Back in 2016, Kathleen MacMahon holidayed, as usual, with her family on the Costa Brava. Afterwards, whilst her husband flew home, she took a train to Antibes with their twin teenage daughters. She wanted to start her third novel there; and saw this as an opportunity to give the twins free rein.
“My quest was to show them how great it is to be independent and how there is nothing to be afraid of. I said, ‘it will be a great adventure. We’ll stay in an Air B and B, and you will do a French course.’ I packed them off every day on the bus, and started writing.”
So far so good. But on 15th July, Bastille Day, everything changed.
“We went down and watched the fireworks from the seafront in Antibes. And when we came home the phones started hopping.”
This was that terrible night when a young Tunisian ploughed his car into the crowd at Nice, killing 84 people, including 10 children.
“I felt this strange sense of dislocation. The South of France is such an idyllic place with the scent of lavender in the air – and yet this was happening just across the water.”
The event appears in Nothing but Blue Sky, the novel we’re discussing over coffee and Almond scones Kathleen’s sun filled kitchen – a glorious room, containing a lush, lime green velvet sofa.
The novel explores a marriage from the perspective of David, a news journalist who is enduring a joyless holiday with friends. Recently widowed – his adored wife Mary Rose has perished in a plane crash – he’s deep in grief, and finds it difficult to summon up emotion for Nice’s dead.
It fits well with one of the themes of this mesmerising novel; that there is no logic to the things that happen.
“In fiction, generally, logic comes from the character’s past, but that doesn’t always happen in life. I fully believed my mother would live until 90; I felt it in my bones, but she died at 66. A few close friends have died of cancer; my aunt died young; none of these things are logical.”
Kathleen is fascinated by death. Her first novel – This it How it Ends – which, famously, gained her a half million advance – was asking, is death ok?
“On one hand it is the worst thing in the world. On the other, life goes on. The day comes when you’re sitting down at dinner and there’s no empty chair.”
This novel goes deeper; it explores the phenomenon of a very public death; and what it’s like to grieve in the glare of media. Something Kathleen witnessed many times, during her fifteen years working as a news reporter for RTE.
“I had to ring people – there were so many of them who, thrown into this massive news story, had to grieve in the middle of a very public death. And of course, as a reporter you’d be very compassionate, but at the end of the day you’re just doing your job. You feel for them, but you go home to bed and the next day you’re reporting on a drought. Some of these people, searching for vengeance, would become, almost a nuisance, contacting you. It’s so sad. I’ve always wanted to tell what a monstrous experience that is for an ordinary person.”
The author lends her experience to David – whose casual reaction to the atrocities he witnesses can seem, almost, callous. And, she admits, there is quite a lot of David in her.
“A lot of his nasty opinions are mine. But we all think bad things. It doesn’t make you a bad person.”
A beautifully drawn, complex character, David had a stultifying childhood. Caught in a loveless marriage, his father was unreasonably mean. He told his son that when an ice-cream siren sounded it meant that the van had totally sold out. In contrast, Mary Rose’s family are boisterously happy. David learns how to be happy through her.
“I remember going into houses in the seventies, and in so many the people didn’t like each other. They were trapped because there was no divorce; and no way even of talking about it. Our house was stormy; there were fights and recriminations and eventual divorce, but it was the locked down houses that were really grim. Where there were secrets. And women being put down.”
David and Mary Rose were happy. And never more so than on their annual holiday to an idyllic village in Spain. And here, again, Kathleen draws on her own life – and on the place she and Mark have visited most years since they first met.
“I started the novel with the holiday place,” she says. “When you go somewhere every year you watch the people; there is a child one year who becomes a waiter, and the next thing he is the manager, replacing his mum and dad.
“A holiday is a time release. So much of a marriage plays out there. Mark goes silent for the first two days. That used to drive me crazy, but I’ve learned it’s because he’s stressed and tired, and now I accept our silent day or two. You push out your best self and make plans for things you want to do in the coming year. Your lives are measured by your return to this place.”
Thinking of his marriage, in widowhood, David realises that he’s not always been sensitive to Mary Rose’s desires. He agreed to undertake IVF but drew the line at adoption. Without her, he has to reassess everything that went before.
“I find marriage fascinating,” says Kathleen. “It’s an experiment on how two people will bring the parts of their personalities and disparate backgrounds and characters and throw their lot together to see what happens. It’s an endless journey in understanding. And a long marriage is almost like a dance routine that you’ve perfected.”
This is my first face to face interview since lockdown. Welcoming the relaxing of the strictest rules, Kathleen admits that lately, she’s found it extremely hard to write.
“I have another novel completed, and I’d started another when this bloody thing happened! But with lockdown my head is scrambled and it’s difficult to know how long this thing is going on and how much it will change the world. Do you situate a novel before or afterwards, or in the middle? You certainly don’t rush in with the lockdown novel. I’ve decided to wait and see.”
Meanwhile, she says that nothing but blue sky is as close to the book she had in her head at the start, as it could be. She’s happy with it, as well she should be; to me it’s a piece of perfection – a subtle, thought provoking investigation of a marriage that rings utterly true. It’s the best book I’ve read all year. Her other two novels were things of beauty too. How does she achieve such constancy?
She shows me a scrapbook – a sourcebook – full of post-it notes, table plans, random quotes, and tells me that it contains all the central pieces of the novel.
“If I’m stuck, I go back to it,” she says.
She writes drafts one, two, and maybe three, and then she prints out the entire book, cuts it into scenes, spreads it on the floor, and puts it together in a more logical order.
“It’s a very physical process,” she says. “Like a jigsaw getting all the moving parts into exactly the right place. Then the circuit completes. It lights up and becomes more than the sum of its parts.”
Nothing but blue sky. Penguin Ireland: €14.99. Kindle: €9.38.
Published in The Irish Examiner on August 1st.
© Sue J Leonard. 2020.