Martin, First of all congratulations on the publication, by New Island, of your tenth book Black Rose Days. The title is immediately arresting and, I have to say, the cover strikes me as the perfect match for the story this novel tells.
SG: So tell me about the title. Did you always have it? The motif of the black rose – quite beautifully – is threaded and themed through the novel. Did this come first, along with the title, or, like Stephen King and Carrie, was it only when you’d finished the novel that you were able to sit back and discover the recurring imagery (of which, I should add, the black rose is only one).
Titles can be difficult to decide upon,especially if they’re not organic within the work. It wasn’t with me at the outset. But later I had this image in my head of a young woman and the black tattooed rose just seemed a natural fit for her personality. I had a loose idea that sub-consciously she was outing what she deep down believed was the colour of her tarnished soul.
SG: Yes, I think Ena’s belief about the darkness within her comes out very clearly in the story. You set the book mainly in Kildare, though we do get an American voice through Irene’s perspective. You’re from Kildare so did you still have a map in your head of how far real hotels, discos, pubs etc were from each other as you wrote the story? And did you have in mind at all the history of the Curragh, and the Curragh Camp? I’m thinking here of the theme of entrapment, and inevitability.
I think I know the Curragh and its surrounding milieu very well, and I have a fondness for the terrain and its characters, not always reflected in my writings.The map in my head was of areas and places no longer extant, or if in existence, much changed. I like to anchor my characters in familiar landscape, as I feel, perhaps sometimes wrongly, that it’s an inroad into breathing authenticity into their nature.
SG: I think you’re right; the landscape in which we exist does impact on who we are – it’s whether we acknowledge this or not that is key to our creative writing. Tell me about the brilliantly executed dual narrative. We have the ghost voice of Ena which is, at times, more real than the voice of the protagonist, Dan. How did you approach these? Did you write one narrative and then the other? And if so, could you tell us a little about piecing them together so that they revealed the whole story at the right pace?
Ena’s voice is strongest, I think, because of the first person past tense narrative, which allowed for an in-depth soul excursion. Dan is written third person present tense, which puts him at a bit of a remove from the microscope. Irene, likewise. The styles are contrasting and the book runs the risk of being jarring in the sense that the reader has to contend with the different styles at play. It’s an unorthodox crime novel, alien to the concept and genre and not at all formuliac, I think. Ena’s voice gives us her life, but where she is now… she does not mention where – this was deliberate and to broach it would have meant, I think, another book in its writing. I wanted to work the reader a little,too. Where is Ena? How is she? Is she at peace? This is another mystery at play within the novel – so to solve it a little – well, I would have written something like this:
There is rest after death so as to recuperate from the exhaustion caused to the soul by living: there’s an awakening and a reappraisal then of how one has led his life – there is understanding and compassion and forgiveness in this, lessons learned and others for the learning, before the rebirth.
Interesting to hear the comments of President Obama on the death of Muhammad Ali – they ran along the lines of that we were blessed that he chose to live among our generation…’He chose.’
SG: The fact that Black Rose Days is unorthodox and has a very literary feel to the writing was what struck me as quite wonderful. But staying with narrative voices. I was particularly taken with the strength of Ena’s voice – and how her story explores the themes of identity (starting with her name), class, privilege, and courage. You said in an Irish Times article that the book isn’t intended as a social reflection yet Ena’s narrative is both reflective and reflexive beyond her years – her keen eye for detail, from Luigi’s “nest of blackheads,” to the benefit of perspective: “Habits have small beginnings” she reflects on remembering when she first drank in a pub. Can you tell us about writing Ena?
Ena is intelligent, acutely observant, curious and naturally rebellious. Her intelligence is not of the sort agreeable to the restraints created by a dysfunctional educational system, centred on the size of one’s memory to retain information, much of it useless. She has been tainted and evilly blessed by a fiery baptism of blood, a sight and experience for which she received no support, for which there was no support – PTSD.
She has examined the accident in minute detail for years, in her wakening and sleeping moments – she has become accustomed to reading people, not always correctly – this pattern of observation became a survival tool for her. She tries to read another’s mood, so as to bring herself out of harm’s way. Are there people walking around today who have similar tales to Ena? Yes, sadly too many.Their stories might differ to Ena’s, but their trauma is no less than her’s. Many children grow up too quickly, in order to leave something behind.
In terms of pacing. Not sure about this, if the cadence was spot on, but I went for voice and pace at the outset can be a little off whatever pace the reader might expect and hope for. It’s probably better, definitely for future crime related work, to exit the starter’s block at word one.
As a writer, I want to lift the rock and see what’s underneath. I don’t write about all that I see.
SG: Ah yes, now that you name it – PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), it is so clear how the event that happens at the start of the book set out the path she was to follow. But also layered through this murder mystery is that ultimate question of existence, and how and why we share our lives with others. As you say, it’s about what we don’t see. So, Irene realises at one point that her and Dan had “accepted less because less was much more than they already had” and Dan acknowledges that now Ena “is dead for longer than she had been alive. This happens to us all…”. He remembers his mother saying that “We will all be ancestors one day”. (I loved this line) Can you comment on this?
Human interaction is always interesting to watch/note. Dan and Irene are far from a perfect fit, and their marriage is on the point of collapse when he falls seriously ill. She decides to stay with him. Irene understood something was lacking in the relationship, and though she dealt in the world of spirit, she failed to fully understand Dan and the type of ghost he danced with – his past was his ever-present.You know, I suppose for Irene…I think she was sad at the depth of loneliness she’d felt, despite being alone in the same room with someone she once loved or had come close to loving.
As for ancestors…a while back I brought my son to a stone circle and spoke to him of the rituals associated with these ancient temples, and of their lore and history – the points I’d wanted to impress upon him, without lecturing: respect for all faiths, for the frailty of man, to understand the shortness of your life no matter how long you live. An important lesson I’d wanted him to understand was that of energy/atmosphere – how to tap into the energy of a place, which then becomes more than just a place. It becomes an experience.Culture, folklore and tradition, are dear to me.
SG: It occurs to me that in a way Ena became the embodiment of Kildare, or a type of fictional Kildare within a very real landscape of the Curragh plains. So lastly, Martin, a little about you as a writer and reader. What are you working on now and what books are on your bedside table?
I’ve just finished reading Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, set in China, and it concerns Mao’s reform policies and their effects on writers, teachers – basically anyone with the capacity to think for themselves and question. Currently reading Of Love and Demons by Gabriel Marquez.
Sitting with a stage play at the moment and wondering if my latest novel, It’s a Murder Story, will pass muster. Other than that, it’s the occasional writing practice session, searching for a rock to peer under.
Oh! Marquez is one of my go-to writers.
Well, I am sure you’ll find many rocks and write about what may or may not be visible. Thanks, Martin for such engaging answers and I wish you every success with Black Rose Days and look forward to the new novel!
Martin will be reading from Black Rose Days at his launch on Thursday, 23 June, in Kildare Town Library, Claregate Street. All welcome. You can also follow Martin on his blog.