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The Alphabet Sistersby Monica Mcinerney
Author Q & A
S i s t e r s T a l k i n g A b o u t S i s t e r s
Monica McInerney, author of The Alphabet Sisters, has a real-time e-mail conversation with her three real-life sisters. Lea, forty-five years old and a management consultant, is in Hobart, Tasmania. In South Australia is Marie, fortythree, a journalist and mother of four (three girls and a fourweek-old boy); and Maura, thirty-eight, mother of Xavier, also four weeks old. Monica, thirty-nine, is in Dublin, where she lives with her Irish husband.
There are also three brothers in the McInerney family, Paul, Stephen, and Rob. Their mother, Mary, now lives in Adelaide, after moving from the family home in the Clare Valley (the setting for The Alphabet Sisters) last year. Their father, Steve, was the railway stationmaster in the Clare Valley for more than thirty years. He died of cancer in March 2000.
Monica: Hello, my sisters. To set the scene—it’s 8 AM in Dublin. It’s been lashing rain all night, but so far this morning it is dry with a watery blue sky. I’m at my desk in my office, with the lights on because it’s still dark. It’s getting very autumnal for this early in October. All the trees are changing color, everyone has colds, and we’re about to switch to winter time, so it will be dark at 5 PM soon. There are Christmas decorations in the shops, too, by the way.
Lea: I’m here in Hobart, at 6 PM. Switching to summer time robbed us of an hour of sleep on the weekend so I’m as tired, grumpy, and disorganized as a mother with a newborn baby. Check this out and you’ll be able to see Hobart’s weather for yourself: http://www.rosebay.tased.edu.au/webcam marie: It’s a beautiful bright spring day here in Adelaide, 4:30 in the afternoon, but I just got up from a nap. The new baby’s unsettled, so are the rest of us, and I don’t think I’ll even get to the shops before Christmas.
Maura: Okay, maybe I’m last, but then, so I was! I’m in a place away from my home in Clare—I’m at our mother’s house in Adelaide (I’m her favorite daughter, just in case that subject comes up) and it’s a lovely sunny day. My ma is sitting on the verandah holding my beautiful four-week-old son, Xavier. Hopes are he will nap until we’re done here.
Lea: This is going to be a bit weird, like that seven-second satellite delay thing that happens on the TV news. Any ideas for managing it? (said the eldest one)
Marie: Maybe we should set up a chat room (said the second eldest, creatively and innovatively, yet not knowing what a chat room was or where the door would be)
Maura: No, forget the chat room, this is fun. You spend the whole time trying to catch up and being all confused as to what’s going on. Kind of like my life, really.
Monica: What about I start by asking you three a few questions? (said the bossiest one)
Lea: I thought Marie was the bossiest one.
Marie: No, smartest!
Monica: First question, then. How do you think your relationship with your sisters differs from your relationship with other female friends?
Lea: I am quite happy with my friends to behave like a fortyfive-year-old, whereas with my sisters I am perennially eight years old, at least for some subjects.
Maura: My relationship with my sisters is: (a) Different, depending on which sister we’re talking about. There is, though, a thread of sameness—probably about shared memories (although that’s probably not true—being
the youngest girl, I was raised on stories about what happened in the family while we were growing up, so I’m actually not sure whether what I recall is actually my own memory at work, or a recollection of stories I’ve been told). Friendships are usually different because they’re more grounded in the present. (b) Tension-filled at times. Curiously, my relationships with my sisters are both more relaxed than with my friends (the go-into-their-house-and-make-your-own-toast thing) and more tense (awareness of how to hurt the other, whether intentionally or, more often, not).
Marie: I think I have different relationships with each of you, and each is very valued and loved. But, to generalize, I think my relationship with you all is, on some levels, more honest than what I have with many friends, although not always. I tend to let rip with my full and true colors to family—the good, the bad, the ugly and, particularly, the childish (in good and bad ways). But I might well not tell you all about every night out I’ve ever had or when I’m miffed with you. (Then I’ll tell my friends about you!) I don’t really have different relationships with my friends, but my sisters are among my very best friends, and have set the template, really, for the level of intimacy, care, and consideration that I need from real friendship. That’s when you’re not all being mad/rude/out of control, of course.
