Writer's Block with Neil Hegarty - The Gloss Magazine

Writer’s Block with Neil Hegarty

Neil Hegarty is an author and journalist from Derry, Northern Ireland. To date, he has published two novels and several works of historical non-fiction. His debut novel, Inch Levels (2016), was endorsed by John Banville who called it “a perceptive and moving study of remorse and resilience.” Hegarty’s non-fiction portfolio includes The Story of Ireland (2011), The Secret History of Our Streets: London (2012) and Sir David Frost’s authorised biography, Frost: That Was the Life That Was (2015), as well as working on The Victorians: Britain Through the Paintings of the Age (2010) by Jeremy Paxman.

At the heart of Hegarty’s new novel, The Jewel, is the enigmatic Emily Sandborne, a downtrodden Victorian artist who only achieved fame a century after taking her own life. Her final creative act was a stunning funeral shroud, composed with distemper paint on Irish linen, known later as “The Jewel”. Set between England and Ireland, Sandborne’s masterpiece affects the lives of three interconnected people living counterfeit lives: John is an art thief, Ward is an art detective trapped in a gaslit relationship with his boyfriend, Martin, and Roisín is a museum curator whose sister Maeve’s demise haunts her to this day. In writing this story, the author explores issues of equality, identity and belonging, making visible those who were in the shadows. His pages pulse with sincerity and welcome humour throughout. The Jewel has received an array of positive reviews in its relatively short time on the shelf, demonstrating why Hegarty is one of Ireland’s rising literary stars.

Alexander Larman of The Guardian has said, “Hegarty writes with sharp intelligence, which coupled with his strong storytelling and well-defined characters, results in a gripping plot that also offers an affecting insight into how artifice permeates our lives.” Violet Hudson of The Spectator has called the book “a work of art in more ways than one.”

Neil Hegarty lives in Dublin with his partner John Lovett and their cat, Lily. He is currently writing his third novel.

The Jewel (€18.99) is published by Head of Zeus and available from bookshops nationwide.

On home

John and I had lived for years in an apartment close to Dublin city centre, but we wanted a garden, so we took the leap and bought a new home, a mid-Victorian red-brick on the South Circular Road. It had a garden which had been completely entombed in brick, a sort of blasted heath: so we set to work lifting, and digging, and planting – and discovered that underneath the bricks was rich black soil, meaning that a gardener had lived here before us. So, there’s a sense of continuity and renewed love for house and garden that is very pleasing. Now we have fruit trees, and holly, and peonies, and we’re putting in a pond: the plan is that some frogs will come and join us here before too long.

We feel very at home not only in this house, but in this area. We like Gaillot et Gray for fabulous pizza, and they give us their used coffee grounds for the garden. The Headline has every brilliant craft beer under the sun, and Marlowe and Co bake the best breads.

We have a network of good neighbours, and we’ve made good friends. We cat-sit for our friends a few doors down, and they return the favour, looking after our old lady Lily, a white cat who rules our house with a will of steel. We have a handsome feral cat living in a kennel in the front garden – gray, so we call him Dorian, and he’s a local celeb, with people stopping all the time to take his photograph. Dorian makes us feel like we live on a Hollywood soundstage.

On roots

I grew up in Derry, in a house on a long hill leading down to the Foyle. My father is an architect and he designed our house himself, as an expression of his Modernist sensibilities. He and my mother planted a garden, and I grew up in what I see in hindsight was a rooted, grounded environment. Derry during the Troubles was of course a cauldron of tension, and our family had its close shaves, just as every family did. My father was there on Bloody Sunday, and luck brought him home; my mother’s car was pulverised by a bomb, and her just around the corner from it; and we were accustomed to the sight of the glass in our windows buckling and rippling inward as the sound wave from a bomb blast struck the house. On the other hand, Derry is “Monaco without the money,” as the local wags say – a place apart, a place with the firmest possible sense of itself. This sort of profound identity rubs off, and provides a fair wind. Derry also made me see that becoming a writer was more than a crazy notion. Jennifer Johnston lived up the road; Seamus Heaney, Seamus Deane, Brian Friel were all former students of my school. We felt their influence. When I hear or read Heaney’s Mid-Term Break now, it resonates powerfully for specific, local reasons: we took turns, as students in the science lab under the eaves, to ring the school bell “knelling classes to a close.” Such memories stay.

