Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Maureen Boyle

Maureen Boyle’s debut poetry collection, ‘The Work of a Winter’, published by Arlen House Press, was shortlisted for the Strong/Shine Poetry Prize in 2019.  Her poem ‘Strabane’, originally commissioned for BBC Radio 4, has just been published by Arlen Press, with photographs by her husband Malachi O’Doherty. She lives in Belfast.

What book(s) are you reading right now?*

I’m reading Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety – about the French Revolution - published in 1992. I’ve been reading it for a while since it’s enormous, so I did break off to read a few other things in between but wanted to finish it before I go to the ‘The Mirror and the Light’. I love her writing and this one is extraordinary.  People had told me about it and recommended it and I’ve only managed to get to it now. I read Dickens’s ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ first and loved it. It’s taken me to get to this age to enjoy Dickens – I think I found him too difficult as a child. But his book assumes quite a lot of knowledge of the Revolution and in some ways it’s more an adventure tale. But the Mantel really does ‘start at the very beginning’ going back to the childhoods of the leaders of the revolution like Robespierre and Danton.  You can see in it the strengths that are so evident in the Wolf Hall trilogy – exhaustive historical detail lightly used. It’s total immersion in this earlier time. This book alone would be a life’s work and yet she did it again!  

A book you have given as a gift / recommended to a friend.

I’ve just recommended Tessa Hadley’s Late in the Day and not for the first time. Hadley came to the Hewitt a few years ago and had a brilliant interview with Emily Dedakis – focused very much on style and method. And I saw her again at Edinburgh last year. She’s just a fabulous writer and this is her most recent novel about how two couples, long married and friends, experience the death of one of the men. It’s a book of great atmosphere – I sometimes remember the atmosphere of a book more than detail when I really love it and that is definitely the case in this one. I can conjure the smells and colours of a London garden in early summer with which it opens. I also love that she is a dedicated teacher. She came to writing relatively late and teaches Creative Writing at Bath Spa and when she was being interviewed in Edinburgh you could really sense both her wisdom and her generosity towards her students. I respect that in a writer. 

Your favourite anthology. (Editor's note: interpreted here as a poetry collection)

Very hard to choose – possibly Seamus Heaney’s Haw Lantern (1987), which was sort of ‘peak Heaney’ for me – I don’t mean I didn’t like what came after but that one seemed miraculous.  It is so much about where you are physically and mentally when the book arrives and that came at a really significant point for me and was full of resonance. Also Paula Meehan’s The Man Who Was Marked By Winter (1992), which was really important to me in coming back to write poetry as an adult and from which I often teach.  

A book yet-to-be-released (at time of writing*) which you are looking forward to reading.

I’m going to cheat if it’s OK and mention a few since I have a veritable wish-list but I’m trying to get through the back pile at least a little first. Two are connected to Joyce. I love it when a book comes along that feels like something you conjured because you wanted it to exist and two of those about to be published are Saving Lucia by Anna Vaught – which is about Lady Violet Gibson, the woman who tried to assassinate Mussolini who was confined in the Northampton Asylum – where John Clare was too – with Lucia Joyce. I’m fascinated by all things to do with Joyce and as well as this treat there is Nuala O’Connor’s Nora about Nora Barnacle. Nuala is another favourite writer of mine – she couldn’t write a bad sentence if she tried – that’s a cliché but in her case it’s true. There is also Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet – another writer I love – and poet Doireann NíGríiofa’s A Ghost in the Throat which is part memoir I think. I should have ordered these before the lockdown but they’ll be worth waiting for.

A book that you feel is underrated and deserves more attention. 

I always come back to Des Hogan’s The Icon Maker which I think is a little masterpiece. I feel Des himself deserves more attention and I think there’s a chance that in the future he’ll be recognised as one of our great writers. His is an entirely singular voice and it is really poetry I think. ‘The Icon Maker’ was his first novel published in 1976 by The Irish Writers’ Co-operative in Dublin and it’s fiction but very closely based on his own life. It’s the story of a young gay man who grows up in the shadow of the asylum in Ballinasloe, County Galway – knowing it as a threat to him because of his sexuality – and taking the boat to England. Des was my very first Creative Writing tutor when I enrolled with him at one of his classes at the City Lit in London in the late 80s. I’d been trying to get back to writing but didn’t know what form I wanted to do. There was an older man in the class who, no matter what we were set, came in each week with a polished but somehow dead piece of genre writing. And Des was so hard on him. The difficulty wasn’t the style but that in using the different genres he was avoiding going to any depth. He had a facility for writing but there was evasion in his approach. Des’s whole mantra was about finding and authentic voice. He’s had a hard life in the years since but is still producing extraordinary work with Lilliput.


*This interview was conducted back in April, so some of the forthcoming books mentioned at the time are now available - and we're sure she's finished the Mantel book by now as well!

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