Books – Ulster – Interview

The Last House of Ulster
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A conversation with Allyson Latta

In 2004, Charlie was interviewed by Allyson Latta of Days Road Writers’ Workshops. DRWW is a member of the Markham Arts Council in Ontario, Canada.

AL: When did you begin writing?

CF: I came late to books. I didn’t start reading until I was sixteen and I didn’t try writing until I was almost twenty. Still, within a few hours of buying the paperback of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude in my local mall, I sensed that I was a terminal case. It took years to find the words to diagnose the condition. But some part of me understood then and there that my adulthood was going to be about books. Books, or nothing else. Always, too, it was going to be about the awesome appeal and challenge of their architecture – the cathedrals that major writers construct out of words. The design and creativity, yearning and faith, implicit in a novel like One Hundred Years of Solitude, were qualities that literally took my breath away a quarter century ago. My breathing still turns choppy every time I read something possessed by that ambition and humility.

AL: Did any of your earlier writing pave the way for The Last House of Ulster?

CF: I began publishing short stories in journals and magazines in my mid-twenties. I had shelved one novel and was drafting a second when my wife and I decided to teach in Beijing for a couple of years. Being in the Chinese capital during the democracy movement and June 4th massacre sat me up and slapped my writerly face. Stung, I sought to respond forcefully. Non-fiction, both book-length and journalism, seemed a necessary expansion of what I should do. From the start, though, I assumed I would write non-fiction in similar thrall to structure and story, character and dialogue, as any novel. This has held true for my three non-fiction books to date, and to a lesser extent my journalism.

In 1988 I published a short story about a Belfast family trying to push their clapped-out car down an incline, hoping the engine would catch before an intersection that divided their mixed neighbourhood from a tribal enclave where they didn’t feel welcome. The story was called “Flag,” and many of the character names are the same as those I gave the McNallys in Ulster. In 1994 I finally published that first novel I’d been working on for six years. Kitchen Music told the story of a young Canadian who settles in the Irish village near where his father was raised, hoping to discern the pattern both of his parent’s tragic life and his own somewhat feckless one. The novel is preoccupied with identity and place, and it asks questions about the equally high price of belonging and not-belonging. The incident narrated in “Flag” became the question, in a sense, that launched The Last House of Ulster. How can people negotiate such complexity and contradiction in their lives, while still remaining decent and sane? How, in short, could the McNallys (or anyone else in a place like Belfast) live this way? Meanwhile, some of the thinking I had done in writing Kitchen Music carried over into the new book, using my own upbringing in suburban Toronto as an example of one kind of belonging and the experience of the McNallys of North Belfast as another.

AL: When did you know with certainty that you wanted to write about the McNallys and their world?

CF: I am a slow learner. It took the massacre in Beijing to awaken me to the abiding patterns in Chinese culture and history. Likewise, it took the birth of my first daughter to pull me in from the fog of a protracted romanticism about Ireland. As Annie Dillard remarked about the end of childhood, once you are awake, it is impossible to ever really be asleep again. That is how I felt on becoming a parent. My primary “job” was no longer to be a writer or husband. My job was being a father. I had to protect my children, do right by and for them, build a proverbial house where they would feel secure.

As it happened, I knew a family in Belfast. I had been visiting them since I was nineteen and thought them wonderful. I might want to visit them again, to check in on their lives and the ongoing Troubles. Was this material for a book? Hardly. A magazine piece, at most. But once I start reviewing through new-parent eyes all that I had learned about the family, and all that I had experienced first-hand of their house and city, my esteem for the McNallys soared. I also decided I had to write about them, at length, by way of both exploring the architecture of their house and celebrating its endurance.

AL: The structure of your book is complex and you’ve likened it to an onion with its layers. How did this evolve?

