erasing clouds

Bright Banshee, Compulsive Traveller and International Writer: Interview with Emer Martin

by Anna Battista

Eveline. Eveline was a young girl. Eveline lived in Ireland. Eveline's mother had died and she lived with her father, her brothers and sisters in their house, immersed in religious imagery, the yellowing photograph of a priest hung on the wall, next to the coloured print of the promises made to Blessed Margaret Mary Alacoque. Eveline was scared by her father's sudden outbursts of violence, she was alone in her lonely lonesome life pretending of living but being already dead. But Eveline had met a sailor, Frank, and had arranged to leave with him and go to Buenos Ayres. This meant leaving her home, her memories and her parochialism behind. Forever. Finally. Forever. Then, on the agreed day, at the harbour, she remained paralysed, clutching at the iron railing that separated her from the leaving ship. In the end Eveline didn't leave anymore and remained behind, "passive, like a helpless animal."

Or so James Joyce's story included in Dubliners goes. I remember reading it for the first time in my life when I was a kid at school and getting really angry at Eveline: fuck's sake, girl, you've arranged everything - gogogo! But she didn't. I couldn't stand the fact that she was reduced to be as passive as the dust on her cretonne curtains whereas her boyfriend, the movable hero of the story, "had tales of distant countries" to tell. I was so pissed off that I wrote an alternative version of "Eveline". In my version the heroine left, but once in Buenos Ayres she fell out with her boyfriend, became a dominatrix, then wrote her memoirs, became rich and used the money to build a solid drug-dealing business. Perhaps my version was a little bit too hazardous. At least it was hazardous to present it as an essay on James Joyce. Perhaps that's why I risked being expelled from school. But this, as they say, it's another story.

But, if we think about it, even the dust is mobile: particles of dust raise in the shaft of sunny light that peeks through curtains and move and revolve incessantly. Move incessantly. Revolve incessantly. Like the waves of the sea, like the clouds in the sky, like the words on a page, especially if the words on the mentioned page are penned by Irish writer Emer Martin. Author of the acclaimed novels Breakfast in Babylon (Wolfhound Press Ltd., 1995; Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997) and More Bread or I'll Appear (Houghton Mifflin, 1999; Allison & Busby 2000) and of a bunch of stories which came out on the Kevin Williamson-edited collection of novellas Rovers Return (Rebel Inc, 1998) and on the Sarah Champion edited anthologies, Shenanigans (Sceptre, 1999) and Fortune Hotel (Hamish Hamilton, 1999), Emer Martin's prose fights with passivity and stillness, recounting the stories of her ever moving characters, going from one part of the globe to another, perennially skint, perennially craving for adventures. A crave which pushed Emer Martin to start writing when she was very young and to flew Ireland when she was just a teenager. "I started writing when I was nine," she recounts, "I wrote continually and obsessively for the rest of my life. 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. I travelled for many years and I always wrote. I filled up notebook after notebook and threw them all away. When I finally settled briefly in New York I decided that I was ready to keep something. I wrote Breakfast In Babylon at that point." And in fact, Breakfast in Babylon is the story of Isolt, an Irish girl who leaves her country and moves throughout Europe, going from a squat in Paris, to another in Amsterdam, and then back again to Paris, where she mingles with the crowd of beggars and semi-desperate people around the Pompidou Centre, surviving thanks to more and more rounds of beers, and to the ever present dope, finally falling in love with Christopher, the hoodoo man "who can't be hoodooed". Still, Emer doesn't hope her books and stories are in some way considered autobiographical since, as she points out, in her writing, "Life leaks into my fiction and sometimes floods in, but, all in all, I like this life because I love to make things up."

