Interview with Joseph Éamon Cummins
Why did you write On the Edge of the Loch?
Sometimes a story, or an article or piece of music, demands to be written. It bangs the walls and won’t stop. That’s what this book did.
What is the significance of the title?
In Gaeilge, Ireland’s native language, the word ‘loch’ means lake. And when someone is ‘on the edge’, it usually spells danger. So it is with the two main protagonists; they’ve been on the edge of disaster for way too long. As the story begins they’re strangers, they meet by accident, in circumstances that could lead to new lives, but life is seldom that simple. And here it certainly isn’t.
Is the story entirely fictional?
No story is fabricated entirely. What a writer creates originates in ‘events’ that happen within the mind and outside. These actual and mental events are the seed of all art. An abstract painting, for example, is born of real experience. The sequential events in On the Edge of the Loch are not factual; neither are the characters. But then true and factual are not the same. A well-told story is always ‘true’, as the old Irish storytellers would claim, and as did Ernest Hemingway.
Are you saying that actual events sparked the story?
One event. In a remote train station, I noticed an attractive woman who seemed to be waiting for someone to arrive. Over the next week I revisited the station many times to photograph it. I was an avid photographer then, always searching for the perfect shot, the best light. Each time I went to the station, the woman was there – still just waiting.
On the day I was leaving she smiled at me. I smiled back. Our eyes held in a sort of silent conversation, just for moments. Then she gestured like she was about to talk to me, but suddenly her head dropped, she turned away.
I left on that train, never saw her again. I sensed that she was waiting for a dream that would never show up. But what if, I thought. What if that dream could come true. And what if that changed her whole life, and other lives. I built the story from that idea.
Tony’s singularity and complexity make him seem like a real person. Is he based on someone you might have known?
He’s a composite character, with traits borrowed from real experience.
Unlike in popular fiction, there are no traditional hero types in your story. What’s your thinking on this?
The hero has a place in folklore and in certain fiction genres. The story I’m telling here is about ‘real’ people, how low they can sink, how high they can rise. Each of the main characters is flawed, yet each might be capable of greatness, which they don’t see until circumstances turn dramatic.
Emerson said: Circumstances don’t make the man, but reveal him. Interesting, but misunderstanding this idea can lead to harmful self-limiting. A person is never wholly revealed in any particular moment in time. Failing precedes winning, invariably, people change and grow, become more than they were, discover their potential. The past is not a prison, nor is it destiny. Too many fail to grasp this fact; they surrender to circumstance, don’t honour their potential. Abraham Maslow, one of the founders of humanistic psychology, believed that most people sell themselves short for an entire lifetime. I agree, but it doesn’t have to be so. This is at the core of my work with clients.
For a long time I’ve been guiding students and business professionals on achievement. Ironically, some opt out out of fear of how good they might be – the Jonah Complex. Tony MacNeill, the protagonist in the story, damaged as he is, refuses to surrender to circumstance, or let circumstance limit him or define him, and all is changed by this mindset.
What are other major themes in the story?
There is always the overt story, what happens on the surface. But in literary fiction this is never as important as subtext, what’s going on inside the characters, what they really think or mean, which the writer can hint at, imply, or conceal. This means the reader is asked to work, to rise above being an observer.
To answer your question, there are many themes in the story: identity, obsession, mental illness, home, family, justice, belonging, the nature of love, the sacredness of childhood, to name just some. And at the core of the story, there’s that resilience that leads to growth and achievement.
Is there a lesson the reader can learn from the novel?
Most authors hope the reader will feel enriched. On the Edge of the Loch contains a multiplicity of themes, any one of which might carry a catalytic message for a particular reader.
I wanted the reader to understand mental illness better, and to contemplate the futility of war; these are big messages. I wanted the concept of justice to stand out. And the vulnerability of humans in relation to childhood trauma. Other themes relate to the preeminence of family and the enabling power of friendship.
Also, as I mentioned, running through the entire story is the learnable quality of resilience, the ‘not giving up’ response when no light is visible at the end of the tunnel. I’d like to think too that the book elucidates the supreme quality of love, not just intimate love but the love of any one person for another: parent for child, sister for sister, friend for friend – the key to everything.
Some reviewers said they see Ireland as a character in the work. Is this what you intended?
I understand what they mean, but I don’t see it like that. Ireland is a critical plot element. The environments depicted and their associated atmospherics (storm, sea, fog, heat, sky, wind, rain) facilitate the story’s development.
But my characters are all psychologically complex individuals, even secondary characters like Leo and Emer; it’s from this mix of personalities, from their minds and interactions, that the story takes its life. Environment is always important in fiction, but I see it as quite distinct from character.
Nonetheless, the use of personification, metaphor, and motif can imbue inanimate objects – a mountain, an island, countryside – with human-like qualities that make them seem like characters. We routinely say ‘the sun won’t shine’ or ‘that mountain steals lives’ or ‘that devil whirlpool’ as though the sun or mountain or whirlpool possesses intention, a human mind. This attribution of ‘character qualities’ to non-human elements is part of the richness and colour of our language, especially in writing.
Apart from the main characters, which other character are you most fond of?
Keep in mind that writers love villains as easily as saints. But, more important than simple badness or goodness is credibility and depth: is the character believable, palpable, breathing, motivated to act.
