Writers Chat 14: Nessa O’Mahony on “The Branchman” (Arlen House: Galway, 2018)

Nessa, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your debut novel, The Branchman, which follows on from four previously published books (three critically acclaimed poetry collections plus a novel in verse).

READERS: To win a signed copy of THE BRANCHMAN, simply comment on this blog saying why you’d like a copy and what you enjoyed about our chat. Winner will be drawn on Monday 29th October!

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Although in previous poetry collections you have explored some of your family history, and, in particular, that of your grandfather, for your latest publication, The Branchman, you explore a fictionalised version of his early time in An Garda Síochána using the genre of a thriller and the form of a novel. How did you decide the novel was the right form for the story?

NOM: Thanks so much for having me, Shauna! And you’re absolutely right, I’ve previously used poetry to explore family history – it was a consistent theme in each of the four previous volumes, but I think there was also always a strong narrative thread in the poems I included. The verse novel, which was a PhD project, deliberately explored the overlaps between poetry and narrative; it was straining at the bit to be a novel, to be honest, so I think it was only a matter of time before I committed myself to a full-length prose narrative. But it was researching my grandfather Michael McCann’s life that finally convinced me the time was right to try my hand as novel-writing.

I’d been researching his time spent in the new Garda Síochána and made contact with the Garda Archives to see what I could find out about his time spent there. All I got back was an A4 page with information about his date of enlistment, and retirement, and the fact that he’d given ‘exemplary service’. I knew from reading newspapers of the period that there was considerably more to meet the eye than that and that he must have seen some remarkable events; Ireland during the period immediately after the Civil War was still a lawless place, and I imagined there’d be any number of alarming incidents to recount. Somebody was going to write a good piece of civil war noir fiction, and I decided I wanted that to be me.

SG: You’ve really captured that adage that rather than write what you know, writers write from what they know into what they don’t know. You wrote from the knowledge of “exemplary service” and allowed your writerly self to re-imagine and invent the story of what could be behind “exemplary” and “service”.

Now, although the pace and tone are most definitely that of a thriller/crime novel, much of the writing in The Branchman is wonderfully poetic – a lot of sensory detail, descriptions, the writing at times visceral and at times contemplative. For example in a scene where a body is found, we start with this beautiful description:

“The field behind St Brigid’s Hospital was more boy than pasture – there were no signs of any recent grazing and here and there tufts of grass and bog asphodel peppered the ground.”

Do you think this is your poet-self showing through or is it a style of writing that was more deliberate – used to reflect the external and internal world of The Branchman, Michael Mackey? And on from this, I used one of your chapters – which covered a scene or two and were deliciously short, staccato and page turning – with my novel writing group in Maynooth University and we had a discussion about your possible process. We were curious about the length – did you set out to write short, sharp chapters (given the genre and story) or was it to do with time (one can write a scene in a short space of time) or your poetic sentiment?

NOM: Well first of all, thanks so much for saying that about my style. I’d been concerned that I’d eradicated all my poetic instincts in a desire for pacy prose, so I’m delighted that you found some of it lyrical. I think I do always think like a poet when wanting to describe the world of my story and it felt natural to make use of imagery and sensual description to try to bring that world alive. I wanted the reader to see what Mackey saw, in as much sensual detail as possible. I’m not sure that he has the soul of a poet, but he certainly is an observant man with a good eye for detail.

As for those short chapters, it started off accidental but became deliberate as I grew aware of the advantage of being able to switch scenes mid-way through the action. It’s very possible that my poetic instinct to distill things to their essence influenced the shape of the chapters in the first instance – that I was seeing them much as I see stanzas and ensuring that they contained only the essential information. But then I realised that one could generate suspense by switching to a new character or a new site of action so that each chapter became a little teaser of sorts. And I enjoyed writing that way. Some chapters are longer, of course – the ones that contain necessary backstory, for example – but most aren’t much more than a couple of pages long. I tell people that the book looks far longer to read (at 360 pages) that it actually takes and those short chapters seem to suck people in, somewhat.

SG: Yes, you’re right. The heft of the book disguises the page-turner the book is and much of this is down to the short, sharp chapters, the hooks and how you deftly manage the plot and the reveals.

The Branchman was a real page-turner, but I found that the relationships between the characters stayed with me after I’d finished the book, in particular the Daly family. You deftly capture the politics and contradictory nature of war, of nationhood, and of identity through very strong characterisation, and, of course, in your main protagonist, Detective Officer Michael Mackey.

