‘I grew up in a weird Irish bubble. There is a lot about loss in my books’
Martin Doyle interviews award-winning Birmingham Irish novelist Catherine O’Flynn
Catherine O’Flynn: “it’s often themes and atmospheres I’m keen to get across. I quite like books that don’t have much of a plot.”
If Catherine O’Flynn were a stick of rock, the sort her father might once have sold in his sweet shop, running through the middle would be the words Birmingham Irish, for while England’s second city, her birthplace, is as much a character in her first two novels as a setting, there is something quintessentially Irish about her sensibilities.
It may seem an incongruous comparison, but having recently read Glasgow Irish comedian Frankie Boyle’s autobiography, My Shit Life So Far, full of black humour and loathing, it strikes me that O’Flynn is his antithesis, her books life-affirming and uplifting, inspecting her characters and her city but with affection, her wry, sardonic humour avoiding sentimentality.
“This is a real concern of mine,” laughs the author. “One interviewer described me as hugely likeable and now my husband always refers to me as the hugely likeable Catherine O’Flynn.”
O’Flynn’s own story is appropriately heart-warming. Her first novel, What Was Lost, was rejected by 19 publishers before it was published by Tindal Street, a small local publisher, in 2007, winning the Costa First Novel Award and Galaxy British Book Newcomer of the Year Award among others and being longlisted for the Booker and Orange Prizes.
What Was Lost is a wonderful read, poignant yet funny, a mystery in two parts about a girl who goes missing in a shopping centre in 1984 and the people who try to discover what happened to her 20 years later. It is also a portrait of a changing city and a society’s obsession with consumerism.
The News Where You Are, O’Flynn’s 2010 novel, begins not with a disappearance but a death, that of a TV presenter in a mysterious hit and run, and a former colleague’s attempt to get to the bottom of it. Beneath an awkwardly corny screen persona, Frank is a decent family man tormented by an all-pervading sense of loss – the mysterious death of his predecessor Phil; the demolition of his architect father’s brutally ugly buildings; the constant drip of stories of elderly people dying alone and unnoticed for weeks in the city; and his relentlessly miserable mother in a nursing home.
If that all sounds depressing, it isn’t, because O’Flynn imbues her writing with a lot of observational humour and amusingly perceptive ruminations on the vagaries of modern life.
O’Flynn was born in Birmingham in 1970. Her mother, from Oylegate, Co Wexford, was a teacher, while her father, from Hillstreet, Co Roscommon, ran a sweet shop in Nechells, “a bit like Arkwright in Open All Hours”. There was a nine-year gap between Catherine, “the mistake”, and her next youngest sibling.
“The character Maureen [Frank’s mother] is to some extent based on my mum. My mum was a very intelligent, well-read woman but she was also almost comically melancholy. She could find something sad in the most innocent thing. You realise it’s not normal for your parents to be always reading the obituaries in a newspaper first. I don’t know how much that was to do with leaving Ireland when she was young, the dislocation. As I get older I sometimes find myself thinking like her, being wistful and melancholy. She’d always say how she cried the day she found out she was pregnant with me. She was very lovely to me growing up, I think it’s fine she was honest that I wasn’t actually planned.”
O’Flynn grew up in “a weird Irish bubble”. “My parents were Irish, the primary school I went to, St Joseph’s, all the teachers were Irish, 90 per cent of my classmates were Irish, the priest was Irish and the parish was very Irish too. We were living in inner-city Birmingham but it was a very densely concentrated Irish immigrant area. By the time I went to secondary school in a different area it was a bit of a culture shock for me because people there thought I had an Irish accent.
“I never felt the need to be over the top about it, like some people do if they feel a bit insecure about their identity. I always just felt very comfortable that that was my background and who I was.”
O’Flynn was only four at the time of the Birmingham pub bombings in 1974 but she remembers the after-effects. “It had a personal resonance for us because one of the pubs that was bombed, the Mulberry Bush, my sister went there every week with a friend and for whatever reason at the last minute they didn’t go there, so it felt very close to home for my parents and my family. At the same time my dad ran a sweet shop, he had always had good relations in the area but a short time after the bombings he had one or two phone calls threatening him, which upset him quite a lot. I was reminded of it recently by the 9/11 situation, which led to suspicion of all Muslims. Then there were suspicions against every Irish person.”
