Author and screenwriter Lauren Mackenzie talks to Sophie Grenham about the recession, working in television, and her debut novel, The Couples.
by Sophie Grenham
When I find Lauren Mackenzie in The Gresham hotel’s buzzing Writer’s Lounge, she stands and greets me with a hug. She is jovial and relaxed in a peach linen shirt and jeans, her curly blonde hair loose. When we settle into a deep couch, the chat is comfortable and trusting. We’re here to discuss her debut novel, The Couples, a thrilling drama many years in the making.
Mackenzie has always written, starting with a book she made with a friend at school. The books that resonated during her earlier years include The Diary of Anne Frank and the works of Sylvia Plath. She studied arts and communications at the University of New South Wales, composing scripts, directing short films and reading aloud in pubs on writers’ nights, her mind fertile from a young age.
It is about who you know, and that’s not quite as sinister as it sounds
A native of Sydney, Australia, Mackenzie first lived in Normanhurst on the outskirts of the city. At eleven, she moved to Glebe in the inner-city when her parents separated. Her mother, Beverley, is a retired social worker who worked in a psychiatric unit, while her father, Bruce, is a landscape gardener. She moved to Dublin 33 years ago where she works as a screenwriter and story consultant. The film industry feels impenetrable in many ways – how does one break in?
“It is about who you know, and that’s not quite as sinister as it sounds,” she says, simply. “Once you’ve had one job with someone and you do well and they like you, they’ll hire you again. People work with their friends. Collaboratively, when it works, it works, and it’s fun and you stretch yourself. You return to that relationship for different films. The same actors work with the same director all the time.”
Mackenzie met her Irish husband at the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland. Brendan, an electronics engineer, was backpacking while she was on holiday after finishing college. “I went on a three-day boat trip and he was on it with another Irishman,” she recalls, fondly.
“They were the funniest people on the boat. We stayed up late drinking beer and having a good time. I was waiting for him to make a pass, but he was having a better time with the other Irishman!” Thankfully he made his feelings known and she eventually travelled back to Ireland with him.
It was when her future mother-in-law, Regina, heard an open call on The Gay Byrne Show on RTÉ radio that her career came together. “Fair City was two years old at that stage – they were looking for writers. She said, ‘Lauren, that’s you!’ I said, ‘No, I can’t do that!’” She got the job and that’s where she remained for eight years. What’s it like to work on a soap opera, and one as iconic?
Problems come to you all the time and you have to solve them quickly
“Fair City wasn’t iconic at the time,” says Mackenzie, wryly. “For years, it was the show that everyone loved to hate and never admit they watched. They’d tell me exactly why they hated it, then realised they watched quite a lot of it.” They always do, don’t they?
“Hate-watching, it’s called, but it was great training for writers because you can’t dwell on your failures,” she continues. “You have to keep producing. You write it, it goes out, you move onto the next story. Problems come to you all the time and you have to solve them quickly.
“Sometimes an actor’s sick and you’ve got to rewrite two months of episodes. Pat Leavy died [who played Hannah Finnegan] and there was instant panic.” Bestselling Irish novelists Lisa Harding, Liz Nugent and Claudia Carroll have also been a part of Fair City. Did she know any of them during her time on the show?
“Liz was there after me but I knew Claudia Carroll [aka Nicola Prendergast]. She was at my wedding. She’s a sweetheart even though she’s playing such a bitch!”
Mackenzie has worked on such series as Pure Mule, The Clinic, On Home Ground, Red Rock, and wrote the movie The Daisy Chain (2008), starring Samantha Morton. She was a script editor for popular comedy-drama, Bachelors Walk, about three thirty-something men house-sharing in Dublin. Creators Kieran Carney, John Carney and Tom Hall needed her expertise and visited her at home.
RTÉ showed episodes of Bachelors Walk during lockdown in 2020, which ignited national nostalgia
“My second baby was three months old,” she remembers. “They’d come to me when he had his morning nap. We’d have about two hours if we were lucky. We’d talk about the storylines, then they’d go away and come back the next morning. Then I’d run off and get the two-year-old from crèche – it was a bit mad then!”
