Mary Costello comes from Galway but she lives in Dublin. Her first book, a collection of short stories entitled The China Factory (2012) was published by the Stinging Fly Press to great acclaim, and was nominated for the Guardian First Book award. Anne Enright said her writing ‘has the kind of urgency that the great problems demand’. Her first novel, Academy Street (Canongate, 2014) won the Irish Book Awards Novel of the Year and overall Book of the Year. It has been welcomed with strong praise from J.M. Coetzee, Ron Rash, and John Boyne among others.
Academy Street tells the life story of Tess Lohan, an Irish emigrant to New York, starting on the day of her mother’s funeral when Tess is a small child. Her life is marked by loss and separation despite her intense longing for connection and intimacy. But Tess is not a victim. She has a vivid, questioning consciousness that is alert to small beauties and moments of grace but is unflinching as she faces the realities – and limitations – of her life. The power of this novel is in its narrative voice: subtle and deep; quiet but highly charged; irresistible.
LM: Mary, you’ve described yourself as a ‘latecomer’ to writing, can you explain that? Do you think that your experience of writing is different, for having waited? How did you know you were ready at that point?
MC: I didn’t know! There was no plan, things just happened. I’d been writing for years without sending work out, though I had a few stories published when I started writing in my twenties. I’d gotten married and was teaching fulltime and writing somehow slipped into the margins of my life. It felt like an interruption to life too, even a burden, and I tried to give it up. But it wouldn’t go away – stories would press up and I’d have to write them.
I wrote quietly all through my thirties and into my forties. In 2010 I sent two stories to The Stinging Fly magazine and the editor liked them and published them and asked it I had any more. And I had, of course, and he wanted to publish a collection, and that’s how The China Factory came about. So I never set out to write a collection. The stories just accumulated over the years.
I don’t have any regrets about coming to publishing quite late. I think maybe it helped me find my own voice because I wasn’t writing for anyone or any audience. And I wasn’t part of any writing community either. Looking back that sense of containment – and isolation, even – seemed to suit me.
LM: You must be sick of people asking this, but can you talk about Academy Street as a novel versus your previous short stories?
MC: There are differences, though in the process it doesn’t always feel that different because in both forms you’re trying to find exacting language and keep the narrative taut. Stories are much less transparent, more oblique, because something is always lurking. Both forms have their challenges. You have to keep a story in the air for 20-30 pages but you also have to keep a novel in the air, to a large extent. And for maybe 200-300 pages. The pacing is different and there’s a bit more breathing space in a novel.
I wrote my way into the novel, chapter by chapter, and reworked each chapter as I went along before I advanced onto the next one. In a way I kind of tricked myself into thinking of them as individual stories, which of course they aren’t.
LM: You sometimes talk about the notebooks you keep – do you keep a separate notebook for every story? Can you tell us how you use them?
MC: Yes, when a new story begins to stir and press up I start jotting down notes. I used to use small notebooks but now I use large A4 hardback copies. I did the same with the novel – I think I used three or four of those in the end. I also keep small notebooks and scraps– in the handbag, in the car, etc, which get stuffed into the notebooks for safe keeping.
I can only work on one story at a time, though ideas and thoughts for new stories often arise and if I think these have potential I’ll ‘open’ a new notebook.
I write longish swathes of narrative into the notebooks too. I only eventually start a story on the laptop when I’ve got a lot of notes accumulated, and work off my notebooks – this is the raw material, the way in.
I worry about losing my notebooks. When I was writing the novel I used to get very anxious… Whenever I went away I hid them for fear of burglars, and of course I worried that the house would burn down.
LM: Who do you read? Who are you reading now?
MC: Favourite writers are JM Coetzee, Marilynne Robinson, Alice Munro. Also James Salter, Alastair McLeod, Borges, Camus. I like contemporary European writers like Per Petterson, Peter Stamm, Judith Hermann. I recently read Jenny Offhill’s Dept. of Speculation and Ben Lerner’s 10:04 and really liked them. At the moment I’m reading Antonio Lobo Antunes, the Portugese writer… very short and strangely alluring stories.
