Nov­el­ist Kathleen MacMa­hon lays out the hard lessons she has learned, both pro­fes­sion­ally and per­son­ally, from her decade-long writ­ing ca­reer

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - 6 | BOOKS -

hor­rific.” She had thrown too much into the book, “like mak­ing a meal us­ing ev­ery­thing in the fridge”.

“It wasn’t co­her­ent,” says MacMa­hon, who is the grand­daugh­ter of the cel­e­brated writer Mary Lavin, with all the pres­sure that fol­lows such literary pedi­gree. “It takes a long time to get skilled at this. It’s a craft. The learn­ing is im­mense. It takes time and you have to make mis­takes.”

She thinks writ­ers should un­der­stand that in pub­lish­ing “no­body else shares your in­ter­ests”. She learned this the hard way. “My in­ter­ests are dif­fer­ent to the pub­lisher . . . I want to write a good book and not lose my mind in the process.”

She does ad­mit to “hypocrisy” in some of this think­ing. “I did take the money, I was glad to take the money but I don’t care if the book sells. The only thing I want is to write a bet­ter book next time.”

In the end, she wrote The Long Hot Sum­mer, her sec­ond novel, in three months. Did she feel un­der pres­sure re­gard­ing sales, I won­der? I’m think­ing, es­pe­cially, of the huge ad­vance.

“I didn’t care about that in the slight­est.”

A one-book deal

Ten years later MacMa­hon seems to be in a very dif­fer­ent place with her writ­ing. She wrote Noth­ing But Blue Sky with­out a pub­lisher. She told her agent she only wanted a one-book deal. “I didn’t want to go through that again,” she says.

The novel is about death and grief and what hap­pens to those who are left be­hind. In the last decade, McMa­hon’s mum Valdi died, fol­lowed by her aunt Caro­line Walsh, the for­mer literary edi­tor of this news­pa­per, and three of her close friends died of can­cer, all leav­ing chil­dren be­hind. “So five of the women in my life, and it does seem to be the women, died long be­fore their time, so that was very much some­thing on my mind.”

The book is not about them but about “where do we find a peace with it and get on with our lives?”

“Two things hap­pen when some­body dies,” she ex­pands. “One, the world ends but, two, the world doesn’t end. And it’s the world not end­ing that’s the re­ally hard bit, you know . . . there are so many in­ter­est­ing, com­plex things that hap­pen there. And so I re­ally wanted to write a book about death and be­reave­ment. Like, in a way, how un­fair it is that the per­son who’s gone gets so much at­ten­tion, be­cause the peo­ple who are left are im­por­tant too. And the per­son who’s gone takes on this huge, out­sized im­por­tance, like a statue.

“That has always seemed a bit un­fair to me . . . I’m puz­zling in my own head over how much of a fuss we should make about some­body dy­ing.But of course it seems like such a catas­tro­phe and ev­ery­thing should stop and no­body should be happy again, but then again you don’t keep an empty place at the ta­ble.

“I wanted to ex­plore those ques­tions. Life does go on and hap­pi­ness does en­ter the equa­tion again.”

There’s an awk­ward mo­ment when I tell her I re­ally did not like the cen­tral char­ac­ter in the book, a jour­nal­ist called David with a dif­fi­cult fam­ily back­ground who doesn’t like brunch, theatre or fat peo­ple. He’s ar­ro­gant, I say.

MacMa­hon smiles. “I’m always amazed how peo­ple don’t like him . . . he’s like me, I ac­tu­ally toned him down from me.” We both laugh. He’s not ex­actly lik­able, I say, some­thing she does not set much store by. “Lik­able is the most hideous con­cept in a novel, the last ad­jec­tive that should be used about a char­ac­ter. Nice­ness is re­ally over­rated.”

The novel is set in Spain, in a vil­lage in­spired by the one MacMa­hon and her fam­ily spend time in each year. David is re­flect­ing back on his re­la­tion­ship, see­ing things through a more truth­ful, painful prism, on his first hol­i­day alone in what for years was his and his dead wife Mary Rose’s spe­cial place. The book is about death but also about mar­riage, which MacMa­hon says is the ul­ti­mate topic for a nov­el­ist.

Why? “Be­cause it’s the tallest f**king or­der . . . that two peo­ple, over time, over all the changes in their lives, would sleep in the same bed and wake up ev­ery morn­ing and talk to each other. The idea that any­body can do it is amaz­ing to me and I’m talk­ing as some­body who, I think, is in a happy mar­riage.”

While she strug­gled, as many did, with “ex­is­ten­tial dread” dur­ing lock­down, MacMa­hon seems con­tent to be grow­ing older, sur­rounded by fam­ily, sewing face masks, sea-swim­ming and of course writ­ing and dream­ing and mas­ter­ing her craft.

“You un­der­stand things bet­ter as you age, and you let go of all the stupid stuff,” she says. “I re­mem­ber on hol­i­day in Spain two years ago, watch­ing a young girl get­ting into the wa­ter in her bikini. And she looked so beau­ti­ful. I’d say she was 22, she looked like she was in love. The boyfriend was watch­ing her from the beach. She was minc­ing her way to the wa­ter in this tiny bikini.

“And for the first time in my life, I’m not jeal­ous. I’m not ad­mir­ing the bikini. I’m sit­ting here just think­ing what a de­light to watch her. And that’s the lovely thing about get­ting older: it’s not about you any­more.”

Noth­ing But Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMa­hon is pub­lished by Pen­guin Sandy­cove


I’d pre­fer to be an equal pro­fes­sional at the ta­ble. Ev­ery­body is do­ing a dif­fer­ent job. You do your job and I’ll do mine. I sound harsh but I think it ac­tu­ally makes me bet­ter to work with . . . I am not try­ing to make friends with any­body


Kathleen MacMa­hon: ‘It takes a long time to get skilled at this. It’s a craft. The learn­ing is im­mense. It takes time and you have to make mis­takes.’

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