And then, Inishowen just on our doorstep: beaches, walks, air and views, better ice cream, better Tayto crisps. When I wrote my first novel, Inch Levels, it made sense to set part of it in Derry and part of it in Inishowen: these are two places that I love uncomplicatedly.

On early reading

When I think of early reading, I think of libraries. Our local libraries were both housed in temporary portakabins, but they were refuges for all that. In my memory, the evening is dark, cold, wet, and the library warm, bright with yellow light. Derry didn’t run much to bookshops in those days, and I often reflect that without the libraries, so many people would have been lost. I read all the usual suspects: Narnia, Tolkien, E. Nesbit, Ursula le Guin, Just William, the Bagthorpe Saga, Enid Blyton, Laura Ingalls Wilder. Two books stand out for me: modern classics. I imagine they are deemed today, but they were newly published back in the 1970s: Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War, and Penelope Lively’s The Ghost of Thomas Kempe. When I think about the theme that interests me most – the influence of the past upon the present, the havoc it can wreak, the need to gaze steadily at our past in order to make sense of the present and channel the future – these are the two books that always come to mind. I’ll always be grateful to these authors, whose writing for adults I also love, and I’ll always be grateful to the Derry libraries that made my reading possible.

Just before my fourteenth birthday, I was in a pretty terrible road traffic accident and was in hospital for weeks. People arrived with other books, older books: Sense and Sensibility and Emma, I remember, deposited by my hospital bed. That set me off on other adventures; so too did school reading, with George Orwell and Graham Greene thrown into the mix; and later, the Victorians.

On creating

It wasn’t only the need for a garden that caused us to move to this house: we also wanted a little more space, and now I have a writing room of my own. It looks out over the back garden, and then a cityscape of lots and lots of roofs, some rowan and pear trees, and up the hill to the chisel spire of John’s Lane Church. A big sky, a cloudscape, and my desk at the window. When we moved in here, I was just about to plunge into my biography of David Frost: it was conceived and completed in this room; and then I reframed and edited Inch Levels here, and wrote The Jewel. John rescued the posters that advertised these books and framed and hung them on the walls. The desk and shelves come from IKEA. There’s a salt lamp and a photograph of my parents on the windowsill, a jade plant to my right, a whiteboard propped against a wall. Post-it notes, notebooks, a thousand pens. Oh, and my gym bag sits – reproachfully or hopefully – on the ground beside me, as a reminder of the dangers of seizing up. I sometimes take the laptop downstairs and sit at the kitchen table, or on the sofa – but essentially this room is ground zero.

From time to time, I go away from Dublin for a few days. I love Annaghmakerrig: its existence is miraculous, and its energy and atmosphere are nurturing, warm, wonderful. I have made good friends there, and it feels like another home. I was also lucky to visit Cill Rialaig this year, courtesy of Listowel Writers’ Week: wild and elemental on its cliff edge, it’s another kind of miracle, and conducive to good, sometimes unexpected work.

On bookshops

Dublin is good for bookshops, no stony grey soil at all. Hodges Figgis was my first introduction to the Dublin book scene, back in 1990 when I walked into Trinity College for the first time, and it remains a favourite, a mothership. So too does Dubray, standing out brilliantly on Grafton Street. I love the independents: The Gutter Bookshop, where Bob Johnston runs the best of ships; Books Upstairs, with its little bow-windowed upstairs café; and Chapters, where I emerge always with two or three books under my arm. In Derry, I love Little Acorns, where Jenni Doherty does fabulous work; and in Belfast, No Alibis, where David Torrans is a force of nature. In London, I love grave and beautiful Daunt Books in Marylebone, Highgate Books perched on its hill, and Gay’s the Word, the LRB Bookshop and lovely Persephone Books near the British Museum. And I think of the Library at Trinity College Dublin as my bookshop-with-a-twist: to be sure, I can’t actually buy any books, but I can browse any title under the sun.

