Martha Long: ‘you need discipline to rein in the imagination’

‘Write from the heart, it will flow much easier, because you are revealing more about yourself then even you knew’

A gold-leafed, leather-bound copy of the entire works of William Shakespeare was given to me when my youngest daughter was only nine. She bargained for it in a charity shop, using her entire savings to buy me it as a birthday present. I want it placed in my coffin when I go for my eternal rest. I’m hoping to impress my maker. I’d say, “Look what I taught meself to read! Wasn’t I marvellous? Now please let me into heaven!”

A gold-leafed, leather-bound copy of the entire works of William Shakespeare was given to me when my youngest daughter was only nine. She bargained for it in a charity shop, using her entire savings to buy me it as a birthday present. I want it placed in my coffin when I go for my eternal rest. I’m hoping to impress my maker. I’d say, “Look what I taught meself to read! Wasn’t I marvellous? Now please let me into heaven!”

 

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

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. This book tells of a world where a government holds sway over the very thoughts of its people. Orwell was an Old Etonian, working then in the foreign office. He clearly picked up something here – a planned new world order.

What was your favourite book as a child?

The Little Match Girl. The story of a poverty-stricken Victorian child who needs to sell matchsticks to feed her family. Through a window, on a dark, cold night, she glimpses a family of children and a table laden with wonderful food. Then, suddenly, the curtains are drawn across the window and the child is left alone in the dark. Desperate for warmth she strikes a match to warm herself and glimpses her grandmother who is waiting to cuddle her and welcome her into her outstretched arms. But in the morning the little girl’s body is found in the snow, surrounded by spent matches, but on her face is a smile – frozen there forever. To me, it meant the girl had found peace and happiness in heaven in the arms of her grandmother. This very poignant and moving story gave me great hope; when I read it I felt perhaps that just around the corner, a better world was also waiting for me.

Yes, that child was like me and many others. We had a lot in common because we also needed the warmth of that flame. I was lucky I found it, and I kept it burning slowly, cosy and nestled at the very heart of me, warming my soul and my spirit. It ebbed and flowed during the long road ahead.

And what is your favourite book or books now?

Vile Bodies and Brideshead Revisited, both by Evelyn Waugh.

What is your favourite quotation?

I told this to my children many a time, but it fell on deaf ears: A fool and his money are soon parted! And for myself? (I Am) Not Waving But Drowning.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Rumpole of the Bailey, a fat, scruffy looking barrister who works at the cheap end of the market, defending small-time petty crooks. His ambitious wife, whom he refers to as She Who Must Be Obeyed, has made it her mission to get him to the top of the tree, a QC, even if it kills her!

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

Sean O’Casey, Dublin playwright and author. His works were banned during the 1920s because the church was outraged at the mention of a “strumpet” (prostitute), a part which was being acted out in one of his plays. The audience stormed out of the theatre and they had the time of their life marching up and down outside the theatre venting their anger. I don’t believe he ever really recovered from this and even today hasn’t received the recognition his brilliant works deserve.

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

The traditional print book. You can take it to bed, cuddle it, or even swank into a room with something like War And Peace by Leo Tolstoy tucked under your arm, thereby letting the world and his wife think you must be some kind of genius to read a book like that. You may not be able to read at all, but who would know? You can’t do that with a bit of plastic, or metal, or whatever it is. What a lark!

What is the most beautiful book you own?

A gold-leafed, leather-bound copy of the entire works of William Shakespeare. It was given to me when my youngest daughter was only nine years old. She bargained for it in a charity shop, using her entire savings to buy me the collection as a birthday present. I want it placed in my coffin when I go for my eternal rest. I’m hoping to impress my maker. I’d say, “Look what I taught meself to read! Wasn’t I marvellous? Now please let me into heaven!”

Where and how do you write?

Perched in the corner of a long sofa with one leg stuck up supporting the laptop. It’s so uncomfortable that it makes me write faster just so that I can let my leg down and take a break. I take my break just a few feet away in the kitchen. There I drink endless cups of tea. I used to have a cigarette or two there but, sadly, the tobacco has all gone up in smoke; I gave it up. Now I content myself by sucking on a bit of plastic in the shape of a ciggie! Not quite the same.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

Writing my debut novel, Run, Lily, Run. As an author of seven autobiographies, I had to step outside myself and my own journey. Writing this novel taught me that you need discipline to rein in the imagination, hone it into one particular aspect of a life, and then let the imagination rip again! Does that make sense? Well, it’s how I see it.

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

For Run, Lily, Run I had to do quite a lot of research, which was a bit of a departure for me, but I enjoyed it.

What book influenced you the most?

