A series of glorious results for author Lisa McInerney
Lisa McInerney's first novel has been nominated for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction. At first, she was convinced there had been a "terrible error"
'The very first review I got for The Glorious Heresies, at the end it said something like 'hopefully this will be nominated for some prizes,' and I thought 'you're very optimistic!'" Lisa McInerney laughs. It's the laugh of someone who has been proved wrong in all the best ways. The book, much lauded since its launch last year, with writers like Donal Ryan, Kevin Barry and Joseph O'Connor singing its praises, has seen her short-listed for the very big-deal Baileys Women's Prize For Fiction, along with Anne Enright, as well as long-listed for this year's Dylan Thomas Prize and Desmond Elliott Prize. "It is," says Lisa, "nice. But it's pretty bizarre too. But hey, I'm not complaining."
She found out only when a journalist friend, having seen the shortlist announced, rang her. "It was after midnight - late-night and unexpected and I was half asleep! I had no inkling. Usually, they may give you a couple of days notice. I was absolutely stunned. And very confused. I believed the friend, but I was also convinced there had been some sort of terrible error on the part of Baileys, and that they had accidentally put out the wrong Lisa."
She's a funny mix of this kind of entirely convincing self-deprecation, and a far more robust belief in her own talent. Aged 34, she says that, "here is where I would have projected to hopefully be after two or three books, so to get that kind of attention straight away, feels like a leg-up. It's brilliant." She always intended to get here, you see, it has just happened a little sooner than expected.
No one who has read The Glorious Heresies will be surprised at the nomination. The book is both serious and hilarious, written with an impressive, jaunty verve that keeps the action - and there is a lot of action - flowing. Lisa's characters are a drug dealer, a prostitute, a hardened criminal, an alcoholic loser and, the Prime Mover of the novel, a "bonkers" lady of late middle-age and deep-dyed hatred of religion. This collection of Cork City's lost-and-found are treated with sympathy and understanding but also robustly; they are people, not paragons, and the many moments of pathos are not over-spun. Lisa, when I meet her, is as smart, incisive, funny and energetic as her writing.
There is a funny ambiguity around Catholicism and the power of the Church in Ireland that runs through The Glorious Heresies. It's not as easy as 'Church bad!' - Lisa isn't that kind of sledgehammer writer - rather it is intriguingly subtle and nuanced. But some of it becomes a little clearer in the light of her early life story. "I was adopted by my grandparents," she says. "My mother became pregnant with me at 19 and my dad wasn't in the picture. This was in the early 1980s and Ireland still had the illegitimacy status. We only got rid of it in 1987. My family figured it may come back to haunt me - they didn't know it was going to be rescinded. So from a legal point of view, I am the child of my grandparents; this was just a very practical solution." Then she laughs and adds, wryly, "Catholic Ireland!"
It was, she is careful to point out, "a practical solution but also a very loving solution. It was never kept from me, it wasn't something I 'discovered'. There was no sense of shame or misery, no uncovering of a 'dark secret.' My mother was always part of my life, we're very close. She got married later, and I have a half-sister."
One result of Lisa's upbringing, in Galway, is that, although she was raised in a busy, cheerful, working-class house - her grandfather was a carpenter, there were eight children - she was often alone. "All my 'siblings' would have been at least 10 years older than me, because they were actually my aunts and uncles. It makes sense to retreat into a book or to have books as companions, when you don't have anyone to play with. I was such a voracious reader, it never occurred to me that I couldn't write. Writing is still how I make sense of things. Even to this day, if I have a problem, I'll work it out by writing almost a letter to myself. I'd be a very frazzled person otherwise."
After school Lisa went to University College Cork, where she studied English and geography, but left before her degree. "I took a year out and never went back - something my grandmother is still horrified about - because I was so sick of having no money. I used to come home every weekend and work in the local supermarket. I got a grant, but it didn't even cover my rent for the year in Cork. I remember eating Hula Hoops for dinner." Her delivery is very matter-of-fact, and when I ask was it not more of a blow than she's letting on, she says "I don't know. You're flying by the seat of your pants, and not thinking too much about it. I was doing an arts degree, so it wasn't like I could see a fantastic career in front of me that I would be giving up."
What happened was that she went to work in a pub for a year, and met John, now her husband. "I was working behind the bar in rural Co Galway and this guy walks in with his big Cork accent, and I said 'oh, you're from Cork, we must talk about Sir Henry's' and we did, and there you go . . ." She was 19. A year later, the couple had a daughter, and married when Lisa was 23. At home with her daughter - "I didn't work. I stayed at home with her until she was halfway through Junior Infants and my husband worked in hospitality" - Lisa started a blog, Arse End of Ireland. "There was definitely a need for an outlet," she explains, "but also, the whole blog thing was a very conscious decision to have some sort of writing portfolio built up. There's no point sitting around and saying 'oh I'd love to write . . . ' You're not a writer if you're just talking about how you want to do it." Around this time, a newspaper put together a literary sting - they sent around manuscript copies of the first chapters of VS Naipaul's In a Free State to agents and publishers, with a vague covering letter making mention only of a man in middle-age; crucially, no name. The result was blanket rejection. "This burrowed itself into my mind," Lisa says now. "I realised, 'it doesn't matter about the quality of the writing. If they don't know who you are, they won't care.' And I decided, 'if that's the case, I must start to take some steps to build up a portfolio, have some sort of readership in place.'"
