My Cultural Life: Catherine McGrotty

Editor of Verbal Magazine on throwing up over Wetlands, journeying back in time and worshipping godlike genius, Alan Moore

When/where/why did you become interested in journalism?
I wanted to be a journalist when I was at school – I even did my work experience in a local paper when I was 15. However that sort of got lost when I went to uni. I did english and philosophy. Not the most vocational of choices. I’m not sure if journalism degrees existed in those days but certainly it never occurred to me that it was something I could study. After graduating with an MA in creative writing I did a series of jobs I hated (including teaching in a secondary school) and eventually came full circle. At 25 I was living at home with my parents again and waitressing. It was then I decided to go back to school and get a vocational journalism qualification.

How did you journey through the ranks?
I got my first proper job freelancing for the Irish News (north west pages). It was sheer luck – my predecessor had recently gone travelling and my tutor suggested me as a temporary replacement. Seamus McKinney, the north west editor gave me a few shifts to try me out and I ended up working with him on a regular basis over the next year. I learned a lot from Seamus – it was a small office so rather than just edit my work and send it to Belfast, he’d give me pointers and advice on what I’d done. My writing improved immeasurably in the time I spent with him.

I shared the job with another freelancer, so I was still doing a bit of waitressing to make ends meet when a job in the Verbal Arts Centre came up. My original job here (development officer learning and skills) actually had very little to do with journalism. It was my teaching experience and creative writing qualification which got me hired.

When Verbal started up it was helmed by the writer, Garbhan Downey - also a journalist with many years experience under his belt. Nominally I was assistant editor but Garbhan did all the hard work getting the magazine on its feet. If Seamus taught me the nuts and bolts of practical journalism, then Garbhan showed me how it all worked from the top down. Under his guidance I learned the skills of an editor and sub-editor. When Garbhan left to finish a novel I took over as editor and the rest is history.

How would you describe Verbal Magazine?
We’re a magazine about books and writing and writers. Especially Irish and Northern Irish books and authors. We do book reviews, interviews and features on writing related subjects and we publish an original short story every month. We like to give as much exposure as we can to local talent – which tends to get shamefully ignored everywhere else.

That all sounds far more boring than it actually is. I always hesitate to call us a ‘literary magazine’ because to me that conjures up visions of the Times Literary Supplement and very dry, academic essays. I like to think we’re more populist than that. Our aim, in the end, isn’t to bring books to the people who already know all about books - it’s to bring them to the people who might not necessarily read books very often these days. We want to get them excited about books again.

One of the cornerstones of a more literate society is a society where books are visible and valued. Of course there’s a place for literary criticism in Verbal, but there has to be a place for the stuff that purists would scoff at too. I might be in a minority of one here, but I don’t think it matters what people are reading, as long as they’re reading and enjoying it. We’re big fans of the graphic novel genre down here at Verbal HQ. In the work we do with schools and community groups we see the benefits of using comics and other less ‘literary’ genres to reel people (especially children) in. Taste develops over time. I hope Verbal has something for all tastes.

Is there a particular interview you've done that stands out, and which you’re most proud of?
There are a couple I was embarrassingly excited about. Interviewing Louis DeBernieres and Phillip Pullman were real highlights for me. I’m a huge fan of both writers. DeBernieres was loads of fun, very humorous and engaged. Pullman was more serious. If I’m honest, I was terrified about interviewing Pullman. I did so much research in advance – I really didn’t want to be one of those interviewers who asked him the same questions he’s been asked 100 times before. I’m proud of getting that interview – he doesn’t give many interviews, though more than he likes to, if he’s to be believed! I’ll demure on the question of whether I’m proud of how they turned out – that’s not for me to say. 