"Every winter evening they would gather around Saint-Michel fountain, but in summer they would sit on the cobblestoned slope in front of the giant Pompidou Centre and watch the fire eaters, belly dancers and musicians… The place was crawling with opportunistic Arabs, junkies, dealers, students, tourists and pickpockets. The Africans would congregate at the top of the slope making impassioned speeches and arguing back and forth. Usually the beggars Isolt knew would go to a self-service restaurant beside the square and have dinner. They sat at the back tables with all their bags, eating and drinking water after free water and discoursing loudly. There were many beggars in the group. Some came and went within a week, some stayed for years, most drifted back and forth between European countries, not always in the same lifestyle."-- Breakfast in Babylon

To escape from loneliness and despair, Isolt avidly reads the books she takes from the library or those she steals, claiming "I find the truth in the books I read". Emer reveals that, instead of reading, she used to write in the difficult times of her life: "Life was so awful at times that I felt the only way to stay sane was to process this somehow. To record something. To make something up. Every time I think my life would be a lot better if I forget about this writing business I feel a nausea build up inside. Every time I stop writing and am not working on something I feel sick and unsettled. I am fully aware that if I stopped writing tomorrow nobody would care except myself but I do it for myself. Pure selfishness. I love writing and I need it and I can get it published and other people respond to it so I would say I'm lucky."

But to write you need an inspiration, and Emer's inspirations were the people she met: "I always liked the lunatics. Those who cut off their ears, who sat in Tangiers in Orgone boxes, who wrote on toilet paper in prison, who broke their spines during electric shock treatments but still got up and drew pictures. I craved that intensity in artists. They were my Christs. Their sacrifices fed my need to believe that life could be extraordinary. I was never interested in the artists who were awarded prizes and lived comfortable lives. I know that art could be just as good but it doesn't turn me on. Flannery O'Connor getting up everyday and going to the barn to write didn't fit in with my fantasies as much as Alfred Jarry starving in a half room in Paris, delirious from absinthe, and walking his lobster. Sure O'Connor is a better writer but that's not what I craved." Apparently, writing was what Emer always wanted to do in her life "I did harbour notions of being a zookeeper but after nine years of age it has only been writing," she states. Yet writing seems to be a difficult art, especially when you can be rejected, as it happened also to Emer, as she admits "I sent a letter out to a whole slew of agents in New York and got 68 rejections. Then I sent it directly to publishers in Ireland and England. Rejected, dejected, infected, then at last selected. You only need one acceptance for all the rejections to no longer matter."

Often people think they can refine their writing style taking up courses, but can writing be taught? "No, but it can be improved and refined and certain faults can be detected and eradicated," Emer explains, stating "Classes can be invaluable for this part of the process. Writing courses can be very good to give you deadlines and motivate you. It's also nice to get an instant audience. You don't have to write just to get published. Much like you don't have to get a recording contract to enjoy playing the banjo. Many write for years and don't get so much as a short story in a magazine. So a writing group can be a way of forcing other people to read your stuff whether they like it or not. This whole MFA thing in the U.S. has become a bit of a racket. It's all right when the fees are low and reasonable but I have friends who go to Columbia and such places and get into huge debt just to write literary fiction which will never get them out of that debt. Bad debt can eat your soul. I've seen it happen. You'll end up with a raggedy Swiss cheese soul if you take that route. Bitter and twisted and you'll destroy the lives of those around you. Ha! Ha! I don't think people realise just how little money is involved. It's quite pathetic really. Everyone reads the few cases of some young genius thing writing three paragraphs and being snatched up on the spot for a million. That could be me! That could be me! The truth is that it is much harder than that and almost every writer I know does something else to pay the bills. It's not a living - never was. If you don't love writing and if you don't have to do, then learn computer programming or something, feed your kids and have a good life."

In Breakfast in Babylon, Becky discourages Isolt from reading her books, explaining that writers are "all men" and that they are all "educated people who have their acts together," they are people who "have their acts together enough to write and publish their books." In the same way as Isolt opposes to Becky's comments, we might oppose to those who denigrate the writer's trade. There must be some kind of reward for being a writer, otherwise writers would be an extinguished race to protect in a natural reserve: "The reward for me is the process. The moments when I am alone by the computer and something good happens. When I can look at what I wrote at that instant and be refreshed by those words. Publishing, readings, good reviews, awards, minor fame, all that is secondary and never enough to fill the massive holes in me. It is the adrenaline rush of pure joy when I write well that keeps me going through the silences, and the fights, and the traffic and the hangovers and the wasted hours."

