Lisa McInerney Q&A: ‘Heresies was a landscape. Miracles is a portrait’
As The Blood Miracles, award-winning debut The Glorious Heresies’ sequel, is published, its author talks to fellow writer Paul McVeigh
Lisa McInerney: I think the meat of the novel came from anecdotes told in smoking areas where everyone’s jaw was going 90
The Blood Miracles is a follow-up to The Glorious Heresies. It was always your intention to write a trilogy.
Yeah, I think it was. It felt to me very early on like each should be part of a larger story. I had in my head that very famous hendiatris “sex, drugs, rock and roll”. “Three words, one idea” became “three novels, one broader story”. Heresies was sex, Miracles is drugs . . . which leaves me with a rousing symphonic epic to write for the closer. Each novel works on its own too, I think, so I think it will be more of a set than a trilogy.
You had this overview in mind but how much of the story did you have before you began writing The Blood Miracles?
Quite a bit, which isn’t usual for me. I knew the nuts and bolts of Miracles from the beginning, whereas with Heresies, I knew where it started and where it would end but I hadn’t a clue how I was going to get from one to the other. Miracles came together very differently. But that said, I think it’s more plot-centric than Heresies. It might show in the reading that I knew where I was going with it.
We know we’re not supposed to smoke or get drunk or fall in love with shitehawks or crunch boiled sweets or buy cocaine or vote for sentient haystacks with inflammatory Twitter accounts and yet we do it anyway
It does read like a crime novel and a page-turner. Did that happen organically or did you create that effect intentionally through plotting?
I didn’t set out to write a crime novel, but I knew the story I was going to tell would be read by some as an example of crime fiction – the kind that doesn’t feature an appearance by the gardaí, or really anyone even resembling a good guy. Actually, I think there are contradictory paces in the telling. In certain parts it feels, I think, banal and rhythmical – Ryan is a drug dealer and there’s a lot of waiting around in his line of work. But then, predictably, things start to go wrong and when things go wrong for black market entrepreneurs they go spectacularly wrong. And so the story goes from being about a young feen who makes easy money and smokes a lot of cannabis, to being about a young feen who’s desperately trying to think of a way out of a nightmare of his own making.
The story follows Ryan stumbling through life, making one bad decision after another. Of all the characters you could have followed, what made you choose him as the main protagonist of this instalment or did he chose you?
The plot of Miracles came together at the same time as Heresies; I knew Ryan would have to carry the next story, that it would be about a sort of violent rebirth. He’s a great character to write – he’s smart, he’s sensitive, he’s occasionally, triumphantly sarcastic, and yet he persists in making one utter hames of things after another. Characters who consistently manage to turn advantage into detriment are bloody fun to write.
Your characters are messy, often on-the-edge, complicated and frustrating – you want to give them a shake, a slap or maybe a hug, to somehow nudge them onto the right path.
But isn’t that familiar? Aren’t we, as a species, bloody frustrating? We have so much knowledge but we’re so belligerent about it. We know we’re not supposed to smoke or get drunk or fall in love with shitehawks or invest in pyramid schemes or crunch boiled sweets or buy cocaine or vote for sentient haystacks with inflammatory Twitter accounts and yet we do it anyway. What’s that Bill Hicks used to say? We’re a virus with fuckin’ shoes.
I remember you saying your characters are just one bad decision away from being us and I think that is what makes us want to intervene in some way, like watching ourselves make those stupid decisions.
Yeah, I suppose so! Well, that’s what I hope for as a writer, anyway – that the characters are relatable to an extent where they feel familiar, and so if they’re making the wrong decisions we want to intervene, or if they’re in danger we feel scared, and so on. That’s the ideal relationship between reader and character, isn’t it?
There’s a lot of similarities between the Italians and the Irish in the ties of religion and strong family bonds, also, in terms of your novel, the organised crime worlds of feuds and drug dealers.
Yeah, from one Catholic disaster to another. I’m not sure where the Italian connection came from when I was developing these characters. I think it was all of those similarities – Italy makes sense with Ireland. More personally, I wanted to create a bit of distance between myself and this character, so I deliberately had him made up of elements I had to work to try to understand. Then it was an interesting way of going about things: presenting this character so proud of this beautiful double-heritage he has, this connection to two great southern cities (and Ryan would probably say he was Corkonian-Neapolitan before saying he was Irish-Italian), and then having that heritage exploited by the ruthless men around him. There’s something of a personal premonition in it for Ryan, if he could see it: if he stays on the path he’s on, everything good and worthy in his life will be warped for profit.
And with the Catholic theme, can you tell us a little about the religious titles?
The Glorious Heresies is, of course, a play on the Glorious Mysteries, which only came to me at the last minute, but I think it fit the content very well as the novel is about sin and penitence, or lack thereof. I had hoped that the next title would fit with the first because of my feeling that I was writing a set of novels. The Blood Miracles took its time coming to me, but it fit so well when it did. It refers to that famous Neapolitan miracle of the liquefying blood of San Gennaro, and Ryan’s blood – his family and heritage and background – both condemns and saves him. I think there’s something fierce Catholic in that.
