An Interview with Frank McGuinness

Author: Frank McGuinness (Interview by Maurice Fitzpatrick)

This interview took place in University College Dublin where Frank McGuinness is Professor of Creative Writing.

Maurice: You were born in Buncrana, not far from Derry, not far from the border, which is to say, close to a majority Catholic city that was dominated by Unionists. Can you speak a little about the effect that growing up there had on you as a man and as a writer?

Frank: It was a very self-enclosed world in a way. I wasn’t too aware of the proximity of Derry, other than Derry was a big town and there was a Woolworths branch there. You could get Spangles and Mars bars. When you were a kid, that was the big thing about it. Then, when I was about thirteen or fourteen, the city started to erupt. The Troubles really began in 1966, ’67. (I know that 1969 was the gigantic explosion.) So, I became very much aware of our nearness to another world, another political system. You had this proximity, but you also had a distance because the border separated you. I’m not saying I had the best of both worlds, because that would be a very wrong way to put it; but I had a sense of two systems operating. It gave me a very strong sense of identification, but also a sense of detachment from the world there. That was something I used to theatrical effect in a play, Carthaginians. While I would not claim to be a Derryman—they would not let me claim that I’m a Derryman and I would not want to claim to be a Derryman—I still felt it was the nearest city. Not my city, but the nearest city. And it had a very powerful presence in my life and my imagination. And I think I had to write the play, Carthaginians, as a testament to Derry’s nearness to me. I have written a lot more about Buncrana though. That’s inevitable because that’s where I spent my childhood.

M: The big trouble happened in Derry in 1969, as you say, when you were sixteen. Did you ever wonder what it would have been like had you been from the Bogside?

F: I have no doubt about it: I would have been up to my arse involved in it. It was a standing joke when I came to Dublin—I met Provisional Sinn Féin supporters—and, to me, they were less Republican than Fine Gael in Donegal. You just absorbed it in the air in Donegal. You absorbed nationalism. It was a creed by which you lived. There was the safety valve of the border and the safety valve of growing up fourteen miles from it. I have no doubt that I would have been immensely involved. I have no doubt about that because that would be my tradition.

M: Another man who made Inishowen his home—Inishowen is your home place, I am not implying otherwise—is Brian Friel. You have had a longstanding collaborative relationship with Brian Friel, probably the most prominent example of which is your screenplay of Dancing at Lughnasa. Would you like to talk a little about that?

F: Well, inevitably, if you write plays you know about Brian Friel. If you come from Donegal, you know about Brian. I directed The Gentle Island, which is a very neglected play, in the late 1980s in The Peacock in Dublin. And that was my first practical involvement with his work. (I had read all of his plays.) I first got to know him at that time, meeting him occasionally to talk about the play. Then, when Noel Pearson, who is a mutual friend, wanted to do the film, Dancing at Lughnasa, he wanted an Irish writer to do the screenplay. He asked me because I was cheap. I was happy to do it, out of respect for Noel and out respect for Brian. A tough job it was actually because it is such a good play and it is very hard to take a good play apart. I enjoyed the exercise. I enjoyed the experience of it. Brian wasn’t too appalled by it, I believe. But it was very much his play that was being filmed. It was an advantage having an Irish writer, in awe of Brian as we all are, doing the screenplay. But in a way it might have been better to have given it to someone else who had more experience as a screenwriter and also someone who had an outsider’s perspective. Maybe it would have been a very, very different film. But that didn’t happen and wasn’t going to happen when I was writing it. So, you get another insider’s view of the play.

M: And his masterpiece, Translations, has been touted by many as a potential film. Do you ever see that happening?

F: You better ask him that.

M: Let me ask you more about your Inishowen background. Your first play, The Factory Girls, is the sort of play that Derry people could immediately identify with. But it was also obviously a Buncrana story. How did you come to the story?

