Louise Kennedy and Sarah Moss wrote to each other in the summer of 2021, discussing national identity, disappointing holidays and art deco china.
A few years ago, we spent a week in Donegal in a holiday cottage. It had looked lovely on the website but the bedding was stinky, the carpets were worn to the weft and there was no dishwasher. Every morning I rose early and walked the beach before the weather came in, taking photographs on my phone. But my husband and children were miserable, which got in on me, and back home I wrote three stories about resentment. They variously featured a bird-watching hut, a flock of tern, a pub that showed fake horse-racing, an ancient hillfort and wild flowers I’d seen in the dunes by the beach.
I was reminded of this holiday as I read your new novel, Summerwater, which unfolds in similarly disappointing tourist accomodation during cataclysmic weather. You begin the acknowledgements at the back the book by saying it ‘began one wet summer in Scotland’. I would love to know what other elements came into play as you wrote. Watson’s poem, ‘The Ballad of Semmerwater’, for example, was that on your mind?
Did you begin with a particular place in mind? Because the small Scottish border town in which the novel is set has such a strong sense of location – the ben, the lake, the single lane roadway, the pub. Yet the place has a liminality about it, and might be imagined. And I’m interested in how the political weather – Brexit, climate change, xenophobia etc. – found its way in.
It sounds as if we had rather similar holiday experiences! Summerwater is set in one of very few places I’ve returned to often during an adult life spent moving around within the UK and internationally. I was born just outside Glasgow and my mother claims that I learnt to walk on the shores of the loch, which is unlikely because all the beaches are stony, but there are certainly pictures of infant me swimming in this water. I have friends and relatives in Glasgow and have often walked that shore with them, I took my kids there to potter on the beaches when they were little and for mountain climbing when they were older.
On the last trip we rented a cabin in a small holiday park and it rained solidly for two weeks. I grew up in the north of England where there’s no such thing as bad weather and my family would all rather be out in the rain than stuck indoors all day so we went up the mountains anyway, but several of the other families seemed to spend all their time in the cabins and I was very curious about how they could possibly be passing the time . . . We were all watching each other but nobody talked, and there was one particular household who managed to party every night, despite the remote location. I was thinking about various stranger-comes-to-town folk songs and stories, but I remembered William Watson’s ballad very late in the day, when I needed a poem for a character to recall. (I always hope the poems I learnt by heart as a child will be with me to the end.)
I think the political weather just came with the people. Britain felt even more fractured than usual while I was writing, with loathing whipped up between generations and all the usual hostilities between nations, regions and classes exacerbated by Brexit and ongoing austerity. It would have been impossible to write about people being thrown into proximity with strangers without letting in all that suspicion and prejudice. I haven’t been to the UK for nearly a year now, but I very much doubt lockdown has made things any better – a lot of the discourses around Covid seem to be full of snobbery and xenophobia.
I’ve just been re-reading your stories and marvelling at them again. I noticed this time how exact you are about the naming of things: plants, birds, ingredients, tools, and how often you write about people making things and making them well. Is the material world alive for you? Do you find connections between the making of sentences and the making of cakes and gardens?
I also want to ask you – because having just moved permanently from England to Ireland I want to ask everyone – do you think of yourself as an Irish or a Northern Irish writer, and what does it mean for a writer to be identified by nationality, as we all tend to be?
I’m kind of relieved the chalet park in the novel exists in real life, as I was already in awe of what you do with place and if you had said it was imagined I would be weeping softly and tidying the hot press. Holidays make us more like ourselves, I think. And because we work and wait for them all year they are often disappointing.
The political weather found its way into my stories too. I began to write in 2016, against a talk radio soundtrack of revelations about the fate of those sent to Mother and Baby Homes, yet another – often vicious – public discourse about women’s bodily autonomy. I was on the board of a domestic violence advocacy service and, on the first Monday of every month, listened to horror stories of women and children living in fear for their lives. Even the local papers were full of it: cocaine busts, suicides, ghost estates. Sometimes, on the television news, there was footage of men in white overalls combing a bog or beach in search of one of the ‘Disappeared’ of the Troubles. All those things are there.
It’s interesting that you noticed my naming of things. With regard to the natural world, it’s maybe because my interest in it arrived relatively late. And I am always an outsider and have to learn about where I am. Or perhaps I like to. When I walk the beaches and woods here I take photographs of wild flowers and birds and look them up when I go home. And apparently I approach domestic things that way too. My sister says when she makes me a mug of tea I turn it upside down when I’m done to see who made it. I think I rely on those details in my fiction because I’m not confident about giving access to my characters’ thoughts. That is one of the things that struck me heavily about Summerwater. That you managed to write from multiple very close points of view and yet the voice is very much yours. Is this something you have worked at, or does it come naturally? I have to describe what is around my characters and show how they interact with it all to convey what they are about. You are also specific in detail but give the reader this wonderfully intimate access too.
