Kathleen MacMahon: ‘I think women writers are treated like mistresses’
The author of Nothing But Blue Sky life after a loved one’s death and the curse of likable characters
Kathleen MacMahon at her home in Dublin. ‘It takes a long time to get skilled at this. It’s a craft. The learning is immense. It takes time and you have to make mistakes.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Don’t send “congratulations on your new book” flowers to Kathleen MacMahon. Also, don’t pick up the lunch or coffee bill at a meeting. Well, not if you are her publisher anyway. “The way women are treated in this business is something I find really interesting . . . and patronising,” she says.
This preference not to be a pampered author emerges over coffee and melt-in-the-mouth scones made by Lucy, one of her 18-year-old twin daughters. We’re in the garden of her gorgeous Dublin home near the Grand Canal. There’s a friendly dog called Bonnie running around and a sewing machine inside the house where colourful piles of face coverings are crafted.
Her husband Mark, who works in IT, is out. Their other daughter, Clara, arrives home, sanguine about her cancelled Leaving Cert. With domesticity swirling around us, MacMahon, animated, sharp and entertaining, is talking about what she has learned from her professional writing career so far. A journey that began back in 2011 with a much-publicised six-figure advance from Sphere at the London Book Fair for her first book, the best-selling, heart-wrenching love story This Is How It Ends.
“I think women writers, in particular, are treated like mistresses. You know, you get sent flowers the day your book is published. People pay for your lunch and your coffee. So I always insist now on paying for my coffee.”
I think that there was a market in mind for what I was doing and that’s a problem
Her new book is called Nothing But Blue Sky. It’s an elegantly written and moving account of one man coming to terms with the sudden death of his wife in a plane crash. It’s about grief and loss and reflections on a 20-year marriage. Her publisher is new too; Penguin Sandycove was until recently known as Penguin Ireland.
Warming to her point about free lunches and patronising flowers, MacMahon says she does not like that writers are treated “like show ponies . . . I’m not comfortable with that. I’d prefer to be an equal professional at the table. Everybody is doing a different job. You do your job and I’ll do mine. I sound harsh but I think it actually makes me better to work with . . . I am not trying to make friends with anybody.”
When I ask her to tell me about the challenges of working with Sphere – she has written in this newspaper about the trauma of the Difficult Second Novel– she is diplomatic but truthful.
“I don’t want to go down the road of criticising them because they gave me a fantastic opportunity, but I think that there was a market in mind for what I was doing and that’s a problem because it’s not a product as far as I’m concerned . . . it is a product at the end but not when you are writing it.”
The problem began when the contract for her lucrative two-book publishing deal arrived in the post. Several publishers had been interested in This Is How It Ends but Sphere took it off the table for €684,000, a deal brokered by MacMahon’s agent, Marianne Gunn O’Connor.
The writer was sent a contract for “two works of women’s commercial fiction”. “I was like, wow, is that what I’m writing? I was so naive . . . I found it offensive.”
She is quick to point out she has no issue with commercial fiction or books aimed at women, but she felt suddenly pigeonholed.
“I just find it extraordinary that somebody decided that’s what I was. Like, here is a fledgling writer, starting a new career, writing about life and love and whatever I find interesting, and it’s in a box already. I don’t think that would have happened to a male writer.”
She felt constrained – by a deadline that was, she felt, unrealistic, and by the pressure to provide a certain kind of book.
“You are so free when you write the first book, free of your own fears and people’s expectations, you write it in a secret happy place. A big publishing deal is amazing, of course, but I did find myself in a very difficult position. I think that book a year thing is bonkers. It’s like asking somebody to produce a baby in three months. I had a problem with that from the start but there was no budge.
I did take the money, I was glad to take the money but I don’t care if the book sells
“I was freaked by it,” she says. “I knew it wasn’t going to happen . . . I nearly had a nervous breakdown. The second book had to be scratched after 20 rewrites, during which time I worked like a lunatic. It was horrific.” She had thrown too much into the book, “like making a meal using everything in the fridge”.
