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Mary Morrissy who is working on a brand new novel as well as a collection of linked stories is an Irish writer I first came across in the 1990s when I read her collection of short stories A Lazy Eye (Jonathan Cape, 1993). She has a gift for resonant concrete detail and deep exploration of her characters’ psyches. The stories were followed by two novels inspired by real events Mother of Pearl (Jonathan Cape, 1996) which explores the character of a dislocated, dispossessed woman who steals a baby and The Pretender (Jonathan Cape, 2000) about a Polish factory worker who claims she is the Grand Duchess Anastasia, youngest daughter of Tsar Nicholas II. Mary’s novel The Rising of Bella Casey is currently under consideration.

She is the recipient of a Hennessy Award for short fiction in 1984, a Lannan Literary Award in 1995, and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize in 1996.The Pretender was nominated for the Dublin Impac Award.

I was lucky enough to have Mary as my guest lecturer for the workshop I run in the People’s College. She gave an enlightening talk focusing on sense of place in particular. We all joined in with the writing exercise and the students got a lot from that and the Q & As at the end of class.

I asked Mary to talk again about sense of place in writing, below:

Valerie Sirr: You mentioned that with your first collection of stories A Lazy Eye, you were not as interested in establishing a sense of place in your fiction as you are now, but that this aversion to place was in itself a spirited and passionate relationship to it. Can you talk about that and what led you to change your approach to place?

Mary Morrissy: In A Lazy Eye, I consciously made the places neutral in the hope of making the stories universal so that they could be about any city in the Western world. I think there was probably an element of cultural cringe about that decision, a fear that writing too closely about my place would make the work parochial.  I grew up in suburbia and as a young writer I couldn’t conceive there was anything interesting there to write about.  Anyway, I was too busy trying to escape it. But even while rejecting it, I was still writing about it, but trying to disguise it.  Now I see that since this place formed me, it’s a vital imaginative source. I think it was John Updike who said that if he had had no experiences after 12 years of age, he would still have had enough material to draw on for the rest of his writing career.

VS: You’re working on a collection of linked stories now. Is the link place related? If so what place are you writing about and what is your characters’ relationship to this place?

MM: The stories spring from a set of characters who have links with a suburban street in Dublin – sometimes direct, sometimes tangential. The real connection, though, is the characters and the web of relationships they create. The collection is entitled ‘Diaspora’, so it’s as much about scattering, as it is about home.

VS: How difficult is it to write a book of connected stories where each story stands alone, and yet is connected to the others?

MM: It’s maddening because in many ways you’re working against the form.  In a stand-alone short story each sentence must earn its keep, and you must include backstory by implication. But then if you’re writing several stories about the same character, there’s a danger of repeating yourself. The stories in the collection are designed to be read in a certain order, but you can’t dictate that that is how the reader is going to read them, so that’s another pitfall. Also, you can get a bit compulsive about getting in guest appearances by other characters to emphasise the thematic links. Let’s put it this way, I don’t know I would do it again.

VS: Going back to your lecture: I thought it was instructive how you referred to the different functions of place in fiction. Place is more than simply a backdrop for stories isn’t it? You mentioned place as atmosphere, metaphor, a trigger for memory/nostalgia and sense of history, a way to establish point-of-view and character-motivation, and believability i.e. fiction requires more than journalistic summary of place. Is there anything else a writer should consider when creating sense of place?

MM: Eudora Welty wrote an essay in the 1950s about place and described it as one of the lesser angels of fiction. I agree with her.  Sooner or later as a fiction writer you’re going to brush up against it. The camera does all the work of setting in film, but on the page the writer has to create the texture of the world of her characters. On the other hand, the fiction writer can create a character’s interior so much more effectively.  On screen we can see a character negotiating with a place but we can only guess at the associations he/she makes with it (unless there’s a voice-over, which is a novelistic technique).  In fiction, the writer can tell you and that’s a whole layer of depth and resonance the writer has access to.

We did an exercise in your class, Valerie, where we created a fictional space as a group, then each writer had to walk an assigned character through it.  You’ll remember how exuberantly the class contributed to describing and furnishing the place; they applied great writerly attention to it (perhaps more than they would in their own writing.) This gave them a huge amount of material to work with when it came to writing about the characters they’d been assigned.  No two characters approached the space in the same way precisely because each one brought different memories, attitude and purpose to the place. So what the exercise demonstrated, I hope, was that setting is not something separate to character and that our relationship to place is never neutral.

VS: You gave an excerpt from Lorrie Moore’s novel ‘A Gate at the Stairs’. What is it about that excerpt that illustrates sense-of-place writing at its best?

MM: The excerpt I use, about the main character and her brother walking through a childhood haunt, is a succinct demonstration of all those uses of place mentioned earlier – memory, atmosphere, character building, metaphor and foreshadowing.

VS: You mentioned you’re working on a new novel. Would you like to say a few words about that or about sense of place in relation to the story?

MM: My next novel will be set in Germany during World War 2.  I seem to alternate between Irish and foreign settings in my novels.  The last one, The Rising of Bella Casey is about the sister of Irish playwright Sean O’Casey, so completely steeped in turn of the century (20th) Ireland. The Pretender was set in Poland and Germany during the first World War and my first novel was set in a mythical Irish city in the 1950s.

The thing about writing about place in historical novels is that it is all fiction. Two world wars have ensured that no city in Europe is like it was in, say, 1939, and the writer cannot travel back in time.  So recreating a place from the past on the page is entirely sleight- of-hand. It has to ‘feel’ right rather than be geographically accurate.  The good thing about writing about place in historical fiction is that there are fewer readers about who can contradict you.

Many thanks to Mary for the above interview.

As you can see she is one of those writers who talks with a wonderful clarity about what can be complex writing challenges.

Mary teaches creative writing and is currently writer in residence in University College Dublin.