LAURA CASSIDY has ambition – she is determined to do whatever it takes to become a movie star – but not only ambitions dhe believes stardom is her birthright. Yet something inside her continually thwarts her meeting her destiny.
This is Laura Cassidy’s Walk Of Fame, the new novel from Galway based writer Alan McMonagle, published by Picador, which will be launched by the poet and author Elaine Feeney this evening at 6pm in the Galway City Library.
“Laura Cassidy began in the same way as much of my writing begins,” Alan tells me during our Thursday afternoon interview. “I tend to hear things before I see them. It was a voice, and it was arriving as I was finishing my first novel, Ithica. The more the voice declared itself, the more I realised it was a woman, that she had this burning dream to be somebody, and was announcing itself as a first person, present tense, narrative."
A mainstay of the Galway literary scene for more than a decade, Alan is the author of the aforementioned Ithica (“McMonagle’s enthralling debut novel...doesn’t take itself too seriously, and is all the more affecting for it” - The Irish Times; “this stylish, dark existential tale...explores the fine line between the language of dreams and reality” - Irish Independent ) and the short story collections Psychotic Episodes and Liar Liar.
A certain Mr McCabe
Alan was born in Sligo, and grew up in Longford, before moving to Galway in his late teens in the 1990s, and since then, the city has become his home. “Galway has such a fantastic energy,” he says. “The streets have a very particular ambience and atmosphere.” While Galway has certainly left its mark on Alan’s writing, so too did a certain teacher at St Michael’s Boys National School in Longford town – Butcher Boy author, Pat McCabe.
“I like to think that planted an early seed,” says Alan. “It was my first exposure to all things to do with words, and ‘mis-words’. Pat had an unusual way of communicating, he’d write all these strange words on the blackboard. He was no age himself at this time, just finished teacher training. When we were getting restless, he would read us chapters from what would go on to become his first published book, a book for children, The Adventures of Shay Mouse. The bell would go at half-three and we’d be the only class that didn't want to go home. He had us on the edge of our seats, a natural born storyteller."
Throughout his twenties, Alan “read anything I could get my hands on”, soaking up Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains Of The Day (“I was spellbound by the slow accumulation and the measured pacing that went into the making of a cohesive novel” ) as well as Dermot Healy, Flann O’Brien, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett. “I love the music and ‘word drunkeness’ of Joyce,” he says, “and Beckett’s less is more style and mordant humour.”
'Time for a stab at the novel'
Alan’s earleist published writings were “little adventures, episodes, and anecdotes” drawn from travels in South America, Africa, and Australia, but the lure of fiction eventually saw him turn to the short story. He was accepted into NUI Galway’s MA in writing, and in 2008, the Galway based Wordonthestreet published Liar Liar, while Arlen House published Psychotic Episodes in 2013.
Psychotic Episodes attracted reviews and an invitation to the Dromineer Literary Festival, where Alan read at an event with Julian Gough, Donal Ryan, and Paul Lynch. “The lads threw down the gauntlet, and said, ‘Alan, you’ve two collections of short stories. It’s time for a stab at the novel.’ I went home and said, ‘I’m going to honour this’. New Year's Day 2014, I cleared the desk and said, ‘I’m going to have a first draft ready by the end of the year.’”
While Alan worked on what would become Ithica, unbeknown to him, Paul Lynch sent a copy of Psychotic Episodes to London based literary agent, Ivan Mulcahy, who in turn contacted Alan, and asking him if he was working on a novel. When Alan said yes, he asked him to send a finished draft as soon as he could. “There’s nothing like an little encouragement to put the burners on,” says Alan, “and that’s what I did.”
Hearing Laura Cassidy
As Alan said, Laura arrived as he was completing Ithica, and the more she stayed, the louder, and clearer, she became. "Writing is always mysterious, contradictory, ultimately revelatory, preoccupation," says Alan. “The more her voice was kicking around, the more I played around with it, the more she began to acquire a singular personality. She began to behave, or rather, mis-behave, as once somebody is misbehaving, things get interesting, and from there I could figure out what makes her tick and not tick."
The novel draws on contemporary themes of obsession with celebrity culture, the desire and drive for fame and recognition, but rather than make Laura an Instagrammer or a social media ‘influencer’, he drew on an older, more glamorous type of stardom – the Golden Age of Hollywood.
“The silver screen is one of my early influences,” he says. “I remember late on Saturday nights, the TV tuned to the BBC, it was either a gangster season or film noir or adaptions of novels by Raymond Chandler, and featuring these amazing women who could match the men, indeed the men would end up as putty in their arms – Gloria Swanson, Lana Turner, Barbara Stanwick.
“When it came to writing about Laura, rather than have her harp on about the latest Instagram post, she has posters of these movie icons all over her wall, lines from the films seared into her mind, and she is itching to be one of them. She is convinced she will be a star, from bagging a place in a production in Galway in the Town Hall Theatre, to the West End in London, then Broadway, then to Hollywood, and a star etched with her name on the Walk Of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard.
“She has this dream planted in her by her movie obsessed father," says Alan, "but at an early point in her life her father dies tragically, so her ambition comes with a combination of grief and trauma, and fear of what could happen."
Indeed Laura Cassidy could be described as exploring the tension between self-belief and anxiety, and the crippling effects of anxiety when it becomes overpowering. Yet, as with Ithica, the novel also shows the power of the mind to be friend as well as foe.
“A paralysis kicks in every time an opportunity presents itself to Laura,” says Alan, “whether it’s an opening night performance, or an introduction to a new director, or an audition, something arrives, unannounced, unanticipated, from the recess of her fragile psyche. Nevertheless she comes with a spirit, an unfathomable optimism, unquestioning hope, and belief, but it is pitted against and clashes with self-sabotaging.”
Alan will be among the writers reading at the 2020 Cúirt International Festival of Literature, which runs from April 20 to 25.