An interview with Christine Dwyer Hickey, in BiblioFemme: An Irish Book Club (Nov. 2006)

In March 2004 the Femmes read Tatty by Christine Dwyer Hickey, it was an instant favourite with all of us and moved straight into our Bibliofemme Top 5. This week Christine kindly took some time out to answer questions posed by our DJ and also by some members of our discussion boards.

Was it difficult to write this book?
Yes and no. No because it was really just a question of getting into child’s head and staying there and yes because the subject matter was difficult to handle

How much of yourself and your own experiences are in Tatty?
Quite a bit to be honest. The locations are my childhood locations - schools etc, house and so forth - and I certainly know what it’s like to live within that family environment. For the sake of the novel a lot was added and subtracted and some of the experiences were borrowed from friends or simply made up.

If so, would you say that writing it was a cathartic experience?
It was. Eventually. I understand more now about the long-term effects of alcoholism and how it leaks down through the generations and understanding has helped to make me feel slightly liberated

In what way does Tatty differ from your previous work?
For a start it’s written from the point of view of only one person whereas my other work had always given several points of view. My novels tend to be very character driven and I quite like the freedom and variety that allows. (Somebody told me I make Dickens look like a one-man band!) So suddenly I only had one perspective to work with and a much narrow location. The other books move from a detailed Dublin City to Belfast with occasional side trips to London, New York and India. Tatty doesn’t get much further than the suburbs, so is a smaller canvas by far.

How hard is it to move away from a longer project like a trilogy to a single book like Tatty?
Not exactly hard, just different for the reasons stated above. Also Tatty sees the world through a child’s eyes and children generally only take account of their immediate surroundings. In other words everything had to be relevant and there could be no wandering off on all those lovely tangents that help to pad out the novel.

Do you think Tatty represents a bygone Ireland or is it just as relevant to today’s society?
As long as drink remains a problem, then Tatty’s story is relevant.

Do you write short stories?
I started off writing short stories and I think that’s the way to go as a writer. A short story needs to be tighter than a novel and learning to control it is excellent training. It’s also a very good way to handle an excess of ideas in that they can be spread over a few stories instead of overloading the one novel. I won the short story competition in Listowel Writers Week twice, and another one in The Observer/Penguin competition. This gave me the confidence to try my first novel. I’m hoping to get back to the short story form in the near future.

Why did you become a writer?
There are many other things I would prefer to do but I writing is what I do best (that’s not a boast by the way!) I don’t really know why, I only know it was something inside me since childhood. And now it’s too late to do anything else - a disease with no cure, if you like.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given as a writer?
Rewrite, rewrite and rewrite. Then do it all over again. And this is advice I’ve given to myself but I happen to think it’s the best advice.

How does the writing process work for you - do you write very day regardless or work in blocks on specific projects?
It varies. When I’ve finished I take a little break then bit by bit I have to coax myself into starting something new. A half an hour a day which over a week or two increases by another half an hour until I’m up to four hours. And that’s more than enough, anything after that is punishment for the writer and the writing. The mind also needs space and time to continue the process away from the keyboard. This is when ideas start to take shape, voices start talking, plots unfurl when we least expect it, walking the dog or washing the dishes.

What was the last good book you read?
The book I’m reading at the moment, Shade by Neil Jordan. It’s wonderfully moody, and without mood a novel is nothing. I think Jordan is a very unde-rated writer and so far Shade is more than living up to my expectations.

Shadow: "I read somewhere that this book is about growing up in an alcoholic family I’d be interested to know if the story is based on a true life experience?"
Yes. I come from the background of the alcoholic family, so I know exactly what it’s like to be a child in that environment.

Germinal: "I just wanted to ask what writers have influenced you or which ones do you admire the most?"
I love writers that are visual, books you see as you read. Peter Carey, Neil Jordan, Graham Swift, William Trevor. Carey is probably my favourite because he always tries something different, creating an entirely new world each time. For use of language you can’t beat Joyce and I greatly admire Virginia Wolfe for the same reason. Sharp observers and deft prose-handlers attract me too, like Martin Amis or Evelyn Waugh. Sometimes a writer will give you one perfect book - Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient - others like Cary are consistently good. Novels about India, novels about China, the list is endless but these are the ones that immediately spring to mind.

The Artist: "We have a bit of a discussion going on in here about celebrity book clubs. How would you feel if Tatty was endorsed by Richard and Judy/Oprah or the likes?"
Over the moon and back again.

Mary C: "I would like to know why the author ended the story where she did."
Instinct told me it was time to sign off. I also wanted to leave the story with an air of inevitability. There could be no resolution, because there rarely is in such situations.

Lisa: "I just wanted to ask if Christine thinks that there is too much so called chick lit/beach books coming out of Ireland from women writers and not enough serious books (literature etc)."
All books are fine as long as they’re well written. I do regret this definite division that seems to be foregone conclusion these days ie a book either has to be fluff and nonsense or else something so dense it has to be dredged through. Why can’t literary books be accessible and why can’t some (and I stress some) beach books stop insulting the intelligence of their readers? No matter what side of the fence you’re on a book should give pleasure or at least make us think!

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