Saturday 17 August 2019

'Take up space. Be a little wild. Don't be afraid'

As her third novel is published, Moira Fowley-Doyle talks to Emily Hourican about writing, rage, Tarot cards, and why she likes the umbrella term 'queer'

Author Moira Fowley-Doyle. Photo: Frank McGrath
Author Moira Fowley-Doyle. Photo: Frank McGrath
Sarah Davis-Goff
Louise O'Neill
Sarah Crossan
John Boyne
Claire Hennessy

Emily Hourican

'It's a book that was written mostly in rage." So says Moira Fowley-Doyle about All The Bad Apples, her third Young Adult novel. The book begins with a family curse, a litany of terrible things that afflict the women of the Rys family if they step out of line - that line being a careful, Catholic, socially-proper kind of line - and ends by racing through the bleak history of women in this country, to send the curse spiralling ever outward.

Moira is so delicate and quietly-spoken that rage seems a difficult emotion to land on her, and yet as she talks, it's clear that she means just what she says. "It was an intense book to write," she says. "I got very deep into it. It started off in this atmosphere of rage and helplessness. When I started the book, in 2016/ 2017, the commission of investigation into the Mother and Baby homes was only just beginning. Everything that was going on at the time, including Repeal the Eighth, kind of infused into it. Everybody had stories. Everybody knew somebody that had suffered. The older generation were starting to talk. Even those women who hadn't had any direct experiences, had learned this fear of stepping out of line. That was very real." So real that, "I couldn't write about anything else," she says. "I wanted to write about a girl retracing the roots of her family tree. As soon as that was what I decided, there was no way I was going to write about anything else."

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And yet right alongside the rage that propels the action of the book, there is also the hope that came from the Repeal campaign. For Moira, who has a French mother and an Irish father, "when I was campaigning for Repeal, that was one of the first times that I felt really fully Irish. With anybody that has more than one culture, you have a certain amount of what my siblings and I call 'in-betweenery'. I didn't feel fully French or fully Irish, although I felt more Irish, because I lived here longer" - Moira grew up in Clontarf, with summers in south-west France - "It wasn't a feeling that I didn't belong. That didn't bother me at all, it was just a vague sense of being both, and neither." And then along came the Repeal campaign, and "there was something about that time, that power, the coming together for change, there was a real community about it, a feeling of working together for our daughters' futures. That sounds really corny, but that's how it felt."

Moira, who has two daughters, aged 4 and 6, and describes motherhood as "intense, and rewarding, and fun," also says that becoming a mother gave her "a sense of zero tolerance", she laughs. "It made the feelings I already had even more tangible. It made me determined to give my daughters the skills to be able to speak out, to recognise what's going on around them. I remember around the time of the Belfast rape trial, thinking, 'is this the country I'm raising daughters in?'"

Luckily for the book, that intense social motivation sits easily alongside loveable characters and a compelling narrative.

All The Bad Apples begins with Deena inadvertently coming out to her family on her 17th birthday, and thereby setting the curse in motion. Everything follows from that. For Moira, who has written a spectrum of characters in all her books, the desire to write a broad range of sexuality is "both conscious and unconscious. I feel very strongly about young people being able to see themselves in books. I feel very strongly about there being strong female characters, LGBT characters - a diverse field, because readers are diverse. So yes, it's conscious, but it's just the way I write as well. When I sit down to write, I'm not thinking about the reader, I'm mostly just thinking about my teenage self, to be completely honest."

That teenage self, the eldest of four ("I wasn't the responsible one. I think I was the flighty, artist type - head in the clouds!"), went to school in Mount Temple; "a very open and inclusive place for myself and my friends to come out as queer, and explore our sexuality. So I didn't know any different. My teenage years, within my friend group, there were a lot of queer people, a lot of different experiences, that weren't really questioned, they just were. But I'm very aware of my own privilege when I say that. It's very easy to only see inside your own little bubble, where my sexuality and my friends' sexuality when we were growing up was not a big deal. So I was interested in looking at a very different experience, which is why it was interesting to write Deena - it's not that she struggles with her sexuality; she struggles with the way it's perceived in her family."

For Moira, sexuality wasn't an issue, either at home or at school, but visibility was. "I did definitely feel the lack of representation of LGBT characters in literature - I would go looking for them, when I was 15 or 16 - as a reader, you're just looking for characters or stories that are similar to yours. I was looking for characters where sexuality wasn't a drama, wasn't an issue; whose sexuality was incidental. There were a few books where the characters were gay, and it would end tragically. And even then you really had to go looking."

In the years since publishing her first novel, The Accident Season, the gender landscape has changed considerably, something her books acknowledge skilfully. "When I wrote my first novel, I didn't want to give any of my characters a label - kissing girls, kissing boys, it didn't matter - but a couple of years later, when Spellbook came out, the conversation had moved on and labels became an important part of identity, so then I was very conscious that I wanted to write bisexual representation, which is what I did. When I was a teenager I felt very strongly about labels not mattering. But labels can be really important in people being able to speak their identities. But I think that it's important for young people to realise that identity can shift, especially when you're young. Labels may not always be fixed. Which is why I like the umbrella term, 'queer', because it can work for everyone."

