Your new novel, The Colony, is set in 1979 – why then? I was 13 when the bomb went off in Lord Mountbatten’s boat in Sligo that summer. He killed Mountbatten and three others, including two boys. For 15-year-old Paul Maxwell, tending the boat was his summer job. Some claimed it was done in the name of Ireland, in the name of the Irish people. I was Irish. I am Irish. What does it mean – to be Irish?
Graham Greene attributed his immaculate writing to a previous life in journalism. Do you find your job for the Time, Observer and others helped you as an author?
I had to detach myself from the style of writing that I had learned as a journalist, refine my writing, start over to find a way of writing that belongs to me. It took quite a bit of time because good journalistic writing is sharp and efficient, two qualities that I really appreciate. But journalism has given me two amazing gifts for which I will always be grateful: the ability to really listen and hear what people are saying or trying to say, and the ability to meet a deadline.
Your first book The company, has been nominated for several awards. Does this success bring its own pressures?
I have to admit there was an amount of bunny in the headlights about this whole experience. It was wonderful, it was exciting but the fit was huge. I went from a solitary writer in a room by herself to a person on the stage at the Royal Festival Hall in London, reading in front of 900 people. Before that I had read in the parish hall! I was happy to retire when it was all over, to be back in my room, reading, thinking, writing. And I had, of course, those dreaded “second album” moments where I wondered if I could do it again, if I had just gotten lucky the first time around.
The company is also suitable for the cinema. Did you get a lot of input?
I chose not to have. It was hard because you have to let go of your characters, hand them over to someone else, but ultimately I’m a novelist, not a screenwriter. I have a wonderful relationship with the director, Aisling Walsh, who is also writing the screenplay.
I’m a huge fan of his work, including Song for a Raggy Boy and Maudie. But that’s his job, not mine – his adaptation. I’m here if she needs me.
The Colony is published by Faber & Faber