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Irish writer Nuala OFaolain

Irish writer Nuala OFaolain. Her first novel, My Dream of You, (Riverhead Books) has just come out in paperback. Her critically acclaimed 1998 memoir, Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman was on the New York Times bestseller list. OFaolain is also a columnist for the Irish Times; she has been at the paper for over 12 years.

42:06

Other segments from the episode on April 2, 2001

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 2, 2001: Interview with Nuala O'Faolain; Review of Lou Harrison's music.

Transcript

DATE April 2, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Nuala O'Faolain discusses her life and novels
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. In her best-selling memoir "Are You
Somebody," Nuala O'Faolain, a columnist for The Irish Times, wrote about
growing up one of nine children in Ireland, a nobody who came from a line of
nobodies in a conservative Catholic country that feared sexuality. A New York
Times Sunday book review described the memoir as having a spiky, independent
intelligence that vanquishes cliche.

Now O'Faolain has written her first novel and it, too, has become a
best-seller. It's the story of a middle-aged Irish woman who escaped the
conditions of Ireland years ago by emigrating to England where she writes for
a travel magazine. After the death of her best friend, she has a midlife
crisis, quits her job and returns to Ireland to research an obscure 19th
century divorce scandal known as the Talbot case. It helps her understand her
country's sexual repression and misogyny, as well as her own malaise. Here's
a brief reading.

Unidentified Woman: `I was interested always in any story about passion. I
believed in passion, the way other people believed in God. Everything fell
into place around it. Even before I started mooching around after boys when I
was 14, I'd understood watching my mother that passion was the name of the
thing she was pursuing as she trolled through novel after novel.'

GROSS: Now your character believes in passion. She's also middle aged, and a
lot of people assume that passion is supposed to burn less hot in middle age.
Do you believe that, that the nature of passion changes?

Ms. NUALA O'FAOLAIN (Writer): Oh, yes, of course. Well, where it sits in
your heart and your mind change because simply how can it still be appropriate
at, say, 54 to be running after the dream that you ran after when you were 14?
How can you go on believing? And yet, one does. How can you go on believing
that somewhere in the world, there's the other, the perfect person, the one
who will understand you and cherish you and you will be as good back? How can
you believe that that'll happen and it'll solve everything when, for one
thing, when you're middle aged, you have a history that you can never share,
no matter how hard you try? It isn't there to be given. You can never
describe it. And so you're already late to the table of perfect passion.

GROSS: That's an interesting way of putting it. How does that apply to you
as someone who's middle aged?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Well, I go--what I resent now is that I can't get rid of it.
I can't get rid of the hope of something wonderful happening. And even at
this late stage, having somebody who worries about me because I have to go to
the dentist, or who wants to talk to me about our plans for the summer
holidays. I would like to forget all that. And I'd like to forget how much
my body would like to have had more use. I would like to be rid of all that
because I feel demeaned a bit by still secretly longing for it.

I'm getting better and better as I get older at all the other things, which is
the great discovery of middle age. I never knew before a few years ago what
animals can do. I had never had a dog or a cat before. And I hadn't realized
that's a whole new kind of joy. And I hadn't realized either that you can
make new friends in middle age. And I hadn't realized that you feel terribly
well. I feel terrifically healthy mentally and physically. So all kinds of
things are kicking in. And if only I could stop wanting the impossible, I'd
be as happy as a lark, Terry.

GROSS: Now the character...

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: And you see, who planted the seed of that impossible dream?
It makes sense when you're young and you're looking for someone to mate with
and build a nest with. But by my age, we have our nests and there won't be
any children. So why is it just as--why does it pick at you and pull at you
just as badly?

GROSS: Why do you think? Do you think it's because it's a natural thing to
yearn for that, or do you think it's the influence of novels and movies and
fantasies?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: I think it's cultural. I mean, for most of human history,
and I think on most parts of the planet, there hasn't been this primacy of
romantic love. But after all, I belong to my culture and I've been soaked in
it since I can remember. And you know, the thing is this: the reason why
there's a huge romance industry of songs and movies and dressing to attract
and all that is because on the whole, most people's lives are not very
celebrated. And that first time when you're in love and the other person
loves you, too, you feel wonderful. You feel potent. Because you are loved,
you feel you can talk about yourself and be listened to, and you're listened
to in a way that you never listened to your parents or your friends. And it's
the preciousness of that experience that makes the dream of love so important.
It's not just a trivial thing, and it's not just about the sensation of sex.
It's about feeling that you are your whole full self.

