Books In Conversation
BELINDA MCKEON with Torrey Crim
(Little, Brown, and Company, 2016)
Belinda McKeon’s second novel, Tender, opens in 1997 in Dublin and follows a young woman, Catherine, and the shades of love that she has for her friend James as they navigate their early adulthood at Trinity, and is set against the last years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the recent decriminalization of homosexuality. Catherine’s focus on James, however, takes precedence over all else, and McKeon indulges Catherine’s myopia of longing more and more as the narrative progresses, until, late in the book, the prose transforms into a kind of poem, a swell and sigh of fragmented yearning.
A reader might long to be released from the confinement of Catherine’s inchoate love, so deeply does McKeon mire us in her swollen affection, but the relentless commitment to Catherine’s obsession is ultimately what makes Tender so powerful. Because at the outer periphery of her protagonist’s anguished self-awareness, McKeon reminds us of the broader world: Ireland is changing, politically and economically, and Catherine’s nearly claustrophobic fixation on James only throws into sharp relief the wider societal shift the country underwent in the late 1990s. How else, after all, does one experience the rigors of youth except as a confinement, a limitation on one’s understanding and capability to cope with heretofore unknown desires? The day before Tender was set to launch at the Irish Arts Center, I met Belinda McKeon to discuss Irish identity in the rapidly changing economic and political atmosphere, what it’s like to write from outside of one’s own country, the lens of visual arts in fiction, and the question of left-handedness.
Torrey Crim (Rail): Tender is such an intimate book, and so much of the prose takes up this close personal space between Catherine and James, but the book also feels political to me, not just in terms of gay rights but also in terms of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. How much of that was intentional, or do you feel like it sort of arose naturally out of the story you were telling?
Belinda McKeon: It arose naturally out of the time that it was set, in the late ’90s in Ireland. 1998 was the year of the Good Friday Agreement, and also the year of the Omagh bombing, so it was the year in which enormous progress was made and then an enormous betrayal of that progress. The Omagh bombing was the biggest atrocity of the Troubles. So, writing a novel set in Ireland in 1998, you could leave those things out, but they kept pushing their way back in for me. If I think about it more abstractly, I think that’s because Tender, in a way, is book about a character who takes on somebody else’s troubles as her own, or who wants to kind of appropriate the suffering of another person, but not actually to go through it. And in a way that’s what living in the Republic as opposed to the North of Ireland felt like, you know, you’re so close to that immense suffering, but yet you’re watching it from a distance; you have the safety of distance, but you also have that feeling of being aghast at what’s happening. So I think that it probably kept pushing its way back into the narrative because the type of character that Catherine was. Her sense of herself was drawing so much from what other people were going through. I suppose that theme of appropriation is partly why it stayed in the book. I tried to take it out a couple of times and it just kept coming back.
Rail: I like that idea of appropriation, because you also see that in the way that photography is used—James’ photography and then also that opening they go to in the middle of the book that’s about making personal to oneself the watching of someone else’s suffering. There’s this way that documenting and watching and observing a person is both an act of intimacy and an act of alienation. Can you speak to how that came in or if that also was a consequence of the relationship and the people?
McKeon: You articulate that so beautifully. When you are writing the novel, as you know yourself, you almost can’t have those ideas and those parallels in place, or it would overwhelm the story. So I think that while all of that is true, I couldn’t really allow myself to think about it too much. With James’s art, for instance, I remember just having to trust myself that whatever I wrote would be the art that was right for him, the right way of expressing what he was going through and what he refused to talk about openly. So in the early work, the student scribbles what he’s doing even before he becomes a photographer, in high school for instance; he has a habit of drawing people in secret, almost like he’s stalking them. And of course that makes such sense for a young man who is in the closet, who is watching the man he fancies but can’t approach him directly. And yet, believe it or not, that wasn’t a forced art form for him, that was the style that emerged, and afterwards I looked and it and thought, huh, that’s pretty apt, actually. I developed the sense of him as an artist—and it’s always difficult to write about any art form. I think photography so often becomes the art form that a character in a novel gets, so I was very wary of that—but because it allowed him to watch people and to create an image of them without ever having to go close to them, in a way, it was what made sense for him. But I think there are other things in your question that I haven’t picked up on.
Rail: Well, I think there’s also this idea of a gaze. The other point at which I started seeing these parallels is the passage when Catherine goes home for her grandfather’s birthday and she talks about couples never actually looking at each other when they’re dancing. And so there becomes this idea—the way that the actual relationship unfolds between Catherine and James—that her intense desire to be photographed is also her intense desire to be seen.
