When I wrote my fifth novel, A Second Life, in 1993, my life, like that of any father of two small children, was as pressurised as that of the novels central character, a press photographer, Sean Blake, until a near-fatal car crash on page one prompts him to take stock.
Our similarities end there, because fiction involves throwing yourself into the mindset of strangers, although you discover surprising parts of yourself on the journey. Unlike Sean, I was not adopted, but my mothers death, when I was 10, left an absence that echoes Seans void at never having known his birth mother.
Following the crash, for several seconds Sean is clinically dead and feels powerfully drawn towards the afterworld, but finds his progress blocked by the haunting face he only partially recognises. He plummets back into a life that, for him, has changed profoundly.
This is not the first time Sean was given a second life. Aged six weeks, he was taken from his mother, a young girl forced to give him up for adoption. A Second Life details Seans search to find his natural mother and discover his true identity, struggling against a wall of official silence and a complex sense of guilt, while also searching for the face he saw after that crash.
Adoption became the novels central theme, but when I started it, in 1993, A Second Life did not set out to be about those searches becoming more visible then as adopted children desperately tried to unearth the truth about their birth mothers and understand the plight of unwed girls who had no option but to sign away their children. These mothers later found every door closed in their faces if they tried to make contact with the children who were perpetual absences in their new lives; children whose existences they were often too scared to speak about, even to their own husbands.
The novel had a different starting point. In 1992 my fifth play in three years was staged at the Peacock Theatre during Dublin Theatre Festival. So much was happening in my life back then that my main memory of the play is of it being techd in the darkened theatre. During blackouts, as the lighting man reconfigured his settings, the only lights visible were two illuminated “No Smoking” signs and the glow of a dozen cigarettes littering the darkness as an anxious cast and crew puffed away.
The cast talked a lot, as casts do during a slow technical set-up. One actor described being in such a serious car crash some years previously that his heart had briefly stopped and he found himself observing the accident scene from above, so detached from his own body that he could casually observe flecks of dandruff on the hat of the paramedic trying to cut him from the wreckage.
From such seeds are novels born. This image – and his comment about initially feeling cheated at being brought back to life inside his injured body – haunted me. When I found the time to start work on a new novel, I knew I had my opening. I had never had an out-of-body experience, but a need for research led one night to a State-registered nurse legally administering a powerful hallucinogenic drug into my left buttock in a deconsecrated Protestant church in the grounds of a former mental asylum – an experience sufficiently terrifying to make me as wary of method research as Sir John Gielgud became of method acting.
Some authors meticulously plot novels in advance, skilfully bringing readers on pre-ordained journeys. I work at the opposite end of the spectrum: what draws me to my desk is a combination of anxiety, stress and curiosity. Quite simply, I have no idea what will happen next.
A novel starts by being about one thing, but as a citizen you have your antennae open to the discourse occurring within your society. Often, while writing the first draft of A Second Life, when I turned on a radio or overheard conversations on buses, I realised how ever-growing numbers of mothers and children separated during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s were now desperate to find each other. Despite huge obstacles, people were attempting to take tentative steps towards finding the stranger who was their parent or child, never sure whether such approaches would be welcomed or rebuffed.
Adoption gradually became the novels central theme, starting to echo the hidden stories that were finally being told around me. People once silenced by shame were no longer being silenced. Irish society was never ruled by an obsessive devotion to religion; it was ruled by a fetish for respectability, the main facet of which involved hiding family secrets. This wall of silence was finally being eroded by individual voices in 1993 – a decade before films such as The Magdalene Sisters – but the physical walls behind which the adoption files were kept remained as impenetrable as ever.
As a novelist I was trying to absorb the undercurrents rippling through Irish society and weave them into the novel. At this time I attended a one-act play by the great Jennifer Johnston. It was lunchtime, a meagre house, a bare set with just one chair. The superb actor Rosaleen Linehan entered and commenced her monologue. But after 90 seconds she did something incredibly brave. She said to the audience: “Excuse me; I got off on the wrong note. I think Ill start again.” She quietly walked off stage, came back on and mesmerised us for the next hour.
A Second Life was published by Viking/Penguin in 1994, sold well and was translated. But I never allowed it to be reprinted, because as the years went on I kept thinking of Linehans courage on stage that day, saying: “I got off on the wrong note.” I know that – amid all the pressures of family life and myriad writing commitments and the fact that I was trying to capture a moving object by tapping into a mood in Ireland as birth mothers and adopted children started to make their voices heard – I had also got off on the wrong note. In the white heat of writing the original novel I had burdened Sean Blake with too many scores to settle.
I realised that at 34 I had needed a good editor. So early this year, aged 51, I sat down and – half as editor and half as writer re-imagining each scene – I re-engaged not just with the characters in the book but with my younger self, whom I kept questioning as I cut chunks of dialogue and added or removed scenes, rewriting every paragraph.
Next month sees the publication of a fresh edition of A Second Life that is not the old novel, nor fully a new one. I see it as a renewed novel: the novel I might have written if, amid the busy happenings in my family life and the social changes occurring around me, Id taken a deep breath and said, “Im going to start again.” Sean Blake, as I say, is not based on me, but Seans wife, Geraldine, was based on my own wife, Bernie.
Rewriting the book early this year allowed me the chance to remember her exactly as she was as a young mother. I looked forward to her re-reading it when published, to giving her a first signed copy as always. Tragically, shortly after the renewed version was completed, while radiant with good health and energy, she collapsed when swimming with one of our sons and died without warning from a suspected aneurysm.
The renewed edition of A Second Life is now dedicated to her memory, but, no matter what name appeared on the dedication page of my books, she was always the person for whom my novels and plays were written, in the hope that she might like them, in the knowledge that she would recognise many tiny moments transformed by fiction, because she was the centre of my life.
Ireland in 1993 was changed utterly from the Ireland of a decade before and is almost unrecognisable from todays Ireland. Nowadays when a commissioned novel is finished it is sent to a publisher as an e-mail attachment. In 1993 manuscripts still needed to be posted.
In 1993 the nuns who had run the High Park Magdalene laundry in Drumcondra applied for a licence to exhume 133 women who died while incarcerated in their laundry, so they could sell the site to a developer.
They could provide death certificates for only 75 of these women. During the exhumation the remains of another 22 nameless Magdalene women were unearthed. All but one of these bodies were cremated and reburied in a mass grave in Glasnevin Cemetery.
On the day I entered the GPO in Dublin to post the original manuscript of this book, three survivors from that Magdalene laundry were seated outside the entrance, visible at last in a historical site of rebellion, defiantly collecting signatures for a petition to have a monument erected to those nameless woman whose ashes were in that mass grave. I stopped to sign the petition and to talk. I almost held aloft the Jiffy bag and was about to say, “This book is about you and women like you. It tells one of your stories.” But wisely I said nothing: this book could not be about them, because nobody could tell the stories they uniquely owned.
All I could hope to do – in 1993 and again in 2010 – was to echo something of their lives in the parallel imaginative world of fiction. No novelist could tell their stories as eloquently as so many of them have since done in interviews, memoirs and documentaries, now that the walls of silence have finally, slowly started to be breached and so many ageing mothers and now grown-up children are tentatively making contact with each other, starting to fill in the missing family secrets that could once never be spoken about.