Christine Dwyer Hickey Q&A: my influences, from Mrs Dalloway to Janice Galloway

‘There is no better way to appreciate another culture or to begin to understand the lives of others than through a well-written novel’

Christine Dwyer Hickey: Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway “inspired me to approach my work as follows: take a character, place the camera inside his or her head, switch on the sound and lower them down into a city, then let them off and see what happens…” Photograph: Lorna Fitzsimons


What was the first book to make an impression on you?

Probably the Irish Racing Form Book as my father always had his nose in it and I kept nagging him to read it to me which he eventually did – what a convoluted let-down that turned out to be!

What was your favourite book as a child?

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I believed it completely, so much so in fact, that I did myself an injury trying to lift a manhole in our back garden. I knew Alice was down there and know she’s down there still.

And what is your favourite book or books now?

Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway have remained close to my heart over the years. Otherwise I’m quite fickle; at the moment it’s Harvest by Jim Crace which was winner of this year’s Impac prize. As the Irish judge on the panel, I had to give it three thorough readings and found it no less a pleasure each time. Harvest is the story of the last days of an English village just as the Enclosure Act is about to be enforced. It’s a powerful work of art.

What is your favourite quotation?

“Put one foot over the fence and the rest of you will follow.”

I heard this many years ago from an elderly woman in a general conversation about changing one’s life. It turned out that she had once been married to a country doctor – a brutal man who terrorised her and their four children. One night, while he was in a drunken stupor, she decided to leave him. She packed up the kids and walked them four miles to the local bus station to wait for the first bus to Dublin. For a year or so they lived in a caravan in a seaside resort and then, gradually, she began to put her life together; the kids did well and she ended up having the career she had always wanted.

It’s a quotation I’ve used a lot over the years to encourage myself and others, in times of uncertainty or when faced with a particularly daunting task or dilemma.

Ah but you probably want something a bit more writerly? In which case – “It’s all about courage.” (Patrick Kavanagh)

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Leopold Bloom. Inside and out, from start to finish – I just love him.

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

Myself – if I’m to believe what I’m told! And better to be under-rated than over-rated, I suppose. But of course, there have always been and will always be writers that fall into both categories. According to Martin Amis it takes 25 years for a book to show its worth. Virginia Woolf put it at rather less – 15 years, if I’m not mistaken. And so, I will omit younger writers for now. Amongst our older writers, Bernard McLaverty springs to mind. And even, to an extent, William Trevor. I know he enjoys recognition but not half as much as he deserves. In my opinion, he is our best living Irish writer.

Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?

Print. I love buying books; if I go into town to buy a pair of shoes, I usually come home without the shoes but with an armful of books. I love having little stacks around the house waiting to be read and I love, once a book is finished, slotting it into a bookcase and knowing it will be there for as long as I am. Unless someone borrows it and doesn’t give it back (they know who they are…).

What is the most beautiful book you own?

A copy of Dante’s Inferno (Folio edition). It’s a large book, bound in full cloth print with Blake’s illustrations beautifully reproduced. I would love to have the required level of Italian to attempt a translation. Maybe some day...but I doubt it.

Where and how do you write?

I write in a sun room built onto the back of the house. My view is the back garden; I know every blade of grass and tree leaf in it from the hours I spend staring out. My desk is a long dining-room table; it can get messy. Sometimes I throw a dinner party just to give myself an excuse to clear it.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

When I was 18, I read Mrs Dalloway. I loved being inside her head as she wandered through the city, hearing only what she hears, seeing only what she sees. I could say the same for Ulysses and Bloom, but from the male perspective. Both inspired me to approach my work as follows: take a character, place the camera inside his or her head, switch on the sound and lower them down into a city, then let them off and see what happens…

What is the most research you have done for a book?

Last Train from Liguria. It’s set in Mussolini’s time ie 1930s fascist Italy, and also in Dublin in the 1990s. I thought the Italian side of the story would be straightforward enough until I began to uncover if not quite hidden, then conveniently forgotten, facts. For example, I hadn’t realised the extent of Mussolini’s anti-Jewish laws in 1938 but once I did, I couldn’t ignore it and the direction of the novel changed. It took me over five years to write it.

What book influenced you the most?

Sometimes a book will enhance your life and to some extent, even influence the way you live it. This happened to me after I’d read Clara by Janice Galloway. It’s the story of Clara Schumann, wife of Robert and in her day, a famous concert pianist. It’s a book about their marriage and her childhood; about ambition; passion; love and madness. It’s also about the classical music scene in 19th-century Europe. And my God, is it beautifully written!

After I’d finished, I searched out biographies of both Clara and Robert. Then I started to listen to their music, which led me to other music from that period…. almost every thing I’ve written since has in some way featured music or has been inspired by music.

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?

I probably wouldn’t. Most 18 year-olds I know – if they are readers – would prefer to choose their own books. I’d give them a book token. Or money. Or maybe, if it had to be a book, The Road by Cormac McCarthy. With money in the inside flap.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young?

