A tale of tough love and dangerous obsession
Belinda McKeon's epic second novel Tender concerns the 'madness' of student Catherine's destructive obsession with her friend James and marks the Brooklyn-based Irish author out as a formidable talent. She talks to Brian Campbell
THE first line of Belinda McKeon’s new novel came to her out of the blue, but the title – Tender – was something that emerged over time as the obvious choice.
The Co Longford writer, now based in New York, worked on the book for four years and it is a stunning piece of work. Set largely in 1997 and 1998, with the last section set in 2012, it is an epic novel charting the intense obsession that Trinity student Catherine has for her friend James.
“The word `tender’ kept jumping out at me. It’s interesting because it’s often taken to mean `soft’ and `gentle’ and `sweet’ but it can also mean `raw’ and `not to be touched’,” says McKeon.
“There’s a line in Joyce’s The Dead that I’ve always loved, 'There is no word tender enough to be your name’ and there’s a Ted Hughes poem called The Tender Place.
“There’s the Blur song Tender from the late 90s and I went on a loop of listening to that song at one stage. That’s one of the biggest influences.”
The book plants you back into the late-90s, with the peace talks in the north leading up to the Good Friday Agreement going on in the background, the publication of Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes and with Blur, Radiohead and The Verve providing the background music.
“There was a good bit of Blur in the original manuscript, but sometimes you look back at those things and they can look a little bit forced,” says McKeon. “There were mentions of Catherine trying to dress like Damon Albarn. But I was a Britpop kid and I gave that to my character. OK Computer [by Radiohead] was the first CD I ever bought with my own money. I listened to it over and over.”
At Catherine’s student flat in Dublin’s Baggot Street (and her home in Longford), she has her bedroom covered in posters (Blur, Muriel’s Wedding...) but when she visits James’s house in Co Leitrim his bedroom walls are bare.
“James isn’t that kind of teenager. And of course he can’t put his crushes up on the wall,” says McKeon.
This is because James is gay and, in mid-90s rural Ireland, he can’t bring himself to tell his parents that he is, as he says, “different”.
McKeon explains how she set about writing Tender. “I had the characters in mind from a long time ago. I wrote a very bad mournful short story about 15 years ago – about a young gay man and his best friend and the physical weirdness between them and her attempts to make him feel better and actually just making it even more difficult for him.
“There’s an autobiographical source for the friendship and I knew that I wanted to write out of the intensity of that experience. But it almost doesn’t matter that any scrap of it really happened, because you have to make it all up anyway.”
She says she was happy to write Catherine as a Longford girl – from McKeon’s home county. “My full name is Catherine Belinda, so it is deliberate. She did start out with a different name and she was from another county, but then I thought `Why are you doing this?’ There was no point in pretending. That would just have been done out of embarrassment or fear of exposure; being coy. I just don’t see the point.”
She admits that it was “so intense” to write the darker parts of Tender. “The third section in particular was quite depressing to write; it really pulled me down for a while – just dwelling in the realm of that and living with it for six or eight months. What she goes through is quite painful and quite ugly in some ways, so it did affect my mood. But it had to be done.”
Like Catherine, McKeon studied at Trinity College Dublin and worked for both Trinity News and, as a summer job, The Longford Leader.
She said it was “worryingly easy” to cast her mind back to those heady college days in the late 90s. “It was a very vivid emotional time for me. My life began in a way when I moved to Dublin, so it doesn’t take much for me to tap back into that time. It’s an enormous shock for me to find myself aged almost 36 and not still a student. I still dress like a student,” she laughs.
McKeon interviewed high-profile Irish authors while at Trinity News and as an arts writer for The Irish Times, where she worked for almost a decade before moving to New York. In the novel, Catherine has a cringe-inducing car crash of an interview with a fictional Irish writer called Michael Doonan.
“He’s based on a male Irish writer of that generation,” says McKeon. “When I was a student I interviewed a lot of writers and most of them were male. Some of them were writers that I admire but I suppose I was drawing on the energy of what it felt like to be a 20-year-old woman interviewing senior male Irish writers. So he isn’t based on anybody in particular. People can think he is; I don’t mind.”
McKeon’s writing is beautifully vivid and vibrant and the book has a good amount of wit too. As some well-oiled Trinity students cross the Front Square of the city campus, “the blue face of the clock was looking, watchful, down on them all. Seen it all before, it would say, if it could say, but it was a clock…”.
One of McKeon's fortes is describing to perfection not just dialogue but what goes unsaid in a scene; the space between the words. And as Catherine and James struggle with the tension and the 'physical weirdness’ between them, there are plenty of loaded silences.
“I think a lot of Irish writing is written out of that and has been for generations,” says McKeon. “There’s a crop of younger writers now who are maybe pushing against it and exploding language on to the page, but the unspoken is still in a way our unofficial national language."
There is also a narrative strand of the book – surrounding `Nordie Liam’ - that veers north from Dublin, Leitrim and Longford and deals with the peace talks in 1998 and the 'scary, forbidden places’ north of the border.
“For people in the Republic it was part of the weather of that time; you couldn’t ignore it. It was something that I struggled with and I was very wary of including it but it kept pushing back in. I realised that the north needed to be in the book but in a way that Catherine was worrying about something that doesn't directly affect her, but then it does...”
:: Tender is out now, published by Picador.