Knowing Me Knowing You: Bookclub Notes
In Conversation With The Author
There are films and musicals that use ABBA as a backdrop, but no novels. How did you come up with the idea to use them for this book?
I often get ideas when I’m cycling around Dublin. Although it’s probably very dangerous, I pedal along in a world of my own. One day I was stopped at some traffic lights on my bike and I remembered something I wrote in a newspaper I used to publish for my family back in the day, which had funny stories about my parents and siblings. It was about my youngest brother. When he was a teenager he was big into rave music, and I wrote about him being a secret ABBA fan, rumbled after being spotted coming out of an Abbaholics Anonymous meeting. Within seconds the whole underlying story came to me, about a teenage group of ABBA fans who reunite when ABBA reunite for one concert only. Originally the book was to be called Abbaholics Anonymous, but in the process of writing and working with my publisher, it changed.
Why did the title change to Knowing Me Knowing You?
My editor believed that Abbaholics Anonymous was too comedic given the emotional depth of the four stories in the book. In the end I fully agreed, the title needed to reflect the underlying theme of the book, which is about how we change in the space between adolescence and adulthood, and how at the same time the insecurities we have as teenagers stay with us deep down. Knowing Me Knowing You, I realised was the perfect title, given that it is the experience the four characters have over one night on an island as teenagers that connect them in a very fundamental way – because of it they know each other in ways that no one else can know them. They reunite thirty years later and see how each other has completely changed, but they still know the elementary, underlying things about each other that make each of them tick.
Of them all Cassandra seems to be the one who has changed the most.
Well, Cassandra has only changed on the surface. Who she is was intact when she was a teenager, as she revealed to Dee on that night on the island, and of all the characters in the book, she is the most self-realised from the outset. I interviewed several transgender people before writing Cassandra, and what I came to understand is that when a person transitions, or even accepts themselves as transgender, they have to come to a complete understanding and acceptance of who they are in the face of a very misunderstanding and unaccepting society. I wanted to honour the strength and courage all transgender people have in the writing of Cassandra.
To me the person who’s changed the most is Maggie. When you meet her first she’s a little firecracker, but the next time you see her she’s a total doormat. I wanted to present her both ways at the beginning of the book and then explore how the slings and arrows of life break people down. But there are hints of Maggie’s life-embracing temperament there all along – particularly in the form of the cat, Benny, who is really a reflection of Maggie’s interior. In this way Maggie’s story is the heart of what I was trying to explore with the book. How we change immeasurably as we grow up, but also remain irrevocably the same.
There’s an interesting contradiction in Dee’s character. To the outside world she’s a strong, powerful, confident woman, but at the same time she finds it impossible to leave her abusive husband.
Right from the start, I knew what Dee’s story would be, because I’m fascinated that so many strong, intelligent, self-directed women end up with weak, selfish men. I see it all the time, and I wanted to try and figure out why it happens. For Dee it’s about loneliness, about feeling unwanted and unloved for the largest part of her life, and then finding someone who professes to love her, who shows her that love, and then whips it away by abusing her, so that she’s confused about what love is and what it isn’t.
When you’re writing a character it’s interesting to have a contradiction between the character’s exterior and their interior; it gives you a kind of tension to build on. But with Dee I found it difficult to square up both parts, to make it believable for the reader that such a maverick would stay with a man like Joe. Then again, when we see abused women who continue stay with their violent husbands, it’s something that’s hard to believe.
The people in Maggie’s family are all horrible! Couldn’t you have made at least one of them sympathetic?
They’re not all that bad! Okay, William is hardly the ideal husband, and Maggie’s mother isn’t the loveliest woman in the world. But I like Oona. She may be a pain in the ass, but to me she’s a kind of comedic character to offset Maggie’s misguided desire to be seen as a good person, as is Poppy in a way. And Poppy isn’t that horrible either – she’s going through her own period of finding herself, and she’s confused and probably a little spoilt as many of her generation are, and she has yet to fully grow up. I always imagined Poppy to be a completely different person when she wasn’t with her mother, vivacious and the life and soul of the party. She only reverts to being a sullen teenager under Maggie’s gaze. And Harry, although you don’t get to see him much, is loveable, I think!
