Belinda McKeon’s first novel, Solace, won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, the Sunday Independent Best Newcomer Award and was named Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book of the Year in 2011, as well as being shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. Her essays and journalism have appeared in the New York Times, the Paris Review, the Guardian and elsewhere. She grew up in rural Ireland and now lives in New York, where she teaches at Rutgers University. Here another emigrant, Sarah Griffin, recently returned from San Francisco, chats to Belinda about how she created Tender, her second novel.
SG: What brought you the inspiration for the book? Where did it start?
BMK: The book had its very beginnings in the late 90s, although I wasn’t writing it as a book then; I was writing stories, or attempts at stories, about two people – two friends – and the distance between them. They weren’t really anything like Catherine and James, those two characters, insofar as I can remember them, but they were the origin of Catherine and James, in that the impulse or the desire to write about that friendship stayed with me, just went underground for a decade or so, and then, when I’d finished my first novel, I knew that this was the territory I wanted to turn to.
The short answer to your question is that the story came from deep inside myself. Not just from my own experience, from my life, although part of it came from there – but from the things I know and the things I suspect and the things of which I know I am ignorant, and from my need to put those into language and to find their shape. That need is like an obsession for a writer. It won’t let you alone.
SG: The segments of the book are very clearly divided. While writing Tender, did you plot and plan a structure, or write it as it came?
BMK: I didn’t have any initial plan for the structure – I just wanted to find the story. But at a certain point, I understood that these things were not two separate things, but the same thing, and that finding one meant finding the other. Which didn’t mean that they came smoothly – there was a great deal of trial and error, and a lot of diving in here and diving in there, trying for that moment when the key turns in the ignition. That took the guts of two years, which was pretty nerve-wracking, not least because I’d signed a contract to hand the book up within two years.
For a long time, I thought the book was going to be set in the present, probably in New York, looping back frequently to moments fifteen years previously. It took a while before I accepted that it was and needed to be set in the 1990s in a full-on, no-hiding-from it way; not in distanced flashbacks or surfacing memories, but absolutely in the texture and the noise and the feel of that time as I remembered it, and as my central character would experience it – and as she would experience it, given her youth and naiveté and gaucheness. No dressing it up; no making her a droll girl or a cool girl. You can’t write over your character’s voice, their interiority, no matter how mortifying or childish it is, no matter how much of an insult to your vanity (“What if people think this is me?!!” Note: it always is you. Get over yourself); if you do that, you’ll be, in James Wood’s words, “icing a hollow cake”. You’re not writing liner notes to some obscure album you want people to know that you know about; you’re writing a person. And people are human, and human is, most of the time, a shit-show.
Structure, for me, is a process which is completely intuitive. And yet it’s a process to which I feel quite blind…It’s as though it only allows me to see its necessities once I’ve worked for a certain length of time, or spent a certain length of time buried in the language and rhythm of the story’s formation. The third section, Romance, for instance, was one I couldn’t crack for a long time. I knew it needed somehow to be in pieces, but I couldn’t see how to do that without losing the shape and the urgency of the emotional state into which Catherine had, by then, descended. Then I went through a period of reading only poetry – contemporary collections, like Craig Morgan Teicher’s To Keep Love Blurry and Rebecca O’Connor’s We’ll Sing Blackbird, both of which tapped into the rhythm of consciousness in different, but striking, ways. I think now that my hunger for poetry at the time was all about form; I was finding my way towards the form of that section; towards the realization that it needed to be closer to an attempt at poetry than to fiction.
All of this is a long way of saying that I don’t know anything about structure, really. I just obey the rhythm that the work gives to me. And it takes its sweet time about giving it to me.
SG: The two primary characters, Catherine and James, spend some time walking through a world that is more grown up than they are. The parties they attend are dense and seemingly endless – the 1998 Dublin they live in is very heady and tactile. Can you talk a bit about this specific Dublin, or rather, this specific Ireland? Do you think the Ireland of today is different, or similar?
BMK: That’s the Dublin I remember from being 18, 19. It was my first time out in the world in any way; I’d grown up in a rural place, in which you went into town with a purpose in mind, to get something or to go somewhere – not just for the sake of being in town, mooching around the place. To do that was somehow coarse or somehow asking for trouble, it seemed. But then in Dublin, suddenly, this was just life; being a student in the centre of the city, with the city as your playground and your backyard and your time-wasting device, and all of that. I loved Dublin pretty much from the start. I loved walking around it; not just the city centre, or the immediate city centre, but the streets around my flat, in the Liberties, and later, in other parts; Ranelagh, Stoneybatter. And then yes, the parties. There were always parties, always a load of people smushed in, drinking and smoking, in someone’s house. But surely that’s still the same? Without so much of the smoking. And for a while, of course, with coke instead. Though I bet the coke is back by now. I bet the government is secretly supplying parties with cheap coke, to fuel the sense of the boom returning.
