I could no more define poetry than a terrier can define a rat. - A. E. Housman.
Often when writers talk about how they work they do so blinking through a smokescreen. You can see it in their eyes. Many of us do not know how we did it, and certainly do not know how we will do it again. Indeed, for me, looking too closely makes me uncomfortable. When people ask about my discipline I cannot answer, but I must have some, because I know how many books I have written. I also know that my practice has changed.
I was around nine years of age when I decided I wanted to be a novelist although I wasn’t quite sure what that was. I didn’t know what the word meant and hadn’t got around to asking. I had learned the alphabet some time before going to school. I remember vividly the day my maternal grandfather’s teaching made sense, the light of seeing words had gone on, the gift of reading was almost there, the leaving of ignorance had begun. I would soon be able to sit anywhere turning pages - that is all I would have to do to live in a thousand worlds. ‘Novelist’ seemed a mysterious word, and I felt that I might swap it with ‘author’, which came into my currency not long afterwards. I have a distinct memory of walking along a field and imagining the plan. I was on my way to get tea, going home from the farm that was a few miles from our actual house, the journey to and back giving plenty of thinking time if it was done alone, without father or talking sisters. I could have been in a Kavanagh poem, but I hadn’t yet got as far as knowing his work and his nearby history.
So, finding ways of writing, following the impulse of the story is a way of life for me. I cannot remember a time when I didn’t think that the reading and writing of books is portable magic, one that I wanted to watch and perform. Although of course at some times writing has to take a back seat. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it gives time to process, to think of things beyond pages, to have some fun, to learn, to look out other windows.
Writers who are women with children have, by necessity, a different timetable, as Tillie Olsen told us well. When mine were young I wrote and re-wrote more in my head; I filled notebooks on the run. I don’t have to do that so much now because time is less controlled by the needs of small others. I once wrote most of a book in a car, a Datsun 100A . I left the children to school each morning, but did not return to my desk because I would have become diverted by the myriad of domestics needing attention. (Some of the pile up was the result of my making our living from teaching at night.) After leaving the school gates I drove to Sandymount beach, had a quick walk, returned to the car, to write longhand, until it was time to pick them up. Funnily enough it didn’t feel like hardship, just a necessary trick. I was more involved in the book than in the cramps I was creating in my back and neck. When I pass office-supplies shop windows with their instructions on correct seating I always nod a salute.
I knew about Luisa Mercedes Levinson who had cultivated magic realism long before Gabriel García Márquez, and who, in 1955, had collaborated with Jorge Luis Borges to write the story "The sister of Eloísa". She took to the bed for months after becoming mother in order to finish writing a book. Her daughter, Luisa Valenzuela, later wrote avant-garde novels such as Como en la Guerra and Cambio de Armas, experimental, powerful critiques of the dictatorship in Argentina – so watching her mother from the bottom of the stairs did her a lot of good. But it mightn’t have. I was afraid to take to the bed.
Gazing too deeply seems dangerous for several reasons; possibly I’m afraid of it in the same way as I’m afraid of telling strangers my secrets. What an old-fashioned thing to feel. There has always been a wide open kind of writing a la Dorothy Parker. My friend Nuala O’ Faolain was a mistress of it, but it doesn’t sit well with me. Yesterday I read an interview with an Irish writer who had bared his soul and my heart was shouting “Oh dear, you’ve told her too much, that’s all they’ll remember about you now”.
When I began to seriously write, my reading mattered above all else; I searched to find women who had been steamrollered into oblivion, buried in the foundations, bright women who had something to say to me. I was also interested in finding men whose view was expansive. I got caught in Ireland after I had children, but I could read away from it, an escape that allowed me to write, and still does. As does research beyond my daily life, although with all its drama, truth and lies, music, politics, love, tears and friends, good and bad, it has been the foundry from which I catapult, naturally. Some of my work has involved specific, placed research, which I obviously chose because those subjects interest me in the way they relate to society, to memory, to how we live. Forgetting is part of memory, as I realized when researching Not the Same Sky. Choosing what to forget is a political act.
I visited Death Row in the US while working on Skin of Dreams and spent weeks on the road with anti-capital-punishment advocates. The sheer madness of all that lent an air of its own to the book; sometimes it didn’t feel that it was me writing it, no more than it felt like me in the back of the bus we travelled in. Writing Not the Same Sky brought me to all sorts of places in Australia, some of which I’d already visited way back when I travelled all over it, working at everything from barmaid in a mining town to a compiler of entries for a geography encyclopedia. I had already gone there by ship when I was nineteen, so I didn’t need to do that again in order to imagine the long boat journey. A Glassful of Letters was based more on my inner thoughts, slanted by the desire to be out of Ireland, while also thinking that perhaps occasional escape would suffice. I used the half epistolary form in order to be able to argue things out – this was a time when it was almost impossible to discuss what was happening on a daily basis in the north of the country. Even naming the place drew opprobrium.
A few years ago when writing Dear You, a story based on Violet Gibson, the Irish woman who almost succeeded in assassinating Mussolini, I went to the convent in Rome where she had been staying, walked the walk she probably did, and stood where she took aim with her Lebel revolver. I then went to Mantellate Prison, where she spent time before they shipped her off to the asylum in Northampton for life. I’ve gone to her grave there too, and seen how they wouldn’t even oblige her in death by burying her in her desired ground. From Hiroshima I wrote Virgin Birth, a story I imagined about the first woman who deliberately became pregnant after the bomb was dropped. I’m fascinated by such optimism. And there had to be such a woman. And a man with her.
