THE ORIGINS OF THE UNFORTUNATE FURSEY
© The Estate of Mervyn Wall, February 2015
The following extract was taken from an interview with Mervyn Wall conducted by Gordon Henderson that originally appeared in The Journal of Irish Literature: A Mervyn Wall Double Number (Jan.-May 1982). It appears here by kind permission of the Estate of Mervyn Wall and Mary Rose Callaghan. The full interview appears in issue five of The Green Book.
Gordon Henderson: How did you come to write your first novel, The Unfortunate Fursey, with its witches, sorcerers, demons and the rest?
Mervyn Wall: Well, I had at that time been writing short stories, mostly for a magazine called the Capuchin Annual. My first stories came out about 1937 or í38. I had written half a dozen ó for Argosy in England and also for a couple of magazines in America. Then I got pleurisy and had to lie up for four months, with three weeks in hospital. It wasnít serious, but it was serious enough to have to rest. And during that time, while other people read detective stories, I was inclined to read ghost stories. My sister was going down to the Dun Laoghaire library and asked did I want a book. I said, yes, anything about ghosts, and she brought back a book with the title page missing. I never knew who had edited it, but it was called something like Of Ghosts, Demons, and Other Things ó by a French abbe and published originally in French in the year 1600. I looked at this with curiosity. I was very, very amused by the seriousness with which devils and demons were taken and with the language ó so elaborate. When I had read it, I sat down to write a short story. I sent it to Sean O Faolain, the editor of The Bell, and he rejected itóhe was rather story he did afterwards. Now, a friend, Francis MacManus the novelist, read it and said, why donít you make a novel of it? And then I wrote the whole of The Unfortunate Fursey with no particular difficulty. So the short story stands as the first chapter, with only the final line changed. An English publisher, the Pilot Press, which unfortunately collapsed after the Second World War, published it and two years later, in 1948, published a sequel, The Return of Fursey. The Unfortunate Fursey was also published in New York by Crown Publishers in 1947 and sold about 2,500 copies, the same as the English edition. I was told subsequently that my agent had given it to the wrong publisher, that Crown didnít promote and that they tended to do education books. I donít know.
GH: What kind of critical reception did Fursey receive when it was first published?
MW: When the reviews came out, I was astonished to read that I had employed irony and that I wrote sardonically. That hadnít been my intention. I just wrote it for fun. The thing just flowed out. But I do think ó I always have believed ó that one writes instinctively. I am not a person who has studied the art of creative writing, but my instinct has always been that one writes first for oneself. Iím very fond of a little story about Henrik Ibsen, the Norwegian playwright. He used to say that he kept a scorpion as a pet in a glass on his desk ó he liked to see it jumping round. The scorpion would be very lively, but as the week progressed it would gradually get sicker, and on a Saturday it would be a very sick scorpion indeed. Now, Ibsenís practice was to drop a piece of pear into the glass. The scorpion would fall on it, discharge its poison into the piece of pear, and become lively again. Ibsen likened this to himself ó poison mounted in his system and he got rid of it by writing a play. Poison is rather a strong word ó I would say you get rid of your unrest, as it were. Number one, you write for yourself, for your satisfaction. Secondly, itís very nice if people of your own kind like it ó youíd like them to read it. Only at third remove do you think of the general public. If the book makes money, well and good ó itís very useful. I never in my life made any worthwhile money writing.
To read Wall's article on "The Castletown Witch", click here.
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