Have you ever read a book which moved you so profoundly that you felt, because of it, your own writing would never be the same again?
In the last year, I’ve been lucky enough to read two such books, yet both author and genre-wise they couldn’t have been further apart. The most recent was, Joseph, by John MacKenna, which was recently launched by RTE Radio’s Joe Duffy. MacKenna felt it was about time that Joseph of Nazareth had a voice, and so in this contemporary novel, Joseph – a small-time builder in a small-time town – is for once, the central character. Beginning the novel, I was unsure of exactly what to expect; but what MacKenna delivered, as a writer at the top of his game, was life to such fully-formed and interesting characters that you felt as if you knew them intimately. When the pages drew to an end, I felt myself slowing down, in the hope of somehow holding onto them – even for just a little longer.
It appears, if the reviews are to be believed, that I’m not the only one who feels this way:
‘A consummately skilled author’ – The Guardian
‘MacKenna is one of our most accomplished writers’ – RTÉ Guide
‘A writer whose emotional success rarely falters’ – The Irish Times
MacKenna is the author of sixteen books – novels, short-story collections, memoir, poetry and biography – and a number of radio and stage plays. He is a winner of The Irish Times, Hennessy and Cecil Day Lewis Awards. He is also a winner of a Jacob’s Radio Award for his documentary series on Leonard Cohen and a Worldplay Silver Medal (New York) for his radio play, The Woman at the Window (RTE Radio 1). He lives in Co Carlow and teaches creative writing at NUIM.
We first met briefly, in 2009, but unsurprisingly, he doesn’t remember. Yet for me, at the start of my writing career, it was one of those moments I will never forget: MacKenna presented me with my very first short story award along with a signed copy of his novel, Things You Should Know. And so, all these years later, it was a pleasure to interview him.
He wrote his first play, for the 1966 Easter Rising Commemoration, while in first year in secondary school. “Ray Kearns was my English teacher in St Clement’s in Limerick – an inspirational and open minded man who was much more interested in our expressing ourselves than in worrying about exams. He was and is a wonderful man.” Apparently, he came across the play in an old copybook a few years back, but when I ask if he has any plans to resurrect it for 2016, he puts me straight. “It was nice to make the rediscovery,” he laughs, “but I don’t have any plans for a rerun!”
MacKenna talks fondly of his time in RTE, when he was “blessed to be allowed to make the kinds of programmes I loved making – book programmes, documentaries, education and religious programmes.” He went on to tell me of the fun he had working with Gerry Ryan on a TV series called Secrets. “Joe Taylor and myself made a series of candid camera pieces – it was great fun,” he grins. “Joe and Gerry and myself also made a long running radio series of Three Old Men in a Pub – sketches which were never rehearsed and never scripted but they seemed to catch an audience.”
Jeffrey Archer, who was recently awarded the inaugural International Recognition Award at the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards, commented on MacKenna’s writing in his Prison Diaries. MacKenna told me: “Apparently one or two of my books had made their way into Her Majesty’s Prison Service. He complimented my writing and I had a nice note from him some time later,” says MacKenna.
When I ask if the documentaries and religious affairs programmes he worked on might have fuelled his latest novel, Joseph, MacKenna agrees. “Yes, I think they did. I’d describe myself as an agnostic Quaker with a huge interest in the New Testament and a fascination with the characters of Joseph and Jesus and Paul and Peter. But Joseph,” he continues, “was the man I felt had been written out of history and that’s why I wanted to take him into this century and give him flesh, bones, feelings and a passion for music. I loved writing that book – I felt a huge connection with the character and I felt I understood him and wanted to tell his story. I never tired of him. I can only hope I did him some justice. He’s a good man, a very decent man. I admire him greatly.”
MacKenna’s love of music shines through in this novel, not only interwoven throughout the story, but also with the fact that each chapter has been given a song title. As a big fan of Leonard Cohen, I wondered if he found it difficult to resist giving each chapter a Cohen song title. “I’ve used Leonard’s music in a number of books and I was conscious of resisting that temptation. Joseph is probably more into chart music of the early seventies and he’s a big Springsteen fan so I felt he steered me away from Cohen. But finding apt songs from the early seventies – from the jukebox in the coffee shop in the book – was really enjoyable. And it brought back all kinds of musical memories for me.” MacKenna looks wistful as he tells me, “the afternoons where I was tracking Joseph’s playlist were very enjoyable.”
