Marie Heaney Interview Transcript
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Marie Heaney was interviewed online by Scholastic students.
Did you grow up in Ireland?
Yes, I grew up in Ireland. My earliest days were during the Second World War. I grew up in Northern Ireland, and have lived there all my life. I've lived in the United States on and off for years as well, and love it! I live in Dublin now.
Do you think that you had a better understanding or insight into the local myths than someone who has just read about the stories?
Yes, I do, though I hesitate to say that. Because if you read the stories with love and care, you get into them. And have a good understanding of them. But in Ireland, the landscape was really part of mythology in that each place name usually had a story, or a legend, connected to it. And we did know, we did learn about the heroes and heroines who live in this book. And they were connected to specific places and so had specific interests.
Are a lot of Irish myths and stories similar to stories in other cultures — like a version of Cinderella that's specific to Irish culture?
The Cinderella story — not quite so much. Oddly, in Celtic mythology, women are very, very strong, and they don't quite figure in that victimhood so much. But having said that, it is clear when you read these stories that some monks, and they were probably Christian monks, had read Greek myths, for example, like “The Iliad.” And, of course, the material of what constitutes mythology is universal — so the same sort of stories will travel, but in different guises. The meaning of the story may travel, but it may be in a different dress in each country. Here's an example: this is the story of Lauris Lynchy, who has a horse's ears. This is his big secret. When he gets someone to cut his hair, that person is sent away forever. Finally, a widow's son pleads for Lauris Lynchy, the king, not to send him away. And so the king agrees not to send him away, as long as he agrees never to tell anyone about the horse's ears. But the secret is too much for the boy, and he tells it to the reeds and the trees, and they whisper the story “Lauris Lynchy has horse's ears” And so everybody knows. This is an exact story that is found in Greek mythology — it's the Midas story. King Midas has horse's ears.
Why are myths important in the 21st century?
That is the 20-million-dollar question! I think one of the best definitions of myths that I have heard is from a child. I don't know the child. And what that child said was: “A myth is something that isn't true on the outside, but is true on the inside.” And these stories, while they may seem fantastic, actually help us to understand some things about ourselves. And as life gets more complicated, and in some ways less human, I think anything that makes human beings realize that they have a lot in common is very helpful.
And I think that these universal stories have lasted since man began to speak, or write, will last as a way of helping us understand ourselves, why we're here, who we are, and what happens to us when we're no longer here. And the point about myths is that they're a bit like parables in the New Testament — they explain something in a story form that may be too complicated or mysterious to put into direct language. They're also great entertainment — and this is also extremely important!
Do you think the Internet will affect the way we tell and pass along stories?
Yes, I think it will probably have a plus and a minus. The minus will be the lack of intimacy. Remember that these stories were told to gatherings by storytellers and then were read intimately from a book from one person to another. They are frequently local. So some of this intimacy may be lost in the Internet. But, people who might never have access to them any other way will have access to them, and that's a big plus. I could draw the analogy that a lot of people regret that these stories, which were pre-Christian, were written down by monks. The Irish stories were written down by Christian monks, who may have interfered with them slightly. In other words, put a Christian spin on them. But the big plus is that the ancient or pagan Celts did not write, deliberately did not write, because the Druids — their priests — insisted that their wisdom be handed down by word-of-mouth. So, the minus might be they interfered, but the big plus is that they were written down and we have them in manuscript. There are pluses and minuses as well on the Internet!
Are new myths being written today, or are we retelling the same stories in a contemporary way?
I think there are a very limited number of stories to be told through myths. How we are, who we are, etc — the things that myths deal with. But they are being recast, mainly in urban settings. And there is a whole genre of stories known as urban myths. And I would say it's the reworking of similar themes in a different form. That's a very good question — the story lines are all over the world — what's true on the inside is the same, like the child said.
What were your favorite books as a child?
Remember that I was born during the Second World War — there weren't books around in the same way there were today. But my mother was a teacher, and she was interested that we did read. So, the books that I read would've been some Irish legends, and we read Winnie the Pooh. We read The Wind in the Willows. Then, when I was about 9, I remember reading Little Women and being knocked out by it — I thought it was so wonderful! But I would like to say that I heard this might be the difference — the story was what was going on around. You know, people told stories. So, I was lucky enough because of the time I was born in to have access to the two traditions — to be able to read books and also to hear stories told in the old method of a storyteller telling a group of people.
Did you daydream as a child?
I did. I wasn't a huge daydreamer. I was a fairly active child. I had dreamier siblings. I was jumping over hedges! I did daydream, but not an extreme amount. I'm still more active than reflective. And most of my daydreaming would've evolved from what I had read. I just wasn't one of those “Alice in Wonderland” kids at all, I'm afraid.
Did anyone encourage you to write?
Yes, my mother would've encouraged us to write. But I'm married to a writer, and he, like most writers who are true writers, isn't happy if he isn't writing. I've found I have a number of writers among friends, and it's a slightly compulsive vocation. So, I'm not that sort of a writer — I enjoy writing, but it's not essential to my happiness. But I do enjoy it.
The reason I wrote my first book was that I was asked to do it and I love the subject and I did it. And then Scholastic asked me to do a version with this marvelous illustrator, P.J. Lynch. And that encouraged me. My teachers encouraged me too, but my experience is that writers who need to write will write without any encouragement.
Do you ever think about becoming something else other than a writer?
I think it's too late for me now! I came late to writing — I was a teacher and I taught English and history. Then I had my children, who are now grown up. And I did some television programs. So I would call myself sort of a journalist, and then I went into writing. So, I'll finish up writing. I can't imagine going back into teaching — things have changed now. So, I think I'll continue to write. I'm a late-starter writer. If I'd had the time or if life had been different, I think I might have enjoyed being an archaeologist.
