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  Curled Up With a Good Book
An interview with Peter Murphy, author of *Lagan Love*

Recently, I read Peter Murphy's magnificent debut novel, Lagan Love, based on the 15th-century song "My Lagan Love." The sweeping romantic tour de force tracks rising Irish poet Aidan Greeley's love affair with aspiring Canadian painter Janice. Although Janice has an inkling that Aidan is attracted to any pretty face he meets (and vice-versa), they fall for each other. Sinead, Janice's only real female friend, warns her about Aidan's love 'em and leave 'em attitude - she knows from firsthand experience - but Janice doesn't listen to her.

Gwen Fitzwilliam, another of Aidan's lovers and his poetic muse, is in a marriage of convenience. She and her husband, Maurice, are Aidan's patrons and book publisher. Is Gwen something more, though - is she one of the beings known as the lenanshee, fairy spirits who can magnify a person's creativity through passionate sex but who exact a high price for their services? Will she destroy the love that burns between Aidan and Janice?

Peter Murphy graciously agreed to this interview to answer some of these questions and more. Perhaps you will begin to fall under the lenanshee's spell, too, or the silkie's, or simply of this winning debut novel.

- Douglas R. Cobb

Interviewer Douglas R. Cobb: As I note in my review of Lagan Love, I was amazed at how well you handle the POV perspectives of the main female characters in your novel. Was it any more difficult for you writing from their points of view then a male's, like Aidan's?

Peter Murphy: Yes! As a man, writing a woman’s POV, I had to try to see things from a very different perspective. I believe that men and women approach the same issues from opposite sides. I believe that women are more likely to use empathy while men will try to apply a type of logic – and in Aidan’s case this was a very self-serving logic! While this is a very general and sweeping statement, in lieu of a detailed discourse it serves to describe the challenge.

Also, the three female characters were very different from each other and that demanded that I find different reactions and emotions for each one but I also wanted them to have commonalities.

It was also interesting to me that while Janice and Aidan are very similar in that they both crave acknowledgement and recognition, and are both prepared to do whatever is required, the reaction to Aidan is often less positive.

You mention several iconic Irish authors and poets in your novel, James Joyce, Patrick Kavanagh, Austin Clarke, Brendan Behan, and William Butler Yeats, and you grew up in a household of books. Do you have a personal favorite among these who has influenced your own writing? What non-Irish authors/poets are among your favorites?

I have enormous respect and admiration for all of those mentioned but I don’t have a favourite, per se. Recently, I have become fascinated by the work of Austin Clarke, having just read Austin Clarke Remembered, a collection of essays, poems and reminiscences published in 1996 to mark the centenary of the poet’s birth. Clarke lived in an old house by the river, just down the street from where I grew up, and I often saw him, standing on the bridge, looking down into the Dodder. For me, his work mirrored the landscape around me and also echoed the whispered conversations of adults; murmurs of dissent about where the Irish state was heading.

Outside of Ireland, I have been moved and greatly affected by the magic-realism of the South American writers and in particular, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Beyond his more celebrated works, I found the opening lines of Chronicle of a Death Foretold to be one of the most compelling beginnings I have ever read.

Similarly the verse of Pablo Neruda is always worth another read – as is the work of Dylan Thomas.

Recently I have begun to look at the writings of Portuguese poets and in particular; Fernando Pessoa whose following verse has given me much to think about:

O poeta é um fingidor
Finge tão completamente
Que chega a fingir que é dor
A dor que deveras sente

The poet is a faker
Who's so good at his act
He even fakes the pain
Of pain he feels in fact.

Have ever read James Joyce's Ulysses in its entirety. Many people acknowledge how great the novel is but say it’s a chore to read. Are those opinions justified?

Yes, I have read it, and yes, it took effort and many false starts. It is well worth the effort though, if for no other reason than it was a redefinition of style and content. But it is also a very lyrical and, in places, very funny. I liked the ‘music’ of it and I liked that it challenged the reader to take the leap of faith that the best of writing demands.

