When a nun from the orphanage dies, 26-year-old Mahoney is given an envelope. Inside is a photograph of a young girl and on the back, someone has written:
‘Your mammy was Orla Sweeney. You are from Mulderrig, Co.Mayo. This is a picture of yourself and her. For your information, she was the curse of the town, so they took her from you. They all lie, so watch yourself, and know that your mammy loved you’
So begins HIMSELF, as we follow Mahoney back to Mulderrig, ‘a benign speck of a place…pretending to be harmless’ to find out what happened to his mum.
When I finished reading HIMSELF, I immediately pestered author Jess Kidd for an interview because I was so desperate to know how a debut author could write something so incredibly original and brilliant. I also wrote a review:http://tinyurl.com/hf3e4t9. Even though she didn’t know me, Jess agreed to meet up and discuss all matters literary over a glass or a two. But grotty life stuff got in the way of lovely fun stuff, so this interview was conducted via the magic of email, but hopefully I will get to meet this very special writer one day soon.
Q1) I was lucky enough to read a proof copy of HIMSELF seven months ago and it is still so vivid in my mind. In my review, I called you ‘the Heston Blumenthal of literature, kicking down the doors between genres, mixing ingredients that couldn’t and shouldn’t work. Yet they do. HIMSELF is at once thrilling and heart-breaking, tender and vicious, funny and creepy, brilliant and bonkers. So my main question is the one that everyone who has read it wants to ask: HOW DID YOU DO IT?
Thank you so much, I love the idea of being ‘the Heston Blumenthal of literature’ and it completely sums up the process of writing this book! I knew I had certain ingredients that I wanted to use, these being; a crime/mystery plot, a magic realist narrator, a small-town setting and a cast of eccentric characters, I just had to find a way to blend them all. But always I was looking towards telling the story of the characters I had come to really love in the best way I could.
I was lucky enough to have been awarded a bursary to study for a PhD in Creative Writing and this provided me with the permission to write experimentally! I looked at how to go about writing cross-genre fiction, concentrating on crime/mystery and magic realism. I examined how other writers used magic realism, which is a fascinating narrative mode, and thought about how I could absorb all these influences and theories and go about create an original piece of fiction. I didn’t worry too much about taking risks, I just tried to tell the story that was as compelling as possible and evoke a setting that was as vivid as possible and hoped everything would fall into place!
As a reader I love books that play with conventions and subvert them a little, I also like that ‘rug pulled out from under me’ feeling. I think I was very much trying to create this experience for the readers of Himself by bringing together disparate styles and genres, ideas and emotions. I think of all the elements balancing the comedy and the violence was the hardest and took the most thought.
Q2) Everyone who reads HIMSELF will fall in love with the characters. The charismatic Mahoney, the hilarious Mrs. Cauley and the tragic, compelling Orla – they are all extraordinary and yet completely believable. Which of them came to you first and did you struggle to get their voices and motivations right?
Mahony arrived first in a short story. It took me a little while to get to know him because although he’s a charmer he’s also quite a self-contained character. For me, one of the novel’s central questions is whether Mahony can move from being alone to being loved. Sometimes this journey was hard to get right, just because I was trying to explore very different sides of him – the damaged Dublin orphan and the self-assured stranger. As I was writing Mahony I often felt like a lot of his past was hidden and sometimes this could be frustrating. It was only when a poet friend of mine asked ‘what does he keep in his rucksack?’ that I got an inkling of how Mahony had been spending his time in Dublin!
Orla’s story was one I had wanted to write for a long time. Originally, I was only going to set the novel in 1976, but increasingly I found myself wanting to take the reader back to Orla’s time. It felt important to show what had happened to her more directly and these chapters were amongst the most upsetting to write. As a single mother, I felt a very personal investment in her story, which came out of a few different accounts of the treatment of unmarried mothers during this time period. In response to these accounts, I started to ask a series of ‘what if’ questions: (‘What if she refused to leave town?’ ‘What if she wanted to keep her baby?’ ‘What if she threatened to tell everyone the name of the father?’). And so Orla’s tale unfolded.
Mrs Cauley arrived in a very different way. Of all the characters I’ve ever written she came fully formed, knocking on the door and letting herself in before I could even answer! Her voice was there from the first – because she immediately started heckling me. I initially wrote long exchanges of dialogue between Mrs Cauley and other characters just for the fun of it. Although I knew from the start what she sounded like and had an outline of her history a lot of her past is still unknown to me. In this way she’s a little like Mahony, there’s an air of mystery about her, which is odd because I invented her! I would love to explore her past and find out what makes her tick, especially as there is the suggestion that she lived through interesting times, arriving in Ireland as an immigrant and becoming an actress at The Abbey Theatre. Also, I just miss writing her!
I think my writing is driven by character and place. Plot is something that takes a bit more thought and is often accompanied by swearing and post it notes. But saying this, I also quite like shaking up my carefully plotted ideas and turning them on their heads. I also like those moments of blissful revelation when you finally solve a plot problem or just begin to understand exactly which direction you’ve been heading in.
Q3) Can you tell us a bit about your journey as a writer (this is the bit where we want to hear that you wrote 22 books and they were all rejected and then finally you cracked it. PLEASE don’t tell me this brilliant debut is your first and it took you six months!)
