Interview by Thomas Page
Interview took place on September 30th over Zoom
PAGE: What inspired you to write this novel?
MCLARNON: It started about six years as a short story. I didn’t have any idea that it would become a novel. I thought about it for about eighteen months. I wrote the first draft four years ago. It took a long time to finish. I worked on it a little bit over the years. I would switch between this and other projects I was writing.
PAGE: How did you go about building the world of the novel?
MCLARNON: The world came from lots of different things. I am very interested in the Ice age. I studied this at university and got an idea for the novel. I read books about the period and associated materials. I always wanted to do a story about this time and place. I thought I could write one to add to what was already available. I suppose I attended lectures at university about hunters and gatherers in New Guinea. I was watching a news segment about a dig in Britain. The kind of people who would have existed 40,000 years ago. I have always been interested in a prehistory motif in my writing. Moreover, it had neanderthals in it. They get bad press. They are always seen as pre-people. My novel focuses on a coastal person who has misgivings about going inland. I also wanted to have a place to show people about things that we might have not known. We haven’t changed that much.
PAGE: What were some of the challenges writing New Shores?
MCLARNON: One big challenge because it was so long ago you cannot do much research about it. Trying to be as close as possible to the period. I did find it difficult to find the most up-to-date sources. There’s a chance that information is going to be out of date. The grace period is like two years. However, not that much information is going to go out of date. There are a lot of conflicting views about this period. You can find pretty solid evidence for whatever you put in your book.
PAGE: Your biography mentions that your education influences your writing. Can you elaborate on how it influenced New Shores?
MCLARNON: The environment has a very strong influence on writing. Also, I’m interested in the effect history has on how things are and how we got there at this point. Topics in New Shores were things I studied at university. I am disable and I cannot use my degree as I imagined. I like to use it in a way I can to make it seem worthwhile. All the things I studied at university naturally interested me.
PAGE: Your biography also mentions the impact other Northern Irish writers have on you such as Seamus Heaney. How does your nationality figure into what you wanted to say with New Shores?
MCLARNON: I was aware of what I wanted to add to Ireland. The country has a very strong literary history. I think of the people who have gone before me. The emphasis on Ireland is what they put in their writing . Irish writers have a certain style of writing that is distinct. Irish writing has a brand that is known around the world.
PAGE: The Sea plays a huge role in the events of the novel. Can you tell us what led you to include this character and his importance to Li?.
MCLARNON: The reason for the Sea’s characterization is to look at how a prehistoric society and its people might relate to the world around them. He was a character in a short story that I had written. I saw an article about a tidal wave in the prehistoric UK. It talked about how the wave affected the people who lived along the coast. They moved inland. They were probably scared about what caused it. They were especially worried about what they did socially to cause the sea to get mad at them. The Sea could be someone who was angry. He would react to what people do. These coastal people accept extreme anger as part of life.
PAGE: Besides the Sea, there are many other religious elements that are explored in the novel. What role did religion or spirituality have when you were writing the novel? How did you go about adding these elements in this world?
MCLARNON: It came down to desire to make the neanderthal more sophisticated subspecies in writing. I read research about ceremonial burial in neanderthals, which was a unique practice among human subspecies. The purpose of ceremonial burial is a part of their religion. Neanderthals were more sophisticated than humans. This is why the religious elements are so strong in novel. The neanderthal meets the human and tells him the benefits of spirituality. The human’s world changes to be different than what it was before. Li used to be a warrior and Og gives him an ethereal world.
PAGE: What would you say is Li’s biggest hurdle at the beginning of the novel?
MCLARNON: His biggest obstacle is his arrogance. He’s the head of his family and later the tribe and the rest are there to support him. He only sees the working value of people around him and how they can benefit him. He wants to lead the tribe based on his arrogance of his position in society.
PAGE: Li and Su’s relationship is at the heart of New Shores. What would say are the defining features that characterize this relationship?
MCLARNON: The main thing at the beginning of this relationship is the antagonistic nature. The main change starts when Li becomes more generous to her. We get to a point where the only support they have is each other. They spend so much time together that their opinions soften. The necessity to rely on each other is the main force that changes the relationship. If they were alone, they would not be able to do what they have to do as a duo. They have never been a part of each other’s life prior to the novel’s beginning. Li starts to see the daughter as a person. They both become stronger as they become the other most significant support in their lives. Li’s opinions soften and they start to realize what they have is more beautiful than other people. He realizes that he can’t do everything by himself.
PAGE: Thinking about Su, another dynamic that is explored in the novel is the relationship between men and women. Can you talk about this dynamic?
MCLARNON: I wanted to explore the sexist dynamics that have always been a part of things. I think that hunter and gatherer rules and the physical differences between men and women became a bigger thing for society over time. I wanted to look at the beginnings of things. I wanted to look at the moment that women can do things but that a man has to be around. This is not a good thing. I can portray neanderthals as being more generous about women’s roles in society. Li mentions to Og his attitudes to women. Og finds it nonsensical. Women make up the future of the tribe. You can’t really pigeonhole people. It is not a smart thing to do.
PAGE: Another major dynamic of New Shores is the relationship that the characters have with foreigners. Can you talk about how this affects the world of the novel?
MCLARNON: It all stems from I suppose a lack of integration. Li certainly has an opinion that Og must be lower than the inverse. When they arrive at Confluence, things are strange. What I want to show there is the xenophobic ideas of the warrior come from his society’s structure. Everyone at Confluence is independent and they rely on each other equally. The more time people spend together the less the differences matter. I read something called The Encyclopedia of Human Evolution. The work points out that the only reason for racism is an arbitrary classification based on geographic distribution; not much else. I wanted to bring that idea out. How can one person be significantly different from the other? This is a central thing in the novel. Show differences bw nea and hum. When they are found by humans who were the dominant subspecies, I thought that’s another way to show neanderthals were more forward thinking than humans.
PAGE: Is there anything else that you want our journal’s readers to know about New Shores before they read it?
MCLARNON: I like the reader to take note of emotions and movement. The one thing in New Shores that I, as a writer, like to focus on is people’s emotions. Another element is movement. Movement is like water. I want readers to focus more on the way people move. It is something that marks me different from other people is my mobility.
McLarnon’s New Shores was released by Atmosphere Press on October 10. It can be found at most major retailers.
Ciaran J. McLarnon is a Northern Irish writer who lives in the town of Ballymena, north of Belfast and close to dramatic scenery that has inspired many filmmakers and other artists. Renowned poet Seamus Heaney, winner of a Nobel Prize for literature, was born in the area and is one of many writers who inspire Ciaran.
Ciaran has a BSc in Marine Biology and an MSc in Ecology, both of which strongly influence his writing. Medical problems encouraged him to develop a life-long passion for fiction since that time. His continuing quest to hone his craft has explored many different subjects including history, the natural environment, horror and crime. Although this is his first novel, his words have featured in many publications, and he was long-listed for the Adelaide Literary award. More information on Ciaran J. McLarnon and his works is available at ciaranjmclarnon.blog.
Thomas Page is Editor-in-Chief of Academy of the Heart and Mind. He is also an MFA candidate in Poetry at the University of South Florida and has earned a BA and an MA from the Catholic University of America.