Award-winning author Deirdre Madden has been described as “one of the most original and disturbing writers since Jean Rhys, “the constant genius of Irish letters” by Sebastian Barry and “a first-rate novelist” by Richard Ford. Originally from Co. Antrim, she manages her own writing around teaching at Trinity College Dublin. Two of her novels, One by One in the Darkness and Molly Fox’s Birthday were shortlisted for the Orange Prize. She was inducted into the Hennessy Literary Awards Hall of Fame earlier last month and her latest novel, Time Present and Time Past has been shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award 2014.
Deirdre Madden’s eighth novel is an exquisite and extraordinary dissection of the life of an ordinary family. A study in memory and time, strange things start to happen when Fintan Buckley develops an interest in old autochrome photographs. As the Buckley family delve into their memories, they must renegotiate their history and the decisions that have brought them to their present place.
JG Who were your literary influences growing up and why?
DM I read a huge amount as a child and then as a teenager. When I was at secondary school I read a lot of 19th Century fiction, Hardy, the Brontës and so on. Looking back it wasn’t so much what I was reading as the quantity, which was prodigious. Reading remains a crucial way to nourish one’s imagination as a writer.
JG You have been described as “a pivotal voice in Northern Irish writing […] often touching on the religious and political turmoil of the North.” This is most obvious in your first novel, Hidden Symptoms (1986), but The Troubles are present in some way in nearly all of your work. Did you have an unhappy childhood as a result of The Troubles or were you largely shielded from it?
DM The Troubles made a very deep impression on me and while obviously it impacted on the lives of some people more than others I think pretty well everyone who lived through that time in that place would have been touched by it. There were roadblocks, security alerts, a strong military presence and so on; and whether you were in a city or in the countryside you couldn’t but be aware of it. I wouldn’t say I had an unhappy childhood as a result, but I’m aware of having grown up in a troubled and traumatised society, and it left its mark.
JG Time Present and Time Past is a book that can be read on many levels, but the themes of time, photography and memory loom large. On one level there is a melancholic feel to it. Did you set it in 2006 so that this sense of melancholy and nostalgia could not be associated with our economic woes, but had to do with something deeper in the subconscious? Or was there another reason for setting it in 2006, just before the crash?
DM I don’t myself see it as a melancholy book at all. Sometimes I think my novels have a reputation for being dark or sad, but I don’t think they are any darker or more melancholy than most contemporary works. Indeed, I believe they’re a lot happier and more positive than many novels I can think of. To me this is the story of a happy family, and I intended it to be redemptive in tone. I wanted it to be contemporary but I didn’t want to set it in the crash, so I pushed it back a bit and set it just before the economic slump. It isn’t really supposed to be about the Celtic Tiger. I was concerned with broader issues concerning time rather than making a study of a particular period in Irish society.
DM The jacket photo is a very early colour photograph, an autochrome, taken in 1907. It’s a real photo, not a black and white photo that has been retouched. Like Fintan, the main character in the novel, I became fascinated with these photographs, and how they appear to make the past more accessible to us. It was also a particularly beautiful process. The images are soft but clear, and the colours have a luminous quality.
JG You’ve been quoted as saying, “I always think that writing is much more of an artisan activity than an intellectual activity. It’s a very messy, ungainly, unwieldy process. It’s more like weaving a very big rug.” Do you constantly redraft as you write or do complete a first draft before you edit?
DM I never do a straight first draft and then go back. I make lots of notes as I go along, and work and rework certain sections, trying to get the right tone, the right tense. It takes a long time!
JG Do you think Irish writing is in a good place currently and where do you see the future of Irish fiction in say, 20 years from now.
DM I find it hard to answer either of those questions. There are certainly more people writing than ever before, but the reading is a very important activity and I can’t help thinking it’s not valued as much as it used to be. I have no idea what the future holds.
JG What are you currently reading?
DM Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
JG What advice would you give to our aspiring writers here at Listowel Writers’ Week?
DM When you think you’ve finished a piece of work, read it aloud, slowly and carefully, making notes as you go. You’ll pick up on repeated words, clumsy sentences and so on that you can easily overlook when you’re reading silently.