Lisa McInerney is the editor of The Stinging Fly and the author of three novels: The Glorious Heresies, The Blood Miracles and The Rules of Revelation. She has won the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Desmond Elliott Prize, the RSL Encore Award and has been nominated for the Premio Strega Europeo, the Sunday Times Short Story Award, and twice for the Dylan Thomas Award. She is published in 11 languages.
You came to public attention with your blog The Arse End of Ireland, which sounds like it was something of a Zolaesque undertaking. Did this stem from an iconoclastic impulse or were you incited to dredge through the dregs by your social conscience? Or was it a bit of both?
Probably more of the former, I’d say. At the time I wrote the blog I felt as though I was very much on the periphery of Irish society, or at least peripheral to the image of Ireland projected in the media: an affluent, glossy country of tech hubs and socialites, with a people who spent lavishly on their children’s First Holy Communion parties, or on impromptu shopping trips to New York. It was far removed from the reality of life for most Irish people. I was a young mother living on a council estate in a small town in Galway; the Ireland I knew was populated by chancers, boy racers, beleaguered mammies, local hard men, people too broke to emigrate. All of them had stories I thought far more interesting than those found in the broadsheets’ social diaries. I made the blog posts funny, but the humour was spiked with fury: I was angry, as a lot of working-class people were angry, about how we were excluded, about how our reality was deemed unnecessary when composing the country’s character and assessing her needs. These short pieces struck a chord. I felt a shared sense of unease. It gave me the confidence to take these themes into fiction, which is what I’d always wanted to do.
Is humour an essential ingredient in your writing? Can you imagine writing an utterly humour-free tragedy?
I read somewhere recently that humour comes from someplace nihilistic. I’m not sure how well that would stand up to scrutiny, but I think there’s something in it. Humour comes from irreverence, and irreverence comes from rejecting artificial profundity… Certainly that’s the case with a lot of my writing. I write about very serious things—the after-effects of Catholicism and religion-based misogyny in Ireland, classism, the exploitation that goes with drug culture, addiction in the family—and I don’t think themes like that would be so palatable without humour, nor would you be able to appreciate the depths of the dark without knowing what things look like in the light. Contrast is an excellent tool when we’re trying to make a reader feel something: humour and tragedy sharpen one another. So yes, I think it’s essential in my writing. And no, I don’t think I could write a humour-free tragedy. It’d be a flat sort of thing, wouldn’t it?
Your latest novel, The Rules of Revelation, has a bewildering number of characters (which made me think at one point that you were coming close to rivalling War and Peace’s five-hundred-character cast). Do you go on the postmodernist assumption that most characters don’t need to be fleshed out and that the main point is the hustle and bustle of dialogue?
There are five protagonist voices in The Rules of Revelation, but, as in real life, there are a huge number of other voices and people swirling around those central characters, with whom they interact, or are defined against. It’s important to me to at least try to stay true to the experiences of my protagonists, and to see other characters only through them, or with only the context that they have. Would a temporary antagonist need to be fleshed out? Would my protagonist know the inner thoughts of someone only briefly important in their life, or indeed someone they love dearly but who may not have shared everything with them? (Ryan, the character at the heart of all 3 of my books, is only seen through others’ eyes in The Rules of Revelation, except for brief 1st person interludes where he’s speaking to his partner, Karine. So without consistent access to his point of view, I had to rely on how he appeared to others, his dialogue, his body language…) In a sense it’s a bit solipsistic: all my protagonists can be sure of is that they exist, their feelings are valid, their reasons are known. They can’t hop into anyone else’s head, therefore, neither can I at that point. I think it’s a marker of poor writing when we know too much about everyone on the page — if we’re writing in any narrative voice but a god’s eye view, at least. I hope that the protagonists feel fully real to the reader, though!
In The Rules of Revelation, one of the narrators argues that “Girls could be as full of hot air as the boys they said were full of hot air”. Would you say that your writing is post-feminist? Where do you stand on identity politics?
Post-feminist implies that we’re past needing feminism, right? I hardly think the work’s done yet. But of course, what works about that line is that the character, Karine, understands that (teenage) girls are as likely to exaggerate and self-aggrandise and lie as boys are: that these aren’t gendered traits. And I think that lies at the heart of feminism: the understanding that it’s about the complexities, strengths and weaknesses in all humans, and about how artificial systems don’t correctly reflect those complexities. The idea, for example, that when it comes to sex boys are devious and single-minded, and girls are prey who must be on their guard… that reductive dichotomy fails everyone. So Karine acknowledges that in her experience, when it comes to sex and romance, everybody is capable of acting like an ass.
Identity politics. Thorny stuff. My own feeling is that intersectionality must supersede broad movements based on broad definitions of identity. I’m a woman, but that doesn’t mean I have challenges in common with every other woman. Social class and cultural background seem far more important aspects to me than gender. I don’t want to be spoken for by trans-exclusionary feminists, for example, nor by ‘lean-in’ style women capitalists either. I have far more in common with a working-class Irish man than I do with these women. A lot of these expansive cultural movements serve more to simplify complicated issues and appeal to emotion than they do to effect meaningful change. I don’t think of myself as a ‘woman writer’, because what in God’s name does that even mean?
Is political correctness damaging to creativity in your view?
