Dublin writer Catherine Dunne harks back to Greek myth for 10th novel The Years That Followed
Dublin writer Catherine Dunne's 10th novel is a tale of two women, set in Cyprus and Spain between the 60s and 80s and inspired by Greek myth. She talks to Brian Campbell
AS WELL as being one of Ireland’s best-loved novelists, Catherine Dunne has always been a big deal in Italy too.
The Dublin writer’s first book, In the Beginning, was published almost 20 years ago (in 1997) and was a popular and critical success. Translated into several languages, it went on to be shortlisted for the ‘Bancarella’ – the Italian booksellers’ prize.
In 2007, Silvio Berlusconi’s wife wrote a letter to the La Repubblica newspaper complaining about the former Italian Prime Minister's behaviour and comparing herself to `a character in a Catherine Dunne novel'.
Dunne – whose father moved from Co Down to Dublin in the 1940s - went on to win the Giovanni Boccaccio International Prize for Fiction in 2013 for her book The Things We Know.
Now she has published her 10th novel, The Years That Followed, which is inspired by Greek myth. It takes us from the 60s to the 80s and tells the dual stories of Calista - who leaves Dublin aged 17 for Cyprus after being swept off her feet by older man Alexandros – and Pilar, who has moved to Madrid from rural Extremadura.
As the two stories are interweaved, tragic and life-changing events unfold that will link their lives in a way that the pair couldn’t have imagined.
Is it true that you had been thinking about this story for many years before writing it?
It is. I was always a voracious reader and the Greek myths always fascinated me. When I went to read them again as an adult I found them very different to what I remembered. So I had that idea of trying to bring something old and tried and trusted as a story up to date. I read Jane Smiley’s book A Thousand Acres, her retelling of King Lear, and thought it was brilliant. So I thought I’d go back to the Greek myths and the one that leapt out at me was Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. I probably started reading up on it five years ago and the book itself took me the guts of three years to write because it was quite complicated plot-wise. It was exhilarating and fun and very different, so I wanted to enjoy it and I didn’t want to rush it.
What was your starting point for the book?
Well I knew I wanted to set it in a time when modern communication was impossible. I wanted Calista to be young and naïve, this young and inexperienced teenager. Pilar came out of nowhere and was just one of those insistent characters that tapped me on the shoulder and said, `I have a story too’.
Did you spend much time in Spain and Cyprus while you were writing?
It was mostly written in good old rainy Dublin, but I did do a bit of research in Spain and Cyprus. I have lived in Spain off and on over the years. I lived there for a year before I went to university and then I got a writing fellowship in the Beckett Foundation in the south of Spain in 2006, so I stayed on for about six months.
How did you become such a big success in Italy?
If I knew that, I would know how to reproduce it everywhere! It was just like a perfect storm. My first book really hit a chord there and I had a really interested and committed publisher. The book took off in a big way, so when that happens you’ve got a foundation to build on. And then there was the Berlusconi incident; you couldn’t make that up. That certainly helped. It’s been great in Italy; a rollercoaster. Long may it continue.
Where were you when you heard about the Berlusconi letter?
I was actually living in Spain at the time. A friend in Rome called me and said, `You’re all over the papers’ and I said `I’m not even there, what have I done?!’ And so I heard about the letter and it all went on from there. I was living in a small flat with hardly any mobile signal, so I remember standing in one spot to get reception because the mobile just never stopped that day.
While you are best known for your novels, you have written one non-fiction book - An Unconsidered People, a social history of Irish immigrants in London. Would you consider doing more non-fiction?
That book was special, because it was inspired by a chance meeting in the 80s with someone crossing from the former Yugoslavia to Venice in a boat. I had a conversation with a woman who had left Ireland in the 1950s and she talked about an Ireland I hadn’t known about. Everybody in Ireland had somebody who lived abroad but I didn’t realise just how widespread it was and how it tore apart the fabric of the entire society. I found out that in the 1940s, of all children born, four out of five left the country. It wasn’t something we were told about in school and that kind of social history interests me. I was born in 1954 so getting to research the 50s was a fascinating eye-opener. It was a privilege for me to talk to people about their stories and they illustrate the story of the half a million Irish people who went to the UK.
Do you have any more book launches coming up?
Well we had one in Dublin and one in Doolin in Co Clare and one in Belfast, so the book is well-sailed at this stage! I had an Italian launch last year and it’ll be out in the US in October and I’ll be going to Canada too. So it’s all go. It’s good to be busy.
The Years That Followed is out now, published by Macmillan. Catherine Dunne will appear at Finaghy Library in south Belfast at 6.30pm on Monday April 25 along with Lia Mills and Martina Devlin as part of `Two Cities, One Book’ (www.dublinonecityonebook.ie)