Elizabeth’s Chatting With…Suzanne McConaghy
I first met this month’s guest when she attended Chudleigh Literary Festival back in 2018. We were running a competition, a kind of Chudleigh Dragon’s Den, for the first page of a novel. She joined Chudleigh Writers soon afterwards and is now in her second year as Treasurer. She is a regular contributor to the Chudleigh Writers’ Circle blog; writes short stories, and has been published in an anthology from North Bristol Writers. But she is also working on a number of longer projects including thrillers and romantic fiction. I am delighted to be chatting to Suzanne McConaghy.
Hello Suzanne and welcome. Let’s start by going back to childhood. What is your earliest memory—and how old were you at the time?
My sister was born at home when I was two years and ten months old. Left more than usual to my own devices on that day—or maybe traumatised by the idea that there was going to be someone new on the scene, claiming my parents’ attention—I crawled under the kitchen sink and spent a long time sitting on the floor, watching a slug slither along the copper pipes. I can see it clearly now. It was the exact shade of green that copper goes when it’s oxidised.
What was your favourite subject at school—and which was the lesson you always wanted to avoid?
This is a difficult one—I went through a whole range of favourites, and was that irritating girl who just liked school. But languages always attracted me, both English and foreign languages, and I ended up working in that field, so I guess that’s it.
Games was something I wanted to avoid with a passion, particularly hockey after being hit by the ball. I have little hand-eye co-ordination, so don’t even enjoy tennis. However, in later life, I have a regime of fitness based on walking and swimming, and have come to appreciate the benefits.
Talking about yourself, how would you finish the sentence “not a lot of people know…”?
Not a lot of people know that I have taken part in two expeditions—in The Faroe Islands and in the High Pyrenees—and also that I lived out in the jungle in South America for a couple of years. While there, I was held up at gunpoint by a man who was a singer at a concert we attended in the city of Cartagena—after the concert, naturally. You may be relieved to know that I did escape when his girlfriend got him even more drunk than he already was. Scary stuff, though.
Where is your favourite place on earth — and why?
My favourite place is always the setting for the novel I am working on, often in Europe, but not exclusively. I love all the details—the geography and geology, the people, the culture, and above all the language, all of which give the possibility for so many plot points. I tend to choose places where I already know the language, but if I don’t, I like to learn at least a smattering, in order to add to the richness of the context. There have been recent forays into Welsh and Italian—the latter being much the easier of the two!
How do you relax?
I would say I’m not very good at relaxing. I seem to have more energy than many people I know, and am something of a workaholic – so I think my relaxation comes from doing the tasks I enjoy, like writing. Of course, it’s always good to talk with friends and family, and walking and reading are important to me. I read 3-4 books a week, a lot of genre fiction, particularly crime and thriller. If you share my taste, I can recommend Michael Connelly and CJ Box, both American writers whose work has an underlying seriousness. I read some historical novels, but also science and philosophy. Try works by Yuval Noah Harari, who talks a lot of common sense. I like to listen to music when swimming.
If you could change one law, what would it be?
I would like governments to tighten up the internet laws, particularly where currently, people can play the ‘shaming’ game, or incite racist acts, safe behind their anonymity. It appears to me younger people are particularly at risk if things are left as they are.
Describe your ideal menu—and where would you like to eat it?
A lovely question—I am a foodie and an enthusiastic cook. Most recently, I constructed a menu of Moroccan mezze for guests, and I loved both the cooking and the eating. For anyone interested, although there are so many dishes necessary in mezze, they are simple, and creating them doesn’t take too much time. It’s always possible I’ll set a book in Morocco, after the necessary research, of course. Often, it’s something as simple as a recipe that sparks an idea for a story. Learning Arabic might be a challenge, though.
My real favourite is French cuisine, for example:
Crême Vichyssoise; Sole Véronique served with new potatoes and seasonal vegetables; Crêpes Suzette with cream; followed by some of that wonderful French cheese and freshly ground coffee.