Which cultural figure would you most like to interview for Verbal?
At the minute it has to be Alan Moore – with Watchmen just out it’s so timely (plus I think he’s a godlike genius). It changes from issue to issue though, depending on what’s topical in that particular month. For next month I’d really love Phillip Larkin – given the other content I’ve got lined up that’d be the ideal interview. For my own personal enlightenment I’d like to interview Wetlands author Charlotte Roche – so I can ask ‘WHY?’ That book made me throw up in my own mouth a few times.

If you could have written or edited any publication in history, what would it be and why?
Oh crikey. What a question! The Dictionary! Only joking. There are loads of books I wish I’d written – I love Wise Children by Angela Carter. Or Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson. I could go on for ever here and I’d be hard pressed to settle on one.

Magazine-wise I’ve always thought it would have been great fun to write for or publish the ‘Penny Dreadfuls’ in the 1900s - or their equivalents during the comics boom of the 1930s. I reckon I’d be quite good at that kind of pulp, churning out 10 stories a week to satisfy the public’s insatiable appetite for schlock. To my eternal shame, I quite like fashion magazines too, so maybe Vogue during the time Dorothy Parker was there. I’m letting myself down a bagful here, aren’t I? You were expecting The New Yorker to be in there somewhere…

If you could journey back in time as a journalist, where would you go?
Considering the commonly held adage that bad news sells, I’m not sure I can answer this without sounding like a ghoul. The most fruitful times and places for journalists tend to be the worst for the rest of society. In any case, ‘real’ journalism (as opposed to what I do) is very different now to how it used to be. Very different to our idea of what a journalist is and does – mostly gleaned from American movies in my case. Even by the time I started in papers it had changed completely and it’s even worse now – a combination of falling sales, 24 hour news, advancing technology and an increasingly corporate world I suspect.

If I could journey back, it’d be to a time when newspapers weren’t becoming extinct and journalists weren’t expected to be photographers and sub-editors too. When stories could be about real news (or something other than celebrities) and you could spend days or weeks or months investigating a good story and weren’t expected to churn out ten pieces of fluff every day. Maybe I’m attempting to journey back into a fictional past – as I say, it wasn’t even like that when I started. No boozy 3 hour lunches for me - more’s the pity… 

If you could give advice to the struggling young journalist, what would it be?
Become very versatile. Take your own pictures, learn how to use desktop publishing packages, start a blog, get comfortable with podcasts and any other technology that might help you. Do some work experience anywhere you can get it. Come up with ideas and pitch them to editors or producers – don’t just send in a CV. Actually, that one is a big one – I get a lot of requests for information on contributing to Verbal, but if someone comes to me with an idea that fits my remit I’m a thousand times more likely to throw them some work than if they send me an impressive CV. No matter how impressive that CV is.

If you could have three cultural figures from throughout history round for dinner, who would they be and why?
Good grief. Another hard one. I’d have Alan Moore and Helene Cixous – I bet they’d have some bizarre and wonderful conversations. And Nancy Mitford for giggles. I’d have Alan Moore because he’s the godfather of comics for grownups; Cixous because her writing is bizarre and beautiful and speaks to me; Mitford because she’s my guilty pleasure. I’d eavesdrop on Cixous and Moore chatting and I’d pump Nancy for gossip. I reserve the right to change my mind entirely about all of these tomorrow when better answers occur to me.

What cultural event did you most enjoy over the past few months?
The Belfast Book Festival was a revelation. The John Banville event in particular had the most wonderful atmosphere and was so, so interesting – in the way that these things often aren’t! I was also really impressed with the Oh Yeah Centre’s ‘Paperback Rioters’ night. Brilliant stuff. I can’t wait for next year.

What cultural events are you most looking forward to?
At the risk of this sounding like a shameless plug (here it comes), I must say I’m really looking forward to the third annual 2D Comics Festival (June 4-6 2009) which is organised by my colleague at the Verbal Arts Centre, David Campbell. It’s a must for fans of illustration, comics and graphic novels. And details can be found here:

If you could write your own epitaph in no more than 10 words, what would it be?
All dressed up and nowhere to go.

Lee Henry