Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Irish Fiction Month Interview: Catherine Dunne

Today's interview guest is Catherine Dunne who is the latest author to agree to an interview as part of my Irish Fiction feature month.  I've read several of Catherine's books in the past although I have to confess I haven't read any of her books in recent years but I do like the sound of her latest book, The Things We Know Now, which has just been published.

Why do think Irish Fiction has become so popular worldwide?
I don’t think that there is any one, single answer to that. I do believe, though, that we are a nation of talkers and storytellers. I think that making stories is often the refuge of the colonized.

The 1980’s and 90’s brought about a new flowering of writing from Ireland, though: a highly-educated generation with a new self-confidence that burst upon the world stage.

But fashion also has something to do with it, too. Latin American writing, Irish writing, Indian writing: these have all enjoyed huge waves of popularity in the recent decades.

What they all have in common is the ability to tell a compelling story with insight and empathy, and, of course, to do so with writing that is honed and finely-crafted.

Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?
Yes, I think so. I remember when I was a teenager, a much older boyfriend asking me, more or less, what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was somewhat insulted at the question because, of course, I already regarded myself as a grown-up! Without thinking, though, I said ‘a writer’. The reply surprised even me: this was not something a teenage girl would have aspired to in the Ireland of the 1970’s – or if she did, she’d have the sense to keep quiet about it.

But as he was English, and older, it seemed safe to voice that ambition – safe in a way it would never have been at home.

Writing was always a central part of my life. I was a voracious reader as a child and I was always writing and making up stories in my head. I thought that reading and writing were one and the same activity: if you loved one, you automatically did the other.

I was a much older child, just finishing primary school, when it finally dawned on me that they were two separate activities.

But by then I was hooked anyway.

Do you have a set daily writing routine?
Pretty much, in that I try to write every day, even if only a little. Writing is like a muscle: it needs to be exercised. And writing novels is demanding. It’s a bit like being in constant training for a marathon.

Some days, other things intervene and it’s impossible to be at the desk for as long as I’d wish, but I celebrate the flexibility that comes with the writer’s life, too.

On the good writing days, I don’t notice the time passing – I can spend hours unaware that, for example, a whole afternoon has just come and gone.

On the bad days, even housework seems attractive.

Which of the characters that you’ve created is your favourite?
Like any good parent, I don’t have favourites among my children. I will say, though, that the character of Vincent Farrell, the anti-hero of my second novel A NAME FOR HIMSELF, holds a special place within my heart.

This is because he was born after I had completed my first novel, and was terrified that I was a ‘one-trick pony’, that I’d never write another book.

I promised myself that if I managed to write a second novel, different in every way from the first, then I’d have the permission to regard myself as a real writer.

Farrell and I went on a very dark journey together and he convinced me that I could do it.

He was also responsible, I believe, for that novel being short-listed for the Kerry Fiction Prize. I am forever grateful to him for that, and for what he taught me along the way.

Would you say that any of your characters are like you? If so, which one(s)?
Ah – the ‘autobiography question’!

I am the person with the pen, the notebook and the keyboard. In one sense, all writing is autobiographical – and none is.

All writing springs from the writer’s imagination: therefore it is intimately connected with the subconscious, the writer’s layers of experience, the deepest recesses of the writer’s personality.

Asking if characters are ‘like me’ means, I think, to ask whether certain dramatic events that occur in the novels have also occurred to me. No, not necessarily. And even if they had, they would be transformed so radically through the processes of fiction that they would be unrecognizable.

Happily, I sit firmly behind my keyboard and create my imaginary universes, peopled with imaginary characters.

Have you ever had writer’s block?
Yes – but not something that lasted for months or even weeks on end.

I think that the daily routine forces words onto the page, and that is crucial to the writing process: tackling the almost impossible first draft. What is already there can be changed and made better, used as a starting point.

To be ‘blocked’ means, to me, not being able to come to grips with a first draft, that the ability to write appears to have dried up. I don’t believe it has anything to do with lacking inspiration though – inspiration is such a tiny part of any novel, any story, that feeling uninspired is not a good enough reason not to face the blank screen.

Which Irish authors, if any, inspired you to become a writer?
At the time I was flexing my writing muscle, I’d spent a few months in Canada, where I came across, for the first time, Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields and Alice Munro. They were a revelation – and my immersion in their work that summer was due to the excellence of the Canadian public library system.

When you’ve finished writing a book, do you treat yourself to a reward?
It’s a very strange thing, but normally a short period of sadness, or depression follows the completion of a manuscript. And a profound tiredness. The reward is a week away from the desk: but what often happens is, after a few days, I start to get twitchy and need to start writing again.

But until that happens, the first few days are bliss, nevertheless: usually spent reading in bed...

What was the first book by an Irish author that you can recall reading?
I remember ‘The Turf-cutter’s Donkey’ and ‘The Bookshop on the Quay’ by the Irish children’s author, Patricia Lynch. I devoured them.

The vividness of that experience is a reminder of how powerful a gift reading is, and how much children need to have it – either by being read to, or by reading themselves. Ideally, both.


Can you tell us a little bit about your current book?
My new novel, THE THINGS WE KNOW NOW is the story of a family in crisis. It deals with what happens when the worst possible tragedy befalls two loving, caring parents. They lose their child in circumstances that are horrific, sudden and apparently inexplicable. The novel follows this family, in particular the father, Patrick, as he tries to piece together the events which have led to the catastrophic loss of his son, Daniel.

My starting point for this narrative, as with all my novels, is character. I am interested in people, how they interact, how the family survives. My focus, as always, is on relationships. And that is why there are so many voices in this novel: each character has a different relationship with Daniel, and so each can provide us with a new insight into his struggles and his challenges.

Can you describe your latest book in 20 words or less?
A divided family struggles to deal with loss, finding love and forgiveness in the process.

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