Q & A with the authors of Sister Caravaggio.
Sister Caravaggio is such a unique novel; how did you conceive with the idea? Did you originally intend to use so many authors?
The concept arose quite by chance – a concept that turned into a challenge. How would it work with, say, six or seven writers, each coming to a central story from different angles? That in itself was an exciting question which could only be answered one way: by doing it!
As to the numbers of writers involved – well, it seemed to me that if you asked each writer to write ten thousand words and then multiplied that out into – say – seventy thousand words, an average novel length, you came up with seven writers.
What was it like combining the work of so many authors?
The challenge here was to keep the individual voices but also to keep the momentum and overall arc of the story. I saw that as my principal task as editor. It was very exciting too, because each individual chapter came up with completely unexpected twists and turns.
How much of the story was plotted from the beginning, did it evolve as it went along organically, or was the story arc planned throughout?
The framework of the overall story was planned at the outset, or shortly after the outset. Each writer was given a brief for his or her chapter, insofar as that brief had a beginning, middle and end. But then each writer had full licence to go wherever he or she liked within the chapter. Each writer was allowed to read the preceding chapters, but was not told of the overall story plan.
How did you select the authors with whom you worked? Did you have a specific set in mind from the start?
Mary, Neil and myself – the original trio– are neighbours in County Kildare. After that, we basically suggested our friends, or the friends of friends. Some, like Maeve, came aboard completely by chance. What was so great was everyone's enthusiasm!
Why did you decide to keep the author of each chapter anonymous?
From the start, this was going to be a novel, not a collection of individual stories. A novel has a unity that must be respected. By not identifying who wrote what, that unity is preserved. But also, of course, it adds another layer of fun to the project: a Who-wrote-it wrapped in a Whodunnit!
Did Sister Caravaggio turn out the way you expected it would?
Absolutely not. Even though there was a plan, the virtuosity of the different writers was a cause of continual surprise and excitement. There are plot twists in this story that would put hairpin bends to shame!
Do you have a favourite chapter?
No – not even my own chapter!
Would you consider writing a sequel (!) or do you have another writing project lined up?
It's a bit soon to think of a sequel, although Alice and Maggie, the two central characters in Sister Caravaggio, seem to cry out for another adventure.
I'm currently working on a novel, but all I can say about it is that it's very different to Sister Caravaggio.
Who is your favourite character & why?
Davy Rainbow. He's vulnerable, seeking to reclaim his sense of purpose; he's likable.
Do you prefer writing plays over novels?
I find both disciplines equally difficult.
How much guidance did you receive from Peter Cunningham?
After the general outline was decided by Peter and Mary O'Donnell, after the idea of allowing each writer to develop their own plot was discarded, Peter allowed the writers to develop characters and situations within the chapter itself without hindrance and this allowed each writer considerable licence.
Did you agree with Peter Cunningham's decision to keep the chapters anonymous?
It was a very easy decision to make . . . an automatic one really, as we were all aware of the extra bit of mystery which might arise from not knowing exactly who wrote what.
Some of your other works touch on religious themes; how was it writing about crime-fighting nuns?
This was a very different kind of writing for me, and I couldn’t even call the theme religious, although our nuns are from a religious order. I thought of them as women who happened to be nuns, but was always conscious of them as people with a human, womanly nature. We had quite a lot of fun, actually, in helping them cross over from the religious to the secular!
Do you approach poetry writing differently from novel writing?
Novel writing is a huge commitment time-wise. I’m talking about a couple of years of your life invested in one book, as per my own recent novel Where They Lie (New Island), so I find it radically different. Poetry can be begun anywhere, even from a scrap of a note, or from a feeling, or from an image. A novel absorbs something different from me, and requires much more long-term stamina and tenacity than a poem ever does. Even so, as Edna O’Brien put it at the end of her glorious short story Send My Roots Rain: “She knew then, and with a cold conviction, the love, the desolation that goes in to the making of a poem.” It could never be so with a novel, which requires other qualities.
What is your favourite thing about writing crime fiction?
What I love about writing crime fiction is that it allows me to give free rein to the feeling that things are wrong in the world, and could be put right through individual courage and imagination. A fine romantic idea.
Also, crime writing demands a strict discipline, whereby the story has to be not only poetically satisfying but also logically convincing. The nice thing about Sister Caravaggio is that the book combines rip-roaring comedy with atmospheric dips into the darker side of life.
Were you allowed license with the major plot points of the story?
Well, yes and no. I tried to stick to them, but I sometimes got led astray by my own writing. Those cruel editors left some of my finest bits bleeding on the cutting-room floor.
Would the novel have ended the same way if you had been writing it on your own?
I might have given it an extra twist. In which case, it might have been so twisted that nobody could make out what the hell was going on.
The remaining contributing authors to Sister Caravaggio are: Maeve Binchy, Eilís Ní Dhuibhne and Peter Sheridan.
Authors Peter Cunningham, Cormac Millar, Peter Sheridan, Mary O'Donnell and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne will be reading at the Dublin Book Festival in a talk chaired by Tony Clayton Lea. See you there!