(Martina Devlin talks about her latest book, a collection of short stories: Truth And Dare: Short Stories about Women Who Shaped Ireland)
LM: Why did you decide to write fiction about these real historical figures, rather than historical/biographical accounts?
Martina Devlin: There’s magic in fiction. Also, I wanted to breathe life into my women and thought I could do it more convincingly with fiction which allows greater potential to explore human frailty. Some of these women notched up exceptional accomplishments, especially considering the times they lived in, so approaching their stories as biography carried a risk. It might end up like a shopping list of achievements. The project is unusual in that I blend fact and fiction – I reshape known episodes from their lives, inventing conversations and some scenarios while remaining true to the general thrust of what happened. For example, Speranza, Lady Wilde, wrote to the governor of Reading Jail asking for her son, Oscar Wilde, to be brought to see her before she died. That’s a fact. As a writer, I took that nugget of information and imagined (a) why she thought the governor might accede to her request and (b) how she reacted to his refusal. I admire the women I write about – their selflessness and idealism, as well as their practical streak, finding ways to circumvent obstacles – and hoped this fact-into-fiction method might bring them as vividly alive for readers as they are for me.
LM: Where did the idea of writing fictional portraits come from? I’m thinking about your Alice Milligan story in The Glass Shore, was that the first?
MD: Yes, Alice was the catalyst. I wrote about her for The Glass Shore, a wonderful collection edited by Sinéad Gleeson, and people seemed to be interested in Alice although she’s largely unknown among the general public outside her birthplace, Omagh (also my hometown). I learned her poetry in school and knew where she lived. That engagement people showed with her fictional portrait helped me to realise how stories can reach people – they seem to be more real to the audience, somehow. After Alice, I had a go at conjuring up Countess Markievicz and followed her up with Anna Parnell, by which stage I was hooked. Recreating these women is an act of ventriloquism, of course. But I don’t intend it to be fake or disrespectful. For me, it’s an act of celebration.
The idea for the collection came to mind because this year is the centenary of the vote for (some) women in Ireland and Britain, and I wanted to find a way to mark it. I’m a storyteller so it was natural for me to do it by telling stories.
LM: How does writing a collection of short stories like this differ from writing a historical novel, like The House Where It Happened?
MD: You tackle a short story via a sideways manoeuvre, whereas a novel is full frontal – at least the way I approach them. To be honest, the collection was more manageable than a novel because each story is bite-sized, although several are halfway to being novellas. When I was writing them I had the strongest sense that I was slipping inside each person’s skin – I felt like a character in a fairy story who finds a swan’s coat, tries it on and is transformed. The Truth & Dare women dared to imagine a different world and I had to find a way of entering their world, too. Metaphorically, I borrowed their clothes.
LM: How did you choose who to write about?
MD: It was partly a case of them choosing me. Belfast born Mary Ann McCracken has been tapping on my door for ages, except I didn’t know how to tell her story. The same goes for Countess Markievicz. When I decided to try my hand at a collection, I thought about who I admired and why – I chose my heroes. Mary Ann topped my list. And that told me I was looking for women who were daring, who pushed against boundaries. One of the lessons they taught me is the value of partnership because they supported one another.
Every society, every generation, needs heroes. But we have to be reminded about the women, in particular, because so many pioneering women who rattled their cages and challenged the status quo (man-made rules for the benefit of men) have been submerged, minimised or reduced to two-dimensional figures. That’s a misrepresentation of our past. And the past matters because we can learn from it and be inspired by it. These women didn’t ask anyone’s permission before taking control of their own destinies; they just did it. Some of them, such as Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Dr Kathleen Lynn and Dorothy Macardle, were jailed for their beliefs but that didn’t deter them. I see these women as sticks of dynamite – the repercussions from their actions reverberate still. We can vote, attend college and enjoy workplace protection because of them.
LM: Who did you leave out? (Will there be another collection later?)
MD: I’m haunted by all the women I left out – it’s a really long list but the one I regret most is Anne Devlin. The best I can say is I’d like to write more stories. However, I don’t believe in follow-ups or sequels. For me, I mean. They work for other people. I think if a writer isn’t changing and challenging themselves, they’re not simply standing still but sliding backwards. It is not a question of my becoming bored with a subject. It’s to do with the artist’s responsibility to stretch their parameters. William Golding said the writer should be a moving target and I’d go along with that. I accept that I may lose readers but perhaps I may also gain some. Fundamentally, I don’t want to be an old lady looking back on my life and wishing I’d taken more chances.
LM: Not much chance of that! Do you have favourites among the women?
MD: Mary Ann McCracken because she was loyal, honourable and persistent. In 1798, she walked her brother, Henry Joy McCracken, to the scaffold after he was condemned to be hanged as leader of the United Irishmen’s Northern army. Afterwards, she discovered he had an illegitimate child by a Cave Hill gamekeeper’s daughter and insisted on taking the little girl into the family in 1798 – to heck with any wagging tongues. She made a difference with her life, championing all sorts of causes from the anti-slavery movement to a campaign to stop children being used as chimney sweeps.
I also have a soft spot for Constance, Countess Markievicz. Her heart was in the right place and the people knew it: they turned out in their thousands in 1927 when her coffin passed by, although the Cumann na nGaedheal government refused her a state funeral. The people snapped their fingers and gave her a de facto one. I came across a telling detail during my research. A countrywoman offered the Countess some eggs to help build her up during her final illness. She didn’t manage to deliver them in time … so she left a nest of eggs among the wreaths. A promise was a promise and she felt Madame ought to have them anyway.
LM: What are you working on now/what’s next?
MD: I’m writing a novel about Edith Somerville as part of a PhD in literary practice at Trinity College Dublin. It’s set in 1922-3 when the new Irish state was taking shape – imagined into being; a period of adjustment for someone such as Edith, associated with the ancien régime. I find the period fascinating. Also, I’m interested in Edith’s act of faith in staying and throwing in her lot with the new state – the Ascendancy class didn’t know if property rights would be respected, for example. It’s a pity someone like her wasn’t offered a place in the Senate because she had plenty to say and her contributions would have been worthwhile.
She and her writing partner, Violet Martin, aka Martin Ross, intrigue me for a number of reasons – not least because they pushed against boundaries and were business-minded about their work. They were among the first to have a literary agent, James Pinker from London, who also represented D.H. Lawrence, Henry James and Arnold Bennett. Somerville and Ross were quite clear that they weren’t dilettantes but wanted to earn a living from their writing, asking for royalties rather than one-off payments because their books sold well and pushing for serialisation rights, too. I believe their reputations as writers suffers today because of their Ascendancy backgrounds but we have to find a place in modern Ireland for people of all traditions. Our definition of Irishness remains too exclusive, too racially pure – we have a tendency to pay lip service to diversity despite making a song and dance about our European identity. I deliberately included women in my collection who weren’t born in Ireland, such as Maud Gonne, but who are identified with the place and the people.
Martina Devlin is a novelist and journalist. She has had ten books published, including a collection of short stories Truth & Dare, a novel about Ireland’s last witchcraft trial, The House Where It Happened (optioned for film), and About Sisterland, a dystopian novel about a world ruled by women.
Her work has won a number of prizes including the Royal Society of Literature’s VS Pritchett Prize and a Hennessy Literary Award, and she was three times shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards.
A current affairs commentator for the Irish Independent, Martina has been named columnist of the year by the National Newspapers of Ireland. She is vice-chair of the Irish Writers Centre and a PhD candidate at Trinity College Dublin.
Contact Martina via her website www.martinadevlin.com