I put the interview below together on a spur of the moment idea. Why not ask myself the questions I’d ideally like to be asked from time to time? Most of these have little to do with the novel that’s about to come out (“Where They Lie”, New Island Books), but they do refer to process and to some of the things that make me tick. It’s a set of fragments, perhaps, part of the mosaic, nothing more and nothing less. A
A LIFE IN WRITING:
So writing’s my life’s main work. Started very young, scribbling and composing bits and pieces. Realised that I always wanted to write, or needed to, when I was about nineteen. My first work was published by David Marcus in The Irish Press when I was in my twenties. Had anyone said to me back in 1982 when my first poems were published that by 2014 I’d have published thirteen or fourteen books of poetry, short stories and novels, I’d have laughed. I never set myself specific goals like that. But I saw myself as a writer. The kinds of writers who appeal most to me fall into three categories – this is a very loose categorisation – either they are earthy, or else they are highly aesthetic in temperament, or they may have eclectic minds (a bit like W.G.Sebald or John Berger) that ‘weave’ new work in slightly unconventional fashion.
The thing with the best fictional characters – at least the ones I’m drawn to whether I create them or someone else does – is that they often do what the French refer to as tenter l’experience, they give things a go, they take the chance to push their own boundaries a bit, or even break them. I guess that’s why I’m completely drawn to characters who may seem a little extreme. Not all my characters are extreme, but usually there is one who stands out as having the potential to blow certain situations sky high. I can be pretty extreme myself.
Betrayal features in my work and always has done. It’s a feature of human nature, the kink in the mix that makes us the strange and interesting creatures we are. (I mean, we betrayed our own species back in the Cretacean period (I think it was), when we mated with Neanderthals. That makes most of us between 1 and 4% Neanderthal). The betrayal of love, the betrayal of truth, the betrayal of honour, the betrayal of innocence. In “The Kite Runner”, the protagonist’s father speaks of what happens when someone tells a lie. I found this very interesting, because he says that when we lie we literally ‘steal’ from others. My work often contains situations which are overlaid with a lie of some kind, and we then see the consequences of the theft of truth from others which occurs as a result. This happens in my new novel “Where They Lie” , which is about things known but not said, and things deliberately forgotten but really remembered in the wake of the disappearance of two brothers in Northern Ireland whose bodies have not been recovered.
On Writer friendships:
I have good friends in the writing world, both male and female. The ones I’m closest to I really respect as writers but like as people – the latter is probably more important to me. The best of us help one another along. The worst don’t.
On family responses to the writing:
Always, always positive within my own family and my Monaghan family. Always, always a bit uncomprehending in a few quarters though. Some don’t always get what it’s about. They can’t see it as work.
it’s in all walks of life, including writing and the arts. Competition based on a little envy may be good for the writing, but jealousy is a poison to be avoided if possible. I am not a jealous person fortunately, and have never been. But sometimes, I look at something someone else has achieved and it encourages me to go off and try something new for myself. That’s envy used in a positive manner. You don’t resent the other person. You learn from the success of others, as much as from Beckett’s notion of failing and failing harder! And basically, we’re all busy failing every single day of our lives.
the country and town I grew up in. Still a place for which I hold the greatest affection. My mother still lives there in the lovely house I grew up in. It was an idyllic place in some respects. The garden was magical for me, and the old orchard, and we were surrounded by high fields and trees, and the loveliest sense of freedom. It was a place in which I was physically free on many levels in a way today’s children never are. Even when the Troubles threatened to spill over across the border, and they did spill over to an extent, I always felt so safe there.
I have one younger sister who works with a law firm in the US. She is amazing, original and one of the most interesting people I know.
On my parents:
Books were important to both of them. While my father got me a subscription to the London Childrens’ Book Club, my mother would every so often come up with books that astounded me when I was quite young – among them Tarry Flynn. The discovery that Patrick Kavanagh was from Monaghan was a revelation to me, and it taught me that my instinct that Monaghan was a truly beautiful, wooded, reedy place, was absolutely correct, and that it was okay to feel delight in it and not to dismiss it. She also gave me Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls, and a biography of Joan Sutherland written by her then husband Richard Bonyng. The background of literature and the presence of music in the house were important to me.
Did I ever live abroad?
Only for brief periods in the 80s, mostly in Germany.
I have a life-long love-affair with Germany, probably because I was sent there when I was a teenager, and had time to grow accustomed to the way of life. In the 70s it was still possible to sense residues of the Cold War in the relations between what was then the BRD and, for example, Russia. Germany has maintained trade relations with Russia all down the years, and we see an example of that even today in the scramble for contested Crimean territory. In the middle of this, Germany may well prove to be the useful arbitrator.
Best time in Germany:
a road-trip by coach with five other Irish writers in 1996, the year Ireland was the focus of the Frankfurt Book Fair. It was two weeks of readings, but also of getting close to one another as we shared our dreams and stories in an intensely-felt whirl of visits from one city to the next. Great craic in all.
Worst time in Germany although the funniest: working as a chambermaid in the Bundesbahnhotel in Munich back in 1975, where I and my friend Barbara spent our days cleaning up after the sometimes barely housebroken people passing through the hotel back then. Bathrooms are NOT fun when your’e cleaning up after someone else!
