Photo credit: Hugh Chaloner
Describe your latest book.
is a fictional memoir of a famous mother as remembered by her daughter, an Irish writer called Norah FitzMaurice. Her mother, Katherine O’Dell, was a stage actress who moved from the town halls and tiny stages of rural Ireland to London, Broadway, and, briefly, Hollywood, before returning to Europe, Ireland, and a slow decline. At the age of 52, she takes a prop gun that turns out to be a real gun and shoots a film producer in the foot.
By the time I had finished the book, I almost thought that Katherine was a real person — I am not sure, even now, that I made her up. She shares little bits of history with other stage people — she has the same color hair as Maureen O’Hara, whom she followed to Hollywood, though she was less able than O’Hara to manage the sexual pressures in the movie industry. Like Siobhán McKenna, she loved the stage. Katherine also owes something to Constance Smith, a beautiful Irish starlet who was charged in 1962 with the attempted murder of a man she would subsequently marry. I researched and wrote the book from 2016 onwards, always overtaken by the stories women actors were beginning to tell about the more difficult realities of their profession. There was no shortage of material to fashion her from, but much of it fell away as soon as Katherine became herself.
The mother-daughter relationship is key to the book. I am really interested in women who say, “I can handle what happened to me, but I could not bear to see it happen to my daughter.” I find this so moving and true to what I know: that women make survivors of themselves, but they cannot see their daughters hurt. That fierce protectiveness goes wrong for Katherine, despite which, Norah learns how to endure and to thrive in her own life. The book is not just about survival, I think. It is about how love can rescue you in a way that is both chaotic and tenacious.
What was your favorite book as a child?
Like many children, I loved books that could be read over and over again. This is the reason that I took so well to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
and more especially Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass
. My mother wanted me to love The Wind in the Willows
as she had done as a child, but though I liked these tales of cute animals on the riverbank, they were too easy to understand. When you finished The Wind in the Willows
it stayed finished, but I returned 10, 20, 50 times to the wonder and weirdness of Alice
. It was always so unpossessable.
When did you know you were a writer?
A writer is someone who puts words on a page. Being a "writer" is not some inner condition, it is not even really a question of identity. You just keep writing stuff down. Ireland is full of "writers" — not all of them have the patience to sit down and write an actual book. But actually yes — have it your way — I always "knew" I was a writer. The people around me told me I was one and, after a while, I half-believed them.
What does your writing workspace look like?
It looks like this page. I carry my work around with me. I have a study, where I rarely write, but which looks good when people want a serious "author photo" (see question 2, above). I have a living room sofa, were I sit cross-legged with my laptop balanced on my knees. I hate desks. I can’t bring myself to sit in a chair. I write anywhere. Trains, planes, other people’s houses, hotels, sometimes (though rarely) cafes. I also think about my book when I am driving.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I live in the south of Dublin where I walk the dog along the seafront every day, and there at the end of the small bay is the tower where Joyce set the opening chapter of Ulysses
. In the city center, I pass Oscar Wilde
’s childhood home, the pub where Flann O’Brien
drank, the cafe where Mary Lavin
sat writing while her girls were at school, the theatre foyer where I first chatted to Seamas Heaney
. For me, the map of Dublin is a tracery of literary paths and intersections. It is a pilgrimage without a destination.
What scares you the most as a writer?
I find malice difficult, it really pierces me. Perhaps there is something about the foolishness of fiction that leaves the writer open to it, I don’t know — the feeling that our imaginings are so easily poisoned and undone. But of course that is all in my head. There is nothing frightening about it, after all.
Describe a recurring dream.
I dream that I go onstage to read from my work and a page is missing from the manuscript. Sometimes, also, the audience is drunk. I am always fully dressed, I am delighted to report, it’s just that sticky, endless feeling that I must read slower and slower because the next page is not there.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
My mother had two great pieces of advice: "Never use a long word where a short word will do," and, "There is no excuse for marrying a bastard."
÷ ÷ ÷
was born in Dublin, where she now lives and works. She has published three volumes of stories, one book of nonfiction, and five novels. In 2015, she was named the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction. Her novel, The Gathering
, won the Man Booker Prize, and The Forgotten Waltz
won the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Actress
is her latest book.