Irish novelist Catherine Dunne became a full-time writer in 1995, but has been writing for as long as she can remember. In 1997 her first novel, In the Beginning was published to great acclaim and translated into several languages. It tells the story of Rose, a woman whose marriage falls apart after twenty years. She has followed up on this early success by writing eight novels, each one dealing with universal themes such as love, friendship, childhood, secrecy and loss. These shared experiences find great resonance with her readers everywhere. Although primarily a novelist, Catherine has written one non-fiction book – An Unconsidered People, her thoughtful and empathetic exploration of our neglected emigrants, was published in 2003.
In her ninth novel, the things we know now, which was published in March 2013, Catherine draws heavily on her teaching career of seventeen years to explore one of the most damaging and pervasive issues faced by society today; teenage bullying and suicide. This book could not be more timely and relevant given the challenges that face us all today. I met with Catherine over a couple of cups of coffee to discuss her new book and her demanding writing life.
We start with her new novel, the things we know now. The book opens with a shocking, life shattering event and subsequent chapters explore how this could possibly have happened. I wonder did Catherine always intend to structure the story this way or did she ever consider a linear narrative. She is very definite in her answer and assures me that, ‘this always felt like the right thing to do. It took me a time to come to grips with dealing with the subject (teenage bullying and suicide) at all. To have this event at the end would be exploitative. I wasn’t interested in using the event as a mechanism to build the suspenseful narrative. That’s not why I was looking at it.’
So what is of far more importance to her then is the exploration of how and why such a dreadful event could happen to a relatively normal, well adjusted family? ‘Yes’, is her answer. She elaborates, ‘I wanted to look at the why. I wanted the reader to understand that this happens and to question why – not to just turn the pages fast. I thought this would exploit something which is a very delicate and a very sensitive subject, and I wanted to deal with it in an appropriate way.’
This is a very timely novel exploring an issue that has been in the news a lot during the past few months but what’s interesting is that Catherine wasn’t writing in reaction to recent well documented events. Instead this is an issue that she has been concerned about for many years, since her teaching days in fact. She tells me that this book was delivered to her publisher months before the issue of bullying became so pervasive in the media. In fact the impetus to write this particular story came to her in the form of a striking image. ‘Most of my novels seem to begin with pictures’, she explains, ‘this one was an image of a boy on a bike pedaling furiously towards home clearly distressed’.
Catherine is clearly very passionate about this subject and her face darkens as she outlines how, ‘there is something particularly visceral about somebody of 14 or 15 thinking that their life is not worth living any more. That’s horrendous’. As a mother and a former teacher she is very much in touch with the teenage psyche and sums up perfectly the difficulties in navigating these turbulent years by saying, ‘teenagers can blindside you. They can seem completely disillusioned with life one moment and the next minute they’re full of joy’
Her books always deal with big, universal themes and are widely translated as a result. I’m sure that this must be the case with a story concerning the global phenomenon of bullying. She confirms this: ‘I’ve received texts from all over the world from readers telling me that they can relate to this’. But why is all of this emerging now I ask. ‘The reason it has emerged is that we used to be very quiet about suicide but we are learning to speak out.’ This is something that she clearly welcomes very much. I have noticed that although this book is set in Ireland it could happen anywhere. Did she deliberately play down the Irish location by omitting place names, etc? ‘Yes, that’s absolutely deliberate. It could be absolutely anywhere’, she confirms. This technique certainly does not take away from the richness of her descriptions of beautiful peaceful gardens and horrendous city commutes; locations that can be adapted to just about anywhere in the world.
It is clear that Catherine is not afraid to go to the darker places in her books and often explores themes that are neglected in other media. Without wishing to give too much away, one of the issues tackled in the things we know now is self-harm, but by a boy rather than a girl. This is unconventional as there seems to be a general assumption that this is a far bigger issue for girls than boys. In fact research suggests that this is not necessarily the case and several studies have found that there is little or no difference by gender. Catherine is very clear on her decision to include this subject in the book. Her intention is to come at things from the widest angle possible and in that way to break down societal presumptions. ‘We’ve got to blow these stereotypes out of the water’, she insists.
We’ve talked about some thorny issues and to lighten the mood a little I turn to her writing style. One key characteristic of Catherine’s novels is her ability to write very strong, believable characters. I ask her about Patrick, one of the main characters in the things we know now. He’s deeply flawed and not a very likable man. Was it difficult to write about a selfish man like him, I wonder? Catherine laughs at this and admits, ‘you can’t like Patrick but he is trying to be a better man. He is self aware and that’s what saves him.’ She has discovered the importance of stretching herself when writing believable characters and her insights are very valuable to fellow writers: ‘I made the decision a long time ago that I want my characters to be authentic and I don’t mind whether my readers dislike them intensely or love them – the point for me is that they believe in them, they believe that this person could exist. It was very interesting to write somebody who was so selfish and so badly behaved when this is not the behavior you would generally tend towards yourself. It’s more of a challenge… you have to get into a different space.’ It will be a consolation to anyone who’s ever had to delete work in progress to hear that Catherine started off with an entirely different narrator for this book but abandoned her after six months of writing. She realizes that you have to be ruthless sometimes and explains, ‘I had a flash of insight that it was because she was too familiar and sometimes in writing you need the challenge of stepping into shoes that are completely unfamiliar to you’.
