About The Author
Belinda McKeon (right; photo © Hiroki Kobayashi) was born in Ireland in 1979 and grew up on a farm in Co Longford. She studied English and Philosophy at Trinity College Dublin and University College, Dublin. She lives in Brooklyn, New York and in Ireland.
Her writing has been published in journals including The Paris Review and the Dublin Review and various anthologies. She has also written on the arts for the Irish Times for over ten years and has interviewed writers including John McGahern, Richard Ford, John Banville and Joan Didion. She curated Ireland's largest poetry festival, dlr Poetry Now, from 2008 to 2011 and has curated a number of events in the US, including IAC Poetry Fest, a festival of contemporary Irish poetry in New York, and the literary strand of Imagine Ireland.
As a playwright, McKeon has had work staged at the Abbey and Project Theatres in Dublin and at 59E59 and PS 122 in New York. She is currently under commission to the Abbey Theatre, Dublin.
Her debut novel, Solace, has been widely praised, receiving ringing endorsements from Man Booker Prize winner Anne Enright, Costa Novel Award winner Colm Tóibín and National Book Award winner Colum McCann. It won the 2011 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize.
It tells the story of Mark who has left behind the rural Irish community where his family has farmed the same land for generations, to study for a doctorate in Dublin, a vibrant, contemporary city full of possibility. To his father, Tom, who needs help baling the hay and ploughing the fields, Mark's pursuit isn't work at all, and indeed Mark spends more time socialising than writing and researching. His bright new relationship with a trainee solictor, Joanne, survives unexpected complications until a sudden tragedy makes Mark look afresh at the life he thought he had left behind.
Solace is a passionate and moving novel, written with brittle lyricism, and perhaps the finest first novel published this year. In this exclusive interview for Foyles, Belinda talks about the allure of Home and Away to a teenager growing up on an Irish farm, the differing challenges of writing plays and novels and watching Carol Ann Duffy sing to Seamus Heaney on his 70th birthday.
Questions & Answers
You grew up on a farm. Did you have the same desire to escape as Mark did? And have you based your depiction of farm life on your own experiences at all?
Yes, I grew up on a small farm in Co Longford, which is a rural county in the Irish midlands. I was the eldest in my family, and until my younger brother was old enough to step up to the mark (so to speak...) I was my father's companion of sorts on the farm. My chores were very minor - counting cattle, keeping them fed and watered, that kind of thing - but I do remember resenting them (with the exception of haymaking, which was exciting because it meant high summer) as a young teenager, though in the same way, I'd imagine, that any teenager would resent their chores. If I had a desire to escape the fields and the farmyard, it was usually aimed back up at the house, specifically at the TV; I seemed always to be complaining about missing Home and Away.
Seriously, though, I think my transition from the rural life to the urban one was a very steady and painless one; the two worlds were very close throughout my childhood in any case. Besides, I've feel like I've always been moving back and forth between them. So yes, something of that feeling of being between two worlds went into the creation of Mark as a character; I've felt, and still very much feel, the pull in both directions. And the life of the farm is still one I'm very close to; I know its language and its rhythms at an innate level, I suppose.
One aspect of Solace is the conflict between a traditional Ireland with its rural heritage and the cosmopolitan modernity of city life. Do you feel this tension has been the result of the recent economic downturn or had the Celtic Tiger always struggled with a dual identity?
That tension pre-dated the Celtic Tiger - it's part of the world, for example, of John McGahern's The Leavetaking, set in the 1960s, and it didn't need any economic boom in order to exist. All it needed, maybe, was a television aerial, because the Irish television channels had a huge influence on how we saw ourselves and how we saw one another - how we sneered at, or stared at, or envied or aped or talked about each other, acts which very often happened to be pivoted on the rural/urban divide. What the boom did to that tension was pretty much identical to what the boom did to every other aspect of Irish life; it catapulted it into the realm of the ridiculous, the cringe-inducing, the self-delusional, as Ireland scrambled vulgarly towards some gaudy notion of modernity and sophistication, determined to leave its identity as a largely rural country behind. And yet what happened was also a weird mingling of the rural and urban, a sort of desperate levelling of identities. Meadows became housing estates with mock-Tudor houses and pretentious names, often in incorrect Irish. Any rural village within five miles of a body of water was overdeveloped into a gormless imitation of Monte Carlo. Jeeps, which in the 1980s were driven only by farmers, became the vehicle of choice for Dublin mothers on the school run. The kind of vegetables you'd be ashamed to be seen sowing and pulling in your parents' garden were the mainstay of city tables, bought for extortionate prices at farmers' markets. We were all, country and city, equally maddened by stuff. That's how it seemed, at least; now, it's clearer than ever that some pockets of Ireland, rural and urban, were barely touched by the boom. Anyway, we're all in the same boat now.
