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Frank McGuinness in Conversation with Mary de Courcy

Frank: I come from a working class family background in Buncrana in Donegal. My father was a bread man. My mother worked in a shirt factory. There was a large extended family. Our grandmother did a lot of the rearing of us and we were shared out to our aunts. It was a pretty conventional Catholic background. There wasn’t much money around but we did ok.

Mary: What brought you towards writing?

Frank: I had always been very interested in going into my own world and into my own imagination from a very early age. I had no real role models in terms of writers in the family, and there were certainly very few books. It just wasn’t a thing that happened.We got newspapers and we got religious magazines and we had school books but I didn’t read a book until I was in my teens. Then I was hooked right, left and centre. The first book I read was Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. And I fell madly in love with both Elizabeth and Darcy and saw nothing wrong with that, of course. But I didn’t really venture into writing until I got to university. There was no magazine in school and I sent some poems to the Irish Press and the wonderful David Marcus wrote back to me saying I’m going to publish them and ‘You are a writer’. He didn’t know what he was unleashing but that was the beginning really. A terrific thing to say when you’re 20 or 21.  And I went from there.

Mary: What attracts you to particular themes or stories?

Frank: I never can tell really. I never put the definition on that because I find it so hard to find stories that I leave myself open to that and the consequence is that I go on a million different goose chases, but I’m very fond of wild geese and I love the chase. Even though nothing may come of it you never know what you may pick up along the way. My poor agent has to listen to an awful lot of ideas and plans that may not come to anything but some times they do. I have to be busy, doing things to keep sane. I really like being occupied. I’m not great on silence and reflectivity. Yet the only way to write is through silence. But it’s not something that comes too obviously or quickly to me.

Mary: It’s a bit of a paradox isn’t it?

Frank: It is but again it’s complex and I thrive on being a contradiction. That is the only way to be. I am a walking contradiction.

Mary: Are there themes you would avoid?

Frank: Not really but I hate banality and I hate the conventional. Then something comes along which seems utterly banal and is shockingly hiding something. And I have to go and explore it even against my will. I try to avoid the obviously polemical and political because I think journalists do that much better than creative writers. It’s not taste that makes me avoid it, it’s just that I feel other people do it better. They have the means and the form to do it better. They have the medium to do it better than I do. I’m not a fan of documentary theatre, three hours of the Saville enquiry I’d run a mile from going to that. That’s not the way I would see Bloody Sunday be interpreted on stage.

Mary: Is it people that interest you Frank?

Frank: Well, stories interest me primarily and they’re stories about people but I have to have a plot of some kind. Even if it’s only a sentence I have to have a story I want to tell. I find that in writing plays people grow into the plot. I usually have a pretty good supposition of how it’s going to end. And I know pretty clearly how it’s going to begin. How we’re going to get there I never know until we get there. And once we do get there I begin the rather pleasurable task of rewriting and refining and complicating and and various pleasures like that.

Mary: So it’s the journey?

Frank: It’s the journey more than anything else and also I give an awful lot of freedom to characters. They can go where they want to go and I will generally go with them. They may go to places they shouldn’t go or that I wouldn’t go to on my own, and maybe to places that won’t be reflected in the play. But they have the liberty to do that.

Mary: And you walk with them?

Frank: I let them walk on their own.

Mary: And what do you do when they walk on their own to places that you thought they mightn’t have gone?

Frank: I hope they’ll be ok. I wrote a play about Caravaggio who was the most disturbed person that I’ve ever created. I certainly let him go into his demonic possessed state on his own. I wasn’t going to go there with him. He didn’t want any one there with him.

Mary: It’s interesting to let people go.

Frank: Yes, What else can you do? They’re going anyway. John Lennon went to Hamburg despite the stricture of his aunt Mimi. And the Beatles came from that. That’s the way it is. You love them, you let them go.

Mary: So it’s the journey, the accompanying them to the end or the letting them go in whatever direction?

Frank: Mostly you see it to the end, hopefully you do.

Mary: And how easy is it to let people go?

Frank: Sometimes very difficult. Sometimes very, very hard. You fall in love with the characters and you forget that they are just air and you better let them go. It doesn’t happen as often as it used to. Not because the desire is any less but that you know you’re more acquainted with the procedure. And maybe you become a wiser parent, never wiser as a lover, maybe wiser as a parent.

