Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Q&A with Francesca McDonnell Capossela


Photo by Beowulf Sheehan



Francesca McDonnell Capossela is the author of the new novel Trouble the Living. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Los Angeles Review of Books. She lives in New York City.


Q: What inspired you to write Trouble the Living, and how did you create your character Brid?


A: The deepest inspiration for Trouble the Living is my relationship with my mother, with whom I’m extremely close.


As our relationship has shifted from my early childhood to my adolescence to my adulthood, I’ve thought a lot about how intimately mothers and daughters can be connected and yet how isolated they can be from one another.


I know my mother so well as my mother, but sometimes I feel like the person she is without me––or was before me––is an entirely different woman, a woman I want to know but am very far away from.


Since I started writing it, Trouble the Living has been a book about a mother’s past life in Ireland and the ways in which her child was both painfully close to her and impossibly removed from her. That distance was always represented, at least in part, by the fact that Bríd comes from a country that her child has never visited: there is this huge, physical distance between them because of that fact.


Everything else about the novel has changed over the five or so years that I’ve been working on it––Bernie used to be a boy growing up in a small town in England––but that part of the mother/child relationship has remained the same.


Some of the actual details of what happens to Bríd in my novel are inspired by the experiences of my great-grandmother, who grew up in Drogheda. Her brother was imprisoned and, after joining the IRA in prison, tortured. Her younger sister was shot accidentally, a casualty of civil war.


But, while the basic facts of Bríd’s experiences in the novel have a lot in common with my grandmother’s life, the character Bríd is a different woman, less practical and more idealistic––and she comes from a tradition of women fighters––so she reacts to the tragedies in her life very differently than my grandmother did. In that way, maybe her reactions are closer to what mine would have been. 


Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I read so much while writing Trouble the LivingSay Nothing was a big inspiration for me, especially in considering women’s roles in the violence of the Troubles. Among lots of other texts, I read Diarmaid Ferriter’s The Border, Pete Taylor’s Provos, and Eamon Collins’ amazing memoir about his time in the IRA, Killing Rage. I also dipped into lots of books that I had to put down because they had such a strong loyalist bias.


But what really shifted my thinking about research was when my professor, Eoin McNamee, a brilliant writer, told me to stop reading history books and focus on the art that had come out of the Troubles––novels, poetry, paintings. He said that was how I would get to the truth of the period. And he was right.


Some of the biggest influences on me were Dermot Healy’s A Goat’s Song, all of Heaney’s poetry, Deidre Madden’s One by One in the Darkness, Anna Burns’ Milkman, Paul Muldoon, and of course Eoin’s work as well. 


What surprised me most in reading about the time period was how much women were involved in the conflict, and how vitally. These women were vicious and tough, feminine and complicated.


 I had heard so much about Bobby Sands and Gerry Adams growing up, but far less about Bernadette Devlin and Dolorous Price, and I was very interested in how their lives juxtaposed femininity with violence.


One fact I kept coming back to was that Dolorous and Marion Price––sisters who orchestrated a bombing in London––went on hunger strike and were force-fed (a form of torture). Traumatized, they both developed eating disorders that continued to haunt them their whole lives.


To me, their experiences are a mix of the stereotypically feminine (a young woman with an eating disorder) and the deeply violent (car bombings, hunger strike). That juxtaposition fascinates me. A lot of Trouble the Living is about the peculiar types of violence––both intimate and political––that women commit. 


Q: The writer Elizabeth Gaffney called the book “[a] debut that will sweep you away and also make you rethink the boundaries between love and revenge, mothers and daughters, the old country and the promised land.” What do you think of that description?


A: Elizabeth is very kind! I love that she talks about the blurring of boundaries in Trouble the Living, because that’s essential to how I see the book. I thought a lot about borders while writing this novel––the borders that get imposed by colonizers, the borders that we construct between each other.


To me, so much of being a daughter is building boundaries between yourself and your mother and then tearing them down and then building them back up again. We’re always living in that gray space between where one of us ends and the other begins––we start so close, and then push each other away.


The same is true of the feelings Elizabeth talks about––love and revenge, love and anger. Bernie’s love for her mother and her anger towards her mother are deeply intertwined, and that’s part of what makes their relationship so powerfully intimate and, at times, so darkly toxic. 


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I’d imagined much of the central tensions of Trouble the Living before I’d finished writing it––I knew Bríd would get involved in the Troubles; I knew she would flee the country; I knew her child would have a complicated relationship with sex that would put a strain on the mother/child relationship––but the actual details changed many times.


For example, Bríd was much more violent, and deadly, in early drafts of the book, whereas Bernie’s queerness was a much later change. Some of the ending changed in my final revisions, but the last two scenes have barely changed at all since I first wrote them in 2020. They are almost word for word the same as they were in the first draft.


In some ways, that ending was what I was working towards, and most of my editing was to help the story get to the final scene that I’d envisioned all along. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: My new novel is a literary thriller that follows six friends on their annual August trip to Provincetown. Caff and Heath, twins and best friends, are about to turn 30, and the highlight of their summer each year––a week spent drinking and dancing in queer heaven––feels more important than ever.


But things are changing: Caff’s ex-girlfriend, a longtime friend who she swears she doesn’t have feelings for, is bringing along her fiancée. And Caff and Heath’s father––estranged for the past several years––is meeting them for dinner.


As the week unfolds, the tensions between Caff and Heath––over their mother’s untimely death and the emotional degradation they endured at the hands of their father––begin to grow. And the currents of romantic and sexual jealousy begin to cause problems between the friends. Finally, pushed to their limits, the unthinkable happens.


I’m super excited about this book; it has been so much fun to write, and it’s the kind of book I’m always hungering for. I loved bringing Provincetown to life, as well as grappling with the messy queer dynamics that I both love and hate. I hope readers will be as excited about it as I am! 


Q: Is there anything else we should know?


A: I’ll give my sister the final word. She just read Trouble the Living for the first time, and her response was: “You think a lot about gender huh?!”


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment