Queen Mum or Queen of Show-Don’t-Tell?

On Saturday October 6th I’m discussing ‘Maeve Binchy: the Quiet Feminist’ at Echoes, the Dalkey festival celebrating her and other Irish writers. Yet the more of her writing I read – particularly the early fiction and journalism from the 1970s and 80s – the more disquieting that ‘quiet’ has become. Take her article The World’s Greatest Lies About Women, published in the Irish Times in 1970, which begins: Men like fat, cuddly women. Men like women without make-up. Men like women in midi-length clothes. Everyone looks better in summer than winter. Pregnant women are beautiful. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t beautiful.” 

Although she had only been writing for newspapers for a couple of years at that point, Maeve’s debunking of each Great Lie was as good-natured and witty as her readers must have come to expect. For example, in response to, “Men like women without make up”, the article continued: “They don’t. They like extremely well and carefully made up women whose skin has that expensive cultured look which comes from three hours at the dressing table. A woman who is really without make up would frighten them to death. They regard blotches as eczema and uneven colouring as a sign of tertiary syphilis.’ The similarly thorough going over she gives each of the other five of the Greatest Lies makes it clear that she believed women ought to behave, dress, and think for ourselves.

From the outset, Maeve questioned the attitudes, beliefs and conventions that kept women, in a thousand exhausting ways, tied down. From that early journalism through to her later, constantly bestselling fiction, Maeve’s essentially practical and compassionate take on what women ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ do holds fast. She said “My own feminism came from feeling that if I could write fiction books showing that women were sometimes too humble and took themselves too timidly and that only by being courageous and taking charge of your own life did you succeed.” 

Her writing in the Irish Times was loved for its common sense, its comedy and compassion. She had a remarkable ability to lead a reader from light to dark with ease: in both fiction and in journalism, she wrote about abortion, alcoholism, infidelity, poverty, motherhood, joy, and independence through the prism of ordinary women’s lives.

In 1976, she published a short piece called A Snatch at Some Happiness. It is about a young newly-married woman’s fear that she may never have a baby, in which case she doesn’t understand what this new life is to be about. It begins “She had been married for ten months and she found it odd that this sense of doom lay like a big heavy meal on her chest.” This unnamed woman feels judged by everyone, including her boss. Maeve wrote: “His eyes seemed piggy to her rather than kind, and she thought again how appalling it was that this man who never even addressed her by her first name should feel free to comment on the possibility of a life growing or not growing in her body.

That Maeve returns time and time again over the decades to certain topics shows that she never wrote in order to simply graft a predictable or fashionable feminist stance onto her work. (Though I do love that in an article in 1980 about buying a wonderful custom-fitted bra from one of those fancy London shops that supplies the Queen with her six garments of underwear, ends with the knowing line, “If there’s another revolution and I’m told to burn it, I’ll abandon the sisters before I’d let it go.”)

In 2013, the collection of short stories published posthumously under the title A Few of the Girls explores infidelity, insecurity, motherhood, rebellion against loveless relationships, divorce, changes in female friendships over time, how society treats women as they age, and bereavement, all written with what her husband Gordon Snell describes in the introduction as Maeve’s trademark “straightforward and sensitive” style.  In this collection, a story called Funny Little Thing takes a clever, well-aimed swipe at sexist language: “I used to say that the five worst words in the language were Flat Packed for Easy Assembly. Barry used to think that was funny. ‘Aren’t you a complicated little thing!’ he would say. But he found everything I said funny back then. And I was always a mad little thing or a quirky little thing, a clever little thing – even a sexy little thing. But that was then, not now.”

Many interviews with Maeve quote her as saying, “I don’t have ugly ducklings turning into swans in my stories. I have ugly ducklings turning into confident ducks.” Yet despite this, the assumption that her writing was “cosy”, that she wrote romance novels, persists. The UK Independent once referred to her as “the Queen Mum of literature” and “a spectacularly successful writer of romantic fiction.” Somewhere along the line Maeve seems to have become two people: the “cosy”, much-loved writer; and this compassionate advocate for feminist causes, who wanted to ensure Irish women had a voice.Perhaps that is why the “quiet” tag has stuck like lint to her brand of feminism for so long? And though not all of the writing is equally challenging, much of it deals with difficult topics for both men and women, and she was brave and realistic enough to leave endings unresolved and ambiguous. t is worth noting that the“spectacularly successful writer of romantic fiction” label gets completely cast aside with her suggestion for the first line of a sequel to Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca: “Last night I dreamed I went to see my solicitor and began the whole business of getting shot of Max.”

