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||Leaving suburban Dublin behind at seventeen, Emer Martin traveled the world from Paris to Bali to the sands of the Sinai, where she trekked through the desert with Bedouins. Along the way, she encountered nomads of a different sort people who were squatting, begging and bunking from one city to the next. Some, like her, were kids who had spontaneously hit the road; others were permanently adrift. Although she may not have known it at the time, this strange and turbulent world would figure prominently in her first novel, Breakfast in Babylon, named Ireland's Best Book of 1996.
With pints of Guinness on hand, we sat down with Martin and were instantly drawn into her stories. Martin's quick wit and keen observations come from years of chatting up strangers and dodging train conductors. She has an easy humor and, for all she's been through, no regrets, no need to justify her five years on the margins of society. In fact, just talking with her, you start to feel as if you too should be on the road at least once in your life. Martin makes good old-fashioned teenage rebellion seem new again because she believes in it so wholeheartedly.
Now settled down or so she says in the New York area, Martin recently completed her second novel, More Bread or I'll Appear, a story which follows an Irish family in their far-flung travels. She frequently performs in clubs around town with the Banshees, a girl group of Irish singers, dancers and writers. Having made herself at home in the world, Martin has, in her own nomadic way, come back to her roots.
ARIANA: What did you say the other night about the Irish prom?
EMER: An American once asked me, "Did you go to your prom?" and I said we didn't have proms in Ireland, we have emigration. We just finish school and get the fuck out of the country. Growing up in Ireland during the '80s, it was a very depressed time. I remember walking down the main street and there were bushes growing out of windows, everything was derelict, boarded up. There was nothing to do, everybody was on the dole. I remember even going to a career guidance teacher who said, "Do you want to do a secretarial course, nursing or college?" And I was like, "No, no, no, no, no."
ALISA: Those were your choices?
EMER: So she suggested, "Why don't you just leave the country?"
ARIANA: Breakfast in Babylon really is about getting as far away as possible from any sort of dead end.
EMER: I've always written about the diaspora. In Breakfast in Babylon there was an international cast of characters. It was all people living in exile, sort of the black sheep from every family in Europe ending up in Paris at that time.
My second novel, More Bread or I'll Appear, is also about an Irish family who all have emigrated and live abroad. So there is a consciousness in my work of being a stranger, being an immigrant, being away. But I think as an artist it's an advantage to be in the margins.
ARIANA: More material in pain and suffering ...
EMER: And self-awareness. That's one of the reasons why I'm addicted to traveling. You know, if you spend a month in just your regular life, it goes by like that you don't even think about it. But if you spend a month traveling through Africa you would remember every day of that month because your awareness is increased a hundredfold. That's why I like traveling. It makes my life longer.
Alisa: Is it true that you arrived in London with only one pound?
EMER: Oh yeah, that was the way we traveled then. We had no regard for where we slept at night. There was a time in my life, about a five year period, where I could be anywhere in Europe and bunk a train or get a bus and arrive in Paris and be in a squat that night with people I knew or acquaintances. So we never thought twice. One time my friend Anya and myself woke up in the morning and decided we'd go to London. We only had a pound, so we bunked the train up to the coast.
ARIANA: And by bunk you mean?
EMER: You just got on without a ticket. But it was one of those supersonic jet trains so they couldn't throw you off without squeezing you through the window.
ARIANA: So you knew you were going to get to your destination.
EMER: Yeah, they just make you lie between the carriages and be nasty to you, but we didn't really care. When you're eighteen you're invincible. So that time we were on the boat, and Anya went to the bar to buy crisps we were starving and she came back and I said, "Where's the change?" She looked very sheepish and said, "The woman behind the bar made me put it into the lifeboat charity." So we actually arrived in London with zero, not even ten pea to make a phone call.
ARIANA: Even at eighteen I would be scared to be in London with no money. But you didn't seem to have a sense of fear, which is what interests me.
EMER: What I was afraid of when I was eighteen was boredom, that was my sense of fear, boredom and conformity, becoming what I saw everyone else becoming.
ARIANA: Punching the clock.
EMER: I grew up in the suburbs of Dublin. It was the first time anybody grew up in suburbs in Ireland. Everybody's parents were from the country, so the people from North Dublin said we weren't really proper Dubliners, and people down the country despised us because we came from Dublin. You'd live with your parents, you'd go to university and then you'd look around for a sort of crappy job. I wanted to see the world, and I didn't want to work either.
ARIANA: Did you feel like you were entering a subculture by entering into this new world?
EMER: I was seventeen when I left Ireland and I was wild and I was reckless. I didn't even like the idea of a roof and walls. I was an animal. I'd go out and get wasted at night and sleep in a doorway and just go off the next morning. The '80s was a very conservative time. There was no big movement, even the music was crap really. Places like London were boring, Dublin was boring, but in Paris there was this big scene going on, on the slope in front of the Pompidou Centre.
Alisa: What was that like?