Actually, we might say that Emer Martin already had a few rewards: Breakfast in Babylon won 1996's Ireland's Book of the Year Award and was dubbed "the female Trainspotting by the Irish Echo. How does Emer feel about these two events? "Awards are a wonderful boost to the spirit and the pocket," she announces, "I haven't read Trainspotting but I will. Irvine Welsh is an inspirational nutter and although I don't think we write in the same style the association compliments me."

"Women shouldn't take up too much space. Now don't get on your high horse. Even women know this. It's funny, their place is already so tiny in the world and they instinctively diet to make themselves smaller. They all want to be so thin and not eat. I think women want to disappear."-- Breakfast in Babylon

In Breakfast in Babylon, Christopher behaves like a misogynist, hating beggar girls and not allowing them to squat in the buildings he occupies, nor trusting them in any other way. Naturally, his relationship with Isolt will be doomed and will reach its painful climax in one of the most suffering chapters of the novel. Christopher doesn't seem to have any confidence in Isolt, in the same way publishers often do not seem to give credit to those women who, in their writing, don't stick to what are considered traditional female themes. "The women thing? It's a question of trust," Emer claims, "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-emphasise 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 labour. Change will not come from the top. It's no accident that a disproportionate amount of the poor in the world are people of colour; 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. Because it's so inculcated into the culture that this is the natural order of things they see no reason to alter the balance. I tell women: 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."

"It's precisely those sentiments that have caused all the trouble in this world … worship of the phallus. Every city has to have its penis. Paris, the Eiffel Tower. London, Nelson's Column. Washington has the Monument. To show the mortals that it is the penis that rules there and no room for deviations. When the nuclear holocaust comes it won't be a forty foot clitoris you'll see flying through the air." -- Breakfast in Babylon

Emer has also been part of the 'Banshee' group, which, as she explains is "a collective of Irish women artists," adding, "There are so many wonderful talented young Irish women and yet it always seemed to be the same bunch of men trotted out on display when Irish culture was mentioned. The Irish literary scene is very male dominated, a bunch of men sniffing around each other's asses like a pack of dogs. Many of us felt frustrated and so we banded together to form a group in which we could pool resources and reach a much wider audience and maintain a presence on the web without looking completely self absorbed, you know: this is my very own website and here are pictures of me as a baby, type of thing. Check it out, We performed in all sorts of places in the U.S. especially downtown New York venues like The Knitting Factory and Max Fish. Now we are all scattered to the wind. Helena Mulkerns (fiction) is in Eritrea, Imelda O'Reilly (poet and playwright) is in New York, Caitriona O'Leary (singer) in Dublin, I'm in California and Darrah Carr (dancer) and Elizabeth Whyte (comedian) are both in New York for the moment but who knows. We no longer perform as a group, that side played itself out and took enormous energy to organise and promote but we still use the web to plug our various projects. Although Helena is the only one who can do all the web stuff and she is currently at the border of Ethiopia and Eritrea amid the fighting, so she is otherwise occupied. It was great fun and a chance to work with some amazing women artists."

"Dublin had been derelict, boarded up, bushes growing out of buildings. Now this fin de siècle Ireland had opened its heart to the European continent. There were contraceptives available, the church's austere power was fading, censorship was relaxed, highways built with EC funds were crisscrossing the country." --More Bread or I'll Appear

Oscar Wilde, William B. Yeats, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett: the Irish classics. Roddy Doyle, Patrick McCabe, Joseph O'Connor, Emer Martin, Helena Mulkerns: the Irish contemporary writers and 'contemporary' classics. But is there an actual difference between the Irish classics and modern Irish writers? "Writers who write well will always be there in every era. Where are the James Joyces? Probably learning C++ and in a chat room right now having cyber sex. Actually when you think of this net thing, it has made words more important than ever. Cyber sex must have made people very good at erotic writing. Shakespeare would be in L.A. writing for ER." Emer Martin doesn't answer us when she is asked who's her favourite Irish writers. She simply states, "Jesus if I answered that one I'd be in a whole heap of trouble," but she is keen on recommending us a book. "I just read Persian Brides by Dorit Rabinyan and I loved it. Wonderful stuff. Go out and read it immediately."

