Kelli Deeth interviews Anakana Schofield, author of Malarky (Biblioasis, 2012).
1. What were your first images or intimations of Philomena?
My first whiff of Philomena (Our Woman) came in a short story years before I commenced Malarky – she was a voice, much older and much crankier than Our Woman, though similarly confused about her son flaunting his sexuality.
2. Did the story evolve and change as you wrote it? Were you surprised by any of the turns or developments?
Oh God yes. This book was written in a most peculiar manner. Necessarily so. I was surprised at some of the content, I didn’t think I’d be brave enough to write some of it, I’d be more comfortable skirting around it, but the book demanded it.
I, also, technically wrote three books to write this one. My process is very complicated it seems. Mainly because I am perpetually dissatisfied.
3. Why do you think Philomena is closer to her son than she is to her daughters?
I’m glad you picked up on this. The daughters are virtually absent from the book, except for a bit of bossing about. Their absence speaks yards. One of the things that influenced me writing Malarky was an essay I read in a collection (with a terminal sounding title I’ve forgotten) by an Irish-American woman, who described how she received status from her mother by denying her sexuality amongst other things. It was almost a pact between them.
Two things spoke to me from reading that letter/essay: firstly the power of the Matriarch (often underestimated in Catholic cultures by outsiders) and secondly how the daughter acquiesced to the intellectual and sunk herself into it. I think it probably will inform a whole other book. Yet I had to depict something of this absenting or withdrawal in Malarky, hence the focus on the male(s). And this sense that the daughters are away off behaving themselves, which of course is their pre-determined role.
4. I observed a division within Philomena: on the surface, she has family and friends, yet below the surface she seems so alone and without support. Does that kind of division interest you?
Very much. Isolation is perhaps the new reality. There’s never been more people typing, tweeting and what have you and yet you can probably find stories of people being found dead for three days undiscovered in any city. I think the statement “there’s an awful lot being typed but what is actually being said?” could perhaps offer a departure point on this topic.
I’m also curious about social withdrawal and the way grief makes people withdraw because it can feel like no one can comprehend and it doesn’t matter the murmurs people make. If you are living with the enormous and devastating pain of grief it can be very hard to carry on. Again, you regularly hear of people committing suicide after the love of a lost one, occasionally in the precise spot the person may have died.
5. At one point, Philomena comments, “Do you not think I have cried while listening to innocuous country music on the radio of rodeo love and knowing that my Jimmy will only have men for company and that his life will be ruined because of it?” What is her perception of men?
I think the line speaks more to her perception of same sex relationships, something she struggles to perceive because it’s somewhat beyond her knowledge or encounter. (or she’s chosen to steadily avert her gaze from it) Also I think she’s rather terrified of the prejudice her son will face as a gay man. Instinctively she senses he could suffer. The fact is she prizes him above her daughters, which only adds to her initial struggle to understand his sexuality.
But to answer your question more directly I think her perception of men is she’s kinda stuck with the one she chose and she wants her son to choose wisely. Temporarily she refuses to be sunk or stuck with whom she chose or ended up with, but eventually she comes around to accepting he may not have been such a bad man. It’s blurred in the novel. The same way it’s complicated and blurred in life. Is a person all good, or all bad and how do we reconcile the part in between?
6. I was amazed at your understanding of how loss can affect people. Is this something that interests you as a writer?
Enormously. Mortality is my calling card!
7. Sometimes we are given Philomena in the first person and other times the third person. Why did you present her in these two ways? Was alternating between the two persons a conscious decision?
Actually the point of view in Malarky is intended as a 360 degree rotation. A rotating point of view. So when the reader hears her described as Our Woman that is intended to complete the rotation. She’s telling us (first person), someone is telling us about her (third person) and now you are part of it (second person sorta).
It was chosen to indicate possession. That we possess her and can be up against her or right in belong side her, like watching a sports team. You feel something of an ownership on her outcome. I suppose now I think about it, it’s something of a blurring between reader/writer. That the reader is not merely a spectator. You can also venture onto the pitch.
I present her in the above ways because I wanted to create three dimensionally. A whole person. Especially a whole woman. (maybe a subconscious riposte to bit parts, half-a-woman, supporting roles that set my nerves on edge. I read for some truly dreadful female roles over the years when auditioning. Probably my lack of enthusiasm for the writing was conveyed as my success rate was slim at nabbing parts)
8. Do you think the status of women in Ireland is a part of Philomena’s story? For that matter, is the status of the LGBT community also a part of the way the story unfolds?
Undoubtedly. Malarky is an unremitting look at one woman. I am relentless in the way that I insist on the reader engaging with the minute details of her life and I place value on those details and that life. I also wished to depict a woman who was sexually assertive rather than wincing under the quilt covers.
As I mentioned before the status of women in Ireland is complex because there’s a very strong matriarchal culture, which on the one hand can seem utterly backwards but yet in the domain of a single kitchen registers differently.
Literature is curious about different locales. Literature doesn’t legislate, it can afford people status on the page that they may not enjoy in life, literature is a place we can achieve this. It may perhaps change or impress upon people’s thinking as a side effect, but it is not parliament. It is not the place where legislation is proclaimed and lives are actively changed. My job is to write and write well and write better. Or write worse in order to write better. And on all other matters such as the status of women, LGBT, equality, poverty and social justice take to the streets, raise my voice, protest and vote.
I don’t know if the status of LGBT Community is part of how the story unfolds. I hope so but I think that’s for the reader to assess. (Sometimes when I read comments on book review sites that are clearly rooted in homophobic reactions to the novel I think yes. I am actually shocked by how much progress we think we’ve made but in reality ….)
I chose to begin within the homoerotic as a departure. It’s clear that when Our Woman sees her son Jimmy engaged with his various lovers, at first she has no place to file the images, but slowly as they cluster she’s eroticized by what she has seen and it sends her off on her own odyssey.
Also I like naked men. Hence…
9. I read that you spent ten years writing this book. What kept you going?
God knows! It was very tough. I actually never thought I’d complete a novel in this lifetime. I found the process very complicated for me personally and was constantly floundering. But I have a stubborn streak and I want to do my life’s work. (I come from a long line of farmers and coal miners) I knew that I had to write a book that said something I actively wanted to say about grief and Malarky does that.
Reading kept me going. It is what matters most. A single moment in publishing does not galvanize me as much as considering the interrelationship between many moments and how they speak to each other.
Finally I have an insatiable appetite for completely redundant information, so that keeps me very occupied and sustained – kinda like constant mental porridge.