When asked to name his favourite character from those he’s created, MacKenna tells me, “Joseph is up there – because I originally brought him to life on stage. John Clare in my novel Clare is another person I loved creating. Elizabeth Hallhead in A Haunted Heart was a character I was fond of, too. And there’s a character in the novel I’m writing now – a real go-boy – but he amuses me.” MacKenna leans forward and grins, “he’s what we used to call a complete tool in my home town of Castledermot but there’s something about him – maybe a reminder of men I knew as a kid – which keeps me interested in him.” He sits back and laughs.
Inspiration comes from many writers, including, “Raymond Carver, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Frank O’Connor, H E Bates, Billy Collins, John McGahern, Carson McCullers, Alden Nowlan, Alan Sillitoe … The list changes week by week. And almost every poet I’ve ever come across. I’ve just read Helen Ivory’s poetry collection Waiting for Bluebeard.” He nods, “that’s a dark and stunning book.”
When asked about his many awards, MacKenna becomes bashful, but admits that they bring “a recognition of what you’re doing and for a writer working in solitude it’s a public acknowledgement of what you’re about.”
Invited, by Anthony Farrell of Lilliput Press to work on Shackleton: An Irishman in Antarctica, along with Jonathan Shackleton, MacKenna becomes animated, as he tells me how much he enjoyed it, “and Shackleton was born in Kilkea, three miles from where I grew up in Co Kildare, so that was an added interest.”
Sharing a little about how he writes, MacKenna says, “I often know the end and I always follow the characters. The driving force as I write is the character. I’m far more interested in the people than the plot. But people bring their own stories and from the characters come those narratives. With Joseph, for instance, it was his mental state, his passion, his hope that interested me. And he brought his own stories, unexpectedly. Stories I hadn’t expected when I began writing.”
MacKenna agrees that his characters may, occasionally, have inherited some of his personality traits. “I’ve never believed there’s such a thing as true fiction. I think all fiction is autobiography. Most characters I’ve written have strong trace elements of my own life or ideas or opinions.” With a gleam in his eye, he tells me, “and sometimes – as with the character in the novel I’m currently writing – a character allows you to be someone you never would or could be in real life but you get to go with them for the ride and they do all the things you never would,” he pauses, “but might like to.”
Although he enjoys meeting readers and discussing his books with them, MacKenna admits that reviews do have an effect on him. “Good reviews lift the soul, bad reviews throw a pall over things, reviews that miss the point are the worst ones – they’re infuriating. Reviewers are readers (or should be) and not all readers are reviewers …”
As the interview draws to a close I mention the first Laureate for Irish Fiction which will be announced in January 2015. Standards are high; the Laureate must possess an internationally recognised body of high quality literary writing and have made a significant contribution to the field of literature in Ireland and internationally – one which has had a considerably positive impact on readers.
I ask if it was a surprise to be one of the 34 writers nominated, among them; Joseph O’Connor, Hugo Hamilton, Colum McCann, Edna O’Brien and Sebastian Barry? “It absolutely was and I was very pleased. If there’s any justice,” he whispers, “Jennifer Johnston will win.”
(c) Susan Condon
‘It’s been forty years, and memory is the most unreliable of companions, so I can only offer these recollections with the proviso that you take them as the only truth I can call to mind. They’re my truth…’
When his ‘young fellow’ becomes involved in political agitation, and his own marriage begins to fall apart, Joseph of Nazareth must find a way to nurture hope.
The tale of a small-time builder in a small-time town, and his relationship with the charismatic figure he had treated as a son, Joseph humanises an often-overlooked Biblical character, and renders his story one for all time.
Joseph is available in bookshops now, or pick up your copy online here.
Susan Condon, a native of Dublin, has written a crime fiction thriller set in New York City. Her short stories have won the Jonathan Swift Award, the Bealtaine Short Story Competition and the Sport and Cultural Council, City of Dublin VEC and she was thrice long-listed for the RTÉ Guide/Penguin Short Story Competition. Publications include Original Writing from Ireland’s Own, Anthology 2012; South of the County: New Myths and Tales and My Weekly magazine. Follow her blog at www.susancondon.wordpress.com or follow her on Twitter: @SusanCondon