In terms of fondness, Leo Reffo is absent from the story for long periods but his influence hangs over all thirty-five years of the novel period. He is powerful and quiet, and like others has made big mistakes. Lenny’s friend Emer, appears in only two chapters but it’s hard not to like her neediness and warmth, and her wittiness as a younger woman. Paddy McCann is a rich character; he’s charming and has a silver tongue but is fundamentally a brooding type. Paddy’s wife, Eilis, is a minor character I would have been happy to develop had the story required it. And Gus, the old down-and-out guy in Dublin, is one of my favourites, for his heart.
The women in your story drive much of the action. Is there a message in this?
Not a political message, no. I set out to reflect female nature as I see it. And to be loyal to the female characters I created. In life, though maybe not so much in literature, women are often the stronger sex, despite not having the platform men enjoy. Their strength is often missed in the day-to-day grind, but is nonetheless catalytic.
Characters like Lenny, Róisín and Cilla, even Kate and Peggy and Emer, may not seem like role models to some readers, but each is decisive, each makes things happen, and so they shape outcomes in the story, as so often women do in life.
Tony is obviously searching for redemption. But what does this mean?
We can see living as having three possible conditions. One is existence, where people acquiesce and rationalise and never commit to worthy goals; many get stuck here. The second is conviction, when people strive to grow, to express their talents and skills; a minority commit to this. And finally there’s redemption, when conscience or courage drives the person to atonement or fulfilment, respectively. For most of the story, Tony is in this last category, driven by conscience. He might not agree, but that’s not for him to say; that’s for the reader to judge.
You let the reader see inside Tony’s mind but no one else’s. Why did you limit point of view to this one character? Did it make the book more difficult to write?
For readers, a single character point of view is least confusing; it feels authentic, truer to how they experience life, through just one perspective. And yes, it’s harder to write this way because the author must put all the other characters on stage and get them to do and say things that reveal who they are and how they think; he cannot tell their inner stories. When it’s done well, this method allows for better control of pacing and helps build suspense.
Interestingly, I wrote the early drafts almost entirely in Tony’s stream-of-consciousness, just to get to know his mind intimately. Stream of consciousness, similar to interior monologue, is the voice we each speak to ourselves with, the voice no one else hears. But I always knew I would limit the novel’s point of view to Tony. It’s his story, after all.
Had I let the reader inside Lenny’s head, into an often chaotic mind, it would have become her story. As I’ve written it, the reader’s challenge is exactly the same as Tony’s, to understand Lenny from her behaviour and her words, and from sketchy details others provide about her that may not be reliable. Reader understanding is meant to come incrementally as the pieces fit together. Therefore, the reader gets to figure things out only as Tony does, not before.
On the other hand, it’s relatively easy to write using the omniscient or ‘God’ point of view. Most fiction writing students begin this way; some are totally unconscious of the concept of point of view in literature.
Omniscient point of view is where the reader is a fly on the wall, potentially inside the heads of any or all the characters, knowing their innermost thoughts, past and present. So, the writer can reveal hopes, secrets, memories, the characters’ loves, hates, and deepest feelings. In the past this was popular; today it is less common in serious fiction.
But, remember, point of view is a writer’s tool, readers do not need to know anything about it to understand and enjoy a novel.
The main characters are atypical; at times they’re clearly unbalanced, except for Cilla, perhaps. They’re also all psychologically different. What was your thinking on this?
Flawed, unbalanced, yes; in given circumstances each is a misfit, as Tony accuses Aidan, ironically. Yet each protagonist is extraordinary in at least one positive way. In real life it’s no different, though many don’t see it.
For authenticity, I built a psychological profile for each protagonist. Ninety-five percent of this information was not intended for inclusion in the book. For the characters to be credible, I needed to know their intimate backstories in detail, so I did a case study analysis of each.
Lenny’s condition, for example, as presented, is clinically accurate, with its origins in trauma. The mentalities of Tony and Aidan are just as true.
The message is that it’s time to normalise and better treat mental ill-health. Few people get through life unscathed.
Why did you end the story the way you did, the final chapter?
This is a question I prefer not to answer. In one sense it is the chapter I am most happy with, the way in which it achieves what I set out to write. The first critic to review the book saw exactly what I intended, which delighted me because I knew it would not be obvious to all.
What I am alluding to is something the reader will sense by carefully reading those last few pages. I am being vague now because there is something in the final chapter that is best discovered rather than being told about. The emotional overhang from the previous chapter, the final train station scene, leaves the reader in a mild state of shock and with a lot of mental pictures. Consequently, for some, the ‘secret’ of the final chapter may be too much to take in on the first reading. So, re-read. I don’t want to say more than that, for the readers’ benefit.
You are sending the reader back for a second read?
Yes. At least of that final chapter. Many readers re-read literary novels anyway. One critic commenting on On the Edge of the Loch said he would enjoy the second read even more than the first, that he’d still feel anxious but a little more relaxed, and this would enable him to notice more. There’s a hint in that in relation to the final chapter.
What are you planning next?
A number of reviewers have suggested Book Two of the story. That was never my plan. Others said they see it as a film or TV series. I created a pared-down film script as I wrote the story, but only to embed the pictures in my brain and thereby add vividness to my writing. I do agree though; it is a visual novel.
But the answer to your question is, I don’t know what will have my priority next. I am always working on more than one project.
Let’s wait and see . . .