An interview with the author of the best book of the year thus far
There’s a sketch in Noelle McCarthy’s brilliant new memoir Grand – the best book of the year thus far, and bound to be way up there by year’s end – where she remembers her mother Carol suffering yet another hangover the morning after, “face white with nausea”, and she says to her daughter: “No postmortems, Noelle.”
But in a sense all of Grand is a postmortem, a powerful accounting of drinking too much the night before, like mother like daughter, the two of them flamboyant and addicted and teetering on the edge of falling apart. She writes of one of her own last hangovers, “The air’s already full of the emptiness of Sunday. At the foot of the bed, the mirrored door of the wardrobe is slightly open. A couple of new dresses are hanging at the front, pristine and colourful. I imagine them covered in cigarette burns, hems ripped, dirty. A man I was with came back to the apartment with me recently. The next morning, he said he watched as I leaned over the toilet, puked into it, leant back and shouted ‘I’m so bored’ before passing out on the floor. He said this in a subdued voice and asked me if I wanted to talk about it. I laughed and said it sounded like we should have stayed out longer. Secretly, I am frightened…..I spend the day in bed, typing things into google until the pillows get damp under me: ‘How do you know if you’re an alcoholic?’”
A deeper theme and subject than alcohol runs throughout Grand: the complicated relationship between Noelle and her mum, or Mammy. “You came out of me,” shrieks Mammy, and that howl reverberates through the pages, as Noelle leaves her home of Cork, Ireland, to create a new life for herself in New Zealand. Sometime around the mid 2000s she became a kind of It Girl in cool Auckland society. I met her around that time and like everyone was dazzled by her charm, her sense of fun, and her excellence, too, as a broadcaster, first with bFM and then National Radio. I also remember how different she seemed only a few years later, more quiet and sort of chastened; it was as though she was going through a metamorphosis, which is one way of describing the shock of sobriety. There’s a reference or two in Grand to her going to “meetings”. She doesn’t spell out the capitals AA but you get the picture.
I always liked her writing, as a columnist and a book reviewer, and we stayed in touch after she left Auckland to live in the Wairarapa with her husband, writer John Daniell. They are parents to Eve. They make podcasts. They drove me a few years ago to Hamilton, where I staged a Hamilton Press Club free lunch extravaganza; we got a bit lost looking for the riverside venue, and I said something which became a wise saying among the three of us: “All roads lead to the river.”
I conducted a revolutionary live email interview last week with Noelle. We emailed each other back and forth for four hours, in an enactment of a face to face interview but conducted through writing, not spoken language. We discussed drinking too much, writing, plagiarism, Stephen King, The Sopranos, Renée, and the roads that lead back to her Mammy.
Got your cup of tea, Noelle? All settled in? Welcome to the revolutionary live email interview experience in which you will be trapped for the next three or four hours, writing as though you’re talking but with better syntax, and being quick about it. Please describe where you are. I gather you live in fine style in a bleak countryside north of Wellington.
I’m sitting at my desk, which is an old door, in my house in Featherston, which is tranquilly located next to all the motorbikes on State Highway 53.
Do you have alcohol in the house and do you drink it?
John’s wine’s on top of the kitchen cupboard, and there’s a bottle of something on top of the fridge.
Grand is much more than a memoir of drinking too much. It’s a story of family and the complicated relationship between you and your Mum, or Mammy. “A howl of anguish and love”, I am quoted as saying on the back cover. It’s a book far less about drinking than it is about your mother Carol. And that’s the thing – in so much literature and other confessional or confrontational arts, it’s always the mother, isn’t it?
I listened to an episode of Desert Island Discs with Anne Enright recently, and she was saying something along the lines of “If a writer says he’s not obsessed with his mother, he’s lying” which was perfect, but also: I had no idea. Like, if you had told me three years ago, I’d write a book about my mother, I’d be dumbfounded. I always just thought of it as the great problem/fuck-up of my life, while being entirely blind to how that made it a good thing to write about.
You write of Carol, “She isn’t drinking every day but when she drinks, you know it…One drink is enough to trip her switch.” What did she look like during those years?
