On the Edge of the Loch: A Psychological Novel set in Mayo, Ireland – Interview with Joseph Éamon Cummins, Author
Posted in Connect on August 31, 2016.
You’ve written a critically-acclaimed novel that you chose to set in County Mayo – how come?
I am asked this a lot; there are two reasons. Why not New York, or London, or Dublin? Because, once, Mayo was home, a long time ago. My grandfather’s parents came from Ballina. Some time after the Great Hunger, forced migration brought them to Kildare and Meath, where they settled. But, along with honouring my lineage, Mayo is my favourite place to write, and to cycle.
You said you have two reason for choosing Mayo?
Sixty-five years ago, a group of creative people arrived in Cong, from California. What they created catapulted Mayo into a global spotlight, from which it is still benefiting. Hard to believe, but true. That was the film ‘The Quiet Man’, a classic that is still watched today.
While writing On the Edge of the Loch I kept seeing it as a major Hollywood film. Then this month, just after its release, a number of critics talked of it as a film. I can’t be sure that will happen, of course, but I heard this week of a Canadian director who might have an interest.
How difficult is it to set a modern novel in a rural landscape?
As I see it, the landscape – urban or rural – is the stage upon which the story plays out. A story of love and courage, for example, can be set anywhere provided it is authentic to that place. Authenticity and place are qualities frequently missing in ‘pop fiction’. The question to ask of any story is: Does it feel real?
On the Edge of the Loch is authentic because most of the characters, including the female protagonist, belong to the heartland of Mayo.
Would you like to say what On the Edge of the Loch is about?
The story is full of surprises. It’s a story about the dreams of four exceptional people, how they deal with the fickleness and challenges of life, and each other, as they go after the urges that compel them. Each is an individual, different from the others, and all are misfits in some way. Tony, the male protagonist, just got free after nine years in US prisons, which he sees as a travesty of justice, he’s tough, edgy and determined; Lenny is a beautiful but troubled woman with a mysterious past, who lives in a world that might not be real; Cilla, on the surface, is an ‘ordinary’ local girl but has a habit of proving otherwise at high-drama moments; Aidan is English, a relief worker who dedicated his life to helping the needy then met tragedy he could not escape. Naturally, relationships develop among these four, but not what you’d think. Plus, a cast of support characters add danger, suspense and complications that keep readers reading.
Main themes include justice, the utter inhumanity of war, identity, redemption, the innocence and venerability of childhood, resilience, intimacy, love, and the core human emotions that drive people to behave dangerously and bravely.
Finally, on this same point, the book carries a printed request of readers to not give away the ending. All reviewers to date have expressed how moved they were by the story, particularly the ending, which is impossible to predict.
You say it’s a psychological novel, and not a ‘psychological thriller’?
That’s right. There’s a big difference. It’s not a crime novel. It’s not about wanton violence or serial murder or police work. Yes, good people find themselves in danger throughout the story, and yes, all four main characters make bad decisions. But they are driven by their hearts, by longings and needs we all know. So it’s a question of how will they handle these challenges – and can any one of them, or some of them, or all of them come out ahead.
How has your work as a psychologist and teacher influenced your writing?
Psychology is the study of human behaviour. Ironically, so too is novel writing, when it’s done well. The two fields are very closely linked. So, yes, my professional work helps me to create characters that readers feel are alive and breathing, characters that ‘cast a shadow’, as I tell my students. When this happens, readers relate emotionally to dilemmas and crises, and they intuitively understand what’s going on deep inside characters’ heads, which is what every novelist wants.
One of the writers I admire most is F Scott Fitzgerald; he wasn’t a psychologist but he somehow knew more about human behaviour than almost any other writer. The same might be said of William Faulkner.
My own work is in the area of organisational psychology, which means I help corporate clients with performance goals. I also work privately with ambitious individuals committed to achieving their potential. Teaching has always been part of what I do, and I don’t see that changing.
Was the story based on real events?
That’s a hard question to answer. I’ve long stressed to writing and psychology students that no story comes out of the ether. A writer, painter or sculptor decodes and expresses ‘events’; events originate in two places: within the mind and within actuality. These events are the seeds of art, though can go unrecognised as such by the artist. The events in On the Edge of the Loch are not factual; neither are the characters. But then true and factual are not the same. A well-told story is always ‘true’, as the old Irish storytellers would argue, and as did Ernest Hemingway.
Yet you say elsewhere that one particular event gave you the idea for the story?
Yes, that’s true. One event. One day in a tiny train station I noticed an elegant young woman who seemed to be waiting for someone to arrive. Over the next week I revisited the station five or six times to photograph it in different light. Each time, the woman was there, still waiting.
