Careless by Nature
An interview with Christine Dwyer Hickey
‘I remember when I was very small saying to my mother, “I think I’ll be a writer,” and she said, Why?” horrified because my parents knew a lot of writers and their lives wouldn’t have been exactly secure. I said, “I think I’m good at making up stories,” and she said, “Oh, you’re good at that, all right.”
Dwyer Hickey had a ‘chaotic enough’ childhood, attending several different schools. ‘I was thrown out of one of them. One I was leaving anyway, but if I hadn’t been leaving I probably would have been thrown out.’ There were forty girls in the class in the second national school she attended, and they were ‘bullied into learning Irish − no art, no anything’. And then, at the age of ten, she attended a local boarding school. ‘My family life wasn’t great, so I was glad to get out. My parents did split up eventually, but they were practising splitting up for quite a bit of time first, you know. My mother didn’t want me to go, but my father thought it would be a good idea. And it was. It was ridiculous really, because we only lived about four miles away.’
‘You did drama every day, you did painting every day. So I went from being the second stupidest girl in my class to always being in the top three. I got a gold star, I couldn’t believe it. Anyway, I wrote all about this inTatty…’
Afterwards, she went to a commercial college for young ladies, which was a disaster. ‘I lasted about three months.’ Her dad, who was a self-employed contractor, said, ‘Well, you’re not sitting on your arse around here, you can come out and work for me.’ So at the age of fifteen she was working as a labourer. ‘A great life altogether, but it was a hard life. It was grand for a while – paid for a few flagons of cider – but then I decided to go back to school and did my Leaving Cert.’ She was seriously ill with pneumonia for a good deal of that year, and then decided to take a year off before going to college. ‘I got pregnant at the same time, and that was it, that was the end of that!’
Christine’s father, who died in 1995, was a big influence on her. It was he who got custody of the kids after her parents split up. ‘He hadn’t a clue how to go about it, but he did his best, he muddled through. I still miss him after all these years, I have to say.’ Her father was a frustrated writer and, Dwyer Hickey says, a compulsive talker. ‘His family circumstances dictated his life, that he had to get out and work as early as he could, and had to leave school, and I think he resented that a bit because he was clever.’ Her parents were friends with Patrick Kavanagh, Brendan Behan, Liam O’Flaherty … ‘You know, all these people were at their wedding’. Her father once gave Patrick Kavanagh one of his poems to look at, and Kavanagh told him to stick to what he knew best, making money – which he did, but he also ‘gambled a lot of money, and he drank a lot of money’. ‘But’, Dwyer Hickey is quick to point out, ‘he had a lot of good points too. A very complex man. I was very pleased that my first book was published before he died – the year he died, actually.’ ‘You’re never going to make it,’ was what he said when he read the novel for the first time, repeating it three times. When she asked why, he said, ‘You’re too good.’
In 1992, by which time Christine had three small children, as well as her little brother living with her and her husband, she decided she would do a half an hour of writing a day, ‘no more, no less, for three months, and then I’d increase it to an hour a day, and I’d do that for a year, and if I hadn’t had some success in that year I’d give up. Up to that I’d fobbed myself off with, oh, you need four hours a day, you need solitude, which was nonsense. So I did that, and then I won the Listowel Writers’ Short Story Competition. And that was the biggest hit I’ve ever had in my life.’ She rang her husband Denis to tell him the news but was so overwhelmed she couldn’t talk. ‘He thought my dad had died, because I was crying on the phone.’
She and Denis went to Listowel, where she collected her £500 prize money. ‘We came home with four quid. We spent it all! We were in bits coming back. Listowel is hard going.’ They were so keen to go back to the festival that she thought she’d chance her arm and enter the competition again the following year – and won again. ‘I was very tempted to keep doing it!’
That same year she also won an Observer/Penguin competition. ‘So then I decided to try a novel. So that was it. Just kept at it.’
Six novels in, her children are grown up and she has more time to write in her home in Palmerstown in Dublin. Her son has started his own theatre production company called The Dice-players. ‘I thought one was going to be a stage designer and the other was going to be a musician,’ she says of her two daughters. ‘But I’m ashamed to tell you – one is a solicitor and one is a barrister!’ Christine is currently writing a play for her son’s production company. ‘I think acting is very similar to writing. When I’m writing a character I pretend I’m that character. I wanted to be an actress when I was younger.’
She wasn’t very well last year or the year before, as her immune system was affected by the pneumonia she had as a teenager. ‘I started to think about dying, I got a bit panicky. There are lots of things I’d love to try. I know I have to keep writing. If I don’t write for a month I start to feel uneasy. It gives my mind peace.’ When asked what else she could have been, she says that she would love to be a painter. ‘Whenever I finish a book I do a little painting. When the kids were small I remember going to the National Gallery, and the kids going “There’s Mammy’s painting! There’s Mammy’s painting!” because I used to do copies.’
She spends about three months of the year in their apartment in Italy, which is where her most recent novel, Last Train from Liguria, is set. They bought the apartment back in the nineties, after remortgaging their house in Dublin. ‘The place was a total tip, but the view was brilliant. We were always being told how dodgy the Italians were. When we were buying the apartment it was all, come to the bank with brown envelopes, make this cheque out to my maid, this one to my grandmother, and you’re thinking, oh Jesus. But they were fantastic. The only thing is they’re overly fussy. They’d ring you in the middle of the night to know if you wanted roundy light switches or square ones, and what colour.’
Her new book, The Cold Eye of Heaven, is set in Dublin, and is about one man’s life, going back decade by decade through the chapters, from 75 to when he was a baby. ‘It is also the story of Dublin – how much it’s changed.’ Reading Strumpet City by James Plunkett and Ulysses by James Joyce the year of her Leaving Cert made her realise that ‘you could use your city. They both used the city of Dublin so well. Joyce still is something of an influence. It’s not his use of language, it’s the way he reproduces his environment.’
‘I feel content with this new book,’ she says of Cold Eye, which will be published in the autumn. This one just happened almost without my noticing.
Although she is a lover of books, Dwyer Hickey recalls with shame how, as a young girl at boarding school, she cut out the flyleaves of several books in their house, including one that was signed by Patrick Kavanagh, and gave them to one of the nuns, thinking it would impress her. ‘We were a careless family by nature,’ she says. ‘Nobody even noticed.’
© The Moth, Issue 4 (spring 2011)
The Moth was launched at the Flat Lake Festival in June 2010 'in a small tent where guests could sketch with pastels and drink absinthe' (Irish Times).
The quarterly arts & literature magazine features poetry, short fiction and pictures by established and up-and-coming writers and artists from Ireland and abroad.
'The Moth is a rare gem ... Something quite special has been created by O'Connor and Govan, not only in the exceptional content of the magazine, but also in the elegantly set print and pages.' (Totally Dublin)
The Moth is available by subscription worldwide and through good bookshops and newsagents in Ireland. For more information contact:
The Bog Road Dromard Cavan Co Cavan Ireland
00 353 (0)87 2657426 or 00 353 (0)49 4366020