Writers Chat 48: Laura McVeigh on “Lenny” (New Island: Dublin, 2022)

Laura, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your second novel, Lenny (New Island, 2022) which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Cover image of Lenny by Laura McVeigh with a drawing of a canopy of trees with hanging foliage and blue skies lit up by stars

SG: Let’s start with the dual narratives in Lenny – that of the mysterious pilot in the Ubari Sand Sea in 2011 and that of Lenny in Louisiana in 2012. The narrative structure not only allows the narratives to converse with each other but, as they converge and the themes of home and belonging really come to the fore, they form a third, beautifully unifying story. Can you talk about your structural decisions when writing Lenny?

LMcV: I am always very interested in notions of time, memory, how we experience moments – and like to examine that in my writing, both in the substance and structurally. And one of the main themes within the novel for me in the writing was our relationship to time and reality, so a lot of the structure explores that in various ways. The dual narratives allowed me to create a sort of mirroring within the storylines – as you suggest, a kind of conversation – but also opened up the sense of time more broadly, allowing the reader to travel with that feeling in different ways.  I wanted to stretch and bend narrative time in the storytelling, just as Jim, Lenny’s father suggests is possible later in the story.

When I write, I write fairly instinctively.  So I don’t work out a structural scheme beforehand – I write into the story, and I find multiple narrative streams gives a depth and resonance to the writing, helping create echoes, connections – as you say, unifying.  I pull the threads together as I go.

SG: I think your instinctual writing is very much reflected in the tone of Lenny, as it carries the reader in a sort of wonderworld. Something that stayed with me long after I’d read Lenny, was the feeling that somehow, we are ageless, or that age does not matter when we zoom out and consider the world as a universe. While characters such as Miss Julie and Lucy and indeed Lenny’s mother, Mari-Rose, find themselves limited or restricted by age, the cumulative impact of the thread of The Little Prince (referenced throughout) and narratives of the pilot and Lenny was that I was left really pondering how we limit ourselves in so many ways in opposition to our world rather than in harmony with it. Lenny remembers Mari-Rose telling him that sometimes

“A story can end all sorts of ways…sometimes it doesn’t end at all, it’s just beginning.”

And towards the end of the novel, we find Lenny is “stretching time all around him.” Was this playing with time something that you had consciously or unconsciously woven into the novel?

LMcV: I love this question. And the idea that we are ageless! But it’s true, why don’t we look at life in harmony with nature and time, and see that we are part of something much more beautiful, infinite and mysterious.  In the story, we see Lenny’s watch that doesn’t work, the elastic band on Mari-Rose’s wrist, both symbols of how we try to hold on to the impossible. We tend to fear aging, fear death, decay. We are always fighting life, struggling – it’s in the very language we put upon ourselves constantly.  

So within the novel, yes, I was very consciously playing with time and our understanding of time and the universe, and the part we play within it.  In life we often look for narrative coherence – a story – a way of understanding a situation.  We explain everything to ourselves via story. But of course stories, like time, don’t travel in straight lines, simply from one point to another. So I wanted to explore and play with all of that, and push against those limits. I hope the novel reflects that desire for openness and possibility.

SG: Yes, I think Lenny reflects your desire for openness and possibilities and I think it comes out also in the relationships Lenny has with Miss Julie and Lucy and how though they both play mothering roles in the book, it’s Lenny who brings the women out of themselves, and opens the world to them. He starts off thinking that “believing is for adults” he comes to understand that to change the world and people, “you just had to believe”. It is such a beautiful message of hope. Did you feel you were writing a novel of hope when you were writing it or did this emerge through the writing process?

LMcV: Yes, that connection between Lenny and Miss Julie, or as the novel progresses with Lucy too. It’s so important for Lenny I think, at this point in his life to have someone looking out for him, someone who cares, but of course, it’s his spirit that is bringing healing and renewed purpose to them.  I suppose it’s that sense that we gain when we give – that in caring for Lenny they are opening up to being more caring towards themselves too, becoming more forgiving, more open-hearted.  I love that childhood sentiment of how life could be anything at all, so long as you believed it.  I think we lose that sense along the way sometimes, and yet life is such a gift – even with all its hardship and pain – so how do we navigate that with grace and love?  When I was writing Lenny, yes, I was seeking – whether consciously or unconsciously –  to write a story full of hope and love, because I think sometimes we forget, we lose sight of hope. Our better angels, I think Miss Julie might call it.

SG: Oh yes, our better angels! I love it. Places (and worlds) are in themselves characters in the novel. I really enjoyed how you played around with the individual experience of place and how this bleeds into human connection at all levels. We’re all connected by place as the Imuhar way states:

A man who wanders is free…he is not tethered, neither to place nor possessions

You touch on the magic of place and I thought this came out in the relationship between the pilot who falls from the sky in Libya, a seemingly empty canvas, but also later in the budding relationship between Lenny’s father Jim (who “looked like all he wanted to do was to walk away from himself”) and Lucy (who “knew her heart was full with joy around him.”). Can you talk about Lucy, the lonely librarian/activist with her lovely cat?

LMcV: With Lucy, at first we discover her really as others might see her – and I wanted to capture that sense of how much there is beneath the surface view – for all of us.  It’s not just the shorthand, the glance, the first impression.  Lucy is a work in progress, and she recognises that about herself I think.  She’s trying to heal after a lot of loss and hurt, and a sense of always feeling out of place. So I think Lucy is searching for ‘her place’ and in the novel she seems to find that in Jim.  I love that there are lots of contradictions alive within Lucy – I find that very human.  She’s caring and yet scared to open up her heart and life and let others in, she’s fearful of many things yet wants to live a bigger, fearless life.  In the novel, she has to ask herself if she’s willing to stand up for the things she cares about, if she’s willing to put herself out there – I love that vulnerability and uncertainty coupled with her determination.

