STRIDING across the cobble-stoned pathways of Trinity College, Deirdre Madden appears to be at one with Dublin.
It’s interesting to watch because Madden is widely characterized as a uniquely Northern Irish novelist, best-known as the writer of One By One in the Darkness, set during the week of the IRA ceasefire in 1994.
The Antrim native, who has lived in Dublin for decades, with her husband, poet Harry Clifton, is now on novel number eight, the recently published, Time Present and Time Past.
It’s a novel which has been written in-between teaching creative writing at the central Dublin hub meaning its gestation was “a very slow process” as she’s tried to balance her workload. “It’s not always easy,” she says, “so I am very happy to get this latest book finished.”
Time Present, Time Past is set, largely, in Dublin during 2006, the Celtic Tiger economy still roaring. The protagonist, Fintan Terrence Buckley, is a 47-year-old solicitor living in the leafy suburbs of south Dublin, who’s new-found interest in photography sparks an interest in how it is we think about the past.
Photography features as strongly in Madden’s latest novel as music does in Nick Hornby’s Hi-Fidelity. It is almost, you might say, another character in the book.
I ask Madden why photography, of all of her interests, became such a huge part of the novel’s narrative?
“It’s something that a lot of people have remarked on,” she says. “I’ve always loved old black-and-white photographs and I became aware that colour photography had been developed much earlier than had been commonly thought.
“I became interested in how colour photography and colour photographs had been taken at times in history that I hadn’t been aware of. An example is of a photo from World War One.
“If you see those photos in black and white, they look very dramatic, very austere, but if you see them in colour – and these are actual photographs in colour that haven’t been improved or impressed with a colour filter – they’re so immediate, more contemporary, much more closer to us.
“That was what really interested me in featuring it so prominently in the novel.
“I mean the photograph on the cover of the book is actually a photograph from 1907 and that’s an original colour and I find that quite strange; I think that we sometimes find the past can seem further away from where it is.
“That whole way of how we view the past, how we picture the past is interesting to me. And I thought that photographs worked as a good medium to discuss that particular view.”
Running alongside Madden’s interest in photography is the theme of progress, which appears again and again in the novel. Madden seems to be examining what progress actually is and whether what we think is progress is actually a step forward in the right direction.
In the final third of the novel, for example, we are brought to the North of Ireland, where Fintan and his sister Martina visit their grandparents’ old house, only to discover their cousin Edward has flattened the land and intends to erect a “decent, modern house”.
Though Madden stresses that she did not intend to write a Celtic Tiger novel (“novelists are not journalists”), it is hard, in the current economic climate, not to read a book set in Dublin in 2006 and think of the difference between now and then; Madden agrees and she compares and contrasts life in Ireland between “the two days”.
“I think people gained a lot during the Celtic Tiger years, but I also think that we lost a lot,” she says. “People did travel more widely; they were able to take sun holidays more often, buy houses, etc.
But as a result, people became a lot more insular and so there was always a step back.
The quality of life, now, has obviously changed quite a bit; people are not as brash, impatient and, sometimes, rude in shops and restaurants… that whole mercenary thing, which I think that they were during the Celtic Tiger years.
“People have calmed down a bit, now, so there are few things like that, which perhaps we are now reflecting on. We’ve also become more and more interested in making things, particularly this resurgence in baking, in boutique shops, in pop-up shops and markets.
“So every time you have progress, you lose something; every time you take a step back, you gain something.”
It’s on this note that I ask Madden if she feels the same way about writing as she does about the theme of progress in Time Present, Time Past; if there’s any relationship between the perceived progress during the Celtic Years and the perceived progress in writing a novel?
Pausing, she carefully considers the question.
“It takes me a while to figure out what it is that I actually have. The ideas for characters, for narratives are always hazy and you’re always interested in developing them.
“The more you work on those ideas, the more you put them through the mill, the more that they become clearer and concrete towards the end of the novel. You always ask why: why is this person important, why do they live here?
“There are times, of course, that you can go down the wrong road when an idea leads you astray; I think that most writers don’t like talking about that because it’s such a horrible experience. It’s like tossing a coin; toss a coin and the odds of it coming up heads or tails is 50/50.
“No matter how many times you toss it and if it comes up heads every time, logic dictates to you that, even if it comes up ‘heads’ 10 times in a row, it should, eventually, come up ‘tails’. But that isn’t true. You can convince yourself that, ‘OK, I’ve spent 6-12 months on this; the longer that I work at it, it’s bound to come good at some point’.
“But that can leave you disappointed. You accept that instead of losing time; that you have to ask ‘why does this not work?’. You have to know what went wrong. If you don’t, you’ll do it again. The relation of time and effort isn’t always equal.”
As the interview is finishing and we get up to leave and walk out to an unusually sunny day in Dublin, I ask Madden if, as a northerner living in Dublin for as long as she has, Dublin feels still new to her and if it felt fresh to her having written a novel set in Dublin; she smiles, looking down one of the city’s many Georgian streets.
“Everywhere feels new to me; whether I’m in Dublin, in the North, wherever I am. I’m always interested in everything; I’m interested in what people are wearing, what the traffic is like, what people are eating… the whole fabric of life really interests me.
“I feel very much at home here, but when I’m travelling I find everything interesting.”
On that note, Madden returns to the gates of Trinity College, leaving me with a impression that she is, as a novelist, of her time and yet timeless; a juxtaposition that wouldn’t be out of place in one her own novels.
Time Present and Time Past is published now by Faber.