19th December 2014 — About Writing

Some thoughts about research

Entrance to 7 Eccles Street Dublin - now in the James Joyce Centre, Dublin

“Is it possible for an ordinary person to climb over the area railings of no. 7 Eccles Street, either from the path or from the steps, lower himself from the lower part of the railings till his feet are within 2 or 3 feet of the ground and drop unhurt? I saw it done myself but by a man of rather athletic build. I require this information in detail in order to determine the wording of a paragraph.”

The above was written by James Joyce in a letter to his aunt Josephine (Mrs William Murray) dated November 2nd 1921. He wanted to establish if Leopold Bloom could plausibly drop down into the basement of his house at no. 7 Eccles Street in Dublin where he lived with his wife, Molly, and a cat.

Joyce was walking a line between the truth of the imagination, and the grace of accuracy. Fiction, grounded in fact.

Like all novelists, I create stories from my experience and my imagination. To make readers believe in my stories, I make everyday detail as accurate as possible. I base as much as possible in real time and real space.
It’s important to get things right, because if you, the reader, come across even a small detail that is incorrect, you’ll suspend your belief in the story. 
I enjoy research. I like finding out about things. I like learning new things.
When I was writing Singing Bird, I learned about Adoption law and how it has changed in Ireland and the UK over the last fifty years.
For Meeting Point, I researched police procedure in Northern Ireland, the French legal system and the Salvation Army.
Because of my background as a reporter, I already knew the contemporary history in Finding Home, but I had to research the UK film industry. And I had on my desk a calendar for the winter of 1998 – the time period in which the novel is set. 
I had great fun researching French Secrets. The principal plot involves wine. I enjoyed exploring all aspects of the wine industry from the planting of grapes to the way in which some world famous wines are traded like antiques. I kept a calendar for French Secrets as well. I didn’t think any reader was going to check that a particular date fell on a particular day, but it is important to me to get that kind of detail right. It feels more real.
I imagine Joyce wrote to Mrs Murray about 7 Eccles street for the same reason.
He couldn’t have known that nearly a hundred years later, scholars would visit Eccles street and draw diagrams and try to work out where each room was in Leopold Bloom’s fictional house. Although, according to Richard Ellman, his biographer, Joyce allegedly told his French translator, "I've put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that's the only way of insuring one's immortality." 

Scholars aren’t going to argue over any of my books. But I try to get everything right, all the same.