Lagan Love is set in Ireland during the mid-1980s, a period that's come to be known as the Celtic Twilight. What is the Celtic Twilight, and why did you choose to set your novel during this transitional period in Ireland's recent history?

The term ‘Celtic Twilight’ usually refers to the Irish Literary revival of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Towered over by the likes of W.B.Yeats, it is, for me, the period when the Irish reviewed their heritage through a nationalistic filter and not as an under-culture within the British Empire.

What resulted was a conflict between artists and clergy each striving to pull the fledgling state in different directions. I choose the mid-1980s, because, for me, it was the end of that era in that what followed was a conflux of external influences.

The following period, known as the Celtic Tiger, was one of huge economic expansion that brushed aside much that was Irish up to that point. Gone was the nagging inferiority complex and craven subservience to the distortions of the past. However, for me, the great growth in confidence and economic standing the country enjoyed led to a form of arrogance and a disregard for all that had happened before. That was a factor in driving the Bohemian Dublin I loved into the corners. Through the last decade, my visits to Dublin seemed to confirm that but this year, now that the dust of the economic reality has begun to settle, I found that much that I thought was lost for ever is re-emerging and that was my greatest hope in writing Lagan Love.

Grogan's is an actual pub in Dublin where you personally spent both time and money in. Have you drawn from your observations of anyone who worked (or drank) there with you for some of your characters?

Notwithstanding that – any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of either the author or the publisher – some of the characters bear similarities to real persons!

Jimmy Neil, Shuggie Murray, Joe McPeak, Tommy Smith, Paddy O’Brian and Sean the barman, all share ‘coincidental’ likeness to actual persons who, also by coincidence, share the same names.

I suppose that my hours of sitting there were not totally wasted, even if, at times, I was. But I think the best answer might be found by actually visiting Grogan’s and deciding for yourself. Jimmy and Paddy, sadly, are no longer with us but the rest are about.

I dropped in last month and spent a few hours with Shuggie and dropped off a copy with Sean, the master pint-puller. I also had a good chat with Tommy who enjoyed the book with his everlasting good humour.

You write that Janice's mother's people “came north with the Empire Loyalists" and that her grandmother had been a "Daughter of the Empire." Why does Janice also have a right to be unhappy with the English, despite this heritage on her mother's side of the family? Why doesn't her mother's side of the family much care for her father, Michael Tremblay?

The Empire Loyalists were those Americans who did not support the revolution against the British and, after the Declaration of Independence, fled north to the British Dominion of Canada. The ‘Daughter of the Empire’ refers to the ‘Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire’ which was founded in Montreal in 1900 as “a federation of women to promote patriotism, loyalty and service to others.”

They were essential parts of the cultural expression of the British settlers of Canada when they enjoyed supremacy over the defeated French. After the battle of ‘the plains of Abraham’ in 1775, the British gained control over Canada but ‘allowed’ the French settlers to linger in ‘solitude’ as other French colonies to the south vanished. To this day the relationship is often uneasy.

That Janice had a parent from each camp made her transition to Ireland, and its old divisions, easier. She could understand Aidan’s mutterings about the English as they were similar to things she had heard growing up among her father’s French family – and countered by the sharp retorts of her mother’s British family.

I was intrigued when Sinead said to Janice: "No one in Ireland is really religious." Some people would strenuously dispute this statement. Are you making the point that Ireland's pagan beliefs are still very important to the Irish?

Not only were the Pagan beliefs important but the very way that many Irish, particularly older rural people, practised their religion had far more to do with older beliefs than with the ‘teachings of the church.’ In my parents time it wasn’t unusual for a priest to pray over a sick cow – an echo of when druids were the arbitrators between the people and the whims of Fate. Likewise, Ireland’s devotion to Mary, the mother of God, could be seen as an extension of the belief in the old Goddess.

