Here’s a link to my review of Lila, Marilynne Robinson’s most recent novel, in the new issue of the Dublin Review of Books:
Here’s a link to my review of Lila, Marilynne Robinson’s most recent novel, in the new issue of the Dublin Review of Books:
TAKING THE PLUNGE is an anthology of writing across several genres commissioned by DLR libraries from new and established local writers. The book was edited by Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin.
A series of lunchtime readings – with music – will run on Tuesdays through May and June in the studio theatre of the new Lexicon. This coming Tuesday (19th) at 1:00 pm I’ll be reading with Angela Finn. Cliona McCabe will play the harp. There will be free copies of TAKING THE PLUNGE for everyone in the audience. Work includes fiction, non-fiction, poetry for adults and children by Denise Deegan, Martina Devlin, Angela Finn, Mark Granier, Lucinda Jacob, Dave Kenny, Iggy McGovern, Lia Mills, Ciara O’Dowd, Sinéad O’Loughlin, Michelle Read and Sarah Webb. The Studio theatre is beside Brambles café, inside the new Lexicon building. http://libraries.dlrcoco.ie/…/dlr-lexicon-whats-april-june
Current DLR writer-in-residence Colm Keegan set up a gig in the Studio of the new Lexicon as part of the Dublin One City One Book festivities. This year’s book is Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy: The Comittments, The Snapper and The Van, reissued in one volume.
The Lexicon, for those of you who don’t know, is the new central library and cultural space for Dun Laoghaire. It’s an ambitious building and it’s controversial, partly because of how much it cost – figures vary but in or around 40 million is where it seems to settle – and partly because of its scale and design. Some people love it, some hate it. There are Dun Laoghaire people who have vowed never to set a living foot inside it.
Colm took all of this on, on the night. The lineup included poets, fiction writers and musicians and the brief was to read a favourite extract from Roddy Doyle’s work and a piece of their own. The musicians/singers were Enda Reilly and Sinéad White, and the readers were Colm Keegan, June Caldwell, Stephen James Smith, Karl Parkinson. Colm Keegan said that Roddy Doyle writes brilliant Dublin dialogue and he planned the night in that spirit, his aim was to bring ‘an apocalyptic amount of Dublin accents’ to Dun Laoghaire.
It was a treat, from start to finish. June Caldwell brought the house down and set the tone with her reading of the scene in The Snapper where Sharon tells her mates she’s pregnant. Then she read a fresh story of her own, “Natterbean”, written and read with a comic energy that’s pure Dublin. All of the contributors are pure (whatever that might be) Dublin. Stephen James Smith read from The Snapper too, the scene where Darren gets a bike for his birthday, and some poems of his own including the iconic “How Is She?” and an experimental poem that, he told us, was literally written in the margins of a copy of the Barrytown Trilogy, on a bookstall in Temple Bar Square. Karl Parkinson talked about influences and read from The Commitments, where Joey the Lips turns up for his interview with Jimmy. Then poems of his own. Enda Reilly and Sinéad White played a mix of songs from the film The Commitments and their own songs – giving proceedings the atmosphere of a late night session. They could have rocked the building and brought the whole town indoors to listen if we’d stayed on for the night.
Colm Keegan took a detour through A Star Called Henry – it was his party so he could stray if he wanted – and read the scene where Henry and Vinnie have their brief experience of school. Then he read his own poems, including the brilliant, heartbreaking/uplifting “The Promise”, and a poem about the Lexicon, written as part of his residency.
One of the many amazing gifts of this event was the level of honest exposure each of the readers brought to proceedings. Maybe it’s because they’re friends, or because they’re all part of the performance poetry/spoken word scene here, or else it’s just because this is a tone that Colm seems to strike everywhere he goes – he’s honest and he’s real, in what he says as well as what he writes. Everyone spoke about what Roddy Doyle’s work has meant to them and in doing so they said a lot about what their own work is and means. Colm told us that he’s a product of the libraries. When you’re a kid like he was, if you ‘look like a skanger and come from Clondalkin’, you get followed round the shops by people who expect you to steal something, but the libraries let you in and give you books. He acknowledged the controversy of the Lexicon but reminded us that the libraries belong to all of us and this one is no exception. It’s ours. We should use and support it.
Colm Keegan has a facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/ColmKeeganWriter
June blogs at: https://junecaldwell.wordpress.com/
Stephen does just about everything at http://www.stephenjamessmith.com/
Karl is at: http://karlparkinson.blogspot.ie/
Enda Reilly is at: http://www.endareilly.com/
Listen to Sinead White on: https://soundcloud.com/sinead-white-1
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.
(Part of the Dublin: One City One Book programme for 2015)
Dublin: One City, One Book is a Dublin City Council initiative, run by Dublin City Public Libraries. In the ten years of its existence it has grown from a handful of events to a month long festival. Every year, a book connected to Dublin is chosen and a programme of events is built around it. This year’s book is the Barrytown Trilogy, by Roddy Doyle, which publishes three of his earlier novels in one: The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van.
Catherine Dunne interviewed Roddy Doyle in the RDS Concert Hall on Wednesday 8th April. Introducing the event, Jane Alger said that if you’ve seen the films you might think you know the books, but you don’t – until and unless you read them.
This is the sort of thing I wish people would say more often.
