Life, death and the secrets that lie between
Poet Elaine Feeney had a brush with her own mortality before writing her much-anticipated debut novel
Elaine Feeney near her home in Athenry, Co Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Elaine Feeney doesn’t let herself away with much. The well-known poet whose debut novel, As You Were, is published this month, has a habit of checking herself any time she verges on seeming precious or over the top. When we talk about the anxieties of being a writer, she stops: “That sounds really lofty and bourgeois. Sometimes I don’t allow myself to feel like that.”
When I ask whether, throughout her 13-plus years as a working poet, she ever considered going full time, she says “I didn’t have the luxury. I had my first son when I was 22 and I wanted my kids to have what kids need. Poets make no money – nothing.” Most notably, when I bring up a near-death experience she had, she replies: “Near-death experience is totally dramatic.”
Then she backpedals. “Well, actually it’s interesting. I find it very difficult to put language on this because I don’t want to be overly dramatic as a woman. What happened is I was getting sicker and sicker and I ended up in ICU. I remember the reg[istrar] from ICU was called down to A&E in Galway and I remember him shouting at someone, saying: ‘How did she let herself get into this state?’ And he looked at me – and I couldn’t breathe because I was being resuscitated for respiratory failure – and he said: ‘You had about an hour to live. Why didn’t you come to the hospital sooner?’”
Feeney is warm and open as we talk over Zoom. “I’m just looking out here over the green fields,” she says. The fields of Athenry. Her grandparents’ farm lies somewhere over the horizon of her laptop. Feeney looks on from the bungalow where she grew up and now lives with her husband and two sons. For the past 20 years she has worked as a secondary school teacher in all-boys school, St Jarlath’s, in Tuam. She also teaches creative writing at NUIG and is creative director of the Tuam oral history project. If that’s not enough, she has eked out the time to publish a chapbook and three poetry collections, and to write a screen and stage piece with the Liz Roche company, along, now, with her debut novel. I’m starting to wonder if there’s not one but three Elaine Feeneys.
Coming within an hour of our own mortality, as Feeney describes above, is not something most of us will have experienced, but the incident will nonetheless feel relatable to many: the stoicism, the ill logic of carrying on no matter what. “I really shocked myself that I let myself get to that level, thinking it was the busy world, and the busy life, and teaching, and having children, and trying to do some voluntary work, and rushing around like a headless chicken.”
Feeney spent 18 months recovering, and in that time began conceiving of a character “who was similar to me in life but had a very different diagnosis – one that you could keep secret.” Sinéad Hynes, a busy property developer, became the protagonist of As You Were. Early on she receives a cancer diagnosis and chooses not to tell her husband and sons. “It just really piqued an interest in me: could you keep it a secret? You know, people do that. And is it an utterly selfless thing to do? Or an utterly selfish thing to do?”
It’s a delicate topic. People might be offended by Sinéad’s choice.
“They might. And I suppose that’s their business. The book is for readers now. I feel strongly that if that was a man who was a property developer with three kids and had chosen to keep that a secret it would be viewed very differently. The book will probably trigger quite a visceral response in some people. But if we believe that people can have autonomy over their own bodies and themselves . . . does being in a marriage negate that? I don’t think it does. I think you come into this world on your own and you leave on your own. If anything, my experience has taught me that.”
Rising Irish authors
As You Were is one of the most anticipated debuts of 2020. Does Feeney see herself as part of the crop of rising young Irish authors that seem to be going from strength to strength right now?
“Well I don’t feel young,” she jokes. She says she managed to hide her age until she appeared on a 40-over-40 list a few weeks ago. (She only just made the age grade, she assures me.) “I’m going to embrace it,” she says, laughing.
As regards being part of a crop of rising stars, “I suppose I think of myself as a very different voice. I’m not the millennial generation. I think my novel is maybe a big, noisy novel of intergenerational women.”
