SUMMER 06 / VOL. 7 ISSUE 1
Books

Five-Time Novelist Has Two-Continent Spirit

By Maureen Doll

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Australia and Ireland have plenty in common: island status, international cricket teams, lots of sheep. They also share a national treasure in the form of Monica Mary McInerney—a five-time novelist with enough spirit for two continents, at least. Her latest book, Family Baggage, has just been published in the United States, after hitting bestseller lists in Australia and New Zealand.

Currently writing from Dublin, McInerney and her husband John Drislane, a journalist, been moving between their native countries of Australia and Ireland for 15 years. "Australian and Irish people share many traits – a ready sense of humor, laidback attitude, healthy disrespect for authority, love of chat and company," she notes. 

The writing life began after a string of careers. McInerney’s first job, at 17, was as wardrobe girl for a children’s TV show starring Humphrey B. Bear. She has worked as a waitress, public relations consultant, grape picker, hotel cleaner and kindergym instructor. But it was when she became a book publicist that she had found "the perfect job, being able to think and talk books and writing all day." Working with authors, including storyteller Roald Dahl and Australian novelist Tim Winton, was "like doing a writing course by osmosis." 

With a name like Monica Mary McInerney, you may be surprised to know she is not the native of Ireland in her marriage. Her husband is from Co. Donegal, she from the Clare Valley of southern Australia, which was settled by an Irishman from Co. Clare in 1839. A descendent of Irish immigrants, she recalls, "we were teased a lot – a family of seven children, going to a Catholic school, all of us with saints’ names – ‘you McInerneys are as Irish as Paddy’s pigs.’" 

Growing up in a large and lively family offered "much to observe," and the intricacies of family life are explored throughout her novels. "Family life to me is what villages were to Agatha Christie – a microcosm of the whole world, filled with drama, comedy, hope, conflict and love." She remains remarkably close to her family overseas. "Because of the time difference, I wake up some mornings to see there has been an entire email conversation going on between my brothers and sisters while I slept. I make a quick cup of coffee and then jump in to the fray myself."

Writing seems to be in her blood. At the age of 8, she wrote her first book, The Smith Family Go to Perth on the Train— notes McInerney, "I’ve since realized I don’t have to sum up the entire plot in the title." McInerney’s mother worked in the local library and "would turn a blind eye to the number of books my brothers and sisters and I borrowed each week. It was neck and neck sometimes whether there were more books in our house or the library." The siblings produced The McInerney Report annually, a homemade magazine full of scandalous stories of one another.

McInerney first left Australia at the age of 19, traveling to London for a six-week holiday that became a three-year stay, under the influence of "a longing for adventure, a love for colder weather and my persuasive friend Karen." She tells the story of once assuming an Irish accent to get a job at the Mean Fiddler, a club where the likes of the Chieftains, Pogues and Psychedelic Furs played warm-up gigs. She heard the owner, a man from Waterford, preferred Irish staff. "I looked Irish, I had an Irish name so in my interview I did my very best to come up with the Irish accent as well." She got the job. It was "Catholic guilt" that made her confess the next day, but fortunately he saw the funny side. "He also saw that I was very quick at pouring pints – better than I was at an Irish accent – so I think that’s what swayed it."

Her first impression of Ireland wasn’t the best, for which "I blame U2, Bord Failte and the advertising agency behind the Baileys’ Irish Cream ads." She arrived at the age of 19 on a five day holiday, "expecting thatched cottages, red haired girls, donkeys, handsome Bono-lookalikes on every corner." Instead, "the country was in the grip of a depression, I struck one of the coldest winters on record, my friend and I were hitchhiking and couldn’t get a lift, I had my money stolen. I also had my heart broken." 

The heartbreak came from a Irishman she had met through a rock magazine pen pal site. They had been corresponding for two years, and McInerney had developed "a bit of a crush." He described himself as a tall and dark-haired radio DJ, humbly allowing, "some people tell me I’m good-looking but I don’t know." She dropped by his house in Co. Kerry, and recalls, "A middle-aged woman answered. ‘Is Stephen here?’ I asked. She gave a big sigh and shouted up the stairs. ‘Another one for you. I think this one’s Australian.’ Down came a 13-year-old boy in spectacles and a V necked jumper. I’d been well and truly hoodwinked."