You ask whether the Ireland of today is different, and yes it is, but can I say precisely how? Not really. I hope that young women don’t feel like they have to apologize for existing with every step they take, which was sometimes how it felt then, but maybe that hasn’t changed either – maybe that just takes different forms. Because I say how much I liked walking around, but that’s a bit of a lie. I mean, it’s mostly true, but the lie part is that walking around in Dublin then, I almost always felt as though I’d somehow done something wrong. That I was wearing something wrong, or looked wrong, or had wandered into a place into which I wasn’t supposed to have wandered – not a dangerous place, I mean, but a place where I had no right to be. I was imagining this to a certain extent; it was the paranoia and self-consciousness of being that age, but I also wasn’t imagining it. It was being a young one in Dublin, or in Ireland. I hope that’s different, that the girls are being helped somehow not to feel so fucking…problematic…all the time, like they’re the problem, you know? But I don’t know. And it doesn’t seem to be too easy for the young lads either.
SG: While reading Catherine’s experience of obsession, helplessness, shame and lust, the reader has little idea of how she looks (other than a discomfort with her teeth and the occasional item of clothing, like the specific black dress from Oasis). This completely negates the male gaze and we, as readers, experience her world while rooted completely in her body. I’d love to hear a bit about this – because the body, especially women’s internal experience of the body, is often overlooked in favour of the gaze.
BMK: And yet her own way of thinking about her body, whenever she does, is utterly shaped by that gaze; she clamps her hand to her mouth when James airs the idea of his photographer boss shooting her portrait, and when she thinks of her black wool Oasis dress (I had that dress, and indeed I have and still have those teeth), she thinks of the way she will appear in it, the impression it will make. She wants to be seen – part of the height of her obsession, for instance, is to be photographed by James, and to be photographed in a particular way – but she also wants to be invisible, because being seen is such an intense, threatening experience for her, because it is not something she can control.
The narrative is sunk in Catherine’s experience of being Catherine, which is bodily as much as it is emotional. In the opening section, she’s a virgin, almost manically cautious about her own body, her physicality and her sexuality; to become sexual seems to her an impossible prospect, something that would involve so much of her body, and above all so much of other people witnessing her in what is, to her, an unknown relation to her own body, that she can’t even countenance it. When sex changes from being a thing feared to a thing desperately needed, her body still shapes her experience, so writing her necessitated writing out of that. Which was exactly the same process as trying to get the language of her experience right. Speaking of the book’s structure, it strikes me that it mirrors the way Catherine feels in her body – awkwardness, too-muchness in the first section; an assumed but vulnerable confidence in the second; jagged lust in the third, and something else after that. It is all about language. About the way desire and need pulse through the words we use, shape our sentences, shape our word choice quite outside of our intentions. It seems to me that fiction about the experience of being human, whether in lust or not, needs to tap into that same helpless, inevitable synching; that the shape of the sentences you create about and out of your characters’ experience needs to come out of that well of the physical, the sexual, as well as the emotional.
On a more pragmatic level, I am quite resistant to writing which describes the way a character looks. It’s too sign-posty; a lot of the time, especially between characters who’ve known one another in advance of the story beginning, there’s no credible basis for talking about the look of one person from within another’s perspective. A new person, yes – thus, Catherine describes the look of James, although I was resistant to providing too many details – or a moment when she suddenly sees someone more clearly, or as though for the first time – this happens with her mother, and also with Emmet, the boy with whom she’s forming a different connection as the story develops – but not with anyone she already knows. And maybe that includes herself, even though she doesn’t really know herself.
SG: Plath and Hughes are another couple that walk side-by-side with Catherine and James during the novel – somewhat foreshadowing, but not in an overblown way. Catherine’s interest in them links delicately with her own descent, but not in a way that she seems aware of. Why Plath and Hughes?
BMK: Actually there’s very little delicacy to Catherine’s infatuation with Plath and Hughes, to the way she seizes on their work; it’s another aspect of her tendency for the melodramatic, and in fact she is the one pushing their work into the role of something which foreshadows, which prophesies – because she is drenched with obsession, looking for a language for it. And like a lot of young women, she finds it in Plath. And because it’s 1998, she finds it also in Hughes’s Birthday Letters, which was published that year, and which ramped up even further the drama and the atmosphere of catastrophe around the myth of that couple. It’s crude, her fixation. It’s another of the things I struggled with, wrestled with; another of the plot points that my own vanity snagged on for a while.
