A family history: Derry author Neil Hegarty on his debut novel Inch Levels
David Roy speaks to Derry-born author Neil Hegarty about making the leap from fact to fiction with his acclaimed debut novel, Inch Levels
AUTHOR Neil Hegarty is already well known and respected for his factual works, notably his biography of Sir David Frost and the best-selling Story of Ireland: A History of The Irish People, a companion piece to the BBC TV series.
However, now the Derry-born, Dublin based writer has made his first foray into full-length fiction with Inch Levels, an ambitious and engrossing debut novel detailing the trials and tribulations of a troubled Irish family across two generations.
An intriguing blend of kidnap/murder mystery and fractured family history-fuelled drama infused with evocative descriptions of the Co Donegal/Derry landscape so familiar to the Trinity College Dublin-educated author (who is also a published travel writer) from his own upbringing in the area, Hegarty switches perspective between characters – including embittered, terminally ill teacher Patrick Jackson, his kindly, unhappily married sister Margaret and their sour, fork-tongued mother, Sarah – to create an engrossing story that spans the Second World War and the Troubles.
Named for the dramatic land and seascape on the edge of Lough Swilly which plays a key role in the book, Inch Levels presents a cautionary tale of just how corrosive silence, secrets and resentment can be to a family unit.
While Hegarty has previously written and published short fiction, it seems that his more widely read factual work may have helped hone his story-telling skills, as he explains.
"That was very interesting for me," says the author. "I was surprised by the similarities, actually. Ultimately [with both factual and fictional work], you have to come up with a good story that hooks the reader in.
"They expect to be hooked in, and rightly so. In all the books I've written, in any genre, I've always made sure that the story was was right, that it was pinned down and as good as it could possibly be."
Several years and drafts in the making, Inch Levels began as a Second World War-set and inspired work before steadily evolving into something with a pan-generational, multi-character scope.
"I grew up in Derry, just on the border, and I was interested in this idea that one part of the island of Ireland could be really heavily militarised and the other part could be apparently neutral," reveals Hegarty, who drew on a real life wartime tragedy in west Donegal for one of the novel's key scenes.
"The first draft of the book was just a Second World War story, and then it expanded in my head to become a family story, a story of two generations – the second born in the 1950s and having to deal with growing up at a certain time in Northern Ireland's history.
"The fact that there's so many different layers to the story is actually the result of all the different drafts I developed."
To help add authentic period flavour to the book, Hegarty was able to draw on his own memories of Derry in the 1970s and 80s as well as the remembrances of older family members.
"My mother and aunt grew up in Inishowen," he explains. "They remembered the bodies of sailors washing up on the beach when they were little girls. My dad also had memories of the soldiers and the sailors everywhere in Derry during the war. Those kind of eyewitness accounts tend to be very authentic and full of colour and vibrancy. They were definitely really really valuable to me.
"There aren't really any characters drawn from biography or autobiography; they came from my imagination. The 'real' stuff in it comes from the context – the war, some of the Troubles – and also the Derry landscape. I love writing about that stuff and, if you're sitting in Derry or Ireland, you should hopefully recognise a lot of the places."
A couple of scenes in the book find fact and fiction intersecting to great effect, notably with an authentically horrific account of Bloody Sunday as experienced by Margaret and Patrick.
Their characters are shaped by the lingering effects of their mother's difficult childhood and her terrible guilt turned to bitterness over a never-discussed tragedy.
"I was interested in the idea that, if you keep a secret in a family or maintain a certain kind of silence in a family, what does that do to people who weren't even born at the time of whatever it was that happened?" says Hegarty.
"I think in Ireland we're very good at keeping our mouths shut. And that's fair enough, if you look at our common history: it's something that everybody learnt to do over generations as a result of colonialism, the Catholic Church and everything else.
"But I was interested in exploring the psychological effects of that and how it could leave its mark on a whole family – the ripples of influence going down the generations. It can be very great, year after year after year."
Readers are privy to the often contrasting viewpoints of several different characters whose lives intersect at key moments, a device which ties in with the novel's underlying themes of fallible memory and "the trickery of history", as the author explains.
Hegarty tells me: "I've written a lot of history in the past and I'm always interested in this idea of 'Chinese whispers', where different people can have completely different points of view on the same incident.
"That's history, but it's also life too: if you sit in the pub or listen to a conversation on a bus, you get exactly the same thing. I wanted to see if I could capture that in the form of a novel."
He certainly has: readers who enjoy Inch Levels will welcome the news that the Derry man is already cracking on with his next novel: another history-inspired work, albeit "something very different to Inch Levels", which will present a fictionalised version of the life of a prominent Victorian artist.
They say 'all the best stories are true stories' – of course, not everyone can spin a yarn as well as Neil Hegarty.
:: Inch Levels is out now, published by Head of Zeus. Neil Hegarty will be appearing with US author Robert Olen Butler at No Alibis in Belfast on Thursday December 1. Tickets free via NoAlibis.com.