This is England: An interview with Helen Walsh
By Alan Kelly.
3:AM: Once Upon a Time in England is epic and sublime on a grand scale. At the beginning, after Brass, was it always your intention to write about what I felt could be construed as a ‘hidden’ part of English life?
Helen Walsh: With my first novel, Brass, I tried to capture a snapshot of a city at the turn of the century. Brass is as much a love letter to Liverpool as it is a coming of age novel, but Once Upon A Time in England was more sweeping in scope, both in the time it spans – nearly three decades – and the characters’ journeys. I’m not sure if I set out to depict a ‘hidden England’ but I guess I wanted to offer an alternative version of England and the immigrant experience, and I’ve always been fascinated by that historical period that saw the rise of the NF and the British Movement.
3:AM: The book begins with a harrowing rape sequence which does has a ripple affect for each of the characters: Millie, Vincent, Susheela and Robbie. Even though Susheela never reveals this to any of them. Events have a way of causing damage, even if you can’t see them, that doesn’t mean you can’t feel them.
HW: Yes, as a writer I’ve always been interested in the idea of damage, our strategies for dealing with it, surviving it, resisting it. All the Fitzgeralds (my fictional family) are damaged in some way, all of them victims of one harrowing, brutal event that takes place very early on in the novel.
3:AM: Robbie begins as an optimistic, talented, rising star and by the book’s conclusion is lost in the bitter well of memory, full of rage and resentful, laying the blame at every other character’s feet but his own while Susheela, even after her ordeal is the admirable one, I mean she has just cause to be furious but instead of screaming, she assimilates herself into British culture by calling herself Sheila, ingratiating herself with the neighbours and ultimately losing herself as well.
HW: Yes, Susheela is perhaps the most tragic character of all, even more so than her brooding bookish son, Vincent. While heavily pregnant with her second child, she is subjected to a vicious and sustained attack in her own home by NF thugs, but rather than fight back, speak out, she locks it all away in the hope of protecting her young family, and yet in shutting it all in, she only inflicts more damage on her family.
3:AM The Fitzgeralds, with the exception of the boisterous waif Millie encounter the worst sort of hatred imaginable. But I felt it more for Vincent, who begins as a gawky endearing boy who eventually becomes a beautiful gay androgyny. There is a part of the book when he returns to school to the vicious taunting from his classmates when he laughs along with them because he believes it will somehow make things easier. How difficult was it writing Vincent?
HW: Writing Vincent was singularly the most difficult and challenging journey I will probably ever encounter as an author. His tragic epitaph is inevitable right from the start, and yet and yet, he grows, he blossoms, he turns the boots and brickbats on their head to become this beautiful young man who comes close to finding real love. There is perhaps a sense of hope snatched away, but it would have been insincere to give Vincent the happy outcome we crave for him.
3:AM: He loses himself in long baths, music and eventually his own beauty, Millie begins a dangerous love affair, Sheila becomes enamoured with a wealthy beautiful neighbour and Robbie a racist lush. The family are apart from each other, but oddly together – does that even make sense?
HW: There’s something fascinating about growing up in a small three bedroomed semi with paper-thin walls where you can hear everything that goes on, the arguments, the sex – or lack of; you live in each other’s pockets, there is physically no room for privacy and yet four members of a family living in such confined and intimate conditions can all lead radically secret lives. You have Susheela and her rape, her lamentations for her life back home, you have Robbie with his drink, his affairs, his battered dreams, you have Vinnie with his smack, sexuality, and Ellie with her acid house. To me, the families that are most dysfunctional are those which appear, at least at surface level to be the most together.
3:AM You’re writing a screenplay based on Once Upon a Time in England, is it for film or television?
HW: It’s a three part drama for TV. My producers are allowing me to write quite a faithful rendition of novel, so there’ll be no happy endings there.
3:AM: Did you have similar experiences to Millie or Vincent growing up?
HW: As a child, I guess I identified with the young Vincent in that I was insular and bookish and up until around thirteen I also shared his taste in music. And then, just like Ellie, I discovered ecstasy and Acid House and it blew my world right open, although I had less integrity than Ellie and I was no way near as cool as Vincent.
3:AM As a reader, what happened to Vincent is so horrible that a voice in my head was just saying ‘Please stop’.
HW: My publishers expressed concern about the novel’s bleak denouement and yet, to me, those final few scenes are intensely liberating. All throughout his life Vincent has been a victim in some way, a victim of his race, his gender, his sexuality, and in doing what he does he is finally taking control of his life, he is exercising free will.
3:AM I read somewhere that you’re writing a book of suicide letters, can I ask if your still doing this? And if not what will your next novel be about?
HW: The novel I am writing now began life as a collection of suicide letters that I started penning in the wake of giving birth to my son. It was a very strange time, here I was besotted with this little man, you know the heart lurches, the teenage tummy fluttering every time I held him, and yet my thoughts were consumed by suicide, death. Both thematically and stylistically the novel will be completely different to Once Upon A Time in England much in the way that Once Upon a Time in England is a massive departure from Brass.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Alan Kelly is the contributing editor to Dogmatika. He has worked for a number of specialist magazines, Film Ireland, Pretty Scary, Penny Blood, Bookslut et al. He lives in Wicklow and is partial to pulp, noir, hardboiled, brainy erotica and horror fiction.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 2nd, 2009.