Writer’s Block with Monica McInerney
SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to author MONICA McINERNEY about how she’s a SUPERSTITIOUS WRITER, growing up in the CLARE VALLEY and writing TWELVE NOVELS …
Monica McInerney is an internationally acclaimed Australian author who fell in love with Ireland over twenty-five years ago. To date, Monica has written twelve bestselling novels which include Hello from the Gillespies (2014), The House of Memories (2013), At Home with the Templetons (2010), Those Faraday Girls (2008) and A Taste for It (2001).Monica’s articles and short stories have appeared in newspapers, magazines and anthologies in Australia, the UK and Ireland. The Irish American Post has said, ‘It’s always an almost-sinful pleasure to delve into anything written by Monica McInerney, whose delightful prose brings her rich characters to sparkling life.’
Monica grew up in a family of seven children in the Clare Valley wine region of South Australia. Since making a life in Ireland, Monica has traveled back and forth between our shores and her native homeland. She was a book publicist for ten years, working in Ireland and Australia and promoting authors such as Roald Dahl and Edna O’Brien, and events such as the Dublin International Writers’ Festival. Prior to becoming a fully-fledged author, Monica was also a wardrobe girl and (later) scriptwriter for a children’s television show, an event manager, a freelance writer and editor, a record company press officer, a barmaid, hotel cleaner and a grape picker.
Monica’s new book, The Trip of A Lifetime, is a bittersweet story about family and the memories that bubble beneath the surface. We follow willful protagonist Lola Quinlan in her emotional return to her Irish homeland after sixty-five years away in Australia. As Lola is washed ashore by currents of hurt and regret, the truth will prove to be her salvation.
Monica McInerney lives with her husband in Dublin, with whom she is collaborating on a television series. She is currently writing her thirteenth novel.
The Trip of A Lifetime (€12.74) is published by Penguin and available nationwide.
My husband and I have lived in Drumcondra for the past seven years. Before that, we lived in Stoneybatter and before that, County Meath. Our Drumcondra street is bookended by railway lines. Trains and railways are special to me – I grew up in the Clare Valley of South Australia where my father was the railway stationmaster, living with my six brothers and sisters in the big, rambling stationmaster’s house. After leaving school, I also lived for a while in the house attached to the North Adelaide railway station (my bedroom window looked on to the platform). The first day I came to look at the Drumcondra house, we somehow timed it that trains were passing at both ends of the street. I decided it was a good omen. The clincher was discovering that there is a statue of Brendan Behan by the canal, five minutes’ walk from my front door. My father was the spitting image of Mr Behan. All the signs were definitely there that this should be our new home.
I like how close we are to the city centre. I can walk to the Gate Theatre in thirteen minutes, to the GPO in sixteen minutes (I’ve timed it!).
I also like being in earshot of Croke Park. I was at home editing one of my novels as One Direction did their sound check in 2014, and wrote a scene for my latest novel during Bruce Springsteen’s encore in 2016. Sundays in summer are great too, waiting for the roar of the crowd that follows the singing of Amhrán na bhFiann.
My favourite eating and drinking places are all within twenty minutes’ walk. I regularly have lunch at Nelly’s Café in the Arts & Business campus in Lower Drumcondra Road. A treat is dinner at The Washerwoman in Glasnevin, a sister restaurant to The Winding Stair and the Woollen Mills in the city. A real favourite is Pho Viet in Parnell Street, for delicious Vietnamese food. In winter, a hot whiskey or hot port or two in Hedigan’s, better known as the Brian Boru in Phibsboro, just a walk along the canal away.
The first five words that come to mind when I think of my childhood are family, freedom, bushland, heat and cold. The Clare Valley is a beautiful part of the world – an oasis of green, rolling hills, vineyards, small towns and villages, old stone buildings. We lived very close to the Clare main street, but across the road from the edge of the town, with tree-covered hills, dams, dry creeks to play in. Mum and Dad brought us up free-range – I remember playing hide and seek for hours in the bushland, and also playing chasey up on the (very high) roof of our house too. It was ferociously hot in the summer, often 40 degrees and more, with a constant threat of bushfires. In winter, it’s icy cold, often below zero, with frost in the morning. I liked the extremes. So do grapes – it has become one of Australia’s premier wine regions, while still retaining a real country feel. I love how the vineyards change with the seasons, the bright and light green of spring through to the red and orange of autumn. Many of the wineries now also have cafés attached. When I go ‘home’ to Clare I love to meet family and friends for long lunches on one of the verandahs. I’d also recommend a visit to the Clare Valley in May, when the annual Gourmet Weekend takes place. Each winery teams up with a local restaurant to offer a day of tastings, often against a soundtrack of jazz, pop or folk music. It’s a great lively weekend, a real showcase of the spirit and uniqueness of the Valley.
