Writers Chat 9: Margaret Hickey on “Ireland’s Green Larder” (Unbound: London, 2018)

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Margaret, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on the publication of the beautifully produced Ireland’s Green Larder. Darina Allen has rightly called it “an authoritative resource as well as an entertaining and enlightening read.”

Tell me about how Ireland’s Larder was conceived. It’s such an original book both in terms of content and structure – a real coffee table book but also practical and one which I found myself returning to again and again.

Margaret: I have always been interested in history – my first book, Irish Days, was a collection of oral histories, in which I reproduced conversations I’d had with a cross section of Irish people over the age of eighty. And then I left my very hectic life in London to come and live in an abandoned house in Co Galway, beside the Shannon,  plunging myself into a different world.

One of the things that had attracted me to the house was its fireplace – big enough for a giant to cook in – with the crane still inset into the wall. It was a piece of living history inside my own house. I was also struck by how different the whole food scene was from what I knew. I’d come from a cosmopolitan city and my job had involved eating out a good deal, so differences were only to be expected there. However, I’d been raised among poor people near Manchester and I knew all about that Lancashire food culture. Here I was in Ireland and there were no pies! In the north of England people were reared on pork pies and potato pies. As a child I went to Stockport market every week and wandered round the stalls that sold Cheshire cheeses of different strengths and colours, the butchers selling haslett and brawn. Like poor people everywhere, we ate offal. In fact there were, when I was a child, a chain of restaurants devoted to serving tripe. (Yes, it sounds surreal now, but it’s true. The UCP.)

I’d lived in France for a number of years and I saw what alchemy can be wrought with simple ingredients. But here in this rural part of Ireland,  fewer things were available. I looked at how foodstuffs were preserved and there was precious little smoking or drying – it was almost all salting. No savoury pies. First class beef and lamb. In my local greengrocers (a dying breed in England) there were discussions about which variety of potato was good that week. And a slice of home made brown bread with some country butter was heaven.

It struck me that a food culture actually reveals the whole history of a nation and that’s what set me on the path of tracing that history right from the very earliest times. Going to visit the Ceide Fields and learning that the field system there is the oldest known in the world – a thousand years older than the Pyramids – was so impressive! And I travelled from there right up to the present day, although I structured the chapters of the book in order of the importance of the foodstuff. So the potato comes in very late in the day.

SG: How fascinating to learn that the geneses of the book came from an old fireplace and the crane insert in the wall…and the connection of fields to food. I’m also very interested in social history, and particularly, how past trauma often carries on through subsequent generations. I was fascinated by the section in Panorama where you state that “The story of food is always political, and in Ireland’s case intensely so” and that in Ireland “it may take generations to erase the old race memory of hunger”. Can you tell us a little about the research that you undertook to write this book?

Margaret: As I  mentioned above, I was struck by the courage and tenacity of those early people who marked out fields in that cold, windy spot beside the sea up in Mayo, and as I researched widely, reading law tracts, diaries, ballads, lives of the saints, letters, memoirs, poems and accounts from folklore, I saw a pattern repeated down the centuries. Poor people struggled to survive under many different dispensations. The Normans actually made life a little better, as they introduced the rabbit, the idea of a columbarium or dovecote, plus they created fishponds and brought in legumes such as peas which could be dried and provide food in the lean winter months. But there were famines down the centuries and accounts of animals dying, too. Swift’s famous satire A Modest Proposal was written in 1729 and he was reacting to the suffering of the time by suggesting that a superfluous child could be a helpful addition to the larder, as a plump infant would serve well, boiled, stewed or fried! There was no redress against the harsh rule of the landlords and it was really egregiously cruel and unforgivable that the subjects of Queen Victoria, who ruled over a mighty empire, should be allowed to starve to death as late as the mid-nineteenth century.

I remember talking to an old man whose grandparents had lived through the Famine and people were trying to eat green slime skimmed off stagnant ponds and hoping to catch frogs and rats, although most of them had already been caught and eaten. I believe that the terrible indignities of that time and the desperation of eating half-rotten food left a deep horror of any strange foodstuffs and an ingrained suspicion of odd textures and tastes. Younger people and city people are much more adventurous now, but among an older generation of country people that suspicion and fastidiousness remains.

SG: Oh yes, I recall reading and analyzing A Modest Proposal in university.  Chilling! And of course, as you say, so very much set in its time.

Margaret, I thoroughly enjoyed the accessible way in which you tell the history of food – through hearsay, conversations overheard, interviews, poetry, song and, of course, recipes. In Chapter Four ‘On The Hoof’, you reveal how very important beef is in the Irish diet (particularly when it comes to quality) and we learn how Bacon and Cabbage comes in as the runner for a national dish with a wonderfully simple recipe for it as well as one for Dublin Coddle. How difficult was it to decide on something akin to a national dish taking into account the rural/urban divide? 

Margaret: I don’t believe there are many people in Ireland who have absolutely no roots in the countryside. There were, of course, always some purely urban families in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Belfast. But precious few that didn’t have country cousins. I believe that chicken korma is Britain’s favourite meal today (several exclamation marks) but whereas more sophisticated city dwellers nowadays  might turn up their noses at the crude dish of bacon and cabbage, those two items have a long and noble history and  helped to build growing families. Many an exile would give a great deal for a plate of the very same right now. And if the bacon comes from a pig reared outdoors and allowed to rootle around, and if the cabbage is one of the native varieties grown in soil that knows no chemicals, and if that cabbage is well drained and dressed with a lump of country butter and the bacon and cabbage served with some fine spuds cooked in their jackets, I don’t think you’d turn your nose up at it, whatever class of a gourmet you might be!

