and West Hollywood.
Right. I think we’re done.
Can I just add something?
Sure… I mean, you’re the interviewer too.
Not sure this faux interview segment will come off as whimsy. Might just seem cockish?
Possibly. Serves you right for setting up a website.