EMER: All the freaks were gathered there. There were Africans on soap boxes ranting and raving and pontificating, Arabs playing guitars and trying to pick up chicks. There were acrobats and a big fat man who'd lie on a bed of nails. There were all the Iranians in exile from the revolution, a lot of Afghanis fleeing the war. It was a very kinetic time.
That for me was just the place to be. And it was a subculture in the way that people were dropping out, they were begging, they were hustling, they weren't working. We were all living more or less communally in squats. We would meet every night at the St. Michel fountain, go get beers or some hash and just sit there and talk, people would play guitars.
ARIANA: So there was some kind of moment ...
EMER: Yes, but saying that, it all ended rather badly. By the '90s, when I went back to Paris, the slope was empty, everything had been cleaned up, and most of my friends ... When I think of it, it was heroin and poverty, and people ended up dead. So it's good to be able to write that sort of thing because history gallops by. If you're not a leader or a person of enormous wealth and influence, you disappear. In a way, that's what fiction and film can do - sort of reinstate the vanished.
Alisa: Was there any response from people who were actually part of that scene, who saw the book?
EMER: A lot of the letters I get about the book are from people who somehow passed through the scene and are amazed that it's been documented. They even recognize some of the characters. I knew a Welsh punk called Taffy, and he'd one leg and a mohawk. I used to talk to him now and then but I didn't really know his story. In the book he becomes a central character, but I make up this whole story of how he lost his leg. He's going through customs and they take his false leg apart to look for drugs. He arrives in Paris with no coat and his leg in a plastic bag. I was told he got hold of the book and he's saying that this is how he lost his leg, this is the truth. And it wasn't, I made it all up. He got a big kick out of that. I'm sure he doesn't remember who the fuck I was.
ARIANA: I was curious, since you were traveling for five years, what experience or place struck you as the most beautiful, the most strange?
EMER: I remember going out to the Sinai desert in Israel with the Bedouins for three days. I was from Ireland and I'd never seen a desert. These Bedouin kids took us, myself and two other women. They'd be making dough and cooking bread on this old metal piece of shrapnel they found. You'd sleep by your own camel and you'd see the whole sky just shattered with stars. I remember being on the camel, totally wrapped in white, and the savage blue sky and this desert unfolding mountain after mountain with the sea right beside us.
ARIANA: Were you keeping track of everything during your travels? Were you writing at that point?
EMER: I think I'm a writing animal. I remember the first thing I wrote consciously was when I was nine. I wrote a poem about a horse who used to play golf with a rubber band and be disruptive on the course. I stood at the top of the class and read my poem and got a big laugh. So every night I would write a poem and I would draw a picture at the end. And I kept notebook after notebook. Even when I was traveling all around I always kept notebooks. Fiction and poetry and rants, impressions. But every time I finished these notebooks I would just throw them out. The practical reason was, I didn't want to carry them around. I left some at home at Christmas, but they were all thrown out subsequently by my mother.
Alisa: Why'd she do that?
EMER: She's very neat. It's nothing personal. Everything must go. If you stand still at my house for longer than ten minutes you get wrapped in saran wrap and put in the freezer. It's a tidy place.
Alisa: Saving them wasn't really that important to you?
EMER: For me at the time, it was the process that was important, it wasn't the result. I can't really remember details or sentences. There must have been some of it that was good and a lot of it that was bad. The correlation to music, if you play the violin or the guitar, you don't do it always to get a recording contract, you do it because you can reach some level of transcendence just by the process itself. So I think when I sat down years later to write Breakfast in Babylon that I was ready. It's a big book, it's a whole canvas of characters with an interweaving plot.
ARIANA: Were you conscious that you were preparing yourself to be a writer?
EMER: Books to me were the greatest pleasure in my life always, always. I think there's more to life than books, but not much more. So in that way I wasn't a na•ve savage scribbling around. I didn't have a story at that time, I hadn't a plot to piss in. I was waiting for a story. And I did want to be a writer. That to me was a dream.
ARIANA: You were brought up Catholic, but at some point you stopped believing in God?
EMER: I went to Catholic schools and was taught by nuns. Even the government-run schools in Ireland are controlled by the Catholic Church. Everybody around me was very religious. But around age twelve, and it was a very sudden thing, I just couldn't believe anymore. It was a crisis of faith which I never got back.
I was one of those nerd children I was reading The Origin of Species at the time, and I was very much caught up. The whole Christian faith broke down in my head. I just thought it was a silly story. And these other explanations seemed so much more reasonable and scientific. For a while I fought with it. I didn't want to rot in the ground like a tomato. I wanted to feel that I was important and there was a god up there looking out for me and when I died I would join everyone I loved.
Alisa: A theme of Catholicism runs through your work. I guess it's hard to completely break away.
EMER: I never did, and my books are intensely religious in ways. The very first line of Babylon is: "I am not Jesus Christ, I left home younger than he, traveled further, stayed out in the wilderness longer." Being raised by people who are living their whole lives according to one philosophy, there's almost a need to replace that with something else. I haven't come up with anything.
