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WHITEHOT | Jan. 2009

self portrait emer martin

The Passanger, California 2009

Emer Martin, novelist, painter and filmmaker, and I met at Hunter College in a Novel Writing class. She had just published her first novel Breakfast in Babylon, which won Book of the Year in her native land of Ireland at the prestigious Listowel Writer’s Week. She won the 1996 Audre Lorde Prize and the 1996 Miriam Weinberger Richter Award for work on her second novel More Bread or I’ll Appear. She was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in the year 2000 to work on her third novel Baby Zero, which has since been published. She resides in Dublin, Ireland with her two daughters.

Kofi Forson: You have a strong footing in New York, don’t you? What with all the Irish pubs. What is it about the Irish and New York?

Emer Martin: New York is an extension of the Irish psyche. All the wild Irish end up there at some time or another. I was talking to Irvine Welsh who has settled in Ireland and he was discussing how he thought the Irish were all wild when he met them abroad but when he came to Ireland he found them rather tame. He proposed a theory that all the straight Scotts left and settled abroad and all the wild ones stayed; conversely, the entire wild Irish left Ireland and the straight ones stayed. It’s just a theory! I lived in New York for ten years. I still feel at home there. New York never felt too exotic to me. It was all strangely familiar. I suppose culturally we spent more time watching images of New York on TV and movies than we did images of our own territory. By the time I got to the United States it was so familiar I felt I was home.

KF: Have you been to Paddy Reilly’s? Perhaps you’ve heard of Black 47… They had an ongoing gig there. I was introduced to them by their original bassist Andrew Goodsight.

EM: St Dympnas was my stomping ground, an Irish bar near Tompkins Square Park. As an Irish bar it was where everyone in the 90’s gathered and got into trouble, and drank too much, and slept with the wrong people. There was quite a scene there. I’m sure it’s moved on. Scenes are even more fickle than people. One time we were in there on Christmas Day and my friend ran behind the bar to pour herself a drink. The tap broke and the beer just kept flowing. There was always a good anarchic feeling about the place. It wasn’t contrived. My generation would run from the regular Irish bar scene. We had escaped and were looking for something different. (Sigh) I remember Black 47 though, good band.

KF: Remember the party for the premier of your first novel Breakfast in Babylon? Jenny Shute (South African novelist) was nice enough wasn’t she? I was hanging out with Suzanne Mallouk at the time. We caused quite a scene when we walked in there. Word had it Frank Owen (Village Voice journalist) was after you. What a time it must have been. Early success…was it everything you imagined it to be?

EM: I remember that party. I remember all the parties. Frank Owen was there to interview me for the Village Voice. I called those years the Banquet Years. It was the best way to spend our twenties…Savage, insatiable, relentless and hungry for knowledge and experience.
KF: Much of this was visible among The Banshees. You practically owned and terrorized the city back then. Talk about a fun loving girl gang. How enlightening was it to take written texts of comedy, poetry and music and tour with it around the city if not the world. I remember there was a BBC documentary based on The Banshees.

EM: We were Irish and female… performing all around New York, Max Fish, Fez, The Knitting Factory. We had quite a following at one point and were always surrounded by madness. In its own chaotic way it was something new, a postmodern cabaret with literature, medieval Irish music and standup comedy side by side. We’d have never attempted that in Ireland in the 90’s. America gave you a license to invent yourself. In Ireland everyone would be looking at you and judging you because they knew your brother or your aunt, or what school you went to, or where your family was from. In America you were allowed to tell a story without interruption and they were willing to have faith in you; whether they believed you or not was immaterial. It has always been the land of second chances. In Ireland you were doomed before you were conceived. As Yeats said, “Great hatred, little room maimed us from the start.” And as Kavanagh said about the Irish; “We are a dark people, forever watching the liar, twist the hill paths awry.” Oh and let me throw some Joyce in there too, “Ireland is an old sow that eats her farrow.”

KF: You’ve been back in Ireland for a while now. Is it a cause for surrender? That in fact you are reborn with two lovely daughters, a mission accomplished of sorts but you are always hungry for the next adventure. How does the new Ireland pave the way for you and the futures to come?

EM: I never expected to be back. I hated being a teenager here and I got out of here as fast as shite from a goose when I was 17. It was like a door opened up in the world and I was finally free. I remember getting out of a metro station at Pont D’alma and there it was the Eiffel tower. I just stood staring at it in ecstasy knowing that this was a new beginning. To paraphrase Yeats, I ran around the world like wind and little time I had to pray. Suddenly however, I found myself back here after 16 years of roaming, broke, with two tiny kids and no plan. As my first husband used to say, “A poor man’s life is full of surprises.” In the end it turned out to be positive. My kids love it; they ride horses and climb in the same ruined castles and monasteries I climbed in as a child. You can’t go home again, right? Thank God for that. Has Ireland changed? Yes, a lot. It is no longer so dominated by the patriarchal child hating Catholic Church that had it in a dark fundamentalist grip from independence to the 1990’s. But there are vestiges. There still is no separation of church and state and my kids are made say prayers 10 times a day and sit though all the religion nonsense. I tell them to disregard anyone who pretends to know what God is. Life is a mystery and any person or culture who claims to have the only key to the divine is deluded.

KF: Do you find circumstances lacking concerning your hunger for literature, art and music or has Ireland reinvented itself? Is it moreover a community recharged for the sake of this our brand new world?

EM: I prefer this new Ireland and there are also new people here too, lots of Africans and Eastern Europeans and Chinese. I used to feel that being here was like being indoors because everyone was the same but now the world has shown up. Dublin has loads going on, new art, new literature, new films, the scene is thriving. It’s an exciting time to be here. The weather is shite though, these days the sun barely makes it above the horizon, it wheezes across the sky, barely skimming the trees before collapsing and leaving us with a heavy yellow light. My dreams are of light. I crave it. California golden Mediterranean light…Bright, bright light for the wicked.

KF: Your novel Breakfast in Babylon won Book of the Year. The first novel is said to be undertaking based on all your years leading up to that point. How did you manifest from your childhood in Dublin to the streets of Paris? Talk a bit about your upbringing, how you ended up on the streets and how and if are you able to head up a street gang of rabble-rousers? (Laughter)

EM: I hated Ireland as a teenager. It was a repressed, dark, dreary place. There was a deep recession that had lasted 800 years and there were bushes growing out of buildings on the main street. It was too small, I felt suffocated by its parochial morality and lack of options. Everyone was unemployed, the city was flooded with heroine so it was grim and people were spitting out bitterness in bars. There was nothing there for me and I didn’t fit in anywhere. I had not found my place at all. I was strange, lonely and intense and needed to escape.

I filled my head with literary notions of quests…The Arthurian quest of entering the forest where it was the thickest. I wanted to go on a shamanic journey that would break me apart and so I could rebuild myself as an entirely different being. In that way I was romantically searching for exile. I was looking for someone to hurt me. I needed that release. When I was 17 I left for Paris but I was so wild I didn’t even want walls around me and so I soon took to the streets and park benches. I found the underworld and there I fit in with all the black sheep of Europe. There was a true bohemian scene going on there, on the slopes of the Pompidou centre…Beggars, thieves, magicians, refugees, escapees. I loved it, at last I could breathe.

