'To be unable to recover even a single bone is so traumatic ... families of the Disappeared need closure'
Ahead of a discussion on Troubles' victims at the Belfast Telegraph on Wednesday, Monaghan author Mary O'Donnell tells Audrey Watson what inspired her haunting new novel
The last thing author Mary O'Donnell wants people to think about her latest book – and her first novel for 15 years – is that it is based on real-life people and particular events.
Where They Lie may be completely fictional, but it explores one of Northern Ireland's most raw and painful subjects – the Disappeared, albeit through invented characters and situations.
"I was very aware that I was entering choppy waters and didn't want to, and do not want to cause any distress, and I doubt that this novel will," says O'Donnell (58).
While not factual, Where They Lie nevertheless faces the legacy of the Disappeared head on, exploring how families cope with tragedy and how history, when ignored, can poison everything.
The plot centres on Belfast-based journalist Gerda McAllister, whose life is turned upside down when she is contacted by a mysterious caller, who claims to have information about the location of the bodies of her murdered best friends – twin brothers Sam and Harry Jebb – who are among the Disappeared.
Along with her Dubliner ex-boyfriend, Niall, she tries to piece together the truth and locate the remains of her missing friends.
"I first began writing the book six years ago," says O'Donnell. "At the time I had been thinking about people from all over the world who simply vanish or disappear, such as those who died in the 9/11 terrorist attack in America and whose bodies have never been recovered, or missing children in Columbia, or people who have been killed by the mafia in Sicily and also, the Disappeared in Northern Ireland.
"Growing up I spent a lot of time in Belfast. We have family and friends there and my mum trained as a nurse at the Mater Hospital.
"I've always liked Northern Ireland and started to feel strongly that the subject of the novel had to be people from Ulster who had been 'disappeared'. And I wanted to bear witness as best I can.
"One thing I was certain about, though, was that Where They Lie would not be based on any real-life event or feature characters based on real-life people.
"Also, there would be no politics or political figures. This would be a story of how a family is utterly traumatised when they are unable to recover a single bone, or a finger fragment, or anything of a loved one.
"They have nothing ... absolutely nothing.
"I think that's the worst thing that can happen in death – when there is no body to bring home."
Growing up seven miles from the border in Monaghan town ensured Mary always had an awareness, if not an understanding, of what was happening in Northern Ireland.
"As a very young child, I was pretty oblivious and like a lot of people on the southern side of the border at that time, I think there was an unconscious distancing from what was happening," she says.
"However, I remember as a teenager when I was at the St Louis Convent in Monaghan, the Civil Rights March and Bloody Sunday really brought the Troubles home to me.
"A new mood and feeling started spilling over into the south, which I didn't quite understand.
"I was raised as a Catholic, but along the border it was a very mixed religious community, so I had some sense of things from both sides. A lot of my schoolmates at the time were sympathetic to the IRA campaign and I wasn't comfortable with that.
"I was confused about where my allegiances lay and like a lot of young people, I was confused about what was happening and why it was happening."
Although the arrest and subsequent release without charge of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams in connection with the disappearance and murder of Jean McConville in December 1972, occurred after O'Donnell had finished writing Where Bodies Lie, she followed the news story closely.
"Yes, I watched that with great interest," she says. "It is so important that the families in these situations have closure and things are not left to fade away painfully throughout the rest of their lives.
"I don't understand people who say we should draw a line under history.
"There is a difference between acknowledging offences and the really dreadful things that have occurred, and just going on and on about historical events and not moving forward.
"One can still progress and move forward while doing the best officially and in every possible way to return the bodies that are still missing."
Where They Lie may be fictional, but O'Donnell was meticulous in her research for the novel.
"I read as much as I could find about the Disappeared and their families, mainly so that I could avoid any similarities in my writing to specific incidents," she says.
"I wanted to ensure the characters were as different as possible to the real-life victims and their families. Where They Lie is set in the Protestant community and I visited east Belfast and trawled the streets to get a feel for the place and experience the kind of home I would give two of the characters in particular. "Other research consisted of extensive reading, including Susan McKay's book Bear in Mind These Dead which explores the aftermath of the violence for families, friends and communities.
"I also accumulated books, newspaper articles and reports and looked at what the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains was reporting on the matter.
"On one occasion, in the novel, I do use some of the names of those who disappeared, but that was simply where one character is recalling the names. These real victims play no part in the book's action."
O'Donnell's parents were in her own words fairly apolitical, "just a middle-class family in the Republic getting on with life", and encouraged a love of books in both Mary and her younger sister, Margaret.
"It was a very bookish house," she recalls. "My late father was the manager and then director of Monaghan Co-Op and my mum was a nurse, and they were both avid readers.
"My mum was also very into the arts and did some acting, sang and also gave us all the banned books to read, such as Edna O'Brien's novels," she laughs.
However, becoming a full-time writer wasn't a career O'Donnell considered while growing up. At Maynooth University, she obtained a degree in German and philosophy and an MA in German studies, followed by a first class honours Higher Diploma in Education, which led to an initial career as a teacher.
"It wasn't clear to me that I would become a writer even though I was writing at the same time as teaching," she says.
"It was really only after I got married at the relatively young age of 23 that I started to work at it more seriously.
"For four years I worked as a language and drama teacher, which I really enjoyed. But teaching is a very absorbing job and I knew I would never be able to fit in writing fiction and poetry as well, so I applied for and got a job as a theatre critic with the now defunct Sunday Tribune.
"It was a great job with flexible hours therefore allowing me to develop my poetry and fiction.
"I did it for three years, before leaving to write full-time.
"My first published work was a collection of poems in 1990 called Reading the Sunflowers in September.
"My first novel, The Light-Makers, was published in 1992. It became a bestseller because a reviewer described it as 'erotic' and as 'a thumping good read'. It was neither, but I was very happy nonetheless."
O'Donnell currently lives in Straffan, Co Kildare, with her husband Martin, a retired assistant headmaster, and their daughter Anne, who is studying law in Dublin.
She has a new book of poetry coming out in the next few months and is currently working on a short story collection called Empire and Other Stories, which also has conflict and its lasting effect on ordinary people as its theme.
Set in Ireland between 1915 and 1918 and covering the Great War and the Easter Rising in Dublin, the book features ordinary people, of all political persuasions, whose lives were changed by events during that period.
"The ability to look north and south at the same time has sometimes served me well over the years, in terms of my writing," she says. "Equally, my awareness of the different socio-cultural heritage just over the border has left me sometimes at ideological odds with some southern Irish contemporaries.
"There are so many ways of claiming Irishness, none of them exclusive to any particular group, though people sometimes forget that."
Where They Lie by Mary O'Donnell, New Island Books, £11.99, is on sale now