Alisa: Can you describe your family?
EMER: Can I tell you about my really desperate suburban childhood? There isn't a Frank McCourt version, you know, "Emer's Ashes." [laughs] I had a huge handicap for an artist - I had a very normal, nice childhood. My mother was a school teacher and my father worked in a bank, but he switched to work for the homeless in Dublin. My parents were very warm, loving, open, literate people. They had great books in the house, they went to the theater, they had a great social life. There were always parties in the house, always people singing.
ARIANA: What's it like going back now?
EMER: I was back two weeks ago. I can't leave without my mother crying, my father crying, my sister, me. In Ireland there was something called an American wake. You'd have a funeral for the people who were going to America. Everybody would gather together and you'd give them a big send-off. You'd never see these people again. The person arriving in America would be able to commit to America and say this was their new home, there's no going back. Whereas now, because you can travel back, you can't really put roots down in either place.
My husband, he's Iranian and he left during the revolution in 1978 and he's never been back. I compare him to me and I seem very spoiled that I can go home and see my family and see my country. But when I go back to Dublin they consider me to have an American accent.
Alisa: What was the response to your book in Ireland?
EMER: When the book came out in Ireland it got almost no serious literary criticism. The Sunday Tribune review started out with, "One would have to worry about young Emer Martin and blah blah blah, what is she doing with her life." Radio interviews would ask me things like, "So are you advocating for women doing drugs and sleeping around?" And I'd be saying, "Of course I'm advocating!" Then every single person would ask, "So what do your parents think, is this a way to live?" They wanted to create a story for me. One magazine published a photo of myself and my husband and said: "Emer with her physicist husband, now come home."
ARIANA: So you must have come to your senses.
EMER: I don't think they would have done that to a male writer writing about life on the streets. It was very patronizing. There've been a lot of on-the-road novels from a male point of view; women have been peripheral characters, things to boast about, women they fucked along the way. Men have always written very graphically. And in Babylon there was just one paragraph about Isolt having her period, not having tampons, and wrapping tissues around - like what woman hasn't had to do that at some point? But people got really freaked out and offended. It's like a woman shouldn't really write about that.
ARIANA: How did you go from the drifter's world of Babylon to the more family-oriented narrative of your new book?
EMER: More Bread or I'll Appear I wrote it thinking of different families I'd seen and what happens when something goes wrong or some one person goes wrong and how it sort of contaminates the rest. You grow up with these people but a lot of times you have very little in common with your brothers and sisters and parents. And yet there's emotional ties, so the capacity to hurt each other is enormous. Also, I was interested in obsessive-compulsive disorder and some of the characters in the family have it.
ARIANA: Why does that interest you?
EMER: I think it's the idea that it's not a psychosis. They'll feel a huge anxiety if they don't perform these acts and rituals. And I was relating the disease to religion. I remember working on the Sea of Galilee, in a motel for Orthodox Jews, for Hasidim. A strange job, one of my many brilliant careers. I was a cleaner there. They'd have to put that wooden block on their hand and tie it around their wrist to pray, and they'd have to bow a specific amount of times. Like in Catholicism, you have to dip your hands in the water on the way in and genuflect before you sit.
EMER: For humans, I think religion is almost like a huge obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Alisa: And do you feel that writing is what you need to do?
EMER: Everybody does something, whether it's touching lamp posts or washing your hands, we all do something to keep the wolves from the door.
Alisa: What's your writing schedule like?
EMER: When I'm writing a novel I'll sit down five days a week and I'll pick my time usually between four and eight, that's 'cause I get up at two. Descartes said no true philosopher gets up before noon. He was finally killed by the Queen, I think of Sweden. She took him on as her personal tutor and he had to get up at 4 or 5 in the morning.
ARIANA: And that was the end of him.
EMER: He should've stayed in Paris in his bed.
ARIANA: I wanted to know we actually discussed this before we met you in Babylon, what does Isolt, the main character, want?
EMER: You know when I wrote the screenplay for Babylon I kept asking myself, What does she want? Well, she doesn't want anything! But you're not allowed characters that don't want anything.
ARIANA: She wants love.
EMER: Yeah, but I think of Isolt as part prophet, part party girl. When you see her on the beach, she's lecturing the others about the futility of their actions. They're saying, "So, we shouldn't protest." And she's saying, "Yes, you should because at least then you're a spanner in the works rather than a cog in the machine, although it won't get you anywhere." People are always asking writers what their characters want, but writers might be ...
ARIANA: ... the last people who would know.
EMER: Or the second last. Some of these things are unconscious. I mean, she is a drifter, that is her nature. She's drifting by, but I do think she wants experiences. She wants intensity. Throughout it all, she goes towards the most intense experience she can find, towards the craziest people. Maybe that's what she wants, to feel something extreme, she doesn't just want to go though life numbly. Okay ... now I've figured it out.