Mary: Some wisdom maybe. It just sounds so similar in terms of the process of the way many of us work in terms of letting people go sometimes to awful situations and we can’t go there with them. Maybe they don’t want us to or it’s not appropriate.

Frank: Sure, and also it’s a human right to be very wrong. That’s a fundamental human right. And you cannot stop someone hell bent on their own harm. Harming other people is a different matter but harming themselves there’s nothing you can do if they’re not going to listen to their own sanity.

Mary: And have you any view on what your mother or your grandmother’s distant view of our conversation might be?

Frank: My mother was extremely smart, generally open and extremely funny. I think she would have shied away from our conversation because she would have seen the nonsense of it in one way in that she never believed in wasting words. That’s where her comedy and her sense of humour lay. My grandmother on my mother’s side was a very extraordinary woman, exceptionally wise in her own way of coping with terrible deprivation. She had a lot of children, a lot of pregnancies. She didn’t have an easy time with any of them. She was a woman of formidable will and a formidable sense of the right thing to do. There’s a famous story in Buncrana when a woman had a second child out of wedlock and they were going to refuse to baptise the infant. My grandmother took it upon herself to walk with the child in her arms into the church to stand there and confront the priest with the fact that this baby deserved baptism. For the times, being in the 30’s  in a small town in Donegal, this was extraordinary. And she was a very devout Catholic, though you never know with people. She didn’t cultivate the church but she certainly believed in the Virgin and in God. But that’s the woman she was. So I think she wouldn’t have been frightened by the conversation. There’s very little that frightened  Lizzie O’ Donnell. I think she would have listened to it. I think her own sense of security from inside her own family and inside her own house which she ruled with an iron hand would have prevented her from saying too much. But she’d have been very happy to have listened. She was in her way utterly fearless. I was very proud of her. Very, very proud of her. And she communicated that  sense of justice to her daughters. My mother was quite insistent on a fair hearing and on giving her children a fair hearing. She didn’t read the riot act without knowing the reason for it.

Mary: And is that sense of justice important to you?

Frank: I think it is in some ways but I wouldn’t be clamoring for justice. I try to avoid climbing on bandwagons. My mother would always have been aware that there would be specific circumstances which could change her opinion. Never judge before you know the facts. Of course one makes lightening leaps of judgement. And very often they’re correct but everyone has the right to be wrong including the wise. And you have to remember that otherwise you’d go mad. You don’t know everything and you can’t know everything. So the short answer is that I think they’d have been much happier to have listened than to have spoken. Because I think they learnt an awful lot more from listening.

Mary: And they sound like women of courage.

Frank: They were. They were tough. But like everybody who had to cope with very little they were nervous of small things such as professional people. They were frightened to travel. My mother only flew once in her life to Lourdes where she got food poisoning which is a standing joke. My grandmother was probably a bit more courageous but their power depended very much on their place and where they were. And they didn’t like moving from it. So that would have limited them in terms of how they could use their courage. But within their territory they were tough and had to be.

Mary: It was your film A short stay in Switzerland that prompted me to seek a conversation with you. Earlier in the week I had heard an interview with the son and his comment about how accurate and perceptive the portrayal of his mother and the circumstances were. I wonder how you managed to find the story and accompany the family and portray the situation?

Frank: Well, I shied away from the whole topic at the beginning because I didn’t want to deal with disease of that nature or to deal with decisions of that nature. I just couldn’t cope with that. I was working with a close friend Liz Trubridge, we’ve tried to do things on television for a long time, we were looking for a theme, a topic. I saw Sophie, the daughter, on Panorama at a debate on assisted suicide. And there was so much rubbish being talked, so much sentimental claptrap and pious nonsense. And then this woman Sophie stood up and spoke about her mother and what they’d been through. When the truth is being spoken, you know it. I phoned Liz and said get a copy of Panorama. We met Edward and Sophie who is an actress and she knew who I was, as did Edward, who goes to the theatre a lot. From our first meeting I absolutely warmed to them. I knew they had enormous grief because I met them about 7 months after their mother died and my own mother had died in 1996. So I knew how long it takes to get to a period when you are able to speak. So I didn’t bombard them with questions or bamboozle them into agreeing to anything. I didn’t dazzle them with my experience of television and neither did Liz even though she’s a very experienced producer. I said that I’d be fumbling my way forward for a while and and I would need them to be there all the time. I would need them to go through every one of many drafts. They were learning how to cope with their sorrow, and I was learning how to write a seriously long film. And I think we shared that kind of honesty with each other. I come from good listeners. And that’s what I could do for them, listen.

