Kerry Hardie was born in Singapore and grew up in County Down. She has twice won the Works’ Women’s National Poetry Prize and was joint winner of the Hennessy Award for Poetry in 1995. She has written two poetry collections, A Furious Place (1996) and Cry For The Hot Belly (2000), both published by The Gallery Press. Her novel Hannie Bennet’s Winter Marriage was published by Harper Collins last year. She lives in County Kilkenny with her husband Sean.
Could we begin by talking about how writing started for you?
Well when I was a child of about seven I had a headmaster, a teacher, who encouraged me to write. He encouraged us all to write but I found l was good at poems and he used to stick them up on the noticeboard. When I left that school he gave me a book which I still have. He wrote in it something about how much pleasure it had given him. It was sort of strange – I don’t think adults realise how much of an influence they have on children at that age. Because I was sandwiched between two siblings who were both much brighter than I was and suddenly somebody was seeing something in me that I didn’t know was there. I suppose that was the very beginning.
I kept writing poems on and off until I went to University and then – well, it was the usual thing that everybody says-you’re studying stuff that’s so much better than you will ever, ever hope to aspire to, and you think this is the real thing, and you stop.
But what I really wanted to write was a novel. When I first married Sean, we went to London. He was earning enough at that time so that l didn’t have to work for a while. I started to write a novel. When I got sick [with ME], I kept writing it and I kept writing it until I got to the point where I couldn’t write any more. I think I made myself a lot iller by trying so hard. It was over a thousand pages long and it was in three different versions, all confused. It’s still somewhere around, but I could never look at it. I wouldn’t dare even open it.
But I suppose there were even earlier influences. My mother was a real reader. My mother reads novels and she was always giving us stuff. She’s got really good taste. Surprisingly broad – and she has that knack of giving a child something at the right moment. And my father has one of those memories for rhymed verse, most of which was ballads and Kipling and Chesterton, stuff like that. He was a very, very strict disciplinarian. I mean, when we went on very long car journeys you weren’t even allowed unwind a window without asking permission but sometimes he would just start to recite and these wonderful words would shine out. I think that’s what started the poetry for me.
Where did I get to before I backtracked? Oh, this novel. I stopped everything. I was completely in bed then for four or five years and I couldn’t get up for more than two or three hours for about another five. With this particular illness your concentration goes as well, so I couldn’t read for about five years. When I came out of that, when I got to the stage that I could write, first of all, the intensity of poetry suited me, and secondly, it’s a short form. The thing about writing a novel is you’ve got to remember what you wrote the day before and you’ve got to carry quite a lot in your mind at once. A poem is a contained thing and, somehow, that’s what I started into writing.
At what point did you begin to feel that the poems were good?
I’ve never written a poem that I’m satisfied with. I’ve still never sat down and read through either of my collections. And I certainly haven’t read my novel. I just can’t. Something seizes up inside me. Anxiety, I suppose, that they’d be even worse than I think they are. I had a letter from Colette Bryce the other day. Do you know Colette? I met her in Annaghmakerrig before she’d started winning all these prizes. She’d written, actually from Annaghmakerrig, and she said she’d written all these poems and she hadn’t yet had a poem she was satisfied with.
Maybe if you were satisfied, you wouldn’t try so hard with the next one. There are poems that I’ve written that I get a high out of, but it never lasts. Sometimes it lasts two weeks, but it never lasts longer than that.
Does the poetry come quite quickly to you? How does a poem get written?
I’m much less conscious when I’m writing a poem than when I’m writing prose. I think poems come from a much deeper place. So yes, the first draft will come quite quickly. It will be like I’m not there, or I’m not really conscious of being there, and something appears on the page. But then I’ll work on it for a long time. Sometimes more so than others. There are given poems and there are poems that you’re given part of and then you work really hard on them. I couldn’t say one is better than the other necessarily. There’s more of a sense of wonder at a given poem. When I sit down to write something, and I think I’m going to write that, and something completely different comes out. That I think is the most exciting feeling, there’s a sort of awe in it. I’ve forgotten who said that for him with writing you didn’t notice the darkness growing outside the window, and that is the sense I get from poetry, which is why I find it so involving. But then prose is involving in another way, but from a much more mental part of me. With the poetry it’s as if, though the chatter goes on all the time, there’s something that speaks from underneath the chatter, through the chatter.
Tell me how you came to be published, and about the process of putting together your first collection.
