Eugene McCabe in Conversation with Simion D, in Irish Studies Review (Summer 1994)

[ Bibliographical note:  ‘‘‘This Place Owns Me’’: Eugene McCabe in Conversation with Simion D, in Irish Studies Review, (Summer 1994), pp.28-30. Simion D is a Romanian writer and freelance journalist living in Ireland. article incls. a photo-port. by Ray Geary. ]

THIS IS A PLACE for a writer to live, one is tempted to say, when the old house comes in sight at the top of the hill. Dignified, intriguing, remote and yet calling. Guarded by the tall trees on the green April lawn, it dominates the surroundings. The winding lane takes me to the front door. My thoughts go towards space as a fundamental dimension in Eugene McCabe’s writings.
 I met Eugene McCabe at a prose and poetry reading organised by ‘Windows Publications’ in the Monaghan County Museum. It did not take us long to realise we had quite a ground for conversation. ‘Talking about writing is fascinating’, he said, as we were reviewing an entire literary pantheon: Shakespeare, Beckett, Swift (whom he wrote a play about), and Joyce, whom he considers ‘a giant’. ‘He has the kind of reality that none of the writers here has. You can hear the people, you can see them’. He points at ‘the exactness of description’: Joyce is so meticulous, yet there is poetry in it, and so much comedy’.
 McCabe has a reputation for rarely making public appearances and for shying away from publicity, but becomes loquacious when talking about writing and writers. He considers Kavanagh influenced his own writing; Death of a Salesman, the film after Arthur  Miller’s ‘play of the century’, also made an impact. ‘I would have liked to have written those plays’, he says, enumerating Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, ‘the best Irish play, beyond comedy, terribly Irish, terribly funny’; Friel’s Faith Healer and Translations; O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, ‘awfully good but not mighty, something for all times’.
 Time was short and we agreed to continue our conversation at a later date. I dared ask for an interview. He accepted: next evening, at his place.
 —And here I am in search of Drumard, his residence outside Clones. With only some vague directions I got in town, I have to ask further. The area is peaceful at this time. No one in sight. Why not try here, a possible place for a writer, if a writer’s place can be defined? I cannot help noticing the stone table and bench on the grass, like a miniature dolmen. The door is opened. I explain my confused smile: this is a place for a writer.
 McCabe’s fictional space cannot be separated from the real geographic locations: Ulster, Fermanagh and Monaghan mainly. ‘This is my universe because I’ve been here since I was ten. In writing you describe what you see.’ I point at the fact that he was born in Glasgow in 1930 of Irish parents, and was educated in Dublin and Cork. I detected only one short story, “Truth”, set somewhere other than Ulster. ‘It is this place that has me by the short and curlier’, he confesses. ‘I went as a writer in residence to Glasgow for a period of six months, over the winter. I could have stayed there ... I came back and continued farming. My God, I was glad to be back!’
 The moody April has chosen a mild twilight for this second meeting of ours. Inviting to recollection. To nostalgia. ‘It was in the month of May’, he goes on. ‘I didn’t realise, when I was away, how much I missed it.’
 Nostalgia for a faraway place is common, but it is nostalgia for living and working in the place he loves that makes me identify with Eugene McCabe - the writer and the space, his space, a strong relationship, not always an easy one but deep, essential, just like the fundamental feelings that rule his writings. He could go and live somewhere else, ‘by the sea or outside Dublin’. ‘It wouldn’t have to be the anxiety of the land, because there is an anxiety.’ On the other hand, maybe the land, maybe living here, working here, did compensate for the take-up that I didn’t produce the books I wanted to produce’. The places have their tales and histories, the writer puts them down. “Music at Annahullion” is based on what happened ‘a few miles from here, across the river’; Death and Nightingales is the literary re-working of ‘a tale from across the lake’.
 McCabe’s routes in life appear like circles starting and ending at Drumard. Most of his short stories, his latest novel too, have a circular construction. An ordinary or extraordinary event, emotion or thought, sets the characters in motion. A catalyst - fundamental feelings, tribalism, politics - determines development and fate. This is all on the background of a space which is always there, always the same, as eternal to us as the cosmic elements. ‘This place owns me’, he says. ‘It has its tentacles round me, round my heart, my brain, my blood. It’s like a woman!’
 McCabe’s Ulster is Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha, Steinbeck’s Pastures of Heaven, Joyce’s Dublin, Marquez’s Macondo. Always present in two dimensions: the real and the fictional. Had it not existed, I’m sure McCabe would have invented it.
 ‘I think I should write more. My time is running out’, [28]  he says when I ask about future projects. He often mentions time. I do not intend to extract a space/time physics formula from his life and work, but it occurs to me that the antagonism between astronomic and fictional time is obvious: long pauses between periods of intense creativity, with generous margin given to the final version (‘I do a lot of revisions’; ‘It took me five years to complete Death and Nightingales’); at the other end, an elaborate and precise use of the time of the  fiction, the narrative skilfully geared into the chosen niche.