SG: Yes, you’re right. Good quality ingredients are pretty hard to beat when it comes to potatoes, bacon and cabbage. Now as a nation island we have a complicated relationship with fish. However, I was interested to learn that it may be down to pure economics – not wanting to squander fat to fry it and so boiling the fish and rendering it tasteless – rather  than the famine as part of the reason why fish isn’t our ‘go to’ food. Having said that, I have plans to try out your recipe “Trout with Sorrel and Hazelnuts”. Could you comment a little on this?

Margaret: It is a mystery to me exactly why fish and shellfish have never been taken to the nation’s heart. When you think of the intense love of fish they have in Spain and Portugal and in Japan, you must wonder why the Irish, long before the Famine, prized other foods more. I’ve often heard the lack of enthusiasm for  fish ascribed to the Fish on Fridays argument. But no one was ever forced to eat fish on Fridays – it was a day of fasting and abstinence, that’s all. The problem was that the fish served was so seldom palatable. Take a piece of white fish, boil it or steam it and then serve it with no accompanying sauce or relish and you’ll be less keen on fish yourself! Peter Somerville-Large, from one of the Big Houses, remembers ‘huge bland pollock, which always tasted of tissue paper and pins.’

Added to the dull method of cooking, you might be dealing with fish that was less than fresh. Before the days of the engine, fish and shellfish had to be carted inland, so if you lived in Athlone you were likely to be offered fish that was fairly high!

I’m not denying that fish and shellfish – and, indeed, seaweed – weren’t eaten in earlier times. We have evidence from shells found in middens and from the importance of both the salmon and the trout in Irish mythology and legend. I love the wonderful coins that were issued when Ireland became an independent state and the leaping salmon on the old florin is such a gorgeous image.

Things are improving. Stephane Griesbach of Gannet’s fishmongers is a Frenchman who is bringing marvellously fresh fish to towns in Galway, Irish oysters are rightly prized. But we are still exporting huge numbers of fish and I have a small rant in the book about crabmeat. You’ll have to read it to find out what riles me!

SG: I’ll leave that to your new readers, Margaret! Now following on from this, I found the chapter on Vegetables, Herbs, Fruit and Nuts fascinating – particularly in relation to class divide. It put in mind the expensive delis and organic shops that have appeared in certain urban areas and how, if you look around carefully, you can find herbs and delights such as wild garlic growing wild….

Margaret: As I write this, there’s wild garlic running rampant by the side of the lane to my house and the chives in my garden are almost like a weed, they grow so vigorously and with no encouragement. Sorrel grows easily, too, as does curly parsley. Even if you’re living in the city, a window box or two will provide you with some herbs. But the recipes we follow often demand more exotic herbs and vegetables, so we tend to overlook what is native. I remember Lucy Madden telling me that in her opinion the finest omelette of all is the sorrel omelette and I tend to agree. All praise to people for being adventurous in their cooking and their exploration of other cuisines. I don’t want to be thought insular. But let’s not forget the really wonderful plants we have at home. And let’s, above all, try to eat herbs, vegetables and fruit that have been grown without harmful pesticides or irradiation. We are what we eat, and it’s surely in our own interests to buy high quality food that, where possible, is grown locally, thus diminishing the food miles.

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SG: For me one of the strongest threads running through Ireland’s Larder was the relationship between the female and the importance of milk and milk-based products such as butter. Was this something that you were cognisant of prior to writing the book or did it come out in the research?

Margaret: The woman is right at the heart of the story of Ireland’s food, as you would well imagine. And her contribution to the domestic economy of the household was vital. She it was who fed the animals around the house – the pigs and the chickens, for example – and apart from the cooking, she was the one who made the butter. Butter was incalculably important, because it was traded for money and that money was needed to pay the rent. During the hardest times, women would be churning butter but unable to give even a knob of it to their families, because all must be secured in a wooden firkin and used to pay the landlord. Failure to pay led to eviction, regardless of the state of the family or the time of year. Evictions could happen before Christmas, even. But when times were less hard, everyone basked in the warm yellow glow of butter, which would be dolloped onto the potato or spread thickly on soda bread.

I made the curious discovery that long ago the Irish had a preference for milk that was soured. There were many degrees of milk and ‘sweet’ fresh milk was considered fit for children and invalids, whilst healthy adults had a taste for ripened milk.

SG: Yes, good old buttermilk! I found the final chapter in the book to be most curious. You cover so much from folklore to traditions to the merging of pagan and Christian practices. Can you tell us how our tradition of story telling and creating life narratives is so closely related to the production and preparation of food?

Margaret: I mentioned above that dairy products are at the heart of  Ireland’s food culture, and many customs and pishogues attend milking and churning. It was considered good luck for any visitor to a house to take a turn at the churn when butter was being made, whereas if butter refused to ‘break’, that was because a witch or envious neighbour had put the evil eye on the cow. Wednesday was thought to be the most fortunate day of the week for churning, and an elderly neighbour of mine told me that he remembered an old woman who would never go out to the dairy but that she’d take the tongs and and she’d bring a little coal out of the fire and she’d put it under the churn ‘for fear anyone would bring the butter. A small little bit- just put it one side of the churn there. To protect it.’

What struck me very forcefully was that even in the depths of misery, people in Ireland found themselves able to rise above it and sing a song, play a tune, dance around the kitchen. A deeply spiritual people, they were, and I admire them so much for their lack of self pity and their love of learning and imagination.

Lastly, 3 fun questions, Margaret:

Cats or Dogs? My dog Meg is gently snoring by the window as I write this. I can see why people love cats – I had a Manx cat when I was a child – they’re very rare, as they have no tails. But my heart belongs to dogs.  I don’t think any sight makes me happier than seeing Meg chasing along with her best friend, Rocky, a black Labrador who’s half her age.