Going back to the theme of the novel, I assume she must have drawn heavily on her seventeen years of teaching when tackling the issue of teenage bullying. Catherine draws on her own life experiences to help with the tone of the book but is adamant that there was no one specific incident that informed this story. Instead she drew on the feeling of what it was like to be with teenagers for so many years of her life: ‘I couldn’t stand in front of a class of thirty and not be aware that there were issues for everybody below the surface.’ Have things worsened since she was in the school environment, I wonder? Unfortunately this is the case and this saddens and worries her: ‘Cyber bullying is a different animal’, she explains. ‘At least the bully and the victim once had to share physical space at some stage. That’s not the case any longer.’ Catherine has explored this issue in great depth and tells me that, ‘all of the research shows the awful things that adults and children will say if they feel that they have the cloak of anonymity’. She has seen that it can be difficult to uncover the problem until the damage is done: ‘People will only go looking for a technological footprint after the unthinkable happens. She warms to her subject and is clearly very concerned that young people are not fully aware of the consequences of their actions: ‘This whole degrading of language – ‘friend’ doesn’t mean friend, ‘like’ doesn’t mean like and people don’t understand the implications of pushing the ‘like’ button. There’s a fear that if you’re not in one camp then you have to be in the other.’
We break to order a much needed second cup of coffee, suddenly aware of the everyday sounds of laughter and clinking cups all around us. Time to look at the brighter side of the things we know now. We’ve strayed into dark territory here again but it’s very important to stress that Catherine’s book, while it explores great tragedy and the horror of bullying, ends on a very hopeful note by making it clear that change is always possible and that we can shape the future. Catherine tells me that the reason for the title is that hindsight will tell us the things that we didn’t see at the time: ‘Sometimes we almost feel that we’re doomed to repeat the past – I don’t believe that we are’ She leans in, determined to emphasize the hopeful element of this very thought provoking book: ‘I would hate anybody to come away from this book feeling bleak. The book does end on a very hopeful note and it was important for me to end it like that.’ Catherine stresses that parents should not worry too much, saying, ‘the vast majority of teens will negotiate the stormy waters [of life] without any difficulties. There is a core group of children who are more vulnerable and who need protecting and in protecting them we make better people, better school communities’. Recently she has been hugely encouraged by implementation of robust anti-bullying policies in Irish schools in Ireland and her face brightens as she tells me, ‘a shift in the culture is possible but it has to be tackled as a social issue rather than on an individual school basis.’
Another hopeful note in the things we know now is the notion that we can move on from tragedy by pulling together and finding answers. What is Catherine’s experience of this, I wonder? She is adamant that this is the case and that once even the most fractured family is faced with a terrible tragedy it’s a human instinct for members to want to reach out and help each other. She believes that, ‘the most important thing is that the lines of communication are kept open’, but qualifies this by saying, ‘even with all of that in place things happen that are outside our control and that’s frightening but something like this makes every parent immediately reevaluate their relationship with their children.’ I certainly thought about my own two when reading the things we know now.
One positive experience Catherine had while researching the things we know now involved discovering how people often channel negative experiences into hugely positive initiatives. She was really touched by this and smiles broadly as she describes coming across, ‘all of these people who had suffered the unthinkable and found wonderful humanity and a fantastic instinct to say ‘I am not going to let this happen to anyone else’.’ Catherine sees the best in people and believes that this instinct is part of our nature. ‘We believe we exist in a community and there is that instinct to save other people when a tragedy happens. We want to transform something awful into something that will help other people. It’s one of the really hopeful things about the way we behave. It gives your grief and anger and sense of injustice a very positive focus.’
Turning back to Catherine’s own writing style, I’m keen to discuss how she uses fiction so effectively as a way of getting across important ideas and exploring emotions. Does she believe storytelling is particularly powerful in doing this I ask? “There’s no more powerful vehicle than story’, she says. She firmly believes in what she describes as ‘the power of fiction to illustrate the texture of people’s lives’. A look of annoyance crosses her face as she describes one of her bugbears and that is ‘when women in particular are frequently criticized for writing about ‘ordinary’ life. She elaborates by using the example of the poet, Sharon Olds who kept her letters of rejection in which she was pilloried for dealing with what were described as inconsequential personal domestic issues. Yet last year she won the T.S. Elliot Prize for her poetry collection Stag’s Leap, which details the collapse of her 30-year marriage. ‘It’s very, very irritating’, Catherine rages, ‘it’s in those so called ordinary stories that we learn everything, because no life is ordinary. The small canvas is so important’. After all Jane Austen, one of her own favourite authors gave us a perfect picture of the whole society of her day. Catherine is very firm on this point, and insists that, ‘the everyday is extraordinary. It’s the best possible material for fiction’,
She always writes very strong women. As a woman who grew up in the days of second wave feminism in Ireland is this important to her, I ask? Yes, it certainly is and she is keen to redress the balance: ‘I grew up when Irish writing was mostly by men. Essentially the culture was rural and it was written by men so we don’t have a tremendous body of work that deals with the reality of women surviving and being strong characters and yet our every day experience would be of women stepping up to the plate.’
Catherine Dunne is certainly a very strong woman who is not afraid to tackle the thorniest issues through her thought-provoking fiction.
Find out more about Catherine’s writing style and technique in the second half of this interview here.
(c) Eleanor Fitzsimmons
Eleanor Fitzsimons is a researcher, writer, journalist and occasional broadcaster. Her work has been published in the Sunday Times, the Guardian, the Irish Times and a number of other publications, and she is a contributor to the www.theantiroom.com podcast and blog. More recently she worked as the researcher on a number of prime time television programmes for RTE, including ‘What Have The Brits Ever Done For Us’ and the IFTA-winning ‘Bullyproof’. In 2012 she returned to UCD, graduating with an MA (first class honours) in Women Gender and Society. She realised that uncovering women’s hidden history is her true passion and at present is writing a biography of Harriet Shelley, first wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Her agent is Andrew Lownie and further details can be found at http://www.andrewlownie.co.uk/