She looked different from year to year: short hair, long hair, it was the 80s for a lot of it so Lady Di maternity dresses, few bad culotte-based pantsuits, and then into some wild blonde shag cuts and things as the 90s wended on.
The funny thing is, I didn’t really see her if you know what I mean, it was only when I was writing that I had to consider what she actually looked like; her hair, her eyes, her expressions, all that. It’s hard to see your mother clearly you know? To have any kind of objectivity, when someone so dominates your emotional life. I relied on photographs a lot. And smell, I could always smell her- that perfume, the real sharp, heavy OTT stuff.
What did she look like when she drank too much?
Her face would change, everything got a bit sharper. Wouldn’t even take much. I don’t know whether that was just me projecting, but it really did feel like a physical change.
Jeez I hate talking about my mother like this. Much harder than writing it in a book.
Drinking too much is fascinating because it is terrifying. You had a fascination with Dracula, that great archetype of terror. “I want a vampire,” you write, describing your early teenage years back in Cork, “to have me, turn me, rescue me.” Rescue you from what? Or from who?
Rescue me from everything! From my life in Cork. I was 14 years old, bit awkward, bit swotty, wildly romantic, fiercely aspirational. Nobody understood me! I wanted out. And also getting into the idea of sex, but not with anyone I knew. Dracula is an aristocrat who speaks several languages, lives in a big castle and says things like “I love the shade and the shadow and would be alone with my thoughts when I may”. I think without necessarily having the language for it properly yet (“ooh BITING”) I was turned on by all the vampire stuff.
Diana Wichtel writes on the back of Grand about Carol “stealing every scene” as someone who has an “appalling vivacity”. That makes it wonderful to read but you had to actually live with it. I think it was on the Kim Hill show that you described your relationship with Carol as “oppositional” and “obsessive”. Was there any sense do you think that your own drinking, and your own appalling vivacity (“an antic demon behind my teeth” you very well put it), was trying to steal the scene back, to get a taste of the attention in the same way your Mammy achieved?
Paging Dr Freud! The funny thing is, I don’t actually remember a lot of Freud from university. Except: IT’S ALL ABOUT THE MOTHER.
I think this might be a version of the “Is it genetic/ does it come from family of origin?” question Kim was asking as well. The truth is, I honestly don’t know. Like, when you read the book, I think you can probably see all the way we were mirrors/versions of each other, all the things that echoed down the line from her to me, and even further back along the maternal line from her. I think for me, stopping drinking robbed me of a lot of the curiosity I feel about that, in the day to day at least, but I think it’s probably the central question driving Grand, that I didn’t really see until it was finished even though it was staring me right in the face, of course.
A question here from a writer friend who knows I am interviewing you. Referring to Carol, she asks “whether all that acting like a duchess in taxis was asking the world to be seen”?
Totally, right? She wanted respect. From these men, who had to drive her around, and wait for her outside pubs. And they resented her, and she felt it, and it got so tense.
PS Yr writer friend is a great stylist – “acting like a duchess in taxis” is just the best.
Yes, I’ll tell Talia that. So – writing is dry-eyed and practical, it’s a job to be done, and we all know the old line from Graham Greene that writers have to have a “sliver of ice in the heart”. Writing isn’t therapy, it’s work. All of that. But, were there times in the book – and I am thinking of that incredible page where you truly do howl with anguish and love at the death of your mother, but I suspect there might be other, quieter pages too – when you cried? Did you cry? Did this book take it out of you, shatter you at times?
OK so I think you’re talking about pages 252-253 in the book right?
Couple of things I want to say to you about that.
You got the book early, in proof (tks for the “howl of anguish” blurb, I love that) and so you were, I think the very first reader to tell me what you thought of that. Thank you, because that bit is important to me. It took me a long time. And I think it was the first bit I wrote that I cried writing, but not initially. I wrote that scene, a draft of it, very early on, before all the rest of the book, and so it was ages before I went back to it. And, in the meantime, I didn’t read much while I was writing, but I did re-read a lot of Stephen King. I’d read The Shining years ago, and found it scary, but going back and reading it again, now as a parent, it was devastating. It’s all about how our parents wreck us, and I guess ’cause it’s horror, in this case, like, actually nearly murder us.
There’s a scene in The Shining, and people will know it, (do you know it?) where Danny is caught by his father Jack who’s gone mad and is about to kill him, and I read this scene and it just broke me – all the love of the child for the damaged parent, it’s all there. And I cried and cried and then I went back at some stage and rewrote the bit you’re talking about.
I cried a bit just when we did the final copy edit. Vanessa Manhire was my editor, and the way she helped me put the book together, the way she saw it, was just so satisfying, it drew a lot more meaning out of the scenes I’d written, and (sorry getting a bit weepy now, even thinking about it) felt really right by the end, or as right as we could make it anyway, with a deadline. And it was very early one morning when Vanessa sent the last checks back to me, and I remember fixing the last thing, and looking over at a photo of Carol that I have on my chest of drawers with her flower on her head, and just…feeling a nice sense of completion.
Sorry I didn’t answer your question. Jesus Noelle. Did it shatter me? I don’t think so. Like, I think it would have shattered me more not to write it, there was a sense of urgency to it. Maybe that’s because my mother died, and this is something I could/can do, in the face of being so powerless, like we all are, over death. Or maybe it was just time. I dunno. But no, I’m not shattered. I might be though, by the end of this revolutionary live email interview.
I’m thinking about The Shining now, crying again.
I think I am right in supposing the genesis of this book begins with a 4000-word piece of memoir writing that won you the Short Memoir Prize in the 2020 Fish Publishing International Writing Competition, and which I later published as “Mammy, Eve, and Jesus” at Newsroom. (I’m looking back on our email exchange at the time, about the small edits I suggested: “Can you come up with a different word than ‘alien’? That felt like a rare lapse where you weren’t describing something with real feeling”). Off the back of that prize, you then wrote a first draft of Grand, which you did with Reneé, over 10 weeks, in her memoir course. Please tell me about that course and the influence of Renée , who is one of the world’s greatest people and who I would give anything to if she but asked – I suspect you feel the same.
I don’t have the words to do honour enough to Renée. She would hate this probably, but Aotearoa is so lucky to have her. I see the work she puts in, not only her own writing, but nurturing and inspiring and helping a whole generation of writers, especially, but not only wāhine Māori. You should have seen her session at Booktown last year with Anahera Gildea, and Nadine Hura and Arihia Latham, it was legendary.
I loved your piece on her Steve. You caught her, the rigour, the curiosity, her discipline and humility. And she’s so funny.
Anyway. I put in for the Fish thing, and kept writing a bit in the meantime, but without any real plan, just all these scenes. And then when I won, I had more momentum, but no actual direction- like, I didn’t know was it a book, was it a book about my mother, or me, or motherhood in general (boring, I think) or what, and I was talking to my friend Emma Espiner about being frustrated and she said, “oh you should ask Renèe; I think she teaches a memoir course, and she’s good value I think you’ll like her” and I felt a bit strange about just hitting up a writer who I’d never met, just cold like, but I went to her website, and she had a button for a memoir course, and so I sent an email saying, “er could I do this, and any chance I could do it at home, because I can’t drive over to Ōtaki with work and childcare etc” and she just wrote back and said ka pai, she’d taught remotely because of COVID already, and she’d do it again. She told me the conditions, writing exercises for an hour on a Friday, and then you just had to write pages as well.
And in my haste to get started, I didn’t really take any notice of the amount of pages she wanted, but it was 10 which meant I was writing 4000 words a week suddenly- and then very soon, I found a spine for the story, which was Carol. And Renée paid me the ultimate compliment of taking me seriously as a writer, she didn’t care what else was going on, she wanted the 10 pages at midday every Weds, I think it was, and the feedback would come back – brief, direct, useful – and that was how we did it.
She gave me a sense of the discipline necessary to do good work – you have to take it seriously. And she didn’t take any shit – one week I wrote 11 pages thinking she’d be impressed, and she sent back a note saying “‘the requirement is 10. Don’t do that again.”
She also, and this mattered, never for one second questioned the importance, or the relevance of telling the story of my mother, and my story as a daughter. She said something along the lines of “people will relate. We don’t talk about these things with our mothers and it’s worth doing.”
