WRITERS TELL ALL
Meredith Davidson & Matthew Turbeville: Ruth, I am so excited to talk about your novel. I was hooked from the initial description, and I couldn’t stop reading and rereading as I went on. I find folklore, family legends, the histories we carry from our ancestors so intriguing. Why do you think these things are so important to people, and can you point to whether living with a legacy on our names, or superstition, or lore effects life for the better or worse?
Ruth Gilligan: Wow, talk about a big question to start us off! But a good one, definitely. And thank you so much for reading (and rereading) the book, I’m thrilled you enjoyed it. Needless to say, I also find these layers of belief completely intriguing. There’s this thing we call Religion with a capital ‘R’, then there is the slightly less official or formal realm of folklore slash superstition (although I have all sorts of thoughts about who gets to decide the cut-off point between these two) and then, as you mention, there are the family stories and traditions that get passed down from one generation to the next. I think in many ways, all these layers can offer roughly the same kinds of rewards and restrictions – whether it’s comfort and continuity, a sense of higher purpose, or whether it’s a stifling or prescriptive presence, as if your life choices are being dictated in all sorts of damaging ways. I have definitely experienced all those facets of faith at some point in my life.
MD/MT: What first interested you in family traditions, lore, history, and legends? What about different regions of countries or parts of the world change the way we view these different aspects of life and the past?
RG: I grew up in Ireland, which of course is known for being a fiercely religious country, but amidst all the talk of Catholicism and Protestantism, there is also this lesser-known realm of Irish folklore and superstition which, for many, is still alive and well. And what’s fascinating to me is that it’s not an ‘either or’ situation – plenty of people can have a house decked out with crucifixes and sacred heart statues, but also still believe in fairies and pagan rituals. For some that might seem contradictory, but as I mentioned before, I think the lines between these beliefs – or types of belief – are so nebulous anyway. There’s no logic and that’s the messy, beautiful point (and indeed, that’s the messy, beautiful starting point for a novelist).
MD/MT: One character, Una, wants to perhaps become a butcher, but is limited by her sex. Obviously, this should be viewed as form of sexism, but what does it say that patriarchal values, control, and lineage shapes Una so much from a young age, and how, if at all, might she and other women be able to step outside this?
RG: What does it say? It says welcome to Ireland, where the Guinness is good and the patriarchy is alive and well! I’m being facetious (slightly), and obviously times they are a-changing, but historically – and this goes back to the ‘fiercely religious’ thing – women and women’s bodies have been treated pretty appallingly in my country. The Church has so much to answer for and, like I said, progress is definitely afoot (see the historic result of the 2018 abortion referendum), but there is a still so much residual trauma – and rage – from the manifold ways in which Irish women have been systemically suppressed.
MD/MT: What was so important about setting this story during a certain time period, possibly other than issues dealing with Mad Cow’s Disease?
RG: The novel takes place over the course of a single year – 1996 – which, for me, was such a crucial pivot point in Irish history. As you mention, it was the year of the Mad Cow Disease, or BSE, crisis, but it was also the year in which Divorce was finally legalized in Ireland; the year the first gay kiss was shown on Irish TV (homosexuality had been decriminalized just three years previous); it was the year the Celtic Tiger began – that huge economic ‘boom’ that ultimately propelled Ireland onto the global stage. The millennium was around the corner, the Spice Girls were on the radio – there is a narrative of progress on the air; a sense of leaving the past, and the old ways, behind. In that way, it felt the perfect setting for the book and all the tensions I was interested in exploring.
MD/MT: Why is Ireland a land rich with legends, and what other countries do you feel are so involved with history and lore? What countries would you like to read about in a book like The Butchers’ Blessing? What countries are underrepresented in this sense, essentially?
RG: Oh Jesus, so many of them! All of them! But fortunately, more and more gorgeous novels are offering insights into these rich traditions. A Girl is A Body of Water by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi (set in Uganda); The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht (set in the Balkans); anything by Helen Oyeyemi – from Cuba to Nigeria to the UK, she braids a whole host of histories and folklores into her work. I’m always excited to see where she takes us next.
MD/MT: What role does sexuality play within this world filled with something akin to magical realism, as many critics compare this in a very positive way to Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife? I don’t want to reveal many spoilers, but how do you feel the Butchers might represent or work as a catalyst for the awakening of someone’s sexuality, and also why this character might or might not feel tied to the land of his birth?
RG: Ha, I didn’t see your Obreht reference before I typed mine. Great minds and all that! In response to your question, I think that so much of folklore and myth is about shapeshifting and fluidity; about metamorphosizing from one state to another (or perhaps, residing somewhere in between the two). This is something I love about Daisy Johnsons books (her short stories Fen or her novel Everything Under), and it’s something I definitely explore in The Butchers’ Blessing, both in terms of gender and sexuality. Regarding the character you’re talking about, he doesn’t necessarily see himself in the legends of his homeland, so he turns to the Greeks, immersing himself in their ancient tales instead. Again, this adds another layer to the novel, and shows how everyone finds their logic – or at least, searches for it, desperately – in a different place, a different set of narratives. I just hope his dreams of escape really do come to pass…
MD/MT: Where did the Butchers come from? What were they originally, if the idea of the Butchers have changed at all as the novel evolved, and what do you feel was necessary to change or reevaluate when shaping the book?
