Kate Holmquist RIP: Falling in love with Ireland

Kate Holmquist, photographed at home in 2013.Photograph: Alan Betson

Kate Holmquist, photographed at home in 2013.Photograph: Alan Betson

 

They say that a novelist has to write a million words before she finds her voice. Add a million doubts and a million tears to the deal and, I've learned the hard way, a novelist is getting close to what it takes to produce an emotionally credible story. All that for something that looks as if it should be so easy, writes Kate Holmquist

Some writers seem to hatch fully formed, their talent spilling on to the page and taking them straight to the top of the bestseller list. Who wouldn't want to be one of those? Hand me a cheque, lock me in a room for a few months et voilà: 400 pages of fiction, done and dusted.

When Michael McLoughlin of Penguin Ireland took me to lunch and proposed that very thing, I thought - breathtakingly naively, as it turned out - that I had it made. I had easily written three million words of journalism, but I soon realised they hadn't been the right sort of words. Journalism is light years from the work of the imagination, which requires you to slide down into your darkest places and deepest insecurities in order to find the light.

The intimidating blank page reminded me that all my life I had been running: from a traumatic childhood, from grief, from myself. I had built a convincing persona as journalist, mother and wife while all along the inner bud of "me" had remained undeveloped. Intent on surviving, I hadn't allowed myself the leisure to learn about "being". When my first attempts at creative prose came across as cold, superficial and unremarkable, I was shocked, having regarded myself - arrogantly, I now see - as emotionally intelligent. But the blank page, and, worse, the awkwardly written one, forced me to confront the reality that, somewhere along the line, I'd lost my true voice.

I'd submerged myself in coping: with my husband's illnesses, with his career, with my own demanding career and children and with a hidden lack of self-confidence. Eventually, the penny would drop, and I would almost unconsciously create a protagonist who - no surprises here - has lost herself in coping, as so many women do. But even that golden nugget took months to mine.

As long as I can remember I've had a voice in my head telling me that my writing is bad. I'd overcome it to become a journalist, but writing from one's inner life is more challenging, because the risks of public embarrassment are higher. The voice re-emerged to become my Darth Vader, and there were times when I had to imagine myself at swords with the voice. The tough feedback I received from Penguin's editorial team, who were determined from the outset to help me write the best book I could, made me cringe until I began to see a pattern emerging. Passages that I had thought about too much didn't work. Writing from that unconscious place I learned to call "the zone" did work. The zone is where the story takes on a life of its own, and the voice is vanquished by a creative pleasure that reminds me of dreams of flying.

Still, the zone had its secrets, and, without realising it, my protagonist, Louisa Maguire, began to repeat, in a different way, my own experience. I grew up in red-brick, working-class, one-murder-a-day Baltimore, where my mother's attempts to remind us that her side of the family, at least, came from somewhere grander did not protect us. When I was 11 a man committed suicide before my eyes. One of my closest childhood friends attempted suicide at the age of 13 (I was the one who got the call), had a baby and had the baby taken away when she tortured it. When Martin Luther King was killed, we watched the city burn from my mother's bedroom window. A few year's later our church pastor stabbed his wife and daughters in their sleep.

My parents, good people, continued their idealistic work. My mother was a teacher in an inner-city school where she was the only Caucasian (although her olive skin was so dark she could pass as a light-skinned black), and my father was a pastor, constantly called out to minister to the dying, the drunk and the insane.

I escaped into music, practising piano four hours a day, playing in competitions, trying to find a way up the ladder and out. For my protagonist the distraction is photography, but the function is the same.

It was Louisa, emerging not as me but as herself, who taught me how painful it is to grow up in madness and never feel a part of normal society. She helped me to have the courage to face the flimsy veil between normal and crazy - a predicament, I've grown to realise, that is experienced by far more people, especially writers, than would care to admit it. And, like me, Louisa escaped with an Irishman who promised her security. Her snap decision, made in youth and passion, gave her plenty of opportunity for leisurely regret, although the consequences for her are starker than they ever were for me. Marrying into another country, without family around you, is a terrible risk. When things go wrong you're on your own, so you develop coping skills that threaten to drown you, as mine did.

I ended up in Ireland not by design but because of a weakness for Irishmen. They do say, though, that home is where they have to let you in. If that's the case, Ireland is my home (despite repeated reminders by immigration at Dublin airport to get my Garda registration up to date). Being "Irish" started 25 years ago, part of a turbulent history of "geographics", as escapes from one's past are known.

