If this were an episode of Friends it would be entitled: the one where Ciara learns important things about creating characters from real people. And she eats a lot of fish.
When I woke on Friday morning, I thought I was back living on the Galway docks. The trawlers were in at the pier, heaving metal against metal, and the rigging singing in the wind. The tang of the sea was the same, and my bed was scattered with books and notebooks, where I’d fallen asleep mid-sentence. I could see it all from my bed, when I hoisted myself up on the pillows. Fishermen with shaved heads in thigh-high waders strode up and down the hill from the water. Further out, sailing boats bobbed on their moorings. Except it wasn’t the Galway docks; I was looking out on Keelbeg pier in west Cork. I was looking at the harbour where the ashes of Kay Swift are scattered, which is also Maeve Binchy’s silver lake, incidentally. Three years have passed since I lived on the docks. And now, I have the first draft of a book entitled Chasing Aideen and am ready to answer the tough questions about the manuscript that writer Katharine Weber posed for me. Maybe.
Next Monday, I am told, the small sailing boats moored in the harbour will disappear. Kayakers will strip off their wet suits and load up their cars. The metal tables set up by Hayes’ Bar on the side of the road, looking over the water, will be gone. The village of Glandore will close up for the winter, but the Webers will still be there, husband and wife writing away in their beautiful converted holiday cottage close to Reenogreena. As we had lunch in the village, Katharine was continually approached by locals eager to say hello and share news. Next month her daughter will marry a local lad, but when I laughingly suggest they’re no longer blow-ins if they’re ‘marrying in’ to the village, Nick Fox-Weber points that in fact his family had been coming to Glandore for decades before his future in-laws. As she tears around the hairpin turns and hurtles up the precipitous hills of the roads in Glandore in her scarlet Fiat 500, my car struggling to keep up, Katharine reminds me of a ladybird. She is part of the wildlife of west Cork, but at the same time, unique and exquisitely beautiful, she can’t help standing out here.
Unlike previous Aideen instalments, there was no ‘new’ information unearthed in Cork. Which is not to suggest that it wasn’t a hard-working and productive visit. In fact, quite the opposite. I heard how Nick won Kay’s immediate approval by his consumption of ‘rusty nail’ cocktails; we figured out when Kay went blonde (after she wrote the promo music for Clairol in the early 1960s); we constructed a play plot for the Abbey stage about Aideen and Kay’s friendship (in case any theatrical agents are reading), and I learnt the notion of Wabi Sabi.
I came back from Glandore invigorated. Not simply because I got to have fresh fish for breakfast (salmon), lunch (prawns) and dinner (swordfish cooked by Nick Weber), but most of all because Katharine is an incredibly gracious woman, with a fierce intellect and a real intensity, who spoke to me like a writer. Like a real writer. I can’t tell you how exhilarating this is, albeit a little terrifying, after working solidly for two years and sometimes feeling like I’ve nothing to offer but a heap of rejection letters and some angry email correspondence with editors.
During extensive research into her grandmother’s life, Katharine made contact with a chorus girl who appeared in one of Kay Swift’s hits on Broadway. This ninety-something ‘chorus girl’ remembered that during rehearsals one day, Kay got talking to her about a date she had. The chorus girl was anxious about it: what to wear, how to act. Kay looked her up and down, then brought her back to her zebra-skin-filled apartment on the East side and opened the wardrobe saying, ‘We’re about the same size.’ She dressed her from head to foot and helped style her hair, before sending her off to her waiting beau. This is undoubtedly the warmth and generosity that endeared her to Aideen, who although sixteen years her younger shared her interest in fashion, in dancing, in cocktails and in men. It’s a generosity that Katharine has inherited. Sitting with me on her couch, looking out the expansive window onto the bay, she helped me think through the problems I’ve been having with the manuscript, the feedback I’ve received, and start to plot a way through it all to some kind of happy ending. Or at least, a resolution.
And Katharine can plot her way out of anything! All of her novels are deftly structured, all in some way mystery plots with secrets and twists and a reveal. She understands how to build up a character, for she has an investigator’s brain. In this, we definitely have an affinity. Walking up to the headland in the evening sunlight, we somehow got talking about a murder of a female graduate student in Yale University that has never been solved. Katharine started talking about the amount of information that could have been gleaned from the girl’s wallet alone: a student health plan number, which might yield a prescription for birth control, or for anti-depressants. The title of her course and thesis: which was in fact an investigation of Iraqi terror cells (before 9/11). Cards for nightclubs she liked to visit and cafés she frequented. I forgot about the conversation when I smelt the swordfish on the barbeque on our way back. But then all the way back to Dublin along the N7, I thought of the myriad of ways in which the contents of a wallet can reveal a life. And also the random things kept there that may mislead an investigator. For esteemed biographers like Nick Fox-Weber and fiction writers like Katharine Weber, this kind of thinking is part of every day life, and it’s why their thoughts and advice on continuing my hunt in New York were so useful.
The Webers also understand my pain and confusion in feeling like this hunt can never end, will never cease. Katharine has set up a section on her website on ‘staircase wit’. It follows the notion that you only ever think of the clever retort you should have given as you descend the stairs from a party, but she has applied it to her writing. She posts ideas that later occurred to her about characters, or evidence she uncovered after the fact, and connections that came to light only after publication. This, I realized, is an astute way to let something go without ever relinquishing your hold. The book goes to publication, the record is set, but the dialogue between the writer and the material goes on ad infinitum.
The other painful truth that the Webers understand is that ‘subjects’ or ‘characters’ aren’t always likeable. They aren’t always reliable, or decent, or admirable. They are who they are, and must be addressed on their own terms. Unfortunately, readers can take issue with this. Book groups, Katharine pointed out, rarely like characters who aren’t the type of people they’d invite to sip chardonnay with them on the third Thursday of every month. One neighbour took offence to Katharine’s suggestion in one of her books that slurry in west Cork smells. (Her reputation was redeemed when Maeve Binchy and Gordon Snell asked directions to the Webers’ home in the village.)
There is real life: messy, complicated, full of mistakes, dead ends and often incomplete. And there is the written record, which people want to be a complete and perfect ‘truth’. I’ve spent years labouring over sentences, shaping paragraphs and checking and double-checking facts. Each time I think the trail is dead and the book complete, something else turns up that can’t be left out. Over dinner, Nick Weber talked about his lecturing in Tokyo and the concept of ‘Wabi Sabi’. The Japanese have a concept of things being perfectly whole in their own error-ridden fashion. It is crafting something as a labour of love, slowly, surely and with an acceptance that it will bear cracks and crevices and marks of imperfection.
My completed manuscript must be perfect, and yet it never will be. Wabi sabi. Or, fine and dandy.
Katharine kindly autographed some of her books for me before I left. When I opened True Confections, I discovered she’d inscribed ‘For Ciara, on the last day of August 2012’ on the title page. I laughed out loud at the idea that years from now, biographers may claim we met on the 31st of August in Glandore; that that was the fateful day my writing career began. It wasn’t; we didn’t bother to check the date. They’d be wrong.
We’ve outwitted the records of history and this gives me a wicked pleasure that I think Katharine Weber may share …