Almost anything by the American writer Richard Yates but definitely the short story O Joseph I’m So Tired and the novel A Special Providence. It might have made me feel less helpless and lonely as a young teenager whose parents were battling through a broken marriage. And of course, to know that many adults get it wrong no matter how hard they try or, as Yates himself put it, “…ultimately and inevitably failing because they can’t help being the people they are”.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

My prescription: 30 minutes a day, 6 days a week for three months. Then increase to an hour a day for six months, after which you’ll know if you want to or even should continue. Remind yourself that no-one need ever see what you write, that it can be a secret between the words and the page. Then step out of your own way and go for it. Also, try to read like a writer and not a reader. In other words notice when a tone changes or how a shift in perspective/time/location is handled. Finally, look at the image inside your head before you write down the words to describe it. And listen, always listen, to how your writing sounds.

What weight do you give reviews?

It depends on who’s doing the reviewing! If I respect the reviewer’s opinion, then I’ll pay attention. If the review is badly written or if I get the sense that the book has been skimmed and therefore not given due consideration, then I’ll ignore it. It is only one opinion after all, no matter how strongly expressed and whether in praise or dismissal.

Usually though, I read a book because it’s been recommended or because I’ve picked it up and liked the first few pages. As to reviews of my own work? A couple of good ones under my belt and I stop caring. No one should expect to please all of the reviewers all of the time. Besides, a really good book should be like a heavyweight boxer, it should be able to take a few punches. Think of all the novels that have been slaughtered and have gone on to greater glory. I’ve had brilliant reviews and bruisers of reviews for the same novel. I will say this though: I used to review books myself and am very glad that I no longer do so.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

I really don’t know. It seems to be mostly sales-driven these days. I know where I would like to see it going…. I would like publishers to stop underestimating readers and to start taking more risks when it comes to choosing an author. There are some very good writers who are simply not finding publishers and this is a shame. I would also like to see the Government cough up tax incentives to help independent book shops to survive in an increasingly challenging market. After all, they tend to be run by genuine book lovers and provide a haven for the reader. If we can plaster our dead writers on teacloths and beer mats for the sake of the tourist industry, surely we can help our book shops?

What writing trends have struck you lately?

It seems to come in waves, doesn’t it? For a while there was a spate of gritty small-town Ireland novels and now I’m noticing more novels concerned with the returning emigrant usually written in a minor key. I am also pleased to see the emergence of younger female literary talent in the past couple of years. Writers such as Sarah Bannan, Eimear McBride and Henrietta McKervey, to name but a few.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

Far too many to answer here. I read a huge amount of novels for this year’s Impac prize, many of which were translations, and once again was reminded that there is no better way to appreciate another culture or to begin to understand the lives of others, than through a well-written novel.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

I’d only invite the live ones. My parents were friends with several writers who were often in our house, drunk and disorderly and bristling for a row. Nowadays of course, writers are much better behaved – perhaps too well behaved? Hmmm…. might just stick to the usual reprobates that tend to sit round my dinner/ work table ie a few actors, one or two writers, a few old friends and one or two new ones.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read?

I think Evelyn Waugh is a really funny writer who has stood the test of time. Decline and Fall still makes me laugh out loud as do certain passages in Brideshead Revisited – almost any scene featuring Rex Mortimer or Boy Mulcaster is hilarious. I also think Anthony Cronin’s Dead as Doornails is as funny as it is sad. I love the scene where Cronin is driving Kavanagh and others to the pub in his battered van and, anxious to get there before last orders, puts his foot a little too firmly on the accelerator. The doors fly open and one of the passengers falls out, his foot catching on something inside the van so that he’s left dangling and is dragged along for a moment or two. Cronin, hearing his roars, jams the brakes on, infuriating a thirsty Kavanagh.

“Ah drive on out of that,” snarls Kavanagh, “He’s only lookin’ for attention.”

What is your favourite word?

Bisbigliato – it’s the Italian for whisper.

If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?

I wouldn’t mind having a go at the early life of Leonardo Da Vinci. I have the first chapter lurking around in my head where it will have to wait in the queue – there are already two other novels ahead of it.

What sentence or passage or book are you proudest of?

A passage in The Gatemaker, my third novel and the last book in the Dublin Trilogy. It’s just after the war at Baldoyle races on a day of heavy rain. Fred Slevin, a down-on-his-luck, middle-aged former bookie’s runner, looks out from beneath the stand and considers his past glories and wonders how he’s going to find the price of a drink. I’d written two and half novels up to this point and several short stories, but I think this was the first time that I allowed the prose to flow of its own accord and that I finally felt I was beginning to learn my craft.

What is the most moving book or passage you have read?

Stoner by John Williams is one of the most moving and beautiful books I have ever read.

If you have a child, what book did you most enjoy reading to them?

I have three children with three years between each one. Winnie the Pooh or The Wind in the Willows, complete with actions, accents and plenty of face-pulling, were two general crowd-pleasers.

Christine Dwyer Hickey’s latest novel is The Lives of Women (Atlantic UK)

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