Lea: Sisters—biggest laughs, biggest fights, biggest tantrums, biggest hearts. Friends are all of these but the volume and color go down a notch or two (except when I am missing my sisters and transpose years of sister stuff onto girl friendships, creating surrogate sisters). I like Maura’s idea about friends being more grounded in the present. You’re kind of on alert with sisters, especially with three of them, for shots (I use the word reservedly) coming from any direction and any era. Often your sister didn’t mean anything by that, but the past is the filter you ran her comment or action through before it hit your normally intelligent and mature brain. A simple statement from a sister can be like the most dense and layered poem ever written.
Monica: When I think about my sisters, I feel surrounded, and in the middle of something, hundreds of layers, going back years but also looking forward to how things will be for all of us, knowing we will be a part of one another’s lives. With my friends, thoughts come and go. I’m very focused when I’m with them, talking to them, e-mailing them, but we dip in and out of one another’s lives. With my sisters, I feel like I am immersed in you. You three are part of me, on my mind in a constant way, either when you’re worrying about something (perhaps a recent troubling conversation) or amusing me (something said in e-mail or conversation that makes me laugh out loud, which happens very often, or a childhood memory that can go either way) or making me feel grateful that I have each of you (the way I know I can call on each of you for help with work, life advice, or just to listen or laugh at a story). Next question: Does it feel like our relationship has changed as we have gotten older, or are the battlefields/sticking points the ones formed in childhood?
Marie: I think our relationships with one another change all the time and generally don’t relate to how things were when we were kids except when, all of a sudden, we hit a “stab from the past” road bump and then I can erupt in all the rage of childhood. I actually don’t see us in terms of oldest, youngest, prettiest (me!), most successful, etc. It’s more about relating to the different individuals we’ve become, despite all that shared background. Just when you think we all know what the other is talking about . . . I forgot to say in the other bit that for me it’s the fun and laughing that are the most important. I do laugh with my sisters probably more than with any other people on earth.
Lea: I like the way we deal with the hard stuff—an amazing mix of hard-nosed practicality, deep love, and compassion, and then the blackest and wickedest of humor.
Maura: I think my relationship with each of you has changed. As we’ve gotten older, I’ve learned more secrets about Lea and Marie. I wasn’t a part of their younger lives, but that’s fine, as I’ve heard about those times quite enough. With Moni, it’s a different sort of change—not the “just getting to know you” type of thing, because we shared a room and spent so much time together, even built an altar in our bedroom together and all. I think it’s become a little more mature. Most of the time at least. I think there’s a different depth to our overall relationship as sisters since Dad died. Not a pious thing but just an acknowledgment that yucky things happen to even our family (even though we all perform as if it’s a golden world). As a result, I think we’re all a little bit kinder to one another because we have a shared vulnerability. It’s easier to be kind if you have a sense of the pain/confusion/guilt/anger that someone else can feel and Dad’s death gave us that measure, I reckon.
Lea: I agree with you about the Dad stuff. It did change things heaps and took us all a big leap into—oh, I don’t know—for me the things I ratted on about you guys to other people I no longer felt like doing anymore. We can sort of pick on one another now but it doesn’t feel vicious like it could/did in the past.
Monica: I agree. It made everything more fragile and therefore more precious. When there were nine of us, when Dad was alive, it was like being part of a solar system, I thought. All revolving around one another, vaguely keeping in place. If you looked up or around, you knew who you would see. Dad dying changed that forever. I got—and still have—such a sense of things being able to change in an instant, and that a gap could appear at any moment, which would not just mean that terrible grief and shock, but also the shifting around, trying to make sense of it all. “What do we do now?” It’s made me—not obsessive, exactly, about thinking about you all, brothers, mum, as well as sisters—but so conscious of it. Being far away in Ireland sometimes makes me feel so sad, because I have a longing just to be close and in the middle of you all, and to feel safe and sure of the world. Wanting to be back to being eight years old again.