 At the age of ten, McCabe was writing poetry; at twenty, short stories; at thirty, plays and novels. Death and Nightingales was published two years ago. Now he is writing the screenplay for the film based on his book. He is a complex writer, at ease with most of the genres, but he inclines towards the novel as his favourite form of expression and suggests ‘a bit of advice to other [29' photo-port by Rory Geary] writers may be: publishers want novels, they don’t want short stories’.
 How did he become a novelist? ‘When I was twenty and still a college student I was first published by Irish Writing. Probably that was the most exciting day in my life. Irish Writing published the major Irish writers of all times. I said: My God, I’m a writer! Having read that short story, people in Rupert Hart Davies publishing asked me to write a novel. I sent off that novel and they sent it back with the nicest possible letter. There was a but, I quote: “but as it stands it is not publishable.”! I put it in the drawer. I don’t think I looked at it in years.
 ‘There was a six-years gap after that rejection. I was thirty when I started to write again. But every day I kept saying: I have to write, I have to write. I began with a television play. In the seventies I stopped farming completely and for the next ten years I was involved in stage and television plays and a lot of commercial writing. That educated the family and kept me here, kept shoes on the children.
 ‘Then I stopped writing. Partly because although all the work I had done so far had almost without exception a very good critical response, nothing ever took off. All right, I had all these awards, but in the end, if your books are not selling in the thousands you have to keep doing commercial work to keep food on the table.’ He smiles and there is a concealed sigh in this. ‘Commercial success with good work. If we knew the recipe we’d all do that!’ He pauses, then almost whispers: ‘I suppose this latest novel is fortunate insofar ...’
 It comes after a silence of sixteen years. ‘What happened was ... we have over one hundred and sixty acres here, we have three sons, and I imagined that one of them would want to begin farming, so I geared up the farm again. As you grow older you can’t divide your time between what is serious farming and writing. It took all my energy. Then I realised that none of my sons would go into farming. I got rid of my cattle and I started to write again. I am writing again and I won’t go into farming again!’
 So, what was McCabe all these sixteen years? What did he call himself, a writer or a farmer? ‘I think most writers are possibly a little bit shy. When it came to describing myself in any official kind of form I always put “farmer”. Writer sounds ... pretentious. Which is a nonsense, because I had a lot of work produced on stage, a lot of television work, a lot of commercial work, short stories and novels published. So, I think I could call myself a writer.’
 What did he feel like? ‘I felt as a writer. I said that at the age of ten I was writing poetry and I always dreamt  of writing and being published. It certainly never got out of my head, I always wanted to keep doing it, and one of the reasons I stopped at different times is that, I suppose, like all writers, I was very ambitious to do something excellent.’
 He heard the tale for Death and Nightingales in an April garden. He became interested to find out ‘the psychology of what happened’, and he wrote a short story: ‘It certainly deserved more. I wrote a short novel.’ Still not enough. The third approach, the new novel, is now considered a masterpiece of contemporary Irish literature.
 It is set in Fermanagh one day in 1883, which could be 1993. It is a psychological thriller against the background of the tense political situation and tribalism. As the author puts it, ‘What I always have in mind when I write is the political situation.’
 At the beginning, the story evolves around two main characters: the Protestant landowner Billy Winters, and Elizabeth, his Catholic step-daughter. The third main role is played by Liam, Billy’s tenant and Beth’s lover, who acts first as a catalyst, and finishes directly involved. The three are supported by a secondary ‘cast’ which includes the unforgettable Dummy and the powerful presence of, paradoxically, an absent character, Elizabeth’s mother. There are strong and often tense relationships at different levels: class, creed, sex, nationality; love, hate, betrayal; the haunting past. No matter how antagonistic the interests, there is nothing Manichean about the characters’ behaviour, which makes the story a complex expression of feelings and the actions that they give rise to.
 The novel is wrongly seen, sometimes, as centred on the Ulster problem. Narrowing its significance is an injustice to the writer, for Death and Nightingales is a major achievement which can be understood and appreciated beyond geographic or culture barriers. Stripped of the direct references and a few particularities, as it will be in the forthcoming film, ‘the story stands, because the story is important’, he says. ‘I hope my screenplay will show that’. Preoccupied by this, he does not have immediate future projects or ‘work in progress’. ‘I don’t think I’ll write again until the screenplay is finished. It’s a large amount of work. You have to drop everything once they start the production.’
 I wish him success in writing a script for Death and Nightingales. As he says of the novel, ‘I’m afraid it’s universal.’ [End]

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