So many and so different are the judgments and the opinions on Catherine Dunne that it’s hard to say which of them can portrait her properly and sincerely.
Some celebrate her as a multi-bestseller author, mentioning her million copy books sold all over the world.
Some criticize and disdainfully regard her as one of the best known representative of the so-called “literature for women”
She has been even quoted on Italian newspapers and gossip magazines, in connection with the presumed influence of her novel ‘In the Beginning’ on the married life troubles of Italy’s former Prime Minister. Actually, I am sure that Dunne would have preferred to reject this last kind of renown, since it was obtained unintentionally and without any particular reason.
Asked to define herself in a single sentence, Dunne says: «I am passionate about writing, I am passionate about friendship, and I feel very much the importance of family.»
These words can give a clue to describe her more accurately. They say that Catherine Dunne, at the same time an Irishwoman and a citizen of the world, besides being a celebrated writer, is a sensitive and passionate human being, and also a wise, gentle person, with a peculiar attention to the others.
In a more literary sense, she’s an author who, far from seeking refuge in the ivory tower of celebrity, is always aware of the presence of her readers and really loves to communicate with them.
This impression, which has taken shape since September 2011, when I met her personally at the Irish Writers’ Center in Dublin, was then confirmed in March 2012, during a live video-conversation Dunne had from Ireland with the members of Castel Mella Public Library Reading Group (see at http://gruppodiletturacastelmella.blogspot.it/).
More at ease, or perhaps less subjected to the formal duties for IWC, in this occasion Dunne displayed her remarkable friendly disposition, which I never found in the Italian authors I met before.
Our conversation, besides paying proper attention to her books, did rapidly develop to discuss a number of very stimulating literary themes. In spite of those who still want to confine her to ‘literature for women’ limbo, Catherine Dunne showed to be a complete artist, deep in her interests and, above all, absolutely conscious of her role in society.
In the first part, Catherine Dunne opened up the doors of her ‘literary workshop’ to the participants, offering them a review of her artistic tools and techniques, «because» she said «I believe that the major questions of all readers are devoted to the general themes of the process of writing as creation of characters and construction of the whole fictional text structure.»
In the second part of our conversation Catherine Dunne concentrated on the voice of her writing. She explained its peculiarities, both when it is directed to the outside world and when it deals with more intimate or, I should say, inner subjects. In this way the participants had the opportunity to hear the writer’s opinions on life and society, and to appreciate her view on the therapeutic value of literature.
What are the sources of inspiration you use when planning a novel? Do you start from experience or artistic imagination? In other words, what are, in your opinion, the mutual influences between life and literature?
First of all, it’s worth noting that, as always, readers are interested in the autobiography of their favourite writers. For me and, I think, for most writers I can answer this question in two ways by saying that all writing is autobiographical and no writing is autobiographical. Because, if it’s true that every writer has to write on his/her own emotional background, it doesn’t mean that a writer needs to experience directly the events described in a novel. What’s essential is that he/she must have empathy with their characters.
Could you please clarify this issue?
As a writer I am really happy if a reader hates one of my characters, because my concern is not about making my readers like a character, it’s about making them believe that this character is real. To do that, I use my own empathy with the characters in order to look through them and detect the real causes of their actions. Let’s take Georgie, for instance, one of the four major characters of ‘At A Time Like This’. In this novel Georgie was portrayed as a hard woman, sometimes selfish, who wants her own way in many things with no respect for anybody else. In short, she’s a woman that I will not particularly like if I met her, but my job as a writer is to understand how a woman like that might feel and to make my readers believe her.
What do you mean by saying ‘make my readers believe’?
I think that in real life actions are sometimes subjected to the ‘Nothing is as it seems’ principle. In other words, to the fact that, with all of human activity, there is never one single motivating reason why we do something. Actually there are many, some of them very complex. A writer should be able to depict them all, always respecting the coherence of his/her characters. In ‘At A Time Like This’, for instance, Georgie falls in love, almost romantically, with a much younger man. This action, which at first might be perceived as unexpected, is perfectly understandable by the readers and in full agreement with the character’s habits. In fact, this love affair is a little bit more exciting and piquant for her just because the young man turns to be the son of Nora, another protagonist of the novel. At this point of the story the readers already know that Georgie has always done her best to humiliate Nora! So, the moment Georgie seems to contradict herself in a flush of sentimentality, she confirms to be the same old character: selfish, rather cold and with no compassion for others.
Another example of ‘credibility inside contradiction’ is how female friendship is treated in ‘At A Time Like This’.
It’s true. Again, if we look on friendship as something that is perfect support, perfect understanding and perfect affection, no, the four women of the novel are not friends.
