University of Florence, Italy | Published: 15 March, 2007
ISSUE 2 | Pages: 218-225 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2007-2716
2007 by Valentina Milli | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
Frank Ronan has published a collection of short stories, Handsome Men Are Slightly Sunburnt (1996), and six novels, The Men Who Loved Evelyn Cotton(1989), A Picnic in Eden (1991), The Better Angel (1992), Dixie Chicken (1994), Lovely (1996) and Home (2002), many of which have been translated into French, Spanish, German, Portuguese, Italian, Greek and Dutch. It is extremely difficult to pigeonhole Ronan’s writing and, according to him, it is also pointless since “it’s always the people who don’t read books who want to categorise them”. The following interview throws some new light on this brilliant contemporary Irish writer and his multifarious areas of interest.
Frank Ronan ha publicado una colección de relatos titulada Handsome Men Are Slightly Sunburnt (1996), y seis novelas, The Men Who Loved Evelyn Cotton(1989), A Picnic in Eden (1991), The Better Angel (1992), Dixie Chicken (1994),Lovely (1996) y Home (2002), muchas de las cuales han sido traducidas al francés, castellano, alemán, portugués, italiano, griego y holandés. Es sumamente difícil clasificar la obra de Ronan y, según él, es también un empeño vano, puesto que «es siempre la gente que no lee libros quienes quieren etiquetarlos». La siguiente entrevista aporta una nueva perspectiva sobre este brillante escritor contemporáneo irlandés y sobre sus diversas áreas de interés.
Frank Ronan; Cuerpo masculino; Infancia; Amor; Los años sesenta; Religión; Naturaleza
When did you understand that you were going to be a novelist?
Well, I think you already are a novelist and you can’t become one. So it is just a question of coming to terms with it. When I was about fifteen I used to be a poet and I started to read my poetry and I met a lot of famous poets and they didn’t seem very happy. As I wanted to be happy, I decided that I didn’t want to be a poet and that I should try with novels. Then I started The Better Angel, which is the first novel I wrote. I started writing it when I was seventeen. So, the correct answer to your question is: at the age of seventeen years and one month I realised I was a novelist. I mean, I think that being a novelist is a bit like being gay, it’s not something you can suddenly decide one day, but you just have to come to terms with that and try to work out how to fit it in your life or make it your life.
During an interview for the Irish Times (Boland 1996), you defined yourself as a ‘substantialist’, someone who is primarily interested in the ideas and the content of fiction, rather than being a ‘stylist’, someone who is mostly concerned with experimental forms of narration. Does this mean that you started writing because you felt urged to express a precise message to your readers?
No. I think to be primarily a ‘stylist’ is a waste of time and a waste of life. And if you want to be a stylist you can do something else, you can go and write for a magazine or you can be Tom Wolfe. I am not interested in reading the stylists. To be really worthwhile, a novel has to have an idea at its core and you have to have something to say, whether you succeed in saying it or not. When you are reading a novel, you can sense always whether it is driven by an idea or whether it is driven by the novelist’s desire to have people think him clever. That’s what I find about the stylists: they’re not interested in making something wonderful, they just want people to say how clever they are. That’s why I am a ‘substantialist’. Then, whether I have anything to communicate to my readers…I think it cannot be so specific and that, in a funny way, I have quite Jungians ideas about it. I hate to get Platonic, but there is a sense in which the novelist doesn’t have to know what the idea is, but the idea is in one place and the reader is in another place and the novelist becomes the medium, the portal for the reader to access the idea. Sometimes, the novelist doesn’t have to understand the idea. It’s better if you do, of course. What I want to say is that I am not a polemical writer, I don’t have a belief which I am trying to convince the reader of. I have questions which I want to ask in a lengthy way and the novel is a lengthy question. By reading it, the reader should have a question. It may not be the same question that the novelist had when he was writing it, but as long as there is a question, that’s the thing. You know, in a novel which is purely about style, there are no questions, but the reader is only supposed to say «Oh Gosh! I didn’t know you could do that with an adjective. How clever!»
Your passion for botany is expressed throughout your work. The garden is very often a place where characters find their inner selves: in A Picnic in Eden, Adam Parnell and his wife Norah own a nursery and like to spend their holidays in the beautiful landscapes of Scotland where he eventually gets the chance to explore his past and to find a real friend; in Home, young Coorg learns how to grow plants in the hippy commune where he lives and, once he is kidnapped and brought to Ireland, his garden becomes the best place to be for him. Nature is crucial to the characters of the other novels, too. In Dixie Chicken, after having grown up in a shack on a mountain, Rory Dixon goes to Dublin and then buys a house in the country where he chooses to commit suicide, throwing himself into the Irish sea, thus choosing nature and solitude as the best death after a very mundane life. The Better Angel, set in Wexford, is deeply tied to the rhythms of the land because the protagonist owns a farm. The countryside becomes a sort of Eden, far from social constrictions, where man can express himself freely. Can nature be read as a metaphor for these men’s deep need for a reconciliation with their origins? Or rather as a sort of non-place where they can forget the traumas of their lives?