McKeon: It’s true. They’ve grown up in families that are quite similar in many ways but are really different in one respect, which is that James’s family talk—well, they don’t talk openly to each other about the things that matter, obviously, as becomes apparent when he comes out—but they do have an easy, laughing, open way with one another. Catherine has grown up in a house (that) is very careful and silent and watchful. Growing up in a watchful house, she wants to be watched in an entirely different way. She wants the gaze to be admiring and validating, rather than one that is threatening; she has her parents and especially her father, there’s that watchfulness, but also the neighbor, the sense that she’s grown up in a community where—and this is very true to a certain time in Ireland—a community in which you are being watched and judged. James has too, but something about his family dynamic has allowed him to be free and lighthearted in more superficial ways. She really envies that when she meets with his family. She thinks, wow, they’re extraordinary, the way they can laugh and joke and swear at each other. So I think that she comes into the story, she comes into that time in her life, seventeen, eighteen years old, with this deep need to be seen and yet with a deep fear of it. James, at first, becomes such a safe companion for her, because he’s gay, and there isn’t the threat—she’s afraid of sex, as a young woman—so he’s not dangerous in that way, but at the same time he can watch her and see her and she very much wants to be seen by him, but then that becomes pretty complicated.
Rail: I think that segues into a question I had about your experience in the late ’90s—you were at Trinity in those years as well—and Ireland was going through a lot of economic change at the moment as well as, my impression is, Catholicism was loosening its hold. I was wondering if you could speak a little about that experience.
McKeon: There’s a lot of me in Catherine. When I did the publicity in Ireland, a lot of that was about treading the line. It is autobiographical, and the conversations that you end up having around that can sometimes be frustrating. I’m trying not to be coy about that. But that time was really transitional or interstitial, maybe, in that it was the beginning of something new for Ireland but it was still the end of something, and the end felt more powerful; the last dregs of conservatism and Catholicism and that narrowness and homogenous emphasis really felt very powerful. And it was only at the turn of the millennium, in my memory, that things really did start to feel lighter. I started university in ’96 and I graduated in 2000, and the contrast between the two Irelands of those four years is immense. Because I think the economic boom was really dramatic, it was a very narcotic, euphoric kind of boom. It really did change the country’s attitude towards itself. So that made it feel as though we were living in a very—I won’t say exciting because of lot of the time it was kind of confusing—but a very different place suddenly.
The year the novel opens, 1997, was only four years after the decriminalization of homosexuality. For the first generation of kids growing up in that time, like James, he would have been fourteen when that happened—in a way it’s a big ask, it’s a lot of responsibility, because the pressure was to feel free, and to embrace the freedom and yet to live with the enduring narrowness of silence and caution. It’s only recently in the last couple of years that it’s been possible for gay couples to be openly gay in Ireland. We had the referendum last year, which was an enormous occasion. But in the 90s, there was no way you could be openly gay. It was very difficult for people to come out. So the changing economic circumstances and the country’s changing image of itself didn’t carry through to a lightness of life in every way. I remember feeling that I had to be very careful in all ways. It wasn’t until the end of the ’90s, I think, that it really did feel as though it was time to come out of your shell a little bit and to be less cautious and less watchful. I was the eldest in my family. I was the first of my family to go to university; I was quite a serious, fearful kid. So it took me a long time to get my courage, and I did lean a lot on close friends and other people to get a sense of myself. That’s reflected in Catherine.
Rail: I wanted to ask about Catherine’s nickname, Citóg (pronounced kitt-ogue), which is Irish for left-handed, and I thought of the French word gauche, which is also left, but it means very awkward and bumbling.
McKeon: That’s one of those lovely serendipities; that was not something I thought about.
Rail: I was wondering if you could talk about the cultural meaning in Ireland.
McKeon: Left-handedness, and I don’t think this is unique to Ireland, was in the 20th century still regarded as something awkward and odd. I’m sure this happened here as well, kids would have their hands tied behind their back. And there’s superstition around it, I suppose. But her nickname really comes from the lightness of the people around her, especially her friend Zoe and her friend Conor, that they’re enjoying life so much, that there is a sort of playfulness to it. Citóg is an affectionate term because it óg means young in Irish, so Citóg would mean young Cit or young Catherine. And the other names that Zoe calls her—she has a sort of lyricism around creating nicknames for her. Maybe it means that the people around her are much freer and light on their feet with notions of identity and of naming, whereas Catherine is Catherine. Which is my name, by the way—my name is Catherine Belinda, so I gave her my own name. Not many people knew that until I started mentioning it in interviews. But I love that, that’s a beautiful idea—gauche.
Rail: Well, it is this concept of being a little bit off-kilter, which I think is how she feels.
