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08/09/2010 09:51 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Deirdre Madden: Relationships With Family Help Shape Our Friendships

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Deirdre Madden's most recent novel, Molly Fox's Birthday (Picador, 2010), is a beautifully written story that aptly conveys the complexity of a woman's emotional bonds with her family and friends. The story is focused on a single day in the life of an unnamed narrator, a playright who is staying over at the Dublin home of her closest friend of 20 years, an actress named Molly Fox. The narrator is trying to work on her latest play, but keeps getting distracted and winds up doing far more reminiscing and thinking than writing.

I was pleased to conduct this interview (via email) with Deirdre, an acclaimed Irish novelist, and to ask her some questions about the book, about writing, and about her own friendships. Molly Fox's Birthday was a nominee for the prestigious Orange Prize for Fiction.

Irene:
Why did you choose to tell your story within the confines of a single day in the life of the main character?

Deirdre:
A book that was very much in my mind when I was writing Molly Fox's Birthday was Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. I liked the balance between the past and the present, and it seemed like a good model, a good way to arrange the material. My writing tends to be quite introspective and is concerned with memory rather than being active and narrative-driven. Setting the novel over a single day allowed for these elements to find a suitable balance.

Irene:
Why did you leave the main character unnamed?

Deirdre:
I liked the idea of knowing a great deal about a character -- pretty much her whole life story -- and yet not knowing her name. Usually it's the other way round: when you present or describe someone, the first thing you say is 'This is...' and you name her. So it was a way of holding something back, of signalling a bit of distance between the reader and the narrator.

Irene:
Is the narrator's flow of thoughts, procrastination, and writer's block something you've experienced first-hand?

Deirdre:
When you're writing a novel there are times, particularly at the start of the project, when, I find, you need to be quite passive and vague. You need to be receptive, to day-dream a bit, to follow stray thoughts that might or might not lead somewhere and become useful. The trick is to know when to move on from that phase to a more focused and active mindset. If you don't get it right, you do end up wasting time and procrastinating, stuck on something that's going nowhere. I suspect that sooner or later most writers go through something similar to the narrator's creative problems in Molly Fox's Birthday. You just keep going and you get through it.

Irene:
Do you have many long-term friendships of your own and how have they weathered the years? Do you believe in such a thing as "friends for life?"

Deirdre:
Yes, I have quite a few long term friends, some of them very long term indeed! Everyone changes as the years pass, but in a true friendship there's something at the heart of it that either evolves with the changes, or else over-rides them so that they don't matter. Circumstances can change but the thing that drew you to that person in the first place can stay constant. But like any important relationship, you can't take a friendship for granted or neglect it. It merits attention and respect.

Irene:
Why did you characterize Molly as a friend-poacher? What are your thoughts about friend-poaching (taking someone else's friend and making them your own)?

Deirdre:
Although she is vulnerable in many ways, Molly Fox has a much stronger personality than her friend, the playwright who narrates the novel, and has a stronger will. What one person sees as friend-poaching another will see simply as mutual friendship. Much depends upon the nature of the friendship that is being encroached upon: often the person about to become the wounded party won't have fully understood or admitted to the real nature of a friendship until they feel it to be under threat. That's certainly the case in the novel.

Irene:
Do family relationships, in any sense, predetermine our friendships?

Deirdre:
I'm very interested in relationships within families, most particularly siblings where one person is an artist -- a painter, a writer or an actor -- and how that impinges upon their brothers and sisters. Family and friends aren't, of course, mutually exclusive, and I believe people who are happy and at ease in their families are more likely to be relaxed about making connections and friendships outside the family. I suppose most of us take some kind of lead from our parents on how we conduct friendships, without our even being conscious of it. Molly Fox's Birthday is about family as well as about friendship.

Irene S. Levine, PhD is a freelance journalist and author. She holds an appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. Her recent book about female friendships, Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, is published by Overlook Press. She also blogs about female friendships at The Friendship Blog and at PsychologyToday.com.

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