You previously told Big Issue North how you stumbled into writing at age 47 and quickly found you were able to write short stories. You said: “Irish people get short stories. I suspect it is due in no small part to a textbook studied by everyone who reached the age of 14 in an Irish school between 1969 and 1992 – Exploring English 1.” Was there pressure on you after publishing your story collection to turn out a novel or was it a natural progression for you?
In September 2019, I was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award for a piece called In Silhouette. It is set in the north of Ireland in the 1970s on the night a young woman’s life is changed by a murder she is witness to. It opens with a man walking into a bar. At that time I had 20 or so stories, a dozen of which seemed to sit well together – the makings of a collection, I suppose. Earlier that year I had been diagnosed with melanoma, which required painful surgery and a break from work. It occurred to me that I could not presume that I would have a long life. On and off I had been making notes and reading around an idea for a novel, and had accumulated 10,000 words or so. I sat around for a week watching Netflix, then I made a deal with myself that I would force a draft down, writing 1,000 words a day until it was done. I did not manage that every day, but most days I did, and within three months I had what could be charitably called a first draft. Eleanor Birne, my agent, submitted my short stories along with the first three chapters of the novel, which became Trespasses. Kevin Barry once said something along the lines that approaching a publisher with a short story collection is akin to dragging a dead cow into their office. This might well be the case, but since Eleanor was in a position to sell a novel too, I will never know.
In terms of writing, the novel was definitely a natural progression from the short story. I had no idea at the time, but In Silhouette was an early exploration of the themes at the heart of Trespasses: violence, loyalty, obsession. And simply in terms of length, my work had been going in that direction, each story longer than the last. Garland Sunday, the final one in my collection, had come in at 8,000 words, but I had written over 60,000 to get there. This is not to say I found it easy to write a novel! Just that it felt like the next step.
Tell us about your own upbringing in Northern Ireland and how it has shaped you and your writing.
I was born in Belfast in 1967 and grew up in a town about five miles away, on the shores of Belfast Lough. For a few years I lived within walking distance of all the relatives on my father’s side. My grandmother had a pub there and we were part of a small and tight community of Catholics, outnumbered eight or nine to one by Protestants. On the surface many people mixed, but really it was quite divided. Being part of a minority can lead to a feeling of vulnerability, and this was deepened by sectarian killings that were becoming more and more vicious. I had a childhood that was at once normal and stressful; all of us children were reared by nervous wrecks. I hope I conveyed those contradictions in Trespasses –that we watched Bagpuss in our pyjamas on Saturday mornings, and that we knew a UDR uniform from an RUC one.
If growing up in the north has had an effect on my writing it is maybe in the detail I use, the result of a type of hypervigilance, the need to name, categorise, classify. And it has certainly affected my writing voice. I lost my accent a long time ago, but my inner voice is northern.
Was it inevitable that your debut novel would be about the Troubles, and was it a daunting or gruelling undertaking?
The very first thing I ever wrote was set in Belfast and was an attempt at dramatising a story from my own family. I wrote a few stories with similar origins and then had an idea for something set in the present day in the west of Ireland, where I live now. I felt I had found a voice that I liked and a way of writing about place that was about more than location, and kept at that for the next couple of years. Then I wrote In Silhouette. It was an accident, something that grew out of a vignette in early draft of another story. I can see now that it ignited something in me: a desire to understand how we lived then, I think.
I was never sure I had it in me to finish writing a novel and therefore had the freedom to just give it a lash. As I was writing, I had many conversations with my family, asking them to confirm my recollections. These were sometimes enlightening, but mostly I found them unhelpful. We rarely agreed on details and ultimately I had to trust my own memories; childish and impressionistic as they were, they had emotional truth.
Alongside the obvious expressions of power in the conflict, the book explores more subtle expressions of power in the form of misogyny and in the relationship between Cushla and the much older Michael. Is conflict part of the human condition?
It would be hard to look at the world we live in and make a convincing case otherwise. It is certainly part of story-telling. If I had written a novel in which Cushla met Michael, a single Catholic man in his late twenties, it would be a page long. Conflict is an indispensable element of fiction.
Tell us about Cushla’s relationship with Davy and his family and why she becomes so involved with them.
I am interested in class and how it can be particularly complex in a society where other things are not equal. Within the local Catholic community Cushla’s family are considered well off, but in the company of Michael’s friends her social status is greatly diminished. Cushla is filled with a desire to help Davy’s family but naïve about the reality of what they have to navigate. Not Catholic enough for Father Slattery, and too Catholic for their Protestant neighbours, there is also the threat from officialdom in the background, where a casual remark can be used to muster the might of the state. Cushla’s interventions are ill-judged and ultimately catastrophic.
Before you were a writer you were a chef, working in a restaurant first in Dublin and then in Sligo. Does food have a role in your writing?
The kitchen is a highly sensory environment, in which all the senses are employed at once. I spent almost 30 years cooking for a living and that sort of sensory engagement is second nature to me. Writing about food is something I did from the outset without thinking much about it. Food is a great tool in fiction. It can be used to punish, to seduce, to show generosity or meanness. Now that I have readers I realise this is something I use more than a lot of other writers. Or maybe differently from them.
How stable do you think the peace process is? Has Brexit affected it and increased the possibility of a united Ireland?
The peace process has always been fragile. And it is just that: a process. Brexit has thrown lots of things into disarray, the Irish border question among them. It is not for me to predict whether there will be a united Ireland or not – I wrote a love story. Whatever happens, I hope I never see a return to the way things were when I was a child.