KF: Your tone, language and philosophical device meaning by what scheme you use to approach dialogue and character build-up is fair to say street-wise, a mechanism I particularly feel is very Irish, pro Beckett or Joyce… Explain the relevance of being Irish and having a grasp on what is command of the English language. (Sigh) Wole Soyinka had spoken on how foreign writers with English as second language were the more curious and speculative. What then makes for Irish wit?

EM: Yes, we Irish have a dark cunning that can dazzle and destroy. You only have to sit around a table in Ireland and the stories and slagging come fast and furious. It’s in our history and nature to mistrust all the relevant authorities. That’s why it’s so much healthier now that the church has been exposed through constant horrific scandal and the subservience to them is diminishing. We Irish are finding ourselves and our rebel souls once more.

KF: You worked for Black Book. I somehow sensed at this point in your career to be a time when you were experimenting. I felt you gained an inner curiosity towards semiotics, not just what was to be expected of a novelist but an artist overall. I thought there were signifiers in the ideas pertaining to your interest in art and painting, writing not just to tell a story but provoke the conscience whether in the essay format or interviewing the likes of Billy Bob Thornton and Jennifer Jason Leigh. How did Black Book define your career?

EM: That’s a fair assessment. You don’t miss much do you Kofi? I was so lucky in Black Book to have Anuj Desai as an editor. He was a young Indian American visionary. He made Black Book a unique and ground breaking magazine. Years later when I wrote my third novel, Baby Zero, I sent it to him to edit. He had that gift. I’ll send him the next one too. As soon as Anuj left Black Book they never asked me to do anything again. But then by that time I was living in California which was like dropping off the map in the publishing world. I might as well have been in Papua New Guinea.

KF: Fair to say I’m much the triple threat you are. Although back at the college you politely placed me as second to your throne as best writer in class. (Laughter) My novel never did get published… though I went off into the theater world as writer and director. When did you feel this panic to paint? Were you always a painter?

EM: Life always takes the most interesting turns when you lose control…When you drop the oars as you approach the waterfall. Painting came to me through a computer mistake. I sat the entrance assessment exams for Hunter College and scored very high in everything except writing. Ha! I was stunned. But it meant that I was somehow put into the system as a foreigner with no English. The only classes I could apply for were classes that didn’t involve writing in English. So I signed up for lots of Art and French classes. By the time I rectified the mistake the other classes were full and I began to do art. It became my major. I never stopped. I have another solo show coming up this month in the Origin Gallery in Dublin. That was something I never expected in life. At first I used it to have a creative outlet that was less public than my writing…One purely for pleasure. But I’m too driven as a person. I couldn’t just leave it at that. I had to keep pushing myself until I saw what I could do as a painter. It’s now my main source of income. My children get fed because of that computer mistake.

KF: Express for me the centeredness of your role as painter. I imagine you to have studied the works of all the greats. Do you have a favorite painter? What period in history do you favor the most? How have you come to terms with the current language in art whereby there’s a defining philosophical ethic which removes from the fore what would be termed fine art or hand-made art?

EM: Zang Xiaogang for his otherworldliness. Picasso for his draftsmanship… Matisse for his colour… Marlene Dumas for her eerie portraits. Joan Mitchell for painting over everything with white…I do the same sometimes when stuck and send out gratitude to her. Louise Bourgeois and Frida Kahlo for putting their life’s pain into their art… Alice Neel for capturing the soul and for her naked self portrait when she was 80…Goya for the horror he struck into my soul….Marlene Dumas for her eerie portraits…The list goes on and on, I try to rip them all off but in my inadequacy becomes my own style….

KF: Very few writers paint. Much can be said about painters and writing. How do you explain the ability not only to tell a story with words but explore the use of color and paint? Is there a dynamic made applicable to both mediums and why do most fail or cease to attempt what you have progressively matured and continue in success?

EM: Very good reason not to attempt to master or mistress two kinds of art. Time. Time. Time. At the moment I’m painting 5 days a week full time when kids are in school. I can’t write. I ache to write. But I can’t. When my show is finished I’ll write again. But there is no balance. Something always loses out. I’m so greedy. I’d like to think I can do it all but…..

KF: You’ve written three novels published internationally outside of your other works of fiction, Breakfast in Babylon, More Bread or I’ll Appear and the current Baby Zero. Somehow I feel the heart of these novels represent pivotal moments in your life that of which are circumspect on my part. Babylon would suggest autobiography. More Bread feels as if there was a sisterhood with your fellow Banshees as if you were family and now of course you are mother to two children hence the Baby in Baby Zero. How far off am I or do I need to rethink my psychology? (Laughter)

EM: You are spot on! There is no such thing as fiction. Unless we say fiction is that which gets to the core of the truth quicker than anything else. When I look back at all my work it is intensely autobiographical, as if I was writing a diary. This is a very female thing to do. Look at Frida Kahlo! I have to say I wasn’t aware of it at the time. Otherwise I would have been paralyzed by the fear of exposure. But when I’m writing I’m in a deep place, a trance of sorts, and it’s only afterwards I worry about what my mother might think! Some people used to say to me when Baby Zero came out, how did an Irish woman living in the U.S. write about a pregnant woman imprisoned by a fundamentalist regime. It was only afterwards that I realized that it was my marriage! Hard times! Things are better now though, Kofi… so dry your tears little one. I’m ok now.

KF: Valley of Ghosts was your first film. Pivotal to this was Silicone Valley. Trace the process from screenplay, treatment, financing and whatever means it took. How was the experience of making a film? Is the satisfaction immediate or is it more of a visceral response. And who are your heroes in cinema? What circumstances led you to making films?

EM: “In the beginning was the word.” The bible proclaims in its first sentence. Conversely, John Berger states, at the beginning of his seminal work, Ways of Seeing: “Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.” So which comes first the story or the image? I began my journey in the arts as a writer, then a painter, so it seemed a natural step to bring the image and the word together as a filmmaker. Film is the newest and most transcendent of all the arts because it brings words and images together. Currently, it is also the most influential. As a painter the image is the totality. It is all there is. In film the image is paramount, and certainly the most effective and dominant tool of the medium; however, the power of the image must be fused to the story. For if the story is not truthful at its core, the image’s centre does not hold, and the film fails.
These images become part of my cellular structure. The king at the end of blindly standing on the cliff’s edge; the huge, sick-hearted Marlon Brando raving in Mad-eyed Klaus Kinski stumbling alone and doomed on his raft in the murderously fragile rainforest in Roman Polanski finding a tooth buried in the wall of his Parisian apartment in The Tenant. I can’t remember being born but I remember these moments. I can’t remember last week and I remember all of this. I can’t remember where I put my keys and I remember this. Why? These images have their potency because I was moved by the story. The story had to take me to the point where the image could puncture me.