As Irish women’s lives slowly changed over the last fifty years, her voice was one of constant empathy and good sense. A piece of advice offered on many creative writing courses is show don’t tell: allow the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s explanation or description. Maeve’s feminism is the perfect example of show don’t tell in action. Remove the “quiet”label and there are plenty of alternatives ready and waiting to take its place: persistent, considered, accessible, compassionate.

Quiet or not, I think we would all benefit from being more like Maeve. By which I mean, of course, by being completely ourselves.

A longer version of this article appeared in the Irish Times, September 29th 2018.

Here Roisin Ingle & I are chatting about Maeve Binchy in an Irish Times Women’s Podcast (ep. 246).

 

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Getting the key to the big house

At the Irish Writers Centre Christmas shindig on December 8th, I was the lucky recipient of the Irish Writers Centre Jack Harte Bursary 2016. This is a two-week fully resourced Writer-in-Residence Bursary at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig. The award is named in honour of Jack Harte (pictured), founder of the Irish Writers Centre, in celebration and acknowledgement of his contribution to Irish literature.

The Irish Writers Centre is a fantastic resource, and a great supporter of writers and writing. And not just Irish either, as proved at the party when representatives of the New Irish Communities writing group read their Bob Dylan-inspired (he was the theme of the evening) pieces. There were also readings – thoughtful, funny, poignant – by Gerry Smyth, Alvy Carragher and Joseph O’Connor.

The Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Ireland’s first artist’s retreat, is a place of peace and quiet; a space to work without the ‘life’ bits of life getting in the way. What makes an award such as this one so special is that it’s not created as an acknowledgment of previous work; it’s an investment in a writer so that they can work on a new project. It shows how much faith the Irish Writers Centre has in the power of ideas, and its commitment to the future of writing in Ireland.

(And I, for one, am very grateful for it.)

 

My paper crown: The Irish Times Book Club

The Heart of Everything was the Irish Times Book Club choice for May. During the month a series of articles and interviews (with contributions from Professor Margaret Kelleher, Ivana Bacik, Kathleen MacMahon, Susan McKay, Andrea Carter, Kate Lynch, Ciara Considine and Michael Foley, and a written Q&A with Sarah Gilmartin) explored different aspects of the book, ending with a podcast chitty-chat with Martin Doyle, recorded in the Irish Writers’ Centre.

For a month, Mags, Anita, Raymond and Elin were analysed and critiqued, sympathised-with and scrutinised, pitied and praised. Their fictional ears were a-flame. Some of the articles discussed the book’s headline themes: dementia, missing persons, ageing, family dynamics. Others, such as Michael Foley’s piece about constructed identity, picked up on nuances. He discussed the fallacy of the idea that any of us have a true, single identity: everyone in the book constructs a version of Mags, and all are found to be false. He described the characters as ‘a soup of identities’, and commented ‘as much as we’d like to imagine that the identity to which we cling is actually ours, it is really only partly ours and partly what others make of it.’ Turns out, I wasn’t the only person who had made Mags up: her children had too. Over the course of a week they unpick her life and still can’t manage to find her hiding within it. His article reminded me of an exhibition I saw twenty years ago – a fascinating video installation called Passing by American artists Hillary Leone and Jennifer Macdonald. (I also remember that they were the first people I’d ever met who wanted takeaway coffee. Coffee in 1996 was a sedentary activity: the idea of buying a hot beverage in one place and carrying it around in order to drink it somewhere else struck me then as kind of silly). Anyway, Passing featured people who were living in a way that was untrue to their real selves. They were passing themselves off as something other: straight, happy, successful, sane, female…

The experience of older people feeling as though society no longer sees them is one Michael Foley is familiar with through his work in Age & Opportunity. He’s noticed that while some rail against it, there are only too many people who accept it, almost as a deserved fate. Mags Jensen is a railer. She is, as Susan McKay succinctly put it, ‘angrily aware of the way ageing women become invisible’. The cruelty of this unwanted disappearance into ageing was one of the reasons I wanted to write the book in the first place. It’s why I decided the person who goes missing had to be an older person, someone who is already wondering what society perceives their ‘value’ to be.

