Writers Chat 55: Catherine Dunne on “A Name For Himself” (Arlen Classic Literature: Dublin, 2022)

Catherine, You are very welcome to my Writers Chat series. We’re here to discuss A Name For Himself first published in 1988 and re-issued this year as part of the Arlen Classic Literature Series. I finished reading the novel on the same weekend that The Irish Times published Stolen Lives, a heart-stopping report on the “239  violent deaths of women in Ireland from 1996 to today”. It is an awful thing to say that the narrative of A Name For Himself speaks of a horrible truth still present and persistent in our society. But it also reminds us of the role novels have, as you say in your Afterword, “in exploring the texture of our daily lives in a way that can help us understand ourselves and others better.”

Cover of A Name For Himself showing a painting of a man in black with his arms around a woman in pale yellow against a background of houses and within wooden houses (painting by Tove Kregs Lange)

SG: So let’s begin with the title which tells us something about what motivates Farrell (one of the main protagonists) but also speaks of the role of class, money and reputation in Ireland. Can you talk about how you came to decide on this title A Name For Himself?

CD: Thank you, Shauna, for your invitation to take part in ‘Writers Chat’ and to discuss A Name for Himself on the occasion of its reissue by Arlen House.

In one way, it feels as though the writing of Farrell’s story took place a long time ago (it did) but in another, it’s a novel that still feels very recent. I continue to have a strangely intimate connection with Farrell and Grace. I think that’s partly because their story became my second novel: the one that made me believe I was on my way to becoming a writer. I say ‘becoming’ because I’d come across the view – on multiple occasions – that ‘everyone has a book in them’. And once my first book was ‘out’, I was genuinely terrified that that was it: the well had now run dry!

So, writing A Name for Himself was a very special experience. It was a complete departure from my first published work, In the Beginning, which drew on those contemporary issues and relationships that were familiar to me. But the story of Farrell and Grace – apart from one moment of inspiration, or perhaps recognition is a better word: that moment when a writer becomes aware that the spark of a new story has ignited – my second novel was a work entirely of the imagination.

During my career as a teacher, I’d spent the best part of two decades working in a disadvantaged area of Dublin. The 1980s in Ireland were a dismal time economically and socially.  It was also a decade of high emigration: more than 200,000 people left this country during those years. As teachers, we felt we were educating an entire generation for the dole queue, or the emigrant boat. Those years brought me face to face with deprivation in a way that had a huge impact on me. I saw ‘up close and personal’ the devastation caused by lack of resources, by intergenerational unemployment, by lack of opportunity and by social attitudes towards ‘the working class’.

When I began to imagine Farrell, his background came to me fully formed. I have always believed in the notion that writers don’t choose our stories: instead, our stories choose us. And when Farrell began to colonise my writer’s imagination, he emerged from a disadvantaged background, one he was determined to escape. He wanted, needed, to make a better life for himself. When his family of origin fell apart, he took every opportunity offered to him to be independent and self-sufficient. Through the kindness and solidarity of his local community, he became first a carpenter, then a master craftsman.

Everything about Farrell’s rejection of his background propelled him to create, rather than destroy. He wanted nothing to do with the violence and chaos that his father had created within the family. He rejected everything about him: appalled at the damage he had done. From an early age, Farrell even refused to call himself Vincent, or Vinny: that name belonged to his father, it was no part of him.

And so the title of the novel was born from Farrell’s determination to forge his own path, to have no connection with his hated father, to become his own, separate self.

I already knew what the trajectory of Farrell’s life would be, even before I began to write. I knew that he would behave in a way that was likely to make him infamous: he would indeed make ‘a name for himself’ in the process. And so, with that double helix of naming, the novel’s title was born.

SG: What a wonderful insight into your process and inspiration, Catherine. Thank you. Now, although A Name for Himself is not set in the present day, there is much of the way society works – the rush to secure property, the demand for tradesmen, the blooming craft businesses – that echoes in the Ireland of today. I think the Dublin that you capture is still recognisable. Are you surprised at the timelessness of place?

CD: Returning to the novel after a quarter of a century, there were many surprises: and some of the echoes, as you call them, were chilling.

I was writing in and about the mid-1990s, the period that led to the Celtic Tiger, to escalating house prices, to full employment, to the accumulation of wealth to a degree we had never experienced before. It was a heady time, for some: property became the new religion for men like P.J., and craftsmen like Farrell were in high demand.

It was a time of great economic and social change.

For Farrell and Grace, such affluent times provide them with an opportunity to be independent. But ironically, they also remind Farrell of the difference in class between him and the woman he loves.

