Belinda McKeon

Seismographic Emotions and the Dimensions of Distance

Susanne Stich

Share Via:

A week before the North American launch of award-winning Irish writer Belinda McKeon’s new and second novel Tender (Picador UK, 2015 & Lee Boudreaux Books US, 2016) I caught up with her on Skype. Given that we spoke between Brooklyn, where McKeon has been based for many years, and rural Inishowen, the unique short story anthology A Kind of Compass – Stories on Distance (Tramp Press, 2015), which McKeon recently edited, was a fitting starting point for our conversation. Over the course of an hour we talked about McKeon’s self-admitted obsession with distance, and how it has manifested in her fiction, her work as a critic and editor, but also in her personal life.

Susanne Stich: A Kind of Compass – Stories on Distance takes its title from Rebecca Solnit’s essay collection A Field Guide to Getting Lost.  It includes stories by Sara Baume, Elske Rahill, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Kevin Barry, Porochista Khakpour, Sam Lipsyte, and many other well-known Irish and international authors. In your introduction you call distance a ‘human tendency’. It reminded me of Schopenhauer illustrating the human condition with a metaphor of porcupines in the cold that huddle together for warmth but disperse again when their spines cause them to hurt each other. Perhaps we can start with you talking about your preoccupation with distance, and how it motivated you to edit the anthology. You write that you were hoping to ‘outsource’, or even ‘exorcise’ your obsession with the concept, but that that ‘did not work’.

Belinda McKeon: It’s true. I wanted to see what distance meant to other writers, but I think it was just a turn of phrase really. When you write an introduction for an anthology you try to put things in a certain neat way, probably neater than they are in reality. But yes, distance does preoccupy me. It always has. And it has become more intense as I’ve got older, partly because of being an emigrant. I’ve lived in America for ten years now, and my relationship with Ireland is quite complicated, so I think it’s really seeping into my writing, probably more and more, and I’m trying not to just write about distance, but it comes up in different ways, in hidden and subtle ways, and then also in more obvious ways at times. So, why does it preoccupy me? Like I say, it always has, long before I left home, as a child, I was intrigued by the emotional pull of being far away, and yet the discomfort of that, that bind. It probably has to do with my upbringing, with the mindset in my house, or in my community. I’ve been writing since I was very young, so my teenage scribblings and the work I did at college are preoccupied with distance in one way or another, particularly the distance between people. Geographical distance is a totally different thing, a cruder way of thinking about distance. I suppose what really interests me is the business of feeling as though it’s possible to be close to another person, and then realizing that really that’s an illusion.

(At this point Skype presents us with an echo effect, the irony of which is not lost on us. Belinda puts on a pair of headphones, and in no time we’re up and running again.)

SS: I like what you just said about geographical distance being a ‘cruder form’ when we’re faced with so many other types of distances. A Kind of Compass puts the spotlight on precisely those other kinds of distances, often highly idiosyncratic ones, which suggest distance almost as a form of identity, or as a filter that colours everything. Were you surprised by the writers’ approach to the theme when the stories first arrived?

BM: No, I wasn’t surprised, and, to be honest, when you’re editing an anthology, there comes a point when it all becomes very pragmatic. You just want people to submit on time, and you want the stories to be good. You’re worried that you’re going to get a load of crap (laughs). But in terms of being surprised, one thing that did in fact surprise me was that some of the themes were not dissimilar to each other. For example, two writers, Elske Rahill and Maria Takolander, explored the idea of women going into space, and I think that was possibly influenced by something that was in the news at the time. Also some very prosaic factors can influence what a person chooses to write about, and in a way an anthology becomes a snapshot of that point in time when fifteen writers are clamoring to get a story written. It turned out that most of them wrote stories that resonated with what Solnit calls the ‘faraway deep inside’, the experience of trying to know another person, or the self, and coming up short. There were some stories about travel, but as I was editing I was glad to see a variety of perspectives, and I’m happy that they weren’t just focused on air miles.

SS: You already mentioned the opening story, Elske Rahill’s ‘Terraforming’, which I loved. It highlighted a hidden absurdity to the concept of distance: a young woman, whose late father always assured her that she can do anything, auditions for a mission to Mars. She travels from rural Ireland to London. By going this extra distance she hopes to leave behind her dull existence of being a mother and spouse. Ironically, at the actual audition in a fancy hotel, alienated by the other attendees and the protocol surrounding the event, she ends up undermining herself in all kinds of ways, returning home disenchanted.

