Frank McGuinness: “I have to overcome panic when I start to write.”
Professor Frank McGuinness was born in Buncranna, Co. Donegal and now lives in Dublin, where he lectures in English at UCD. He has written extensively for the Irish theatre, both original scripts and translations and his awards include a Tony for his 1997 adaptation of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. His internationally acclaimed work includes The Factory Girls, Baglady and the multi-award winning Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme. He has published several volumes of poetry with The Gallery Press and wrote the screenplay for Pat O’Connor’s 1998 film version of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa. His debut novel, Arimathea, is shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award 2014. Set in the 1940s, an Italian painter comes to work in remote Donegal – nothing and no-one is the same afterwards.
JG You appear to have had a clear vision from a young age that you wanted to be a writer, going straight from rural Buncrana to study at UCD aged 18. To what do you attribute this strong vision and sense of self-belief?
FMcG I doubt everything, including my own abilities. I’m never really satisfied with what I finish, and I have to overcome panic when I start to write. If I have a strong vision, it is due to the fact I made the choice to write, and in so far as I have a conscience, then it demands I do write. I would love it if things were as decisive as your question makes it seem – or would I? Perhaps I need to be fearful – it’s the way the Ireland of my childhood reared us, and maybe I need to stay close to those terrors to goad me into defending myself.
JG You started out by writing poetry and have said you were given invaluable help and guidance from that great friend of many emerging writers, the late David Marcus. Why the move into writing plays? Was there a particular catalyst?
FMcG I wanted to write a full length play or novel before I hit thirty years of age. Circumstances decreed it would be a play – I got accepted into an Arts Council Drama Workshop in 1980, met the director Patrick Mason, and The Factory Girls was staged in 1982. I have been very lucky in finding two such benevolent forces as Patrick and David Marcus to believe I was a writer.
JG Your first play, Factory Girls, was produced by The Abbey Theatre in 1982, and tells the story of a group of women who organised a sit-in when faced with losing their jobs. Your own mother, grandmother and aunt all worked in a local shirt factory in Buncrana. Was it a case of the oft-given advice to emerging writers to write what you know?
FMcG Yes, it was, and that advice was aided by the sheer desperation I felt to produce something of substance. The plot of the play is fiction, but its dialogue and characters owe much to the culture of work in Buncrana in which I was reared.
JG Your debut novel, Arimathea, which has been shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award 2014, was written as part of your research for your play The Hanging Gardens; the first of your plays to be staged at The Abbey in 14 years. You do enormous amounts of research, but why a full-length novel?
FMcG I do extensive research. I read the King James Bible for Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme, the Divine Comedy for Innocence, and the Koran for Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me. I undertake these big tasks because that is my job, and if I decide, as I did decide that the most creative way to enter a novelist’s mind, as was the challenge in The Hanging Gardens, is to write a novel, then write the novel. The killer with most research for a play is the massive amount that must be discarded so that the text can focus on what is most effectively spoken onstage. But I did not need to discard Arimathea.
JG What would you say are the trends, the dominant influences throughout your work?
FMcG I love the American poet Emily Dickinson – she has been an immense influence. I admire the wonderful slant she puts on things in her best work, just when you think the gun has been safely handled, it goes off without warning. I like writers who leave you to solve the secrets planted in different layers of their work, and guess who tells the scariest secrets? Shakespeare.
JG Most of your theatre work takes place in London. Why is that?
FMcG It is where I am offered work. I hope that lasts. And let us be blunt and talk among friends, London is less biased against gay writers.
JG You have produced an enormous body of work over the years as well as well as holding down a respectable academic career. How and why do you produce so much?
FMcG I have always and ever had to work very hard to get things done, and that has not changed since I was at school. I have a Donegal man’s deep suspicion of what comes easy. I am intrigued, creatively and academically, by what is difficult. I try not to let things defy me. They do, of course, and I have got to a stage when I know if the effort will be worth it. If it is not, I get out fast. Although sometimes I stay, if the humour is right. A contrary bugger, but I said I’m from Donegal, and the women are worse.
JG As with all of your work there is much said, but also something left unspoken. Arimathea is the mysterious place where the rich man Joseph, who gave up his tomb for Christ’s body to be buried after the crucifixion came from. What does Arimathea mean to you?
FMcG There is a most magnificent poem by Emily Dickinson, again, called One Crucifixion Is Recorded Only. That poem has been in my brain since I read it, and it guides so much of Arimathea. I am rereading the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins after many years, and am stunned how much I can remember of them, and how much they meant to me, so they must have had their impact on the spirit of the novel. What does Arimathea mean to me? You mean the place, and where to find it? Aren’t you looking at it?
JG What nugget of wisdom do you have for our emerging writers at Listowel Writers’ Week?
FMcG Write often, rewrite as often, know as much as you feel about what you write, feel as accurately as you know, realize you are on your own if you are to remain writing, no one else can carry the memory and meanings of all you have written, sharpen your ear and eye then, confront every fear you can imagine, don’t worry, you’ll still be frightened, and the big word here is rewrite. Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Read all you can get your claws on as well. `Reading is a vital part of your job. Do it – without excuse and apology. I’ve told you how important Emily Dickinson and William Shakespeare have always been to me. Find your own favourite. If you write fiction, learn the novels of Jane Austen off by heart. If you shy from that pleasure, then memorize James Joyce’s story The Dead in its entirety. That is not a suggestion – it is a threat. Above all else, love what you do. And be lucky. Then, who knows?