In literary terms, Lisa McInerney is having a very good year. The publication of her debut novel The Glorious Heresies was met by critical admiration, a clutch of prize longlistings and an assurance from the Irish writer Kevin Barry that this is “totally and unmistakably the real deal”. It won the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, and last night, it was awarded the prestigious Desmond Elliott Prize for debut novels. “It’s absolutely flabberghasting,” she told me. “I’m feeling a bit greedy at this stage. But no, I’m very happy. Because it’s a prize for emerging writers, it means a lot to have a prize like this. I feel it’s almost like a welcome in, for a new writer. Somebody saying, ‘We appreciate the work you’re doing. You’re doing the right thing. In you come!’”
The Glorious Heresies was described by the Desmond Elliott judges as ambitious and cacophonous, witty and wise, a “morality tale… that sings with internal harmonies”. It was written quickly – her agent said, “How about October?”, and McInerney replied, “But it’s May!”, and then completed the first draft by the end of August – and it is “boisterous” and “madcap”, she says, because “I didn’t have time to think, ‘Is this the right literary thing to do?’”
It helped that many of the characters existed in her head already, as the potential subjects of short stories. McInerney, you see, first grew an audience from 2006 with her blog Arse End of Ireland, her reaction to the myth of the Celtic Tiger which in her town was “completely at odds with reality”. The blog caught the attention of other writers, who whispered in the ear of Kevin Barry. As McInerney recalls it, “He got in touch and said, ‘Hi. I don’t know if you write fiction, but would you consider sending me a story?’ I looked at it. ‘Kevin Barry? Yehright, someone’s having a go!’”
Barry’s quote is prominent on the book’s cover, and McInerney wonders if this is why some readers have said that she writes like a bloke. It’s a concept that she clearly finds bizarre. “Is it because it’s sweary? Or edgy? Or what?” The plot includes abortion, childbirth, and families in all their forms, all set in the underworld of recession-hit Cork. “The weirdest thing was that it was said as a compliment,” she laughs. “‘You write like a dude. I didn’t even know you had boobs when I was reading it… And look at you, so popular with the boys.’ As if they are the people who bestow the grace on you!”
We talk for a while about being a writer in Ireland, “probably the only country I can think of where nobody tells you that you can’t be a writer, there’s just an assumption you’re going to at some stage”. She worries for young writers in Britain, where libraries are being closed and the arts shut off to working-class people. “If I had known this when I started writing… I think I would have been far more reticent about even sticking my neck out,” she admits. “I look at the conversation in the UK about the libraries that are being threatened and I think, ‘What the …?’ That is terrifying. That’s just another barrier.”
She worries for young writers in Britain, where libraries are being closed and the arts shut off to working class people
McInerney grew up in Gort in County Galway, near WB Yeats’s summer home and his “Wild Swans at Coole”, so “local history for us was literary history, you’re very steeped in it”. But literature, for McInerney, meant short stories. “I had this idea that before you were allowed to write a novel you had to write short stories, because short stories are big in Ireland and nearly everybody writes a collection, right? I was gathering ideas, and a lot of them I didn’t really like. But one was for a lady – late middle years, so I think often the time when women become very invisible in society’s eyes – and she’s walking down a busy city street and she’s marvelling at the fact that she’s done something terrible. She’s just killed somebody…”
Readers of The Glorious Heresies will know that this character became Maureen, the sardonic granny who sets in motion a series of fatal ripples when she kills an intruder by belting him with the Holy Stone. Other characters had existed in their author’s head for years, including the teenaged drug dealer Ryan Cusack and his beloved, Karine D’Arcy, and each character’s voice is real and distinctive. McInerney argues that this is a result of knowing her characters, and trusting them to lead her through her tangled plot. Then she laughs. “I hear myself sometimes and I think, You sound like such a wanker!” she says.
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She’s right not to talk about Heresies as if it were a deeply serious literary epic, because, while it does raise some heart-breaking issues, it is a very funny novel. This is partly thanks to her agent, who read an early piece of writing and said, “Wow, this is very grim. But you were so funny…” and made her understand that “lit-er-a-ture” could include laughs. It is also, in that sense, a very Irish novel. “You’ve got the shadow of Catholicism hanging over it, it seeps into everything, even the way the characters speak to each other… [But] if you look at Irish writing it is a playful cannon... And as well, if you’re writing in the Irish vernacular, it’s very hard not to be funny, isn’t it? Because Hiberno-English is a very funny and lively language.” It certainly is in this novel.
After such an ambitious, crowded, daring debut, it is hard to imagine where McInerney will go next. Number two is drafted, but she is superstitious about saying much more about the plot. Suffice to say, “it does take place in the same universe as novel one and quite a few of the same characters pop their heads in”. This time, though, it has taken more than three months. “Thank God!” she laughs. “I had a much longer deadline and I think it needed it, too.” That’s fortunate, because being a prize winner is going to take up a lot of time.