And the way I listened to them was not to rush them because they could only release a certain amount of sorrow, of information and detail. But I did know that their mother was an extraordinary woman, a formidable woman. And I did know that part of their enormous mourning was that they had lost their father so recently. And that this was a family that was undergoing a tragedy of almost Greek proportions, the sheer malignity of fate. It was such that one had to stand back and admire them for even getting up in the morning and coping. And they were also under a terrible sentence because on both sides genetically they carry the potential to die young and so horribly. And yet that never entered the conversation. Quite extraordinary, and it wasn’t shying away from it. The priority was that they wanted their mother and their father remembered. And I felt that this was a genuine love for their parents that reflected in the love of their children. So I had a theme of fate, deep selfless love, life or death passion. And I’m a writer, I couldn’t resist it. But it was a very, very, very slow process. If you look behind you, a lot of that paperwork is drafts, and there’s more in the library and there’s more at home. It was a gigantic piece of rewriting and rewriting largely because they were giving more and more relevant information which could only come when they were ready to give it. It follows very closely what happened yet it’s not a documentary. Certain things we had to compress, to censor, certain things we had to create. But it was an astonishing story and they are magnificent people. And I was very privileged that they let me do it. I really mean it that I’m honoured to have done this. I found them very, very tough in their decision that they would respect their mother’s memory. They’re tough people, the Turners. And I admire that. Though they don’t come much tougher than Ann.

The more I investigate her life the more I just bow the head. Formidable brute of a will, that absolutely believed in the righteousness of what she was doing. Normally I despise self righteousness. But I felt that the suffering she had  had inflicted on her and that inflicted on her husband gave her an almighty authority to decide what to do with her life. And this was her decision. She saw the logic of it. She saw the learning in it. She saw the honesty of it. And she had respect for herself. Some of Ann’s closest friends were deeply religious. And she was an absolute atheist. She was a scientist, a doctor. But the religious people knew she was not a liar. And that’s what I loved about her. She was not a liar. That’s a very hard thing to adhere to in the face of terror. She took no comfort in anything other than the knowledge that what she was doing was the right course of action. And I think that her children came to that understanding. We were on the one wave length in that respect. There were other things that we were probablty not on the same wave length with but I was not going to impose my own ego in the mother’s story. I wanted to tell their story. It was more interesting than my take on it. And on earlier drafts I had more of a spin on it, more preaching in it.

Mary: And there was no sense of that in the film.

Frank: Ann was an extremely compassionate doctor in family planning, and marvellously helpful to everyone who wanted to have children. She loved children. She listened to people and I think she felt a lot of the time it was loneliness among her patients that prevented them from conceiving. They were panicking so much and that they could talk to her made a hell of a difference to them, that there was somebody there who knew how sorely they wanted a child. And finally they were saying it and telling it to somebody who comprehended that. So when you were dealing with a woman of such enormous practical compassion what can you do but listen to her. It’s the least one can do for her.

Mary: You listened.

Frank: I listened to them and they couldn’t believe the kinds of things I was looking for and I listened to her through her letters and the interviews that she did. I got an awful lot from small things like her list making which drove them mad. One of her best friends was her housekeeper who was an Irish woman and they were genuine mates. The housekeeper Mrs Savary was very respectful of Dr Turner but they were true friends. I know it’s madness but it was good for me to know that there was an Irish presence in that very English world of Bath. Ann was a passionate believer in the welfare state. Both her and Jack her husband really were committed to it. They thought it was the great cultural achievement of their generation and were going to fight for it against all who would demolish it. They were both doctors, a big house in Bath, played bridge and tennis, a certain background, and it was great to have an Irish voice there in the beginning. And I knew Sophie and Jessica got on well with Irish people and that makes a difference.

