- 05 Apr 19
She’s one of Ireland’s most beloved writers, but having been diagnosed with cancer months after beginning her new novel, The Narrow Land, Christine Dwyer Hickey was convinced it would never see the light of day. Four years on from starting it – and looking the picture of health – she talks to Peter McGoran about writing, recovery, and Irish fiction.
Christine Dwyer Hickey is an effusive person. When she sits down for an interview with Hot Press in a central Dublin hotel, she’s chatty in the way that you wouldn’t predict from reading her restrained prose. More than anything, she’s open and unguarded when she talks about herself, her writing process, even her recent brush with death.
This March, Christine published her tenth novel, The Narrow Land. The novel focuses on an orphaned German refugee who is sent away to Cape Cod during the summer of 1950 and finds himself reluctantly in the care of a family who might well be considered America’s ‘1 per cent’. As he whiles away the summer with another young boy Richie – the lonely son of an army general killed in battle – he encounters the famous, but creatively frustrated, artist Edward Hopper and his jealous wife, the artist Josephine.
The Narrow Land is a novel about marriage, class, art, childhood innocence and the residual effects of war on the mind. Stylistically, Hickey’s writing is understated, ambiguous and modernist – not dissimilar to the work of Hopper himself. It’s an assured novel, which belies its truly fraught making.
“I was at the early stages of writing this book and I got very sick,” says Christine. “I had cancer in my kidney and I had to get the kidney out, so that floored me. I’m grand now, but I had a very long recovery and I did sort of get a bout of… I suppose I can recognise it now as post-surgery depression. I already have – you’re gonna say I should’ve got a fucking doctor with me for this one!” she laughs – “but I already have a problem with my autoimmune system, and I have to have medication to keep the immune system from going haywire.” She pauses. “I just thought… I actually thought ‘I’m dying’. But in the end, the cancer was contained, and I was one of the lucky ones.”
While she was recovering, Hickey became fixated on the work of Edward Hopper. Before she’d even decided on making him a character in her novel, she’d settled on Cape Cod as the setting – imagining what it would be like to have a young child, raised through the horrors of World War II in Germany, ending up in the environment which inspired some of America’s most famous 20th century paintings.
“I’d been thinking about the question of the refugees coming into Europe,” she says. “I was watching the refugee crisis in Europe. I spend a lot of time in Italy, and you see the crisis first hand there. Then I read something about President Truman. After the war, he decreed this thing where all children – as many children as possible – would be brought back to America. The complete opposite to Trump: ‘Don’t worry about the papers, we don’t care if they were Jewish children or German children, what kind of children they were. Just get them out of those holding camps, get them here and we can try to help them.’ So that stayed with me.
Then I was also looking at how America prospered from the Second World War. The war got them out of a recession, got money moving, but then post-war, women often had to make room for ‘the returning heroes’, they had to get back into the house and become the American housewife. And if you look back, it was very heavily marketed, this idea of the housewife, with the station wagon and the nice kitchen and all these mod cons as sort of compensation. So women seemed to be a little bewildered by this adjustment. Overall, I just found this time of transition in America to be very interesting.”
The original idea broadened beyond simply telling the story of this refugee and began exploring the marriage of Edward and Josephine Hopper. “I read about Edward Hopper and I’ve always been interested in this idea of how anyone could talk about you after you’ve died. We have very strong libel laws and slander laws, but after you’re dead people can say anything at all about you. I’d read a recent biography of James Joyce and another one of Charles Dickens and I saw how the author changed from supposition to fact within a couple of chapters, and I thought ‘there’s nothing to back up a lot of this – no evidence’. So I read about Edward Hopper, and his wife Jo had a diary which said some terrible things about him, but as I read more I realised the only evidence is this woman’s diary. And you could see she was quite volatile in her writing. She’s up and down. One minute she just adores the ground he walks on, the next he’s the biggest bastard under the sun? So I really wanted to explore their relationship.”
Is there a moral implication that comes with fictionalising the lives of real people?
“There is,” she nods, “and I’ve always been a bit sniffy about it. I think it’s intrusive and I think I had a cheek to do it! I didn’t say ‘oh yes, I’m going to write about the Hoppers’. I really just got very interested in them and started thinking about their marriage and the difference between the two of them. When I started to read about him I said ‘he has no voice because nobody is speaking up for him’. People, including biographers, have taken Jo Hopper’s words in her diaries and used them as fact.
“But there is always a moral implication I think. In a small way, I have second-hand experience of it. When I was growing up, my father was a very good friend of Patrick Kavanagh, and after Kavanagh died, he was often approached by biographers and he never spoke about it his friendship with him. But then you’d see people – people who Kavanagh wouldn’t have given the time of day to – suddenly become experts on him. And they might want to talk for the very fact that he was dismissive of them or rude to them and they held a grudge. So you have to be very sensitive about doing it.”
The idea of being able to own your story, your history, is an interesting one in the age of universal internet access – where libel laws don’t exactly hold much weight. Does Christine regularly check up on her online presence?
“Apparently I have a Wikipedia page!” she laughs. “I try to avoid myself if I can. I’ve got three kids and if there’s anything going on they’ll tell me. You don’t do your own Wikipedia page, it’s none of your business anyways, so you have to let whoever’s doing it judge. So no, I mean, I’m sure people say things about me. They’re going to do that anyway.”
Do you keep abreast of Irish fiction?
“Well I hear about more Irish fiction than I get a chance to read unfortunately,” she says. “I was asked to launch two books by Irish writers, Michèle Forbes and Rebecca O’Connor, so I read them and I liked them very much. I honestly can’t say that I read much more fiction than that.”
People talk about the Irish scene going through a ‘Golden Age’ at the minute.
“I think it is, particularly female writers,” agrees Hickey. “When I started out as a writer it was completely different. You know, you would’ve had Jennifer Johnston, Edna O’Brien and very few others. There was a women’s press that sort of clumped a lot of us in together, and then there were a few poets alright, and that was kind of it. I always felt on my own, but now it’s changed. I think it’s great that all these young, female writers are coming up, like Lisa McInerney and Sara Baume. I haven’t read Sally Rooney yet, but I’m looking forward to it. It’s brilliant, they’re not sitting in a corner waiting until someone says, ‘OK, you can come forward now, we might listen to you.’ No, they’re just straight into the scene. I have great admiration for them.”
I mention that a go-to for interviewers these days is scrolling through Twitter to see what others might be writing about their interviewee. Graham Norton was praising The Narrow Land on the morning of our interview.
Where does Christine land on writers having a social media presence? She chuckles. “Publishers always want you to have it. I did a guest blog recently and that’s a compromise. But sure listen – if I had Twitter I’d be on it all day and I’d be giving out shit, complaining! I’ve never seen it so I don’t know what it’s like, but I can imagine it can get very bitchy. I know that a lot of writers use it, but do I need it now at this stage? I might as well stay off it.”
The Narrow Land is published by Atlantic Press.