KF: Last year David Foster Wallace met his death in a suicide. I hope you and I can agree that he was indeed the greatest writer of our generation. I remember reading his first novel Broom of the System. The only other novel that made such a strong first impression on me was Nabakov’s Lolita. As a cultural society where have we come from an upbringing of writers like Foster Wallace, Jay Mclnery, Brett Easton Ellis…These were our F. Scott Fitzgerald’s and Tom Wolfe’s. (Sigh) Does Foster Wallace’s death neutrally put to rest that period in our lives and how do we evolve within a virtual world of bloggers? Retrospectively did the “yuppie writer” get a fair burial and is the blogger irreplaceable?

EM: Berger claimed that artists are not creators they are receivers. Artists do not invent anything. We channel the culture. We are vessels who receive influences and mix them with our dreams, until, in some strange alchemical process, we pour out work that we pray means something.
The notion of genius annoys me. It is a very capitalistic notion. No one is a genius. Art is not a competition. Genius is something that comes and rests on your shoulder like a startling raven. You must work fast and furious while its claws dig in because it can take off at any second. People access the power of life and the force within the world and create something unique and meaningful. Most artists, singers, writers, filmmakers can only do this for a short time. With many successful people ego gets in the way and the work dries up. For the majority no one listens and they stop. This culture needs more outlets for humans’ immense creativity. Maybe that’s the web. Maybe that’s why we blog.

KF: I remember meeting Sharon Horodi, Israeli video artist, at a Kathy Acker reading in the summer of ’93 at New York City’s performance space The Kitchen. We debated on the topic of women and how they subject themselves to the use of emotional and physical violence as a literary mode. (Sigh) Certainly there’s a circumstance regarding your depiction of language. Is this the result of having traveled and lived all over the world? Does experience beget sophistication?

EM: I certainly felt at one time of my life that I had to crush myself and smash myself to rise like a phoenix out of the ashes. My endless wanderings were very instructive in that I learnt that there is no center. The center is where you are. Everyone is their own centre.

KF: Is this not a dream Emer? What is the greatest lesson told a Dubliner having traveled the world to return home a better example to those around her, experienced at love able to share in it and watch and listen as her friends remark at her name mentioned in newspapers. Is this the dream we all dream as artists? What advice do you have for aspiring artists and do you sway your daughters from following in your footsteps?

EM: Of course I’ll crush any sign of creativity out of them. Ok Ok. They’ll find their own way I’m sure. Yes it is a dream, Kofi. Any life that doesn’t grind you down with boredom is a wonderful dream. I still don’t have a home, I still don’t own anything but a few clothes and lots of books, but I left Ireland at 17 and I wanted to be a writer and now I am one. Now I am a painter too. I didn’t even understand that was in me. I have two amazing daughters that make me laugh every hour I’m with them. They are my new teachers. This is my new adventure. It is a dream. I wake in the morning, rush the kids to school, go to my studio on a farm to dip my brushes into paint and sit in solitude.

One day when I am done I will head off to Papua in Indonesia and go live with the Asmat when I’m 80. That’s how I’d like the dream to fade out. I’d like to go to the tribes. I’ve been impressed with the Asmat since they ate Michael Rockefeller.

KF: You’ve come a long way Emer. I’d imagine the streets are more quiet without you…

EM: I walk in spirals Kofi. Round and round and round and down and down and down.

KF: I own a proof of More Bread… Think it’ll fetch me a good penny when you win the Oscar for best screenplay?
This page contains several interviews over a number of years with various media.

EM: Good luck with making any money out of me. I never did.

Half Moon Bay, California 2009, Photo by Liliana Reisnik Half Moon Bay, California 2009, Photo by Liliana Reisnik
The Man himself, Kofi, 2009 New York

The Man himself, Kofi, 2009 New York

Interview from Laurahird.com by Niall Mckay 2009


Niall: ‘Baby Zero’ seems like such a topical book. So utterly relevant to these times, yet universal. Was this intentional?

I started the book in the year 2000 when I was pregnant with my first child. A baby Zero. So it came from a personal place but yes, ‘Baby Zero’, has found its time well. The U.S. gunning for Iran and Iran predictably spitting back. A book about a family caught between East and West. A Western woman in an Eastern body. Eastern people caught out in the West. This clash of civilisations is really just a clash of like versus like. Oligarchic West imposing rule onto monarchic East in a bid for raw materials under the guise of inflicting a better life on those who aren’t asking for one.

Niall: There are many different stories in this book. They are somehow connected, but how?

Emer: Like The Arabian Nights, the Eastern method of story telling is here, a story within a story within a story.

The American story of Leila and Zolo, the children who arrive from a refugee camp to their crazy Plastic Surgeon uncle in Malibu, L.A., is contained within the surreal state of Orap. Then the story of the conquest of the indigenous people of America is contained within the American story. Like Russian dolls. It all fits together.

Niall: There is also the story of the sixth great extinction. The fact that all the species are dying out on the planet. How is this linked to the East and West Story?

Emer: We are too distracted and leaderless right now. We watch as bystanders, as the extraordinary rendition of all hope and logic is snatched and bundled away. We watch helplessly as 50% of all known species are driven to extinction within our lifetimes by our indulgences. This is all linked because we are so distracted and visionless that we are as paralysed as James Joyce’s famous paralysed Dubliners a century ago. Except now the stakes are higher. They are not individual lives. It is the planet at stake.

Niall: These are heavy topics yet the book is a page turner. It’s actually very funny in parts.

Emer: Yes. Despite it all, the characters in ‘Baby Zero’ can laugh and run; and the kids still get stoned and elope to Vegas; and some people are decent. Finally, redemption comes as chaos descends, when a mother transcends herself and saves her child’s life by swapping her own. Is every culture not longing for redemption by sacrifice? That’s not just a Christian notion. This is a book of our time as we slouch toward Jerusalem and Mecca and Washington, and Teheran, and Mumbai, and Beijing to be dismantled. It is not light entertainment to be sure. It is a journey to the end of the night only to slip through a black hole at the end of that night and come back to the beginning whole. Come back to Zero.

Niall: Why did you write this book now?

Emer: This book is my ghost dance; a surreal song for the future told from the tail end of the 6th great extinction. Its underlying themes are the struggle against reductive thinking; the shrinking of our world through rampant globalisation; the East’s inappropriate response to the bullying of the west. Where it should have been positive, rather globalisation has diminished us. There are connections between the disappearance of languages, species and cultures. The world is gripped by western and eastern fundamentalism. Do we really want a globe with one species, one language, and one way of life?

Niall of the Nine Sunglasses portrait by Emer

Niall: The events in the frame of the story take place in the country of Orap. Where is that?

Emer: Some have asked me where Orap is. Orap is a creation of the West, a mythical place, the book is surreal, set in a future, which feels like today, just closer to the end. All the wild animals are extinct – as could well happen in our near future. The name Fattaggas is the indicator of this surrealist intention – being the name of a famous surrealist exhibition with Max Ernst, among others, taking part.

Niall: There is an anger in the book. Where does it come from?

