I used to think I didn’t like futuristic novels but I’ve lately been blown away by two: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel and About Sisterland by Martina Devlin, published by Dublin literary imprint Ward River Press. I’m delighted to welcome Martina to the blog today to talk about her book.
|Author Martina Devlin|
About Sisterland is an atmospheric, thoughtful, intriguing look at the pitfalls of gender dominated society, in this case, a world ruled by women. There is nothing usual about this book, especially in an Irish context where we are obsessed with our very Irishness. The characters in About Sisterland have a whole other set of land, geography and identity questions to grapple with.
Martina was born in Omagh and makes her home in Dublin She has had nine books published; other novels include The House Where It Happened, a ghost story inspired by Ireland's only mass witchcraft trial, and Ship of Dreams, about the Titanic disaster. Prizes include the Royal Society of Literature's VS Pritchett Prize and a Hennessy Literary Award, while she was twice shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards. A current affairs commentator for the Irish Independent, she has been named columnist of the year by the National Newspapers of Ireland. Martina is vice-chairperson of the Irish Writers Centre.
Welcome, Martina. It’s a pat and, sometimes, unwelcome question to ask a writer, so apologies in advance, but where did this novel spring from?
From two sources. First, because I grew up in the North of Ireland during the Troubles, where I observed how two communities led separate lives (not educated together, not living in the same areas) which created the space for extremism to put down roots. I’m not suggesting that everyone saw the other side as entirely ‘other’ and separate, but the potential was there. Second, from reading the work of a groundbreaking social activist and feminist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman. She wrote an extraordinary short story – ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ – about postnatal depression long before it was acknowledged as a condition. But what helped to inspire About Sisterland was her novel, Herland, written 100 years ago and serialised in a magazine she published. It imagines a world ruled by women – a utopia. There are no negatives. I mulled that over, and reached the opposite conclusion because women are people and people are never perfect. Least of all when they lay claim to it. I combined those ideas with a pet hate which is ‘isms’ and decided to look at extreme versions of some isms including fundamentalism and feminism.
The novel unfolds effortlessly but at a great pace. As a writer who doesn’t plot much I am always curious about other writers’ approach to plot. Can you talk a little about building About Sisterland?
I don’t plot much either. It doesn’t work for me. I begin with a character who interests me, and consider the potential journey he or she might make; also, I have a broad outline in my head of what a prospective novel might be about – some themes I’d like to explore. And then I leave myself open (hopefully) for inspiration to shape the novel once I’m immersed in the writing process. With this book, more than any other I’ve written, I saw pictures unfurl in my mind like petals opening to the sun. I had a very clear image of a harmonious and beautiful yet fundamentally dreadful (because totalitarian) society. Some of it came quickly once I began to write: the emphasis on controlling emotions which leads to rationing; the segregation of the sexes which helps to bring about the breakdown of the family unit; the communal child rearing for indoctrination purposes; the use of memory control to impose conformity. But other elements were more gradual and only emerged from draft after draft, such as how and why fantasy would be allowed in matingplace. I was never entirely sure how the novel would end while I was writing it.
Concrete naming is important in About Sisterland and everything, from people to places to procreative sex, are named with flair and imagination; you write about babyfusion (pregnancy), moes (emotions), Himtime (sex for conception) and many more brilliantly conceived terms. How did you approach the crucial business of naming things?
Language is fluid so I thought it likely that many of today’s familiar terms would be replaced in a future society. Once I began, it was a lot of fun for me. I’ve always liked to make up words anyhow. This gave me carte blanche. Babyfusion was the first term I invented, and I intended it both as a positive and negative. It plays with the idea of the child and mother (or source, as I call her) being combined until birth, with the utter dependendcy of the unborn child. But I wanted to suggest an unusual relationship between the two in Sisterland, due to the highly stratified society, and fusion has a word association with nuclear fusion and the negative implications of the atomic bomb. Lia Mills, who read an early version, suggested ‘meet’ to me for men chosen to mate because it suggests ‘meat’ which dehumanises the men. As, indeed, Sisterland does dehumanise them.
I kept thinking about celebrity culture as I read the book, as much as about the patriarchy. Was the revering of celebrities on your mind as you wrote?
Not initially, but as the book took shape it began to occur to me – in the sense that human beings seem to need to invent deities. Humankind alone is rarely enough for people. And celebrities have certainly acquired godlike status in today’s society. We iconise people who are important to our culture. I was also thinking about how information is manipulated, Magdalene laundries, what happens when the oppressed become the oppressor, asylum seekers, and how women around the world are denied education and persuaded or forced to cover themselves in public. In Sisterland, it’s the men who are illiterate and obliged to cover up. Dermot Bolger made me laugh recently. He said: “How on earth do you women treat men in Omagh?” That’s my hometown. But, of course, Sisterland is nowhere and everywhere.
Lia Mills interviewed me last year and began with the bald question ‘Why are you a writer?’ It’s a good question so, Martina, why are you a writer?
I think of myself as a storyteller rather than a writer and that applies to whatever kind of writing I’m doing, whether a newspaper column, radio essay, short story or novel. As to why I’m a storyteller, it’s because I grew up hearing stories from my parents. Whenever I think back to my childhood I hear their voices telling me about Cúchulain and other Celtic legends, or the stories from their own childhoods, or ghost stories. There were a lot of ghost stories by the fireside! The oral tradition was very strong, though we all read a lot as well. Libraries are my favourite place. I owe a great deal to them.
What is your writing process – morning or night – longhand or laptop?
Morning is best, even though I don’t think of myself as a morning person, and I write on a laptop. My cat Chekhov seems to enjoy hearing my fingers click on it and always positions himself in whichever room I’m working. He gives the appearance of snoozing while I work – but if I stop he opens his eyes and looks disapproving. He’s a very elegant slavedriver.
Who are your favourite women writers and why?
Brace yourself, it’s a long list. Jennifer Johnston, Margaret Atwood, Maria Edgeworth, Sarah Waters, Hilary Mantel, Catherine Dunne, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Joyce Carol Oates, Emma Donohoe, Marilynne Robinson, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Taylor, Virginia Woolf. I’ll stop now, although there are more. What they share in common is an ability to transport the reader to the time, place or situation they write about. In addition, I admire the way some of them switch genres from one book to the next – either because they choose not to be defined by genre or because they allow the story to dictate the genre.
What one piece of advice would you offer beginning writers?
Don’t write for the market. Write the kind of book you’d like to read. Even if you think it’s beyond your ability, stretch yourself and reach for that.
You are very diverse as a writer: you’re a journalist and your last novel before this was historical fiction. If it’s not too cheeky to ask, what can we expect from you next?
The journalism only takes up one day a week – it’s a toe in the water rather than all-consuming – an arrangement which allows me time and space for novels. In particular, I love historical fiction, especially the research – currently I’m spending a lot of time in Dublin’s National Library delving into the 1500s. The Pearse Library in Dublin is another useful resource. But it’s early days yet. Sometimes I walk away from projects after a period of research if the story doesn’t take shape in my mind. However, I do have a strong female character, an outsider, whose voice is becoming clearer to me every day. So fingers crossed.
Wishing you all the luck (and sales) in the world with About Sisterland, Martina. It’s a wonderful novel. Readers, you can buy it here, currently on sale for just €12.99.