What’s your favourite comfort meal? There’s enough Irish blood in me to think straight away of the spud! Some lovely mashed potato. And ideally it would be the topping of a creamy fish pie.

What’s the most exotic ingredient you’ve ever cooked with? I’ve travelled a lot, and when I lived in France I had an education in food and drink that still stands to me today. I would happily prepare and cook brains and I’m well able to prepare squid. I adore India and the various Indian cuisines – there’s a marvellous book called 50 Great Curries of India by Camellia Panjabi-  so I’ve had a go at making dishes using curry leaves and     fenugreek. These days, though, I am attracted to very simple cooking with the best ingredients I can get my hands on. I’m partial to oysters, but it’s so wonderful when someone else does all the hard work, so I mostly eat out for  anything difficult.

Thank you so much, Margaret for taking part in WRITERS CHAT with me – it’s been a real pleasure and such a great learning experience for me! I wish you much well-deserved success with Ireland’s Green Larder. 

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Margaret Hickey

Listen to Margaret chat to Sean O’Rourke on RTE about Ireland’s Green Larder

Find out more about Margaret and Ireland’s Green Larder here. 

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Reading The Future – Dublin celebrates 250 Years of Hodges Figgis Bookshop

I am delighted to be one of 250 writers included in the anthology Reading The Future: New Writing from Ireland. 

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Edited by Alan Hayes and published by Arlen House to mark the 250th anniversary of the Hodges Figgis Bookshop in Dublin (wow, 250 years!), the anthology was launched on Thursday 26th April complete with traditional music and fabulous wine and canapes.

The Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Josepha Madigan, gave a wonderful speech in which she likened the anthology to the bookshop itself and reminded us how literature not only reads the future but also provides a space and place for us to re-imagine and re-create.

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Hodges Figgis had a wonderful window display of books by some of the included authors and I was thrilled to spot my novel Happiness Comes from Nowhere.

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You can read more about the anthology and Hodges Figgis in The Irish Times here.

Writers Chat 8: Stephanie Conn on “Island” (Doire Press: Galway, 2018)

Stephanie, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your third collection of poetry Island.

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SG: Firstly, tell me about how Island was conceived as a series of narratives and how you went about structuring the collection, in particular your own personal links to the place and stories.

Stephanie: Many thanks, Shauna. It’s lovely to join you and talk a little about Island. The starting point for the collection was my ancestral connection to Copeland Island.

The Copeland Islands lie to the north-east of Donaghadee, Northern Ireland and are separated from the mainland by a channel a mile wide at its narrowest point. The archipelago comprises of Mew Island, Lighthouse Island and the largest of the three, Copeland Island, where my family lived. My great-great grandparents, Richard Clegg and Esther Emerson, were both born and raised on Copeland Island and lived their whole lives there. They married in 1845 and had nine children. They are buried in the tiny graveyard at the island’s edge.

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The island is now uninhabited. The last three elderly residents left for the mainland in 1947. However, at the time Esther and Richard were bringing up their family, they were part of a small but bustling community. I was keen to find out more about them and their way of life and provide some sort of record before it was forgotten.

I was lucky enough to secure a Career Enhancement Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in 2013 to research and write the Copeland poems. Some of these poems were published in the pamphlet Copeland’s Daughter as a result of winning the Poetry Business Poetry Competition in 2016. However, it was clear from quite early on, that this work would result in a full collection. Island moves beyond Copeland Island to the Northern Ireland coastline and includes other islands such as Coney Island, Skellig Michael and Ischia.

SG: What a rich and wonderful family history you have to draw on, Stephanie. I loved how the imagery in many of the poems is so specific that it is universal. I’m thinking here of lines from Part 1 such as ‘smile-filled skin’ in “On Finding an old photograph in a drawer” and “What Mum Knew” and, in Part 11, “Copeland’s Daughter” and the moving “Wedding Night” which has the sense of being about your family?

Stephanie: Poems such as Copeland’s Daughter, Wedding Night, Her Precious Cargo and Esther refer to my great-great grandmother. She married on the 25th August 1845, and strangely, I married on the same date 160 years later!

I felt strongly that I had to write about the lives of my island ancestors, but I did wonder how the poems would be received – given the very specific place and time and people. I would have been happy to keep this as a family project of sorts, but as the individual poems were accepted for publications and began to win prizes, it became obvious they were connecting with others. I was reading some of the poems at Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage and there were knowing nods from the audience. As you say, the themes of displacement, of belonging or not belonging, are universal.

SG: I love the serendipity of your wedding taking place on the same day as that of your great-great-grandmother. The next question has two parts. Firstly, you manage to paint the beauty of nature while evoking the harshness of the land and life. In “As was the custom” and “Winter” the reader is taken in, almost by the whisper of the sea, and then shocked into the reality at the end of the poem.

Secondly, it’s not only nature that tricks the ships into false security. It’s the games people play – for example in “The Clipper’s Captain”, “The Islander’s New Clothes”, “An Excise Man comes calling” and “Biding Time.” Tell us a little about the stories behind these poems.

Stephanie: It is easy to see how people are drawn to island life and why they romanticise the notion, but my research showed time and time again, just how demanding the reality was. The islanders could be cut off from the mainland for weeks on end and spent their lives at the mercy of the elements. Searching newspaper archives for mention of the Copeland Islands, around this time, a similar series of events is reported again and again. Despite the lighthouse and the foghorn, ship after ship struck the rocks in bad weather.

I completed most of my research over the autumn and winter months and when I finally got over to visit Copeland Island what I found was unexpected – tiny bones littering the fields, torn limbs lying close to rabbit holes. I write about the experience in ‘Visiting the Island of my Ancestors’.