Emer: The character in the book is searching for the truth in her family. Her life has been controlled by her mother. Her mother guarded her as she studied and watched her when she slept. And she never knew why. Suddenly everything collapses when there is a knock on their door and Mehrdad the servant boy turns up as a 40 year old engineer and blows all the family secrets open. If you don’t know your history you will be controlled by its ghosts. That works on a personal and political level. I suppose I am angry because people don’t care about history. Don’t understand why it is so important to know the history before they condemn others.

Fundamentalism in the East is a reaction to Western tyranny. This is classic blowback theory; America and Britain created the state of Iran by their greed for its oil. Mohammad Mossedeq in the 50’s was the only democratically elected leader Iran had, and he wanted to nationalise the oil. In 1953 America and Britain funded a coup to overthrow this democracy and install the Shah. The Shah was a puppet tyrant who gave the oil back to the West, and allowed their engineers in for vast construction projects. There is a Western arrogance that the resources of the world belong to the West. What did we expect but hatred? If Iran all those years ago had been allowed to have a normal democracy what would the world look like now?

This is not just a middle-eastern problem, rather it is a global problem; look at Africa, Patrice Lummuba assassinated by U.S. interests for mineral rich Congo. Puppet dictators installed who would allow countries to be plundered by Europe and America. We roll our eyes at those inept corrupt Africans and those crazy fanatical middle-easterners without understanding the true story. The truth. It really will set us free. We need it now.

Niall: So paradoxically, Orap is in fact a Western creation.

Emer: Exactly! Orap is a creation of the West. It is the nightmare of Orientalism. It has been forced into existence through repeated pernicious Western interference. Yes, there is a monster coming over the hill, but it’s us. So how can we run? We have to face ourselves.

America creates its own monsters. We must wake up and see that we can no longer believe our own propaganda: that we are the world’s benevolent policeman; that our military only goes overseas to help people in other countries overthrow tyrants and realize democracy. Americans must realise that the economic interests of a few wealthy people is controlling foreign policy. We need Americans to face reality, and I know many don’t, I’ve lived there so long. In fact I am an American citizen now. Only we can change our president. Most Americans would actually be horrified to know all this was done in their name for money.

Niall: The problem is not just America though, is it?

Emer: Of course not. All of us must cut our consumption, our thirst for oil. Our idea of endless progress is just another form of manifest destiny. And manifest destiny led to genocide of the people and pollution of the land. Manifest Destiny led to the Monroe Doctrine, that declared the United States was dominant over the hemisphere, and thus leads onto our present day notion of America as the world’s policeman. This book speaks to everyone and to anyone currently ready to demonise the other, it is falsely construed as purely an admonition to the East.

Niall: So what about the much touted Clash of Civilizations?

There is no clash of civilizations. In reality, George Bush and the Taliban have more in common than you or I. They are extremists. They do not tolerate difference. They insist their traditions, however exploitive of women, gays, artists, any one who constitute as other, are set in stone. They both claim justification from what is written in their respective bibles, and therefore their doctrine is immutable. This is cultural atrophy and it is not what the majority of us on the planet want or need.

Niall: Leila is such a wonderful character. She’s the moral centre of the book. Whatever redemption comes to any of the characters it comes from her. This book is about listening to the other. Leila can come a century later across the planet and identify and feel the people who were wiped from the land. She is the princess and the pea; she can feel the ghosts rising under all those layers of history. She knows we need them now more than ever. They cannot be forgotten, their stories and all stories must be kept alive. Marguerite realises that by telling Leila’s story her life meant something.

Niall: How does Ireland function in the book as a metaphor?

It is not my intention to malign other people’s cultures, the distance between California and Kabul is about equal, Ireland is a midpoint, a post-colonial, tribal, recently theocratic culture as it undergoes a painful metamorphosis into the world.

Niall: These aren’t the only themes in this book. You clearly illustrate the excesses that damn both cultures. I love the scene where the children escape the refugee camp only to witness their uncle inject botox into a client.

Emer: Yes. Both cultures have something in common. Namely, the battleground fought over women’s bodies. Is it more oppressive to cover the body entirely or to slice it open and put in implants, to inject botulism into women’s heads? These are grim choice and we can only hope to steer away from such extremes. Neither furthers the cause of women, and women’s equality is vital to changing the world, there is no freedom without it.

Niall: You always feel we cite the oppression of women in Eastern culture as a proof of our superiority. What do you think about this? There are grave concerns there. One of your characters states, “How come when you mistreat men for religion or colour it is recognized as oppression but when you mistreat women it is dismissed as tradition.”

Emer: However, women’s rights are not a Western prerogative. It is not something unique and integral in our culture. The West has only made progress very recently on this front. We only had a women’s movement in the 1970’s. Men still have the political and economic power in the Western world. Feminism cannot be imposed on other cultures for political kudos. Women’s rights in the East must come organically from within, from those women’s own sense of injustice. Otherwise, it will be fatally resisted as a Western imposition.

Niall: Do you condemn a culture that treats women like that?

Emer: Yes I condemn any form of repression. Afghanistan under the Taliban, Guantanimo bay, there are examples of extreme repression in both cultures.

But certainly the book is not a condemnation of the East, rather an illustration of how our worst nightmares come to fruition when we bully and suppress and steal and look on ourselves as civilised. It wasn’t the East that brought about global warming, used all the resources for themselves, or indulged in mass consumerism. The deluded children in Orap are reacting against a modern world that has pillaged the earth of its animals and air and diversity. This is the worst of what could happen. The book is a warning about a world I hope will never materialise.

Niall: Where do the stories come together? What is the idea behind this unification of all the separate threads?

The interconnecting stories come together in Leila’s scrapbook. She is beginning to have the outline of something; like a whale’s footprint on the surface, it signals something huge underneath. “She saw the same Cowboy and Indian story, over and over again, in different costumes, in different locations.” The wiping out of tribes, languages, customs, and habitats in the service of a vast global consumerism that benefits a tiny elite – an elite that mostly inhabited this part of the world where she had ended up. Somehow, she thought, that led to what was happening to the animals, the speciocide. And if we lost them we would lose ourselves – Into the mountain of memory like the buffalo. “Everyone knew species were dying out but no one was doing enough to stop it. The human brain was big but not logical. Leila saw the human addiction to stories, stories through TV, movies; all religion was worship of a particular story; Mohammed, Jesus, Moses, the Ramayana. The bibles were made sacred because they contained the story. In the beginning was the word. These stories caused trouble and had people hating.”

Niall: Again your recurring theme of the power of the story.

Emer: Leila is almost about to decide, that the word and the story must be the thing harnessed to save us. The truth of what we have done to each other. And it needs to start here, at the edge of America – the Wild West. This is the ghost dance. When the American Indians gathered all across the West, they danced to summon their ancestors to help them. The authorities reacted against the dancing and opened fire. They were afraid.

Niall: So did the ghost dance work?

