Autumn sunshine and blancmange on the wall: Dina Rabinovitch meets Shena Mackay, a gentle middle-aged enchantress in prose

MIXING our teas ('Trust me - Darjeeling with Earl Grey, it works'), the photographer told Shena Mackay that under a woman's influence he once shaved off his beard. Mackay twinkled and said how good he looks now, and then, wondering what his face was like with the beard on, she asked: 'You're not carrying it about in your pocket, are you?'

In the Mackay canon all characters transform before your eyes: boy becomes girl becomes mugger; respectable woman shoplifts babies. It is perfectly suitable that the purveyor of such tales, the enchantress whose language sparkles even as it delivers the punch, should be this gentle, innocuous 48-year-old woman sitting demurely over tea at the Ritz, slightly discomfited by the low-slung chairs.

Back in the Sixties when her first novel was published - she was 20 - Mackay was an overnight literary sensation, a girl wonder splashed across Sunday supplements. She had a play on at the National, the film rights to her book sought by Albert Finney and her views canvassed by Marge Proops. Then came marriage, and three daughters in quick succession.

The received view is that Mackay languished in suburbia, early promise unfulfilled. Still, she has written, over the years, seven novels and two collections of short stories. Each time there has been a burbling of excitement, great reviews, occasional awards. 'I was leading a very unliterary life while the children were growing up. Well, it's impossible to lead a literary life with children if you live in the country,' she says. 'Then I won a prize in a Radio 3 competition, and that did it.'

Her ordinary life has been marked by ordinary horrors. Her earliest memory is of falling into the pond at Hampstead Heath. Her childhood was very happy some of the time, but her parents were not happy and her mother would periodically leave, with the children in tow. They finally divorced after Shena left home.

She was happy at Tonbridge Grammar School, but miserable when she was moved to Kidbrooke Comprehensive, which was a prototype and showplace. 'I just felt ugly all the time there,' says Mackay, who is beautiful, in fact. 'I didn't have the proper uniform and they made my life hell. My uniform was on order from the Co-op, and it kept not coming. I used to go and it wasn't in, and it wasn't in . . .'

She regrets not going to university, though at the time she couldn't leave school fast enough. 'But I realised later in life how you miss out on the whole friendship thing; if you go to university you can have a whole block of friends, some of them for life.'

Mackay's mother died last year after a long illness. Shena visited regularly, travelling up three times a week, from Norwood, where she lives, to Woodside Park. 'Perhaps because she was ill, my sister and I saw more of her than people of our age normally do see of their mothers. Several times she wanted to die. So, it brings some relief, but it is a very great change in my life. Huge blocks of time, as well, that one used to spend visiting.'

Divorced now, and her daughters grown, Mackay is famous once more. She is hero-worshipped by Julie Burchill in Elle magazine, and later this year there will be a Bookmark programme in which she plays herself in a drama. Burchill is giving a party to launch her new book. 'There have been some snide remarks because of Julie,' says Mackay, 'but the thing about Julie is, she does care, she cares passionately about writing and good books.'

Mackay's latest book is a collection of short stories, The Laughing Academy (Heinemann, pounds 13.99). 'The characters are always very clear in my head. Their hair colour, and eyes and so on, although I don't always describe them fully, I realise. I usually get a vague picture or outline first - well, sometimes it's a very vivid picture as with Olive and William in Dunedin (her last novel) - others I know what they're like but I have to concentrate on my thoughts to put them on paper.

'I always know how a story is going to end, and I very often have the last line first, but some of it just grows organically as I go along. I suppose I have the plot unconsciously. I find it hard to start though, unless I've got a title - it's a silly sort of thing, but that makes it easier.

'I work fairly slowly because I try to get it right before putting it on paper. I do a lot of work when I'm asleep. If you just catch it before you wake up - you retrieve some fantastic puns that way,' she grins.

She is now at work on her next novel, having sworn never to write another long book after Dunedin. 'I just feel I can now - I no longer feel so mentally exhausted.'

For me, her short stories work better than any of her novels. The polemics in Dunedin compromised the plot, whereas in the stories she seems stricter about not letting her - very active - social conscience interfere. But publishers prefer writers who can go the full length, which seems short- sighted in the soundbite age. 'Short stories do count for me, and for a lot of people,' says Mackay.

'I'm quite happy now. I've been through times of great discontent when I've felt . . . well, mainly the money thing - if you're worried about money it just cripples you, you can't concentrate - but it's no longer the problem it was.' Reviewers always say she has the alchemist's gift. Any page of her books bears witness to that. Even a white telephone hanging on a kitchen wall becomes blancmange that has been hurled there. In The Laughing Academy she writes: 'The autumn sunshine, gilding brick and berried trees, was beneficent, like a matriarch bestowing gold and jewels on her heirs, all their sins forgiven; the plane trees were dappled benign giraffes.' In better educated times, we would be giving our children passages of Mackay to learn by heart, as gifts for later life.

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links