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Catherine O’Flynn: What Remains of Us

October 18, 2013

Catherine O'Flynn talks with Rob Sharp about the connection between humor and tragedy, the places we look for happiness, and why she set her novel in a British shopping mall.

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Photo courtesy of Catherine O'Flynn.

Birmingham is Britain’s second city, but its protean nature makes it hard to define. Perhaps this slipperiness is down to its constantly shifting history, an identity strained through frequent cycles of boom and bust, from its Industrial Revolution heyday to the collapse of its car manufacturing plants as the late 1970s recession simmered, and then boiled over, under Margaret Thatcher. Yet W.H. Auden, J.R.R. Tolkien and John Wyndham all gambolled as children on that evolving landscape, the birthplace of manufacturing that was razed by bombing during the Second World War, and flattened by slum clearance. It has been the subject of architectural revival ever since.

Catherine O’Flynn’s life seems like it has been spliced with Birmingham’s. Her parents were part of the diaspora that brought thousands of Irish immigrants to the city. Her father ran a sweet shop as the surrounding residential buildings that formed its customer base shrank from wave after wave of wrecking balls. In her 20s O’Flynn joined the city’s burgeoning service sector in a string of short-lived jobs. And in the kind of overnight success that’s a gift to biographers, in 2007 her debut novel What Was Lost was published, winning Britain’s prestigious Costa First Novel Award and making the long-list for the Man Booker Prize.

Where J.G. Ballard saw Britain’s identikit shopping malls as destructive to individuality, O’Flynn takes pains to humanize those who use them. What Was Lost contains a romance between a record store manager and a security guard who are stoic in the face of their crushingly boring environment. O’Flynn’s second novel, 2010’s The News Where You Are, saw the metaphor between architectural regeneration and life extended to a journalist struggling to find meaning in the ephemerality of his career, as one by one the buildings designed by his late father, an architect, are demolished around the city.

In O’Flynn’s latest novel, Mr Lynch’s Holiday, released by Henry Holt this month, the aging Irish immigrant Dermot Lynch welcomes a shot at expatriate life in Spain in a way that his disaffected son Eamonn can never manage. Eamonn, a Birmingham émigré to the kind of new-build residential complex peppering coasts from Dubai to the Costa del Sol, is reeling from a failed relationship. He struggles to adapt to the crumbling corners of what he’d hoped would be a “fresh start” abroad—but he’s ungrateful and spoilt, luxuries his bus driver father could never afford. There are few authors who could write in such perspicacious terms about the scarcely satisfied yearning of the British middle classes—especially in comparison to the challenging circumstances facing those crossing borders elsewhere in Europe.

I spoke to O’Flynn several days after of the birth of her second child, and her manner was polite and self-effacing as I’d read about in other interviews. She’s always laughing, even when she’s describing the British liberal elite as “self-loathing and full of anger.” I laughed along with her, and after a moment of anguish, agreed wholeheartedly.

Rob Sharp for Guernica

Guernica: Mr. Lynch’s Holiday tackles economic migration from a number of different perspectives. Did this stem directly from your background, or was the motivation broader?

Catherine O’Flynn: I wanted to write about migration, primarily, rather than different kinds of economic migration. This came from my experiences of going out to live in Spain in 2002. My husband and I had a sort of early mid-life crisis and decided to pack in our jobs, sell the house and go and live in Barcelona for a year or two. But, once there, what shocked me was how quickly the beauty and the strangeness of the place became invisible to me. After six or seven weeks I stopped seeing it. At the same time life seemed a bit directionless without any of the structures and constraints I’d sought to escape—a job, a commute, the rain. For the first few months there was this creeping sense of ennui, just wandering around and wondering what I was going to do with myself. Worse still, those very feelings were despicable to me. It felt reprehensible to be at all unhappy when I was ostensibly in such an enviable position.

So I wanted to explore what happens when you try to purchase happiness, or geographically locate it. That kind of greed for a better quality of life, rather than a more directly economic form of migration.

In the two years I lived in Spain, as well as ultimately writing my first novel, I wrote lots of fragments about an English person wandering around a Spanish suburb doing things like going to the local shops and feeling lost and confused, and those ended up filtering into this novel when I came to write it.

Guernica: Is there anything relating to your parents in there as well?

