Lisa McInerney

A Glorious Heresy

Maeve Mulrennan

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Lisa McInerney was born in 1981 and just about grew up to be a writer of contemporary fiction. The Glorious Heresies is her first novel. In 2013 her story ‘Saturday, Boring’ was published in Faber’s ‘Town and Country’ anthology, edited by Kevin Barry. ‘Arse End of Ireland’, her take on life in a Galway council estate, won Best Humour at the Irish Blog Awards in 2009, which was a surprise as she wasn’t aware she was being particularly funny at the time. Lisa lives in Galway with a husband, a daughter, and a dog called Angua.

Published earlier this year, Lisa McInerney’s first novel The Glorious Heresies (John Murray 2015) has been described in reviews as “A big, brassy, sexy beast of a book” (Irish Times, 7 April, 2015). Maeve Mulrennan met Lisa in Galway to discuss her work.

The novel is set in Cork, where McInerney went to University to study English Literature and Geography and later worked for a building company. Married to a Corkonian, she is extremely fond of the city: “I’ve a massive fondness for Cork, even though I’m not from there. You know the way Cork people say it’s the best place on earth? Well after living there you think, you know what lads, you’re right – you ‘drink the kool-aid’. We live in the thrilling cultural metropolis that is Gort Co. Galway now for financial reasons.”

Gort should actually be a thrilling cultural metropolis, as its history features both Lady Gregory and WB Yeats. “It surprises me that this history steeped place is not exploited more and more cultural.” The writer grew up in the rural town, having being adopted by her grandparents, which is mirrored with one of the characters in The Glorious Heresies. Maureen was sent to England after having a child which her parents then adopted. Years later her son brings her back to Cork, something he begins to regret. Maureen’s character also seems regretful as it turns out that her long-lost baby is now one of the country’s major drug dealers and pimps.

McInerney set the book in Cork not only for her affection towards the city but also to write in the famously rich and lyrical Cork vernacular, “The Cork cadence and use of language is so ripe, fun and playful, and post-Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane it surprises me that not more authors take advantage of it.”

Although calling something ‘post-Kevin Barry’ assumes that time can be divided so neatly and that one author’s can have such an effect, it can be seen that Dublin is often used as a setting for Irish crime novels, plays and TV shows, with the RTE Love / Hate TV series being extremely popular. “I like to think that I’m an equal opportunities writer,” McInerney says of pickling Cork over the more common Dublin, “Cork is just as bad and seedy as Dublin! A lot of settings are either the city – that is to say Dublin – or in deepest darkest rural Ireland, full of silent men standing in fields looking out over the bog.”

Actually I have been told by a friend that her farmer father used to ask her to go and look at the sheep everyday – something that my feminist friend assumed was a made up task to occupy her whilst her brother got to drive tractors and cut tails off lambs. However it is true that only by looking at something everyday can you tell when something is wrong.

“So it’s not the poetic, lonely life I imagined?” Lisa asks, slightly disappointed that the Irish landscape is not filled with lonely John McGahernesque figures contemplating life. They are just trying to figure out what part of a sheep is rotting and going to fall off (note to reader – this interviewer is perplexed by the amount of medieval rotting diseases suffered by sheep).

Returning to Lisa’s novel, perhaps the most intriguing thing which keeps the reader connected to the characters is the author’s deconstruction of hierarchical structures: the family, the Catholic Church and the criminal underside of contemporary Ireland. A murder activates different layers of these structures, pulling and pushing them, revealing the structures’ weaknesses’ in the process. I ask Lisa how she researched the drug dealing business. Is she actually a drug dealer?

“As weird as it sounds I’ve had an unhealthy interest in drugs since I was a kid – I remember reading really nonsensical horror stories, I think in the Reader’s Digest, how after taking cocaine once you would end up as a  prostitute  in the gutter. I remember there were a lot of school projects on drugs. I’m not sure where curiosity came from. I’ve known people that have gone down that road, similar stupid roads to the characters I write about. The reality is very far away from the Hollywood image of drug barons or pimps, or whatever musicians like Dr. Dre may tell you. Thankfully I’ve never gotten myself into trouble but through knowing so many people and being interested in its impact all of my life I like to think that the characters in the book are authentic.”

Speaking of the media’s portrayal of the drug world as glamorous, or the tabloid tendency to glorify criminality, Lisa adds that as well as using it as a form of entertainment, it usually makes things worse.

