Gavin McCrea: ‘when I finished John McGahern’s Memoir, I wept for an entire day’
On learning how to deal with good reviews: ‘Because I spend a lot of my (writing) time enacting self-doubt and reproach, it can be difficult to trust praise when it comes’
What book did Gavin McCrea wish he had read when he was young? “The most important event in the Irish child’s life: losing his/her religion. For me, the process began when I was around 12 or 13. I think if I’d actually read some of the Bible for myself, and seen what a magnificent mess it was, I might have been done with the business – and my intelligent life might have started – sooner”
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
The one that I watched my mother read in her chair in the corner of the kitchen.
What was your favourite book as a child?
Roald Dahl’s Matilda. When I was 10 or 11 years old, I was lucky enough to meet Dahl at a signing in Dublin. He scribbled on my copy of Matilda: “Gavin, Love Roald Dahl.” It’s the only book that I still possess from my childhood.
And what is your favourite book or books now?
At gunpoint I’d probably say Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian or Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.
What is your favourite quotation?
If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.
– Dorothy Parker
Who is your favourite fictional character?
The one who craves what s/he fears most: vulnerability.
Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?
Print, definitely. My Kindle is used for emergencies only.
What is the most beautiful book you own?
I don’t usually go in for old books, but I was given a gift of a 1949 leather-bound, six-volume edition of Benito Pérez Galdós’s Obras Completas, which is undoubtedly the most beautiful thing on my shelves.
Where and how do you write?
Alone, in silence, with the door closed. I don’t get up early to write. I always exercise before I start. I switch between standing and sitting. I write straight onto the screen. I block the internet using the Freedom app. I try to stop work before 10pm.
What book changed the way you think about fiction?
Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook explodes the life of its protagonist, Anna Wulf, into its component elements – politics, emotion, memory, action – and then stitches it back together again, each element separated into different notebooks. The final golden notebook, the synthesis, brings these separated elements back together, finally giving Anna the possibility of self-understanding and healing. Through the character of Anna – a disillusioned communist and a feminist – the novel shows that nothing is personal, in the sense that it is uniquely one’s own; here writing about oneself is shown to be a political act. As Lessing writes: “Growing up is after all only the understanding that one’s unique and incredible experience is what everyone shares.”
What is the most research you have done for a book?
The research for Mrs Engels took about a year and a half.
What book influenced you the most?
In the writing of Mrs Engels, possibly Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?
Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha.
What book do you wish you had read when you were young?
The most important event in the Irish child’s life: losing his/her religion. For me, the process began when I was around 12 or 13. I think if I’d actually read some of the Bible for myself, and seen what a magnificent mess it was, I might have been done with the business – and my intelligent life might have started – sooner.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
“Dear Self, please spare me the desire for love, approval and appreciation.”
What weight do you give reviews?
Perhaps one day I’ll be secure enough to be unconcerned with reviews, good or bad. Until then, I’m going to try to follow my friends’ advice, which is to learn, first, how to deal with the good reviews. Receiving praise, allowing it in, doesn’t just happen, I’ve noticed, but requires training. Because I spend a lot of my (writing) time enacting self-doubt and reproach, it can be difficult to trust praise when it comes; the higher the praise the more difficult it is to believe. I brush it off, wave it away, root through it for implicit criticisms or misunderstandings. There is nothing wrong with this behaviour, really; sometimes it even garners me further praise for my “modesty” (is that what I’m after? the modesty Oscar?). The problems only arise when the bad reviews come along. By not trusting the good ones, I see that I give the bad ones undue power. If the good ones aren’t telling the truth, it must mean the bad ones are. The bad ones are saying what the good ones are afraid or unwilling to say. The good ones can be disregarded; it’s the bad ones that deserve my faith and devotion. This, I understand, is masochistic, and a recipe for unhappiness and resentment. It would be nice-the goal is-to meet both the good and the bad reviews with the same simple question: ‘Could they be right?’ Sometimes they might be, and sometimes they might not. Sometimes I might think they’re wrong until I realise they’re right, and vice versa. And it wouldn’t matter either way, for I would understand that they can’t possibly be telling me something I haven’t already told myself (“I am the best”, “I am the worst”). Read with a sane mind, they would not possess any power at all: just more opinions, more noise; true or untrue, aren’t I just going to write how I write? And who would I rather be anyway, the reviewer or the reviewed? Getting sane in this way is a lifetime’s work, of course, and may be impossible, but I don’t see another road.
What lessons have you learned about life from reading?
That at some point, whether you like it or not, you are going to face yourself.
What has being a writer taught you?
Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Well, in that particular dream I’m married to Sebastian Barry (circa 2000 and without the velvet waistcoat), so it’s we who invite the girls round to do mescaline: Doris Lessing, Angela Carter, Dorothy Parker, Truman Capote, Ali Smith, Simone de Beauvoir, Elizabeth Strout, Anne Enright, Federico García Lorca, Tennessee Williams, Carol Shields…
What is the funniest scene you’ve read?
The office scenes in Elizabeth Strout’s Amy and Isabelle made me roar. Strout achieves the rarest of things: she finds humour in her characters without being cruel to them, or making them awful. I find her characters funny and I feel tenderness towards them.
What is the most moving book or passage you have read?
The last couple of pages of John McGahern's Memoir. When I finished it, I wept for an entire day. It felt like I’d never properly cried before in my life – which I probably hadn’t.
Gavin McCrea was born in Dublin in 1978 and has since travelled widely, living in Japan, Belgium and Italy, among other places. He holds a BA and an MA from University College Dublin, and an MA and a PhD from the University of East Anglia. He currently divides his time between the UK and Spain. His first novel, Mrs Engels, is published by Scribe. www.gavinmccrea.com