F: Well, if you come from that part of the world, the big industry was shirt manufacturing, all through Derry and parts of Donegal. My mother, my aunts, my grandmothers—all worked in the factories. It was very much the culture of work that I inherited. When I was looking for a theme for my first play—I suppose I was adhering to the writerly advice to “write about what you know”—that was what I knew. I think, looking back, it was inevitable that that would be the big subject of it. Again there was a difference between the Buncrana experience of shirt factories and the Derry one. We were a small town and the entire workforce depended on the women working. When I came to Dublin in the early 1970s, it was a shock to me that eyebrows were being raised about a woman who went out to work. For me, that was the norm. I just decided to explore that whole area and what it did to the women involved—what it did to their heads and their whole imaginations and their way of talking and living and relating to each other. That is where it came from. I was so hyped and worried about people thinking it was autobiographical. I was making big declarations: “not based on anywhere and not based on anybody.” Of course that was a complete lie. It was based on my mother and aunts and it was set in Buncrana. It’s not documentary. It is not verisimilitude. It is a work of fiction. The plot is entirely fictitious. But the characters of the women bear a lot of close resemblance to the women in my immediate family.

M: You say that the writer should write about what he or she knows, give it a bash anyway....

F: At the beginning.

M: Well, in one of Arthur Miller’s relatively early plays, A Memory of Two Mondays, he wrote about his own experience, taking a year off to work and save enough money to go to university. He was working in a back store. Whereas The Factory Girls—I am guessing you never worked in a factory—was a braver step. It was a bit more of a leap to take on something not quite empirical as your subject.

F: Well, I didn’t work in a factory, but my mother worked in a factory when I was a child because she had to work when we were kids. So I had a very close knowledge of factory procedures and how they operated and what was done to the women and what they had to do. So while I never served my time there, I knew what the cost of it was very closely.

M: It didn’t intimidate you to jump into an all-women...

F: Not in the least.

M: You have translated many of Ibsen’s plays. Would you agree with Ingmar Bergman that Ibsen is the master of dramatic construction?

F: I think he is an extraordinary mind and an extraordinary mentor, armed with a terrifying capacity to reach into a terrible darkness. He does so, and he helps you to do so, by reason of the sheer skill of his construction. It is no accident that one of his last great plays is called The Master Builder. He is the supreme architect of theatrical achievement. You can only really go into those very strange recesses of the human imagination when you have the kind of discipline and the dramatic, theatric logic that he does. He is a supreme man of the theatre. He is a supreme storyteller. The sheer range and diversity of a plot like A Doll’s House compared to, say, something like The Wild Duck—that is a mark of his diversity as a storyteller and his range as a dramatist. The parallel I think is Titian, the great Venetian painter. You think you know what they are going to do within the framework of a canvass or the framework of a story, but they take you to extraordinary places once you start to examine them. So I do these versions for instruction and I do them for pleasure. And that’s what the theatre is ultimately about for me. I do these versions. They are not translations. I don’t speak the language. I get a good literal translation. I do them for pleasure and they keep me off the street.

M: Do you find his influence seeping in? I am thinking of your play, The Bird Sanctuary. Do you find yourself writing Ibsenesque plays?

F: Not particularly. I wouldn’t consciously set out to do that. I believe in the play of influences. It comes when it comes. I never set down and wonder, “Well I have just done Hedda Gabler and I wonder how that is going to affect my next play?” That’s not the way it works. Sometimes it happens. You can see it in retrospect. But in the immediacy of writing, I do not brood on influences. I just let it come.

M: Do they give you a stimulus?

F: Very much so. They are fabulous challenges, and they are extraordinary invitations to get inside the minds of great writers and to make highly pleasurable love to them in the intimacy of your own study. You are the first one to fuck them before anyone else gets their hands on them. It is marvelous losing your virginity to Henrik Ibsen.

M: I can imagine. At a time when you get writer’s block, is that a moment when you reach for Strindberg or Ibsen?

F: I never have writer’s block. I think if you are going to work in the theatre you should know the craft. You should know your skill. The directors and the actors who I really respect most are those who have proven their mettle in these great plays of the European tradition. And to have experience to match theirs, I have to get in there with ammunition. I think it is a healthy theatre that immerses itself in both new writing and the classics because if you really are a living theatre, they are new plays every time they are reinvented. I have done nine Ibsens and they are nine new plays. That sounds extraordinarily arrogant. But it is not. It is actually modest. It is homage to the sheer unknowableness of that work.

M: And you have also translated Strindberg’s Miss Julie. I remember—possibly this is misremembered—you intimated once in an interview that you would like to be as gloomy and deep as Bergman. So Scandinavia has a particular attraction?

