Hot spring sunshine warmed the streets of the city when I met with Dave Duggan to talk about his latest book ‘A Sudden Sun’ published by Guildhall Press this week.
First of all, I asked Dave where the title of his latest novel came from. “The title comes from a famous song called ‘Bread and Roses’. Joan Baez and Judy Collins do great renditions of it,” the Derry writer said. “I’ve heard Eileen Webster sing it brilliantly in the Guildhall Square, Derry. It has the line ‘Are touched by all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses’ and that’s where the title for my new novel came from.”
Dave explains what the novel is about. “It’s the story of Donna Bradley, a young woman who suffers major setbacks: she buries Teresa, her baby and her marriage collapses. By getting stuck into life once more, with the help of her sisters and her mother, she recovers. She’s a heroine, Donna, not a derring-do heroine, like in action films, but an extraordinary ordinary kind of heroine. She’s smart, brave and scared. Cautious, bold and fragile. She’s determined never to be side-swiped by life again. She goes back to school and gets a degree in Environmental Science. When we meet her she’s about to start a job with the council. But the past catches up with her again when she learns that Teresa’s organs were retained by the hospital. Donna puts the past on paper as a way of ensuring it doesn’t devastate her. This novel is Donna Bradley’s story of recovery.”
‘A Sudden Sun’ is based right here in the city, as Dave reveals. “Donna lives in Rosemount in Derry. She’s out and about the town – Guildhall Square, St Columb’s Park, Pump Street, Foyleside and so on. Readers who know the city will recognise places, events and organisations. Many will remember the anti-incinerator campaign. Other readers will come to know a little of the city and region, in the way we do when we read books set in LA or Shanghai or wherever. There are also sections of the book set at a beach in Inishowen and Donna connects with a woman in Lagos.”
Was writing in a woman’s voice, and in the first person, a particular challenge for this prolific local writer? “My first novel, ‘The Greening of Larry Mahon’, also published by Guildhall Press, was written in the first person, but in a man’s voice,” he says.
“As to finding Donna’s voice, it was certainly a challenge but I have five sisters; we had a powerful mother; I’m married and have a daughter and I also have many female friends. I know that the fiction that is ‘A Sudden Sun’ draws very much on the lives of all those women.”
He elaborates on the idea that the novel’s main character, Donna, ‘gets stuck into life once more’. “The first rung on Donna’s ladder of recovery is involvement in a community campaign against a toxic-waste incinerator. It’s funny, but government plans to build new incinerators in Britain was a front-page story for ‘The Times’ of London last week. The past never really goes away.”
Is there a recurring environmental theme in Dave’s novels, given that his first novel finds Larry, an engineer, among the loggers in the rainforests and now Donna, a scientist, is wrestling with toxic-waste incineration?
“I suppose it’s all about time and place. Metaphor and subtext, even. I wouldn’t say there’s an environmental theme in the novels, as such,” he says. “Certainly a context and a backdrop. I’m interested in the impact of big historical and social matters on people at the human level. My last stage play, ‘Still, the Blackbird Sings’, focuses on a small squad of World War 1 soldiers in Ebrington Barracks, led by the poet-soldier Frances Ledwidge, as they grapple with war-weariness, fear, political changes in Ireland and the prospect of a return to the Front in 1916. Big contexts and backdrops, time and place, but the focus is always on the human story.”
Known better for his work as a dramatist, with his book ‘Plays in a Peace Process’, stage plays seen across Ireland and in Edinburgh, Liverpool, New York and Afghanistan, radio dramas produced and broadcast by RTÉ, BBC Radio 4, the BBC World Service and by radio stations in Canada, the USA and New Zealand – as well as writing the internationally-acclaimed screenplay for the Academy Award nominated short film ‘Dance Lexie Dance’ – why novels?
“The only way I can answer that is by talking about a canvas, like a painter. Some of the characters and their stories require the large canvas that a novel gives. There’s still something of the dramatist going on in ‘A Sudden Sun’ because the novel is in Donna’s voice, as if she is addressing us directly.”
“I’m always searching for the form. Is this a radio play or a film; a stage play or a novel; any – or all – of them? Making a living often determines the canvas. That’s the bread part of ‘Bread and Roses’. But in all cases, it’s about story and character, his or her voice and circumstances. In ‘A Sudden Sun’, Donna recovers from tragedy to re-begin her life in strength and wonder. It’s a novel about having the courage to face into the unique and universal future we live through.”
Speaking of Donna’s recovery in the novel, Dave Duggan also spoke of his own health and recovery from recent critical illness.
“I’m getting stronger, certainly. I worked on a piece of documentary theatre in January this year on Gerald Donaghey’s story, as unfinished business from The Saville Inquiry. That was a recovery milestone for me. I’m almost eighteen months out of intensive care now and given that I almost died – twice, apparently – that’s a good place to be. Someone joked that a headline could be ‘Dead Man Writes Novel’. Thankfully not. Being back at work is really important to me.”
“I hope readers get pleasure,” Dave says of his hopes for ‘A Sudden Sun’. “The roses part of ‘Bread and Roses’. Pleasure in meeting Donna, pleasure in her language, her voice; the way she tells her story. I hope readers enjoy being in her company for a while, with all the tragedies and triumphs, characters and incidents of her world. It’s a fiction, a work of imagination. Donna’s own way of seeing the world and living her life. I hope readers enjoy a sense of something of their own lives in the pages of the novel.”
‘A Sudden Sun’ by Dave Duggan will be launched in Derry Central Library, Foyle Street, on Wednesday, April 25, at 7:30pm. All welcome to attend.
Books available from Eason Foyleside, Shipquay Books & News, Little Acorns Bookstore, Foyle Books, An Cló Ceart, Rosemount Spar and direct from Guildhall Press ISBN: 9781906271459. Paperback £9.99 / €12.
Author book-signing in Eason Foyleside on Saturday, April 28, from 1pm – 3pm. For more details please contact Guildhall Press by emailing: email@example.com or telephoning: 71. 364413.
You can read an extract in today’s Derry Journal