Please welcome Jess Kidd to The Qwillery as part of the 2017 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. Himself is published on March 14th by Atria Books.
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?
Jess: I’ve always written, ever since I can remember. At the beginning there were mostly stories about animals, or plays for my friends to star in. My older sisters were avid readers and they let me have access to all their books, even their trashy romance novels. So I blame them for my skewed idea of relationships growing up! I’ve always known that I wanted to write. Being raised in a family of great storytellers meant that I had no end of material to inspire me. Being shy, I preferred to tell my stories to a page.
TQ: Are you a plotter, a pantser or a hybrid?
Jess: I’m a hybrid. I plot, but not meticulously, just to have some kind of a route map to reassure myself that there’s a beginning, middle and an end! Sometimes I have no idea where I’m heading until I stop, read what I’ve written, and realise I’ve been off on a meander. I’ve learnt to welcome these deviations because some of my favorite writing was unplotted and unplanned.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Jess: It used to be getting the time to write, as a working single mum it was always a challenge to find the space and energy to keep writing. I was a college dropout, returning to education after some years away. I was lucky enough to receive a bursary to study but I still needed to hold down a job to support my family. So I’d fit my writing around childcare, work and study. My greatest challenge at the moment is to have the confidence to keep trying new and different ways of writing and to keep developing as an author. Writing, for me, is often a leap into the unknown, so I have to trust that I’m leaping in the right direction.
TQ: What has influenced / influences your writing?
Jess: I find people an endless source of inspiration. I like nothing better than to strike up a conversation with random strangers. People come with a wealth of incredible stories and some people want nothing more than to tell them. I like travelling alone for this reason as I find people are often apt to chat to the loner in the corner! Poetry greatly influences my writing. I read poetry rather than fiction when I’m writing new material. This helps me stay focussed on the rhythm and imagery and making strong word choices, which for me is very important. I also enjoy reading play texts. Himself was greatly influenced by Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas and The Playboy of the Western World by J. M. Synge. I love the way that the language in these plays builds vivid pictures of life in eccentric small towns. I have also been hugely influenced by the work of Angela Carter, Charles Dickens, George Saunders, Flann O’Brien, Toni Morrison and William Kennedy – to name a few!
TQ: Describe Himself in 140 characters or less.
Jess: A rollicking, Irish, genre-bending, tale of a hero’s return to the village of his birth to unravel the disappearance of his teenage mother.
TQ: Tell us something about Himself that is not found in the book description.
Jess: One of the things I really enjoyed exploring in Himself was my love of theater and fascination with performance. Mrs Cauley is a retired actor and Mahony takes the lead in her village play – a ruse to further the investigation. Mrs Cauley was a one-time grand dame of The Abbey Theatre in Dublin and muse to a few great writers. A famous literary ghost haunts Mrs Cauley – the clues are there for a game of ‘guess the spectre.’
TQ: What inspired you to write Himself? What appealed to you about writing a genre bending novel that your publisher describes as "a blend of the natural everyday and the supernatural, folklore and mystery, and a healthy dose of quintessentially Irish humor"?
Jess: The town appeared first in a short story and I found it such a dark, twisted, compelling place that I knew I wanted to return and explore it. Writing a novel set in Mulderrig gave me the space to do that. I loved the idea of mixing elements but the selection of each was really driven by whatever I needed to tell the most compelling story I could. Ultimately I hoped my genre-bending would give a thrilling, unpredictable ride for the reader – as a reader I like to be surprised – I love narrative sleight of hand – and that feeling the rug has been pulled out from under me!
TQ: What sort of research did you do for Himself?
Jess: The main action of the novel is set in 1976, which is when my memories of Ireland began, so a lot of my early recollections have found their way into the book. Orla’s (Mahony’s mother) story plays out between the mid-1940s and 1950. Research for this earlier era was based on personal, oral accounts of people who had lived in Mayo at the time, along with photographs and reading around the period in general.
TQ: Is Mulderrig based on an existing village?
Jess: Mulderrig is a fictional setting, it’s a patchwork of the villages I’ve known and visited. I wanted to make it so that everyone could relate to this community – it may be very specifically Irish but I think anyone knowing, or having lived in, a small town can relate to this place. There are gritty issues at play but Mulderrig is a heightened, even nostalgic, location. I was very struck by Under Milk Wood as a child, my father used to play the Richard Burton recording often. In some ways Mulderrig is my Irish Llareggub, with the bay and the pump and the cast of eccentric, garrulous characters living in a remote coastal town. When introducing a supernatural element it helps if the town is already a little odd and otherworldly.
TQ: In Himself who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Jess: The easiest character to write was Mrs Cauley. She appeared fully-formed and started heckling me from a very early stage. I would make up endless dialogue between her and Mahony and sit and laugh at it. I’ve missed writing her and still have her voice in my head badgering me. So much so that I would love to revisit her and write a novel based on her past (her journey from immigrant to grand dame of the Irish stage, to her flight to ‘the back end of beyond’ and exile there). It would be great to discover exactly what made Mrs Cauley, Mrs Cauley, especially as she would have lived through some fascinating periods of Irish history.
