“Can you see me?” asks Noelle McCarthy. We’re talking over Zoom – she, in her office in New Zealand, where it’s night-time, and winter; me, in my office in Dublin, where it’s morning, and summer. On screen, her face emerges glowing from the shadows. “I have a very harsh overhead light in this room,” she explains. “I was just experimenting with trying to make it more ambient. I might have gone too far.”
I can see her perfectly, but all this talk of light and dark seems an apt starting point for our conversation. McCarthy’s debut memoir, Grand: Becoming My Mother’s Daughter, artfully turns the dial between the two, moving through her early life in Cork, her emigration to New Zealand (where she is a prominent journalist and podcaster), her alcohol addiction and recovery, and most saliently, her fervent, complicated relationship with her mother, Caroline.
“I can’t overstate how much [Grand] wasn’t a book to begin with,” McCarthy says. “It was just a collection of scenes, really. I started writing those scenes towards the end of 2019, around the time my mother had been diagnosed with lung cancer.”
I think one of the most fruitful sources of irony for me in considering my relationship with my mum was the extent to which my assessment of her was so harsh
McCarthy’s husband – journalist, writer and former New Zealand rugby player John Daniell – had always encouraged her to “write about family … which I was very resistant to”. But the words kept coming. She submitted a piece of short memoir to the Fish Publishing international writing prize and went on to win. Much of that piece would end up in Grand.
It was Daniell who, when presented with an early draft, told her: “This is a story about your mum. And it’s a story about you and your mum.”
The relationship between Noelle and Caroline (or Carol, as she was known) had never been idyllic. A formidable Kerry woman with her own troubled relationship to alcohol, Carol played a peerless antagonist in her daughter’s life. The pair would literally tear each other’s hair out, go weeks without speaking and leave passive aggressive notes around their home in Hollymount. Even after Noelle grew up and emigrated, their relationship remained fraught. “You came out of me,” her mother used to scream, a refrain that rings through the book, as McCarthy tries to understand their inextricable, charged bond and the source from whence she came.
“I think one of the most fruitful sources of irony for me in considering my relationship with my mum was the extent to which my assessment of her was so harsh,” she says.
“Especially as a teenager, as a young woman. And then again when she became sick. I was frustrated. I was angry.”
Carol died in March 2020. The book captures vividly McCarthy’s experience of returning to her mother’s bedside in those dying days; the absurdity and heartbreak; the incongruity of life versus narrative.
“The ideal scenario, I gather, is for Mammy to die some evening before the 8pm deadline of the local paper,” McCarthy writes. Instead, she goes on living, and McCarthy must say her last goodbyes to a fully conscious Carol, before boarding a flight to New Zealand. Covid is beginning to spread. Lockdown is imminent. Her young daughter and husband are on the other side of the planet.
“I think I’m part of that generation now – it’s probably a shared experience – who has gone to the funeral or the requiem of a loved one on Zoom,” McCarthy says. “That is a very discombobulating and surreal experience. I was reading that piece of the book again and just thinking, God, I did that. That is very strange ... I’ll be going back to Ireland in a couple of weeks, and that’s the first time I’ll have been there since she died ... I have a degree of trepidation about that, because I don’t know what it’s going to be like.”
Releasing the book here also has uncertainties attached.
“There is that level of anxiety, I think, writing about a place from a distance ... I was most worried about the language. I was terrified I’d put words into someone’s mouth that no Irish person would ever say ... I used to ring my sister and just [think] keep talking, keep talking.”
The book is as unflinching about McCarthy’s own life as it is about her relationship with her mother. It takes us through her school days and adolescent angst, her enduring obsession with Bram Stoker’s Dracula, her relationships with boyfriends, her first taste of alcohol and eventual reliance on drink as a crutch. When she moved to Auckland, McCarthy was “an early 2000s party girl”. She had a public profile, and somehow juggled a demanding media career with intensive drinking bouts. All of which comes to a head in the book with a case involving accusations of plagiarism and a realisation one day that she can’t schedule a meeting because “there’s no morning next week that I’m not going to be hungover”.
Grand logs with a deft touch the horror, shame and tedium of addiction, as well as the more quiet endeavour of recovery. Was it difficult to be so open on the page?
“There’s a saying in AA which is: you can’t save your face and your ass at the same time. I think that applies to memoir too,” she says. “The person I owe the most to is the reader ... And my favourite stories, you know, there’s candour in there. You have to be honest. You have to say: this is how it is. Because I know when someone’s trying to pull the wool over my eyes and trying to make themselves look good. And that’s death in memoir.”
As a journalist, McCarthy has interviewed everyone from James Cameron to Margaret Atwood, but being on the other side of the interviewer’s chair, since her book came out in New Zealand last year, has brought interesting insights.
“My favourite thing about the book, since it’s come out, has been [that] when people come up to me and talk to me about it, they don’t talk to me about my mother, they talk to me about their mothers ... And I love that because it means I’m just getting out of the way. You can see yourself in there, even if it is a bit extreme in places.”
Grand is not just a book about her relationship with her mother, but a book about being a mother. From the tragic experiences her grandmothers went through, to the experience of giving birth to her first child, the idea of “what you inherit and what you pass on” is “a very organising principle in this book”, she says.
All of that gave me a very physical understanding of what my mother had experienced with those first children
McCarthy’s daughter, Eve Alexandra Hero Daniell, was born in 2017. Her entry into the world changed McCarthy’s relationship with her mother for the better.
“For me, having my daughter, and my mother becoming a grandmother, was a huge shift in our relationship. And it only struck me afterwards. Because we’d flown into Dublin, and we got the train down to Cork. And my mother was waiting at the train station, you know, with balloons and all of it.”
This would no doubt be a special moment for most families, but it had specific, and poignant, resonance for McCarthy. Early in the book, we are told she has two older siblings she never met. “My mother had Tara and Jonathan before she was married, which makes them illegitimate,” she writes. “Tara ... was adopted in Dublin. Jonathan died soon after he was born.”
Seeing her mother on the platform with balloons didn’t immediately strike her as significant, but in the book she writes of Carol “coming down on that train from Dublin, her arms empty”.
“It was only afterwards I thought about the train to Dublin, and the baby,” she says. “And I’d had a baby in my arms, you know, the whole way down. And I knew the weight of it. Like, the physical weight of it, and what that felt like.”
McCarthy says that writing the book was an enriching experience in many ways – “I enjoyed it much more than it probably seems in parts” – but “the bits that I really found intense were the bits around what it would have been like for her with her daughter, with her first baby, giving her up”.
The experience of pregnancy also opened up a sense of what her mother had gone through. “You know, realising I was sharing my body with another being, and then that visceral nature of birth – all of that gave me a very physical understanding of what my mother had experienced with those first children.”
This window into her mother’s wounded past tells, in many ways, the story of a wounded Ireland – Carol’s story is one shared by many women in this country. But the book stays deliberately close to its central subjects.
“I felt like focusing on my mother and focusing on her story and the bits of it that I knew in relation to me and my life: that’s the insight that I have. That’s the only thing that I could offer. And that was what I wanted to write.”
Does she think her daughter will ever read the book?
“I don’t know. I was thinking about this the other day ... She went to school, and I realised she was taller than she had been the day before ... And I just thought, Oh, God, there will be a time when she will be a teenager and she may look at me with those narrowed eyes that I would look at my mother with.”
She hopes that Eve will understand that “she’s a kind of a shining light in there”.
“That’s something I just have to think about. I’ve written that book, you know. I’ve written the book. I don’t want to take it back. I don’t want to take it out of the world.”
Grand: Becoming My Mother’s Daughter is published by Sandycove on June 15th