As Deng Chow Ping said about the French revolution. It’s too early to tell. Maybe the ghosts that had been summoned by the Native-Americans 200 years ago are finally amassing – like centuries old dust from a comet suddenly illuminating the earth’s sky.

© Niall McKay
Reproduced with permission

Emer and her kids

By Olaf Tyaransen

Although she’s an attractive, Dublin-born mother-of-two, still on the right side of 40, novelist Emer Martin doesn’t do chicklit. This won’t come as any great revelation to anybody who’s ever read one of her books, but it seems to have confused a fair few Irish critics.
“Baby Zero hasn’t had one review in Ireland that hasn’t mentioned Cecelia Ahern,” the raven-haired writer sighs. “A lot of the reviewers seem to be saying almost accusingly, ‘this book isn’t chicklit!’ They seem to assume that a woman writing in Ireland today has to be doing chicklit. Maybe I should be! [laughs]
“But I can’t even read that stuff. To tell you the truth, I think it’s utter shite. But fair play to them.
“But if Pat McCabe or Joe O’Connor or Colm Tobin bring a book out, they’re not being compared to detective novels or something,” she continues. “Nobody is saying to them, ‘But this isn’t a mystery story!’ or whatever. So there’s a touch of sexism in that. You know, that if you’re a female writer, you must be writing crap books for money.”
Rather, Martin writes excellent books for substantially less money. She first appeared on the literary scene more than a decade ago, with the publication of her strange and turbulent debut Breakfast In Babylon. A sort of female European version of Kerouac’s On The Road, it was named Ireland’s Best Book of 1996 at Listowel Writers Week.
Four years later, More Bread Or I’ll Appear – a story about the far flung travels of a dysfunctional family – consolidated her reputation as one of the most talented, daring and interesting young Irish writers around.
And the perennially rebellious and nomadic Martin has certainly been around. Having left suburban Dublin behind at the age of 17, she travelled the globe on a shoestring – squatting, begging, busking and living everywhere from London to Paris to Bali to Israel to New York to San Francisco.
“I need to change my environment constantly,” she admits. “I’m still always travelling – even if I have no money, I’ll just get up and go. Besides, Ireland in the 1980s was such a bleak and depressing place, there was absolutely no reason to stay.”
Somewhere along the way, she got married to Afshin, an Iranian scientist, and had two daughters, Jasmine and Jade. The family settled in California in 2001 but, not wanting her children to grow up in such a warlike and propagandistic environment, she returned to Ireland three years ago and is currently living in Meath.
“America is quite a scary place at the moment,” she maintains. “Especially given that my children look very Persian. What pissed me off the most was that even the liberal Americans in cool places like San Francisco keep on talking about the war in terms of themselves. It’s all this handwringing over 3,000 dead US troops. They don’t seem to care about the thousands of dead Iraqi women and children.
“And now they’re talking about invading Iran. My children are half-Iranian. So I just decided to take them someplace where people didn’t want to kill them.”
She’s interested in Irish politics and followed the general election, but maintains that American politics is really all that matters these days. “Irish politics can be quite entertaining, but American politics is where good and evil are really being played out. That’s where it’s really serious. That’s where an election could cost us the environment or the planet or 160,000 dead Iraqis or a war with Iran.”
Her husband is still living and working in California, but they get together as regularly as possible. “A long distance relationship isn’t exactly the ideal situation, but it’s working at the moment,” she says. “We’re meeting up in Seville next week, and we were in the Canaries a couple of months ago. It’s mad – like I’m having an affair with my husband.”
In her latest novel, Baby Zero, a pregnant Irishwoman named Marguerite is imprisoned for taking a stand against the fundamentalist government of Orap (a fictional country obviously based on Iran or Afghanistan). This government have turned the year back to zero, as if to begin history again.
To retain her sanity as she awaits her fate, Marguerite tells her unborn child the stories of three other baby zeros – all girls from a family that has been scattered across the globe. Set in Orap, LA and Ireland, Martin is once again writing about the diaspora, albeit in a very different kind of way.
Although her descriptions of fundamentalist Orap are extremely vivid, she’s never actually visited Iran. “No, I’d love to go, but because my husband is a scientist it could be extremely dodgy for us to go there. The authorities may decide to not let him leave. He left before the revolution anyway so the country would probably be just as strange and alien to him as it would be to me.”
Her husband’s family still live in Iran, but have visited the US on a couple of occasions. Initially, her in-laws didn’t realise that she was a writer and, at her husband’s insistence, she went to great pains to avoid telling them.
“When we lived in New York, Afshin’s family came over from Iran. And he was saying, ‘Please don’t tell them you’re a writer – tell them you’re a computer programmer!’ So I did, and then his mother said, ‘Oh, you can teach our daughter computers’. And I was thinking, ‘she’s gonna be doing cut and paste for hours, because that’s all I can do.’ [laughs].
“It was August and New York was really hot. We had a roof garden. And I had to leave the house at 9 o’clock. But the only suit I had was one I’d bought in Ireland years ago, that my mother made me buy thinking that one day I would get a job – which never materialised! And it was this red wool suit, with a tartan skirt. So I was wearing a wool suit sitting up on the roof writing. I think I lost about 10 pounds a week while they stayed.
“I’d come in in a puddle of sweat everyday around 5 o’clock and go, ‘Oh, what a day at the office!’ So I faked it. And then finally the father was walking through the Village, and he spotted a poster of me in the window of a bookshop. So he went in and bought Breakfast In Babylon. Actually, he probably didn’t buy it! He probably just leafed through it. But he came home and said to my husband, ‘Couldn’t you have found anybody more degenerate?’
“And my husband said, ‘No, I looked long and hard!’” [laughs]
Between maintaining a long distance relationship, raising two children and working on other creative projects (she’s also a painter and filmmaker), it’s surprising Martin has any time to write at all.
“It’s hard to find a balance,” she admits. “There is no balance. It all goes out the window once you have a family. Like, before I thought I was busy. I wasn’t busy, because I could have two consecutive thoughts. Now I can’t.”
Unsurprisingly, this new book took a very long time to complete. “It took years. I started this in the year 2000. It took me about four years to get a first draft. And then I rewrote and rewrote.”
Unfortunately, when she finally finished the manuscript, her US publishers were less than ecstatic with the incendiary subject matter.
“The American publishers freaked out when they got the manuscript. They were just very alarmed by it. I didn’t expect that reaction. Because you write in a vacuum and, when you’re writing, you’re not really thinking of audience.”
The situation is still ongoing, but there are no immediate plans for Baby Zero to be published in the US. No matter – she’s already hard at work on her next book.
“I don’t really want to talk about what it’s about,” she apologises. “That can be dangerous. You can talk it away to nothing instead of writing it.”
Undoubtedly, long distance relationships will be a theme. It seems that Emer Martin has always written about what she knows. It’s hardly coincidental that she was pregnant twice throughout the writing of Baby Zero. However, it’s only now that she’s willing to acknowledge that her work is autobiographical.
“I pretended Breakfast In Babylon wasn’t autobiographical for many years, but now I’ll admit it,” she laughs. “There’s enough distance! Still, though, my two girls won’t be allowed to read it for a very long time. I’ll still be walking up to the roof, pretending to them I’m a computer programmer.”