Margaret Kelleher discussed the book as being about the excess of memory. Thinking of the Jensens as a family marked by too much remembering was a new take on it to me. I had considered it as being about the absence or falling away of memories – or the flipside of that: a decisive, active, forgetting. She also read it as a book about sibling relationships, and commented on the comparative lack of novels about siblings (the gauntlet has been thrown, people). This was a theme that Kathleen MacMahon’s thoughtful piece touched on too, when she wrote that ‘the absence of any compassion between the siblings is matched only by their self-absorption.’ And of the ‘reluctant intimacy of a shared childhood’. Anita, Raymond and Elin are ‘stunted by their losses,’ as Susan McKay phrased it. For her, it became a novel about love, ‘and how we need it and how we fear it.’

The torch every reader brings shines differently, and for crime writer Andrea Carter, it became a page-turner mystery novel. For Ivana Bacik, grief became the big overarching theme of the book. Her spirited defence in favour of Anita – who I had always considered the least likeable character even as I sympathized with the deep, growling horror of her bereavement – made me consider the oldest of the Jensen siblings in a new, and kinder, light. And yes, I know that sounds daft considering I was the one who invented Anita, but that was my imagined version: she became a different person in Ivana Bacik’s imagination. To her, Raymond was ‘rather feckless and irresponsible’ and Elin revealed to be ‘mired in self-pity and self-obsession’, whereas only Anita – a woman trapped within a very active grief – is trying to take control and assume responsibility for their mother’s life.

A month later, The Heart of Everything became a book about love. A book about grief. About ageing and dementia, siblings, fear and loss. It is what is always was, but more. At the podcast recording in the Irish Writer’s Centre, three friends of mine had a conversation about the parent (two mums, one dad) they had each lost to dementia. And for that, thanks Mags.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well it’s my trumpet isn’t it?

The Heart of Everything has been doing its thing for nearly three months now. Thanks to all the reviewers and readers. Here’s a bit of what’s being said about it… *Cue tiny fanfares*

‘There is an emotional truth and authentic irresolution to the novel that will satisfy even the most cynical reader… The Heart of Everything deserves to be a popular hit,’ and ‘The Heart of Everything will keep you gripped until the final page,’ (the Sunday Business Post). Jim Lockhart on Arena, RTE Radio 1 also described it as a page-turner, Here I am talking to him about it (go to the listing for March 24th).

The Sunday Independent described it as ‘simple yet powerful’ and commented, ‘Beautifully yet simply written, fuelled by perceptive observations and raw honesty, this novel will delight fans of Anne Tyler and our own Maggie O’Farrell.’

‘Henrietta McKervey is brimming over with promise. She has wit, imagination, and an understanding of human beings, the hallmark of the true novelist,’ Éilís Ní Dhuibhne said in her Irish Times review. It is May’s Irish Times Book Club Choice. A series of articles and interviews are exploring different aspects of the book – thanks to Ivana Bacik, Andrea Carter, Ciara Considine, Michael Foley, Margaret Kelleher, Kathleen MacMahon, Susan McKay and others for their contributions – ending with a live podcast recording in the Irish Writers’ Centre on Thursday May 26th. (Tickets here.)

And my Mum loved it. So all good.

 

Irish Times Book Club

If you read only one book this month, why not join Ivana Bacik, Andrea Carter, Ciara Considine, Michael Foley, Margaret Kelleher, Kathleen MacMahon, Susan McKay and others and make it The Heart of Everything? It’s the Irish Times Book Club choice for May. Over the month there’ll be a series of articles, interviews and extracts exploring different aspects of the novel, ending with a live podcast recording in the Irish Writers’ Centre on Thursday May 26th. (Book tickets here).

book club page

There she goes… (the book, not the author)

So there we were, back in the lovely Gutter Bookshop in Temple Bar on March 16th to send The Heart of Everything off on its travels… The speechifying was beautifully done by Ciara Considine (Hachette) and Margaret Kelleher (Professor of Anglo-Irish Literature and Drama, UCD). It’s an odd notion, when a book is finished and goes out into the world alone by itself. You spend so much time noodling away with the characters by yourself and then it becomes a thing, an object that – thankfully, delightfully – people want to, well, launch.

It’s available from the Gutter and other bookshops and online and is an Eason’s Book of the Month. In a recent review ‘A memorable take on the torture of memory loss’ in the Irish Times, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne said, “Henrietta has wit, imagination, and an understanding of human beings, which are the hallmark of the true novelist”, and Frank McGuinness has described it as “A wonderful, memorable book – a tour-de-force”.

