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Monday, 23 April 2012

John McGahern, Writing Retreats & Changing Lives

I first wrote this View of Writer John McGahern’s novel  -  Amongst Women  as a guest writer for Kathleen Jones’ very special blog. We had read it in our Iconic Writing Group alongside Willian Trevor's Reading Turgenev (reviewed here last month)  and I thought the piece would fit very nicely here 

I have participated in several writers retreats and now have run a few. Something significant always happens at writer’s retreats: they can be life changing events. I am just in the last stages of completing a novel set around a fictional writer’s retreat in France. So John is on my mind.

I met the late, great John McGahern at my first writer’s retreat at Lumb Bank in Yorkshire – a great place on the side of a hill with a scattering of garden huts furnished with a chair, a bench, and a great view of the countryside. I had been suffering from overwork and a loss of confidence.

At that time I’d had three children’s books published and was hungry – not to write  a better book as I knew writing for children can be the highest part of our calling – but I felt the need for  bigger scope and scale: the opportunity to fly higher, dig deeper. So I saved my hard earned pennies and went to Lumb Bank, exhausted, clutching half a novel and shot through with that down feeling you get in the middle of a novel. ‘What have I done? Is this any good? Is this no good? This is no good.’

John McGahern was one of the two tutors on that retreat. I’d read The Dark – a masterpiece of a book – but knew little about the writer. A good tutor, he read my half-book and I shared my misgivings, my lack of confidence about it, and my sense of foolishness. He chuckled. ‘You’re surely joking, Wendy. Sure, I see you’re a great writer!’ And he went on to tell me why. He gave me the confidence to surge on and write many more adult novels. He treated me as an equal, a fellow artisan.

One morning we talk about an extract from my manuscript where a girl is walking with a basket up a bank.  She lifts up her skirt to show her friend where her brothers have kicked her, leaving boot marks on her thigh. John then talks with some intensity about how much one can render in fiction the dark things that have really happened to you.  And he tells me something so terrible it could not make its way onto even his pages which – always beautifully written – are undercut with the complex interplay of cruelty and control, love and loyalty inside the crucible of family life. 

His work is cut through with the chillingly honest view of his own difficult childhood which is a strong strand of most of his fiction, often dominated by the figure of the strong, cruel, seductive father. His fiction - emerging as it does out of his territory of rural Ireland - consistently reflects on the politics of family life where power, and even love, is wielded in subtle and brutal ways. He allows the reader access to these excesses by rendering the highly subjective experiences of his characters in a pared- back, detached style allowing the reader to infer the terrors for themselves. As well as this he allows us some rest for our emotions - with his great prose, his acute observation and lyrical rendering of time and season in rural Ireland.

Amongst Women, his 1990 prize-winning[1] novel, has at its centre just such a cruel controlling seductive father and husband. Michael Moran, an ex hero and a leader in the historical war against the British, wields total power over his family of three girls and a boy. Michael prefers family to friends and dominates his family using rituals of meals, domestic tasks and prayers as the syntax and grammar of his domination. (Brainwashing comes to mind…) There are physical aspects to his domination that have sexual undertones but the writing is too subtle for that to declare itself as incest.

Michael is handsome and has charm and is prepared to use it – as when he courts his second wife, Rose, so he can add her as caretaker and fellow-hero-worshipper to his brood of women. McGahern, though, shows Rose as the only one who, though loving Michael, holds out against his domination. This is logical. She has not been brainwashed by him since birth.

It is significant that the daughters, whom he bullies, manipulates and dominates, adore him and make excuses for him to each other and to Rose and other outsiders. And the final irony – and the brilliance of the perception in the writing – is that these women do notbreak down. At his death, around which the whole of this novel is tuned, they become their father. He has created them. He is in their hearts, in their skin, in their soul.
I have many other stories emerging from this particular writing retreat but this is the most important. 

Writing retreats, as I say, can change your life. 

And that's what my new novel The Art Of Retreating is all about ...

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