GROSS: Although your main character is someone who really believes in
passion, it's something she hasn't really been letting into her life at the
beginning of the novel. But a friend and colleague of hers, a very close
friend, dies suddenly of a heart attack and that seems to be the impetus that
shakes up her life and makes her go in search of things, including passion.
What...

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: I don't think she knows that she's going in search of
passion.

GROSS: True.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: But when we meet her, she's just 50. She's an Irish woman, a
tall, stylish Irish woman with wonderful clothes. But the mystery is that she
hasn't been back to Ireland for 30 years. She lives in a basement apartment
in London, even though she feels that the English are condescending to her in
various ways. And she's a travel writer. She travels all the time. And it's
true that no matter what high flown thing she may believe about passion, in
practice, what it has boiled down to is feckless one-night stands in various
far-flung hotels.

In other words, she realizes at the beginning of the novel, she's got it
wrong. She's got her life wrong. It's been on hold, but she doesn't know
anymore for what. And then her dear friend, Jimmy, who's a gay American from
Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and also a travel writer--he dies unexpectedly. And he
has been her partner, insofar as she had one, and her family. He and the
others in the office have been her family because she hasn't been home for 30
years.

And what with that, what with Jimmy dying, and what with her beginning to see
that maybe there's been one one-night stand too many, and also with her
beginning to mistrust the kind of cheery travel writing she does, because she
can't help but see that large parts of the world are very unjust and there's
so much suffering that really writing tourist articles isn't--you know, isn't
adequate. All those things come together and they all impel her to change.
And the only idea she has is to go back to Ireland to see if she could maybe
write a book about the Talbot divorce.

GROSS: Your character thinks sometimes about what it means to, at her age, be
not married and to not have children. I'm wondering how it feels to you to be
not married and to not have children compared to how you thought it would feel
when you were a young woman.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Well, I have never been bothered about married--being married
or not married. I can't get over the way in America everybody seems to get
married young. I think it's a very odd thing to do. I was often asked--and
even one week, I had the engagement ring, we were to get married on the
Saturday, and we decided on the Thursday not to get married. And we went on
our honeymoon anyway, but we didn't go through the wedding. And sometimes I
bump into people all these years later who say, `Where were you on your
wedding day? We were there. Where were you?' But I don't care that I've
never been married, and I'm sure I'll never marry.

But about being childless, quite apart from how much I love the sight and
sound and being of children, and I do, I think that you have to ask yourself,
`What were you for?' in a different way from most people. Most people solve
the problem of their own meaning by having children because then they now have
invented a meaning for themselves. Their meaning now having created children,
or helped to create children, is to rear those children with as much goodness
and intelligence as they can and to love them always and be loved by them.
And so they slide through life belonging to life. And the times of life are
appropriate when they're young. The hormones drive them and they make the
children in their prime. They protect the children. And then when they're
older, they become grandparents and give what they have to the grandchildren.

And if your childless, you're outside that beautiful movement of the
generations. And it seems to me that you're far more self-conscious if you're
childless. It seems to me that you have to--a woman certainly has to ask
herself, `Well, what was it all about, all the fallings in love, and the being
mad about people, and the choosing my clothes, and having periods for 35
year--you know, what was it all for?'

GROSS: Do you feel like you've had to consciously go about constructing a
meaning in your life?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: I do. And I think that's what I did. Quite not knowing that
that's what I was doing when I wrote my memoir, which, of course, never was a
memoir. Nobody ever asked for it and nobody knew I was doing it. It was only
an introduction to a book of old opinion columns. But I was in my early 50s,
and I couldn't understand why my life had come to so little and how I'd
managed to end up with no partner, no gang of friends, no lover, no children,
no money, no particular future to look forward to. And a desire to sort of
write in some way to myself about what looking back had been the pattern that
brought me to this. I think I wouldn't have had to do it if I were a mother
and a grandmother.