RTÉ showed episodes of Bachelors Walk during lockdown in 2020, which ignited national nostalgia. The show encapsulates Dublin at a particular time. “That’s exactly what it did for me,” says Mackenzie. “I was excited in terms of working on it, then watching it because I thought, finally – this is the city I know.”
The author returned to writing fiction and poetry a few years ago and has been published in The Irish Times and prestigious literary journals such as The Stinging Fly, The Moth, The Lonely Crowd and Banshee. She has been shortlisted for the Cúirt New Writing Prize, Hennessy New Irish Writing, and the Fish Short Story Prize. Her debut was a joint winner at the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair in 2021.
When the three couples spend the night at a manor house for Frank’s 48th birthday, they take ecstasy and pair off with varying results.
The Couples is about three middle-aged couples. Conor, a good-hearted doctor, is married to Polish-German Beatrice, a stay-at-home mother. Eva, a troubled primary school teacher, is married to hapless landscape gardener Shay. Egotistical film director Frank is in a volatile relationship with resting actress Lizzie, each with a child as the result of an affair.
When the three couples spend the night at a manor house for Frank’s 48th birthday, they take ecstasy and pair off with varying results. They then return to their own worlds, the school run, financial woes, and their lives unravel.
The story is set in 2010, when Ireland was in financial tatters. While 2008 was technically when the recession started, it took some time for the situation to become real for many, with mass emigration and long queues for the dole.
“The banks started calling in debt, people who hadn’t paid their loans or mortgages,” she says. “Friends of ours had a business; it wasn’t until 2012 that they were threatened with bankruptcy. It wasn’t that they weren’t selling things. They were owed so much money from other people who’d gone down, so they were going to tumble down after them.”
People, even though they’d been saying the crash is coming, didn’t believe it was actually going to happen
Mackenzie didn’t initially set out to write a novel. It was a television series she had in mind, but timing wasn’t on her side. The hit British series Cold Feet was due a revival and there wasn’t room for another show about three middle-aged couples. She kept the idea on ice until her MA in creating writing at University College Dublin in 2017.
“I held onto 2010 because there was something about Ireland having gone through such success with the Celtic Tiger and landed on the world stage, all glittery and shiny and big houses, and it all collapsed in this failure,” she says.
“People, even though they’d been saying the crash is coming, didn’t believe it was actually going to happen. I thought [the crash] was like middle-age. You go to college, you get married, you have kids, you buy the house, you move up in the career. Then it all stops and you didn’t get what you wanted – you could go backwards.
“I was doing those last drafts during the pandemic. Our survival is dependent on each other, on the community. There’s extended family, so it’s not just about marriage and so on – it’s what keeps us alive.”
Inspiration for characters
The three couples feel so fully formed that they’re going to sit down and talk to you. Were they inspired by anybody? Mackenzie shakes her head vigorously. “Some people say ‘Brendan’s going to think that’s you and your friends.’ I said this to my husband. He said they’ll just be jealous. We’re way more boring than that!” she laughs.
I am describing what I see, which is what you would do if you’re writing a film treatment, trying to make people see the film
“I knew the three marriages had to be different in the texture of them, how they worked day-to-day and the way they talk about their marriages. Some of it is based on the type of couples that I know. You get those couples that are madly into each other and they neglect their children, which is what I think Frank and Lizzie are.”
At one stage, Mackenzie describes Beatrice physically as like Jessica Lange in The Postman Always Rings Twice, creating the image of a dreamy woman in pink cigarette pants. The way she draws characters feels very specific, their movements exact.
“There’s a lot of the screenwriter on the page,” she says. “I am describing what I see, which is what you would do if you’re writing a film treatment, trying to make people see the film. It is craft. I was trying to be careful about ensuring that everybody was different enough that you’d remember each character.”
Frank is that guy who was nominated for an Oscar that time. When we meet him, his star has long since waned. Mackenzie says there are many people in film whose career once resembled that. “You can have one success and if you don’t have something coming pretty soon after that, you’re back to square one.
Lenny Abrahamson said each film is as hard as the first one, even with Oscar nominations.” Is it true that you’re only as good as your last film? It is, and it’s heartbreaking.
“There’s a lot of good people who don’t get another chance, and it’s because things just didn’t align,” she tells me. “With this book, for me, everything aligned. It’s taken many years to get to this place, but there’s a certain amount of luck involved. You have to meet the right people at the right time and they have to want what you have.”