The hardest character to write was the little dead girl, Ida, because her story is so sad. For all her supernatural precociousness, she’s just a lonely, lost girl and the way she reaches out to Mahony is really affecting.
TQ: Why have you chosen to include or not chosen to include social issues in Himself?
Jess: Orla’s story, about illegitimate pregnancy in rural Ireland in the 1950s, was one I wanted to explore. It was based in part on stories told to me by people who had lived in Ireland at this time. As a single mother Orla’s story had huge resonance with me and sparked a series of ‘what if’ questions. What if you refused to be sent away to have your baby? What if you refused to marry? Orla is a troublemaker not because she has slipped up, but because she demands agency over her own life and the freedom to make her own choices. Orla asks to be treated fairly and be granted rights and respect as a woman and as a mother.
TQ: Which question about Himself do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!
Jess: In Mulderrig the supernatural seems to erupt in strange ways, from a holy well in the parochial library to a predictive storm. Why is this, and what does it lend to your portrayal of the town?
Apart from the ever-present dead that haunt the village, I wanted to give a sense of the supernatural erupting out of the place itself. Very few of the characters can see the dead but all of the villagers can witness the strange events that seem to surround Mahony’s return to town. Many of these happenings are linked to the land and have a mythical or folkloric feel to them. There’s a biblical storm, plagues of swarming creatures and wells that spring up in the middle of the priest’s hearthrug. I wanted all of these occurrences to feel natural and part of the internal logic of the book. In some way they act as a kind of social corrective, drawing the attention of the townsfolk to the fact that all is not well. For me, these supernatural flare-ups are the result of the pressure-cooker climate of a town full of dark secrets, a place where collusion is as natural as rain. In many ways the supernatural incidents mark the town’s rising guilt and fear caused by Mahony’s return. Throughout the book there are tales of people being ‘punished’ for not believing in the supernatural, or failing to keep an open mind. In a way the supernatural feels like a great leveller.
TQ: Give us one or two of your favorite non-spoilery quotes from Himself.
Jess: So hard to pick!
The dead are drawn to the confused and the unwritten, the damaged and the fractured, to those with big cracks and gaps in their tales, which the dead just yearn to fill.
Classic Mrs Cauley (to the sly priest Father Quinn):
“As much as I revel in your visits let’s make this snappy, I’ve a Dubonnet and a bed bath on the agenda this afternoon.”
Bridget Doosey (one of my favorite characters) on Mahony:
“He’s a Dublin orphan, which means that he could survive on an iceberg in just his socks.”
TQ: What's next?
Jess: I’m currently working on my second novel THE HOARDER, which is a contemporary crime novel set in London but with Irish protagonists. This has been immense fun to write, it has a funny and flawed protagonist with a startling story – and I continue to genre-bend a little! I am also working on my first collection of short stories.
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Jess: Thank you so much for asking. I’ve loved answering these questions!
Atria Books, March 14, 2017
Hardcover and eBook, 384 pages
“A highly unusual tale set in a highly unusual Irish village full of dark secrets…Lushly imagined, delightfully original, and very, very funny, it hurtles along from the very first page” (M.L. Stedman, author of The Light Between Oceans).
Having been abandoned on the steps of an orphanage as an infant, lovable car thief and Dublin charmer Mahony assumed all his life that his mother had simply given him up. But when he receives an anonymous note suggesting that foul play may have led to his mother’s disappearance, he sees only one option: to return to the rural Irish village where he was born and find out what really happened twenty-six years ago.
From the moment he sets foot in Mulderrig, Mahony’s presence turns the village upside down. His uncannily familiar face and outsider ways cause a stir among the locals, who receive him with a mixture of excitement (the women), curiosity (the men), and suspicion (the pious).
Determined to uncover the truth about what happened to his mother, Mahony solicits the help of brash anarchist and retired theater actress Mrs. Cauley. This improbable duo concocts an ingenious plan to get the town talking about the day Mahony's mother disappeared and are aided and abetted by a cast of eccentric characters, both living and dead.
Himself is a simmering mixture—a blend of the natural everyday and the supernatural, folklore and mystery, and a healthy dose of quintessentially Irish humor. The result is a darkly comic crime story in the tradition of a classic Irish trickster tale, complete with a twisting and turning plot, a small-town rife with secrets, and an infectious love of language and storytelling that is a hallmark of the finest Irish writers.
Jess Kidd has a PhD in Creative Writing from St. Mary’s University. She grew up as a part of a large family from Mayo and now lives in London with her daughter. Himself is her first novel. She is currently at work on a second novel and a collection of short stories.