On his “To Be Read” pile

There’s a terrifying Everest-like mountain by the bed, and sometimes I think it will never be scaled. At the moment: The North Water, Ian McGuire’s brutal, brilliant novel of Arctic exploration; Crampton Hodnet, an early Barbara Pym; AS Byatt’s Peacock and Vine, a study of William Morris and Mariano Fortuny; Ruskin: The Power of Seeing, which accompanies an exhibition I visited in London; Laura Vaughan’s impressive and scholarly Mapping Society; Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered (for my book club – and my choice, so I need to finish it); Damian Barr’s new novel You Will Be Safe Here, and his memoir Maggie & Me; and Derek Jarman’s Modern Nature. My current first-world problem is that so much superb writing is coming out of Ireland that it’s impossible to keep up: but I’ve recently read – or reread – with vast admiration Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child, Wendy Erskine’s Sweet Home, Sean O’Reilly’s Levitation, Tana French’s Broken Harbour and Nicole Flattery’s Show Them a Good Time. I’m no poet, but I appreciate the way in which a volume of poetry can feel mind-expanding: I go back again and again to – for example – Caitríona O’Reilly’s Geis, and to Sinéad Morrissey’s The State of the Prisons. I loved Kathleen Jamie’s Surfacing – her books are inspirational – and I’m looking forward to Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments; we are hooked with horror…And I’m a great re-reader: it’s the greatest pleasure in the world.

On escapes

There’s Derry, of course, where I walk the city walls and take in the lie of the land. And Inishowen, where I go walking on Inch Levels, to look up at the vast skies, and out at the seabirds, and over at the craggy castle in the distance; or further, to Kinnagoe Bay, the world’s most dazzling beach, with its Spanish Armada history and its distant views of Scotland. And Dublin provides its easy escape hatches too: we love the Phoenix Park, the South Wall, and the War Memorial Gardens – all scintillating and calming; they’re not to be taken for granted. Other Irish high points include Rathlin Island, where you can walk on the cliffs for miles and never meet another soul; and Garinish Island, which we visited following a few days’ teaching at Listowel Writers’ Week this year. I don’t know West Cork very well, but I was full of admiration for Glengarriff and its environs. Sometimes, though, it’s good to get further away. We try to go to Germany every year: John lived there for years, and we have spent memorable holidays in the Alps south of Munich, or in the Bavarian lakelands, and we love the Austrian mountains. We also have Swedish friends, who have taken us sailing in the Bohuslän archipelago, north of Gothenburg: on the sea amid granite islands, with lots of stops for cake – it’s not to be sniffed at.

On The Jewel

The Jewel came to me in the course of a bus journey between Derry and Belfast. I have for many years loved looking at paintings: figuring them out, listening to their voice, to the story and stories they want to tell – and in the course of this short bus journey I’d been reading in the newspaper about the Beyond Caravaggio exhibition which had just opened at the National Gallery of Ireland, and I was speculating about the security arrangements – simply, how to keep these paintings safe? And the outline of The Jewel came to me, quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, as though it had fallen from the luggage rack – and so compellingly that I felt obliged to set aside the book I was working on to focus on this new idea. I wanted to bring three lives, three destinies together around a piece of art: three individuals with nothing in common except that they find themselves confronted with the fact of a famous painting – ‘The Jewel’ – which has been stolen. As the book develops, it emerges that each of this trio is nursing wounds – fractures in life – is living a counterfeit life. Will they confront this fact, and go on to live the best and most authentic life they can? Can we sometimes heal the sorrows of our lives? This is the question asked in The Jewel, which is a novel about home, about belonging, about the damage that is done when one’s home and security is taken away, about what we do to try to reconstruct this security, about the rippling, long-lasting effects of such efforts.

It came together, was pulled apart, was written and rewritten – but the central image of a compelling, powerful painting never wavered. I see it clearly in my own head, but it felt important to leave its form unclear on the page, so that the reader could create and see it for herself. In my mind’s eye, it has a little of Caravaggio, a little of Francis Bacon, but this is my impression only! The story ranges between Ireland and England, it touches on Brexit, on gaslighting, on sex and sexuality, on many contemporary concerns, as well as on other specific aspects of life and culture in the Ireland and England of the mid-twentieth century.

On what’s next

I’m well into my next novel, which has taken me back into the nineteenth century, where a mystery demands to be solved – but which version of a disturbing story is the truth? I have always loved Victorian fiction – the Brontës, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot – and it is a pleasure to be steeped in the period.


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