Dark side of the boy
By Sue Leonard
Saturday, October 09, 2010
Danny, Mario and Me
New Island; €13.99
Sue Leonard. talks to writer Denise Sewell about inhabiting the minds of teenage boys and tackling the traumatic subject of suicide in her latest book
IF THERE’S one thing that makes Denise Sewell angry, it’s injustice. The writer from Co Cavan, now living in Monaghan, gets incensed when she sees someone in need denied the help they have looked for. When a tragedy happens, because someone has been denied weekend services, it puts her into a terrible humour.
"It’s like that man who killed his family on a weekend, when he’d been desperate for help. It puts my blood pressure up when I hear something like that, and it is so common. When someone is suicidal and needs to be monitored, they seem often left to their own devices."
Teen suicide in particular disturbs Sewell. "Most parents have no idea what they are dealing with if their child becomes depressed. No one can say, ‘no one belonging to me could ever kill themselves’. And for me, it seems the most awful thing that could happen to someone I love."
Sewell doesn’t baulk at penning the painful. Her novels have been fresh and stylish, but have always confronted serious issues. She dealt with teenage pregnancy in her first, Some Girls Will; and with the theft of a child in The Fall Girl. But she was worried that tackling teen suicide might prove off-putting for readers.
"I’d been told by a friend that the subject was much too gloomy," she says when we meet in Dublin. "So I started another book; in fact I tried two different ideas, but my heart wasn’t in them.
"When I’d finished my last book my agent suggested I try and write from the male point of view. That seemed right. I wanted something difficult; and I took myself through the experience of what it might be like for the friends left behind. Suicide must have such an impact on them. Then, because I realised what a challenge I was taking on, I decided to set the book in the 1980s in a border town – at least that was familiar territory."
The novel starts with the suicide of Danny. He’s hung himself in a field and his two, devastated friends have no idea why. He’d seemed happy. Mario cries, grieves, and eventually struggles on with the semblance of his life, but the deeper thinking Tadhg can barely function. Desperate for answers, he latches onto Danny’s ma, Margaret, visiting her every day in a quest for mutual comfort.
Tadhg’s mother despairs of him. She never trusted Danny, a rebel from the North, who has family in the IRA. Tadhg rejects her concern. He leaves school and tells his ma, quite bluntly, that he cared more for Danny than he did for her.
"I completely understand how Tadhg felt," says Denise.
"I did inhabit his mind in a way. When Margaret turned round and told Tadhg she was leaving, I cried into the computer. She was his connection to Danny still. He wasn’t sure if he was falling in love with her – but it was an intense relationship."
The author has infiltrated the minds of the boys with great conviction. They have distinctive, separate voices. We only see the defiant side of Danny at the start; but as we learn of him through the memories of others, it’s clear he was a loyal friend, who was clever and considerate too.
"I don’t think Danny cared what anyone thought of him," says Denise. "He had the courage to do anything, but you couldn’t cross him. As I was writing the book his character became stronger and stronger in my head. He became almost stronger than me – at some stages I wanted the novel to move in a certain direction, then I’d think, ‘No. He wouldn’t have done that’."
Denise has no brothers. Was it hard keeping the voice of teenagers authentic?
"I certainly had to consciously think more like a boy," she says. "When Tadhg’s sister did all that yoyo dieting, a girl might have had some understanding, but he couldn’t understand. He said, ‘just stop eating’. I had to think how he might feel. I think teen boys feel more in black and white."
Before she became a writer, Denise, a mother of two, worked in the post office. Her husband, Eamon, still does. In fact he double jobs to pay the bills to support children Kevin and Olivia, and to enable Denise to keep writing.
She’s been acclaimed for her original, thought-provoking novels, but because her books don’t fit into a predictable genre, she feels largely overlooked.
"I don’t begrudge chick-lit writers their success, but it frustrates me when people complain that Irish women are all writing about the same thing. My books are different, and not difficult. But they’re not promoted enough in shops.
"I would love my books to do well. I’m not greedy, but Kevin is hopefully going to college in three years time. It can be difficult to keep the faith. The only consolation is that I know I’m not the only person in this position. And with the recession it would be difficult to get a regular job anyway."
Currently working on a play, Denise writes for four hours daily when the children are at school. "It keeps me grounded. I can’t get too caught up over stupid things; like if Kevin makes the football team or how well Olivia does at a feis. But the writing itself can go through highs and lows. Especially when the subject matter is looking at death."
So will she write a happy book next? She laughs. "The subject matter has to mean something to me. I felt compelled to write this one." Does she hope it will raise awareness? "I hope I’ve been sensitive about suicide; I hope people who have been affected by it will think I’ve done a good job. I’d like them to believe in the characters and in the story. I’d like them to feel it was honestly written."
- Keys to the Cage – How People Cope with Depression by Sue Leonard is in bookshops now.