Perfectly Preventable Deaths- Talking Twins, Witches and Plants With Deirdre Sullivan
Deirdre Sullivan is the author of many wonderful books for children and young adults that really cry out to be read and loved. Her Primrose Leary trilogy (Prim Improper, Improper Order and Primperfect), writing 'with' Annie Graves in the Nightmare Club series, Needlework (which deals with creativity and trauma) and Tangleweed and Brine, a collection of retold fairytales for young adults, illustrated by the incredible work of Karen Vaughan, all gives us strong and unique voices that echo in our lives long after the book has been put down. Her writing simply calls the reader back for a re-read, each time offering a new nugget to ponder and feel.
And now we have Perfectly Preventable Deaths. Foreboding, reflective and completely consuming, Perfectly Preventable Deaths is the stuff of dreams and nightmares.
I've known Deirdre for years now. She's is always so generous with her time and energy, so I was thrilled when she kindly agreed to answer just a few of the many questions I had upon reading her new book. Let's see what she has to say...
-As I have read and loved all of your books, I am always moved by the intimacy and incisiveness of the voices. Through Madeline and Catlin, twins; a very solid picture of the atmosphere, place and time was painted, though the book is expressed through Madelines’ voice. What was it like writing about twin sisters? How did you handle the storytelling, their differing world-views and their relationship to one another? Were you tempted to write it as both telling the story? And do you feel you have followed some kind of natural progression from book to book to arrive here?
As a young reader, one of the series that was very popular when I was in primary school was Sweet Valley High, and I think that iconic version of sisterhood did influence Perfectly Preventable Deaths (though I didn’t realise it until a few edits in!). There’s a lot of superstition and folklore around twins and doubles, and I wanted their closeness to be very evident, and a little supernatural (they’re a rarer type of twin, the semi-identical) I had a very close friend from the age of four and the intensity of that friendship during the teenage years when emotions and experiences are running high definitely informed the book, as did my relationship with my brother. He had a lot of that quiet, kind-hearted drive and focus as a teen, and their in-jokes are not too far off some of our own! (VAGUE SPOILER) I have actually written some pieces in Catlin’s voice, but they’re little chunks of what happens after the book. I wanted to get my head around what the impact of what happened to her would be, and how she would cope with it.
I wrote the first draft of Perfectly Preventable Deaths six years ago, between finishing a draft of Needlework and beginning Primperfect. As a writer, every book I have written has taught me something, and I’ve grown more confident in my voice and craft with each new thing I make, while still retaining the feeling that nothing is perfect and that people will find me out eventually. I think that mixture of self-confidence and self-doubt is something that does help, it makes the editing process easier to get to grips with. PPD has had eighteen different drafts, one which was a complete rewrite from the ground up. And I think it’s a better book for that, but there are probably always going to be little things I would tweak or change. The desire to get the red pen out never fully goes away. In terms of natural progression, this book is different to what I’ve done before, in terms of genre, but I will always write character driven books, I think. It’s my way in to the story. I built the world and the magic systems around the people in the town, rather than the other way around. Because I’ve spent so much time in this world, I do have a good sense of who everyone is and how their lives and abilities intersect, in the past and present of Ballyfrann. There’s certainly more to tell.
-There’s a very thought-provoking passage later in the story that I feel is echoed in the mothers’ view and relationship with her daughters; “I think of the driftwood woman, on the altar, surrounded by candles….That’s a sort of strange that people tolerate. Charms and spells to keep God on your side…” …how we perceive about religion and witchcraft? And maybe how we perceive each other? Could you say something about this passage?
While there is a huge sense of disillusionment with organised religion and in Ireland, with the Catholic church in particular, I think there is a very strong, very human need for spirituality. Writing this book, and also Tangleweed and Brine, I became more aware of my own sense of ritual. There are parts of Christianity that are deeply pagan, and answer to needs that were with us long before Jesus was around. I’m doing a lot of reading about Celtic mythology and the old Gods at the moment and saints like Brigid are fascinating, where the church essentially up-cycled a goddess, which is not unlike what has been done to Our Lady of Ballyfrann. We live in a complicated world, and we are not the only thing that does. There’s a consciousness of what connects us to the natural realm that runs through a lot of alternative spiritualities and in this time of climate change and power structures that lean more towards cruelty than promise, I’m not surprised that so many people around me are drawn to talismans and tarot cards, as others have long been drawn to novenas, miraculous medals and putting an Infant of Prague out in the rain overnight. In terms of that particular passage, I wanted to look at the twins and their different ways of being in the world. Caitlin turns to others, to higher powers even for help, whereas Madeline will try to use the tools she has around her to build solutions of her own making. And the fact that one of their ways of connecting with and making sense of the world is seen as normal and the other is seen as shameful and in need of correction is a very old, old story.
