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.

 

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Writers Chat 5: Patrick Chapman on his debut novel “So Long, Napoleon Solo” (BlazeVOX Books: NY, 2017)

Writer Patrick Chapman talks to me about writing, characterisation, titles, authorial intention and the role of place, era and music in novel writing…

I’m delighted to bring you a fifth WRITERS CHAT where Patrick Chapman talks to me about writing, characterisation, authorial intention and the role of place, era and music in novel writing…

Patrick, you’re very welcome. You’re a much-published and critically acclaimed poet and writer but today we’re going to focus on your debut novel So Long, Napoleon Solo (BlazeVOX Books, 2017). Congratulations on the publication and the fabulous cover which has such a nice texture!

PATRICK: Thank you, Shauna. The cover is meant to evoke pulp novels of the 1950s and 1960s, though this is a modern story. The style is a hint at the spy stories of the protagonist’s childhood.

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       Buy So Long, Napoleon Solo

SHAUNA: Oh yes, I can see that in the cover. A nice touch and a push towards the physical copy rather than the digital. Patrick, having published seven collections of poetry and two books of stories, written for TV, film and audio drama, and worked in advertising – how did you come to turn to the long haul of novel writing? Was So Long, Napoleon Solo always destined to be a novel or did it start life as something else?

PATRICK: So Long, Napoleon Solo was always going to be a novel, but I took a poet’s route to writing it. That’s to say, the book was composed without a plan, and along the way it yielded other pieces as I followed paths that didn’t end up belonging to the story at hand – a novella, Anhedonia, published four years ago, and a few short stories, all came off the flywheel as I whittled the novel down to its core. When BlazeVOX said yes last year, I enjoyed a few months of final editing, which gave the book its finish. So it was a long haul, but I loved the process of it.

SHAUNA: That’s the key with novel writing, isn’t it – you’re in for the long haul, however that ‘long’ is. Well, as writers it is often difficult to express that which cannot be expressed and one of these acts is that of suicide and the grief that follows. Having explored this in novel form myself, I understand how complex and delicate a theme it is. Although the death of Tom, an old childhood friend of our hero Jerome (“a sensible coward”) is pivotal to the whole narrative, So Long, Napoleon Solo isn’t really about suicide – I found it to contain a steady meditative thread on what we understand friendship to be, and how it changes over time and over our lives.

PATRICK: Friendship – its various forms, and how it evolves with time and circumstance – is definitely a theme of the novel. Some friendships calcify, some flower. Some were never how you remember them, or what you expected them to be.

Tom kills himself before the book begins, but the relationship he had with Jerome, is frozen in Jerome’s memory as that which they shared as boys. We only have our hero’s word for what it was actually like.

This novel went through the stages of grief, and came out the other side. In the composition, it seemed important to write fearlessly – not treating the subject of suicide with kid gloves but allowing it space to be what it is: imponderable at first and catastrophic yet human and, to my mind, having been around quite a few of them, eventually understandable and forgivable. Also there are one-liners in the book. I wanted this to be a black comedy, which is how it turned out.

SHAUNA: In the humour – some of which had me laughing aloud (“Humanity was turning into a species of mugwumps in suits”) there are some very poetic portrayals of emotion, such as the description of Tom’s mother Betty at his funeral:

Betty now bawled openly, a Magdalene of sorrow and no one’s feet to wash with her hair.

PATRICK: Humour can be how we cover our inability to face sorrow. Jerome deals with his – unacknowledged at first – using cynical humour; his character strengthens and deepens as the book goes on, and as his life crystallises into something new. Jerome’s armour is stripped away and he finds another way of facing his demons, which I won’t spoil, but he first has to get good at confrontation. This backfires amusingly on him. As for his sorrow – once laughter fades, the darkness in the face of which it sounded, wraps around him like a cloak and he has to find a way to wear it that looks good on him.