But friendship is very complicated. As a woman, my definition of friendship is to be non-judgemental and to be completely trustworthy. As a writer, using empathy, obviously I will also write about those friendships that are not perfect but real.
For example, Georgie and Nora personally are not friends, but some of the other girls feel sympathy for Nora because she’s not elegant, she’s not sexy, she’s not popular, and so on. That is what you see when a group of friends forms when they are very young. Later, growing up, it’s very difficult to break up. This is the case of the four women of the novel.
In short, empathy as identification with your characters?
Empathy as a literary tool, I’d say. To be used always with a good combination of identification and detachment. Let me give you another example: if one day I will decide to write a novel about a serial killer, I would have to understand how that person thinks and feels, so I would have to understand what motivates him/her, and I would have to see the world through his/her eyes. But just because I might understand how somebody feels and behaves, it doesn’t mean that I approve of it, or that I would like to behave like that myself.
It was with this literary tool that you were able to build complex plots like in ‘At A Time Like This’, where the perspectives of the four protagonists, and particularly their vision on male world, intertwine and overlap practically on every single page.
I would like to say that the reason why in this novel the male characters are depicted in such a negative way again results not from my own personal judgement, but from my empathy with the four women. The novel starts in the Sixties, when they are only 18 or 19. For young women of that generation, at that age, their entire universe revolved around romantic love, and that’s why the men who don’t meet their expectations cannot but be regarded as horrible or tragic. Only in one single case a man, Paul, is perceived as wonderful. In short, everything is seen either black or white. When we are young life is emotion, and we see things at extremes. It’s only when we are older that we will see the shades of grey in between life.
That also demonstrates once again that for a writer empathy is different from identification. In the case of ‘At A Time Like This’ I can advisedly say that, contrary to what some of my readers believe, I identify myself in none of the four women in the novel, but possibly in a little bit of all of them.
It’s clear that the mutual connections among empathy, identification, literary fiction (or invention), and autobiography are complex and delicate. Did you ever happen, in your writing activity, to lose control of one of these elements, or that one of them had prevailed over the others?
Actually, as a writer it’s easy to feel empathy with all of your characters, so much that sometimes your empathy can be mistaken for reality itself. It is a very great compliment when a reader says: «Oh! this must have happened to you because it’s so real!». But the fact is it has not happened: it’s the writer’s act of empathy that makes the reader believe that it is true.
Sometimes fiction and invention are necessary: in the final section of ‘At A Time Like This’ the story is set in Italy, particularly in Tuscany, that is described in a very romantic fashion. Actually I have to confess that I have never been to Tuscany, so the choice of the place was pure fiction. In the writing of the book it was very important for me to choose somewhere that for Northern Europeans is romantic and wonderful in their heads. Also I needed to choose a location that I had never visited, because I didn’t want to be influenced by my personal opinion on it.
On the other hand, it’s possible that an excess of identification could hurt the writer. I mean, not affect the result of his/her work, but hurt the writer for more personal reasons.
In other words?
I have said before that describing real characters, some of them mean, like serial killers, is peculiar to writers. On the other hand, it’s also reasonable to think that sometimes writers can feel a lot of suffering when they are depicting this kind of horrible people. Actually, some bad influences can really affect the existence of the writers, in such a way that it’s hard for them to keep their ordinary life separated from the life they are living in their act of writing.
This is what happened to me when I was writing my second novel, called ‘A Name for Himself’. That was really a very difficult book to write. I had to spend months and months inside the head of the major character, a man who was very disturbed and probably mentally ill. So, during the writing of the novel I slept very badly, I also had very bad dreams, and I found, by the time I had finished, that I had spent such a long time with him that I didn’t want to be there any longer. That’s why, when I decided to write my third novel, ‘The Walled Garden’, which tells about the relationship between a mother and a daughter, I needed to spend my time in something that was healing, healthy, and gentle.
Why you and many other writers agreed to support the projects of the non-governmental organization Médecins sans Frontières (MSF)? Your support also prompted the publication in Italy of the collective anthology ‘Dignità!’, in which your own text, “Cape Town, Johannesburg”, was dedicated to MSF activity in South Africa.
This question, taken in itself, is about the power that the writers’ voice still has today on the public opinion or, better, about the extent to which their voice can still influence it. Well, every writer sees his/her job as individual and unique, or at least distinct from the others’. Anyway, if I, as other writers, have the opportunity to use my voice and my role for something which I believe it’s right, I’m very proud to do so. For that reason I agreed to go to South Africa with MSF and to write about what I saw there. I also think that my work as a writer can be useful for MSF projects, if it can help to bring to public attention the seriousness of AIDS and Tuberculosis in South Africa. Finally, I believe that it’s important to say that, since MSF did not alter in any way our accounts, we were always free to observe and describe anything.