I don’t think it’s a concept that truly exists in art. I haven’t come across ‘political correctness’ as any sort of meaningful cultural force in my career; the only time I hear about it is when reactionaries complain about being asked to be nicer to minorities (and artists don’t tend to be reactionaries), or when writers sulk that their readers have recognised poor research about issues or characters they don’t have close experience with. I’ve written three novels and a dozen or so short stories which feature extremes of action and dialogue and honestly, I’ve never felt like I had to censor my attempts to reflect or satirise darker reality for some imagined critic. Whose art are we actually being shielded from? I can purchase De Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom in its Penguin Classics edition in my local bookshop. Maybe ‘political correctness’ as a perceived censor is something some writers worry about or try to modify their writing around, in which case the damage to creativity is the artist’s own doing. It’s self-censorship, when there are no sacred cows. Which isn’t to say the writer can’t take on a difficult topic and fail in their efforts, in which case, the writer needs to get off Twitter and block their access to Goodreads; political correctness isn’t poisoning them, but second-guessing criticism will. Anyway, even if it was a force to be reckoned with, you’d think artists would find a way around it, a way to poke holes in it, a way to challenge it? Censorship can’t damage creativity, it can only inflame it.
But De Sade is a classic so he’ll always be in print. Do you know many examples of mainstream contemporary writers who still dare to foreground sex in an explicit way? My feeling is that a lot of modern writers stay clear of sex these days because they’re afraid of not getting published. One of my recent books was recently turned down by an agent because of a few brief pretty harmless graphic scenes. Do you not feel limited when you mention sex in your books?
Not at all. What a shame that the agent had such a stale, outdated response to your work! Yes, I think there are plenty of examples of contemporary writers focusing on sex in their work — whether positively, negatively or in a morally ambiguous framing. Here in Ireland we have writers like Rob Doyle, Sally Rooney, Mary Costello, and Seán O’Reilly writing honestly about sex, all in the literary mainstream; we’re not talking about authors shunned by the industry. As editor of The Stinging Fly magazine, I see plenty of writers, both emerging and established, writing honestly, joyfully or graphically about sex in their short fiction. International writers like Virginie Despentes, Agustina Bazterrica, or Fernanda Melchor are not afraid to write transgressive fiction with graphic scenes, and are celebrated for it. And then of course you have the contemporary classics like those of Milan Kundera and Elfriede Jelinek. So much is coming to mind, and that’s before we even get to ‘genre fiction’.
I’m not sure 120 Days of Sodom could be labelled a classic, by the way. It’s not even finished — only the first section was written as De Sade intended, and the rest of it is in draft form. Let’s not pretend we are interested in it because of its literary merits; we are interested in it because it’s shocking, erotic, pornographic, depraved… because it is meant to elicit a strong reaction, and it does.
I agree with what you’re saying, but still I have the feeling that a writer who is very graphic will have a harder time getting published. Dermot Bolger agrees with me on this. It’s true that Sally Rooney mentions sex, but does she ever write elaborate sex scenes the way some writers write action scenes? All she ever seems to do is have conversations about sex, which isn’t quite the same, in my view. Have you ever considered writing an elaborate, graphic sex scene?
Sally writes very realistic sex scenes and she writes candidly. In her work there’s sex in all of its physical and emotional mess, from kinks to condoms. I don’t know how much more graphic a writer can get without risking the reader’s eye roll, or writing some sort of step-by-step guide… I keep thinking of Jarvis Cocker singing in ‘This Is Hardcore’, ‘That goes in there, and that goes in there, and that goes in there…’
Can you write good sex the way you’d write an action scene? The sex scene is the emotional rush; the contextualising of the scene heightens that rush. Sex in literary fiction is about more than sex, otherwise, it’s just erotica (nothing wrong with erotica, but it has — naturally! — fewer dimensions). Action scenes bore me, as a reader. I tend to skip to the end. The doing isn’t important to me — the consequences are more interesting. It’s like writing about food: tell me how it tastes, but don’t tell me how to chew.
Graphic sex, when written, is as susceptible as anything else to coming across as perfunctory and joyless; it takes skill to write well about sex, whether you’re choosing to write euphemistically or going full Bataille. I try to write scenes that are real and common and everyday in language that’s stirring, suggestive, unusual. I’ve written plenty of sex scenes, sufficiently graphic: we meet the main character of my trilogy when he’s 15 and having sex for the first time; we leave him when he’s a 24-year-old father, and he has plenty of sex in between, positive and negative, detailed and half-remembered. I don’t know about elaborate, though; I don’t have much interest in writing elaborately about anything, to be honest. I’m going to try in my writing to elicit a reaction in as effective a way as I can (though I’m not as driven towards reaction as De Sade!), and sometimes that’ll take three pages of text, and sometimes it’ll sit, unsaid, between paragraphs. Both are fun ways to work.
Would you say that your work bears the hallmarks of millennial writing?
I’m not sure. The idea of establishing literary genres based on generations seems reductive to me. Too easy to dismiss whole swathes of literature — the idea that one novelist will have the same concerns or obsessions as another based on their age is a little too simple. Mind you, we all react to context and obviously the point of ‘cultural context’ is that it’s shared, so maybe there’s something to it. When one thinks of ‘millennial writing’, cliché suggests they’re thinking of insecure, overeducated, self-aware characters, wandering about being sardonic in cities, analysing fraught relationships and having unfulfilling sex. There doesn’t seem to be room for working-class writing with that kind of milieu, so I’m not sure where I fit. But then, where the writer fits is a question for their publisher’s marketing department.
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