“I detest the “othering” of everybody that is tainted by the drug market that the tabloid newspapers do. Everyone is tarred with the same brush, from the people making money to the children born into that world and impacted by it from day one. Then there’s the other kind of opinion from people into personal choice and that drugs should be decriminalised. They see it that by the Government making drugs illegal they have to lower themselves to deal with criminals – they don’t see themselves as criminals and they don’t realise that other people can only make money from drugs because of them. I suppose I prefer to write about the grey area where people aren’t clearly the victor or the victim. That and writing about characters that make a series of good decisions, and go on to live happy, productive lives, doesn’t make for interesting reading! I suppose the influence on my writing about drugs in that way comes from reading as a teenager – the YA writer Melvin Burgess opened my eyes to complex characters and the consequences in making stupid mistakes.”

This can be seen in the Glorious Heresies – the reader sees different complex characters making mistakes and having to survive the consequences. The characters also do not seem to learn from mistakes, and continue to be flawed throughout. Flawed characters are something that Lisa finds endlessly fascinating about people, and how actions can impact on others and create an ecosystem of bad choices and effects. One character that exemplifies this is Tony, a widower and father who spends a lot of the novel being a violent alcoholic. His character shows that regardless of the amount of easily accessible drugs, alcohol can be as detrimental a drug as the Class A variety.

Lisa adds; “I’m interested in David Nutt and his book Drugs Without the Hot Air. He quite controversially stated that Ecstasy was less dangerous and fatal to people than horse-riding. He wrote a lot about alcohol and the damage it can do to the brain. You read what he says about alcohol abuse and think ‘I’ll never drink again – it’s ‘sobering stuff’ – excuse the pun! – it’s grim what happens but you do drink again, and he still has a drink. And it’s profoundly dangerous the idea of promoting responsible drinking because people have no connection to what that even means. ‘Prinking’ (pre-drinking – or drinking before going out), equals what a person should have for their weekly limit. Thankfully the vast majority don’t have lasting damage physically, but it can impact greatly on your life.” The Irish attitude to alcohol and that people are rarely labelled as ‘alcoholics’ – they’re merely ‘fond of drink’ is reflected in the character of Tony in The Glorious Heresies. “In Ireland you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t know an alcoholic or someone affected through family. Tony can’t keep it together, he’s violent and petty. Drinking is normal and it’s in the background. However he does notice that he’s not as stupid when he is sober. It’s like what David Nutt says about only going out for two drinks on a Friday night and then coming home the following Tuesday – even with two drinks your decision making is altered.”

Alongside the acceptance of drinking in the novel are the portrayals of people falling through the cracks. Tony’s son goes to school with bruises on his face, there is an understanding that people can go missing and no one will look for them. People fall through the cracks despite Ireland being a society where everyone knows what everyone is doing. Lisa sees this, as do people like Fintan O’Toole writing about the impact of the Catholic Church on our autonomy, as something that allowed bad things to keep happening or persisting for so long. The author is interested in this dichotomy that everyone knows but no one cares however there is also her view that some people allow themselves to fall a little bit. If someone doesn’t demand help, Lisa argues, Irish people are reticent to make assumptions or judgements – no one comes looking for you. She uses the recent child abuse case in Roscommon and how no one, including the social workers, demanded the children be taken away from their parents. “People are nosy but afraid to speak out.” Lisa argues. “I don’t think it’s an exclusively Irish trait by any stretch. On one level I understand and I’m guilty of it – it’s hard to be attuned to others and there is a temptation to ignore anything beyond your own struggles. However we are also afraid, no - mortified about being wrong and to be seen as accusatory. That combined with people not being able to express their needs leads to people falling through the cracks. People don’t want to admit that shit is happening to them.”

As serious as the subject matter of McInerney’s novel is, it is also peppered with realistic and humorous accounts of a household full of children, like the character Tony’s terraced home in Cork City. The eldest brother and sister seem to have a spat that lasts the whole book. When Tony gets an unwanted visitor, the reader can nearly feel the mountain of children falling over their shoulder to try and get a look. This image of the boisterous household, was, says Lisa, wishful thinking on her part: “I was adopted by my grandparents so even though I had siblings, it felt like I was an only child. On the other hand I had eight cousins that I loved spending time with. Their house was always chaotic. They never had anything nice in the house; everything was destroyed by the kids. Regarding Tony’s house in the book, this boisterous family is not a positive thing for him. He likes the idea of being a dad and its how he likes to define himself but is not a good one.”