* Baby Zero by Emer Martin is published by Brandon Books (€14.99)


Interview with Mia Dinelly-Female FYI Magazine October1997

Emer Martin’s Breakfast In Babylon is one of the most eagerly awaited books from Europe, where it has been a smash hit winning Book Of The Year 1996 in Ireland, and already achieving widespread cult status. I met Emer Martin in a dive bar in the East Village in NYC, her current stomping ground.

Mia: The book takes us on a chilling and addictive tour of Europe’s scary and often hilarious underworld. How much of this world have you experienced yourself?

Emer: I escaped from Ireland when I was 17. The nuns in my convent school had spent so many years ranting about the dangers of drugs and sex that I couldn’t wait to dive right in and try it for myself. I knew they were obsessed for a reason. I flew to Paris on a one way ticket and took care of various people’s snotty little toddlers but I was so wild that I couldn’t bare the confines of a roof and four walls let alone sitting all day polishing French people’s silver and wiping their kid’s arses. So I ended up living on the streets with a bunch of lunatics and it is from these surroundings that much of the material for Breakfast In Babylon was gathered.

Mia: You really have a genius for characters and dialogue, it would make a wonderful movie. The Characters literally leap off the page and grab you by the throat.

Emer: I was writing about real people and real events, the book is a composite of fact and fiction.

Mia: Did any of the real life characters object?

Emer: Taffy the Welsh punk with one leg is a character everyone loves. I didn’t know him very well and made up the story of how he lost the leg, but apparently he got hold of the book and was delighted to find a version of himself there. Now he carries the book around waving it about and claiming it’s the truth. He’s adopted my account of his life as his own. That’s a strange instance of fiction becoming more real than fact.

Mia: The book is about people who travel the world. Many young Americans would be interested in how to do it without any money

Emer: I never had any money in my life. The characters in Breakfast In Babylon might come into money in the afternoon but they are always broke by next morning. Once my friend and I left Paris and took the ferry to London, we had about a pound between us but when she went up to buy some chips, the barmaid bullied her into putting all her change into a poor box for more lifeboats. We arrived in London with nothing at all.

Mia: How did you survive?

Emer: Eventually four of us women, all Irish teenagers, moved into a studio with three mattresses and fought bitterly for the whole winter. Six months later I decided to escape the endless squabbling about who used whose razor etc., by going to work on a Kibbutz in Israel. I worked in a condom factory, chicken shed and peanut field, which I set on fire by mistake. So it was a roasted peanut field when I left. Eventually I arrived in the Sinai desert, stayed in a hut in a Bedouin village, traveled throughout Egypt, down the Nile to Nubia, lived with an Egyptian family in a suburb of Cairo, fell ill with Amoebic Dysentery and spent the rest of my time delirious in bed with an intravenous drip and a fever with the father trying to convince me to marry his only son or at least his Uncle Showie. I escaped to Israel by walking over a minefield unawares while listening to the Bee Gees “What are you doing in your bed you should be dancing, yeah”. All these soldiers were waving at me frantically, I was thinking ‘what a friendly bunch!’

Mia: What are your good memories?

Emer: I worked as a cleaner in a Motel for Orthodox Jews on the Sea of Galilee, near Syria. There I was cleaning toilets and mopping floors on the night-shift and sometimes I would drop my mop; run down to the sea, and jump in naked. That was lovely. A real job perk.

Mia: How did you eventually make it to these shores?

Emer: Like every other time, I just hopped on a plane with a few bucks and winged it. The first place I lived in was Savannah, Georgia with a lesbian librarian I met in Paris. There I worked in an Irish bar run by an Italian from Queens. Toured the South with my waitress money, met a woman in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and hitching a ride in her truck we drove cross country for weeks. She dropped me off in San Francisco where, as usual, I didn’t know a soul. I soon found a waitressing job on the wharf and lived in this woman’s closet. In Autumn I headed to Mexico and Cuba and the following spring I settled in New York. I wrote Breakfast in Babylon while shacked up in New Jersey with a mad scientist. So you see you can travel the world on $0 dollars a day but you don’t exactly end up in the Ritz, unless you’re washing dishes in the kitchens of course.

Mia: That’s what’s so cool about Breakfast In Babylon. We have a zillion road novels and movies but at long last here is one great female character Isolt and she makes Thelma and Louise look like two old aunts from the Waltons. Are you a feminist?

Emer: Of course.

Mia: Why do you say of course? Are all women feminists?

Emer: All the smart hip ones are.

Mia: Do you think women writers are at a disadvantage?

Emer: It’s a question of trust. People are not trained to trust women. I was on the subway platform yesterday and the train came and this idiot starts freaking out shouting ‘there’s a woman driver, I ain’t getting on the train.’ And he didn’t. So if people can’t even trust women to drive them through those dark tunnels how will they trust them to take a can-opener to their tin hearts and delve inside. It will only change when we de-emphasize gender. By gender I mean both biological sex and sexual orientation. In fact, gender, race, and class are the three main things in this world which affect our position in the society at large. The system has necessitated that there should be divisions in these categories that reward one side for oppressing the other. Male is to female, as straight is to gay, as white is to black, as rich is to poor. Our culture has been degraded as a result. We need an underdog to do the cheap labor.

Mia: Do you think this will change?

Emer: It’s up to us. Change will not come from the top. It’s no accident that a disproportionate amount of the poor in the U.S. are people of color; with women at the bottom of the scale. As long as we can see the ultimate underdog as a poor dark-skinned woman then rich white males can disassociate themselves from all guilt.

Mia: Why?

Emer: Because it’s so inculcated into the culture that this is the natural order of things they see no reason to alter the balance.

Mia: What advice would you give to other young women out there?

Emer: Don’t pay any attention to the rotten mainstream culture that tells you what you should look like, who you should sleep with, and what you will become. All women are beautiful so quit fretting in the mirror and get out there and kick some ass.




Emer Martin, 1999
Leaving suburban Dublin behind at seventeen, Emer Martin traveled the world — from Paris to Bali to the sands of the Sinai, where she trekked through the desert with Bedouins. Along the way, she encountered nomads of a different sort — people who were squatting, begging and bunking from one city to the next. Some, like her, were kids who had spontaneously hit the road; others were permanently adrift. Although she may not have known it at the time, this strange and turbulent world would figure prominently in her first novel, Breakfast in Babylon, named Ireland’s Best Book of 1996.

With pints of Guinness on hand, we sat down with Martin and were instantly drawn into her stories. Martin’s quick wit and keen observations come from years of chatting up strangers and dodging train conductors. She has an easy humor and, for all she’s been through, no regrets, no need to justify her five years on the margins of society. In fact, just talking with her, you start to feel as if you too should be on the road at least once in your life. Martin makes good old-fashioned teenage rebellion seem new again because she believes in it so wholeheartedly.

