Deirdre Madden is from County Antrim. Her novels include The Birds of the Innocent Wood (1988), which won the Somerset Maugham Award, One by One in the Darkness (1996) and Authenticity (2002), all published by Faber and Faber. Her most recent novel Molly Fox’s Birthday (2008) was short-listed for the Orange Prize earlier this year. She teaches at Trinity College Dublin, and is a member of Aosdána.
Interviewed by Declan Meade in Dublin on September 21st 2009. Photo by Aidan Crawley.
Can you begin by telling me about your early experiences of reading and writing and how you got started?
I was always very interested in reading. I read a huge amount as a child and then as a teenager, and I suppose sometime in my mid-teens I became interested in writing. Even by my late teens and certainly before I got to university in Dublin, that was absolutely what I wanted to do.
Were there books in the house?
Yes. Like a lot of people at that age who are omnivorous readers, it’s library books and schoolbooks and books you buy and books you’re given and books you borrow. It was anything I could get my hands on really. My mother was brilliant, she was very bookish and encouraging. She was great about getting books into the house for us. She would have been more focused on reading than my father; he was more into newspapers. My mother was a great ally in that way and encouraged us very much. So, yes, there were always books in the house. At school as well—the primary school and indeed the secondary school I went to were focused on the arts rather than the sciences, so they both had a good little library, little class libraries and that. And I was a member of the local library and then the library in Belfast.
You came to Dublin to go to Trinity and you won the Hennessy Prize very early on.
I think I was actually in my first or second year at Trinity, I can’t remember exactly, but I was at college when that happened. I started publishing with David Marcus, who, as you know, died very recently. He was a wonderful, wonderful person, and very encouraging and very supportive to me and to so many writers at that early stage. It is a great thrill, you know, to have your work in the newspaper at that early age.
Can you remember your first contact with David Marcus?
I wouldn’t say my very first contact, but I do clearly remember sending him things, and him sometimes returning them or how brilliant it was to get a letter from him accepting work. Even if he rejected work he was always so gracious and supportive. It is a very delicate thing and he always handled it with such courtesy and delicacy—and intelligence. He’d tell you what was wrong with something and what needed to be done. Obviously when work was accepted that was really great.
Did you go directly from Trinity to East Anglia for your MA in Creative Writing?
No, there was a year between my leaving Trinity and going to East Anglia. And during that time I wrote a little text called Hidden Symptoms and I took that with me and I started writing The Birds of the Innocent Wood and I was working on that while I was in East Anglia. So when I left East Anglia both of those were finished.
Tell me a little about how they came to be published.
When I was in England, the connection was made with Faber. They used to do an anthology called First Fictions which would feature five or six new writers. They were looking for work for a new volume when I was there, and even though Hidden Symptoms was a novella really—it was too long to be called a short story—I was fortunate that they decided they would take it. They were interested in seeing the novel subsequently. Then they published Hidden Symptoms as a little book and then they published the novel as well, I think around the same time.
You’ve had that relationship with Faber now for about twenty-five years.
Yes, a very long time (laughs) and I’m very happy about that. Continuity is great in this line of work because there’s so much uncertainty. You know, with so many things you can always feel the ground shifting under your feet, so I very much appreciate having been able to stay the course with Faber over that time.
Can you tell me a little bit about what Hidden Symptoms was about?
Well, it was set in Belfast, and it would have been written in the early eighties with the Troubles still going on. It was very much written within that context. And I suppose family—some of the things I’ve written about subsequently: family things, the relationship between siblings, the North very much. Those are things that were in that first text and they are still subjects that I would write about.
And Birds of the Innocent Wood, that’s set in Dublin and is it Wicklow?
It wasn’t specified and I wouldn’t have thought of Wicklow. Again, Declan, some of these works, you don’t look at them for a long time or maybe even think about them. One thing that is very strange is that if you do go back to work and read it a long time later, and I think maybe all writers would say this, you’re sort of surprised. Maybe you think it’s good, or maybe you think it’s much darker than you might have remembered, or you just sort of have forgotten about of it. You sort of engage with it almost as if somebody else wrote it. I don’t know how to put it. It’s a book I think that has stood the test of time and I would still stay very true to it, although I would also say I feel very distant from it. I mean, it was all such a long time ago.