Tony’s refusal to look for work on the basis that he has to mind his children is a lie that he perpetrates. Lisa was conscious that all of the family’s problems were down to alcohol and that Tony would be the perfect father if it wasn’t for alcohol. Although he is not violent when sober, he still doesn’t have the tools to be a good father. His deceased wife was also written by Lisa in this way; she likes the idea of a big family much more than actually having to look after them. She is portrayed as difficult to be with. The author deliberately mentioned how messed up they were before they married, to avoid the cliché of the father being perfect until she died and then ‘taking to the drink with grief.’ Lisa also thought that a difficult, selfish woman with no idea of the consequences of having a large family would be a realistic match for a character like Tony. The cliché of the Irish mammy – a martyr, only leaving the house to go to mass and being an angel for putting up with a divil of a drunk husband is not someone Lisa wanted to have in ‘The Glorious Heresies’.

As well as the drug, family and Catholic Church structures in the book, the physical structure of Cork is extremely apparent in the novel, contributing to the overall sense of claustrophobia and also physically representing the intangible structures. For example there is an ex-brothel, where the drug-dealer’s mentally unstable mother now lives. “I’m pleased you saw that,” Lisa explains “I tend to focus more on inner thoughts and dialogue in my work so I was very conscious of creating the physical world for this book.” She says that the old brothel is based on a real derelict building in Cork city: “It’s based on a four storey town house in Cork that’s falling down. The building in the book should be looked after but it’s gutted as its history is not the good kind. The grimy history was erased and an attempt made to mould it into a Celtic Tiger building. However the building only got half way there.” This limbo-like building is not a brothel anymore but is not inhabitable. Relics of its past show up and Lisa intentionally positioned Maureen, the mother character in there as she needed someone emotionally vulnerable to pick up on the dark memories held in the space. Maureen rarely leaves this building but when she does its intentional and something bad will happen. The character justifies the harm she causes through revealing her history with the Catholic Church to the reader. Her bitterness is presented as the type of rant that one usually hears on radio phone-in shows. “Even though she knows that she’s powerless she continues these ridiculous acts of vengeance. Having her meet a sensible priest was my attempt to balance out her rants and love of anything sensationalist. There’s an ironic zealousness in her heresy and she should come across as ridiculous to the reader but she is referring to serious stuff that the church pulled on her and so many other people. However her bitterness is counterproductive and does nothing towards separating church and state or anything productive.”

When asked what she is working on now, Lisa is visibly proud: “I’ve just handed in the second novel, so I’m parking that for a month with my editor and then getting stuck back in. The editor and I are thankfully on the same page regarding where we want it to go.” It will be the second book in a two-book deal, although it and its predecessor have been planned as a trilogy. Lisa is also working on a short story collection and has also been exploring the collaborative side of writing: “I’m working on a TV script with other people – it’s not my own thing. So I’m quite busy but working differently than usual, on short form and on someone else’s concept for TV.” Switching formats and writing in the shadow of her debut does mean that doubt does creep in. “The hardest thing,” Lisa says, “is if it goes wrong, you’ve no one except yourself to blame and only you can fix it. If you can lock into a flow you feel like a genius, and then the next day you’ll doubt the exact same piece of work. And then there’s always that voice in your head saying that by writing, you’re being self-indulgent – art is not for the like of people like me. I was told at a young age that success meant working in practical places like a bank or post office. I can be apologetic about ideas and doing a job that could be seen as being a waste of time. I do think that the job of writing is undervalued. That saying that ‘Everybody has a novel in them’ is a lie!”

Coming to terms with being a full-time professional writer was also tinged by Lisa’s Grandmother’s advice. “She told me that it doesn’t matter what you do or where you’ll go, you’ll always end up back in the kitchen. I’d always argue back that that was her life but not mine. She would marvel if she saw a man pushing a pram.”

This ‘second shift’ as sociologists term it – the fact that housework and childcare is still seen as a woman’s responsibility is thankfully not part of Lisa’s life but it’s prevalence does get to her: “Men are either big men or little boys – they can run the world but they still need to be looked after.” After telling Lisa about a man I know who is the head of a company that build hospitals and train stations around the world, but whose wife sends him away with a week’s worth of dinners any time he has to work in a different city, Lisa nods knowingly. “Yep, he can build an oncology unit from scratch but he can’t put on a pizza...”