‘WOMEN WRITERS ARE TREATED LIKE MISTRESSES’
Novelist Kathleen MacMahon lays out the hard lessons she has learned, both professionally and personally, from her decade-long writing career
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.’