We talk about a certain dismissiveness that goes alongside the praise of these emerging female writers. There have been glib jokes on Twitter about collecting them all (the insinuation being that they’re a fad). “It irked me,” says Feeney, who spent four years writing As You Were. “If the rising tide is lifting all boats, good for it. But I think that’s to put a very simple catch-all on it. I think all of these women are writing very differently. Like, if you look at Lisa McInerney or Claire-Louise Bennett or Nicole Flattery . . . I just don’t know why they’re putting us all in together. So, yeah, I did respond [to a tweet] by saying that Sally Rooney was, like, 14 when I published my first book. But that has nothing to do with Sally Rooney, who I think is tremendous, and everything to do with the person who imparted that. I just thought it was a bit of a quip and I think it’s lazy.”
Set between the marriage equality referendum and the Eighth Amendment repeal vote, As You Were has been described as an “outraged state-of-the-nation novel”. Among the issues it broaches are terminal illness, miscarriage, abortion and more. To list them so nakedly makes the book sound quite heavy, but in fact it’s bubbling with dark humour and sharp truths. As Feeney notes, “There is nothing even remotely dramatic about the book from what I’ve heard of my female friends sharing stories with me.”
Females sharing stories is a major theme. The entire narrative takes place in a hospital ward – a setting that brings together a motley crew of characters and strips them of privacy. “I think it’s really interesting that all of the women on the ward have a secret. And then they share it with each other, a total stranger.” Feeney says. “Sometimes we can’t tell our deepest secrets to our nearest and dearest, and it comes from a complex state of wanting to protect them.”
Among her own friends, she observes: “After a few drinks, you can talk about pregnancy, you can talk about childbirth and a lot of my friends will get really upset and say: This happened to me, and this happened to me. But we don’t talk about those things in the normal run of the day, because you’re supposed to have this warrior attitude. Like, you’re fine now because you’re alive.”
The ward is an interesting place because on the one hand it’s a place where hierarchies are shattered, illness being the great leveller, and on the other it is part of a hierarchical institution, the hospital, which itself is influenced by institutions like the church and state. “I’m absolutely intrigued by hierarchies and how people can have so much power at the top,” Feeney says. “And who suffers the most under these hierarchies.”
We talk about the institutions in her book – the hospital, the church, political parties, property markets, marriage – and the institutions all around. From the top floor of the Catholic school where she works every day, Feeney looks out on to the bishop’s palace. On the Athenry road, near where she lives, is the site “where allegedly almost 800 bodies of children are buried, from the time when the mother-and-baby home was run there.” Feeney has often been critical of the church and church-led institutions (when her poem, Mass, was published, she was “genuinely nervous of a John McGahern moment”, ie getting fired). But she also notes that when it comes to atrocities such as what allegedly happened in Tuam, “that was a whole society. The church was just the vehicle by which oppression was meted out.”
There is a story in the book about a young woman sent to the Bon Secours. Feeney said she wrote it before she began working with the Tuam oral history project, which is run through NUIG and which works with survivors of such institutions to record and house their stories. “What’s really important to me is that . . . you can respond as an artist, but I also think the first-person survivor experience needs to be recorded and kept and needs to inform generations on things such as empathy.”
As You Were was due to be published in April, but was pushed back last minute because of the pandemic. Does she think the novel – which is set in a hospital and concerned with life-threatening illnesses – will be read differently now?
She contemplates this. “I think that the coronavirus pandemic has been utterly tragic and really concerning. But it has also been interesting. I spent a small fraction of my life with a protracted illness and isolated for maybe 18 months. But people have spent their whole lives like that. You know, people have needed Zoom launches, they’ve needed accessibility. We haven’t been an utterly inclusive society – no society is – because we don’t empathise with people who are ill.”
She praises the community spirit that has abounded and suggests that if any good can come from the pandemic, it might be that “we recognise that community spirit is actually really important and that we are all vulnerable”.
Which doesn’t exactly answer my question about how people will read the book, but it’s an encouraging sentiment. “And we are all mortal as well,” she says, a truth the book captures viscerally.
As for what’s next, she says she’s working on a second novel, set in another institution, a school. It’s “slightly on the cusp of dystopia” she says. And she has decided to take a career break from teaching come September. “Twenty years and I have my first full break next year,” she says. Because for Feeney, promoting one book and writing another really is a break.
“Fingers crossed people want to read a hospital novel,” she adds nervously, as we’re saying our goodbyes.
A hospital novel, I’m not sure. An Elaine Feeney novel? Certainly.