Noelle McCarthy photographed by Robert Cross at the International Institute of Modern Letters Bill Manhire House, October 2023.

 

AN INTERVIEW WITH NOELLE McCARTHY

By Gráinne Patterson
 
 

Noelle McCarthy has been the 2023 writer in residence at the IIML. This year, alongside writing her second book, she released her first memoir, the Ockham award winning Grand, in her home country of Ireland. This year, Noelle also released Dear Jane, a limited series narrative podcast for The Spinoff.  Alongside being a writer, Noelle is a mother, broadcaster, podcast writer, producer and host. 

Can you tell us a bit about your project for this residency? 

The project that I’ve been working on this year is another full length memoir. It’s looking at the influence of Bram Stoker’s Dracula on my life and on how I see the world – how I’ve grown up with the book, how it influenced my teenage years, my 20’s, 30’s, and now 40’s as I’ve gotten older. And (at the moment, because it changes all the time!) I’m particularly looking at my experiences around grief, loss, addiction, sex, and the relationship I have with death, how I understand death, because Dracula‘s been a formative influence in that. 

How has the residency helped with your writing this year? Any highlights/lowlights? 

Being accepted onto the residency was an incredible validation of the project, and to now have the first draft nearly finished feels amazing—that the book can actually be real. And the residency was also a real validation of me as a writer. It’s good when that can be internal, when I can give myself that validation, but when it’s hard to give myself that, something like this is great. It helps me to see myself as a writer. 

Being able to supervise you (Noelle was Gráinne’s supervisor through the IIML year), and your thesis was a massive part of the residency for me, I just got such intense satisfaction from it because I’ve been blessed with amazing teachers, supervisors, mentors and editors and I just love being able to be part of that exchange. 

The office in Kelburn is also such a beautiful space. I love sitting by the window and reading my hardback copy of Dracula. It’s so funny, to be in Transylvania and then look out the window and there are these beautiful tūī in the bush. I saw a kākā there recently—amazing! 

I live in the Wairarapa so the driving started out as being a bit of a downside, but it’s become an upside because that time in the car has been incredible for thinking things through or listening to inspirational podcasts about writing or about whatever wormhole I’ve gone down—the 90’s, or the early 2000’s. I’ve also been listening to a lot of the music that I would have been listening to when I was in my late teens and early 20’s, and that’s been great. It’s like a time machine. So the lowlight is actually the highlight, I’ve come full circle on that.

You finished your first book, Grand, after your mother passed away, can you speak a bit about the difference between writing something so fraught and personal at such an intense time, and the process of writing this second book? 

I was writing parts of Grand while my mum was sick and was making notes when I went home to Ireland while she was dying and after she had died, so the two things were happening side by side on parallel tracks. And obviously there’s not the same dramatic upheaval happening with the second book. But the experience is similar in the sense that I am again writing memoir, and I’m revisiting different parts of my life, which is an intense experience. Like, I’ve just spent a bit of time thinking about myself as a teenager. When I’m in that state, everything can spark a feeling, whether it’s the smell of a body lotion, or a particular song. I’m very aware of those sensual cues that can take me back in time. 

It’s definitely a different process, and in some ways, not as personal and fraught, because I’m not writing about members of my family. But in other ways, it is because I’m still writing about myself and things that happened in my life. It does still involve other people and embarrassing things, so I’m still navigating all of that. 

And are there things you learned from writing Grand that have influenced how you’re writing your new book? 

It’s harder, in some ways, to write a second book, because I didn’t know what I was doing with Grand, I really didn’t! I didn’t know for ages that it was going to be a book about my mother. I was very free because of that, I was just writing down everything. 

I’m trying to capture that feeling again with this book. For example, I know that if I write longhand, I can capture the feeling of the words, I can evade self consciousness, I can make it feel playful, and also feel really personal. When I’m writing like that, I’m not thinking about it as a book that someone will read, I’m thinking about it as a diary entry, almost. I’m still trying to write it as well as I can, but I’ve got a different sense of intimacy and safety when I’m writing by hand. I feel like I can take more risks, and it doesn’t matter if I don’t know the exact right words to use. 

