Cork author’s take on art and marriage breakdown in new book

Cristín Leach’s new book, part essay, part memoir, is about writing, about art, about the unreliability of perception, and about the rebuilding of a sense of self after the unravelling of a marriage. She talks with Donal O’Keeffe about her literary debut.
Cork author’s take on art and marriage breakdown in new book

Cristín Leach, author, art critic, author of Negative Space Picture: credit Conor Horgan

CRISTÍN Leach laughs when I tell her that, while I found her book Negative Space to be an astonishing work, I can’t say I thoroughly enjoyed it, exactly, but I did thoroughly experience it.

“Yeah, it’s not a straightforward book,” she agrees. 

“It’s not an easy book, I suppose, so ‘enjoyed’ might not be the right word, but people are reading it and they’re telling me they’re glad that I’ve written it.”

Although we both live in or around Cork city, schedules and deadlines mean we chat over the phone while she is en route to her adopted home from an appearance at the Belfast Book Festival, and she stops at an Applegreen somewhere on her journey down the country (“I dunno, maybe Lusk?”) to take my call.

We’re talking about Negative Space, the literary debut of a writer considered by many to be the country’s leading art critic, and if it does seem ungallant to refer to her as a veteran journalist, she has been one for a long time, perhaps even since she landed the job of reviewing kids’ books for the RTÉ Guide at the ripe old age of eight.

Negative Space by Cristín Leach.
Negative Space by Cristín Leach.

At a brisk 161 pages, Negative Space is perhaps a long essay, perhaps a memoir, and, as the author admits, it isn’t always an easy read, but it is beautifully and unobtrusively written, with some breath-taking turns of phrase which never quite break the spell enough to take the reader out of the story.

The non-linear narrative covers a lot of ground, from her lifelong love of writing, to her two decades as an art critic for the Irish edition of the Sunday Times, from the births of her two children, to meditations on art, and sound, and the distance between what we see and what is, but throughout, the life-altering discovery in 2014 that her husband was cheating on her heavily informs the memoir.

I ask Leach if it’s fair to employ a cliché and describe Negative Space as “searingly honest”, not realising I’m subconsciously paraphrasing the blurb on the back of the book which begins “This searingly intimate literary debut...” She replies that she is trying to grapple with that description.

“Yes, it is honest, but I’ve been wondering about why people are using the phrases ‘searingly intimate’ and ‘searingly honest’ around it, and I think it might also be that it’s talking about some things that we don’t talk about. 

"I’m pulling open a box of feelings and a certain experience that we don’t talk about that much.

“Writers do write about it, but I think, particularly in Ireland, we don’t talk about marriage breakdown easily, so I think people are amazed at even somebody doing that in any way and so therefore it feels searing, it feels intimate. It’s talking about the stuff we don’t talk about easily, or often, or maybe publicly.”

I tell her I’ve seen her say in an interview and she is quite a private person, and quite shy. She replies “Yeah”, which she repeats twice before laughing again.

Cristín Leach, author, art critic, author of Negative Space. Picture: Conor Horgan
Cristín Leach, author, art critic, author of Negative Space. Picture: Conor Horgan

“I’m not entirely comfortable even talking about the book, because it’s not easy to talk about memoir,” she says. “I think anybody who’s written a memoir will say that, and also [say the same about] personal essays. Talking about that type of work in an interview is much harder than talking about your novel or your piece of fiction.”

She says she wrote the book partly out of a long-held interest in the idea of critics, and - as a critic herself - she has often pondered the question of the authority granted to critics, and of their motivations.

“Part of that is this interest in who is the critic, and partly the book came out of moves I had been making for years to try and get a collection of my writing published.

“I was trying to get my art criticism published in a collection, not only just to get the writing out there in a different format, but also as another way of reading through a history of modern art, contemporary Irish art, through a series of pieces of art criticism that have been published as journalism, because my particular practice as a critic is journalistic art criticism, and that is a particular type of art writing, and my background is journalism.”