GROSS: I think I should probably not ask you what meaning you were able to
find in your life because that would be asking you to reduce your life to a
little statement here.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: And because you--it doesn't work like that. You don't find a
meaning. You don't totally find a meaning. I still know nothing. And I'm
still like fundamentally as solitary as I was then. The difference is that I
have had a small effect on other people. I know because I got thousands and
thousands of letters about the memoir from other members of the human race
about their experience of being human. And I know that in some extraordinary
way, that that managed to leap across culture and gender and age, the way I
spoke to myself in desperation at my kitchen table in Dublin, Ireland, when I
was 54, that that somehow was heard by other people.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nuala O'Faolain. And she has a
new novel which is called "My Dream of You," and it's a follow-up to her
best-selling memoir "Are You Somebody." Let's take a short break here and
then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

We hope that you've discovered books that you've enjoyed by listening to FRESH
AIR. And we hope that you've heard some of your favorite authors interviewed
on the show. Our program, like everything else on public radio, requires your
support in order to keep going, so please call with a pledge. Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Nuala O'Faolain. She's a columnist for The Irish Times.
Her new novel is called "My Dream of You."

Now your mother had nine children. And she actually had 13 pregnancies. What
impressions did it give you of motherhood watching your mother raising nine
children?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: As best she could, she didn't raise them. She very much
resented being stuck in the country in a house with no hot water, with a
husband who was gallivanting around in town with all these children. It
wasn't an occupation that gave her pleasure. And, you know, I think there's a
lot more women than my mother who really get stuck with motherhood when it's
not suitable to them. She would have been a great librarian. She would have
been a wonderful wife and consort to him if children and poverty hadn't
dragged her down. But...

GROSS: You--go ahead.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Just the other day, a woman showed me how to push combs in
your hair. You know, if you kind of pull your hair back at the side and you
want to pin it up?

GROSS: Right.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: And it occurred to me, Mammy never showed us anything. We
didn't know anything about how you did things. The little things that parents
tell a child my parents didn't tell any of us. I remember one of my sisters,
who's now very troubled, saying to me, `That woman never said one useful thing
to me in my life.' And just the combs reminded me that I never knew anything
when I grew up.

GROSS: You're the second oldest of the nine children. So when you were
growing up, was your mother pregnant most of the time?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: She was, yeah. And...

GROSS: What did it make you think of pregnancy watching her be pregnant?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: It never made me think anything--everybody--all the women
around were always pregnant. Everyone was pregnant all the time. I know that
women seem to me to be--well, they were effectively a second rate--a race of
second-rate people in the Ireland I grew up in. Not only was there no
contraception available, unless it was the rhythm method, that my mother and
the other women in the country had never heard of and which they could never
have enforced on their men anyway--but not only was there no family planning
when I was an adult woman, but you weren't even allowed to know that it
existed. So when I was an adult woman and all my sisters along with me, there
were men in the Irish customs force pulling out the back pages of American and
British magazines so that Irish women wouldn't have access to little ads about
clinics where you could send away for books. We were supposed not even to
know. And that was the condition that Irish women were pushed to by the
combination of their native patriarchy and the Roman Catholic Church.

GROSS: How did you discover birth control?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Well, we heard of it. We heard of it. And, of course, in
the '60s from America, where in my life, all good things have come from for us
in Ireland--well, no, about half of the good things--the pill was rumored to
exist. And it was forbidden in Ireland for many, many years, but it's now
more or less widely available. You're supposed to be married to get it.

GROSS: If you don't mind my asking, were you able to discover birth control
at the same time you discovered sex?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: No. I took the most hideous risks. I have, in fact, never
used any birth control, but it became evident to me in my 20s that I must be
infertile. And I think I was. I did get pregnant when I was 39, but I had a
miscarriage.

GROSS: Oh. Were you sorry?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: I was too confused to know what I felt.

GROSS: You must have been stunned to be pregnant in the first place.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Utterly, utterly stunned. It was dreadful. And I couldn't
possibly make any kind of decision. So now--I don't know--I don't
know--now--I think now I could be a good mother, but what good is that in your
50s? You know, you need, I think, tremendous physical strength to be a
terrific mother.

GROSS: Now you must have functioned almost like a mother when you were
growing up because you were the second oldest of nine children. Your mother
wasn't very effective as a mother, so I imagine that you and your older
sibling took over some of the responsibility.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Yeah, but grudgingly. I mean, this is--Dickens tells lies
about how happy big families are. Big families are happy if there are enough
resources of love and intelligence and enough material resources. But we were
just left to scrabble our way up as best we could. And I can never remember
without pain that my elder sister used to try to keep one blouse clean. She'd
keep it washed and ironed. And she'd hide it in different parts of the house
because all the other girls would be trying to steal her blouse, because the
clothes were always in chaos--you know, jumbled up together in one big
cupboard, because poor Mammy--she was forever doing washes.

