Interview with Belinda McKeon.
Mandy Hegarty interviews arts journalist and novelist Belinda McKeon…
The photograph is by Hiroki Kobayashi
Belinda McKeon is at the end of one of her frequent trips back to Ireland from Brooklyn. Having spent most of her working life as an arts journalist, interviewing authors, writing about books, music and art, her own debut novel Solace is due out this August. It is time for the interviewer to become the interviewee.
Belinda speaks with an almost undetectable twang of an American accent, picked up during the last six years she has spent living in New York. On this particular visit, Belinda is fulfilling her duties as curator of Ireland’s largest poetry festival, dlr Poetry Now, and visiting her family home in Co Longford.
Her working life is multifaceted; journalist, curator, playwright and now author. I ask her how she balances all these different aspects of her working life. “Really badly,” she answers, laughing. Solace took six years to write. “It is a case of how I managed to get around to doing it, balancing it, rather than how I balanced from the beginning.”
Belinda grew up on a small farm in Longford and moved to Dublin to study in Trinity College. As a child she always wanted to write and recently found one of her first unfinished fiction writings from childhood, titled The Mitchelstown Mice. “If it had ever been published I probably would have been sued by Mitchelstown cheese people for insinuating that there were rodents in their factory.”
Belinda describes her early fiction writing as “sporadic”. Having “finally gotten around” to her lifelong ambition of publishing a novel, Solace is already hotly tipped by renowned Irish novelists including Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín and Colum McCann. Set between a small farm in Longford and Co Dublin in the summer of 2008, it tells the story of “the dying days of the Celtic Tiger”. Featuring a father and son as the main characters, Tom and Mark Casey are thrown together through tragic circumstances. Mark, a doctoral student in his late twenties, and Tom, his traditional farming father, have a fragile relationship strained by the different Irelands they inhabit and the different beliefs they hold.
Solace is the product of six years of varying levels of concentrated effort and frustration. It emerged from a short story Belinda wrote for the Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award in 2004. “It didn’t get anywhere in the competition and yet, even before the summer, it was obvious to me that I wanted to stay with the characters. It wasn’t actually a short story. That was part of the problem with it I think. It was a draft of an early chapter of what was going to be a novel.”
Despite this realisation, Belinda’s busy work schedule as a journalist hampered her fiction writing. “I stayed up all night and wrote that short story and the next day I had a journalism deadline. I wasn’t able to put aside the time to work on my fiction. The muscles that you are using for writing journalism and fiction, those muscles are very close to each other. You are often sapping the energy that you want to use for your creative writing if you are doing too much journalism.”
In 2005, Belinda decided to move to New York to study Fiction in Columbia University. This decision marked a focused effort to put her own fiction writing first. “I originally envisioned having the novel finished within two years but it became more complicated than I thought. The story line and the layers of the story took more time than I’d anticipated.
“I’m not sure that I get what other people consider to be ‘writer’s block’. I don’t get a period where I can’t write, but I definitely get periods where I am writing a load of absolute rubbish. But I’ve never had a dry period. When you are a journalist you just have to write all the time and just hope that something good will come out of it.”
The settings of Solace mirror the locations of Belinda’s own life; a small farm in Longford, Trinity College and Stoneybatter. “They must have evolved as locations because I am really familiar with them, although the part of Longford where I set the farm is completely fictional. Anyone from that particular part of Longford will probably grumble about the geography being completely made up.
“It [the choice of location] wasn’t a conscious decision. I would be writing a scene where one of the characters, Joanne (Mark’s partner) is working in a lawyer’s office and without thinking about it, I knew exactly where that lawyer’s office was because when I had lived in Stoneybatter, I used to walk into work every morning along the quays and I would pass this very shabby, dusty, old solicitors office. I was always curious about them. They almost look like something out of Dubliners. So that’s where she works, in one of those places. If you have to try too hard to work at where your character is, then there is something unnatural about it.”
Securing a two book deal with Picador in April 2010, Belinda describes the editing process that followed as relatively painless. “The book was the same length but it was slightly different at the end of the process.” Both her American publishing company Scribner and Picador UK invited her to contribute to ideas for the cover of the book. She brought in her own photographs taken on her parents’ farm; close up shots of the surfaces of farm machinery taken on a sharp winter’s day, “vivid”, and full of shadow and texture. “None of them were useful practically. They were just amateur photos, but that was the idea.” Both publishing houses worked with elements of these photographs, the British cover using the rusty colours and the American cover featuring a close-up photograph of a cultivator.
Belinda’s passion for literature is obvious. She admires writers such as Alice Munro (“amazing”), Deborah Eisenberg (“spare and unnerving”) and John McGahern (“he’s been really important to me”). She also likes to collect first editions. She speaks of the pleasure of discovery she gets from stumbling across precious books in libraries and bookstores – “that can’t happen on Amazon”. During our interview she pulls out a proof edition of a novel from her handbag. “Even just getting a proof, it’s a privilege.”
The culmination of all her work, Solace, will be published by Picador in August 2011 and Belinda hopes it will reach a wide audience: “I really would like it to be read by people from all walks of life. It would be the dream that somebody very young and somebody quite old would read it and find something in it. Also, that people from different sociological backgrounds would read it. That’s what every writer wants I think. A book just finds its readers. Who those readers are doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all. You just want the characters to be with the readers.”