Author Deirdre Madden Releases Time Present and Time Past

Deirdre Madden explores how old photographs can stir long-forgotten memories in her latest novel. 'It really challenged ideas I had about the past'

When the American novelist, Richard Ford, himself a Pulitzer prize-winner, calls another writer ‘first-rate’, you know to pay attention. Deirdre Madden, from Toombridge in County Antrim, can claim such a glowing accolade.

Madden has quietly produced a string of brilliant novels since the mid-1980s, beginning with Hidden Symptoms, a startling tale of family conflict set in Belfast, through to the Orange Prize-shortlisted One by One in The Darkness, the historical novel Authenticity, and now Time Present and Time Past.

Madden's novel follows Fintan Buckley, a middle-aged Dublin businessman, whose world and sense of place is thrown into turmoil when he suddenly appears able to see into the past, these fugues perhaps prompted by a recent discovery of old family photographs.

‘I’ve always been interested in very old photographs from the 19th to the early 20th century' says Madden, when discussing the origins of the novel. 'Then I became aware of early colour photography. It was extraordinary to see colour images from over a hundred years ago.

'It really challenged ideas I had about the past, how we relate to it or imagine it, and I suppose the novel grew from there. The jacket of the book is a colour photo of a red apple, taken in 1907.’

As the novel progresses, Buckley undergoes a sudden transformation that, as a consequence, rewrites the world for him completely, leading Madden's troubled protagonist to doubt everyday reality.

Though such a conceit may sound complex, Madden did not find it difficult to translate Buckley's inner meltdown on the page. ‘Fintan presented himself to me early on and I didn’t have to struggle to get to know him,' she explains. 'He’s a fairly happy, uncomplicated person.

'And I have no particular problem writing from a male perspective. I’ve had quite a few male characters in my novels in the past, but, oddly, sometimes people don’t seem to notice that, and say that I write mainly about women. The invisible man: makes a change, doesn’t it,' Madden laughs.

Inevitably, Madden focuses a lot in Time Present and Time Past on photography – the way in which the medium captures time and place, preserving fleeting moments that might otherwise fray and begin to fade in the mind. Did Madden, who is now 53-years-old, amass much research as she planned the book?

‘I’m not very systematic,' she admits, frankly. 'It’s more a question of immersing myself in the subject so that I feel comfortable with it. I did look at as many early colour photos as I could find for Time Present and Time Past, and for other novels I read up a lot on things like acting and painting.'

Lovers of Madden's back catalogue will find much to love in her latest novel, which skips along at pace and is written with her usual eye for detail, setting and character. Madden enjoys the process of writing (if not the process of researching) a new fiction.

‘There’s very little in this novel that’s drawn from my own life,' she says. 'I was interested in the idea of time rather than in trawling back through my own memories. While I was writing the book I did go back to a place where I had been over 20 years ago.

'I was surprised how much I had forgotten, or how inaccurate much of what I thought I remembered was. That gave me a new angle to think about, but the place in question and my time there wasn’t relevant to the novel.’

The themes of memory, history and time passing are also reflected in the title of the book, 'which I came upon', says Madden, 'after I’d finished the novel. It's from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, which is a remarkable exploration of time. So poetry is also a suitable way of engaging with the subject.’

Madden’s body of work shows a remarkable diversity, moving back and forth through time, dabbling in different genres, while always maintaining an ornate, complex and forensically detailed prose style. This is her eighth book, which must bring with it more confidence?

‘I suppose I do feel more confident,' Madden observes. 'Every book is a new departure and brings its own problems to solve, but having written so much, I do now feel that I have a certain facility. Once I get past a certain point in the writing, I know that it’s a question of keeping faith with the project and keeping going until it’s finished. ‘

We are often told that the novel is dying, or that a readership for serious fiction isn’t there. How does Madden – herself a master of the form – feel about the novel and its place in modern culture?

‘I have mixed feelings, mainly because of all the rapid changes in technology. The way people read is changing all the time and I feel that’s bound to have an impact on the form. Against that, I do know that lots of people still love novels and read them voraciously. In terms of Northern Irish writers, Sean O’Reilly is very good, I particularly like his novel The Swing of Things.

'I also think December Bride by Sam Hanna Bell is a very special book. It gets at something essential in both the landscape and the people. I suppose I read a lot when I was a child and then on into my teens, and I just never lost that love of books and reading.‘

It’s a passion that has fuelled an impressive series of books and Time Present and Time Past could well be the pinnacle. Richard Ford is right – this is a first-rate talent that demands to be read and this is a novel, like a photograph, that captures a place and time with incredible precision.

Time Present and Time Past is out now, published by Faber & Faber.