It’s kind of a dark fairy tale around family.
Something like that. There’s something mythic in it. I like that aspect and maybe I’d like there to be more of that in my writing; there wasn’t so much of that in the subsequent books.
Was there particular reading, say from your childhood, which informed that?
There must have been but it’s very hard for me to say what it was. One of the things that’s difficult is that you absorb a lot of things and then they find their own way out and it’s maybe not as conscious as people might think. You’re not thinking, Oh, I’ve read this, so I’ll do something like that. You take on board an awful lot of stuff and it goes into the mix: it goes in with your own experience, your own ideas. I suppose I do feel it was an unusual book to have written at that time. But as I say, I would stand over it. There’s a certain power in there, but it feels very distant.
Was there an impulse to not write about the North any more after writing Hidden Symptoms?
No, I don’t think that was a conscious choice. The book I wrote after that was Remembering Light and Stone. I was living in Italy at that stage and I suppose it was just a question of trying to process some of the places and things that I was seeing there. I’ve lived quite a bit of time out of Ireland and I like that I’ve used some of that experience, although there’s an awful lot I haven’t used. The North and where I’m from has remained a central thing in a way that sometimes surprises me; even in the most recent book which isn’t set there at all, it’s sort of in there as a subtext. And I suppose that’s the way I feel about it myself. It was a very dark time to live through, extremely bleak. It is something that does stay with you, the memory of all that, and it does form you very deeply. I still go back there a lot and my family are there. I still feel strongly connected to it—it doesn’t really surprise me that it comes out in the work.
The first book I ever read by you was One by One in the Darkness and that very much takes on the bleakness of the Troubles.
Well that book, of all of them now I would say, there was a certain degree of conscious choice: I wanted to write about the experience of growing up in the North. I think I felt at the time that a lot of what was written about the North was about the military or the paramilitaries or the violence or guns or—do you know what I mean, that side of it? My experience of it was as a child back in the sixties, then living through it as a teenager, and then as a young woman. I suppose I felt there wasn’t much that recorded or bore witness to that and I was keen to write something. So even though it’s not autobiographical, it would be the book I suppose that draws most on my own experience, the area I’m from, the things I’d seen. The family situation is different, the family structure is different to my own family—it’s a work of fiction at the end of the day—but it would’ve been something that I wanted to do. I think in Molly Fox’s Birthday, it was coming out more of its own volition as a subject rather than me deciding that this is what I’m writing about.
That would have been through the character of Andrew.
Yes, I’m interested in how peace has been brokered and how people live after a thing like that. I think it’s like people after the Second World War or after any big trauma in society. It’s not as if, Look it’s over now and everybody’s grand. I’m interested in how that impinges on a whole society and on individual people who’ve been through a very difficult thing, really tragic personal circumstances. How it does evolve and change but it doesn’t go away, how it probably has to be managed at every stage. I think that’s part of the real tragedy of it, how it never ends for the people who’ve had terrible, terrible tragedy. If your father or your brother or your sister was shot or killed in an explosion, you’re going to have to broker that for the rest of your life, even if you were a baby when it happened.
Andrew thinks he’s got away from it, that he’s cut the ties and left it behind. But then he realises that he just can’t do that.
Yes, because it’s an ongoing thing—and it’s also how his son is going to deal with the things that happened in the past as well. Even just looking at what’s happening up there at the moment, there are people growing up now who didn’t experience it. I think the people who went through it in any way at all just think, No more, no more. But there’s a new generation now who are maybe romanticising it a bit because they didn’t live through it—and that’s a real worry.
You mentioned that one of your big themes is families and family relationships. In One by One in the Darkness and in the other books, there’s a sense of people being forced into this unit, and they might not have very much in common with one another.
Well, that’s true about families anyway but I also think I’ve written a lot about happy families and people who are close to their siblings, in particular, and to their parents. The girls in One by One in the Darkness are very fond of the father, it’s a warm relationship. I think that’s important as well.