You said there were myths connected with places. Is there a myth connected with your hometown?
Yes — very much so. The names of Irish places usually have some sort of story or some sort of explanatory thing about them. I was born in a parish — a country area — called Ardboe. Ardboe in Irish means “the high cow.” In this parish, in Ardboe, there was a wonderful old Celtic cross, about 1,100 years old. And a church that's even older — the ruins of a church. And this church and cross are on the shores of Lough Neagh, which is the biggest lake in the British Isles. And the legend is that a miraculous cow, a mysterious cow, came out of the Lough and gave her milk to the monks to make the cement with. And they used that mortar to build the cross. And that is why the cross has lasted so long. And Ardboe means “the high cow” or “the tall cow” and that's the story.
Everyone can believe it or not, but that's the story I was told! That's typical of place names — there's a story attached.
Do you collect stories from other countries when you travel? Where have you traveled to outside of Ireland?
I'm interested in other stories, but there are people who are professional folklore collectors. And I'm not one of them. But I have traveled widely in Europe, all over the United States, in Thailand, and in Japan. And the odd thing is that a lot of Japanese myths relate to Irish legends and myths in that they both deal with ancestor worship. And they both believe that the earth itself — rocks and stones and trees — are sacred. In other words, Shintoism — the ancient Celts believed the same sorts of things, and the stories reflect these beliefs. I think some of the most beautiful myths of all are the Native American myths. They are some of the most beautiful and poetic of all.
What's the strangest myth you've ever heard?
I would find that very difficult to answer straightaway. A great many myths have a real element of strangeness in them. For example, in Moytura, in the battle, the whole business of the pulley pulling up the eye is very strange. And then when anyone whom the eye looks on dies — that's a pretty strange and original one.
How do you work with the people who illustrate your books?
Well, with P.J. Lynch, who's a young man also from Northern Ireland; he's from Belfast — we had an initial meeting, and we sat down. He chose the stories from my other book (Over Nine Waves) — he chose the ones he'd prefer to illustrate. And I agreed, I think, with all of them. And after that, we left each other strictly alone. I felt that he had my text and I had no business to dictate anything else to him. But I remember him ringing me up and asking me, “Has Diedre got fair hair or dark hair? You don't say.” And I actually thought she had dark hair. But I realized that was from reading the bit about the raven. And it hadn't to do with her — it had to do with her lover. And P.J. Lynch was convinced she was fair, and so she's fair.
Do you have a favorite saying or motto?
Yes, this one is my current — these sayings change, depending on my mood. But I can give you two: one is a Chinese proverb that says “You cannot prevent the birds of sorrow flying over your head. But you can stop them building nests in your hair.” And the second one is also about what you do during difficult times. And it's an Irish one: “Walk easy when the jug's full.” When the jug's full, you walk carefully — full of sorrow, full of happiness; watch out. I love proverbs.
Are you working on any new books now?
There's one other one: “A bird sings not because he has an answer but because he has a song.” And in many ways, you could say that about myths — they do have an answer often, but more importantly, they're also have a song. I'm in that difficult period where my publisher is saying “What about a new book?” and I have a number of ideas floating around in my head. I'm simply going to have to sit down and brainstorm with the publisher. But it will probably be in this area of myths and legends — Irish myths and legends specifically. I work as an editor in a publishing house, so I have another book that I'm working on as an editor. So that sort of takes away the urgency of getting another book out!
Do you listen to any traditional or contemporary Irish music? Does music inspire you as a writer?
Music inspires me period. I love traditional Irish music. And in fact I sing traditional Irish songs. And I love traditional Irish songs. Modern Irish music I don't know quite as well. But traditional Irish music is evolving. There are a number of Irish composers who I would know and listen to, but I love the traditional music. I also love classical music as well and I listen to it a lot. It calms me and inspires me.
What is the difference between religion and mythology?
They are very interrelated. That's a very good question — both of them deal with the sacred and the fundamental questions. And I think that they're very bound up. In the case of the Celts, we know about their mythology but we don't actually know what their belief system was. We can presume that they believed in an afterlife from their stories about the happy other world that features throughout all these stories. So, what I would say is that mythology is very bound up with religion, and perhaps we could say it is a form of religion, but the stories are entertainment. But the truths would be a fundamental. Legends are a simplified way of dealing with mythology. And what we have in The Names Upon the Harp are legends that embody mythology, which in turn is connected to religion. The Celts didn't believe in churches. Their sacred places were places like oak woods and lakes. And Derry city — Doire in Irish — means oak tree or oak wood.
And a lot of place names have Derry in them because they have oaks in them, which were sacred places.
Do you and your husband (poet Seamus Heaney) ever collaborate as writers?
No, but we did uniquely in this book. And the reason was that a poem was called for, and I don't feel competent to write poetry. So I asked this poet that I knew (my husband!) and he translated this poem. That's the first time we've collaborated ever, in the poem “Summer.”
Do you have anything else you would like to say to those that logged on?
If they're logged on, I presume they're interested in this subject. And if they're interested, I would say to keep trying to find this material and read it. We started this session with someone asking me if it was possible to become intimate with these stories even though they were from different countries. I would say to try to find myths from whatever country you're in or a country your family came from, and of course, find Native American myths from your country. Ireland is a very small country — smaller than Maine, with only 5 million people on the island, and if we have these riches in myths, there are huge riches awaiting anyone who turns to other ones — like Greek, Japanese, French, and of course American. They should keep reading. I would also like to thank everyone for listening to me, and to say how much I enjoyed writing this book and I hope you enjoy it!