One of the presentations at the audition is titled ‘Why it’s time to go [to Mars]’. This made me laugh, but I thought it also underlined another sub-theme in the anthology as a whole, movement, and its relationship with distance. Many of these characters are on the go. They don’t stay in one place. Even in your own short story ‘Long Distance’, which is part of another recent and exciting short story anthology, The Long Gaze Back – An Anthology of Irish Women Writers, edited by Sinéad Gleeson, this relationship looms large. You’re opening that story with a fascinating sentence: ’You want to live in a place where nobody notices a runner.’ For me it resonated with the woman’s experience in ‘Terraforming’, emphasizing the absurdity of wanting to move toward something, but to keep a distance at the same time.

BM: I agree, ‘Terraforming’ is a beautiful story. There’s a great deal of pain in it. And I guess the unspoken-ness in it, which is such a theme in Irish writing, is critical. In this case it’s all about the character’s marriage, the relationship she’s moving away from. I really enjoyed the restraint the story exhibits on that score.

SS: Sara Baume’s story ‘Finishing Lines’ also tells the story of a young mother travelling from Ireland to London, but in this case the first person narrator is collecting her uncle’s lost homing pigeon. The final paragraph highlights some of the problems with distance in a contemporary context:

‘Before I left for London, my great uncle told me that he wasn’t going to race pigeons any more. The rules have changed too much, not just because of bird flu but because of pylons, masts, satellites. Nowadays, the air is full of radio waves and phone signals; it interferes with the earth’s magnetic field, with ley lines, with Feng Shui, with water diviners, with the tiny particles of iron inside a homing pigeon’s beak, my great uncle told me – in different words. It was the only race in the world – he said, in these words exactly –with a single starting gate but a thousand different finishing lines. Now it’s just like any other race; now it’s just like all the other races.’ (136)

BM: Yes. Interestingly, Sara’s story was also about a relationship and its disappointment, in this case about the relationship with a relative, an illusion that has died, a realization that has dawned and become painful. And while the character is trying to help her uncle, she’s also trying to move away from something about him. And I suppose what’s most interesting about that story is the discontent it describes. It’s the same with Sara’s novel Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither. There’s a discontent deep within the protagonist, which isn’t explained or discussed. She doesn’t show what is wrong with this character. Instead we get to see how it affects the character’s interactions with others, and the way in which the character moves through the world. So in a way the narrator in ‘Finishing Lines’ is carrying distance with her wherever she goes. It was a story I was really happy to get. With the theme of distance one of the things that attracted me to it was that it was so broad that I knew pretty much any piece of fiction would address it. It’s about the spaces between people, and the ways in which we spend our days traversing them. Sara’s story addressed the theme very specifically, but then it also did the more nuanced job of being about a character’s inner distances, the lonelinesses, the silences, and also the confusion, the feeling of being messed up and conflicted.

SS: Perhaps we can briefly look at Porochista Khakpour’s story ‘City Inside’, another favourite of mine. It puts a Beckettian spin on the theme of urban alienation. The humour in it is fantastic. For the first time in his life Henry lives in a ‘famous city’, which remains unnamed, but has a clear air of New York about it. He’s in his thirties and feels old, but with regards to his living situation he’s the new kid on the block. From his apartment he can look straight across into another part of his building, the flat of a middle-aged woman, who he begins to watch simply because he has nothing else to do. This is not Rear Window or Peeping Tom, andthe ensuing encounter between Henry and his neighbor is nothing short of hilarious as the woman climbs out of her own apartment onto Henry’s windowsill, where initially he keeps her waiting, but finally lets her in. Khakpour’s window scenario presents a potent metaphor of the impossibility of merely watching, or keeping one’s distance. In the end, however, ‘the faraway deep inside’ opens up once more; the connection between the two strangers remains as tenuous as it is temporary, and Henry ‘locked his own door; once, then again, just in case. And he stopped watching’ (214).

BM: I think your reading of that story is wonderful, and I think Porochista would enjoy it. What I remember about that story is the spikiness of Henry’s voice, and of how distance can become something that complicates a character as well as something that makes a character lovely and mournful. In the Irish tradition a lot of the time characters affected by distance are poetic victims. In Porochista’s story there is this great wit and savagery to Henry and what distance has done to him. He’s become a bit of a prick basically, and that gives the story a great vitality. The confrontation, which results with the other character, is also very spiky and acidic, not at all merely a gentle or poignant portrait of human distance.