Or the girl in Authenticity as well.
Yes, in Authenticity, she’s very close to her father. It’s a happy experience. I’m one of those writers about whom people say, Oh, it’s very dark and it’s very bleak and all that. I think that there’s a lot of warmth and affection in there as well, if people chose to see it (laughs).
Your characters are capable, though, of admitting the distance they feel between themselves and the people around them.
Relationships are complex. You can be very fond of someone, be absolutely bound to them, yet still there’s a difficult area. And indeed in friendship as well, how complex it can be. It’s not very straightforward or what you might pay lip service to; it’s to try and get at the psychological truth.
In Molly Fox’s Birthday the narrator is aware of the limitations that exist in her friendship with Molly, and that Molly offers different levels of friendship to different people.
Everybody has their own imperfections or limitations, and that I suppose is one of the things that limits all human relationships, be it family or friendships or romantic relationships or whatever. It can be shortness of temper or secretiveness, or lack of trust, but there’s always something that will make it problematic. And yet, the thing can be very real and true.
It seems as well that art is explored and artists and the consolation of artistic work.
Yes, particularly painting because I lived, as I said, in Italy and also in Paris for a long time. I became particularly interested in the visual arts when I was living in those two countries, which have such an incredible tradition of visual art. I learnt a lot. You can learn so much by looking at things, looking at paintings. So I’ve written about that a couple of times and also because I am a writer, I think there’s a similarity between that and the experience of being a painter.
I feel strongly that writing is more of an artisan activity than an intellectual one because you’re actually making something. I would feel closer to a basket maker, or a baker, or a weaver, or somebody like that rather than to an academic, or a critic, or a journalist. You’re using language, but the end thing is to make an object that will be very satisfying to you and to other people. And for that reason I think I could understand painters—I hope—and how that operates. Whereas with Molly Fox’s Birthday, I found it really hard, much harder than I thought I was going to, to write about an actor, because I think that’s completely different. It’s sort of being something rather than making something. And for me, even now having written the book, I would still say I think acting is quite a mysterious activity, one that in a way is quite alien to me. But that’s what made it interesting.
Maybe to talk a bit about Authenticity, what are the things you were exploring there?
A couple of things. One is that I suppose I do believe in the sense of an artistic vocation and I think some people are put on this earth to do a particular thing, to act or paint or write or whatever. If you have that vocation, you have to follow up, I mean, you have to do something with it and actually live it. I felt that the three artists in the book, Robert, Julia, and William, were all real artists, but that William hadn’t followed up on it. It was about how he was managing that and how it had sort of gone sour on him and how he was trying to resolve it. So that was one thing that I wanted to look at, and indeed the struggles that the other two artists were having, even when they had engaged with it.
And I was also very interested in the idea of siblings, particularly the siblings of artists. You know people like Theo Van Gogh, Vincent Van Gogh’s brother, and Peter and Patrick Kavanagh. There are an awful lot of artists or writers who really depended very much on a brother or sister who was dedicated to them and who maybe helped them practically, but it’s also a very deep sort of psychic thing.
So that interested you?
That interested me a lot. That was key, the relationship between Roderick and his brother.
You’ve written somewhere that it’s very hard for you to think of where a novel starts, the initial idea or impulse.
One analogy I would sometimes make is: say you think of a novel, say you think of a novel that you read maybe five, ten years ago, and you think, it was set in Dublin, and there was a man and a woman and I think the man was called Peter but I can’t remember the woman’s name, and you’ve got a sense of the atmosphere of it and you’ve a vague idea of the story and you think you know how it ended. Well, in a way, when you start writing a novel, it’s like that too. Except it’s the exact opposite. You begin by reading a book and you know exactly what it’s about, but as times passes you forget the details and it becomes quite woolly. And when you’re writing a book, it can sort of begin very woolly and you have to work at it until everything is absolutely sharp and complete. It begins in an almost dreamy sort of way, and you might say, Well I think it’s about a man, and he’s a painter, and I think he lives here and I know definitely that he does this that and the other, but I’m not quite sure about… You gradually evolve to the idea that you’re getting to. That’s my best shot at explaining it.
