Saturday, August 2, 2014

Finding 'The Interview'

by Patricia O’Reilly

The Interview was born from a chance remark over a lunch about English writer, Bruce Chatwin doing an interview with Eileen Gray in 1972 while he was working for the Sunday Times magazine.

An Irish designer and architect, she was a woman ahead of her time both as a designer and a woman. She created E1027, a design gem,regarded as one of the most iconic houses of the 20th century; the Destiny Screen which first brought hr international fame in 1913 and again in 1972; as well as other lacquer pieces including The Lotus Table, Bibendum Armchair and the Transaat, forerunner to today's sun-loungers, as well as the E.1027 table, forerunner for hospital tables. In her personal life, she created her own fashion style, along the lines of Chanel and lived, circumspectly, as a bi-sexual.

Eileen Gray (1878-1976) Irish designer, architect and painter, has been part of my life since the mid-1990s when Image magazine asked me to write a piece on the Irish diaspora in Paris – focusing Eileen Gray. I confess I’d never heard of her, but of course when you freelance and are being commissioned, ignorance of proposed subject is never admitted.

From my first facts on her, I was fascinated by this talented, reclusive woman who’d destroyed personal papers, mementoes and photographs, but who left a meticulous record of all her projects. Over the years, I wrote features on various aspects of her life, a radio play, did some broadcasts and spoke about her as far afield as The Princess Grace Library Monaco. I wrote a book too Time & Destiny, published by Hodder, so I considered myself to be a bit of an expert on her, but I hadn’t come across anything that tied her name to Bruce Chatwin’s .

In the National Library I trawled through reels microfiches of the early days of the Sunday Times magazine. Nothing. In Under the Sun, the Letters of Bruce Chatwin selected by Elizabeth Chatwin & Nicholas Shakespeare, I discovered a letter, dated 21 December 1972 that Bruce had written to from Sloane Avenue, his London address, thanking her ‘for the most enjoyable Sunday afternoon I have spent in years’. So they had spent time together.

Next I telephoned Bruce’s wife, Elizabeth in Wales. Yes, Bruce had interviewed Eileen Gray and, as far as she knew, the interview had never been published. She didn’t know why, didn’t think he’d even written up his notes.

I would write a book about that interview.

And so I began the process of sorting through my research – whiteboards, yellow stickies all over the house, a tape recorder and a notebook glued to me. Slowly the information I’d accrued took on the shape of the manuscript that would become The Interview. I labelled it BIP12 (book in progress no. 12). Ten of my titles are published; one languishes in a chest of drawers in the spare bedroom. I put its lack of publication down to not following my instincts on how to handle the story of the relationship between a lecturer in media studies and one of her students.

I settled on using interview techniques as my primary strand – it helped that I’d a background in journalism. I planned to weave Eileen Gray’s and Bruce Chatwin’s life stories through the interview. But the questions as to how he gained access to her and why his interview hadn’t been published niggled. I looked into the traits of my two characters.

Both had disturbed childhoods: Eileen Gray was a lonely child, with a habit of sleeping on the floor outside her mother’s room. When she was 11, her father returned to Italy to paint. She was devastated and poured all her love into Brownswood, her home in Enniscorthy. A few years later her sister’s husband’s “renovation” resulted in the simple Georgian house ending up as an over-elaborate monstrosity. Eileen and her mother, Baroness Gray, moved to their London townhouse.

Bruce Chatwin was a War baby whose mother shuffled from relation to relation, while his father, Charles, served at Scapa Flow with the Royal Navy Reserves. When the War ended, the family moved to Birmingham where Charles set up a successful legal practice. Bruce and his brother went to Marlborough College where Bruce is best remembered for amateur dramatics and his fascination with Noel Coward.

Charming and charismatic is how Bruce Chatwin is remembered. He had the ability to inveigle his way in past Louise Dany, Eileen Gray’s maid, who was first line in the defence of protecting her privacy. Would Gray have spent time with Chatwin? Yes, she was lonely. She would have felt safe in his company and they would have social identification. With him, she could re-live the halcyon days of her successes.

Gradually I began to see how a relationship could develop between the unlikely pair and why, perhaps, that interview hadn’t been published. And so I began BIP12 which during the first draft evolved to The Interview.


Patricia’s latest novel is The Interview. Her other fiction: A Type of Beauty, the story of Kathleen Newton; (long-listed for Historical Novel Society 2012 Award;Time & Destiny): Felicity’s WeddingOnce upon a Summer. Non-fiction: Writing for SuccessWorking Mothers; Earning Your Living from Home; Writing for the Market and Dying with Love. Her short stories are published in magazines and anthologies. For the past 20 years she has lectured about writing in University College Dublin, as well as providing on-line support for writers.

The Interview - Buy from
Amazon  UK Amazon US Irish Publishers 



  1. Wow . Two people who would be fascinating on their own , much less
    brought together. It is like the notes were waiting for you.

  2. Thanks, Anne, wonderfully put. The notes may have been waiting for me but it took me long time to bring harmony to them.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.