Oddest time in Germany: that would have been 1980, when I was working part time translating lectures into English for this medical professor at Heidelberg University, while my husband spent ten hours a day working as a labourer on a NATO building site. All I remember is the constant mist and rain of that summer there, my husband down this big hole in the ground, as we went about our separate days, and the sense of weird pride I used to feel every time Johnny Logan’s Eurovision winning song “What’s Another Year” filled the air from passing cars. That was the summer I read “The Mill on the Floss”, had my first ever McDonald’s cheese-burger(!), and took a boat trip to Worms to see where Martin Luther made his mark!
On being Irish:
I’ll never say things like ‘I’m proud to be Irish’, even though I’m very happy to be Irish. I don’t need to announce it to anybody. However, it gave me a thrill to see the Irish flag raised outside the Princess Grace Library in Monaco some years ago, on the night I was giving my reading to an invited audience.
On being Irish during the Queen’s visit:
It was historically healing. The woman was a wizard of apparent empathy and diplomacy. It meant a lot to most people apart from some of the Shinners. The idea of a queen, in her special gowns, coming here, had a fairytale quality that many people drew on, I believe, despite all the realities of monarchy. That spring, the country hadn’t looked so beautiful in a long time. And then Obama came too. Between the two spiels we were feeling good about ourselves for a few days. However, I don’t think we need the Royal Seal of approval for our 1916 celebrations, and I hope those who would invite her will have a re-think.
I’ve lived through the oppressive 70s, through high unemployment, through periods when women’s rights were few and far between, which makes me sound like a right old stick. We never emigrated. I’ve also lived through literary stand-offs in which the presence of all the women whose work was gradually getting published in the 80s caused many a naive and silly debate.
I’m radical enough to frequently feel exasperated by those who run the country too. By the way the elderly and the very young are not supported, by the way children with learning and intellectual difficulties are definitely not given the help they need. The fact that I’m reasonably happy about being a citizen of this State may well be connected to the fact that I am relatively well in myself. One thing most Irish people don’t want: to have to go to hospital. Many fear it, as if they were taking their lives in their hands. Not something you expect. In some of my fiction, such as the short story “Little Africa” I do tease out the possibilities of what it must be like to be a foreigner living in Ireland, and the difficulties of adjusting.
On Irish as a language:
I love all the so-called ‘small’ languages of Europe, the ones that many people feel have no purpose, or associate with anti-centrist feeling. Well, it’s okay to be anti-centrist in my book. Languages such as Galician, Asturian, Catalan, Cornish, Breton, Welsh, Scots-Gallic and Irish – how great it is that they manage to exist in the midst of the ‘big’ languages and places!
You’ll never hear me say something like “Speaking as a mother . . .” because I hate sanctimoniousness and it seems that the minute some women have a kid they turn into some kind of super-virtuous pain in the neck whose maternity confers new authority. Or something like that. Hate that. Few women in my fiction are ever sanctimonious unless they are cameo characters!
On old age:
In other societies, the old are sometimes seen as venerable – usually in poorer societies of course. The white Western model of how to treat old age does not inspire confidence. I am amazed, constantly, by the army of old women, usually widows, and the lesser army of old men, who live alone and manage by themselves with minimal supports.
People who make me sit up and listen:
Usually people who don’t suffer fools gladly: Angela Merkel, John Crown, David Norris, Emily O’Reilly when she was Ombudswoman, and some of our artists because you know them by their actions. People who get on with it. I am generally more drawn to doers than procrastinators and talkers. I am interested in ‘good’ power as opposed to ‘bad’, or ego-driven power.
Covertly political, not overtly. Take a very strong interest in how things are run. I love all elections.
No time for them.
On being depressed:
People talk a lot about gratitude. Well I often feel gratitude, intense gratitude, but it sure doesn’t stop me from sinking into bouts of sheer depression. Every so often I turn my back on gratitude, because life isn’t about all that goody-goodness either. It’s about recognising the under-exposure and over-exposure in your own soul, and trying to get the focus right regardless of all the theories of behaviour.
On being civilised:
I know I’m going on and on about it, but it has something to do with how the very young, the very sick and the very old are treated in any society. It also has something to do with viewing culture as belonging to everybody (and ensuring that there is space for all to be heard and to create), not to some moneyed metropolitan elite.
Lazy people, because I don’t have a lazy bone in my body, so real indolence and laziness irritates me beyond belief; uber-narcissists, because their self-obsession can be so boring to be around; people who smile with their teeth and not their eyes. Passive-aggressive people who give with one hand and take with the other. Bad manners in the guise of being cool.
Oddly enough, some narcissistic people can be quite charming; people who don’t diet; people who are not emotionally repressed (which probably excludes me right off). Animals – dogs, cats, anything really – who are always, always, innocent and who bring so much purity to our lives by their presence close to us.
I don’t subscribe to Jean Paul Sartre’s saying “L’enfer c’est les autres”, even though sometimes it can feel like that. You can hate people or you can like them. The worst thing you can imagine, the most vile atrocity, will – if you are capable of imagining it – have been committed to someone, somewhere. But so will the best thing you can imagine. Basically we are a mixture. Collectively, we are often not at our best. Individually, we are not always at our best either. Ideally, small groups work best together as we nudge on along the path to civilise ourselves.