Amy Day Wilkinson: You started writing stories in your early twenties and yet didn’t publish your first book, the stunning short-story collection, The China Factory, until you were in your mid forties. Can you tell us a little about your life as a writer during those twenty-plus years? How did you stay motivated?
Mary Costello: I didn’t consider myself a writer in those years. I was teaching full time and I was married, and somehow writing slipped into the margins of my life. I couldn’t seem to accommodate it—it felt like an interruption to life, a burden even. Often I tried to shed it, but it wouldn’t leave me entirely—it kept gnawing— and every now and then a story would push up and I’d have to write it. I was writing in isolation. I knew no other writers, wasn’t part of a writing community. I never thought in terms of motivation. I guess the pressure of each individual story pushing up is what compelled me to keep writing during those years.
ADW: You worked as a primary school teacher in Dublin while you were learning to write, from your early twenties until just recently, I believe. Did your life as a teacher spill into your life as a writer? Was teaching your vocation? Is writing your vocation now?
MC: I never studied creative writing, but I was always reading, so, although I never thought if it in those terms, I was, in a way, learning to write by reading the authors I admired. I enjoyed a lot about teaching. I’d studied Jungian psychology in my late twenties, and afterwards I worked with children with social and emotional difficulties. I’ve never written a story about the teaching life or based a character on children or teachers I met. When you work with children, especially vulnerable children, there’s a natural instinct to protect them and not transgress any boundaries.
I don’t mind calling writing—or teaching—a vocation. The word has an old-fashioned religious connotation, but anything one devotes oneself to is, I think, a vocation. And I think I’m the kind that needs a vocation. The idea of being devoted to one intense thing (or person) appeals to me. In another era I might have been a nun! All that fasting and fainting, all those visions!
Nowadays I have the time and space to give myself over to writing. I like the privacy and seclusion of writing, the total immersion where ego and defenses fall away and one is forced to face the naked self with utter honesty. It’s daunting too, of course.
ADW: In a 2012 review of The China Factory published in The Guardian, Anne Enright says, “There is a country cadence in Costello’s sentences; her characters yearn westwards towards the Atlantic and the hills and fields of their childhood homes. But she remains true to a dislocation that is more than geographical and is wary of ‘the landscape solution’ so prevalent in Irish prose.” Can you talk a little about being an Irish writer? Is there such a thing? How might that be different now than it was in the past?
MC: I don’t ever think of myself as an Irish writer, but simply a writer. But insofar as I was born and live in Ireland, I’m an Irish writer. This is where I landed on earth, so as sure as my skin is Irish, my voice is Irish. And it’s inevitable that the language, the way English is spoken here and in my area I grew up in is embedded in me; its rhythms and cadence, its usage, will come out in my writing. Likewise the physical place, the rural and urban landscapes of this country, are the ones that rise easily in my mind’s eye when I am writing. However, I feel no desire or obligation to represent the national character in my fiction, or give tongue to the Irish voice or even the landscape. I don’t try to insert Irish themes or subject matter. But neither do I try to resist them. There’re just there by default. I have no agenda other than to realize my character and his or her story.
I don’t know what defines an Irish voice. It’s said, especially in the case of the short story, that a certain melancholy attaches to the Irish. Maybe this is true, and maybe it’s the result of our troubled past and the loss of land and language. We’re a fairly introverted and intuitive people too, and maybe that obliqueness is there in the writing. There’s no doubt that a writer’s background, one’s personal experiences as well as the collective experiences of one’s race and people and country resonate in the work. But ultimately I think it’s the writer’s own inner landscape that shapes and influences most.
Ireland has undergone huge social, cultural and economic changes in the last fifty or sixty years—we’ve moved from being quite a rural and conservative society to being urban and more outward looking. The power of the Catholic Church has diminished, and there’s more individual freedom and choice, right up to the ’60s, the work of some Irish writers was banned. However, though voice and style and setting may change, the stories that interest writers, Irish and non-Irish, past and present, tend to be those that have always interested writers: love and death, men, women, sex, power, faith, freedom, conscience . . . matters of the human condition.
ADW: Your beautiful novel, Academy Street, tells the story of one woman’s quiet life. You open when Tess Lohan is seven and has just lost her mother; you close seven decades later. This is a character whose entire conscious life you imagined. How did this feel as you were writing the book? How does it feel now, with the novel a finished thing in the world?
MC: Tess was with me for a few years before I wrote her. I always sense the presence of a character long before I write the story… and feel him/her—like some vague subtle body—coming into focus. Once I found Tess’s voice as a child I kept close to it and laid down the basic traits of her personality. So we get to know her inherent nature very early on, and this basic nature doesn’t change hugely all through her life. Because Tess is an introvert, a lot of the narrative details her inner world, her inner workings, and her attempt to navigate the external world.
I’ve written short stories for years and almost all of them began because I had a character I needed to write into being. The same happened with Tess. I worked on the story in an organic way. I don’t mean that I knew everything about her life or every scene, but I knew the main pull of her being and how things would pan out. I always know my characters intuitively, and the challenge is to depict them and their lives in an unobtrusive way—convey this knowledge without leaving the marks of labor on the narrative. I just nudged my novel along, line by line, patiently. I think if I’d given it too much thought I might have been crippled at the prospect of writing a whole life. Now that the novel is finished and out there in the world, I’m just glad it’s done and I held my nerve and survived it.