Poems such as The Clipper’s Captain, Her Precious Cargo, The Islander’s New Clothes deal with a specific shipwreck. On the morning of the 7th January 1854, the islanders witnessed the American clipper ship, The Mermaid, driven on to the south-west side of the Copeland Island in gale force winds. The ship was reported as one of the finest vessels of her time and was only nine months old when she was wrecked. Her twenty-nine crew and three passengers were rescued by the islanders and spent the night in Richard Clegg’s barn before sailing to the mainland and onwards to England. The ship’s cargo of silk, satin, muslin, linen and carpet, went down with the ship and for weeks floated along the sound and gathered in bales on the nearby shores. It was reported that the islanders did not let this go to waste.

 SG: We’re all, in a way, products of where we come from and this is another theme throughout the collection but what is most interesting is the sense you show of what it is when you don’t belong. For example, in “Molly and the Islanders”, “Esther” and “A Sea View” there is a disconnectedness between the people and the land and sea.

Stephanie: Molly was a real person. She was a young bride who had honeymooned on Copeland Island and was determined to move there and live happily ever after. She didn’t last six months before moving back to the mainland.

I suppose I was echoing some of my own feelings in these poems as well as reflecting on the experiences of the women I write about. For example, I had an historical connection to this place and yet was removed from it. The Cleggs are family on my father’s side, but growing up, it was my mother who told us stories about both sides of our family. My mother died when she was just 46 years old. When she died, a lot of family history went with her and I wished I’d paid more attention to those stories she told us growing up and had tapped into this precious archive in her mind before it was too late.

SG: Water is constant in Island and I enjoyed how it both weighs and emotionally weighs. In “Weak as Water” we’re reminded how the character

had forgotten the weight of water – /how it erodes rock, how the sea advances/and recedes, even with neap tides, even as/the sun and moon oppose each other.

There’s something around the cycle of life and death, the continuation despite death.

I had planned to call the collection ‘The Weight of Water’ until a poet friend pointed out the fairly recent novel of the same name. I was certainly conscious of the cycle of life and death when writing these poems and I’ve touched a little on this above. Without living grandparents or my mother to help me discover my links to the island, I determined to do so myself. Within my family, I felt it was important that this history be passed onto my own children but, beyond the family ties, I didn’t want this bustling chapter of the island’s history to be forgotten.

The fact too, that this was one period within the island’s history. There is a before and after – monks retreating from Bangor Abbey to a tiny island in the sea, a specialist Bird Observatory.

SG: Yes, the weight of water is fitting but then again the final title, Island manages to contain that notion too. I’m interested in the overlap of history and stories and I loved how you combined the stories of history and the sensory memories in “Electricity”, “August 25th”, “The Sweetest Thing” and “The Science of Tears”. Can you tell us a little about the research you had to do for these poems?

When I was carrying out my research, it was quite difficult to move beyond the facts and figures of census materials and birth, death and marriage registers to get closer to the human experience. I had to use my imagination but in doing so it felt important to make the poems as authentic as possible when it came to details of the physical island and the flora and fauna.

As well as statistical records, I browsed newspaper archives, read geographical reports, interviewed members of local historical societies and met people with links to the islands. I visited the island to explore, make notes and take photographs. The few small cottages that remain on the island are now privately owned and used for occasional summer visits, so you cannot stay on Copeland Island. Armed with my research, I spent a week writing on Rathlin Island, listening to the sea and the seals in the harbour. At the start of the week, the rain lashed, and the wind howled but by the end of the week there was glorious sunshine and stunning sunsets. It was bliss.

SG: What a most wonderful description of your research! 

I shared “Winter” with one of my adult creative writing classes and we had a lovely discussion about the rhythm, your use of a ‘chorus’ and how this begged for the poem to be read aloud, echoing the movement of the tides. The group have a few questions for you:

  • Did you start writing the poem as an ode to the last verse or did the last verse come as a shock to you too? That’s a really interesting question. The last verse did come as a shock to me. I was drawn in by the rhythm while I was writing the poem and was surprised by what emerged. That’s one of the things I love about writing poetry – even if you start out with a particular intention the poem goes off in its own direction.
  • Is the island of “Winter” a lighthouse island? Copeland Island, the island of ‘Winter’, is the biggest of the three islands. Over the years there has been a lighthouse on each of the other islands – first on Lighthouse Island, as the name suggests, and now on Mew Island. The lighthouse, or at least the beam of light, would have been a part of the islanders’ daily lives.
  • There’s a practice off the coast of England that involved misleading ships so that they would crash and the loot could be taken. Are these lines a reference to this practice: ‘we run to the shore to save all we can’. The reference here is to the lives they might save – as mentioned above, ships running into difficulty off the islands was common at this time. There was no suggestion of this practice in any of my research. The island was so close to the mainland that people in Donaghadee could see the ships at the mercy of the currents or when they were hitting the rocks. However, during my week on Rathlin, a local guide told me about this practice and the reports of the Clipper’s captain waving a gun at the islanders as they tried to help save the crew and passengers from the sinking ship suddenly made more sense. Perhaps he was worried they were planning to steal the cargo.

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Thank you so much for such open and generous answers. Island is a collection I’ll return to again and again. 

Lastly, 3 fun questions, Stephanie:

  • Boat or Plane? I’m not a huge fan of either – I am a terrible traveller and suffer with motion sickness. I’ll opt for ‘plane’ as the destinations can be well worth feeling a bit rough on the journey.
  • What was your favourite childhood poem? In my final year at primary school, our class had to learn and recite Tennyson’s ‘The Eagle’ and it stuck. I loved the sounds in my mouth, the pace and emphasis the teacher taught us and that wonderful notion of the ‘azure world’.
  • What are you reading now? I have just finished Liz Nugent’s new novel ‘Skin Deep’ which had me hooked and kept me reading late into the night. I tend to have quite a few poetry collections on the go at any one time. I’m currently reading Kathleen McCracken’s ‘Tattoo Land’, Polly Atkin’s ‘Basic Nest Architecture’ and Pascale Petit’s ‘Mama Amazonica’.