CF: The narrative had to do many things at once. It had to walk readers in and out of the McNally home over a period of years, using descriptions, character studies and scenes involving action and dialogue. The book wouldn’t succeed if I couldn’t bring that address (or addresses, in fact) in North Belfast into vivid relief. But the narrative also had to detail their lives before I met them, sketch the city that defined their choices, and provide enough general Irish history to render incidents and attitudes, along with points of geography and politics, intelligible. As well, because I had resolved to use my younger self as a “guide,” I needed to do some work establishing that persona. He, too, had to be a kind of character, one that readers would trust to escort them into the right rooms.

I wound up telling most of the story using just four lengthy chapters. Each chapter centres on a visit, or series of visits, I paid to the McNallys between 1979 and the mid-1980s. Accounts of those stays are then encased in the other narrative layers I have mentioned, along with musings over the divides I eventually came to notice within my own family and society.

Then I shifted the narrative ahead to the trips I made to the city in the early 1990s to write the book itself. For a couple of reasons, including their self-awareness – after all, I was now an author researching a project – these sections are almost footnotes to the main text. They are fragmented and designed less to tie up story ends than to deepen the resonances first sounded in the first part of the book. In effect, the structure of The Last House of Ulster divides into Chuck/Charlie, or, more seriously, youth versus experience.

AL: Parts of The Last House of Ulster are autobiographical, but you have also written what has been described as a memoir, The Story of My Life (so far). How would you compare these two works?

CF: Believe it or not, I am still under the impression that I have never published a memoir. Ulster is a book about a family in Belfast that uses selected autobiographical details to further its narrative and themes. The Story of My Life (so far) is a study of childhood that employs the bare bones of my own first ten years to sketch a sensory portrait of how our more-or-less fixed identities emerge from the lovely, floating dream of being just a kid.

AL: The Last House of Ulster pays great attention to detail, but are there some parts that leaned more heavily towards what is sometimes called “emotional truth”?

CF: Emotional truths needn’t be at odds with details. Obviously, you can’t make things up in non-fiction. That condition may well keep a scene from having the impact you had hoped – or as you would have arranged it to do in a novel. But materials can still be employed in a non-fiction book to serve a purpose. For sure, the structure I evolved for The Last House of Ulster, both the “onion” major chapters and the fragments, were designed to build the case, so to speak, for a few emotional truths. I wanted to stir and move readers.

AL: You have written about people you knew well and cared about. What are your views on the responsibility of an author to his real-life subjects, and how did these views affect the writing process?

CF: Writing about real people is perilous. The more you care about your subject, the more you want to capture their unique humanity. You achieve that end by allowing them to speak for themselves, of course, and through sympathetic accounts of their actions and histories. But mostly you render them alive and memorable through details – by treating them, in effect, as characters. To do this, you have to watch carefully, eyes wide open and, in one sense, unblinking. Even if you are portraying the person accurately and are doing so out of love and respect, and even if the result is a figure that others find attractive – even then, the subject may not care for what you have reported. Few people, after all, dislike having their picture taken. But how many of us are satisfied with the image captured by the camera, and never mind that others say we look great?

With the McNallys, I took several precautions. I changed their names and biographies. I also left out one or two matters that were too private to reveal, regardless that identities were being guarded. As for the dialogue in the book, I did indeed recreate it, sometimes fifteen years after the fact, and often from only a partial memory of what was said that afternoon or evening. This practice, too, is subject to criticism, as I can’t vouch for the accuracy of those exchanges. But I only recreated conversations I participated in, and never presumed to have much insight into what characters were thinking. Likewise, I didn’t offer direct dialogue for any scene or incident I was simply recounting. I was definitely an outsider, and tried to be clear and honest about just how limited was my perspective.

AL: What was readers’ response to your book, and was it what you had expected?

CF: I didn’t know what to expect. By far the most pleasing response to the original edition was the dozens of letters I received from readers. Many of the correspondents were of Irish descent, often from Northern Ireland itself, and aside from pointing out small factual errors in the text, the letters were uniformly positive about my portrait of both the family and of Belfast. I seemed to get things largely right. I seemed to capture some small truth about the place.

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