This is an interview with novelist Laura Bloom.
Laura Bloom's latest book, The Cleanskin is the story of The Troubles, Irish Identity, and the lingering damage from sectarian conflict that reaches across families and the world. Based on real events, The Cleanskin is a story of intense human relationships with a cast of flawed and entirely believable characters. Our Content Director Liam Pieper spoke to Laura about her new book, and a literarary career which has focussed on people traditionally left out of the frame as well as what happens after what would be the climax in many stories.
Firstly, congratulations on publishing The Cleanskin. Let’s start with a nice, easy softball question to establish a rapport: did you find writing your second novel the nightmarish sophomore hell-scape that so many authors seem to?
I love your softly softly approach … but yes, actually, I can’t think of a better to describe it! The first draft of the novel was a dream which then, on subsequent drafts became a nightmarish hell-scape of structural issues - especially, as this is a psychological thriller - of what to reveal when; shifting time scapes; and difficulties with the portrayal of one of the lead characters, Halley. She’s a difficult person who does unlikable things, and it was a challenge to present her in such a way that readers would be willing to keep on going with her.
Let’s consider Halley, this “difficult person who does unlikable things.” and the challenges in writing her. It might be the creeping sense of dread that accompanies me in all matters publishing, but there seems to be growing perception that readers are not interested unlikely characters – particularly those who aren’t flag marked as villainous, or who are fleetingly sympathetic. How do you balance a rich character, fully flawed, with keeping the reader’s sympathy?
Oh, Liam, I share your creeping sense of dread … except it’s galloping for me at this stage. I don’t know if it’s just in Australian publishing or more widespread, but characters seem to need to be what’s called ‘relatable’. If I understand this as meaning you have to be able to understand a character's psychological and emotional journey, then I agree, but if it means you have to think ‘that could be me,’ and identify with them personally, then that would pretty much wipe out 90% of my favourite books - because I could never be, nor would want to be like Daryl Van Horne, the devil from John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick, or the wicked Xenia from Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, to pick two random examples.
In the case of The Cleanskin I tried to ameliorate Halley’s harshness by having her be extraordinarily beautiful and yet klutzy, bake cakes and be nice to animals … just kidding! No, what I did was to try to bring the reader into as much intimacy with her as possible in the hope that ‘to understand all is to forgive all,’ as Voltaire said. I also hoped that her charisma and willingness to take action – from initiating her first kiss to confronting her son about his homework – would keep readers interested in her, even if they didn’t ‘like’ her.
This is a novel based on real events. How closely do you stick to them in your fiction?
The most important ‘real events’ written about in the novel were the tactics employed by British intelligence services and the IRA to recruit volunteers, gain political influence, and white-ant the other side, including violence, intimidation, disinformation and the creation of organisations like ‘Progress’, the organisation that my character Megan joins in Sydney.
The other most noteworthy one to mention here, also, perhaps, is the emergence of ‘cleanskins’ - people recruited from the Irish diaspora who came over to the UK in the 1990s to participate in an action and then go back home with no one the wiser – which has been trickling out in the news over the last decade.
Although, as is so much the case in this war, and in any civil war to varying extents, the public can never be sure it has the full story, and for good reason.
The research I conducted over many years included reading many first hand accounts of people from all sides of the conflict, including Open Secret, Stella Remington’s autobiography, who was the director general of MI5 during some of the time in which the novel is set, as well as more analytical works, like Rebel Hearts – Journeys Within the IRA’s Soul by Kevin Toolis. I was also glued to the Guardian and the Observer’s newspaper investigative reporting into the activities of the British security services in the 1990s, and the many articles published in the London Review of Books about the Northern Ireland peace process over the last twenty years as well.
When researching and creating my story, one of my guiding questions is not ‘did it happen?’ but ‘could it have happened?’ Once I’ve satisfied myself that it could, I go on and weave as compelling a narrative as possible.
Let’s talk about The Troubles. What inspired you to tackle this still very raw rift in Irish society, one which is still felt throughout the Irish diaspora worldwide?
