The Irish author, longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021, discusses the hardships and inspiration behind her latest release.

“She was at home in the world, whereas I could not shake off the prickly sense that I didn’t belong.” Out of place, lost, and with an unsettling anxiety is how Irish author Kathleen MacMahon brings to life David, a bereaved husband learning the impact a person has on someone’s life even when we do not realise it ourselves.

Mixing her experiences as a journalist, and her memories of seeing this unfold before her eyes, she found this was the real-world background she needed for this novel, and it led her to her first nomination for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. “There are a lot of times when you continuedly wonder if your book’s any good, so it is really a very arduous emotional process of constantly trying to make yourself go back to the novel… I think for me what keeps me going is the desire to make the work better.”

In 2021, the longlist for the Women’s Prize for Fiction collected stories developed during 2020, the life-changing year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Stories that ranged from struggling with motherhood, religion, race and class, and self-discovery. MacMahon’s novel Nothing But Blue Sky shone among them because of its beautifully crafted storytelling about grief. The author relates her experiences of returning yearly to the same place the novel is set in, just as the protagonist does, “It seemed to me something that had a place in a novel, because it showed there was a timeline in there that was very interesting of life and how [life] unfolds.”

The “desire to make the work better”, and that I can only interpret as an incredibly determined mindset, transforms writing a story into a mission with the purpose of creating something beautiful and, ultimately, not only for yourself but for everyone who will enjoy it or even need it.

When asked about being a writer she expressed how it did not just happen. She said that “it’s that I finally, after years of trying and practicing, felt that I had produced something that might be good enough to be published,” after starting with short stories and “snippets” of more developed stories she came around to writing her first novel in her late 30s and gives credit to journalism for teaching her the importance of a story. “You need to have something that somebody would want to read otherwise why would they bother. So once that happened, I think that’s when my career as a novelist really began.”

With her latest novel, MacMahon starts with identifying the “ingredients” to create a novel as something that you collect over the years and “the novel comes together when you see the connections between these different ingredients.” The setting where the novel takes place is part of her life as her family’s vacation place since years ago, the same place in Costa Brava, Catalonia, where the protagonist David, also a journalist, recalls his life with the wife he has just lost. According to MacMahon, it is “when you go back to a place year after year you see this [life] happening and it is almost like watching a movie in little snippets that every year you see people’s lives developing.”

Liking to have a real-world background to her stories, she used some of her own journalistic experience to create a life for her character and create context for the story to develop. For her, it was news about Brexit, situations surrounding former President Trump, and later on the COVID-19 pandemic. “[When] things stopping made sense, which seem to tie in with what was happening in the character’s life when his wife died. That things just didn’t make sense anymore.” Threading a story worth telling, or remembering for that matter, is no easy task, but MacMahon recalls that despite having the pandemic happening in the world she just sat at her desk, and worked on her novel. With ups and downs, quiet times and doubting whether the work is “good enough,” she finds interesting that willingness to try and figure if there is a way to make the work better. She says it is “the same thing I always do. The only difference is that my family are all with me here now.”

This amazing talent for storytelling, that many could relate to, is something that not only developed in her years of journalism, but was also part of her whole childhood. Her grandmother was renowned Irish author Mary Lavin, whose death was commemorated in late March 2021with the announcement that a public space linking Lad Lane, where she lived for many years, to Wilton Park will be named after her. This will make her the first female author in Ireland honored with a public space, when several honour male authors such as Oscar Wild’s Memorial in Merrion Square and James Joyce statue, located on North Earl Street. MacMahon says “the family are absolutely delighted and tremendously proud of her.” She expressed that “her work was so good. If somebody’s work is that good, it deserves to be read, even 25 years after her death.”

Discussing her grandmother’s work, the author notes how her stories, some that were published and read more than forty years ago, are still relevant and real in today’s age. “They are about women’s lives. In some ways, they become more relevant recently because of the #MeToo movement and the newfound interest in women’s lives, and here is my grandmother who is writing about this 70 years ago.” She expresses her fascination that such stories discuss issues that “don’t change and how good writing never goes out of fashion, and never becomes irrelevant.”

“You can’t write novels if you’re not interested in people”

We talked about how her curiosity of people brought life to her stories. In her family, being a writer meant having this real-life joy of meeting people and hearing their stories, against the belief that writers keep to themselves to produce masterpieces, and although she acknowledges that this is indeed possible, for her family it was the opposite. She finds herself constantly surrounded by friends, or people she meets, sharing their interesting experiences with her, which surely will find their way into a book later on. It cannot be helped because “you can’t write novels if you’re not interested in people.”

Her grandmother wrote in the middle of family life. She wrote in bed and while watching her grandchildren playing around, for MacMahon it was just a normal thing to do. She shared how storytelling was a big part of their lives because of Mary, and how she thinks it is part of a lot of Irish people’s lives. “We definitely grew up with the sense that everything was a story, my grandmother loved hearing stories about people.” How every anecdote, person, and almost every moment feels like it belongs in a story and it is the collecting and crafting process that makes everyone learn the process of storytelling without even realizing you are learning.

Photo: The Oxford Magazine