Also widespread superstition, and the rituals to ward off bad-luck, etc. echoed the old ways. The society I observed there practised ‘formal’ religion to avoid censure but at the back of it all, in the privacy of their own thoughts, were far more afraid of the ghosts that preyed on their nights than the possibility of Hell.

Some things about Aidan get on Janice's nerves, but they have good sex together - and, despite irritants like Aidan's talking too much, "she could be someone new with him. She had lived a life of insipid water-colored hope; but now she was free to explore the full richness of passion: wanton and more fulfilling than anything she'd felt before." Is the possibility of reinventing herself one of the reasons she's attracted to Aidan?

Not only did Janice jump at the chance to re-invent herself but she saw, in her relationship with Aidan, a chance to shed all that had constrained her – something she believed she had to do to become an artist – not unlike a butterfly leaving a cocoon.

She also needed Aidan’s companionship as she stepped behind the veil – something that she could not have done on her own. He was, despite his shortcomings, the only person she could share that with as she couldn’t discuss it with her mother and Sinead was far too practical to indulge her.

Also, Aidan was a rising star with public attention – things that Janice craved for herself and her art.

Bringing Janice to meet Gwen can't have seemed to be the best idea in the world, but Aidan goes ahead and does just that. Does Aidan have a somewhat self-destructive personality?

Aidan lived a devil-may-care existence surviving from day to day as he worked on his poetry. He was also deliberate in creating a persona that he thought would best suit his image – a hard drinking young man with much to say about the state of the world.

He is also nihilistic and negative about a great many things – something I believe to be ‘the suit of armour’ required for survival in Dublin back then. I am not certain that I would consider him self-destructive, or at least no more than the rest of us, but he was willing to risk his very existence to have his poetry recognised.

He was, however, a bit self-serving in how he viewed the world around him. He was definitely selfish and simply assumed that his plan to introduce Gwen and Janice would work the way he planned with no other possibilities.

Could you relate the circumstances involved in Aidan's meeting with Maurice and Gwen Fitzwilliam for the first time?

Aidan might relate the story like this:

“I was hangin’ out with a few of the lads one night. We’d a few flagons an’ were just horsin’ around when one of the lads, accidently, put a brick through a shop window. He didn’t mean it – we were playin’ toss-the-brick an’ Jemser threw it at Nodser but the stupid bastard let it fly right past him an’ through a window. We were goin’ to run when Jemser pointed out that if we left; some thievin’ bastards might come by an’ steal stuff. So we decide to take all the good stuff an’ bring it home for safe keepin’. Just as we were doin’ this an old fella an’ his daughter walked by on their way to their car. He looked like one of those country squires – he had a tweed jacket an’ a tweed hat but his daughter was a bit of alright, if ya know what I mean!

“Anyway, we were just waiting for them to leave when he came back with a shotgun an’ started threatenin’ us. I wanted to try to lighten the mood a bit so I dropped my pants but the bastard shot me in the arse – the bollocks filled my butt with buckshot.

“But the woman, who turned out to be his wife, came over an’ held me in her arms an’ she smelled wicked, if ya know what I mean! She suggested that I go home with them an’ she would look after me until I got better. I wasn’t goin’ to argue with that, after all, everyone would believe them anyway. “That’s how I first met them. Later on he shot me again but that’s another story!”

In Lagan Love, the old clashes with the new, the pagan myths and legends with Christianity, and Horse-Protestants with the Catholics. How did the Horse-Protestants earn that name? Also, when you write "The veneer the Christians had smeared was thin," does this serve as an explanation for what happens later in the novel?

Brendan Behan is credited with defining an Anglo-Irishman as "a Protestant with a horse."

Pat: He was an Anglo-Irishman.

Meg: In the name of God, what's that?

Pat: A Protestant with a horse.

Ropeen: Leadbetter.

Pat: No, no, an ordinary Protestant like Leadbetter, the plumber in the back parlour next door, won't do, nor a Belfast orangeman, not if he was as black as your boot.

Meg: Why not?