Personally, I’m from a ‘mixed marriage’, and I have always been fascinated by the capacity of our identity to shift and change as we go through experiences in life. Sometimes I have felt more anglo, and at other times more Catholic Irish. One of these times was in the 80s, when Bobby Sands died. I, along with millions of people all over the world felt more and more Irish as the Troubles mounted, to the point where Bill Clinton, then President of the USA, came out in support of the IRA, which was a terrorist organisation.
In a broader way, the reason I wanted to write about this is because I think we’re always living on a continuum of struggle – for equality, resources, respect – and that the kind of violent struggle Megan gets involved in is at one end of that spectrum, but that we are all, in everything we do, actors in that struggle, and that what we do has far reaching consequences.
And, of course, as political and other events impinge on us, also. Donald Trump, for example at the moment is awakening a dormant ‘white’ identity in people, which I wonder if they would have claimed a few years ago. Or Black Lives Matter.
On a boarder level there’s a feeling that we’re post-war now. We’re post so many things. Arthur Miller. In my fiction I want to explore these assumptions, and expose them. We’re as vulnerable to exploitation as anybody else. We have scars not healed and vulnerable. As Donald Trump shows. As Bobby Sands showed. Identity is shifting. Black Lives Matter. Or, interestingly, Irishness in the US is skyrocketing (the mash-up Americans).
This story, about the rifts caused by violence, followed your last novel, one set in the aftermath of the second world war. Is the aftermath of great violence a theme you are drawn to? And why?
These are the founding facts of our identity. Yet they are shrouded in silence. I don’t know if this is WASPishness, or the result of trauma, or the result of prosperity. It’s not all a bad thing. But there’s gold in the shadow, as Jung said. There’s so much in those silences that we need to hear.
One key inspiration was the assassination of Pat Finucane, a human rights lawyer in Belfast, in 1989, and the other was the Murphy Affair, involving the politically motivated smearing of a judge and prominent Sydney lawyer in 1984. From the proven facts of these events I created the jumping off points for my story – however the similarities ended there. Most of the events in the novel are informed by real events – Other story elements, like the sexual involvement of certain characters to further hidden, ‘official’ aims has been exposed and covered as an ongoing issue by the Guardian newspaper over the last ten years in relation to other activities of MI5. The bombing campaigns referred to in the novel actually happened at that time, with those actual targets … I could go on and on.
However, the most important ‘fact’ I wanted to explore is a subjective one: of how much our cultural, racial and religious identities are formed and influenced by events outside ourselves. In the case of The Cleanskin - of how much a sense of ‘Irishness’ was awoken – or re–awoken, as I’m not sure it ever went away – as a political energy in the world during that time.
To read an extract of The Cleanskin, click here.
The real events which kick off the story, specifically, are the Morgan Ryan Affair in Australia in the 1980s, which is the triggering event for Megan’s journey into Irish Catholic militancy as a teenager, and the murder of Pat Finucane, a prominent civil rights lawyer, in Belfast in that same decade. The organisation Megan joins in Australia, which is dedicated to finding peaceful solutions to the Troubles in Northern Ireland and supporting the prisoners of war in gaol is based on Congress, which was operating in Sydney – and all over the world – in the early 1990s. Like many organisations supporting the ‘peaceful arm’ of a protest movement, the lines between peaceful means and violent ones can become very blurred. If you’re supporting POWS for example, or their families, then it could be said you are helping the continuation of the war. My concern when writing fiction based on research is not ‘did it happen?’ but ‘could it have happened?’ and in every element of this story, I was satisfied that it could.
This idea of Cleanskins, of people returning to a motherland to fight in a sectarian war, seems particularly germane to this moment in history, when young, disenfranchised people from around the world are flocking in the middle east to fight on one side of the war against ISIS or the other. For some time, I’ve wondered about inherited hatred in Australia - ethnic groups who might not have any experience of the old country, but are enraged about old injustices. Is there some element of Australian society, some silence around these issues, that allows anger to grow into the point where it becomes an action?
