Sophie Grenham speaks to author BREDA JOY about horses, Black Beauty and her first novel Eat the Moon …
After careful consideration, it’s fair to say that author and journalist Breda Joy is a direct product of her environment. A proud Kerrywoman through-and-through, she was a winner at the ESB National Media Awards in 1997, has written for Kerry’s Eye since 2000 and worked with The Kerryman for thirteen years prior. She was shortlisted for the Francis MacManus Short Story Competition in 2011, was a finalist at the Green Bean Novel Fair 2016 with the Irish Writers’ Centre, and holds an MPhil in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin. Her non-fiction books include Hidden Kerry (2014) and The Wit & Wisdom of Kerry (2015, both Mercier Press). Her award-winning poetry has appeared in several literary journals.
Breda’s novel, Eat the Moon, is one of this year’s most talked-about debuts. Set in rural Cork in 1969, after the first man on the moon, one is instantly pulled into the lives of the O’Mahony family and the dramas that unfold. With much of the characters’ everyday speech communicated phonetically, there is a knowing charm to their dialogue and effortless strength in Joy’s evocative storytelling. With a horse at the book’s core, Eat the Moon stirs up memories of such beloved equestrian tales as Black Beauty. When Kieran O’Mahony suffers a tragic fall during a hunt, the event throws his family off its axis – but hope remains. Although they are wild and unpredictable by nature, the majesty of these four-legged beasts thankfully continues to inspire writers such as Joy, who has put her own stamp on the subject. Alice Taylor has said of Eat the Moon – “A blend of family, community and the love of a horse paints a picture of Ireland that could only be created by someone who knows her people.”
Breda Joy lives in Killarney, Co Kerry with her family. She is currently working on her next book.
Eat the Moon (€14.99) is published by Poolbeg Press and available nationwide.
My house is set in a stone-fronted terrace that dates back to about 1903. It was love at first sight when the estate agent opened the front door into a sitting-room with a stairs rising out of it. Fungus flourishing in the rising damp of the walls was part of the “character”, but that was tamed in time. The terrace is south-facing and sits on a small hill just minutes’ walk from Killarney’s busy town centre. I get the sensation of coming down from the mountain top when I descend from the peace up here into the tourism Babel. Number eight is considered lucky in Chinese culture. My number eight has always been a lucky house for me.
Mornings bring the Friary bells, the crows’ opera and, in summer, horse shoes flinting on the main road. Music rises from the pubs by night. Frost brings the trains nearer. The primaeval bellowing of red stags carries from Killarney National Park across the rooflines in autumn.
My postcard garden is beautiful in summer and a jungle in winter. Milo, a cross between a Husky and a Boxer, likes to lie in the sun on the front door step. I call him the “rock star” because no walk through town is complete without someone admiring him.
I grew up over our grocery shop in the narrowest street in Killarney. Window frames shuddered when heavy vehicles passed. Car lights sliced through the tops of wooden shutters and made patterns on the walls. We kept pigs in a stable in a laneway. A child “swineherd”, I collected waste food from the neighbours. The pigs were also treated to stale porter from the Laurels Bar.
Smells I associate with my home town are the vapours of cooking oil from restaurant extractors, horses’ piss, linden tree blossom, fresh coffee, church incense and smoke from coal fires. Crows spreading through the sky like a murmuring black sea at evening time are my favourite sight. Most of my nature writing is drawn from daily walks in Killarney National Park. The idiom of older people informs dialogue in my fiction.
Two of my locals, the Shire Bar and McSweeeney Arms, are just around the corner as is Vendricks’ Restaurant. Bricín Craft Shop and Restaurant is another favourite. The town has expanded dramatically but many local businesses are still on first name terms with their customers.
My writing desk is a moveable feast of clutter in the sitting-room. Currently, it’s inside the window. I watch the bees bumble through the window box and tourists taking snaps of the “cute houses.” We could be the Hobbits!
When the weather is warm, I write with the front door open. My talisman is a Citrine rock that looks like a wedge of wild honeycomb. My partner bought it for me in the Rock Shop in Liscannor. Days later, I got word that I’d qualified for the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair which set Eat the Moon on the road to publication. Perched on the rock is a metal bell that detached from a horse collar. I redeemed it from a bag of manure I was using for my garden. There must be a poem in that!
