I was lucky enough to attend four author sessions at the 2014 Brisbane Writers Festival. Over the coming days I’ll share with you some of the author’s words of wisdom and my take-aways from each of the sessions.
STRANGER THAN FICTION : When truth informs fiction why is it necessary to fictionalise it? Mark Mulholland and Brigid Delaney share the story behind the story of their controversial debut novels.
Friday 5th September
Mark Mulholland was born and raised in a town on the Irish border, where he left school at sixteen. He now lives with his wife and their four children in France. A Mad and Wonderful Thing is his first novel.
Brigid Delaney is a former lawyer turned journalist. She has been a staff writer and editor for The Sydney Morning Herald, worked in digital news and on the foreign desk at the Telegraph in London. In 2009 she published a non-fiction work This Restless Life but her latest book Wild Things is her first published fiction.
How did these novels come about?
While working for The Sydney Morning Herald Brigid spent six months doing research for a planned story series on the darker side of life at Australian elite colleges. What she learned was shocking and in some cases involved families of great influence in Australian society so her employer did not run the stories for legal reasons. Although not able to use all the information she’d gathered in a non-fiction piece, since she’d spent so much time on this subject matter she decided to use it as inspiration for a work of fiction.
Having grown up amongst everyday people involved in the IRA conflict, the question of ‘why boys go to war’ and ‘the us and them thinking that is the root of all wars’ was something Mark Mulholland always knew he wanted to write about. He was intrigued by ‘the paradox in the boy’ and his observation that ‘the most deadly were otherwise the most charming’.
Much has been written about the main character in A Mad and Wonderful Thing, Johnny Donnelly being inspired by the author’s brother who was arrested and jailed for conspiring to cause an explosion. In actual fact Mark wrote the opening chapters of this novel in 1991 and read those early chapters to his brother who was only a child at the time. The youngest child in a large family, his brother was an especially bright boy with more opportunities than most. The first Mark knew of his involvement in the IRA was many years later when he saw TV footage of him and others being arrested. Since completing the novel after this event, elements of his brother’s character can be found in Johnny – but ultimately his brother grew up to become the character, not the other way around.
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Tell us a bit more about your novel’s subject matter and your writing process.
Wild Things involves the sexual assault of a foreign student perpetrated by members of a cricket team. It is primarily told from the point of view of those that committed the crime. Brigid wanted to explore the pack mentality present in college life and how its almost as if people are given a licence to be out of control. The novel is a way of ‘trying to understand that time of life’, ‘at 18 your morality is still developing’.
Why a cricket team? Cricket is generally considered a more refined sport popular among the privileged. In her research she found that perpetrators of such actions in college come from all walks of life and the boys from wealthy families who could afford the best lawyers got much lighter penalties than others. Many elite college alumni now in positions of influence in society behaved in this manner during their college years.
We say we have an egalitarian society in Australia, but I don’t believe that’s true.
Brigid wrote Wild Things over a 7 year period, much of the first draft scrawled in notebooks in pubs around Bloomsbury where she was working at the time. She found writing from the points of view of so many different characters quite difficult at times. She recommends never spending that much time with one novel in your life, as she came to both love it and hate it, particularly during the long and sometimes torturous editing process.
In A Mad and Wonderful Thing Mark juxtaposes timeless Irish mythology with the relatively modern IRA conflict.
Writing is the exposition of patterns of human behaviour… the patterns of life haven’t changed.
Mark spoke with such wonderful passion about this topic. He believes his ‘job as a writer is to present conflict and let the reader make the choices and judgement’, a concept of ‘externalised conscience’. Throughout history it has been men, and boys in particular, that have been drawn to violent conflict with single-minded conviction. His novel offers up ‘the conundrum in life – is it right to kill, and if so when?’
Having begun this novel so long ago, he came back to it seven years ago. Now in his 40s, he felt to write about such universal and important subject matter life experience was necessary – ‘he wouldn’t have had the gravitas to write this story when he was young’. The title A Mad and Wonderful Thing came very late in the piece. He actually used a working title ‘Cause’, just as a reminder during the writing process, away to keep him focused on the underlying purpose/meaning and not get carried away by the myriad of story elements.
Both titles feature the word ‘Thing’. What is the ‘thing’ being referred to in each?
For Brigid the ‘thing’ is the actions and bad behaviour, the people perpetrating the violence, and also the fact that these youth are given licence to be out of control in college with little long term ramifications.
For Mark the ‘thing’ is romance, the girl Johnny adores, the conflict and history. More broadly, the mad and wonderful thing is how in life the same stories are continually being recycled.
‘You wouldn’t get involved, Johnny, would you? What about those terrible bombs? You wouldn’t do a bad thing, would you?’
In this passionate and heart-wrenching debut novel by Irish writer Mark Mulholland, we meet Johnny Donnelly — an intense young man who is in love with books, with his country, and with the beautiful Cora Flannery. But in his dark and secret other life he shoots British soldiers: he is an IRA sniper.
How can this be? As his two worlds inevitably move towards a dramatic collision, Johnny takes us on a journey through the history, legends, and landscapes of his beloved Ireland. In the end, Johnny has to make sense of his inheritance and his life, and he does so in a riveting, redemptive, and unforgettable climax.
Told in Johnny’s unique voice, and peopled by a cast of extraordinary characters, A Mad and Wonderful Thing tells its tale lightly, but pulls a heavy load. It takes us beyond the charming, familiar, and often funny experiences of everyday life to the forces that bind people together, and that set them against each other — and to the profound consequences of the choices that they make.
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A controversial novel of power, prestige and pack mentality exposes the dark underbelly of college life at a prominent university
St Anton’s university college is a cradle for privileged young men and women. With its Elysian lush green lawns and buildings of golden sandstone, it seems like a place where nothing bad could ever happen. One weekend, members of the college cricket team go to the mountains for a wild weekend away. Things spiral rapidly out of control, and a young Malaysian student they dragged along with them as part of a cruel prank goes missing. When the boy is found by some bushwalkers on a rock ledge, barely clinging to life, most people think it’s because of a fall, but the St Anton’s men know better. The stress of keeping their collective secret however becomes harder and harder to bear, and even the heavy wrought-iron fences of the college can’t keep out reality… Dark, dangerous, bloody and visceral, this is a story of power, prestige and the pack mentality that forms the underbelly of campus life at a prestigious university. With overtones of The Secret History meets Brett Easton Ellis, this is the debut of a thrilling new Australian writer.
- Ink in the Veins: Books by Newspaper Reporters (omnivoracious.com)
- REVIEW: A Mad and Wonderful Thing by Mark Mulholland (Review by Caroline Baum) (booktopia.com.au)