And how do you structure your writing life now?
Well, I’m teaching at Trinity a lot at the moment and it’s not so easy to balance the two. I’m doing what I can. I finished a little book for children over the summer—I also write for kids which is great fun. I’d recommend it to anybody, it’s really enjoyable. The way you approach it is totally different. Everything about it is different. It’s much more carefree and silly and fun, so I like that. And I had half of this one written and managed to finish it over the summer, so I’m very pleased about that. I’m getting into a new book for adults as well, so we’ll see how that goes.
And how woolly is that at the moment?
It’s very, very woolly. It’s a very slow process and it’s always kind of messy. I teach creative writing and that’s one of the things that I always say to people, that it is messy. I think sometimes people think that you have to begin at the beginning and go through to the end. Yet you might have the middle completely thought out—the middle might be where you start, and you might know very early on exactly what you want to do, and then you’re trying to sort things out from there. So it’s a rather shaggy sort of process and the thing is not to be discouraged because you can go down all these blind alleys and you can get very discouraged along the way. The thing is to keep remembering that it’s part of the journey, getting where you need to be.
And when it reaches a certain stage where you can get serious work done, would you need to take off from college and teaching or do you use the summer time to do that?
Well, I was only doing a little teaching up until two years ago, so these past couple of years have been difficult to sort of fit it in and I’m still trying to see how that goes. I think it’s a difficulty for writers because you do need to do some sort of work to supplement the writing, to earn a living and so forth. But to find just enough work—either you can’t get anything and you’re in trouble, or you’ve got too much. To try and get the balance right can be really hard, not just for me, but I think for writers generally. I think it’s particularity difficult for novelists because you do need to get up a good head of steam. You do need to keep at it because if you leave a text for a time then when you get back it takes you quite a while to look at it and get back into the mood of it, and see where you were with it. It’s not something that’s easy to pick up and leave and come back a week later, and then do a wee bit and then go back two weeks later. It just doesn’t work well that way. So I do think that it’s probably particularly difficult for fiction writers. And you need a hell of a lot of time as well. It takes ages and ages. You need to be putting in the hours every day, so it’s not easy.
You were saying about writing being a vocation. There’s a lot of talk about whether creative writing can be taught. Or is that there are too many people who believe that they want to write without necessarily seeing it as a vocation?
I would say first of all that I’m just amazed at the sheer number of people who are writing now. And when I started writing, I knew a few other people who wrote, but there was nothing like the number of people who are writing now. I think one of the reasons is that because of computers, it’s easier to write. You can just sort of tip away and you can produce stuff much faster and it looks very nice, very fast. Whereas in the old days, when people wrote longhand and they hammered it out on these old exhausting manual typewriters, it was much harder to do, physically harder to do. And also just slower. I think that is one of the reasons people are writing more.
I do feel creative writing can be honourably taught and one of the things I like about working at Trinity is that, generally, the students we get are very good. We have so many people apply for the MPhil, we are able to pick and choose, and you can get a really interesting group of students. And I would also use the analogy with people who go to art school, you don’t expect everybody to come out a painter, but there’s almost this idea of, Oh, if you’re going to do a creative writing course, if everybody doesn’t publish a book afterwards then it’s all a waste and it’s foolishness. But I think that people who really try to write, they learn so much just about literature generally, it should make them better writers and it should also make them better readers. Creative writing is quite a technical thing. The way you look at how the thing is constructed—if it isn’t working, it’s because of something generally wrong with it technically, and you can actually pinpoint that in a workshop and talk about it. I think that that helps people to understand how a thing works. There can be writers whose work looks deceptively simple, and other people might say, There’s nothing to that. But if you’re a writer or if you’ve even tried to write—by that I mean if you’ve really applied yourself and worked at it I think you do begin to understand the mechanism of it, and you can see how difficult it is; even things that look deceptively simple, you can see how hard they are. And I think learning all of that is very interesting for students. So it’s not just the question of what they produce, but what they learn and how they think about literature very broadly as well.
And, in terms of going to East Anglia yourself, how was that experience for you?