F: Oh, yeah. I am a kind of a misbegotten Norseman. I studied Old Norse for four years. And I am very interested in Viking culture. I think I am madder than they are, actually. I think I’m funnier. I hope I am funnier. But then I do find Swedes very funny. I love their sense of irony. I love their sense of gloom. The fact that they send themselves up—I find that very endearing. By the way, I do find Bergman extremely funny. If you look at The Seventh Seal, it is hysterical at times—deliberately so. He has a great sense of humor. The answer to your question is that I do like the Nordic temperament, the Nordic vision. I like the astringency of it. It is a great contrast to ours. I hope I bring a bit of Celtic bonkers to it.

M: It is a tall order to be madder than them.

F: Ah, no. You don’t know my family, do you?

M: Taking Someone Who’ll Watch Over MeCarthaginians, and Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme as pointers, it is fair to say that the conflict in the North of Ireland has preoccupied you a lot?

F: Yes, it has actually. But I have always refused to let it be the definition of what the work is about. I always try to see it in a wider context. When I wrote the “Catholic play,” if you want to call it that, I deliberately chose to write about Caravaggio and to see him as a Roman Catholic, a European Catholic, and to see the Catholic experience in terms of a big picture, the evolution of the faith through the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. As for The Sons of Ulster, I didn’t see that ever as a Catholic/Protestant divide play. I deliberately wrote about it in terms of a European conflict, World War I. I deliberately wrote about Protestantism as a theology, as a faith darkly divided by its own inhibitions and its own divisions, and that these come from a European context as well. I never really believed in wrapping the green flag or the orange flag around me. I think that is very limited. I always, always try to open the plays to bigger voices than the predictable and bigger influences than the obvious. There is an act of Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme , the third act, set in four different locations, intercut. My model there was cubist painting and cubist sculpture because Pyper—Pyper is the main character—had gone to Paris as a figurative painter and had gone through an enormous artistic crisis when he was exposed to the revolution that was happening in art in the period prior to World War I. That very deliberately is a nod. More than a nod, it is an absolute recognition of how the sensibility was completely shattered by the experience of war. This sculptor brought back in his memory the new way of being, the new way of telling truths. That is why the form is the way it is in the play. Yes, it does confront the horror in the North. It does confront the tragedy of Irish history. But I do want to argue in a play that we belong to more than a parish. The parish is important, of course. And I was very specific in identifying where the various characters of Sons of Ulster came from in terms of their locales in Ulster. But at the same time, I did always want them to be aware of, and to have their fate shaped by, bigger forces than the local.

M: Nonetheless, you get a lot out of the local. I’m guessing that you would call yourself an Ulsterman.

F: No, I would call myself an Irishman. I come from Donegal. But I am an Irishman. I am an Irish writer with all that that means. I don’t recognize borders when it comes to art. I do in politics, but not in art.

M: When you came to UCD to study Arts, there were several other creative spirits here at the time—Colm Tóibín, Neil Jordan, Dermot Morgan.

F: Colm is younger than I am. Dermot was here, as was Ronan Sheehan and Harry Clifton.

Colm was a very flamboyant auditor of the English Literary Society. Dermot was a very funny, bonkers guy. Harry Clifton was a pal. I was in digs near his house and we used to talk intensely about American poetry. Éilís Ní Duibhne, who is a very good friend of mine, was here. We were in the same class. I was very close to Éilís because we both came from working class backgrounds. There were very few from the working class in UCD at that time—very few. We knew the scale of ambition we had to have to get to where we were. We knew the kind of work we had to put in to make it work. She’s still a very close friend, Éilís. I was aware of them all, yeah. I still get on well with them, as far as I know. We haven’t killed each other yet. We are not stabbing each other. It was a nice time. They were nice people and they still are.

M: And of course you remained on in UCD. When did you start to teach Creative Writing here?

F: Well, I am actually in the English Department. I came back here to lecture in 1997. I have been teaching since 1977. I was in Coleraine, I was in Maynooth, and then I came here. And I do regard myself as a teacher/lecturer. I insist on that in terms of my students. You really acquire critical skills when you work on anything. I do a course on Creative Writing but I also work on Anglo-Irish Literature and American Theatre. I do a course on Shakespeare and Ibsen. I do a course on Directing Shakespeare. So it is a broad range of subjects that I do. It is pretty demanding.

M: By the sounds of things your approach to teaching is pretty rigorous and hands-on.

