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Pennyblackmusic writer Mary O'Meara, who has previously published ‘Between the Lines: A History of Haven’, a 2012 music biography and personal memoir about 90s indie/alternative band Haven, speaks to John Clarkson about her debut novel, 'A Certain Kind Of Light'.
In Mary O’ Meara’s extraordinary debut novel ‘A Certain Kind of Light’, its narrator Eileen McCarthy moves with her best friend Annie from Manchester to South London, and shortly after her arrival meets Charlie Gitane, a rising actor who she has already felt drawn to after watching him in plays on television and in the theatre. Eileen feels an instant powerful bond with Charlie, and their paths are further thrown together when in her new job as the performing arts editor on a local listings and entertainment magazine she starts to promote regularly the work of the Last Exit Players, the theatre company of which Charlie is the head. Charlie, however, already has a girlfriend, the charismatic Elaina. When they break-up Eileen hopes that he will turn his attention to her, but he becomes involved instead with the possessive Danielle…
Mary O’ Meara has published one previous book, a 2012 biography and personal memoir ‘Between the Lines: A History of Haven’, about the rise and slow decline of 90's indie/alternative band Haven. She is also a regular writer and sub-editor at Pennyblackmusic.
In ‘A Certain Kind of Light’ she makes strong use of its South London landscapes, and evocatively describes the suburb of Balham in which both Eileen and Annie and also at one point Charlie live, and the pubs, clubs, concert halls and art venues in which they spend much of their time. It is an area which Mary understands well. While she has lived in Manchester for many years, she was born and spent her early childhood in Tooting less than a mile away from Balham, and a further five years as an adult living in a flat-share another ten minutes away on the edge of Wandsworth Common.
It is, however, a South London of expanded reality. As Eileen’s unreturned feelings for Charlie become increasingly intense, she has on an almost nightly basis haunting and colourful dreams which she feels she needs to untangle if she is to understand her complex relationship with him. Both Annie and her experience what they term ‘duplication’, in which they keep seeing people who they know are elsewhere. Eileen also starts visiting a psychic for advice, who tells her that she and Charlie are twin souls or twin flames, whose spiritual connection is so rare and so deep that it is overwhelming, terrifying and potentially destructive for both of them…
In her second interview with us, we spoke to Mary O’Meara about ‘A Certain Kind of Light’, and where reality begins and finishes.
PB: You and Eileen have lived your life in reverse. You were brought up in South London and moved to Manchester in your mid-thirties, while Eileen is brought up in Manchester and moves down to South London at a similar age. Why did you decide to turn things that way round? Was it to put some distance between you and her?
MO: I suppose that it was. It is still similar to my own life I know, but it was to give it an immediate distance and difference but also using at the same time places that I was familiar with so that it could have some authenticity and would be real. I know South London well, so it was the obvious place to go for really (Laughs).
PB: You have said about ‘A Certain Kind of Light’ that it has “an element of autobiography though it's not straightforward”. Where does that element of autobiography begin and end?
MO: There is a strong autobiographical element but it isn’t exactly my life. I have taken a chunk of an experience that I had and packaged it in a different way and allowed myself to write around it in a way that is fictional, so the emotional experiences are very real but the story is different.
I didn’t write a straight autobiographical story because I wanted to protect my own identity and those of other people. I didn’t want to name names because it is not meant to be a book like that, and so I wanted to wrap it in fiction so that nobody is ever going to know exactly what happened in my real life just for my own protection. The emotional experiences are, however, pretty much as they happened.
PB: The bond that Eileen forms with Charlie is all-consuming. Was it as all-consuming and devastating for you as it is for Eileen?
MO: In some ways, yes. Again I allowed fiction to have its own way in telling that or trying to convey some of the emotions involved, but it probably reads as far more all-consuming in the book than the way I remember it in my own life. There were periods in which it was very intense but certainly not all the time. The book, however, is very much focused on that particular journey. In my own life there were lots of other things going on around it, but the book is very much focused on that relationship and where it takes her.
PB: What do you think Eileen’s attraction to Charlie is? Is it his creativity?