Love and marriage
She fundamentally wanted to look at love and marriage and it was a very deliberate choice to include Conor’s parents in the story. His mother, Molly, goes into a nursing home. His father, Dermot, then moves in with Conor and Beatrice, and the family house is up for sale.Mackenzie has sensitively managed this material, partly drawn from her own experience with her mother-in-law who also had dementia.
“She was diagnosed quite young – 65 or 66 years old. Once we had the diagnosis, you could look back and the signs were there for some time,” she says. “My father-in-law tried to keep her at home as long as he could, but he was not sleeping at night because she was up and wandering. Keeping an eye on her was a 24-hour job. When she went to the nursing home, she was only there for a couple of years because at that stage, she had no awareness of where she was or who she was. She stopped talking.”
I absolutely believe people should leave marriages if they’re bad. Partnerships as well. I’m happily married now – it hasn’t always been that way
Dermot’s character adds another dynamic, his traditional values conflicting with Conor and Beatrice’s views at times. The late Queen Elizabeth II once cited tolerance as the key to a successful marriage. Mackenzie agrees on this quality plus compromise.
“When I think about the book, I’d be concerned that people see it as a conservative heterosexual proposal,” she says. “I absolutely believe people should leave marriages if they’re bad. Partnerships as well. I’m happily married now – it hasn’t always been that way. There’s a roller coaster of hard times between small children, redundancies and depression – my depression.” She looks away briefly when she lands on the last two words. “Things have got really bad, then they’ll be alright again. When that happens often enough, you realise it’s a bad phase, it’ll get better. Then the bad phases are never as bad, because you’ve gotten used to each other, you understand each other more.”
It must have been awful being in her line of work at the time of this book. “I was booked up for six months and then it all stopped. RTÉ stopped producing drama because it’s massively expensive. People started leaving the country to go to the UK.”
The experience of Frank is based on her own, but all the characters have been her, to some extent. “When I write anything, even the dog has my face,” she quips. The Couples has been optioned for a television adaptation with Mackenzie as an executive producer. One can already see an audience not dissimilar to those who enjoyed Sally Rooney’s Normal People.
Mackenzie plays tennis a couple of times a week to keep fit, usually ladies doubles. She lives in Dolphin’s Barn with her husband and one of their sons, Sam (23), who hopes to work in film. Their other son, Alex (25), works in a clean energy tech start-up in London. She recalls purchasing their first place in 1996.
It sounds blissful, a distant cousin to today’s crazy housing market and cost of living
“We tried to buy in Portobello and got priced out, so we got a little old lady’s house near Raymond Street and did that up ourselves. Three days after my wedding I had overalls on, chipping old plaster off the walls. Then we’d go to The Headline pub on Leonard’s Corner, have a pint and a ham and cheese toastie for dinner. We didn’t need much else then.” It sounds blissful, a distant cousin to today’s crazy housing market and cost of living.
Publishing The Couples has been hugely uplifting for Mackenzie, due to a straightforward system from beginning to end. “Having had a screenwriting career where a lot of things haven’t been made, some have been made and nothing’s happened, this book is finished,” she gushes.
“The finishing of it wasn’t nearly as painful as screenwriting; there’s so much money involved, you can understand why everybody gets anxious about it. The process of being published is a pleasure. I have to put my hand up for anything that’s wrong if it fails, but that’s the best part of finishing – finishing!”
Mackenzie’s writing gives considerably more than the reader bargained for, steering you down many bendy roads
The front cover of The Couples is dark and decadently beautiful, the remains of a feast mingling with the dying embers of a candle. One could assume that it’s a high-brow murder mystery but you quickly discover it’s a different beast. Mackenzie’s writing gives considerably more than the reader bargained for, steering you down many bendy roads.
One of the last things we discuss is our favourite horror movies, a mutual favourite being The Shining with Jack Nicholson. She’s also fond of Rosemary’s Baby with Mia Farrow. After my Dictaphone is switched off, we chat for a few more minutes about what’s hot on television.
Though we’ve only just met, Mackenzie feels like an old friend, an easy one to root for. Let’s hope The Couples makes it to the small screen because this is precisely the kind of drama that Irish television needs right now.