SHAUNA: Yes there is that depth of sorrow throughout the novel. But So Long, Napoleon Solo is full of journeys – from childhood to adulthood, regret to acceptance, blame to forgiveness. Jerome constantly balances himself on the tightrope between conforming to society’s expectations and being free.

In Dublin “his other pals had long since drifted away into fatherhood, depression or success”. Clea discouraged him from getting to know other women, as she had “put a lot of work into him.” And at home in the countryside he muses how the people

raced to become exactly the sort of people they were expected to be, then they could stop evolving and have done with it.

Tell me about the formation of this complex character that I found myself both loving and despising in equal measure.

PATRICK: Jerome’s character at the beginning of the book, is formed out of an idea of himself that he’s constructed in order to be able to get on with things. His attitude to his past is a way of distancing himself from who he used to be. It’s a protective layer he hasn’t learned to live without. As for his smart mouth, he’s projecting, and compensating for his own sense of isolation. There’s tenderness in his view of his upbringing, but pain too. His hometown is to him the place where his friend killed himself, and where the people who bullied him as a child, now exist in a hell of quiet desperation, at least to his mind. In fact they’re perfectly normal humans. Eventually, Jerome learns that everyone is lost and for some that’s not a problem, as they don’t realise it.

SHAUNA: This next question has two parts. 

Firstly, the novel is primarily set in Dublin and I loved how, through Jerome’s life, we see the streets, bars and cafes grow high, fall, as the Celtic Tiger comes and along with it greed, homelessness, prosperity, all the contradictions of a city that is essentially not quite grown up – like the ever nostalgic Jerome.

On the top floor of a house near Portobello bridge, he had taken his first taste of Red Lebanese, Leonard Cohen and nakedness with a woman, all in the same night. The hash had made him high, the music had made him smile and the woman had made him coffee in the morning.

Do you think So Long, Napoleon Solo is as much about Dublin as it is about its characters?

Secondly, as much as the city, the music guides both the reader and Jerome towards maturity and, as he finally lights a cigarette like a man, he smokes “pulling the future into his head”. I’d have loved a CD to accompany the novel!

PATRICK: The story was written during the boom years, but it’s not a ‘Celtic Tiger’ novel per se. That said, the city in which it’s set is very much the Dublin of that period – a new-money metropolis, a place that thinks it’s cosmopolitan but that will never be New York. It doesn’t wear its worldliness lightly. There’s an incuriousness in some of the background characters, along with a certain herd instinct at large upon the world, a movement towards conformity that Jerome disapproves of. He thinks himself outside all of that but really he doesn’t understand how everyone else seems to know what to do.

As for music, the songs of Jerome’s youth act as a comment on his not being able to reveal his small-town character. They represent his authentic self; he hides these albums from his city friends. When Ro turns up with her ‘anything goes’ attitude, she’s much more relaxed than he is, in music as well as in other areas. She couldn’t care less what he likes or doesn’t like. She has bigger problems. Real life is what’s playing on her Discman (the book is set just pre-iPod).

In lieu of a CD, here’s a Spotify playlist of some of the music and artists featured in So Long, Napoleon Solo

SHAUNA: Oh fabulous! I shall look forward to listening. Now on the topic of characterisation it struck me that the expression of female sexuality seemed often to be as an antidote to male power, in particular, how Clea and Ro are portrayed in relation to Jerome. Of course the narrative of So Long, Napoloen Solo is written from a close third-person perspective so we’re looking at these – at times very strong – female characters through the eyes of Jerome. In a way, I also couldn’t help thinking that Clea and Ro were extensions of different versions of Jerome – almost like you see couples begin to look like their dogs or each other. Did you envisage this interconnectivity for your characters?

PATRICK: Ro is used to taking what she wants sexually, as is Clea. That’s not to say that what either wants is particularly wild, though there’s a scene where Clea does something to Jerome that might raise certain eyebrows today.