Pat: Because they work. An Anglo-Irishman only works at riding horses, drinking whiskey, and reading double-meaning books in Irish at Trinity College.

—From Act One of The Hostage, 1958
"The veneer the Christians had smeared was thin" refers to a feeling many people share when visiting the old places in Ireland. It is a feeling that the past still lingers in the air and that the old ways still have potency.

What happens later in the novel is strictly a matter for interpretation. It could just be the normal course of things when a young artist surrenders everything for the sake of their art – or it could be the price Fate extracts in repayment for favours granted.

Some reviewers have criticized Lagan Love’s plot for not moving along fast enough and called the book a difficult read, but I think this criticism is both incorrect and unfair. I say, ignore these critics. They would have been likely to say, if they'd been alive when a new Jane Austen or Henry James novel came out, Who would criticize a Jane Austen, Henry James, or even Tobia Smollett novel came out, the same things. They'd miss that it's important to take some time and pages to build the atmosphere and create your characters, to set up what's to follow with them and make it seem plausible to the readers.

Swift, in a well-known essay on what should be done with the problem of the poor, both displayed his wit and very memorably commented on the society of his day. What would you say ought to be the fate of critics who really are fairly clueless about what they're criticizing?

Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ is one of my favourite pieces of satire, but it was often misunderstood.

As a father of two twenty-somethings, I see similarities between my children and my writing and that I cannot dictate how the world accepts either.

That said, I tend to look at reviews for feedback as to what worked and what might need improvement across a broad range. Also, I believe Lagan Love is accessible on a number of levels. I believe it is a story that can be enjoyed without substantial understanding of the backdrop as well as being a story that can be mined to whatever level the reader chooses.

But I also understand that any book may not be to someone’s liking for a great number of reasons including presenting a view of life that is not what the reader wishes to be confronted with.

With regard to critics, I have no issue with anybody’s opinion on a book providing that they have actually taken the time to read it.

Could you explain the time of "The Saints and Scholars" that Aidan tells Janice about?

After Saint Patrick converted the pagans, in the 5th century; the intelligentsia of Celtic Society flocked to the monasteries that were sprouting up all over the place.

Here they could pursue reading and writing which were new to them as Celtic lore was preserved orally – recited and remembered in poetic form. They embraced the message of the gospels and sought a life that was devoid of the trappings of wealth and comfort, unlike what was happening in southern European churches of the time.

These new Celtic monks, many of whom were probably Druids, Bards and Brehons – men of learning –brought their art and produced such works as the Book of Kells and many other illuminated manuscripts.

These new devotes also took it upon themselves to spread the word of the religion of Love to the less civil societies of northern Europe – in particular the Vikings who were busy pillaging and ransacking their Christian neighbours.

It has become a glorified time in Irish memory that overlooked the constant in-fighting and feuds between rival clan leaders that ultimately laid the country open for the Norman Conquest.

When Aidan admits to Janice that he's still also having sex with Gwen, how does Janice take the news?

Well, obviously she is not very happy about it but Aidan assures her that he is ending it and she chooses to accept that. Janice, at this point, has realised that Gwen and Maurice, despite their eccentricities, could be hugely beneficial to her career and decides to avoid rocking the boat. Having just met them, she is not sure if Gwen and Maurice would accept her, and offer to help her, if she was not with Aidan – their protégé.

But she also insists that Aidan stop seeing Gwen on his own – to ensure that he is not tempted – and to insinuate herself with Gwen.

When Janice thinks to herself that "they had their art to consider," is she just trying to fool herself?

She is definitely trying to rationalise her decision to go-along with things for now. But she is also aware that through Gwen and Maurice, that she and Aidan, have a chance at becoming known and that is now becoming of paramount importance to her.

What is a "lenanshee" and what makes Aidan think that Gwen is one?