Actually, what we read in ‘Cape Town, Johannesburg’ helped us to realize that the health problems in South Africa are expressed in extremely more alive, real and moving terms than those we usually get from news reports at home. In your text, life in South Africa seems to be a real struggle. We only want to thank you for your support to MSF.
I think that one of the really important thing about visiting somewhere, what really makes the impact – compared to what we can get from statistics, or we can watch on TV – is that we can hear and report many individual stories from the real people. In fact, I believe one of the really strong human instincts is that we love hearing stories, as it helps us to make sense out of chaos.
What is your opinion about those two strange species that one usually meets in today’s society, the so-called male women and female men, that is men acting like women, and women acting like men. Are these two species also present in Ireland?
These two species are everywhere. I might have defined them exactly as you have. My feeling is that we are still very much in a period of transition. There have been hundreds of years where the role of being male and the role of being female have been very clearly defined. Normally, that division meant that men had a public life and women lived a domestic life, and that there was no connection between those two parts. Probably in the last fifty or sixty years our roles are no longer as clearly defined as they were: women, for example, have emerged out of the domestic and are now in the public life. But unfortunately they discovered that the equality which they imagined would be there was not there. At the same time men who wished to take a different role from the traditional, who wished not to be aggressive bread winners for example, found that people looked on them and treated them with less equality. Indeed, one of the issues which have attracted a lot of attention and a lot of study in Ireland over the last years is this difficulty that young men have of trying to define what their role now is. They no longer understand if they still have to play the role of the leader or the head of the household, or the main partner in a family. Particularly now, with so much unemployment all those very defined roles are not clear any more. So I think it is very difficult for all of them to negotiate what a new place the world is going to be. Anyway, I don’t think it is easier for women or easier for men, I think it’s difficult for all of us.
After discussing the influence of the writer’s voice on the world outside, now we would like to concentrate on its inner effects. In your opinion, can writing be useful to rationalize – and, in a way, to overcome – the worst and saddest moments of life? This question arose spontaneously after reading your autobiographical short story ‘Eoin’ (from the collection ‘The Death of a Child’), which is about the reactions of a mother to the loss of her stillborn child.
This is a very interesting question. Actually, I have two answers about the kind of help offered to people by writing. Individuals who have suffered a trauma, for example, can write about their difficult moments, even though they are not professional writers, as a form of catharsis, in order to free and purify themselves from sorrow. But for a professional narrator who writes about something like this, it’s important to create a text, a piece of work which can be understood universally, and which can touch other people emotionally, with the hope to help.
As you wrote in ‘Eoin’, there was a time in your life, in your difficult moments, when you met some people you called grief-eaters. In the text you explained how grief-eaters can lift the burdens of suffering. Would you like that your books could act in this way towards your readers? Which of your books can be considered a real grief-eater?
I have found that lot of readers say to me that ‘The Walled Garden’ was a very helpful grief-eater whey they tried to come to terms with the death of a parent, and also the last book ‘Missing Julia’, people have actually spoken about that in terms of giving them relieve when they had a very difficult decision to make or to understand about somebody that they loved committing suicide.
In conclusion, do you really think that writing could heal people?
I think it’s like when you go to see a painting and, especially if the painting is beautiful, you bring yourself to the painting. Readers also bring themselves to books and, as a writer, I think that good writing can give me an emotional relation with my readers. That’s way, yes, I think and hope it is possible that a reader could find comfort in writing.
In this conversation we have dealt with the following novels: ‘In the Beginning’, ‘A Name for Himself’, ‘At A Time Like This’, ‘The Walled Garden’, and ‘Missing Julia’, and with the short stories ‘Cape Town, Johannesburg’ (from ‘Dignità!’) and ‘Eoin’ (from ‘The Death of a Child’). Obviously you wrote and published many more books. We would like to know – please forgive the banality of this last question – what is the book you feel closest to?
I think that my best book is always the last one. Or better, every time I finish a book, this is the one I feel it’s my best book, and I feel closest to it. Because everything that I write I want to make it better than the book that came before. What I seriously believe is that ‘A Name for Himself’ is a book that I am very proud of. And I feel very sad that it has been overlooked, not appreciated maybe because it was a sort of dark story, or maybe because a lot of readers wanted me to write ‘In the Beginning’ over and over and over again. Well, I sincerely hope that sooner or later they will change their mind.