Join Stephanie on a Cross-Border Reading Tour: 

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Keep up to date with Stephanie on her website

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Mel Ulm explores my story “Thirty-Five A Night” (published in Crannóg, 47)

I’m delighted to hear that Mel Ulm has featured my story “Thirty-Five-A-Night” (published in Crannóg 47) on his literary blog The Reading Life

It’s always interesting to see the gaps that appear between authorial intention, reader comprehension and then the reader’s analysis. Cultural references are also key to understanding fiction and in this case, Mel picks up on the importance of the ending – which is where the key is to the age of the protagonists.

You can read his post here and I’d recommend staying a while and browsing through Mel’s incredible collection of posts on fiction (and poetry) from all over the world.

Read my story “Thirty-Five-A-Night” in Crannóg 47

Writers Chat 7: Aoibheann McCann on “Marina” (WordsOnTheStreet: Galway, 2018)

Aoibheann, Welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series and thanks for participating so fully.

Congratulations on your debut novel Marina which Mike McCormack has described (and I’d thoroughly agree!) as a “singular enchantment” and which also has a really stunning cover:

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Cover of Marina Purchase Direct from Publishers http://www.wordsonthestreet.com/

SG: First and foremost, tell me a little about Marina’s love of the sea.

The story seems to be about a circular journey from childhood to adulthood, and from Ireland to England, yet at another level, Marina seems to be a contemplation on how disconnected we all are from the land – dry and wet ground – that we live on and in.

You’re from Donegal and now living in Galway. Did you use your own knowledge of the sea and its landscape, and also that sense of being away from home (as Marina is in London) in writing this beautiful sensory novel?

AMC: Marina’s love of the sea is a theme throughout the novel, and it has a very strong pull for her. Throughout the novel, she associates the sea with escape, be it by boat or by swimming. Though when she eventually does escape across the Irish Sea, it does not work out so well for her. I think we are all very disconnected from the earth these days and that causes us a lot of problems.

I grew up beside the sea and was brought out on boats from a very young age. My family were mariners for generations so I have a deep generational connection with the sea. Luckily I still live near the sea in Galway and can see it out of my bedroom window. The further I get from the sea the more trapped I feel, but it also utterly scares me, as a lot of my relatives died at sea.

I lived in London for a number of years, my daughter was actually born there, and I although I loved the freedom of it, I always missed the sea and had a strong urge to return to Ireland. Especially when I was pregnant for some reason. I think I actually saw a mirage on a particularly hot day just before she was born!

The sea helped me to write the book too. I was inspired to write Marina in the aquarium in Salthill in Galway. I was looking at a fish in a seawater tank, it looked miserable, and this is where Marina sprang from.

SG: What an amazing image – you by the sea gazing at fish trapped in a tank, both surrounded by seawater…But then there’s all that history and inner knowledge you have about the sea that seeps through the novel. 

I loved the writing throughout In particular, I loved the poetic writing which grabs you right from the start:

“Belonging like they did when I saw them, floating in the sea, the green fronds of seaweed caressing their pale skin. They are nibbled gently, caressed by tiny fish who, bit by bit, ingest them, return them, welcome them.”

It also extends into the stuff of life – we’re told 

“The piano was truly the instrument of fate” 

and, when Jamie is born, he’s

“red and squashed, as if he’d come out of a shell.”

AMC: Thank you! I started off as a poet, in fact the first piece of writing I got published was a poem. Though I rarely write poetry these days, it is still there in my writing. I think the prologue and the intervals are the most poetic parts of the book, where Marina describes the world as she sees it in her very disjointed way. I was inspired to write these parts in my garden and walking by the sea. I think especially at these points I could see ordinary things from Marina’s perspective, and as she seems to be able to zone so completely into things and is so removed from social concerns, she is able to describe things more precisely or more poetically. I think poetry is about seeing things from a very different perspective.

SG: Yes! And now that you say it, that’s really what I loved about Marina – that sense of the word view being turned somewhat. 

I read Marina in one sitting and gasped when I came to the end – without revealing anything – it was like I was in the sea, coming up for air, or that a wave of a life of emotions had just washed over me. For me, this is a great reading experience, when you’re taken somewhere else entirely and then when the book finishes, you’re back to the grey skies (not unlike those of Marina’s life!) and reality. How important a role do you think atmosphere plays in this story – in keeping the reader embedded in the parallel clarity and murkiness of the waters of Marina’s thoughts, compared to Jamie’s thoughts which are shown as been numbed with medication?

AMC: Again, thank you, that’s great feedback for a writer! The first draft of the story didn’t feature the parallel story of Marina in the present, which I think provides the context of her version of the ultimately tragic events and her justification for what happened. It also adds to the atmosphere, as it is clear that her thoughts are murky from the start. Dr. O’Hara provides the clear voice of reason, but can be very harsh. I often think we put labels on people so we can rationalise their actions and there isn’t always a rational explanation for why people behave as they do. We like to think we can explain people’s behaviour by looking at their childhood but I don’t think we can. Of course, Jamie never really gets a voice, so we only have Marina’s (unreliable) version of the events, so we have to take her word for it. So overall I tried to make the atmosphere like the deep water that Marina inhabits in her mind.

SG: Yes. It saddens me how labels often seek answers yet in doing so can move further from those very answers. 