Under that umbrella term, Moira - who came out as gay as a teenager, married her husband in 2012, had two daughters, then "split amicably and are happily co-parenting," - says "I've always been queer. I identified as bi-sexual. I'm pretty happy to identify as gay now, but 'queer' is good as an umbrella term."

Anyway, in a way, none of that is the point. "For me, mother/writer are the two most important parts of my identity," she says.

Writing is something she has always done. "My family will say they always knew I would be a writer. I have a crate of diaries in my attic," she says. "From the age of about four. The ones written when I was four are very cute, because I thought a diary had to be written in the form of a list, so mine say: '1. I woke up. 2. I said 'Hallo' to Mummy. 3. I said 'Hallo' to Daddy'. There's 150 of them, so I must have been pretty disciplined." Even so, until she was 12, Moira wanted to be a ballet dancer, not a writer. "It was a passion," she says, "It was something I loved. For someone so flighty, I have a large amount of self-discipline. But it would never have become a career."

She began writing her first novel in 2012, midway through a PhD (on the teenage vampire in YA fiction; her masters was a comparative study of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Twilight series). That November was NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), when participants are challenged to write 50,000 words of a novel. Moira decided to throw herself into it. She wrote nearly 1,700 words every day, and when November finished, she kept going until she had a first draft of The Accident Season. She never did finish the PhD, and she hasn't stopped writing. She has been nominated for the Waterstones Children's Book prize, and the Irish Book Awards.

Her books are full of magic, and that even more interesting point where magic and reality meet and blur. She begins each day with a reading of her Tarot cards. "I've read tarot since I was 15. I do the cards every day. It's a meditative morning ritual. I will pull a card or two, usually a three-card spread, just to check in. I like it as a tool for self-reflection. Tarot cards are wonderful because each card tells a story and the deck itself has a narrative arc. As you read the cards, you apply it to your own life. It's not so much a method of divination as psychology, interpretation; being able to filter your life through narrative, being able to tell yourself the story of yourself. It works as a way of checking in with yourself, especially when you're working and you've got kids, you're tidying the house, making dinners. Some people meditate, some people listen to music, I have the tarot cards, and because I write it down, a lot of the time that's the jumping-off point for the diary: 'here's what's going on with me'."

So, does she believe in magic? "When I read for my family and friends, I say 'this isn't magic, I'm not telling your future'. I'll read for them and they will say 'that is exactly what's going on with me…!' I believe in coincidences. Maybe there is some force, some connection?"

She certainly doesn't believe in higher powers. "I'm an atheist, raised by atheists," she laughs. And tells the story of her French great-great-grandmother, Berthe Les-grand-pieds ('Berthe of the big feet'). "The local priest said that no respectable woman would teach in secular education. She was a secular teacher, and she was so incensed that she slapped him across the face." What happened? "He was really smarmy and said 'as Jesus did, I turn the other cheek', and so she slapped the other cheek!" Berthe, Moira says, "is part of the family mythology. She's like the patron saint of the family."

All The Bad Apples isn't just about evil doings, it's about silence too, and the complicity of that silence - the further evil done by knowing and not saying. In the book, the most emotive moment comes when the characters, previously almost crushed by their fate, realise the enormous power of telling their stories, loudly and without fear. It's a power that Moira is starting to see emerge in her readers - young people who "are so responsive, so passionate about change. About agency, autonomy. I feel I had fewer opinions when I was a teenager. I think there is a belief now in their own power to change things, that didn't exist as much when I was a teenager."

So what would she say to those girls? To her daughters? To that teenage self, the one she writes for, if she could? "Take up space. Be a little wild. Make mistakes. Don't be afraid. It all comes down to 'don't be afraid'."

'All The Bad Apples' by Moira Fowley-Doyle is out now, published by Penguin, €8.99


Teenage Kicks: Ireland's YA authors

John Boyne

John Boyne

Boyne moves easily between adult and YA fiction, tackling difficult topics with elegance and wit. The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas was a smash success, selling over five million copies, while more recently, My Brother's Name is Jessica, dealing with issues of transgender, took heat from some transactivists, but was well reviewed.

Sarah Davis-Goff

Sarah Davis-Goff

One half of Tramp Press, Davis-Goff's first novel, Last Ones Left Alive, is set in a dystopic future Ireland in which a young woman, Orpen, is trying to make her way through a hostile landscape, empty except for vicious, zombie-like Skrake, in search of answers.

Sarah Crossan

Sarah Crossan

Eight novels and many awards and nominations in, Crossan's advice to other writers, "pick up a pen and just start" has clearly been taken to heart. She was appointed Laureate na nOg in 2018. Start with the wonderful One.

Louise O'Neill

Louise O'Neill

Like John Boyne, O'Neill moves fluidly between novels for adults and younger readers. Her debut, Only Ever Yours was a gutting, prescient take on the ugliness of the beauty industry, while her recent feminist re-telling of The Little Mermaid contains witches, mermaids, and masturbation.

Claire Hennessy

Claire Hennessy

From the pregnant, bi-sexual protagonist of Like Other Girls to the narky teen ghost in Nothing Tastes As Good, Hennessy has a gift for vital, complex, believable characters.

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