Here's a strange story: never in my childhood did I have a connection to Ireland. Yet on my first flight to Europe, heading for Paris, I had one of those moments whose significance becomes clear only in later life. We flew over Shannon, and the pilot pointed out the Cliffs of Moher. I looked down from the tiny window and was overcome by emotion. It was as though everything I had ever loved and lost was somewhere down on that island, as if I was a grieving angel looking down on a past life, beginning, middle and end.

I was first sent to Europe as a teenager to study music on a scholarship - to Paris, Vienna, Salzburg and back to Paris. Then came a spell studying in London, where, at 18, I lived in a bedsit in a house peopled by veiled Pakistani women whose constant cooking filled the shabby terrace with exotic smells. The smell was curry, but I couldn't name it, because I didn't know what curry was.

Like my protagonist, I was as innocent about men as I was about food, and I got hurt - a lot. I was shocked to be regarded as an object, because I had been taught feminism, the French version, at prep school, where we studied French literature in French, taught by a feminist who boasted that she didn't wear knickers and told us to control our weight by eating every second day. Reading Simone de Beauvoir, Anaïs Nin, Jean Genet and Jean-Paul Sartre, we girls were told that the answer to our existential question was that as women we had a right to be in control of our desires. A stunningly naive view, frankly, which did not translate to the real world, where men were in control, as they'd always been. I was very like Louisa, whose feminist mother has taught her the same unrealistic message. Louisa reads de Beauvoir on the beach in the Hamptons while the meaning of the sexual gamesmanship going on around her passes over her head.

God forgive me but for a while I thought I was Anaïs Nin, whose affairs with Henry Miller, Otto Rank and Gore Vidal made her the ultimate muse, while she struggled to have her own work published. Her belief that the ultimate liberation came through writing journals influenced me. I decided that no matter how much relationships hurt, they became art when I wrote them into my diaries - even though the voice was telling me that those diaries weren't worth a toss.

Then it was back to the US, to Oberlin Conservatory and College, in Ohio, where I planned to do a double degree in piano and creative writing. There, I trudged in the snow to my creative-writing class to meet the visiting Irish writer-in-residence - married and older than me by several decades, who enticed me to leave everything behind and live with him in Paris.

Even there, living out my Bohemian fantasy and cooking recipes from the Alice B Toklas cookbook (seriously), I couldn't write anything but gibberish, encouraged by my blue-eyed seducer, whose postmodern prose was gibberish, too. At the apartment, under the eaves at 13 rue Biscornet, I could have found myself, but I was too much of a people-pleaser even then, happy to be a participant in my lover's discovery of himself. On Sunday mornings I would buy up the cheap vegetables, beans and pumpkins at the tented farmers' market, then cook them up into a stew that would last all week, with a few glasses of whatever wine was palatable and cheap. Several Irish writers, including a gracious if bemused Jennifer Johnston, ate bowls of my potage, sitting on cushions on the floor (we had no chairs).

During the day I did dance classes in Montmartre and, at night, in a bizarre dance theatre, surrounded by actors smacking each other with mackerel as part of their routine, I pranced around in a flimsy costume. Now there's a memory. Then I tried to walk home across the cobblestones wearing four-inch high heels.

We'd sit up all night in the tiny apartment of our friends Richard and Anne Kearney, discussing philosophy and writing. I secretly modelled for a photographer (that finds its way into my novel) and at weekends visited friends in Fountainebleu, who regularly fed their neighbour Patricia Highsmith. Highsmith had wizened skin the colour of the nicotine from the Gitanes she chain-smoked and she would watch me from her chair by the fire, a glass of whiskey in hand, refusing to speak. Friends pointed out that she was in love with me but that she would never dare touch.

To my shame, I regarded her as a pathetic figure, and she regarded me, I think, as equally lost. Because she couldn't have me, she took pains to make me feel stupid, and I drew on that experience in my novel. Looking back, she presented a daunting role model as a woman who sacrificed her emotional life in order to become a writer.

The time came for my Irish writer to introduce me to Dublin, where we shared a two-up, two-down in Ringsend with a Catholic priest, across the road from Mary Banotti. We had no money. My 21st birthday was spent hungry and waiting for BBC 1 to come on at 6pm, with a blizzard snowing us in and nothing to eat but the priest's forbidden Penguin bars, which I ate anyway.