Most of the people I know make things. When I met my husband, I was a cook and he was a landscaper; his sister was a potter. A close friend is a lobster fisherman, other friends are musicians. It is not easy to make a living this way, so those in my circle are industrious but skint. Perhaps there is a connection between such labours and writing. Certainly I feel that way about gardening, at which I am enthusiastic but inept. But my relationship with cooking is complicated. I learned to cook when I was twenty-one, and for the first ten or so years it was a creative outlet. But as you ascend the ladder in commercial kitchens, being a chef is less about food than gross profit margins, HACCP records, recruitment. And if you own a food business, as I did, other ghastly elements such as housekeeping and marketing take up most of your time. My restaurant closed in 2014, a few months after I started trying to write. I wonder now if writing felt natural to me because so much of it was familiar from my happy first years as a cook: turning up even when I didn’t feel like it, working long hours, trusting the process. For a few years after the restaurant closed, however, I associated cooking with failure: if I had been good enough at it, surely my restaurant would have survived? But recently I’ve found myself making batches of chutney and cooking the occasional elaborate meal. A sign of recovery, I think. You cook too, and sew and knit. Do you think there is a connection between writing and making things?
Identity has come up several times in conversations around my book. I grew up a Catholic in north Down in the seventies, in a town where we were outnumbered about nine to one and therefore unsheltered. I understood that I was Irish, but also understood that this should not be said in public. My father’s family owned a bar and pubs were being attacked all over the north. Ours was eventually bombed twice – in 1973 and 1974 – and sold the following year. Most of my relatives moved to the south and we followed in 1979. My parents visibly relaxed, but my experience wasn’t always positive. I was ‘othered’ at my new school, sometimes spectacularly: on the day Bobby Sands died an older girl I hardly knew paused in front of me to tell me she wished ‘the rest of you murdering northern bastards would ever starve yourselves to death as well’. I lost my northern accent quickly, partly because I am a good mimic, but mostly because it was exhausting being different. When visited the north I sat in the back of the car with my sisters, listening to my father answer the soldiers’ questions at the border stop at Carrickarnon, distraught that home was neither north or south of that checkpoint. So I kind of have a thing about the border, although these days I cross from the west, through the lakes and glens of Leitrim, Cavan and Fermanagh. The hardware of partition is gone and I am not always aware of the exact moment I cross but I always feel as if I am entering some liminal place.
There is maybe something about feeling that I am part of a community in Queen’s University Belfast, where I’ve been a student and currently hold a fellowship, that makes the north/south thing less drastic. And the fact that I’ve lived in all four provinces makes it all feel pretty fluid to me. I think people from the six counties have a certain sensibility. I do. So, to answer your question, I am an Irish writer. If I have to be specific, I am a writer from the north of Ireland.
As for writers being identified by nationality; I come from a place where people are obsessed with identity and I haven’t ever questioned it. The fact that I consider myself ‘from the north of Ireland’ and not ‘Northern Ireland’ suggests a political position, which is fine, although not what I’m getting at here. Nationality is perhaps both too broad and too narrow. I need to think some more about it.
I have to ask you about the rhythms in your prose. They’ve been kind of driving me nuts, because they are so supple and almost musical, I can’t figure out how you do it. Do you play music? There is so much movement evoked, whether it is an elderly woman placing a handbag on the floor, or a much younger woman belting up the side of a hill.
Thank you for this rich and fascinating response. I’m delighted to see ways in which we, different writers from ostensibly very different backgrounds, have much in common.
When I see ‘2016’ I think of the Brexit vote, and the following months of campaigning and demonstrating and letter-writing and then the dawning realisation that people had known what they were voting for and truly wanted a country shaped, however destructively, around xenophobia and populism, and not incidentally were willing to wreck the Good Friday Agreement to get it. I was also following Irish politics by then, and though the stories you mention were terrible and upsetting I was sometimes envious of a state reckoning with its past and a people choosing (contested) progress. While you were with the domestic violence advocacy service I was doing some voluntary work with young unaccompanied refugees and asylum seekers in Coventry and hearing, or more often overhearing or intuiting, their stories; that work left me convinced that people should be allowed not to tell stories they don’t want to tell and that the right to silence is as important as the right to speak.
