Finding independence to write with freedom

Belinda McKeon tells Sue Leonard how she realised she was getting free master-classes on how to be a novelist by interviewing writers for her work.

Solace

Belinda McKeon

Picador at €15.85; Kindle €8.12

THERE has never been any doubt that Belinda McKeon would write a novel. The postman’s daughter from Longford has been writing since she was seven or eight. And she’s always been serious about her art.

She’s a rigorous critic too. I met her back in 2003, when she was a regular panellist on RTÉ’s The View. Congratulating her, I said her parents must be so proud. She cringed, saying, “yes, they are”, and told me of her embarrassment when, on her sister’s graduation day, her parents seemed more focused on Belinda’s TV appearance than on the ceremony. I remind her of this, and, laughing, she tells me I’d hit a nerve.

She’s clearly attuned to the nuances of family relationships. It’s what makes her debut, Solace, such an engaging read. It explores the difficulties of gaining independence, while retaining underlying ties and resentments. It’s a tour de force.

Planning her career, she decided to start with journalism; and, by reading the papers as a teenager, she realised it was possible to interview authors.

“It wasn’t just that I knew I’d enjoy talking to them,” she says, on a visit to Dublin from Brooklyn.

“It was a way to get close to the writing process. At a certain stage I realised I was getting free master-classes on how to be a novelist.”

She began interviewing while in Trinity College, Dublin, through her involvement with the Trinity News. It was here that she first met Colm Tóibín.

“I’d always loved his work. I remember reading The Heather Blazing and The South during a summer in Longford. Then I read the Story of the Night and it just blew me away.

“One day I was walking out of college and I saw Tóibín at a crossing. I went up to him to say hello, and told him how much I’d admired his novel. Then I said I’d love to interview him for the College paper. He said: ‘My name’s in the book. Give me a call.’ I went round to his place. I was very nervous and asked him pretentious questions about Sartre. After college, when I started writing for the Irish Times, we stayed in touch.”

He has proved to be a valuable friend. When, in 2005, Belinda applied for the writing programme at Columbia University, Tóibín read her submitted 30 pages and, impressed, wrote her a reference. He recommended her to his agent, Peter Straus, and was the first outsider to read the completed manuscript.

A quote from him adorns the book. There are also accolades from Anne Enright, John Boyne, and from Colum McCann, who calls the book “Elegant, consuming and richly inspired”.

Belinda has flexed her muscles on stories and plays. But the novel has had a long gestation. It all began, back at Christmas 2003, when Belinda’s mother was driving her from the station to the small family farm.

“We went up the main street in Longford and I glimpsed a young man. He was outside a Chinese restaurant and was wearing one of those paper party-hats. He was holding a tiny baby, standing out in the cold and the dark. It stuck in my mind. I thought, what is the story there? Why weren’t they wrapped up against the cold?”

When, a few weeks later, Belinda sat down to write a short story for a contest, that man arrived fully formed as Mark, along with his baby daughter.

“And his father, Tom, came with him. It was as if they had been waiting there and the character in the street released them for me.”

The story centred on a row between Mark, an academic working in Dublin, and his father, an old fashioned farmer. It didn’t really work, but the characters stayed with Belinda. She let the story lie for a year, then expanded it in Ireland, before taking the bones of it to America in September 2005, for that MFA.

“I needed to make a commitment to myself,” she says. “And I wanted to give the novel time. I wanted to get into a structure where there were deadlines and where I would have to work on the novel. And I told everyone who was interested that I was working on a novel. The embarrassment of that, alone, is enough of a motivation.”

While at Columbia, Belinda secured a teaching fellowship, meaning all her fees were paid.

“I taught writing to undergraduates, and I enjoyed it, but at times I wondered at the wisdom of it. It took up a lot of the time. I had to write the novel and do the coursework. But it saved me having a huge student debt.”

Belinda has restructured the book many times. It now starts with a prologue told from Tom’s viewpoint. Viewing his love for his baby granddaughter Aoife, along with his uneasy relationship with his son, it’s made clear that a tragedy has recently occurred. Then in Chapter One, we backtrack to Mark’s days as a carefree singleton in Dublin.

He’s attempting a PhD on Maria Edgeworth, but spends most of his time in pubs and at parties. He’s steadied by Joanne, a trainee solicitor he adores, and when she gives birth, he becomes consumed by love for his daughter. It’s tough for the reader knowing that something will happen to change everything.

“I didn’t realise a tragedy was going to happen. It was a huge shock, and when I went over it I wondered if it was the right thing to do. There were lots of conversations about it at workshops for the NFA. I did wrestle with it, but it needed to happen and was true to the story.”

The scenes of confused early parenthood are uncannily accurate. Belinda isn’t a mother, but much of the novel is set in familiar territory. Her husband, Aengus is an academic, and the rural scenes are set in Longford. Although, Belinda says, an imagined part of it. And the characters, she swears, came from her imagination.

“There’s a lot of me in Mark,” she says. “But it’s unconscious. I know a lot about procrastination, and about feeling guilty, and lazy. I know about Tom’s stubbornness, and Moira’s attempts to mediate. I’m not suggesting that I decided to put an aspect of myself into a character; it’s more organic. It just evolves.”

Writing the book in America, Belinda says, was helpful.

“Being away from a place, for me, acts as a filter. When I sat down to write a scene about Ireland it came quite naturally. If I’d been in Ireland I’d have felt an urge to go to Edgeworthstown and write a more accurate geographical description. That wasn’t an option so I relied on my imagination and my memory. I had to focus on the story and what needed to be in there.”

Belinda has now started work on her second book for Picador. It’s set in America. Meanwhile, Solace seems set to wow the literary world. Is Belinda happy with it?

“It’s the best book I could have written at the time,” she says.

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