In the sense that all characters represent aspects of their author, there is a relationship between these three, and they do reflect each other but they’re individuals. Ro is not a ‘manic pixie dream-girl’, yet she arrives as part of a world of anarchy that opens for Jerome. She’s tougher and more robust than that label, and she is not at all about the guy. There’s a strength to her, a recklessness, as well as frankness and kindness. Though she’s in a mess, she’s on more solid ground than at first it appears. Clea is witty and sophisticated on the surface but having had adventures in her youth, she now tends towards the conventional. She represents a certain kind of accommodation people often make with intolerable domestic situations, out of fear, a desire to fit in, or a sense that there’s no way out.

One thing these two characters have in common is that, although they see Jerome as a human being, neither takes him seriously as any kind of traditional male ideal. That’s liberating for everyone, as he doesn’t see himself that way, either.

SHAUNA: Yes, that’s what I thought – we see more of Jerome through Clea and Ro. Much of our curiosity in life is about finding the answer to This comes through very strongly in your novel, Patrick. Jerome wants desperately to find out why Clea can possibly go back to Harry when he is abusive towards her; both Jerome and Ro spend much of the novel trying to find out why Tom killed himself; and Jerome, like all of us, is a man constantly searching for meaning. In a way, isn’t the act of writing part of this search, part of the why?

PATRICK: Writing is all about ‘why’, as much as it’s about ‘what happens next’. It can be cathartic for the author to write in search of an answer but the journey needs to resonate with a reader – the writing becomes all about telling a good story. In this book, as in life, not every question has a clear answer, which is intentional. I try not to close the circle. For instance, what does the word ‘England’ mean, towards the end of the novel? A whole new world, perhaps.

SHAUNA: Although we never get to meet Tom, we get to know him through flashbacks and memories of those who knew him in life. Innocent play becomes tainted with adult knowledge and reason and in the light of suicide a simple childhood friendship takes on a heavy weight. Life is full of phases and people often pass through one phase, disappear and reappear in another phase. Friendships come and go. I couldn’t help wondering that if Tom hadn’t killed himself would Jerome even remember him?

PATRICK: Every now and then, Jerome would remember Tom as someone he had known long ago, a signifier of a different time, an imaginary friend which, in a way, is what he becomes in our story. Tom is more powerful as a memory. If he had turned up in person, we wouldn’t have this set of events. It’s a twisted memory too – what Tom leaves behind is poisonous and nuts, and the effect it has is transformative. You have to ask if reasonable people would take up the challenge of it the way Ro and Jerome do, but in this situation they’re not entirely reasonable. It’s an emotionally heightened reality for these characters.

SHAUNA: Yes, I felt that much of the pace of the book was driven by the heightened emotion of the characters. Finally, Patrick, let’s move to the title. As a young boy Tom is given a gun by a slightly dodgy uncle and he and Jerome decide to address each other by their secret names – Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin – taken from the characters of the 1960s US TV show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Do you think there are different interpretations of the story depending on the reader’s knowledge of The Man from U.N.C.L.E and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E? (Here I need to confess that though I’ve not seen either programme, my lack of knowledge did not affect my enjoyment of the novel.)

PATRICK: The reader doesn’t need to know these shows (or the recent movie) to enjoy the novel. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is important only in that the two boys played at being those spies, and it’s clear soon enough in the story who Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin were. As for the title, So Long, Napoleon Solo was inspired by my admiration for two other books with ‘So Long’ in the name. So Long, See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell and So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish, by Douglas Adams. As a phrase, it didn’t show up in Google searches until Robert Vaughn died, so it seemed like a good one.

SHAUNA: Thanks so much, Patrick, for being so giving with your responses to my curiosity. I must look up those two books you mention.

I wish you much success with So Long, Napoleon Solo! 

READERS: Check out the track list to the novel and purchase Patrick’s novel here.

You might also be interested in Patrick’s poetry published by Salmon Press and you might like to read an article Patrick wrote for Writing.ie about So Long, Napoleon Solo

 

Chapman