Friday, March 28, 2014

Interview with M.J. Neary

Yesterday I reviewed M.J. Neary's wonderful novel of the early 20th century movement for Irish independence, Never Be at Peace. I'm thrilled to share my interview with Neary, so read on to learn more about her and her books.

What was the plot of your very first piece of fiction?

If you are referring to my first novel-length piece of fiction, that would be "Wynfield's Kingdom: a Tale of the London Slums". I started writing it at the age of 15, and completed it at 31. It was featured on the cover of the First Edition Magazine in the UK (no longer in print, unfortunately) and reviewed favorably in the Neo-Victorian Studies Journal in Wales. The novel opens in 1830s Bermondsey, London's most notorious slum, a land of gang wars, freak shows and every depravity known to man. Dr. Thomas Grant, a disgraced physician, adopts Wynfield, a ten-year old thief savagery battered by the gang leader for insubordination. The boy grows up to be a slender, idealistic opium addict who worships Victor Hugo. By day he steals and resells guns from a weapons factory, and by night he amuses filthy crowds with his adolescent girlfriend - a fragile witch with wolfish eyes. The novel also has a theatrical spinoff under the title "Hugo in London". The spunky English thief becomes the prototype for Hugo's rebel heroes.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

As a working mother I write whenever I can. Sometimes I rehearse dialogues on my way to work, and then at the end of the day I write them down. Writing doesn't necessarily mean sitting down and writing physically. Sometimes I will spend days and weeks tinkering with a scene or a character in my head. I find that I need to let the text ferment inside my head. Eventually the unnecessary pieces will shrivel up and fall off organically.

Was Never Be At Peace the original title of your book?

Interestingly enough, the original title was "Tears of Emer". Emer was the protagonist's stage and pen name which she borrowed from the Irish mythology. In reality she had nothing in common with that mythological heroine. Emer embodied feminine guile and cruelty, and did not cry unless she was trying to manipulate a male in her presence, while Helena was tomboyish, open-hearted, naive and self-sacrificing. Even though Helena is the central figure, the novel is not just about her, so I changed the title to something broader which would apply to an entire generation of Irish freedom-fighters. My husband suggested incorporating a fragment from Pearse's speech. Never be at peace ... The irony is that peace was never in the cards for Ireland, not after a semblance of freedom was achieved. There was still a lot of bloodshed and suffering in store for the newly liberated nation.

As you were writing Never Be At Peace, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

I would not say that any particular character surprised me, since I did a lot of research. Did I come across a few interesting revelations while researching the lives of Irish revolutionaries? Absolutely. Irish history is so full of contradictions. The biggest contradiction is around the role of women. It was mind-boggling how Ireland took a step back into patriarchal theocracy after splitting from Great Britain. While Ireland was still fighting for her freedom, women were expected to fight shoulder to shoulder with their husbands and brothers. As soon as the Irish finally won their freedom, they drove their women back into the kitchen. It's totally bizarre. The Constitution of 1937 explicitly states that the woman's place is at home. It was perfectly legal to fire women automatically as soon as they got married. The understanding was that if a woman was married, she would start having kids one after another (contraception was outlawed), and she would simply have no time to work. Jobs were reserved for men who had families to support and single women who had nobody to count on. Married women were deemed useless in the workforce. Divorce was also outlawed, so if a married woman was not happy with her husband, she had no way out. No birth control, no job prospects. So while the rest of the world was moving forward, Ireland took a huge step backwards.

Read any good books recently?

As matter of fact, I have read several great novels. Most of them were published by small specialty presses. I find that mainstream books published by big NYC based publishers do not move me. If you want something authentic, original, honest, though-provoking, you have to turn to small presses. You are not going to go to Applebee's for a unique meal. It's a little depressing when you go to a chain book store and see 10 young adult books depicting the same girl with dark roots in a tank top with a layer of gloss over her lips. Great. More Twilight knock-offs. Just what the world needs. I don't go to bookstores anymore. I get e-books online. I love learning about other cultures, so one of the books I read recently was "A Year of Starless Nights" about the plight of a child-bride in modern rural India. I tell you, it's a must-read for all Western women who think they are "oppressed".

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My thanks to Ms. Neary for her time and thoughtful answers. You can learn more about Never Be at Peace at the publisher's website.

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