I read a fair bit of poetry too. Especially when I’m stuck… there’s something in poetry that delivers me, helps with a break-through. I return to my staples – Eliot, Rilke, Ted Hughes, Derek Mahon.
LM: Is there anything about your life as a writer that has surprised you (good or bad)?
MC: The surprise was that both the collection and the novel were well received. I’m really grateful for that – and lucky – because I know that a lot of good books don’t get the attention they deserve. Grateful too for the friendship and generosity of new writer friends.
Being out in the world as a writer brings new anxieties, and even old anxieties like self-doubt never leave. After my first book I worried that I wouldn’t be able to write another one, that I might be a one-trick pony. When I finished the novel I couldn’t write for six months. I’m still not sure I can. I think maybe with each book, something is lost. Hopefully something is gained too, but on slow days I wish I could recover that blind naïve way of writing I had in the early years.
LM: Turning to ACADEMY STREET: Can you tell us about Tess, where she came from (in your imagination)?
MC: Tess and Easterfield were in my mind for a while. My mother came from a big old house and farm in the west of Ireland, and I modelled Easterfield – Tess’s childhood home in Academy Street – on that place. As a child it had made a great impression on me; it had two stairs and large reception rooms, a gong in the hall, a coachhouse and an orchard, an avenue with old trees. It had been built in 1678 and for a time in the late 1840’s was used as a hospital to relieve over-crowding in the local workhouse during the Famine. 179 people died there and the unclaimed bodies were buried in ditches and under trees – these same places where my mother had played as a child.
My mother’s mother died when she was three. When I was small I was very close to my mother, and I would sometimes look at her and think: You had no mother, and that thought would almost break me. Later, it struck me how catastrophic the death of a parent – in particular the death of a mother – is for a child. How the trajectory of a whole family’s future can suddenly change. And how, too, the effects might be felt for several generations. My mother’s older sisters were taken out of boarding school to help rear the younger children. They would, most likely, have gone on to university as their friends did, but that never happened.
In my novel Tess trains as a nurse and emigrates to America, as so many Irish men and women did in the fifties and sixties. My mother never emigrated, but two of her sisters and her brother did. One of her sisters, Carmel, was a nurse in New York in the early sixties and lived in an apartment on Academy Street in Inwood, the northern tip of Manhattan. She stayed in New York for just four years before returning to Galway. Unlike my aunt, though, Tess remains in New York and lives a quiet intense life against the backdrop of the major events of the second half of the twentieth century. I borrowed stories from my mother’s childhood and from my aunt’s time as a nurse in New York, but Tess is a fictional creation and her interior life, both as a child and as an adult, is entirely imagined
I’ve never lived in New York but visited many times and have always been in thrall to it – the intoxicating effects of TV, film, music, and photographs of American aunts, uncles, cousins that I pored over as a child, all of them looking beautiful and glamorous to my eyes. I was there in the summer of 2011 and went up to Inwood, where my aunt and other Irish emigrants had lived in the sixties, and walked around the streets and the park, the church, the library. I felt their presence very strongly there. I stood across the street from a school one day, as parents waited to collect their children. There were a few pivotal moments when the novel was forming and this was one of them – the character of Tess seemed very real at that moment.
LM: Do you think Tess has a defining characteristic? What would you say it is?
MC: I think it’s probably her introversion that defines her. She gets her energy from within and the interior world carries more weight and meaning for her than the external world. That can make her seem passive but in fact her life is vibrant and passionate and turbulent within. A strong inner life isn’t visible or easily measured so it tends to carry less currency or value – we live in very extroverted societies where normalcy and success tend to be measured by outer appearances, social engagement and self-expression. These are the perceived indicators of a well-adjusted and authentic life.
Tess is also intuitive – she has the sense, even as a child, of hidden forces, maybe even other realities, around her and this is a significant aspect of her character all her life. She’s often aware of danger floating close; she’s prone to premonitions, intimations, feelings of prescience. She also has a need to put her finger on something of substance, touch some higher note, catch a glimpse of something numinous maybe. It’s the human urge to expand her consciousness.
