Some of your characters of The Glorious Heresies, your first novel, come back in The Blood Miracles. I’ve read that you are writing a third novel where the same figures are still present. Had you decided to write a trilogy from the beginning, or have you found you have more to say about them while writing?
I had the vague idea at the beginning that this would be a trilogy, and that I’d very loosely base the novels on the hendiatris “Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll”. Which means that the rock ‘n’ roll novel’s coming next. I had most of the main characters in my head for years before I started writing, so I knew that they had more to say to me than would fit in one book. And the concept for The Blood Miracles existed before the concept for The Glorious Heresies. It’s all quite jumbled in my head, so there’s a lot of work in ironing it all out, figuring out what happens when, and to whom.
I’ve thought of Irvine Welsh’s books reading your novels. Like you, he presents flamboyant losers, follows their courses through different novels, and explores their environment and languages… Do you like his work? Do you think some authors have an influence on your work?
I read Trainspotting when I was a teenager and I could hardly make sense of it – here was this untamed, rule-breaking, expansive collection of narratives, like nothing I’d read before. Some of the images I got from Welsh’s work when I first read him, at the age of maybe 15 or 16, are still in my head, from the chapters ‘Bad Blood’ and ‘Eating Out’ in particular. Discovering the likes of Irvine Welsh and Pat McCabe in my teens really changed the way I thought about writing, and opened my mind to the various ways writers can twist stories and manipulate readers. I think that’s when I was most open to influence. I don’t think authors I read as an adult have had the same effect on me or how I thought about writing, probably because I’m obviously more sure of my own style now.
You immediately gained success and won the Baileys women’s prize for fiction and the Desmond Elliott prize for The Glorious Heresies. Have these distinctions been an encouragement to continue or, on the contrary, has it put pressure on you?
It’s a mix, really. Right now it feels wholly encouraging, like it’s proof that I was doing the right thing all along, that I’m meant to be writing. But before The Blood Miracles was published, I worried that it meant people would be expecting Heresies 2, and wouldn’t want to read a novel with a different tone and a sharper focus. Then The Blood Miracles was longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Dublin Literary Award, and won the RSL Encore Award, so I suppose I needn’t have been so anxious about it.
The action takes place in Cork. Could your characters have lived elsewhere in Ireland?
It’s a very particularly Irish story, so a lot of the experiences the characters have had could happen to anyone in any part of the country. But in terms of the size of the community the characters come from, the chances for the kind of coincidences that make the action possible, and so on, Cork is the right place for this story. The events of The Blood Miracles take place where there’s a port and access to the Irish black market through that port, so it’s very definitely Cork. Cork has a very distinctive feel and rhythm. It’s the Republic’s second city and it acts as all second cities do – with a kind of endearing arrogance and a chip on its shoulder. And the way that the characters speak is particular to Cork. The way we speak is so important – the language we use defines how we look at the world. The characters are Corkonians. They wouldn’t be themselves if they were from anywhere else. They’d have grown up with different accents, vocabularies, different experiences of their landscapes, different ways of thinking about Ireland. . . Without Cork, the whole thing changes.
Do your consider Cork as the Arse End of Ireland, from the name of your blog?
Not at all! While I was blogging, I moved from the west of Ireland to Cork, which you might think meant I moved from the arse of the country to the city. But the funny thing is, everyone in Ireland thinks that their area of Ireland is the most forgotten about, the most disadvantaged or misunderstood. So anyone can be from the arse end of Ireland. It’s a state of mind, not a geographical location.
I’ve seen that your novels, because they are very good, have been described as masculine books. It should have made you angry, shouldn’t it?
It used to confuse me more than make me angry. I’m not really confused or irritated by it now. Probably because I drew so much attention to it back when Heresies was published that no one’s tried to say it since! I suppose it was intriguing for me, more than anything else. I think it’s because we’re so used to gritty urban literature, rife with sex, drugs, crime and slang, being written by men. Or maybe because so many of my characters are men – all of Miracles is told from Ryan’s perspective. Maybe it’s because The Glorious Heresies is undeniably a state-of-the-nation novel, when many conservative readers and commentators still think that women write domestic stories. Maybe it’s because I use the word “fuck” so much. Who knows?