Lea: It was a big gift Mum and Dad gave us—that sense of safety when we were kids. Mum thinks that the house had a lot to do with our sense of ourselves and a certain confidence. This big, beautiful, solid home we had to go off to school from and come home to every day. Incredible security. And also Mum and Dad when there were troubles, both so solid, making us know we would be fine, we would get through, it’d be okay. I still have that sense from them mostly, although not always, since that gap in the wall that Dad’s death opened up. But if he opened it, it means he’s there somewhere on the other side of it. Hope so, sisters. Regarding battlefields. All is well and yes, I feel I am very grown up and mature except when I’m tired, which always seems to happen when I am back in the bosom of the family. Then I get the sooks and am back in those eight-year-old shoes again. I think, for me, it is hard flying in and out for brief visits. I found it easier in a way being there on a continuing basis, like during the time with Dad when he was dying (except for that hard bit to it). I needed to be held within the family circle physically for a while and I think I regained my footing. I’m pretty wobbly on some of the trips back, as much because of what I’ve left behind (busy work, needing a holiday, being a bit stressed) as what I’m heading into on my visit (busy families, busy lives). It’s hard to gauge immediately or even in a few days where things lie with your sisters. You do have some of the most intimate talks with your sisters, but like any relationship, you can’t guarantee one another you’ll be in the place for a deep talk when each of you needs that connection.
Monica: It’s been strange/odd/different/bad/good being away from you all the past couple of years, when so much has been happening in the family [the family home being sold, pregnancies, two new babies]. At times it’s been a bit like reading a book about you all, or hearing a radio serial. I’ve heard about your lives on the phone or read e-mails, rather than seen any of it happen, which gives it all that air of unreality. It’s been especially strange sometimes when I was working on the new book and shifting and changing plot lines or characters, and then reading a family e-mail and thinking “Well, perhaps now is the time that this happens or that character realizes this or these two people start being honest with each other.” Then I remember, “You can’t do that, these are real people in this e-mail, not your characters.” I know from past experience that it takes a little while to find my place in the family again after being away, trying to fit in, trying not to be hurt by all the in-jokes that have come up while I’ve been away. And also really wishing it could be like this all the time, all of us sitting around the table talking and laughing and trying to out-do one another, which is one of my favorite things in the world. But I also know I need to be away, because it is too seductive otherwise and I would never want to do anything other than talk and laugh with you. I agree that we have very different relationships with one another. That makes sense. It criss-crosses back and forth, I think, depending on what each of us needs at the time. And of course it is different because of proximity—Maura and Marie, you see each other so regularly, that must make a big difference. It’s different for Lea and I, who drop in and out only a couple of times a year, or in my case these days, once every year or so.
Lea: We’re kind of like four intersecting circles (damn, if we were all together I’d draw you a diagram right now)—lots of bits overlapping, but also the bits of us that are our other lives, that we’re proud of, protective of, et cetera. I remember thinking when I was back in South Australia after Dad died that I could just stay there forever and that would be fine. But then there’s this little voice and this little finger saying, “C’mon, c’mon, there’s other things you have to do with your life, c’mon . . .” You think, oh, it’s hard and I miss everyone and I feel torn but I have to do this (and let’s be honest I quite like it most of the time) but I do miss them.
Marie: Mmm, but sometimes it’s hard being the ones in the home circle. It’s easier for you to put niggle bits and annoyances onto the other person because you’re in a bad mood and they happen to be around. Or you’re constantly not meeting their expectations rather than just failing every Christmas. That’s not in any way to diminish how fraught it can be coming home—been there, done that, observed it, sympathize et cetera. I agree very much, too, about the Dad time. I think it gave us new respect for one another (watching what each of you gave to him—shaves, bed baths, conversations, pain management, humor). I also learned more about and from each of you than I ever imagined. I remember a particular conversation one night with Lea that really changed my world view about Dad. I realized the rest of the family (or most of you) had moved on from our past way of dealing with/being with him, and I had to step over a bridge and grow up in a way. That’s a great thing to have someone actually give you, rather than having to work it out slowly for yourself. I think that happens a lot with my sisters—sudden insights borrowed and stolen!