I can’t reproduce CD’s questions, because they were so skilful – and the two writers know each other so well – that being there felt like listening in on a conversation where one person (by design) did most of the talking, with unobtrusive prompts from the other. They were that relaxed and easy together, despite the couple of hundred or so people who were eavesdropping. Here’s a summary:
Catherine Dunne and Roddy Doyle go back a long way. They met 36 years ago in the staffroom of Greendale Community School as young teachers. RD started as a H Dip student, complete with Doc Martins and stud in his ear (his nickname was Punk Doyle). In fact, CD lent him a smaller earring for his interview. He loved that job, loved the kids, enjoyed the way they spoke. It was a new school in a rapidly developed part of Dublin, the staff were young and enthusiastic, there was a great sense of fun there – although he wouldn’t want to be too nostalgic about it. He realised he had a great interest in how people speak, in the patterns and speed of speech, how sentences are constructed, how you could be clear without being accurate.
In 1982 he went to London and spent the summer writing an ‘awful’ novel. In 1986, starting to write The Commitments, something finally clicked with him, it was the voices he heard around him every day that he was interested in writing. He imagined the kids a bit older, ‘grown up’. They weren’t that much younger than him. He worked out new rules for himself, how to spell things, making it up as he went along. He knew he wanted to get a group of young people together, and the best way to do it would be either through football or a band (RD is a soccer fan, with a wide-ranging love of music). Paul Mercier – who also worked in Greendale at the time – had just written Studs, an inventive and clever play about a football team so RD opted for the band instead. (He possibly had his tongue planted in his cheek for that one, but it’s a good story. Plausible too.)
It was fun, he said, to superimpose Black soul on Dublin. There were a couple of Ska bands at the time that influenced him: The Specials’ Trombone player Rico Rodriguez, for example, looked ‘really cool’; RD wanted someone like that in the novel, someone who’d been to America and played there, but nothing had to be explained. He likes that, when there is ‘a backstory, as the film people say’ but you don’t have to tell it.
He laughed, saying he was accused of sexism at the time because the women don’t play instruments. Those people missed the point completely: the men don’t play well and the women run rings around them. CD asked if The Commitments was fun to write (great question). RD says writing isn’t fun, but it was exhilarating.
Writing is a job, he says. He doesn’t believe in inspiration. You don’t wait for the words to come, you have to be writing or the ideas won’t come at all. He’s about 40K words into a new novel, and he’s only now beginning to feel he knows what it is. He doesn’t measure his output in words per day but in pages per day. The first draft is the hard part. (CD: It’s like you’re pulling it down out of the ether). RD likes getting out the red pen.
He is, famously, a voracious reader. Asked what his favourite early books were, he says: the William books (Richmal Crompton) and everything by Enid Blyton. Later Catch 22 was a big hit – he was devastated that there were no more by Joseph Heller (until Something Happened). Ragtime (E.L Doctorow) was another favourite. He talked about a TV programme called the Paperback Review – a great idea, his whole family used to watch it. He first heard of Isaac Bashevis Singer there, read The Slave, was enthralled by it. Another favourite was At Swim Two Birds by our own Flann O’Brien. Now? He’s addicted to the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard.
Favourite themes include families, and they talked about Family, Doyle’s 1994 TV series. CD remembered its impact – it aired a few nights after the triumph of Riverdance, and there was quite a (predictable) fuss at the time. We’d just had such a triumph, why drag us down to the muck again? – and so on. RD got hate mail, death threats. [Although it has to be said that practically the whole country cheered at the decisive moment in Episode 4 when Ger Ryan as Paula clocked Charlo with the frying pan. It was a truly iconic moment in Irish culture; I remember it well.] Then he went on to write The Woman Who Walked Into Doors. There was quite the fuss about that too, but he got a lot of support from women’s groups.
Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, his brilliant, Booker winning novel about childhood was a deliberate departure from the trilogy. Having a child of his own got him thinking about childhood; his parents still lived in the house he grew up in, he could do things like go down on his knees to see the height of the fridge from that perspective. CD asked how he thought himself back to the state of a 6 or 7 year old child. RD said, When you’re a man you don’t have to go too far back.
That got a laugh from the crowd. We laughed a lot. They talked about other things: the later novels, the play (The Commitments is currently running in London), ghostwriting The Second Half (Roy Keane’s autobiography), the Libretto he’s writing now (an English language version of Don Giovanni). Roddy Doyle is nothing if not versatile. He’s also famously generous, with his time and with his support. On this occasion he was fantastically generous and open with his responses. Then again, he was in good hands. The whole occasion was a rousing success. We were all a little startled when Catherine Dunne realised they had run over time – we hadn’t felt the time pass. That’s how entertained we were. Then we all repaired to the fabulous RDS library for refreshments.
For the full – and extremely varied – programme of this year’s Dublin: One City, One Book, go to:
How to be both, Ali Smith, Hamish Hamilton, 372pp, €14.99, ISBN: 978-0241146828
Reading Ali Smith can be a bit like jumping onto a moving train: it might take a page or two to find your feet. Her savvy, smart characters strike verbal sparks off each other. Time creases, folds back on itself. You’re on shifting ground. Suddenly you find the story’s centre of gravity, give yourself up to its rhythms and let it carry you away. (…) http://www.drb.ie/essays/pay-attention