I write in the attic of our house. It’s warm and light, with two big skylights. From my desk I can see only sky. Every year a pair of seagulls nests in the chimney above my head so I have written several novels to the sound of seagull squawks and bird feet stepping and scratching on the tiles. I have two bookcases on either side of my desk, and also a long bookshelf tucked into the eaves cupboard. I am a superstitious writer, and collect objects that mean something to each book I write. They stay on after the book is finished, so I have quite a collection now – fox ornaments, flower paintings, small ceramic birds, hand-painted cups… Above my desk is a painting of a sliver of rooftop and a blue summer sky. When the view from the skylight is grey I can glance up and see blue.
I recently visited Magpie Books in Enniskerry, County Wicklow for the first time. I felt an immediate fondness for it because they had The Trip of a Lifetime in the front window! I introduced myself to the lovely owners and had a great conversation, and also left with five new books. They are small but have such a great selection of fiction and non-fiction.
In Australia, I have a close relationship with the biggest chain of bookshops, Dymocks, who chose my first novel A Taste for It as their Book of the Month way back in 2001, and my twelfth novel The Trip of a Lifetime this year. I also have a special bond with a wife-and-husband team Margie and Mark Arnold who run Meg’s Bookshop in Port Pirie, a small town in country South Australia. Margie was the bookseller at my first events back in 2001, and has supported me enthusiastically ever since. We have become great friends. In my tenth novel, Hello from the Gillespies, I was able to mark our connection in black and white – the book is set in the outback of South Australia, not far from Port Pirie, and in it, the fictional characters come into town to do some shopping, call in to her bookshop and have a brief conversation with her. It was great fun to bring real life into my fiction and pay tribute to Margie at the same time.
I go into the countryside to escape. I never mind where that countryside is, as long as there are plenty of shady tree walks, grass or dirt underfoot and plenty of flowers to gaze on. A bonus is a lake or river to walk beside. It’s the country girl in me, I’m sure. I get edgy if I haven’t been out of the city in a while. I’m spoilt for choice here in Ireland. I love the Phoenix Park in Dublin. It’s such a special part of the city. When we lived in Stoneybatter, I was there every day. It’s appeared in several of my novels too. I’ve also developed a love for Ireland’s beautiful public gardens. I’m showing my age now (52), but my favourite day trip is to spend several hours walking through a big estate garden with my camera (my hobby is photography, especially photographing plants and flowers). I regularly post galleries up on my Facebook page. My Australian readers particularly enjoy seeing how lush and green the Irish gardens are. I recently visited the Japanese Gardens in Kildare for the first time, and I’ll be back again. So peaceful, with little hidden areas of water and ferns.
In 1990, I met an Irishman in Melbourne, who had been working as a journalist on Australian newspapers but was soon returning home to Ireland. Instead of bringing back a kangaroo key ring as a souvenir, he brought me. We’ve now been moving back and forth between Ireland and Australia for more than twenty-five years. When I first moved here, we lived in the Meath countryside. That was a shock for me, coming from a very urban, social life in Melbourne. I didn’t drive, so while my husband was at work, I’d have to walk forty minutes to the nearest town, Navan. It took me a few months to find work here, and in that time I became an expert wood chopper and a little obsessive about doing the washing. I had overly-romantic ideas about Ireland, I’m sure, fuelled by Bailey’s Irish Cream TV ads in Australia showing a red-haired maiden being transported in horse and cart by twinkle-eyed handsome Irishman in a cap. My own ancestry is Irish too, through my great-grandparents on both sides, so I did feel a connection. I found some parts difficult at first – what felt like constant grey skies, and curiously, the lack of pumpkins in greengrocers, except at Halloween. But I soon realised I prefer cool misty weather. I still do. I also learned to cook many more dishes than pumpkin soup. We were also blessed in Meath with beautiful neighbours Dympna and the Dolan family, who swept me up into their midst and made me feel so welcome in Ireland. I also joined my local library and read every Irish book I could get my hands on – Maeve Binchy, William Trevor, Edna O’Brien, Molly Keane. All of their stories and insights helped me find my way into how Ireland works and how Irish people think and feel about life.