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Mary Costello’s Debut Novel: Academy Street

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Literary Fiction
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By Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin

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Mary Costello is one of those lovely softly spoken writers who is has been quietly juggling home, family and writing for years, pulling together strands of experience with beautiful language to weave stories that stop you in your tracks. It’s been a quiet process, although not without it’s highlights, including being shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award. That was until a  independent Irish publisher launched her first short story collection.  And then the whole world sat up and took notice.

Mary’s collection was published by the eagle eyed Declan Meade at The Stingingfly Press. Entitled The China Factory  (follow the link to read our interview with Mary and find out more about The China Factory) it was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award. That doesn’t happen to everyone. But it doesn’t end there.

Mary Costello’s stunning debut novel, Academy Street, was launched in Dublin on the same day that it was shortlisted for the Bord Gais Energy Book Awards Irish Novel of the Year. No less than 2003 Nobel prizewinner, South African writer JM Coetzee comments, “With extraordinary devotion, Mary Costello brings to life a woman who would otherwise have faded into oblivion”. Booker long-listed Donal Ryan is totally smitten: “Academy Street is understated, graceful and, ultimately, devastating. Even as my heart was breaking I couldn’t put the book down.” The brilliant multi genre novelist John Boyne added, “To recount a life story in a novel is a difficult task. To do so with brevity and unsentimental honesty takes greatness. Academy Street is a powerful and emotional novel from one of literature’s finest new voices.” And Booker prize winner Anne Enright adds, “Mary Costello’s writing has the kind of urgency that the great problems demand – call them themes; they are the kind of problems that make a writer.”

There are few who debut with this level of praise. But Mary Costello is a special writer, an enormous talent who obviously feels very comfortable with the short form. When I heard that Academy Street is a rare novel of just under 50,000 words, my first question to her was whether she knew this book was going to be a novel from the start, or whether it had started as a short story and then grown? Mary was candid in her explanation, “No, I didn’t know it would be a novel. One day I was telling a friend about an idea I had for a story – which in itself was odd because I don’t usually talk about my stories in advance. He looked at me and said: ‘That’s a novel.’ As soon as he said that, of course, I heard the penny dropping in my own head.”

The structure of a novel in terms of pacing and the narrative arc is very different to a short story; I was intrigued to find out how Mary had tackled Academy Street,  and if she had found it hard to adapt to writing longer fiction. She told me: “I didn’t consciously think about structure or pace or technique. I just wrote as I’d always written, tentatively moving along. I accumulated lots of notes both before and during the writing of the novel, as I always do. So I had the main scenes and events of Tess’s life before I made a start. I worked off those notes. The story is linear, in that it starts when Tess is a child of seven and takes her right up to her late sixties. And that was the arc I followed, chapter by chapter.

‘I didn’t find the experience of writing the novel all that different to writing a short story, apart from the time span. You still have to be patient and keep faith with the story. You’re trying to do the character justice, trying to get the voice and the tone right, and do the best writing you possibly can, word by word, sentence by sentence. And, as in a story, you’re hoping it will ‘take’. There’s an element of intuition involved, so I don’t actively think about structure or, ‘apply’ technique in case it all falls in. Anyway I’m not sure I’d know how.”

Academy Street is written in the third person – and partly in the present tense – so we have the immediacy of action but can see more than just Tess’s point of view. Mary explained her choice,  “I had the voice of Tess the child with me for some time. She was always in the present tense. A child lives more actively and intensely in the present tense than an adult. I started in the close third person and wrote the first chapter, and it felt right. When the world is perceived through the eyes of a small child the close third person works well – it allows for a feeling of intimacy and immediacy, so that everything is amplified. It is almost first person, but a presence, a feeling of vague otherness, lingers.” She continued, “In Part 2, Tess has grown up and I switched to the past tense for the rest of the novel. Again, it felt natural – I didn’t have any conundrum about it. I think, because the childhood section is quite concentrated and intense, it felt right to open the narrative out as Tess’s consciousness expanded. Anyway, she was embedded in me at that stage and I had her voice so I knew, even without the present tense, I could stay tight to her.”

mary_costello-2 140x210I wondered how many drafts such a finely wrought novel had taken – the prose is tight, every word working hard for its keep. Mary revealed, “I worked on each chapter as I went along – redrafted each one before moving on to the next. So, it varied. It’s hard to know, but I probably did 4-6 drafts of each chapter, and then when I got to the end, I also did a couple of sweeps through the whole novel.”

I’m always fascinated by what inspires a writer, by how story develops – Mary told me that Academy Street had stemmed from a short story in her China Factory collection…”One of the stories in The China Factory (‘You Fill Up My Senses’) contains the seed for the novel – the mother of the child protagonist comes from a big house called Easterfield. The mood and tone and voice of that story is the one I was seeking to hit on in the novel, especially in the childhood section.

