As part of my TCD MPhil in Creative Writing course, we had a class called “The Practice of Writing”, a one hour class where established writers would come into the class and talk about what the practice of writing involved for them. This week’s featured writer is Mary Morrissy. Mary Morrissy is an award-winning Irish novelist and short story writer. She is the author of three novels, including her latest, The Rising of Bella Casey. She currently teaches the MA in Creative Writing at University College Cork.
Morrissy begins by saying that Joseph O’Connor resists being called a historical novelist (he has been quoted as saying “I actually hate historical fiction”), and she’s noticed that she does, too. “Like it’s some strange calamity that happened along the way,” she says. “Why do I think it has to be justified somehow?” But she notes that Hilary Mantel doesn’t resist it. And when you think of it, she says, all writing recounts events. “In one sense, all fiction is historical.”
It took a while for Morrissy to move from short stories to novels because, “I was horrified by the length of them. How can I keep something going for so many pages? Everything you learn about short fiction you have to unlearn with novels.” The short story is where many writers begin, she says, but it’s much harder than writing novels. The only advantage is that it is short. “My fear was that, having written short fiction for a decade or more, that there wouldn’t be enough. The only way around that was writing.”
She was three-quarters of the way through her grim, realistic first novel, and she put an angel into it – to her agent’s dismay. It was because she met a man who was writing a fantasy novel about angels. “What if he’d been writing about bears?” the agent asked her. So, for her next book (which would become her first published book, Mother of Pearl), Morrissy decided to write about real events: a woman who stole babies in the 1950s. “I was just fascinated by that story. I thought, ‘I know there’s enough in this for a novel.'”
“I didn’t want to get bogged down in place,” Morrissy says, “for people to say there was no shop on that street in Dublin in the 1950s.” So she created a fictional place where the north side of the city stood for Belfast and the south for Dublin. Morrissy’s latest novel The Rising of Bella Casey, on the other hand, is very much a Dublin novel, for which she did a lot of research.
Historical work is often about real people, she says, “And that is its own responsibility … ‘How much can you lie?’ is the real question. The great advantage of historical fiction about real people is that they’re dead. Legally, you’re quite safe, but there is a responsibility still about writing about real people. My ethics about writing about real people is that you remain faithful to what is known about them. Where there are gaps, it’s okay for you to invent.” When people ask her what parts of a historical novel she created, the response is, “It’s fiction. It’s all made up. I tend not to answer the question. I want to say, ‘You decide which bits I made up, and didn’t.'” Often, “people take the fictional and that’s the only version [of history] they know. … People are really hungry for truth and truth in fiction gives it more authenticity or grip or something, but then they believe in fiction over fact.”
Morrissy is asked why she shifted from journalism to fiction. She says she wrote fiction before she was a journalist, and as a journalist working on fiction on the side, she “wrote quietly.” She also did a journalism correspondence course. The only assignment that received garrulous comments was the last one, a short story. The correspondence tutor asked if she’d ever been interested in becoming a writer, and it sparked something: “It certainly wasn’t part of my culture to have ambitions to be a writer. I didn’t know any writers. The idea of announcing at home that I was going to be a writer would have been like I was announcing I would be a stripper.” When Morrissy began writing fiction seriously, she became a newspaper copyeditor: “Great training … It makes you unsentimental.”
Morrisy is asked how much she worries about what readers will think of the way she portrays real people. She says she often changes characters so much that they’re not recognizable. In working on Bella Casey, Morrissy was conscious of Shivaun O’Casey, Sean O’Casey’s living daughter and protector of his legacy. “But no,” she says, “to answer your question, nobody has come after me yet.”
She is asked how she balances writing and research, and which comes first. “I do the writing and find out what I need to know, and then I do the research.” She says she does not particularly enjoy research but that it has gotten easier. “Now you can Google. You don’t have to go to the Imperial War Museum anymore.”
Morrissy rewrote Bella Casey many times. It began as a first-person narrative, with the idea of giving Bella a chance to correct the record. Then it became about the relationship, what it feels like to be depicted by your sibling on the page. So she rewrote it, again. “I think you develop a sixth sense about the kind of book you want to write. When you’re starting, you don’t know whether your instincts are right. You develop that after lots of writing and rejection. I think [Bella Casey] could have worked as a first-person narrative, but nobody was going to publish it that way … That’s what’s so hard about writing a novel. The only way to know it’s the right way is to write it.”
Finally, Morrissy is asked about making a living as a writer: “I never expected to,” she replies. She left journalism in 2000 because she had opportunities to teach. She did freelance editing and says “there have been lean periods … I don’t know how you make your living, or if you make your living on something entirely different and what you make from writing is a bonus. … Sometimes I think it’s a mistake to work on something that’s very close to writing.” Morrissy cites Dennis O’Driscoll who was a poet and a career civil servant. “Sometimes I think that would be liberating,” she concludes.