Marina is also about relationships. We have the one which is constant – Marina and her relationship to sea, including being at sea for most of the story – and we have the one which we, as readers, see evolving into something that isn’t quite what we would have hoped for Marina: her love for Jules, the young man she falls for at university in London. It’s really a question of like attracting like rather than opposites attract – especially if we consider that the less they verbally communicate, the less they each play their instruments. Can you talk a little about that relationship – in which Marina, at one stage, feels

“smaller than an ant”

 AMC: I think Marina and Jules’ relationship is ultimately very unhealthy and obsessional. It is further exacerbated by Sandra’s influence. I think Marina tries to find a replacement for Jamie in Jules, but also she feels haunted by what she feels is a betrayal of Jamie so I think she justifies Jules’ cruelty because of this.

Jules and his mother are very controlling. I think Marina feels smothered by this but the further away from the sea and her music she gets, the more trapped she becomes, and it takes something drastic for her to return to Ireland.

SG: We’ve talked about the role of the land in Marina, but of course there’s the wider question of the environment and how we are destroying it. Can you talk about how Jules and his involvement with environmental groups adds to that theme, indeed, perhaps this being the one of the first things that Marina learns about him is also what attracts her to him.

AMC: The environmental theme was always a big part of the book, though it isn’t really part of the plot. I thought about evolution a lot when I was writing the first draft: if we are so evolved as a species, why are we destroying the environment that sustains us? If you consider this, it actually explains Marina’s destructive behaviour and why she ultimately feels humanity isn’t all it is cracked up to be. There is a strand of psychology called eco-psychology which believes that mental illnesses are caused by environmental damage; if the earth is being destroyed, then we inevitably will be too. As it suffers, so do we. Also, I thought a lot about the Buddhist Wheel of Life, which shows evolution in the form of reincarnation; the more good deeds we do, the more likely we are to ‘evolve’ into a higher life form. Again, I thought, are we really a higher life form if we are destroying ourselves like this?

As for eco-warriors, I hung around with some at college, and they were always so sure of themselves and what they were doing. Jules’ character and especially those of his friends are inspired by them. My life experience is in no way like Marina’s, but I was asked to stop eating a Kit Kat in my own house by an eco-warrior! I think Marina is so lost and scared, she latches on to Jules as he seems so sure of everything, as do his friends. They see something wrong in the world too, and are better able to articulate this than she is.

Yes – these are all questions that I asked myself as I was reading and, more so, when I’d finished the novel, and, found myself understanding Marina’s behaviour.

Lastly, Five fun questions, Aoibheann:

Dogs or Cats? Dogs. I have two!

  1. Paperbacks or Hardbacks? Paperbacks.
  2. What page are you on of the book you’re reading now? 89 of Echoland by Per Petterson
  3. Describe the story in one word? Childhood
  4. What’s next on your ‘to read’ pile? The Invisible Ones by Steph Penny

Thank you for such insight, Aoibheann and I wish you much success with Marina. 

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 You can keep up to date with Aoibheann (above) on her website.

LAUNCHING MARINA

Little John Nee will launch Marina in the Town Hall Theatre, Galway on 19th April 2018.

Listen to Aoibheann reading from Marina in Athenry Library on 10th May.

 

Writers Read: On “Vampire in Love” by Enrique Vila-Matas

NOTE: This post was first published on my blog in October 2016

There’s a radio advert for a book festival in Dublin which tells listeners that you never know what will happen when you open a book. The selection of stories ‘Vampire in Love’ by Enrique Vila-Matas is testament to this. Translated by the great Margaret Jull Costa and published by the innovate Andotherstories this collection showcases some of Vila-Matas’ finest stories. From the opening ‘A Permanent Home’ which is as unsettling as it is disturbing, to the witty ‘I’m not going to read any more emails’, the play with language and play on words forms a thrilling part of the read. The way in which Vila-Matas uses time to keep us (as readers) on our toes puts me in mind of the work of another Catalan writer, Jaume Cabré, and, of course, Roberto Bolaño.

 

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Vila-Matas has stated in an interview with the Paris Review that

What really interests me much more than reality is truth. I believe that fiction is the only thing that brings me closer to the truth that reality obscures…

This interest is clearly evident in ‘Vampire in Love’ where the narratives flick and flash back and forth between reality and truth, with the questioning of perception prominent throughout the collection. Yet his use of language is also poetic. In one of my favourite stories, ‘Rosa Schwarzer comes back to life’, a sinister painting comes (or seems to come) to life, creating creates an epiphany moment for Rosa who is grossly unappreciated by her family.

The coffee brought her almost savagely awake, and, for a moment, as if it were a brief foretaste of what she would experience at the museum today, she saw in her mind the remote landscapes of that dark foreign prince’s country.

It is this beautiful mix of the every day sensory experience with the dreamscape seeping into the reality of both the character and that of the reader that I found so special. In another scene in this story we are presented with a picture of Rosa’s plummeting emotions where the landscape echoes her inner state:

The sky was a grubby opaque white colour, and, in her mind, a similar opaque whiteness began erasing the memory of what she had experienced with the night owl, whom she had abandoned in the park.

These emotions are later displayed  – though bluntly go unnoticed by her husband and sons:

‘What’s for supper?’ demanded her son Bernd from the sofa.

‘Death,’ she said. ‘Death.’

She said this so quietly, from the solitude of her kitchen, that they didn’t hear, just as they didn’t hear, at that same moment, a chicken having its throat slit.

 

Opening lines that hook you are another feature of the collection. Take this loaded first sentence (from ‘In Search of The Electrifying Double Act’):

One April afternoon some years ago, when my name was still Mempo Lesmes and I was very young and a starving, unknown actor, I got lost in the labyrinthine outskirts of San Anfiero de Granzara, and I came across a large mansion surrounded by an overgrown garden – the Villa Nemo.

