The Common Decency author on ‘hilarious’ complaints about chaotic female characters and creating a different sense of the North in her new novel
When Susannah Dickey delivered her fiction novel Tennis Lessons in July 2020 at the age of 27, it’s an understatement to say that interest in the newcomer was piqued. Dickey had already published a handful of well-received poetry pamphlets, and was in the middle of a PhD in creative writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre in Belfast, but the prose was very much the thing.
In passages by turns visceral and vivid, the Derry-born author charted the progression of an unnamed Northern Irish woman from the age of three to 28. She deftly managed the complexity of a coming-of-age story with a number of arresting vignettes. The protagonist’s road to womanhood took in skin problems, her father’s infidelity, a HIV-infected uncle, drinking and sexual assault. Tennis Lessons was billed as a stylistic bedfellow to the uncompromising likes of Fleabag and I May Destroy You.
“It didn’t do very well,” Dickey says of her debut, modestly. “When I got my book deal, [being young] was very much to my advantage because I think I was part of a microcosm of young Irish writers who benefited off the back of, you know, that titan of the young Irish writers,” she adds, leaving Sally Rooney’s name unsaid.
Blurbed enthusiastically by Elizabeth Day and Louise O’Neill, Tennis Lessons was described by the Observer as “a beautifully written and psychologically incisive bildungsroman... the arrival of a young writer to watch”.
“I think right after it came out, I became a bit of a slave to [review site] Goodreads, which is kind of like the Wild West, or Fargo,” Dickey says via Zoom from her London home. She imagines its users as “conscientious lit grads who probably, you know, take a tub of hummus back to Sainsbury’s because they’re selling it 3p cheaper in Tesco”.
Critics were, in the main, effusive about her debut, and many made mention of Dickey’s “unflinching” descriptions of menstrual blood, pubic hair, sexual pleasure and bodily functions in general.
“I mean, I’ve always been incredibly fascinated by the body,” Dickey says.
She goes on to mention a Rodin exhibition she recently visited at Tate Modern, and how the sculptor would routinely collect and keep drawers full of body parts, such as ears, hands or noses, as part of his study of the body.
“That’s probably who I think of [while] writing the body as well, that obsessiveness with a particular function or body part,” she ventures. “You get a sort of semantic satiation with it. You stare at it until it almost becomes alien to you. I mean, we are just fairly poorly put-together flesh bags.”
The young woman as a work-in-progress trainwreck, processing trauma while stumbling blindly through life, has by now become commonplace in culture. Only last month, The Guardian headlined a piece: ‘How Messy Millennial Woman became TV’s most tedious trope’.
I put this to Dickey, who is having none of it. “I mean, it’s hilarious, isn’t it? To think about it in those terms,” she says. “You’ve had this canon that has been so dominated by white male authorship that has explored every manifestation or flaw or toxic impulse of masculinity that there might be.
“If anyone is thinking, ‘Oh, we’ve read too much of toxic, chaotic people,’ maybe what they’re thinking is that men should stop writing for a bit. The landscape is just beginning to diversify, and it’s still so wanting in terms of the lack of so many voices. To think it’s saturated implies a lack of imagination on the part of any readership. You know, what we need to look out for now is not shutting down characters who are problematic or unreliable or chaotic, and [instead] making sure there’s a rich milieu of socioeconomic [backgrounds] and diversities that those characters are coming from.”
In that regard, Dickey has doubled down with her second novel and created two compelling characters, whom the reader will alternately root for and despair of. Lily and Siobhán are twentysomethings living in separate units of a modern-day apartment block in Belfast. Lily is living in the awful aftermath of the death of her mother, and has become stuck and alone in her grieving process. She believes her upstairs neighbour Siobhán to be living a happily full, successful life — but Siobhán, a teacher, has her own issues. She, too, is stuck and alone, waiting for the married man she is having an affair with to become more emotionally available; an exercise in futility. Hoping that they will be friends, Lily starts to become slightly obsessed with Siobhán. The feeling isn’t mutual, as Siobhán simply hasn’t got the bandwidth for a new friendship. Things get darkly funny, and complicated, fast. Uplit it ain’t.
“I was always interested in writing the narratives of two people existing within close proximity, and wanted their lives to mirror one another’s in some ways, and then really radically diverge in others,” Dickey says. “These two characters are united by this really palpable sense of desolation. With Lily, you’ve got her trying to immortalise, or reanimate, the spirit of her mother through these hypothetical conversations. But she comes up against the obstacle of her own limited awareness. Meanwhile, Siobhán is watching in real time the death of her unsustainable, harmful relationship.”
Dickey is part of the charge of Northern Irish writers whose collective body of work seems to have built a delightful momentum in the past few years. Yet while many of her contemporaries are focusing on the influence and legacy of Northern Ireland’s violent history, Dickey’s work boasts a strikingly different sense of place.
Much like Anna Burns’ Milkman, Dickey focuses less on the topography of Northern Ireland and more on the conflicts, bodies and interiorities of her characters.
“I think there’s quite a radical departure in how I approached place in Tennis Lessons with how I’ve done it in Common Decency,” she says. “I think [in the former] that was partially fuelled by cowardice or a reticence or uncertainty with how to write a place. It helped I was writing this character who is so deeply, deeply introspective that almost the world around her didn’t matter. She could have been anywhere and would have had the same constructive thoughts. Whereas with Common Decency, it felt much more important to write about the symbiosis of place with how a person acts, thinks or conducts themselves.”
That said, Dickey is aware of Northern Irish writers’ desire to explore identity and home. “People in the North have had the narrative of their place fed to them by mainstream media, probably in a way that sat slightly uncomfortably with how they understood the place,” she says. “I think it was the first time we were even, in recent times, being explicitly acknowledged by Britain as a place that matters. I’m kind of wondering if my kind of writing is me trying to regain a control of a place I know to be mine.”
There’s perhaps another reason why Dickey may have felt, as she calls it, a sense of “cowardice” in tackling the idea of Northern Ireland as a place in her writing. Still only 29, she was five when the Good Friday Agreement was signed, and was somewhat distanced from the worst of the Troubles. “I think I was incredibly privileged in some respects, in that there might be a propensity among my parents’ generation to protect us from certain narratives and from this pervasive violence that sort of dominated the formative years of their lives,” she says. “It was a privilege to be so shielded from it. It means I’ve done a lot of retroactive catching up when it comes to learning about the nuances of it.”
Job done on delivering her second novel, Dickey has returned to work on her PhD, which focuses on poetry. In terms of ideas and inspiration, her cup runneth over.
“I’ve started thinking on the next couple [of novels],” she says. “I think the next book will be more of a natural successor to Tennis Lessons than Common Decency.
“As time goes on, I want my work to get sort of increasingly demented,” she adds. “I want to lean into these idiosyncrasies and these paradoxes of existing. I want to write something from the perspective of a dead whale. You know, like someone weeping over how delicious pears are, while they die of an allergy to pears. Then again, George Eliot thought that an excess of literary production was a social offence.”
‘Common Decency’ by Susannah Dickey is out now from Doubleday