Martina Devlin is no 'Chick'

Ryan Dunne talks to one of Ireland's most successful writers

If men really are from Mars, rest assured that Martian bookshops stock not a single Helen Fielding or Marion Keyes. Literature such as Bridget Jones’ Diary usually elicits the same derisory scoffs from men as Chuck Norris movies provoke from women. So-called ‘chick-lit’, a term that causes author Martina Devlin to cringe, is a hard sell to the modern man.

‘I think ‘chick-lit’ is a very passé term now,’ Devlin says, her rural Tyrone brogue softened with that gentle lyricism most Northerners acquire after enough time spent living in Dublin. ‘It was a convenient way of categorising and containing women, but men aren’t categorised that way, men are just writers. You could argue that someone like Tony Parsons is the male equivalent of chick-lit."Lad-lit", I suppose it is.’

It’s my turn to cringe, much to Devlin's glee. ‘Serves you right!’ she laughs.

There’s little doubt that with Careful What You Wish For and Venus Reborn, Devlin has established herself as one of Ireland’s top writers of – let’s for argument’s sake say – ‘literature for the modern woman.'

After leaving her hometown of Omagh at the age of eighteen, Devlin spent a year in Dublin studying law before making the timely pilgrimage of all aspiring writers to London, where a journalism course eventually lead to employment with the Press Association.

Resettling in Dublin, Devlin's career as a writer of fiction was sparked in 1996 after she won the Hennessy Literary Award for her first short story.

Martina DevlinHer debut novel, Three Wise Men, was the calling-card of an author whose voice represented a burgeoning new force in Irish society – the first generation of women for whom marriage and motherhood were choices rather than requisites.

Charting the lives of three women, from the early days of school nativities to the painful follies of adulthood, Three Wise Men celebrated friendship as the most important relationship in modern society and suggested that to the modern woman a man could be as disposable as her income.

Is it any wonder the modern male feels a bit like a Betamax video recorder, of superior design but nonetheless obsolete?

‘The sexes are perceived as being so different and it’s not very helpful,’ Devlin affirms. ‘Partly the problem is men feeling insecure about women treading on their territory, it’s like men today don’t seem to know their role anymore.

'The modern man is supposed to be in touch with his inner-woman, his inner-chef, his inner-interior-designer, and I just think "God love the poor darlings!"'

The concept of male territoriality is undeniable – few men appreciate it when women try to get in touch with their inner-football fan. A female friend, her feminist sensibilities washed away by two bottles of Ernst and Julio’s finest, once informed me that contrary to popular opinion most women would prefer their men to earn more than they do. Martina is quick to quash this notion.

‘I’ve always earned more than any man I’ve been involved with and I’ve never had a problem with it,’ she announces.

What a martyr.

‘I mean it’s nice to be taken out and bought dinner but it’s not the be-all and end-all. I think it’s very unfortunate if women’s writing was perceived as contributing to this male/female standoff.’

Rather than espousing anti-male sentiments, Devlin feels her novels simply reflect the passions and fears experienced by many women today.

‘We were the first generation that was told we could have it all, we could be a mother, have a career, but it isn’t like that,’ she laments.

‘The reality is that even with all the advances of medical science it’s still best for women to have kids in their twenties, that means sacrifices have to be made along the way. That’s a hard lesson for a lot of men and women to accept.’

Martina Devlin's 'The Hollow Heart'It’s a harsh reality that Devlin herself has had to come to terms with. Her last book, The Hollow Heart, was a non-fiction account of her own struggles with infertility treatment and the crushing end of her dreams to be a mother.

‘I had to think long and hard about exposing a very personal part of myself,’ she admits. ‘I could have fictionalised it, that would have been the easy way, but I decided in the heel of the hunt it was time to stand up and be counted.

'I thought it would be useful as non-fiction to say ‘I had this treatment and it made a wasteland of my life, but I was able to put the pieces back together.’

Since its publication in September of last year, The Hollow Heart has helped bring Devlin's work to a broader audience.

The letters and e-mails she receives praising the book aren’t just sent by women - among her correspondents is a senior medic who gained a valuable insight of the procedure, for although he had always understood the physical side of IVF he had never before really considered the emotional implications.

Obviously the writing of The Hollow Heart was a therapeutic experience for Devlin, but perhaps it was such pain and disappointment that helped drive her as a writer. This may be a rather romantic idea.

‘Ah, go on, be romantic!’ she purrs, pale blue eyes sparkling. Without further encouragement I posit that perhaps the process of writing has served as a substitute for motherhood, her novels are her ‘children’ birthed from her imagination? Thankfully she agrees, kindly ignoring my bad poetry.

‘I sometimes wonder if I’d be able to write books if I were a mother,’ she muses. ‘I sometimes think it was some kind of trade off. I’m sure there are lots of women who combine writing with motherhood and perhaps I’m not one of them.

'You have to be quite selfish to take that time out of your day and go off and write. I suspect if I’d been a mother I’d have preferred to bake fairy cakes with the kids or drive them to Irish dancing class than to labour over sentences. I could be wrong, but perhaps this is a gift I was given instead.’