MO: That is the big unknown really because she finds herself attracted to him before she has ever met him. There are kind of ready-made feelings with her from day one or even prior to day one. You could say that it is love at first sight, whatever people may mean by that, but it is not based on anything to start with. She tries to analyse it and explain it away over many years, but doesn’t really get anywhere and she just finally accepts that it is what it is. It is just there, and it is very powerful, and it is not going away no matter what she does.
PB: How reliable a narrator is Eileen? The book is set entirely inside her head. There is not much dialogue in it, and it is basically a stream-of-consciousness monologue. Is she a dependable witness?
MO: Probably not entirely! (Laughs). It was deliberately written subjectively because that is how most of us live our lives really. It is not always easy to be objective, especially when there are strong emotions involved. I have tried to submerge her in a kind of fog because that is how she feels a lot of the time. Yet at the same time she is also aware that she may not have her facts right or some of it could be her imagination. I have tried to never confirm or deny that in the writing because that is one of the things I am writing about, the difficulty in discerning what the truth is and how we see everything and everyone and also life itself. Is it as it seems? It is unanswered really.
PB: Eileen becomes convinced that she and Charlie are twin flames, but we never really get inside his head or are sure what he is thinking as the book is not told from his perspective. Nothing ultimately happens between them. Could it be the case then as he keeps saying that he simply sees Eileen as a friend?
MO: Yeah, absolutely. It certainly could be. As the book goes on, even she doesn’t believe that that is necessarily what they are. She just believes that it is something unnameable.
I could have written a book with two people’s narratives running along with each other, or by providing a glimpse into what he feels or doesn’t feel. You never know. You are always left guessing and in the dark. At the end of it you don’t have that kind of closure, but that is deliberate. It is hanging in the air. Who knows what he really feels for her?
PB: Does the same go then for Danielle? In Eileen’s eyes she is the ultimate nightmare, an over-possessive, soul-destroying girlfriend, but she might not be as terrible as Eileen makes out. She could simply feel insecure about this girl who keeps turning up and who is clearly attracted to her boyfriend.
MO: Yeah (Laughs). Again who knows really? We have only got Eileen’s eyes to judge everything on. In all these encounters she has with Danielle they find themselves in the same situation over and over again. Danielle behaves in a particular way that is inevitably going to be exaggerated because Eileen is there. It is definitely worth considering that she is not seeing it accurately.
PB: When did you first come across the concept of twin flames?
MO: I had never heard of it when I met this person that I formed a bond with, so it wasn’t a notion that I already had in my head. Someone, however, told me about it later on, and with my own experience it ticked all the boxes of what a twin flame is supposed to be.
I wondered whether or not to use that name or terminology in the book as once it is mentioned people start thinking, “Oh, what is this?” and “This is too weird” and “This is some kind of fantasy thing”, but I decided to mention it because there may be something in it. I myself am undecided. I am open though to that notion, so it is in there because it is something that I would like people to consider.
PB: One of the main themes of ‘A Certain Kind of Light’ seems to be that are some things in and perhaps beyond this world which can’t be brushed away or explained by rationality. Would you agree with that?
MO: Yeah, absolutely. That is certainly my experience and a lot of other people’s. There are things that happen which we can’t explain. I think though that it is one of the wonders of life and what makes life so incredible really is that we can’t explain things away and that we are never going to be able to. I think that it would be dull if we could.
PB: What about 'duplication'? Is that something you have ever experienced?
MO: (Laughs) It is one of those things that when you read it in the book it may seem far-fetched. There could be a rational explanation possibly. It could be mistaken identity or whatever, but I will say that I have experienced this.
I am sure some people will think that I was seeing things that weren’t there, but the friend who I based the character of Annie on has experienced some of it too, so it's not just me (Laughs). For Eileen, it happens when her dream life is crazy and all these strange things and coincidences keep happening, and for me too it happened around the time that things were at their most intense with the person involved, and then it didn’t happen again much after that.