Some of my earlier stories deal with how the strictures of our society affected the ways we lived. Mine, and other similar voices that have taken on those topics, are not always flavour of the month. And yet it’s interesting to be asked to record The Park for Stinging Fly as the present pope’s visit is imminent. That story – about those who protested against the 1979 visit, those who ran away to ‘pope free zones’ – seems to come from a different age, but clearly it is seen to still have relevance. This brings me to political action and being a writer. I had to be involved in issues around how our lives were circumscribed. Because I am a citizen as well as a writer. Perhaps if I’d been a man I wouldn’t have felt the absolute necessity to be involved in the contraception, divorce and abortion campaigns. Perhaps I could have said “Well, let the women look after that”. I’ll never know.
I’ve written before about the occasional tackling of the gender issue head-on in my work. “Taking Scarlet as a Real Colour”, the title story of a collection, ends with the speaker writing to Henry Miller, suggesting to him that men writing about sex may have got it wrong, may have suffered from a misunderstanding. Again a collection-title story, “Telling", is about a great male writer telling a roomful of women how to write about domestic violence. I had form here, having once, in fury, published an article in response to the portrayal of a woman suffering domestic violence. I had already expressed bafflement at the narrow view of what constituted a family. At the time I was myself a ‘separated’ mother of two young boys, living in a hostile environment. The factual pressure of that, and my watching the wonderful way my sons were negotiating their difference, dulled any pedestrian sense of humour I could have had around the issue. Initially I didn’t have any intention of addressing the issue publicly (why should I? No-one else would). But then I could bear it no more. The reactions of women who had felt silenced and who contacted me in their droves to tell me of their relief, suggested that I was right to do so. And yet, in some ways, I wish I had stayed silent. It’s easier.
Of course I would prefer not to be angry. And mostly I’m not. Of course I’d like to be considered polite. And mostly I am. I once stood up to gently ask if a speaker, in his mentioning of twenty-two Irish writers, might consider that perhaps only one woman gracing his mouth was a bit minimalist. As I began to formulate the dry throated words my brain said “Oh god, not me again”.
In my next collection I have three stories that could be in the voice of either gender, one from an academic who goes to interview that first woman who deliberately became pregnant post the dropping of the atom bomb, another from a child who sits on the stairs listening to its sister lose the run of herself over her upcoming wedding, and the third from a border dweller who has run up a tree. I’ve read these stories at public events, and it has been interesting, to say the least, listening to people explain how they know, with absolutely certainty, why the characters are male or female.
I don’t think about gender issues when I’m writing, I merely observe what happens between women and men, or what happens to women and men. But no doubt the shade of the things I see is affected by the colour-code of my knowledge of the world.
When Jenny Diski decided to travel, and think, she conducted her strange and wonderful journey by train through America with the smokers; their carriage already earmarked for consignment to history, even as they were tossing about conversation on their last legal drags. Anthony Cronin brought us to Paris and back with a suitably fascinating set of co-travellers, but I’m still worried that one of them, well entrenched in his literary maleness, went to borrow a fiver from Simone de Beauvoir not knowing who she was. Rebecca Solnit went into her head and out again. Dervla Murphy, the consummate, intelligent travel writer went everwhere. Joe Brainard decided to remember, and how.
Biographies, even short ones, have their own particular difficulties. Some are straighforward, others fraught with uphill catastrophes from the minute they are imagined, let’s say that of Ted Hughes. I wasn’t surprised to read that Carol Hughes, Ted’s widow, took serious issue with Jonathan Bate’s unauthorised life story of Ted. The book had begun its life with the cooperation of the Hughes estate but, Bate claims, that was mysteriously withdrawn when he was well into his research. It may have been that Carol Hughes discovered that there would be a bit too much biography in the biography. And it’s all in how you tell it. After publication she was particularly offended by the description of the funeral journey from Devon to London. Bate wrote of “the accompanying party stopping, as Ted the gastronome would have wanted, for a good lunch on the way”. Since Bate himself wasn’t there, someone told him this, and a lot hangs on what you consider to be “a good lunch”. Are we talking an edible pub sandwich here - or a proper afternoon outing? In my family life, once when we were bringing our aunt Mary’s coffin from Dublin to Bawn Cemetery in Co. Monaghan we stopped in McEntee’s pub in Shercock to have tea and toast, but if anyone had seen the hearse parked outside who’s to say what they would have made of it. There’s enough history around our house to construct a right party out of that stop. Or the truth could be told, which was that her sister, Aunt Kitty, over from New York for the funeral, suddenly had to have a cup of tea before the stress of laying her sister down.
There is another daunting thing about describing this life. Most women and shy men who write have a problem naming themselves writers; it takes them longer than the other confident, brash and perhaps less talented variety. And why can’t one describe happenings other than work, and the answer of course is that writers are their work, they are incomplete without a pen, which is their breath. People are driven to labour at all kinds of things – scientific, physical, trade, medical – and some even to work merely for a living and to wring life out of the rest of their time. But there are others, like those in Tillie Olsen’s Silences, whose being is all about transposing the thought onto the blotting paper that is a book. She was the first person I read who understood that this desire can be present even without the tools to understand it, that there are writers among the illiterate, those who have never been lucky enough to learn an alphabet, to find the solace that books, packets of hieroglyphics, give.