An Interview with
Interviewer Luan Gaines: The story unfolds through Michael McDonagh's eyes, as he navigates childhood through adolescence. How does each parent, Moira and Padraig, pull on Michael's loyalties?
Thomas O'Malley:What distinguishes Michael’s loyalties are the forces that press at him to become a man before his time. With this comes the need—the belief—that he must protect his mother, and this includes protecting her from his father. Michael’s loyalty is tied to his need to keep Moira safe, to make her well again, and to keep the family together.
But Michael also loves his father incredibly and believes that his father will eventually return from America, and that the family will be right again once this happens. Until very late in the book Michael still believes this. However, the more that other father “surrogates” occupy his father’s absence, and the more they too fail him, the more this sense of loyalty towards his father also fails.
Vulnerable and impressionistic, Michael carries the myths of childhood in his imagination. How do such myths comfort as well as frighten Michael, especially in regards to his mother?
I think myth, by its psychological power, can be quite frightening, but then so can religion, or at least the Catholicism that Michael knows. For Michael, these myths (as well as the songs and folklore that allow him to understand and make sense of his world) originate from the various men in his life but they are also an element of place. Even though they are often severe and stark myths, they are also part of the everyday experiences of these men in this rural setting. They provide Michael with a certain grounding that he comes to depend upon, even as his mother’s condition worsens, and even as other things, including these men, prove transient and incapable of lasting. He takes comfort from these stories, and from his own imagination.
In the novel, most of the characters coexist with poverty in a beautiful land that inspires excesses. How does this reality affect family connections and priorities? How does family connect people who have so little in worldly goods?
In the country worldly goods aren’t all that important, or at least they didn’t used to be. Of course farmers have more than non-farmers, laborers, and those on the dole. Subsequently they eat better, their children are better dressed, and they may appear, at times, opulent and larger than life, as Flaherty does in the novel. But of course the farmers are very poor farmers too.
I think the notion of family in most rural settings is incredibly important, for people must work together and help each other in order to get by, to combat difficulties and even to get from place to place--this is a natural aspect of rural life. Families have always had to come together during sowing and harvesting to work the land, even if the land only consisted of one measly half acre.
Also, the characters in the novel don’t really think about their lives as being impoverished—hungry at times, yes—but not impoverished in a class-conscious way. The Delacey's are as poor as the McDonagh's, and Brendan and his family are poorer still yet they have roofs over their heads, they are clothed, they have a fire (mostly) burning in the grate, and they have each other. Their religion tells them — rightly or wrongly — that what they have is enough, and that whatever else they might need they can and should find in God.
Michael’s story takes place from 1979-1981. Can you speak a bit about the Troubles and how the ongoing, brutal conflict affects the everyday lives of the characters?
Well, they’re hundreds of miles from the true conflict in the North but it does touch everyone in varying degrees. Rowan is evidence of the long history of Irish Nationalism, and its stronghold in such small communities, and of which Michael’s Grandfather and others were a part. In many ways this is also an aspect of the myth, which runs throughout the book. The historical, the political, and the mythological all entwine and merge so that in New Rowan they are often inseparable.
On a daily basis the sense of the Troubles might be revealed in such ways as a spray painted “Brits Out!” upon a wall or in the distribution of An Phoblacht in the pubs, yet it is always present in the collective imagination and in the sense of history that informs the place. The Troubles of the ‘70s merely informs one part of a political consciousness (although you might never think to call it that), which stretches back hundreds of years, and which is evidenced by the bird-shat statue of the Pikeman from the Rebellion of 1798 that stands in the center of the town. It is a vivid chapter in a long struggle, and one that seems extremely relevant now as Ireland continues to change very rapidly and, hopefully, move toward something other.
Moira is a strict and loving mother, who forces her children to attend the sacraments, even when she refuses to do so. How does Moira manage this conflict with her religious belief and practice? Why does this conflict exist?
I don’t think it’s all that unusual to see this in Ireland or amongst Irish Catholics. I think many people feel alienated from the Church for a wide range of reasons, but still believe deeply in the religion and for reasons spiritual and almost superstitious want their children to have an understanding of the faith and to blessed and protected by God even if they feel that they no longer can be. It’s a matter of accepting that one is outside the faith because one has fallen in some irrevocable way, and one cannot fully enter into the Mass. This doesn’t mean that one no longer believes in the sacraments. Of course, Moira’s response is much more complex. In Moira’s case she wants her children to have faith in something and to believe regardless, because Moira’s faith in so many things has left her. Also, there is the sense that, as her illness progresses, Moira turns more and more toward older traditions for in them she finds a certain reprieve and an isolated happiness. Her refusal of the sacraments is also an assertion of her belief that God doesn’t exist in the church or the Mass, but in everything beyond this. Her commingling of religion and superstitious belief is in many ways even more spiritual and accepting of a divine natural power than many of those who attend church in the novel.
It is sometimes unclear whether Moira is mentally or physically ill, especially when Padraig first leaves for America. The family believes she has a gies on her. How does this confusion about the nature of Moira's illness play into Michael's insecurity?
