...hadn’t persuaded someone to slow-dance with you before that song sped up, the consensus was that you were going home alone. And most Saturday nights, that’s what happened to me. Tongue-tied, nervous, I faced the long road home. But still, there was a love story in Glasthule.
My walk home would take me past the old Victorian house where the great writer John Synge and his widowed mother had endured their last years, a house that appears several times in Ghost Light. As a child, I passed it often, was faintly afraid of it, often wondered about the stories it had seen. On a wintry night it could be forbidding as the Bates Motel, or as Wuthering Heights in a rainstorm. But on a moonlit summer evening in that coast-town of seagulls and steeples, a strange beauty seemed to glitter from its windows.
My late mother, a great reader, had often told me the strangest story of all: how in the last years of Synge’s life, this reticent, broken genius, the son of a Protestant land-owning family, had fallen tempestuously in love with a Catholic girl from the inner city of Dublin, a young actress called Molly Allgood. Molly had been an apprentice dressmaker at one point in her teens. My mother, too, had trained as a dress-designer. Molly’s stage name was ‘Maire O’Neill’, my grandmother’s surname. These tiny connections, and other ones, kept the story burning long in my mind. But the main thing that fuelled it was the memory of lonely Saturday nights, when I’d walk past that house and feel its ghosts gazing out at me, every bit as friendless as I was.
A couple of years ago, I began writing this novel inspired by Molly Allgood and Synge. I started with the uncertainty most novelists have at the outset. You don’t know if your story is going to work at all. What tense should it be written in? Who should be the narrator? Every book needs to have a style, its own unique voice, and to find it can be gruelingly frustrating. But somehow, over time, through dozens of drafts, I came to see that this story needed to be simple, focused closely on Molly. She began to loom up at me from the phantoms of dead drafts, as funny and flirtatious as I had imagined her in my teens. I suppose I learnt to stand out of her way, to let her lead me into the story of Ghost Light. I follow her through a day in the 1950s in London, when the past comes back to an elderly Irish actress who was once the beautiful muse of a genius.
To write fiction based on real people and those they loved is a morally ambiguous enterprise, to say the least. Ghost Light is a work of the imagination, frequently taking immense liberties with fact. The experiences and personalities of the real Molly and Synge differed from those of my characters in numerous ways. Yeats and Lady Gregory and Sean O’Casey appear in the book too, no doubt in forms some biographers won’t like. Then again, these giants often said they had fanned their fictions from the sparks of real life, renaming the people who had inspired their stories. The practice was sometimes a camouflage, sometimes a claim of authenticity. It was an option I considered carefully but decided against in the end, and so I dare to ask the forgiveness of these noble ghosts of world literature for not changing the names of the innocent.
To finish a book is an ambiguous feeling too. You have worked so long and hard on it, you know its every line and comma. In the final stages of editing, you dream about it. And then suddenly, the day is coming when it must go out into the world. You won’t be there to hold its hand, to reason away its deficiencies, to explain it to those who will encounter it. There is a kind of joy in finishing, but there is fear and apprehensiveness too. You want the book to find friends who will meet it halfway. Perhaps it’s similar to what a parent feels when a child leaves the house. This day was always coming; it’s what everything was building towards; but there is anxiety in the mix, a sense of encroaching realities, and if I am honest, there is even a touch of sadness. You come to know your characters so well; everything about them. Things you’ll never know about your spouse or your closest friend, you know about a person you have created. To see her walk away, into the great, wide world, is to watch a little piece of your self take its chances. But that’s what a novel is for: to offer itself to the reader. I hope you find something in it that speaks to you.
Download this text in MS Word format