Award-winning novelist LISA McINERNEY on her favourite Irish authors, how she’d like to see the country’s writing scene develop – and why Irish literature is in better shape than ever. Portrait: Brid O’Donovan
The celebrated author discusses her favourite Irish writers.
Lisa McInerney is one of the most acclaimed Irish authors of recent times, and her superb body of work has also been racking up a hugely impressive number of awards, including the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction for her debut novel, The Glorious Heresies. McInerney’s latest effort, The Blood Miracles, is a gripping descent into the Cork criminal underworld, memorably described in one review as “Trainspotting meets Goodfellas”. In terms of her own inspirations, which Irish authors did McInerney rst read?
“I don’t know whether it was because we had a great library,” she considers, “or whether Irish ction was just as heavily promoted then as it is today, but as a kid I read a tonne of Irish writers: Tony Hickey, Yvonne MacGrory, Marita Conlon McKenna, June Considine’s Beechwood books. And then because I grew up next to Coole Park, where Lady Gregory and WB Yeats used to do their thing, we were encouraged at school to read works by and about them.
“My teachers insisted we read the autobiography Me And Nu: Childhood At Coole, by Lady Gregory’s granddaughter Anne. I don’t know if any of us got through it. I’d read it happily now for the anecdotes about Yeats being dozy, or Sean
O’Casey being a bit of a pup. That grounding in Irish literary history gave me an appreciation for the work of writing, the legitimacy of it, I suppose. It’s hard to doubt that writers can make a difference when Yeats is all around you.”
Of course, teenage and college years are pivotal to the development of personal identity. What Irish authors did McInerney read during that key time?
“When I was a teenager I read Pat McCabe and Roddy Doyle, which explains a lot,” she notes. “Roddy Doyle was great because he captured the way real Irish people spoke. He knocked the pomp out of it for me. And then Pat McCabe ummoxed me. Suddenly I was thinking, ‘How did he do that? Are you allowed to do that?’ Reading The Butcher Boy at whatever impressionable age I was, made me think about writing in a new way. I didn’t last long in college, I’m sorry to say. Probably because Pat McCabe gave me notions.”
When McInerney started blogging and writing herself, were there any particular Irish works she turned to?
“I was always writing,” she re ects. “I used to write ‘novels’ when I was tiny, with my own illustrations. When I was supposed to be studying for my Leaving I was writing. Same in UCC – I spent all my time writing. I don’t think the phrase ‘turned to’ applies. I read what I was reading already. When I started blogging, I wasn’t in college anymore, so I didn’t have any prescribed reading. I still feel I missed out on a lot with that.
“I started blogging on a council estate, with a view of an un nished green which the council kept denying was their problem. I was still reading Roddy and Pat, picking up books in the library or charity shop. Analysis on the state of the place I really got from other Irish blogs. Twenty Major, Una Mullally, Julian Gough,
Nialler9. On occasion people still tell me they love my blog. Lads, stop. I deleted it in 2011.”
Having written blogs, short stories and novels, how would Lisa compare and contrast the different disciplines?
“Blogging for me was breakneck and gonzo, published as quickly as I could manage,” she says. “All it did was teach me to write to deadline, something my editor would now tell you I’ve forgotten. I met some excellent people through it, though. I nd short stories dif cult. It’s so hard to get the details right, to time it just so. Novels are easier. You have room to get to know your characters, to bring them here and there, to play around with language or theme. In short stories, you have a responsibility to the form. Short stories intimidate me.”
What are McInerney’s opinions on the current state of Irish writing?
“It really couldn’t be any healthier, could it?
You can’t swing a cat for prizes. We’re like Man Utd in the ’90s.”
What Irish authors has Lisa been enjoying of late?
“Ah, it’s an embarrassment of riches,” she enthuses. “All of them? I recently read Rob Doyle’s latest novel, Threshold, which isn’t out till next year, and my God you’re in for it. Incredible stuff. Nicole Flattery is an untameable talent. Wendy Erskine. Ian Maleney’s essay collection is great – Minor Monuments, with Tramp Press. Kevin Barry’s forthcoming novel Night Boat To Tangier is a wonder. Danny Denton’s The Earlie
King And The Kid In Yellow is brilliant, pulsing with imagination, and it absolutely didn’t get the attention it deserved. I wish I was enjoying Gavin Corbett because it’s been four years now since the beautiful headwreck that was Green Glowing Skull.”
If you were to recommend three Irish books to someone from abroad, what would they be?
“Anna Burns’ Milkman, because it’s perfect and you’ll be a better person for having read it,” says McInerney. “Colin Barrett’s Young Skins is as good a portrait of Ireland as you’ll get, if you want to understand what makes us tick. If you’re looking for inspiration to visit, maybe don’t read Irish literary ction. We are a brutally honest lot. So maybe the seanchaí Eddie Lenihan’s Meeting
The Other Crowd, in which you’ll nd fresh-faced seminarians meeting strange ddle-playing men at crossroads at three in the morning. We have very peculiar, religion-doused folklore, much closer to horror than to Aesop.”
Does McInerney think there is one author who captures what it means to be Irish in their writing?
“You’d have to make some unholy writing monster to cover all the facets of life on this
“Roddy Doyle was great because he captured the way real Irish people spoke.”
rock,” she responds. “And even then, we’d be missing bits: we need more Irish writers of colour, Traveller voices, writers from immigrant or direct provision backgrounds, writers from outside of the university culture. More working-class women! If there was one writer who captured all that it means to be Irish, I think that’d be a shocking indictment of Irishness. We’re more complex and contrary than that.”
If you are away and feeling lonely, what book would you read to give you a sense of Ireland?
“Maybe Notes From A Coma by Mike McCormack. Speculative ction to make someone homesick for small town Ireland. How did he do that? It’s such an evocative novel.”
For McInerney, what traits does Irish writing possess that distinguishes it from others?
“There’s a lack of manners that I
nd exhilarating,” she enthuses. “An unpredictability. A willingness to play around with form, to break rules when necessary. An inability to take anything too seriously for too long. And a warmth for character and landscape, a real love of the country, despite its aws, that tends to shine through even when we’re excoriating the place.”
What changes would you like to see in Irish writing over the next ve-ten years?
“I’d like to see more diversity,” says Lisa. “I think editors are keen to hear from writers and communities they haven’t heard from before, and not as a box-ticking exercise. Editors want to be surprised and delighted. Writers who think they can deliver that, whatever background they have, should get their work in. Submit to literary journals. Come to readings and book launches. Apply for workshops, prizes, grants, bursaries.
Join writers’ groups. Make a space for yourself. That’s all. We’re in impressive shape, and there’s still something in the blood that makes us mad for the tall tales and mad to play with language.
May we never make a hames of it.”
• Lisa has contributed to the collections Being Various (Faber) and Common People (Unbound). She is appearing at the It Takes A Village Festival in Trabolgan on May 11 and the Belfast Book Festival on June 15. Blood Miracles (John Murray) is in all good book shops.
Anna Burns and (inset) her novel Milkman