Alan, You’re very welcome to another WRITERS CHAT (readers see our last chat here). Your second novel, Laura Cassidy’s Walk of Fame, was launched to a huge crowd in Galway City Library in early March 2020 – just before the Pandemic lock-down – and has been described by The Irish Times as a “vigorous novel” and “an infectious portrayal of brazen optimism”.
SG: Can you tell us, firstly, about the genesis of the novel, which explores serious themes of grief and denial through what we might call a playacting lens?
AMcM: That’s not a bad descriptor. At the most rudimentary level it began as a voice. A voice that acquired flesh and blood. A voice that announced itself as a young woman, a burgeoning actress with a dream to pursue. A voice that swings both high and low, that flip-flops between the world of dream, invention, imagination and the more concrete world of the everyday. It was a voice that also, at times, misbehaves. And once misbehaving kicks in, things have a chance to become interesting…
SG: Yes, how messiness is always interesting – where we find the good stuff! I was particularly taken with the structure of Laura Cassidy’s Walk of Fame. It is divided into five parts and each part follows (literally!) Laura Cassidy’s “Walk of Fame” so that we feel we are walking with her. I love the titles and how each part is inspired by a different starlet and theme – for example, Part 1 Barbara Stanwyck “Just be truthful – and if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Seems like we should all be listening to that motto – especially the highly successful Imelda! Was this structure there from the start or did it come to you once you had the story down?
AMcM: The structure was born out of this playful lens you refer to in the previous question. And there was play aplenty involved early on, all in service to Laura’s perceived life as a famous star. I fabricated imaginary interviews which Laura conducts with various journalists she is only too happy to wind up no end and lead down the garden path. From there other features, just as unlikely, quickly arrived. Acceptance speeches, movie pitches, interactions with directors, agents, film executives. I had great fun outlining a sequence of movie parts tailor-made for Laura, I even wrote an obituary for an her. Out of all this ‘play’ it is the mini-biographies of the starlets of yore that made the final cut. (Along with the rollercoaster life of Imelda J Ebbing.) And these bios had to be drastically cut down, from an initial number of over twenty, then fifteen, and finally to five – what a wrench that was. At times, I felt I was auditioning all these brilliant actresses from the era of classic cinema for a part in my novel. And now that I am talking this out with myself it occurs to me that this might be something interesting to explore in a piece of writing.
SG: That would be so interesting – a series of interviews with stars from the era of classic cinema. It sounds like you’re not quite done with the starlets and the star system! Laura Cassidy is well-drawn – she’s feisty, snappy, funny and endearing and also, at times, a very lonely and misunderstood person. Can you tell us a little about her development and journey as you wrote the novel?
AMcM: I think the death of her father looms large in Laura’s story. She witnesses his death. She is quite young when it happens. She also witnesses it at a crucial moment in her own life – she has just bagged the lead part in the school play and the first person she wants to share the good news with is the person who has planted this acting dream inside her to begin with, her father. I think she has a very complicated reaction to his untimely death. I don’t think Laura herself is aware of how and when this reaction is going to manifest itself. But it has damaged her psyche. There’s a fair old cocktail bubbling away inside her. A combination of grief and trauma, probably some guilt, she can do a nice line in denial. It’s a heady mixture, a combination that could potentially kipple her when it matters most. And so yes, Laura becomes a pocketbook of complications and contradictions; of uncertainty and confusion. She vacillates greatly between unusual levels of self-belief and deep-set fear; between self-sabotaging hope and blind optimism.
I find weighty themes such as grief, trauma, guilt very difficult to come at straight on. And of course setting out I wasn’t aware that these weighty themes were going to become a significant part of the story. My approach has to be more angular, slanted, with twists and knots and complications and contradictions. We’re in the realm of confusion and uncertainty. Chaos. And chaos is slippery, and tricky, tricky to meet head on. I think that as a writer it’s how I find my way towards that X on the treasure map. That X being a moment of discovery or realisation or revelation. And not knowing what this X might be is what kept bringing me back to the desk every day, to spend time with Laura, unearth what was making her tick – or, more accurately, not tick.
SG: I love that notion of slipping through the chaos towards discovery and finding moments of why. This brings us neatly on to the internal and external worlds of Laura. As much time as she spends in her head, her complex and witty self is revealed when she is with other people, even though it’s difficult for her. I’m thinking here of her relationship with Fleming and with her doctor, both of whom take her as she is. For example, speaking to her doctor she says
“Doc, you’ve been saving my life for a year now and I have to say I think you’re doing a terrific job. So I have no fears on that score. If you ever need a reference you know where to come.”
Laura is, as the doctor calls her “a charmer.” Can you talk a little bit more about this charm that brings us with her on her journey?