First of all I just wrote for myself. I was talking with you earlier about Jean Valentine. When Jean first came to Ireland, she and Barry lived in Thomastown. She was really hungry for other people who wrote. She persuaded one of the adult education officers in Kilkenny to run a course, which was really a writers’ workshop, only I didn’t know what those things were in those days. I’d met her briefly and she knew I wrote. We submitted and she chose who she wanted.
Out of that course a group of us started to meet once a month. I suppose that got me out of the stage of the writing just being completely private to it being something that was partly out there. I find readings very difficult because I find it extraordinary that I’ve written these things in intense privacy and suddenly I am standing up in front of all these people and making them public. It seems such a contradiction. But I suppose that was the beginning of the process of being extrovert as opposed to the complete introversion of writing.
And then Jean encouraged us all to send things off. I didn’t know anything about that side. I started sending poems off and they started being taken, so I sent more stuff off.
Then I have a friend called Pat Murphy and he used to be on the Literature Committee of Kilkenny Arts Week. At that time the literature policy was much more Irish; now it’s big international names. One of the things Pat helped to organise was a session in which Peter Fallon came to talk about how to get published. I wasn’t even thinking in those terms, and anyway I was sick and I was very careful about what I did with my energy. Pat rang me up and he asked: ‘Do you mind if I show Peter Fallon some of your poems?’ I said no, go ahead. And then he rang and said Peter Fallon would like to meet me and he asked if I could come in at the end of this talk. At that stage I was not able to sit through the whole thing. So I went in, and I met him. He took the poems away, he said that he’d already seen some of them, and he’d be in touch.Then a year passed, or two years passed, I can’t remember, and one day I got a phone call from Peter asking could I meet him in Waterford. I met him in Waterford and he sat down and he said he thought I was ready for a collection.
How many poems did you have at that stage?
He wanted everything else I had, but he already reckoned he’d seen enough published. Peter’s quite careful. You have to be quite widely published before he will publish you, because he says he doesn’t like publishing to a cold market.
Then we began the editing process, which was a very stormy process because he’s a very hands-on editor and these poems were very personal and precious things to me. I wasn’t used to somebody else meddling around with them, and stroking out lines.
What kinds of things was he suggesting?
At some time in the process he gave me a list of my faults. He wrote them down on a sheet of paper. I thought this would be terrible, but it was actually one of the most useful things that’s ever happened to me. One of the things he said was: tends to overwrite. That was right up at the top. And I realised, yes, I do tend to overwrite. He taught me a lot. Some of the things I don’t agree with. Some of those poems I will never read publicly because they feel to me like too much has been cut out. Some of them – I have to give him credit – I think he made them much better poems. Some of them just needed a bit of tightening. He gave me a lot more freedom with the second book.
Did you feel that you had to give in?
I fought. I fought quite hard. I had this dream towards the end. I was in this hotel, upstairs on the landing, and everybody in the hotel was attacking me and Peter Fallon was leading the charge. And I turned around and I ripped the door off the door frame and I started battering him over the head with it. And when I told him this dream, he just smiled.
So, yes, it was very combative. I go from passive to aggressive very fast. But it was okay. Sometimes I gave in against my judgement, sometimes I was pleased with what he’d done and sometimes I didn’t give in and he allowed me to have it my way. So there was a sort of compromise-he’s a good editor.
Were you tougher with yourself in the writing of the second collection?
I suppose that must have happened. And I suppose that’s what the list of faults made me more aware of. I don’t know where the point comes where you do something so often that you start being automatic about it, and then it’s a bad thing, but there’s a phase where you do something more and you get better at it. I think that’s what happened with the second collection. I also think, in a way, the second collection is trying to go somewhere. I think it’s better in ways than the first, but it’s not as complete. It’s trying to go somewhere and it hasn’t got there yet, and hopefully the third collection will be where it’s trying to go to.
Was the first collection merely bringing together the poems you had written up to that point? As you go on do you have a greater sense of what a poetry collection is or can be?
I wish I could say yes. I haven’t got that skill. I don’t really have a sense of what a collection should be. I think, yes, you’re right, the first one was more a random selection of poems I’d published and the theme happened to be sickness, mainly because that’s where I was. The second collection is very absorbed with mortality because again, that’s where I was. I wouldn’t say I was a good judge of what a collection is at all. It still seems like something slightly beyond my grasp. And I remember with that first collection, Peter said: ‘What about order?’ And I looked at him and said: ‘What does that matter?’ He said: ‘You read it in an order.’ But I never read poetry books like that. I always just opened them and read them and went backwards and forwards. Now I try to read poetry books like that because I realise what a poet and/or an editor are trying to do.
