Gavin McCrea’s debut novel, Mrs Engels, published in 2015, established him as a major new voice of Irish letters. With awards listings from the Desmond Elliot, Walter Scott and Guardian First Book Prizes, McCrea’s fictional account of the life of Lizzie Burns – the illiterate Irish woman who emerged from the slums to marry Frederick Engel, the closest collaborator of Karl Marx and co-writer of the Communist Manifesto – was lauded widely in the international press and is still raved about by readers who discover it today.
As an adult, the Dublin-born McCrea has travelled widely, living in Japan, Belgium, Italy, Britain and Spain, among other places. When I speak to him over Zoom about his sophomore work, The Sisters Mao, he beams in from Berlin where he currently lives while working as a guest lecturer in literature at Bard College.
There is a monastic quality to McCrea’s Berlin flat that seems synonymous with the man himself. He is great company – blessed with a holy trinity of empathy, intellect and wit – but the most striking thing about him is his steely dedication and commitment to his craft.
“It is my responsibility as a writer,” he explains, “to create an illusion of the past in which the reader is confident and so while I’m writing I put myself on a strict literary diet. When I wrote Mrs Engels, I only read fiction written or set in the 19th century and history about the time. I did the same thing for this book but in relation to London, Paris and China in the 1960s and 1970s. For five years I didn’t exit that world and put all temptation to read anything else aside but that’s not a sacrifice when you’re reading Nobel Prize masterpieces, amazing Chinese poetry and chronicles of the revolution.”
Wives of communist leaders
While researching his debut, McCrea developed a fascination with the wives of communist leaders. Upon discovering that Chairman Mao’s wife had been an actor, he became fixated upon her and knew she would be central to his next novel. “The real Jiang Qing had been cut out of the limelight when she married Mao, and it made her physically sick, but in the Cultural Revolution she was appointed as head of the propaganda committee and so effectively became head of culture in the biggest country in the world. She was the most powerful woman on the planet, so her influence was remarkable, but what interested me is how, even in these positions of power, people still battle with the mundane struggles of family and personal ambition.”
There are three strands to the novel; Jiang Qing in China in 1970s is juxtaposed with the lives of two counter-cultural sisters in London, Iris and Eva, who are members of a radical performance collective planning an attack on a West End theatre where their mother is starring as the title role in Miss Julie. Meanwhile in Beijing, Jiang Qing is planning a gala performance of her ballet, The Red Detachment of Women, which she will use to attack her enemies.
One of the great accomplishments of this novel is McCrea’s democratic, even handling of the three “sisters” on the page – the indomitable Madame Mao doesn’t overwhelm her comrades in London. “I wanted Madame Mao’s influence on the characters in the West to be seen but I also wanted a sense of how all of the cast influenced each other in all kinds of ways,” he says.
“I really understood that Jiang Qing’s problems were very human and ordinary – her search for self-esteem, her vulnerability and concern for other people’s approval were all relatable. And it was very clear to me that across both worlds, one woman may have wielded more political power and been more famous than the others, but they all had equally big egos. They were all facing the question of how to effect change in the world and how to get what they wanted.
‘Moment of enlightenment’
“Although the two families don’t physically meet in the plot, they do conceptually and so I needed to create an atmosphere in which certain transitions could be made between the two worlds. Sometimes those are dreamlike, for example, the novel opens with Zhang Jiang, having a moment of enlightenment that then transitions into Iris in 1968 on an LSD trip. Having those dreamy transitions that slowly evolved into a very clear narrative were very important for me to ensure it was possible for certain ideas to cross between the two worlds.”
It is a huge undertaking for an author to create an authentic psychological profile, and to capture the world view and intimate, interior mind of a historical figure, especially one so different from themselves. McCrea achieved it first with Lizzie in Mrs Engels and this time was compelled to write about the enigmatic Madame Mao. I asked what compels him to resurrect these ghosts of women and articulate their lives on the page.
“I never set out to be a novelist of women but, so far, that’s what has been interesting to me. It probably comes down to my relationship with my mother which is probably the most important one in my life. For me, writing from a woman’s perspective is not only a way to better understand her, but also to talk about myself without identifying myself clearly. The historical setting does the same thing. It enables me to talk about concerns that interest me – about gender, sexuality, politics, fame, recognition – all these subjects, without having to speak in the fashionable ‘I’ voice of contemporary autofiction. Since writing The Sisters Mao, I have now written a memoir about my relationship with my mother, and I think everything I’ve written in that nonfiction book is probably in my novels in some shape or form.”
This memoir, Cells, will be published in 2022. It was written in the immediate aftermath of a brutal homophobic assault on McCrea in Dublin in February 2020. “I had just emailed my publisher the last draft of The Sisters Mao and was walking home, thinking already about the next novel, when I was beaten up. Within a few weeks, all my plans had changed. The lockdown happened and I found myself living in a small flat in Dublin with my mother.
“After the attack, she said, ‘you’re never going to get over this’ and I thought ‘this is nothing. I’m an adult, I can process this, I have friends. I’m listened to about what happened and there’s no ambiguity in people’s responses to me. Back when I was eight, nine, 10, when homophobic abuse and bullying started for me, that was the stuff that was hard to get over. I realised this was the material that I needed to address, and I woke up at 3am and went to the computer and the whole structure of a nonfiction book about my relationship with my mother just poured out. I started writing it the next day and realised I have been writing this book since I was eight years old. I’m thankful that something good somehow came out of the attack because I’m not sure I’d have written that memoir otherwise.”
In The Sisters Mao, the importance of family, and the concept of revolution as a family affair is paramount. Against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution and Europe’s sexual revolution, the fates of two families in London and Beijing become intertwined.
“All the politics in the novel happen within the family so we don’t see the war or revolution itself on the page,” he explains. “I focused instead on family relationships and the ways in which one’s political affiliations affect the family and vice versa. The European characters, Iris and Eva, go out into the world and assume certain political persuasions and affiliations, but ultimately the book asks to what extent do our political views survive the glare of the family when you re-enter the family circle.”
Fall of communism
The Sisters Mao is the second of three novels that McCrea has planned which cumulatively tell the story of the 20th century through a fictional account of the development of communism. “The more I researched, the more I realised that there was this larger story to be told. Mrs Engels is set before the Russian Revolution, before communism existed as a political system in the world. Lizzie is the eyes through which we see people who were imagining that there could be an alternative. I knew that Mao spanned the second half of the 20th century and had an enormous influence on the West so Madame Mao was the perfect focus for the second instalment. And the third novel will start during the fall of communism in 1989 and span time until the first financial crash in 2008.”
McCrea has conducted exceptionally deep research to conjure up nuanced, authentic portrayals of the worlds of the book – but the text carries his knowledge lightly, supporting rather than dominating the story. The Sisters Mao is the best sort of historical fiction; one that illuminates the contemporary moment with great insight. Profoundly brilliant, it will no doubt be a huge contender on the literary awards circuit, but also one that is pushed feverishly from reader to reader with excitement.
McCrea signs out of the Zoom chat with a final wish for the book that was five years in the making. “I don’t want people to be scared away from the novel by the politics or the weight of its history. It is, in the end, first and foremost a novel of human stories drawn on an emotional landscape that I’ve painted.” All of which pays testimony to the feminist rallying cry of the 1960s that McCrea’s Iris and Eve may have hollered, “the personal is the political”.
The Sisters Mao is published on September 9th by Scribe