Mary: And did you meet the housekeeper?

Frank: Of course. She was very much part of this, and I met Flora the cat, another formidable presence. Ann seemed to have a gigantic impact on people but I think she would have been deeply shocked to realise the scale of grief at the end, not just among her own family, but through the entire neighbourhood. The vicar came and asked the children could he have a service for the sake of the neighbours because they were bereft.

Mary: I was very struck by the lady in the film whom Ann played chess with.

Frank: Yes, now that’s fiction, she’s made up.

Mary: But nevertheless I wonder did she represent those who struggled with Ann’s decision.

Frank: Yes. There were those who couldn’t believe it. That was their own principle but it was also their love for Ann. She was this most necessary friend. Because she did tell the truth and she cared about people. She had healthy fights and healthy disagreements. And she wouldn’t take nonsense from anybody and they wouldn’t take nonsense from her. So there was a great network of strong men and women there.

Mary: And what was it like for you being part of that for a while?

Frank: It was a solid two years. I wasn’t part of that world. I kept my distance from it. I listened very, very carefully to Edward and to Jessica and to Sophie. But I was doing it at their pace. Because it was the only way to do it. If I had tried to muscle my way in or to go and live in Bath or inteview extended family, I’d still be writing. I also know enough from working on historical topics that when it comes to research the more you discard the better it is. I felt I had to keep a serious distance from this. I went to Bath once but I had a play on there so that was the purpose. And I wanted to see the house, both the house she lived in and the one she moved to. And I got voluminous correspondence from the children.

Mary: Julie Walters was a find. I’ve never seen her in a role like that before.

Frank: She’s a remarkable woman. I liked her enormously when I met her. She was very different to how I thought she was going to be. I had some idea that she was going to be quite Irish actually. Her mother’s from Mayo and I had a feeling she was going to have that west of Ireland energy. In fact she’s quite contained. She’s fiercely bright, extremely detailed in her work. She trained as a nurse and I think that the person who helped her mostly in playng this was Ann. She became an expert at the particular disease. She spent a lot of time talking and watching Ann and her movements as the disease progressed  She’s a very private woman. She goes into her own corner and she works. She came extraordinarily well prepared and I was knocked out by her. I liked her as a woman. She’s exceptionally strong. You would not  cross her.

Mary: There must have been a rapport in the triangle between you and Ann Turner and Julie Walters. There has to have been a huge level of understanding that Julie was able to bring your script to life.

Frank: Well I hope so, but I think it’s three different imaginations three different intelligences working together. I never met Ann obviously and I only met Julie Walters on two days. We had three or four days rehearsal and I was there for two of them. As I say she came really well prepared. Perhaps we’re three mad auld bats.

Mary: I watched it a second time. I would watch a lot of things and mostly I get bored or irritated or feel there’s too much poetic licence here, it doesn’t ring true. But it was such a true, pure story.

Frank: Well we were very well served by the producers and crew and a wonderful director, Simon Curtis. Liz Trubridge was an absolute rock because there was at least twice when I felt I couldn’t go on, can’t deal with the amount of rewriting. And she very gently let me know that people are putting their lives in your trust and I had to be patient. And the second time was the grief. The sheer grief at their loss and I didn’t think I could cope with that. And Liz Trubridge did see me over that. She also saw me through the labryinth workings of the BBC. When you’re fighting your corner they can be quite formidable and you do need someone to handle the twists and turns of the journey, through beauracracy. So I have to say I could genuinely not have had a more committed crew. They believed in the story.

Mary: The grief was so palpable, so it has to have been part of all of the people involved.

Frank: Oh absolutely. The three actors who played the children, Stephen, Liz and Lindsey really did their homework. I only met them once. But their antennae were out for exactly what was needed. I’ve done the programme now and I hope I’ve done it well, but as for the Turner children, they’ll live with this for the rest of their lives and the desperate threat of their genetic code. It’s a rough burden.

Mary: And is it genetic?

Frank: I think it is, yes. Who knows what’s going to happen with the way genetic medicine is going. But Edward brought it up after we saw the finished programme. It was the first time they’d brought it up. Sophie has had a little girl and they’re all delighted with that.

Mary: They live with the grief but how do you cope with the grief?