Might a future book address that Irish heritage? “I tend to write about contemporary things,” she says. “I think it comes out in more generalised ways. In What Was Lost, I didn’t make a big thing about it but all the names were Irish because clearly that was the background she was coming from. There is a lot about loss in my books. I think anyone who moves from one country to another like my parents, there is a lot of loss, of melancholy, of nostalgia. I think that affected my writing a lot.”
O’Flynn was also deeply affected by the early deaths of her parents. Her father died of a stroke at the age of 64 when she was only 16 and her mother died just after she graduated.
“My parents worked really hard all their lives. My mum had almost three jobs, teaching, helping out in the shop and bringing up six children. Both died before they got a chance to enjoy retirement. It turned me off the idea of a career, giving over your life to work, that kind of deferring of happiness. In some ways that ties in with my generation being seen as a bit slackerish, a bit lazy.”
So despite her degree in sociology and anthropology, she adopted a philosophy of working to live, not living to work, “not in any grand hippyish way, just doing low-level jobs that didn’t make me unhappy like admin or working in a shop”.
She worked briefly as a music journalist, then for HMV in a shopping mall, where she became fascinated by the difference between the daytime buzz and the eerie silence after it shut. She began making notes, observing the customers she was serving. She and her husband sold their house and moved to Barcelona for a year after realising they didn’t have to win the lottery to live their dreams. While there, she began writing What Was Lost.
Barcelona is one of Europe’s hippest cities. Birmingham ... isn’t. Yet O’Flynn likes it.
“I’m very fond of Birmingham, partly because it’s always been undervalued a little bit, always looked on as a bit of an embarrassment. Unlike other cities like Liverpool and Manchester I think Birmingham is a lot more self-deprecating. The thing I love about Birmingham is it’s always had this huge mix of ambition and insecurity, to be the city of the future but always changing its mind about what that future should be and erasing past mistakes. I find it quite moving to come across fragments of former dreams - their 1960s plan, their 1970s plan. Things get demolished very quickly.”
Nechells was an industrial wasteland of concrete and canals that doubled as a vast playground for her growing up. Today the blanks have all been filled in but she misses the gaps. “I grew up at a time in between things, when the factories were closing down and being demolished but before the shopping centres, it was just a big blank. To go back where I grew up is utterly changed, quite disorienting really, loss is probably too strong but it makes you feel cut adrift.”
O’Flynn was working as a postwoman when she got the inspiration for her second book, making notes about buildings she passed which were due for demolition. Her research led her to the Rubble Club, a group of architects whose buildings have been demolished in their lifetime, the ultimate dashing of dreams of a legacy when even concrete turns to dust.
Her TV presenter Phil cannot face growing old – he is “all for facelifts and when that stops working then I’m afraid it’s time for demolition”. There is a parallel with one of Frank’s father’s buildings, which has had its own facelift, “a cheap Eighties fascia on a Seventies building”, and now awaits the wrecking ball. Frank, like O’Flynn, believes that the past should be preserved, not erased, and opposes this architectural euthanasia. “Birmingham was trying to change its reputation for the way it treated its architectural heritage: the famous lack of sentimentality that bordered on self-harm”.
Likewise, he cannot bear the thought that someone might die and not be mourned or even missed. “What remains is our absence, that’s what I feel really, a gap,” says O’Flynn. “When a building goes you’re aware of this gap in the landscape.”
Serving a local TV presenter with a cheesy reputation in HMV also got her thinking. “What must it be like gong through life knowing people think you’re an idiot. I’ve got a real fondness for books like Kurt Vonnegut’s about characters who are really underestimated by everybody.”
The News Where You Are has been well received, but one reviewer suggested the plot could have been stronger. O’Flynn is unapologetic. “When I start thinking what I want to write about it’s often themes and atmospheres I’m keen to get across. I quite like books that don’t have much of a plot. In some ways for me as a reader the less plot the better, but that’s because the writers I like have a strong enough style to carry that off. I’m not sure if I have. I’m just starting out.”
Catherine O’Flynn’s debut children’s novel, Lori and Max, is published by Firefly Press, at £6.99. Her other books are What Was Lost, The News Where You are and Mr Lynch’s Holiday.This article was first published in The Irish Post in 2010.