The first time he sees Grace, in her father’s building in Merrion Square, the elegant surroundings emphasise to him – the man in the worker’s overalls, the man with a Dublin accent – that this woman is out of his league. Her father agrees, and this dangerous dynamic, this silent, subterranean tug-of-war between the two men has the potential to be every bit as damaging as the actions of Farrell’s own father.

I think we like to believe that class in Ireland is not an issue in the way it is, say, in Britain. I disagree. And along with economic prosperity, greed, and ruthless property developers, class divisions are still part of our society today.

SG: And that’s what this novel highlights I think. In Farrell, you’ve created an incredibly complex character who we come to love, as Grace does. Mia Gallagher in her excellent Foreword, outlines this reader position so well in that, similar to real life situations, we are totally taken by how he is presented, how he presents himself and how he is seen. It is only when we begin to feel what is behind his actions (or if we read carefully) – fear, inadequacy, lack of self-worth and so on – that we begin to see what he might be capable of. Can you talk about how you developed Farrell’s character?

CD: The development of Farrell’s character is just one of the chilling aspects of this novel that I referred to earlier.

I became completely obsessed by him during the writing process. I had nightmares about him. I saw the world, not through his eyes, but as though I was perched on his shoulder. I watched, sometimes horrified, at the way his character was unfolding. It all felt strangely inevitable. I followed where he led.

I know there are writers who will disagree with that last statement: who will say that the writer is always in control of her characters. And while that is true – I can kill off whomsoever I like, whenever I like, for example – it still feels deeply necessary to follow the shadowy paths that often appear to us, unbidden, in the tangled forest of the writing process.

I didn’t consciously choose what Farrell would do next, what he would ultimately become: it was much more instinctive, more intuitive than that. I went where it felt right.

And I was aware that Farrell’s fear of abandonment, his lack of self-worth, his sense of ownership when it came to Grace: all of these aspects of his emotional landscape created a powder-keg of dangerous possibilities.

But I needed the reader to feel empathy for Farrell. I knew what he was going to do – but I also knew that we tend to label people as ‘monsters’ when they perform monstrous acts that we don’t understand. It’s a way of creating distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – but that distance is in no way useful in helping us to understand what drives us – all of us – to do the sometimes terrible things that we do.

The term ‘coercive control’ was not in current usage in the 1990s, in the way it is now. But I had observed such behaviour in action and understood that men who were bent on controlling their wives or partners often appeared on the surface to be vulnerable, devoted, caring: ideal partners and spouses, pillars of their community.

How many times have we seen evidence of that volitional distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in the aftermath of a domestic tragedy? How many times have we heard the perpetrator described by others, in the wake of some violent atrocity against a woman, as a ‘lovely, quiet man’?

And although, for the purposes of the novel, I had a clear view of how Farrell and Grace’s story would end, it felt important not to portray him as a monster. At one point, I give him the chance to confront his demons and perhaps create the possibility of another life for him and Grace. But he rejects it, clinging instead to his own sense of entitlement and ownership.

SG: I think that sense of, as you put it, feeling, your way into Farrell’s actions is also felt by the reader in the atmosphere that runs through the novel. The multiple narratives work brilliantly in shining a light for the reader on the evolution of Farrell and his actions, especially the haunting present day “now” narrative that slips in, unsuspecting, and then increases with such tension until the narrative catches up (in time) with that day, that birthday. As I was reading it, a large part of me was hoping that the seemingly inevitable would not happen while knowing it would. Did these narratives come once the story and ending were cemented or did you start there and work your way back?

CD: The series of present tense scenes – one of which opens the novel – were written after the main narrative was complete. But from the beginning, I had three narrative strands in mind. The contemporary story of Farrell and Grace’s meeting and their growing relationship; seminal scenes from Farrell’s past, both childhood and adolescence; and finally, the ‘now’ scenes, scattered throughout the narrative to increase suspense and to highlight the inevitability of what is going to happen.

I began writing this novel in 1995. It’s not that I have a prodigious memory (I wish), but I was so consumed by the creative process during the two years of writing that I made copious notes about structure, about characters, about significant childhood events – I mostly used file cards, back then.  Word processing was still new and I had greater faith in pen and paper. I still like to use notebooks when I’m working on something new – something about the slower pace of handwriting makes for a more reflective process.

From 1995-1997, the writing of A Name for Himself was an experience of total immersion. I had taken a career break from work, and was acutely aware of the ticking clock. I had a limited amount of time to write this book, and it was one of the many occasions over the intervening almost 30 years that I have understood the value of deadlines.

Those two years also taught me that writing is an organic process. The act of writing in itself creates inspirational moments – the ability to see clearly those inviting paths in the forest I referred to earlier.

Turning up at the desk is the first essential. Words follow.

