Sophie Grenham speaks to IAN MALENEY about family, farming and the rise of the essay …
Ian Maleney is a writer, freelance journalist and web developer who has just released his first book into the wild. Set around his family farm on the edge of a Co Offaly bog, Minor Monuments is a collection of essays about home, the land, his dear Nana and John Joe, dementia, legacy, preservation and the power of audio.
Maleney has recorded sounds and interactions since he was fifteen years old. Greatly influenced by Seamus Heaney’s connection to the quiet rural place, he understands the need to capture memories before they become weathered by distance and the passage of time. The gentle and contemplative volume has received rave reviews nationwide, and is already hailed as one of this year’s most anticipated debuts.
Of the book, Fintan O’Toole has said, “Minor Monuments is beautifully poised between the vivid recollection of experience and subtle reflections on the nature of memory itself. Ian Maleney writes with both a poetic serenity and a starting immediacy, a combination as rare as it is absorbing.”
Lisa McInerney has also given a glowing endorsement – “Minor Monuments is brilliant, pulsing with intellect and insight, with each observation composed so beautifully as to be deeply moving. This is the kind of book that changes its reader.”
Maleney’s non-fiction has appeared in The Dublin Review, Winter Papers, and gorse. To date, he has written articles for such publications as The Irish Times, The Sunday Times, The Wire, The Millions, The Quietus, Tank Magazine and Business & Finance. As a web developer, Maleney has worked with numerous small businesses, arts organisations and cultural institutions such as Paper Visual Art, Tramp Press, and the Royal Society of Antiquarians. He is the founder of Fallow Media, an online interdisciplinary journal for music, photography and long-form writing. He is currently the online editor of The Stinging Fly.
Minor Monuments (€15) is published by Tramp Press and available from all good bookshops.
I live in Smithfield, Dublin with my partner Niamh, and two cats named Spooks and Wigs. We live in an overpriced one-and-a-half-bed cottage on a pretty quiet street. We didn’t exactly choose to live here – we were forced to leave our previous house about six months ago, and trying to find a place to rent in Dublin in late September was not easy. This house was the best we could find in the time we had. The area itself is nice, but a little strange. There’s some great pubs around – The Cobblestone, Kavanagh’s, The Glimmerman – and some nice places to eat, particularly in Stoneybatter. Obviously we have the Light House Cinema here and the Italian wholesaler, Little Italy, which is great. That said, there’s a lot of deprivation around this area, and it creates some disturbing contrasts: people on one side of the street queuing for free meals from the Capuchin Day Centre, people on the other queuing for a sushi lunch. New offices and old flats – that’s kind of what it’s like everywhere in the city now though.
As for a routine, I usually get woken up a little before 7am by the younger of our two cats. I get up, pour out some cat food, make a cup of tea, and start working. If I’m not too busy, I’ll spend an hour or two reading or working on something that’s not really work – something I’m doing just for myself. (If I’m really busy, I’ll just get started on the real work immediately.) Then around 10am I’ll take a little break, have something to eat, shower, maybe go out for groceries, that kind of thing. For the rest of the day, I just try to stay on top of emails, deliver anything I said I’d do, meet deadlines, etc. Usual work stuff that everyone does these days to make a living. In the evenings I make dinner, watch Seinfeld, and play or watch football. It’s a pretty simple life.
As a child, I lived on a farm in Offaly, quite near the Shannon. It was, and is, a working farm so I was surrounded by fields and sheds full of animals and machinery. Those are still the defining features of that place for me. Also, because the place is so flat, dawn and dusk are exceptionally beautiful there, particularly the latter; there’s something about the way night falls there which is totally distinct for me. In terms of what the place has given me as a writer, well, everything: Minor Monuments is a book set in that place, written about (and in some ways for) the people who live there. It is, to a great extent, about my relationship to that place, so thinking about and working with my memories of that place is clearly very important and productive for me. I’m not sure what I’ll do now that I’ve written about it – I’ll have to find some other way to relate to the place.
On early reading
My mother read to me when I was a kid. I believe I was a big fan of Rupert the Bear. I read a lot myself from a pretty early age, mostly thanks to our local library and their collection of RL Stine’s Goosebumps books. I suppose the first books I read that really felt like my own were The Hobbit and then Lord of the Rings. Those books sparked a real love for traditional fantasy novels, authors like Robert Jordan, Steven Erikson, and on a lighter note, Terry Pratchett. Looking back on it now, when I haven’t read any of those authors in years, I think I liked the fact they often wrote about characters from small, rural communities. I understood those characters pretty well, and I found it very easy to relate to them.
