Rosemary Mahoney’s writing career has now spanned nearly two decades. She debuted in 1990 with The Early Arrival of Dreams (Mariner), a book about a year spent teaching in China, which was followed in 1993 by Whoredom in Kimmage (Anchor), a look at Irish life in the dawning age of the Celtic Tiger. A Likely Story: One Summer with Lillian Hellman (Anchor) was published in 1998; and was followed in 2003 by A Singular Pilgrim: Travels on Sacred Ground (Mariner). Last summer Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff was published by Little, Brown to outstanding reviews. It was one of 100 notable books of 2007 chosen by the editors of the New York Times Book Review, and was a best book of the year in both Publishers Weekly and the Christian Science Monitor. It will be published in paperback by Back Bay Books.
In this Q&A Mahoney picks up where she left off in a 2003 PW Interview. She discusses the controversy surrounding such titles as Whoredom in Kimmage and A Likely Story, the problems of being a writer, procrastination, Egyptian men’s obsession with sex, the first novel she’s gingerly working on, and her relationship to the land of her ancestors, Ireland. It’s pure unadulterated Mahoney—tough, thoughtful, revealing, provocative, funny and rawly truthful.
Why did you decide to write Down the Nile?
I didn’t undertake my trip on the Nile with the idea of writing a book about it. It was just something I had wanted to do for a long time. I took notes constantly while in Egypt, as I do just about anywhere I go, then put my notebooks away and began working on another book— The Singular Pilgrim—about the phenomenon of religious pilgrimage. When I found myself at a difficult impasse with the pilgrimage book, I started writing up my Nile notes as a form of procrastination.
I procrastinate, yes. Philip Larkin framed my sentiments exactly when he wrote in a letter to a friend, "The idea of writing makes me emit long whining farts of disgust." I, for one, find writing excruciating. Some mornings as I’m on my way to my desk my hands actually tremble with fear. The fear, of course, is that I’ll sit down at the desk and discover that what I’ve written is claptrap. Fear inevitably leads to procrastination. It’s rare that I’m able to get to my desk in the morning without stopping halfway there, turning around, and going in the opposite direction because of a pressing need to straighten all the pictures on the walls, floss my teeth a second time, and make certain that there really are 100 postage stamps in the roll of stamps I bought yesterday. After destroying an hour this way, I’ll say to myself, "Oh, you coward," and then I slink up to the desk in shame. In the case of Down the Nile, procrastination ended up making itself into a book.
If you could do it over, is there anything you’d change about the book?
No. But next time I go to Egypt, I’ll try to row the whole length of the Egyptian Nile. And probably get arrested.
One of the surprising things about Nile was the open sexual advances of the supposedly modest/holy/chaste Muslim male. Did this surprise you?
I didn’t surprise me, really. Non-Muslim women simply don’t fit into Islam’s scheme of chastity and propriety. Western women are inclined to go about in shorts and sleeveless shirts. Egyptian men tend to interpret this as an open sexual invitation. I got plenty of advances from Egyptian men in Luxor and Aswan and Cairo, and when I rejected them, the tenor of their approach usually changed and I would inevitably find myself in a long discussion about sexual mores and customs. Plenty of Egyptian men told me that they had never really had a female friend, that that they couldn’t discuss such matters with Egyptian women, and consequently those who were unmarried were ignorant of some of the most elementary facts about women. Islam in Egypt is approximately as repressive as the Irish Catholic church was during the 1940s and ’50s. That’s another way of saying very repressive.
The Egyptian women in Nile seemed repressed, but in their own way, joyful and playful. In fact, they seemed like women you might find any place around the world. Did this surprise you?
Yes, it did surprise me a little. During the ’50s, when Egypt was far less religious than it is now, most Egyptian women dressed like European women, with lots of thought for the latest styles and little thought for religious dictates. Publicly, Muslim women now appear to live in the shadows of their men. And as Islam gains power in Egypt, the importance of modesty gains power in the Egyptian mind. Yet in private, Egyptian women are still much like European and American women. A friend of mine who taught at the American University in Cairo told me that her female students used to show up at the school dressed modestly in veils and other drapery, but as soon as they stepped inside the gate they’d rip the drapes off in order to display their tight fitting jeans and revealing blouses. Egyptian women love to laugh, they love shopping, they love the sort of frilly underwear you’d find at Victoria’s Secret. (You can, by the way, find those undies in Egypt. Just don’t wear them in public.) They can be very sexy in private, they love to joke about sex and talk about men. But that’s as far as it goes. An Egyptian woman who has sex with a man before she’s married is considered unmarriageable, damaged goods, and a dark blot on the family name. More than one Egyptian man told me he would kill his sister if she had sex with a man before she was married.
Do you think the Egyptian women were jealous of your freedom as an American woman?
Yes. Some Egyptian women told me as much. And yet, I think they wouldn’t in their hearts really want to be like me. Being like me—an opinionated blabbermouth who travels around the world getting up to somewhat unconventional hijinks—would make them instantly unacceptable in their own society.
You have been a lightning rod for some critics, especially for Whoredom in Kimmage and A Likely Story. Why do you think this is so?