There’s also a degree of self consciousness, having written one book now. As I write, I keep thinking, Is this a bit that an editor will take out? Or Is this a bit that’s not going to go anywhere? So I’m just trying to protect my free-writing time, which is the fun bit, when everything happens. And of course, the other thing (I think everyone who’s written more than one book knows this), is that writing one book in no way prepares you for writing another book, they’re completely different things. So I’m finding that out, which isn’t always pleasant! 

I’ve been trying to write every day and it doesn’t matter how long it’s for. I’ll do a minimum of half an hour, but mainly, I just try to keep my hands on it every single day, because as long as I’m doing that, I’m connected to it. I learned that from writing Grand.

Can you share a bit more about your writing process? Do you start with a plan and then write, or do you start with the words and find a structure after that? 

I think I do start with the words and find a structure afterwards. This book is different to Grand because there are large parts of it where I’m writing about a book, as opposed to about my life. But at the same time, I’ve taken a broadly similar approach to it in terms of beginning with writing scenes, and then working out how many scenes I need to have for a full book. I’ve also been messing around with lots of different ways to try and write about a book, and about history—Dracula was written more than 130 years ago—in a way that doesn’t feel too academic. I want to try and keep it feeling quite intimate and conversational. So I’ve done various things with that, I’ve experimented with transcribing myself talking and seeing if I could work it into written sections. There’s been lots of trial and error with this book, and it’s only really been in the last few months since I came back from Ireland when I’ve had a sustained period of writing that I feel like I’m getting closer to having an approach that suits me. 

I’m trying not to worry too much about structure and to concentrate on just saying everything I want to say about Dracula, and about myself in relation to Dracula, and then I can figure out the other stuff afterwards. Because that was really how it was with Grand, I was working without any kind of knowledge or plan, and that worked out. So I’m telling myself that I can have a general structure and not worry too much if I depart from that or if it doesn’t happen exactly as I’ve outlined it. In saying that, having a little bit of an outline is like a security blanket. It helps me keep my nerve. It’s always about keeping your nerve, with writing, isn’t it? More than inspiration or anything else. It’s holding your nerve. 

What draws you towards writing about Bram Stoker and Dracula and why now? In Grand, you write a little bit about Dracula, has this been a dream of yours for a long time? 

The short answer isYes, it has! I went to university in Cork and my original proposition for my Masters of Philosophy was to look at the fictions of the popular Gothic, especially Dracula. The Victorian popular Gothic is a genre including stories like Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde, the War of the Worlds, stories from writers like Stoker, Conan Doyle, H. Rider Haggard and Robert Louis Stevenson. They dealt with anxieties like degeneration and fears around the instability of empire alongside timeless themes like sex, death, lust, and salvation. As a student, that’s what I wanted to study, and I wanted to look at Stoker in particular as an Anglo-Irish writer in terms of England’s relationship with Ireland. Over the last however many decades, that was the book I always had in my headI always thought, if I was ever going to write a book, that’s the book I wanted to write. So Grand took me by surprise. I never thought I’d write a book about my relationship with my mother. But then she got sick, and that became a pressing thing for me, and that’s why Grand ended up coming first. But Dracula was always there in the back of my head and in the back of my creative consciousness, if you like.

Are there ways you personally relate to Bram Stoker and/or Dracula

That’s a loaded question! But no, the more I read about Bram Stoker the more I admire him—he was a very, very busy man. Sometimes I look at his workload—running the Lyceum Theater, being the personal assistant to Henry Irving (one of the great Shakespearean actors of the Victorian age), and managing these huge theatre tours to America. I mean, he was impressive. He was a lot busier than me and it took him seven years to write Dracula. It’s taken me many, many years to get to a point where I can even think about writing about Dracula, so I relate in terms of it taking a while. And I relate to him in that we’re both Irish! But other than that, I don’t know that I relate to him personally—I mean, his degree was in pure mathematics, and he was also a champion wrestler! 

There are things I think about, that happened to him and ways he channelled his creativity that I find inspiring. Like the fact that he found the time to write—so much of Dracula was written on scraps of hotel paper and he’d go away on his holidays, and just write and write and write. He’d go to the library at Whitby in England, which wasn’t very fun for his wife and child, but I’m inspired by the ways in which he made time for his writing. 