AMcM: Essentially, Laura is an unreliable narrator. And of course, as a writer, to a certain extent you must allow the reader in on this. So there is an attempt to strongly suggest – even from the get-go – that things are not going to go according to plan for Laura. This theatre/movie stardom dream of hers is going to remain out of reach. But as a counter to this I don’t allow Laura for one minute believe, certainly not in her interaction with the world, that she is not going to make it. And so the thing becomes a balancing act, a wire walk. And as is the way of wire walks, sometimes you fall. And when you fall, you’ve got to pick yourself up and go again. When we first meet her, I think there is a gap between where Laura is and where she would like to be. And for Laura, this gap becomes a place of invention, imagination and dream. And one thing I think the novel might be trying to do is emphasise or explore the power of dream and invention and imagination for those in the world who are more vulnerable than others. Explore the fine line between the language of dreams and reality. And so there is a version of herself Laura presents to the everyday world, and to those with whom she must interact in order to get through the days or her life. This so-called charm gets switched on. The humour and the wit. Lots of colour. After all, she sees herself as an actress, performing is second-nature. But we also become privy to the goings-on inside her head, when she is alone, contemplating, reflecting, in her own way dealing with all the headstuff that gradually declares itself and does it thing, as the dream and all that it might have entailed begins to unravel.
SG: Yes, the narrative captures that slow – and almost inevitable – unravelling quite beautifully. I’d say that most readers will identify with the difficulty of family: how we are defined by it, compared within it and have expectations imposed on us by it. Sibling rivalry and relationships are explored through the lenses of presence and absence, in particular, Laura’s relationship with her sister Jennifer and her young son Juan, Laura’s nephew. Can you talk a little about how you use humour, black humour and a lightness of touch to explore these themes?
AMcM: Laura and Jennifer. Obviously there are differences in their circumstances. Jennifer gets to fly the coop and ‘save the world’. Laura remains in the home house, in the throes of a much more interior journey, a journey into fantasy & delusion. Laura is clearly wary of, suspicious of Jennifer upon her return. She is dismissive and mocking of Jennifer. She definitely displays child-minding skills that, at best, can be described as questionable. Jennifer, too, initially offers her sunny side to the neighbourhood. There are humorous stories of her time abroad, she wants to tag along to the pub, shine in the presence of everyone and anyone. But, gradually, this is undermined. Her life is not going as smoothly as she would like everyone to believe. And so I think it’s fair to say they are both deluded in their separate and very individual approaches to the world. Laura with her hi-fantasy ambitions of stardom and Jennifer seemingly convinced she is some kind of modern day miracle worker. The humour, I think, becomes an attempt to throw light on the not-so-funny aspect of all of this. That is to say, how Laura and Jennifer have chosen to enter the world, get through the days of their lives. And for all their flaws and delusions and contradictions and mishaps and missteps, these respective approaches must be recognised and acknowledged as something valid.
SG: Yes, that resonates – that, despite ourselves, we do actually chose to enter the world and, as you say, get through the days of our lives in a certain way. So finally, let’s come to the acting, the stage, and the other side of this coin – that of grief. It always strikes me that there is something similar in acting to that of writing – it’s about escaping yourself and at the same time ‘becoming’ more yourself on the stage/page than off it. As Laura says
“For a time…. I could float, drift, hover wherever I liked, when the mood took me…I could be here and not here….I used to so enjoy imagining the world around me through the eyes of others….”
Without giving anything away, in Laura’s case it seems to be true that wanting to play the leading part in Streetcar Named Desire is more than just wanting that part. Her insistence and perseverance are both tragic and funny and I found myself despairing for her and also laughing at many of the scenes with the director Stephen (of the precisely and perfectly named Khaos Theatre). Was this something that emerged through the narrative and characterisation or something you were consciously interested in exploring?
AMcM: It’s a great question, as is your observation in relation Laura’s desire to snag this leading role she so craves being more than merely wanting the part.
There is something else at stake for her here, I feel. Pursuing her dream, not matter how unlikely her chances, may cost her dearly, but I suspect she has made this reckoning with herself at a very early time in her life and has decided that, come what may, chasing after whatever it is she is after will be worth it. The journey and all that it entails, hi-fantasy, setbacks, desperation and all, is what matters to her. I suspect she may feel trapped inside her own skin, that the only way she can become who she wants to be, or at least a semblance of who she wants to be, is through whatever viable outlet presents itself to her – in this case, through a life inhabiting many ‘roles’, a life performing, a life spent stepping in and out of the everyday world.
And again, I wonder has she realized that how she sets about getting through the days of her life will fall short of her expectations. It’s a complex question you’ve asked me, at least I think it’s complex, and I’m thinking about it as I write this, and yes, it is something I’m interested in exploring, and yes I do think it’s connected to the desire to create, to the magic place it comes from, to finding a way to be in the world and at the same time at a remove from it.
SG: Let us know what Laura has to say on that – maybe we could meet her 20 years from now….So lastly, five fun questions, Alan:
- Theatre or Film? Yes!
- Dogs or Cats? Dogs.
- Coffee or tea? Coffee.
- Best ‘Coronavirus/Covid-19 Lockdown’ tip? Dance.
- Oh I love that one! So, what’s next on your ‘to read’ pile? Dance Prone by David Coventry.
SG: Thanks so much, Alan, for such thoughtful answers, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed our Writers Chat.
Readers can purchase Laura Cassidy’s Walk of Fame from all good bookshops and keep updated with Alan on his website.