Monday 16 September 2019

My Favourite Room: A painterly plot for writer Dwyer Hickey

Author Christine Dwyer Hickey in her colourful kitchen. There's a lot of wine on the rack, but Christine herself doesn't drink, she is a great party giver. Not in the shot is the essential bookcase, full of poetry books.
Author Christine Dwyer Hickey in her colourful kitchen. There's a lot of wine on the rack, but Christine herself doesn't drink, she is a great party giver. Not in the shot is the essential bookcase, full of poetry books. "I like to read poems when I’m boiling the spuds," she says
A detail of Christine Dwyer Hickey’s large garden in west Dublin
The piano is Deni's; he has three - two in Dublin and one in Italy. The photos include several of Christine’s dad with Patrick Kavanagh. The face cushion is from Marks and Spencer, and the portrait of Christine is by painter Cynthia Scott
Known in the family as the bold auntie, Christine suggested to her little niece that they draw their hands on the downstairs loo walls. It became a tradition, and bears the prints of performers and authors including Katherine Lynch, Brian Kennedy, Owen Roe and the late poet John Montague

Writer Christine Dwyer Hickey refers to her study as 'the incident room', a police term - and, sure enough, it's filled with bits of evidence relating to her most recent novel, The Narrow Land.

Christine's latest book is not a police procedural, or a crime novel, or even a thriller. However, it's apt that she should call the study the incident room - she did, after all, briefly work as a detective back in the day, a fact that the entertaining Dubliner reveals in a throwaway remark.

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And, of course, there is more to writing a novel than just the writing - the pieces all have to ring true, and this is where the evidence comes in.

They say never judge a book by its cover, but the cover of Christine's The Narrow Land suggests so many themes - marriage, loneliness, dissatisfaction, all against a backdrop of unbearable heat - and delivers so brilliantly on all of them, that it is one cover that can be completely relied on.

The cover depicts a painting by Edward Hopper, and the artist and his wife are a huge part of the plot. There's so much more besides, and the engaging Christine is fascinating on how she came up with the different elements, which include a little German boy who was sent to America after World War II.

"All my books are different. This one started with a German refugee," Christine explains. "I was at a literary dinner in Leipzig, and I sat beside a translator who told me a story about how, after the war, lots of children suffered from malnutrition and they were sent to these farms to be fattened up. That stuck in my head for a couple of years. Then I read about President Truman's orphans and how he issued a directive about displaced children in camps in Europe; he said he wanted them out of the camps and brought to America to be adopted, so I started to look into that."

The Hopper connection came about when Christine - at the time, still ruminating on the refugee theme - was in Boston for a book tour, and she and her husband decided to take a trip to Cape Cod. She had always loved Edward Hopper's paintings - the artist summered in Truro for 40 years and had a house there - and while there, they went on an Edward Hopper tour.

"While we were in the little town of Truro, there was something about the light and the atmosphere; I was really struck by it. I knew I wanted the little boy [in the novel] to go there, and I thought maybe he would see Edward Hopper there," she says.

Shortly after these initial explorations, Christine got very sick (a brush with cancer, which she plays down in her matter-of-fact way) and that threw everything up in the air. While she was convalescing, she watched a documentary about the painter and somehow he and his wife Jo got into her head.

She read Hopper biographies, Jo's diary, and with her extraordinary talent, she blended the story of Hopper with her tale of the refugee boy, and has created a wonderfully poignant novel - and it doesn't matter whether you've ever heard of Edward Hopper, the writing is so seductive.

"One of the reasons it works is I didn't think I'd be well enough to finish it. It seemed to write itself, and suddenly it was done," she says.

A detail of Christine Dwyer Hickey’s large garden in west Dublin

The Narrow Land is Christine's eighth novel - she's been a writer all her adult life, at times mining her turbulent childhood for the themes of her evocative stories.

"That's all I ever wanted, to be a writer. My father was a frustrated poet. He was very good friends with Patrick Kavanagh, and at one stage he showed his poems to Kavanagh, who said they were not bad, but not good enough. I think he felt the lack of it," she says sadly.

Her father, instead, developed a business maintaining racecourses, which probably wasn't a good thing, as it facilitated another of his passions - gambling; he became a compulsive gambler, which according to Christine, is a worse addiction than alcoholism.

"It takes over your whole life,"she says, adding that her parents separated and, unusually, the five children stayed with their father, who died some years ago.

The eldest and the only girl, Christine, went to boarding school, and she loved it. After that, she went abroad for a year, followed by London, then back to Dublin.