On the day I was to leave I found myself close to her. She smiled at me. I smiled back. Our eyes held in a sort of silent conversation. She leaned closer, like she was about to talk to me, about to reveal or ask something. But suddenly her head dropped, she turned away.
My first sense was that she was waiting for a dream; then, that the dream would never show up. But what if that dream could come true, I thought. What if that changed her world, and a lot of other lives too. I built the story around this thought.
Is this woman the leading character in the story?
No, in fact. As the story starts, Lenny is far too mysterious to lead. She shares the stage with the three other main characters. Most readers see 27-year-old Tony MacNeill as the main protagonist. He’s a driven man with, as he sees it, one last chance, which fuels most of the action in the story. And although opposites, Tony and Lenny share an intimacy that leads to unimaginable complications. So, Lenny is the second protagonist, and her influence grows with the story.
You invented Aranroe, the Mayo village in which most of the action occurs?
And regarding Aranroe, two amusing incidents happened in the past week. A man emailed me, telling me he had been wanting to book a hotel within Aranroe, if possible, and that his travel agent wasn’t helping. I told him gently, and assured him he’d find similar villages throughout Mayo.
Then an aged Cork woman complained that the book had caused her to miss her train stop. I laughed out loud, thinking it was a bit of humour, or even a compliment, but she told me very sternly that she didn’t consider it funny at all. I thought about assuring her I’d never write a book like that again – but I held back.
Are you now writing full time?
No. By choice, I’ve worked in a variety of fields – in Ireland, US, Australia, and beyond – and writing has been part of everything. I taught college students for well over a decade and even then I was writing every day. As a magazine editor, it was the same, naturally. Before that, I wrote scripts for corporate and documentary films. More recently I’ve been teaching about achievement and resilience, and I hope to finish a book on that topic this year. So, no, I don’t write full-time but writing is a constant.
How have those other cultures influenced your writing – or have they?
First, I’m a Dubliner; that will always be my mother lode. No question, we are wild geese, but Irish writing seems to stay pure regardless of where we go. James Joyce and Edna O’Brien are two examples. It’s in the genes, apparently, as is storytelling, going far back in time. I lived overseas for quite a few years, and I’ve worked in or visited twenty or more countries, but I see no signs of these cultures coming into my writing style.
Are there lessons to be learned from this new novel?
I hope so. First, I hope the reader will feel enriched by the humanness of the story. I want readers to better understand mental breakdown and how it can happen, the futility of war, the preeminence of family, the sacredness of childhood, and the enabling power of friendship.
Also running through the entire story is that quality of resilience I mentioned earlier, the ‘not giving up’ response when there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. I like to think too that the book will elucidate for readers the power inherent in love, not just intimate love but the love of any one person for another: parent for child, sister for sister, friend for friend, even stranger for stranger – odd as that might sound to some.
Women feature very strongly in this book. Did you set out to do that?
The women in the story reflect female nature as I believe it to be. Very often in life, if not in art, women are stronger than their male counterparts, despite not having the platform men enjoy. Their strength is missed in the day-by-day grind of life.
My female characters are made of flesh and blood and guts and grace. They’re neither models nor stereotypes, they’re decisive, they shape outcomes, as so often women do in life. That’s intentional.
The book has been very well received by critics; were you expecting this?
I was always confident about the quality of the work. I have no qualms in saying so. I delayed finishing it for nearly two years, to make it the best it could be. But no novelist is ever certain how the world will react. So I am very happy. Almost every day I am hearing from readers and critics, saying how glad they are for reading it. That’s gratifying.
Finally, without giving anything away, what was your thinking on how you end the story?
It’s risky to comment on that. Except to say that the final two chapters contain events that should remain secret – no giving it away. In one sense the last chapter is the chapter I am most happy with, the way in which it achieves what I set out to write. The first critics made it clear that they ‘got it’, which delighted me. The reader will sense what I am alluding by reading carefully those final seven or eight pages. There is something there to be discovered. I don’t want to say more, except that the story ends where it began – in the heart of Mayo.
What’s next on your agenda?
A break. I hope to cycle some new trails in Mayo. As far as writing goes, I’m working on a book and there’s another one after that. I won’t say more than that for now. In the meantime I might do some lecturing in the US, maybe at home too.
Right now, I’m off to oil up my bicycle . . .
On the Edge of the Loch: A Psychological Novel set in Ireland is available from Amazon as a print book or ebook, and can be ordered through most good bookstores. For information, media interviews, or to check availability for speaking engagements, author Joseph Éamon Cummins can be reached at JEamon1998@gmail.com. Website: JosephEamonCummins.com, also FaceBook and Twitter.
Photos by Joseph Eamon Cummins