- 31 Oct 17
Involved during his time at the Irish Film Board with such creative successes as Good Vibrations, A Date For Mad Mary and Song Of The Sea, ANDREW MEEHAN has now turned his hand to writing fiction. Interview: OLAF TYARANSEN
At his request, Hot Press meets debut author Andrew Meehan in Galway’s award-winning Kai. It comes as little surprise that the 45-year-old wants to do this interview in a restaurant, since the action of his just-published novel, One Star Awake, kicks off in the kitchen of a Parisian eatery.
“You know what, I’m so into my food that I had to write against it,” he admits, as his West Coast crab salad is placed before him. “At the start of the book, the main character Eva works as a dishwasher in a restaurant. But like so many restaurant folk, she eats total crap – sweets and Nutella. She’s a grown woman but in every other way she’s a child, so I had to give her a child’s taste in food. When she drinks wine she spits it out. That’s how you know it’s fiction.”
Meehan spent several years living in Galway when he worked as Head of Development for the Irish Film Board. A good friend of Kai’s owner and head chef Jess Murphy, he’d often come for breakfast, lunch and dinner here. On the same day.
“Food-folk are a bit offbeat, in a way that I like,” he observes as our waiter departs. “Many of them have ended up in restaurants by way of a refuge, because they’ve nowhere else to go. Messers. Driven, generous, hardworking mad fuckers. For all the romantic notions outsiders like me have about restaurants, the restaurant life is really all about attention to detail and delivering consistency. Getting it as right as you can, then washing the pots and getting ready for the next day.”
An imposingly tall, well-built, and politely mannered man, Meehan speaks with a barely discernible Irish accent. His parents are Scottish, but he spent most of his childhood in Ireland (where a short section of the novel is set).
“We lived in Sandycove, in Dublin, when I was a kid. Then, when I was a teenager, we moved back to my parents’ hometown in Scotland and I’ve spent the rest of my life in one place thinking about the other. Ireland, Scotland, Ireland, Scotland.”
Glasgow in the late ’80s was a pretty tough place to come of age. “One thing I always tried to do was stay away from displaying my Irishness,” recalls Meehan. “Sectarianism is very much still alive in Glasgow, and I knew from an early age how to stay on the right side of of all that, how to avoid the conversations in the first place. Going to see The Pogues at the Glasgow Barrowlands was stomach-turning. Burning flags and IRA songs. Where was ‘A Rainy Night In Soho’?”
While living in Glasgow, Meehan became good friends with the members of the then-fledgling Snow Patrol. Just earlier this week, Gary Lightbody tweeted a plug for One Star Awake: “My friend these last 20 years @AndrewMeehanEsq has just published his wonderful first novel. In stores/online now and it’s brilliant.” “I spent most of my twenties in Glasgow,” reflects Meehan, “knocking around with people in the film and music scenes more than anyone who was into books. I can still remember my first visit to the flat where Jonny and Gary from Snow Patrol lived.
Written on the wall beside Gary’s bed – which hadn’t been made, or slept in, probably — were verse after verse of lyrics, as though someone in prison had drawn in chalk on the wall. This was long before he wrote the likes of ‘Run’, but maybe it was a song like ‘An Olive Grove Facing the Sea’. I’d like to think that it was.”
He chuckles at the memory. “I bet they didn’t get their deposit back.” Always an avid reader, Meehan’s love of storytelling initially led him into the world of film and television.
“I’ve been working in script development for over 15 years,” he says, “helping screenwriters make their work better, or at least not any worse. It’s hard to tell sometimes. Way, way back I worked on shows like Bachelors Walk and Pure Mule. Then I had a fair old stint at the Irish Film Board.”
He worked at the IFB’s Galway HQ for six “intense” years. “You were in a position where you could do right by good people. But I’m well aware that for most of the people who were applying for money, I was just some fucker who had signed the letter that told them they weren’t getting what they had applied for.”
Of course, not every filmmaker got rejection letters. “The best part of all that was when something mad and brilliant popped up from the submissions-pile. I still remember the thrill of first reading the screenplay for what became Darren Thornton’s A Date For Mad Mary. I was pacing the floor while finishing it, praying for it to hang together. It did, of course – but even with a strong wind behind the script, it took a while for the film to get made and released. You get used to that with your own work, too. The waiting and the worrying, which never ends, ever. But sometimes you get some of that nervous energy on the page.”
Meehan had always dreamed of being a writer, but only began writing fiction when living in Galway. “The first story I wrote won the New Writing Award at the Cúirt Festival, at which point I thought it would all be plain fucking sailing,” he smiles. “At the time, being included in the margins of my favourite literary festival was a big event in my little life, and gave me some of the wherewithal to keep going.”
Funny, inventive and brilliantly written, One Star Awake is a lyrical mystery featuring a woman who has lost – or perhaps repressed – her memory. Paced like a thriller, it’s part psychological study, part love story.
“The novel began, as everything does for me, in Galway. I used to see a woman around town, clearly in emotional peril as well as some kind of mental distress. But, at the same time, she was going through the motions of a normal existence. There were occasions when I saw her that she seemed happy. I once saw her in a hotel on Inis Mór and, on the surface of it, she was having a fine old time of it. But something was wrong. Even though I couldn’t help her, I wanted to give her a more hopeful future. In fiction, at least.
“I wouldn’t call it an experimental novel exactly – I don’t know that term means – but it was an experiment for me, in that I wanted to avoid back-story altogether. So many of those big important books – and I’m not saying One Star Awake is a big, important book! – are about ‘the pasht’ and I was drawn towards a character who had no notion of hers. Of course, as soon as you attempt to ignore all of that stuff, it comes right back at you. Fucking everything becomes about the past.”
The novel might have been inspired by Galway, but he set it in Paris. “Why Paris?” he muses. “Paris made itself available to me, in that it wouldn’t get out of the way. I have been going there for about 25 years — most of the time having a shite old time of it and pretending I wasn’t — so I thought I’d try to work with that uneasiness. It’s not as if I have a grudge against the place, but Paris does put me on edge. I never feel I’m getting it right. Someone else, somewhere else, is having a better time than me. So that all fed into it.”
“Speaking of being fed… let’s eat!”
One Star Awake is published by New Island.