SG: What dedication to your craft and I love how you used the immersion and set time that you had to both write and also record how you wrote. What a wonderful thing to be able to look back on those index cards! Definitely for the archive. In relation to making, Farrell is “a maker in a most tangible craft” (Mia Gallagher) and I found it reassuring that Grace, too, is a maker, an identity denied to her by the men in her life (most notably her father) – until she meets Farrell.

I was really interested in how A Name For Himself therefore also explores the act of naming and, through this, agency. Farrell drops his first name “Vincent/Vinny” so that it is not tinged with the actions of his father and so understands Grace’s struggle to name who she is, and what she is. This enables him to literally open doors for her to make her dolls. There is, however, also the sense that Grace creates the dolls with care parallel to Farrell’s conjuring of Grace-as-possession. Can you talk a little about this aspect of the novel?

CD: Farrell does indeed understand Grace’s need to create, and to carve out an independent life for herself. In this, her needs are a reflection of his own. But his efforts to help her fulfil her dreams are, in fact, driven more by Farrell’s need to be in control than Grace’s need to be free and independent of her father.

Even at the very start of their relationship, we see Farrell’s obsession, his overwhelming need to be the ‘master craftsman’: ‘Grace held his arm tighter. Farrell thought he would explode. By the time they reached the city centre, he had planned and mapped and fashioned the rest of their lives’.

At a later stage, Farrell says to P.J. that he intends ‘to give her [Grace] a good life’ (my itlaics). As though her life is a gift that he has the power to grant her.

In many ways, Farrell is recreating the family he lost in the way he relates to Grace. It’s as though she becomes a child, someone whose whole future depends on how he crafts it – rather than an adult woman with agency of her own.

He oversees her making of dolls, Noah’s arks, toys of all kinds with a pleasure that is a complex mix of emotions, a mix designed to make the reader uneasy.

Yes, I felt that when reading it, that he was creating a child out of her, but also enabling her to create her own ‘children’ (the ones they long for) in the dolls and toys.

Lastly, Catherine, some short questions:

Do you usually have one book or numerous books on the go? If we’re talking about reading, rather than writing, then yes, I very happily have several books on the go at the same time. There are ‘upstairs books’ and ‘downstairs books’, and for Luas and bus journeys, there’s the ultimate ‘handbag book’ – my trusty Kindle. Although paper claims my affection and loyalty every time – a Kindle is for convenience.

As far as writing is concerned, I can’t focus on more than one obsession at a time. The most I can manage is, say, working on an essay at the same time as a piece of fiction.

I love the idea of upstairs and downstairs books, and that you use a Kindle (I do for travelling). So, quiet or noise when you’re writing? I used to believe I needed absolute quiet for writing. Then I spent several months in India. The only safe electrical connection in the village was in the local cafe, so I used to go there every morning.

That year, the cricket world cup was underway and the entire community for miles around came to watch the matches on the big TV screen. As you can imagine, the men’s enthusiasm was not expressed quietly. Apart from that, it’s difficult to find a quiet spot in India anyway – its large population makes sure of that. Very quickly, I learned to tune out the noise.

I still prefer quiet – but it’s good to know that I can adapt.

Generally, do you plot/plan or go where the writing takes you? I have a dreadful sense of direction. Anybody who knows me will tell you that. Even following a map, I have the capacity to get spectacularly lost. Some of my most enjoyable journeys have resulted from not knowing where I’m going.

Writing is a bit like that. I’ve always liked the comfort of having a map – a starting point and an end point: that was certainly the case with A Name for Himself and indeed, for subsequent novels.

But getting lost in the forest is also part of the joy.

Right now, as I start a new piece of work, I’m adopting a different approach. I have a vague idea about my idea – and I’m going where the process takes me.

I remember seeing children in primary school being encouraged to ‘take a line for a walk’ – just follow your crayon across the page and see what picture emerges.

That’s what I’m doing now. It’s strange, and different, and exhilarating.

I’ve no idea where I’m going next.

What freedom in just seeing what emerges! Coffee or Tea? In the morning, coffee for sure! In the afternoon, different types of tea.

What’s the next three books on your reading pile? They are all books that have been overlooked for a while, because I got carried away with so many other sources of printed temptation. So I’ve promised myself to go back to them. They are: The Nine Lives of Pakistan by Declan Walsh. Fifty Words for Snow by Nancy Campbell. No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood.

A great selection, Catherine! Thank you for such insights into your process, the thinking behind some of the characters and for your generosity in answering my probing questions.

Catherine Dunne (Photo: Noel Hillis)

Purchase A Name For Himself.

Follow Catherine Dunne.

Read Catherine Dunne’s article in The Irish Times about what inspired this novel.

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