In Australia, repression, avoidance and denial are cultural characteristics which I think stems from our Anglo/Protestant Establishment roots, where these ways of behaving are the norm. Conflict is to be avoided at all costs, and, as someone who is at least half from that background, I can see a lot to admire in this. You can get through Christmas dinner without an argument, for example. Except that sometimes I think it would be better for the argument to happen, because what you are at risk of getting when you don’t allow the expression of emotion or opinion is protracted seething in one quarter, and a blithe obliviousness in the other who are, after all, happy with the status quo. A chasm then opens up which sends people further into their respective corners and can only exacerbate the original problems.
There’s something I always struggle with in writing about almost true things, the events that, as you put it ‘could have happened’ – the job of writing fictional characters and stories that reflect a greater truth in the real world can be so fraught. The process of blurring the lines between source material, inspiration and your narrative hunches is such a nebulous thing, and the temptation can be to take somebody’s lived experience and re-work it to suit your story. The way Patrick White put it is that we are all magpies, forever swooping down to steal something we want. Did you run into anything through your research that completely changed how you wrote this story? Or conversely, was there anything you wanted to use but couldn’t?
You put it really well about how fraught it is, and how a hunch can accidentally land on the truth sometimes – which is wonderful if it’s an abstract one, and awful if it turns out to be personal.
I think there’s a moral responsibility when writing about the past to make it very clear when a character or situation is fictional or based on reality, so that you are not accidentally creating or contributing to a lie.
That’s why in the acknowledgements of the book I made it very clear that while the basic circumstances of the Murphy Affair in Australia and the assassination of Pat Finucane in Northern Ireland formed the basis of the jumping off points for The Cleanskin, any resemblances ended there. I made a point of not learning anything more about the real people involved in either of these cases because of the risk of unconsciously using them.
One of the reasons the book took six years to write is because my ending completely changed when I discovered more about what’s been happening in the UK since the Belfast Peace agreement. I won’t say any more because I don’t to spoil it.
Finally, the character of Mrs Sharma - whom Aidan befriends in India, and who confides in him about her abusive husband - caused me a lot of pause for thought, as she is based on a real person and a real encounter I had when travelling in Southern India. I felt I didn’t know enough about that culture or those circumstances to effectively fictionalize it without running into other untruths, and yet I wanted to be very careful, in the billion to one chance of her or anyone connected to her ever reading it, that she wouldn’t be identified. I trust I’ve done that.
Earlier, you said that at different times you’ve felt more Irish or more Anglo. I think this is not uncommon in Australia. It’s little like Boston, when, on certain religious holidays, or St Pat’s, or sporting events everyone suddenly claims Irish ancestry. I’ve been known to do it, although I am only 38% Irish (I know precisely - I got my genes tested), I”m still more Irish than anything else, so when pressed with “Where are you from?” I shrug and claim Ireland. This weird, nascent second nationalism many Australians seem to harbour - where does it come from, and has it influenced the way you’ve written this novel?
I love that you know it down to the percentage. I think partly in Australia it’s due to our status as an immigrant nation – no matter how long your family has been here, it’s still a short amount of time compared to how much longer they would have been in the ‘old country’. It’s also a part of this vexed question of how to create a vibrant culture that honours the past, and the potential of the new, without simply becoming a bland denial of any culture at all – which ‘new’ countries like the US and Australia can be in danger of falling into.
In the case of Irish nationalism - it’s a very special thread that runs throughout the British Empire, because Ireland was the first country colonized by the English, and the trauma of that colonization has had so many consequences, including the exporting of Irish and other ‘unwanted’ minorities to the colonies, the Diaspora, and the ongoing oppression and discrimination in the new countries. Not to mention the virulent Catholic/Protestant struggles that convulsed England and Europe throughout the late middle ages. It runs deep in the DNA of the British Empire, and has the potential to flare into life under many guises – including class conflict and political/ideological divides, which, you peel back the surface layers you can often find a pretty clear Catholic/Protestant divide still operating.
It’s one of the reasons I thought this would make a good novel.
And just like that, I’m all out of questions. Is there anything you’d like to add?'
Only that I actually love baking, and so when I joked that my next character was going to be beautiful and klutzy and love baking that in no way was mean to disrespect baking!
To read an extract of The Cleanskin, click here.
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