Lisa McInerney Q&A: ‘Junk by Melvin Burgess – that book made me’

‘Reading taught me how to think, and how others thought. I very much got my sense of the world through reading – I learned the world went beyond the horizons I could see’

Lisa McInerney: I read Junk by Melvin Burgess when I was 15 and it felt like someone had pushed all the walls back 20 feet. Until then I hadn’t realised that I could write about bad decisions, that my characters could be deeply unpleasant or that a downer could be more fulfilling than a happy-ever-after

Lisa McInerney: I read Junk by Melvin Burgess when I was 15 and it felt like someone had pushed all the walls back 20 feet. Until then I hadn’t realised that I could write about bad decisions, that my characters could be deeply unpleasant or that a downer could be more fulfilling than a happy-ever-after

 

What was the first book to make an impression on you?

In terms of an emotional impression, it was probably Watership Down. A book had never made me cry before; it hadn’t occurred to the preteen me that a book could make you cry. Then I remember discovering books like Z For Zachariah, Children of the Dust and The Chocolate War in the library and being enthralled by how bleak they were. It was a kind of revolutionary time in my reading life.

What was your favourite book as a child?

Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, for its daftness, the silly rhymes, and Alice’s precociousness, which naturally as a child I thought was a mature and captivating state worth aiming for. I still pick it up every so often and read Carroll’s poems aloud to whichever unfortunate is in the house with me at the time. And The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson. That one stayed with me quite some time. I found “my” edition in a second-hand bookshop in Cork a couple of years ago and bounced the length of the South Mall, I was so thrilled.

And what is your favourite book or books now?

I’m rather zealous about Hubert Selby Jr when I get going. I would have to choose between Last Exit To Brooklyn, which is so vivid, so boisterous and yet so desperately grim, and The Demon – I doubt there’s a book out there that so successfully captures the mundanity of self-destruction. But certainly not The Room. I’m glad I read it and it pushed me in the way important literature should, but I’ve got scars now in my brain.

What is your favourite quotation?

Selby again: “The writer has no right to be there in the work. I don’t have any right to impose myself between the people I’m creating on the page and the reader... the responsibility of the artist is to transcend the human ego.”

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Heathcliff. Lord knows how such a triumphant reprobate ever became shorthand for “passionate romantic”. He’s a perfect villain: frightening both in his capacity for brutality and his intelligence but too vulnerable to dismiss as a monster. You’d cross the county to avoid him. And he’s got all the best lines.

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

I grew up in Gort and Coole Park, the home of Lady Gregory, is about a mile outside the town. Yeats’ Thoor Ballylee is only down the road too, so growing up, local history was literary history. At school we would learn that Lady Gregory was an important patron to all of these influential writers, but her own art was very much overshadowed by her male contemporaries’. She was a passionate folklorist and translator with a fierce love of the vernacular, and yet for years it seemed to me that her role involved little more making tea and laughing generously at Willie B’s jokes.

If we’re talking contemporary writers, he’s not exactly underrated but I’m convinced we’ll be unveiling statues of Gavin Corbett all over the place in 50 years’ time.

Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?

Oh God, print. It is rare that I read electronic text, unless I’m reviewing my own stuff; I can’t bear to waste the paper and ink to print it. Also you can’t put your Kindle library on bookshelves to make your sitting room more colourful or impress potential sexual partners.

What is the most beautiful book you own?

I have treasured UK first editions of Hubert Selby Jr’s The Room and Requiem For A Dream. I also have six of the beautiful Unseen Library editions of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, which were gifted to me by a very lovely fellow named Jim Daly back in my blogging days. I love Discworld, so these editions have pride of place in casa di McInerney.

Where and how do you write?

I write on a desktop PC in my office (and by office I mean boxroom) at home. I can’t write anywhere else, and am jealous of those who sit typing away in chic coffee places. I stick on some instrumental music (anything with lyrics and I’ll start singing along) and don’t permit myself to clock off until I’ve done about a thousand words.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

Junk, by Melvin Burgess. I read it when I was 15 and it felt like someone had pushed all the walls back 20 feet. Until then I hadn’t realised that I could write about bad decisions, that my characters could be deeply unpleasant or that a downer could be more fulfilling than a happy-ever-after. I didn’t know it was fine to switch from third to first person or jump forwards to the next interesting plot point. I certainly wouldn’t have been brave enough to stay in close-up when characters were about to jump into bed, throw up or get utterly wasted.

What is the most research you have done for a book?

I’m not adverse to research but I tend to tackle it haphazardly, and I’d rather capture mood than detail. For Heresies I did read a lot about the Children’s Court, including Judge Michael Reilly’s reports on St Patrick’s Institution; this didn’t inform many scenes in the book, but it was important I get it right. There’s quite a large chunk of my as-yet-untitled second novel set in and around the clubbing scene in Cork, and so as to get the details correct I bravely and diligently went out on the tear a lot.

What book influenced you the most?

I can divide my childhood writings into pre-Junk and post-Junk; that book made me. These days I find that the books that have the biggest effect on me, creatively, are the ones I find it hard to finish. Something that stirring tends to literally stir me – I flake off and start writing or I pace the floor, thinking aloud and gesturing wildly. It’s why I’m no longer welcome in my local library.

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?

I don’t think there’s a book that would only be appropriate on an 18th birthday, but David Nutt’s Drugs Without The Hot Air might be prudent. It’s a very human thing to want to fiddle with your chemistry, so it’s good to have an avuncular scientist explain exactly what you’re at before you’re at it.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young?

Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. I can’t imagine how well I would have done in the sciences if I’d had Bill explaining them to me before things degenerated to the extent that I plumb didn’t bother to show up for my Leaving Cert chemistry exam, and instead went off to my part-time job in the local Londis. I got into a lot of trouble for that.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Marry someone indecently wealthy. I wish I’d thought of that before I fell in love with a penniless guitarist. More practically, I would advise aspiring authors to stop writing and for their own sakes to find something less difficult, less emotionally draining to do with their lives. If that doesn’t work, then I guess it’s meant to be, rather like me and my penniless guitarist.

What weight do you give reviews?

I’d like to have the ego to answer “None whatsoever”. Look, to review a book someone has to engage with it, and that’s validation. We write so that others will read. At the same time, the writer has to remember that one man’s Ulysses is another man’s Eye of Argon. But if a reviewer is being cruel or needlessly personal it does more harm to the writer than good to know about it.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

I don’t think I’m wise enough to guess. I’m pleased and pacified by the successes of indie publishers and bricks-and-mortar bookshops in recent years, though, and I really hope that continues.

What writing trends have struck you lately?

The personal essay is having a moment, isn’t it? A great personal essay is a beautiful thing. More please. And there’s no harm in going a little gonzo with it, either; they don’t all have to be disarmingly honest. I also love the efforts we’re seeing now at reviving forgotten works – Sinéad Gleeson’s collection The Long Gaze Back with New Island has some wonderful examples of works by writers who, for whatever reason, never took their rightful place in the Irish canon. Notable too is Tramp Press’s Recovered Voices series.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

I don’t know about lessons – is it more that you learn life in its entirety? Reading taught me how to think, and how others thought. I very much got my sense of the world through reading – through books I learned the world went beyond the horizons I could see.

What has being a writer taught you?

Writing forces empathy on you. Especially if you write fiction and employ characters; you’re always looking at the world as it’s experienced by people who are not you. Writers are benevolent dictators, most of the time at least. Conversely, writing has made me very impatient with bigots and reactionaries, so it would probably bring me eventual peace if I were to write a novel cast entirely with obstinate chauvinists.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Nigel Slater can come if he cooks. Seán O’Casey, because according to Lady Gregory’s staff he didn’t have a gentleman’s table manners, so he sounds like my kind of chap. Mallory Ortberg, for no better reason than I love her. Tom Bissell, on the off-chance he may tell me wondrous things that he couldn’t disclose in The Disaster Artist. And Ayn Rand, so we could make her do the washing-up.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read?

I can’t pick one scene, but Saga, the comic book series by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples is stunning, in that it swings between hilarity and heartbreak and left me breathless with tears rolling down both cheeks. Then last year I made the mistake of reading the opening pages of Gavin Corbett’s Green Glowing Skull in public.

What is your favourite word?

Noodeenaw is beautiful. I do like a Hiberno insult. We should use them more often. I’m also fond of any English word that has an extra meaning in Hiberno: shift; savage; septic; minerals; notions. My English editor was most confounded by “press” as a synonym for cupboard.

If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?

I can’t see myself ever writing a historical novel, but should the notion take me I suppose it would have to be Coole Park and Thoor Ballylee in the 1920s. I’d do the Irish Literary Revival and the birth of our republic alongside a load of silliness involving Yeats’ love of occultism. I’d send him off to look for the Spear of Destiny.

What sentence or passage or book are you proudest of?

Right now I’m at that stage with Novel 2 where it’s still potentially great and I can see all of the textures I could add to it – give it another month, when the line edits start, and I’ll be plagued by Writer’s Woe. On a darker note I’m quite proud of having written the chapter “What Tara Did” in Heresies, simply because it details such an unpleasant experience I wasn’t sure I’d manage to write it at all. I still feel that I chickened out a little on it.

What is the most moving book or passage you have read?

Mark Dunn’s Ella Minnow Pea I found affecting – an epistolary novel about a dystopian erosion of language, a subject matter possibly too close to the bone for a writer. I also found myself frequently stunned by Lorrie Moore’s writing in Who Will Run The Frog Hospital, especially this, on atrocities: “There is no place to put such facts, not properly. There is only one’s own mournful horror, one’s worthless moral vanity – which can do nothing. The bad news of the world, like most bad news, has no place to go. You tack it to the bulletin board part of your heart. You say look, you say see. That is all.”

If you have a child, what book did you most enjoy reading to them?

The Gruffalo. Or Clarice Bean, That’s Me. In fact, we still have them both, so I might just go read them aloud to whichever unfortunate is in the house with me right now.

Lisa McInerney was born in 1981 and just about grew up to be a writer of contemporary fiction. Her short stories have featured on BBC Radio 4, in The Stinging Fly, and in the anthologies The Long Gaze Back, edited by Sinéad Gleeson, and Town and Country, edited by Kevin Barry. The Glorious Heresies is her first novel.

The Glorious Heresies is published in paperback by John Murray, at £8.99. As always, Hodges Figgis is offering a 10 per cent discount to Irish Times Book Club readers. Come and listen to Lisa McInerney read from her novel and discuss it with Martin Doyle, Assistant Literary Editor of The Irish Times, at the Irish Writers’ Centre, Parnell Square, Dublin, on Thursday, March 24th, at 7.30pm. Tickets €5/€3 in advance, or €7 on the door, to include a glass of wine.

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