Meet Dublin-born Catherine Dunne, originally a primary school teacher, and now author of nine best-selling novels and one non-fiction book.
Catherine became a full-time writer in 1995. Her novels have received international critical acclaim and have been translated into several languages.
Catherine’s first novel ‘In the Beginning‘ was shortlisted for the ‘Bancarella’- the Italian bookseller’s prize, and her second novel, ‘A Name for Himself‘, was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award. Her latest novel ‘The Things We Know Now‘ won the Giovanni Boccaccio International Prize for fiction and was nominated for the 2013 Eason’s Book of the Year.
She is also part of the judging panel for the 2014 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award; which means she’s had the mammoth task of reading 152 books before the winner is chosen by her and four other judges in April.
Catherine kindly took time out of her busy schedule to talk to Dublin Buzz about her most recent novel, writing and what she likes to do in Dublin.
Thanks for taking the time to chat to us Catherine, your current novel ‘The Things We Know Now’ explores teenage bullying and suicide. Did you find it difficult to write about such harrowing issues?
The opening scene was certainly difficult to write. I must have gone through about a hundred drafts. There were two sorts of difficulty, I think: the emotional difficulty was there, of course, but then came the difficulty of making sure, as a writer, that I had got such a delicate scene absolutely right. I was very anxious to make sure that the tone, the pitch, the whole atmosphere of that devastating event was handled with insight and sensitivity. I think the whole business of being a writer involves numerous acts of imaginative empathy: we have to inhibit our characters’ lives, walk around in their shoes, see the world through their lives. It’s that complete engagement with a character that makes it possible to write about harrowing topics. The ‘topic’ is never what interests me as a novelist; for me the novel begins and ends with the character. I had grown very fond of Daniel over months of writing and I knew that he was bent on self-destruction. But I had to write the novel to find out what it was that finally broke him. As I wrote, cyber-bullying began to seem like the sort of torment that drive a young person to suicide.
The book features nine different characters, did you find it challenging to write from so many different perspectives?
Very challenging indeed – and enormously rewarding. I want to grow and develop as a writer and my ambition is to raise the bar higher with each novel. I’m not interested in repeating a formula. I want my books to live and breathe and for a reader to find something there that resonates, something that will keep them engaged with the work. For this novel I wanted a whole orchestra of voices to symbolise the fact that we never have all the pieces of the jigsaw when it comes to knowing what makes another person tick. We all see different facets of an individual, all the social roles that we adopt. Writing from a man’s point of view – Patrick’s – came about because my initial choice to write from Ella’s point of view was not working. That was a very interesting development: I discovered that her point of view was too familiar, too close to my own. I had to step outside that familiarity and challenge myself with a different view of the world before the main narrator came along. Once I’d step inside Patrick’s skin, I knew I’d made the right decision. The biggest surprise for me was that I found writing in a teenager’s voice easier than I’d expected. Maybe it’s because I’ve never really grown up!
This is your ninth novel, do you ever worry you will run out of ideas? Where do you find inspiration for your stories and characters?
The world is full of stories! Just look around you. There are hidden histories everywhere, lots of skeletons rattling around in innumerable family cupboards: writers develop finely-tuned antennae and we can spot stories everywhere, so no, running out of ideas is not a problem I worry about. A word about inspiration though; at best, inspiration is just a moment: a flash, a pulsebeat of realisation that I may have found a story. Ninety-nine percent of writing is made up of other things, I believe; observation, empathy, intuition, craft. Patience.
Is there any one of your books that you are most proud of or have a particular attachment to?
Yes, is the answer to that! My second novel ‘A Name for Himself‘ has a particular place in my heart. When I wrote ‘In the Beginning‘, my first book, I felt that there were expectations to produce a similar story next time around. But I didn’t want that. I wanted to do something completely different, something that was far removed from my own life experience that I would have no choice but to imagine absolutely everything about it. And so, with great trepidation, but also with great excitement, I embarked upon the story of Vincent Farrell, a young carpenter with a very damaged past, and his love for Grace, a woman from a very different social class. I loved every minute of the two years it took me to write and it was shortlisted for the Kerry Fiction Prize at Listowel Writers’ Week. I felt that novel made me grow as a writer to the point where I began to believe in myself as a novelist.
What do you find to be the hardest part of writing? And the most rewarding?
First drafts always torture me. There is the act of pulling the story out of the air. It’s always difficult. I’m on my tenth novel now and it doesn’t get any easier. If anything they become more difficult, because as a writer, you are always pushing at the boundaries of the imagination and of the craft that you practice. Following the same logic, the final draft is the most satisfying. That moment when you say: “That’s it. That’s the very best I can do.”
What is a typical writing day like for you? Do you have a specific writing routine?
The routine rarely varies, particularly when I am at that intense stage of the early drafts. Up early – sevenish usually – walk, clear the head, have breakfast. Clear all the emails, make phone calls, clear the desk of clutter. I can’t work in clutter. Usually around eleven the real stuff begins. I may, or may not, stop for lunch. I might have a break in the afternoon and do something to clear the head again: cooking helps, or walking, or grocery shopping – tasks that free your head but keep you occupied. Then I write until six. It’s good to have a switch-off point: and a life!
What would your advice be to aspiring writers?
– Write everyday.
– Be patient.
– Make the process the aim, not the product.
– Trust your instincts.
– Be persistent.
– Feed your passion by reading everyday.
– If you do submit work for publication, be absolutely professional; you only get one chance to make a first impression.
Finally Catherine, what would be your ‘perfect’ day in Dublin?
My perfect day in Dublin would start with an early morning coffee in Bewley’s of Grafton Street and a read of the newspaper. Then I’d visit the National Gallery, or IMMA, or the National Library; anywhere that had an exhibition that intrigued me. I’d meet a friend for lunch – maybe even stroll down to the Italian quarter for a bite and a glass of wine. In winter, the loveliest luxury would be an afternoon movie at the IFI, in summer a walk along Dollymount Strand: the scene of all my childhood summers. Dinner with a spontaneous gathering of friends – preferably in Mario’s of Ranelagh – and afterwards, some quiet reading before bedtime. Bliss.
Catherine Dunne’s latest novel ‘The Things We Know Now‘ is published by MacMillan and is available to buy in all good bookstores.
All images courtesy Catherine Dunne Facebook Page