In this Indie Corner, I talk with J.J. Green, author of The Last Good Summer, published earlier this year and which is available from the usual online outlets as well as directly from the publisher, The Book Guild. I was intrigued because it’s set in Ireland and inspired by a real event.
In the summer of 1986, Belle McGee is thirteen. The arrival of Fionn Power at her family home sets in motion a tragic chain of events. Now a forty-something investigative journalist living in Dublin, Belle returns home one night to find Fionn standing in the hallway before inexplicably vanishing. Unsettled, Belle immediately phones her sister, who tells her that Fionn was found dead that very morning. In her journey to find answers, Belle exposes corruption and scandal and is forced to stop running from the shameful truth of 1986.
J. J. Green is an Irish writer who hails from Donegal and lives in Derry. She’s had a passion for writing fiction from childhood and has honed her creative writing skills throughout her adult life. As a social and environmental activist, she also writes non-fiction in the form of political essays that mainly focus on economic and environmental injustice. The Last Good Summer is her debut novel.
Mary: Can you describe the plot of The Last Good Summer?
J.J.: The Last Good Summer starts in the summer of 1986 when the protagonist Belle McGee is thirteen. A stranger named Fionn Power comes to stay at her family home. His arrival sets in motion a chain of events that leads to a tragedy that has far-reaching repercussions. In the present day, Belle is a forty-something investigative journalist living in Dublin. She returns home one night from an evening out with work colleagues to find Fionn standing in the hallway of her home. She sees him for just a few seconds and then he vanishes. The eerie encounter leaves Belle unsettled. She phones her sister who tells her that Fionn was murdered, found dead that very morning. Belle returns home to Donegal, determined to find out who killed her old friend. As she embarks on a journey to find answers, Belle exposes environmental corruption and scandal and is forced to stop running from the shameful truth of what really happened in 1986.
Mary: I believe this is the second interview I’ve had with an author whose story is set in Ireland, and both are written in dual timelines, which I love to read. Was it fun to imagine Belle McGee at 13 and also later as an adult?
J.J.: It was fun to write the same character as a teenager and as an adult, but I found it very challenging too. I had to think hard about how to make Belle convincing and different at both ages, and yet ensure she was essentially the same person. As a teenager, she’s childish and naive about the world. As an adult, she’s jaded and troubled and has become very worldly-wise. So, in those respects she’s changed a lot. But there are underlying characteristics that remain constant. As both a teenager and an adult, she’s smart, introspective, and determined, and she has a deep love for her family and those she’s close to even though she makes mistakes and seems to act selfishly. I hope I managed to create a believable protagonist for The Last Good Summer, although it’s up to my readers to decide whether or not I did.
Mary: This story involves Belle and her childhood friend Fionn Power. As an award-winning journalist, adult Belle investigates what happened to Fionn and unfolds an environmental mystery. Is this mystery based upon a real story?
J.J.: The environmental mystery in The Last Good Summer is indeed based on a real story. About 10 years ago in the area where I live, it was discovered that a waste disposal company, contracted by the local council to safely dispose of the city’s waste, was instead burying it in the ground in illegal dump sites. The amount of waste was in the millions of tonnes, making it one of the biggest waste dumping rackets in Europe. The cost of the clean-up was estimated at around £50 million, and it’s not certain whether the government has the finances to pay for that work to be done. To date, it’s been left in ground, and to minimise toxic leakage into the soil, water, and air, physical barriers were installed to keep the waste enclosed. The culprits have only recently been convicted after a protracted court case, but as yet they haven’t been sentenced. The losers in this story are the public and the environment—no surprise there.
Mary: What inspired you to bring the environmental tragedy into the story?
J.J.: I was not so much inspired as compelled to bring the environmental tragedy into The Last Good Summer. I was outraged that this illegal dumping had happened and that those involved were happy to cause such harm just so they could avoid paying landfill taxes to make even more money. Their contract with the council was lucrative; waste ‘management’ is big business, but that wasn’t enough for them. The people and the environment around where I live will feel the impact of this reckless criminal behaviour for decades to come. But, really, this scandal is just one of thousands that are happening all the time around the globe. The damage humans are doing to the planet and its ecosystems makes me profoundly sad, and it’s usually done in the name of progress and profit.
Mary: Since you live in Ireland, what kind of ecological or climate differences have you noticed between 1986 and now, and how do these things inform your world-building?
J.J.: In the 80s, the big environmental concerns included acid rain, species extinction, pollution, and the hole in the ozone layer. From the 90s onward, activists became more vocal about greenhouse gases, global warming, the danger of burning fossil fuels, and the loss of biodiversity and vital natural habitats like the Amazon. Today, pretty much everybody has heard of climate change and the vast majority of us know that it is real and is happening right now. I’m sure that the Belle of 1986 wouldn’t have been very aware of the burgeoning ecological catastrophe facing humanity. Most people in Ireland have become more environmentally conscious and responsible in the decades since the 80s, but the majority of our business and political leaders have a lot of catching up to do and environmental protection still doesn’t feature very high on their agendas. When I was writing The Last Good Summer, I took that into consideration. I showed that the waste company had no regard for the environment and were able to get away with what they were doing because political and public sector figures either didn’t care or were complicit.
Mary: You’re also a non-fiction essayist. Who do you write for, and what sorts of topics do you cover?
J.J.: I write political essays for an independent media outlet called ZNetwork. I recognise that there’s a strong link between our environment and our economy. Since shifting into a capitalist economy, our world has seen the unprecedented destruction of our ecological systems. We might not be able to lay all the blame at the feet of capitalism, but it’s hard to deny that capitalism has been a major cause of our environmental problems. I also recognise the link between today’s wealth inequalities and our economy. Capitalism is designed to build-in wealth and income inequalities, normalising the idea that it’s okay for some people to earn 200 times more than those on the lowest incomes—for some people to feast while others die of starvation, for some people to own luxurious residences in multiple counties while others sleep on the streets. I believe that every single human can live a fulfilling and abundant life without causing suffering to the rest of society and without causing devastation to our beautiful planet. This means that there must be economic solutions that allow us to do so. My non-fiction writing mostly focuses on vision and strategy for a better world that isn’t based on capitalism but that is based on a society that takes care of people and nature and that understands the importance of living within planetary limits.
Mary: Now that you’ve published your debut novel, are you working on something else?
I’ve been working on a second novel since last publishing The Last Good Summer, and I’m close to finishing it. It’s been revised many times, but it still needs some more polishing before it’ll be ready for publication. I had hoped to finish it by now, but because I work full-time I can only ever focus on my writing on a part-time basis unfortunately and that means my writing projects invariably end up taking longer than I’d prefer. My next novel is set in a post-Covid world and is about a poison pen who’s at work in a peaceful village not far from where The Last Good Summer is set. The protagonist is the poison pen, but it turns out she’s not the only one at work. A copycat emerges and it’s not long before chaos erupts and the villagers begin turning on each other.
Mary: Thanks so much for chatting and good luck with your next book!