Today I would like to welcome Deirdre Quiery to the blog. She has done an extremely interesting Q&A, speaking about her new book Eden Burning and her background which influenced it.
Eden Burning is set in 1970s Belfast in the heart of the troubles, and is the author’s debut novel which I will be reviewing in the near future.
Northern Ireland, 1972. On the Crumlin Road, Belfast, the violent sectarian Troubles have forced Tom Martin to take drastic measures to protect his family. Across the divide William McManus pursues his own particular bloody code, murdering for a cause. Yet both men have underestimated the power of love and an individual’s belief in right and wrong, a belief that will shake the lives of both families with a greater impact than any bomb blast.
This is a compelling, challenging story of conflict between and within families – driven by religion, belief, loyalty and love. In a world deeply riven by division, how can any individual transcend the seemingly inevitable violence of their very existence?
Q. Can you tell us a little bit about the book and where the idea for it came from?
A. There were many influences. There was the influence of my Mother with whom I had a special relationship. When she was expecting me, she had a problem with her heart valve. The doctors advised her to terminate the pregnancy as they believed that she would never survive it. She refused and was admitted to hospital at three months pregnant for bed rest. By the time she reached seven months pregnant she was really dying. However, she knew that I could survive and so they operated on her. It was 1957 and I believe she was only the second person in the UK to receive open heart surgery. The doctors weren’t really sure what to do as she was certainly the first to have open heart surgery whilst pregnant. They opened her from the back – leaving an immense scar from her right shoulder, all the way across her back to her left hip.
The operation was a success but two months later, I shot into the world without any aid. We were both alone together – if that makes sense. The nurses heard her cries for help and rushed in and forgot to scrub up. My mother developed peritonitis and was once again on death’s door, receiving the last Sacrament in the Catholic Church – Extreme Unction. She had an out of body experience where she was floating towards a white light. She wanted to go to that light. It was peaceful and welcoming. She looked down at her own body and saw her baby in a cot by the bed and knew that she had to struggle to get back into that body. I capture some of that scene in “Eden Burning” in the death of Maria. However, my Mother survived.
Our relationship developed into one of great love. So when she encouraged me to write, I trusted her. She died 15 years ago. However, “Eden Burning” would never have come into existence without her.
Then there was the influence of living through “The Troubles” – being put out of our home at gunpoint, moving to a house as squatters on the Crumlin Road and living in a house which was both a prison and a sanctuary.
I wanted to make something of that time which would allow something creative and positive to emerge – something which told a story that life is always full of possibilities – that it’s never too late to learn or to change.
Q. Did you find it hard to write about a place so close to your heart but with such a troubled past?
A. It’s a great question. Yes, at the start. I remember as I began writing it for three nights I could not sleep. I think it brought up many unconscious, unprocessed memories and terrible fear. However, I knew not to let that stop me. I recycled that fear into the writing itself. So some of those gruesome scenes do not come from a rational understanding of what happened or could have happened in Belfast during “The Troubles” but also tapped into what was real for me as a child – the terror of knowing that you may not live to the morning and that no-one was there to help.
However, I also saw and experienced immense goodness and kindness during this time – unbelievable acts of self-sacrifice and generosity of being. I wanted “Eden Burning” to allow these to be known through the characters of Eileen, Lily, Rose, Tom.
As I was writing “Eden Burning” my Father developed dementia and I had to go back to the Crumlin Road, into the house where I had lived during “The Troubles” and throw everything out. It took six weeks to do. Going through room after room and getting rid of everything that had been stored by my parents in plastic bags – thinking that they would be used at some point in the future was very moving. They would never be used. They were no longer needed. As I threw out the holding onto the past of my parents, I also faced the terrible fear of revisiting the place of terror of my childhood. That became very significant in being able to face the past without being overwhelmed by it. I am sure that helped the writing of “Eden Burning”.
Q. The cover is very powerful: did you have any say in the design?
A. Well Matthew and I did not want to have a clichéd cover. We wanted something authentic which touched the heart of the story. We originally thought that perhaps we could use one of my paintings – one of “Eve” which I painted as I was writing “Eden Burning”. We thought that there could be a connection between “Eve” and the “Garden of Eden”. It could work in a poetic way.