Lea: I agree totally with Marie regarding sudden insights— and the other side of that is that when you unknowingly/unwittingly “give them” you tend to get them at the same time. It was in talking with you about Dad that I made big leaps too. I think I was about a half a step ahead of you—or maybe we were pairs in a three-legged race!
Maura: Marie? What niggly bits? Did I miss something? I know you hate everyone else in the family but I thought what we had was beautiful!
Monica: I think there are flashpoints or triggers that come up in surprising ways. Something like wanting Mum’s undivided attention or feeling picked on or left out or misunderstood comes from childhood and still hangs around. I can be rational about situations, usually, but sometimes I have an immediate deep emotional response inside me that surprises me. Alarms me, even.
Lea: It’s primal, sweetie, and as such it involves, sometimes, a simple desire to kill.
Marie: Guys, sorry, hell hour has descended . . . baby crying, Ruby screaming, Ulli trying to show me eight different ways of bouncing a ball against a wall . . . Can I get back to you on stuff or rejoin you later if you’re still going? My fave story for today, by the way—not sisters but siblings. We were outside, Rafael [new baby] lying on the lawn, Ruby [three years old] riding her three-wheeler bike. “Can you put his feet there, Mum?” she asked. “I want to use his feet as a road.”
Monica: [Later] If we had all had a big fight, in the way the three Quinlans did in The Alphabet Sisters, do you think it would have taken us three years to reunite?
Lea: I think that question is answered by the comments about Dad’s dying and where that has taken us all. I think we all need space from time to time. Including you who are all physically nearby.
Maura: I can’t think of anything that any of you could do that would upset me so badly that I’d give up the laughs and the other good things about knowing you.
Marie: I can actually imagine us falling out for three years or more if we fought over the same thing the Quinlans did—one of us “taking” another’s man. I can imagine that would bust things up incredibly. But I can’t imagine any of my sisters doing that. I know that’s easy to say and that one shouldn’t deny true love and all the stuff that Carrie and Matthew went through, but I think it would be a taboo for us. I can, however, picture other smaller betrayals—indeed I know we’ve all inflicted them along the way—but I think we’d be far more likely to disguise how hurt we were (and bitch madly behind backs) rather than blow things up publicly. We’d much rather be seen as stoic than sensitive, I think.
Monica: I can’t stand not talking to one of you for a week, let alone three years. I can see exactly why it happened to the Quinlans, because they needed that space from one another, but I think we’ve found that space in different ways. Final question: Have you had people saying: “Is The Alphabet Sisters about you and your sisters?” What did you say and did you mind being asked?
Lea: Yes, people have asked if it is about us. I just say (again and again) “Monica knows we would kill her if she modeled any of them on us.” I also point out that you cleverly (sensibly?) made none of them look like us. I think you were very clever the way you wrote it. There are some great stories that you have, of course, stolen from our shared childhood, however the ones you picked, you write about so beautifully and funnily that I can but say you have done us proud. And you have stayed right away from any character traits or any more important or serious stories that might implicate us, so to speak.
Maura: Crikey. where to begin? Here’s what happens: Person: I’ve just finished/am in the middle of Monica’s new book. Me: Oh, yes, and what do you think of it? Person: I’m really enjoying it. So which sister are you? Me: Maura. Person: No, I mean, in the book? Me: None of them, obviously. Person: Oh, come on, you must be one of them. (At this stage, conversation deteriorates into “am not/are so” debacle.)
Marie: Someone told me today they had just read the book and tried to work out which sister was me. I don’t mind at all being asked. I love it that my sister has written a book and that people like reading it enough to get caught up in the characters. I love stumbling upon little stories in the book that are based on stuff we did as kids. And I couldn’t get over that I sobbed and sobbed at the end, even while thinking, “For God’s sake, your sister made this up!” By the way, I just asked my daughters if they think my sisters and me get on. Ulli responded, “Yeah, derr!”
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