Or consider the theme of memory that ripples through these stories: this from the fantastic tiny story ‘Indentifying Marks’ –

I remember nothing of that year except that elections were held, and someone, on a night that seemed to me interminable, swore blind that I was Catalan.

And the strong sense of place, from ‘Invented Memories’:

I remember that on my trip to the Azores, I visited Peter’s Bar in Horta, a café frequented by whalers near the yachting club; a mixture of inn, meeting place, information centre and post office.

For Vila-Matas, concepts of place and that never-ending search for something – in art, literature, cinema – as an integral part of the urban existence is often what drives the narrative arc. In the title story (‘Vampire in Love’) the vampire – our hero – thinks:

We look for distant people who are often to be found much closer to home; in movies, we look for the vampires that exist inside us.

The truth about people is often intertwined with history and place, as in the subtext of Franco’s Spain that runs through the chilling (yet at times amusing) ‘Greetings from Dante’ in which the father-narrator reveals his profound fear for and hate of his son whilst maintaining his fatherly role of trying to discover why the child – Tito – is mute. In conversation with a psychoanalyst the father discovers that in the sixteenth century, in their neighbourhood, a Portuguese student was revealed to be a demon when he was seen eating a bowl of flies. Unnervingly, Tito’s sister who is patient and understanding of his muteness often proclaimed ‘A shut mouth catches no flies’ and on this occasion (without knowing the history which the father has discovered) changes the proverb to ‘Tito’s mouth is full of flies.’ Violence ensues and so the story goes on – the mysterious sense of the streets taking in and then letting out evil pervades. Similarly in ‘Niño’, where the narrator/father maintains the position of the niño’s ‘attentive assistant’ despite the uncomfortable dislike for his son who, like him, in trying to survive, searches for the truth and attempts to face the void that is life (and death):

‘We’ll find out the truth about the beyond,’ he said.

‘Be careful,’ I warned. ‘Those who seek the truth deserve the punishment of finding it.’

The collection is also very much a writer’s book. I particularly loved the sense of voyeurism, obsessiveness and vanity that peppers the characters of Vila-Matas. In the fantastical ‘Modesty’ (my favourite story in the collection), we meet an occasional spy who, in this quote, is observing the No. 24 thief (so called because he operates on the No. 24 bus):

He doesn’t seem interested in any other route or any other bus. He must simply enjoy – as I do – being a regular, or perhaps he simply loves doing the same thing over and over. He’s not unlike me in a way: we are both of us thieves. Of course, he steals wallets and purses, while I only snatch phrases, faces, gestures…

In ‘Death by Suadade’, the narrator recalls – when he was nine – how the growth of curiosity about where he lived, and what made the place itself became his sole occupation:

The street began to steal a whole hour of my homework time, an hour that I recovered thanks to the simple method of cutting down the time I usually spent after supper reading great novels, until the day came when the charms of the Paseo de San Luis proved so alluring that they stole all my reading time. In other words, the Paseo replaced great novels.

I also recall spending hours – at a little older than nine though – staring through open windows, imagining the lives of others.

I read the collection from start to finish, and although many of the characters seemed to have merged into one by the time I had finished, on reflection it is the emotional weight which carries the book. Ultimately it is the re-imagining of the lives of ‘the other’ and of others that this story collection presents to the reader. ‘Vampire in Love’ is a book which gives us an escape; enabling us to dive into the pages, the minds, and the lives of characters who might well have come from our own dreams.

You can order ‘Vampire in Love’ here and see an interview with Vila-Matas and Paul Auster here.

Writers Chat 6: Lisa Harding on “Harvesting” (New Island: Dublin, 2017)

Writers Chat with Lisa Harding, shortlisted for Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award…

Lisa, Welcome to “Writers Chat” and congratulations on the much-deserved accolades Harvesting (New Island, 2017) has been receiving, including being awarded The Kate O’Brien Award (2018), short listed in the Newcomer section for Irish Book of the Year in 2017 and now shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award (winners announced on May 30th in Listowel)

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SG: Firstly, Lisa, let’s talk about the many stories behind Harvesting and what drove you to take on such a harrowing and emotional journey with your two strong female narrators Sammy and Nico.

LH: The book came about because of my involvement in a campaign called Stop Sex Trafficking of Children and Young People run by the children’s Rights Alliance and the Body Shop. At the launch of that campaign in 2012, I was invited in my capacity as an actress to read first-hand accounts of some of the girls who had been trafficked to Ireland. What shocked me was how prevalent the trade is, how young some of the girls are and also that some of the girls that fall into the rings are Irish. Up until that day I had no idea this trade was happening on our shores.

It took me three years before I allowed myself to start to write about the topic. I struggled with legitimacy around telling these stories: who am I to give voice to these girls’ experiences? I am not an expert, nor a survivor, but something had burrowed inside me and I genuinely felt haunted by the testimonies I read that day. I found myself unable and unwilling to forget, and so set out to give voice to these hidden victims of this dark, flourishing world.

Sammy and Nico, although purely fictitious character, are composites of some of the personal accounts I was furnished with.

SG: I think that is why both women come across as such authentic characters. Now tell me about your process – in getting into the psyches of these women, in being able to so aptly explore their inner and outer worlds. Did you find that your experience in play writing and acting helped? I’m thinking of scenes, for example, where Sammy says “I empty out inside and allow myself to go floppy” (p.209) or Nico when she reminds herself before she takes the man’s stray hairs: “If I don’t breathe I’m not really there, not really.” (p.213)

LH: I adopt an improvisational approach to any creative process, which is greatly informed by my training as an actress.  I always start with a voice, and if I feel I can channel that voice, step inside the character’s skin, fully embody it, the writing will flow naturally from there.  Initially I didn’t know Harvesting would be a novel, the form was mutable as I was allowing different voices space inside my head. It could have been a play, or a series of interconnected short stories, but over time two voices start to clamour for more attention and space on the page. The consciousness of Sammy and Nico felt more alive and embodied than any of the other characters. The novel is in essence a series of alternating monologues told from the perspective of an Irish girl and a Moldovan girl.

