You’ve mentioned that Jonathan Frantzen’s The Corrections was an influence on The Bee Sting. Did any other novels inspire you – either in the way the book is structured, its humour, or certain characters?
William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying was one of the first ‘grown-up’ novels I read. My mother gave it to me – I think there’s an affinity between that Southern world Faulkner describes and the part of the world she’s from. That was a major influence, tonally, and more so perhaps structurally, as he has the different members of the family taking turns to tell the story.
Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore is a beautiful portrait of friendship, and I’m sure it informed the Cass chapters of the book. It’s very sweet and funny, which makes it all the more affecting when the darkness comes in; the contrast between that idealized friendship and the living compromise that is marriage, the urge at a certain point in life to swim back through the past to an easier time – Moore does all that so well.
The book has been described as ‘a novel about the past and our inability to ever outrun it’ - which could possibly be said of several other novels on this year’s longlist, many of which concern families navigating some sort of trauma. Is that how you would sum it up in roughly a dozen words? If not, how else?
That’s a pretty good description. Faulkner again has this fantastic line, ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’ Time, the persistence of the past, these are things the novel as a form is very good at. That said, I really wanted to write about the present moment. Most of the book is set in the present, with all of its attendant terrors – the rise of fascism, the pornification of reality, the subordination of embodied experience to representations and so on. More than anything, I wanted to write about climate change. That sense of impending doom is something that feels different to the nuclear threat, for example, and gives a tone to the present that is new. Climate change relates to the past, obviously, but dwelling on its origins aren’t going to help us. We really need to find a new way of being to get through it and we haven’t found a way yet of doing that. In short what I’m interested is not so much the past coming back, but the ways it obscures the present and stops us from embracing the future.
Which book or books are you reading at the moment? In particular, are there any other Irish writers who you think deserve a place in the spotlight and haven’t had enough recognition?
I’m usually reading a bunch of things at the same time. Right now, I’m reading The Mirror and the Light – slowly, as I hate the thought of finishing it and having to leave that world. Before that I read Close to Home, Michael Magee’s brilliant West Belfast Bildungsroman. In terms of a place in the spotlight – well, there are so many outstanding writers working in Ireland at the moment. Soldier Sailor by Claire Kilroy is a novel about motherhood, and captures the chaos, exhaustion, and almost unbearable moments of joy so perfectly. It’s very moving, also very funny.
Do you have a favourite Booker-winning or Booker-shortlisted novel and, if so, why?
I loved Anna Burns’s Milkman. Again, we’re in West Belfast, this time at the height of the Troubles. The sense of paranoia and threat is overwhelming; everybody’s watching everybody else, friend and foe alike, and every word is scrutinised for hidden meanings, with the result that it becomes effectively impossible to speak – ‘whatever you say, say nothing,’ as Heaney had it. How can the writer convey a world that has made itself opaque? Anna Burns comes up with this ingenious solution whereby all of the names are removed, so it’s Somebody McSomebody, Maybe-boyfriend, Third Brother-in-Law, faceless figures circling each other in a bad dream. It’s gripping, tense, also very funny, as if Beckett had written a political thriller. It’s one of those rare instances of an experiment that pays off perfectly, and it was wonderful to see it win!
What are you working on next?
I’m halfway through a children’s book; I’ll try to finish that before starting another novel. I’m looking forward to just reading for a while, letting the grass grow, so to speak.