A Conversation with Monica McInerney
Random House Reader’s Circle: You feature families who have migrated from Ireland to Australia (or vice versa) in several of your novels. Can you talk a bit about the large migration of Irish to Australia?
Monica McInerney: Australia and Ireland have a long and rich shared history, with something like one in five Australians claiming Irish heritage. Thousands of the first white settlers in the nineteenth century were Irish convicts; Irish people emigrated to escape the famine and poverty in the 1840s, and to seek their fortune in the gold rush of the 1850s. More recently, it’s been a combination of economic reasons and the call of the wild– there’s something exotic and romantic about Australia for Irish people, as there is something romantic and mystical about Ireland for most Australians. My own greatgrandparents on my mother’s and my father’s side emigrated to South Australia in the 1840s, both from County Clare. Looking back through our family tree it’s obvious from the surnames how the Irish community stuck together–my ancestors all have names such as Hogan, Canny, Fitzgerald and O’Brien. I laughed to myself when I first moved to Ireland with my Irish husband nearly twenty years ago, all the trouble my ancestors took to go to Australia, two months on a ship, and there I was turning it around with a flight lasting less than a day.
RHRC: Nuggets of Irish history are sprinkled throughout Greetings from Somewhere Else, as Lainey does research for her plans for the B&B. Did you do much research for this novel, or did you grow up knowing a lot about Ireland’s past?
MM: I grew up with a basic knowledge of Irish history, key dates and names, for example, but it’s living in Ireland that has expanded my knowledge. History is such a part of everyday life here, the political situation constantly evolving in regard to Northern Ireland, the streets full of statues of greats from Irish history and literature such as Daniel O’Connell, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde.
When I first moved here with my Irish husband in 1991, we lived in County Meath, very close to the Hill of Tara and it became–and still is–one of my favorite places in Ireland. We spent many hours there, roaming across the fields, imagining how it might have looked, talking to local people about it, reading books of legends. Lainey’s reaction to Tara in Greetings from Somewhere Else is very close to mine. At first glance, Tara seems quite ordinary, but then your imagination takes over and you can feel and almost hear its history.
RHRC: There are so many delicious meals described in Greetings from Somewhere Else, and food is often a vivid presence in your books. What importance does it have in your non-writing life?
MM: Food and books are two of the great loves of my life, so it is such a treat to bring them together in my writing. I love to cook, to eat out, to eat in, to shop, to visit markets, to read recipe books. I’m the world’s messiest cook, which I suspect stems from the fact that when I was growing up in a big rowdy family of nine there was a rule that whoever cooked didn’t have to do the dishes. So I volunteered, got hooked, began to cook elaborate meals for my family, three-course meals sometimes, all in the safe knowledge that I didn’t have to clear up afterward. My poor in-laws found it out to their cost too–I offered to cook a big Asian banquet the first year I moved to Ireland. I used every single dish, pot and pan in the kitchen. It took my brother-in-law and sister-in-law three hours–seriously–to clean up from a meal that took us all less than twenty minutes to eat.
RHRC: Which contemporary writers do you enjoy reading? What’s the last great book you read, and why did you love it?
MM: I’ve a long list of favorite contemporary writers, including Garrison Keillor, Laurie Graham, Tim Winton, Helen Garner, Neil Gaiman, Adriana Trigiani, John le Carré, Kristan Higgins, Meg Rosoff, Stephenie Meyer . . . My current favorite book is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. I’ve recommended it to many friends and sent it as presents to my mother and sisters too. It’s the story of the islanders of Guernsey and their relationship with a sparky, funny, and wonderful writer who corresponds with them in the years following World War II. On the surface it is a funny, cozy, heartwarming tale of a complicated group of people, but there is so much else to it: hard and stark tales of life during wartime and beautiful depictions of resilience in the face of difficult choices.
RHRC: Your novels provide such a wonderful escape for many readers–is this one of the reasons why you like writing fiction? Have you ever written nonfiction or wanted to?
MM: Everything I love about writing comes from what I love about reading. When I pick up a book, I love that feeling of losing myself in other worlds, and when I am writing my novels, I love that same feeling. It’s wonderful for me to hear that readers of my books get swept up in the same way I do when I’m writing the story. I love the feeling that anything is possible when I am writing fiction. I can send my characters to the moon if I want to (though some of them might be alarmed to find themselves there). Through my characters, I’ve managed to live so many different lives, experience different emotions, explore my own feelings toward many different situations. It’s akin to being on a psychologist’s couch sometimes–I write how I think a character will react and then I need to take a step back, and realize, no, that’s how I would react, not this fictional person. Fiction writing means a constant exploration of personality and cause and effect and I find that fascinating. Lately I’ve written quite a lot of nonfiction, articles about my real-life experiences with aunts and how that led to The Faraday Girls, stories about my childhood as part of a big family of railway children. I’m finding that a great experience too, a different way of delving into my own memories and emotions.
RHRC: How much interaction do you have with book clubs, and how have your experiences with them been? Are you part of one yourself?
MM: I love talking to book clubs and have done several great chats with clubs in the United States through the Random House Author Chat program, me here in Dublin, sometimes in the middle of the night, the book club gathered around a table in places like California or Long Island. It’s fascinating and also nerve-racking to listen to your own book being discussed, because of course not every word is going to be positive. So far I’ve been very fortunate. Perhaps they were more frank after I’d hung up.
I’m in a book club here in Dublin, with male and female members, and it has added so much to my reading and writing life. I’ve been introduced to books I would not otherwise have read, revisited classics like Wuthering Heights and Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous and also participated in many lively discussions. We’re all quite serious about it. Yes, we meet over wine and food, but the chat is always quickly directed to the book in question. It’s also been helpful for me as a writer to hear a book being discussed in such detail, to realize that there isn’t a book in the world that is universally loved and also to hear all the different reasons people read, what they look for in plot, character, setting, how your mood at the time you are reading can affect your experience of a book.
RHRC: You were a book publicist in your past life. How has that experience influenced your career as a writer?
MM: It was an invaluable experience to me, in some ways like doing a writing course by osmosis. I met and talked to many different writers, from different countries and all genres, and heard them speak about their methods. When I started writing fiction myself, I was able to draw on those memories, to remind myself that the ups and downs I was going through were normal. I also know from experience that publicity tours and reviews and speaking engagements are all a great help to spread the word about the book. I’m lucky in that I love that side of being a writer. I’m social by nature, so after a year locked away in my office with my fictional characters, I’m always very eager to get out and about and meet real people.
RHRC: You’ve been on book tours all over the world. How do you think readers in different countries vary? Do you find audiences generally want the same thing in a novel, or is there a range across cultures?
MM: What surprises me is how little they vary. I love to see how curious readers in each country are about people in other countries. My books are usually set in several different countries, and I’ve been lucky enough to meet readers in most of those countries. The great thing is when an Irish reader tells me they love reading about Australia and feel they’ve been there through the pages of my book, or an Australian says that about Ireland, or an American reader about both Ireland and Australia. I think most readers are seeking the same experience in books–a chance to step into another life, to experience a wide range of emotions, to be challenged and entertained, and that is international.
RHRC: You’ve now written two novels featuring the delightful heroines Eva and Lainey. Do you think they’ll ever appear in any of your future novels? And what are you working on now?
MM: They may well. I’d like to come back and see how they are all getting on in ten years’ time.
In terms of my new book, I’m in the early chapters, planning research trips, reading many books on subjects that I’ll be covering and also doing lots of walking and daydreaming. It’s one of my favorite parts of the writing process, when everything is possible. My head is full of characters and ideas and it’s a matter of choosing which ones I want to live with for the next year or so.