Andrew Meehan.

Posted by Sue Leonard on Friday 28th October 2022

Andrew Meehan has recently published his third novel. Set in Heidelberg, it charts an uneasy love affair between a German woman, Ute Pfeiffer, and Seanie Donnellan from Ireland. Both are cautious about love, and being recently out of relationships, feel that love has passed them by. It’s a wonderful read; a strange but compelling story written with great lyricism and insight. And that’s no surprise to this reviewer.

Meehan’s first book, One Star Awake, also set in Heidelberg, was the most interesting debut I came across in 2017, and his second, The Mystery of Love, giving Constance Wilde’s account of her rackety marriage to Oscar was also intriguing. We spoke, on the phone, about that one just before the pandemic hit, and he mentioned back then, that he’d be returning to Heidelberg for his third novel.

Set in 2014 during the week when Germany won the world cup, Instant Fires opens when Ute returns home from Ireland, having spent 15 years with a man she didn’t love. Home is unrecognisable. Her father, Julius, is in deep decline, and her mother seems barely able to cope. What has brought all this about? During the course of the novel, as Ute starts to accept her background, and her father retreats further into a childlike state, old family secrets emerge. The novel, overall, is a homage to love.

Meehan lives in Glasgow with his partner, Aine, teaching Creative Writing and screenwriting at the University of Strathclyde – and, once he got used to teaching on Zoom, he said the lockdown didn’t affect him overmuch.

                “I was trying to take grace from it,” he says, on yet another phone call from Scotland. “We went into ourselves a bit, and maybe we’re not out of ourselves yet, but I thought, ok, its going to be me on my own with my loved ones, and I decided to revel in it.”

Born in Ireland, Meehan spent his teens in Scotland, returning to Ireland in his twenties, where he spent time with the Irish film board and began to write fiction. His first short story, published in The Stinging Fly won an award at Cúirt.

Instant Fires started as a short story back in 2010.

                “Ute was a secondary character in it, but it was unfinished because I was distracted by work.”  Later, in 2014, when Andrew was commuting from his teaching job in Galway to Heidelberg, where Aine worked as a scientist, he walked past Albert Spier’s house.

                “Aine was away,” he says. “I was adrift, walking around, wondering what the hell I was doing at Albert Spier’s gates. I wanted to find a way to write about it. And then I met a guy from Connemara who was working in an Irish bar. I asked, ‘what made you come here?’ And he said, ‘I had to leave town in a hurry.’ That sparked my interest, but I didn’t know what to do with him. Then, in a form of matchmaking I discarded everything I’d written about both characters and put Ute and Seanie together.”

And that was inspired! Their unusual pairing explores shame versus guilt. Ute’s grandfather was embroiled in Nazism, making her feel residue shame, and Seanie left Ireland under suspect for something he hadn’t actually done.

                “I wanted that to be an undercurrent,” says Meehan. “Seanie’s presence in Ute’s life makes it easy for her to talk about her background. I think shame and guilt are comparable and compatible, but I think they are able to dissolve each other’s and hopefully find a way to live in the moment.”

Meehan adored living in Heidelberg.

                “Writing the book was a way for me to spend time in Heidelberg in my head,” he says, explaining that he has a very soft spot for the city. “It’s a university town with its own little republic in a way. It was a former paradise for us.”

He is much more ambivalent about Ireland.

“I’m Irish, but I’m also Scottish,” he says, “and when I go back to Ireland, I feel very Scottish. I have an awkward relationship with Irish charm and lyricism. I gave those feelings to Ute. She is drawn to Irish people as well as feeling uncomfortable in their company.”

Ute had been living in Dublin with Tort, a rich and charming, but controlling older man. Throwing money around, he once bought a caravan site in County Wicklow, closing it down, so that he could have access to his own, private beach. He’s a difficult character to warm to.  

                “I have a very soft spot for Tort,” says Meehan, when I mention this. “And I hope I’m not judgemental about any of the characters. Ute is ok with him. She’d had this reasonably unfulfilling heavy life in Germany and maybe living in comfort with Tort is better than an uncomfortable life with love.”

It’s striking, I comment, that most of the leading characters in Meehan’s books are female. Why does he write them?

                “I don’t know why I wouldn’t,” he says, commenting that women are, after all, fifty percent of the population. “I write love stories, and if you do that, they have to be fiction. Seanie was as much a stetch for me as Ute was. I am a middle-aged Irish man but deep in my soul I am a young German woman.”

The book Meehan is working on now is a triangular love story, set in France, featuring two female characters and one male. He’s relishing the early stages because discovering character, he says, brings him the greatest joy.

                “You don’t know everything about your character when you begin. It’s a process of discovery. It should always feel beyond you; you’re writing to discover who they are.”

All the hard work comes work in the editing.

“At one stage a draft was twice as a long as the book is now,” he says, and explains that he discarded what were, in effect the first and third act, leaving the events of a week with interludes into the past. “I wanted this to show a slice of their lives,” he says.  

Meehan seems utterly content. I remark that he’s possibly the happiest writer I know. He says he will always be happy provided he is still writing books. He adores his publishers, New Island, saying they have always treated his books with a wonderful respect.

“They’re a combination of absolute professionals with warmth as well. They’re real book people,” he says, “and my agent says that publishers don’t generally behave as well anymore.”

He enjoys teaching too and has no plans to write fulltime anytime soon.

                “I take energy from teaching,” he says. “Teaching screenwriting makes me think about books in a different way. It’s about narrative structure and how you put things together. The students are an interesting bunch too. If I didn’t draw energy from them, I might as well work in a bank.”

Unlike many writers, Meehan isn’t obsessed with the idea of a long-term career.

                “I always think the current book is the last book,” he says. “And if I never publish another, I will be very happy for Instant Fires to be the book I wrote. I’m very proud of One Star Awake, but Instant Fires is a book I would pick up and revel in.

                “I’m happy with it, but I’m nervous too because I’ve never had a bad review, and I’d hate to have one with this book.” Then laughing, he adds, “I’m in love with Ute, and I want the best for Seanie too.”

Instant Fires by Andrew Meehan. New Island Books: €15.99. Kindle €7.95.

Published in the Irish Examiner on 8th October.

© Sue J Leonard. 2022.

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