-Tell me about Mamó. I am fascinated by her and in particular by Madelines’ fear and determination about her. I almost feel as if Madeline is facing her future self when she looks at Mamó and isn’t sure she likes what she sees. Was there a specific inspiration for her, or for her role in the story? Was she an amalgamation of real people or archetype…or both? What was it like developing the (always fraught) relationship between Mamó and Madeline Madeline and how this reflects in Madeline developing her ‘talents’?
Mamó wouldn’t exist without two books I encountered as a child. One was Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett, which Mam bought me in the ABC bookshop while I was still in primary school. I read and reread that one, and always got something new from it. Granny Weatherwax was a very definite and grumpy witch and I liked her common sense and reluctance to engage with unnecessary trappings. The second was Michael Scott’s collections of Irish folklore. There’s a fairy doctor called Nano Hayes in some of the stories and that sense of a woman apart and how essential and powerful that can be was hugely inspiring. The girls’ surname is Hayes because of those stories. I firmly believe that books grow from other books. Reading, and reading widely is such an important part of being a writer. I wouldn’t have written my book without their books, and they in turn wouldn’t have written their books without Macbeth for Wyrd Sisters and with many generations of story-tellers who kept the seam of magic running through our country alive.
-Each chapter is titled with a different plant. This fascinated me (and in truth, dragged me out into the garden and the fields to have a good look….as if I needed an excuse.) Please tell me about the plants and your connection to them/use of them in the book!
I’m actually getting a plant-based tattoo for this one (I have one for every book, which started as research for Needlework and then just became a nice thing I do to mark the end). I wanted a mixture of the medicinal and the folkloric. Mamó has such a knowledge of plant-lore and so many different things in jam-jars that I needed to start researching it (chapter headings started around draft three). There are some plants in there that I’m personally very drawn to, like the Hawthorn, and I’ve mixed historical and mystical uses together. I feel like they’re notes on old labels, in different hands. One book I found incredibly useful was Collins Complete Guide to Irish Wildlife by Paul Sterry, as there are so many different plants that I interact with that I can’t label off the top of my head.
-Lon is a truly unsettling character; almost vampire-like…a most interesting (and by interesting, I mean terrifying) vehicle for the story to spin on. What can you say about him and his role?
I wanted to look at what would happen if something like Twilight happened for real and in an Irish context. And you see it, when I was a teenager there were boys who were in their twenties who would still hang around teenage discos, and the world is still not short of predatory men. There’s a certain power dynamic when a teenager is seeing someone who is no longer in school. Even if the age difference isn’t red-flag wide, it counts very deeply at that stage of your social and emotional development. Lon is a mixture of boys who lend you Charles Bukowski in college, old men who comment on passing teenage girls developing bodies and the more dangerous kind of person, who weaves their way through you before fraying at the edges of who you are. Relationship abuse is very common. Women Aid have a wonderful resource at www.toointoyou.ie that examines and unpacks the signs of dating abuse.
-Why witchcraft? What you would really like this book to say to the reader in regards to witchcraft; as a device?
I think the interesting thing with witchcraft is that it is power outside of social structures, so you can build your own, and make it work for the story. Once I had the magical system in place, it taught me more and more about who and what the people in the village are, and how they would react to different situations. I read tarot for myself daily, and light candles when I want to send good wishes to someone in the dark. By trying to approach the world around me as though it mattered. As though it were a friend. With Tangleweed and Brine, I used witches to help women find power in a society that denies them personhood. With Perfectly Preventable Deaths, it’s more about using it to allow Maddy to redefine how she sees herself. To come into her own. It’s not an escape, or a refuge, it’s a difficult and powerful choice.
-Finally….do you believe in magic?
I do. And I think it’s there if you look for it. That part of us that knows how to love and not want anything. That part of us that finds hope in the dark.
-Thank you, Deirdre!
All of Deirdres' books will take you on a magical adventure of one sort or another, whether older or younger readers. They are full of exceptional storytelling and life that calls you back again and again. Honestly, you can't find more enjoyable, intriguing books.
Perfectly Preventable Deaths is being launched by Sarah Maria Griffin, Dave Rudden and Graham Tugwell at O'Connell Street Easons on Wednesday 5 June; 6:30-8pm.
AND on Friday, 7 June at 6:30pm, it will launched in Galway at Dubray Books in Shop Street. Dave Rudden and Graham Tugwell will be there to help send this gloriously brooding, reflective and eerie tale into the world.
Deirdre, let me just say congratulations and well done on this extraordinary novel. It really grabbed hold of me and would not let go, taking me on a marvelous journey.
And to the rest of you out there, I am certain it will do the same.
(Full review on the Young Adult page of this blog.)
Happy Book Birthday, Perfectly Preventable Deaths.
Here's the link for the Women Aid resource recommended by Deirdre above: