Belinda McKeon on Her New Novel, Women’s Rights in Ireland & “Doing Daily Battle with My Own…

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Belinda McKeon

Belinda McKeon is an Irish novelist, short story writer and playwright who hails from the Irish midlands but has been based in Brooklyn for the past ten years. Her first novel, Solace, which The Irish Times called “at once a moving and gracefully etched story of human loss and interconnection set in contemporary Ireland and a deeply affecting meditation on being in the world,” won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize in 2011. Her new novel, Tender (Lee Bourdeaux Books, 2016), hailed by The Guardian as “richly nuanced and utterly absorbing,” tells the story of shy college freshman Catherine and flamboyant photographer-in-training James, two nineteen-year-old rural exiles in Dublin as they navigate the increasingly intense nature of their co-dependent relationship. It’s a beautiful, claustrophobic evocation of friendship, longing, and the obsessive power of first love. I sat down with McKeon earlier this month in the Bowery’s Swift Hibernian Lounge to discuss autobiographical fiction, the nature of obsession and Ireland’s archaic constitutional ban on abortion.

Dan Sheehan: You’ve said that this novel is “autobiographical at its core” — which I’m sure prompts a lot of wearying questions I’ll try not to ask here; but I’m curious to know how, a decade or so on from your own personal experience of it, you approached the process of tapping into the incredible intensity of feeling that often accompanies a young person’s first foray into the adult world?

Belinda McKeon: Well I did have, and do have, diaries from that time. I was a really obsessive journal-keeper. I wrote long, detailed entries during those teens-to-early-twenties years, so I did have those to refer to, but I didn’t actually read them until I was about a quarter of the way into the writing of the novel and when I did, they were actually less useful than I thought they’d be. They were too real somehow. So the real work of tapping into that intensity and into what that time felt like came in the writing, the same type of writing that any piece of fiction requires: becoming completely immersed in the world as it’s being created. The more I wrote the more I started to feel myself getting back in touch with what it felt like to be that age. So that was how I did it, but that said, as I’m talking I’m remembering that there was probably about a year of really serious false starts with that material, where I was trying to write in the first person, and then trying out a perspective that was maybe twenty years into the future looking back on the time — all sorts of ways of attempting to inhabit the material. For what felt like a long, painful, disastrous time none of it was working and I don’t think I felt like I was connecting with that period at all. But when I look back at it now, a few years on, I think I actually was connecting with what it felt like to be in that period, but it was all so cringe-inducing and so uncomfortable that my impulse was to resist it and to believe that it just wasn’t working.

DS: Were you tempted then, at those points, to abandon the project or was it always something that you knew you had to power through?

BMcK: No, I was quite stubborn about it. I wanted to get it right but that proved so hard to do that there was a lot of anxiety and a fair bit of panic wrapped up in the process.

DS: The four sections that comprise this book are quite stylistically different, each one corresponding to Catherine’s state of mind at the time. Why did you decide to structure the novel this way?

Your unconscious knows what it’s doing but the rest of you is just sort of panicking and flailing.

BMcK: Well it was a conscious decision, but it didn’t come about until quite late on in the process of writing the book. Part One is the very naïve, “innocence” section whereas Part Two is more “experience” — they’ve spent a year apart, she’s grown away from him, it’s sort of the campus novel section of the book. Those are the two sections that I worked on for a long time at the beginning and it was only when they were drafted that I realized the third section, which is the more fragmented section, needed to have an entirely different rhythm. From there it became clear that Section Two also needed to have a more markedly different rhythm to Section One. I guess what I’m saying is that it was intuitive. I remember that the shape of Section Three showed itself to me at a time when, for some reason, I was reading a lot of poetry and not reading any fiction. I suppose that may have been my unconscious driving me toward the rhythm of poetry rather than prose for that section. In a way the momentum of each section was designed to reflect Catherine’s mental state, but I didn’t sit down initially with that intention. The writing process uncovers different layers of intention. Your unconscious knows what it’s doing but the rest of you is just sort of panicking and flailing.

DS: You depict the nature of longing and obsession so brilliantly in this novel, to the point where Catherine’s behaviour becomes both completely inexcusable and uncomfortably understandable to the reader. Did the extremity of her descent surprise you in the writing or did you know from the novel’s inception that James and Catherine’s relationship would eventually enter this dark place?

BMcK: I knew she was going to go to a dark place and I knew that it had to be really uncomfortable, so in that sense it didn’t surprise me. The earlier draft of the novel, which my publisher saw, depicted her climactic point in a different way and it wasn’t working. Her deception, her betrayal of James, was of a different type and that was something I was very unsure about. Then, after a couple of people read it and responded to it I knew that it had to change, so it took me a while to find the particular manifestation of her distress that was right for the story. But I knew that she had to go to that place, absolutely. This novel is, to a certain extent, in my own experience, and the experience did bring me to really difficult places, especially for someone of that age. Really dark and spiraling places.

DS: So that even if the events or the people weren’t strictly autobiographical, you knew that there was a feeling you were trying to capture, and to not go all-in on that would do the novel a disservice?

BMcK: Absolutely. I suppose the correct way to think about it is in terms of it being a feeling, but when a person goes through that kind of distress and enters into that kind of isolation and paranoia — it’s a state of mental and emotional plummeting really — it’s not just a feeling. It’s a feeling that has feelings; it’s so multi-layered. It’s a deep anxiety spiral that produces more and more of itself. It’s very good at producing more and more delusions and fears and convictions. So Catherine is caught in this loop of panic and distress, and the writing just had to go there.

DS: Your two novels have very different approaches to dialogue. In Solace, the emotional distance between father and son is such that their attempts to really talk to one another are continually frustrated; things are constantly left unsaid. In Tender, however, the vibrant, performative nature of Catherine and James’s conversations end up being, in their own way, just as effective in frustrating the release of what is unutterable between them.

BMcK: It is true I suppose that the too-muchness of their conversation can’t bring them release or full expression either, and that’s probably because those things are almost impossible between people anyway. Especially when you’re portraying a character who is nineteen or twenty and just experiencing love and deep connection with another person for the first time. Not to make this sound like a romantic comedy, but Catherine really believes that James is going to make her life complete. She really believes that she has found the person who will be able to give utterance to all the things that she hasn’t been able to utter for herself and about herself and about experience. And of course he can’t, nobody can, and that’s one of the aspects of heartbreak that everybody has to experience. That realisation that another person cannot bridge the gap that is just an inevitable part of being human. So it makes sense then that even though they are so voluble — that nothing goes unsaid, to an extreme, uncomfortable extent — even though that is the case, the last word is never said, the lost thing can never be recovered.

DS: And I suppose that trait isn’t necessarily the preserve of nineteen and twenty year old college students either. We’re talking about something so intense that for a person of any age it would be almost impossible to manage.

There are aspects of a tradition that you can kind of imbibe, and sometimes you need to push against that.

BMcK: Well when I was that age I truly believed it was possible to find that kind of expression, that kind of utterance. As you go through that experience for the first time you begin to grow away from that expectation of a full kind of speech, of a full connection. That kind of cathartic experience, you realize, isn’t possible. I guess what I’m saying is that, as you get older, you just stop asking so much of other people. But it is true that the types of dialogue between the two novels are very different. Solace is very much a novel of the unsaid and I very consciously wanted to move away from that, which was a real technical challenge for me because I’d grown up on that tradition of Irish literature, where the unsaid is so much more powerful than the spoken. Where a glance or an intimation can say so much. That mode came very naturally to me while I was writing Solace, almost too naturally, and I think I realized that, with Tender, I wanted to do something different. There are aspects of a tradition that you can kind of imbibe, and sometimes you need to push against that.

DS: So this novel became a stylistic challenge as well as an emotional one?

BMcK: Yes, it absolutely was. It was uncomfortable stylistically as well as emotionally and those two aspects of the novel writing process were probably very wrapped up together: the stylistic challenge and the challenge to the ego. I think that when you’re writing the beautiful, restrained prose the ego is quite protected, the ego of the writer that is, but with this kind of work, where everything is vomited out on the page, you’re exposing yourself a lot more and that can be quite embarrassing and cringe-inducing. There’s always the temptation to make your characters seem much more suave than they are because you hope that will translate into the perception of you as an author, but if you have an nineteen year old character who is very naïve, very wide-eyed, you have to be true to what that wide-eyedness consists of. I wasn’t going to turn her into a hipster, basically. It might have been more flattering to me in some contexts but it just wouldn’t have been true. I think that was another reason why the novel took a little longer than I thought it was going to take. I was doing daily battle with my own mortified ego [laughs], but oh well.

DS: “My own mortified ego,” I like that.

BMcK: “My so-called ego.”

DS: You have another writing career, outside of novels and short fiction, as a playwright. How much do you think your work in playwriting has informed your approach to fiction writing?

BMcK: I really consider myself a beginning playwright. I think it’s the other way around, that the fiction informs the playwriting, but dialogue is the common ground and that’s where my instinct for writing plays comes from. My inner ear provides me with dialogue quite naturally so that’s where the plays come from but I think I still have a lot to learn about structure and shape when it comes to playwriting. I really do regard myself as someone still starting out .

DS: But you are under commission at The Abbey Theatre [Ireland’s national theatre] at the moment. Can you reveal anything about the play you’re working on or is it under wraps for the time being?

BMcK: Well it’s under wraps only because I’m still writing it. I’ve been under commission for years actually. I wrote one play and we workshopped it and I decided to leave it aside for a while. The problem then was that it dated quite badly. It was a kind of post-Celtic Tiger play and I really felt, when I looked back on it, that it wasn’t going to endure as an idea. So the replacement play is about two women, about a journalist and a politician, and something that they have on each other. It’s about a much younger woman whom they have in common. I can’t say much more about it because not much more exists. A commission is an interesting thing because it’s not a guarantee of production, it’s a process in itself: you write the play, hopefully you go through the following steps with the theatre and eventually, if all works out, there’ll be a production. That process can be both frustrating and protective for a playwright. I found it to be a bit of both.

DS: I’ve talked to writers who love the newfound collaborative aspects of working in theatre or in, say, a writers room for TV, and others who bristle against the whole idea of it, who prefer to work in isolation. Do you have a preference?

I think it’s just safer to be the asshole in charge, and that’s what a novelist is.

BMcK: Well I think it depends. I have really enjoyed it, and at other times I have hated it. It depends on the people involved. We’re back to the idea of ego. It you find yourself in a room with great people, smart people, open people, creative people, it can be a wonderful experience. I’m not precious about the words on the page. I was a journalist as well so you learn to give up your words if they’re not working, or at least for that to be negotiable. But if you’re in a room with an asshole, forget it. It really is awful because there’s no way out. I’ve had that experience and it was enough to turn me off playwriting for years. I just thought, “fuck this, I’m going back into my room.” It’s a real shame because the whole fabric of a piece can be destroyed by one asshole who happens to be in charge. I think it’s just safer to be the asshole in charge, and that’s what a novelist is.

DS: So if I title this interview “The Asshole in Charge”…

BMcK: Please do.

DS: You recently edited a collection of short stories by a group of international writers [A Kind of Compass: Stories on Distance] about the nature of distance from home. How has distance from Ireland, the years spent living here in New York, affected how you write about it in your fiction? Do you find that you need a certain period of distance from a particular time in your life before you can write about it?

There’s just a very intense community of conversation going on in that country all the time and even though I love it I don’t seem to be able to marry it with a steady writing life.

BMcK: This is kind of the fundamental question for me because I’ve been here for ten years now and both of my novels were written during that time, so I have no idea what it would be like to be a writer in Ireland. Even though I go there a lot, I still have a very close and regular connection with the country, I still write about Ireland almost all the time, my writing life, such as it has managed to come into existence, happened because I moved away. Although, while I did make a conscious decision to emigrate, it wasn’t a “I hate you Ireland, I need to write!” type of decision. It just so happened that I only got my head together, in the way that I hoped or wanted to, in terms of a routine, in terms of being productive, once I left. I don’t know whether that was a coincidence or whether it was necessary. Definitely having a distance from Ireland has helped me to set stories and novels there. I think that if I was living there, and I can only speculate, I’d be over-stimulated and would probably become a bit blocked because of that. Even just from listening to people. I talked about my ear for dialogue, that I think it’s quite sharp, and so often when I’m visiting Ireland, which I did this weekend and which I do very regularly, I find that you hear things that you want to use all the time. And it’s wonderful, but if it was like that 365 days a year, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to write at all. There’s just a very intense community of conversation going on in that country all the time and even though I love it I don’t seem to be able to marry it with a steady writing life. It’s strange.

The theme of this collection is distance and I conceived of it not as geographical but as psychic or emotional distance. As an emigrant, that becomes part of your daily identity: you left. You left and you’re not there anymore. Ten years, fifteen years, I don’t think that feeling goes away. It’s not that it gets more intense, but it takes on different shades. Every time I’m back on the plane to JFK there’s a different version of head-wrecking going on. My husband and I, we’re both Irish, we came here together and we have a good number of Irish friends but we don’t really have an Irish community here, we didn’t seek that out. So whenever we accidentally happen to be in the company of other Irish people, it’s just like taking drugs [laughs], we’re just over-fucking-whelmed, you know? We go insane. So you have to modulate that.

DS: You and your husband have been curating the Irish Arts Center PoetryFest for the last few years. Can you tell us a little about that?

BMcK: We’re both poetry lovers, even though neither of us writes poetry. I used to run a poetry festival in Ireland called Poetry Now, and that was an international festival which was great because, frankly, it was very well funded and we had the means to bring in poets from all over the world. Aengus, my husband, was essentially my co-curator on that as well, although not officially, and when we moved we just decided to do something similar over here. So for the last seven years we’ve being curating PoetryNow, which started out as an Irish festival — the idea was to showcase some of the superb Irish poets who didn’t have name recognition here in the US but who we felt deserved to. Then, as the years passed and the festival grew, we wanted to turn it into a sort of meeting of Irish and American voices. Ultimately I would like to see it grow into an international festival that still has Irish poetry at its core, because that’s really what any literary field is now, it’s global.

DS: Throughout Tender, despite coming out in the wake of Ireland’s decriminalisation of homosexuality, James is plagued by the very real concern that, outside of few-and-far-between liberal sanctuaries like Trinity College, there isn’t a safe place for him in Irish society. With the recent passing of the Marriage Equality Act, and the overwhelmingly positive response by voters, especially of the younger generation, to the referendum which led to it, do you feel like the battle for gay rights in Ireland has finally been won? Do you think the issue of gay equality is one which we no longer have to be ashamed of neglecting in Ireland?

BMcK: I think it was a great day, May 23rd was an amazing day. But the campaign had to be fought and I do think that that was something that should not have had to happen. Our fellow citizens should never have had to come up to those of us who are straight and say “Hey, can we get married?” That shouldn’t have happened. But I also think that the campaign, in order for it to have the strongest possible chance of succeeding, had to be a very “good mannered” campaign. There was certain amount of sanitization. The nuanced and complex experience of being gay in Ireland almost had to be simplified, to be presented in a way that was unproblematic so as not to arouse the poor anxieties of the rest of the community.

DS: Desexualizing a segment of the population in a way that you would never ask of the heterosexual majority.

BMcK: Yes, this kind of “oh, aren’t they lovely” attitude which is just as patronizing and as problematic as any other form of prejudice. Unfortunately that seemed to be necessary, and of course the end result was a terrific one. But I think, and I’m not an expert and I’m not a part of the gay community, that no, the battle, such as it is, goes on. I support BelongTo, which is an organization in Ireland that advocates for and gives emotional support to young LGBT people, and I get regular circulars from them in which it’s pretty obvious that their work is ongoing on so many different levels. Of course the fact that marriage equality now exists is a massive step forward, but the year of campaigning and of media scrutiny leading up to that result was really traumatic for a lot of LGBT people, especially young people in Ireland. Hearing their lives being debated like that. There is still bullying, there’s still problems in schools and in the prison sector, prejudice still exists. It hasn’t gone away. The work goes on for those campaigners.

DS: As it does for those campaigning for the repeal of the 8th Amendment [which in 1983 introduced a constitutional ban on abortion], another major issue in Irish society which you have been vocal in your support of.

…this is a redline issue: the fact that it is not safe to be a pregnant woman in Ireland, because if anything happens, your fetus has more rights than you do.

BMcK: Well we’re talking now in early February and there’s going to be a general election in Ireland at the end of the month. So canvassing has started, politicians are knocking on people’s doors to ask for their votes, and this is a redline issue: the fact that it is not safe to be a pregnant woman in Ireland, because if anything happens, your fetus has more rights than you do. It’s something that I feel really passionately about for various reasons, some of them personal, but one of the things I find most distressing is that the government has not even moved to protect women who have to terminate their pregnancies in England for medical reasons. So you have Irish women going to England to terminate pregnancies that are not viable, for medical reasons, and, if they want to bury the remains themselves (which many parents want to do), having to smuggle them back to Ireland in their cars or have their ashes DHL’d back weeks later. The stories are just desperately sad. Those of us supporting the repeal of the 8th Amendment want it repealed in all circumstances, but that the government will not even move to repeal it in this extreme circumstance, it disgusts me. I hope that people will bring it up on their doorsteps. If there were to be a referendum I think that it would be a very dirty campaign, but I do believe that the majority of people would vote for the amendment to be repealed.

DS: Do you think public opinion has swung to that point?

BMcK: I do. We have to remember that no woman of child-bearing age in Ireland has had an opportunity to vote on this issue in a referendum. It has been that long since it has been possible to vote in a referendum on what women are allowed to do with their own bodies. It’s a very neat, controlling maneuver that has been maintained by successive cowardly governments who don’t want to be the ones to step up to the plate and say, “ok, we’re doing this.” It was interesting to see how Enda Kenny, the current Taoiseach [Prime Minister] of Ireland, who has been in that position for a few years, made a public appearance in a gay bar six months before the marriage equality referendum took place. They made the decision that it was politically profitable to be openly pro marriage equality, that it was good for the image of Ireland. But it seems to me that they have also made the decision that it is not useful to them to project an image of an Ireland where women have a choice. I think the fact that, until last year, only straight couples could get married was damaging to the morale of the country. When you oppress one segment of the community, the rest of the community is also dragged down because of it. In the same way, in a country in which women’s rights are not respected, the rest of the county is dragged down because of that too. It’s just shocking that young girls in Ireland are growing up in a country that does not view them as equal citizens. It comes down to that.

Belinda will be in conversation with Joseph O’Neill on Tuesday, February 16, at the Irish Arts Center and with Kate Zambreno on Monday, February 22, at Bookcourt in Brooklyn.

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