SS: Did the finished anthology change your perception of distance in any way?

BM: No! (Laughs). Maybe writing a novel does something like that to you, but editing a collection is mostly a job. It’s not that the stories don’t stay with you. In fact, particular scenes come back to me all the time, and maybe that’s the way in which my perspective on distance has been enhanced or added to, as opposed to changed. But I’m still as neurotic about distance as I ever was, probably even more so (laughs again).

SS: Let’s talk about your novel Tender. Having read A Kind of Compass first, I couldn’t help but notice the theme of distance also shaping your second novel in various ways. Tender chronicles the complicated friendship between eighteen-year-olds Catherine and James who meet in Dublin in the late 1990s. She is a student at Trinity College, he is a budding fine art photographer, who is also gay. They develop this amazing bond, which is ultimately shattered. Catherine falls in love with James and tries to manipulate him into loving her back, which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t work out. Stylistically, the novel, which is told from Catherine’s perspective, reads like a seismographic account of her emotional experience. The dialogue is great. I thought you captured that feeling of being eighteen really well, a time when friends are everything, and yet there are these incredible distances between people, which an eighteen-year-old can be almost completely oblivious to. I also enjoyed how you contrast the dialogue and the descriptions of Catherine’s emotional turmoil with the world of photography and its silences.

BM: I love what you just said about it being a seismographic account because that’s kind of what it was like to write the book, especially Catherine and James’ earliest encounter, where I had to map things out carefully in terms of how I wanted the emotions and ensuing atmospheres to register on the page. That encounter needed to run the gamut from confusion and disorientation to suspicion, to a dawning kind of attraction, to a connection, then to contempt, and finally back to connection again.

James’ photography is something that he does for his own reasons, reasons that are connected to the immense distance he feels from people, a painful inability to connect with people. His photography is a way of being close to others and look at them without being found out. He takes photos of people who are not looking at him, so I think photography for him is a kind of weapon. He has felt so pushed out in terms of communication that photography becomes his way of taking the reins back, especially in terms of looking at people as closely and as long as he wants, and it kind of feels to him like being with them. At the same time he’s a talker, and very charismatic. He can talk to anybody, but he can’t turn his charisma into an honest connection because he’s too afraid. And Catherine is not unlike that in her own way. She’s also very afraid of truly connecting with another person because of her social awkwardness, her shyness and her childishness.

SS: Here’s a quote from early on in the novel when Catherine looks at James through a Rolleiflex camera he just started experimenting with:

‘She looked down through the neat square chute which topped it, and she staggered in surprise a moment; the picture was sharp and clear and moving, like a tiny television in her hands, and in it was a tiny, frowning James, now a grinning James, now a James who was calling out to her, waving at her, saying her name. She found herself staring at this James; she found herself transfixed by him. He was just the same as the real James, as the James who stood not two feet away from her, but he was different’ (177/78).

To me this moment illustrates how Catherine is indeed aware of a distance between herself and James, but she decides to treat it as a small thing rather than the elephant in the room that it ultimately is.

BM: Yes, and it takes more time before everything unravels, and Catherine comes to understand with great pain that James is not somebody who can love her the way she wants to be loved. She’s also realizing her own destructive and negative tendencies. She’s going to such a dark place with all this, and she’s discovering the ‘faraway deep inside’ in a really unwell way.

SS: I also wanted to ask you about the portrayal of Northern Ireland in Tender. Most of it is set in 1998, the year of the Good Friday Agreement. Northerners and their day-to-day experience of living with the Troubles present a strange fascination to Catherine. Hailing from rural Longford she only knows about Northern Ireland through the media and various scaremongering anecdotes. Enter Liam from Tyrone, an important catalyst in the novel, who becomes James’ first real boyfriend and is later injured in the Omagh bombing, the second watershed event in Northern Ireland in 1998. What were your thoughts when structuring the novel in this way?