Her intention was to go to college, but she met her future husband, Denis, and college fell by the wayside. "My plan was to do a bit of travelling and then college, but it turned out to be travel and then pregnant," she says with a laugh. "It all worked out. I had my three kids all done and dusted in my 20s."

Denis had a legal business, and Christine joined him for a time - "He did searches for legal documents. We were detectives for a while; it's not as exciting as it sounds," she explains. "Then, I decided I wanted to write, and I left him to it. He kept the business going through the recession, doing a music degree at the same time, then, after I got sick, he sold the business. He loves to perform and write music."

Writing didn't come easily to Christine initially. "I wrote a book in three months when I was 25. I thought you could do that once you could fill up the pages with loads of words. I sent it off to a few people and I got some very nice rejection letters, very encouraging, but I thought if it didn't squirt out of you, you couldn't do it. I had a little cry and said, 'That's the end of that'.

She adds, "I didn't start again until I was 30. I decided to write short stories. The first few were terrible. About the fifth one, I wrote a story about a little girl going to the races with her dad, which was something I knew. I put myself in the eyes of the child, I only wrote from her point of view. It just took, and that's the way I've written ever since - only what the character can see or hear. I realised it's the same with Joyce and Virginia Woolf, the two writers I most admire - and I'm not saying I'm like them - they both do that, get into the head of the character. That way, you forget about yourself."

After the short stories, she went back to novels, including Tatty, Last Train From Liguria and The Cold Eye of Heaven, and they've been very successful, garnering many awards and sales abroad. Tatty has even been translated into Arabic. "It's hard to believe Arabs [are] reading it. Tatty is very autobiographical, the story of my childhood. They're probably saying, 'This is what happens to western women when they drink'," Christine laughs.

They're successful in other countries, including Italy, which is particularly nice for the elegant brunette, as the family have a home there. "It's a very small two-bedroomed apartment in a working town, but it has a lovely sea view. I often say to Denis, 'I bet we have a nicer view than Bono' - he's in France, we're in Italy, but it's the same coastline."

The main family home is in west Dublin, just beyond the Phoenix Park. They've lived here since 1994, when their first house, which was in Chapelizod, got too small. The other key was location - they wanted somewhere near good schools. "It's important for children to be able to walk to school," Christine says. The children, all now in their 30s, went to The King's Hospital. Jessie is a solicitor; Desmond, a teacher; and Bonnie is a barrister.

The piano is Deni's; he has three - two in Dublin and one in Italy. The photos include several of Christine’s dad with Patrick Kavanagh. The face cushion is from Marks and Spencer, and the portrait of Christine is by painter Cynthia Scott

Dating from 1959, the house has five bedrooms, including a garage conversion and a large garden, but it needed a complete overhaul. Bit by bit, Christine and Denis added new elements, including a kitchen extension in 2004.

Then, when they came back from Cape Cod, having fallen in love with the light there, they added more light to the kitchen by removing pillars. "I have a funny relationship with light, as I get migraines and I'm always aware of it," Christine says. As well as the units, there's a bookcase full of books. "I like to read a few poems as I'm boiling the spuds," she says.

In addition to the kitchen/dining room, Christine has double reception rooms where she likes to chill. And where she keeps what she calls her precious things, one of which is a statue of a smoker she got in Shanghai.

"I used to be a social smoker," Christine says. "My son had a horrific accident with a firework, and he lost the sight in one eye. No one could smoke within a mile of him, so I gave up smoking. I never smoked afterwards."

She also has a James Joyce collection, including different editions of Ulysses in different languages. And there's a portrait of herself.

"This artist Cynthia Scott was selling paintings in Hyde Park in London and she told us she lived in Italy, so we mentioned we had an apartment in Liguria, and she said, 'There's a wonderful book you should read called Last Train From Liguria'. We had to commission a portrait after that," Christine laughs.

Photos abound, including one of her father with Patrick Kavanagh; and the first Edward Hopper print she bought years ago at an auction, where the bidding went up in increments of 20 cent.

Then there's her study, 'the incident room' where there's a calendar for the year 1950, the year in which The Narrow Land is set, and where there are portraits of people she admires - like Joyce, jockey AP McCoy and Miles Davis, according to Christine, all people of courage - "As Kavanagh says, writing is all about courage," she says.

Something Christine Dwyer Hickey has in spades.

'The Narrow Land' is published by Atlantic Books

Edited by Mary O'Sullivan

Photography by Tony Gavin

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