My own Englishness was becoming more visible and more uncomfortable to me week by week, and for me this issue of national identity, and the writer’s obligation to have a national identity if only for purposes of marketing and eligibility for prizes, remains vexed. I was born in Scotland to a Scottish-Russian-American Jewish father and a Yorkshire mother, grew up in the north of England, which is where I say I’m ‘from’ when pressed, but have spent my adult life moving every three or four years. I think all those lines of heritage and all those places shape my writing. I hope to be permanently settled in Ireland now, but I don’t imagine I would ever be counted as Irish. I’d qualify for a Scottish passport come the happy day, but I don’t think I really count as Scottish. (I don’t know who I think is counting. People who believe in genetic purity or accents or something.)
I think the writing from multiple points of view is one of several/many writerly things I do by not looking at it. The voices became more distinct as I revised and rewrote – always my favourite part of the process – but they were quite clear to me from early on. How do you occupy the voices and bodies of your very different stories? I’m thinking particularly of ‘In Silhouette’, which echoes so beautifully with what’s not said, even in people’s heads.
I recognise what you write about being a chef. I’m also an academic. I love teaching and research, but as I was promoted I was doing more admin and management, until in my last job in England my work was almost entirely managerial and I was at least supposed to be spending more time looking at spreadsheets, attending committees, recording and supplying data and managing colleagues than teaching and writing. It made me miserable and was beginning to make me crazy – so strange that the reward for being good at one set of activities is to be required to undertake a different set requiring different skills and aptitude. Here in a much more junior role at University College Dublin, my working life is once again built around students rather than administrative processes and I’m happy again. Can you say a bit more about Queen’s? I’m always interested by people’s relationships with institutions.
For me there’s a connection between writing and making things, and most of my friends do one or both. There’s a respect for the material world in making, a recognition of where things come from and the hands and minds that shape them, that I’d like to think is also quite deep in my writing. You can’t make anything without knowing that we’re all connected to each other in our bodies and our goods, as consumers and producers as well as through biology and environment. There’d be no point in telling stories if we were all independent and autonomous.
The rhythms: no, I don’t listen to music. I forget to listen to music for months at a time, though when I remember I enjoy it. But you’re right that the rhythm of sentences matters to me. I sometimes fight with copy-editors who want grammatical exactness rather than the right cadence. I know exactly what I’m doing with grammar and it is all deliberate! But I read and memorised a lot of poetry as a child and wrote my MA thesis on John Donne and my PhD on Wordsworth, both poets who do amazing things with poetic metre and syntax. I’d love to think some of that had seeped into my prose.
I must go cook…
Oh God: 2016 and Brexit. We watched and catastrophised. On my journeys to Belfast placards began to appear – ‘Border Communites Say No To Brexit’ – and, on the door of a public convenience 20 yards from the border, a sticker declared ‘Brexit is Bollocks.’ As a knitter, you might like to know that the artist Rita Duffy enlisted border women to yarn-bomb the bridge where Blacklion in the south meets Belcoo in the north with fat woolly cushions, silken flags and prayer dolls, an installation she called the ‘Soften the Border’. Duffy does a great line in irony.
I thought a lot about the right to silence in the months leading to the abortion referendum here. I don’t doubt that for some it was cathartic to share their stories of secret journeys to Britain and these accounts did, apparently, swing the vote to yes. But it enraged me that very private pain had to be made public, and sometimes I felt that these women were expected to prove themselves worthy of empathy. People who have survived God knows what to make a life in another country should not have to prove themselves worthy of asylum.
I love that you just went for it with the multiple points of view in Summerwater. I have been working on the same novel for the last couple of years and miss hurling myself at a new idea like that. With ‘In Silhouette’, I used the second person point of view for the first time, and found that it gave very close access to the character. But because she doesn’t go in for a lot of self-reflection there is a sense of dislocation. Perhaps that is where the spaces are that you mentioned. That said, there was little conscious thought put into those decisions. It is only in the past few weeks that I’ve been expected to articulate what I was trying to do. And it is strange that readers see authorial intention where there was none. Do you find that weird too?
