Himself by Jess Kidd is published in the UK on Thursday 27th October by Canongate.
I met with Jess a few weeks back to chat with her about writing Himself, we talked about where the story came from and what her future plans are. I began by asking…
Has the story always been there? And I’d like to explore how the influences of J. M. Synge’s Playboy of the Western World came about.
I had been planning Himself for some time. I had written three interlinked short stories that could be read in any order and the town emerged from these. At the time I was travelling around the Aran Islands, off the coast of Galway, where J. M. Synge had gathered inspiration for his writing. I found that there were many parallels between Himself and Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World. I already had Mahony (a stranger arrived to town, just like Synge’s Christy Mahon), along with several other comparable characters, such as the widow. Synge’s play felt relevant as it explores violence and how a community deals with it. The setting was also perfect as Playboy is set in Mayo.
These connections were too good to dismiss and I felt I had to use them to write a story, deciding that I should put the play in the middle of the plot. I was working on my PhD at the time and my supervisor said ‘No you cannot put a play in the middle of a story.’ I said. ‘Oh yes I can! It’s too good not to do it, it could be a vehicle for an investigation.’
I wanted to write a novel about a town which refused to talk about its past. So I thought about ways in which I could bring out the secrets and putting the play in the story enabled me to build the investigation into the story.
Is there a particular town in Mayo that the story is based on?
There are definitely a few towns that influenced me but I have travelled around quite a lot and tried to get that small town feel. I wanted to make it so that anyone from a small community could relate to the place. In getting across that insular small town feeling I was very influenced by Under Milk Wood. Mulderrig almost became an Irish equivalent to Llareggub, with the bay and the pump. And when the magical element appeared it was not possible to make it a real place so it had to be a kind of otherworldly place.
How did you feel about writing a story set in a small town in Mayo when you have family based there?
I am very influenced by the stories I heard growing up, when visiting Mayo and spending time there. My Mum is from a family of eleven, she is a great storyteller and would share stories about the town she grew up in and about the people. I was very careful not to base any one character on one person who I knew or heard about. I wanted more for people to identify with the characters and not have them based on one individual. When you meet the town of Mulderrig there’s a kind of magic to it and a nostalgic quality to the town, which I hoped readers abroad would tap into.
Many of the characters stand out however Mrs Cauley is one of the stars. Was she based on anyone and did you enjoy writing her?
Mrs Cauley is loosely based on a lady I knew growing up, that my mother sometimes took care of, and who was fairly eccentric. I have lots of strong women in my family and I am really drawn to writing older characters. Mrs Cauley came to me straight away, I would write big swathes of dialogue, chapters of her chatting with people, and I’d be laughing, as I had her voice very strongly. I’ve really missed writing her since I’ve finished working on the novel.
She is just so vivid; the most vivid character I’ve written. I would love to write a novel based on her past, she seems a very complicated person and it would be great to build a story of the Abbey Theatre (Dublin) around her. I feel she is a woman with a lot of history and would be fun to develop a novel about her and discover what has made Mrs Cauley, Mrs Cauley.
As you travelled around Ireland do you write down phrases you heard? You have captured some great lines and they give the book real humour.
I was lucky enough that my family come out with wonderful funny phrases all the time. So like Synge I did keep a notebook of responses and sayings, which meant I had a vast resource to use. Not quite listening in the cracks of the floorboards but absolutely keeping notes of all the phrases.
Was there a reason for setting the book in the 1950’s and 1970’s?
The 70’s are a kind of nostalgic period for me and are the start of my memories of Ireland. Where I’d be transplanted from one place to another where I’d feel wrenched, as I wanted to stay in one place. I grew to know the 50’s through my Mum. The two periods together showed the times of change and by putting the two periods together I was able to explore how much had changed.
The 70’s are an evocative time and really interesting; everything is breaking down, with more freedom and I wanted to bring that element into the story. It enabled me to use that conflict when Mahony arrives in the town he is not only the city boy he is bringing in a whole new way of life.
The first chapter is quite violent. It is the only real violence in the book and I’ve told readers they need to get past that. What was the thinking behind putting that chapter first?
It was a hard decision as to where to put the murder as originally it was a lot stronger and further on in the book. For me the reader has to invest in this terrible act, it also had to offset some of the magical quality in the book. As the reader you know the core of the story is that something terrible has happened and you need to know what has happened and why – you want to resolve it. I thought a lot about how to write that level of violence, it needed to be justified. I did not want to write violence for the sake of it. But you had to feel Orla’s part of the story and for Mahony, who had witnessed this act and so it goes towards understanding him and as he searches for a base to put down his roots.
The book is prime for a sequel; did you think about that when you were writing it?
I wanted it to be about Mahony’s journey and wanted the outcome to be that he is a survivor and that he is reunited with his roots and his home. There is resolution at the end that he might move away but he might come back again.
I was aware that there are characters I’d like to know more about and there might be more material for another book. I think I did sow seeds for a sequel to revisit certain characters and with the opportunity of other characters coming to the fore. It would be interesting to see what happens to Mahony a few years down the line and importantly Shauna, she is a really important character.
The book seems ideal to me for a TV series or film. Will we see it on our screens?
The book has been optioned for a TV series or a film. It would be really exciting to see how it would be made and I have ideas of who would play whom. There are so many stories in there and so many characters that it’s ideal for a TV series as there’s lots of material that I could use again.
How did you enjoy the editing process and cope with the changes that were recommended?
I loved the editing process, it has to be one of my favourite parts. I had already done an MA in teaching creative writing and we’d done a lot of critiquing work so I was well used to comments. I had developed a thick skin to cope with comments and really enjoyed the collaboration with other writers and found it all very interesting. As the writer it is so hard to leave your own work and be the reader. You cannot read it like a reader would and it is one of the frustrating parts of writing. So you rely on other people to say if you take that out, or strengthen this or look at changing that, it makes the book much stronger as a piece.
I am now working with Francis Bickmore and I completely trust him. So for someone new to the business you write something and it is kind of a dream that it gets published. You write from the heart and you hope it will find an audience. But publishers are experts, who know what people want to read and how it should be presented and that’s something that you cannot know without experience in the industry.
You describe it as a crime novel? I feel it’s more than that?
Yes, it is more than a crime novel, there is a mystery element and it crosses genres very easily. There is so much going on, more a magic realist, mystery tale. This is a book that will appeal to lovers of great stories and with strong characters.
Himself by Jess Kidd is published by Canongate on Thursday 27th October.