It was my mother who taught me to write. She did it by talking. She was a natural story teller and her stories were always about people, mostly our extended family in Ireland, often people who were long dead.
She was also a devout Catholic and the life of the church was intricately bound up with my childhood. I particularly remember the feast of All Souls. In those days the Catholic church taught that if you paid a visit to the church on All Souls Night and said certain prayers (one Our Father, three Hail Marys and a Glory Be) for the soul of someone who had died, then that person would was let off some of their time in Purgatory.
Purgatory, in case you don’t know, was the place where souls went that were not destined for hell but could not yet be allowed into heaven because they had not sufficiently atoned for their sins. It was a bit like a celestial waiting room.
As a child, I often accompanied my mother on her visits to the church on All Souls Night. I fervently believed that I was doing good but, more importantly, I enjoyed my mother’s company. She took the notion of a ‘visit’ very literally. So we would arrive at the church and my mother would say, ‘We are now going to pray for the soul of your Great Uncle Fergus’. (I don’t have a Great Uncle Fergus, actually, but even the dead deserve to have their reputations respected.) Then we would go inside the church, say the necessary prayers and go back outside. Then my mother would say something like, ‘You know your Great Uncle Fergus was a holy terror for the drink…’ and off she would go, telling me about his rise and fall, the people he had trusted who had let him down and the pitiful state he had ended up in.
At the end of this little story she would say, ‘Well now I think it’s time we paid another visit. We are now going to pray for the soul of your cousin Dermot. So back into the church we would go, say the necessary prayers, repair outside once more and the next little story would begin with, ‘Did I ever tell you about the time Dermot came to London and nearly got himself arrested.’
We might go in and out of the church half a dozen times that night. Each story my mother told would be short but perfectly constructed. Of course she wasn’t conscious that she was manipulating narrative. She just thought of herself as talking, filling in the space between our visits to the church.
Because of my mother I grew up with a pantheon of characters in my mind. I didn’t ever have to meet them to know all about them. And because of her, when I decided I wanted to be a writer, I instinctively understood that to create a story, you do not start with some concept or gimmick that you think might make you a millionaire. No, you start with the characters. Everything else flows from them. Get the characters right and you don’t even have to think about the plot, it writes itself while you are talking.