Isn’t it terribly undergraddy, to be obsessed with Sylvia Plath, to be all keyed up by the mad energy of Ariel and falling hook-line-and-sinker for the mythos of Birthday Letters ? Well yeah, but the character is an undergrad. She’s not a hipster, reading Cavafy, before anyone else was. It’s back to that stuff of what she really is like, rather than what I might like her to be like.
SG: What was the last book that shifted something for you?
BMK: Kate Zambreno’s Heroines: I read it two years ago, and I felt as though I’d been shaken awake, finally, at the age of thirty-four. It’s about women writers, the “wives of modernism”, but also about Zambreno herself, as a writer and a blogger, and also not – it’s not really for me to say that it’s “about” her, because she’s made clear that she & the narrator are not the same person. But it’s also not about anything. It just is something: part memoir, part novel, part critical delving. It’s maddening and intoxicating and furious and relentless. It’s enraged some critics, who see it as narcissistic and undisciplined and manic. It’s also completely unafraid of the cringe. I found that heartening, I think, at that time. More than heartening. I needed to read a book like that. Knuasgaard wouldn’t have done it, as much as Knausgaard embraces, and profits by, the cringe. In Zambreno, the cringe is truly risky. Anyway, that book really shifted things for me. I don’t think I’ve been the same reader or writer since Heroines.
I also loved Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock, which was published this year, and which is a diary of two years of Julavits’s life, and a meditation on keeping a diary. It’s hilarious, and moving, and quite jolting in its honesty and in where it’s willing to go. I loved it.
At the moment, I’m reading two terrific books, both really exciting in their intelligence and originality and in their journeying into places over which other authors might skim or gloss: Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts and the Irish writer Lisa McInerney’s debut, The Glorious Heresies. And I just read a galley of Thomas Morris’s story collection We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, and I think he’s also a serious talent and that his book is going to be huge.
SG: Do you have a daily or weekly writing routine? What is it like?
BMK: 5AM yoga. 7AM-11AM writing. 11AM-2PM read French philosophy. 2PM –
Yeah. No. That’s all a lie, obviously. My daily routine is that I am either writing or feeling anxious about the fact that I’m not writing; that I am either at the desk, however shambolically (however internet-distractedly), or that I am, I tell myself, on the way there.
I would like a routine, but it hasn’t shown up just yet. It may be that I have to take it hostage. I get a lot of work done, but it seems to be in spite of myself sometimes.
(Yoga does help, though. God, I’m such a cliché. But really – any kind of exercise helps. It might be about discipline, or it might be about a slight lifting of a cloud that is knocking around most of the time and which tends to get in the way if it is let. But exercise helps with routine, for some reason. Fancy that!)
SG: If, you, as Aunt Fidelma did, in the kitchen making sandwiches, could offer advice to an 18 year old girl come up from Longford to Dublin for the first time as she did for Catherine, what advice would you give?
BMK: Oh, darling: do what you want to do. Go where you want to go. Don’t bother your head worrying about the opinions of other people, because they’re actually too busy thinking about themselves to truly think about anything you’re doing. And yeah – do the thing Fidelma tells you to do, if you feel like it. Or don’t. Do what you want.
Tender is in bookshops now, or pick up your copy online here!
(c) Sarah Griffin & Belinda McKeon
Catherine and James are as close as two friends could ever be. They meet in Dublin in the late 1990s, she a college student, he a fledgling artist, both recent arrivals from rural communities, coming of age in a city which is teeming – or so they are told – with new freedoms, new possibilities.
Catherine has never met anyone quite like James. Talented, quick-witted, adventurous and charismatic, he helps Catherine to open her eyes, to take on life with more gusto than she has ever before known how to do.
But while Catherine’s horizons are expanding, James’s own life is becoming a prison: as changed as the new Ireland may be, it is still not a place in which he feels able to be himself. Catherine desperately wants to help, but as life begins to take the friends in different directions, she discovers that there is a perilously fine line between helping someone and hurting them further. And when crisis hits, Catherine must face difficult truths not just about her closest bond – but about herself.
From the author of the multi-award-winning debut Solace comes another dazzling exploration of the complexities of human relationships, a novel about friendship and youth, about selfhood and sexuality, about the lies we tell ourselves and the lies we are taught to tell. Brave, moving and powerfully told, Tender confirms Belinda McKeon’s status as one of the most exciting contemporary voices in Irish fiction.