Having pitched that idea to Irish publishers, she says there was a general feeling that there weren’t likely to be enough readers for there to be a financial model to publish such a book. She then pitched a fresh idea to Merrion Press, suggesting eight shorter pieces that would give insight into what had been going on in her life at the time she had seen each artwork. That idea of eight separate essays was eventually refined into Negative Space.

Sound is a recurring theme in the book, and she says a musical format helped to shape it.

“When I was writing the book, I thought about it like an album, which is a bit of a weird thing to say, but I just I thought about it as eight songs, because I wanted to be able to repeat myself and I realised that when somebody writes an album they can write eight songs which are actually telling you the same story eight times in a different way. 

"Certain things repeat at certain moments of anxiety like a beat, so I spoke about the book as an album of eight songs.”

Thinking about her life at the time she had seen specific pieces of art brought her, inevitably, to the end of her marriage, and to an unexpected understanding. “I realised when my marriage broke down that there was a thread of anxiety that had run through my professional career as a writer, my sense of self as a writer, and I was really interested in writing that anxiety.”

A recurring theme in the book is the impermanence of things we take for granted, a re-examining of foundations once thought rock-solid which later turned out to be built on sand, and, without venturing into the realm of spoilers, some foundational assumptions are revealed to have been completely unfounded. Was that a deliberate choice?

“I think the book is very deliberately written, in a way that there are layers of meaning,” she says, carefully. “Even the title has layers of meaning. All of that is deliberate, and I riff on the word ‘fixed’ at one point, where I’m talking about how I had thought that marriage was like a fixed state. And also the idea that when you put something down, when you create something via a film or a book or a painting, that you’ve fixed it somehow in time, captured it, and then the idea hits that nothing is ever really fixed, fixed as in not broken, but also fixed as in held in a permanent way.

“And that connects to my approach to art criticism, because I am always motivated and driven by the desire to write about the encounter with the art, and so your encounter with a piece of art depends on where you’re at at that time in your life,” she says.

“Maybe the art doesn’t change, but you change, and the world around the art changes. The context for what’s happening in that moment of encounter is always changing, that’s never fixed. Even the meaning that an artist puts into a piece of art is also never really fixed, even if they have their own purpose and intention, because you bring your meaning to it, and that expands it.

“A marriage ending is a profoundly difficult time, and it’s traumatic, it’s filled with grief, and it really shattered my sense of self. And, you know, it’s actually really made me question the permanence of things, the things that we hold dear. 

"And the things that we see and don’t see is another theme in the book. For me, it’s a book about being a critic. For some people, it’s a book about writing. For other people, it’s a book about marital breakdown.”

(As an aside, she says a solicitor friend believes family law lawyers should read Negative Space because people in the legal profession aren’t in any way trained to deal with the psychological trauma and heartbreak of divorce.)

She has been asked whether writing the book has been cathartic, and is emphatic that it has not. She says the notion of catharsis implies life events have endings, when instead thoughts and memories loop back and forth in our minds over and over, as Negative Space demonstrates.

Similarly, she says, the “Happily Ever After” narrative which suggests that marriage is an endpoint is nonsensical.

“In popular culture and generally, we have this standard structure of a story where marriage and Happily Ever After is the end of the story. That’s a story shape and an arc we’re really familiar with, someone is going out into the world, they have their adventures, they meet somebody, and the end of the story is them getting married. That’s actually only the beginning. Like, what happens after that is another whole story.”

As we finish our interview, she returns to the idea of sound informing Negative Space, and her concept of the book as an album, saying she always writes very conscious of what a piece of writing sounds like when read aloud.

“The book is very much written to be voiced. There isn’t an audio version yet, an audio book, I mean, not an actual album,” she says laughing. Not yet, I suggest. There’s a thought.

Cristín Leach and poet Seán Hewitt will be in conversation with Rachel Andrews at The West Cork Literary Festival at 5pm on Sunday, July 10 in the Maritime Hotel, Bantry.

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