Now Australia and Ireland both feel like home. McInerney enjoys the weather, beaches and lower cost of living in Australia, while she loves "the chaos of Ireland, the conversations you overhear, the way everyone is so engaged in discussions about politics, current affairs and arts." She considers the chestnut trees in nearby Phoenix Park, wild scenery of County Donegal, summer in Westport, Christmas (or any time) in Galway and walks in the Wicklow mountains among her favorite things. Though Irish words infuse her vocabulary, she says her Australian accent is as strong as ever. "When I first went back to Australia after our first ‘stint’ here in Ireland, I had a strong Irish accent – I was all ‘ah sure it’s grand.’ I was like Maureen O’Hara. It took my family less than a week to get that teased out of me." 

While living in Tasmania with her husband in 1996, she began writing fiction. Outside the publishing world for the first time in a decade, she missed being surrounded by books. "I sat down one night to write a story, hoping that would bring the feeling back, and it was like a dam burst. The words started pouring out of me." She wrote nearly 50 short stories in a matter of months. When three were published in magazines in quick succession, she had the confidence to start her first novel, A Taste for It.

The storyline was inspired in part by her own unrealized dream of opening an Irish café in the Clare Valley. The year before, she had done all the research and even found the ideal stone cottage for her enterprise, then "did my sums and realized financially and practically it wasn’t possible." Her knowledge went into the story of Maura Carmody and her Irish-themed winery café in the Clare Valley. "It was so much easier to do it fictionally – I repainted the whole building in one sentence." 

Family Baggage, McInerney’s fifth novel, explores the comic and tragic in family ties, international travel and unexpected romance. With a plot spanning Australia, England and Ireland, it follows the entangled lives and pursuits of the Turner family. Researching the novel took her to Cornwall, Cork and Australian coastal towns; she also spoke with travel agents, tour guides, professional musicians, English migrants to Australia, members of a family-owned business and a former foster child.

"As I wrote Family Baggage I pictured a lighthouse moving around, its beam illuminating one character and then another, so that the reader knew what was going on with each member of the family, even if the family didn’t." As Harriet Turner struggled to accept the death of her parents, McInerney drew on the experience of losing her own father six years ago. "His death reminded me how fragile life is and how tightly bound families are, how the loss of one sends ripples out to the remaining members."

She remains realistic and philosophical about family life. "I don’t naively believe we all get on together all the time, and I also know that there are sometimes rifts that are very hard to heal. But you have to try." She notes that "it’s important to at least try and understand your family, even if it is just a genetic stroke of fate that you know these other people."

As a child, McInerney perched for long stretches on the red rooftop of their rambling stone house, composing poetry in unused pages of school notebooks. Today, at 41, she writes on a laptop in a small room of her inner-city home beneath a painting of a blue sky. She works nine-to-five, Monday through Friday, with longer hours as a book nears its completion. 

"I love the moment when the story takes off, and at the end of a long day writing I find myself lying in bed willing myself to get to sleep because I can’t wait to get back to it. There’s always a moment in the writing of each book when it’s like falling in love, you want to spend every minute with your plot and characters," McInerney pointed out.

Sometimes characters take on lives of their own, as did Lola in The Alphabet Sisters. "I hadn’t planned for her to be as outspoken as she turned out to be. Or that she would wear such appalling clothes." When Harriet Turner is surprised by the appearance of a young and sexy actor, McInerney says that surprise, "was very much my own," as she had different plans for the character of Patrick Shawcross.

Then there are days when "self-doubt wins over imagination and despair sets in," and the solitary life of a writer becomes trying for the social McInerney ("I think that’s why I have so many characters in my books, they become my imaginary work colleagues.") When writing becomes painful, she re-reads a favorite short story or novel, goes for a walk and tries to "remind myself why I started writing in the first place. Because I love books." And sometimes she takes a more pragmatic approach: "I give myself a fright and remember a looming deadline, which gets me back writing quick as a flash." It appears to be working—she writes one book a year, and reads at least three each week.

McInerney is well into her next novel, to be published in 2007. At present, she is touring Australia as a spokesperson for Books Alive, a government initiative designed to promote reading. McInerney, who describes this as "a dream assignment," wrote a short novel for the campaign. "When I pick up a book I want to be swept up in a fastmoving story, to get to know a group of people who entertain me, perhaps even exasperate me sometimes but who feel real to me, all delivered with humor, romance, drama and sadness. Those are the sorts of stories I try to write, too." 
 
 
Maureen Doll can be reached at mkdoll@wisc.edu.

 

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