Tell me about the process of writing the novel and getting that published.
I began the novel before I’d published the first poetry collection, so there was a stage I was writing the two together. As I said before, I’d always wanted to write a novel, especially with that abandoned one in the press. Then I thought: well, I can’t write a novel because I’ve hardly been out the door for about ten years. Then I thought how I’ve always loved Wuthering Heights. I don’t want to say this because it sounds so arrogant but I thought the Brontes did it, they just made it up, they didn’t go anywhere either. So I thought maybe I can just make one up. At this stage I was beginning to recover, and although it was slow, I was beginning to have enough faith in it to think that I’d do the research and check out the details retrospectively, and I’ll just start writing. So I did. I wrote it once and it was terrible. It was all over the place. I mean it’s too long now but it was really meandering.
I don’t approve of nepotism, but I think in publishing it is just so difficult. Anyone I can help, I try to help. So Sean’s publisher – Sean was writing thrillers at that stage – offered to read it for me, or demanded to read it. She took it away and said you’ll have to rewrite it, but she said it’s worth going on with. And she said she was interested in it. More nepotism, but it gave me enough to hang on to. So I rewrote it. By this stage, she’d moved to Harper Collins and she said I’d need an agent. I said that I’d do that by myself. No you won’t, she said, agents are really difficult to get as well. She gave me a list of agents and told me to use her name with them. ‘If you don’t use my name with them,’ she said, ‘they probably won’t even bother to read your stuff.’ So she gave me six agents. I wrote to them all. Five of them wrote straight back and said they weren’t interested, and one of them wrote back and said: Yes, I’d like to take your novel. But this publisher said don’t sign up with an agent just because you find one who’ll take you. There has to be some sort of an empathy between you or you won’t work well together. Go to London and meet her. So I did, and I liked her very much – and she’s been wonderful, she has taught me so much. Anyway, she then placed the novel formally with Susan at Harper Collins.
I then rewrote it a third time. Partly because I wasn’t satisfied with it. She didn’t mean for me to rewrite it as much as I did. I completely rewrote the last third because I changed something. By this stage I was beginning to do the research that I didn’t do at the start. I went to see a friend who is a prison officer and he said: ‘That’s not right, and that’s not right, and that wouldn’t happen,’ so I had to do something radical.
Where does the central character Hannie Bennet come from?
An awful lot of people hate her. Where does she come from? She was a mixture of all sorts of things. I remember being very shocked by the reaction to Hannie. I didn’t realise how much people would dislike her. I remember saying to Sean about three months after it had been published: Sean, do you like Hannie? And he said: I wouldn’t have her in the house.
I don’t know where she came from. But once she started, I couldn’t stop her. She did what she liked. She was there. Now I think some of her anger and frustration probably came from my anger and frustration through all those years. But apart from that, I don’t know. She certainly gained a life of her own.
One of the things I wanted to do with Hannie was bring an anarchic force into a very settled society. In the way, I suppose, that Heathcliff is an anarchic force. The combination of Joss and Hannie interested me. When we live in the sort of societies that we live in in rural Ireland-much less now, it’s changing very fast-we all share the same sort of values. You’re not really aware of what your values are, or how odd some of your values may be, because everybody else thinks the same way as you do. And I was interested in how much of our morality is because we’re moral, and how much of it is because it’s just the collective. It’s what we’re reared into and we buy into it. It’s nothing to do with ethical choices of our own. So I wanted to have a character who had very little ethical moral sense. I wanted the disruptiveness of that sort of a character.
The subject of marriage might be seen as an old-fashioned one for a novel. Were you aware of that?
It’s partly a reaction to… I was reared in the North. I was reared with divorce and it was a shock to me when we moved here fifteen years ago to move to a society where there was no divorce. Marriage was something people did once. I liked the idea of having someone who’d done it loads of times, didn’t think anything of it, and always saw it as a temporary thing.
How has reaction to your poetry differed from that which you received for the novel?
I’ve only ever had positive reactions to the poetry. I’ve only ever had positive reviews. But then I think far more people read a ·novel than actually read poetry. People you know buy a book of poems but never actually get around to reading it. It sits on their shelf and it’s very nice of them to buy it. People tend to read a novel right through. I’m still very apprehensive when I see someone read the novel. Some of the reviews were painful.
