Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

"Under the Skin of the Story": An Interview with Lia Mills

Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

"Under the Skin of the Story": An Interview with Lia Mills

Article excerpt

Your literary output is striking in its variety. Your first two novels, Another Alice and Nothing Simple, are very different in subject matter and in style. I believe the novel you are currently working on is, again, of a very different nature. With In Your Face you moved into the genre of the memoir. You have also explored the essay and the short story. This variety adds to the attractiveness of your work. We can't easily say that a given piece is a signature Lia Mills. Does this reflect a passion for change and experimentation in your career?

Well, no one wants to write the same thing twice--what would be the point? A novel, by definition, should be new. When I was writing In Your Face, the memoir, one of my daughter's friends asked me a great question: "Has there ever been a book like it before?" I didn't think there had been and that spurred me on, feeling that I had a real contribution to make to the existing literature on cancer.

Having said that, I don't consciously have a passion for change or experiment. I'm a bit wary of writing that is too experimental. It can lose the run of itself altogether, disappear into its own self-importance--and that just gets in the way, in the end. It seems to be more about the writer than about what is written.

In spite of your heterogeneous production, we can pinpoint three themes as particularly pervasive in your short fiction: Old age, problematic adolescence, and the displaced Irish in America, this last subject also explored in Nothing Simple. Do these thematic interests respond to biographical concerns or to the need to cover areas not sufficiently explored in Irish literature?

The question makes writing seem so clinical! It's hard to answer. I was definitely a problematic adolescent, but I haven't been an old woman (yet). But that's not completely honest, either. My mother had Alzheimer's disease for 15 cruel years. Spending time with her in her last years inevitably meant witnessing the deterioration of other elderly people too. At the same time, I was lucky enough to know a remarkable man, my godfather, who lived a vigorous, independent and intellectually curious and active life well into his 80s, a wonderful role model. I had lost touch with him, and met him again when I was working in UCD and he was collecting a Ph.D. I think it was his third. He'd have been in his 70s then. Basically, after he retired from the career he'd worked at all his life, he began a new life, of study and travel. The contrast set me thinking. How people age makes a fascinating subject. People say "not me" and "never" when you mention nursing homes or the extreme dependence and vulnerabilities of old age--but all of those elderly people who are dependent, through no fault of their own, were young once. They thought and said those same things too.

As for the experience of displacement, and questions of identity and belonging--these are concerns for everyone--aren't they? Is it just me?

Wait. That's what I want to say, and I do assume it's true, that these questions are an integral part of human understanding, common to all of us. What probably began as a need to find our way back to the right cave before darkness fell and the wolves showed up seems to have evolved into an interest in locating ourselves on every conceivable axis, spatial and otherwise. Maybe that's why "place" is such an obsession with so many writers. But, if I'm completely honest, I can trace some of the cracks in my own experience of place and displacement, identity and belonging. Here's an example: This will probably sound strange to any sane, twenty-first century European, but when I was growing up I had a minor chip on my shoulder about my name--it wasn't Irish enough, and I felt defensive about it. The irony is that my grandfathers' names, i.e. the surnames I knew, are names commonly seen as English (Mills, Hart), but my grandmothers' names are as Irish as a long, wet summer: Kelly, Dunne, Kavanagh. …

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