Catherine O’Flynn: I had an idea for a novel about an older person documenting the last year of their life, someone who had decided they had come to the end and had a self-appointed termination date. And in that last year they were going to get stuff done. There’s a hint of that still in the novel when Dermot talks about the expiry dates on eggs, but the more I thought about the wider idea, the more I went off it, it seemed too contrived and novel-shaped.

But the thought of writing about someone toward the end of their life stayed with me and turned into something based a little on my parents. My Dad grew up in 1930s rural Ireland and I grew up in 1980s post-industrial Birmingham, so I was interested how in just one generation we had moved from he and my Mom migrating out of economic need to make their place in the world, to me, however many years later, just swanning off to Spain and being a bit dissatisfied. Neither Dermot nor Kathleen are very closely my parents but their experience of migration is like my parents’.

Guernica: The book tackles the economic crash, but not in Britain. Your previous novels have all been deeply rooted in British society. Why tackle the recession in Spain?

Catherine O’Flynn: It’s always place that gives me the idea about what I want to write, and in the case of this novel it was this idea of a Spanish ghost town. I think it came initially from watching one of those alarmist TV documentaries with gleeful titles like “Holiday Homes from Hell,” and one particular episode with a man living in this half-finished town, very much like Lomaverde [the setting of Mr. Lynch’s Holiday] where all work had stopped, there was raw sewage in the street, and electricity wires were sticking out everywhere. He was this amazingly stoic character going around digging trenches, single-handedly trying to get this place to function, and as a consequence he was slightly unhinged. It seemed an obvious locus for the ideas I’d had, I just loved the idea of writing about that sort of place, really. So it was more opportunistically wanting to write about that place rather than explicitly thinking I wanted to tackle the economic crash.

Guernica: As a place Lomaverde feels similar to the shopping centre, the location used in your first novel. What is it about these new developments that you feel is interesting to explore?

Catherine O’Flynn: The hardest thing for me about writing is not the writing, but, probably like a lot of writers, it’s the thinking about what I might want to write about. And that’s because I’m naturally very lazy. What I want to do is just glide around and not think too hard about things. And I know, obviously, that the only way I can write about things is to stop and examine them closely, think hard about them. What I always hope is that something will just miraculously cross into my field of vision that will somehow crystallize some aspect of existence for me, and I’ll be able to write about the world without doing all the wearying thinking. And remarkably those things do come along periodically and they are always places, and I’m always grateful for them, but annoyingly a lot of work and effort is still required to somehow turn that glimpse into a novel. With the first novel it was a shopping center, this one Lomaverde, and even the second novel, which ultimately didn’t have that locus, did start off that way, about a hospital converted into a casino, but it kind of withered away in the story to just a couple of pages. It’s just something about certain locations that allows me to get a distance on everyday existence and see it from a slight angle.

Guernica: You say, “Many Britons are at an arrested state of development.” Do you think Eamonn is typical of his time?

Catherine O’Flynn: I suppose I do–or if not his time, of his background. Eamon is kind of hideous—there’s a lot of me in him, there’s a lot of people I know in him—and it’s a very common character in Britain: The self-hating member of the middle class. Every time you read the comments section of The Guardian there’s that classic combination of self-loathing and general misanthropy. Members of the middle class accusing others of being middle class. It’s like the worst charge you can lay against somebody.

In some ways you could say it’s been tackled a lot, but it’s not been written so much in a way I recognize. That endless nausea which comes with hating yourself, noticing all the signs and signifiers around you, all the value judgments because someone’s wearing a certain kind of t-shirt. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing but it seems fiercest amongst those who’ve moved up a class through education, so they are to a greater or lesser extent embarrassed by the world they came from and horrified by the world they find themselves in. I wanted to explore that and work out how I felt about it.

I can think of all sorts of clichéd examples of tragedy and comedy all mixed up together—I remember laughing in the back of the hearse on the way to my mother’s funeral because the undertaker was so inappropriate. And that’s the way it always is, those things are often closely connected.

Guernica: I wondered where the humor came from. Is it just a result of trying to write naturalistically?

Catherine O’Flynn: Yes. It depends on your disposition, but for me it would be entirely unnatural to write about the world without any humour because it’s just there, quite evidently all around us. I can think of all sorts of clichéd examples of tragedy and comedy all mixed up together—I remember laughing in the back of the hearse on the way to my mother’s funeral because the undertaker was so inappropriate. And that’s the way it always is, those things are often closely connected. I find it weird that people talk about comic novelists, it feels like an artificial distinction.