How did you approach reading reviews?
I didn’t approach it. I just read them as they happened. My agent is a friend of Sebastian Faulks and she says he won’t read reviews at all. His wife censors the papers, because it’s not just painful, it’s so damaging to the confidence to write the next one. I didn’t realise any of that, and I did think, particularly after the Irish Times review, I’m never going to write another novel. But then gradually you get over it or you start writing again.
Could you not look upon the bad review as just another list of your faults?
No, there’s a huge difference. The list of my faults was private. It was between me and Peter. I didn’t have to show it to everyone. It’s a weird feeling when you open a national paper and your picture is there and there’s this review underneath it.
In a way the review was useful because other people have felt like that about the novel too. People I know have said: I can’t read that book. I don’t know what nerve it touches. I haven’t worked it out.
No one has said it’s badly written. That’s my only comfort.
What was said about it then? What was most hurtful?
I think the most hurtful thing that was said in the Irish Times review was that I had brought Northern bigotry with me. The reviewer said that the characters were racist and sectarian, and therefore I was. I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t think characters reflect your views. They might do, but characters are characters. I’m not writing sociology, it’s fiction.
And what else? People find it so dark and I didn’t realise it was dark. But, thinking back, I suppose I’d lived in a very dark place for a very long time so it was bound to be dark.
And of course, there were good reviews too, even if I tend to focus on the bad ones. The Economist chose it as one of its books of the year 2000.
Apart from the moral darkness of the book, there’s also a great sense of the darkness of the weather and the landscape, and Hannie, who has come from Africa, slowly begins to find beauty there.
Did you get that sense that she did begin to find beauty? Oh good. Because I love rural Ireland in the winter, I find it fantastically beautiful. And that’s another thing that surprised me, that people said I’d made it sound so miserable. I love that bleaching down of colour, that decay, that wetness, that mud. I like mud, I like that strange light.
But I suppose I kept hearing Jean Valentine’s voice here. She’d moved to Sligo and she told me that she had kept a diary of a year and there had only been six days on which it hadn’t rained. Because she’s an American and she isn’t used to our climate. And a woman I know whose husband is Australian – he loved the novel, because he thought our climate was so miserable and Hannie’s experience reflected his own.
What are you working on now?
A third collection and a second novel.
How do you combine the two? What is your routine?
I was afraid you were going to ask me that. Some of it depends on what state my body is in when I wake up. I try and write every day. When I’m teaching or doing festivals, I can’t do anything else. I’m a slow human being. I can’t turn around fast. I’m like one of those big liners at sea that takes ages and ages to turn around.
How do I combine them? I don’t, they combine themselves. I tend to write a lot of poetry when I’m trying to avoid the novel, and there are places in the novel where the poetry pushes up through. The novel takes much more discipline.
What is the novel about? Where is it set?
When I was being pressurised by Harper Collins because Harper Collins like you to write a novel a year, some chance with me – to begin the next one, I thought what do I know about? And one of the things that I have done a lot over this last twenty years is go to healers. It’s something that my Northern rationalist Protestant training is very suspicious of. I feel very ambiguous about it – a lot of it’s desperation. But people in rural Ireland do go to healers. If you get cancer, you go to St Luke’s, but you also go to a healer.
And I wanted to combine the two Irelands, North and South. I’m deeply emotionally involved in both the North and the South, I love both countries, and they seem to be getting further and further apart despite all the peace processes and peace agreements. So I wanted to write something that combined them for me, if nothing else. I got this idea that I’d have this character who was a Derry Presbyterian – I’m not Presbyterian, they’d be even more Calvinist than what I was reared to – who had the gift of clairvoyance and who had set out to live quite a normal life within her own tribe, but because her clairvoyance is much more acceptable and much more common in the Catholic community, she is forced to go beyond her own upbringing and expectations. I think you only know yourself when you live outside your own tribe. I’ve had her marry a Belfast Protestant and as that marriage goes disastrously wrong, meet a Tipperary Catholic and end up living in Kilkenny. The clairvoyance transmutes into the gift of healing, which she doesn’t want, which she resists.
You talk there of having your character marry one person and then having her meet someone else. Is that power over your characters’ lives one of the main attractions of novel writing?
Yes, it is. But it always gets to the point where they start doing what they want, and manipulating me. I quite like the struggle between what I’m telling them to do and what they want to do.