RG: This is a great question, mainly because I’ve been fascinated with how much the Butchers’ source has been discussed – or, more specifically, the question of whether or not they are made up. I like to think of them less as an invention as an amalgamation – when I was researching the novel, I came across so many different traditions and superstitions connected to cattle, most of which I had never heard of before. So I ended up pulling them all together to create this group of eight men known as the Butchers who wander the countryside enacting these ancient practices.
I only discovered really late into the editorial process that my British editor fully thought the Butchers were ‘real’. I suggested tweaking something about them and he looked at me horrified, like ‘you can’t do that.’ So then I explained; he was flabbergasted! But I think it raises all sorts of interesting questions about what is ‘real’ and what is ‘true’ – both in fiction and in folklore – and where we like to draw the line between.
One thing my editor did help me to reevaluate was just how key a role the gender stuff played in the novel – obviously I knew it was there (there was no doubt in my mind that this would have to be a group of eight men, not women), but I hadn’t fully thought through the implications of that, especially for the wives and children of the men involved. That was where some of the novel’s main tensions arose.
MD/MT: My own family is filled with lots of history and lore and curses. On top of being related to the family Tess is supposedly descended from in Thomas Hardy’s famous novel, I have researched that our first English ancestor (we are originally French, if I recall) was known only as the Demon. A lot of this, along with other things like mental illness, which is its own sort of curse, have shaped how I view my world. Do you ever feel like histories of the past, perhaps prophecies, curses, things we are expected to be or do actually shape or limit us as humans in our lives, whether on a daily basis or throughout our lives as a whole?
RG: Wow, that’s amazing! Tess & the Demon would be an excellent title for a family memoir… As mentioned above, I absolutely think these things shape us, for better and for worse. It’s all to do with self-fulfilling prophesies, and this exists on a super micro/intimate scale, and also on a societal one too. We are all raised on comments like ‘people in our family don’t do X’ or ‘little girls don’t do Y’ and so much of one’s life is spent trying to figure out which of those comments are helpful and which are a total hindrance (to put it mildly).
MD/MT: What books shaped you as you grew up, as you became a writer, and as you shaped this novel in general? What books do you feel influenced you the most and what book might The Butchers’ Blessing be in conversation with?
RG: In terms of this novel, the books of Evie Wyld and Sarah Hall were hugely influential. They are both British women who write these strange, dark, elegantly-structured novels steeped in a kind of gothic atmosphere, simmering with feminist rage (the same can also be said of Jesmyn Ward’s masterpieces). In terms of the book being in conversation, I was also hugely conscious of John McGahern and other (male) giants who make up the traditional (male) canon of Irish rural fiction. There is much to admire about these books, but also much to write back against (as showcased best, of course, by the inimitable Edna O’Brien).
MD/MT: What writers do you feel need more recognition, and which novel would you recommend to another writer, a reader, or anyone for any reason—perhaps it’s a favorite novel, or a novel you feel could change the way someone thinks. I always view books as the greatest gift, especially when a person is seriously taken into consideration and the gift giver provides a book they feel matches the recipient perfectly.
RG: I appreciate that I just mentioned her, and I also appreciate that she is hardly an unknown entity, but I really think we should all be shouting Evie Wyld’s name from the rooftops a whole lot more than we currently do. In terms of recent novels, again I know it won a huge award in 2019, but I am still struck by how few people have read Idaho by Emily Ruskovich. I think it is exceptional.
MD/MT: What do you want The Butchers’ Blessing to say to the world? When you look at what you’ve written, this beautiful novel you’ve likely slaved over, if a reader reads the book and enjoys it, what is one thing you hope the reader takes away after finishing the book?
RG: “Wow, you were right – the fact that I’m a vegetarian had zero impact on my enjoyment of this book.’ (I get asked that question an awful lot).
MD/MT: Tananarive Due said recently that in writing a horror novel, she could not write a character who didn’t want to survive, or want something, and actually be successful in writing a great novel or story. While The Butchers’ Blessing isn’t horror, which character do you think wanted something the most, and did you ever find it difficult to separate yourself from the characters and give them obstacles? So many authors I know have such a hard time putting their characters through any sort of hellish experience, which can be detrimental to writing in my opinion.