Lady Wilde (1887) – Oscar’s mother – said that the 'leannan-sidhe' was the spirit of life, and inspirer of the singer and poet, and thus the opposite of the banshee. W.B. Yeats (1888) thought the 'leanhaun shee' would inspire a poet or singer so intensely that its earthly life would necessarily be brief. (Not surprisingly there is not a lot of information out there about this Muse. However, if she does actually exist, one could assume that she would use her ability to influence to avoid all negative publicity.)

She was a Muse that gave her lovers great talent in return for their love and life. Her lovers, usually male poets, had spectacular careers like shooting stars. But they were doomed to a short life in which they wasted away, becoming only the vessels for her inspiration until they were no more.

But there was a way out of it. Providing her lover did not surrender his heart, the Lenanshee was bound to him. Also, the wily poet could then be free of her by simply having someone take his place in her affections.

Aidan, who prefers to view his life through poetic terms, is happy to consider Gwen his lenanshee. It is much more fanciful than facing up to the sordid reality that he is having an affair with a married woman – a woman who is married to his patron and benefactor.

Aidan knows that he is "sowing the seeds of his own destruction," yet still sleeps with Gwen. He reasons that "It was Fate after all. He just had to let it do with him as it pleased." Still, he can't help but to feel at least a little guilty about what he's doing. Why does he think that he'd wished he'd listened to "Jimmy and the lads" in Grogan's?

Jimmy and the lads in Grogan’s were Aidan’s ‘family’. Despite poking fun at him and ‘slagging’ him at every opportunity, they looked out for him. He was ‘one of their own’ and he was mingling with the gentry – something they knew from history would not go well for him. And while he would never have admitted how involved he was with Gwen, they all knew and disapproved.

One of Janice's professors at Trinity says: “Perhaps without the comforting cloak of mythology, we are now alone and afraid. We seek assurances in things that are fleeting, and like addicts, we become more dependent and less satisfied." Would you say that this is true, at least in Janice's case, and do you believe there is still a place left in the human psyche for the "old beliefs?”

As a ‘novelist’ I am not sure I am qualified to speak on this but my own opinion is yes, that human psyche evolves through contemporary and historical beliefs. We are, I believe, the combination of all that we hold to be true. Most of our ‘truths’ must have historical legitimacy while still appearing new enough to satisfy the notion that we are moving on and away from those aspects of the past that now seem embarrassingly primitive.

I think that as we shred more and more of the veils of the past we find ourselves alone and afraid in the wider universe. As we seek to ‘explain’ everything we are confronted with questions that previous cultures assigned to the whims of Fate. This is a central theme in all religions – be they still practised or cast aside as mythologies. We still need some vague concept to define all that is beyond understanding.

In the more natural world we didn’t worry as much about all of this except to practise whatever rites and rituals were necessary to appease the gods – or the demons.

In place of all of that we have created human sciences and have become very dependent on their products and services to give us the sense of peace and belonging that we cannot live without.

Janice is certainly not without sin, but Aidan becomes a Judas-like figure before the novel is through. What does this say about the nature of innocence and guilt, good and evil? Is the veil between myth and what we consider to be reality maybe thinner than we often choose to believe?

I consider Judas to be one of the more maligned figures in that I think he was merely fulfilling the role Fate assigned to him. Aidan, on the other hand could be accused of being the author of his own misfortunes. Regardless, guilt, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

I doubt that any of us are fully qualified to assign guilt or innocence and that, perhaps, is why many of our religions urge us to be merciful and to avoid being judgmental. What might appear real and obvious today can be greatly altered as time passes and, as understanding grows through reflection. I think that good and evil are also very variable and subjective.

The veils between myth and what we consider to be reality are of our own making and are in constant need of maintenance – much like dams and dikes. And when they are torn apart, some of us embrace the new understandings that pour through while others fear the changes that follow.

Peter Murphy is an Irish author. Lagan Love is his first published novel.

Contributor Douglas R. Cobb interviewed author Peter Murphy, author of Lagan Love (see accompanying review), about his book for Douglas R. Cobb/2011.


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