Guernica: What is it about death, and people’s relationship to their environment—especially through architecture—that continues to interest you? I mention it because both those themes, and their interaction—crop up in all your books.

Catherine O’Flynn: It’s just something from my own experiences of growing up in Birmingham. Birmingham has this history of reinventing itself, of quite ruthlessly wiping the past, and so there’s a sense of loss in the city the whole time, a constantly renewing sense of loss. And that was very true of my particular part of the city and the time in which I grew up. This was the early 80s, Thatcher’s zenith, that liminal period after our industrial heyday, but before the next phase, the service era, had really kicked in.

My parents had a sweet shop that we lived above and for most of my childhood all there was around us were half-demolished factories and wasteland. After we moved away, when I was 16, the area was redeveloped, it was rebranded, given a different name, all the streets were changed, they built a massive entertainment complex complete with a casino at the end of the road. It was a very strange and very extensive redevelopment. And so I’ve always felt this massive rupture. It’s quite traumatizing when that happens. It’s true for everyone—your childhood home changes or vanishes, but it’s marked me in quite a big way. The reason we left that area was that my father died and so we had to sell the shop and move to another area. So I connect the two things—the change in the landscape and the personal loss.

Guernica: You seem to have an ambiguous relationship to redevelopment though—some people flourish in these environments.

Catherine O’Flynn: With the first novel, writing about a shopping center, it would have been very easy to be very dogmatic and over-simplistic about it and say “Shopping centers are evil and local shops are good,” but that isn’t the case, the truth is a lot more nuanced than that. For a lot of people shopping centers are welcoming and hospitable places in ways that local shops are not. And similarly with Lomaverde there’s a beauty and solace to be found in it for some. There’s an element of that in my childhood, growing up in what would have been described as an industrial wasteland but which I found imaginatively very fertile. I also think of my father who came from rural Ireland to Birmingham and found what many people thought ugly about the city to be very beautiful. He loved the gasometers and the power stations, as I did. We’d often go on trips to look at different gasometers and things. Certainly in the case of Lomaverde I could see myself being a sucker for that environment. People’s relationships with these places are much more complicated. There’s no sense of them being good places or bad places, really.

Guernica: It feels like you’ve been influenced a lot by your background—by your parents, by where you grew up. Did you read and write a lot growing up, and did they?

Catherine O’Flynn: I never thought about being a writer growing up, but I did write a lot. I guess Kate in the first novel was an exaggeration of my obsession with being a detective when I was a kid so I had a lot of notebooks where I’d keep tabs on local people—the customers who came in my parents’ shop. That sounds more sinister than it was. I’d characterize my activities as tragic rather than sinister—a desperate longing for life to be more exciting and mysterious than it clearly was. So I did watch places and people and make notes but I never thought about this as a creative endeavor, it was straight-ahead detective casework. As I got older, like lots of people, I expressed myself in writing but never as “a writer.” I would write a lot of letters and when it came to emails I’d always spend time crafting little anecdotes and characterizations for friends.

I think my mom was a thwarted intellectual–intelligent and curious–but with the misfortune of having six children, having to work as a primary school teacher and help run a corner shop. She read whenever she could. There weren’t loads of books at home but she read interesting people like Iris Murdoch and Doris Lessing. I think the fact that my five siblings were a good bit older than me (I came 10 years after the rest – the “accidental sixth”) meant I was introduced to a lot of the writers they were interested in at quite an early age. But it was not by any stretch a literary background and certainly not a background where I thought, “I’m going to be a writer.”

Guernica: A lot interviews with you seem to stress that you had a number of jobs, including postwoman and shop assistant–when you broke through, did you ever find yourself pigeon-holed?

Catherine O’Flynn: I had a lot of good luck with the first novel. To the extent that the media wrote about it, the narrative they wanted it to fit in with was that of the “dogged postie” as I believe I was referred to, because I was a postwoman for about three months. Because I’d “battled rejection” from publishers and agents. But I’d never felt dogged, I’m about the least dogged person I know, I’m an enormous quitter. What I didn’t want, was to appear in any way aggrieved that I hadn’t been published instantly. In fact it seemed understandable to me, and I don’t think I had that tough a time getting published anyway. I felt pretty lucky. I think anyone who thinks they can go from being unknown to being published without getting 10 or 15 rejections is insane. I never felt dogged. And the thing about all the jobs I had, I don’t know, I think they think because you’ve worked in a shop for years it’s in some way remarkable that you can write a book. It’s like that slightly patronising label of being a regional novelist, if you write about a certain place. It’s just an extension of that class thing we were talking about earlier. I did those jobs because I liked those jobs and liked not having tonnes of responsibility. I was just feckless really.

