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Ray French on his book All This Is Mine:
I have visited a number of readers groups since the novel was published, and two questions always come up. What does the title mean? How will Liam turn out after the dreadful things that happened to him?…
The answers to these two questions are in fact linked. Early in the first draft an image popped into my mind that wouldn’t go away. Liam standing on top of a hill on the edge of Crindau, looking down at the town spread out beneath him, flinging his arms out and shouting ‘All this is mine!’ It always made me smile. Then a friend told me a story about her three-year-old son. Whenever she visited someone he would embarrass her by charging around the room, picking things up and shouting ‘This is mine!’, ‘That’s mine!’, ‘This is mine too!’ It was a striking illustration of a child’s insatiable desire to posses everything they see, and it seemed to fit perfectly. Children are incredibly selfish, and rightly so, how else could such small and vulnerable creatures survive in such a large, hostile world? They need to be self-centred in order to have the best chance of survival.
But later on, as the story got progressively darker, another interpretation emerged. I began to see that ‘All This Is Mine’, could also mean that everything that has happened to Liam, good or bad, whether he has chosen it or whether it has been forced upon him by someone else is, nevertheless, his. He will never be able really to find peace until he accepts ownership of all the good and the bad things in his life. This links to the second question. I passionately believe Liam is a survivor and would have eventually discovered a way to get over his traumatic childhood, even though it may have taken him many years. He would have found great comfort in Jean-Paul Sartre’s dictum, ‘Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.’
John McGahern’s ‘Amongst Women’, and Anne Tyler’s ‘Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant’ affected me profoundly and made me want to write a novel with the family at the centre of the action. Families are where we first experience the most powerful of human emotions – love, hate, jealousy, and intense loyalty (indeed, Liam realizes too late that it’s his loyalty to his father that has placed him in the greatest danger, rather than any threat of invasion from outside). Our parents and siblings shape our life in profound ways and we spend years either trying to change the patterns of behaviour we learnt at home, or else repeating them subconsciously. We have had several lively discussions around this theme at readers groups.
I have often been asked how autobiographical the book is. It started out very much so, as many first novels do. The fascination with your own sweet self is probably the only thing that will keep you going at first, when nobody else seems to care whether you carry on or not. But eventually writing a thinly disguised autobiography came to feel a very claustrophobic enterprise. It dawned on me that a plot, characters and some kind of structure was needed. So the autobiographical element diminished as I invented a younger brother, a bully with no hair, a passionate Polish family, and a demented Irish one. The latter wasn’t a particularly difficult task. Most English people think ‘Father Ted’ is a delightfully wacky comedy. Most Irish people regard it as an excellent fly on the wall documentary.
The idea of a child narrator always appealed to me. Children’s emotions are so close to the surface, their every day filled with such wonder, fear and confusion. Making the familiar and everyday seem strange was one of my aims, and a child narrator seemed perfect for this. I read an interview with the Polish writer Eva Hoffman in which she said ‘Every immigrant becomes a kind of amateur anthropologist.’ This is certainly the case with the two migrant families in the novel, the Bennetts and the Sikorskis, as they struggle to understand a different culture. But you could equally apply this to children – seeing them as young anthropologists who spend years studying the puzzling world of adults, trying to make sense of their contradictory statements, and attempting to deconstruct their strange rituals.
I wanted to set the novel in a volatile era that would impact dramatically on the character’s lives. The end of the sixties felt just right. Flower power was on the way out, paranoia on the increase. Liam is torn between the revolutionary new ideas gripping the younger generation, and the fears and anxieties that haunted people like his parents who had lived through the war and the austerity of the fifties. Liam loves The Beatles and George Best, and the idea of being a rebel, but he craves stability and normality.
A rich oral tradition from my Irish background was a big influence. I remember my grandfather in County Wexford holding us kids spellbound with his stories during those long summer evenings while our parents were down at the pub. Tales about the horror of the trenches in the first World War, his adventures in Brazil and Colombia when he jumped ship, the time he had walked across the Pyrenees in the depths of winter to escape Franco’s secret police. These tales were told in a kitchen lit only by an oil lamp, as the moths batted madly against the window, and the smoke from his pipe curled thickly around his head. We were allowed to stay up thrillingly late listening to them, and went to bed with our heads spinning. In fact, as I later discovered, he had worked as a farm labourer a couple of miles down the road all his life, only ever leaving Ireland to make the short journey across the Irish Sea to visit us in Wales. At first I felt cheated, but slowly came to realize that I had, in fact, received a masterclass in storytelling. It’s probably no coincidence that my fiction is so driven by dialogue.
When I started writing 8 or 9 years ago, my first subjects were a group of “30 something’s” in London. People living outside London bemoan the seemingly endless stream of metropolitan novels. But I would guess that a very high proportion of these are written by people who have grown up outside the capital, in somewhere they wish to put behind them, desperate to re-invent themselves in London. Their provincial past is so much unwanted baggage, only to be spoken about in the most ironic way. What could there possibly be to say about their drab home town? I was one of those. Yet, for some reason I still can’t explain, my writing only really came to life when I started setting my stories in Newport (or somewhere very much like it). My reluctance to accept how deeply I had been affected by the place that was, a few years ago, labelled the most violent town in Britain, slowly disappeared. I had never read anything set in Newport, so the idea that it was a blank literary canvas appealed to me.
However, coming from south Wales, with its long tradition of radical politics and international solidarity, much celebrated in literature and film, was a problem in some ways. These stories are so well known now (‘How Red Was My Valley’, as the local wags say) that they can hang like an albatross around a writer’s neck. So I thought it would be interesting to turn this on it’s head, by creating characters who would find these radical traditions threatening – such as a family from Poland, who would be horrified at the sight of a red flag, the symbol of the Soviet Union, which was ruling their country with a rod of iron.
In a similar fashion, I thought it would also be interesting to buck the trend of writing about Ireland as a magical place (which, actually in many ways, I think it is). Instead I thought it would be a challenge to depict it as a dreadful, backward hole, which was how it was viewed in the 60s, by my parents, and relatives in Ireland itself, along with most of their friends and neighbours, making it’s recent transformation all the more remarkable. My apologies to the Irish Tourist Board.