Going back to the Irish writers issue, it must be said that whereas traditional Irish writers are often very nationalistic, in Martin's books though Irishness is something deeply embedded in her characters, her characters move to different countries and they meet people from different nationalities, hence they get mixed up in the proverbial melting pot: I wonder if this is a way to react to the traditional themes Irish authors wrote about. "My writing is global because I am. I don't think of traditions when I sit down to write and I don't write out of a reaction to other writers. My friends and I seem to hop about the planet like fleas on a dog, so do my characters. And it isn't a question of money either. 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. When I went to the States 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."

"The banished children of Eve are sending no more postcards home." Breakfast in Babylon

Emer Martin's second novel, More Bread or I'll Appear, starts with the story of an Irish family who will eventually be dismembered by the events that sweep their lives like the tide washing up the shore at end of the day. One by one, Molly's children, Aisling, Patrick, Orla, Siobahan and Keelin, leave their house, crossing the borders of various nations, while the secrets and lies in their lives converge and entwine creating the complicated embroidery of their troubled souls. If Ireland is present in Isolt's mind only during her dreams and nightmares, Ireland for Molly's children is a place to go back to only at Christmas time when the family is reunited around the fire to tell each other their stories. What's the greatest teaching Emer Martin got from her family? "It is imperative to disown each other during times of crises," she affirms.

In the novel Keelin clings to her past and to her family and finally discovers how to sever the bond between them. The beginning of the book More Bread Or I'll Appear seems to be a typical piece of Irish literature: Patrick, the altar boy, prays and prays longing to see a statue of the Virgin Mary weeping; Molly and the kids go to see the Pope who has come to visit Ireland; the children go to the Ash Wednesday celebration; the family's house walls display three portraits, President Kennedy, the Sacred Heart and De Valera, what Molly considers a very apt symmetry, commenting "Jesus should feel comfortable there, hung between two thieves." Besides, Irish songs are sung throughout the book, but especially at the beginning and traditions seems to be respected. Then the pace and the themes of the novel change, it looks as if the author wanted to get away from her roots and traditions while writing. "I'm glad you picked that up. I wrote every piece of the book differently," Emer states, "The style of the book could be said to be satirical because of this. The Irish beginning is the typical Irish drama of the large family, priest uncle, miserable weather, overbearing church, rotten history, then the Japanese part is done as a futuristic ultra modern dream world, reminiscent of the film Tokyo Decadence. The American part is a soap opera Jerry Springer parody. Finally, South America infuses the story with magic realism. All of these styles affect the plot in different ways and therefore the people in the book. The way geography defines us and the magnetic affect of culture on our lives is something I was exploring. All of this was part of the book. A very technical and I hope not too obvious or jarring part, but it is very much there, as literary trickery." Emer Martin's characters might be defined as "all tinkers with no fixed abode," to use Isolt's expression. Perhaps there is one of her characters Emer feels closer to "My characters are usually despicable morsels of humanity that I wouldn't cross the road to spit on. I love them all," she states.

Many modern writers claim they are influenced by particular bands or singers more than by other writers: what does music represent for Emer Martin also given the fact that in Breakfast in Babylon Christopher, a rock'n'roll man from Detroit loves to listen to Iggy Pop, the Stooges and MC5 and Isolt goes to the record listening place in the Pompidou Centre and chooses a Velvet Underground album, whereas in More Bread Or I'll Appear Emer's characters often sing Irish songs and 'The Pooka At Five Happiness' included in Shenanigans is the story of a rave. "Music is elemental in my work," Emer explains, "It pervades everything, I write to music. I have certain CDs I play when I write and when I would write about Christopher in Breakfast In Babylon I'd play all those Detroit sounds to get the feeling of him, MC5, Stooges etc. That's why I'd love to do film. I could combine music, words and imagery."