But, you know, you need a certain face of efficiency to run a family. There
used to be a book by some American. I think it was called "Cheaper by the
Dozen." I used to adore that book when I was a child because it was about a
very large family, but run by loving parents on rational principles, if you
see what I mean.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Instead of the chaos and neglect in our house, and how we had
to strive against each other for the means of survival.

GROSS: So you became a resentful parental figure in your house because you
were one of the oldest.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Oh, I wouldn't say--we didn't think in terms like that. I
did what I had to. But I--like all the others, I got out as soon as I
possibly could.

GROSS: How'd you get out?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: I moved into town. I got a job in a shop. I got a
scholarship to the university. When I lost the scholarship, I got more jobs.
And I went off on my own rocky, chaotic road. And I left them at home to sink
or swim. And just over half of the family, I would say, are well, and the
other half are struggling, and one killed himself.

GROSS: A brother killed himself.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Yeah.

GROSS: Nuala O'Faolain. She's the author of the new novel "My Dream of You."
She'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is
FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music; credits)

GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with best-selling Irish writer
Nuala O'Faolain. We'll talk about her father, one of Ireland's first society
columnists. O'Faolain's new novel is called "My Dream of You."

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Let's get back to our interview with Nuala O'Faolain. She's a columnist for
The Irish Times and author of the new best-sell novel "My Dream of You." Her
previous book was the best-selling memoir "Are You Somebody?," which is about
growing up one of nine children in a poor and sexually repressed country.

Now let me back up a little bit. You were sent to, I think, a convent
boarding school when you were about 14.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Yes.

GROSS: And you say that puberty got you into a lot of trouble and that you
were stunned by the demands of the body that you had barely noticed before.
What kind of things got you into trouble?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Dancing. There used to be dances in the little town we lived
in. They started at 10 at night and went on till 4 in the morning. I need
hardly tell you that I was a schoolgirl at the convent, a day school, and it
was utterly unheard of for schoolgirls to go to these dances. These dances
were essentially for the working class to find each other, but I went. I used
to steal the money from my poor mother to go. And I'd be locked in and I'd
find some other way to get out. And I'd be locked in again and I'd find some
other way and so and so on. And one Friday, the nuns in the convent managed
to track down my father and said to him, `We want you to take her away.' And
it was a real crisis.

Now crises occurred all the time in our family, and other people's crises went
unmanaged, but for some reason, they went to great trouble for me. By their
standards, they went to great trouble for me. My father had a small car, and
he sold it and bought me the clothes to go to boarding school, because you had
to have a trunk, you know. You had to have things like three nightdresses and
two pairs of shoes and so on. And we'd always only ever had one of anything;
at the most, you know, one of anything. So I was sent off to a boarding
school, an Irish-speaking boarding school, up on the border with Northern
Ireland.

I arrived there the day I was 14 and I didn't get out till I was 17 1/2, and I
didn't fit in very well. But it was, like many of those old-fashioned Irish
boarding schools, a very, very good education. The things I learned
there--and I mean strictly learning, you know, like poetry or geography or
anything--you don't forget that stuff, not when the nuns have slammed it into
you, so to speak.

GROSS: Did you like having the structured environment of the convent, or was
it just too repressive for you?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: I just wanted to get back to dances. I wanted to--I don't
know the American for courting, snugging, whatever. That's what I wanted. I
wanted to work in a shop, like my friends in Dublin, and I wanted to go to
dances, and I wanted to be left home--I was--by good-looking boys. And I was
last in that stuff. And by accident, on the side, I was very good at school.
And by accident, you know, I got scholarships and so on and firsts in Ireland
and everything, but I didn't care about that. I wanted the security of
physical love.

GROSS: Now your father was a society columnist. What kind of stories did he
cover?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Well, the car would call for him at 3 in the afternoon, a
limo with a driver with a cap, and my father would emerge spotless in his
evening dress. He was the most impeccable, unfastidious, little man. And,
you know, the house would be in uproar maybe, and Mammy might have been
drinking at lunchtime and we might be looking for money or something, but
Daddy went to work. His correspondence would have been opened by his
secretary. And as he was driven into Dublin, he'd make a list of the four or
five things he'd go to that night. He might go to the launch of some project;
he might go to the opening of a ballet season; he might go to a party for a
political retiree--whatever constituted the growing sort of PR world of
Dublin. He was the first ever.