F: Well, it is intensive reading lists of literature. I expect people to make use of their time to read because this is the only time they are going to have to read. This is feeding time. This is nurturing time. This is sustaining time to read as deeply and as widely as possible. Hands-on is not probably the right thing. I believe that this is a time when you are learning to stand on your own and when you are learning stamina so that you can function on your own. And that is a very valuable lesson for any walk of life because you are on your own. And the more you practice independence the better you are going to be.

M: You regard yourself as a teacher, but you are also primarily a writer and you also direct plays?

F: I haven’t directed plays for a long time. I did it in the 1990s and I just got tired. I really did get tired because I was teaching and I was writing. I can do two things. But three things is one too many. I was too late. Maybe if I’d started directing when I was younger, in my twenties and thirties, maybe if I’d opportunities to do it, I would have persisted. Also, I think if you are going to write film, you absolutely have to direct. No question of that. You must direct. That is the advice I would give to anybody starting off, working in theatre and film. You must direct your own films. Maybe directing your own plays isn’t a good idea. But directing your films is a must. I never really had the hunger to direct that really great directors have. And I didn’t really have the patience. I have a different kind of patience.

M: You have patience for teaching.

F: I have patience for teaching, patience for writing. I do not have patience for directing.

M: Just to go back to your undergraduate years—they seem to have been great and formative for you. It was also a great time to be taught here in UCD—you were taught by a Derryman, Seamus Deane?

F: Seamus was here, yes. Gus Martin was here. There were very good teachers, as was Terry Dolan. My main area was Old and Middle English and I specialized in that almost from second year on. And then I did my post-graduate work in it. So I wouldn’t have had as much contact with Seamus Deane as I would have had with people like Terry Dolan. It was a very strong department then, with world-class people here. That is one of the reasons I went up to it—it was the best. It was a very new world. It was a good time and I met very good friends. But it was an extraordinarily lonely time as well. I missed Donegal enormously. I had very little money but then nobody had. It was a really tight, savage time. People talk about a recession now. Dear Jesus, the 1970s was a time of hardship. As I was saying, myself and Éilís coming from working-class backgrounds, we really had to make the most of very little. It shapes you. It also makes you determined to get more.

M: And did you leave Ireland for a while?

F: No, I have never lived outside Ireland. I couldn’t actually. It is impossible. Maybe it would have been very good for me after I had done my post-graduate degree. I really should have. But I didn’t do it. The consequence now is I cannot. I really don’t know how I would do that now. I suppose if necessity forced it you would. You get used to anything. But I get physically sick when I am away for a longtime. Don’t ask me why. That is the hard fact of it.

M: Do you regret not going away?

F: I regret not going away. I really tell students who are finishing, especially post-graduate students: “Get away. Get away for a while. Get away for six months at least and see another world. Even learn another language if you have to.” I really regret not doing it.

M: I think students now have that forced down their throats far more. There is far more emphasis on it.

F: Well, also with mobile phones and email, it is not that far away. When we went, we went. And an awful lot of people did go away. Some part of me was determined that I was going to earn a living here. It took a long time to do it. But eventually it did pay off.

M: Do you see yourself as a gay writer? Or as a writer who just happens to be gay?

F: Or as a greying red-haired writer? Those divisions don’t mean anything to me. They just don’t. I write.

M: So if you saw your books in a bookshop classified as Gay Writing...

F: I would just be glad to see my books in a bookshop. They can put them under Geography. It doesn’t matter to me. It genuinely doesn’t matter. If you want to put Seamus Heaney under Straight Writing, go ahead and do it. Don’t see much of that about.

M: You don’t think your sexuality in any way brought you to writing, stimulated the writing?

F: It must have. It is not the be-all and end-all. I am certainly aware of how much gay writing was censored and gay people were censored. I am aware of that, especially in Ireland. But then again, that is a worldwide phenomenon. I am absolutely determined for that not to be the case for me. But I am equally determined that it is not going to become a mission in life. I am “out.” I have been out for a long time. If you’ve got a problem with it, fuck off. That’s my attitude. I don’t want to know you. I am not interested. I’m equally not going to let definitions such as my sexuality become the be-all and end-all of my art.

M: I’m thinking of another Irish writer, Colm Tóibín, who has written on James Baldwin. He has also written a history of gay writers. You never felt the urge to get politicized?

F: Well, I think I am politicized. I have done it in the plays and that is as much as I am going to do it. As I say, I don’t believe in censorship and that is my politics—to fight censorship. But it is not a desire to become part of a merry band. I am on my own. That is where I like to be.