Interview: Julie McDowall, author of internet dating memoir Casting the Net
The debut author discusses infatuation, depression and obsession
Evil clowns, The Butcher Boy and infatuation: all par for the course with Julie McDowall. Her debut, Casting the Net, follows her hectic time on the online dating scene. Sharp, vibrant and feisty, the novel is a candid insight into one woman’s rollercoaster ride through the frightening experience of dating – as well as the darker side of her fight with depression.
Did writing about these experiences help you?
The main thing was to entertain. If you’ve read my blog, you’ll know I hated my job. Everyone hates their job, but I absolutely loathed mine. The only good thing was going in on a Monday morning and saying to my friends, 'You will never believe what happened with this evil clown'.
And I thought, 'OK, my friends like it. If I blog about it, their friends can read it and it will grow'. I didn’t even think about it becoming a book because it was funny, it was about sex and it was brash.
Was there any part of Casting the Net that was particularly difficult to write?
When I wrote about The Clown I thought, 'OK, it’s fine, he’s evil, I’m free to write what I like about him'. But I didn’t want to hurt Shug because we stayed friends. I make fun of him but I don’t say anything nasty. I said he was still in love with his ex-wife and he is!
To an outsider, it may seem like online dating forces us to commit to creating and searching for a kind of perfection that doesn’t exist. What do you think?
I agree. Even when you first sign up to the site you have to fill out a form about what you want in a man: age range, hair colour, height. So from the very outset, they’re asking you to cut off a whole section of the population. The guy, Shug, who I went out with: he was a divorcee, totally bald and 48. My ad said my top end was 42, so I thought, 'He’s too old and he’s bald'. But I still met up with him, we were together for six months and it was great.
Online dating used to be sneered at, but now there are TV adverts and all sorts of sites. I think there’s even one for people in uniforms?
And one for clowns! Because clowns need love too.
Well, some of them... But why do you think it’s kicked off?
I think programmes like Sex and the City made it OK to say, 'I want to meet someone', and even though Glasgow isn’t exactly glamorous, you can pretend it is. At the end of the night you might not be going home with a rich banker out of Yale, but you can still have a good time. And almost everyone has internet, so why not utilise that?
Knowing what you know now, if you could go back to when you first started online dating, what advice would you give yourself?
Don’t be a snob and don’t be picky. And don’t go out with any murderers if you can help it…
Would you ever go back to non-online dating?
No. I wouldn't leave it to chance or fate because it’s too wispy. At least you’re being proactive and making something happen. Even if you’re meeting a lot of wrong people, you’re still meeting people.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned from online dating?
It sounds cheesy, but it’s that you can’t rely on men: it has to come from you. I eventually got out of my depression by not trying to find a saviour. I could only help myself.
I started up an online magazine, The Puffin Review, to promote new writers. It gave me a project, opened up new opportunities, and helped to pull me out of the depression. You have to look to yourself. Which is a bit hypocritical, actually, because before the whole dating process I couldn’t have founded the magazine or written a book.
But you needed a catalyst?
I needed a shove. Now I’ve got opportunities springing from the magazine and the book being published, and it’s all helped get me out of the depression.
Why did you choose online dating rather than, say, a book club or Pilates?
I started online dating was because, as I’ve written in Casting the Net, I was very low, very depressed. I was staying on my own and it wasn’t healthy. Everyone was saying, 'Get out there, meet people'. But you’re thinking, 'What does that even mean?'
When you feel depressed, you don’t want to be 'out there'. You want to be curled up under a blanket. So when I started it, it was like I was being forced to go out. And I needed that. I was forced to get a nice dress, do my hair and go out. It doesn’t sound healthy and I’m not advocating online dating as a cure for depression, but it worked in my case. It got me off the couch, face washed, teeth brushed, hair done, whereas I would just be sitting at home on the couch not doing anything.
I know it must sound strange and I can see why. If there are people out there who have suffered depression as I have, they might be insulted, thinking, 'What, you can solve it by going out with some guy?'
And I’m not saying that. But the emotional state it brought to me drove out the depression. I’m not saying men cured me. What it did was prevent me from letting the depression from sucking me down further.
We’ve all done stupid things because we’ve been infatuated with someone. In hindsight, any thoughts on why?
When I remember how I was with The Clown, it’s now obvious that I was in the run-up to a breakdown. It was mostly caused by work but all the stress of everything else didn’t help. Looking back, I was always heading for that breakdown.
I wanted to be a writer but I was working in a call centre. He was a clown but he also owned a theatre company, so he was involved in theatre and drama. That had made him seem so dramatic and romantic: completely removed from the world of the call centre. I clung on to that because he was like an escape. Even though he was evil…
What do you hope readers get from Casting The Net?
A lot of people have said it’s brave I’m talking about mental illness, but it was just the way it was and the way I felt about it. You’re told to write what you know and what I know is… mental illness and evil.
Any other writing projects on the horizon?
I’m writing a novel about obsession. I love Patrick McCabe’s novel The Butcher Boy. I’m modelling my book on that disintegration the main character goes through. There are so many occasions in the novel where he could have been saved or taken another route but everything conspires against him.
That’s what I felt going through my breakdown: that process of disintegration and the ways I could have been saved (if I’d got a better job, if I’d met someone nice, if I hadn’t latched on to this unpleasant man). There were so many ways it could have been averted but at the time the odds were stacked against me. Now they’re going to be stacked against my character too. It’s a novel about an obsession.
Casting the Net is out now from Blasted Heath.