Honor Molloy is a Brooklyn based author and playwright whose first novel, Smarty Girl – Dublin Savage is published on March 17th in print and as an audio book. Smarty Girl is a fascinating and brilliantly fictionalised account of Honor’s tumultuous childhood in Dublin, where she was born and lived for the first eight years of her life.
Honor’s parents are likely to be familiar to readers who were alive in the 1960’s as both were heavily involved in drama on stage, screen and radio. Her mother Yvonne Voight was a theatre director who moved from America to study at Trinity College, where she met Dublin actor John Molloy. They set up home in the city and had six children. Both worked tirelessly in theatre, radio and television – their stories representing the raucous Dublin of the time and the everyday lives of real people. It made for an animated home life and the Molloy children grew up surrounded by larger than life characters. Honor explains, “my childhood was theatrical. There were actors and singers and painters and producers and journalists in and out of our house”.
In such a high-octane world, filled with people for whom language is their bread and butter, the borders between reality and performance were often blurred. Honor says, “people were always quoting plays, or working on bits and sending things up—the ads on the radio, the Moore Street market dealers, When we heard a malaprop, we stole it. Made it a part of our family jargon and promptly forgot the original. When language, the basic unit of expression, is this stylized, this amped—the physical world surrounding it must match or it’s just a load of stage Irish tripe.” By turns hilarious and heart wrenching, Smarty Girl is crammed with layers of verbal magic and word games.
This blurring of life and art is cleverly built into the structure of the book. While based on her own life, the family in Smarty Girl are called the O’Feeneys; the young narrator the wild Noleen, who survives on her wits in a chaotic yet exhilarating environment. It’s a tricky question for any exercise in self-representation – how true can you be? Ultimately the family’s real life involvement in drama gave Honor the means to get at the essence of the tale. In the early days of RTE Honor’s father played Oliver Feeney in Maura Laverty’s Tolka Row and occasionally Honor played his daughter Noleen. This father and daughter acting father and daughter was the perfect foil, she explains, “here was a built-in structure for the novel. I constructed my own version of the show using a few of the character names I’d uncovered in my research: Gina for Queenie Butler, Olly, Dominick, Stacia, Ignatius (an infant who died on the show). Within the book, Noleen gets cast as Una Molloy in a sitcom called Our City (Gina calls it Arseity)”.
This narrative trick gave Honor a freedom she might not have had with a traditional first person style memoir, which is how the book originally started. She says, “I started composing the book as a memoir and was going along fine until I hit page one hundred. The protagonist—me—was playing parachutes in Stephen’s Green. She / I? I / She? was in the bandstand, perched on the wooden banister all set to jump to the grass. But when she pulled the imaginary ripcord, strings shot out the back and she was flung to the blue backwall of sky. And the voice went to third person”. Elements of stories benefit from particular narrative voices and here Honor felt Noleen’s childish perspective was limiting. As she says, “the work was demanding an adult voice. Not only was I sick of the rollicking girly chat, I needed a more sophisticated point of view”.
While the colourful language is evocative of a Dublin that may now seem to have disappeared, any romance and nostalgia within the book is tempered by the fact that their family life was volatile and finally, unsustainable. When Honor was eight, Yvonne moved the children back across the ocean to Pennsylvania. Theirs is sadly not the only family for whom the crushing effects of social and institutional problems in early and mid century Ireland took their toll. Honor explains, “my mother fell in love with the most beautiful, most broken boy. My father was a product of multi-system abuse: at home, at school with the Christian Brothers, and he spent his early manhood in and out of Ireland’s TB sanitariums. “On Tour for seven years.” This black humour is a classic example of how he dealt with his past. It fuelled his comedy, his perspective on humanity, his acting talent, his self-destruction, our family’s devastation. Despite my mother’s adoration, the kids’ love, he fell down. We had to come to America without him. I lost my country and my family at the same time.”
This is Honor’s first novel, having previously written plays (Maiden Voyages (with Bronagh Murphy), Madame Killer (with Diana Kane), Crackskull Row, In Pigeon House and Murphy). She never intended to write a book. She says, “I started writing a book by mistake. I was doing The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, following her twelve steps. And I got to the point where you’re supposed to do a news blackout, which emptied the brain in a magnificent way, so I kept going with it. Then there’s a step where you’re supposed to take an hour each morning for a week and write your life story. This granted me permission to run wild in the dark hours before the bread job. Soon I was cracking myself up. There are lines that remain word-for-word in the book: “Young Eamon has the poor teeth rotted out of his mouth. He’s rotty down to the teef-roots. He’s got a yellow bubble of snot blowing fat with each breath. He presses his snotting nose right into my face”. My time at the desk in the morning grew and grew and, like the news blackout, became my routine.”
Begun as a writing exercise, Smarty Girl was a big commitment, taking over a decade to write – alongside other commitments and major life events. Honor says, “it took thirteen years because I was married, then not married, writing plays, then not writing plays, working in publishing reading thousands of other writers’ books and projects, then doing mindless corporate office work so that I could go balls-out with the writing on the weekends”. It involved rafts of research, drawing on her mother’s journals and radio scripts, John Molloy’s recordings, his memoir Alive, alive-oh as well as difficult to digest materials from the Diocesan Sexual Abuse Inquiries. How did she approach the idea of truth within that complex web of worlds? Honor quotes Stephen King, “fiction is the truth inside the lie”. She says, “that’s this book—a pack of lies. Lying, these days, doesn’t cut it when you’re writing a memoir.”
In spite of all the hard work, finding a publisher was a struggle and Honor grew despondent, “this time last year I had a manuscript and no publisher.” She tried Dublin to no avail but there was a light at the end of the tunnel. She says, “Imagine Ireland saved the day. This celebration of Irish culture brought me out of my bog of despond. It was like going to an artist colony for one year straight. I met dozens of playwrights, directors, novelists, poets, choreographers, painters, actors.” She became involved in the Irish American Writers and Artists association and found a supportive network, “They hold monthly salons where members stand up and do ten minute presentations. I’ve found other novelists who are grappling with the current publishing world and its challenges. We dream and scheme and help each other.”
In spite of the centrality of Dublin to this book, Honor prefers not to label herself as an Irish or an Irish-American writer. She says, “I am a writer. I view my story as a world story. My Albanian friend sitting in the cubicle next to me says it’s her story, too”. She is more concerned with telling stories that might not ordinarily be heard, and in particular with Smarty Girl, recovering her mother Yvonne’s story. Honor has a keen awareness of how some lives, as well as their stories, are privileged at the expense of others. She recalls, “my mother had fifteen years of professional experience in Dublin Theatre. Although she applied to local colleges, she ended up substitute teaching in the local public schools, working nights and weekend jobs for three bucks an hour. This informs my writing. Like women Irish writers of her time, my mother’s work was devalued and then erased. Smarty Girl reclaims some of the stories she told on Radio Eireann along with voicing my mother’s incredible tale of courage, of love, of endurance”.
Smarty Girltells a boisterous story with humour and skill, playing with the conventions of fiction and memoir to get at the essence of a life lived during a time now gone. Anyone with an interest in Dublin history and a cracking good tale should get their hands on a copy of this book through Amazon (Paperback) or the Kindle edition.