SG: And I think it’s both ways – for Jim also finds an idea of home in Lucy. Lenny experiences life by interpreting place and time through senses and memory. He imagines what life would be like if his mama had not left him, if his daddy had not learnt to fly, and if the chemical companies hadn’t come…

“Lenny, half reading, half daydreaming, blinked into the dust imagining other planets, similar to his own, yet different all the same.”

In Lenny you capture that uncanny ability children have, to inhabit the world and at the same time understand wholly that there exists an alternative reality. In what way is Lenny an exploration of this – the what if question?

LMcV: Absolutely. In the novel I wanted to explore that possibility.  Science tells us it’s possible, indeed almost a certainty. And of course, in so far as life is perceived as experiential and experience is subjective, then we can accept that multiplicity of perception at the very least.  In childhood we live in dreams, but what if that is actually closer to understanding the mysteries of life? Again, the novel, on one level, is really an invitation to think differently, to move outside of our daily preoccupations and take a longer, wider view of life.

SG: Big business (and big countries) and the impact on the environment is one of the strong themes in Lenny. I loved that as an author you don’t preach, and that the theme fit so well into the story of who Lenny is and where he’s from. Can you talk about the importance of this theme and how Lenny with his warmth and lovability is the perfect character to encourage readers to consider the environmental destruction?   

LMcV: Within the novel I wanted to show how these things can affect a lifetime, a community, a place, land, and how what happens in one part of the world, impacts what happens in another. The novel really explores the ways in which war, big business, political interests all interconnect – so how do we stand up to that systemic challenge?  How do we start to really understand that a problem for Libya, for example, (water shortage/land degradation/conflict/migration/political instability) or for Louisiana (land loss/climate uncertainty/environmental pollution/over-industrialisation/home instability) is also a wider, interconnected, global problem. 

While the novel explores the idea of other possible worlds, it is also true that we all share this one planet – sadly unequally, often destructively. So how do we do better? What can we change?

The story therefore looks at the power of the individual to affect change, and that is where Lenny’s sense of ‘believing’ is essential.  With hope, everything is possible.

SG: Again, we’re back to hope. But war changes land, and people. Miss Julie hangs on to Stanley, Mari-Rose tries to believe in Jim, Goose wants to believe in what Tayri and Izil offer him – and all of them are in denial about their own part in destruction, and their inability to protect. Yet Lenny, because he is a child, he still finds hope and can still see the stars and possibilities, even when his town is literally sinking. Can you talk about the impact of war on the story? It feels especially relevant given what’s happening in our world right now.

LMcV: I have always had a deep interest in writing about war, conflict and its impacts on individual lives and communities.  I think this is born out of growing up in the North of Ireland in the 1980s in the Troubles’ years.  Even as a young child, of around Lenny’s age, I would have been very interested in the idea of peace, of the importance of peace.  So it’s a theme I continue to explore in writing.  

In Lenny we see Lenny’s father Jim return from the war, broken, suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), taking refuge in alcohol.  Part of the structure of the novel is in a way a reflection of that mental state – the short chapters, the jumping from image to image, idea to idea, the forgetting and remembering within the story.  But of course it’s not just Jim who is suffering – it affects his whole family, and all of his connections with other people. Miss Julie’s life too has been shaped by a war – with the absence of her husband Stanley since 1952.  So there is that sense of a life’s possibilities taken. Izil and his family are surrounded by conflict and the impacts of conflict and are trying to navigate that all too dangerous reality in the desert sands.  So the ‘what if’ questions become important and give us a way through to hope.

There are so many parts of our world where conflict and war is a daily lived reality for millions – Ukraine, Libya, Yemen, just a few that currently come to mind. Take a map of the world and colour in the countries where war or armed conflict is happening. Look at the history books and we see that war has always been with us. Does that mean we should surrender hope or look the other way?  Or can we, even through small acts of hope and love, make for a better reality?

SG: And in a way, that is one of the important roles of literature in the world – to get us thinking, to ask questions, and to give a sense of hope and possibility. Thank you for your generous answers, Laura and we’ll now end with five short, fun questions.

  • Southern or Northern hemisphere? Wherever the story takes me.
  • Ha! A very writerly answer. Woods or Beach? Ideally a hike in the mountain woods with a view down to the water. Having grown up by the Mourne Mountains next to Carlingford Lough I love both, forest and sea.
  • I’ve been on a few hikes in the Mourne Mountains – stunning. Music or silence while you write? Both, silence for thinking, music for feeling.
  • What are you reading now?  Io non ho paura (I’m not scared) by Italian writer Niccolò Ammaniti and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed but in Catalan – Els Desposseïts.
  • I loved I’m not scared when I read it a few years ago. And I must read more Le Guin! So, Laura, what are you writing now? I’m finishing a children’s novel for my daughter, writing the screenplay of Lenny, writing a collection of travel stories, and working on a new novel.

Well, that’s an astonishing amount of writing at once – your daughter’s a lucky girl! I especially look forward to the screenplay of Lenny and hope – and trust – Lenny will continue to reach many readers!

Black and White Photograph of author Laura McVeigh courtesy of Laura McVeigh

With thanks to Peter O’Connell Media and New Island Books for the advance copy of Lenny.

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