J P O'Malley

Interview with a writer: Kevin Maher

Interview with a writer: Kevin Maher
Text settings

Kevin Maher’s debut novel The Fields is set in the suburban streets of south Dublin in 1984. The story is narrated by Jim Finnegan: an innocent 13-year-old boy who lives in a carefree world that consists of hanging out in the local park and going on nightly bike rides with his geeky friend Gary.

But shortly after his fourteenth birthday, Jim’s life drastically changes when he falls in love with a beautiful 18-year-old woman, Saidhbh Donoghue. After a brief honeymoon period their relationship turns sour when the young couple are forced to take a boat to Britain to arrange for Saidhbh to have an abortion.

Both Jim and Saidhbh decide to stay on in Kilburn, in North London, for the entire summer of 1985, where Jim gets a job as a waiter, and Saidhbh has a long and nervous battle with her inner demons.

Running alongside this romantic tale is the story of Jim’s dubious relationship with Father O’ Culigeen: a nasty young priest who has a penchant for insecure-young-alter-boys, who he manipulates for his own carnal pleasures.

This coming-of-age tale, written in a simplistic first person narrative, is a moving depiction of Ireland in the 1980s: where dogmatic Catholicism was still instrumental in shaping the cultural and moral values of Irish society.

Maher was born in Dublin in 1972. He moved to London in 1994 where he worked at various jobs before he began a career in journalism. He has written film criticism for various newspapers including the Guardian, the Independent and the Observer. He also worked as a researcher on Channel 4’s Film Night. He currently writes a weekly column for the Times.

When did you begin writing this novel and how long did it take you to complete?

It was 2001 when I started it. At that time I was an editor at a film magazine called The Face. In the space of four years I had seen 2,500 films. I just felt that my head was bursting with crap. So I quit London, and my wife and I went up to this tiny fishing village in the north of Scotland, called Findhorn. While I was in Findhorn I wrote a novel, and the first 50 pages of it ended up in The Fields, but the rest of it was very pretentious, about that death of storytelling. It was written with my critic’s brain, rather than my creative one. But it was pretentious enough to get me a meeting with publisher who said: we love the first fifty pages about the boy, but the rest is bullshit!

The whole decade passed, and I wrote two more novels — both were really pretentious, and awful — and by the end of the noughties, my wife and I had three children. So I then began to tell my kids bedtime stories, which I would make up myself. That was like a crash course in creative writing, because you would be telling them a really simple story. Then in 2010, I came back to The Fields, and I just thought: I’m going to finish this. I just wanted to tell a very simple story.

Did you find writing in the voice of a young boy helped you explore the hypocrisy of the adults who he is surrounded by?

I think the novel just wouldn’t work if I had written it in an adult’s voice because it would seem like it had an agenda, or it was part of a polemic. Whereas a 13-year-old boy is confused by it, or articulating his confusion, and in that articulation, you get to make little digs, or jibes about how mad this is: that teachers can beat up kids for example. But to an adult it would seem like common sense to be saying things like that.

Was it hard to write from the point of view of a child?

No, the voice came very effortlessly when I was writing it. But I felt it had to be very simple and genuinely naïve. And that it had to be explaining Ireland, not because I was aiming it at an international audience, but because this kid was working it out in his own head. Maybe it was my own voice working things out.

What made you want to write a novel set in the 1980s?

I wanted to write a book that explained Ireland in the 1980s, and how odd it was in some respects. Also that was my coming of age period. We all come back to that moment because it’s the most interesting, and the most primal: that loss of innocence. Nothing competes with that feeling of being forged in the smithy of your teen years: when you go from more innocent times, to hit upon things like sex and death. I also think that the 1980s have been ridiculed a lot in books and films. People see it as being an era of shoulder pads and Depeche Mode, but I always felt it was much more complex than that.

Is the class-conscious world of Dublin in the 1980s that you depict in the book a fair representation of the world you grew up in?

Yeah, growing up that was totally the case. That was another hypocrisy that I was hoping Jim — the main character — could bring out. The classic clichés in Ireland you hear about class are things like: the English have the stiff upper lip, whereas the Irish are emotional. Or we say, England is a class-ridden country, and in Ireland we’ve got farmers, and then city people. But my own experience was that Dublin was shockingly class ridden. I grew up in a place called Dundrum, and there seemed to be three divisions: people living in the working class housing estates, or villas; then me and my family, who were lower middle class Catholics; and then it was posh Protestants, or ‘West Brits’ as they were called.

It was really distinct. People were snobbish, and people had chips on their shoulders about Protestants. The class divides were blatantly obvious.

Much of the novel focuses on the power of Catholicism in Ireland at that time, and how that power coincided with the horrific sexual abuse of children: were you conscious of exploring this as a theme?

Writing a book about Dublin in the 1980s I felt I had to write about child abuse. Not that I wanted to put a retrospective gloss on it from our knowledge of things like the Murphy Report, or The Ferns Report, that were published in the last few years. I had written much of The Fields before that. Looking back at the 1980s, I remember I had this very pivotal conversation with my sister, and she said: do you know what the worst swear word in the world is? And she said that it was called abuse. I just felt that growing up there was an ominous undercurrent, that was always relating to sexuality, and leaning somewhere towards priests and religion.

Were you an alter boy in the church when you were a child?

I wasn’t an alter boy myself, luckily. But I do remember a priest we had in school one year. And he got us into the class and started speaking about touching yourself, and masturbation. It seemed to be the only sin he was interested in. He was saying things like: ‘you have to know about touching yourself, and do you touch yourself selfishly, and how often do you touch yourself’? I remember just thinking: fucking hell, this is very odd, and there is something wrong about what we are doing here. I was probably 13 at the time. This priest was in his late 30s, with all these boys, and he was basically just saying: ‘tell me about wanking’.

For me it was just like an epiphany, where I thought: I’m out of this whole system.

There are various references in the novel to the IRA, and the Troubles. Can you recall the atmosphere — politically — growing up in Dublin in the 1980s?

I can remember Sefton the horse from the Hyde-Park-IRA- bombing in 1982. I was around 11 when that happened.

My parents at that time would have been really outraged, and very anti-IRA. My Grandfather fought in the Irish War of Independence, in Tipperary in the 1920s, so you would imagine that my father would be from the right background to be pro-IRA. But he was definitely of the opinion that there is the old IRA, who were fighting as soldiers, and the new IRA [the provos] who were killers of innocent people. There would have been an atmosphere around the dinner table growing up, that the IRA was bad. But also paradoxically, there was a lot of nationalism, republicanism, and anti-British feeling. In the novel, Jim’s voice is trying to explain that. The main paradox was that you lived in this environment that was pro-Ireland, nationalistic, and that you secretly liked singing all these rebel songs. But at the same time the IRA would just be seen as ‘beyond the pale’. Maybe it’s just a humanistic worldview.

What are your own thoughts on nationalism?

Well I’m married to an English woman. My kids are also half Irish/ half English.  So I’m really suspicious of nationalism. There is a brilliant book called Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson. It’s about the myth of nationalism.

I suppose that journey of writing my own book is about discovering national identity: culture, religion, history and so forth. I’ve also grown to appreciate relationships with English and Irish people, and it makes me see the similarities, and the joke of any differences in cultures and nations. I guess you could say that now I have a balanced approach to nationalism, whereas once it would have been uncritical.