Is there more than one meaning in the title, Where They Lie?
I suspect there is. I found the novel difficult to name for quite a long time, but one day my daughter and I did a brain-storm at the kitchen table, tossing titles around on bits of paper for quite some time before settling on this one. It seemed right. It refers to a place in which the bodies of the two men may lie, and also to a place in which truth is hard-won.
What drew you to the subject of the Disappeared?
I came to it from two directions. First of all I realised that I hadn’t quite finished with the title story of my 2008 short fiction collection “Storm Over Belfast”, in which two characters similar to Gerda and Niall (but with different names), have an encounter in her home outside Belfast. I realised that these two somewhat polarised characters, former lovers but perhaps still friends, might form the basis for a novel. At that time I was thinking a lot about people who disappear, whether we speak of 9/11 and the atomised bodies of those who died that September, or whether we speak of children in Columbia or people in Sicily – and eventually, people in Northern Ireland. And so the germ was laid down. And it had to be twins. I don’t know why twins feature in my work so much, but they do. My last novel had twins, and there are twins in my very first novel also.
Did you hesitate at all? This territory is such a fresh and gaping wound – I don’t think I’d have had the balls to venture into it – do you think that growing up in Monaghan made it more possible for a Southerner to approach the questions you raise in the novel, about identity and tradition and the legacy of violence?
I never hesitate once I’ve decided on a subject and story. I thought I just had to try it, even though I knew I’d find the telling of such a story difficult to write. Perhaps growing up in Monaghan ensured that I have always had an awareness and keen interest in what’s happening in Northern Ireland. When I was at school there in the 70s I remember how the local girls were divided into the largish group who were sympathetic to the Provos, and the small minority which included me who were not. There was a sense of ferocity in the air, and you could feel it at the Saturday night discos and dances when young people streamed down from the North, because Monaghan was ‘safe’ but their own places were not. I disliked the incursion of the Provos into the town and along the border, the gradual move south that occurred at that time when extradition rules were a lot slacker and they were ‘safe’ in the south.
In some ways WHERE THEY LIE is about history, without being exactly historical, or not a traditional ‘historical novel’ (if I can say that). It’s very much about a present trying to come to terms with a brutal, ugly past. What do you think about accusations like the one made by Julian Gough a few years ago, about Irish writing being obsessed with the past?
Where They Lie is not really about history. It’s about the present too, and how we choose to live in it, and how we reap a questionable harvest for the evasions of the past. Julian Gough was talking through his hat when he wrote some years ago that Irish writing was obsessed with the past. Think of any British novelist of today – Barnes, Michele Roberts, Helen Dunmore, Will Self, Amis, Mantel – they have all to a man and woman written about the past. Most writers work that way, I believe. It all depends on the tone of voice though – whether it’s a whinge about a ‘lost’ past, or a determination to take the past and throttle it into some kind of sense!
How long did it take you to write this novel? It raises difficult questions and doesn’t reach for easy answers – did you go for total immersion when you were writing it, or did you come up for air and do other work at the same time?
It has taken me from 2008 – 2013 to properly finish this novel. I wasn’t able to go for total immersion when writing it, partly because that doesn’t agree with me and I find it too intense, but partly because I had to break off at times for some research, but also to relieve myself of the book’s tensions, which often got to me. I also had the usual obligations in my life to attend to.
One of the themes of the novel is language, specifically the Irish language. Niall is a teacher, and there are passages with Irish sentences and phrases threaded through them, not all with translation: can you talk about that?
I think most of them are kind of translated as we go along, but not everything I suppose. The reason I didn’t translate everything is because I’ve read other fiction which has included passages in languages most of us could not possibly understand, and I was able to accept them as part of the story, and that their presence in the novels in question was its own statement So I’m asking the reader to do that also. If I can tolerate a few pages of Chinese in an excellent novel, or lines of Arabic, then why not?
The characters express their sexuality differently, but frankly. Do you think the days of the suppressed/repressed sexuality stereotype in Irish fiction are over?
Those days are long gone and people are fairly cool about it. I do not think the Irish are sexually repressed any more, but like most other peoples we suffer from degrees of emotional repression and are dogged by, and full of conflict about, our emotional lives. We see the characters’ sexuality in both Belfast and Dublin. This, remember, is the giddy, free, high-octane Dublin pre-recession, and it is reflected in everything, from money spent, the sense of choice, to the sense of a free sexuality. Niall is totally unpressured about ‘settling down’, although he is nearing 40, and Gerda is quite ambivalent about it too.
The novel is strongly realist, but there’s a definite otherworldly atmosphere at times. Would you like to talk about that?