It’s both. Basically, most people don’t even see plants, and plants are soimportant. Plants make the air we breathe, and everything we eat comes from plants, directly or indirectly. Then, gardening is the best thing you can do on your own, actually. If you want to spend time on your own doing something, it’s the most satisfying and interesting activity. And what’s amazing about garden plants, which are basically all clones, is that if you kill one, you can get another one which is exactly the same. They can’t break your heart like animals. It’s a very safe place to put your love. Yes, it is a refuge for characters. It has to do with my perception. But, maybe, one day I’ll write about a character who has to be a gardener and hates it, that would be interesting… that would be the best thing to do. I think that botany is a great undervalued science. It should be one of our primary duties as humans to always notice the plants, what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it, everywhere we go, because our lives depend on them. I don’t want to get new age about that, but an awful lot of people are really blind, have never sat down and thought where they are. This is one of the terrible things that religion has done, it’s telling that everyone is here because God wants them to be here. Gardening has to do with a much deeper miracle of chemistry, of physics and of botany and it’s so much more interesting than a made up fairy story. I think gardens are essential, and I think if the human race becomes more civilised, then, they will become more essential to everyone. Particularly, as the wild has been destroyed by globalisation and technology, it becomes so important to make these spaces where nature is still allowed. Of course, gardens, even the wildest ones, are artificial constructions, but, certainly, in Europe, there is no natural landscape. The landscape, even in the most remote places, has been managed now for ten thousand years and gardens are the closest you can get to be natural. I cannot suppress these feelings in my writing.
Would you define your work as autobiographical?
No. But that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be defined autobiographically. I think it’s important that I don’t, because the purpose is not autobiographical. If my purpose was autobiographical, I’d rather write an autobiography. The thing is when you have a novel to write, you would use everything you can and to use autobiographical details is easy. You know, you need to give your chief character a profession; you can’t make him a novelist, that’s stupid. I had a friend who was a thatcher, so Hugh in Evelyn Cotton became a thatcher. So I could phone my friend and ask what’s the name of those things he wears on his knees and, because I had been talking to him and he had described his work to me and I had been on the roof with him and seen what it was like, that’s why that character is a thatcher. In A Picnic in Eden, the protagonist is a nurseryman because I had friends who were nurserymen. So, it doesn’t mean that I am writing about thatchers and nurserymen in a biographical way any more than details that coincide with my life are autobiographical. It’s just the way I am getting the facts right. So, in Home, Coorg has exactly the same birth date as me and, from the age of six, lives in the same places I lived in. But he’s not me, it’s not the story of my life. While I’m writing it, I can instantly know what age he was at that time, what the events were and how he felt about those events as a person of that age. It just makes it easier.
Religion is a common subject of your novels. Many of the characters in your books attend Catholic schools and you too were educated at a Christian Brothers school. You usually offer a negative description of clergy, not only in the fields of Education and Health, but also within the Church itself – for example, the sermon of Duncannon’s priest in Home is a tragic portrait of the Church’s censorship of human thought. The ironic God of Dixie Chicken, disgusted by Catholic bigotry and so deeply disappointed with his own creation that he stops speaking to them, echoes the image of a terrible father who has decided to ignore his children and throws a pessimistic light on human efforts of getting in touch with the divine sphere. Atheism paradoxically becomes the best way to be in God’s graces. What is your attitude towards religion and God?
I think that there is a strong possibility that God exists, but there is an absolute certainty that he is not anything like any human has ever imagined him to be. So, religion is something that comes along and says «God is this way». I mean, how stupid is that! It’s funny, it’s comedy, but except for the misery it causes in the lives of the adherents of religion. The best thing of the human condition is perception. What we have that other animals don’t have is a sentium, a sense of history, of future, of perception, of an ability to think about the end of life which we don’t think animals have. People think that elephants might have it, but I don’t know. So we have this kind of great potential for fear, and religion could be a comfort for this fear, could be a philosophy, a way of developing thought, but, in fact, it’s the opposite, it’s something that is used by political institutions to manipulate this fear and to control populations. I think religion, as opposed to any kind of sense of spirituality, is quite different. Religion is an inherently evil development in humanity. It’s not just Catholicism. When you go to South America and you look at what the Incas were doing among the population, it’s not nice. I mean, in India, it’s better. India has always been much more civilised about religion and had a much broader grasp of man’s place in the universe, a kind of speck of dust. And in Hinduism there is no certainty, good can be bad and bad can be good and it’s wonderful from that point of view. But, really, even there, now you see that Hindu fundamentalism has been used to manipulate the population, and to create hatred and xenophobia. I grew up in a society where, at the time, the greatest ills could be laid at the door of the dominant Catholic religion and it’s not a surprise that religion comes so strongly in my writing. When the English ruled Ireland and the Catholic Church was the oppressed thing, it was easy to say that it was the English that were evil. But that was nothing compared to what the Church did in Ireland, nothing. You know, the English didn’t lock up pregnant girls and obliged them to be silent.
What do you like to read? Was your education influenced by an author or a book in particular?
What I read… I don’t like this question because I don’t think it’s healthy for me to analyse it. I don’t have an academic background, save your presence. Academics analyse things to death and nine times out of ten they’re wrong, but it doesn’t even matter to them because that’s how they make their living, whether it is true or not. I don’t think one should analyse oneself in that way. Occasionally someone points something out and you think, «Oh, yes, probably…». The influences don’t always come from the books or the places you like. If one was writing charming fairy stories to be nice, then, yes, you could say this is my favourite book that inspires me. But, quite often, a book that you really love you have to be careful with, you have to shut it out because the influence could be too strong. It’s not very helpful to you, I know, but the best way for me is not to analyse it and, of course, I can come out with some key-texts, those where, at certain points, you suddenly saw the light and thought, «Oh, so that’s what it is about».
Gardiner, Gerard.1989. «Frank Ronan: The Men Who Loved Evelyn Cotton«. The Times Literary Supplement, 19th May.
Boland, James.1996. «The Unimportance of Being Irish». The Irish Times, 17thFebruary.
Ronan, Frank.1989. The Men Who Loved Evelyn Cotton, London: Bloomsbury.
_______.1991. A Picnic in Eden, London: Bloomsbury.
_______.1992. The Better Angel, London: Bloomsbury.
_______.1994. Dixie Chicken, London: Hodder & Stoughton.
_______.1996. Lovely, London: Hodder & Stoughton.
_______. 2002. Home, London: Hodder & Stoughton.