Sarah Moore Fitzgerald’s debut novel, Back to Blackbrick, is a time-travel story, an exploration of Ascendancy Ireland and issues of class and power, and the heartbreaking tale of a boy’s gradual loss of his grandfather to Alzheimer’s disease, all at once. It is also profoundly modern in its outlook and bitingly funny, thanks in large part to its smart but vulnerable young narrator, Cosmo. When I met Sarah, I began by asking what had spurred her to write this wide-ranging yet very personal book.
SMF: I had longed to be a writer since I was small but – like a lot of people – life got in the way. I was a very active writer as a child, but then I went to college in the 1980’s when people were very focused on doing something practical. So I studied Psychology and Business, and ended up getting an academic job in the University of Limerick. When I turned 40 some years ago, I told my husband I was really sad I’d never got round to writing my novel. And he said: ‘You’re talking about yourself as if you’re dead. You’re only 40, you’ve got loads of time!’ He convinced me that I had to find time to do it, no matter how busy I was.
So, was Back to Blackbrick an idea you’d been nursing for some years?
I was always fascinated by Big Houses, and by time travel, but this particular idea was very close to my heart, because my father had Alzheimer’s and died last year. That kind of weaved itself around the other interests. The novel was written during my dad’s decline and, for me, writing really helped.
I think that’s important, to move on and not get stuck in the same story.
The character of Cosmo is very closely observed, as he narrates the whole story. Was it ever challenging writing in the first person as a 13-year-old boy?
Well, the new novel I’m working on is partially written in the third person, and I find it much more difficult. I think for a first-time novelist, the first-person voice is the easiest to work with, because it’s more forgiving. It can be the foibles and quirks of the character, rather than of your writing! But I worked very hard to give Cosmo a distinct voice, and not too much self-pity because 12- or 13-year- old boys aren’t sentimental. They’re not too reflective: they just get on with life.
Although Cosmo occasionally feels bitter for having such a ‘weird’ name- where did his character’s name come from?
For me, it means ‘of the world’. He’s ‘EveryBoy’ in a way. He has very specific experiences, but I like to believe he’s got the voice of lots of boys: a tough exterior masking somebody sensitive, who wants to take responsibility. He often says in the book, ‘I always keep my promises’ and ‘I believe you should stick around when someone needs you’, and I think a lot of boys feel a strong sense of responsibility, but they’re not allowed to express that feeling. It’s also a bit of a joke that he had a brother called Brian, and ‘Brian’ and ‘Cosmo’ don’t go together really! I feel it’s a hint of mystery that his mother must have changed so dramatically between calling one boy Brian and calling the other Cosmo. And the fact that Cosmo hates his name is really about his struggle with identity and self, and all those issues.
Did you find it hard to leave the character of Cosmo behind when you finished the book?
Oh, I did. Actually I cried when I finished writing it because that character was over. I got a little bit obsessed with him, and he became very real to me. Even after I finished the book I would think, ‘I wonder how Cosmo would react to something like this?’ There’s a piece in the book where he’s very angry with his grandfather, and he starts shouting and saying horrible things to him. And when I was writing that, Cosmo was talking, and in my head I was saying, ‘Cosmo, please don’t say that to your grandfather. You’re going to regret it so much, don’t say that’. But he still had to do it, and so he did take on a life of his own. I’ve heard other, much more accomplished writers say that’s when you know you’ve got to grips with the story – when your characters are doing things you don’t even want them to do. But you do have to leave that behind and start something new. Now I’m getting to know a whole new bunch of characters. I think that’s important, to move on and not get stuck in the same story.
How close then is the connection between your father and the character of Kevin, the grandfather who has Alzheimer’s in the novel?
I’m absolutely emphatic that all the characters are totally fictional, but of course there are shades of real people there. My mum told me a few turns of phrase really reminded her of my dad, so his personality must have crept in a bit. But I think it’s important to make up your own world and not always be influenced by the world you’re in. It sounds a bit grandiose, but I feel I started to become competent as a writer when I realised I had to make that jump into fiction. I couldn’t just be writing about my own family, I had to make people up. And of course the only way you can make people up is by understanding how people work, and observing them.
In the author’s note at the end of the book you talk about your own father prior to his decline, and his love of life and of reading. Had he passed away before the book was accepted for publication?
It’s such a coincidence, but he died in January 2012, in the same week the news broke that this book was going to be published. Amazing! So he would have been really proud of me, but the awful thing about Alzheimer’s is that you lose someone many years before they die. And unfortunately it’s very common: 40,000 people in this country have Alzheimer’s. If you multiply that by the families, by the people who are close to each of those people, it’s devastating.
How have people reacted to the book in general?
Everyone’s just been so wonderful about it. My children were the first to read it and they really liked it- but they’re my children – of course they’re going to be nice about anything I write! But there have been complete strangers telling me good things about the book. That’s a huge thrill: to think people who have no vested interest in saying anything complimentary are telling me lovely things about the story.
Will the new novel that you’re writing be aimed at a similar age group?
Yes. I’m absolutely fascinated by 12 and 13-year-old children. I think that’s a very important age: when you’re not a grown up and you’re not a child. There’s a lot of longing. The things you loved as a child you can’t rely on as much, and the things you want in the future are unobtainable to you. It’s when huge turning points can happen to people, as they’re trying to become grown-ups and figure out what life actually means. So it’s quite a similar genre, but it’s set in the present; it’s not a time-slip book.
Was time travel a big interest of yours at that age?
Absolutely. When I was a child I used to dream about being able to travel in time, and all my favourite stories involved time travel. Even in my late teens when Back to the Future came out, I remember thinking, ‘That’s the film I wish I’d written’. Tom’s Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce, is one of my favourite books ever – although I tried to read it to my own children and it’s too dated for modern children! I think that’s one of the reasons I wrote this book, because it’s sort of Tom’s Midnight-Garden-esque. I’ve always been fascinated by what is possible narratively around time travel.
From reading the book, it seems you had a fascination with horses as well?
It’s funny, lots of people who’ve read the book say that, but I’m profoundly allergic to horses! I think I must have some fantasy about being this wonderful horsewoman and galloping bareback around the place. But I’ve never ridden – I rode once and had to stop because I’m so allergic to them. I barely know one end of a horse from another. I had to do quite a lot of research to sound knowledgeable about horses. Actually that was the hardest work, getting that right and using the right language around horsemanship.
Is that why you called two of those horses Somerville and Ross?
That’s a little tip of the hat to that Anglo-Irish-Ascendancy time period. My grandmother used to read Somerville and Ross’ stories to us when I was very young, in front of the fire, and they were a very important part of my upbringing. But I also love novels like The Last September and Brideshead Revisited. There’s a book called The Decline of the Big House in Ireland by Terence Dooley, a brilliant historian at NUI Maynooth. I read that from cover to cover afterwards, and I started writing that part of the story. So I have an archetypal view of what life in a Big House would be like. In the story of Blackbrick though, the house is very much in decline and there’s only a few people rattling around it. It’s quite a shadow of its former self. You get the idea that it was quite glorious in the past but it’s already decaying, and that’s part of the metaphor of the whole story.