‘Questions of identity are at the heart of all literature’

‘Questions of identity are at the heart of all literature’

By NIRMALA GOVINDARAJAN | | 27 August, 2016
Lisa McInerney.
Irish author Lisa McInerney, whose debut novel was awarded this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, speaks to Nirmala Govindarajan about discovering her voice as a writer.

The British Council, Bangalore hosted a discussion on the works of authors shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016 as part of its Literary Lounge sessions in July this year. The prize was finally awarded to the Irish writer Lisa McInerney for her debut novel The Glorious Heresies, which also won this year’s Desmond Elliot Prize and has been longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year award. 

Q. Characters appear in all novels. The characters in The Glorious Heresies walk into the reader’s life as though they were your next-door neighbours, right from the word go: “He left the boy outside its own front door. Farewell to it, and good luck to it.” What is your own relation with the characters in your novel?

A. I feel very close to the characters in Heresies. So many of them have been in my head for so long — a decade, in some cases — so I feel like I know them very well. They’re not based on people I know in real life, although perhaps aspects of people I know are reflected in the characters. And some of the issues they find themselves dealing with are issues that have, in the past, affected people I love. I think to an extent all writers borrow from reality, whether intentionally or subconsciously; we are driven to try to understand people, and so we get quite invested in the intricacies of other lives. I think too when the writer has spent years forming characters and getting to know their quirks and flaws, writing about them feels very natural. Most of the work is done in the writer’s head.

Q.  There is some online reports on how you attempted to write 1,000 words a day, thought about your characters when you were out running and never started early… What did you see when you went running in the mornings? How did these sights mould you into a novelist?

A. I run in the woods near my home, usually early in the morning when there are very few people there. So the route is a quiet one, and should provide a great opportunity for thinking things over. The problem is I’m a very bad runner, so instead of mulling on plot or characters I think about how much further I have to run! I find walking is much better for “novel work”; I listen to some music that reminds me of my characters and I walk through the town or city, people-watching and letting my imagination drift along.

Q. Tell us about growing up in Ireland — your early years and your life now.

A. Ireland’s changed a lot in my lifetime, though of course for most of it I was too young to notice. I was born in the ’80s to a teenage mother, and was immediately adopted by my grandparents because even in the 1980s, children born outside of marriage in Ireland were deemed “illegitimate” and therefore less cherished than children born to married parents — a legal status that wasn’t rescinded until 1987, I believe. There was no divorce in the ’80s, LGBT citizens had their rights restricted, and the Catholic Church was very powerful. Many of my teachers were members of religious orders, and it was rare to come across someone from a different background in terms of religion or race.

But things have changed so much, and much of it for the better. Ireland is more diverse and stronger for it. The economic crash was a recent crisis and we are still very much feeling the effects of that, but often I think that significant societal changes like that inspire great engagement with social issues and are reflected particularly in art and culture. Which is maybe why Irish writing is so strong at the moment: writers feel compelled to understand their country anew every time their country changes.

The Irish people remain pretty much the same, I think: friendly, humorous, and fond of stories. Our literary heritage was very important when I was a child, and I learned about the great Irish literary figures when I was still in primary school. Our interest in and support of the arts hasn’t changed in the past few decades, which is great.

Q. What is your notion of identity?

A. Identity is something that interests me deeply, as I think it does every writer: who people are, who they identify as, and why. It’s endlessly fascinating to me how tribal we are, how much more secure we are when we feel we’re part of a group. For example, I’m very proud of being Irish, even though I know nationality is a social construct and an accident of birth. So the fact that I take pleasure in labelling myself, even though I know that realistically, labels can do enormous damage, is very interesting to me. Most of us feel like we “belong” somewhere, whether in terms of our nationality or class or city or favourite football team . . . In a sense I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to suggest that thoughts on or questions about identity are at the heart of all literature.

Q. The novel itself seems to have a higher appeal. An appeal to the politics of religion in Ireland. Could you talk about how your plot links to Irish religion politics in 2016?

