NB’s Latest Recommended Read – find out more in our winter issue with its theme of “Family”

Publisher: Doubleday     6th January 2022

ISBN: 978-0857525758    HB

Hello and thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions!
I wondered if you could first tell our readers a little bit about your writing process – has it changed during the past year or so?

Absolutely. Prior to Lockdown, I was a coffee shop writer. I drew a lot of inspiration from being around people when writing. I liked to watch people and see how they moved and interacted. I had a wee routine of walking to the same coffee shop to write most mornings. I spent Lockdown entirely by myself, re-learning how to write in quiet and isolation. It wasn’t easy and I’m so glad to be back in my coffee shop writing again. I’m not sure whether it’s related or not but almost everything I wrote during the Lockdown period was in first person rather than the third person I’m usually most comfortable with. Perhaps I just spent too much time inside my own head.

Also, given what the world has gone through recently – apologies if you have been asked this question so many times(!) – I wondered if your own experience of the pandemic informed the content of The Raptures?

Bizarrely, The Raptures was completed a good six months before the pandemic began but it has been odd and a little unsettling to see real life paralleling some of the events in the novel. In a strange way, watching how people reacted to a period of deep fear and uncertainty reassured me that I’d depicted a similar scenario in The Raptures quite accurately. Novels and stories often take on a resonance beyond themselves after they’re completed but I never envisioned anything like Covid 19. I’ll have to be very careful about what I write next.

The unfolding action in The Raptures is a child and your characterisation is incredibly convincing. I really felt as though I was watching the world unravel through the eyes of a child. How difficult did you find the process of writing from a child’s perspective?

I love setting myself challenges to explore different perspectives with my characters. It can get boring writing the same thing all the time. My last novel, The Fire Starters was told through the eyes of two men, so a young girl felt like quite a leap. I spent a lot of time thinking about how I might have expressed myself and experienced the world at Hannah’s age, (we’re from very similar backgrounds) and I also drew a lot from my wee niece who was around Hannah’s age when I began writing. There’s a particularly heightened way that children see the world and I’m often drawn to child narrators because of this. You can also do really interesting things with honesty and self-awareness which it’s harder to pull off in an adult character.

In simple terms, you could describe The Raptures as an exploration of the ways in which people with different faiths, contexts, and backgrounds deal with difficult circumstances. Is the study of human reactions to adversity something that interests you? And do you think this is a good way to understand fundamental differences between people?

Growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles I could see that a huge part of the problem here came from people’s inability to tolerate and respect difference. This is still sadly apparent in our political and religious structures. I’ve always been drawn to those brave and wise people who mirrored how to engage in honest dialogue, how to disagree well and respectfully, and how to live with difference. It’s a theme I’ll probably keep circling back to in my work because it not only generates interesting scenarios, it’s also absolutely fundamental to the future of Northern Ireland.

There are elements of magical realism in The Raptures, so I wanted to ask you a few questions about this genre. First, how would you personally define magical realism?

I always say quite simply, magical realism is set in the realist world but peppered with fantastical happenings.

Second, could you explain why you chose to include elements of magical realism in The Raptures? In your opinion, what is the function of magical realism and the suspension of belief in your book?

I’ve always been a magical realist. I think I just have too much imagination. I’m drawn to those writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie who used magical elements to interrogate key issues in the socio-political make up of their countries. To me Northern Ireland seems like the perfect setting for magical realism with its heady mix of religion, politics and a strong grounding in myth and folklore. The fantastical elements in my stories force the reader to look at a piece of history or aspect of culture they’re incredibly familiar with, in a new light. In relation to Northern Ireland, where the history can often feel tired and over-discussed, the ability to approach with fresh eyes can be invaluable.

And lastly, do you have any recommendations for excellent works of magical realism?

My two favourites are Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum. I’m also currently loving the new raft of contemporary magical realist writing, particularly work coming out of Argentina by Samanta Schweblin and Mariana Enriquez.

In a recent interview, you talked about the idea that if you, as a writer, can make people feel unsettled, you can make them pay attention to certain ideas. I love this idea and I just wondered, what are you hoping your readers pay attention to in The Raptures?

With The Raptures I would love readers to consider the fact that while the Troubles dominated the landscape of Northern Ireland towards the end of the twentieth century, there were other stories also taking place at the same time. This is a novel about the margins of our culture: the rural, the religious, the quiet communities who were both impacted by and, in many ways, oblivious to the Troubles. These people nonetheless added to the hostility by adamantly refusing to embrace difference.

“Inside the museums, infinity goes up on trial,
Voices echo, this is what salvation must be like after a while.” Bob Dylan

I was so fascinated to hear about your academic expertise in Bob Dylan’s rhetoric and I’d love to ask you about something you said about these lyrics of Visions of Johanna: ‘Warning against the desire to explain or quantify something as infinite and complex as faith. So much gets lost when the answer becomes more important than the question.’  I apologise for quoting you back to yourself, but I absolutely loved your interpretation of the lyrics and I wondered if you could talk to us a little bit more about this idea and how it links to the themes in The Raptures.

I grew up in a very conservative Presbyterian community, similar to the one explored in The Raptures. Having realised I was an artist at a very young age I struggled to reconcile my idea of both myself and God, as I’d come to understand the mysterious, creative, inscrutable God of the Bible, with the very tight, constrictive and legalistic religion I was subjected to. I felt very strongly that the Presbyterians I’d encountered were taking the most interesting, appealing parts of religion and attempting to make them tame and dull. In the novel, Hannah is encountering a similar kind of epiphany as she tries to reconcile her fantastical experiences with the tight, legalistic understanding of faith she’s been brought up with.

Finally, could you tell us a little bit about your experience of being a writer who is embedded within the community that you write about. How do you remain distant and observational while being so close to the community?

I equally value my own writing and the community arts facilitation I’ve been involved in for the last twenty years. I see both as a creative outlet and expression of who I am and remain incredibly grateful to be part of a community here in Belfast which both inspires my writing and supports me as a writer. I’ll be honest and say I don’t always get the balance right in terms of boundaries. I tend to write about the place where I live, work and write so there’s very little separation between my work and my personal life. Sometimes this can be a little exhausting. However, it means I do very little research for stories, (I tend to write about what I observe and am part of). I was also incredibly grateful, during Lockdown, to live in an area where my daily walks always led to chance encounters with other friends and fellow artists who live in this neighbourhood. Lockdown made me feel incredibly lucky to be a writer grounded and known within a community.

Thank you so much for your time!
Madeleine, NB Magazine