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Fallen: Lia Mills on Writing Historical Fiction

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Lia Mills © 12 June 2014.
Posted in the Magazine ( · Historical Fiction · Interviews ).
fallen lia mills

The books I’ve written up to now have been responses to contemporaneous events: Another Alice was written during a litany of sexual violence cases that surfaced in Ireland in the early 1990s. Nothing Simple, an emigration story set in the 1980s, was written when everyone was getting exercised about the surprising phenomenon of immigration – it was the last thing we expected, that people would ever want to come to Ireland in search of work and a better life, we were far more used to leaving for those same reasons. We forgot that only a few years earlier practically every Irish family had someone living and working abroad, often illegally. We forgot that host countries weren’t universally delighted to have us. I had fun with turning some of the stereotypes inside out because so many of the accusations were familiar to me, having lived in London and in America for years and experienced the same kinds of prejudices in reverse. Now look what’s happened: emigration is back. (Nothing Simple is out-of-print, but it’s about to reissue as an ebook.)

My next book, In Your Face, was a complete shift – an immediate, as-it-happened account of a diagnosis of mouth cancer and everything that followed it. So why did I decide to go with a historical subject for my new novel, Fallen? It wasn’t a calculated or even a rational decision. A nagging idea was interfering with my sleep, about what it might have been like to be a Dubliner in 1916 during the Easter Rising, if you didn’t know what was going on.

lia millsThe Rising

On Easter Monday, 1916, while WWI was raging, a group of Irish men and women took over key buildings and civic spaces in Dublin in the name of an Irish republic that didn’t yet exist. It took six days of street fighting and siege for British forces (many Irishmen among them) to force a surrender. During that time a large part of the city centre was destroyed by shelling and by fire. The city was under martial law: there were road blocks, food shortages, a curfew. Hundreds of people were killed and injured.

If you were to draw a rough circle around the area where most of the fighting took place, its circumference would intersect two streets, roughly a mile and a half apart, where my parents were starting life. Along its northern arc, my mother was a toddler living over her father’s shop on Parnell Street, a street bordered by tenements and some of the worst slums in Europe. My father’s family were on Merrion Row; he would be born ten weeks later.

Parnell Street was on the edge of an area where there were days of looting and raging fires. The British Army gathered there in force to subdue the Rising’s central headquarters in the General Post Office on O’Connell Street. Padraig Pearse surrendered there; one of the romantic heroes of the week, the O’Rahilly, died in a doorway nearby after writing a last loving letter to his wife; and on the first night after the surrender, the men who had surrendered – many of them neighbours of my grandparents – were held captive in the Rotunda Gardens across the street.

I don’t know what either set of grandparents thought or felt about any of these events, but that week must have been terrifying. Fallen grew out of an attempt to imagine what it might be like when the streets of your home town suddenly erupt in a murderous chaos you don’t understand and over which you’ve no control.

The Novel

At first I thought I’d write the story from the perspective of an activist or an artist, like some of the women whose work I’d studied and taught in a previous existence. Those women were fantastically interesting and dynamic, they deserve to have their stories told. But every word I wrote felt wooden, programmed, politically correct, stolen. The story wouldn’t lift off the page; it was too weighted down by ideology. So I moved the activists off to the side and let a young woman called Katie loose to explore the space between them. In the end it seemed more interesting to look at an imagined version of the Rising through the eyes of someone who is conflicted and confused, who doesn’t have the benefit of knowing what’s going on or where it might end.

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The novel opens in Dublin, 1914, soon after WWI begins. Katie Crilly (22) is trying to figure out what to do with her life, given the constraints of the world she lives in. She’s appalled when her twin brother (Liam) goes off to fight in the war with the British army, as many Irishmen did. When the Rising begins in April 1916, she’s past caring about her future because Liam has been killed. She takes shelter with friends and meets Hubie Wilson, who’s been discharged from the army with wounds. Both of them are damaged, both are wary and combative. The novel is about the impact they have on each other and the choices they make as the city catches fire and burns around them.

The story of the Rising is fundamental to our sense of who we are, in Ireland. It’s a story I’ve loved and thrilled to since childhood. At first I told myself to stay well clear of it. But isn’t it the job of a writer, to ask awkward questions, shake things up a little? This is my fourth book and every single one of them has made me feel: I’ll have to leave the country, now – but I’m still here.

(c) Lia Mills

Fallen by Lia Mills  is a remarkable love story amidst the ruins of the First World War and the Easter Rising.
Spring, 1915. Katie Crilly gets the news she dreaded: her beloved twin brother, Liam, has been killed on the Western Front.
A year later, when her home city of Dublin is suddenly engulfed in violence, Katie finds herself torn by conflicting emotions. Taking refuge in the home of a friend, she meets Hubie Wilson, a friend of Liam’s from the Front. There unfolds a remarkable encounter between two young people, both wounded and both trying to imagine a new life. Lia Mills has written a novel that can stand alongside the works of Sebastian Faulks, Pat Barker and Louisa Young.
‘Lia Mills writes superbly about the human heart. This is an historical story with an urgency that is completely modern: Fallen is shot through with the pleasure and the difficulty of being alive’ Anne Enright, winner of the Man Booker Prize
Lia Mills is the author of two previous novels and of a memoir, In Your Face. She lives in Dublin.

Tremendously passionate, vivid and humane … Mills has an exquisite eye for the telling image’ Irish Independent

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About Lia Mills

Lia Mills writes novels, short stories, essays and an occasional blog. Her first novel, Another Alice, was nominated for the Irish Times Irish Fiction Prize.  Her second novel, Nothing Simple, was shortlisted for Irish Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards (2005) and is soon to be reissued as an e-book. In Your Face, a memoir of her diagnosis of – and treatment for – mouth cancer, was named as favourite book of the year by several commentators. Fallen is her third novel.

Lia has worked on several Public Art Commissions and as an arts consultant. She teaches aspects of writing, most recently at the Irish Writers’ Centre and at UCD.

She blogs at http://libranwriter.wordpress.com/

www.liamills.com


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