I don’t know that I relate to the vampire. I mean, maybe sometimes! I think human relationships can sometimes be what you could call symbiotic, but other times there can be a vampiric element. You know, vampires are thirsty! That’s something I’m thinking about in relation to my story. Dracula wants to leave Transylvania, go to London. I definitely had that feeling when I was younger, in Cork City, the feeling that I wanted to get out. I relate to that aspect of Dracula—as an immigrant who wants to reinvent himself, who wants to go to a new place, speak a different language and be a different kind of creature. And I have a soft spot for Dracula, I find him resourceful, clever, fleet-footed and seductive. I think we often don’t like to think of ourselves as having charisma, that it’s a bit untrustworthy, the ability to seduce. So, I find that attractive about him. But that’s the whole point of Dracula, I guess. 

What do you want to pass on to your readers about Bram Stoker and Dracula

I think the main thing is what a great story Dracula is. Stoker wrote lots of other books, but there’s nothing that compares to the dynamism, intensity and thrill of the first few chapters of Dracula. Jonathan Harker, a young English solicitor, finds himself in Transylvania on a business trip. He’s got to go and talk to this Transylvanian nobleman who’s bought a lot of property in England. And he finds himself in this strange, strange world where nothing is as it is in his daily life. He’s very far outside of his comfort zone, as we’d term it, and it just gets more and more thrilling and horrible and claustrophobic. What happens to him when he reaches Dracula’s castle—I won’t give it away, but it’s an extraordinary piece of writing. It’s incredibly vivid. My first memory of reading Dracula is reading it in one big gulp, taking it into me. I’ve heard people who write poetry sometimes say that poems go into the meat of you. I think Dracula went into my blood and my bones, deep into me when I was reading it at the age of 14. And that’s because of how thrilling and exciting it was and the level of intimacy that you’re afforded to those characters.

Now, of course, the vampire has taken this iconic place in popular culture and it can be hard I think, to go back to 1897 and remember that, before he was Bela Lugosi, or Gary Oldman, or even the Vampire Lestat, he was Dracula, that Dracula was the OG. The book is well worth a read, it’s worth your time and attention. 

Grand opens with the image of wolves, likening your mammy to a werewolf. And now you’re writing about vampires, can you speak a bit about what draws you to writing about these mystical and mythical creatures? 

I remember reading an interview with Stephen King, he had this metaphor of our imaginative material as writers, as being the stuff that goes down the drain in the shower and gets caught. He said that the stuff that goes down the drain and gets caught for him tends to be horror. And that made sense to me, that’s what gets caught for me as well. I feel like a lot of these stories—the werewolves, vampires, got me at a very impressionable age. 

It’s funny looking back on the 90’s now, which I’ve been doing for this book, because there were some really big horror films and shows, like Neil Jordan’s Interview with a Vampire and Candyman, The X Files. There were the 80’s vampire movies that had come out, we were the Nightmare on Elm Street generation. There was a lot of that stuff that was just in popular culture, and the Victorians were into it as well 130 years earlier, the popular Gothic. These things have cyclical lives, and they pop up at different times. And it just got me at the right age when I was open to it, that sense of the power of mythical monsters, children just instinctively get it. Like, my daughter is so into dragons at the moment. They’re not actually horrible, like vampires and werewolves, but they are scary, they’re fire breathing and they have intense powers. And werewolves and vampires, even though they are a bit horrible, they’re also kind of magnificent and amazing. I find these powerful images are very fruitful things to think about. 

I think it was from my mother as well. She really enjoyed being scared, and she also believed a lot, she believed in fairies, and in the Banshee. Bram Stoker’s mother had a lot of old legends from Sligo – there’s a whole body of thought that says Dracula was influenced by her legends, her stories she told him about terrible things that happened during the cholera epidemic in her part of Ireland in the 1830’s. 

It’s been a huge year for you, how was it to release Grand in Ireland while also writing this book? 

I think it’s really interesting what going home to Ireland did for me in terms of understanding Bram Stoker a bit better. I don’t want to overstate the “Bram Stoker was Irish” thing, because I’m not sure he would have seen himself as a textbook Irish person, and it’s not as simple as me saying “I went to find him in Ireland”. But that said, being in Ireland did give me a different way of thinking about him, and thinking about myself—both of us are Irish people who have made our lives, and become writers elsewhere.

