A Q&A with Henrietta McKervey
‘I’m proudest of the very last chapter of The Heart of Everything. I didn’t know it was going to be that way until it was’
Henrietta McKervey: Plenty of the YA that’s out there now would have been very useful when I was young! My formative years were spent in the company of PG Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. Great fun, but not necessarily good preparation for life!
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, one of the first books I remember reading by myself.
What was your favourite book as a child?
A Question of Courage by Marjorie Darke. It’s a coming-of-age suffragette book, I just loved it. I haven’t read it in years but I reckon Tess in What Becomes Of Us owes it a debt!
And what is your favourite book or books now?
I’m having a bit of an Iris Murdoch thing at the moment. Right now I’m reading The Red and the Green.
What is your favourite quotation?
PG Wodehouse’s 1926 dedication in The Heart of a Goof: “To my daughter Leonora without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.” By summing up so sweetly what he felt about her, it also sums up what I feel about his writing.
Who is your favourite fictional character?
Ruby Lennox in Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Also, Tigger.
Who is the most under-rated Irish author?
Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?
What is the most beautiful book you own?
A Folio Society copy of Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas. Technically I don’t own it, it’s my Dad’s. I “borrowed” some of his Folios years ago and never seem to remember to return them… A few years ago I bought a copy of The Fir Tree by Hans Christian Anderson illustrated by Sanna Annukka which is just gorgeous.
Where and how do you write?
I have a little study at home. It’s small, which I like. It looks out over the street, which I don’t like because I stare out the window all the time. The neighbours must think I’m spying on them. (I often am.)
What book changed the way you think about fiction?
Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams. It is so skilful, the way the characters are both real and unreal. I’ve read it lots of times and I always pick up something slightly different each time. Therapy by David Lodge is so technically assured too, it made me think about structure and how the craft of a book rather than the plot can be used to wrong-foot the reader.
What is the most research you have done for a book?
What Becomes Of Us was set in 1916 and 1966, and a character in it also spoke about what happened to her between 1906 and 1910. That was a lot of research, though they are such interesting periods that it was no hardship to do it.
What book influenced you the most?
The Art of Fiction by David Lodge.
What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?
If This Is A Man by Primo Levi.
What book do you wish you had read when you were young?
Lots: plenty of the YA that’s out there now would have been very useful! My formative years were spent in the company of PG Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. Great fun, but not necessarily good preparation for life!
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Put words on the page, one after the other. If it makes you happy, keep doing it. And read, lots.
What weight do you give reviews?
I’d love to say none but it would be a lie. Although I may or may not agree with the comments, I think they matter because people make decisions based on them. I’ve bought (and not bought) books based on reviews, so I assume other people do too.
Where do you see the publishing industry going?
Print isn’t dead; digital isn’t dead. Turns out there’s space for everyone.
What writing trends have struck you lately?
In Ireland, very voice-led fiction generally, and lots of great new writing by women.
What lessons have you learned about life from reading?
All the wrong ones.
What has being a writer taught you?
You have to keep on putting one word in front of another. And it doesn’t get any easier.
Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Jessica Mitford, Mary Shelley, PG Wodehouse, Seamus Heaney, Maeve Binchy, Eddie Braben (Morecambe & Wise writer).
What is the funniest scene you’ve read?
Most things by Eddie Braben.
What is your favourite word?
If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?
A few years ago I came across a newspaper report from 1839 about a man who’d killed himself in a Lambeth shooting gallery. He had been touting himself around London trying to extort money from alleged relatives by claiming to be the Irish son of a peer. I often think about him.
What sentence or passage or book are you proudest of?
The very last chapter of The Heart of Everything. I didn’t know it was going to be that way until it was.
What is the most moving book or passage you have read?
That scene in A Handful of Dust when John Andrew dies and his mother Brenda is relieved that it’s not John Beaver! That and the very last scene, where we finally understand what is happening to Tony Last.
If you have a child, what book did you most enjoy reading to them?
The Highway Rat by Julia Donaldson. I remember the poem it’s based on – The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes – from school. I prefer her storyline, though.
Henrietta McKervey’s first novel What Becomes Of Us (Hachette Books Ireland, 2015) is the story of a young woman and her life-changing encounter with a former member of Cumann na mBan who for 50 years kept secret her involvement in the 1916 Rising. Her second, The Heart of Everything, the story of the estranged adult children forced back together when their mother mysteriously disappears, was published in March. Winner of a Hennessy First Fiction Award and the inaugural UCD Maeve Binchy Travel Award, Henrietta was born in Belfast and now lives in Dublin