Thursday 13 December 2018

Take off your designer high heels and walk in my wellies for a day

Anne Cunningham

'You can smell the silage off the pages." That quotation mightn't be the kind you'd expect on the back cover of a book but when an agri-expert said that after reading my novel, 'Deny Me Not', I knew that I'd hit the nail on the head.

Farmers and rural dwellers can be tough critics, but it obviously portrayed a world he could relate to – one where people wear wellies, cut silage, shift shit and, bottom line, hope to inherit land some day.

That's always the dream.

There aren't enough Irish novels with contemporary farm settings, I believe. In the literary genre, Belinda McKeon has done it with 'Solace' and Clair Ni Aonghusa made a stab at it with 'Civil and Strange', but right now in the world of commercial fiction, farm settings are conspicuous by their absence, or only get a nod in their direction.

No one is really getting down to earth in the agricultural world.

While the popular fiction genre is dominated by many wonderful and successful Irish writers like Marian Keyes and Cathy Kelly, the novels seem to be almost entirely urban and office-world orientated.

What about the 140,000 farms in Ireland and the 270,000 people working in the agri-food sector?

It's a significant section of society that contributes €24bn to the national economy, so why shouldn't stories be set deep in the world of cow-dung and corn-growing?

Farmers are people and they have relationship difficulties the same as anyone else. Throw in the stress of weather, inheritance issues, lack of income, minding aged parents and all the wider issues affecting people's lives, like the economy and the EU, and it's a seedbed for real drama.

John B Keane had his finger on the pulse of rural Ireland in the past, but why shouldn't there be more 'agri-lit' now?

'Write about what you know' – that's what Maeve Binchy used to say – and it seemed like very good advice when it came to choosing a setting for my first novel.

I'm a farmer's daughter and married to a farmer so I know the kinds of situations that crop up day to day, whether it's cattle breaking out or department inspectors coming in or bad feeling over who got what, inheritance-wise.

You know the lingo when you're living on a farm, too – you don't say 'digging' beet when you mean pulling it, you don't say fork when you mean sprong and you don't bale hay the day after the meadow is cut; it needs time to 'make' (dry) first.

The world of the novel has to be authentic or credibility goes right out the window. Ultimately, though, the story's the thing: if it doesn't grab people, you're at nothing.

When it comes to writing fiction I couldn't write what's called 'chick lit'. I'm not into soft-soaped worlds or fluffy anything.

My characters and their stories have to be firmly grounded in reality. I wouldn't know a designer shoe or handbag if they jumped up and bit me. I've never been in Brown Thomas's for instance. It's a world that wouldn't be relevant to me as it's far from doormen with top hats I was reared.

I'm originally from Tinahely in County Wicklow and live in south Wexford now, but I wouldn't want to live anywhere other than on a farm or in a rural place.

I like roads with the grass growing up the middle of them. And laneways. I breathe easier somehow when there are ditches on both sides.

It could be because that's what I grew up with, but I don't think so. Some people turn away from rural places in search of brighter lights but not me.

Concrete jungles are all right to visit for a day or so, but I always feel pulled back to the wide-open spaces.

'Deny Me Not' is about a woman pursuing her father for acknowledgment. I wrote the kind of book that I wanted to read and hopefully that lots of rural readers will get a kick out of too.

Who knows – maybe a few stiletto-sporting townies will read it too, on their Kindles, as they sit sipping lattes in Starbucks. And if they do, I wish them a 'welly' good experience.

See margarethawkins.ie

Irish Independent

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