"We have all been born with homeless souls." --Breakfast In Babylon

The characters in Emer's books and stories travel a lot, as an example we might remember Keelin who leaves Ireland and passes through many different countries, Japan, The States, Cuba, Honduras and Guatemala before finding her sister Aisling. Ironically, on the anthology Fortune Hotel, Emer is defined as suffering from Compulsive Travelling Disorder, an illness which obliges her to move from a country to another at the speed of light: is there a place she particularly likes? "I love Indonesia; it is the last wild place on earth." At present Emer lives in California, as she explains, "Just moved in December but fly every weekend to New York and spent Christmas in Mexico. I have been home in Ireland for the last month rampaging about Dublin. I'm never really where I am. Thank God for email."

"She talked of the world as her village and it was." --More Bread or I'll Appear

Surely being a compulsive traveller Emer has got some weird tales to tell us "Four of us women, all Irish teenagers, moved into a studio in London 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, travelled 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' 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."

"When I was a child I was all right. I was happy when I was three feet tall. I used to think about the world and I thought it started from the road outside my house on the housing estate. That road I thought never ended because it linked to the main road, which led to the sea, and the sea bore the cars and the people to the new road on the other coast and on and on. The road outside my house led to every other road in the world, even though we lived on an island. It led eventually to the great highway that lay outside your house. The highway that haunts you every waking hour. Roads were like water; all linked from muddy lanes to spaghetti junctions, just as every little stream leads to the ocean."--Breakfast in Babylon

Paths, roads, highways: they all lead us to meet different people and start new friendships or new relations. Emer travelled along many roads and two of these paths got her involved in three anthologies which published three of her stories. "Teeth Shall Be Provided", which might be considered almost an offshot chapter of her second novel, is a trip in the folds of time and space, featuring the atomic bomb blasting in Hiroshima, a cross-dressed Tokyo and a dark New Guinea in which tribes fight against colonisation, the tale appeared on the Rovers Return anthology; "A Sacrificial Shoe (For Sharon; Whatever Became of You)", the story of a relentless life in a kibbutz in Israel, featured on Fortune Hotel and "The Pooka At Five Happiness", the story of a rave on the last Halloween night of the century, was included in Shenanigans. I wonder how Emer got involved with the Sarah Champion- and Kevin Williamson-edited anthologies: "Sarah contacted me through her magic network. She is an amazing person. She knows how to make things happen. I always love working with her. We finally met in Bangkok last Christmas, she picked me up at the Airport and we dumped our luggage at a hotel and went straight to a strip bar. Kevin Williamson, the editor of Rebel Inc. (now called Rebel without an imprint production, since Canongate was swallowed by Grove, yeah, yeah, merger, sure tell me another one) is a very sick individual who got me involved in the Rovers Return anthology. He has destroyed many of my brain cells. Cells I will never get back. Cells I never even knew I had. Literature is dangerous, be warned little children, stick to colour television. Kevin is a man to watch. What he will do next might spark the revolution."

Emer Martin's novels are so intriguing, that it would be great to see them on the big screen, a thing Emer would really like as she confesses "I'd love that. I love movies. I've written the script for Breakfast In Babylon and if anyone is seriously interested they should email me and then give me a large bag of money." Being such an enthusiastic writer, it would surprise me if there was ever a moment in her life in which she'd give up writing "Just every second that I'm not writing," she ironically answers and suggests she would have been become "A zookeeper," if she hadn't made it as a writer. And if you want to know what Emer's doing at present and if a new novel will come out soon, the answer is easy "I'm writing, writing, writing. New novel. Yes. Yes. Yes."

Eveline. James Joyce's Eveline was struck by fear and solved her dilemma passively remaining behind to live in the centre of paralysis, Dublin, where everyone was trapped into religion mores, traditions and a no job world.

Isolt. Keelin. Aisling. Emer Martin's heroines are never still nor passive: their dialogue is a travelogue and they strut and fret upon the stage of the world and their dilemma stands in which country they'll move next. Emer's poem "Burials" concludes with the image of the Irish new generation going back to their country of origin only to attend funerals, "children turned emigrants, parents turned grandparents, the ground that would take them, could not keep us." Good luck to them. Good luck to Emer Martin.

The above interview was done for the Spanish magazine Go, Barcelona, email:

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Photo of Emer Martin taken by Lorin Klaris.