John Murray, €17.99; Kindle, €12.51
JOSEPH O’Connor called The Glorious Heresies, Lisa McInerney’s debut novel, a punchy, edgy, sexy fizzing feast; Kevin Barry called its author “totally and unmistakably the real deal,” and Colin Barrett, Donal Ryan and Belinda McKeon heaped it with praise.
Set in the underworld in Cork, it’s a dark story of drug dealing, prostitution and murder amongst the misfits for whom there seems no way out, but because the characters are so real, the humour effervescent and the relationships tender, it’s a rewarding, sometimes heart-warming read.
I would have guessed the author was male; the tone reminded me of a wonderful coming-of-age novel — Slow Punctures — written by former addict, John Trolan, in the 1990s. So how did Lisa McInerney, mother of a teenager, inhabit the world with such apparent authenticity?
“I am as common as muck,” she says, laughing. “Everyone around me is as common as muck, and there have been people around me who have frequently gone down very difficult, ill-advised paths and ended up doing really silly things.
“I treat it as normal, because it’s everyday for them.” Lisa has a chequered background. Born to an unmarried 19-year-old when such a circumstance was still labelled illegitimacy, she was adopted by her grandparents.
“It was done in love, and as a practical measure. They saw it as giving me my best chance and it was never an issue.
“I was essentially an only child. My next ‘brother’ up was 10 years older. I’d call him a brother, and the ones who were older uncle.
“It helps my writing, because I can drop in and out of roles. My mother is my grandmother, my cousin is my aunt; I’m shifting roles all the time.” A smartass as a child, Lisa’s nose was always in a book. And when she wasn’t reading, she was writing.
“I still have the book I wrote at eight. It’s called The Magical Horse,” she says. She took her Leaving Certificate at 16, and arrived at University College Cork at 17.
“It was way too young,” she says.
“I was doing an Arts degree, and for the first two years did English and geography. In third year, we had to specialise and I hadn’t a clue what to do.
“I took a year out, and met my husband. I kept meaning to go back, but it never happened, and, at 20, I had a baby.”
Living in Cork, Lisa worked on reception at a construction company, but business dwindled as the recession hit.
To become a writer, she started a blog, set in the tiny council estate in which she was raised in Galway, hoping to attract readers, attention, and a publisher.
Called The Arse End of Ireland, her humorous accounts of young mothers, children and family, with politics thrown in, worked like a dream.
Writing a feature about blogs, an Irish Times journalist described Lisa as “arguably the best writer at work in Ireland today.” What did the people who featured in the blog make of it all?
“They didn’t read it,” she says. “Most didn’t know about it, or, if they did, they had zero interest.”
Journalist Sinead Gleeson recommended Lisa to the agent, Ivan Mulcahy, and Kevin Barry commissioned her to write a story for the collection Town and Country. It seemed she was made.
“I’d already written one novel,” says Lisa, “but it was way too long and I shelved it. I wrote another and that’s the one I gave to Ivan. He said I was talented, but that the novel was too grim. He galvanised me.
“He said, ‘Why don’t you put in some of the humour you had in the blog.’ That sent me in a whole different direction.”
Lisa’s head is inhabited by many different characters. And when she had a vision of an unremarkable woman in late middle years walking down the street carrying a secret, the novel quickly formed around her.
“She was carrying this secret that she had murdered somebody and wondering how nobody could see it and why she was getting away with it. I already had the character of Maureen worked out; so I gave her that secret and let her run off with it.
“I wormed my way into the book from there. When you know your characters well; when they are well-drawn, the book grows organically. They lead you.
“You can’t say, ‘I will put in themes,’ or they will look awkward and clunky. Then you’ll come across as pontificating,” Lisa says. The first draft took just four months.
“It just flowed. At the beginning, I could take weeks over one chapter, but, by the end, I was writing 5,000 words every day. It was easy, because the characters in my head were so fully formed,” she says.
“All this was possible, she says, because her husband, John, does the domestic work and the nurturing and allows her to be upstairs, working at being a writer.
“I’m !00% blessed,” she says of her Cork-born husband. “There would be nothing without him.”
One of the main characters in this debut is Ryan, a 15-year-old dealer who is bright, but blighted by his background.
When Lisa tells me he will take centre stage in her second novel, I’m delighted, because the scenes involving him were my favourite. There is such tenderness in his burgeoning teenage romance, and he has sense beyond his years. How did Lisa get that balance right?
“I read a lot of Melvin Burgess growing up,” she said. “His big book, Junk, changed everything for me. He was the master of grim mixed with tenderness.”
We’re talking in the RTÉ canteen, as Lisa prepares for a radio interview. Thrilled with all the attention her book has received, she feels an air of unreality around it. But what has been the best moment?
“Reading the review in the English version of the Sunday Times,” she says.
“That was the ultimate. Christina Patterson wrote: ‘The Glorious Heresies heralds the arrival of a glorious, foul-mouthed, fizzing new talent.’ That was the big one for me.
“It’s overwhelming. If I thought about it, I would freak out! But I did put the article up on my Facebook page for my family. I said, ‘Look! I can do this. Honest!’
“Writing is it for me now,” she says.
“This is my path and I’m not going to be knocked off it easily. My ambition is to make a living from it, because there is no way I’m going to stop.” So it makes her happy?
She laughs. “I’m miserable when I’m writing novels, because it is a hard thing and I’m miserable when I’m not writing them.” So whilst she is writing about addiction, her own addiction is writing?
“Wow!” she says. “I like that. I’m going to keep it!”
Published in The Irish Examiner, on 13th June, 2015.
© Sue Leonard. 2015