Now settled down — or so she says — in the New York area, Martin recently completed her second novel, More Bread or I’ll Appear, a story which follows an Irish family in their far-flung travels. She frequently performs in clubs around town with the Banshees, a girl group of Irish singers, dancers and writers. Having made herself at home in the world, Martin has, in her own nomadic way, come back to her roots.

ARIANA: What did you say the other night about the Irish prom?
EMER: An American once asked me, “Did you go to your prom?” and I said we didn’t have proms in Ireland, we have emigration. We just finish school and get the fuck out of the country. Growing up in Ireland during the ’80s, it was a very depressed time. I remember walking down the main street and there were bushes growing out of windows, everything was derelict, boarded up. There was nothing to do, everybody was on the dole. I remember even going to a career guidance teacher who said, “Do you want to do a secretarial course, nursing or college?” And I was like, “No, no, no, no, no.”
ALISA: Those were your choices?
EMER: So she suggested, “Why don’t you just leave the country?”
ARIANA: Breakfast in Babylon really is about getting as far away as possible from any sort of dead end.
EMER: I’ve always written about the diaspora. In Breakfast in Babylon there was an international cast of characters. It was all people living in exile, sort of the black sheep from every family in Europe ending up in Paris at that time.
My second novel, More Bread or I’ll Appear, is also about an Irish family who all have emigrated and live abroad. So there is a consciousness in my work of being a stranger, being an immigrant, being away. But I think as an artist it’s an advantage to be in the margins.
ARIANA: More material in pain and suffering …
EMER: And self-awareness. That’s one of the reasons why I’m addicted to traveling. You know, if you spend a month in just your regular life, it goes by like that —you don’t even think about it. But if you spend a month traveling through Africa you would remember every day of that month because your awareness is increased a hundredfold. That’s why I like traveling. It makes my life longer.
Alisa: Is it true that you arrived in London with only one pound?
EMER: Oh yeah, that was the way we traveled then. We had no regard for where we slept at night. There was a time in my life, about a five year period, where I could be anywhere in Europe and bunk a train or get a bus and arrive in Paris and be in a squat that night with people I knew or acquaintances. So we never thought twice. One time my friend Anya and myself woke up in the morning and decided we’d go to London. We only had a pound, so we bunked the train up to the coast.
ARIANA: And by bunk you mean?
EMER: You just got on without a ticket. But it was one of those supersonic jet trains so they couldn’t throw you off without squeezing you through the window.
ARIANA: So you knew you were going to get to your destination.
EMER: Yeah, they just make you lie between the carriages and be nasty to you, but we didn’t really care. When you’re eighteen you’re invincible. So that time we were on the boat, and Anya went to the bar to buy crisps —we were starving —and she came back and I said, “Where’s the change?” She looked very sheepish and said, “The woman behind the bar made me put it into the lifeboat charity.” So we actually arrived in London with zero, not even ten pea to make a phone call.
ARIANA: Even at eighteen I would be scared to be in London with no money. But you didn’t seem to have a sense of fear, which is what interests me.
EMER: What I was afraid of when I was eighteen was boredom, that was my sense of fear, boredom and conformity, becoming what I saw everyone else becoming.
ARIANA: Punching the clock.
EMER: I grew up in the suburbs of Dublin. It was the first time anybody grew up in suburbs in Ireland. Everybody’s parents were from the country, so the people from North Dublin said we weren’t really proper Dubliners, and people down the country despised us because we came from Dublin. You’d live with your parents, you’d go to university and then you’d look around for a sort of crappy job. I wanted to see the world, and I didn’t want to work either.
ARIANA: Did you feel like you were entering a subculture by entering into this new world?
EMER: I was seventeen when I left Ireland and I was wild and I was reckless. I didn’t even like the idea of a roof and walls. I was an animal. I’d go out and get wasted at night and sleep in a doorway and just go off the next morning. The ’80s was a very conservative time. There was no big movement, even the music was crap really. Places like London were boring, Dublin was boring, but in Paris there was this big scene going on, on the slope in front of the Pompidou Centre.
Alisa: What was that like?
EMER: All the freaks were gathered there. There were Africans on soap boxes ranting and raving and pontificating, Arabs playing guitars and trying to pick up chicks. There were acrobats and a big fat man who’d lie on a bed of nails. There were all the Iranians in exile from the revolution, a lot of Afghanis fleeing the war. It was a very kinetic time.
That for me was just the place to be. And it was a subculture in the way that people were dropping out, they were begging, they were hustling, they weren’t working. We were all living more or less communally in squats. We would meet every night at the St. Michel fountain, go get beers or some hash and just sit there and talk, people would play guitars.
ARIANA: So there was some kind of moment …
EMER: Yes, but saying that, it all ended rather badly. By the ’90s, when I went back to Paris, the slope was empty, everything had been cleaned up, and most of my friends … When I think of it, it was heroin and poverty, and people ended up dead. So it’s good to be able to write that sort of thing because history gallops by. If you’re not a leader or a person of enormous wealth and influence, you disappear. In a way, that’s what fiction and film can do – sort of reinstate the vanished.
Alisa: Was there any response from people who were actually part of that scene, who saw the book?
EMER: A lot of the letters I get about the book are from people who somehow passed through the scene and are amazed that it’s been documented. They even recognize some of the characters. I knew a Welsh punk called Taffy, and he’d one leg and a mohawk. I used to talk to him now and then but I didn’t really know his story. In the book he becomes a central character, but I make up this whole story of how he lost his leg. He’s going through customs and they take his false leg apart to look for drugs. He arrives in Paris with no coat and his leg in a plastic bag. I was told he got hold of the book and he’s saying that this is how he lost his leg, this is the truth. And it wasn’t, I made it all up. He got a big kick out of that. I’m sure he doesn’t remember who the fuck I was.
ARIANA: I was curious, since you were traveling for five years, what experience or place struck you as the most beautiful, the most strange?
EMER: I remember going out to the Sinai desert in Israel with the Bedouins for three days. I was from Ireland and I’d never seen a desert. These Bedouin kids took us, myself and two other women. They’d be making dough and cooking bread on this old metal piece of shrapnel they found. You’d sleep by your own camel and you’d see the whole sky just shattered with stars. I remember being on the camel, totally wrapped in white, and the savage blue sky and this desert unfolding mountain after mountain with the sea right beside us.
ARIANA: Were you keeping track of everything during your travels? Were you writing at that point?
EMER: I think I’m a writing animal. I remember the first thing I wrote consciously was when I was nine. I wrote a poem about a horse who used to play golf with a rubber band and be disruptive on the course. I stood at the top of the class and read my poem and got a big laugh. So every night I would write a poem and I would draw a picture at the end. And I kept notebook after notebook. Even when I was traveling all around I always kept notebooks. Fiction and poetry and rants, impressions. But every time I finished these notebooks I would just throw them out. The practical reason was, I didn’t want to carry them around. I left some at home at Christmas, but they were all thrown out subsequently by my mother.
Alisa: Why’d she do that?
EMER: She’s very neat. It’s nothing personal. Everything must go. If you stand still at my house for longer than ten minutes you get wrapped in saran wrap and put in the freezer. It’s a tidy place.