I work out of the backroom of our house, which is a small box room, around six feet square. It has a white desk in it, which takes up about one third of the room, and a white press in the opposite corner. I didn’t choose this room – it’s just the only room in the house that is not the kitchen, bedroom, or bathroom. It does have a window, which takes up most of one wall and looks out on our back yard. The yard is narrow – about seven feet by three – and has just about enough room to store one bike and a few bin bags. So it’s not a fabulous or inspiring view. The only artwork on the walls is a framed print I had made for my partner, featuring all the covers from Chris Marker’s Petite Planete series. It’s here because it looks better in here than in the bedroom. Otherwise, there’s a few books scattered about the desk, half-empty packets of biscuits, a few notebooks, two speakers, and my laptop. I’m not precious about my space, and I don’t need it to inspire me – which is just as well really.
On independent bookshops
I have a lot of respect for any independent bookshop surviving – and in some cases thriving – today. In Dublin, my favourite (as in, where I most often buy stuff) would probably be Books Upstairs. Their selection of magazines is the best around, and you can tell their stock is chosen by people who read and care about what they’re selling. Charlie Byrne’s in Galway has a very similar atmosphere and I stop in there whenever I can. I’m probably more given to buying second-hand books generally, so I’m a regular in Oxfam Books on Parliament Street, and of course Marrowbone Books over in The Coombe is a real gem.
On his “To Be Read” pile
I usually have a couple of books on the go, all ticking over at different speeds. I’m trying to choose between The Power Broker by Robert Caro, and American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J Sherwin. They’re both quite long biographies of individual men – Robert Moses and J Robert Oppenheimer respectively – and not usually the kind of thing I read much of, but these guys were fascinating characters. I’m also interested in the form of the biography right now, and I’m looking for interesting or compelling ways of writing it. Whichever I choose will probably take me a few months to actually get through, so I’ll read others whenever I need something of a different speed: Love Notes from a German Building Site by Adrian Duncan, The Years by Annie Ernaux, and Elizabeth Hardwick’s collected essays, which I got for Christmas, are all calling out to me from the shelves.
I will sometimes go off to a cottage somewhere in Galway or Mayo for a few days by myself, but it’s always to work, so you could hardly call it an escape. I don’t really get a lot of downtime.
On Minor Monuments
The ideas that became Minor Monuments had been tumbling around my head for quite a few years before they started forming themselves into a book. I was watching my grandfather’s memory disappear, and I knew I wanted to make something that would capture how it felt to be there during that process, how I felt in that place at that time. After my granddad died, I slowly figured out how to write about touchy subjects like family and mental health in a way that made sense to me. I’m not sure, even now, if doing so is necessarily rewarding – there is no catharsis exactly, but there is maybe something like clarity. I now know largely what I think about those experiences, and there is some value in that. If there is to be reward, it’ll have more to do with other people finding something of value to them in the book, whether that’s people who knew my grandad, or complete strangers. If it helps other people see things differently, or in a clearer way, then that would be a huge achievement.
On the recent rise of the essay
I think it’s largely down to how “the essay” is not any one thing. I mean, even if you take just the debut essay collections by Irish writers this spring (a pretty limited set, after all), they’re all quite different from each other in their subjects, their reference points, and their style. So it’s difficult to speak too generally about “the essay” and its apparent rise without sounding like the kind of glib old bore who goes on about “the novel” and its supposed decline.
That said, you obviously can’t discount the effect of the internet, and the fact that there is a greater number of places where you can publish “creative nonfiction” – that could be a personal blog, or it could be the New Yorker website, or any point on the spectrum between. There is simply more space for people to tell their own stories using forms that make sense to them. Maybe, for a long time, many books that should have been written as essays were written as novels, because it was easier to publish novels. That might not be the case anymore.
On what’s next
I’m not sure really. I’d love some time to read without any real purpose or direction. Hopefully I will have some time to write pretty soon too, because I have a few different ideas knocking about that I’d really like to start working on, if only to see if they’re more than wishful thinking. That’s always what I’m after I guess: more time.
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