Also: Renée has finished teaching the course now, I think. I’m saying that in case she gets inundated with emails. There’ll be another course though, or just write 10 pages a week and have them done by weds midday. You’re welcome.
The fact that the first draft was written in 10 weeks suggests a real sense of momentum – you had to write this. And yet the things I liked most about the book was the careful prose. You have such a good style – a light poetry, and a wonderful ear. Were you surprising yourself with Grand, did you secretly allow yourself to think: “This is quite good”? What mistakes were made, what happy accidents?
There was only one bit that I thought ‘this is quite good’ – I was trying for ages with the dialogue in the part about my school days, just to get this one teacher, and one day I heard her saying “could you open the window there, tis very close” and I was so happy to remember that, because suddenly she was there.
The biggest mistake was early on trying to write bits of journalism in between some scenes, like, contraception being banned in Ireland, or the Church or something, that was so bad.
Happy accident – being able to write it all out of order, in scenes, because that was literally the sum of my powers, just remember scenes and write them, and then somehow they ordered themselves how they needed to be at the end, well they didn’t order themselves – it was Vanessa Manhire and [Penguin publisher] Claire Murdoch.
Writers shouldn’t need permission/validation etc, apparently you’re supposed to just give that to yourself. I’m not one of those writers. I needed permission and validation. My husband John Daniell was the first person to read the stuff that won the Fish prize, he edited it, and told me it was good. I’d never have written Grand if it wasn’t for him, and he named the book as well. So, all roads lead back to John.
Getting back to the compelling question of drinking too much…There are really striking changes of register throughout Grand, and one of them occurs when you write about coming to Auckland. The book takes on a shiny, golden, happy kind of glow. The isthmus is flooded with sunshine and there you are, waitressing and becoming a famous broadcaster at bFM, having a great time – until you don’t. “Drink wakes me.” And: “It was my favourite kind of night, day-drinking that slid into evening.” Also, when you look at your diary of engagements, and realise: “There’s no morning next week that I’m not going to be hung-over.” I got the sense you could sometimes be a mean drunk. Yes?
Yeah, I adored Auckland when I got there. How many cities actually sparkle? Still does, all blue and green, I love it.
I think I definitely said and did things I regretted when I was drunk. God you’re really hung up on the compelling question of drinking too much, aren’t you? People love that!
Do you remember being out one night drinking and running into Steve Gray (Steve Gray! THE Steve Gray!) and you mentioning you hadn’t watched the final episode of The Sopranos and him then telling you what happened – no spoiler alert! – and you really, really laying into him? Certainly you had just cause but your response was kind of extreme. Does this ring a bell?
This does ring a bell, like, very faintly. First I want to say I’m sorry to Steve if he’s reading this, because spoilers or no, I’m sure he didn’t deserve that abuse.
(Also that ending is so fucking open ended it’s practically unspoilable. Like, what did he say? “AND THE SCREEN JUST GOES BLACK”?)
But I guess, mostly, I’m just a bit sad and sorry reading this, because on the one hand, I always wanted to be the kind of person who could just say what she wanted and do what she wanted and not give a damn, but I only ever did that when I was drinking, and too drunk to remember, or in blackout, and so I never was that person at all, really.
That is a very sad answer and I want to come back to that later.
One feature of the book is that you are very discreet. No kissing and telling; there’s a brief, unhappy reference to men trusting you to not to betray them to their wives and girlfriends. There’s no names, almost ever, to the point where you mention a red-haired food writer being really generous to you and we have to guess who – I don’t think you will mind if I ask if it were Peta Mathias? And the boorish asshole at Prego, might that be Paul Henry? There’s this whole thing these days isn’t there of not telling other people’s stories without their permission or whatever, which drives me up the wall. Was that something you were conscious of respecting in Grand?
Ahahaha you’re so funny. Why does it drive you up the wall?
Yeah, I was trying to be respectful. And not tell too much, or too little, you know, be coy about things, because that infuriates me when I read it, sensing that someone is dancing around.