I will hold up my hand and say that I don’t know if it really happened. I am prepared though to believe that these things could happen. I certainly wasn’t on any drugs or anything (Laughs) and there was nothing to suggest that I wasn’t of a sound mind, and I definitely saw things with people where they appeared to be somewhere they couldn’t have been or shouldn’t have been (Laughs). I haven’t really found an answer for this though, and I am open to somebody explaining it back to me.
PB: ‘A Certain Kind of Light’ takes its name from the opening lines from the Bee Gees’ song ‘To Love Somebody’. What was the appeal to you of that song?
MO: It is such a powerful song. It has such an unusual opening, and the way they sing the first few lines – “There is a light/a certain kind of light” - sends shivers down my spine. Nina Simone has sung it as well and Jimmy Somerville did it too.
When they sing “A certain kind of light”, it is as if they are talking about this very specific kind of unusual light that might happen only once in a lifetime. It is almost as if he is trying to define that. If you see a sunset or if you see a light shining in a certain way, it is never going to be quite the same on any other day. That fitted in with the tone of the book and the whole feel of it to me.
PB: ‘A Certain Kind of Light’ is not a music book, but at the same time there is a lot of music in it. Could you ever conceive as a music writer of writing a book that didn’t involve music?
MO: Probably not. No (Laughs). There could have been more music in it still, I suppose, but I do mention songs and bands that are special to me. Music is something that always – thank goodness – has been a part of my life, and I can’t imagine it any other way. I think that whatever I did music would somehow creep into it (Laughs).
PB: Eileen spends about ten years of her life hoping that Charlie and she will get together. As ‘A Certain Kind of Light’ reveals, she has to learn to love herself before she can ever really love anyone else. Do you see a major part of her learning to love herself is her letting go and eventually trying to move on from Charlie?
MO: Definitely. It seems to take a long time, but sometimes you have got to hit your head against the wall so many times to get the message. She eventually has a breakthrough when she realises that it is not just about him but about her. Until she deals with her own emotional pain and problems she is never really going to be able to love anybody properly and thankfully she learns that (Laughs).
PB: The front cover artwork of ‘A Certain Kind of Light’ is spectacular. Who is Kristin Krahmer who painted it?
MO: She is a Californian artist. I came across her a few years before I wrote this book. It was in a book about dreaming. It wasn’t my book, I borrowed it from somebody, and Kristin had provided the cover of that book. I was really struck by the painting she had done for that, so I looked her up online and I found a contact for her. I wrote to her when I was writing ‘A Certain Kind of Light’ and sent her some sample chapters. She liked it and was happy to conjure up something to represent it and that is what she has come up with. She has done a great job (Laughs) because she has encompassed so many things into that painting about the book. For me it really was perfect. I am really happy with it.
PB: Last few questions. You have been ill with ovarian cancer during the last year. You sat on ‘A Certain Kind of Light’ for a long time before publishing it. How much did that illness affect your decision to eventually publish it?
MO: I think that it gave me the push and the courage I needed to put it out there. When you face something like cancer, you face all your fears really or so many of your fears. Things that seemed quite trivial just fall away and you realise what really matters. The book has a lot of truths in it about what I feel about life and about everything, so I thought, “Why not put it out there? Because if not now, when?”(Laughs)
PB: What were you scared of before?
MO: We seem to be born scared of things that don’t really make sense a lot of the time, but I think with this it was just revealing so much of myself. It wasn’t so much strangers reading it, but it was people that I know quite well. I suppose that it was just the worry of what people might think (Laughs), that they might take it as totally autobiographical and see the character of Eileen as being delusional or living in a fantasy world.
PB: If you stick the book out to the end, then you realise that she is pretty rational.
MO: Good (Laughs). That is what I hope.
PB: How long did take you to write from start to finish?
MO: I started writing it after ‘Between the Lines’. The actual writing of it took about two years, but then I was revising it and editing it for another year, so it was three years in all.
PB: Have you got plans for a third book?
MO: Yeah, I have always got plans (Laughs). I have got about three different fictional ideas that could all roll into one book or they could be separate things. There is a music book as well that I have wanted to write for a while, which is about the Manchester scene but from the perspective of the women involved in it.
PB: Thank you.
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