It’s hard to believe Longford-born author Belinda McKeon’s first novel,Solace, came out just last year. Gaining rave press reviews, her book (published by Scribner in the US and Picador in Ireland, Australia and the UK) has most recently been shortlisted for the 2021 James Tait Black Memorial Prize in Fiction, as well as the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year 2012.
But when did all the success begin for this young Irish writer?
McKeon first started writing stories when she was about eight or nine, “just to entertain myself.” By fourth class, a teacher had told her that if she wanted to write, she’d need a job too, and to consider journalism. McKeon says that writing existed for her “at a very primary level” at that time, and she always found it a very “natural” escape.
She then went on to study literature, as an English and Philosophy undergraduate at Trinity College Dublin, as an MLitt student at University College Dublin and as an MFA in Fiction postgraduate at Columbia University. She reveals that her academic foray into writing wasn’t as carefully planned out as it might appear. “At 16, when I was filling out my CAO forms, all I knew was that I wanted to spend more time reading and thinking about books than the Leaving Cert English curriculum allowed for.” She loved the “absolute immersion in novels, poems, plays and ideas” that university brought, describing it as “intoxicating and fulfilling in a way I’d not experienced before.”
However, her own writing became very much sidelined during her third-level education. Although she had a story published in the college magazine and did workshops with some of the writers-in-residence (including Deirdre Madden, Marina Carr and Medbh McGuckian), she was focused on writing about what she was reading, particularly as a philosophy postgraduate student. “In terms of what it taught me as a writer: a lot, but in a fairly unconscious way (I was just absorbing everything), which I’m glad about. There’s nothing I wish I did differently at that time, except maybe finish some of the things I was working on instead of being too afraid to do so, but maybe that was just as well.”
By the time she’d reached her mid-twenties, McKeon was establishing herself as a successful journalist, and it was at that point that she considered pursuing the MFA. “I’d reached the stage of not being able to let my own writing stay in the background like that anymore; when I say ‘not able’, I mean not happy, not okay about doing that, feeling increasingly uneasy about not concentrating on it, increasingly…kind of empty.” The structured course at Columbia and her decision to move away became a way for McKeon to “face up” to her writing talent and not let it remain hidden any longer.
Having a first novel being named the Kirkus Outstanding Début of 2011, the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book of the Year 2011 at the Irish Book Awards, and winner of the Sunday Independent Best Newcomer Award, would be high praise for any writer. It’s most certainly “a boost,” she smiles, although “what matters more is always the next [project] you’re working on, which is always going badly!” She finds this sort of literary encouragement, though, makes it “easier” to return to one’s work-in-progress.
McKeon divides her time nowadays between New York and Ireland. She sees New York as her workplace, “where my desk is,” and states that it offered her the headspace to make her writing more of a priority again. It’s difficult for her to concentrate when she writes in her home country. “I can’t settle. [New York] is a busy city, to put it mildly, but for me it’s a quiet place to work.” She admires the American “passion” for top-quality writing. The Irish literary scene seems “vibrant” to her, “whenever I get a glimpse of the younger end of it,” while the New York scene appears to consist “mainly of parties in Housing Works Bookstore where people half-talk to one another while looking over one another’s shoulders for someone better to talk to. May it never change!” she laughs.
Her writing happens in one of three places: “My desk at home in Brooklyn, my local café (formerly the sadly-departed Boneshakers, now Café Royal in Greenpoint), or the Rose Reading Room of the New York Public Library. I can write elsewhere, and often have to – in whatever Irish house I happen to be in, or in a hotel, or on a train – but I prefer to be in one of those places; I feel more grounded there, and the work happens at a steadier, more natural pace.” She writes best in the mornings, starting in longhand before transferring her writing to a computer, partly because she feels it’s “more creative” for her to do it that way and partly because she’d check her e-mail “every 0.39 seconds” otherwise. “At the beginning of the week, on a big desk diary, I block out the hours in which I have to write, and I find that simple act of stating the timetable forces me to show up and get to work.”
She says she would definitely consider e-publishing, but for now she’s “very happy” with the traditional route. “I don’t know how I would manage the amount of extra work that often goes with e-publishing – design, marketing, etc. – while still being able to maintain steady concentration and progress,” she declares. “But I have an e-reader, and I use it often; I find it especially good for short form fiction, and I think there are really interesting things happening and yet to come in terms of [self-publishing].”
Not only has McKeon made her name as a novelist, her articles have been published in many journals and newspapers including The Paris Review, The Guardian and The Irish Times. As well as these remarkable achievements, she has a flourishing career as a playwright (under commission to Dublin’s Abbey Theatre). She doesn’t find any one of them easier than the next. “It all comes down to voice, [so] I’m not conscious of there being a huge difference between them.” She has recently curated Ireland’s largest poetry festival – DLR Poetry Now in Dun Laoghaire, from 2008-2011 – and many literary events in America, including the New York Irish Arts Centre Poetry Festival in 2011.
She was approached to curate Poetry Now, which was her first taste of that kind of event curation and gave her a desire to do more of it. “I found that I loved the work; it was stimulating and satisfying. It feels like […] an alchemy made of various voices, various styles, and it’s something I just enjoy immensely. Bringing international writers to Ireland, some for the first time, was very rewarding, but it is even more rewarding to be able to bring great Irish writers to the U.S., to audiences here who are keen to know more about what’s happening in contemporary Irish writing. So it’s work that I intend to keep doing, if I’m let…”
Belinda McKeon lists a variety of works and authors that have been inspirational to her, from Chekhov, Bellow, Edna O’Brien, Mary Lavin, Alice Munro, Alistair MacLeod, William Trevor, Deborah Eisenberg, Amy Bloom, Roald Dahl, Robin Black to James Joyce. Her next work will be a novel, “set between Dublin and New York.” The best advice she can give to prospective authors is “read a lot and write a lot.”
You can catch Belinda McKeon speaking at Listowel Writers’ Week May 31 2012, at 3pm.