Kathleen MacMahon has writing in her blood. As a Granddaughter of the short story writer, Mary Lavin, and niece of the late Caroline Walsh, former Books editor of the Irish Times, whose husband, James Ryan is a writer, it seems, almost inevitable that she should have followed in their footsteps. But when she was growing up, she never considered a writing career.
“It was the last thing I wanted to do,” she says, when we meet in Dublin to discuss her fourth novel, The Home Scar. “There’s an association in our family of being a difficult person and a writer; a definite dichotomy between creative people who are difficult, and normal human beings who are easy to live with.”
As a compromise, Kathleen jumped into journalism.
“It seemed the path of sanity,” she says. “The middle ground. I thought I could write stories that wouldn’t damage my mental health.”
After a happy career in RTE news, though, she thought of an idea for a story. And although her agent, Marianne Gunn O’Connor failed to sell her first novel, the second, published in 2012, famously, secured a half million advance. Each book since has shown her to be one of the best chroniclers of family dilemmas who is writing in Ireland today. But does she miss journalism?
“I miss the way you turned a story around for news,” she says. “In TV, on lunchtime news if you have trouble jigging that middle paragraph, you have to get over yourself. Whereas with a novel you can spend three months trying to rejig it.”
This novel has taken five years in the writing.
“Off and on,” she says. “For me, a lot of things have to come together to make a novel. I think you need a lot of layers. And more and more, I like to read novels with a lot of ‘stuff’ in them.”
There’s certainly a lot of ‘stuff’ in this glorious novel. Taking in the landscape of Connemara, it centres on siblings Christo and Cassie, American children of two different rockstar Dads, who lost their complicated mother young, and have never managed to get life on track since. They travel to Connemara chasing their past – and an idyllic summer they once spent there.
They remember Margaret, who possessed the kind of mothering instincts that were lacking in their own mother; and her son Seamus – who befriended the pair of them; they remember visits to the beach, to a water park, and the feeling of utter happiness and security that they’d never felt when they were being dragged around the world on rock tours.
It’s a novel of many parts – and is deeply absorbing and emotionally astute. But what was the spark that set it all in motion?
“I started with these siblings who were no longer close,” says Kathleen, “and who were completely ruptured by the loss of their mother, and they were separated. It’s so painful that they can’t even say her name, but they’d had this one idyllic summer that was the counterpoint to everything that came afterwards. But how accurate was their memory? How much was going on that they didn’t see?”
As a daughter, and mother to twin girls, who are now 21, Kathleen has always been interested in the way the mother/daughter relationship changes over the years.
“Daughters are very different to sons,” she says. “As a young woman you can be quite harsh on your mother. Then there’s this maturing process, until, eventually, you empathise with her, instead of judging her. And you realise, in the end, as Cassie does in the novel, that the parent is a human and the product of their own story – and none of it is about you.”
It’s a different process for Christo; he has to learn to let go of the guilt he felt that he wasn’t there, in Mexico, to protect his sister during his mother’s last, drug fuelled weeks. A lonely character, he’s a professor of maths at Cambridge University – an ideal environment for him, because there, he is not seen as an oddity.
Kathleen knows Connemara well. She has spent summers there since she was a child and has always felt that there is something a bit ghostly about the landscape – as if there is something missing – something that hints at its history. And the siblings had that same sense about their childhood.
“Things happened that weren’t visible to the naked eye. They don’t have the information, but they know the feel of it. Do they have the courage to go looking for it?”
Working on the story, Kathleen was aware that it hadn’t, quite, come together. And one day, reading the Irish Times, she had a eureka moment.
“I saw a piece about this storm which uncovered a drowned forest in Connemara, and I thought, oh my God, that is my story. I went there and it’s the most extraordinary thing I ever saw; these 8,000-year-old trees, and they’re there!”
Most writers advise novices to write every day without fail. Kathleen does not agree.
“If it’s not going well, it’s important to walk away from your desk and do something else,” she says. “I’m an apprentice gardener, and digging wild garlic out of the ground is so good for your head. It’s when I do my best writing.
“You have to trust that it will come. There’s no point in writing three bad pages that are going to derail your novel and send it in the wrong direction. Undoing them could delay you by a month.”
When I ask if writing makes her happy, she grimaces, and says that it makes her unhappy more often than happy.
“But I’m not sure that the unhappy bit is when you are not writing. I get very cranky when life intervenes which is does 90 per cent of the time. I get nervous when a book is coming out, frustrated when I can’t write, and cranky when I’m bogged down in a book and can’t fix the problems.”
Her last novel, Nothing But Blue Sky, was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for fiction – and that, she says, was extremely helpful. But awards aren’t everything. The most important thing for Kathleen, is to try and write a better book each time.
“And you can’t be complacent,” she says. “I know so many really good writers who can turn out a really bad book. It doesn’t seem to be that the more you know about these things the better you will get.”
It’s also important to her to be judged fairly.
“And that can be hard. There are loads of great novels out there that don’t get any attention.”
I’m a huge fan of her writing – and know many others who share my admiration for her. And this, Kathleen says, is her favourite thing of all.
“When people say, ‘Fantastic! You have another book coming out.’ That’s very heartening and makes you want to deliver. Because, as a reader, you know what that is like.”
Kathleen is no longer the youngest of Mary Lavin’s decedents to immerse herself in writing. Last year, her cousin, Alice Ryan – daughter of the late Caroline Walsh and James Ryan, wrote her debut novel and won the Newcomer Award at the Irish Book Awards.
“I’m so proud of Alice,” she says. “It’s so exciting, and it’s wonderful to have the company of her as a writer in the family.” And before I can ask if she’d like her twins, Lucy and Clara, to follow suit, she says, “My girls are threatening to get T-shirts saying, ‘No! I’m not going to write a book.”
The Home Scar by Kathleen MacMahon. Penguin Sandycove: €15.58. Kindle: €9.93.
Published in the Irish Examiner on 18th February.
© Sue J Leonard, 2023