Dark tales from the writer of a novel based in Cork city

Lisa McInerney is the hottest new writer around and has based her debut crime novel in Cork City. Tanya Sweeney spoke to her about the new book, college in Cork, and her life in Galway.    

Dark tales from the writer of a novel based in Cork city

There has been no shortage of forcibly bright and promising literary voices of late, among them Sara Baume, Maire T Robinson, and Eimear McBride.

And now, a self-confessed “common as muck” Galwegian is straight out of the traps with a shimmering debut, poised to join their ranks.

Be prepared, in other words, to hear plenty more of the name Lisa McInerney. The pulsing underbelly of Cork’s criminal gangland is the backdrop for The Glorious Heresies. Presiding over the scene is shady Jimmy Phelan, the city’s Godfather figure.

We also meet alcoholic Tony Cusack, a widowed father to his drug-dealing teenage son Ryan; and Maureen, Jimmy’s 59-year-old mother who gave him up for adoption some 40 years previously.

In the course of the story, we find that Maureen has become an ‘accidental’ murderer. We also meet twenty-something sex worker Georgie, a “small-town wild child” who is struggling with drug issues and wants to escape her life. Her partner/pimp Robbie O’Donovan, whom she met when they were both teenage runaways, gets murdered in a Cork flat belonging to Phelan, thus kickstarting a chain of events that involves everyone.

The plot, which runs at full pelt throughout, tackles several themes like paedophilia, Catholic guilt, adoption, bereavement and social malaise. But it’s McInerney’s darkly humorous prose, and her sleight of hand at capturing the city’s vernacular, that is really her trump card.

Presenting Cork in vivid Technicolor, it’s clear that McInerney is very familiar with the setting.

“I’m not from Cork but I may as well be, as I’ve been going back and forth my whole life,” she says. “I’ve got family there, my husband is from Cork and I went to UCC, so it’s a city I know very well.

“Besides, given how we speak Hiberno-English and express ourselves down there, it’s a writer’s paradise.”

As to why Cork’s criminal underworld was such a rich seam to mine, she adds: “I’m pretty much common as muck myself so I’ve heard of the ‘adventures’ people have had first hand. I’ve heard stories that aren’t necessarily from the nicer side of life.

“I’ve never done anything terrible myself, but I felt I had to write about it.

“My whole readerly life I’ve been attracted to darker, grittier stuff,” she continues. “When I was a teenager I really got into Melvin Burgess and it completely changed my life.”

McInerney admits that the book sprang largely from her imagination, although she conducted research on Ireland’s young offenders’ institutions, (“you really do want to get that kind of thing right”).

Some of the plots, like Maureen giving Jimmy up for adoption, are born of first-hand experience.

“I was adopted by my grandparents at the start of the ’80s,” she says.

“I still had ‘illegitimate’ status so a big shadow of Catholic Ireland really shaped me. It’s funny, Maureen gives up her son in the ’70s and it got me to thinking how things have changed.

“I was pretty much raised as my mother’s baby sister, and I always knew exactly who she was. There was never any shame around it; it was a more practical solution because illegitimate status wasn’t gotten rid of until 1987.

“It’s all very positive, which is completely different to Maureen’s experience. She carries a sack of demons on her back; she’s angry and rants a lot. There’s that Catholic demon that exists within her.”

Lisa grew up in Gort, Co Galway, which became known during the Celtic Tiger years as Little Brazil because of the influx of workers at the local meat-processing plant.

“There was a Celtic Tiger, that much I know… but I didn’t see too much of him personally,” she recalls with a smile. “My town did quite well under the Celtic Tiger when all the Brazilians came, but afterwards, Gort had a massive crash.”

Lisa admits that she had been writing feverishly since she was a child, completing her first novel at the age of 8. Pretty soon, she realised that writing was the only thing she wanted to do. With this in mind, she started writing her blog, The Arse End Of Ireland.

From her vantage point of a Galway council estate, and with the economic crash looming large, McInerney’s take on Celtic Tiger Ireland was by turns wryly funny and sword-sharp.

“I have to admit to being cynical here,” she admits. “I started the blog to build up readership to write fiction.

“I didn’t come from a literary family and hadn’t finished college or done a creative writing master’s. It’s so hard to break into the literary world and be a writer, but at the time (2006) blogs were really taking off.

“My thinking was, ‘hopefully someone will like the blog and something might actually happen from it.’ It took a while though.”

Still, her writing won her many fans, including fellow writers Joseph O’Connor, Belinda McKeon, and Colin Barrett.

But it was in 2013, when McInerney wrote a short story, ‘Saturday, Boring’, which was published in Kevin Barry’s Town and Country anthology (Faber), that proved a hint of things to come.

“It’s actually really hard for me,” she reflects, referring to the critical praise already lavished on her. “You’re so pleased on one hand, but there’s a horrible little Irish voice inside you that makes it hard not to say, ‘ah stop, you didn’t really like it’.”

Surely if the likes of Joseph O’Connor heap praise on her writing, though, it can only be a good thing?

“Yeah, when he got in touch to say he liked it, that came out of nowhere,” muses McInerney.

“I’d never met him but my editor sent him a copy and he was amazing about it. He’s one of the few writers of stature that my family had heard of. We’re not really a literary family.

“I remember them saying, ‘ah, he’s the one who wrote about a boat. He’s the one with the sister.’”

After securing London-based representation, McInerney presented her first novel to her agent. “I’d already written this very depressing and gritty novel, and my agent said, ‘you’re very talented but this is very grim…I don’t know if I can really sell this’,” she recalls.

“It was pretty much like something Ray Winstone might appear in. My agent was saying, ‘put some of your humour into something else’.

“I think that first novel will probably stay in my ‘undiscovered genius’ drawer.”

The first draft of The Glorious Heresies was written at a breakneck pace, taking four months to complete. She promptly sold it to John Murray publishers.

“I really just scribbled it out,” admits McInerney. “I made some changes, sold it, and then made some more changes with the editor at John Murray.

“It was eight months in all. I am a very quick writer and, to be fair, it might be better off I was slower.” Already Lisa, a mum-of-one, is working on the first draft of her next novel. Job done, in other words, on achieving her dream of being a full-time writer.

“I know this probably sounds perverse but the fact that I never had anything (financially) makes it really easy to devote yourself full time to writing,” she surmises. “Someone who made more money than me might not find it so easy.”

No doubt being supremely gifted helps a little.

* The Glorious Heresies is available now via John Murray Press at €17.99 (paperback).

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