Summer is literary festival season in Ireland, a chance for readers to meet writers and for books to be rediscovered. I was thrilled to be invited back to my favourite festival – the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry – to chat to, amongst others, Lia Mills; whose book, Fallen, was the Dublin, and Belfast, UNESCO City of Literature, One City One book choice for 2016.
(The picture shows the last time Lia and I shared a stage, at the Dalkey Literary Festival in 2014.)
In advance of our talk, Lia told me how she came to write Fallen – which was my favourite book of the year in 2014.
“Back in 2005, I was sitting in my car in Dominick Street waiting for the lights to change, when I had a vision,” she says. “It was as if the modern city had melted away leaving me with a sense of the of the old city underneath it, and I realised I was looking at the place where my grandfather once had a shop.
“My mother was born over the shop,” says Lia. “They lived there for thirty years. They were there when the Easter Rising happened. This was where the British Army were. This was where the fires and the looting were, and my mother was a toddler living over the shop at the time.”
Something shifted in her mind.
“I had a really romantic view of Irish Nationalism; the great story as it is laid down for us of how we won our independence, but I assumed my family had nothing to do with it. Adding things up, I realised my father’s mother was pregnant with him at the time, and they lived in Merrion Row. If you draw a circle round the intense action of the rising, both families were on the circumference. It had everything to do with them.
“I wondered what was it like when the city suddenly exploded around you, and you really didn’t know when or how it was going to end.”
At the time, Lia was working on another novel, and put the idea to the back of her mind. Then, in 2006 she became seriously ill, with a facial tumour. Lucky to survive, she wrote up her experiences in a memoir, In Your Face. So it wasn’t until 2008 that the idea resurfaced. Even then, she wasn’t sure it was something she would use.
“I thought, I won’t go there, because the rising is such a powerful myth. I was afraid of it, yet it was a story I didn’t want to put off. And when I started doing research I was shocked. I had taken so much for granted. The story that is given to us is so discreet and neatly wrapped up. Seeing the photographs of the devastation of Dublin in the aftermath was like looking at a city that had been bombed in a war. It was pulverised.
“I didn’t know that more citizens had been killed than the British Army and rebels put together. I didn’t know that 400 people died, or that 100,000 people had to go on relief in the days afterwards because they had been burned out of their homes.
“It was a real, actual war, yet people persist in talking about the sixteen men who were shot as if that is all that it was. Or as almost a hiccough that affected only a couple of streets. It was a tight radius, but that was where the tenements were; people were crammed in, with more than one family living in one room.”
Centring on a young woman, Katie Crilly, Fallen opens in August 1914, when her mother forbids her to continue her education at University College Dublin, by taking a Masters. Frustrated, she finds a job as a researcher for two emancipated older women. It’s a period Lia knows well; she spent the nineties on a research teaching fellowship at UCD looking at Ireland’s forgotten women writers.
“All kinds of possibilities were opening up for women; it was a really exciting time. They were engaged politically, socially and educationally, and there was the campaign for suffrage as well.”
Katie’s life falls apart when her twin brother is killed on the Western Front. And when, a year later, she finds herself in the middle of the violence of Easter 1916, she finds her loyalties horribly torn.
It’s a quite mesmerising read; informative, lyrical and emotionally finely wrought. Was it difficult recounting all the details from the Western front?
“At the start Liam dying in the war was academic for me. I thought his being dead would take care of the war. Then I won a writer’s residency in Paris. I arrived at the end of August in 2009. It coincided with the commemoration of the liberation of Paris.
“On almost every building there was a plaque commemorating someone who was killed, or an event, and there were fresh flowers placed around all the plaques. I realised the war was still so real in Europe, and I spent my stay there reading memorials and thinking about the Irish men who fought for the war. Being away from Ireland gave me permission to go into the story.”
Grief is an overriding theme. There’s a certain petulance to Katie’s sorrow. An element of, ‘it’s not fair.’ She resents Liam’s fiancée Isabel, who feels, perhaps, a greater right to grieve. All this is wonderfully conveyed, and this, Lia tells me, is because she’s had her fair share of it. Her father died when she was young, and a sibling she was especially close to has died too. But it’s not necessary, she feels, to have experienced the emotion you describe.
“I think to be able to write a story convincingly you have to be in the story writing it from the inside out. To do that you connect with the things you do know, and put it into a different mind.”
To cover the events of 1916 in a comprehensive way, Lia shows how it affected the whole of Katie’s family. One sister fights ill health; another is preparing to get married. Then there’s a younger brother, who disappears during the action; has he joined the rebels?
It’s a complex structure; and one that Lia almost gave up on. In fact, were it not for her friend, the writer Anne Enright, the novel might never have seen the light of day.
“At one stage I was trying to stay too close to the facts, and to shoehorn all kinds of explanations into it. There was a lot to deal with and it wasn’t working.
“I had decided to walk away from it. I thought, life is too short, I’ll do something else. I felt good about that decision, then the phone rang and it was Anne. I told her, and she talked me down. A few months later I was getting ready to send it out, and I couldn’t bear the idea of someone reading it from beginning to end. I told her I couldn’t do it. She said, ‘send it to me.’ She read it, made suggestions and gave me the confidence to continue.
“Now, I don’t see how I could have left it. It’s there. And it’s bigger in every way than anything I had the nerve to do before.”
Lia’s third novel, Fallen is one of those rare books that not only sheds new light on a period of history, but that changes your thinking forever. And that is exactly the reaction Lia was hoping for.
“Writing it, I had to unpeel everything I thought I knew about the period, and it’s hard to think yourself back to a state of not knowing what you know.”
The real strength of this novel, for me, lies in the characters, each of them fully rounded, with distinct stories, aims and desires. They’re united in a love for Dublin, and this book is, perhaps above all, a homage to the City.
“I love Dublin. I always have. It’s so vibrant, but it gets a very poor press. In many ways writing the novel was an act of restitution. Because the received idea is that Dubliners didn’t respond as they should to the rising when it happened. But there was plenty of reason for them to feel angry. The wrath of the British Arms had been brought down on their heads, with gunboats on the Liffey.”
She was thinking about those who fought for the British Army too.
“It’s a gesture of reclamation for them; for all the men who fought and died and were forgotten. And were betrayed by absolutely everybody.”
Fallen by Lia Mills is published by Penguin at € 14.99. Kindle: €7.47.
Lia Mills will be discussing Fallen with Sue Leonard at the West Cork literary Festival on Wednesday 20th July at 17.00.
© Sue Leonard. 2016