Lisa, Welcome back to my Writers Chat Series. We’re here to chat about your second novel Bright Burning Things (Bloomsbury: London, 2021) which Lisa McInerney has so accurately described as ‘a meticulous portrait of a life unravelling’.
SG: Let’s start with Sonya’s narrative voice. It’s through her – often unreliable – lens that we encounter those around her: her son Tommy, her father, Lara, David – as well as the unfolding of her story. Tell us about developing a narrative voice so strong that it literally pulls the reader along, turning page-after-page.
LH: Thank you for saying that. Honestly, I didn’t know whether she would just turn people off (although I fell in love with her writing her). She’s so unfiltered and raw and angry and damaged and full of contradictory feelings…and intoxicated so much of the time that I felt like I was as out of control as she was when I was writing it. I went back to my younger, wilder, drinking days and also my acting days. I let her do all the talking. It’s a bit like possession when a character like that grabs hold of you. Method-writing in a way. I improvise when I write and like to let myself be surprised by my characters. Sonya shocked me as much as I imagine a character ever could. And that has to be a good thing, right?
SG: I think it really is a good thing – it meant the story came as much from delving into her character as mining from your creative self and the authenticity shows in the wonderful flow. The title Bright Burning Things is perfect for what it represents and how it encompasses both Sonya and Tommy – living itself, even. Did this come early or late in the process?
LH: The title changed at the very last minute. I love it now. Originally it was called OVERSPILL and stayed that way for a long time in the process, as it really is a study in intergenerational trauma and addiction. I prefer Bright Burning Things though as it’s more suggestive and allegorical in a way. The imagery of fire burns bright from the first chapter to the last – all unconscious on my part.
SG: I love when that happens – the wonderful symbols that can emerge from the process and when they work so well as they do here.
You deftly capture the strains that can exist between parents and children – in both Sonya and Tommy’s relationship but also Sonya and her dad. The strain, I felt, was also about identity – drinker, actress, mother, daughter, lover – as much as expressing emotion, as she says when her father praises her “Emotion has finally caught up with him, taken residence inside him – I wonder if this is a sign of him getting old.” Can you talk a little bit about that?
LH: Sonya’s relationship with her father and with her own self are at a moment of high tension when we meet them. As you so rightly observe, Sonya is in the grip of an identity crisis. Who is she really? She doesn’t feel a sense of belonging with her father and stepmother, she has lost her former career and she has been thrust into the role of mother with no memory of her own. I wanted to be with a complex character for whom the classic tale of recovery just won’t fit. I think Sonya faces up to all these parts of herself during the course of the novel, including unresolved grief from her childhood. She is finding some way towards managing her extreme emotions herself. Interesting how little emotion her father shows and how much she acts out of this. A cry for attention, perhaps?
SG: Much of Sonya’s troubles stem from her addiction to alcohol which exacerbates the intensity of her sensory experience in the world – including blacking out, neglecting her son and dog, but also caring too much – she worries about the suffering of animals who died to put food on our plate, and at during rehab her “night-times [are] filled with the ghosts of the orphaned children who once lived within these walls, still trapped.” Can you talk about how the world for Sonya, is “too much” but also how she cares “too much”?
LH: Yes, this heightened sensory experience is almost hallucinogenic at times for her. I think most of us know the ‘horrors’ of a bad hangover. She is either permanently intoxicated or hungover when we meet her. Being in the grip of addiction has a surreal, hyper saturated quality to it, both for the person suffering the addiction and for those around them. She has manic states that come about because she doesn’t eat properly, and her blood sugar levels are all over the place. Alcohol, obviously, plays a huge part in this. Everything is extreme with Sonya and when her acting career is removed from her life, she has nowhere to channel these impulses. She feels everything too intensely, including animal suffering, which is something her mind attaches to.
SG: That’s interesting the way you phrase that – as something her mind attaches to, part of what’s happening to her mind and body as opposed to a rational, conscious or ethical choice.
Sonya is an actress and in times of stress, she remembers roles she played – dancing in “an avant-garde production of Pride and Prejudice…wearing a corset, a crinoline-style dress, shot silk, pale blue, and suspenders” whereas now – after rehab – her “new character is called ‘Ms Sanity’ and Sanity has to hide her truth at all costs, Sanity has to smile and suppress, Sanity has to present a neatly packaged front to the world.” It struck me that her experience of the world revolves around controlling the experience she gives her ‘audience’, a skill which helps her assert herself in the face of subtle coercive control from the men in her life. Can you speak about this theme in the novel?
LH: That’s a really interesting observation, but not what I had intended! I had wanted her moment of reckoning with David, who is a coercive controlling man, to be devoid of artifice on her part, and a time where she accesses her authentic self. I feel by the end of the novel she has found her true voice somewhat and doesn’t feel the need to hide behind masks and roles. I think she even refers to this herself: ‘I find the voice I wish I could have found with my father…’ There is a clarity and a strength to her at that moment she asks David to leave. She is not in conflict with herself and knows who she is. You are right that she is very aware of the power she exerts as an actress, but in rehab she accesses some part of her that is real, for the very first time. This is an important step for her in becoming the strong woman and mother she is meant to be.
SG: I think we are speaking here about the same thing – she has found her authentic self but she knows how to use her skills for her own advantage now. I loved the imagery associated with Sonya’s mother who it seems to me, was not unlike Sonya – the Catherine wheel, the joy of life itself – the opposite to her father’s way of living – hiding truths, not speaking of darkness – and I wondered if (and from the last line of the novel “Silence falls like a velvet curtain. Swish”) we will meet Sonya again.
LH: I feel like we’ve had enough of Sonya (or I have) for now. I love books that end on a note of ambiguity, of promise, providing a talking point for the reader. Will she manage her impulses, will she be a safe mother for Tommy, will she be safe for herself? The final line was harkening back to her actress self. I think I wanted to suggest that all parts of her could come to bear and that she could be a mother and an actress. That it really was ok to be herself, that she didn’t need to reject any part of herself. In fact, I wanted the final note to be a celebration of all that she is: extreme, electric, talented, colourful, loving, maddening!
SG: And the final note is all that because Sonya is all that – right down to the choice of the last word “swish”.
Thank you so much for such generous and insightful answers, Lisa. We’ll finish off with some fun questions:
If you had to choose – Herbie or Marmie? Herbie was one of my all -time favourite characters to write. I am dog mad.
Do you write with or without music? Both, depending on my mood and how loud my neighbours are!
Coffee or tea? Tea all the way.
What are you reading now? In The Dark by Anamaria Crowe which is being published by Turas Press in May 2021. It is an extraordinarily beautiful and moving novel about life and love during Franco’s war-time Spain. The language is lyrical and mesmerising and I am enthralled.
Thank you to Bloomsbury and Cormac Kinsella for sending me an advance copy of the stunning Bright Burning Things (Bloomsbury, 2021)
Purchase Bright Burning Things here and keep up with Lisa on Twitter @LisaSHarding.