Eoin McNamee: ‘The ghosts of airmen have always been with me’
The author on the Co Down second World War airbase that haunts his novel The Vogue
Eoin McNamee: “I don’t see it as a crime novel at all.” Photograph: Eric Luke
Eoin McNamee has the flu. We are in the Model Arts Centre in Sligo town, and he is sitting as far away as possible from me. This means I can’t hear him very well against the background music playing. The kind people at the desk turn it down when I ask, and we start the interview again.
McNamee, who lives in Co Sligo and is originally from Kilkeel, Co Down, has written a new novel, The Vogue. Back in 2015 he did a Q&A for Listowel Writers’ Week in which he was asked what he was working on. He replied: “I’m working on two novels, one of which may be a poem and a poem which may be an elegy to the memory or unseen presence of Dermot Healy.”
The Vogue is that second novel, which carries a dedication to the late Dermot Healy, with the words, “His chapel of salt.” The book’s striking and atmospheric red cover hints vaguely at the sinister and menacing. There is plenty of both in this eerie, compelling novel, which moves between the 1940s, the 1970s and the 2000s. It’s not a spoiler to say people die in it – the first body appears on page one – but when I ask McNamee if he describes it as a crime novel, he’s surprised.
“I don’t see it as a crime novel at all,” he says firmly.
How would he describe it?
“It’s three interlinked love stories from the 1940s to the present day.” Then he quips, “It’s the classic plot. A body is found, and a stranger comes to town.”
McNamee studied law at Trinity College Dublin, as his father did and as his daughter is now doing. A reader of his novels can see an innate preoccupation with morality, justice and retribution.
“I think studying law gives you a certain forensic perspective on things. I am interested in the theme of how people become corrupt, and how love is corrupted,” he says.
Underside of NI
Love, corruption, betrayal of trust and injustice are the big themes that pulse nervously through the pages of The Vogue. This is a book that stays with you, strange and unsettling; a wraith-like presence lifting off the pages. As in his Blue Trilogy – The Blue Tango, Orchid Blue, Blue Is the Night – some of the locations and events adhere very closely to real life. “Everything that I write circles round a few acres near where I was brought up.”
The Vogue of the title is the name of a cinema where some key scenes take place. It is a real place; a cinema of the same name in Kilkeel, where McNamee grew up, is closed and empty today.
You never quite know what you are going to learn about the underside of Northern Ireland from McNamee’s novels. This time it is the presence of an astonishingly large airbase in Co Down during the second World War.
Less than two miles from Kilkeel was the former Greencastle Royal Air Force station near Cranfield Bay. An airbase is the anchor setting in the book, and some of the main characters were servicemen stationed there. As in the novel, the Greencastle base was in operation in the 1940s, and is now deserted, with a caravan park on its edge for the more contemporary passages. Today, the runways have been taken up, but the derelict buildings still stand, and there is indeed a large caravan park. More than 30,000 people passed through the base during the war years. Glenn Miller played there. So did Paul Robeson.
“Airbases in Co Down have always fascinated me,” McNamee says. “During the war, pilots had been billeted in the house where I was brought up in in Kilkeel. Pilots had written their names on the rafters upstairs and there was a yellowed pin-up of Betty Grable on the attic door. The ghosts of airmen have always been with me.”
There are women who go missing in this novel; a long-buried body that rises eventually to the surface of the place in which it was buried. There are young people no more than children who are horribly mistreated in a children’s home; there are horrible cruelties perpetrated by adults on women and the young.
I ask whether the recent events in Tuam, where the bodies of many of the children who died in a mother-and-baby home there have not been located, had anything to do with informing this book.
“Tuam did in a general sense,” he says. “But I wanted to move the narrative away from having a religious background. There is also the fact that several women have disappeared in Ireland and never been found.”
McNamee does a considerable amount of research for all his books. For The Vogue, he found out about the prisons to which servicemen were sent, and the backgrounds of those airmen who came to Northern Ireland from the US. One of his main characters is Hooper, a black serviceman from Atlanta, Georgia, on his very first time out of his home state. The opening paragraphs are set in a cell in a British military prison, where a serviceman awaits his execution.
“It seems to have been horrifically apparent that black and Hispanic officers were hanged much more frequently than their white colleagues,” he says grimly.
McNamee’s social conscience is evident in Swans, the play he has just written for BBC Radio 4, which will be broadcast later this month. “It’s about children being trafficked into Dublin,” he says. As part of his research he talked to Aer Lingus staff, who have been trained to recognise child passengers who have been drugged; how they eat their food, if they make eye contact or not.
“And have you seen all the hares at Dublin Airport?” he asks, amazed. I have seen them by the surreal hopping score, sometimes just adjacent to the runway as the planes take off or land. “The hares turn up in the play.”
He has also just finished writing a piece for the fourth annual Winter Papers arts anthology, edited by Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith. “Almost all the short stories and radio plays I’ve written lately have been concerned with people coming to the country, and how they have then been exploited.”
What of the second novel he mentioned in Listowel, back in 2015, the one that “may be a poem”?
“It disappeared into the smoke, although I have 5,000 words that I take out every so often and try and shape,” he says. “That’s the project I’m working on now.”
So it has not quite disappeared into the smoke, but slowly appeared again from the shadows, like one of the memorable characters in his own novels.
The Vogue, by Eoin McNamee, is published by Faber and Faber