The narrative construction of your novels is incredible. The characters seem to be drawn in a matrix that link them one to another. How did you compose the elements of your story? Do you work from a detailed plan?
I don’t! It all comes from character. When you spend a lot of time getting to know a character, in your own head, putting them into this situation or asking them to react to that particular thing, you can easily see where they might fit in their own world and who might be connected to them. When I started Heresies with Maureen having just accidentally killed a man, I knew straight away that she was Jimmy’s mother, that Jimmy was Tony’s old friend, that Tony was Ryan’s father. When a character comes together in my head I don’t just want to know who he is, but who his parents are, who he loves, who he’s friends with, and so on. And then those characters become intriguing to me. So how they are all connected is part of that world-building. I know how one character’s action might affect another character, and then I ask myself what that affected character might do, and what that action might mean in the world of the story. It’s all quite organic, really. I give the characters something to react to, and I follow them from there.
I love the titles you gave to your novels. They are paradoxical, ambiguous towards religion, enigmatic. What did you want to express through them? Can we know the title of your third one?
I didn’t decide on The Glorious Heresies as a title until the very last moment. I couldn’t find the right title for so long, nothing that would encapsulate everything I wanted to say and the variety of life in the book. In the end it came to me – it’s a twist on the glorious mysteries of the rosary, which is an important prayer in the Marian tradition of Catholicism. Catholicism permeates so much of the everyday in Irish life, whether or not we still believe; it’s worked its way into the fabric of the place. It made sense to corrupt a religious sentiment for the title, because that’s such a huge part of what the book’s all about. I wanted to continue that for the second book. The Blood Miracles refers to the blood miracle of San Gennaro in Naples, which is the city Ryan’s mother is from. And Ryan’s blood – that mix of Irish and Italian – gets him in and out of trouble repeatedly throughout the events of the book. As for the third title, I won’t say. I always decide titles with my editor, so until he says he’s happy with it, I won’t tell anyone what I’ve been thinking. But it fits with the other two!
From France, it seems that Ireland is deeply changing, and that these changes come from the will of the people. I think about abortion rights, gay marriages, and end of punishment for blasphemy. Are they the signs of the decline of the weight of Catholic Church on people’s life, and especially on women’s life?
Oh, of course. The truth is that the authority of the Catholic Church had been in decline for years, but it collapsed in the ‘90s with the scandals around child abuse, the abuse of the ‘Magdalene’ women, industrial schools, cover-ups of crimes committed by members of the church, and so on. How could anyone look for moral or spiritual guidance from such an organisation? The rituals still remain: many Irish couples still marry in church or baptise their children, for example. And it’s in our language: to say hello in Irish, you say ‘Dia duit’ — God be with you. To respond you say, ‘Dia is Muire duit’ — God and Mary be with you!
But Mass attendance has dropped dramatically, and the Irish people are no longer interested in what the Vatican has to say about reproduction or marriage or LGBT people. The marriage equality referendum and the abortion rights referendum both passed by a landslide: grassroots campaigners went up against the wealth and influence of the Catholic church and American pro-life lobby groups, and won. Emphatically. I don’t think the Irish want to be told what to do by anyone anymore. We’ve had enough of it.
Do you think that what happened to Maureen, or in Magdalene’s asylums for instance, is part of Irish History now, that women are equal to men, at last?
We’ve come a long way. There are some things that could be improved for everyone, regardless of gender. Affordable childcare, better maternity and paternity leave, better support for single-parent families, especially in terms of housing or assistance for working single parents. More attention in these areas will help us achieve full equality. Better sex education, tackling consent and including LGBT issues. More resources for victims of domestic and sexual violence, better conviction rates and working towards the people having more faith in the legal system when it comes to reporting rape, assault and abuse. But these are areas every country needs to work on, not specific to Ireland. We’re doing well, far from the days where ‘fallen’ women were locked away and the bishops told men that they had authority over their wives’ bodies. We just have to keep going.
