Back in 1992, I wasn’t prepared for the bewildering rush on sales of my first novel, The Light Makers, when Gay Byrne, interviewing me on his radio show, pronounced it as ‘erotic’ and ‘a thumping good read’. It was a best-seller by that evening, proving yet again just what a few words from the right person can do to help a book on its way in the world.
The story, which actually concerns a young professional couple trying to have a family (with no success), touches on the passage of tests and trials that the ‘infertile’ go through. The husband in this particular fiction is one of those guys who doesn’t believe it could possibly be his problem, and refuses to get himself checked out medically. And so, Hanna Troy, my protagonist, herself a photo journalist, wanders Dublin city centre on warm summer afternoon, awaiting an appointment with a therapist. While she stops for a pizza, visits an art gallery, drifts in and out of shops, trails through St. Stephen’s Green, she undergoes a journey into her own past and inevitably, deep into herself. How could someone in Irish society back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, who cannot have children, not find themselves boring deeply into many questions, apart from the inevitable one: why not us? After all, Ireland has never been forgiving of its womenfolk, regardless of which end of the reproductive spectrum they live on.
The Irish Times was prepared to do a feature on the novel, but they wanted to tie it into an article on infertility in general. I decided that this was not the direction I wanted for my first novel, because it wasn’t a self-help manual, nor was it an autobiography. And so I turned down that particular offer, something which some authors might consider crazy. But I wasn’t interested in publicity for this novel at any cost. I wanted to ensure that it was looked at in its entirety, as the story of a woman who is casting a cold eye, and sometimes a hot, critical, angry eye, on her own society and its attitudes to everything, from the treatment of its women, to gender stereotyping, and to many different kinds of hypocrisy. In the course of her reflections, she brings us back to her border county family, an eccentric mixture of relatives, and to her father and her step-mother, the latter a painter. All the time, she is searching relentlessly, sifting through the past, making connections.
Handling the time sequences in this first novel was initially difficult. It’s narrated in the continuous present, but certain sections are set in the distant past, in World War 2, and other parts are remembered events, such as a disastrous holiday which Hanna and her husband take to Alexandria, in Egypt, when Hanna is trying to locate the cemetery of the war dead, and the grave of her uncle Marius, killed in the Battle of El Alamein.
My model for some of the structure came from Margaret Atwood’s novel Surfacing. After writing the first draft of my novel, it seemed somehow emotionally slack and equally over-emotional, and to me not convincing. But then I observed that the Atwood book was in the continuous present. I played around with a few of her sentences in the Past Tense, to see how they sounded, and noticed how different they became, tonally, and how less effective. It resolved a dilemma for me, and I knew then that my own work would have to be written in the Continuous Present.
But as I mentioned at the start, it was a heady time. Poolbeg Press’s then editor, the adventurous Philip MacDermott, who had set Patricia Scanlan on the road to success, encouraged me and other writers in literary fiction, and brought out my short story collection Strong Pagans in 1991. Had I a novel, he wanted to know. I might have, I replied.
I had incredible, totally committed energy in those days. I sat down and wrote the book in about six months, tearing into it. The subject was, in one way, ready-made. Infertility was on my mind, as I was more or less in Hanna’s situation, though with a very different man as my companion. But the story of the many stories I invented in this book began to intrigue me. Where did they come from, I wondered then, as I skirted the byways of parts of my own past, things that never quite happened but might have, things I wanted to have happened, but never did, and so on. But that is the nature of imagination and invention, and I was probably good at that.
Now, bringing The Light Makers out again with 451 Editions, I’ve had to re-read the novel and I’m astonished by my own verve and nerve. It’s a strange thing to stand back and see your younger self, twenty-five years ago, throw her imaginative all at something unknown and incredible, like a story, a book, the dreamed-of novel.
The difference today of course, is that we have social media at our disposal, we have Amazon and Kindle, and this novel is already live on both these sources, in print or digitally. It is incredible to think that your work can be immediately sought and bought by someone in Mexico, or Australia, for example, and made available internationally at the press of a button.
Am I apprehensive? A little. This is the novel’s second edition and I’m trialling it before a new generation of readers. There have to be plenty of Hanna Troys out there, fighting the good fight against society’s continued obsession with female reproduction, while trying themselves to simply have a child. The paradox for me was that I became pregnant just after I finished writing my novel, and was five months into it at the launch. The grown child will herself be at the launch in the Writers’ Centre on July 18th. I got lucky. But there are lots of ways of getting lucky and they don’t necessarily involve having children. To me, Hanna’s resolve to accept herself as she is, is the most potent message I had to bring to my novel. I hope it still holds for today’s new generation of readers.
(c) Mary O’Donnell
About The Light Makers:
Photojournalist Hanna Troy is killing time on a summer walkabout in the city. As the afternoon progresses, her reflections unravel a raw, sometimes sensuous story of darkness and light. It explores a failing relationship, the anguish of a professional trying to become a mother and the complexities of a young and outspoken woman in Ireland’s somewhat repressed 1980s. Considering the experiences of her contemporaries and evoking family events long past that still resonate, Hanna is determined that her own resilience will overcome the challenges she faces.
When The Light Makers was first published it received widespread acclaim, with critics describing Mary O’Donnell’s debut as ‘compelling’, ‘powerful’ and ‘erotic’. It rated in the Irish best seller listings for weeks and became the Sunday Tribune’s choice as ‘Best New Irish Novel of 1992.’ This is the novel’s second edition.
Order your copy online here.