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Straying: The Story of a Marriage, an Affair, the Aftermath

Molly McCloskey (GRS’20) talks about her 2018 novel

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Portrait of Molly McCloskey, author of the fiction novel Straying

Molly McCloskey’s fifth book is a “wise, discomfiting novel,” according to the New
York Times
. Photo by Jackie Ricciardi

Molly McCloskey’s latest book is a novel about adultery, passion, and ambivalence. It’s also about forgiveness.

“It’s about the narrator, Alice, forgiving herself,” says McCloskey (GRS’20), who is enrolled in BU’s Creative Writing Program.

In Straying (Scribner, 2018), American expatriate Alice moves to Ireland, marries an Irishman, and settles in the town of Sligo. She soon slips into a surreptitious relationship with a Dublin playwright. When the affair is exposed, her marriage crumbles, and she leaves Ireland and works in war zones around the world. Years later, she returns to Ireland, simultaneously mourning her mother’s death and contemplating the forces that ruined her marriage and changed the national landscape.

The result, writes the New York Times, is a “wise, discomfiting novel.”

The Irish Times calls the work, published abroad under the title When Light Is Like Water, luminous, noting how the narrator’s “observations about the world around her can be delicious in their acuity.” And the Guardian describes it as “ferociously well-written,” the tale of an idle transgression “that turns into a profound meditation on love.”

BU Today recently spoke with McCloskey about Straying, her fifth book.

BU Today: Much has been written about your novel, but how would you describe what it’s about?

McCloskey: It is about an affair, but to me it’s really about somebody trying to figure out where home is in the wake of having lost one of the people that represents home, which is her mother.

How much is drawn from your experience as an expat living in Ireland from 1989 to 2014?

There’s a quote I read recently from Bruce Springsteen, something like: If you write it well enough, people will think it actually happened. I was aiming for that—the feel of a memoir.

There are certain parallels with my life, and there are certainly parallels with my mother’s life, although my mother is still alive. I talked to her this morning. But I went through a period of just dreading my mother’s death. We’re very close; she’s 91 now. I was going through this intense premourning, thinking about what I would do if she dies.

So a lot of those feelings in the book are true feelings that I was investigating. But the facts of the case are different. The same is true of the other parts of the book. There are certain feelings and emotions that are true, but the particulars are not all true.

You vividly describe what it was like to live in Ireland during a historic economic shift from poverty to prosperity, the era of the Celtic Tiger. How did that influence your writing?

When I arrived there in 1989, it was still one of the poorest countries in the European Union, and by the mid-90s, it had become one of the wealthiest, at least on paper. And so there was this huge cultural, social upheaval for Irish people in terms of their identity. It was like the whole country had just won the lottery. Suddenly, it seemed, everyone was buying a second home on the continent. There was a lot of conspicuous consumption.

It was a really interesting time to be there, and along with this huge cultural and economic shift, there was a sense of self-discovery—with not entirely happy results. The Irish were reckoning with the fact that they weren’t just spiritual people who played music and loved literature. They also really like to shop and ride around in BMWs too. It was like lifting a rock—“So that’s what’s under there. That’s also who we are.”

How does that relate to your characters’ lives?

I kind of wanted the affair to reveal something similar. The narrator says at some point, “I understood myself better and felt the worse for it.” I was really interested in that movement, on both the macro level and on the personal level. And then there’s the question, what do you do with that knowledge?

She is someone who did this thing that she never thought she would do. It’s a deceptive, hurtful act of betrayal. What’s she going to do with that knowledge?

The fiction novel Straying by Molly McCloskey perched on a book shelf

Photo by Cydney Scott

Where were you living when you wrote Straying?

It was written over about a four-year period when I was moving back and forth between the United States and Ireland, trying to decide where to live.

You’re from Philadelphia, lived in Ireland for about 25 years, then in Washington, D.C., before coming to Boston to attend the Creative Writing Program. So where is home for you?

The United States is home; it’s where I come from, for better or for worse. I never felt that kind of emotional investment in events in Ireland. Say, when the country went bankrupt, and the International Monetary Fund came in and bailed them out. That was a huge thing, with the echoes of colonialism, and a lot of Irish people were sort of viscerally upset by that. For me it was very interesting to witness, but it didn’t upset me at a gut level.

What can you tell us about your next book?

It’s concerned with data mining, surveillance, how and why information is being gathered about us every day, as a matter of course.

It’s also about someone on the other side of that, who’s one of the people mining and analyzing the data. What does it mean to learn things about somebody in that way, and what is your responsibility if you find something out about that person that is dangerous?

So it’s about a relationship between a person who’s watching and a person who’s being watched.

What intrigues you about this particular idea?

I think there are a lot of interesting philosophical questions, the question of free will, for instance. If I gather enough data on you, can I predict not only what you’re going to buy next on Amazon, but the trajectory of your life? Whether you’re going to get a divorce, whether your child is going to become a drug addict?

I think that’s a really interesting question about fate: does knowing your fate mean you can change your fate? And what are our responsibilities to other people, given how much we can find out now about others at the click of a mouse?

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megwj@bu.edu.

2 Comments

2 Comments on Straying: The Story of a Marriage, an Affair, the Aftermath

  • An immigrant on 06.01.2018 at 8:02 am

    The title of the story drew me in by suggesting that the conversation will be about “The Story of a Marriage, an Affair, the Aftermath”, which to me sounded very interesting and worthy of getting the book. Instead the story focuses on the recent history of Ireland and the author’s feelings about her mother, which is of much less interest to me.

    The topic of her next book did seem intriguing though.

  • David Shawn on 06.19.2018 at 3:19 pm

    After seeing this interview, I found the book in my local library and really enjoyed reading it. To Megan, thanks for this great story about one of BU’s students; and to Molly, thanks for your novel. The characters and the place really come alive in your telling of this tale. I look forward to reading more of your work.

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