Robert McCrum: talks to John McGahern: about his long-awaited latest novel, the revolution in Irish society and cows
McCrum: Does your new novel have a particular theme?
McGahern: Amongst Women concentrated on the family, and the new book concentrates on a small community. The dominant units in Irish society are the family and the locality. The idea was that the whole world would grow out from that small space.
McCrum: What did you mean by the title: That They May Face the Rising Sun?
McGahern: It goes back to the origin of paganism in Ireland. I belong to the middle class that grew up very influenced by the Catholic church. The people of the novel are from a more pagan and practical world in which the Christianity is just a veneer.
McCrum: Its been about 12 years since Amongst Women. Why is that?
McGahern: I write very slowly. Id much prefer to write more quickly. I admire Evelyn Waugh very much and envy that he could write a novel in six weeks. It takes me something like six years.
McCrum: Was there a particular moment of inspiration?
McGahern: Ive never written anything that hasnt been in my mind for a long time - seven or eight years. The idea of the lake was in my mind for a long time. The BBC commissioned me to write a short story in which I used the lake. The story itself was a love affair that became a murder, that became a different sort of affair. At one stage the novel was 1,500 pages and it got cut down to 300 pages.
McCrum: The book is a timeless picture of Ireland, but its also contemporary and you have references to Blind Date, to Enniskillen, and to contemporary politics.
McGahern: The IRA leader lives in the town. Ireland is a peculiar society in the sense that it was a nineteenth century society up to about 1970 and then it almost bypassed the twentieth century.
McCrum: Some of the changes that have happened in Ireland in the last 20 years seem to have crept into the novel.
McGahern: For example, its only about 20 years ago the people in that community would have got telephone lines, and it would be only about in the 1950s that electricity came to that part of the world. Television wouldnt have come till 1970.
McCrum: Politics is offstage. Youve got the IRA character whos in the village and youve also got references to the North, like rumbles of thunder away from the action.
McGahern: Well the IRA leader is there but Im much more interested in him as an ordinary person in the community. Hes both an auctioneer and an undertaker.
McCrum: He felt this must be happiness. As soon as the thought came to him he fought it back, blaming the whiskey. The very idea was as dangerous as presumptive speech. Happiness could not be sought or worried into being, or even fully grasped. It should be allowed its own slow pace so that it passes unnoticed if it ever comes at all. Is that your view?
McGahern: Thats exactly it. I think that complete happiness isnt possible in life and when it happens its not noticed. I think people forget that complete unhappiness is as equally unachievable as complete happiness.
McCrum: Did you always want to write novels and stories?
McGahern: I certainly wouldnt be a writer except for an accident: I was given access to a library when I was young. It was a nineteenth century library owned by Protestants in County Roscommon. Very charming people. The father was a beekeeper, the son was an astronomer. Delightful people but totally impractical and sold apples for money. I used to take five or six books away and bring five or six books back. Nobody gave me direction or advice and I read much in the way that a boy might watch television.
McCrum: Who were the writers you were reading at that time?
McGahern: There was all sorts - Dickens, Scott, Zane Grey, cowboy writers. There were many books in that library about the Rocky Mountains.
McCrum: Who do you think influenced you as a writer?
McGahern: I think that each of us inhabits a private world that others cannot see. The only difference between the writer and the reader is that the writer is able to dramatise that private world. But that private world, once its dramatised, doesnt live again until it finds a reader. When I start to write, words have become physical presence. It was to see if I could bring that private world to life that found its first expression through reading. I really dislike the romantic notion of the artist.
McCrum: Do you think writing can be taught?
McGahern: No. I think technique can be taught but I think the only way to learn to write is to read, and I see writing and reading as completely related. One almost couldnt exist without the other.
McCrum: Who do you read now?
McGahern: I read all the time. I was reading a book I admire very much by Alice McDermot called Charming Billy.
McCrum: Do you follow Irish writing?
McGahern: Not much. Its such a small country that if a friend gives me a book...
McCrum: Do you have an idea about the purpose of fiction?
McGahern: The very old one is to help you to enjoy life or to endure it. I mean, if writing doesnt give you pleasure its no good.
McCrum: You live on a farm in Leitrim: is the farm a happy distraction or an annoyance to you as a writer?
McGahern: It began as a very foolish idea. My wife, who is American, liked the place and it was she who wanted to live there. We were young enough at that time to live anywhere. She saw this place near where I grew up and the idea was that one could live very cheaply and write. In fact its the writing keeps the animals in great style these days.
McCrum: How much has Ireland changed?
McGahern: Its a very interesting country: it has changed more in the last 20 years than it has changed in the previous 200. I feel I grew up in a different century than I live in. I think most of them are changes for the good.
McCrum: Like the end of church influence?
McGahern: Yes, though I have nothing but gratitude for my upbringing in the church. I love the description of Gothic churches before the printed word, that they were the bibles of the poor. The Catholic church was my first book, but Im delighted that the influence over political and sexual matters has disappeared. To a certain extent the novel describes that world almost as its ending. That world only exists in small pockets now, but it is the world that I knew and lived in.
McCrum: What do you think youll do next?
McGahern: Not write for a while.
McCrum: Look after the cows?
[ John McGahern [...] will be reading from his novel in the Purcell Room at 7.30pm on 31 January, box office 020 7960 4242 ]