Walk the Line with Siobhan MacGowan: ‘Our home was alive with wit and a love of language’
The author and sister of the Pogues’ singer Shane MacGowan talks growing up in a house full of books, her previous life as a bandleader and assistant to Van Morrison, and her latest novel, The Graces
I’ve always written, be it childhood stories, teen poems, professionally as a copywriter and journalist and, later, songwriting. There are scraps of unfinished novels, even a play, everywhere, but it was my previous novel The Trial of Lotta Rae that got me the agent I have now and my first publishing deal. I served a long apprenticeship.
Writing and drawing came naturally to me from a very early age. My parents were extremely supportive of my creative endeavours and even allowed me to write and draw stories on my bedroom walls. When I was young we lived in England, and on the long car journeys to Holyhead, to catch the ferry to Dublin, I would bury myself under a blanket in the back seat and write. Shane did too.
Our house was full of books, both my father and mother were voracious readers. My father loved Greek plays, the great Irish writers, and poetry, and my mother read classics by Hardy, Dickens, and Thackeray. Dad would make quips and quote from various plays, books or poems so our home was alive with wit and a love of language. I’m sure I was imbued with that from a young age and certainly had a very early love affair with language and the emotional impact of words. A love affair that has lasted a lifetime.
In a previous life, I had a band called The Frantic. We played around Dublin in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. I liked writing the songs but I was never completely comfortable with life as a performing artist.
I met Van Morrison in the early ‘90s through my sister-in-law, Victoria Clarke, and toured Europe and the USA with him over the course of two years as his assistant. It was an amazing experience. I got on well with Van. He has a very serious work ethic, and as long as you work hard for him, he’s a good boss.
I got to visit places I’d never been, like Los Angeles and San Francisco and I met blues legends such as John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells, and Jimmy Witherspoon. I sang with John Lee and Van in John Lee’s sitting room; the tours were full of extraordinary experiences like this and I have wonderful memories of it all.
I wanted to write a book about a Dublin in a time when my paternal grandparents, Dublin natives, were young. I also had great-aunts that reminded me of the aunts in James Joyce’s The Dead and I wanted to capture that era and Dublin spirit from the family stories handed down to me.
I lived in Dublin in my early adulthood and had cause to return when my elderly father became a long-term patient in the Mater hospital on Eccles Street. The street’s Georgian houses were similar, of course, to those featured in the film of The Dead and, as I walked the street every day, I began to imagine my story, The Graces, unfolding within them.
Shane and I have teased out how we compare in our approaches to the creative process. Songs come to Shane 99 per cent inspiration, 1 per cent perspiration, the opposite of crafting a novel. Writing a novel is very much a mix of inspiration and perspiration – a lot of perspiration over a long time. Songs are short bursts. Shane has said he only feels comfortable writing in short bursts. And it took me some time to attain the discipline to complete the marathon that is a novel. Songs and novels are very different beasts.
In my writing career I had to overcome years of rejection and keep going. It taught me tenacity, resilience and to keep faith in myself. If I became despondent I made sure to stay mindful of all the truly important and wonderful things I had in my life and be grateful.
The Brontes were a huge influence on me in my teens. I was besotted with their style of language and the visions their tales conjured up in my mind. I feel their Irish heritage shows both in their lyrical and often raw writing. I would consider myself still influenced by them; Villette by Charlotte Bronte occupied a special place in my heart when younger. Recently I’ve been reading many of the current Irish-based writers like Donal Ryan, Charleen Hurtubise, Rachel Donohue, Anne Griffin, and Aoife Fitzpatrick amongst others.
In life, I am most proud of the fact that before my mother died, I did all I could to make her life easier, more comfortable, and pleasant and that I have the privilege now of doing the same for my father.
The best piece of advice I have ever received is that grief is a long journey. Let it be when it’s there. Let it go when you can.
The Graces by Siobhan MacGowan is published by Welbeck and is out now