Mary McCluskey’s new novel, The Long Deception poses a compelling question: Are our memories of youth a photographic album of our innocence, of emotions and experiences long past which make us on occasion step back from our everyday adult lives with a gripping nostalgia for the past? Or are some memories more like a kaleidoscope, showing mismatched bits that we ultimately assemble together as we choose, in a vain attempt to recreate a time in our lives when we were, at least in our view, undeniably happy?
McCluskey’s main character Alison Eastlake is caught between her past and present when a childhood friend commits suicide, and Alison must go back home to deal with the questions that arise. She is no longer the person she used to be, a wild child, part of a tribe of unruly youths nicknamed “The Savages,” which her friend Sophie, dead from a drug overdose, was the unspoken leader.
But Sophie’s death awakens things that Alison believed long gone, one of them being her feelings for Sophie’s brother Matt. Unwillingly, has Alison stepped in the threshold of a choice: Is the past worth reliving? Or is it better left alone?
In an email interview, I asked Mary McCluskey about what makes us long for the past, even when it puts our present at risk and what makes The Long Deception different than her previous works.
The title of this novel is fitting, “deception” being the key word. Don’t we all deceive each other in some way or another?
Yes, I think we do. And we deceive ourselves. The novel explores deception in its obvious forms – secrets, lies, infidelity – but also touches on some of its more devious disguises, even to the professions of the central characters. Alison works in advertising, which she is beginning to see as an exercise in deceptive manipulation while her husband works in the pharmaceutical industry which Alison calls Big Pharma and does not trust. There’s also a degree of self deception in the novel.
What was different about writing this novel compared to previous works you’ve published?
The Long Deception has a larger cast of characters, with tricky and complex relationships and it’s a bit darker than my previous writing. I’ve published a number of fairly dark short stories but the short story form can be restrictive in terms of how many characters will work together in a limited space. My first novel, Intrusion, focused mainly on the interaction of three central characters. This story goes wider, is a bit darker, and has a different tone.
Alison seems to be permanently pining for a past that is partly a fantasy of her own making, particularly events involving Sophie’s brother Matt. Has this longing in a way prevented her from having a more fulfilling marriage?
Yes. I believe that when we hold back a part of ourselves from our partners, even a small part, we’re not engaging fully in the relationship. Alison comes to this realization late in the novel, of course.
Sophie’s death turns out to be a catalyst for the reveal of heavily guarded secrets. What is interesting, is that Sophie feels like a very solid character in the story even though she’s absent in most of it. Would you agree?
Yes, I do agree! Sophie was very much alive to me during the writing of this novel even though, from the very first line, we are aware that she is dead. She influences all of the other characters and without her, well, there would be no story.
Alison can never completely shake the influence Sophie and Matt have over her. Why is that?
She remembers herself in the years she spent with them as her real self, her ‘best self’ if you like. She recalls that time, when the charismatic siblings were leaders of her little circle of friends, as one of intensity and excitement.
For me, the book is a statement on childhood friendships and how w e sometimes idolize them to the point of stubbornly fooling ourselves into thinking they are something they’re not. What do you think? Is this accurate?
Yes, that’s exactly right. Many of us can recall a time, sometimes in childhood, often in high school or college, when we were exceptionally close to the people around us. We felt that we were understood, we felt that we belonged. Memory can distort the truth, however. The reality may have been quite different from what we remember.
Which character presented the biggest challenge for you?
Matt, without question. He’s complicated and hides a lot from his wife, from his friends, and even from himself.
The ending is quite unexpected. How do you think readers will react to it?
I hope readers will be surprised, while also feeling that the ending is inevitable and true, offering answers to the questions raised in the novel. I imagine some readers might be shocked, some feel sympathy or empathy. I hope readers won’t be offended.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers who are struggling to get their novels out there, specially now that the publishing industry is going through so many changes?
I can only offer well worn advice – don’t give up! Keep working on that novel or story or memoir. Enjoy the process. Writing can be demanding and it’s time consuming but it’s also enormously rewarding. The rest – finding an agent, getting published – is tough. It takes persistence and it can take a long time. But do the best work you can and publication, though never certain, is more likely to happen.
Tell me a bit about your future projects. Another novel in the works maybe?
I’m working on a quirky novel at present with a rather disturbed and difficult protagonist. Its current title is All the Mad Music. It’s proving a bit of a challenge. If it works it should be an interesting novel. If not – ah, not the end of the world. I’m having fun with it!