When I was very small my aunt was a student at Queen’s. I watched her leave my grandmother’s house tangle-haired, mini-skirted and swinging the basket in which she carried her books and cigarettes. It made me it made me want to read, smoke and go to Queen’s. I took to the first two at an early age but didn’t make it to Queen’s until I was forty-eight, to do an MA in Creative Writing. I stayed and did a PhD, which I submitted in November after a couple of pit-stops – a bit of cancer and a novel. I had been dreading my time at the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s coming to an end – it has brought me home – but in January I was awarded a Ciaran Carson Writing and the City fellowship, alongside Padraig Regan, a quite brilliant young poet from Belfast. We are still locked down here and I miss sitting in the back of Lavery’s Bar with a pint of Guinness and talking shite about writing.
Those rhythms are totally there in your prose. Cadence is so important. But I wish I had your confidence with grammar. Someone in a workshop called me a ‘comma chameleon’. I avoid using them and then freak out and lob them in all over the place, hoping for the best. My negotiations with copy editors are about things like ‘haitch’ versus ‘aitch’ (these are used along religious lines where I come from) and dropped pronouns, e.g. ‘What happened you?’
Yesterday I finished reading Deborah Levy’s memoir Real Estate. I’ve been thinking about how all the decisions she makes are meaningful, from her turmeric-coloured bed linen to the Russian coffee cups she brought to her new writing shed. I admire her so much for the attention she pays to these details, because I struggle to retain a sense of myself. I started collecting art deco china and glass in my late teens, when it was still cheap. One day I went looking for a particular piece – a green glass ashtray – and remembered it had been in the roof space for eight years, unpacked since our last move. Have you found a way to pay attention to these things? And I am wondering if you find it hard to claim the time to write. Most importantly, are you working on something new? I hope so.
It’s fun. Old-fashioned letter-writing! Though I hope we meet in real life sometime. (I hope we meet at a book festival, one of the ones that fills the theatre and the hotels of a seaside town in Ireland. I hope there is a green room where the writers are greeting each other with hugs and passing around food and drink, and after the last evening event we all pile in to the hotel bar and by the time I make my unsteady way up the stairs to bed my throat is sore from making myself heard over the music, and when I come down to breakfast someone I met last night waves at me and we pick up the conversation again over the kind of breakfast you wouldn’t make yourself, before heading home on the train to our other lives, where the festival tote bags and dedicated copies of friends’ books will remind us that wiping counters and trying not to lose our tempers with teenagers is only part of what we do.)
I do like to know about the Soften the Border project, thank you! Right after the Brexit vote, I had two commissions for place-based writing on the Scottish border, and I spent a lot of time walking towns and hills where the border had once been. I was working on Ghost Wall, which is partly about the edges and boundaries of Europe, and remembering childhood journeys from Manchester to Eastern Europe in the days when those borders had barbed wire and raked earth and watchtowers and languages and sometimes alphabets changed as you stepped from one territory to another. The insanity of the hard border is always obvious on the ground.
Yes, exactly, about trauma and silence. It’s horribly easy for those stories to become commodities, and the storytellers to be objectified as sufferers and victims, people who have to pass a trauma test to be judged worthy of basic human rights like bodily autonomy, physical safety, healthcare and education.
I think in writing I always go for it and see what happens! It’s a very messy and inefficient process I bin/delete thousands of words and several complete books along the way, because experiments fail, but I truly don’t mind and understand those discards as part of the work of making the novels that hold together. And yes, that step from the book as a private world to publication is weird. It’s sort of a letting go but not – because that’s also when you are (usually) on the road meeting readers and talking about what you wrote. I usually find that the months between finishing my work on the book and meeting it again in public are long enough that I can almost return to it as a reader, with the new secret world of the next book in my head. I love talking about books and I love teaching, but in some ways those acts feel very far from writing – I think I’m rarely trying to articulate what I’ve written so much as reading a text that happens to be one I wrote.
I want turmeric-coloured bedlinen now! I too collected art deco china when it was cheap, mostly tea sets which are a stupid thing to collect when you move all the time. I think I imagined my future self in a big house with a kitchen dresser… I’ve ended up keeping samples from each of them and giving the rest to friends. This last move, and the shock of Dublin property prices, made us give up and give away a lot of things we’d inherited or collected and shipped around Europe for years. I grieve a little for some of it, but that divestment made me think about things and stories of things, how far you can keep the stories without the things. I wrote once about a Victorian Cornishwoman who lost her mind when the ship bringing all her possessions from London sank, a story based on a real one I found in an asylum archive, and I think of her quite often.
I’m just finishing the copy-edit of my next book, which is the lockdown novel everyone says you can’t/ shouldn’t write. But I wanted to write it so I tried to see what would happen, just a small distraction project from the real book. The last three have been distraction projects from the same real book, but I really am going to write it now.
Photograph of Sarah Moss (right) © Sophie Davidson