Mark's PhD is about the life and work of novelist Maria Edgeworth, who like you often dealt with everyday life in Ireland. Has she been an influence on your writing at all?
What I find fascinating about Edgeworth is that she wanted to write about the world she saw around her - a world which consisted mainly of the tensions between her own landowning class and the largely peasant populace of Co Longford, with some forays into London society. She wrote out of places and people she knew at a deep level, and she wove the settings, the atmospheres and the languages, in all their colloquialism, of those worlds into her work. And yet what she was doing could never be called straightforward realism. She wasn't chronicling a time and place. In a book like Castle Rackrent, she's playing with the very idea of realism in fiction. She's writing out of the world of her experience, but she's refusing to settle for merely drawing on that world. I admire that, and when I find myself admiring a contemporary writer, it's often that same quality to which I'm drawn.
America has long had a very romantic view of Ireland. Has your portrait of contemporary Ireland come as a shock to your American readers? How have you found the process of engaging with your readers there?
Solace was published in the US by Scribner earlier this year, so I have some idea of how American readers respond to it. And in fact I already had some idea of American responses to the world of the novel before its publication, because I took some parts of Solace in draft form through MFA workshops at Columbia University in New York. In both cases, I've encountered very little sense of a romantic view of Ireland being shattered; maybe that's because such a romantic view is less in place than we'd think, or because readers are actually more than willing to give it up.
I do recall some shock at the idea that a PhD student in his late 20s might do cocaine at a party, but I don't think that was anything to do with perceptions of Ireland; for the most part, the reader responses I'm aware of have fastened on the family dynamics, on the depictions of early romance and of grief, and on the experience of new parenthood. If there's one thing that has constituted a sort of culture shock for American readers, it's the way that the characters, in particular Mark and his father Tom, are wired to talk to one another in very indirect and evasive ways. The communication modes are, I suppose, particularly Irish, and the presence of the unspoken is something that some American readers have found almost shocking. My editor at Scribner, Nan Graham, said that it made her want to scream at the characters on occasion. Though she stressed that this was a positive response...!
You're already well established as a playwright. What were the biggest differences you found between writing a play and a novel?
I think I'll need to write another novel, and to finish the play I'm working on at present, before I can answer this properly - I feel it's not something I've quite gotten my finger on yet. They're very different beasts. Structurally, they require the writer to grope about in the dark in entirely different ways, and if you bump into the form of one whilst looking for the other, it can take you off course for weeks. The simpler answer is that I love writing dialogue and find it comes very easily, so drafting a play can sometimes seem to be a quicker process, but I would emphasise the word "drafting" there - the work of actually turning all that dialogue into a play is something much trickier.
On the other hand, in moments where I find myself stuck with a piece of fiction, it sometimes helps to write a scene out as dialogue and see what comes, so that particular playwriting technique has helped me with fiction. But for the most part, they're barely really related, and when it comes to staging a play - all that business of actually dealing with other people and watching your words become a production - you're as far from the world of the novel as you can get. The rehearsal room is to the writing room what the nudist colony is to the closet. The one thing the play and the novel or story have to bind them is language. They both come from language and what you feel yourself wanting to do with it. Then they take off on their own tracks.
Speaking of dialogue, your novel features few passages of extended dialogue. Is this simply because of the fundamental difficulties Mark's family has in communicating or is there another stylistic purpose?
In light of what I've just said above (and I hadn't read this question before doing so), this is an interesting point. Again, I like writing dialogue and feel that it comes to me very naturally - I can hear the voices - but it's true, there's only really one extended passage of dialogue in the novel, between Joanne and a very secondary character, Antonia Lefroy, and that's in fact a passage which I seriously debated cutting out, because it seemed to me somehow...well, the word that's coming to me is 'naked'. Exposed.
