Lisa McInerney: ‘I’m a hoor for attention. It has to be good attention, though’
The writer feels nervous as she publishes her third Cork-set novel, The Rules of Revelation
Lisa McInerney: ‘I’m supposed to be a cool writer – I want to be like Mr Banville who just doesn’t care.’ Photograph: Brid O’Donovan
Lisa McInerney’s debut The Glorious Heresies won two major prizes and her follow-up The Blood Miracles another, so you might think her biggest concern ahead of the publication of The Rules of Revelation, the third and last of the set, would be making space on the mantelpiece. But no – she might live near Lady Gregory’s estate but she is not the Queen of Coole.
“The nerves are at me big-time,” she says, “I’m a real hoor for attention. It has to be good attention, though. You’re not supposed to read your bad reviews but I got one and it gutted me, and that was four years ago and I haven’t recovered. I’m supposed to be a cool writer – I want to be like Mr Banville who just doesn’t care. I still feel like an emerging writer, three books in, still struggling out of the hedge.”
The Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Desmond Elliott Prize and the RSL Encore Award were a huge boost, of course, but a burden too, even if only in her own head.
The plan was to write three novels and gradually become good. Success ahead of schedule has made her put pressure on herself, the fear of letting readers down. “You’ve gained these readers and there’s this expectation you’ve got to keep them happy and that’s a bad space to be in when you’re writing. You should never be thinking about the book as a product that has to eventually go on a shelf. When you start doing that [the writing] ceases to be real.”
I wanted to give my characters a good ending, wanted it to feel satisfactory but real. They are reimagining their place in Ireland, there’s a lot of looking inward
Her anxiety is unfounded. If Roddy Doyle captured working-class Dublin in his Barrytown Trilogy, McInerney’s set is as Cork as Barry’s Tea and just as strong. “I’ve always wondered why there wasn’t more fiction set in Cork,” she says. “It’s this playground for language, for slang and vernacular. It doesn’t seem to get the love it deserves.”
Though she is now back in her native Coole, Co Galway, McInerney studied English and geography in Cork, taking a year out to have her child, then didn’t go back – “I’m holding out for an honorary degree”. She was more into geography, fascinated by how cities were built, and wanted to be an urban planner. Now, in a sense, she has created her own city.
Heresies, a wild, hugely entertaining tale, introduced readers to her cast of characters, most memorably Ryan, the bright, charismatic but wayward son of a feckless father, his girlfriend Karine and Maureen, a local gangster’s mother on a revenge mission to cause mayhem.
Blood Miracles was more portrait than landscape, a taut thriller tightly focused on Ryan as he becomes enmeshed in drugs and the criminal underworld. The Rules of Revelation is another landscape – looser, funnier and less frenetic, completing the “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll” narrative arc as Ryan returns home to both face the music and make it, recording an album with his band on Inishbofin then performing it in Cork, reuniting with Karine and trying to make peace with his past or at least keep one step ahead of it.
“I’ve written this sprawling thing so it’s very hard to sum up,” the author says. “It’s a polyphonic novel with five voices, about art and homecomings, finding yourself. I wanted to give my characters a good ending, wanted it to feel satisfactory but real. They are reimagining their place in Ireland, there’s a lot of looking inward, so the pace is softer, but still a lot of fun in there, I hope, especially with Maureen going round trying to rattle the city’s cage.”
Some Irish fiction could be set anywhere, but McInerney’s novels are not only rooted by the Lee, they also document the state of the nation, just as she did with her name-making Arse End of Ireland blog.
“Heresies starts in 2010, this finishes in 2019; over that decade, Jesus, has Ireland changed,” McInerney says, citing the crash and recovery, the legalising of same-sex marriage and abortion, and the reshaping of the political landscape. “Why would you not want to capture that?
When I was writing this there was a sense of hope, especially for young people to be able to move into whatever identity they are most comfortable with
“How do these characters exist in this changing Ireland? Glorious Heresies’ Ireland is very cold and judgmental, just post-crash. I can’t write that Ireland anymore because it doesn’t exist. Those referendums gave people a sense of ownership of and hope for their country – sh**, we can change things! – that I don’t think they had up to that point.
“We have some ways to go yet but we are starting to get more confident in ourselves and in our capabilities. We do go abroad and bring home the best of what we’ve learned. We can be very hard on ourselves for slang and our accents. That comes from the D4 RTÉ thing. We need to cop on and let ourselves just be Irish. We are not English, we are not British, we never will be and that’s fine.”