It was… well, I would have to say I didn’t much enjoy being in East Anglia after Trinity. I suppose I got a bit spoiled. I really enjoyed my undergraduate years at Trinity and I had great friends, it was a great place, and it was lovely to be in the middle of Dublin. To be in East Anglia was a very different experience. But I’m glad I did it, I really liked working with Malcolm Bradbury. I have enormous respect for him. To have gone through his workshop, he was a real sort of model of how to do it. He was a remarkably courteous and decent man, and obviously very brilliant. So it was good in that way. And I also wrote a lot. Like I said, I think it was satisfying because I worked hard and I did produce, and I felt at the end, I was ready to move on to another stage.
As regards to MAs or MPhils in Creative Writing: I think it’s important that people go at the right time. If they go too early, they’ll maybe feel a bit overwhelmed and they mightn’t be ready for it, and they’d maybe get discouraged because they can’t keep up. Whereas, I think if you’ve done a certain amount and you’re ready just for that extra push and for being around people and maybe having access to a university library or whatever, that’s a good time to go, I think. If the timing is right, it can work very well for people. We’ve had some terrific students who’ve come straight from university—but as a rule of thumb I would say, that it’s probably better for students to wait at least a year. I think often after three or four years of undergraduate work and God know how many years at school, they’re pretty exhausted. And most people need a breather after all that.
Then you find you often have people who are in their late twenties or thirties or forties or even older, and they’re not bored with university, they’re thrilled or excited or terrified being back there, and I think it’s remarkably enriching for them. So for anybody thinking about it, I would say if you’re going straight from university, be absolutely sure this is what you want to do right now. And it might be better to go off and do something totally different for a year or two and keep writing and then be sure that the time is right for you personally to do it.
I witnessed a very heated discussion between two writers about this recently, one of whom was very dismissive of creative writing courses and the need for them.
I mean I do have a lot of misgivings about creative writing. You absolutely don’t need to do it—it’s not required. One of the things I like about the MPhil is that it’s one year. It’s sort of a short, sharp shock. I think sometimes people who write feel isolated, and maybe family and friends think it’s a stupid thing to do, to be writing, and so for the first time in their lives they’re with a group who take this seriously and who are also interested in it. And to be in that company for one year, to talk about books, talk about their own work, to read other people’s work, it’s incredibly helpful to them.
What I would worry about is people who keep going to every creative writing thing in town. You know, they’ve done an MPhil and then they’re going to this, that and the other. At the end of the day, writing is a solitary, lonely occupation and you’ve got to get on with it yourself. But I do certainly see for some people the value of a short workshop, or a year, or maybe a master class with someone they really admire. I can see how that does have a function. Also, I think one of the ways it started out was to help writers. Writers went into universities as a writer fellow or as a writer-in-residence and it was a way of helping them, giving them time to do their own work. And now I think that that has changed because it’s something that the university wants. It’s more an earning thing.
In terms of publishing, generally, comparing when you were at East Anglia to how you see your students now get opportunities within publishing, do you think it is more difficult or less difficult?
I think there are more things published now and there are more publishing houses, for a start off. And there’s a lot more books coming out. When I think back to when I was in university—maybe I’m not remembering this correctly—but my impression was you’d buy the Sunday paper, you’d read all the reviews, and you’d go down and those books would be in the shops, and they were the only new books. There’d be, I don’t know how many, ten, twenty, whatever new books, and they were there in the shop. And if you published a book, you could be sure you’d get a review in the Guardian or the Times, and now that absolutely isn’t the case, even with very big publishing houses. So that has changed. There are far more festivals and far more competitions than there used to be too. But there are also far more people writing. It’s hard to say. It’s really hard to say.
Some people can think, though, that there is some trick involved in getting published.
Yes, but I think there’s a lot of luck, Declan, as well. I think you’ll always need luck. And you can have really bad luck, or you can have a break, and it can make all the difference in the world. I don’t think there’s any way of legislating that, but it needs to be said: you need a bit of luck. I think that’s sometimes why some people get through and some people don’t. It’s quite flukey in that way. I do think that. Even with good work, you know what I mean?