When the sunlight slants a certain way, it picks out titles in the book shelf beside my desk. Milo often lies at my feet when I write. My favourite decoration is an umber and maroon mat from Morocco. One wall is devoted to photos of my ancestors. When discipline is lax, I write in Killarney Library where there are no distractions. Sometimes I take the laptop into bed in the mornings.
On independent bookshops
My all-time favourite independent bookshop is Charlie Byrne’s in Galway City, an unadulterated feast for the senses and a secular shrine. I could set up a camp bed there!
On her “To Be Read” pile
Books marooned in assorted “To Be Read” islands around the bedroom include Dear Life by Alice Munro, All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy, Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami, From a Low and Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan, The Thief of Time by John Boyne, and Time to Talk by Michael Healy-Rae. A couple of these floated in by chance – gifts from friends – but most were deliberately chosen. I read for the beauty and skill of the writing and to raise the bar for my own endeavours. Poetry books in my bedroom, including Louis MacNeice’s Collected Poems, have been chosen for the same reasons.
My principal escape is the village of Castletownshend in West Cork. I find great peace and inspiration there. I like to think that the spirit of the writer, Edith Somerville, who lived there, encourages me creatively. I never go there without visiting her grave. I have gone to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre on two occasions, and highly recommend it. If only there was a helicopter service to deliver me up there from Kerry!
In the middle of this summer’s heat wave, I spent four days in Cill Rialaig on Bolus Head near Ballinskelligs and got a lot written as well as drinking in incredible seascapes, especially on moonlit nights.
On Eat the Moon
Three particular experiences sowed the seed for Eat the Moon. They occurred years apart. One was a discussion topic on the Joe Duffy Show. Callers were talking about the phenomenon, selective mutism, whereby children choose to give up speaking for long periods because of a trauma. A childhood experience in which a relative of mine nearly died in a farm accident was another trigger. That farm provided the setting for the story. I was also influenced by the life stories of motivational speakers, who had battled adversity.
The novel began as a short story that was shortlisted for the Francis MacManus Short Story Competition. A friend said she’d like to hear more. I took it from there.
Writing the novel, I enjoyed giving voices to the various characters, getting inside their heads, stitching in folk stories and descriptions of nature. I found it very hard to face the blank page to begin each new chapter. It was difficult too to endure tirades from my “inner critic”, who remains the monkey on my back.
Writing this book was very important to me because writing is key to my personal fulfilment. I had an ambition to publish a novel since I was in my thirties. I abandoned two other attempts along the way. I wanted to write a book that had something to say for itself. Eat the Moon fits this bill.
A horse called Apollo is central to the story. Horses have been part of my life since, at the age of three or four, my grandfather, a ponyman in the Gap of Dunloe, would bring me for a short spin in his pony and trap before he went to work. Horses are noble, intelligent, loyal, sociable. Physically, they’re full of grace, beauty and power. They can also be stubborn, unpredictable and dangerous.
Just last night, I watched a video on Facebook of a chestnut stallion that’s brought to visit patients in hospital because of his remarkable connection with human beings.
The very first feature I had published was a memoir piece about a piebald foal, ‘Susie’, that I adored. There was a real bond between us.
As a child, the story of Black Beauty went straight to my heart. Because my father was a Killarney jarvey, he was always buying and selling horses. I asked him to read Black Beauty in the hopes that he’d never sell them again. A non-fiction book that had a huge impact on me as an adult tells the story of a remarkable American race horse called Seabiscuit, who started out as a no-hoper. Seabiscuit: An American Legend is written by Laura Hillenbrand. I read it to my son night after night. We both cried when we reached the last page.
On what’s next
My next horizon is the publication of my second novel, Under a Skellig Sky, by Poolbeg Press who have given me the wonderful opportunity of a three-book contract. This novel looks out on the ocean horizon of the Skellig Islands from an imaginary valley in South Kerry. It’s a contemporary story set in the area where Star Wars was filmed.
I still work as a journalist for a day or two a week. Ultimately, I would like to try my hand at teaching creative writing part-time because, as a journeywoman in the trade of writing, I’ve gleaned a lot of knowledge along the way.
It’s all good!
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