In the seaside resort town of Tramore, County Waterford, visitors arrive in waves during the tourist season, reliving the best days of their childhoods at the amusements. But behind the charm of the town the personal lives of locals are fraught with complicated friendships, alcoholic fathers, neighbourly disputes and ambitions beyond the town’s confines. The stories of these interconnected lives paint a portrait of a small town that becomes as much of a character as its inhabitants.
The book starts and ends with Helen and Stella and the story of their intense friendship. Of all the relationships in the book why is theirs the most compelling?
Teenage friendships are always intense. They coincide with independence and rebellion, with exploring identity and sexuality. Teenagers are super-dynamic as characters. They’re changing all the time, pushing against rules in a system designed to contain and control them. I’m interested in boundaries and how people behave when they’re in conflict. It’s very important to have an ally when you’re in your teens, somebody who gets you. That’s what Helen and Stella see in each other. The question is whether their friendship will endure. While their story is at the heart of The Amusements, I don’t think of it as the most compelling relationship in the book. For me, the parent and child relationships are more affecting. For others, it might be the husband and wife or the sibling relationships. I think it depends on where your head, or maybe your heart, is at when you’re reading the book.
Tell us about William Trevor’s Honeymoon in Tramore and why it “set you off on a flight of fancy”?
I’m not from Tramore. My mother’s family are from that part of the country so I know the place well. In Trevor’s short story, Davy Toome is sent from an orphanage in Cork City to work on a farm. For 20 years, the family are contemptuous of him until the farmer’s daughter Kitty gets pregnant and there’s nobody but Davy willing to take her as a wife. On their honeymoon in Tramore, Davy realises the contract he has signed himself up to. Trevor is a master of slow epiphany and frustrated desire. There’s sly humour and absurdity: a wall of death, a greyhound and a cement mixer. It’s a wonderful piece of writing, but it’s also the only piece of fiction I’ve come across that’s set in Tramore.
That astonished me because it’s such a vivid place. There were days I walked around Tramore and it seemed to be flinging raw material at me. So I sat down and wrote a couple of stories set in the town, one of them, The Court Order, was shortlisted for the Bath Short Story Award. Another, Visiting Hours, won the Harper’s Bazaar Short Story Competition. That story was about a little girl called Helen Grant whose father was drying out in a mental hospital. Helen Grant wouldn’t leave me alone. What happened to her? Was she happy? Did she make friends? I started to write answers to these questions and that’s how The Amusements evolved.
After a scathing review of the town, B&B owner Muriel concedes “it was true, the town had seen better days… but they didn’t need some guide book announcing it to the world”. How do you hope locals receive your book?
There will always be people who don’t read a book but who take a couple of lines out of context and are upset by them. That’s what I was touching on when Muriel hears the travel writer on the local radio station trying to defend himself. That said, The Amusements isn’t a travel book – it’s a work of fiction. And Tramore isn’t some seaside town I picked at random – it’s a character in the book and it has the layered complexity of a character. Of course it’s flawed, but it’s also magnificent, that’s why I’m interested in it. People who’ve read The Amusements have told me it made them want to visit Tramore, which was lovely to hear. I hope the book goes down well in Waterford, naturally I do, but that’s not up to me. People make up their own minds and so they should.
Stella reflects that “deep down, the English still think they own us”. Do you agree?
The Irish and English get on very well, often to the amazement of other nationalities, especially Americans. However, what I have observed is that Irish children learn about English history and geography, and they study English literature at school. The converse is not true of children in the UK. So, yes, there is an ignorance about Irish culture and heritage, and certainly about Irish independence and the Irish language. My personal experience of English people is different to Stella’s. My late, much-loved, father was English. There are probably more Flannerys in Lancashire than in the whole of Ireland. My family in Lancashire aren’t Irish – they’re proudly British. I cherish them as the link to my dad, but they have no political understanding or interest in Anglo-Irish relations. The North of England was stifling to my father, the way Tramore is to Stella. He moved here with my mother and my older brother and not once did I hear him express a desire to move back. He never thought the English owned Ireland and that was good enough for me.
You mention Anne Enright in your acknowledgements, who has said that Irish literary figures are more present in people’s lives (her granny worked with James Joyce’s sister, for example) and there’s less of a class thing about reading in Ireland. Do you think this extends to people in the likes of Tramore and has Irish literature in particular influenced you?
Anne is hugely influential. She writes about family with such precision and humour that I often have to go back to the top of the page for the pleasure of reading it again and to pick apart how exactly she makes it look so easy. And she’s right – Irish writers are more present – at least in public life and discourse. We’ve lots of writers for a relatively small population. We know we punch above our weight in terms of literature and we’ve a strong supportive Arts Council. I think Ireland has produced the best short story writers in the world. It would be boastful to name them all. When it comes to reading, the issue often isn’t class – it’s poverty. If you can’t afford housing, heating and food, how can you be expected to spend money on books?
Tramore is not a cultural backwater and yes, of course, people read there. While it no longer has an independent bookshop, it’s got a public library that’ll order any book you want from the Libraries Ireland catalogue. In Ireland, libraries don’t charge overdue fines so there’s no shame or expense in returning a book late.
Stella moves to New York but you write that people always come back to Tramore. Is emigration still a fundamental part of Irishness?
I think so. When a tiny country loses a million people to famine and you have mass emigration and depopulation for the next 150 years, it changes a nation’s sense of identity. Ireland is very connected to its diaspora and when you’ve lived through an Irish recession you know you’re only the next unemployment crisis away from enforced emigration. Even when the economy is doing okay, Irish people go abroad to work – it’s part of our psyche. In The Amusements, Stella emigrates because it gives her freedom and creative opportunities that she wouldn’t have in Tramore. Mind you, she wouldn’t have them in Dublin either. Stella is incurably restless. New York suits her because it’s a city in flux, where everyone seems to be either coming or going.
Did Tramore experience the same recovery from the post-2008 Irish economic downturn as the rest of the country, or is it battling a separate decline as a seaside resort? And what do you think its future looks like?
Tramore is naturally beautiful and lately the town is in great shape. It has a strong sense of community and the prom’s been developed so that it’s in use year round. I prefer Tramore in winter, especially around Christmas time if the weather is clear, which it has been for the last few years. I’ve heard that for many locals, Tramore is becoming unaffordable. People are moving there because they can work remotely, and it has everything they need in terms of infrastructure, schools, lifestyle. The battle that Tramore will face isn’t decline. Quite the opposite – it’s gentrification.