My mother came from a big house in the west of Ireland, and I modelled Easterfield – Tess’s home in the novel – exactly on that house and farm. As a child it made a big impression on me; it had two stairs and long landings, a gong in the hall, a coachhouse and an orchard, an avenue with old trees. It’s gone now but the older I got the more it began to preoccupy me, and the memory of it began to rise to consciousness. It had been built in 1678 and during the famine it was used as a hospital to relieve over-crowding in the local workhouse.

‘My mother’s mother died when she was three, and it always struck me how the death of a parent – in particular the death of a mother – can suddenly change the trajectory and the whole course of everyone’s life in a family, and how catastrophic it is for a child. My mother never emigrated to America, but two sisters and a brother of hers did. One of her sisters, Carmel, was a nurse in New York in the early sixties and lived in an apartment on Academy Street in Inwood, the northern tip of Manhattan. She stayed in New York for just four years before returning to Galway. In the novel, Tess shares some geographical and biographical detail with my aunt and my mother, but she is a fictional character with her own inner life – and, unlike my aunt, she remains in New York for her whole adult life.”

Location obviously plays a vital part in Academy Street, not only the ‘big house’, but also New York, the city Tess emigrates to. As Mary elaborated:I, like almost everyone else I know, grew up fascinated and intoxicated by New York. I’ve never lived there but I’ve visited many times. I did a home swap in the summer of 2011, and stayed in an apartment on 90th and York, and the novel really took root that summer. I went up to Inwood, where my aunt and many Irish emigrants had lived in the sixties, and walked around the streets and the park, the church, the library. I stood outside the school one day, as parents gathered to collect their kids. Something crystallized in that moment and I saw Tess’s whole life then.”

If the hairs aren’t standing up on the back of your neck right now, they should be! But getting back to basics, I asked Mary if she found the blank page, the start of a story, daunting?”I dread starting. I prevaricate for ages because I’m afraid of spoiling it. I accumulate a lot of notes in the months – sometimes years – before I start a story. So I have notebooks to work off, and these provide a sense of security, a foundation stone, a way in. Without the notes – the ‘ammo’ as James Salter calls them – I’d be paralysed.

‘I usually know the story before I start, and the plot, insofar as there is one. The character is the main thing – I have to have a strong sense of a character and the small particulars of his or her life. He or she is usually in my head for a long time. And I’ll have a sense of the unease or disquiet or want within the character. Otherwise there’s no reason to write it.

Often, too, an image will suddenly appear and that can be the vital thing, the thing the story was waiting for – and the catalyst to get me started. As I write my way in and through the story other things emerge. So, I suppose, at this stage there’s a more organic element to the process. The scaffolding gives way to the story’s own architecture. In the rewrites, more nuance is added, more tone and mood, and hopefully more depth. The word count usually decreases in the rewrites.”

 Mary is an artist in every sense of the word, and I wondered if she needed a special place to write, a routine. She told me, “I don’t write every day because I don’t always have a work in progress. In fact long stretches go by when I don’t – can’t – write at all.

‘When I’m working on something, and especially in the rewriting stages, I try to work every day. It’s a bit easier at those stages because things are coming together, and soon it will be over. And then when it’s done – insofar as anything is ever done – I’m a little lonely for it, and want to return and tweak it more. I could tweak forever.

I work at a desk in an upstairs room, mostly.”

And finally, I asked Mary if she had any tips for anyone moving from short to long fiction? Her’s is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard in a long time: Be patient. Continue to do what works best for you.”

Academy Street is a truly wonderful novel that is in bookshops now, or pick up your copy online here – you won’t regret it.

(c) Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin

About Academy Street

She stood on the edge of the grass. She hovered between worlds, deciphering the ground, tracing in mid-air the hall, the dining-room, the stairs. She was despairingly close to home now, to the rooms and the voices that contained the first names for home. Memories abounded and her heart pounded and history broke in . . .

Growing up in the west of Ireland in the 1940s Tess is a shy introverted child. But beneath her quiet exterior lies a heart of fire. A fire that will later drive her to make her home among the hurly burly of 1960s New York.

Over four decades and a life lived with quiet intensity on Academy Street in upper Manhattan, Tess encounters ferocious love and calamitous loss. But what endures is her bravery and fortitude, and her striking insights even as she is ‘floating close to hazard.’

Joyous and heart-breaking, restrained but sweeping, this is a profoundly moving story that charts one woman’s quest for belonging amid the dazzle and tumult of America’s greatest city. Academy Street establishes Mary Costello as one of Ireland’s most exciting literary voices.

(c) Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin

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