October 2013

Meredith Turits


An Interview with Catherine O'Flynn

I flip closed the final pages on Mr. Lynch's Holiday and start thinking about one thing: places. What are places with which I most strongly identify, those that cause me the most discomfort, and the ones that provide me the deepest respite? They're questions Catherine O'Flynn raises with grace in her third novel, throwing her characters into a crumbling Spanish ghost town to face these ruminations and more.

In Mr. Lynch's Holiday, Eamonn Lynch has left his native England for the holiday village, hoping to escape the mundaneness of middle class urban life -- but the plan for escape doesn't pan out with the success he'd hoped, and Irish immigrant father Dermot sees Eamonn's dull reality when he visits the community for the first time. What follows is a beautiful portrait of a relationship between father and son, infused with O'Flynn's clever ear for dialogue, and sophisticated questions surrounding memory, identity, and belonging.

From her home in Birmingham, England, O'Flynn talked to me about the significance of places in her own life and her writing -- as well as the space that almost prevented Mr. Lynch's Holiday from materializing.

Where did you write Mr. Lynch's Holiday?

It was about half and half up in my little room up in my house, and half in a little office I rented out of desperation. I got really stuck with the book for about a year, and I came to the slightly flawed conclusion it was because I was trying to write it at home. So, I rented a little office, and things got a lot worse there.

Why did you feel like moving locations was the best route for you?

Once I got stuck -- I had one daughter at that time who was playing at home, and I thought maybe I was a bit distracted and I needed to be off on my own somewhere to concentrate. I got a little office, but I kind of turned into Jack Nicholson in The Shining. I was just sitting in this little box on my own all day, not getting any further with the novel. Instead, I became kind of obsessed with the guy who was next to me. There were very thin walls, and I could hear him breathing! And that was about all I did for seven or eight months: obsess about the man next to me and how annoying his breathing was.

That is -- well, that's amazing. So, with all of that unexpected sidetracking, how long did the actual process of the novel end up taking?

I was thinking about ideas for the novel for about a year, but when I started writing it, about two years. All in all, about three years in gestation.

It's interesting to hear you talk about where you were while writing it, and then to hear that you physically moved locations, because within Mr. Lynch's Holiday, there's this strong narrative thread of identity associated with place, whether that's where we see ourselves now, or how we've defined ourselves initially. Have you always been interested in defining identity through locations, or perhaps were you more event-based in the way you've seen yourself?

It's slightly inexplicable to me, but place does seem to be important when I'm thinking about what to write about. I'm not sure why that is, but all three of my novels have started with the idea of a place before the idea of a character comes to mind. For this one, it was the idea of a ghost town; I wanted to write about that, and the characters came to me after that. So, yes, place is always the first thing that makes me want to write about something.

Where's the first place that you put down roots, the place you could really call your own?

It's where I grew up, which is a place in Birmingham where my parents had a sweets shop. I grew up above the sweets shop, and I have a strong sense of that being my place because there was quite a big rupture with it. When I was sixteen, my dad died, and we sold the shop and moved away. I think it's one of those things when you move away from somewhere, it looms very large in your imagination and that, combined with that the area underwent very massive changes after I left -- it was redeveloped and became very unrecognizable as the place I'd grown up in, as if the place I'd grown up in just disappeared completely -- that stays with me a lot, and is often in the background of my writing. That sense of places disappearing, or a sense of loss about place and landscape. That was definitely influenced by the way I grew up.

Yeah, there's definitely this rumination on, obviously, the ghost town, but this idea of ghosts, and vestiges in the book. There's this idea that people leave something behind when they leave a place.

I think memories and stories get snagged on places in interesting ways. For a while, I was working as a postwoman a few years ago in Birmingham. Sometimes now, if I happen to be walking down a road that previous I was delivering post on, I'll get a very certain memory of what I was thinking that exact time when I was delivering post to that house, or a conversation I'd had with someone. All of this is unremarkable, but sometimes it really strikes me that memories that are submerged can really come up when you happen to tread over the ground where you were when you had them. It's almost like certain memories and conversations have a certain spirit that actually resides in places, and by revisiting those places, they're almost still there, hovering in the air.

