The Origins of Benjamin Hackett takes place in your hometown of Cork, Ireland. For people who are not familiar with the region, what is it like and why did it become the perfect setting for your book?
The county of Cork is no small place. It is a big unwieldy organism that is almost impossible to pin down without living it. I would need a year to decipher it properly to do it justice, but even then I fear I would fail miserably. But you did ask, and so I will try. First a few fun facts: Cork is known as the rebel county. The Irish for Cork is Corcaigh translated as “marsh” as it began life on a swampy estuary. We are best known for Murphy’s stout, All-Ireland winning teams, a glorious coastline, a rich vibrant history and our bullet-speed wit. As with all populated areas, there are the good and the bad parts. The locals can swindle or charm you on the whim of the weather, but at the heart of Cork is its inimitable character.
It has the layers and complexities of an urban area with solid rural roots. It has been the center of rebellion and republicanism for centuries. It was the only place in Ireland the English could never truly tame. It is surrounded by the Atlantic sea and has some of the sandiest beaches you will see the world over. Some say God gave us foul weather to counterbalance the beauty. And I’m fine with that, as it keeps the fair-weather types away! I firmly believe there is no better place to be than down at Barley Cove beach when the summer is at full-throttle, and the sun decides to shine. At the heart of Cork are the locals, or Corkonians as we call ourselves. We are a fiercely loyal, bitingly bright and determined people. I have never been in any other city where I have felt that same burning sense of belonging than when I lived in Cork. If you are from there, you will recognize the words I am saying as unadulterated facts. If not, the county may sound like some Fenian stronghold that still thinks the War of Independence rages.
In our hearts and minds, we are unique, abandoned by those up in Dublin, constantly fighting for our share of the pie, stuck at the bottom of an island that’s barraged by sleet and rain. We are often negated or chastised as insular or bull-headed, but we do not give a damn. Because we are proud of that community mind, the hive mentality. If you ever come across a Cork man or woman anywhere in the world, in any walk of life, I can wholeheartedly say that not a single one will talk with anything but fondness for the county at the southern tip of Ireland. I do not imagine there is a better plaudit than that as proof of our county’s effect on its natives.
I set the novel in Cork for various reasons. First, I know it better than any other part of the world, so it was natural for me to use it as a setting. And second of all, despite us having a host of fantastic writers from our city—Seán Ó Faoláin, Frank O’Connor and Joseph O’Neill to name but a few—there is a real lack of recent Cork-based Irish literature in comparison to other parts of Ireland. I hope my writing this novel may have righted those scales a bit. But predominantly I focused it on Cork because of the lilt of the locals, the characters I have met and known throughout my life, and the sheer breath-taking beauty of its landscapes and surrounds. To use the old adage, I wrote what I know, and I know Cork.
What inspired you to write a coming-of-age novel? Did your own childhood influence your characterizations of Benjamin or JJ?
I have always been drawn to these type of tales. In many ways, that period in your life, when you are on the cusp of adulthood with all the hormones and fears of the future spinning your head into glue, can be the most traumatic of our lives. Having something that upends your sense of self is almost always a shortcut to figuring out the convoluted mess of life. If stories are all about trouble inducing change, I can think of no greater contrast in character than the growth from child to adult. Setting a story in this borderland of life always seems to be fertile ground for wild adventures. You can never get away with the same level of naivety, or ill-considered actions, in someone other than a youngster. Rip their idealized life apart and the reaction is nearly always bedlam. I wanted the freedom to write a story fueled by the white hot rage of teenagers. The coming-of-age adventure story allowed me to do so without the rigid logic of maturity stifling the madness.
As to whether or not my own childhood influenced the characterization of Benjamin and JJ… in truth, I am not too sure. I know I did not consciously draw the characters from my life growing up in Blarney. I was not adopted, nor did I know anyone who was. I had a large group of friends from the estate and village where I lived, but none bear any true resemblance to these characters. But we are the sum of our experiences, and my childhood clearly influenced me in my life, so there must be some subconscious part of me that comes out in those two lads. If it is not in their stories then it is most likely in their camaraderie and kinship and general outlook on life. I had a fantastic close-knit crew, still do to this day in fact, and it would not surprise me if they saw threads of themselves in the characters on the page. But rest assured, if they do, it is by pure happenstance rather than design.