In your novels, the girls ((Karine and Natalie) are doing better than boys. Is it only because they come from a better environment?
Pretty much. Karine comes from the same part of Cork City as Ryan, but she has supportive parents who are determined that she does well. And Natalie is from a middle-class area, with parents who expect her to succeed. She’s not exactly a nice person, though. Natalie is doing better than Ryan in terms of education and prospects, but I think he’s a kinder person that she is, deep down.
Of course, there’s gender-specific context. Even if Karine didn’t have such caring parents, she probably wouldn’t have started dealing drugs, like her boyfriend did. As a girl she certainly wouldn’t have been encouraged to take a chance in such a dangerous world. As a boy, Ryan was expected to be able to cope with the messes he got himself into. We dismiss troubled teenage boys quicker than we do teenage girls, I think. There’s a reason all of the people Ryan works for and with are men.
Do you consider Ryan as a victim?
That’s a tough one! His mother died when he was eleven and he has a difficult relationship with his alcoholic father. He started dealing drugs at only fourteen, so is it fair to assume he was able to understand what he was getting himself into, that he could consent to it? Legally he was too young to leave school, to leave home, to have sex, to drink or smoke or vote or work. You might argue that as he grew older he could realise that he was making terrible choices, hurting himself, his loved ones, his community and his country. At the start of The Blood Miracles he’s twenty years of age, legally an adult. But would it have been so easy for him to turn his back on that business and the people he worked with? It’s not like he could have asked for a redundancy package. I don’t like to tell the reader how to take Ryan: it’s up to them, and there are plenty of readers who love him, and plenty of readers who think he’s terrible! You either have room to forgive him, or you don’t.
Does he make mistakes also because he does not how to say ‘I love you”, that he does not have the words to express his feelings?
Ah, he does have the words. He has the words in more than one language. He found it difficult to tell Karine he loved her when he was fifteen, but what fifteen-year-old boy wouldn’t struggle with that? He has no problem with telling her he loves her from that point. If anything he has the opposite problem: he says things easily, he finds it much harder to back up his words with actions. Not that he’s an unrepentant liar, but words are cheap. In terms of the relationship between him and his father, I wouldn’t say either have said they loved the other since Ryan was little. But that’s not unusual in Ireland, and boys, especially working-class boys, are encouraged to ‘control’ their emotions, and hide their vulnerabilities.
Maureen does have a way with words. Doesn’t she have a very Irish sense of humour?
I’ve always said so, but now I think that all cultures find humour in the same places. Ireland certainly isn’t the only country with an inclination towards gallows humour. That said, Maureen obviously has a very Irish way of speaking. Our dialect of English, Hiberno-English, is distinguished by playfulness and verbosity. We’re storytellers and embellishers, and wit is more important than truth. And a sentence that provokes a strong reaction is the most useful sentence. All of these qualities are present in Maureen. She’s pure cute, and ‘pure cute’ in Ireland doesn’t mean wholesome and sweet. It means extremely wily.
Alcoholism, poverty, violence, weight of familial and religious traditions… Can we see your work as a new exploration of classical themes of Irish literature?
I don’t know, but I won’t complain if that’s what you want to do! But then, aren’t they universal themes?
Do you fear the consequences of Brexit on Ireland?
Naturally. It’s an unadulterated disaster — ill-advised, insincere, implemented by idiots. And Ireland is the only EU country with a land border to the United Kingdom, a fact that they seemingly forgot until after the vote. On top of that, Northern Ireland is not just a constituency of the UK – it’s also part of Ireland, and its population have the legal right to identify as Irish and carry Irish passports if they choose to. Therefore the Republic has an equal responsibility to its people in the North. Our people are linked, our cultures are linked, our economies are linked, we depend on each other and you can’t separate us without doing a huge amount of damage. Brexit threatens to undo everything previous generations and governments worked so hard to achieve, and the English government couldn’t care less.
Are your novels a cry of love or of hate towards Ireland?
Love. Always love. You can love your country and still see its flaws. In fact, if you don’t see its flaws, can you really claim to love your country?
Interview published in New Noise N°49 – summer 2019