I’m often asked if Tess would have been different had her mother lived. I don’t think she would. I think this is her inborn nature. I think she might have been a little less fearful in the outer world – her mother, if she’d lived, might have have mediated the world for her, as good parents do, and helped strengthen the ego so that the world seemed less dangerous, less fearful. But even at age seven when the novel opens and she’s had her beloved mother up to this point, she’s already hyper alert and sensitive to things.
LM: Tess has a heightened, almost extra-sensory, awareness of the life of everything in the world, including places and objects. Quite early in the novel there is a gorgeous passage where (as a child whose mother has recently died) she imagines that parts of the house remember her mother and miss her. But ‘even as she has these thoughts she knows they are not something she will ever put in words.’ Can you talk about the challenge of writing these ideas that are almost beyond words? Yet plainly, you managed to find the words to express them. How hard was that to do?
MC: I wrote Tess’s childhood in the present tense because I think young children live in the very immediate present, in a very senses-orientated present. A little like animals do. There’s little forethought of the future or even thoughts of the past… instead they are hyper-alert to the moment, to the physical world around them, attuned to their own bodies – they’re hungry or they need to pee or their shoe hurts. They live with an acute sensory awareness which makes them alert to the smallest tick and throb of the physical world around them. The door between perception and the imagination is ajar in childhood and most kids are very porous to the mystery of the physical world.
I tried to stay very close to Tess – tight to her in each scene – behind her eyes, minute by minute almost. I don’t remember it being hard, writing those sections. The language of a seven year old is fairly simple, but the imagination isn’t.
LM: I was taken by the notion that the young Tess feels that there is something good in the pain she feels – later, as a lonely woman hungry for touch and companionship, she recognises something sweet in the longing that would be ruined by fulfilment. Can you talk about that?
MC: I’m not sure Tess as a child can articulate that sense that there might be some potential worth in pain, though – especially after the death of her mother – she has an inkling that there might be, but by teenage years she does. It’s to do with extreme feeling and the integration of opposites – that in order to know great joy one may have to experience its polar opposite. Likewise, as an adult, she perceives that within the seeds of love lie love’s decline or destruction and she’s able hold or contain that foreknowlege within her, and, rather than act on it and risk ruining it, she can hold it in its infinitely perfect state within her, preserve it in her imagination – that sweet longing as you say. Of course a psychoanalyst would say these are defence mechanisms employed to avoid commitment or risk hurt. But in fact Tess takes a few big risks in life and in love, and suffers for them. As most people do over a whole life – I don’t think Tess’s travails are any greater than many people’s.
In the end I think Tess might say that nothing was wasted… because, even when things go terribly wrong – even when love goes catastrophically wrong – consciousness is expanded and the heart is enlarged.
LM: Can you talk about the end? It really is devastating, maybe all the more so because it feels so very true. Did you always know where you were going with Tess?
MC: I knew the direction of her whole life before I started, yes, and the major events. I didn’t know all the details or experiences – for instance Willa, the black woman who becomes her friend, just appeared as I was writing that scene – a door opened and she walked out onto the landing to put garbage in the garbage chute.
But I knew I’d keep Tess in New York through the second half of the twentieth century, and that she’d live through those signature events of US life – JFK’s assassination, Vietnam, the moon-landing, 9/11. Many of these events are unfolding on the periphery of her life, especially early on when she’s consumed by motherhood. But they have a bearing on Tess’s life, as they had a bearing on so many lives globally – like almost everyone of that generation my mother remembers exactly the spot in her kitchen she was standing in when news came on the radio about JFK’s shooting.
These events and tragedies continue to resonate and they’re imprinted on all of our psyches. Just a few years ago, I accidentally discovered that a distant cousin died in the Twin Towers. The knowledge that a blood relative of mine had perished that day had a profound effect on me and brought that catastrophe closer, forced me to relate to it in an even more personal way.
Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, Mary – and very best wishes for the novel, making its way around the world.