 These themes are explored through Mackey’s relationships through the novel. We’re told that “The Civil War may be over, but there’s no peace, not by a long chalk…” and in another scene, Annie makes one of her many cutting comments to Mackey:

“Detective,” she snorted. “They let anyone into the Guards these days. As long as you were on the winning side, or at least claimed to be.”

 For a man who has fought in many places and many wars to literally keep the peace, he is now the ultimate outsider in his homeland. Danger lurks in every corner – or through the eyes of man perhaps suffering from post-traumatic stress, the possibility of it:

“It all looked innocent enough, but who knew what old animosities were lurking in those green fields?” And as he knows, “you couldn’t talk what you’d gone through or even where you’d been.”

This is a part of our national history that many families (and historians) have struggled to have honest conversations about. Do you think that in writing with such glorious detail many of the issues and contradictions by following the journey of Mackey, The Branchman could open up some new honest public conversations?  

NOM: I’d be delighted if the novel started off some public conversations. Part of the instinct to write this was my awareness of the persistent reticence about this period of our history. My grandparents lived through this time, but rarely spoke about their experiences. Anything my mother told me had been drip-fed to her by her own mother, and her father never spoke about it at all. It’s not surprising, really. How could a community that had come through the trauma of three wars (World War I, the War of Independence and the Civil War, as my grandfather had) be able to talk about things with any detachment. I’m convinced that half the population had undiagnosed PTSD. Add to the mix the change in political allegiances in the newly independent Ireland – all those soldiers coming back from the Somme, unable to speak about where they’d been – and the guilt of the dreadful things done to friends and neighbours during the Civil War and you have a very toxic recipe for dysfunction, which of course the crime-writer thrives upon. I’d never read stories set in this period, and I really feel that creative writing can help us to explore what had previously been unsayable or undiscussable, if that’s a word.

I also think that we’ve shown that we can deal with difficult topics during this first half of the decade of commemoration, but most people admit that public debate will get more and more difficult the closer we get to the anniversaries of the War of Independence and the Civil War, where many facts are still virulently contested. So I think that any creative writing that prompts discussion and an effort to understand the nature of those troubled times should be welcomed.

SG: Yes, there seems to be a burgeoning maturity in our psyche when it comes to assessing our recent history. I hope The Branchman will play a part in these public conversations – art in all its forms is often a way in, and indeed, for historians examining social history, historiography, art is often the key.

You’ve said that Mackey

“bears more than a passing resemblance to my grandfather but, as with many fictional heroes, has his own characteristics, flaws and plot points, which almost certainly never happened in real life, or at least not in the way I tell them here.”

Could you comment on how you found that process – using fact to create fiction and how the two overlapped, intertwined, and possibly changed as you wrote and edited the novel. Indeed, is it that you hold the emotional centre of the truth and work out from there?

NOM: I’ve been playing with the overlap between fact and fiction all my writing life, I suppose, filling the hiatuses and gaps with my own imaginings so that the characters I write about from real life end up being highly fictionalised. Michael Mackey is inspired by my grandfather, but I have little memory of the real man (I was 6 when he died) and drew on my mother’s stories about him for the main inspiration. But as the narrative developed, Mackey’s character had to change as he took on traits needed for the plot. This fictionalisation is especially true of the ‘love interest’ if I can call Annie that. She was originally based much more on my grandmother, but as the plot developed, I needed her to take on a much more dynamic motivation than my grandmother would ever have recognised (indeed she’d have been appalled by her fictional counterpart, I suspect). So yes, I do hope that there is an emotional centre of truth in the novel, but rather than these characters being similar to my own grandparents, they should be believable characters in their own rights, with plausible motivations that ring true.

SG: I think Mackey and Annie, as characters in the novel certainly ring true, I suppose I was curious about the process of transference and filtering. On another note, I loved the sense of place you create in The Branchman. Galway and Mayo feature heavily but we hear about Dublin, America, England too. Many of the characters have returned to Ballinasloe having previously been sent away. In some cases to create safety or for safety, (Mackey, Latham), and for others, such as Annie, Ballinasloe is the place they have found as a safe haven. The notion of return and change – in identity, in politics – is a motif that I enjoyed very much through the novel. Did you set out to explore identity and place, in particular?