McKeon: But she’s not left-handed, she’s right-handed. In a way she’s not even interesting enough to be left-handed, but she kind of wishes she was. James is the left-handed person that she emulates or almost wants to consume, so much does she want to be like him. I won’t pretend that deep down I had that association, but as you know, your writing can bring you to places without your having intended it. That’s the nice part of writing something.
Rail: I love Zoe’s character, by the way. Her letters say a lot about how she approaches things. She doesn’t even take up much space but she has such presence.
McKeon: Catherine and James are characters that I’m deeply emotionally invested in and connected to, but in a way, the peripheral characters in the novel, like Zoe and Emmett, are some of the favorite characters I’ve ever written. I enjoyed them immensely. I keep using that word “lightness,” which I’ve never used before talking about the novel—they enable some sort of lightness and youth to come into the narrative. I think that without them it would be very oppressive.
Rail: I can see that. It’s a funny novel in some ways—I mean, obviously, it’s very serious, but there’s also something that feels very true to youth. I think as you get older you think of your own youth as a lighter time, but actually it feels so dark and serious. And you feel Catherine’s desperation to take everything so seriously.
McKeon: Well, I think that you’re told that you’re grown up now and you have to get out there. You’re going into life. And that feels, at eighteen, like an enormously oppressive edict. So everything feels very serious. And it’s only when you’re in your thirties that you think, well, I’m not really even grown up now, and there’s no hope of becoming grown up, it looks like. So how would I have been like that at eighteen? But when you’re eighteen you think you’re meant to be pulled together in all these ways. It’s a really difficult time [Laughter.]
Rail: We’ve touched on this, but you’ve lived in Brooklyn now for almost ten years?
McKeon: More than ten years, actually.
Rail: I’m curious about how your understanding of being Irish has changed from living here. You obviously identify as an Irish writer and the novel feels very Irish.
McKeon: It’s a key question for me, and it’s something I don’t really have a clear angle on, I suppose. I’d say that being here has fundamentally changed my relationship to my own country. It’s taken a while to kind of reconcile to this. I go back a lot. I’m still really tied to Ireland. I’m not living there but in my head I’m always living there, and here, at the same time. I want both those things. I have friends from the west coast of America, which is just as far away as Dublin is, but they don’t have that kind of split self. When I go back there now, it can be really difficult to accept that I’m a visitor, and that you can never really be in your own country in the same way again. That you’re always just kind of dropping in. So I went through this whole attempt to let my summers in Ireland to be as though I’m living there for the summer, but it never works out that way. You’re always overexerting yourself to try to live in a place and it becomes really exhausting and emotionally difficult. There’s this constant negotiation of what home is. That’s just part of my life now, and it is what I write out of as well. I think that if I had wanted to change it I would have changed it by now. There’s something I get out of it. There’s something sustaining in the distracted or the split feeling.
Rail: There’s also something about writing from the outside that functions well as a process.
McKeon: Well, it’s been so long since I wrote from the inside that I don’t really remember. But I do know that when I lived there in my early twenties I found it very very hard to write. And it was only when I came here—and I had put structures in place to make it easier, I was doing an MFA for instance, I had decided to commit myself to a novel—that I became able to write more steadily and to start to develop a practice. It took a long time. So my theory is that it’s almost overstimulating when I’m there, there’s too much that I could write about, there’s too much conversation, there’s too much to draw on, and that I need the distance to act as the filter. Lots of people have talked about that, but there does seem to be some sort of truth in that for me. The other thing is that now that I’ve been here for as long as I have, this place, New York and Brooklyn, are starting to surface naturally. For instance, the last section of Tender was actually the easiest to write; it was only two days of work, whereas section three took two years. But the New York scene just kind of rippled up. I know this place well now, so it’s appearing naturally in my work, whereas ten years ago I would have had to kind of force it and really feel as though I was writing as a tourist. And I think you can really see it in other writers who don’t live here and write about the city, you can see the mistakes and the misjudgments.
Rail: That section does feel very New York to me, and you can also hear it in Nate from Brooklyn, earlier in the novel; he just speaks like a New Yorker.
McKeon: I’m glad to hear it. Because that is actually the one thing—the one thing that’s hard to get right is dialogue. That shouldn’t be a surprise; I was vainglorious thinking I could write American characters easily. But my agent, who is American, when reading the final section, said, “you have an American woman talking like an Irish woman,” and I was like, “no I don’t!” She pointed out all these little, tiny, really subtle turns of phrase that I hadn’t realized were Irish, things that seemed like normal speech to me. But I come up against that a lot when I’m teaching. A lot of the time I’ll make a comment to my students, something that seems completely run of the mill to me, and my students will say, “what?” Something like “another kettle of fish,” do you know that phrase?
Rail: I don’t.