Her mother-in-law, Geraldine McInerney, was RTÉ’s first female newsreader, who also ran a glamorous PR agency in New York. “I married into RTÉ royalty. My sister-in-law sent me a photo of Geraldine with Peter O’Toole’s arm round her, a far cry from my life, let me tell you. I sent her Stinging Fly’s Maeve Brennan book for Christmas about another Irishwoman who went off to New York.”
The Rules of Revelation dwells on characters’ struggle to define themselves by their own lights, not their roots. The author, like most of her characters, is a council house kid, so she relates to their struggle to get on without abandoning where they come from. “It’s the old crab in the bucket thing – the one who climbs out gets pulled back.”
Another character, Mel, was a peripheral figure in the first novel, known then as Linda, the daughter of Ryan’s nightmare neighbour and nemesis Tara. While living in Glasgow, they realised their true gender identity. Writing a trans character “didn’t feel like a thorny issue at the time”, the author says. “When I was writing this there was a sense of hope, especially for young people to be able to move into whatever identity they are most comfortable with, moving beyond gender as this ridiculous social construct, free themselves up.
“My son Aodh is a trans boy, we’ve been having all these discussions about gender and making people feel comfortable. He is 19, going on 20, and a lot of his friends are experimenting, questioning identity, society and norms. If we never did that what sort of society would we be in now? We’d still be under the thumb of Archbishop McQuaid.”
McInerney is scathing about women who used to insist feminism was all-inclusive and working-class women like her should show solidarity with actors like Reese Witherspoon getting paid less than their male co-stars, “but suddenly it doesn’t include trans women next door, who I would have way more in common with so where is the intersection there? Meanwhile, female to male is a total blind spot to these people.”
Does the new novel also reflect her evolution as a writer? “I hope so, there is less of a reliance on nuts and bolts plot. I gave myself space to do more of a deep dive on characters, allowed them to have a moment to themselves, to explore and to think. It allowed me to write with more of a contemplative, even shrewd, eye, which led I think to some nice passages.”
Re-reading the book doesn’t make her groan.
“But I hope every book I write shows me I am progressing till you get to the point where you write something that might last forever, that’s what you always want.
“Not having to follow the same plot and rhythm and atmosphere all the way through three books was quite freeing. The difficulty is if you write three very different books but have them in the same expanded universe, like Marvel, you’re going to have readers missing the black comedy or wanting another thriller. Why isn’t Ryan cavorting around Europe being a drug dealer? Well, the reality is you don’t last long in that job, they’ll either kill him or it will kill your love for him – it’s not a healthy thing to keep doing.”
I never thought I would miss the terrible book launch wine, I’d give anything to shuffle from foot to foot while drinking red wine that tastes of socks
The interview is conducted via FaceTime, which allows me to have a good gawk at McInerney’s enviably tidy study, spotting photos of the River Lee and Inishbofin and the handwritten lyrics to the song Napoleon by Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah Slean, which she adores and dreams one day of incorporating into a screenplay.
“I’ve always had a great grá for music but never been musically gifted. My mother sent me off with a second-hand accordion once – disaster! We can’t all be rock stars – musicians need fans just like writers need readers.”
She is looking fit. Coole Park is within her 5km so she has been running a lot in lockdown, though she is jealous of those writers who can plot as they run, while she has to concentrate on keeping her legs moving. She misses friends a lot. Her best friend’s son is an adorable three and her nana, who raised her, is 88. She would love to go and sit in her kitchen and have a chat but is trying to be the sensible one. Of course, she appreciates others have had it much worse.
Kevin Barry, a mentor who published her first story in 2013 in the Faber anthology he edited – “a Cork city blow-in like me and a great supporter” – launches her book online on May 13th. “I never thought I would miss the terrible book launch wine, I’d give anything to shuffle from foot to foot while someone goes on too long about a book while drinking red wine that tastes of socks.”
Saturday, Boring, her Faber story, is “a rudimentary, primitive version of Ryan and Karine”, although they are not named. “When I go back and read the start of it now, I go, Jesus, someone could have said, this is overwriting, Lisa. But we must progress.”
She has lived with her characters for decades, though, dreaming what their story might be. The end is not goodbye, however. “They are not going anywhere, I can check in and see how they’re getting on. Never say never. When I finished Rules of Revelation I said that’s it now, I’m done, but recently I slipped a bit. You know Roddy went back, checked in on the lads 30 years after The Commitments with The Guts.”
There is also, of course, ITV Studios’ TV adaptation, which was ready to go when Covid happened. A big star was attached, but she can’t say who. She has discovered a talent for screenwriting, which helps pay the bills, although adapting Heresies was challenging. “Everyone says it would make such great TV but there are a lot of difficulties. You have Ryan who grows from 15 to 20 in the space of that book – try to get an actor who can do that.”