 

Decisions, decisions

10th_EBCF.pngFor an hour earlier this morning the outside world went all Springy, bright enough to make me fill the washing line (what a mistake that turned out to be) and notice the grubby handprints on the kitchen windows (I presume the rain now falling will take care of them). I know – so far, all so uninteresting.  But the brief lack of winter also made me realise how soon I’ll be packing my toothbrush and the newly-published The Heart of Everything (publ. March 3rd) to head off to the Ennis Book Club Festival. Over the first weekend in March, there’ll be talks about books, about writing, about reading. Susan Mckay, Lemn Sissay, Conal Creedon, Catriona Crowe, Ivana Bacik, Marian Keyes… I’m already struggling to figure out how much of the weekend’s programme I can fit in. I’m speaking with Evelyn Conlon about historical fiction on Saturday morning at 10am. (Not The Same Sky is her novel about three women who were among the thousands of orphaned Irish girls shipped off to Australia after the Great Famine. My novel What Becomes Of Us is set at the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising.) Booking for all events here.

“Talking to me or about me?”

The world of the book festival is new to me this year. Or rather, sitting at the top of the room looking out at the rows of faces rather than staring up towards the stage is a new experience. I’m surprised at the casualness with which I’ve approached these events as a punter in the past; never once did I stop to think that meeting some of my literary heroes in the flesh (okay, hearing them answer questions in a crowded room) rather than connecting with them through their work could be dangerous, a potentially unnerving exposure of clay feet. And yet, I can’t remember ever going to an author’s talk that turned out to be a complete dud (the opposite in fact – Kate Atkinson, David Lodge and David Sedaris were highlights, all equally memorable in very different ways).

Since What Becomes Of Us was published in April, I’ve been asked to speak or read at a number of festivals. In ‘Scribes on The Rock’ at the West Belfast Arts Festival I was the warm-up act for Marian Keyes and Stuart Carolan; I read and chatted with Marie-Louise Muir and Nuala O’Connor, author of the lovely Miss Emily at the Belfast Book Festival, and I passed my final medical exams in time to become a Book Doctor during the International Literature Festival Dublin in May. During the Dublin Festival of History I spent an evening with the Inchicore library book club and was lucky enough to hear personal family heirloom stories of the Rising.

Next up is the Dublin Book Festival and Mastering the Deal: Life After the Creative Writing MA in which fellow my UCD-ers Paula McGrath, Susan Stairs and I are in conversation with James Ryan about- well the title says it all really… There are a couple of tickets left so come and hear for yourself!

Pages from DBF2015-Programme-web

#ForgettheStigma

The Alzheimer Society of Ireland have just launched a #forgetthestigma awareness campaign. I worked with Hexibit Design on the copy for the campaign. #forgetthestigma features Helen and Kathy, who both have Alzheimer’s disease, and Sean Donal, who is a carer for his mother. Sean-DonalDementia is a progressive, degenerative illness. It is not a natural part of ageing nor exclusively something that happens in older age. Right now in Ireland 48,000 people are living with dementia. You can show your support to challenge the stigma of dementia with the ‘Learn Listen Link’ pledge at ASI.
Helen

What’s becoming of What Becomes Of Us

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Right, let’s be honest: this is a my trumpet and I’m going to blow it. Just this once. What Becomes Of Us has been on the shelves for a month.  This picture was taken in Dubray Books, Grafton Street, where I got to demo the exclusive robotic head #bookface version.

Let the trumpet-blowing commence…

“This impressive debut marks the writer out as a talent able to tell a complex story with intelligence and humour.” (Sunday Times)

‘The novel shines with intelligence and emotional insight’ (Eilis Ni Dhuibhne)

“A thoughtful, poignant and insightful novel … there’s a hint of Binchy in McKervey’s ability to tell a complex, entertaining story with intelligence and wit” (Irish Times)

“A beautifully written account of a time when women, still subjugated, were determined to fight for their rights. It’s also a story of friendship, neighbourliness, what family really means, and where it can be found … All of the characters are superbly drawn” (Irish Examiner)

“An impressive debut … There is plenty to admire and contemplate in this enjoyable portrait of Ireland’s many-layered past” (Sunday Business Post)

“An assured debut” (RTE Guide)

“Have just finished this book. I could not put it down. I found it gripping and very moving. I was particularly impressed with the account of climbing Nelson’s Pillar having done it myself when I was eleven!” (Amazon review by Gloria Carter) 

 

(And now, off to finish the next one…)