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Liam Browne
The Emigrantís Farewell has a most powerful and hypnotic sense of place, very visual and evocative. How important is the sense of place in your writing?
A sense of place is hugely important. When I think back to the books that first made an impression on me, such as Robert Louis Stevensonís KIDNAPPED, they all share an ability to capture the essence of a location or landscape. As for Derry, which is my homeplace, I had always wanted to write a novel about it. As a city, it has a very rich sense of itself and of its place in the world. I use a quote from Sean OíFaolainís IRISH JOURNEY to preface the novel; OíFaolain refers to Derry as a perfect setting for a novel and describes the city as having Ďa strong personality.í It was that Ďstrong personalityí that intrigued me. The city was built originally on a bend in the river and is therefore, in a certain sense, tucked away; its personality, in part, comes from its location, and this includes a very strong sense of family and of community and a slight suspicion of the outside world. I had a surplus of detail of course so had to decide which details would best capture the city for a reader who had never been there whilst also offering a certain resonance beyond the surface facts. If you canít convince the reader about the setting for a novel, it undermines everything - how are you then going to persuade them about the narrative and about characterisation?
Although the novel is set in Derry, the Troubles are not explicitly referred to in the book. How conscious was this decision?
Not a conscious decision as such - to be honest Iíve never been that interested in writing about the Troubles. Though of course that may change. But, having lived through it, I probably still feel too close to the experience to write about it with any perspective. While I didnít deliberately set out to write a book about contemporary Northern Ireland that would ignore the Troubles I may subconsciously have wanted to play down its importance. I see it as a very small (though important) part of Derryís history, but no more than that. Who knows how it will be viewed two hundred years from now? The Troubles will be subsumed into the cityís history like everything else. Thereís a moment in the book when William Coppin climbs Walkerís Pillar, which once stood on the city walls and offered a panoramic view of the developing city in the mid-nineteenth century. The pillar though was blown up by the IRA in the 1970ís so Joe OíKane, in the present-day, can only stand on the spot where it once stood. Itís only in small references like this, Iím glad to say, that the Troubles intrudes into the book.
How difficult was it to balance the scale of the two narratives Ė broad and dramatic in the Arctic exploration and closely observed and ordinary in Derry?
My biggest concern throughout was balancing the narratives successfully. Thereís really three stories operating in the novel, that of Joe OíKane in the present day, William Coppin in the mid-nineteenth century, and linked to both of these, the search in the Arctic for the missing Sir John Franklin and his men. When youíre having to move back and forward between stories thereís always the danger that readers will start to get annoyed with this. And thereís also the danger that theyíll prefer one story to the others. One of the more general delights of writing is a growing awareness of what does and doesnít interest you - you donít necessarily know this at the beginning of a book. During the writing of THE EMIGRANT'S FAREWELL I realised that Iím fascinated by those moments in history when small-town life briefly rubs up against an event of international significance, thereís a strange friction and heat produced. In this instance, how Derry played a part, however small, in the greatest mystery of the day, the search for Sir John Franklin and his crew. What effect did that have on certain individuals and on the city collectively? Iíve started writing a new novel and while most of it is set in the United States, it begins with another similar moment in Derryís history - when in 1932 Amelia Earhart landed on the outskirts of the city to become the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. There was some confusion upon Earhartís landing, she wasnít sure what country she was in and the first locals she met hadnít a clue who she was or the significance of what they had just witnessed. For a writer thatís a wonderfully rich scenario.
Departure is evident in both the title and the narrative. How central is departure or journey to the individual characters?
The title of the book comes from a folk song and I liked it because, for my purposes, it seemed a perfect metaphor for death. All those emigrants who during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries boarded the ships at Derry knew that their goodbyes to friends and family were almost certainly final. Emigration then was a form of death. For the emigrants, and for those standing at the quayside, they had nothing to fall back on but their memories of each other. And when we suffer a bereavement itís exactly the same, a few physical mementos and our memory are all we have to keep that person from disappearing for ever. Thereís a restlessness that runs through the book: in Joe OíKaneís case, heís restless for change, William Coppin wants to build the ship of his dreams, and Sir John Franklin strives to find the North-West Passage. For Joe and for Coppin there is eventually some form of accommodation with the shape of their lives, for Franklin his restless nature leads to an early death.
Loss is central to THE EMIGRANT'S FAREWELL. Do you feel the OíKanesí individual responses to catastrophic loss are typical?
Part of the difficulty in writing about grief is that while, to some extent, it has to be typical to be believable, it also has to be individual to ring true. And Joe and Eileen OíKaneís response to loss is going to be strikingly different to that of William Coppin in an earlier century. I hadnít really anything to go on except a sense of how I personally would react in such circumstances (in writing about Coppin any response to loss or grief had to be filtered through the constraints of the time). After Iíd finished the novel I happened to read Joan Didionís memoir, A YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING (a marvellous book, by the way), in which she describes her attempts to come to terms with the death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. At one point Didion mentions her desire for the world to stay exactly as it is because change takes her away from the world her husband had lived in. Iíd described something similar in the novel because it seemed to me a core human response to loss, so in a way it was gratifying to see it crop up elsewhere. As much as loss, absence plays a huge part in the book, absence through death or separation or enforced distance. When I researched the history of Arctic exploration for the book, I was stunned by the hardships that these men had to face and the stoicism with which they faced them. They would leave their wives and families and be gone for up to five years, five years of no contact with home. And imagine the strength and stoicism needed by those wives and children, not knowing whether their husbands and fathers were alive or dead. Iím probably making the book sound much grimmer than it actually is; I hope thereís also an uplift of spirit that counteracts the gloom.
Supernatural intervention plays a part in Franklinís story, and is subtly conjured in the OíKanesí story. What are your thoughts on spirits and spirituality and their role in your writing?
I donít really have any particular view on spirits or spirituality. When I began the novel I intended it to be contemporary but after a while I realised I needed another story, preferably historical and preferably true, to complement it. It took me a while to come across the story of Weesy Coppin and of her return as a ghost to haunt the family home, but once I did I knew immediately it was the story I was looking for. Then I had to research Coppin and, beyond that, Franklin and the search for the North-West passage. At around the time of Franklinís disappearance there was a growing interest in spiritualism and the idea of communicating with the dead - attending seances was becoming popular. So Weesyís reappearance fitted in with the tenor of the times. The first draft of the epilogue to the novel had a fairly strong mystical feel to it and my editor, quite rightly, suggested I tone it down. It works much better now, mainly, I think, because everything is inferred rather than stated. Far better to very quietly, very gently, suggest things to the reader and let them decide.
Liam Browne

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