BM: It’s kind of hard to say, but because the novel is set in 1998 it seemed impossible not to take cognizance of what was happening in Northern Ireland at the time because it did shadow all of Ireland. For a young person living in the Republic, however, it shadowed it in a sad but safe way. Catherine finds what’s happening in Northern Ireland terrible and frightening. She wishes it would stop, but that’s a very childish reaction. Also, while I was writing, I became aware of something going on with the idea of appropriating another person’s experience, appropriating the troubles of another person essentially. And with James, Catherine kind of wants to be him. There is something in her that actually envies him the deep pain and drama of what he’s going through, his alienation and predicament. And similarly, with the Troubles in Northern Ireland Catherine is horrified and fascinated all at once. I have to say that I resisted any kind of presence of the Troubles in the novel for a long time. I felt that it was risky and that it could seem in itself very appropriated, but it kept pushing through again and again. It was a year when a promise was made, and a promise was broken. The Good Friday Agreement and the Omagh bombing happening within such close proximity of one another was a devastating thing. It turned out that the promise of a better way of doing things, of acceptance, and an end to violence, could not be trusted. I guess I wanted to write about a place in which the things that are inherited can never fully be trusted or shaken off, no matter how emphatically the surface narrative tells that things are improving and becoming more progressive. The deep down experiences are still very scarred and very dangerous. So for James, being one of the first generation of young people to come of age after the decriminalization of homosexuality, on the surface everything should be fine, but the surface is not where we live. We live deep down, and he knows deep down, where it was still not necessarily safe to be ‘out’ at that time.

SS: In the novel’s finale the theme of distance comes into play once more. It is set in New York in 2012, and briefly reunites Catherine and James. They bump into each other at the Frieze Arts fair, which Catherine covers as a writer, while James, now a celebrated photographer, is preparing an exhibition. Given that they don’t have a shared present anymore, their conversation is mostly about the distant past. In this context it was intriguing how that affected Catherine’s perception of New York as a city that ‘could have been any city. It looked to her nothing like New York; there was none of the familiar glint and soar of the skyline, none of its narcotic, cinematic glow’ (412). I was wondering, could we talk a little about your own chosen exile in Brooklyn. Interestingly, your novels and stories are mostly set in Ireland. Having lived in New York for so long now, has your perception of distance and the city’s relevance for your creative process changed?

BM: Yes, it must have changed. It’s hard for me to say explicitly how, but I suppose living here has become my everyday. I finished the first novel, Solace, six years ago this month, and I wrote most of it in the kitchen of a different Brooklyn apartment. That’s quite a long time ago. But even then, four years into my time here, the idea of writing about Ireland from the States was kind of like a novelty, and there was something a bit self-conscious, or self-consciously performative about it, whereas now, having been here for so long, it is just my life. I only write about what naturally surfaces for me, and some of that is Ireland, and some of that is New York. I try to stay in touch with Ireland a lot. I go back often, I’m active on social media, and many of the people I follow on Twitter are Irish, so I get a sense of what people are talking about in Ireland. I listen to Irish radio a lot, and obviously I read fiction and poetry from Ireland. But having been away for so long, my well of immediate sources and ideas is much less Irish. Actually I think it’s more just myself now, drawing on the inside of my own mind. It’s not like being surrounded by Ireland. I only have the second or third-hand filter of Ireland that I’m left with inside my own head. So that’s at once very narrow, I think, but it also has a particular quality of its own, rooted in some kind of distance from Ireland. And then New York has become the city that I’m in every day, although I live a very quiet life here. I spend most of my time in my apartment (laughs).

SS: On your Twitter profile you call yourself a procrastinator, and yet, to me, you seem incredibly productive. Not only are you a novelist and editor, you also lecture in creative writing at Rutgers University. You’re a playwright commissioned by the Abbey Theatre, and, together with your husband, you curate an annual poetry festival at the Irish Arts Center in New York. On top of that, you’re a very gifted critic writing regularly for the Irish Times and other publications. I also remember you from years ago as a panelist on John Kelly’s The View on RTÉ Television. Do you keep deliberate distances between all these activities, or do they flow into each other?

