Lia Mills’ “Another Alice”: the interview
The new edition features a Foreword by Paula McGrath.
Because my second novel, A Name for Himself, also features in that series (with a Foreword by Mia Gallagher), we arranged to swap interviews on each other’s websites.
Other titles in the series include Marian Thérèse Keyes (ed) A Life of No Light Toil: An Anna Maria Hall Reader, Kate O’Brien’s Pray for the Wanderer (with an Introduction by Caitriona Clear) and Carmen Cavanagh by Annie Smithson (with an Introduction by Alan Hayes).
- Why do you think Another Alice should be/is being re-issued now, in 2022?
A lot has changed for the better in Ireland but sexual and gender-based violence haven’t gone away. We know how to name such crimes, we recognise different forms and categories, we’re not afraid to talk about them; we have stronger legislation than we used to and agencies that support survivors – but abuse still happens.
The internet has changed some of its forms and extended its possible reach, to the extent that any child of ten could probably define grooming for us better than we could ourselves. The sexualised nature of social media harassment, threats and incitement to hatred are pervasive; rape-supportive beliefs and the practice of spiking persist despite equality legislation and education.
Around the world, young girls endure forced marriages or are kidnapped to be ‘brides’ for militants. Rape is still a weapon of war. Women and girls are trafficked for sex that Irish men pay for.
News reports earlier this year revealed that extensive sexual abuse of children had continued undetected in one family in Ireland over a period of two years while they were under the supervision of a state agency. Alice’s story is still relevant, it’s happening all around us. It’s not just a story about abuse but about learning to see and, crucially, name what is right in front of us.
- What were you thinking about when you started to write it and did your thinking change as a result of what you learned as you wrote?
1992 was not a good year to be a woman in Ireland. Several high profile cases of rape and femicide were prominent in the news and because it was the year of the X case, the airwaves were full of opinion, posturing, accusation and counter-accusation. It was a year when overt misogyny was loose in the air and no one could hear what anyone else was saying: there was too much white noise getting in the way.
I was enraged when I read an account of a rape trial where the defence lawyer referred to ‘the mere question of consent’ – what other question is there? – and it made me think hard about the judicial system’s treatment of complainants, which was more adversarial then than it is now (Although there’s still much room for improvement). It struck me that if a story of abuse and recovery was written as fiction, people would listen, because fiction gives us space and time to settle with a character, to pay attention, to open ourselves fully to a story as it unfolds.
What changed as I wrote was that I became more interested in the mechanisms and effects of denial and in the question of who gets to tell a story. If everything and everyone around you conspires to deny what you know is real, your perception of reality will be warped. If the world tells you that your experience is other than it is, that it’s not even yours, that you have no right to name it let alone talk about it – then you can be forgiven for misunderstanding the nature of a self. That became Alice’s problem in the novel.
But I’d also like to say that, while a lot of attention has been paid to the sexual abuse that features in this novel, for me it was also about Alice’s struggle to learn how to become a mother to her daughter Holly, not having had the best of role models herself. She’s a dangerous mother. Holly is at risk. At the time it was still unusual for negative emotions about parenting to be aired at all and I found those passages hard to write. I worried about how readers might respond but that issue never came up in interviews or reviews.
- Was it hard to stay within Alice’s point-of-view?
There’s more than one point of view at work within Alice. That’s the whole point of the narrative structure …. Alice has never been able to name experiences she had as child because they have been suppressed and denied by everyone around her, renamed even as they happen, with blame frequently attributed to her. Whole areas of her experience are sealed off, inaccessible to her. The real time of the story begins with a bare-bones, sanitised account of her childhood, told in the third person (past tense).
As the novel progresses, however, this account is interrupted with increasing frequency and urgency by first-person passages narrated in the present tense, the voice of Alice’s younger self, telling it like it is. Alice eventually accepts (and, crucially, admits) the truth this voice is telling and that the voice which tells it is her own. Claiming the full story as hers makes her a more integrated, stronger person. Splitting the point of view in the narrative seems an obvious strategy in hindsight, but I had to struggle to find a solution to the problems of time and emotional distance in the story when I was writing it.
At first I tried to write it in a straightforwardly chronological sequence. Many of the first-person, present tense passages were written first but they didn’t sit well with the surface story, which was so different in tone and atmosphere. The clash of voices on the page destabilised the story to such an extent that even I couldn’t understand them. I didn’t fully recognise that the first-person narrative belonged to a separate, younger Alice. Even when I understood the nature of the two voices, it took time to figure out how to incorporate them into the story. The solution, when it came to me, was simple, even inevitable – the younger Alice’s voice breaks through at moments of crisis, a literal interruption, as by a separate, speaking character who insists on being heard.
- One of the most interesting issues for me is the conflict that is at the very heart of the novel: the one that exists between knowing and not knowing. In the Afterword, you write ‘The best way to keep a secret is not to know it’. Can you expand on this a little? It seems to go to the heart of the Irish capacity for denial.
Like many other aspects of human life, sexual and gender-based violence exist on a continuum we all inhabit. Most women will experience some degree of sexual compulsion, threat or outright violence at some stage in their lives. The only surprising thing about this is the level of denial that goes with it. It can be hard to see things we are close to, but denial – the wilful blindness and pretence that something vile and dangerous is not unfolding near us, around us, inside us – does not protect us. It has the opposite effect. It allows ugliness and hatred and corruption of any kind to escalate.
Escalation can be gradual. As we allow small things to slip past, it becomes harder to challenge and prevent the bigger things until catastrophe happens and it’s too late. Sometimes we don’t understand what we are looking at until we are past it and, even then, we question ourselves. There are silences we don’t recognise until they shatter, experiences that are so primal they are difficult to name, progressions we don’t recognise until a woman is dead. Hindsight is about seeing things that have been there all along. (The Afterword discusses this in more detail. It will be reprinted in May in The Dublin Review of Books.)
- I was particularly struck by one moment in the relationship between Alice and her daughter, Holly. It happens when Alice makes the decision not to rewrite history: not to blame her child for the shortcomings that are hers, and hers alone. She makes the choice to take responsibility and on this choice, her future relationship with her daughter depends. Why is this acceptance of her own fallibility so significant in the process of Alice’s growth and development?
This is a turning point in the novel, where Alice breaks the cycle of abuse and denial that has damaged her own development as a person.
She admits that Holly’s perception (that Alice hit her, in this instance) was accurate, that she was wrong to do it, and explains why she lied about it.
She gives Holly permission to challenge her in future. She tells the story to other people so that Holly knows she doesn’t have to keep such things secret. It’s interesting that you see that as a crucial moment for Alice – as it is, of course, in terms of recognising the mechanisms that trapped her.
But when I was writing it, I was thinking about how important it is for Holly. It’s the moment that frees her from the cycle of violence. It ensures that she will recognise and claim her own experiences for what they are and be safe in naming them – the true, literal meaning of autonomy.
Follow this link to Lia’s blog, for our recent interview, and for other – always thoughtful and stimulating – ‘occasional notes on writing and life’.
[Photo of Lia Mills by Simon Robinson]