Do you think that positive or negative memories have more of a pull over what gets left behind?

I don't have a strong feeling that one has a supremacy over the other. In some ways they tend toward the negative, because there's an imbued melancholy to the fact that those things are gone now, and they tend to be slightly more somber even if they're happy memories -- the fact that it's over, and they're in the past, and that they're unreachable renders them a little bit negative.

How do those memories infiltrate your stories and the way that you approach writing?

When I start thinking about place, certain memories come to mind. In all the characters I write, I might think they're completely fictional, but there are always elements of memories in them -- memories of people I know, or family members. The two strands are very interwoven in my mind between fiction and memory. Sometimes, if I write something that I set out to be nonfiction -- a sort of memoir piece -- I often look back at the end and the fiction has sort of crept into it. There's no objective truth to it. Similarly, when I write fiction or round up little anecdotes, the memories creep into that. I feel I'm answering these questions in an incredibly abstract way!

No! I like abstract. Abstract gives you something to ruminate on.

I'm not sure if I'm just talking rubbish, actually. I'm trying to hold onto tangible things here.

Well, it's interesting, because there's so much of the idea of the intangible in the book, of those ghosts -- so that's sort of the theme of the day. I guess along with that, I want to talk about your focus on the idea of those ghosts. Have you ever been somewhere that you thought was literally haunted?

I have this weird sort of inconsistency about ghosts. I don't believe in them at all -- I'm this really rational person who resists belief in them -- but that's not to say that I'm not terrified by the idea of them completely. So, though I don't intellectually believe in them, I find myself very easily scared, and somewhere is slightly spooked, or quite suggestible to it, so it's a weird kind of inconsistency. The way I suppose I try to reconcile it is to try to rationalize it thinking, It's not really actual ghosts I'm thinking of -- it's not people in white sheets in Scooby Doo -- it's really just memories. That's what ghosts mean to me, really. They're just things that have gone, but linger in my mind in kind of a ghostly form and kind of spring up sometimes.

What is it about Spain and the Spanish countryside that really seemed like the perfect setting for this ghost town -- this place that memories can build and kick back up?

I lived in Spain for a couple of years -- though not in a ghost town, luckily -- but while I was living there I experienced some of Eamonn's sense of thinking you're going to go live in paradise but it becomes invisible to you quite quickly -- the beauty -- and you find yourself with all this freedom that actually makes feel sort of lost and directionless. So, it was that element, but then by accident, my husband and I went on holiday one year to a ghost town. We didn't realize it was, but we got there, and we realized that every home there was a second home, and we were staying out of season, so there was nobody there apart from us and the odd shopkeeper, and hundreds and hundreds of feral cats. And we were there for a week! Just staying somewhere like that is very eerie and very strange. It's kind of fun for a little bit, but after a while, you start to find yourself sort of paranoid and panicky, and I kind of knew then that I wanted to write about that. I saw a way in which I could place a character who was having feelings that I'd had when I moved to Spain in a setting like that. I thought it'd exacerbate those feelings, really.

I kind of wanted to write about it, as well, because there are so many ghost towns like that in Spain from when the property boom was going on. They built crazy amounts of new developments all over the place, and then when it crashed, there are an awful lot of them that have just a handful of residents. It's the same in lots of places, including Ireland, and thinking about Ireland made me think about my parents who had migrated from Ireland to England, and that massive difference between the reasons why'd they'd migrated, and the reasons why I'd went to live in Spain. There just seemed to be a vast gulf between us in just one generation.

There are two distinct types of loneliness running through the book; there's the idea of actually being on your own, and that you'll have to face yourself, but also the one that you're never lonelier than when you're in someone's presence. When did you first take notice of this split?

That's a good way of putting it. I hadn't explicitly thought about it like that. The loneliness, the directionlessness, the emptiness of being alone -- the way Eamonn feels in his father's presence, but also in Laura's presence, desperately alone even though he's with someone, it's kind of continuous. It's all part of his depression, really.

Is that something that you noticed in your life, or part of that immigrant narrative that you noticed in your parents' lives, or a theme that you just took from life in general?