I got a strong reaction to Whoredom in Kimmage from some Irish and Irish-Americans who had an interest in clinging to a romanticized, infantilizing fairy tale image of Ireland and were disappointed that I didn’t invest in that image. I struck a nerve I think because I made a full picture of Irish society, a pictured that included some of the social problems prevalent there at that time. When the book was published, one Irish newspaper—approximately the Irish equivalent of our National Enquirer— printed on its first page a large photograph of me beneath a headline written in the sort of oversized bold black type you find in newspapers only when something truly dramatic happens—like, say, the pope dies or world war breaks out. The headline read, "WHY IS THIS WOMAN HATED IN IRELAND?" One outraged Irish journalist said to me, "You said in your book that the people in the village pub one night were drunk. How could you possibly say that?!"
I think the most useful thing you can do as a writer is to reconstruct real life with all its color, hardship, joy, and intrigue. If you’re interested in people, you honor them best, I think, by making the fullest possible picture of them. Your subjects may—and from my experience probably will— protest your portrait of them. People want you to see them the way they see themselves. You have no choice, though, but to see them as you see them. It’s that fact that so often brings trouble to writers of non-fiction.
In A Likely Story, I wanted to recreate the events, the mood, and the imagery of my life as a teenager. I was thirty-seven when I wrote it. I could have written the story in a psychologically reflective way, explaining events with the greater understanding and forbearance that I have as an adult. But I didn’t want to explain or apologize. I wanted to convey the emotions I felt when I was seventeen, unmitigated and untempered by what I may feel now about that time in my life. I wanted to bring the reader into that fraught experience. It’s a story about my mother, Lillian Hellman, and my perception of the world from the point of view of my teenaged self. The portraits in it may be raw because what I saw seemed quite raw then. For me to have left things out in order to make a prettier picture would have been an act of infidelity to the teenager that I was.
I think some critics felt I had tarnished Lillian Hellman’s image with that book. Rubbish. Lillian Hellman’s image was tarnished long before I came along. Open any biography of Hellman and you’ll find far worse than anything I ever said about her. People who really knew Lillian Hellman have told me my portrait of her was mild. I think what some people objected to in my book was the intimacy of the physical picture I made of her; they thought it was unkind. At seventeen, that was the way I saw it. That was my view. She could be quite a frightening person, both in mood and appearance.
In the end, A Likely Story is a book more about me than anyone else, and, as I’ve already said, deeply subjective. One reviewer wrote that in this book some of Lillian Hellman’s better qualities came through, that Hellman had obvious moments of grace, but that Rosemary Mahoney didn’t want the reader to see that. I laughed out loud when I read that. Did that reviewer think some occult hand slipped those parts of the book in there while I wasn’t looking? I wrote it, for God’s sake! What’s there, I put there for a reason. There is a lot that’s very positive in that book, and a lot of subtle emotions as well. As a teenager, I felt two ways about almost everything. Lillian Hellman was no exception. For every angry or wicked thought I had I also had a sweet or generous one. Adolescent confusion is really what the book is about.
And anyway, the only person who can really tarnish your image is you.
I believe you’re working on your first novel. I believe it’s about the Jews of 20th century Ireland. What can you tell us about it?
Yes, I’m working slowly on a novel. It isn’t exactly about the Jews of 20th century Ireland. It’s simply about one Russian Jewish woman’s experience as an accidental immigrant to Ireland in the 1930’s and how thoroughly Irish she becomes after nearly fifty years of living in Dublin. If you say you’re writing a book about a Jew in Dublin, people give you very bad looks and inevitably say, "Has that not done been done before, and done far better than you ever will do it, you fool?" Yes, it has been done before. But what I have in mind is something entirely different from what Joyce had in mind.
Lillian Hellman in A Likely Story called you what? "That little Irish girl?" Two of your books—Whoredom in Kimmage and The Singular Pilgrim—take place in or partly in Ireland and your novel will take place in Ireland. What’s your attraction to the land of your ancestors?
As an Irish American I can’t help but have a particular interest in Ireland. When I was a child it was what my older relatives, who came from Ireland, talked about incessantly. That grá [the Gaelic word for "love"] filters down and stays with you, even if you weren’t born there. My mother was born in Boston, but her mother was from Ireland. It’s odd, but I’ve noticed that as my mother has aged, her way of speaking has become much more Irish. The way she phrases things and even the way she pronounces them. It’s as if she’s taking her mother’s place.
And it’s that, really—the way the Irish speak English— that draws me. And the pleasure they seem to take in speaking. Nobody uses English more inventively or humorously than the Irish. They have a beautiful command of imagery and irony. They can also turn language into a fierce weapon. In Ireland, I’m always inspired by that originality and power, and a little bit envious. Even small children in Ireland speak English with ripping frankness and flair.
What’s your next nonfiction book going to be about? Are you under contract yet?
My next book, which is under contract with my excellent editor, Pat Strachan at Little, Brown, and under construction, is about various aspects of blindness and blind education.
Anything to add?
I don’t really feel like a writer. I wonder if anyone does. When people ask me what I do for work I find the question weirdly difficult to answer. "I’m a writer," always sounds ridiculous to me, and presumptuous, and like a lie. And when I say it, people usually look at me with either boredom or doubt. Once, in Ireland, I told a woman I was a writer and she said indulgently, "Ah, well, we all have our hobbies, darlin’."
What's your hobby?