Originally featured in the print edition of The Irish Post, Tuesday 30th, 2013.
Timeless talent: Antrim novelist Deirdre Madden
STRIDING to our meeting place from across Trinity College Dublin, Deirdre Madden, once widely characterised as a uniquely North of Ireland novelist (no doubt as result of her remarkable and best- known work, One By One in the Darkness, set during the week of the IRA ceasefire in 1994) appears to be at one with the Southern capital. The Antrim native, who has lived in Dublin for decades, now, with her husband, poet Harry Clifton, teaches Creative Writing at Trinity College.
Having completed novel number eight, Time Present and Time Past, I ask Madden, described by Sebastian Barry as “The constant genius of Irish letters”, if her move to Dublin and her post as a lecturer in Creative Writing at the college’s Oscar Wilde Centre for Writing have made the process of writing novels any easier.
“I suppose it doesn’t get easier; it just feels different. You’re always changing what you’re writing about. My writing habits have definitely changed. I used to write primarily at night and I don’t do that anymore, now; I tend to write, more, now, in the morning. I suppose in the same way you are piecing things together. The more you write, the more your confidence does grow. But it’s a very slow process and you are trying to balance everything. It’s not always easy, so I am very happy to get this latest book finished.”
“When I’m teaching my students, I suppose some of the things I would advise are straightforward. I always tell my students to read their work aloud at least four times in a row during the drafting process; you pick up on the flow of the sentence- if too long, or not flowing smoothly. Reading is so important. If you’re trying something, you try to think of who else is doing what you’re doing. I think I read more as a writer now than I would have done as I was younger. It takes me a while to figure out what I have. The ideas for characters, for narratives are always hazy and you’re always interested in developing them. The more you work on those ideas, the more you put them through the mill, the more that they become clearer and concrete towards the end of the novel. You always ask why: why is this person important, why do they live here…”
Time Present, Time Past is set, largely, in Dublin during 2006, the Celtic Tiger economy still roaring with the end to those heady days just over the hill. The protagonist, Fintan Terrence Buckley, is a 47- year- old solicitor living in the leafy suburbs of south Dublin, who’s new- found interest in photography sparks an interest in the past and how it is that we think about the past. Photography features as strongly in Madden’s latest novel as music does in, say, Nick Hornby’s Hi- Fidelity; photography is almost, you might say, another character in the book. I ask Madden why photography, of all of her interests, became such a huge part of the novel’s narrative.
I think that we sometimes find the past can seem further away from where it is.
“It’s something that a lot of people have remarked on. I’ve always loved old black and white photographs and I became aware that colour photography had been developed much earlier than had been commonly thought. In a way, I’ve always preferred black and white portraits; they just feel more dramatic. And I became interested in how colour photography and colour photographs had been taken at times in history that I hadn’t been aware of. An example I would give is of a photograph from WW1: if you see those photo’s in black and white, they look very dramatic, very austere, but if you see them in color- and these are actual photographs in colour that haven’t been improved or impressed with a color filter- they’re so immediate, more contemporary, much more closer to us. That was what really interested me in featuring it so prominently in the novel. I mean the photograph on the cover of the book is actually a photograph from 1907 and that’s an original colour and I find that quite strange; I think that we sometimes find the past can seem further away from where it is. That whole way of how we view the past, how we picture the past is interesting to me. And I though that photographs worked as a good medium to discuss that particular view.”
Running alongside Madden’s interest in photography is the theme of progress, which appears again and again in the novel. Madden seems to be examining what progress actually is and whether what we think is progress is actually a step forward in the right direction. In the final third of the novel, for example, we are brought to the North of Ireland, where Fintan and his sister Martina visit their grandparent’s old house, only to discover their cousin Edward has flattened the land and intents to erect a “decent, modern house”.
Though Madden stresses that she did not intend to write a Celtic Tiger novel (“novelists are not journalists”), it is hard, in the current economic climate, not to read a book set in Dublin in 2006 and think of the difference between now and then; Madden agrees and she compares and contrasts life in Ireland between “the two days”.
“I think people gained a lot during the Celtic Tiger years, but I also think that we lost a lot. People did travel more widely; they were able to take sun holidays more often, buy houses, etc. But as result, people became a lot more insular and so there was always a step back. The quality of life, now, has, obviously changed quite a bit; people are not as brash, impatient and, sometimes, rude in shops and restaurants…that whole mercenary thing, which I think that they were during the Celtic Tiger years. People have calmed down a bit, now, so there are few things like that, which perhaps we are now reflecting on. We’ve also become more and more interested in making things, particularly this resurgence in baking, in boutique shops in pop- up shops and markets. So every time you have progress, you lose something; every time you take step back, you gain something.”
Everywhere feels new to me; whether I’m in Dublin, in the North, wherever I am. I’m always interested in everything
It’s on this note that I ask Madden if she feels the same way about writing as she does about the theme of progress in Time Present, Time Past; if there’s any relationship between the perceived progress during the Celtic Years and the perceived progress in writing a novel. Pausing, she carefully considers the question.
“It takes me a while to figure out what it is that I actually have. The ideas for characters, for narratives are always hazy and you’re always interested in developing them. The more you work on those ideas, the more you put them through the mill, the more that they become clearer and concrete towards the end of the novel. You always ask why: why is this person important, why do they live here…There are times, of course, that you can go down the wrong road when an idea leads you astray; I think that most writers don’t like talking about that because it’s such a horrible experience. It’s like tossing a coin; toss a coin and the odds of it coming up heads or tails is 50/50. No matter how many times you toss it and if it comes up heads every time, logic dictates to you that, even if it comes up “heads” 10 times in a row, it should, eventually, come up “tails”. But that isn’t true. You can convince yourself that “ok, I’ve spent 6-12 months on this; the longer that I work at it, it’s bound to come good at some point” But that can leave you disappointed. You accept that instead of losing time, that you have to ask “why does this not work”. You have to know what went wrong. If you don’t, you’ll do it again. The relation of time and effort isn’t always equal.”
As the interview is finishing and we get up to leave and walk out to an unusually sunny day in Dublin, I ask Madden if, as a northerner living in Dublin for as long as she has, Dublin feels still new to her and if it felt fresh to her having written a novel set in Dublin; she smiles, looking down one of the city’s many Georgian streets. “Everywhere feels new to me; whether I’m in Dublin, in the North, wherever I am. I’m always interested in everything; I’m interested in what people are wearing, what the traffic is like, what people are eating…the whole fabric of life really interests me. I feel very much at home here, but when I’m traveling I find everything interesting.”
On that note, Madden returns to the gates of Trinity College, leaving me with a impression that she is, as a novelist, of her time and yet timeless; a juxtaposition that wouldn’t be out of place in one her own novels.
Time Present and Time Past is out now from Faber