And then at midnight, he went to his office and he wrote 2,000 words every
single night about these things he'd been at, and the photographer contributed
the photos. You know the way there were always photos of pretty, young women,
you know, seen last night at such and such?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: And the thing came out the next day. And sometimes there'd
be something that moved him much more deeply, and then he mightn't go into
this stuff. He would just write a column. I remember when President Kennedy
was shot, he wrote a marvelously sincere and affecting column. And I know
when he visited the Sinai Desert, he wrote about that. When the pope, John
XXIII at the time, went to the River Jordan, he went there, too, and wrote
about that. So I think he was probably a lovely writer who was very much
underappreciation from that point of view.

GROSS: Now how can it be that you and your sisters and brothers hardly had
any clothes and your father had this fantastic evening wear that he'd go off
in every night? I mean, how is it that he was living in this society world...

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Because he was...

GROSS: ...and you and your family had nothing?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Yeah. Oh, well, we didn't have nothing. We had just enough.
The thing is he was keeping the show going. I think he must have thought in
his own mind that there was nothing he could do by joining us in our chaos,
you know. He would have had to be a saint to both do his job and care for us.
He was an old-fashioned man of old-fashioned people. It was Mammy's job to
look after us. It was his job to bring home the money. And he did bring home
the money, but he had to spend a good bit of that money on himself because he
couldn't go about his job in shabby clothes or anything. You know, he had to
have the money for dry-cleaning and so on. But, I mean, I have to stress that
he loved us and we loved him.

GROSS: Did you want to be in that world that he was writing about, that
society world?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: No. No, I thought nothing of it. I moved in and out of it
with the greatest of ease. I occasionally wrote his column, actually.

GROSS: Did you really?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Yeah. Nobody would realize it, but I could. He had great
faith in me on that level. He ran a music festival for a while in Dublin. He
loved classical music, you know, and he got people to come over. I remember
Isaac Stern came. And while he was doing that, I wrote his column.

But, you know, the Irish are not class-bound the way the English are. It's
our country, you know? To this day, if I want to go and see the president or
if I want to join in someone's wedding or if I want to go to a dinner party, I
simply ask around till I fix it up. There's no barriers. There'd be very few
whirls in Ireland that I wouldn't feel completely, perfectly naturally at home
in. I think the only one is the one that the Talbots were a part of. You
know, they're still an Anglo-Irish gentry who, I think, consider themselves a
cut above the Catholic-Irish, and I don't know any of them hardly. I know a
few of them, but I don't get asked to their dinner parties and, indeed, I
don't want to go.

GROSS: My guest is Nuala O'Faolain. Her new novel is called "My Dream of
You." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Nuala O'Faolain, and her
new novel is called "My Dream of You." Her best-selling memoir is called "Are
You Somebody?"

Now you said that depression runs in your family, and you mentioned before
that several members of your family have serious trouble. One of your
brothers committed suicide. Was there not quite a word for depression in your
parents' day?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: No, and I don't think there were any anti-depressants. It's
not depression anyway. It's despair.

GROSS: Mm. What's the difference to you?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Well, there's something dramatically suffering in those of my
brothers and sisters who are suffering. It's not a dull thing they live with.
It's a thing that keeps attacking them and trying to drag them down. And it
took me a long time to defeat the demons who were trying to drag me down, and
I really only did it in middle age, and I wish I'd managed to do it when I was
younger so that I wouldn't have wasted my whole 30s in drinking and so on.

GROSS: Did you? Did you drink a lot in your 30s?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Yes. I was an alcoholic, I would say, by the end of my 30s.
And the year I was 40, I was in a psychiatric hospital for a while. But then,
luckily--I was completely derelict, really, mentally and emotionally.
Luckily, I fell in love with a gay woman, and this was after a lifetime of
being mad about various men. And we lived together for 14 years, and it was
immensely healing to live with a woman.

