A photo of Kathleen MacMahon in black and white against a green-tinged background, alongside a flower, a copy of the book 'Hamnet' and the words "21 questions" in the top right hand corner

‘There’s a special magic to books with a family tree’: 21 Questions with Kathleen MacMahon

The author of the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction-longlisted Nothing But Blue Sky on loving Dickens, troubles with Woolf, and the happy task of putting together IKEA furniture.

Across her three novels, Kathleen MacMahon has established a reputation for tender, moving portrayals of human beings: our rough-looking but often delicate edges; the gentle tragedies and small victories that make up daily life.

Nothing But Blue Sky is no different. The Irish writer’s third novel follows David as he processes 20 years of his ‘perfect’ marriage following the death of his wife. As he delves deeper, uncovering the nuances that suggest it wasn’t quite what he thought it was, he begins to questions how well we can know others – and how well we can know ourselves.

The stirring portrait of marriage has earned Nothing but Blue Sky a place on the longlist for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction. In honour of the achievement, we got in touch with MacMahon to ask her our recurring 21 questions; in response, she told us about her love of Gabriel García Márquez, her “many projects of dubious quality” and the superpower that would have helped her through lockdown.

Which writer do you most admire and why?

Dickens, for the storytelling, the sentiment and the unforgettable characters. 

What was the first book you remember loving as a child?

What was your favourite book when you were a teenager?

'I was like an uncool American coming to Dublin with a copy of Ulysses.'

My grandmother had a complete set of The Whiteoaks of Jalna, by Mazo de la Roche. It was passed down to my mother and then to me. I’ve had a passion for multi-generational family sagas ever since. There’s a special magic to books that have a family tree at the start.

Tell us about a book that changed your life’s path

Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel García Márquez. I went to Colombia when I was 25 on foot of my love for that book. It was very uncool of me – I was like an American coming to Dublin with a copy of Ulysses.

What’s the strangest job you’ve had outside being an author?

I once worked as a hostess at a French restaurant in San Francisco. My job was to dress up like a French girl and lure in passing businessmen. I’d like to say that I quit but the truth is that I was fired.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

“Don’t be afraid to move people,” by my agent Marianne Gunn O’Connor.

Tell us about a book you’ve reread many times (and why)

Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate, for pure pleasure.   

What’s the one book you feel guiltiest for not reading?

To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. It’s not like I haven’t tried.

If I didn’t become an author, I would be ______


What makes you happiest?

Any kind of craft project, including but not limited to gardening, painting, sticking things into scrapbooks, using the sewing machine, assembling IKEA furniture… I am never happier than when I’m embarked on one of my many projects of dubious quality.

What’s your most surprising passion or hobby?

Julio Iglesias, for reasons only I seem to understand.

What is your ideal writing scenario?

Settled into the seat of a plane or train with my notebook on my lap. The motion always brings a flood of ideas. Most of them end up on the cutting room floor, but the energy off them is wonderful.

What was your strangest or most embarrassing author encounter?

An interview with Harold Pinter when I was a young reporter. He thought I was an idiot, and he wasn’t wrong, but he was very rude. Neither of us came out of it well.

If you could have any writer, living or dead, over for dinner, who would it be, and what would you serve them?

My grandmother, Mary Lavin. I’ve only come to read her work properly since she died, and there are a million questions I’d like to ask her. We’d have beef stew and spuds with a barrel load of red wine, followed by Hadji Bey Turkish Delight. That was standard fare in her house.

What’s your biggest fear?

Wasting time.

If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

'Don’t be afraid to move people.'

The ability to withstand cold water. Especially now, with all the travel restrictions, it’s incredibly frustrating not to be able to swim any distance in the sea. 

What’s the best book you’ve read in the past 12 months?

Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. I think it’s a masterpiece.

Reading in the bath: yes or no?

Yes, in theory, no in practice.

Which do you prefer: coffee or tea?

Tea. It may be my one life essential. 

What is the best book you’ve ever read?

I couldn’t possibly make a call on the best book. The book I most enjoyed was Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry.

What inspired you to write your book?

A quote I once heard that stayed with me: “We live life forwards, we learn it backwards.”

Nothing But Blue Sky by Kathleen MacMahon is out in paperback in April..

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