Catherine O'Flynn interview: Players in the generation game

Her third novel explores family relationships and the myth of 'a place in the sun'. She talks to Max Liu

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The Independent Culture

All summer, Catherine O'Flynn's living-room windows have remained closed. She isn't worried about her four-year-old escaping, nor does she want to muffle the sounds of her Birmingham suburb. She doesn't even wish to crank up the stereo because, after years of working in record shops, the internet has killed her passion for music. Instead, it's down to a condition which O'Flynn, who was born in 1970, believes is common among people her age: "We've lived in this house for a year but my husband and I can't work out how to open them," she says when I arrive on a humid morning. "My parents could do everything but I can't put up a blind. There's a massive chasm between our generation and theirs and we are, in many ways, useless."

Inter-generational differences provide comic poignancy in Mr Lynch's Holiday, O'Flynn's entertaining third novel. Dermot Lynch is an elderly Irish widower who emigrated to Birmingham in his 20s. When he visits Lomaverde, a fictional recession-hit Spanish resort, he finds his 33-year-old son, Eamonn, underemployed, and newly-single. "About a decade ago, I lived in Barcelona," says O'Flynn. "At first, I was as directionless as Eamonn. I felt like I wasn't allowed to be unhappy there and I went a bit nuts in the heat. I wanted this novel to examine the myth of a place in the sun."

O'Flynn's time in Spain proved productive as she completed What Was Lost, her 2007 debut which was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. "Barcelona made Birmingham seem even darker in my imagination," she says, "and the novel's popularity changed my life. I'm lucky to be writing fiction full-time but, although I know this is a very slappable thing to say, I miss the friction that comes with daily exposure to the world."

This admission isn't entirely surprising as work is an important feature of O'Flynn's books. Readers' empathy with characters deepens as they make the best of dead-end jobs: "Work is a major part of life which isn't written about much," says O'Flynn. "As a child, I sat behind the counter in my dad's sweetshop, listening to his banter with customers, wishing I could talk to people with the same ease."

Forty years later, she's a voluble interviewee, although still self-effacing. Research for this novel was "by no means exhaustive" but gathering information for Dermot's career as a bus driver revealed surprises: "I'd imagined that bus depots of the 1960s were hotbeds of racial tension but that wasn't so. I'd also expected drivers would be borderline nervous breakdowns, but those I met were remarkably contented. Dermot loved his work because it introduced him to all walks of life." By contrast, Eamonn's online English teaching isolates him and he sits in a darkened room composing long emails to his ex, Laura. He also shuns his neighbours, of whom O'Flynn says: "The expats can be small-minded but their claustrophobia in Lomaverde exacerbates that. Eamonn sees them through the visor of his own neurosis."

The News Where You Are (2010), O'Flynn's second novel, contained a lovely moment when a veteran newsreader experienced déjà vu as he sensed the churn of stories repeating itself. That book explored layers of urban life and Mr Lynch's Holiday shows history following cycles. A young Spaniard's plans to emigrate to find work remind Dermot of leaving Ireland in the 1950s. And, in Birmingham, he warns a Muslim man that immigrant communities can become stigmatised by the actions of tiny minorities. "I remember the distrust of the Irish," says O'Flynn, referring to the aftermath of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombings, for which the IRA was blamed. "A few years ago cameras were installed around the city to spy on Muslims. There are similarities between the two communities and I see situations repeated."

Nothing diminishes Dermot's affection for Birmingham and a poetic photograph of smoke stacks, which hangs in O'Flynn's living room, evokes one of the novel's paeans to the city's industrial past: "The hissing and clanking of the GKN factory, the rise and fall of the gasometers, the silhouetted towers of the coke works." Eamonn's relationship with post-industrial England is more problematic and O'Flynn is conscious of confronting class in her new book: "Like me, Eamonn is the child of working immigrants and his education has altered him. He resents the middle-classes but he sneers at those whom he considers beneath him. It causes anxiety, a weird itchiness, and he goes to Spain to escape."

O'Flynn, who's expecting her second child this month, presents parenthood as an affirming experience for some characters but an unsettling one for others. "It forces you to think about something other than yourself," she says. "That would be healthy for Eamonn but parenthood doesn't have that effect on everybody. As a Catholic woman, who planned to raise a large family, his mother felt a void because she only had one child. She was intellectually frustrated too and that drew her to her priest. But the church's expectations made her feel inadequate in the first place."

Dermot admits he feels less lonely now that his quietly dysfunctional marriage is over. He believes, however, that Eamonn can be happy and urges him to win back Laura. Regard-less of whether or not Eamonn can rouse himself, O'Flynn thinks her generation has better communicators: "Dermot knows his own mind but he was inarticulate around his wife. Eamonn can at least talk freely to Laura." So the education that's left Eamonn feeling alienated and impractical might yet help him relate to others? O'Flynn puts it bluntly: "Eamonn's a bit of a prick but he's redeem- able. As Dermot says, he took a wrong turning and everyone's done that."

Mr Lynch's Holiday By Catherine O'Flynn

Penguin Viking £14.99

"He arrived on a cloudless day. As he stepped on to the tarmac, he looked up at the sky and saw nothing but blue and the traces left by other planes.

The terminal was deserted. He wandered along polished floors with a handful of other passengers. Music was playing somewhere. An old tune, he couldn't remember the name. It was not how he'd imagined airports ... '