Writing my first volume of autobiography, Ma He Sold Me For A Few Cigarettes. A new me was born when I reached the end of that journey. I also saw the effect it had on readers. Many recognised their own hidden child lying dormant, whilst for others it awakened the fearful, helpless child lying deep within the dark labyrinths of their own minds.

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

Something to make them think. The Trial by Franz Kafka. This tells of how an honest, decent man is arrested without warning. It was a day like any other day, he had gone about his business, he had done nothing wrong. Nobody will tell him why he’s been arrested, nobody will answer his questions. But one thing is clear: this man’s freedom has been taken from him and he is in serious trouble. I think this book illustrates what happens when governments are allowed to dictate to ordinary people, and there’s a heavy price to pay when that happens. It’s very easy to allow democracy and freedom to be eroded; things like free speech and the right to decide our own destiny is imperative.

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

The Wind in the Willows – a marvellous book, with animals acting as humans.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Write from the heart, it will flow much easier, because you are revealing more about yourself then even you knew. And don’t try to be clever. Don’t use big words when you can use words that are easily understood.

What weight do you give reviews?

Very little if they don’t like my work!

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

I fear for the future of the traditional book and the independent booksellers. I wish they could group together and fight the big boys.

What writing trends have struck you lately?

There’s Misery Lit, which has actually been around for a while and which focuses on people in tragic circumstances, all searching for an answer to their horribly brutalised childhoods. And then there’s Chick Lit and general romance titles, which don’t suit me at all. Of course, following Fifty Shades of Grey, sex, bondage, power and money has been flying off the shelves, but perhaps that’s calming down a bit now. I hope so! Seems to me people want to fantasise about the things that would terrify them in real life. A man portrayed as masterful and romantic in some books may truly be a monster when experienced in real life.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

Open a book and among its pages I can slip away on a magic carpet and travel the world. Real escapism! And all that without having to leave my armchair. The magic and mystery, adventure, terror, laughter, love and death. It’s all to be found among the pages of a book. How lovely!

What has being a writer taught you?

It has exposed me from the inside out, like looking into a mirror and seeing myself, warts and all. It’s as if I’m now peeled like an onion, layer after painful layer, until I’m left with only my core. I seem to have absorbed a fair amount of knowledge about how people tick, which has helped me to write authentically. I have met the good, the bad, and the truly wonderful.

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

Brendan Behan, sitting next to Patrick Kavanagh. I believe they hated each other; I read somewhere that Behan tormented Kavanagh. Also there would be George Orwell, smoking, coughing and spluttering. He’d be sitting next to Aldous Huxley, who wrote Brave New World. And I’d like also to invite Jean Rhys, who led quite an exciting life. With her there’d be lots of talk about – love, sex and death. She’d be sitting next to Edna O’Brien, who I think would be very interesting and quite used to getting invitations to the best dinner parties. Finally, I’d invite Sean O’Casey and James Joyce. He’d regale us all with stories about how his books were banned! That would be an exciting bunch of people – very entertaining and quite explosive in many ways!

What is the funniest scene you’ve read?

An arrogant character who is on a cruise and who keeps getting it all wrong. First he climbs to the highest diving board, braces himself, puffs up his chest and tries to attract the attention of the women around – all of whom are not taking a blind bit a notice of him. Then he makes the dive, straight into an empty swimming pool. All the water has been drained out. The maintenance men had just drained the pool in order to clean it before filling it up again! I hate pompous show-offs!

What is your favourite word?

Can I have three words? – “I’m home, mum!”

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

Adolf Hitler, to explore what helped him hide his madness, then explode it into a force that would convince a great nation to follow him down the path of terrible destruction. Everything and everyone who was in his path was destroyed, and the legacy of that terrible evil still lives on.

What sentence or passage or book are you proudest of?

My first book, Ma, He Sold Me For a Few Cigarettes.

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

The book written about the Great War, All Quiet On the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque. The guns had thundered without mercy for four long years. These were the last words spoken when they finally grew silent.

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

The Little Prince by Oscar Wilde – which showed another side to the bold Oscar. It was a gentle, kind and caring side, which he hid under a cloak of caustic wit; I believe he had a jaded palate for all things sensual.

I also think my debut novel, Run, Lily, Run, would be a good story to tell. It focuses on the story of two young girls, sisters – Lily, who is just turning seven years old and her sister Ceily, who is barely 12, but who has already been at work for more than a year. When their mother dies suddenly the girls are left alone in the world. Into the picture steps the parish priest, Fr Flitters, and he’s towing behind him people from the NSPCC, “the Cruelty People”. With no one to care for them, the girls seem destined to be locked up in a convent, yet more work fodder or, if you like, child labourers for the church industries. The year is 1949.

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