A. The Catholic Church’s influence was waning while I was growing up, and in a sense the Ireland I knew as a child doesn’t really exist anymore. A lot of scandals came to light in the 1990s, from clergymen having secret families to horrible revelations about the cover-up of child abuse. Irish people realised that the Church was not the moral authority it claimed to be, and thanks to the efforts of some tireless campaigners, adults in the 21st century enjoy rights their parents never had: divorce, same-sex expression and marriage, the right to self-declare gender identity, and so on. Unfortunately, we are still fighting for reproductive rights: abortion is illegal in Ireland in almost all circumstances, including in cases of rape or fatal foetal abnormality. In almost every other aspect we’re a liberal bunch, so I hope that these laws are restructured soon.

I think it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to set a novel in contemporary Ireland without reflecting Ireland’s relationship with faith, because it informs so much of our national identity. I didn’t deliberately set out to write about my characters’ struggles with faith; that personal struggle is just so prevalent in Ireland that it would have been harder to write a plot without religious themes! We have almost a post-Catholic society, which is fascinating.

I feel very close to the characters in Heresies. So many of them have been in my head for so long — a decade, in some cases — so I feel like I know them very well. They’re not based on people I know in real life, although perhaps aspects of people I know are reflected in the characters. 

Q. Religious orthodoxy is a global issue in some measure or the other. What role, do you hope The Glorious Heresies will play towards evoking the sentiment of “live and let live” the world over? 

A. I don’t know if it could ever make that much of a difference; I wouldn’t like to assume it’s that important an artwork. But I suppose it would be a good thing if readers were aware that much of the characters’ issues come from their country’s strict adherence to religious mores, from Maureen’s experience as a teenage mother in the 1970s to Georgie’s treatment by people who believe themselves to be more valued in society than she is.

Q. Did you already have the plot in mind when you set out writing this novel? Or did the plot unravel itself?

A. I knew where the story began and I knew where I wanted it to end. It was just a matter of getting there. I wasn’t sure how that would happen, but I think if a writer’s characters are well-realised, they’ll find their own way through the world the writer has created for them. Mine certainly led me!

Q.  And then there’s the setting — the brothel, the retreat, the room Ryan shares with his brothers… While you haven’t furnished elaborate descriptions of these spaces, they just fit into the format, tailor-made for the characters and visualised for the reader, as though I was standing right there. What is your own affinity with the spaces that you have created in the novel?

A. This is an interesting question, because I feel like my weakness as a writer is in capturing psychical setting. I have to work very hard at getting it right. I’m quite visual in terms of inspiration, and I can see the spaces in which my stories take place in my mind’s eye, but I am often in danger of taking that for granted and simply forgetting to depict it for the reader. I like to travel through rooms and places with my characters as if in a movie scene; I like to imagine looking around those places and determining where the light falls or where there is movement. Sometimes these are places I’ve been to in my own life. And sometimes I track down images on the internet that will suit these spaces I’m thinking of and use them for inspiration: photographs of streets, wild places, or even just textures, brick walls, for example, or wooden table tops.

Q.     How long did you take to complete this novel? Did you feel like giving up at any time?

A. Because the characters had been in my head for so long, the writing didn’t take as long as you might think. The first draft took about four months, and then my editor and I made various changes over periods of a few weeks here and there. But again, the only reason I could write so quickly is because I’d done so much work privately, in my head, before the plot started coming together. I never felt like giving up: I had to get to that ending!

Q.  What did you enjoy the most through the making of this book and what were the challenges?

A. I always enjoy character work the most. I love writing dialogue, and I love to occasionally catch glimpses of my characters through others’ eyes. In terms of challenges, with any multi-stranded story it can be difficult to manage the trajectories of the characters in such a way as to move the plot forward while staying true to the characters’ own motivations. But again I think that if you know your characters well and trust the work you’ve done on them, then it’s very hard to lose control of the plot.

Q.  You won the Bailey’s and two weeks later, the Desmond Elliott prize… A dream come true, or still in a dream world?

A. Still in a dream world! People often ask how I feel about the prizes and my response is usually, “Ask me in 2017!” It still feels very unreal; it’s beyond what any writer could have reasonably expected for their first novel.

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