Frank: I go on to the next project.

Mary: Do you let it go?

Frank: You have to. It had a gigantic impact on me when I finally did see it. I saw it with Julie and Philip my partner was there. We were all in a bad state. We realised the emotional force of the film But life goes on. And we have to make more than the best of it ‘cause it’s short.

Mary: It is interesting the choices people make for whatever reason. To live or to die and the reasons behind them.

Frank: Do you know my play There Came a Gypsy Riding? It’s about teenage suicide and about family grief and how do you go on living.

Mary: Teenage suicide can have different patterns to adult suicide like that of Ann Turner.

Frank: Yes, but mind you I think one has to respect the finality of certain teenage suicides. They have absolute comprehension of what they’re doing.

Mary: It’s a very difficult topic and quite prevalent at the moment.

Frank: Quite impossible, yes. It’s quite significant that none of the major companies in Ireland wants to do the play.

Mary: What do you think it is about the Irish psyche that finds the concept of suicide so very difficult to engage with?

Frank:  I think it’s like everything that’s difficult to engage with, you’re absolutely attracted to it. Our whole intellectual and spiritual and sexual tradition is what we’re defined by and have been for the last two or three hundred years. It’s going to take a long time to see how deep the censorship has got into our psyches and how do we uproot that instinct for censoring? It’s only through courage that we’ll do it and small waves being made here and there. But I feel that our inclination is to shy away from articulating what is wrong. Or articulating what it is we desire.

Mary: Is it driven by fear?

Frank: I don’t know if it’s fear. It might be that we are such formal people. We believe in keeping form and keeping ceremony and in knowing the great nonsense that we’re a big happy go lucky drinking culture. We’re not at all. That’s a lie. We’re a pathologically shy and peasant gang still. We have a terror still of the full plate, that it’s going to fall and break. We believe in bad luck, and we’re terrified that bad luck will come if we speak of something. But there are a lot of people who have a lot to gain from perpetuating nonsense and from offering false comfort. And they still have power.

Mary: If you were to say something to, I’m still sitting with what you said about censorship and the Irish psyche. It puts it in a nutshell of what I meet in my practice, of what I struggle with, or what’s around us. It’s like it will visit us if we talk about this.

Is there anything that you would say to people which might shift something in us as Irish people?

Frank: Not every day is a death. And you’ve got to go on living. I wish we were more tolerant particularly towards ourselves. I wish we had more forgiveness towards ourselves But we seem to be remarkably short of that capacity. We’re a driven people. And we drive other people, our children, our families, drive people away so fast. I can understand it because there was so little materially. And even at the time of prosperity it wasn’t that great.  A slight roughage of money as we’d say in Donegal and that’s gone as well. It’s an awful pity. I know there was a down side in that we maybe exploited each other more but sure we always exploited each other. It was just more obvious. But I do feel people should forgive themselves more.

Mary: And find ways to forgive others.

Frank: That can be difficult particularly in families. And there’s always one parent who takes the brunt and usually deserves it. Those that least deserve our sorrow are the ones who most need it. It has to be dealt with or you die, way before your time. And that is a terrible tragedy. Particularly when you don’t need to. Ann Turner died before her time because that was the way her body had turned on itself. What she would have given for a bit more time.

Mary: And it was her choice and it seems to me her children had a huge bearing in that.

Frank: They had a gigantic bearing on it because at some level they recognised that one of the great factors was not just the illness, it was that they had buried their father so shortly before this and had watched him suffer so terribly that there would be not a snowball’s chance in hell that this woman was going to put her children through that again. She was not going to ask them to endure what they had already endured. A remarkably deeply compassionate lady, tough but generous.

Mary: And I’m struck by your grandmother and her compassion and courage for that child in the 1920’s and the fight in the four women you’ve been talking about.

Frank: But they were also critics. They saw something radically wrong with the staus quo. And at some level they were working from within themselves to change it, and that I like. That’s what her mission was, to change the law. A good socialist. Change the world. That’s what your creed always has to be.

Mary: And that’s part of your work too?

Frank: Ah, I’ll let the detractors make up their mind on that.

Frank McGuinness is a playwright and poet and works in the School of English, Drama and Film at University College Dublin.

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