“This book is a love letter to my mother,” says Gavin McCrea via Zoom from Berlin, where he is currently teaching, “which doesn’t mean it would be easy for her to read.”
That’s for sure. The book is Cells: Memories for My Mother, a memoir which is structured around the time he returned to live with her during Covid lockdown. And he is uncompromising in the book about the irritations this brings him: how she interrupts his work all the time, how he tells her off, how she annoys him with repeated questions. (His mother in the book appears to be in the early stages of dementia.)
He is maddened by her, but he loves her. And I suppose we are all like that, but 44-year-old McCrea is just being more honest about it. And when I say to him that he presents himself in an unvarnished way too, he is pleased. “That’s the hope.”
Can he describe his mother for those who haven’t read the book? He hesitates. “She would have been considered, when I was growing up in the Eighties, quite an eccentric. She’s a highly intelligent woman who was never educated, and therefore educated herself in literature. She doesn’t read trash, she doesn’t have a television, she goes to see art-house films.”
How much are you like her? “I’m very like her. Which is not always conducive to a good relationship.”
McCrea is the author of two novels, Mrs Engels (2015) and The Sisters Mao (2021), which came slowly, but this book “came so quickly and so freely”, he says. “It took less than a year.” In a sense, he says, it came quickly because “I’ve been writing it since I was nine years old”.
‘No one, ever, in 12 years, intervened in any verbal or physical attack that I underwent. Teacher or student. Not once’
It was around this age that McCrea first experienced “relentless, daily homophobic abuse” in school which lasted until his early 20s. In Cells he reports his anger not just at the school but at his parents for sending him there.
Did he have no support network in school, I ask, even a group of friends? He answers slowly, deliberately. “No one, ever, in 12 years, intervened in any verbal or physical attack that I underwent. Teacher or student. Not once.” That seems extraordinary, I say. “No family member, no teacher, no friend. Zero.”
‘Very, very difficult’
It is this lack of help, he says, rather than the “transitory” attacks themselves, that constitute “a trauma that I’m still dealing with every day. It’s very, very difficult to get past.”
In fact, the idea for this book first came to McCrea when he had recently returned to Ireland in 2020 having spent two decades abroad, and almost immediately suffered another homophobic attack at the hands of a group of youths. Did he experience this differently from the previous attacks?
“It was like night and day,” he says. “It was like my experience from before had been overturned. The violence was identical, [but] the response was overwhelming in its support. Letters, radio programmes, family, friends, just 100 per cent unambiguous support.”
Writing about these things too, of course, can be daunting – exposing one’s inner fear and feelings to the public gaze. “A friend asked me, was it fearlessness or bravery? And I didn’t quite understand. And I thought about it, and I think it’s actually fearlessness. The fear wasn’t there. And now I’m told I’m being brave.”
‘I didn’t show it to any family members or friends in advance,’ he says firmly. ‘Art is not a negotiation’
Maybe, I suggest, they meant there’s a difference between writing it and publishing it – putting your trauma and your family in the public eye. The book, for example, deals not just with McCrea’s mother but his brother, referred to as N, who abuses drugs and has severe mental health problems. At one point in the book, his sister, talking about N and the family’s past, tells McCrea: “I would rather it stayed out of the public domain.”
Did he, I ask, show the book to any of the family members who feature in it? “I didn’t show it to any family members or friends in advance,” he says firmly. “Art is not a negotiation.”
You don’t have any qualms about writing about your brother’s mental illness? “No. No.”
Why not? “I just don’t feel any qualms about doing that. The result speaks for itself.”
Hmm. Okay. End of that discussion. McCrea is clearly a serious writer who doesn’t see the need to compromise on his work, even where it reveals painful facts about those close to him. (Though when I ask him how his mother is, he seems to take a different view. “She’ll probably read this so I’m not sure I should talk about her dementia now. But she is, I would say, good. A trouper.”)
‘I realised very quickly after getting the [HIV] diagnosis that I wasn’t going back in the closet again. Or if I was staying with friends, I wasn’t going to go into another room to take my medication’
Perhaps the most compelling section of Cells is where McCrea describes the discovery of his HIV diagnosis in 2014, his confusion and his conflict with his then partner, Y, who was the only person he could have contracted it from.
HIV today is fully treatable: “You’re going to lead a normal life,” the doctors tell him in the book. Has the stigma entirely gone, I ask? “I can only speak from my experience,” he says. “I realised very quickly after getting the diagnosis that I wasn’t going back in the closet again. Or if I was staying with friends, I wasn’t going to go into another room to take my medication. When I was working through the diagnosis, I realised that if I had diabetes, would I tell my mother, if I had arthritis, would I tell my mother? Yes, yes, yes. So by opening up to my mother about this, I found freedom, and there’s no one in the world who can’t know about it.”
All of this – the diagnosis, the homophobic abuse, the family trauma – makes Cells a difficult book to read at times, due to its rawness. There are things in it, as McCrea puts it, that he is still traumatised by.
As we speak, he appears composed, fresh, well-lit on my screen, dressed in white and with art prints neatly pinned to the white walls behind him. But, I ask him before we go, I can see tattoos peeking out from his sleeves, a glimpse of something hidden beneath the clean surface. Is there a story behind those?
“There’s always a story, isn’t there?” he laughs. He was living in “a sort of hippy place” in Ibiza in his early 30s, when he encountered a “Chilean guy” who did tattoos. “And I saw his work. I’d never considered getting a tattoo. And I said, actually, I think I want one of those.
“And I gave him my arm. It took him five days to fill this arm. And it was the worst, most painful, most traumatic, awful, terrible experience. I screamed! I shouted! I called him a c***.
“He said I was an extremely unusual client because my arm was completely limp. But the rest of my body was convulsing, cursing, I mean, of the most vicious kind.
“And at the end, he said, you know, Gavin, none of that pain was related to the needle in your arm.” And, after reading Cells and our conversation today, I believe him.