A Good Enough Mother: Driving in the fog

 In Diary, Events, News

Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

I love this quote from E.L. Doctorow. That sense of the surrounding darkness, the enveloping fog, the need to make progress slowly but moving forward, nonetheless – it’s a great metaphor for the writing process. And of course, we need to switch on the lights before the trip can begin.

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All writers know how lucky we are if we get even one moment of inspiration, of switching on the lights. In the case of A GOOD ENOUGH MOTHER, that moment for me was seeing an image of the mythological Pasiphae, holding her young son in her arms. She gazes at him tenderly, her expression one of love and acceptance. She is the ideal of motherhood: her devotion to her son is fierce, no matter that he, the Minotaur, is half-bull, half-human.

He is hers, and that’s all that matters.

I’ve always been fascinated by mythology of all kinds – Greek, Roman, Irish. But what fascinated me particularly when I re-read Greek tales some years back, was how little I’d understood of them when I’d read them as a much younger woman.

Back then, they seemed to be about battles and power-struggles and territorial conflict, with one endless war leaching into the other. And they were – except that the battles and struggles and conflicts all had to do with personal relationships. Sibling rivalry, troubled fathers and sons, lustful conquests: mythology has it all.

The women in these tales are, of course, largely silent. We never hear their side of the story. And so my re-reading of myths provided me with a dual inspiration: the drive to bring these mythological tales up to date, and the challenge of making the women’s voices ring clear and true down through the ages.

Pasiphae: motherhood. The lights were on. I was on my way.

While I was writing what eventually became a trilogy of novels, some shocking events were taking place around me, in the real world.

The local historian, Catherine Corless, revealed the existence of a mass grave in Tuam – news that made international headlines. The bodies of 796 tiny babies were discovered, buried in a disused septic tank, in the grounds of St Mary’s Mother and Baby Home.

I can still hear Catherine Corless’ voice, her determination, shared by a number of Tuam residents, to puncture the reluctance of the authorities who wanted such revelations to go away.

‘I couldn’t understand it,’ she said. ‘We were shocked. We expected an outrage. The only ones who were outraged seemed to be us. The mentality seemed to be: ‘That’s a long time ago, forget about it, it doesn’t matter any more.’’

That was 2014. The revelations continued to be haunting.

Ireland has a complicated history regarding its attitude to women and women’s bodies. I’ve often come across that same dismissive view: ‘it’s a long time ago and it no longer matters’ – but it does.

All writing begins with ‘What if?’ and I began to explore what it might have been like if I’d been one of those young women – one of 56,000 – incarcerated in one of Ireland’s infamous institutions.

As a novelist, I believe that stories – fiction – can make us feel the truth, the texture, the life of a time in a way that factual reporting cannot. Truth lies in fiction – what a great bit of ambiguity: that the ‘lie’ of fiction can take us closer to the truth.

The ‘trip’ that Doctorow talks about took me four years to complete.


Showing 2 comments
  • Shauna

    Fascinating and honest insight into your inspiration, Catherine. I love the opening quote!

  • Helena Powell

    Love the blog Catherine

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