BM: I really don’t feel very productive a lot of the time, and I genuinely struggle with procrastination. When you list my output like you just did, there are a lot of things, but in the course of any given month or year I don’t produce as much work as I would like to. It’s not really about the distance between the genres or the forms, it’s more that I’m trying to cut down on things, and I have done that a lot over time. Ten or fifteen years ago the amount of things I was trying to do as a writer was ridiculous. I was trying to be everything, and I’ve sort of accepted that you can’t do that. You can’t do everything well. So I’m not writing a novel at the moment, and I’m using that time to write short stories and a play. I’m also writing some essays, purely because Tender is coming out very shortly here in the US, so part of the deal is that you write essays to help publicize your novel. I enjoy reviewing, but I don’t do very much of it because it’s extremely time-consuming for me. I suspect like yourself I put a lot of work in the reviews, and so a review could take me three weeks, and there’s only so much time to go around. In three weeks I could have written the bones of a new short story, so, I don’t know, it’s really a work in progress for me. To be honest, I feel despair about it sometimes. The writing life for me is just a struggle with various things: procrastination, and also depression. Every day is a battle to get to the page and try and make it work.

SS: I can certainly relate to that.

BM: I think a lot of people who write can, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier… (both laugh).

SS: So true! In the future, do you see yourself giving up critical writing to free up more space for your fiction and plays?

BM: No. I don’t want to do that. In fact I would like to do more critical writing but in a more focused way, and maybe only do a couple of pieces a year. In a way I can’t really afford to say no, but still, I’m starting to say no to things because I know they will bring me down paths that just won’t be useful for me, and I don’t mean in crude career terms, but more in terms of my mental health as a writer. It’s very hard to do immersive work when you’re stressed by constant deadlines.

SS: Here’s my last question: there is a lot of intertextuality in your work. In Tender, for instance, Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters is a huge reference point. But also in your other writings there are many references to the work of others. You’re incredibly aware of who and what is out there, but how do you reconcile this interest with creating your own content?

BM: It’s funny you should ask about Hughes. I’m actually writing an essay about him and Sylvia Plath at the moment, about St. Botolph’s Review, the poetry magazine, which brought them together. In my younger years I’ve had a sort of automatic hero worship of certain older male writers, and I’ve really had cause, thankfully, to reexamine that. Hughes is one of those figures, and I’ve tried to give that hero worship to Catherine, which is no longer mine, although I still admire a lot about his work. But there’s also a lot about the work that I don’t admire, and that goes for other writers as well. I think that our generation was still kind of told what the idea of a writer was, and it was generally a senior figure, almost inevitably male, unapproachable, stern, with a great bleakness at the heart of the work, and a great seriousness, and a sense of suffering.  That was very attractive to me as an eighteen-year-old, or even as a twenty-five-year-old, but it’s not attractive to me anymore, and so my relationship to Hughes’ work, and to other writers as well, including John McGahern, has become more complex, and those influences are no longer as significant as they were. And yet, they don’t go away completely. With regards to Hughes, for example, I just read the new biography by Jonathan Bate. It’s strange, as you get older, everything starts to get more quotidian. I now look at the great myth of Hughes and Plath and just feel sad that a thirty-year-old woman took her own life during a terrible winter when she was overwhelmed by depression, and that a youngish man in his early thirties, who made a lot of mistakes and wasn’t behaving very well, also had his life destroyed, because it does look from that biography as though his life was destroyed after that, no matter what kind of posturing and defense mechanisms may have kicked in. So you kind of look at the things you hero worshipped as a younger writer, and you just see the brute reality of it. As a writer I get asked a lot about which writers have always been my favourite ones, and I can’t answer that question anymore because I feel as though I’ve only just started to rediscover things for myself.

SS: In Solace, your first novel, there is a very different type of reference, though, to writer Maria Edgeworth, who your character is writing his PhD thesis about. This reference strikes me as very much about drawing attention to someone who was previously overlooked.

BM: Yes. The thing is I grew up in County Longford where Edgeworth, originally from Oxfordshire, used to live, but I never really knew about her when I was younger. There’s a lot that’s very inspirational about her life and her dedication to her work. When it came to writing Solace Edgeworth really fit the plot. I can’t pretend that she’s in the book because she meant an enormous amount to me, even though I might have pretended a little that she did when I publicized the book, but really she’s in the book because it made sense for her to be in it. And also I think there can be an unconscious pull toward something. She’s in the book because I made a decision, but maybe there’s also something of my own autobiography in there, but in ways that I don’t quite realize. Who knows? (Laughs).

SS: Thank you so much Belinda! It’s been wonderful talking to you, and thank you for giving it such a generous amount of time. Let me wish you the very best for all your future endeavors.