“It wasn’t coherent,” says MacMahon, who is the granddaughter of the celebrated writer Mary Lavin, with all the pressure that follows such literary pedigree. “It takes a long time to get skilled at this. It’s a craft. The learning is immense. It takes time and you have to make mistakes.”
The hard way
She thinks writers should understand that in publishing “nobody else shares your interests”. She learned this the hard way. “My interests are different to the publisher . . . I want to write a good book and not lose my mind in the process.”
She does admit to “hypocrisy” in some of this thinking. “I did take the money, I was glad to take the money but I don’t care if the book sells. The only thing I want is to write a better book next time.”
In the end, she wrote The Long Hot Summer, her second novel, in three months. Did she feel under pressure regarding sales, I wonder? I’m thinking, especially, of the huge advance.
“I didn’t care about that in the slightest.”
Ten years later MacMahon seems to be in a very different place with her writing. She wrote Nothing But Blue Sky without a publisher. She told her agent she only wanted a one-book deal. “I didn’t want to go through that again,” she says.
The novel is about death and grief and what happens to those who are left behind. In the last decade, McMahon’s mum Valdi died, followed by her aunt Caroline Walsh, the former literary editor of this newspaper, and three of her close friends died of cancer, all leaving children behind. “So five of the women in my life, and it does seem to be the women, died long before their time, so that was very much something on my mind.”
You understand things better as you age, and you let go of all the stupid stuff
The book is not about them but about “where do we find a peace with it and get on with our lives?”
“Two things happen when somebody dies,” she expands. “One, the world ends but, two, the world doesn’t end. And it’s the world not ending that’s the really hard bit, you know . . . there are so many interesting, complex things that happen there. And so I really wanted to write a book about death and bereavement. Like, in a way, how unfair it is that the person who’s gone gets so much attention because the people who are left are important too. And the person who’s gone takes on this huge, outsized importance, like a statue.
“That has always seemed a bit unfair to me . . . I’m puzzling in my own head over how much of a fuss we should make about somebody dying. But of course it seems like such a catastrophe and everything should stop and nobody should be happy again, but then again you don’t keep an empty place at the table.
“I wanted to explore those questions. Life does go on and happiness does enter the equation again.”
There’s an awkward moment when I tell her I really did not like the central character in the book, a journalist called David with a difficult family background who doesn’t like brunch, theatre or fat people. He’s arrogant, I say.
MacMahon smiles. “I’m always amazed how people don’t like him . . . he’s like me, I actually toned him down from me.” We both laugh. He’s not exactly likable, I say something she does not set much store by. “Likable is the most hideous concept in a novel, the last adjective that should be used about a character. Niceness is really overrated.”
The novel is set in Spain, in a village inspired by the one MacMahon and her family spend time in each year. David is reflecting back on his relationship, seeing things through a more truthful, painful prism, on his first holiday alone in what for years was his and his dead wife Mary Rose’s special place. The book is about death but also about marriage, which MacMahon says is the ultimate topic for a novelist.
Why? “Because it’s the tallest f***ing order . . . that two people, over time, over all the changes in their lives, would sleep in the same bed and wake up every morning and talk to each other. The idea that anybody can do it is amazing to me and I’m talking as somebody who, I think, is in a happy marriage.”
While she struggled, as many did, with “existential dread” during lockdown, MacMahon seems content to be growing older, surrounded by family, sewing face masks, sea-swimming and of course writing and dreaming and mastering her craft.
“You understand things better as you age, and you let go of all the stupid stuff,” she says. “I remember on holiday in Spain two years ago, watching a young girl getting into the water in her bikini. And she looked so beautiful. I’d say she was 22, she looked like she was in love. The boyfriend was watching her from the beach. She was mincing her way to the water in this tiny bikini.
“And for the first time in my life, I’m not jealous. I’m not admiring the bikini. I’m sitting here just thinking what a delight to watch her. And that’s the lovely thing about getting older: it’s not about you anymore.”
Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon is published by Penguin