A Conversation with Dorothy Nelson By Ana Lucic

ANA LUCIC: There is a lot of anger and rage in Tar and Feathers. Anger that seems to be primarily directed at the state institutions, government, and marriage. Some would say that this type of outrage has been a general characteristic of Irish fiction for a long time now. Can you comment on this?

DOROTHY NELSON: I think the anger in Irish fiction was because of the oppressive nature of society and also a secrecy about what was really going on that allowed abuse and corruption to flourish. So many people fell victim to institutional abuse and the combination of an inability and lack of freedom to express themselves led to a build up of anger which is still finding voice in Irish Fiction today.

AL: What reception did Tar and Feathers get in Ireland when it first appeared? Was anybody surprised that a woman was using and writing in such an angry style? Did you feel like you were breaking some established traditions and notions when you were writing this book?

DN: The novel was originally published at a time when Irish society was beginning to look critically at itself so it came out at a good time and was well received. I was awarded the Rooney Prize for literature and a bursary from the Irish Arts Council which I was delighted with. On a personal level I found people who had read the books but had not met me beforehand were very surprised that I wasn’t as angry as they perceived the writer to be.

AL: Tar and Feathers as well as In Night’s City, first published in 1982, seem to revolve around two themes: incest and family abuse. What are the difficulties in writing about such topics?

DN: You ask about the difficulties, to my knowledge the themes of incest and family abuse had scarcely been explored in such an open and direct way at the time. However, my concern was to write as honestly and accurately as I could. After that, creatively it was how best to tell the story, problems of style, how much to say and leave unsaid and so on.

AL: Could you identify some of your literary influences?

DN: I am very drawn to American writers like William Faulkner, Carson McCullers, Djuna Barnes. On the Irish writing front Aidan Higgins would be a major influence. I am rereading Lions of the Grunewald and Flotsam and Jetsam at the moment, his use of language is quite magical and I get enormous pleasure from reading his books. Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy is another book I admire.

AL: Your books frequently suggest that marriage can be an ordeal for a woman, very often a kind of punishment, and yet without having the status of a married woman, life can be equally hard. Would you agree with this?

DN: I think the lack of divorce in Ireland years ago caused a lot of heartache. But equally you are quite right when you say that at the same time without the status of marriage life could be very difficult for a woman. In the intervening years there is a more open and better understanding of relationships which is all to the good. As regards my personal opinion all I can say is that marriage has worked for me.

AL: What kind of reception do you anticipate for Tar and Feathers in the U.S.?

DN: It is difficult for me at this remove from American society to anticipate the response. I hope readers will find something to emphathize with and perhaps might gain an understanding of what it is like to be at the receiving end of abuse within a family.

AL: Would you agree that in your work you deal with some problem or recognize an issue but at the same time you are trying to show that these same problems are not admitted to?

DN: Yes I would. And also I have observed the same problems repeating themselves through the generations if not admitted to. There is a positive and negative to the psychology of denial. Positive in the sense that there is a wisdom in not taking on board problems that unconsciously you know you cannot cope with at a particular time and which would overwhelm you. However, it should be a temporary state otherwise as you can see from the novels it can become corrosive and destructive.

AL: Do you feel a part of Irish literary community or do you feel isolated from this community?

DN: Because of the work I do it has been difficult to maintain contact, but oddly enough I don’t feel isolated. There has always been a lot of good will and support from other Irish writers towards the books, admiring the directness and hon-esty of the writing.

AL: Tar and Feathers was published in 1987, but you haven’t published anything since then. Did you stop writing after Tar and Feathers? Did you lose interest in being published?

DN: I was not in a position financially to write full time. We had started a Guitar Making workshop in the 1970s and by the mid 1980s I had to devote a lot of time and energy to it. But in the last couple of years I have been working on a story that has some interesting ideas in it which I have been enjoying and I am hoping to complete it in the coming year.

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