66 July-August 2024
Where Novels Come From:
MakingA Good Enough
Mother good enough
Our job is to effect transformation:
of that moment of illumination, of
that conversation, of how atoms
in a room change when a troubled
individual walks in
By Catherine Dunne
argaret Atwood calls it
“Negotiating With The Dead”.
Graham Swift likens it to
Making An Elephant. Doris
Lessing takes a more
practical slant and insists that it’s just plain
hard work, whereas E.L. Doctorow says its
like ‘driving at night in the fog. I think its
all of these – and more besides.
We’re all talking about the same thing –
the process involved in writing fiction.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when ‘A Good
Enough Mother’ began to take shape. And
what do I mean by “shape” anyway? Writing
fiction is an inexplicable process; every
writer’s starting point is unique; perhaps
the most important experience we all share
is that something, at some point, will begin
to nag at us in a way that can’t be ignored.
That something will continue to scratch
away inside us until, eventually, we
Rather than writers
choosing their stories,
stories instead choose us
recognise that a new story is waiting to
grow. In this way, we can say that, rather
than writers choosing their stories, stories
instead choose us.
A decade ago, I embarked on writing a
trilogy of novels inspired by Greek
mythology. The overarching moment of
inspiration came when I saw an image of
Pasiphae: mother to the Minotaur,her half-
bull, half-human child. The expression on
Pasiphaes face as she nursed her baby was
tenderness itself: a physical expression of
unconditional love. And so I started thinking
about motherhood. Motherhood as a
biological imperative. Motherhood as a
social construct. And above all, motherhood
in Ireland.
A word here about ‘moments of
inspiration’. There is a lot of nonsense
talked about ‘inspiration’ and its role in a
writer’s life. There is a myth that writers sit
around waiting for it; that it is a hugely
significant part of the creative process; that
nothing can happen without it. Nothing
could be further from the truth. In-spiration
is just as it sounds – a mere breath of
insight, a moment of illumination. After that
comes the writing – equal amounts of graft
and craft. And writing itself is organic: the
more the writer turns up at the desk and
puts in the hours, the more the narrative
grows. Inspiration comes as we work.
So how do stories make themselves
manifest to writers? Some of us hear our
stories; some of us dream them; some of us
see them. Mine have always arrived in a
similar way. I see a character, usually in a
moment of crisis, and I need to write their
story to find out what happens to them, and
where their lives might take them. At this
stage of the process, the most important
question is What If?
In the case of A Good Enough Mother,
that first character who appeared to me was
Tess. I saw her: she turns the corner of the
park where she’s lived all her life and sees
a Garda car parked outside her door. Her
July-August 2024 67
all fiction writing is autobiographical, since
where else does it come from but from
within the author? Writing is also something,
I’ve found, that constantly brings you up
against yourself and surprises you with the
discovery of what you have inside. But this
often intensely personal process is very
dierent from the notion that fiction is just
a recycling of the writers life”.
To my mind, our whole job as a writer of
fiction is to eect transformation. Of that
single moment of illumination, of that
overheard conversation, of that observation
of how the atoms in a room change when
some troubled individual walks into it.
Observation, intuition, craft – and,
frequently research, are all part of the
And because I was obsessing about
mothers and motherhood, Betty tapped me
on the shoulder, demanding to be part of my
imagined world. And Belle. And Aimée.
But that’s a whole other story: one that
became a significant strand of ‘A Good
Enough Mother. One that delves into
Ireland’s complicated relationship with
women and our bodies. One that grew out
of another public event that convulsed the
nation in 2018.
But there will be no spoilers here.
Catherine Dunne was born in 1954 in Dublin
and studied English and Spanish at Trinity
College, before becoming a teacher. She is
the author of twelve novels and one work of
nonfiction. Dunne received the Irish PEN
Award for Literature in 2018.
‘A Good Enough Mother’, winner of the
inaugural European Rapallo Prize for Fiction
2023, is already a bestseller in Italy. It is now
available to pre-order on Amazon, and in
selected independent bookshops.
two sons are home. Something inside her
begins to fall: in some peculiar way, she’s
been waiting for this.
Waiting for what?
And that’s my moment: of inspiration, of
clarity, of that wonderful sense of something
settling. The moment that will find a space
inside me: a space that feels as if it has been
long prepared for its arrival.
Novels are not written in ivory towers.
Writers live in the world, are aected by it,
need to navigate their way through it. In
2017, when I was first immersed in writing
A Good Enough Mother – although I did not
then have the title – Catherine Corless’s
revelations about the seven hundred and
ninety-six babies’ bodies discovered in
Tuam shocked Ireland.
The news also shocked the world. It was
not a good moment. But strangely,
according to Corless, the discovery did not
cause the amount of outrage at home that
she had expected it to.
But the stories that began to emerge into
the light after Tuam haunted me. I became
obsessed with what it must have been like
(What If?) to be one of the 56,000 women
and children incarcerated in Ireland’s
Mother and Baby Homes – a misnomer if
ever there was one. Rather than ‘homes,
these were institutions that were often
bleak and brutal.
And so another character arrived in my
imagination: Maeve. She was just sixteen.
Due to the shame of her unmarried
pregnancy, her family hid her away in St
Brigids Mother and Baby Home. A fictional
institution, but one created by my writers
imagination, fuelled by all of the details that
research had revealed. The moment Maeve’s
baby was born, another young girl entered
the dormitory. Her name was Joanie.
And so the next two of the several women
who would obsess me for the next five years
were born. I knew what they looked like (of
course I did: I created their physical
presence), I knew how they felt, I knew their
family backgrounds. They moved in with
me. They became as real as the people I
lived with, worked with.
I’ve heard the process of creative writing
described as ventriloquism. It’s not: it’s
much more than that. Rather than simply
projecting a voice – which is also part of the
process – its much more like walking
around in somebody elses skin, seeing the
world through their eyes. Writing is a kind
of madness: a delightful, infuriating,
frustrating, compulsive, exhilarating,
dreamlike occupation that demands we
leave our ‘sound’ mind aside while we enter
a completely dierent realm. That, for me,
is the realm of imaginative empathy – first
cousin to intuition, but more insistent, more
committed to finding out what it’s like to be
somebody else.
The writer Mavis Gallant talks about the
impulse to write in this way: “I still do not
know what impels anyone sound of mind to
leave dry land and spend a lifetime
describing people who do not exist. If it is
childs play, an extension of make believe
– something one is frequently assured by
people who write about writing – how to
account for the overriding wish to do that,
just that, only that, and consider it as
rational an occupation as riding a bicycle
over the Alps?”.
Yes, people say, and then ask: but where
does it all come from?
Graham Swift in ‘Making an Elephant
says: “It’s true that in a fundamental sense
In-spiration is just
as it sounds – a
mere breath of
insight, a moment
of illumination. After
that comes the writing
– equal amounts of
graft and craft


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