You’ll have discerned a pattern here—lots of cream, but I don’t indulge very often. Plus, I just noticed how French chefs like to honour people and places in their dishes.
Where would I eat it? Ideally, in Paris, perhaps at the Café Procope, in rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, 6th arrondissement. It is a wonderful place and, opened in 1686, it is reputed to be the oldest café of Paris in continuous operation.
Faute de mieux, I invite guests to my home from time to time and create menus like this for them.
What would be in your ‘Room 101’?
Okay, my interpretation is not exactly Orwell’s idea of Room 101 but rather, the things I hate most.
There are quite a few people who ought to be in there, particularly those who insist that Man has no effect on climate change and doesn’t need to do anything – have they read any facts? How can they be so sure that carrying on in our usual selfish way will make no difference?
Then, there are attitudes. Top of my list is intolerance, particularly racial intolerance, because I can’t understand what the reason for it is, unless it’s just ‘they’re different.’ These attitudes are buried so deep in our past, part of making sure our own tribe is top dog.
If you could meet one person from history, who would it be—and why?
Voltaire, a French Enlightenment philosopher famous for his wit and his criticism of Christianity—especially the Roman Catholic Church. Famous also for his advocacy of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and separation of church and state.
He was my hero when, as a student, I read his essay, ‘Inoculation,’ published in 1733. He supported the idea of vaccination, nearly three hundred years before Covid had even been dreamt of. I attach below a translation of the relevant piece, for anyone who would care to read it. I find it interesting to compare the British and French attitudes towards vaccination in 2020-21, with that of the 1730s.
He also exhorted us to cultivate our gardens as a philosophy for life, one that I thoroughly approve of—not the abstract, sanctimonious and theoretical ideas for a better society but a rational, practical way to tackle the business of life that every human can embrace. And, yes, I know there is another way to interpret this idea.
Why do you write?
The world and people are fascinating and I see writing as an endless investigation of how it all works.
I love words and have lots of ideas. I can go off on holiday any time I want by entering the world of the book I am writing. This was particularly useful during lockdown, and became so addictive, it’s taken some effort to break through to normality.
Suzanne, thank you for dropping by today. Readers, see below for the translation from Voltaire, mentioned above.
Extract from Voltaire’s ‘Inoculation,’ translated.
The rest of Europe, that is, the Christian part of it, very gravely assert that the English are fools and madmen; fools, in communicating the contagion of smallpox to their children, in order to hinder them from being subject to that dangerous and loathsome disorder; madmen, in wantonly exposing their children to this pestilence, with the design of preventing a contingent evil. The English, on their side, call the rest of Europe unnatural and cowardly; unnatural, in leaving their children exposed to almost certain death by smallpox; and cowardly, in fearing to give their children a trifling matter of pain for a purpose so noble and so evidently useful. In order to determine which of the two is in the right, I shall now relate the history of this famous practice, which is in France the subject of so much dread.
The women of Circassia have from time immemorial been accustomed to give their children smallpox…
The Circassians found that, upon computation, in a thousand persons there was hardly one that was ever twice seized with smallpox completely formed; that there had been instances of a person’s having had a slight touch of it, or something resembling it, but there never were any two relapses known to be dangerous; in short, that the same person has never been known to have been twice infected with this disorder. They further remark, that when the disease is mild, and the eruption has only to pierce through a thin and delicate skin, it leaves no mark on the face.
From these natural observations they concluded, that if a child of six months or a year old was to have a mild kind of smallpox, not only would the child certainly survive, but it would get better without bearing any marks of it, and would assuredly be immune during the remainder of its life.
Hence it followed, that their only method would be to communicate the disorder to their children betimes, which they did, by insinuating into the child’s body a pustule taken from the body of one infected with smallpox, the most completely formed, and at the same time the most favorable kind that could be found. The experiment could hardly fail. The Turks, a very sensible people, soon adopted this practice; and, at this day, there is scarcely a pasha in Constantinople who does not inoculate his children while they are at the breast.
There is a great deal more, but you get the gist.