There was one day that was great. It was after a morning of interviews about Grand at RTE, the Irish radio station. I went to Dublin Castle, which had been the seat of British rule in Ireland, and where Bram Stoker worked—as a civil servant, if you can believe that—until he was 30. And I had a little moment, standing there outside the castle. It is an extremely mediaeval looking structure, it looks like all of the descriptions of Dracula’s castle, with stone ramparts and a massive stone tower which was essentially like a huge filing cabinet where all these records were kept, about their rule in Ireland, by the British Government. And next to the castle, outside of the building where he worked, there’s a little plaque to Stoker that has a Dracula figure in a cape on it. I was standing in front of it, looking at the little vampire, and I found it quite emotional. I was thinking about how Dracula wasn’t a bestseller on release—it got some good reviews, but Stoker did not make a lot of money from it—it sort of passed off without much fanfare, and he died hard up. His wife did an amazing job protecting the copyright of Dracula and famously sued the German filmmakers who made Nosferatu. She was a guardian of it, and she would have started seeing a bit of money coming in from the plays and the films of Dracula, which is what put it into popular culture in the 20th century, but none of this happened in his lifetime. Stoker’s later life had been quite hard. I’ve read about various friends of his who tried to support him and there was a writers’ association that gave him a stipend so he could go to a small hospital and convalesce towards the end of his life, all that kind of thing. He needed help. So, to stand there then, in the midst of the courtyard in Dublin Castle, and to look into his office, essentially, and the vampire outside it, it did feel emotional. I thought, I wish you could see that the thing that you createdyour version of the vampireyour Dracula, is a one-word celebrity now. He’s like the Beyonce of monsters. Stoker created that amidst all of his busyness, and his difficulties. That was a moment for me. And I wouldn’t have gotten to feel that if I hadn’t been in Ireland. And at the same time, I was conscious that I was over on holiday from my home in Aotearoa, having this connection with this Irish writer who also left. 

In a funny way, one of the great themes of Dracula, and of the Gothic is the relationship between the past and the present. And I feel that’s something that’s animated my whole life, it’s certainly animated my fascination with my mother and the depth of my antagonism with her, the mysteries and the secrets of both our pasts. I was thinking a lot about that while I was in Ireland. 

It was funny over there, because there were moments where I’d do a reading from Grand and I’d be thinking, Who wrote this? I don’t know if every writer gets that. But I was looking at the text, and it’s all edited, it is it’s best self and I’d be comparing it with the stuff that I was writing on my little A4 refill pad for the Dracula book and just thinking, Oh God, will I ever get there again? 

There was a whole lot of other stuff that happened through Grand coming out in Ireland that I won’t talk about yet, because it’ll probably be in the next book, about myself and my family and learning more about my mother’s life. But it was amazing. I was so proud to feel part of that tradition of Irish writing, which Bram Stoker is also part of. Even thinking of Grand being in the same bookshop as Dracula. That’s pretty cool.

With both of your books being so closely linked to yourself as a younger person, is there anything you would say to yourself back then if you could? 

Oh, God, I’d say Keep going. I’d say It’s gonna be alright. I think I was very anxious for different reasons when I was young. And I’d also say, Yay, life is so interesting and exciting and creatively satisfying now. I would want my younger self to be happy knowing that that’s what she’s moving towards. It won’t be a linear path, it won’t be a straight line, but there’s going to be so many highs, so many satisfactions. I feel so lucky, to have had the chance to write Grand, and to have loved it as much as I loved it, I feel emotional even thinking about getting the chance to do it. I’d tell my younger self to hang on in there, and I’d probably tell myself at 30, Wake up, get on with it! But I did eventually, I found my way to a writing life, which I’m very grateful for. 

Who are you reading at the moment? 

I’m reading Katherine Rundell’s The Golden Mole and Other Living Treasure. It’s very inspiring for thinking about a vampire as a creature of wonder. She’s just a stunning writer, a stunning conservationist and a magnificent chronicler of the wonders of the world. She says, Larger than the world’s chaos are its miracles. I just love that because you can get in your head about vampires and culture and all of that stuff. But really, we’re talking about a creature. We’re talking about something that is wonderful and terrifying and awe inspiring, and it was really good to read The Golden Mole, and connect with that feeling and remember these Victorians created wondrous imagery for me, through wonderful writing. That’s what got me as a 14-year-old girl, that’s what made me full of wonder.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Gráinne Patterson has spent 2023 joyfully completing an MA in Creative Writing at the IIML, working on a manuscript about growing up in Ireland, supporting her mother through addiction, and the bonds that are created in not-so-functional families.