Matthew consulted with others to do some field testing of this idea and we received feedback to say that the connection between the painting and the content of the story was too vague and would not necessarily allow the reader to understand what the story was all about.
We both agreed with this feedback and Matthew searched for other options. He continually involved me in sending me potential covers and asking for my feedback. It took quite some time to find the right cover. I was amazed at how tenacious he was in keeping going. Yet when we looked at the existing cover choice – we both knew it was perfect. It was well worth the wait. When you see the right cover – you just say to yourself – “Stop. That’s it!” It was one of those moments.
Q. How did you plan/research your book? Do you just start to write and see where it goes or do you plot everything in detail?
A. My writing style has a tendency as my talking (!) to do a bit of wandering all over the place. I started with that – writing to see what would happen. Then I realised that I needed help. I booked myself on an editorial workshop and started to study about how to create a plot, characters, add realistic dialogue and emotion to the story.
I still struggled. I received feedback reports and developed a strong relationship with Rachel Connor who became a significant influence in helping me craft the novel into a real story.
I remember one day, looking at my husband Martin and saying, “I’m stuck”. He sat down with me on the floor. We pulled out flipchart paper and post its and created scene by scene the story arc. That also helped.
Then I could get into the detail of the writing having a big picture plot line in place.
Q. Do you write with pen and paper or is it straight to the computer for you?
A. That’s a good question too. I love writing my journals – where I write odd thoughts, snippets of writing I’ve read – my hand. I do that every day. I keep a journal for “Eden Burning” – key references, thoughts for character development and twists in the story. However, when I write the story itself it is on my laptop. I type quickly and so there is almost a spontaneous transference from what is coming out of who knows where onto the computer page. This rapidity of writing without thinking I find even more effective on the laptop that writing the story by hand.
Q. You are also an artist; have the writing and the painting ever got in the way of each other?
A. No. I see them as twin sisters! It’s like tapping into a universal womb of creativity. I love the spontaneity of painting as much as writing.
However, I have found that they can – as twins can – jostle for attention and time. It takes time to get the paintbrushes out, mix the oils, prepare the canvas and then to clean up afterwards! Sometimes I’m a little lazy and as it is easier to write and no cleaning up to do – other than press the delete button – I give more time to the writing. I keep saying I must paint more. Yet I just write! So the writing twin is winning for now in gaining my time and attention.
Q. What’s the best bit of writing advice that you have been given?
A. By Rachel Connor when she told me, “Write and do not even think about editing until the second draft.” Before that I was deleting and rewriting and not getting on with the story.
Q. Which are your favourite authors and why? Which are your favourite authors and why?
A. I studied English Literature, Spanish and Portuguese Literature at University. I loved the classic writers – Cervantes, Unamuno, Garcia Lorca. I was maybe too young to fully appreciate them at the time. I loved their ability to immerse you in a world of depth to human psychology with a good story.
The writers who I remember who are still with me in my memory as favourites would be people like Ernest Hemmingway with his great adventures. I loved the fact that he was a larger than life character himself and so his books reflected this big world of a hero. There was also Graham Greene and his treading the line of our spiritual yearning with our human frailties. He definitely had a big influence on me. I might even think of myself from time to time as a female Graham Greene! Then more recently John Bainvaille in the novels where he explores “who am I?”, the question of self-awareness, the sense of being an actor in life, his interest in art – all fascinate me. I like Margaret Atwood, J M Coetzee, Julian Barnes, Iris Murdoch because they take human nature seriously and explore it with the reader.
Q. Do you have plans for a second novel?
A. Yes I do and a third. The second novel is well under way. I have written 60,000 words. It is called “Gurtha”. It is set in 2013 in Mallorca, Spain and also in Belfast. It tells the story of Gurtha, and his pilgrimage in life to understand what love is. He finds himself in Mallorca, embroiled with Cornelia – an old university friend. He is totally unaware of her part in the unfolding murders and betrayals which are unexpectedly interwoven with the life of Paddy his Father in Belfast who suffers from dementia. This entanglement with Cornelia, the ex-pat community and Paddy become a deep catalyst for change in everyone’s lives. Gurtha finds out that love is not what he expected it to be.
Thanks so much to Deirdre for taking the time to answer my questions.
You can buy a copy of Eden Burning here