RG: Not at all, in fact, I sort of struggled with the opposite. As in, I never really thought of this book as weird or dark, partly because I am so in love with my characters that I didn’t really realise that some of the things they do may be considered weird or dark. So for example, I remember giving a really early draft to my husband to read, and he was like ‘do you really think it’s a good idea to have Úna trying to slit a mouse’s throat the very first time we encounter her?’ I was horrified slash mildly offended on her behalf, but I suppose I took his point. Now you get to hang out with her for a little bit first – you get to see the things that have shaped her and the way she is treated by the bullies in school – before she gets out her knife.
MD/MT: You vacillate between POVs so swiftly and cleverly it’s perhaps best done since Egan’s GOON SQUAD. Can you talk to us about the energy and thought put into ordering the timelines and speakers, the voices, and the reasons why the people who spoke were given voices?
What a compliment! Honestly I am obsessed with novels written from multiple perspectives; I love their structural intricacies and also the narrative pleasures that they offer – this can be in terms of the inherent mystery of how on earth the different characters are going to link up, or it can simply be the joy of getting to see the same scenario or relationship from totally different points of view. For the record, despite what some people think, I also find novels like this much easier to write – you get to stay with one character while they’re doing something interesting, and then as soon as it starts to get dull, you can switch. I am terrified by the prospect of just sticking with one character for a whole novel – I have no idea how you would keep things interesting for that long.In terms of choosing which voices would be heard in this novel, it was very important to me from the start that, even though the Butchers were the central premise, I wasn’t actually interested in following them on their travels – I was far more interested in the women and children they left behind. So that’s the reason behind Úna and Grá, a mother and daughter combo, then on the other side you have Davey and Fionn, a father and son combo, which offered a lovely symmetry. The book is so concerned with family and generations and what gets passed down, for better or worse, so the structure mirrors that.
MD/MT: It’s strange how when we were younger, we experienced this Mad Cow Disease issue that scared so many people, although not on the level of this pandemic. At the same time, or around the same time, we see Ireland in this novel and it’s so different, so far away as if we’re centuries away, frozen in our own separate times, like either our present existed or theirs did, but not possibly at the same time. Can you talk to us about the feel you wanted when writing the novel, and how Mad Cow Disease and the myth itself came together, quickly or in a slow evolution?
It’s funny trying to trace a novel back to a precise origin story, but I think for me there were two starting points that ultimately came together. The first, as I mentioned, was a longstanding interest in Irish folklore and the tension between different belief systems in a country that is so often considered just strictly Catholic. The second was a road trip with a friend of mine whose father used to be a farm animal vet. To pass the time, he started telling me all these crazy stories of things his dad had seen over the years, especially around the Mad Cow period. I found them fascinating and also couldn’t believe some of the stuff that was going on during my lifetime to which I had been totally oblivious. So I started to do some research, and then my ideas began to bleed (pun intended) into one another, until eventually The Butchers’ Blessing was born.
MD/MT: When I think of children killing animals, I remember specials on children who torture animals and kill them and turn out to be serial killers later on in life. They’re demented, strange, our abject in so many ways. But I read this novel and I am also transported to where I was supposed to go hunting for game, and when I killed my first deer at 7—something I did not ever enjoy doing—those with me tried to smear deer blood on my face. How do we create rituals to enable children to grow and mature or turn into something monstrous, and do you feel you’re addressing this in The Butchers’ Blessing? In a way, people experience the allure and repulsion of the Butchers, some separately and some simultaneously.
Jesus, that is an intense experience for a 7 year old. This might not be a direct answer to your question, but I think of all the descriptions of this novel (literary thriller, family saga, feminist folklore) the one I like most is ‘coming of age’ story. Because I think that Úna’s coming of age is at the heart of the book, but so is the country’s coming of age, or at least, its fumbled attempts to transition from one thing to another (and here I think your phrase ‘mature or turn into something monstrous’ applies beautifully).
MD/MT: Do you have any books coming out next? Anything to follow this brilliant novel? I know I would love to hear about it, as well as likely all of our readers.
So, further to my confession that single person narratives scare the crap out of me, I decided for the next book to set myself the challenge of doing exactly that. However, to circumnavigate the task a little (it’s nuts the tricks we play on ourselves as writers), I am now writing a novel with just one POV, but which jumps back and forth a lot through time. So it centres on this woman called Emily who is a sculptor and whose mother disappeared when she was a teenager, and who is now trying to decide whether or not to become a mother herself. There’s lots of stuff about art and womanhood and mother-daughter relationships; there’s also stuff about real life artists braided through as well. The working title is Umbilical and I’ve only a written a very rough first draft, but I’m enjoying it, and for now, that is enough.
MD/MT: Thank you so much for joining us to talk about your brilliant book, The Butchers’ Blessing. From start to finish, it’s this brilliant novel, a literary thriller of sorts, a saga and a coming-of-age tale, a novel about love and family and what we own of ourselves and what we have no control over. Thank you for allowing us to pick your brain and we hope you’ll come back from time to time. Please feel free to comment on anything else, and once again, it was such a pleasure reading this book and having the opportunity to experience what will likely become a sensational book read