When you ask about stylistic purpose, I feel I must confess that for me, style and structure are often largely intuitive choices... I know when I can't leave them as they are, when they're not right, but I don't consciously know exactly what I have to do to make them right, except to write and write, and draft and draft, until I feel I've captured the scene, or the interior of a character's mind. And it turns out that the end result, very often, contains little dialogue, as you've observed. But I don't think that it's the case that my characters don't talk to one another - Tom and Mark may be reticent, but other characters are not. I think it's more that, for the most part, what's said is less important to me than what's thought, what's observed, what's filling the room in terms of mood or atmosphere or human tension. There's a line early on in the novel where Mark thinks that in the spaces between his mother's words, when she's on the phone to him, he can almost hear his father's breath. I think - and I haven't really thought about this much before, so thank you for the question - it's the breath, rather than the words, that I want to catch.
You've also curated a number of poetry festivals in America and Ireland, most notably dlr Poetry Now. Which poets have you been most pleased to introduce to festival audiences? And do you write poetry yourself?
I wrote some poetry as a teenager, but it never felt like the form for me. But I adore it, and that's why it's such a pleasure to curate poetry events; I love the alchemy of putting different poets together, and watching and listening as an audience responds. I curated dlr Poetry Now for four years, and with my husband [Aengus Woods] I've co-curated the Irish Arts Center PoetryFest in New York since 2009. I've also curated the literature strand of Culture Ireland's 2011 programme in the US, and that strand will, by the end of the year, have consisted of almost 100 events across the US. So there are many, many names which come to mind when you ask which poets I've been most pleased to bring to audiences.
At dlr Poetry Now, the American poets Henri Cole, Meghan O'Rourke and Robert Pinsky; the brilliant young British poet Paul Batchelor; Tomas Venclova from Lithuania, Kei Miller from Jamaica. Masterful keynote addresses by poets like Anne Carson and Paul Muldoon. Seeing Frank Bidart and Colette Bryce read poems for Seamus Heaney at a 70th birthday celebration for him; watching Carol Ann Duffy and her daughter Ella sing songs, derived from his poems, for him. Or, in NY, watching superb writers like Harry Clifton, Joe Woods, Sinead Morrissey, Paula Meehan reconfigure the notions of American audiences as to what Irish poetry is about. It really is a joyful kind of work, and I want to keep doing it.
Your novel has been highly praised by Colm Tóibín and Anne Enright, amongst a number of others. How do you feel about getting endorsements from such eminent writers?
Grateful of course; very grateful. But as anyone in the book industry knows, blurbs are an odd business; writers are under pressure to produce a great deal of them, and critics in particular don't often take very kindly to them. You worry that such wonderful praise might tilt things off balance for your book before those things, whatever they may be, have even begun, and then you feel guilty for feeling anything other than unquestioning gratitude; after all, you're damn lucky to get any blurbs for a debut, let alone positive ones from writers you hugely admire. But it's a fact that several readers have said to me that they're actually turned off by blurbs rather than attracted by them, and I can understand that. Still, they are necessary, and despite all these neuroses of mine about blurbs, I can tell you I was very flattered and moved by the things those writers - Colm and Anne, but also Colum McCann, John Boyne, Clare Morrall and Catherine O'Flynn - said about Solace.
Can you tell us anything about what you'll be working on next?
I am working on another novel, provisionally titled 'The Treasure', about a friendship between an Irish man and woman in Dublin and New York. But I'm also trying to finish a play I've been working on for a while now, a commission from the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, who've been very patient as deadline after deadline has whizzed by. It's set on a ghost estate in Co Longford, on the grounds of what was until recently a beautiful old manor, Carriglass, home in the 19th century to the man who was believed to be the inspiration for Jane Austen's Darcy. Then ten years ago it was bought by developers and half-turned into a hotel and housing estate...and then the money ran out, and now it's derelict. My characters are squatters.
I'm also working on a number of essays, and on a short radio play for RTE. There is no shortage of deadlines.