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Thursday, August 1, 2013

Author Interview – Peter Cunningham

7:45 AM Posted by James Noel , 1 comment

Tell us a bit about your family. I grew up in a large and somewhat chaotic family. The backgrounds of my two parents could not have been more dissimilar. My mother’s family were well-to-do Dublin Protestants from a background of wealth and privilege; my father came from a family of pig-dealers in Waterford’s Ballybricken. And yet, Mum and Dad found and loved each other and remained together all their lives. I was the first of their five children.

Mum: Her name was Mory McIntyre. She was an only child and grew up in her grandmother’s fine house in Sutton, County Dublin. Her parents, Rhoda and Fred, were social butterflies of the Roaring Twenties. They played golf and went to the casinos in Deauville and Monte Carlo. Fred was a professional horse gambler from Sydney, Australia.

My Mum’s grandmother owned the Sutton golf course and Mory grew up playing golf there every day. She excelled at the sport and would go on to win a number of major Irish tournaments as well as representing Ireland at international level. I have photographs of her walking out to the first tee in a big competition: the determination in her lovely young face is inspiring.

She and her mother, Rhoda, were strong-minded, independent women in an overwhelmingly patriarchal world. They smoked cigarettes, drove sports cars and were successful athletes. (Rhoda too was a scratch golfer). They had their own money to spend and were part of a class that seemed to glide over the difficulties created by onset of Irish political independence. They never lacked for courage.

Mum was often in my mind when I wrote ‘The Sea and the Silence’. The novel’s heroine, Iz, comes from a background of wealth and privilege in an Ireland that is rapidly changing.

Then something dreadful happened to my mother: Fred, her father, disappeared. I have never been able to conclusively find out where he went, but what I do know is that he walked out of the marriage one day in the 1930s and was never seen again. It was in the early days of the Great Depression. God knows what financial problems he had become embroiled in. Perhaps he returned to Australia, but if he did, I’ve been unable to find him there. My Mum was deeply affected and Rhoda was left without a husband. Two years later she re-married a prosperous Waterford businessman called Daniel Bowe and she and my mother moved south, to Waterford.

Dad: He was Redmond Cunningham, the middle child of thirteen, born into a modest house in Waterford. His father was a pig dealer, a man who travelled Ireland buying pigs for export. Bryan Cunningham drank whiskey and gambled; he was deeply involved in local politics; he dropped dead before he reached sixty.

The Cunninghams were on the lower social rung of the emerging, Irish, Catholic middle-class. Money was always scarce; they lived by their wits.

Dad had an artistic flair and was sent to work as a draughtsman in the office of a local architect. He played rugby and began to play golf. He had a taste for adventure. In 1942, he had got a job working in a civilian capacity for the British Army in Ulster. A year later he was in the Royal Engineers as a second lieutenant, preparing for D-Day. He would go on to be part of the Normandy Invasion where he showed exceptional bravery and qualities of leadership. He was the only Irishman to be awarded the Military Cross for gallantry on D-Day. He left the army with the rank of major and returned to Waterford where he met my mother.

In ‘the Sea and the Silence’, the very different class and religious backgrounds of Iz and Frank are at the heart of the story.

Mum and Dad: they lived their lives as if every day was a party. He became a successful local entrepreneur, driven by the same recklessness and do-or-die attitude that had carried him through D-Day. My mother seemed happy to go along with him. It would all end badly, of course, when the banks and the creditors eventually woke up to what was going on. But for many years they didn’t and my brother, my three sisters and I grew up in a world of champagne and race horses and the emotional roller-coaster of a family where few boundaries were imposed and where the only philosophy that existed was to go ever forward.

I try to capture this sort of slow but inevitable decline in ‘The Sea and the Silence’.

My own family: It was hard to step off the roller-coaster I’d grown up on. I married Carol, a Jungian analyst from a family of hard working, County Tipperary farmers. We had six children together; our first born was Peter.

I tried a number of different jobs before I took up writing full-time. The writing life imposes its disciplines, its own boundaries. I began to shape my life away from the kind of world my parents had lived in. I moved out of Waterford—to Dublin and then to County Kildare, on the doorstep of Dublin. My first novel, a thriller, ‘Noble Lord’, was published. I wrote a thriller a year. They were good, successful books and I might still be writing them, except for what happened next.

Peter: In September 1990, Peter died when the car he was travelling in crashed. He was sixteen. The driver, the mother of his best friend, Conor, also died.

Even now, twenty-three years later, the shock is powerfully present. I have been slow to write about it, since it’s so private, so intensely painful, still so horrifically near. Anyone who has lost a child will know what I mean. Before Peter’s death I had no idea what grief was. Then we were plunged into the deep end of it. Everything and everyone changed. A local shopkeeper said to me a few weeks later: ‘When we heard the news, we thought it was you.’  I said to this well-meaning man, ‘I wish it had been.’ Never had I spoken a truer word.

What saved me was the strength of the loving bond between Carol and myself. The support of our surviving children. And the redemptive power of literature.

Having been thrown into the darkest of all places, I began to write my way out in order to survive. The books I would write from then on would be different to what I had written before. They would reach down into the depths of personal feelings and emotions. They would charter the darkest moments of the soul, the meaning of love, the randomness of fate and the lives of ordinary people.

I would draw on my own background, memories, family and experience. I would write about the world I had grown up in and knew, the Ireland of my early days. I would write about loss, love, hope, despair and courage.

‘The Sea and the Silence’ is such a book.

How do you work through self-doubts and fear? I find the redemptive power of writing very powerful.

What scares you the most? I don’t dwell on the things that scare me; I’m lucky enough to be a positive sort of person. I could dwell on stuff, of course, since I know grief and have seen enough of the dark side of life to understand that you never know what lies around the next corner.

What makes you happiest? Being with my whole family. It’s chaotic but it’s great. Writing a good sentence is also cool.

What’s your greatest character strength? Persistence.

What’s your weakest character trait? Impulsiveness.

Why do you write? It’s the only occupation that I’m suited for. Writing is how I think. When W.H. Auden was once asked what he thought of something; he replied: ‘How do I know what I think until I see what I write?’ I’m the same.

Have you always enjoyed writing? Yes, when I get into it. Like any daily occupation, it’s sometimes seems like a tyranny, but I’ve done it enough to know that once I get going I’ll be fine.


A book for your head and your heart. Winner of the Prix de l’Europe 2013.

A powerful novel from one of Ireland’s best writers on the turbulent birth of a nation, and the lovers it divides

Ireland 1945. Young and beautiful, Iz begins a life on the south-east coast with her new husband. As she settles in to try and make her life by the ever restless sea, circumstances that have brought Iz to the town of Monument are shrouded in mystery. However, history, like the sea cannot stay silent for long. The war in Europe is over, and change is about to brush away the old order. Soaring across the decades that follow Ireland’s newly won independence, sweeping across the fierce class issues and battles over land ownership that once defined Irish society, The Sea and the Silence is an epic love story set inside the fading grandeur of the Anglo-Irish class.

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Genre - Historical Fiction/Historical Romance

Rating – G

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