Andrew Meehan is a happy man. He adores living in Glasgow – a city where the arts flourish – and he loves his life as an author and teacher of creative writing. So much so, in fact, that he believes he is living in a kind of Utopia.
“I’m aware that that sounds naïve and idealist,” he says on the phone from Scotland, “but I feel very lucky to have created this life of writing and delivering books and talking about them. I am a sort of Utopian.”
We’re talking about Andrew’s second novel, The Mystery of Love; a reimagining of the marriage between Oscar and Constance Wilde. Told from Constance’s point of view, with comments from Oscar used as footnotes, it’s a glorious, imaginative read, showing this much written about couple when they’re away from the spotlight. The novel, which is both poignant and amusing, has an authentic feel, but why did Andrew feel compelled to tackle this particular story?
“I don’t think I ever made the decision to write it.,” he says. “I was just doing it. Constance was in my head like a kind of daydream – a nice daydream or sometimes a wistful daydream. These people were playing in my head and I just wrote it down. It was what I was doing with my life and I hoped I could keep doing it.
“I was writing my way in, and one day a paragraph I’d written seemed to stick to the page ok. I thought, this is how she sounds both to me and to herself, and I’m now sure that I want to write the book.”
Andrew is not an Oscar scholar – but he was very curious about Constance and their marriage, and their children, and their intimacy. And, although he conducted a great deal of research, he made sure that this didn’t weigh heavily on the page. The section on their honeymoon is quite beautifully and sensitively tackled.
“That’s an obligatory scene, and I was curious. What was their honeymoon like? They were such a social couple, but they had to make sure to protect their private time. I think it was quite tender as well as fearful. Constance has her reasons for marrying Oscar, and although it was, to some extent a marriage of convenience I think it was also a marriage of love.”
It was far from an easy marriage – for Constance at least. She found motherhood hard – and was, Andrew suggests, possibly suffering some kind of postnatal depression, and Oscar, ever the wit in public, is portrayed here, more as a verbose bore. And that, he says, was a tactical decision.
“A colleague here said, ‘that was a bold decision, rendering Oscar inarticulate. But we often see Oscar the showman, and to me, that’s not very interesting. It’s people’s private, interior lives that fascinate me.
“I found writing the book quite an emotional experience,” he says, “because of the level of empathy I had for Constance and for Oscar. It flipflops; even in one page she goes from being upstairs with the children while he’s downstairs getting drunk with his pals. She’s going through one mini crisis after another. I didn’t want to take sides, or to make a judgement, although there were wrongdoings all over the place, and the book is a lot more internal than I’d originally intended it to be.”
Perhaps the most poignant scene – when Constance says goodbye to her husband – was written at a particularly emotional time in the author’s life. His mother had just died from cancer, and he penned the scene in the week following her death.
“It was Constance saying goodbye to Oscar, but it was also me saying goodbye to my mother. Some of Constance’s phrases belong to me. There was tenderness there as well as sadness. And that scene,” he says, “was published exactly as it was written.”
Born in Dublin to Scottish parents in 1971, Andrew moved back to Scotland as a teenager. He went to university there, studying English and Film studies, and, having worked there as a TV researcher, came to Dublin in the noughties working in script development for a company led by Ed Guiney and David Collins.
He then became head of the Irish Film Board, recommending projects for funding. He stayed there for six years, writing screenplays and short stories in his spare time. Some of them were anthologised.
“That was a really exciting time,” he says. “Working in those jobs you get an armchair view of all that is good in the creative community, but I wanted to get out of Ireland to concentrate on writing with no friends around and no distraction, so I moved to Heidelberg where my partner, Orna Prendergast was working, and I wrote my first novel, One Star Awake there.”
It was a glorious, inventive debut, featuring an amnesiac. Nominated for the Desmond Elliot prize in the UK, it was, to my mind, the most interesting debut to come out in 2017. It’s quite different from The Mystery of Love, both in subject matter and stylistically. And that says much about Andrew’s unusual and rather refreshing attitude to the written word.
“Writing is my pastime,” he says. “It’s where my brain goes to when I’m not thinking about anything else, and it’s the thing I enjoy most. People in their early careers talk about publication and outcomes, but the measure of success, for me, is getting to do it. It’s the act of doing it and if you don’t enjoy it there’s no point in doing it. I’m in this for good.”
Andrew doesn’t have an office. He doesn’t write at a desk or have a special chair. And as for fancy notebooks, and favourite pens – he thinks all these writing accruements only serve to intimidate. He picks a room each morning, sits down, and, more often than not, writes on his phone.
“I don’t want it to seem important. if I was sitting down at a beautiful desk writing in a moleskin notebook, I would freak myself out. I text or email it to myself and see it as a chunk of text. That is more immediate.”
He tries to keep the art of writing straightforward for his students at Strathclyde University too.
“We can get carried away when we talk about writing. We can mystify it, but it’s only about getting the words on the page. That is the mechanical element. One of my classes is called ‘Getting it down and moving it around.’”
Before Andrew started writing The Mystery of Love, he was penning a love story set one summer in Heidelberg. Called, Praise Not the Day Until Evening Has Come,’ Andrew has now completed it ready for publication. And this book, he says, is quite different again.
“You said my two novels could have been written by different writers,” he muses. “This novel feels like its been written by two different authors, because the narrative voices could not be more different. It’s a quiet love story between a German woman and an Irishman spending his summer in Heidelberg. Both are scared of love; neither of them wants to fall in love, but they do.”
When I ask was it difficult to return to an earlier project Andrew seems surprised.
“It was like a form of paradise,” he says. “I’ve been writing the screenplay of One Star Awake. I was happy to be back with that one, and I get excited reading extracts of The Mystery of Love. Once you’ve decided you want to spend a couple of years writing something, you’ll always be happy to revisit it.”
The Mystery of Love by Andrew Meehan. Head of Zeus: €15.99. Kindle: €5.26
Published in The Irish Examiner on 11th April.
© Sue J Leonard. 2020.