McKeon: “That’s another kettle of fish” is a way of saying: that’s another matter. And they’ll look at me like, “what did you just say? Crazy woman.”
Rail: It’s a great phrase. I like that idea of distance acting as a filter. And movement between two places does create such an interesting tension.
McKeon: But it’s also something you can’t think about too much. That’s what I mean when I say that it’s just become part of my identity. Rather than fighting against it, just accepting that I will always feel a bit conflicted, and neither here nor there. It’s weird to be living in Brooklyn, but I often listen to Irish radio still. Social media makes that weird as well because you’re constantly seeing the voices of people from both countries literally coming up on a loop in front of your eyes day after day. It’s a big question for me and it’s one that will continue to be a big question, and I think that my next novel will probably be about that in some way.
Rail: I wanted to ask: you’ve written several plays as well as the two novels. I’m wondering if you feel that certain stories lend themselves better to certain forms.
McKeon: I haven’t written that many plays, actually, and it’s been a while since I’ve finished one, so I do feel like I’ve been novel-writing in a deeper way than playwriting. But generally, when an idea arrives, I already have a sense of which form belongs to it. And I think that’s to do with shape, the shape of the story—you can see how it would fit in the structure of a play, or you know that it needs the length, and not just length but the duration of a novel, of working on a novel to develop it. I guess a play arrives as a story, and a novel arrives as a sense of something possible between people. For short stories I don’t know which it is. I think short stories are almost the most difficult of all.
Rail: I think short stories are incredibly difficult! Are you working on a collection?
McKeon: I’m working on short stories. I don’t know if I’m working on a collection. Here’s the thing, a collection is a bunch of stories that you’ve written over the course of a number of years, and I now have almost enough for a collection, but the stories from the beginning of that time, I don’t know if I want to reproduce them. So should I keep writing new stories? A collection is a weird thing in that it represents this stretch of time for you as a writer in which you have changed so much. I’m not sure, for me, of the value of that. But I’ve written two stories this year and I’m about to start another one, so in between novels it is something I like to do. But, like I say, it’s so hard. It’s as hard as a novel.
Rail: It requires as big of a world as a novel.
McKeon: It does.
Rail: In terms of teaching, do you have a way of balancing all these different ways of engaging with literature?
McKeon: Well, I love teaching, selfishly, because it gives me structure. Two days a week is what I teach at the moment at Rutgers, and so those are my days to be with my students. I love being with them. They’re undergrads, and it’s that time of life that I wrote about in Tender, and I find that a very heartening presence. They have a lot of energy. They bring ideas into class from their other classes, things that I’ve lost contact with at this stage because I’m not reading as widely as I was in college. Every year I put together a syllabus of work that I’m actually not that familiar with, so that I have to delve deeply into those stories and think about them. I try not to teach the same things over and over. There are some stories I always teach but usually I’ll set myself a challenge with the syllabus of having to learn with students, so that what’s happening in the room is a conversation.
Rail: Do you have a set writing schedule or do you set days aside for it?
McKeon: No. That’s why teaching is great because it means that the three days that I’m not teaching become space that I protect more instinctively as writing space. But when I wasn’t teaching every semester I would have these large chunks of time to write and a lot of the time I wasn’t writing. I was getting frustrated with myself. When the time is less available, you tend to treat it with more respect. But I try to write all day if I can, I get to my desk about 9:30 and if I’m writing I’ll write until 6pm. The big thing for me is not getting online. When I was writing Tender, I’d give the modem to my husband as he went to work in the morning, I’d be like, “take this, bring it back tonight, I don’t want to see it.” That was great, because being offline opened up all this space, as though the days became three times as long—in a good way—and three times as broad in terms of what was possible. It’s very addictive.
Rail: It’s terribly addictive. I hesitate to use the word influences, but can you talk about your great loves as a reader?
McKeon: This has changed for me, because I think that when I was growing up, or in college, a lot of my own influences were a bunch of mid-to-late-20th century Irish male writers. That remained in place even during the writing of my first book. So over the last ten years I’ve changed that, and my influences have become new influences over the last ten years. Somebody whose work I really admire is Deborah Eisenberg, her short stories. Elizabeth Bowen, The Last September. The opening section of Tender, The Last September would have been an enormous influence, the young woman on the brink of enormous change, publicly and privately. I really admire Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.
Rail: I guess another way of asking it would be: do you have a moment in your young life when reading made the idea of writing something convincing to you?
McKeon: I started writing very young, I started writing at eight, and that was directly a result of reading children’s books. Roald Dahl was an enormous thing for me. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and Matilda. I read those when I was seven or eight, probably, and there was a sea of change in my life then. I thought, there’s such a thing as story, and I’m allowed to write it.