Not especially from my own life, but everyone has glimpses of that. An awful lot of people of my generation or around my age who moved abroad had a greed for great happiness, and not really any economic reasons, but just because it was sunny out. That kind of mindset, that kind of hubris, really -- that idea that you can just geographically relocate or purchase greater happiness -- I was familiar from when I moved abroad with that sense of directionlessness, and also almost this terrible, failed responsibility that I wasn't super happy all the time in this beautiful, sunny environment. I contrasted that with how I imagine my parents felt when they came to England. It was predicated on completely different grounds... It was just economic survival, and they, I imagine, didn't have much time or scope to feel directionless. They just had to get on with it. It sounds very obvious when you say it plainly, but it felt very remarkable to me that it could change in just one generation.

Is that one part of the complexity of Eamonn and Dermot's relationship that continues to complicate it and furnish a lack of understanding there?

There's always a kind of gap between parents' and children's understanding, but it always seems greater when the parents are first generation immigrants, or when there's as big of an age gap as there is between Dermot and Eamonn. Eamonn was kind of a late-arriving baby. It just seems that children in general are pretty incurious about their parents, and I imagine a character like Eamonn would be particularly incurious about his parents because he's so wrapped up in himself, and he's never really seen his father in any kind of complexity or as any kind of human being. He just sees him as his dad. I suppose I like the idea of writing about a father and son who are as different as they can be, and seeing what common ground there might be, or what was the history of that gap between them.

Has having just had a child changed the way that you look at their relationship in any way?

I don't think it has, actually. I always feel really unreflective when anyone asks me how having a child or having children has changed the way I feel about things! I don't think it has in ways that I'm aware of yet. I have one daughter who's four, and another who's two and a half weeks old, so it's still kind of early days. Maybe when they're a little bit older, I'll develop all sorts of wise cogitations on the differences, but for the moment I'm just firefighting.

That's fair! One thing that is interesting, though, is building a language connection between two characters that are related. It's nuanced, especially, because you're working with them from the first person point of view. At any point did you take into consideration how their thought patterns might be similar because they shared blood?

There is a certain similarity between the two characters in the way they think, but it's masked a lot. When you talk about language, it's a really good point because I think I wrote that Eamonn will never turn into his father, because he'll never sound like his father. His father speaks not only with a completely different accent, but with a completely different set of conversational tics from Ireland. They sound superficially incredibly different. I think what they have in common is a kind of humor. Eamonn's is pretty buried because he's so wrapped up in himself, but a kind of dismissal of nonsense and pretension -- they both have that to some extent from growing up together. But they seem far more different because they speak so differently and have such different references.

What have you gleaned from the whole experience of this book versus your last book?

This sounds a bit presumptuous, but I think I've developed more as a writer from this book. The reason for that is probably because I struggled a lot. I had an idea for this book, and I wanted to change the way in which I write. Normally when I write a book, I work out what I want to write ahead of time with a rough plan. I write the book, but in no particular order; I just get up in the morning, sit down, and start writing. That's how I did my first two books, but with this one, I didn't want that to be the case because it felt like I was less able to control it... I had this very emphatic wish that I was going to start at the beginning, and go forward one step at a time and build a row of foundations. Instead what happened was I wrote the first five thousand words and I couldn't move on for a year. I was completely stuck, endless rewriting the beginning, unable to move forward. In the end, I just had to have a little humility and realize I wasn't the really the boss of my own process, and I couldn't impose what I thought was a logical structure on it. The only way I could work was to go back and do what I'd always done, which was go back to writing things out of sequence and piecing it together. It sounds like I accepted a degree of failure, but in the end, I ended up being happier with it than perhaps I have been in the past, perhaps because I struggled with it so much, and we came to a compromise, the book and I.

What finally cracked the code?

After being stuck for so long, I finally just said, Write anything. I found myself thinking about scenes later in the book, thinking, I can't wait until I get to that scene and can finally write it, and then I thought, Why I don't I just write that scene if I have it in my head? It doesn't matter if I have to go back and change it a million times. It took a long time for me to learn the lesson, but eventually, it was sheer desperation that taught me.

I think we've all been there.