Alisa: Saving them wasn’t really that important to you?
EMER: For me at the time, it was the process that was important, it wasn’t the result. I can’t really remember details or sentences. There must have been some of it that was good and a lot of it that was bad. The correlation to music, if you play the violin or the guitar, you don’t do it always to get a recording contract, you do it because you can reach some level of transcendence just by the process itself. So I think when I sat down years later to write Breakfast in Babylon that I was ready. It’s a big book, it’s a whole canvas of characters with an interweaving plot.
ARIANA: Were you conscious that you were preparing yourself to be a writer?
EMER: Books to me were the greatest pleasure in my life always, always. I think there’s more to life than books, but not much more. So in that way I wasn’t a na?ve savage scribbling around. I didn’t have a story at that time, I hadn’t a plot to piss in. I was waiting for a story. And I did want to be a writer. That to me was a dream.
ARIANA: You were brought up Catholic, but at some point you stopped believing in God?
EMER: I went to Catholic schools and was taught by nuns. Even the government-run schools in Ireland are controlled by the Catholic Church. Everybody around me was very religious. But around age twelve, and it was a very sudden thing, I just couldn’t believe anymore. It was a crisis of faith which I never got back.
I was one of those nerd children — I was reading The Origin of Species at the time, and I was very much caught up. The whole Christian faith broke down in my head. I just thought it was a silly story. And these other explanations seemed so much more reasonable and scientific. For a while I fought with it. I didn’t want to rot in the ground like a tomato. I wanted to feel that I was important and there was a god up there looking out for me and when I died I would join everyone I loved.
Alisa: A theme of Catholicism runs through your work. I guess it’s hard to completely break away.
EMER: I never did, and my books are intensely religious in ways. The very first line of Babylon is: “I am not Jesus Christ, I left home younger than he, traveled further, stayed out in the wilderness longer.” Being raised by people who are living their whole lives according to one philosophy, there’s almost a need to replace that with something else. I haven’t come up with anything.
Alisa: Can you describe your family?
EMER: Can I tell you about my really desperate suburban childhood? There isn’t a Frank McCourt version, you know, “Emer’s Ashes.” [laughs] I had a huge handicap for an artist – I had a very normal, nice childhood. My mother was a school teacher and my father worked in a bank, but he switched to work for the homeless in Dublin. My parents were very warm, loving, open, literate people. They had great books in the house, they went to the theater, they had a great social life. There were always parties in the house, always people singing.
ARIANA: What’s it like going back now?
EMER: I was back two weeks ago. I can’t leave without my mother crying, my father crying, my sister, me. In Ireland there was something called an American wake. You’d have a funeral for the people who were going to America. Everybody would gather together and you’d give them a big send-off. You’d never see these people again. The person arriving in America would be able to commit to America and say this was their new home, there’s no going back. Whereas now, because you can travel back, you can’t really put roots down in either place.
My husband, he’s Iranian and he left during the revolution in 1978 and he’s never been back. I compare him to me and I seem very spoiled that I can go home and see my family and see my country. But when I go back to Dublin they consider me to have an American accent.
Alisa: What was the response to your book in Ireland?
EMER: When the book came out in Ireland it got almost no serious literary criticism. The Sunday Tribune review started out with, “One would have to worry about young Emer Martin and blah blah blah, what is she doing with her life.” Radio interviews would ask me things like, “So are you advocating for women doing drugs and sleeping around?” And I’d be saying, “Of course I’m advocating!” Then every single person would ask, “So what do your parents think, is this a way to live?” They wanted to create a story for me. One magazine published a photo of myself and my husband and said: “Emer with her physicist husband, now come home.”
ARIANA: So you must have come to your senses.
EMER: I don’t think they would have done that to a male writer writing about life on the streets. It was very patronizing. There’ve been a lot of on-the-road novels from a male point of view; women have been peripheral characters, things to boast about, women they fucked along the way. Men have always written very graphically. And in Babylon there was just one paragraph about Isolt having her period, not having tampons, and wrapping tissues around – like what woman hasn’t had to do that at some point? But people got really freaked out and offended. It’s like a woman shouldn’t really write about that.
ARIANA: How did you go from the drifter’s world of Babylon to the more family-oriented narrative of your new book?
EMER: More Bread or I’ll Appear — I wrote it thinking of different families I’d seen and what happens when something goes wrong or some one person goes wrong and how it sort of contaminates the rest. You grow up with these people but a lot of times you have very little in common with your brothers and sisters and parents. And yet there’s emotional ties, so the capacity to hurt each other is enormous. Also, I was interested in obsessive-compulsive disorder and some of the characters in the family have it.
ARIANA: Why does that interest you?
EMER: I think it’s the idea that it’s not a psychosis. They’ll feel a huge anxiety if they don’t perform these acts and rituals. And I was relating the disease to religion. I remember working on the Sea of Galilee, in a motel for Orthodox Jews, for Hasidim. A strange job, one of my many brilliant careers. I was a cleaner there. They’d have to put that wooden block on their hand and tie it around their wrist to pray, and they’d have to bow a specific amount of times. Like in Catholicism, you have to dip your hands in the water on the way in and genuflect before you sit.
ARIANA: Rituals.
EMER: For humans, I think religion is almost like a huge obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Alisa: And do you feel that writing is what you need to do?
EMER: Everybody does something, whether it’s touching lamp posts or washing your hands, we all do something to keep the wolves from the door.
Alisa: What’s your writing schedule like?
EMER: When I’m writing a novel I’ll sit down five days a week and I’ll pick my time — usually between four and eight, that’s ’cause I get up at two. Descartes said no true philosopher gets up before noon. He was finally killed by the Queen, I think of Sweden. She took him on as her personal tutor and he had to get up at 4 or 5 in the morning.
ARIANA: And that was the end of him.
EMER: He should’ve stayed in Paris in his bed.
ARIANA: I wanted to know — we actually discussed this before we met you — in Babylon, what does Isolt, the main character, want?
EMER: You know when I wrote the screenplay for Babylon I kept asking myself, What does she want? Well, she doesn’t want anything! But you’re not allowed characters that don’t want anything.
ARIANA: She wants love.
EMER: Yeah, but I think of Isolt as part prophet, part party girl. When you see her on the beach, she’s lecturing the others about the futility of their actions. They’re saying, “So, we shouldn’t protest.” And she’s saying, “Yes, you should because at least then you’re a spanner in the works rather than a cog in the machine, although it won’t get you anywhere.” People are always asking writers what their characters want, but writers might be …
ARIANA: … the last people who would know.
EMER: Or the second last. Some of these things are unconscious. I mean, she is a drifter, that is her nature. She’s drifting by, but I do think she wants experiences. She wants intensity. Throughout it all, she goes towards the most intense experience she can find, towards the craziest people. Maybe that’s what she wants, to feel something extreme, she doesn’t just want to go though life numbly. Okay … now I’ve figured it out.


Index Magazine