Catherine Dunne needs no introduction, especially for the Italian audience who has always been her avid reader. With her first novel, in 1997, she immediately received critical and public acclaim, thanks to the unforgettable protagonist and the almost surgical depiction of all other characters. Characters who find themselves reacting to crucial events, making choices that can lead them towards less conventional lives. A narrative style she has kept for over twenty years, as well as the bond with her native Dublin.
The author has recently been the guest of a conference at Palazzo Ducale in Genoa. A conference during which she was able to explain the importance of Dublin and the sea for the Irish; both from a symbolic and a historical point of view. Before the conference, we were able to deepen with her, some key aspects and dynamics of her narrative style.
It seems relevant, a few days before your conference in Genoa, to ask you about your relationship with Dublin and if your interaction with the city has changed over time; as it has always been central to your books.
The Dublin in which I live now bears little resemblance to the city in which I was born. 1950’s Dublin was a grim, grey place to be, and continued to be so right through the 1960’s. In the seventies, the destruction of the Georgian quarters of the city was well underway, their severe elegance giving way to faceless office blocks. Nonetheless, there was always the sea and the beach, the family and the friendships, the schools and the libraries that made the city my home. Love it or hate it, Dublin flows through my veins. Nowadays, despite various economic crises, the fabric of the city is improving. Design has become more important, the transport infrastructure is better than it was, the streets are more people-friendly. It’s still divided, though – still a very expensive place to live. It’s where our housing crisis is at its worst, and too many people are economically marginalised. In summary, my relationship with my home city is as complex and multi-faceted as the city itself.
Your narrative style is famous for giving seemingly ordinary characters, individualistic traits that become unforgettable. What are the underlying reasons behind your choice of characters and settings?
I’ve always believed that there is no such thing as an ‘ordinary’ life, or an ‘ordinary’ character. All lives are story-worthy. It’s this belief that drives my interest in my fictional characters: that underneath the surface, their internal world is teeming with life, with love, with contradictions and desire and despair. The writer’s job, I think, is to be a kind of psychological archaelogist: to dig deep and discover what it is that impels people to do what they do. Our motivations are endlessly complex, endlessly fascinating. Once we unearth the valuable insights that lie beneath the surface, the writer’s task is to perform a kind of alchemy; to transform our own illuminations into fiction. With regard to my settings, that choice is dictated by the needs of the story.
When talking about your works, it is impossible not to mention the formidable women populating them. You have written about domestic violence, abandonment, rise and fall. It would be interesting to know what are the challenges of writing about such sensitive topics with such humane consideration?
I’m not so sure that my female characters are formidable as such – it’s simply that they find themselves in situations that bring their personal strengths to the surface. And that – often hitherto untapped – strength comes from the impetus towards survival. I write about the themes you mention because I can’t not write about them! Betrayal, abuse of power, the phoenix rising from the ashes of a life that has crashed and burned: all these stories populate the air around me. Writing fiction is, above all, an act of imaginative empathy. Writers step into the shoes of others, walk around in their skin, inhabit their psychological lives. It’s this empathy, or ‘humane consideration’, that gives fiction its own particular beating heart.
Do you have a different research approach when it comes to preparation for novels, short tales and essays?
In a way, the research process is similar in that it will start with the germ of an idea, or a moment of inspiration – something that refuses to leave me alone once it has burrowed its way into my consciousness. With novels, the process is usually a lengthy one: from making sure the geographical, historical and physical details of a setting are correct, for example, to the more complex psychological research around, say, notions of control and abuse of power. Often, though, the research continues as I write: they are complementary, not discrete, activities. In my experience, with the short story intuition is usually more important than research. The initial impetus to write comes from a similar place – but the story centres on a moment of illumintion, a vivid but condensed piece of writing that gives us a glimpse into a character’s life, rather than the unveiling of the life itself. I find the essay a fascinating form. Long or short, it allows me to take a personal position – perhaps new, perhaps controversial, perhaps wide-angled or intensely focussed – on a topic that intrigues me. The challenge is to match my insights with the authorial voice that will immediately engage my reader.
By now you have a very wide readership, could you spare a few words as to what the future holds for us?
If you mean in terms of what I’m writing next – I have no idea. Having just completed my most recent novel ‘The Way the Light Falls’, I’m enjoying a period of reading and reflection. This period of silence is necessary so that the next story – usually distant, often hesitant but nonetheless with its own clarity - can make its voice heard.