That seems impressively pro-active, I say. Instead of feeling defeated by the system, you took action? "That makes it sound really calm, but it was more like in a panic," Lisa laughs.
So, in 2006 she started Arse End of Ireland, giving herself the pseudonym Sweary Lady. The blog was funny, political, absurd, sometimes angry and, yes, sweary. She was three-times nominated for Best Blog at the Irish Blog Awards, and won the Best Humour award in 2009. Did she ever think of writing mummy stuff, I wonder? "No. I wasn't in a very mummy-orientated environment, I was living in a council estate with my kid, surrounded by other young mums with their small kids. It wasn't like we were all sitting round drinking Prosecco and saying 'oh, I've got Poppy into this fabulous Montessori . . .' I just started writing about the things that were going on around me. Also, I found there was a correlation between the things that were going on in my life, and the issues in Dublin, in government. The Celtic Tiger was roaring at the time, but there was no trickle-down effect to the council estates in rural Co Galway. I could see in the media this huge dichotomy between my life and the lives I read about. So I could write and put a fun slant on things, but be political as well. I think that's one of the reasons it did well - it was different to the kinds of lives that were being portrayed in the media at the time, where Champagne was flowing and everyone had six houses. The whole 'we all partied' thing; I didn't party, and most of the people around me didn't. From where I was, there was more a kind of panic, because we knew this was all going to collapse."
Arse End of Ireland attracted attention. "People started coming to it and liking it. I had people like Sinead Gleeson, Julian Gough, Kevin Barry; they stumbled upon it somehow. One day Kevin Barry sent an email and said 'do you have any fiction?' I looked at the email on my phone and said 'Kevin Barry? Yeah right! You must think I'm an awful idiot!' But it was him." That piece of fiction, a short story, appeared in Town and Country, and was followed by a contribution to The Long Gaze Back, an anthology of Irish women writers.
The blog lasted until 2011. By then, Lisa had a job - receptionist in a construction company - but also, it was time to move on. Thanks to the short stories, she had an agent, and, thanks to him, the pressure she needed to write a novel. "I need a deadline," she admits cheerfully. The Glorious Heresies has plenty of madness to it - drinking, drugs, crazy nights out, dreadful decisions - is it drawn from life, I wonder? "I've never had a period of madness like that," she says cautiously. "I'm a writer, I stay in the background and make notes. But I have known people - people that I admire, people that I love - who have made stupid decisions, especially when they were younger, and gotten themselves on ridiculous paths."
There is, in the book, a special kind of sensitivity reserved for children, often caught-up unwittingly in the madness of their parents. Was that conscious, I ask? "What I was talking about was very much working-class kids. I think, when we look at 'Irish children' as this homogeneous group, it's these middle class kids who go to nice schools and make their communions and have bouncy castles in the garden. And I feel that we almost take away the childhood of kids who are from more disadvantaged backgrounds. I notice it a lot, for example when people are talking about Traveller children: 'Oh, they're so bold'. No, they're children. And I saw it with certain kids when I grew up. Certain kids would be blamed for things, and other kids wouldn't be. In a school scenario, certain kids if they were bold, were 'spirited' and other kids were just bad. And it depended very much on their economic backgrounds. Because of my own background being working-class, I was very aware of it."
Being working-class is something Lisa is both conscious and protective of, determined not to let it become marginalised, or quaint. "People try and latch onto this working-class thing because they feel it's more authentic or more exciting. That is weird. We're almost looking at working-class people like they're some kind of animals. One of my favourite songs growing up was Pulp's Common People, and that is exactly what Jarvis is saying. To latch on to this version of the working-class person because you think it's more exciting to live on the edge. No it's not, it's terrible. It sucks. It's not fun to be stuck in a place and not know how to get out of it and have no one to drag you out if you f**k up.
"At the moment there's this big debate, are the creative arts - acting, writing - becoming off-limits to working-class people? Do you now have to have money to get into them? In itself, that's frightening because you're erasing working-class voices. And then you get weird versions of working-class life. It all becomes like Grimsby - Sacha Baron Cohen's film - 'Aren't the working class hilarious? Look at them there with all their babies and their fat girlfriends and their cans.' It's sensational and inauthentic. We're not here for your entertainment."
That said, she can play both sides: "I can take the view that if I had been middle-class, if I had come from a place where I was expecting to have a very comfortable life by now, would I be writing? Probably not, because I'd be too afraid of the risk. Maybe people who don't come from a stable economic background are better suited to a life where you're never going to earn anything? A lot of people would completely disagree with that, but it worked for me. I could go off and write because nobody really expected me to do anything else."
Also, I suspect, because Lisa McInerney has the kind of mind-set that tells her she can do things. Is there anything she feels she can't do, I ask? "Mental arithmetic," she says with a laugh.
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney is published by John Murray, €18.25
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