Yes, this confusion does add to Michael’s insecurity and his anxiety regarding his mother’s well-being. No one thing, whether it is cancer or a curse such as the geis, can really satisfy his need to know—definitively—what is wrong with his mother. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a magical curse or an incurable disease—they both serve to take his mother from him.
Michael's father has a twin, Rory, who is mentally damaged by an early illness. How does Padraig's intimate connection to his brother contribute to his chaotic life, the constant coming and going to and from America? How does Rory's death affect Padraig?
The brother is the father’s last real link to the Ireland he has tried to leave behind, the impoverished Ireland of the west. Padraig and his brothers and sisters have abandoned Rory to a life they find untenable. It is not until Rory’s death that the full weight of this abandonment comes to bear upon the father. When he returns to Ireland to bury his twin brother, he is reminded of his own failings, the ways in which he has betrayed those he has loved. Of course, immersed in his own sorrow and self-pity, he is, at first, oblivious to Michael’s pain and the manner in which he has also betrayed him.
Cait Delacey, daughter of the deceased Mag, is Michael's first taste of the world that awaits a man. Without giving anything away, how does Cait serve as a catalyst in the novel?
Cait is, indeed, a catalyst because she refuses in so many ways to be broken by the place and by the people of this place. I think of her as incredibly strong. If anything, Michael learns to be strong from her. Cait allows Michael to not only wish for better things but also to believe that such things are possible. Of course this is short lived, but even at the end we sense his longing and desire for her. No matter what comes next for Michael, this passion, this sense of life remains.
Michael favors Padraig as he grows older. The intense days father and son spend together after Rory's funeral offer Michael a more accurate picture of Padraig's nature. Yet Michael is increasingly committed to his mother as time goes on. Even with her illness, isn't it Moira who has really shaped her son's life? By the end of the novel, how has Michael's affection toward each parent changed?
Yes, the mother has shaped Michael’s life greatly. She has taught him how to persevere and endure. For her he is driven to always do what is right, even when it is impossible to do so. She has also taught him a great deal about suffering and abandonment — as she is both totally isolated by her own losses and drifting ever-farther from her own children. His need to help her, to fill up her empty places, is obviously very important to who he is and how he develops. In this light his affection has become one altered by the need to care for a sick parent, as such it is indicative of both a child’s love and a paternal love.
Early on, Michael’s perspective of his father is almost magical, and this is, in part, because of the father’s absence, and his coming and goings, which have the capacity to transform the family’s daily life, however briefly. The father is, at times, an incredibly loved—even worshipped—figure. At the beginning he appears very strong and, in many ways, mythic. He is filled with a certain power (often revealed via violence) so that while Michael loves him dearly there is also a certain untouchable quality about the father, as if he were, indeed, something born of myth. The various ways in which Michael sees him, standing or silhouetted against the landscape, always in the foreground, and always, it seems, at odds with the environment and those around him furthers this sense of mythic ennoblement.
The father’s final promise to Michael during their days after Rory’s funeral, that things will be different, that he will bring Michael out to America, is never realized, and this betrayal is, in many ways, the greatest. Michael never recovers from it. By the next time we see the both of them together they have changed: Michael is older, his father is injured, and even though he is still a boy, Michael has become the stronger one, and fueled by incredible resentment for this damaged man.
Without giving anything away, how do the men in Michael's life betray his ideals? What does he learn about himself in the denouement of those imperfect relationships?
I think his ideals are developed because of these men and around these men and pretty much in spite of these men. The ideals themselves remain in the fixed image of the men around him, even as these men betray his trust and love and even his sense of what is good and right in the world. The men he knows are essentially all weak, flawed, and untrustworthy. And they all leave, just as his father leaves. For Michael, his sense of security and of self are greatly impacted and eroded with each event, each loss, each departure. It is an increasing burden and source of pain for him. In the end, his ideals may not have fundamentally changed but his expectations of others have. Ultimately, he knows he can only trust in himself and in his ability to protect his mother and sister.
Do you have any advice for would-be writers?
Ha! God, I’m often wary of writers who talk a lot about writing (or prattle on as I’ve done here). It seems we would all be better served if writers simply wrote, and talked less. That said, I would tell emerging writers to have faith in their singular vision, to believe in its importance. And to never let anyone tell you that it is not important, that what you have to say is not worthy of being heard.
I think the best writers attack a story the way a dog attacks a bone (of course it will not feel like this upon the page); they want to suck the rich marrow from it, they want to explore and expose every possible tension, conflict, and drama that the story and its characters can sustain. In this vein, be tenacious, be persistent, and be unwilling to compromise.
Practice observing those things that other people take for granted. Learn to not only observe your world but to learn from it and to feel it via human interaction and via the sights and sounds and smells around you, from all the things that occupy the small, quiet moments of our lives.
Also, never wait for inspiration, for you may be waiting a long time. Just write.
Thomas O’Malley was raised in Ireland and England. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has been a Returning Writing Fellow and recipient of the Grace Paley Endowed Fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He lives in Rhinebeck, New York.
Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines interviewed Thomas O'Malley, author of In the Province of Saints (see accompanying review), about his book via email for curledup.com. No part
of this interview may be reproduced without permission. Luan Gaines/2005.