Q. I wanted to start by asking you, Margaret Hawkins, about the inspiration for your novel Deny me Not which is set in Ireland and tells the story of what happens when Hannah Casey turns up to claim her mother’s childhood home. Hannah’s birth had been kept secret by her mother and I’ve heard you describe her story as one of the stories of Ireland’s hidden babies and the people who made them. It’s a topical theme but what made you want to write this novel?
I wanted to write it because of something dramatic that happened in our family – a cousin we didn’t know existed turning up at our aunt’s deathbed.
As a writer, when something like that happens in your life there is a strong impulse to make sense of it all, to somehow process the emotion that you’ve experienced.
Deny Me Not is not my cousin’s story but it would never have happened if we hadn’t found her. My imagination took flight, developing a plot and characters from the nugget of a real-life story. The drive to write a novel on the theme of pursuit was visceral. Primal even.
Q. Why do you think Hannah’s mother kept her a secret for so many years and how did that decision impact on her own life?
Shame made Lil Casey, Hannah’s mother, keep her a secret. Society was so harsh in the past when it came to births outside marriage. That decision wouldn’t have been easy for her but with no welfare supports for those in that situation in the 1960s, when the novel is set, she wouldn’t have been able to rear her child on her own even if she had had the courage to want to.
Of course the decision impacted on her – it must have been so hard for mothers like Lil to carry such secrets and experience the grief related to not being able to acknowledge their child and see them grow up in their presence. As a mother myself, I can’t even imagine that kind of pain.
Q. Would Hannah have had a better life had her mother acknowledged her from the outset?
I think Hannah’s life would have been difficult even if her mother had reared her given the stigma attached to what was called illegitimacy at the time. In the story, Lil does visit her daughter in the children’s home regularly, bringing some money towards her keep – something that was probably difficult for her to do but she still did it and that meant a lot to Hannah. Hannah had status in the children’s home because she knew who her mother was and because she came to visit occasionally.
Q. There is a sense that men make the decisions and women live with the consequences. Do you think that is a fair observation about Deny Me Not?
Men had more power in the past certainly. The other main character in the novel, Abe, Hannah’s father, is very domineering and bigoted as would have been the way with many rural men in the past, perhaps because of lack of education, I think. He certainly had a lot to learn about relationships and about facing up to the consequences of his actions.
In terms of consequences, women like Lil were very exposed to life strife in an era when contraceptives were not available and preached against.
They had no ‘armour’ to prevent unplanned pregnancy if love, lust or hormones led to intimacy.
Deny Me Not is about consequences and about women having to live with them but I hope it also shows that men don’t get away unscathed.
Q. You’ve described Deny Me Not as ‘agri-lit’. What do you mean by that?
Agri-lit means farm-focused fiction. I felt there weren’t enough novels where you could smell the soil – or the silage – off the pages. Having grown up on a farm and living on one now I really wanted to get down to earth and portray life as it is on a real farm – not just nod to ‘rural life’ with a sentence here or there, as happens in some novels.
I also would love to see more farmers actually reading novels. Too few do, I believe. Men who’ve never read books have read Deny Me Not in a couple of days. That gives me so much joy.
Q. How long did it take you to write Deny Me Not?
It was seven years on the boil, start to finish. Life and day jobs took over for a while and it got put on hold but from 2010 t0 2012 I was giving it every spare minute I could.
Q. Have you plans to write further fiction?
Yes. I am working on another novel. It’s filling me head and all I want to do is get on with it.
Q. Where can readers find out more about Deny Me Not?