Is there an otherworldly atmosphere at times? Perhaps that is found in some of the evocations of landscape? I did want to suggest a world in which reality as the characters know it is always open to question. Apart from Alison, they are fairly secular characters yet Gerda, the protagonist, is the very one who looks to The Lord’s Prayer. It has a talismanic quality for her, a truthfulness which she allows herself to look to in having two 16th century versions of the prayer available to her. The idea of ‘tresspass’ and ‘debt’ are rendered deep in her consciousness, and despite herself she has this core of something – I’m not sure if it’s belief, but it is something transcendent. There is, you will notice, no otherworldliness at all in the sections which are set in Dublin, where life is busy and relentless and the Irish of the Republic are free-spending quite happily!
I like the notion that ideas are ‘ten a penny among writers but not many drop their guard enough to allow the stuff within the ideas to emerge.’ Could you elaborate on that?
This is a tricky one to answer. Remember, Gideon, who has this thought, is an invented character. These are his ideas on writerly ideas. So I separate myself as Gideon’s inventor, from this observation which is his. I’m not sure how much it belongs to me personally or reflects what I believe. The question of dropping guard: perhaps he means that many writers are too careful in their process. Beyond that I cannot comment.
In your blog and elsewhere you’ve written that you think women writers are underrated – can you talk about that? What is the biggest obstacle you face?
Female literary writers are indeed largely underrated unless they win a very big prize or unless they write formulaic books. It is largely male names which are referred to when literature is being discussed and what it has to say. I’m not sure what obstacles I face, to be honest. Some of them are of my own making and actually have nothing to do with my gender. For example, I’m not very good at talking about my own work in social circles, although I’m very happy to talk about the work of others. I am not pushy either, and you do need to be pushy to some extent. If I haven’t learned now I guess I’m not going to start at this stage either! Anything I have achieved I realise has come through my unadorned work and some talent obviously, but I haven’t ever been much of a game-player and am not likely to become one. But notwithstanding all that, it is difficult to be accepted as an authoritative voice in Irish literature at least. Sometimes it seems as if the most accepted writers are those who can be funny during interviews. I tend to be serious about things so perhaps in our culture that’s an obstacle. I love when I go abroad and find that I have an audience that is willing to listen and which asks questions and which engages with you and does not expect you to perform as a semi-comedian!
You’re a member of Aosdána, which has come under media fire recently: Would you like to talk about that? Why is Aosdána necessary? How has being a member made a difference to you and/or your work?
It has indeed been through the fires in recent times and this is partly the organisation’s own fault, as well as reflecting a pragmatic society that does like to see everything costed. People are very suspicious if they think they see a group of people who are getting something for nothing. Usually people who are not interested in the arts are most vocal about this. However, Aosdána needs to clean up its act. The organisation contains a few loose canons who have recently done great damage by attacks on journalists. But there are some balanced commentators who ask balanced and justified questions, such as the Sunday Times journalist Eithne Shortall. It has always been a pleasure and an honour for me to be part of Aosdána. I feel at home with the group of people whom I consider my ‘tribe’, for want of a better word. I don’t know all of them by any means, but I do know many and we are united in an understanding of what we wish to achieve artistically. Our work is important, but no more so than that of those people who have no aspiration to join the organisation. I do think that the more a nation invests in its culture, the better this is for its society – and not only through subsidiary avenues of employment that are a spin-off – instead, I believe that having people who are making art in the present, and acknowledging it by making their group in some way distinct (and I’m not speaking of money here), is a message to people that their dreamlife, their feeling life, the life that is in them which cannot be catered to through their daily duties and obligations, is worth respecting, nourishing and enriching. Aosdána should be welcoming new people in rather than – by accident of a faulty voting system in need to reform – keeping them out. It is my hope that great change will occur in the coming year.
You teach creative writing in NUI Maynooth and elsewhere. In a recent book of essays about teaching (Imagination in the Classroom: Teaching & Learning Creative Writing in Ireland), you said that you feel you have to disabuse students of the notion of fame. I found that surprising – can you say more about it here? Do you really think that people want to write so that they’ll become famous?
Most people do not write with fame as an objective, but some believe at quite an early stage that writing is all about connections, who you know, about celebrity, about advances etc. In fact what I am doing is trying to get them to distinguish between the fun side (if and when it occurs) and the other, more wondrous and ultimately lasting side, which is the slow processing of craft, the slow witnessing of your own ideas transmute into something as you work through the days and have nobody – or want nobody either – to talk to about it. I want to get them into the idea of the monkish solitude, and to test it and see if it’s a fit. That’s really what I’m at. (Looking back, I wish I’d had me as a creative writing teacher when I was about 23 or 24! I’d have learned a lot about how to handle myself as the creative process made space within me, and would have had fewer pauses of self-doubt).
What’s next for you?
There are several projects in the fire. First off is a collaborative novel with six other writers which will be published by Liberties Press next autumn in quite a large print run. Secondly I have a seventh collection of poetry coming out this summer. It’s called “The Parts”. And apart from that, life goes on and we go on, mostly in hope . . . but of what I’m never quite sure!
Thank you Lia.
Mary O’Donnell will be on a Dublin Writers’ Festival panel with David Farrell & Alison Millar in the National Library on Tuesday May 20th @ 6pm – Chair: Susan Mc Kay