The newspaper reports that endlessly describe Daniel being a ‘hermit’ and a ‘recluse’ reminded me of reports about Agnetha after ABBA split up, which have always described her in the same way. Was this deliberate?
Well spotted! Daniel’s recoil from fame, his experiences with the media, and the creation of a story about him that is endlessly repeated, are all paralleled with Agnetha’s story. He’s very loosely based on Rick Astley, who left the music industry at the height of his fame, but his interior feelings about celebrity, how it distorts and contorts in the interests of public consumption, are all echoes of interviews with Agnetha, or biographies of ABBA that I’ve read.
I thought it was interesting to write this story in the context of fame in the 21st century, which is a million times more distorting that it was back in ABBA’s time, and is more of a Holy Grail than ever. To have a character who has completely rejected fame when generations of kids are growing up with fame as a primary goal, without understanding what fame actually brings, was meaty to write. Noah’s love of Lady Gaga, and Daniel’s observations about her, are an underlying part of this story, and when I was writing this, I felt I could get a whole other book out of it.
You’ve talked in the media about being bullied for being gay when you were at school. How did this impact on the telling of Noah’s story?
Although an incident that happens to Noah in the book is a direct reference to an incident that happened to me in school, the story of Noah being bullied is more about Daniel. Unlike Noah, who stands his ground and refuses to compromise himself in the face of violence, when Daniel was bullied at school he put his head down and tried to conform. This was my own reaction to being bullied, and I identified with the shame Daniel took into his adult life from that experience.
What I wanted to do was tell the story of parents whose child is being bullied, and how that impacts on them; how helpless and heartbrorken parent becomes and how bullying insidiously extends to the whole family. I am a parent, and although my son was not bullied at school, I once had great fears for him, given that I am gay and in the public eye in Ireland. I tried to put those fears into Daniel’s story, and then give Daniel and Noah a solution, an authentic way for Daniel to help his son while allowing them both be true to who they are.
When I was reading the book, ABBA songs kept floating through my head. How did you manage to do this?
Every chapter title is a snippet of an ABBA song, and I’ve found with readers that even if they don’t recognise the lyric, the song suggests itself to them anyway. I’m delighted that this has worked, because it’s very hard to give novel writing a background soundtrack, the same way as you can do, for instance, with a screenplay.
It was a difficult balance, making this about the story and hanging it on the ABBA theme – knowing when there were too many references and knowing when to hold back. I was a huge ABBA fan as a teenager, so it was like a journey back in time for me to do this, especially as I grew up in Sligo, where all my characters also spent their formative years.
And finally… If your life was an ABBA song, what would it be?
That’s easy. 'Dancing Queen'. To use a lyric from another song, not by ABBA, I’m dancing through life.
1. One reviewer of the book liked Maggie the least of all the characters, saying she “makes an art out of being a martyr”. Did you like Maggie? Do you think she likes being a martyr?
2. Do you think the author, being a man, writes realistic women?
3. Did you learn anything from Cassandra’s story? If so, what did you learn?
4. ABBA are an integral part of the book, although they’re not much to do with the struggles of each character. Do you think this was a help or a hindrance?
5. What parts of the book, if any, did you find emotionally moving and why?
6. The book deals with a lot of serious issues, including cancer, teenage sex, abortion, domestic violence, bullying, and transgenderism. Were you expecting this when you began reading the book? Did you think the author dealt with the issues effectively?
7. In terms of Daniel’s story, what do you think the book has to say about celebrity and fame?
8. Daniel is trying to stop his son from being bullied. If your child was being bullied, what would you think is the right thing to do?
9. According to the author, the underlying theme of the book is about “how we change immeasurably as we grow up, but also remain irrevocably the same”. Do you think the this theme is brought out by the book. Did you spot any other recurring themes?
10. If there was a movie of Knowing Me, Knowing You, what actors would you cast as Maggie, Daniel, Dee and Cassandra?