Wednesday 23 January 2019

A rising star - Andrew Meehan on his debut novel

After six years at the Irish Film Board, Andrew Meehan left to scratch his own narrative itch. He tells our reporter about his debut novel, teaching alongside Booker-longlisted Mike McCormack and being a wine bore

Mentor: Andrew Meehan currently teaches at NUI Galway. Photo: Douglas O'Connor
Mentor: Andrew Meehan currently teaches at NUI Galway. Photo: Douglas O'Connor

'I'm obsessed with wine," Andrew Meehan confesses, not wholly happy with himself. "To a fault. I'm a wine bore. There's nothing uncooler - it's like being into golf. And it's so expensive and stupid and it kept me up until three in the morning last night."

I'm meeting Meehan the day after he and a group of close friends celebrated the publication of his hotly-tipped debut novel One Star Awake. They were in a nearby Dublin restaurant run by a good friend. A conveyor belt of delicacies, both solid and liquid, had ushered forth, all of which he details after first checking that I too am into my food.

Meehan's love of the finer things in life clearly extends to writing and literature. While our meeting today is naturally about his journey from screenwriting doctor to head of development at the Irish Film Board to rising star of Irish literary fiction, he sings many songs about those around him. It's four years since he departed his film board duties of cultivating and championing the work of others, but he's still at it.

For example, a question about his current role in NUI Galway, where he teaches, lectures and mentors in screenwriting, becomes a breathless paean to Mike McCormack.

"He's the co-ordinator of the course that I teach on. The students have just come from a semester with Mike before they come to me. Can you imagine a group of young students who have just had 12 weeks with Mike McCormack? They're switched on. I'd love - love - to take his course. Even before Solar Bones, he was a hero to me. He's one of Ireland's greatest writers. And he's kind of my boss. You get an email from Mike the week he's longlisted for the Booker, saying: 'Okay, you have Room 302 between 11 and 3 on Tuesday'!"

This emulsion of glee, self-effacement and ursine warmth makes Meehan superb company on an otherwise underwhelming weekday afternoon. He's moved about a bit over his 45 years, and you feel these qualities, along with an athletic understanding of how tales should be told, has never failed him wherever he's landed. Even now he divides his time between Galway, Dublin and Glasgow (where his "inspiring" scientist partner is currently posted) and couldn't seem happier about the triangular commute.

Such movements are not exactly a recent development. Meehan grew up between Ireland and Scotland by virtue of his Scottish parents, living in the South County Dublin suburb of Sandycove until a family relocation to Glasgow when he was 13. "I spent my entire life being in Dublin and thinking about Glasgow," he recalls, "and then being in Glasgow thinking about Dublin. It was only when I moved to Galway that I was somewhere that felt neutral."

He began life as a "bookish" and "shy" child obsessed with Enid Blyton fare such as The Famous Five and Malory Towers. Books are, he reasons, a great place for a child to play, both safer and more diverse than other entertainment industries, and no one would argue with that.

Things expanded. One of his older brothers (now an established graphic designer) provided copies of Italo Calvino and those old Picador editions of Flann O'Brien with the Ralph Steadman covers. Such fare was filtering down to the 12-year-old Meehan, as was the other brother's record collection ("He was like a proto-John Kelly - there was no one genre going on"). Two enduring loves bedded in that have since only shared the limelight with those aforementioned epicurean obsessions.

By the time he'd moved to Scotland, he was gobbling down the canon a genre at a time. In his late teens, he was all about Patrick Kavanagh. During his twenties he had a crime phase. Then, he moved on to "only a certain type of American author". From there, nothing would do but "the Bellows and the Roths". It's bemusing to hear that only then, after all this, did he start to read "more widely".

Meehan stepped into the TV industry in Scotland, working on factual content. His heart lay with narrative and fiction, however, and his thirst was picked up on by a mentor who gave him his first break in film development. He moved home and hooked up with Accomplice TV just as Bachelors Walk and Pure Mule were germinating. Then came a spell of freelancing before the Irish Film Board window opened in 2007, and with it came a shift in gear. "That was life-changing. I was there six years and it was relentless. The first day was like walking into The West Wing. All these clever people walking down the corridors having important conversations. You're not prepared for the workload. I've always been pretty disciplined but there's people coming at you from all directions. You don't have time to fudge."

Besides the volume of material to get through, Meehan explains, you might have eight script meetings a day, each arguably the most important meeting in that person's month or year.

"I don't want to sound too grandiose about it, but it carries great responsibility and you have to do right by people. It felt like a dream job because if you're having any job in development, it might as well be that one because you can make things happen."

But Meehan had his own itch. Writing viable screenplays while working for the IFB was "a no-no" so prose provided an outlet. He penned a yarn about a French woman and a groom-to-be in a Connemara hotel called Her Way of Saying No. It nabbed the Cúirt new writing award in 2010 and made the grade for publication in Stinging Fly. "If that story hadn't gone anywhere, I might not have done any more."

More stories and more literary journal inches followed. When he left the film board three years later, bashing a novel into shape was a priority. First, he needed a character and a predicament.

Then, one day he saw a woman.

"I didn't know anything about her and her backstory but she was in some kind of emotional peril. She seemed very exposed. I'd see her around Galway but I also saw her on the Aran Islands in a hotel tucking into a big dinner. She got under my skin and I started to wonder about her."

Meehan began to place this apparition in various settings. Paris, where his partner's sister was living, was familiar and suitably evocative.

"I wanted to plonk a version of this woman down in Paris with no recourse to backstory, no phones, no one to call. That feeling of being cut adrift, which is kind of a fantasy as well as a fear of everyone, and fear and fantasy are often connected. So I had a character, Eva, and I had a predicament. And that was me pointed in the right direction."

He holds his debut in his hand, admiring its jacket, which is adorned with sparkling blurbs by a dream team of Lisa McInerney, Liz Nugent and Kevin Barry. Part amnesia thriller, part coming-of-age journey, One Star Awake has a tactile, heady texture and sense of immediacy that makes it destined to stand out this year in Irish fiction. In the blink of an eye, Meehan, bringing years of cineliteracy to the table, moves smoothly from Roeg-like unease to soft-focused beauty and mirth. He has every right to be pleased, even if he had to rein in some appetites on the page.

"I knew if I had her into wine I would go off on one," he chuckles. "She had to hate wine. I didn't want to find myself writing three pages about it if I was having a bad day."

One Star Awake is out now, published by New Island Books

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