As Harvesting is written in the first person present tense, everything that happens to these girls is being experienced and written about in the moment. The process of writing in this way is rather like channelling, where you bypass the conscious mind, or the intellect as much as possible and give yourself over to your instinct.

SG: Oh how wonderful that you felt free enough to let the narrative evolve and become the form it needed to become to tell the story. Lisa, let’s consider the role of place in Sammy’s Dublin is both her anchor and the city which fails to save her, while Nico’s Moldova fades as Dublin – what she is exposed to as ‘Dub’ – engulfs her. It seems Sammy and Nico both loose who they are and where they’re from simultaneously.

LH: That’s a really interesting observation, and not one I was consciously aware of at the time of writing. For Nico, the natural world was her home, growing up in a rural Moldovan village where her favourite activities were climbing trees and swimming in the rivers. Suddenly she is wrenched from this environment, the only world she ever knew, and is transported in cars, boats and planes from Moldova to Italy to London to Belfast, then finally Dublin. She is disoriented and dislocated early on. She regularly reverts to her favourite childhood spots in the moment of trauma where she dissociates from herself and her actual environment. I imagined her focus was slightly blurred in a bid to protect herself and so Dublin is experienced as a characterless place that could be anywhere. She only sees the inside of the holding house and the inside of a car and the inside of bedrooms. She yearns for nature yet has no direct contact; all she sees through fogged up windows is grey skies and rain.

Sammy is a suburban Dublin girl, so her environment is less alien, but her experience is. They are both brought to a ghost estate and their life of entrapment is played out against the backdrop of private parties, convention centres, bars, hotels. I felt if I was looking out on their world in their particular emotional state it would be heightened, bizarre, terrifying. Even those environments that were previously familiar take on an outlandish, almost ghoulish quality.

SG: Without revealing anything, Sammy and Nico start off and end in very different places. Between their beginnings and endings in their relationship we encounter moving tenderness, humorous quips while they each try to protect and provide some sort of comfort – and even love – each other.

LH: My two main motivators for writing this book were: (1) How can this happen? And (2) how do the girls survive and assimilate this sustained level of abuse? This second question feeds into your observation about their relationship, which is intense, at times verging on the hysterical. They are teenage girls who form a fierce bond under siege. I fell in love with the two girls as they navigated an unlikely friendship that becomes their everything. In each other they find humanity in a brutal, uncaring world. I was surprised how both girls use humour to deflect, protect and ultimately bond. But then, I realised they are so young and so impressionable and they need that ferocious love and loyalty to survive.

SG: I love how, at times, your writing is stark – factual almost – and then, also beautifully poetic. Nico describes the pain of two sisters as “palpable – it beats in the air like injured birds, trapped” (p236) and in another scene “I squint and blur my vision, but cannot see a rescuing knight no matter how hard I try.” (p281)

Sammy, locked inside on a day that seems particularly long tries

“not to listen to the bird-song, which I can hear over the wind and thrum of the tumble dryer. She’s so loud and insistent for such a tiny thing. I know, I know, I get it, birdie, but shut the fuck up, will ya?” (p242)

Do you think using different styles and language to convey changes in emotional tempo shows us that in the most awful of circumstances there is often – though unfortunately, not always – a glimmer of hope?

LH: That’s a really lovely compliment, thank you! Again, an unconscious lucky accident,  although I imagine my history in theatre fed into that melding of styles. Writers like Tennessee Williams, and in a completely contrasting way Sarah Kane, bring poetry, lyricism and a heightened sensibility to experiences of brutality. The lives Sammy and Nico are living are so far removed from the norms of the everyday that I felt colloquial language couldn’t always express their complex interior lives. They are so outside themselves and unable to process what is happening to them in the moment that I did struggle at times to find words to express this turmoil. Music could perhaps better express this turbulent inner landscape of trauma. I guess in some ways, heightened theatrical or poetic language can offer a kind of transformation, or transmutation, so perhaps unconsciously this was what I was playing with.

Yes, hope. I felt the fact of them being alive and capable of loving each other meant there was always hope.

SG: You participated and read from Harvesting as part of a symposium on modern slavery in Armagh on March 8th. How powerful do you think writing can be in today’s world where brevity is king?

LH: That was an extraordinary event. It was humbling to realise the importance of the role of the arts in raising awareness. The organiser of the symposium had come across Harvesting some time ago and was moved to organise an entire event on modern slavery because of his experience reading the book. So, I guess we cannot underestimate the effect of writing, even in such a time-poor, social-media saturated climate where Netflix is king. I imagine a visual medium might have even more impact, but then we lose the intimacy and interiority that only the novel allows.

SG: I think the key is that the novel form encourages or even demands self-reflection from the reader after it’s been read – in a way that other forms don’t.

Lastly, Lisa, some fun questions:

What are you reading now? Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante.

I read that over Christmas – in one sitting – and really loved it. Both disturbing and beautiful.

What’s your go-to dinner? Stir-fry with veggies. I’m a terrible cook!

Well stir-fry sounds delicious!

What writing are you working on? A new novel about the generational impact of alcoholism and the limitations of recovery.

Oh, the limitations of recovery. I’m intrigued.

What’s next for you? The above novel, and then…hopefully others. I’m a newbie in love with the form.

Sounds like you’re on a roll, Lisa. Keep on going!

Launch pic

Thanks again for popping over for the sixth “Writers Chat”. I look forward to reading more of your work over time and wish you more of the very best with Harvesting which can be ordered here.