I’m just conscious that people, whose stories intersect with mine, have a right to privacy. I mean, my mother’s the biggest one, and I do agonise a bit over putting her in a book like this, without her express permission. But I comfort myself with the maybe-fantasy that she knew I was writing the whole time, and that I had already started writing about her, and told her I was writing about her, at the end of her life. She said she didn’t care. I guess ultimately, this is me deciding that my ambition – my desire to tell this story, to be a writer, and my fulfillment in doing so – outweigh my scruples, which, you know, is a thing to carry. But also, I did give the manuscript to my sister and my father, and I was prepared to take anything out they didn’t like or want in there, so that was another sop to my conscience.
Also, the no names thing, is partly I think, I just wanted to make this a story more than anything, like a proper narrative that drives itself along and you can get into, even though it is all true, and I felt like, in the NZ context at least, having recognisable names in there, would just slow things down, whip you out of the story for a moment, and I didn’t want that.
But yes, that’s Peta, she’s in the acknowledgements, she was so kind to me, she picked me up from the airport- who even does that???
It’s not Paul Henry at Prego. Surely you know who it is? Double breasted suit? Smoker? Do I have to spell it out for you? (No. I won’t. I don’t think he’d sue, I mean, it’s all true, but still.)
Double-breasted suit! Smoker! Aha. Right. Yes.
To return to that previous answer, about you “not being that person” – this gets at the Noelle who doesn’t drink, the Noelle behind the bottle. In a chapter that deals with you stopping drinking, you write about “what I am most afraid of. That I’ve stopped drinking, only to reveal a deeper pathology.” That “deeper pathology” – is that a way of describing the central issue of Grand, that is, your relationship with your Mammy?
Ahaha, God no! The deeper pathology is just that I might be a fundamentally unhappy person.
What happened was, when I stopped drinking, the first thing I encountered was a load of sorrow. I know now, with a bit of distance, that was probably just the way it was, and kind of appropriate, I’d been bottling (ahem) everything up. And I knew sorrow, I knew it from my mother. But I didn’t know how to deal with it at all, so it overwhelmed me, and that time, in that chapter you’re talking about, I was just so frightened that this was my new reality, and it would always be like that. Which I guess covers the Mammy relationship – like, that we just used to fight like two unhappy cats in a bag.
So, you are right actually, that is a way of describing our relationship, of course it is. All leads back to the mother! You have to laugh.
You make a brief mention of the time you got busted for plagiarism, when a journalist (not named in the book but I think Kim Knight) found you out. This was towards the end of your drinking too much. I talked about how you write with different registers, and there’s a rapidly descending register to that section of the book – you’re falling, plummeting, and I guess it’s either towards redemption or some enduring darkness. Kim’s phone call occurs around about then. Did you panic?
That whole time of my life was a panic, it was awful. I remember the phone call.
What do you remember about it?
Yeah, I don’t want to keep talking about that. It’s in the book, people can read it there, I put in what I remember.
You write about the last drink you ever had – “a big gin and tonic, somewhere between 2am and 3am”. That’s got to be the most important drink you ever had. Can you take us there, the place and the glass and the feeling?
Beefeater gin, out of a bottle on the bench. Tall glass- no ice.
It was the end of a dinner, everyone was gone home. I was listening to Cat Power I think, or Mazzy Star, something a bit maudlin/wispy. I sat on the sofa, probably had a cigarette. I don’t remember how it tasted or anything, probably awful (warm). No idea that that would be my last drink, I’d have paid closer attention to it, I think, had I known.
Last question! And this is from that writer friend, who asks: “how often does she want to neck some vodka like Mammy and tell everyone to get fucked?” But actually you answer it in the first chapter when you write that it’s “at certain times of the month”, when you “want to break things”. Is that true? Did you write that for literary affect? Or is that an actual impulse?
It’s definitely there, that urge. That’s why that bit is up the front. And it is real. If you asked me, I think I would say, I very rarely want a drink these days, or even think about it much, really, but reading back on Grand there’s quite a few moments when I say I really want a drink, oh I’d kill for a fucking drink, gimme a vodka etc. That’s mostly when I’m with my family I think, ahahaha. And also in Ireland, but I often feel the pull of it there- maybe because some of my memories of drinking in Ireland are really good, happy ones, before it all went a bit wrong.
Grand: Becoming my mother’s daughter by Noelle McCarthy (Penguin, $35) is available in bookstores nationwide.