Belinda McKeon: Keeping reality in check
Her new novel, ‘Tender’, is ‘autobiographical at its core’. But the Irish author, now based in New York, would rather readers focus on the fiction than dig for links with real life
Belinda McKeon: Tender crackles with bitchy observations and sarcastic asides. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Halfway through Belinda McKeon’s new novel I get a bit of a jolt when I meet my sister’s ex, large as life, striding across the cobblestones of Front Square at Trinity College Dublin. I know it’s fiction. But for one thrilling, slightly shocking moment I’m certain it’s the same guy.
As we talk over coffee I ask McKeon whether that small but perfectly formed cameo in Tender makes a sly reference to a real person. A friend of hers, maybe? Or an enemy?
She shakes her head. “These characters just kind of push their way up to the surface of something when you’re working on it. I was going to say they’re composites, but they’re not even composites. They’re the kind of characters that the situations demand. You don’t consciously say, ‘I’ll take a bit of that person and a bit of that person.’ They arrive like that. And so it probably seems coy, but it’s not a real person.”
The question is particularly relevant to Tender because the novel is, according to McKeon, “autobiographical at its core”. The storyline is as follows. Catherine and James are great friends. She visits his family in the midlands; he crashes out in her flat on Baggot Street. They talk for hours – joking, slagging, arguing, developing a sassy private shorthand from which the rest of the world is excluded. She is a student at Trinity. He is a photographer’s assistant. They drink and dance and go to galleries. They have loads of friends. It’s an idyll.
But something is slightly off. The book begins with Catherine waking up after taking a nap on the lawn at James’s rural home. The day is drenched in sunshine and roses and lemonade; Catherine, however, has dreamed of “apples, bruising and shrivelling and rotting into the ground”. And “the flank of an animal, rubbing against a bedroom wall – though that could not be right, could it?”
From this uneasy opening Tender maintains an intense focus on its two central characters as it becomes clear that their relationship is not as straightforward as it seems. If this were a film Catherine, in particular, would never be out of shot. “Well, it’s about obsession,” says McKeon. “I wanted to follow that, even if it got really unpleasant. Even if it was pulling up aspects of her character that were not nice, and not okay. I’m drawn to that as a reader as well – that very tight, close, third-person kind of narrative. Getting into the texture of somebody’s head, and their consciousness.”
It may sound suffocating, and occasionally it is. But throughout its 400-plus pages Tender also crackles with bitchy observations and sarcastic asides. There’s a hilarious scene in which Catherine, working as a fledgling journalist for a college newspaper, struggles to interview a famous Irish writer. “That interview took place over there, on that couch,” says McKeon, nodding at the table behind us.
In some alarm I turn to look over my shoulder, and I am relieved to find the seat unoccupied. The famous Irish writer in Tender is a former butcher whose novels are endowed with such titles as Cunningham and Engines of Everything. He gives languid, monosyllabic answers to Catherine’s increasingly desperate babblings – and will, no doubt, provide endless hours of entertainment after the book is published, as people scramble to put a real-life name to the fictional Michael Doonan.
“It comes naturally. That’s probably a bad thing,” McKeon says of her penchant for gossip and satire. “Or maybe it’s just a natural relief from the close-up. It’s also the way people in Ireland talk to each other. And there’s a reason why we talk to each other like that. It has a social function, or it’s relaxing, or it’s a way for people to circle one another or to have a conversation that’s about something else while appearing to be just a bit of fun. Everybody in the book is very talkative. There aren’t very many reticent people – but at the same time there are deep silences at the heart of the way they talk to each other, and what they talk about.”
The closing section of the book takes place in New York, where McKeon delights in bursting the bubble of puffed-up pretentiousness that is the visual-arts scene. The novel’s movement from midlands farm to Big Apple mirrors that of the author herself; born in Longford, McKeon studied English and philosophy at Trinity, did an M Litt at UCD, then went to New York to do a master’s in creative writing at Columbia University, and stayed. (Before she left Ireland she also wrote regularly about arts and culture for The Irish Times.)
Shock of relocation
Before she moved to New York, she says, she was “fiddling away” at a novel. It took the shock of relocation to force her to get down to some serious fiction-writing. “MFA programmes are famously competitive,” she says. “Everybody wants to get published. Everybody is very smart. It made me want to up my game a bit, because you’re giving your work in progress to these people. On the other hand, you’re there for two years and you’re just there to write.”
In 2011 McKeon produced her debut novel, Solace, a story of family values and divided loyalties in pre-recession Ireland that won the Geoffrey Faber Prize and the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book of the Year award. Although still set mostly in Ireland, her second book is, she says, a very different literary proposition.
“I never really think about novels in terms of setting,” she explains. “For me it’s more the mood and the tone. What I mean to say is that the language of the book is different for being away for that length of time. It’s funny. It has taken me this long to write anything set in New York. It didn’t come naturally for a number of years. Living there, it just didn’t appear in my work at all. I think I will be setting more work there because now it’s coming without being forced. This is the book that has come out of being out of Ireland for 10 years, and reading and thinking about things in a different way.”
Both Solace and Tender feature mammoth drinking sessions and flamboyant social lives, so it’s surprising to hear McKeon describe life in New York, where she teaches fiction at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, as pretty quiet. “I live there in part because I’m able to write there,” she says. She doesn’t expect us to believe that, surely? “No,” she says, with a wry smile. “Nobody ever does believe it.”
Does she want to talk about the autobiographical incident that inspired Tender? “No,” she says. “Because through writing the novel it all happened for me. Some parts are purely fictional, but there’s no part that’s purely autobiographical – no scene or conversation. I can look at it now and not pick it apart in terms of knowing what happened and what didn’t. There are different layers of the autobiographical and the imagined.
“The boundary between what really happens in a life and what you imagine is much more fluid than I used to think – and I’ve become much more interested in writing which explores that.”
And if nosy Irish readers get to work on her book with their picks and shovels, digging in search of revelations and real people? McKeon laughs. She knows us well.
“They can be as nosy as they want.”
Tender is published by Picador