GROSS: In what ways was that healing?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: We had a home. I don't know how to explain to you, but I had
a domestic life for the first time ever. I loved it. I loved buying cups and
buying an egg lifter, and I just loved it. There's an intrinsic tension, I
think, between men and women, and it wasn't there between myself and my
friend. It's true that the relationship didn't last, but I've had such great
strokes of luck in my life, like being sent off to boarding school and like
that one; that she cared about me and stuck with me while I finally sort of
kicked sleeping tablets and then cut back and back and back on the drink. If
anything, then I became happier and healthier than she. And, anyway, we broke
up and, a year after, I wrote the memoir.

GROSS: Well, were you surprised falling in love with a woman?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: I was. I was when I came to think of it. But when it
actually happened, my whole world was so disoriented because my father had
died slowly and very, very savagely. And I'd been drinking, and I hadn't
slept for six months or something, and I could barely hang on to my job, and I
only weighed--I weighed 56 pounds less than I weigh today. And I don't think
I was at all well mentally. So I was free. I was free of every constraint.
I didn't know--it never really dawned on me that she was a woman for a while,
you know? I mean, of course, I know she was a woman, but the strangeness of
it didn't strike me for a long time.

GROSS: What did your father die of?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: He died of a mixture of leukemia and cirrhosis of the liver.

GROSS: Ooh. Did he have chemo?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Yeah. It's that he'd say in the hospital, `Take me out of
here. Take me out.'

GROSS: Did your family take him out?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: No. No.

GROSS: Did you think...

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: We didn't know how to.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: And I must say it's the first thing he ever asked of any of
us. Anyway, he died after six months 21 years ago. Gosh. And my mother hung
on for a few years, and she'd say to me, `Nuala, why did your father go and
die and leave me here?' You know, and she'd be real petulant about it,
because the funny thing was she was his kind of girlfriend up to the end.
They were very aware of each other. She kept that thing going, you know, in
spite of everything. She kept the passion going. And she'd say to me, `You
know, Nuala, your father and I were very close and I mean very close.' And,
you see, she was a decorous woman, prudish, you know, but she was indicating
to me that they made love, you see, until he was 66 or something. And she
said, `And then, you know, Nuala, he'd say to me, "I'm sorry, Katherine(ph).
I'm sorry, darling, I'm just not--I'm a bit tired.' And she was boasting to
me, you see, that she had been a desired woman by him and he was all she ever
cared about.

GROSS: You are living part of the time in New York now.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Well, I have been. I hope to. I'm not at the moment. I'm
going home to Ireland.

GROSS: You don't divide your time between New York and Ireland?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: No, I haven't yet set that up. I'm hoping to.

GROSS: Oh, I thought that already happened. I see. OK.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: No. To write the novel, I moved to Manhattan and got a room,
because I wanted to borrow the energy and optimism of a great immigrant city,
you know, full of people transforming themselves and trying to do things
they've never done before. And it worked. It helped enormously in writing
the novel. But now I'm at a loss. The novel's finished. It's out. This is
the very end of the publicity I've done for it. I'm going back to Ireland in
two days, and I don't know where I am, Terry. I do not know where I am in
life or what has happened. I'm going back to the same situation I was in five
years ago before I wrote the memoir. I'm a woman getting older. I'm on my
own, except for my little dog, who I love. And I have to come to some terms
with it and make some arrangements and live the precious life I have left as
well as I can.

GROSS: Let me ask you, since I know one of the things you're thinking about
is, you know, the process of getting older... it's, I think, always been
assumed that you get older, you have children who help take care of you; you
have a spouse, if they're still living, who helps take care of you. But a lot
of people now aren't married, they're not in a long-term relationship, they
don't have children, they're not going to have children and they're going to
be getting older. So the kind of system of how you get by when you get older
is going to have to change because the whole nature of family life, for a lot
of people, has changed.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Yes.

GROSS: Do you think about that a lot?

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: I do. I do, indeed. And my only motivation for wanting to
earn money is for the nursing home at the end. But, of course, you don't know
how long you might be infirmed. I mean, I have an auntie of 87, and, I mean,
she's in perfect physical nick. It might be another 10 years, you know. And
you need money. You need money. That's what you need. If you've money, you
can more or less face real old age. But besides money, what you need--and
perhaps this would get you through even if you didn't have any money--you need
an attitude to aging that allows you not to regret and not to repine, but to
take vitality from the small things of the everyday. And I'm getting better
and better at that stuff.