I’ve always written, as a young child I especially wanted to be a playwright, I was fascinated by acting and how an on-stage world could be created. I dropped out of college to have my daughter and continued to study with the Open University, taking a module in creative writing during this course. It was at this time that I began to think seriously about creative writing as a career. From there I embarked on an MA in Creative Writing Studies with a view to teaching in the prison service, I felt that in this way I could continue to write and help support other people to write too. The MA had a large teaching component but it also allowed me to workshop my short stories, and receive that all-important feedback. I began to teach undergraduates and adult learners and got a profound sense of satisfaction in doing this. When I received a bursary to study for a PhD in creative writing I decided to use the opportunity to experiment with genre and forge an original piece of work, first and foremost. I would worry about publishing when it was finished!
Combining work and study and writing was often very difficult and for much of the time I was a single mother. I always worked jobs that would allow me to keep studying and writing and got used to living on a low income! I was relieved to finally finish my studies.
Armed with a prototype novel I approached a few agents and was lucky enough to receive some really positive feedback and interest. I had submitted to Susan Armstrong after identifying her interest in Irish writing and magic realism and she read the first few chapters and called in the manuscript. She has since said that my covering email gave very little away. I think I struggled with how to pitch such an unusual novel! I do remember writing the synopsis and think that it would be easier to write another novel. Sue and I then worked together to shape and restructure the book for publication and after a few nail biting, floor-pacing days the book found a wonderful home with Canongate.
Q4) What – if anything – is your writing method. Are you planner or a pantser?
I’m all of the above, the way my writing day pans out depends on any number of factors. A plot monster might send me rushing to clean the kitchen floor or reorganise the cupboards (drastic actions, I’m not a fan of housework). Or else a new character might have me up half the night writing epic exchanges of dialogue. Sometimes I have to drag myself to my desk and make myself sit down at it, at other times I have to force myself to leave it. But I invariably start with a plan and that gives me something to deviate from. I welcome all deviations. If I’m really stuck I’ll have a nap, if that doesn’t work and I’m desperate, I’ll do the ironing.
Q5) What gives you energy as a writer? i.e. what makes you want to sit down and write and feel enthused about it?
I love reading poetry. Sometimes just a combination of words or a vivid image sets me off. Then it’s a case of being awed by the beauty and power in the way a writer has constructed something. This inspires me and makes me want to find my own patterns and phrases. Whenever I feel daunted by the acres of blank pages, I just concentrate on enjoying the look or sound of a string of words.
I also love getting feedback on my work. This makes me want to keep going and trying new things – just the idea that someone out there is connecting with what I’ve made is so inspiring. I’m new to Twitter but already I find it good way to feel connected to the reading and writing community.
For me there is a difference in the way I approach editing and the way in which I tackle planning a piece of writing. On brand new projects, I like to get quite immersed and I could easily lock myself in the shed for a few months and not talk to a soul. Then emerge into the light, blinking, when I’ve a rough plan in place and a fair bit of it written. But when I’m editing and the bones of the story are in place I’m far less reclusive and more likely to answer the phone!
Q6) The dead are as important in the living in HIMSELF and it made me wonder whether you ever seen someone who has passed on and/or do you believe that others can?
I was brought up on ghost stories, some of these entities were elusive or malign, but the ones I found most interesting just wandered about commenting on proceedings. I think that’s why there is a great deal of exchange between the living and the dead in my fiction. This means that ghosts are not just fleeting spirits, they also have a communicative role. One of the things that struck me quite early was the idea that the afterlife was really just a repository of stories – of once-upon-a-time lives and deaths. As I grow older what strikes me most is the idea that ghosts most strongly represent a sense of the past made present, history irresistibly returning again and again. Because ghosts never die they most powerfully represent what haunts a community or an individual.
As a small child I thought it wholly plausible that the world was full of dead as well as living people. I was fascinated by that idea and that fascination has stayed with me although I’ve yet to witness something tangible first-hand. My second book features a clairvoyant and some supernatural themes and I very much enjoyed researching it! If anyone needs a volunteer ghost hunter then pick me, I’d happily sleep in the most haunted of houses.
Q7) What advice would you give to people who have been writing for a few years but have yet to secure an agent or book deal?
I would say keep going. Above all else, keep creating. Working on several projects at once has always helped me, along with making contact with other writers, in my case, through teaching or studying creative writing. During the rocky times on the long road to publication I concentrated on the work not on the future!
Q8) Now that you do have an agent and a debut novel, what are your ambitions for yourself as a writer?
Above all else I want to continue developing as a writer, finding new and original ways to tell stories. I am now working on my second novel Hoarder, a contemporary crime novel set in London. This has been great fun to write. I have also written a fast-paced, pretty eccentric, crime novel set in Victorian London, which I’m very excited about. These novels have some things in common with Himself, such as the use of magic realism and the supernatural, but they are also very different. I also have plans for a collection of short stories and a screenplay.
Thank you so much for answering my questions so honestly and for writing such a brilliant book. I am so glad that HIMSELF is finally published and I would urge anybody who loves great stories beautifully told to read it. You can order the book here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Himself-Jess-Kidd/dp/1782118454