Interviewed by Sue leonard.
Published in The Irish Examiner on 4th April. 2009
Josephine Hart is ecstatic. The reviews for her new novel, The Truth About Love, have been stupendous. Best of all though, the reviewers really ‘got’ the book.
“Especially Joseph O’Connor, writing in The Guardian. And that is so gratifying,” says Josephine, as we talk in her suite in The Merrion Hotel.
“When critics like O’Connor, and John Banville, who are very serious writers react like that, it makes it all so worthwhile. Because a writer is just a voice in the wilderness. You are crying out your stories. You do it because you believe in it, but it is wonderful when there is a response.”
Josephine lives in London with her husband Maurice Saatchi. Author of six books, she has made her name with short, devastatingly bleak morality tales such as Damage and Sin. The Truth About Love is a departure for her. Telling of a family tragedy, Josephine has weaved in Ireland’s history. And for this powerful book about her home country, she has achieved a poetic style that makes the narrative soar.
A sixteen year old boy dies in a tragic accident. The novel follows his family as they struggle to come to terms with their loss. It’s about survival; but it’s also about love. And how in life we tend to use love as a general absolution.
The mother, Sissy’s grief is perceptively described. Josephine is well qualified for the task.
“By the time I was 17 two brothers and one sister were dead. And of course that deeply formed me. This is not exactly my story, but it is close enough in certain paragraphs and chapters.”
Josephine is reluctant to tell her personal story.
“There is profound exploitation if you place your burden of grief on others. I know people who have kept their life at bay through hiding behind their story. The reason I felt morally comfortable showing that grief can take someone to the edge of madness, is that I have suffered the violent death of a loved one. I felt that, knowing this, I could colourwash what I was saying about the awfulness of what happens.
“I could come out from all the moral implications of the private life, into the public life, and cover, also, the life of this nation, and the way we interpret it and hand it on. It had been a privilege for me to examine what I regard as very important subjects.”
The spark for the novel came after nine eleven. Josephine wrote a piece for the Sunday Telegraph, and she included the line, ‘In the ashes of nine eleven the IRA could trace the outline of their own destruction.’
“I looked at that line, asking myself why I thought that. And it was that America was no longer a society that would supply money to these people from the perspective that they were heroes working for an honourable and glorious cause.”
The novel spans the years of the troubles, from well before Bloody Sunday, to the miracle of peace. But it’s not just an Irish story.
“The implications of Ireland are not just Irish. They are worldwide. There are delegations going out to the world’s trouble spots telling people, ‘this is how they did it in Ireland. This is how you solve it.’”
The book was tough to write, technically. With previous novels Josephine has chosen one narrator. That wasn’t possible for a book with so much scope. Opening with the boy’s voice, in an unbearably painful scene, she then switches between the boy’s mother Sissy and his sister, Olivia.
Much of the book, though, is narrated by Thomas Middlehoff; a taciturn man who has run from his grief in Germany. His reserve hides an intuitive sensitively to the sufferings of others.
Wearing her trademark black and white, Josephine is an animated interviewee. She talks about her characters as real people who she knows, and loves, intimately.
“I like Thomas a lot,” she says. “He really understands 17 year old Olivia. He understands her better than she understands him, and better than she understands herself.
“He tries, several times, to explain Olivia to herself, and she says he was a graceful man. I liked that. She thinks, after his death that she had loved him. Not in the romantic sense, but you often get that connection.”
The Truth About Love has been sold to Germany. There is a rather famous man there called Thomas Middlehoff, and Josephine is worried that she might have to change her character’s name.
“I don’t think I can do this,” she says. “Once you have given a name to someone it is hard to change it. It is a scary thought.”
The boy, though, is never named. And neither was the antihero of Damage.
“When a person is nameless it gets them into your consciousness. They get under your skin in a deeper way. When Damage was made into the movie starring Jeremy Irons, they obviously needed a name. The script came through from David Hare. I looked at it, read a few pages, and through, ‘who the hell is Stephen?’”
The Truth About Love would make a powerful movie; to me, it is an intensely visual book. When I say this, Josephine is astounded.
“I can’t imagine anyone making the movie,” she says. “I think I have zero visual sense. I hear the book rather than see it. But my husband, Maurice, agrees with you. It is thrilling to hear.”
Since writing her five other novels, Josephine has concentrated on poetry; editing collections, based on readings she organises in The National Library in London. Her second collection, Words that Burn was recently published with an accompanying CD. It is thrilling to hear actors like Charles Dance and Edward Fox bring great poems to life.
Has the intensity of this project impacted on Josephine’s writing?
“It has informed it, yes,” she says. “I have spent three years studying sixteen of the world’s greatest writers, and undoubtedly it has honed the work. It has made me set out for the perfect sentence, because these guys put so much work into this thing that trips off the tongue.”
The central theme of the novel; that of love, is interestingly portrayed. There is no doubting the love between Tom and the grieving Sissy; but in loving so deeply Tom loses self, and Sissy feels the weight of it.
Olivia, meanwhile, loving both her lost brother and her mother, puts her life on hold.
“There is another truth about love,” says Josephine. “Love is about sacrifice. And I do believe, through my personal life, that there is an afterlife for those who have left us. Olivia wants to keep the memory of her brother, and my belief is that when you want people who are dead to stay with you, they will.”
There are so many messages in this complex novel. What would Josephine like readers to take from it?
“That it made them rethink their attitude to love and it is not a general absolution. Not a prayer of atonement for what they are going to do in life. It’s the real thing.”
The Truth About Love by Josephine Hart is published by Virago at 12.99 euro.