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Arts & Life

'Tender' Author Calls Novel On Friendship 'Autobiographical To Its Core'


Catherine Reilly and James Flynn are best friends. They meet in Dublin while Catherine is at college. She's an experienced student at Trinity College who has never had a romance. James is a charismatic and charming artist, gay in the late '90s, when it was difficult to be gay in Ireland. They connect with a force and intensity that makes their friendship special - so special, it feels life-sustaining. But it is also all-consuming and ultimately disastrous. The Irish writer Belinda McKeon's new book is about friendship, desire and the mistakes we make when we're young. The book is called "Tender." And she told us that she wrote Catherine and James' relationship as highly intense from the very beginning.

BELINDA MCKEON: But it's also that period of our lives - you know, they're 18 and 19 years old. So it's that time in life when friendship feels like something you'd die for. You meet with a person, and the connection is so incredible, and it's so deep. And you just can't get enough of them. You need - you know, you're looking forward to the next day and the next conversation. You don't want to go to sleep at night. You'll sit up all night talking. And so this is her first experience of a friendship like that. And it is all-consuming for her. So yeah, she's already I suppose confused by the nature or by the intensity of that attachment. But she's also quite a naive and - as I say, she's 19 years old. And she's from a rural background. This is her first year in the city. I wanted to write a very - a character who was very naive and who was blind to what was going on in her own emotional territory. And James becomes - really becomes a pretty severe test case for that.

MARTIN: When James comes out to Catherine as a gay man, it is not a shock to readers. But it is for Catherine. And she does not handle the moment well and behaves rather badly. Yet, you write that scene with a lot of compassion. How did you think of this character? Did - do you like her?

MCKEON: (Laughter) I - I have very mixed feelings. I have a complicated relationship with her I suppose. I mean, there's a lot of me in her. You know, there's a lot of my own self in Catherine, in her deep self-consciousness and her second-guessing of herself and that constant - almost as though there are three layers of inner monologue going on inside her head at all times. So she makes stupid mistakes. She says all the wrong things. And she's very self-regarding and quite self-absorbed. So I wouldn't say that I'm crazy about her. But I also do feel - I do understand her very deeply, I think. I mean, I created her, so I should. In that moment when James comes out, she actually is worried that he's going to ask her to marry him. That's how far away from having a clear view of reality she is. And that whole scene, I just wanted it to be so cringe-inducing. And my skin was crawling as I wrote it.

MARTIN: Yeah, I know - me too.

MCKEON: I needed readers' skin to do the same thing as they read it.

MARTIN: You say that there's a lot of you in Catherine. You also grew up where Catherine did. You went to Trinity. Does it extend further? Did you have a friendship like this, that was that intense?

MCKEON: I had a really intense friendship - and have, continue to have, thankfully, a very close friendship which inspired this book - its younger form, I would say, inspired this book. Its older form is much healthier and less dramatic. It was the late '90s. And like James, he was finding it - and I won't - I shouldn't speak for him. I won't say very much about his actual personal experience. But it was a difficult time to be gay in Ireland. And I think I wanted so much to be such a great friend to him. But I just ended up making things 10 times more difficult.

MARTIN: May I ask if you had romantic feelings for him?

MCKEON: Oh, we had more than romantic feelings. We were essentially having an affair.


MCKEON: Yeah, never a dull moment.

MARTIN: Complicated.

MCKEON: (Laughter).

MARTIN: Do you think of this as a love story?

MCKEON: Oh, yeah, it's a love story. Yeah, but you know, love has all sorts of motives. It comes from all sorts of needs. And it comes also from all sorts of cultural inheritances and hang-ups. So I think it is a love story but only because my understanding of what love is not just about happiness and togetherness. But it's just as much about the deeper psychological play that goes on.

MARTIN: Do you think how different this story would be if it were placed today? I mean, things are so different in Ireland now, the U.K. The resounding vote in favor of gay marriage passed in Ireland just recently.

MCKEON: Yeah, last May it was a tremendous day. I was there for that vote. It was an extraordinary, extraordinary day to stand in Dublin Castle and watch the votes coming in from each county. It was just - I can't describe how moving it was. But you know, the months coming up to that vote were really, really distressing because although the vote was carried by a large majority, there was a very vocal minority who were, you know, conservative lobby groups who were - got a lot of air time, basically. And so there was a lot of commentary which was deeply hurtful to LGBT people in Ireland, and especially to young LGBT people, talking about how they didn't deserve or shouldn't have this right. It wasn't a right and it wasn't something that should be extended. So I do think that if "Tender" was set now it would be - it would be different in many ways. But I have to say, I received a lot of correspondence from young LGBT people after the book was published, some of them not much younger than me and some a lot younger. And it did shock me how they talked about how they could deeply, deeply relate to what the characters had gone through and were going through.

MARTIN: Still, today.

MCKEON: Yeah, and that - you know, that really - that surprised me.

MARTIN: Has your friend read the book?

MCKEON: Oh, yeah, he has.

MARTIN: Yeah, he liked it.

MCKEON: He liked it. But, you know, I should say, the novel is - it is a novel. I mean, it took a - it took an autobiographical experience as its source, but it is almost entirely fiction.


MCKEON: And I'm not being coy by saying that because I did think, when I started writing it, that it - that writing autobiography might be the way to write this novel. That turned out not to be the case at all. You take the bones of what happened or you take the feelings, almost the phenomenological feeling of what happened. And you have to - you still have to write a novel. It's still the same work of building a story, building an arch, giving it a shape because life doesn't have a shape. So all of the things I thought would be useful at the beginning - the journals, the diaries, the letters and all those things I have - they turned out to be just distractions on the way to actually making the story. But yeah, he's been supportive of course. He's - you know, he's a wonderful person.

MARTIN: The book is called "Tender." It's written by Belinda McKeon. She joined us from our studios in New York. Belinda, thanks so much.

MCKEON: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.