When the snow melted, and I could venture out, I fell in love with Dublin, which was still a village. Writers and artists were everywhere, stopping me in the street to talk and drawing me towards avant-garde performances at Project arts centre and steamy coffees in Bewley's on Grafton Street, where the world seemed to stop, the universe to find its centre.

Once in Dublin there was no contact with the outside world apart from blue airmail letters as flimsy as ricepaper and queuing at the single phone box that allowed international calls (for free, if you knew what to do). For the mobile-phone, cheap-flights and internet generation that my children belong to, it's hard to describe the feeling then of choosing a place to be. In those days arriving in a place always held the possibility that the place would consume you and that you would never leave.

Then came the news that my mother was dying of cancer. I returned to the States to try to keep her alive. There were no hospices then and her agony will never leave me, although I have learned as a writer to regard even the worst nightmare as a perverse gift. After she died my hunger to write re-emerged, but still I couldn't find my voice.

I flew back to Dublin. Being lost, I was only too happy to find a place to be; for a while it was Mary Elizabeth and Declan Burke-Kennedy's attic room in Harold's Cross. Mary Elizabeth, who ran the Focus Theatre then, had three beautiful young daughters, one only a baby. I would marvel at her ability to combine motherhood with theatre work. Night after night we would sit by the fire after she got home from a performance.

I remember her telling me that as a Capricorn I would spend a long time struggling to the top of the mountain but that I was sure-footed and would get there eventually. She turned out to be right - in my fiction writing, at least, I'm definitely a late bloomer.

When my paramour and I got our own place, in Rathmines - a renovated period house with bedrooms to spare - I found myself nearly running a B&B, with all the writers, actors and directors passing through. Some writers used us as a kind of safe house, bringing lovers they couldn't bring anywhere else. I made the beds and cooked the meals. Paid for them, too, usually. I baked enormous American cakes, as though somehow their taste would pin us all to the spot and give some meaning to my transient existence, as my relationship with this married man was never going to go anywhere.

The night came when I couldn't take any more and had to leave, escaping through a side door and into the Dublin night, with no money and no possessions, then knocking on Ferdia Mac Anna's door on Mountjoy Square, hoping to God he was there, as otherwise I wouldn't be able to pay the taxi. And that was the night I changed, without even knowing it, from muse to wife and mother.

I got married. A whirlwind romance. From our first date, at the Trinity Ball, me in a vintage dress from Jenny Vanders, Ferdia Mac Anna and I believed that we had finally found our safe place in each other. The illusion of security lasted until he suffered a brain haemorrhage and then cancer. I was more alone than it is possible to be, with no immediate family to support me - but with the love of amazing nurses at St Vincent's, who never let on how sad we must have seemed and let us lie in bed together with the drips hanging out of Ferdia's arms.

We survived. The need for an income drove me towards freelance journalism which I devoted myself to as I had devoted myself to music. Within two years I joined The Irish Times staff thanks to generous editors such as Caroline Walsh and Conor Brady, who saw my potential before I did. Ferdia and I lived in the present, hoping that his recovery would last. He went on to write five books while I had three babies. Writing fiction was a luxury I couldn't afford, childcare fees being what they were. But one writer, Dermot Bolger, of Raven Arts Press, insisted on keeping the window open a crack. He asked me to write a book, which I did: a memoir called A Good Daughter. Dermot promised that one day I would have the chance to use my voice, and I held his belief in my pocket, like a talisman. Then, four years ago, colleague Gerry Smyth reminded me in his gentle way that I wasn't getting any younger, and shouldn't I just try to write and see what happened? Several million words later my first novel is being published.

I've done too much mileage (forty-mumble) to see stars. I do find myself returning to that flight when, like a fallen angel, I looked down on Ireland. Nobody could have foreseen the amazing strides that Irish women would make, or the transformation Irish society would achieve, from a provincial backwater to something approaching California, without the weather, or that I would be part of it. We're all more open now, and the zeitgeist that has women writing energetically and courageously for other women is a part of that. Maeve Binchy started it all, then came Marian Keyes, Cathy Kelly, Alison Jameson, Denyse Devlin, Sinéad Moriarty, Denise Deegan and many others, all re-creating popular fiction as a medium that gets to the heart of things, a way for women to communicate with each other.

So, for me, this is the right time and the right place to express my true voice. First I had to find it, but I truly believe I couldn't have found it anywhere else.

Kate Holmquist's novel, The Glass Room, is published this week by Penguin Ireland, £10.99