Interview | Molly McCloskey, Memory, Ireland, and Home

I find it apt that it was a brilliantly bright, shining day when I met Molly McCloskey. I had finished her newest novel When Light is Like Water the previous week, and had just written a review of it. On the journey to meet her I was preoccupied with light and water, and was eager to ask her about the inspiration behind the title. It’s the first thing I ask her when she joins me in The Inn On The Green of the Fitzwilliam Hotel.

“The title came very late in the process. The book was done, and we were still agonising over the title, so it wasn’t as if the title guided the book in any way. When i did the last read-through of the book to see what came out in terms of titles, what kept coming out was light and water, and I think that when you live in the west of Ireland, or really anywhere in Ireland, light and water are two elements that you’re very conscious of.” When Light is Like Water is certainly more fitting that the US title being released in 2018, Straying. She continues“I liked it also because the book is kind of about the liquidity of attatchment and transience. And the light is always changing in this country, which is one of the beautiful things about it.”

This is a thread running through the novel that could be easy to overlook, but once it’s spotted and tugged at, unravels poignant observations about the elusiveness and fragility of our sense of ‘home.’

The title perfectly captures the sense of luminous uncertainty, of life at the brink of fluidity and dependability, that pervades the novel. I wondered if this restlessness, this need for stability but reluctance to be moored by it, was something Molly herself has experienced.

“[That feeling] sent me on travels and stuff for a certain period of my life,” she says. “There’s a passage in the book where she’s talking to her friend Harry. He talks about how he’s worked at re-settling refugees all his life and in the meantime, his own life has become more and more unsettled, so that everywhere feels a little bit like home, but nowhere does entirely.” This is a thread running through the novel that could be easy to overlook, but once it’s spotted and tugged at, unravels poignant observations about the elusiveness and fragility of our sense of ‘home.’

“The book, for me, is largely about homes; the loss of home and the different forms a home can take. Alice [the protagonist] is obviously quite obsessed with her marital home, the place where they lived, and she keeps looking online [at it]. Thee marriage itself is a home, and childhood is a home… and then there’s this house in Monkstown, which is such a home to her, it’s everything that life was not at that time.”
McCloskey was born in Philadelphia and grew up in North Carolina and Oregon, but called Ireland home for over twenty years. Ireland has a strong literary reputation; but when one thinks of Irish fiction, it is somewhat of a knee-jerk reaction to think of the profane and the vulgar, à la Ulysses or the more contemporary The Butcher Boy, or the bleak and oppressive, in the vein of Angela’s Ashes or the work of John B. Keane. McCloskey’s novel has an unclichéd, affectionate  yet subdued realism in her depiction of Ireland. It’s a novel set in Ireland, not a novel about Ireland. This country has, however, pushed and stimulated her craft.

Initially when I ask how Ireland has inspired her writing, she hesitates, tentatively suggesting that it is simply a matter of, “I lived here for 23 years, but now I live there [in America]. I don’t want to make any sweeping generalisations.” I get the impression that she’s never really thought about it before. However it doesn’t take long before things start to click into place. “Ireland is small enough that if you’re a beginning writer, you can meet and come into contact with and have interactions with real writers. [The late] Dermot Healy was the first real writer I met. He lived up the road from me…so those sorts of encounters, and having access to people like that was really important.” After attending the launch of her latest novel in Hodges Figgis the week after this interview, her point was illustrated clearly. The event’s attendees – friends, fellow Irish writers, and professors from UCD, where McCloskey was writer-in-residence for a semester – creates the sense of a strong and supportive community for Irish writers.

Her next point surprises me, as it’s something I had never thought of, but it makes  a lot of sense. “Being in a place where the same language is being spoken,  but being spoken very differently, makes you hyper-conscious of how language can be used. There’s no given vernacular, [so] the choices you make about language create certain moods and tones and characters. Slang and ways of expressing things are really interesting.” Now that she’s pointed it out, Ireland is a great exemplar of a culture where “language can be a direct and indirect tool.”

A look at lists of Irish bestsellers gives the impression that Irish writing is far more limited than it truly is. Our bestselling female writers are primarily romance writers, the likes of Cecelia Aherne and Claudia Carroll, and I wondered if, as a female writer, she ever felt any need to actively avoid these genre pitfalls. “That’s an interesting question,” she says, surprised by my probing, but ready to engage with it. “Writing by women that concerns domesticity and relationships is judged more harshly than writing by men. Men write about this all the time, they write about relationships. You can’t write a novel and not write about relationships. This is who we are, we don’t exist in a vacuum. One of the books I reread when I was writing this novel was a book called 7 Years by Peter Stamm, which is all about an affair [the protagonist] has, and the breakdown of his marriage. And i do think about that, and how that book would be judged differently if it had been written by a woman, and i do think that’s the case. But it’s not about not writing about that subject, it’s about writing about it well.”

The novel is, after all, about far more than simply an affair. The protagonist’s memories, particularly of her other and her childhood, are particularly important to her. The novel is narrated by Alice, with her looking back on her life since she came to Ireland. I tell her that this focus on memory in the narrative is something I picked up on in her other work also, notably her novel Protection and her story collection Solomom’s Seal.  “Memory is the thing that comprises who we are – yet it’s this completely slippery, unreliable, changeable thing, which is basically a collection of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, about what happened, about people,” she tells me. “So I think that tension is really interesting, like for example, if you lose your memory, who are you? It’s the thing you’re relying on to hold your identity together, and contain it; yet, as we all know, it is famously unreliable. The interesting thing is the unreliability and how we tell those stories to ourselves, and how those stories change over time, and the way that we change them says a lot about what we want to believe, our emotional and psychological interpretations, which are often more important than the thing itself.”

The sun was still shining brilliantly when we leave. I began to get the feeling that my conversation with Molly has illuminated a simple, yet powerful truth: inspiration, and the things we cling to for identity, are all around us.

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