First of all, as I say, I discovered animals--little pets, small little
animals--you know, the company of them. I think food and a moderate amount of
drink are great resources as you get older, because if your body's getting all
wrinkly and saggy and so on, I really do think that you might as well let go.
I mean, I've never been on a diet, but at this stage, I'm not going to go on
one either. I think that landscape matters an awful lot. Music means a great
deal to me, and it does really. It's not a show-offy thing. It's from my
heart for myself. And travel does. And I have a few friends, a lot of them
made just recently because there was a kind of burnt life left when I finished
the long relationship with my friend, Nel(ph).

So I'm saying that there are lots of things you can put in a palisade around
you and plant like little seeds in your heart to sprout in your 60s and 70s
and, please God, 80s when, really, you can't be hanging around looking for
just passion, to go back to the thing we began with.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Ms. O'FAOLAIN: Thank you.

GROSS: Nuala O'Faolain is the author of the new novel "My Dream of You." Her
memoir is called "Are You Somebody?"

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Filler: Request for pledges
TERRY GROSS, host:

It's unusual to find a place on the radio where you can hear novelists and
poets talking about their work. When you find it, you know it's public radio.
Public radio is a special place for writers and for readers. That's just one
of the many reasons it's worth supporting. Please call with your pledge.
Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

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Review: Classical music of Lou Harrison, commissioned by Mark
Morris
TERRY GROSS, host:

The music of California-based composer, poet and dancer Lou Harrison is
probably better known on the West Coast than in the rest of the country, but,
says music critic Lloyd Schwartz, choreographer Mark Morris has been trying to
change that by bringing Harrison's music to a wider audience. Now a major
composition of Harrison's, commissioned by Morris, has been released on CD.
Here's Lloyd's review.

(Soundbite of music)

LLOYD SCHWARTZ reporting:

`Live music is something I must have,' choreographer Mark Morris told an
audience at a Q&A session after a performance. And some of the greatest music
of the past century, including Stravinsky's "Firebird," "Petrushka" and "Rite
of Spring," Perkofiev's "Prodigal Son" and Hindemith's "Four Temperaments"
were composed for or commissioned by choreographers. One of the composers
Mark Morris has championed is the now 83-year-old Californian Lou Harrison.
When Mikhail Baryshnikov was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors a few
months ago, Morris' dance group did a writhing round dance to a Lou Harrison
polka.

Morris' most recent Harrison commission is "Rhymes With Silver," which
premiered in 1997 in Berkeley. This chamber piece for string trio, piano and
percussion is a major work, nearly 50 minutes of extremely colorful and
appealing music for the dance floor--a cakewalk, a fox-trot, a
waltz--alternating with folk music and evocations of Eastern ritual,
Gamalonlike gongs and chimes and vibes and exotic scales. This is typical
both of Harrison's interests in non-Western cultures and the extreme
physicality of his music. It insinuates itself into the body, makes muscles
want to move.

(Soundbite of "Rhymes With Silver")

SCHWARTZ: At the heart of "Rhymes With Silver" are a series of cello solos
originally written for Yo-Yo Ma. Joan Jeanrenaud, a former cellist of the
Kronos Quartet, is the cellist on the new CD released by the San
Francisco-based New Albion Records. The most moving music is the sinuous
prelude written to be played before the curtain rises.

(Soundbite of music)

SCHWARTZ: Some of the music Harrison calls `adjustable' and can be rearranged
at the discretion of the musicians. This recording uses sections arranged by
Mark Morris himself. In one section Morris, mimelike, gropes imaginary walls
and races on and off stage in the presence of another dancer, who remains
absolutely motionless, Buddha-like. Morris calls this pas de deux. Picture
Morris jerking out his foot at the plucked note that ends each phrase. In
another section, the dancers reflect the ups and downs of the cello with the
old game of sewing up one's fingers. And it all ends with--What
else?--another round dance.

(Soundbite of music)

SCHWARTZ: The title, "Rhymes With Silver," by the way, refers to Harrison's
name, Lou Silver Harrison. And what rhymes with silver? Nothing.

Harrison is a refreshing change from the intellectualization behind a lot of
contemporary concert music. I dare you to sit still while you're listening.
It's not only accessible, it gives accessibility a good name.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and
author a new book of poems called "Cairo Traffic." He reviewed "Rhymes With
Silver" by Lou Harrison.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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