I remember one editor talking about a cover to me and saying “We just want to convey ‘English’ and ‘Warmth’.” That was my area apparently, “warm” and “English” which kind of puzzled me as I didn’t feel especially warm or English.

Guernica: Are there any labels you recoil from?

Catherine O’Flynn: The most obvious way those labels become visible to you is the way in which they choose to portray your book, the images they put on the cover. I remember the original cover of What Was Lost seemed very feminine. And I thought, “Would a man pick that up?” And that’s when I started to learn about how publishers target women because women read fiction, all those things that kind of depressed me, really. I’m not sure I get labelled in a way that I find objectionable. I’m maybe a bit hard to classify, not because I’m so original and ground-breaking, but just a bit all over the place. Often it’s quite nebulous the way they choose to market you, it’s not straightforward as like “This book is for women” or this is for “People who go to Asda.” I remember one editor talking about a cover to me and saying “We just want to convey ‘English’ and ‘Warmth’.” That was my area apparently, “warm” and “English” which kind of puzzled me as I didn’t feel especially warm or English.

Guernica: Father and son relationships are important in all of your novels, more so than mother-daughter ones. I wondered why that was?

Catherine O’Flynn: I think I’m interested in parent and child relationships in general. It kind of shifts with each book. The first book was a daughter and her dead father. The second focussed on a man’s relationship with both his mother and his dead father, and this one now, yes is father and son. I suppose my interest is the obvious one – how our parents shape us. I’m not sure what it is about a mother-daughter relationship that I haven’t wanted to portray in fiction yet. I think it’s because I tend to write about that more directly, in memoir, about my own mother. In fiction I seem to need a little distance on the relationships to be able to see them with some perspective. I’m casting about for answers–the truth is I’m not sure. I don’t think we always know why we choose what we write about or how we write about it.

Guernica: You play with cultural memory and the impact of characters’ legacies. Are these books your way of imprinting your influence on the world?

Catherine O’Flynn: My brother-in-law once said to me, “Your books will live on after you die,” but that never occurs to me. I can’t really conceive of that kind of abstract future, I’m quite unimaginative, I’m thinking about the here and now. I’m interested in writing about the texture of contemporary life and writing about it in a way that makes it visible. That’s what I try to do for myself when I’m writing. Something invisible and every day becomes slightly more visible when I’m writing about it. It’s that sort of rendering the texture that I want to do for people who are here now.

When you do lose something or someone, it’s the negative space you’ve got left that draws so much attention to it and crystallizes what you hadn’t seen before.

Guernica: One of my favorite lines from your books is the last sentence of The News Where You Are: “Our absence is what remains of us.” Can you explain a little bit more what you mean by that? Your books are all about people searching for happiness in the wrong places…

Catherine O’Flynn: “Our absence it what remains of us”–that’s just at the heart of what I write about. I’m always writing about loss of one sort or another and it seems to be the theme that preoccupies me. When you do lose something or someone, it’s the negative space you’ve got left that draws so much attention to it and crystallizes what you hadn’t seen before. It becomes more visible when it’s gone, to some extent. It’s about that anxiety that I always have that I’m not noticing things enough or not appreciating them enough. And it’s only when these things are gone that suddenly you can see it.

I think I do write about people looking for happiness in the wrong places. For me it comes from empathy. When I wrote about people wandering around shopping centres all day there was no intention on my part to be condemnatory. I felt very much akin to it. I always think we have no idea what to do with ourselves really, we don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing or how we’re supposed to be happy. So we flail around these things, going to shopping centres or moving to Spain for a while. I feel a tenderness towards that. And you could extrapolate that towards a tenderness I feel towards Birmingham, in its constant desire to create a Utopian city and always getting it wrong. Failing in that. And while I get frustrated–that it’s always trying so hard—there’s also something touching about it. That it doesn’t know how to be.

Rob Sharp is a freelance journalist based in London.

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