The Blood Miracles has a tighter focus, you narrow in on one main character rather than the multi-charactered The Glorious Heresies. What challenges did that bring and what freedoms did it allow you?
I think those challenges and freedoms were two sides of a coin. On one side, I got to stay with one character and explore every circumstance from his point of view, which felt almost luxurious after Heresies. On the other side, I had to stay with one character and explore every circumstance from his point of view, which required very careful managing in terms of revealing the whims, desires or machinations of the characters around him. How much might Ryan have noticed of the inner lives of others? Not an awful lot: he’s 20and 20-year-olds tend to be anxious and self-obsessed. But then, that is precisely why it felt right to concentrate on only one character’s point of view this time around. This story feels like it’s Ryan’s; other narratives would have diluted it, I think. That fed the style, too: it’s got a kind of sharp pitch to it, I think the sentences are a little staccato. Its pace and tone is matter-of-fact. It has its own hurried beat.
Did you do any research for the novel?
Outside of a long stint hanging out in underground clubs and afterparties in Cork City? No, I think the meat of the novel came from anecdotes told in smoking areas where everyone’s jaw was going 90.
How do you know when a book is ready... when to let go of a piece of work?
When my editor prises it from my panicky claws. I think you have to let a novel or story or essay go when every tweak you’re tempted to make would drain some life out of it. But God, it can be hard to realise when you’re at that point. Sometimes an editor or a great reader will spot it far quicker than the writer. Personally, I think that when I’m exhausted by a piece of work, I’ve gone too far with it. Sometimes it helps to revert back to an earlier draft. And, y’know, I think there’s a lot to be said for trusting your gut.
Considering there’s always been a long-term plan, how much do you have of the next book?
So, so little! I know my last line, but otherwise I still don’t know where it starts, whose voices will come to me, what’ll happen from one page to the next. I know that it will be about creativity and regret and whether they’re mutually exclusive. And it’ll be multi-narrative again, sprawling in the way Heresies was but Miracles isn’t. Landscape to portrait to landscape again, if you know what I mean.
It’s the “rock and roll” part of the trilogy – is that a subject you have a passion for? And being the final instalment can we expect a conclusion, of some sort, for the characters?
I think there’ve been hints in Heresies and Miracles that I’d intended to write a bit more about music, and being a writer I’m obviously well versed in the joys and miseries of the creative life. On that basis I think it might be a quite personal book, in that maybe in the writing of it I’ll work a few things out about the various absurdities in working in the arts. It’ll definitely be a conclusion for the characters – whether ambiguous or I kill them all off in a boating incident, I have yet to decide.
How has the success of recent years impacted on the way you write if at all?
I don’t think it’s impacted on the way I write. I’m still 95 per cent nervous energy, 5 per cent chewing gum. I still spend most of my writing time looking out of the window, playing Mahjong, or listening to video game soundtracks, followed by a short, sharp shock of furious typing. One might assume that doing well with a first novel makes any future work much easier to write. One would be very wrong. Actually, if anything I’m more anxious these days. I think the success of anything that you chiefly know from its living inside your head is very hard to understand. You think if it hasn’t been some weird mistake then it’s been a case of capturing lightning in a bottle.
I believe a writer is sometimes more of a conduit for stories than a maker of them. I think they’re unknowable to an extent. Novels make suggestions to their authors, but I think stories insist
Do you feel a pressure then from the success of The Glorious Heresies?
God yeah. Firstly, there’s now this (again, unknowable) standard I’ve set for myself. And secondly because I don’t want to keep doing the same thing, and there’s a late-night worry that readers will hope for Heresies II, and that, oh Christ, what if they’re not wrong to do so? Heresies was one novel; Miracles does very different things. I don’t think it’s as funny. Again, I think the writing style is different – there’s an abruptness to it that Heresies didn’t have. The sentences are terser, tauter. And, of course, it’s got just that one narrator character, which was a risk - I think one that needed to be taken, though.
You were longlisted for the Sunday Times Short Story Award – you said to me before when I asked you about short stories “I tackle them only when I’m feeling indestructible, which isn’t often.” Do you feel the same way? Has The Glorious Heresies left you feeling indestructible?
The thing about the nominated story – Navigation – is that it came to me so quickly, and so it hardly required consideration; I just jumped into it and wrote it in a kind of mad flurry. That doesn’t happen often either. Short stories are funny things. I’ve struggled with some for months and come up with nothing usable, and then others, like Navigation, come almost fully formed. I know this is going to sound horribly pretentious but I believe that a writer is sometimes more of a conduit for stories than a maker of them. I think they’re unknowable to an extent. Novels make suggestions to their authors, but I think stories insist.
The Blood Miracles is published by John Murray on April 20th. It is launched tonight at Dubray Books, Grafton Street, Dublin, at 6.30pm.
Paul McVeigh is author of The Good Son, winner of the Polari Prize