ADW: In Academy Street, Tess is very perceptive of nature. For example, the last thing she notices as she leaves the family home is an ash tree with “a band of barbed wire embedded in the trunk.” It’s a tree that’s been suffering quietly for years, a tree she’ll think of again. Even in New York City, Tess seems most relaxed outside. Is Tess’s attentiveness to nature a trait you share?
MC: Tess the child is hyper-alert to nature and the physical world around her—she can almost hear the grass growing. I wanted to catch that sensory-orientated aspect of a child’s existence. Children live very much in the immediate present—there’s little forethought of the future or thoughts of the past. And of course they’re very observant; the door between perception and the imagination is ajar, and maybe it remains ajar for longer in some children.
I grew up in the country, and as a child I was fairly tuned in to the natural world around me. I worry that some of that alertness and hypersensitivity has dulled with age and those perceptive faculties of childhood have been weakened by decades of work and living and city life, but I’m still very much awed by the mystery of the physical world in both the rural and urban setting. I always feel a great frisson of excitement when I read about new scientific discoveries – or even just facts about the natural and physical world, the world of matter. I’m aware of how little we know and how miraculous life is. And at the same, how random and precarious.
I’ve lived in the city for years but return often to the rural countryside in the west of Ireland where I grew up and to which I feel a strong bond. I’m attracted to the small and intimate details of that place, rather than to great vistas and dramatic landscape. Mountains and valleys, great views of the ocean and horizons are almost too much to behold, too overwhelming. I’m drawn instead to the seemingly contained—the minuscule details, the teeming life that’s barely visible to the eye, and the being-ness of inanimate things too: stones, fields, trees, the mute phenomena.
ADW: Tess’s relationship with her son Theo brings her great joy. The way you wrote about mothering a young child struck me as just right. You say, “The child’s existence turned a plain world to riches. Her life raised up like this, the child giving point and purpose to each day, the care of him transforming her, widening and deepening her.” Do you have children? Or is Tess’s life as a mother the work of observation and imagination?
MC: No, I don’t have children, so the mother-child relationship in my novel is all imagined. I’ve always written characters whose lives are beyond the range of my own lived experience. Several of my short stories are from the point of view of men—young men, old men—and older women. As with a lot of writers, there’s usually an element of autobiography in what I write, not so much in the external facts of a character’s life story but in the psychology, in the inner emotional life. J. M. Coetzee says that all writing, fiction and nonfiction, is autobiographical to a large degree.
And of course I was once a child and I have sisters and brothers and friends who have children, and I have a mother!
ADW: At what point in the writing process did you decide the events of 9/11 would play a role in Tess’s life? How is writing about a historically documented tragedy different from writing about the more personal tragedies that run through most fiction, including Academy Street (family members die; a brother goes missing)?
MC: I knew from the start that the events of 9/11 would play an important role in Tess’s life and were essential to her story. I also knew that I wasn’t going to be tackling this issue or documenting it from any historical or political or moral perspective, but rather coming at it from a personal slant, insofar as it would be experienced by Tess. I am not a social novelist and feel no need or wish to comment on such issues, but neither will I avoid them if they’re pertinent to my story and to my character’s life. To do so would compromise the integrity of the work. And it would be tantamount to self-censorship. Artists deal with critical and sensitive issues like this all the time and must navigate those territories according to their own consciences. No one country owns history—the immense human suffering caused by historical events and catastrophes like 9/11 are grieved globally. Human empathy, like the human imagination, does not recognize international borders.
ADW: Of your writing process in general, how much planning do you do before you start a new story?
MC: A story is usually forming and simmering away inside for a long time before I actually start it. I need to have lots of notes accumulated before I begin. And no, I don’t dash off a first draft in a great creative surge. In fact I didn’t write a straight-through first draft of this novel at all. I rewrote each chapter as I went along. In general, writing a novel or a story is a bit like assembling a jigsaw. I’ll have scenes and sections of narrative written in the notebooks and I’ll put these into the early drafts but usually fiddle around with them before they find their natural place. The main shape of a story is laid down in early drafts, but most of the important writing and the refining happens in the rewrites.
ADW: Your two books have collected many well-deserved awards and nominations, including winning the 2014 Eason Novel of the Year award for Academy Street and being longlisted for the Guardian First Book award for The China Factory. Has receiving this sort of recognition changed anything for you as a writer?
MC: It’s very gratifying to get this kind of recognition—and I feel lucky, because there are many good books that don’t get the notice they deserve. It has given me more confidence, I think, and affirmed that there’s some worth in what I write. However none of it makes the writing any better. Being out in the world as a writer brings new anxieties, and even old anxieties like self-doubt never leave. After my first book I worried that I wouldn’t be able to write another one, that I might be a one-trick pony. When I finished the novel, I couldn’t write for six months. I’m still not sure I can. I think maybe with each book, something is lost. Hopefully something is gained too, but on slow days I wish I could recover that blind naïve way of writing I had in the early years.
ADW: What are memorable books you read while you working on Academy Street? What’s something terrific you read recently?
MC: I can’t remember what I read while I was working on Academy Street. I remember reading Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams some time beforehand and being really struck by the way he compressed a whole life into such a short novel. I liked both Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offhill and also Ben Lerner’s 10:04 a lot. And I loved Lila by Marilynne Robinson—I’m a big fan of Robinson.
ADW: Are you at work on a new writing project now? Can you tell us anything about it?
MC: There’s another novel in the making—it’ll be a while before I can get to it properly. I’m also writing the odd short story. I’m a bit superstitious about talking about unwritten projects, so … sorry!
Click here to read Amy Day Wilkinson’s feature piece on Mary Costello’s Academy Street.