In the poem ‘She Replies to Carmel’s Letter’, you say that ‘sometimes even sickness is generous.’ It could be said that your sickness altered your relationship with the natural world and that it has given you a great deal of subject matter for your writing.
Nature always meant an awful lot to me. When I was in my twenties I lived exclusively in cities and that is what I wanted. When I was in my teens, we used to come down and visit relations in rural Ireland and I used to think I would die if I had to live here. I had this fear that I would somehow drown.
But then having found myself living in it, it was as if I got to know it from underneath this time. My bedroom window is up there and it looks out over the Barrow valley. It’s very beautiful, and for years it just kept me going. It’s a strange thing to say, but I’m just beginning to notice there are losses in coming out of that completely introverted life. I used to recognise every farm dog in the valley. Now I might notice that I haven’t noticed sounds for two or three days. The busier I am in my head the less that stuff goes in. Also when life is giving you a lot of other things your attention is diverted. I lose my ability to get quiet enough to see it. That was one of the gifts of sickness.
I think also that one of the things that happened to me was that I lived the first part of my life completely out of my extrovert side and I didn’t allow the introverted side – which must be at least two thirds of me to function, I didn’t let it have a look in. What the sickness did was restrict that to the point where … make no mistake, I never want to go back, ever, ever. The sickness was too hard. But I think in some way the introversion needed to be given its place.
There is also a hard-won acceptance in your poems. Acceptance coupled with a harsh fatalism.
For years I ate my heart out. I’d lost all these years and I had this incredibly strong sense that if I woke up from this thing I would be heading into old age. But then the acceptance came. Partly it was because life became physically tolerable, the pain became much less, but it was also just the sense that, yes, I think life’s hard, but it’s also wonderful.
What is your attitude to the North now? And how do you view its relationship with the South?
I find the whole question very painful. And the question of the North and the South-I think there have been eighty years of being separate, and the countries have become increasingly more separate. Put it this way, most of my neighbours around here have been across the water but they’ve never been to the North and they never intend to go to the North. Most of the people in the North are the same. When I was in Derry for the first two months of this year – and I lived in Derry twenty years ago at the height of the violence – I found two things very painful. The way the city has just divided. Derry used to be very non-sectarian. Now one community more or less lives on one side of the river, the other lives on the other side. The other thing that was painful was the sense of isolation in those people. I was amazed at how many nationalists said to me: They don’t like us down south, sure they don’t? I was equally surprised by how many loyalists said to me: Britain doesn’t want us, nobody wants us. There’s that closed-in-ness, that sense that they’re having a conversation with themselves in a closed room, and nobody goes there except journalists and the odd visitor.
When I was growing up there, okay, we went to different schools, but as young people in a relatively small town like Bangor then, at least we all knew each other, we all socialised together. Now it seems to be that the one and only time they come into contact is at third-level. And if they do that, from the young people I was talking to in Derry, the suspicion and separation is now so great that they never really break down those barriers. I listened to one young woman give a lecture. She came from Gobnascale which is the only Catholic housing estate on the Waterside and she said: ‘When I was growing up I knew all about Protestants, I knew what they looked like, I knew what they said, I knew what they thought, except I’d never actually spoken to one.’ And she said: ‘That’s pure sad.’ I think that about sums up my attitude.
And is your new novel going to be concerned with some of these issues?
Yes. Some of it is going to deal with the surprise of someone who finds herself in a country which she’s always regarded as alien, and comes gradually to feel that she has a place there. And her whole conditioning, her whole upbringing has taught her that this place is both alien and frightening. There’s a lot of fear.
So not much hope of people coming together?
I’ve just spent a week working with 22 teachers from all over and they did come together during that week, so I’m a lot more hopeful than I might have been. But those opportunities are rare. No, I don’t feel hopeful about the North. I think the Protestant middle class is exporting its children, they’re sending them to university in England and they’re not coming back. The numbers game which is always being played by both sides is getting tighter and tighter and I think it makes the working-class Protestants more vicious, more violent and more frightened. There’s a rise in the extremist paramilitary activity on both sides. One of the things the peace process has done, in my opinion, is to take in all the moderate paramilitaries, leaving outside of it the extremists and the mafia. The longer it takes to get anything going in the form of workable institutions, the more power those groups garner. And the more the myth of the hard man grows, the more people sit in pubs and talk about the glory days, the more the young people listen to the talk about the glory days. Because peace is not exciting. Especially this stop-start peace and the frustration it brings.
Shall we end on that happy note?