Catherine Dunne

Missing Julia – An interview with Catherine Dunne

by Elizabeth Rose Murray  (originally posted on Listowel Writers’ Week 2011 blog)

Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this interview; especially seeing as it’s so close to Writer’s Week. Let’s start with your latest book, Missing Julia, which contains a strong ethical theme.

Is it really possible to make choices for ourselves in isolation,  to decide on a course of action that feels right to us, but may be outside acceptable social and moral norms?

We may all be individuals, but our choices have an impact on the communities of which we are part.  In that sense, even without wishing it, we are also choosing for others.

In my book, Julia makes a decision that she believes to be ethical.  A reader might disagree – I might disagree – but, nonetheless, she has made a choice and acts upon it.  In one way, the consequences are immediate – and I don’t want to elaborate here, as I have no wish to spoil any of the dramatic tension of the novel for potential readers.

Julia remains consistent in her belief that she behaved correctly and ethically.  However, when the wider community becomes involved, she is forced to reassess that choice – and is honest enough to see that issues do not lose their moral complexity simply because we have chosen a particular course of action.

And this is one of the purposes of fiction: to explore such dilemmas without the imperative of delivering a ‘right’ or a ‘final’ answer.Not all readers will agree with Julia’s decision. How do you feel if a reader disagrees with the behaviour of one of your characters?

I am always very happy when readers disagree with the course of action decided upon by one of my fictional characters.  As a writer, this makes me feel that I have created a dilemma that feels authentic to the reader; that I have posed a question to which there is no simple answer.  It also means that the fictional character has evoked a reader’s response, that the reader has engaged with him or her, and that they embark together along the fictional journey that the writer has created.

This is the best possible outcome for me as a writer: not so much that the reader likes or dislikes or identifies with fictional characters – but that, above all,  the reader believes in them.Was it necessary for Julia to abandon everyone she loved without any explanation?  She certainly thought so – but how did you feel, as the writer – was this the strating point or did the idea develop as your book developed?

Well, that is one of the strange things about writing fiction.  In the moment this novel was born, I had the image in my mind’s eye of a woman who walked away from her life.  I didn’t know why.  At the start, I had no idea of what drove Julia to do as she did.  I needed to write her story to find out.  I needed to learn what lay behind her compulsion to escape.

Her flight was spurred by many conflicting emotions, I believe: fear, love, perhaps even shame and guilt, and a desire to make reparation.  It has never felt to me that Julia’s disappearance had  much to do with finding her ‘inner self again’ – for me it has always felt like a complex web of love, anguish, a desire to protect those around her, and a need to escape to somewhere where she might be able to make a difference to people’s lives.

I adore the fact that Julia and William love each other with passion and freedom, without feeling embarrassed by their bodies. This is an unusual aprroach- what was your thinking behind this?

I deliberately made Julia and William ‘older’ lovers.  They are both in their sixties – but both still very much in the world.  Curious, active, valuing friendship, engaged with all aspects of life.

I did this because when Julia started to take root in my imagination, she was already an ‘older’ woman.  And also because our culture tends to be obsessed by youth: that only those who are young and beautiful deserve to be loved.  It is almost as though older people – particularly women – disappear from view as they age.  Look at the common complaint of women in Hollywood: they are aware that after the age of 35, interesting roles for female actors become very scarce indeed.  The fact that we might be able to name two or three still-famous faces merely shows that the exceptions prove the rule.

I am astonished by this common cultural perception that older people have no rich interior lives: that somehow if our bodies begin to sag, our intellect and emotional engagement and wisdom similarly begin to disappear.

Rubbish.  Personally, I feel that our understanding, our ability to read our experience and our knowledge of the world all increase as we age.  And we develop the ability to reflect – something which is not notably a part of youth.

I also feel that as we grow older, we grow in confidence and self-awareness.  But at the same time, we lose that crippling self-consciousness that is often a part of youth.  William and Julia enjoy each other on every level – emotional, physical, intellectual, sexual.

Their relationship, because of that level of understanding, transcends their physical selves.  It gives them the freedom to love without agonizing over their physical imperfections – in fact, I’d suggest that they don’t even see them.

Your books centre around everyday people and their relationships, with strong female characters at the core, determined to find their answers. How did this arise?

‘Strong’ people usually become so because they have faced and dealt with some of the knotty problems of being human and living in the world as best they can.  I am drawn to their stories because I believe and have always believed that there is no such thing as a ‘common’ or an ‘ordinary’ live.

I believe that below the surface of what we perceive as ordinary, lies the most extraordinary vein of human experience.  From the outside, both William and Julia are ordinary people – their intertwining stories allow us to glimpse a very different, alternative existence.

I have always been sustained by friendship.  It is a very special gift – one which most women have a talent for.  It was a particular pleasure, therefore, to deal with the friendship between Jack and William, and also between Julia, Saoirse and Roisin.

Where would we all be without those who listen to us with affection, understanding and compassion – and who never judge us?

Where do you find inspiration? This is your eighth novel and it seems you never lack imagination. Are you already writing your next book?

Stories are all around us: all we have to do is look for them!  A writer has, perhaps, a more curious eye, a more attuned ear – and this feeds the authorial imagination.  And yes, I have just embarked on a new novel.

But I never discuss a ‘work in progress’.

They have a magic all their own – and talking about something that is still in the deep waters of the imagination can have an adverse effect.  If this delicate creation surfaces too soon, the ripples carry away the soul of the story, making it lose all of its imaginative potency.

(To view this interview on the Writers Week blog, click here)

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