Thursday, June 19, 2014

Interview with Lia Mills

Lia Mills is the author of the novels Another Alice and Nothing Simple, the memoir In Your Face an account of Lia's experience with and recovery from oral cancer and most recently the historical novel Fallen which I reviewed last week Read my Review here 
Lia will be part of a panel on The Literature of War at The Dalkey Book Festival this Saturday at 2pm. Find out more about Lia and her writing on her blog

Lia was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions for me.

1. Is historical fiction your preferred genre and do you think you will continue to write about the past?
I’d never written historical fiction before and I found it challenging. It can be tricky to balance the claims of history with the demands of fiction. But the question behind Fallen is a contemporary one: what’s it like if your city erupts in sudden violence you don’t understand? The week before Fallen’s official publication date, I heard a radio journalist reporting from Ukraine.  He said that there are extremists on both sides, but the vast majority of ordinary people are trying desperately hard to keep normal life going.  That’s what the characters in Fallen are trying to do, while the world they know falls apart.
It took a long time to write, and when I was in the throes of it I swore I’d never write another historical novel, but now I’m not so sure. There’s something very exciting and deeply satisfying about it.

2. Did you enjoy researching Dublin's history and WW1 for this novel?
I love research, I could spend forever reading my way around a subject, following trails, making connections.  I love the thrill of discovery.  It’s a bit like a legitimate form of gossip: you can hoover up information about people and speculate about connections without hurting anyone.
With the research for Fallen I got very involved with the story because the stakes were so high. I love Dublin, and it gets bad press about the Rising – which is ridiculous, since Dublin is where it happened and Dublin paid the price.  As for the WWI material – I didn’t intend to write about the war when I began to write Fallen, but I found I couldn’t leave it out. The more I learned about the Irishmen who fought in British forces (current estimates range from 200,000 to 300,000); about their reasons for fighting and what happened to them during and after the war, the angrier I got on their behalf. In some ways writing the novel felt like an act of restitution, to the city and to those forgotten soldiers.

3. What came first plot or character?
Interesting question. The historical events of the Rising suggested a template of sorts, but in the end I had to work against that so that Katie’s story could live.  Actually Dote, who is a minor character now, was the first character to emerge.  She and Katie’s mother were there from the very beginning. I knew Katie was there but I couldn’t feel her, I just knew her name.

4. Will you write more about Katie and Hubie?
I honestly don’t know.  Fallen was originally planned as the first in a trilogy of novels but the other two have slunk back into the shadows – for now, anyway.

5. what is the next project?
I’m working on short stories at the minute, and mulling over possibilities for the next novel.  All going well I’ll start work on that in October.  I find the autumn a great time of year for beginnings.

6. What is a typical writing day for you?
I love to start early, before anyone else is awake, and bring that sleep-befuddled consciousness straight to the desk, work my way out of it.  It’s exhilarating to know that I’ve done a substantial amount of work by the time everyone else gets up. I think this is crucial for people who struggle with finding time to write: try getting up earlier.  If you’ve broken the back of a scene or solved a plot problem before breakfast, you’ll be ready for whatever the day might throw at you by way of crisis or distraction, your best work is already done.
After the regular morning routine (breakfast, school run, walking the dog) I go back to the desk for several more hours. The range of work that goes into writing is more varied than most people realise. A lot depends on what stage I’m at, whether I’m writing or re-writing or researching – or recharging my batteries. I might spend days in a library, or reading, or visiting places where I want to set something.  Administrative and top-of-the-head work is for the afternoons. If I’m at the re-writing stage, I’ll often work all the way through from early morning to night, I could be at it for fifteen hours. On the other hand, sometimes I take whole days off between projects, just to read for pleasure.

7. Are you a planner or do your write without planning?
I usually have no idea what I’m at when I start.  I take breaks during the writing of a draft to summarise what I already have and try to make a plan, to get my bearings and give me at least the illusion of being in control. I make lists and chronologies and attempt outlines.  I make calendars and give myself deadlines. Then I go back into the draft and ignore all of those lists until I surface to attempt new ones.

8. Do you think fiction offers a good medium to better understand the complexities of the past, especially issues like Irish soldiers serving in the British army and the confusion and bemusement of most Dubliners when the Rising occurred? The official versions of history, as taught in schools often seems so black and white (us and them).
That’s exactly why I wanted to write the novel.  I was really interested in what it might have been like to experience the Rising as a mass of violent confusion, not knowing what’s going on or who’s behind it or where it will end.  Fiction is all about perspective – I suppose history is too, but history shines a big bright light over events, causes and outcomes and so on, while fiction burrows in under the skin to imagine the experience, how it might feel.  Obviously fiction is partial and imperfect, it has its own limitations and bias, but those are clear. In Fallen, we know all along that the Rising is being experienced by Katie; we know what her confusions, biases and prejudices are.
When I was doing the research for the novel, I began to seriously question the official gloss on the events of the Rising.  The casualties were so much higher than I knew. 440 people were killed – more than rebels and British army put together – and more than a thousand were seriously injured. The damage to the city was so extensive it ran to millions of pounds even then and 100,000 people had to go on relief in the aftermath.
When my generation were being taught about the Rising, the story was heavily edited. The emphasis was all on the rights and wrongs of the thing.  You were on one side or the other, for or against, right or wrong.  I never heard about the body count, or a single word about the many people who went out under fire to bring the wounded to hospital or to fight the fires, or those who opened their homes as temporary casualty stations to strangers, no matter what side they were on. That’s a hell of a silence, when it comes to teaching young people about the choices we make in life, the kinds of people we want to be.
The story of the Rising is our foundation myth, and we love it.  I love it. I admire the vision and courage that brought those people out to fight. We owe them a lot, even if subsequent generations have mangled their ideal.  I get a lump in my throat every time I stand in the Stonebreaker’s Yard, or think about how they had to tie the wounded Connolly to a chair so they could shoot him; or the O’Rahilly, writing a note to his wife while he died in a doorway. The stories ­– of the Asgard, or of Grace Gifford marrying Joe Plunkett in the chapel at Kilmainham hours before his execution – will always be thrilling.  But I do wonder why people still insist on referring to the sixteen men who were executed as if theirs were the only lives lost, when the truth is rather different.

Thank you Lia for those great answers. Fallen is published by Penguin Ireland and is available now.

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