The new novel from the Irish author of the Man Booker Prize-winning The Gathering, The Green Road (Jonathan Cape, £17.99) is about selfishness and compassion within a family, spanning 30 years.
Why is family such an enduring theme in your work?
The family, for me, is just a framework I use to ask the big questions – in this case about love and loss, about being connected to other people, or being alone. The family is a place everyone understands. We all have one. Or we all leave one.
Rosaleen finds herself with an empty nest but continues to provide a home in case her children decide to return. Is that a condition of motherhood?
I wasn’t really thinking of Rosaleen as an “empty nester”, though she is that too. I thought of her as more of an ancient figure, like King Lear, who decides to divide her inheritance before the proper time. A will is about love, death and favouritism – there is a kind of selfishness involved – and many great dramas are about inheritance and loss. But it is also true that, yes, Rosaleen is alone in that house, and it is too big for her. The children don’t want their childhoods to end like that – they need her to be a mother, not a dependent. But Rosaleen was always a bit of a nightmare, as well as being a fragile person, and old age does not improve her.
Is emigration still a fundamental part of Irishness?
The pain of exile has been in our songs and poems since 1691, when the Irish nobility lost their battles and fled to Europe. Or perhaps that should be ‘the pain of abandonment’. Ireland has a strange relationship with the people who left, and continue to leave – a bit sentimental, a bit dysfunctional. Emigration has left a terrible wound in the Irish psyche.
Does Rosaleen selling her house suggest that people have short memories about the Irish property bubble?
Well I lived through the boom and I lived through the collapse, and I saw what it did to people close to me. But a novel is a story, not a political comment. Nobody needs to be reminded of all that – the stress of it is in the faces of children I know, in the debts of their parents. My generation was stymied by the boom, the generation below me was nearly wiped out, from an economic point of view.
You have referred to the Booker Prize as a curse but you have been prolific since winning. How have literary prizes affected your life and career?
Did I say that? Prizes are a blessing as well as a curse. What’s wrong with just getting on with it? That’s what I say.
This interview first appeared in Big Issue North 4 May 2015