Interviewed by Sue Leonard.
Published in The Irish Examiner. 25th January 2009.
On the front of Roisin McAuley’s third novel, she is described as the new Maeve Binchy. This, to me, is a puzzle. McAuley does share Binchy’s keen eye for character and romance, but Finding Home is a complex tale blending politics, social commentary and romance in a way that puts it outside any genre.
Set in England, the action centres on Wooldene House; home to Henry, an ex army officer and his widowed sister Diana. When Louise and Rebecca, friends from BBC Belfast days choose the house for the Elizabethan drama they are filming, their lives interlink in interesting ways.
There are a wealth of secondary characters too; and all have been lovingly drawn. There’s Lucy, Diana’s aunt, who, in her confusion lets go of a long held secret. There’s pink haired Chloe, who turns out to hold a creative intelligence that saves the day.
The novel explores ageing; the loss of memory; the vagaries of romance, and the complexity of political affiliations. That this is achieved with such charm and humour is to McAuley’s credit.
“People are always trying to put me in a genre, and I am not,” agrees Roisin on the phone from Reading, in Berkshire. “I write about love and relationships, and I go for happy endings so I am labelled ‘romance’. But I want to put in politics, social commentary and a bit of comedy.
“I would like to rescue romance, in terms of the big handsome tradition of the 19TH Century novel as written by George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte or Jane Austen.”
That Roisin should write with such range is not so surprising when you look at her biography. Brought up in Belfast, She was at primary school, and university with Bernadette Devlin- now McAllister. After a stint as BBC Northern Ireland’s first woman newsreader, Roisin became the first Northern Ireland correspondent for the Cork Examiner.
“That was an amazing time,” she says. “It was 1974 the time of the Ulster Worker’s Council Strike. There were bombs and flying glass in the streets. You’d be in a telephone box with riots going on and bricks hurtling past dictating copy over the phone.”
After a spell in the Examiner’s London office Roisin returned to the BBC to work on the current affairs programme Spotlight. She has since worked, mostly freelance, on a series of documentary programmes including Panorama, as a reporter, and sometimes reporter producer director.
Roisin covered the Falklands war from Argentina. She covered the hostage situation in Beirut, and remembers being the only reporter in Hezbollah controlled West Beirut listening to reports of the Berlin Wall falling.
“I didn’t feel unsafe,” she says. “I knew it was pretty certain they would not kidnap a woman, and I was a citizen of Ireland. I was careful to route my calls to London through my brother in Dublin.
“Besides, journalists do that sort of thing all the time,” she says. “You are not in there thinking about the risks, and what was happening to people around you was infinitely worse.”
Later Roisin did her chemical weapons training in Porton Down.
“We put on a gas mask and ran around through CF gas, and I thought, ‘I’ve been in CF gas without a mask.’ She went to Palestine during the first Gulf war at the time they were firing scuds, but the war ended 2 days later. But she did get a coveted dinner interview with Yasser Arafat. “It was amazing to meet him,” she says. “He is such an iconic figure.”
Life, today, could not be more different for Roisin. She married a lawyer, Richard, in her forties, and now lives with him in Reading. She spends her days playing golf; playing bridge and writing her novels.
Does she miss the excitement of her former life?
“Of course I do. I really miss it,” she says. “But I didn’t really leave the job. The job left me.” It bothers Roisin that the wealth of current affairs programme the BBC used to air, has given way to the rash of celebrity and reality TV.
“The world is full of journalists doing brave and astonishing things, but I think we are in danger of losing that in this world of Big Brother. I would love to do, say, a documentary about what young people think in Iran, but if they were to commission a programme, they would insist on a celebrity presenter. The day of the reporter has gone.”
Writing about politics in her novels is some consolation. She enjoyed writing the scenes from Belfast, but was nervous that the element of ‘the troubles,’ might deter her potential readership.
“I know, from making documentaries how programmes from Northern Ireland can have people reaching for the off switch, but we gave the book to a couple of book groups and the younger people loved that element. It was history to them and they were really interested in the politics.
“I wanted to show, too, that Irish politics are not simple; that people’s views are conflicted.” This was once true in England, too. And Roisin shows this through exploring Henry’s Catholic ancestry. “I wanted people to have a sense that there was a time in England when people like Henry would have been regarded as enemies of the State.”
30 years ago, Roisin would have laughed if she’d been told she would one day write novels. Yet now, it feels like her natural form.
“That surprises me. Writing is hard work. It can be tedious. I work at every sentence and hope my writing is like a pane of glass that you can see the story through. You should never have to read a sentence again.
“I am obsessed by detail. If I say ‘it takes so many minutes to get from A to Z,’ I have done it. I am always checking details. I cannot continue to write until I have done so.”
Roisin hopes that her book will satisfy readers. And will give them a better understanding of the way in which human beings react.
“I wanted to make them all human. Henry has been in the army. He has made no secret of it but he has done, perhaps, not particularly laudable things. Louise’s brother was in the IRA, yet her father was in the army.
What is Roisin’s overriding message?
“Having been in a lot of places that have been torn apart, it seems to me, that what motivates people; what burns them up, and is a bigger factor than hunger, greed, power or sex, is a sense of fair play.
“The child in the playground saying, ‘it is not fair,’ is a cry that echoes everywhere. When people see that things are not fair they burn. And if they feel things are fair they can take a great deal.
“Northern Ireland is now a fair society. That is the biggest change there. The most extraordinary thing about Northern Ireland, it seems to me, is that after all those things that happened, we have got there. I have to pinch myself sometimes. It took thirty years but we got there!”
Finding Home by Roisin McAuley is published by Sphere Books at 11.99 euro.
© Sue Leonard. 2009.