Your book tackles some serious topics, including the main character’s quest to find his birth mother, but you eloquently infuse the story with a bit of humor. How would you describe your sense of humor, and how does it play a role in your novel?
As with most of my fellow countrymen, my sense of humor is severely grounded in self-deprecation first and foremost. I do not think anyone could survive growing up in any parish in Cork without having that quality ingrained into you. We use humor as a shield in Ireland, hiding our fears and insecurities behind it, and as a weapon to bludgeon anyone with notions (people with an inflated opinion of themselves). It is like a code in its own right, nuanced, secretive and governed by rules only understood by those who grew up there. Cork is a county dripping in good-humored mockery. And nothing is sacred. Everyone and everything is a potential target.
Sometimes we go too far, of course, and the line between genuine comedy and thinly-veiled insults becomes this shady, intangible thing defined by the mood of the person on the receiving end. But on the whole, we manage to strike the balance just right. The general rule is this—if you ever find yourself on the sharper end of our tongues, then you probably deserve it.
For the uninitiated arriving in Cork, though, be warned. You had better do so fully-armed for banter. We slag and hop the ball, mock and deride, and there is nothing in the entire world that can savage your ego faster than a quick one-liner from a Cork-born native who is in the mood for badness. And God help you if they know you, because they will have total knowledge of all your weak spots and will package their goading up into perfect bullet-shaped assassins and riddle you senseless. If I ever get too big for my boots, all I have to do is pop down to my local, and I’ll be righted within the hour.
So as you can probably imagine, comedy is not a construct or a style choice used for any particular reason in my novel. It is there simply because that is how we behave in Cork. I could never have written a story set in my homeland without infusing that quality into it. It would have been dishonest to my roots.
Over the course of their road trip, how do Benjamin and JJ develop as characters?
To answer this truthfully would force me to spoil a lot of the surprises. So I am reluctant to go into too much detail. Suffice it to say, at the start they are at sea in life, unsure of what they want to do, as is the fate of many teenagers the world over. JJ is the straight-man in many ways, loyal to a fault and a lot more emotionally balanced than Benjamin. There is not too much in the way of change for him from beginning to end. Benjamin, though, goes through a large evolution in character. He does not cure himself completely, as he is still naïve and reckless by the end. But his reaction to the adoption and his ultimate decision at the close of the book shows how he has matured from a boy to a man and begins to see the world through adult eyes. It is the natural arc for a tale like this, really.
How does the history of adoption in Ireland play a role in this story?
Adoption plays a massive part. Benjamin’s story solely exists because of him being secretly deposited into a new family without the knowledge of his birth mother. The history of adoption in Ireland is a sore point and still very current. In the mid-20th century having a baby out of wedlock in Ireland was culturally unacceptable and would result in rejection by family, friends and society in general. The stigma was so bad that many unmarried women would be sent away to convents and Mother and Home facilities run by the church and funded by the government. For example, in 1967 over 97% of all children born out of wedlock were adopted and the vast majority were done without the full knowledge and consent of the mother. I did an almighty amount of research into it while writing this novel. It is funny in a way, because there’s barely the thread of the facts I uncovered in the book. I think you could have a lifetime of material if you researched the stories hidden behind the doors of those convents and Mother and Baby homes.
What can you tell us about your next book, The Tanist?
My new book is a world apart from this one. It is a thriller set in a turbulent Celtic world, drawing on the folklore and myths of the early 14th century in Ireland. I cannot divulge too much as I am in the midst of finishing the first draft, and a lot may change by the time I have a polished product ready for publication. But The Tanist is a far darker novel, devoid of humor and set in a violent and unforgiving time. The tag line goes something like this: “Unjustly banished for murder, an innocent boy must survive three impossible tests in a foreign land, before his city is destroyed, his people enslaved and his freedom lost forever.”