NOM: I’m so pleased you enjoyed the sense of place. It was very important that I got that right, particularly in the case of Ballinasloe, which is my mother’s beloved home town and a place I’ve visited with her many times. Indeed, when I began to write the book, I took a trip with her and we walked around many of granddad’s old haunts, even visiting the police station. I took that ‘field-work’ with me in the writing and redrafting of the novel, wanting to be sure that I was accurate about where places were and whether it would be possible to walk from location to another in the time I suggest. My mother’s sense of place is particularly strong – at age 90, she still returns in her memory to a childhood spent exploring Ballinasloe. I was very envious of her growing up, as the pebble-dashed childhood surburb of Churchtown where we lived seemed very pale in comparison. So I guess that fed into my recreation of a fictional Ballinasloe here. Kiltimagh had a similar status – I’d heard almost as many stories about that town as I had about Ballinasloe, and wanted to present that correctly too. But you’re right, and I hadn’t really thought about it until you said it, the book is also about remaking identity and trying to fit in. Practically everyone here is an outsider – if they weren’t one before, the various wars made them so, so people’s identities are shifting all the time – they have to as a matter of survival.

SG: I can’t leave our chat without commenting on the stunning cover image. Arlen House is well known for their use of art, and with The Branchman, the cover shows a detail from a painting by Brian Maguire entitled The World is Full of Murder. Did you have an input into the decision making around the title of your novel and the cover?

NOM: There’s a great story around the cover, actually. We’d orginally been talking about using a Sean Keating painting (one of his Civil War series) as the cover art, but that was becoming too difficult to source and time was running out. Then, by coincidence, I was down in Skibbereen on holiday when the Great Hunger exhibition was being shown at the local arts centre, Uilleann. We wandered around and came across Brian Maguire’s painting, which is a huge and dramatic canvas. Apart from the image’s sheer beauty, the title conveyed everything I wanted to suggest in the novel, and I had to have it for the book. I’d no idea how to contact Brian, but this is Ireland, where everyone knows somebody who knows somebody. I contacted a friend who knew Brian; he passed on Brian’s email address and I’d got permission both from him and from Quinnipiac University, who own the painting, within a day.

As for the title, it was The Branchman, from the outset. I had the title before I had the novel. I’ve no idea where it came from, it was just there. And I googled it to check that there wasn’t another novel with the same title out there. There wasn’t at the time I started, although more recent google searches have revealed there is now another one in the US, though it appears to be horror rather than crime!

SG: Wow. Permission within a day. It was certainly meant to be. I love that you had your title before the novel. Fantastic. 

Some fun questions

  1. What are you reading now? I’ve just started Anna Burns’s Milkman. It’s every bit as great as people say it is.
  2. I’m reading it too! So far, wonderful. City or town? Well, I am a Dubliner, so it has to be city, doesn’t it? I do love my rickety dirty old Dublin.
  3. Mountains or sea? Sea, in a heartbeat. It’s the recurring dream to live by the sea – I was lucky enough to live with a sea-view when I was doing my PhD in Wales – and that was the best time of my life in so many ways.
  4. What’s your favourite drink when you’re writing? Sadly, a nice cup of tea. I’d have loved to have said absinth, honestly.
  5. Ha! That put a smile on my face. I love Earl Grey tea when I’m deep into a book and a strong black coffee when I’m starting off. Nothing ‘cool’ like absinth for me either!

Lastly, where can we find you reading from The Branchman? I’ll be reading from The Branchman at the Speakers’ Corner sessions at the Murder One Festival in Smock Alley on the 3rd November, at 11am. There’ll be a Belfast launch for it at the Crescent Arts Centre on 16th November, and I’ll be reading from it at the Rostrevor Festival in Co. Down on 24th November.

Great to hear that we can catch you in a variety of places, Nessa. The Murder One Festival sounds fantastic. I believe tickets can be obtained hereThanks, again, for engaging so generously in our chat and for providing such insight into the process and hopes of The Branchman. I wish you much continued success. 

Readers, keep up to date with Nessa 

READERS: To win a signed copy of THE BRANCHMAN, simply comment on this blog saying why you’d like a copy and what you enjoyed about our chat. Winner will be drawn on Monday 29th October!

……And the winner is…..

IMAG1184Andrew! Congratulations. I’ll put you in touch with Nessa. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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Author: Shauna Gilligan

Writer and Educator who, when not mothering, is writing, teaching, baking, reading: adding life to form. Ireland. Spain. Represented by Andrew Nurnberg Associates International Literary Agency.

7 thoughts on “Writers Chat 14: Nessa O’Mahony on “The Branchman” (Arlen House: Galway, 2018)”

  1. I’d love to read The Branchman, and also offer a review of it on my blog. I’ve appreciated Nessa’s poetry very much and am extremely keen to encounter her fiction writing – the themes the book traces also sound compelling!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hello Shauna and Nessa! I was looking out for Nessa’s The Branchman and discovered this! It’s interesting to read above about her journey from poetry to fiction and how she works with rhythm in her voice. Part of the enjoyment of reading for me is that sense of music – and along with what sounds like a cracking and fascinating story… I want to read it! Jules (OU colleague)

    Like

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