Brought to Book: Martina Reilly on ‘Lovers’, Anne Tyler and Irish Olympians

‘I never put out a novel that I’m not proud of, so I’m not easily knocked by a bad review’

Martina Reilly: “Sometimes books that are easy to read can be dismissed a little too comfortably. Books are easy to read because there is a rhythm and a lightness to the prose.” Photograph: Conor Healy

Martina Reilly: “Sometimes books that are easy to read can be dismissed a little too comfortably. Books are easy to read because there is a rhythm and a lightness to the prose.” Photograph: Conor Healy


Martina Reilly’s new novel, Things I Want You to Know, (Hachette Ireland) is out now. When a tragedy tore his life apart, Nick Deegan left his wife Kate and their two young children. When Kate dies, Nick moves back home to raise Emma and Liam. He discovers a book she left for him containing the dos and don’ts of raising their children but also the details of five dates, with five very different women, Kate has arranged for Nick in the months ahead. It’s not romance Kate wants him to find, but something far more important.

What was the first book to make an impression on you?

Enid Blyton’s books – I devoured everything she wrote and I loved the worlds she created from enchanted forests to child detectives. I knew from reading her that I wanted to write stories too. Either that or solve mysteries. Writing was easier.

What was your favourite book as a child?

The Silver Crown by Robert O’Brien. It was first printed in 1973 and I’d never read anything quite like it before. Very much an early Series of Unfortunate Events. It taught me that anything can be made believable if the writing is right.

And what is your favourite book or books now?

A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler, Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, On Beauty by Zadie Smith, What is the What? by Dave Eggers. There are loads more I could mention, but these are the ones I still think about and reread.

What is your favourite quotation?

“Easy reading is damn hard writing” – Nathaniel Hawthorne. I like this because sometimes books that are easy to read can be dismissed a little too comfortably. Books are easy to read because there is a rhythm and a lightness to the prose.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

As a teenager it used to be Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, but now it’s Barnaby Gaitlin in A Patchwork Planet. I love character-driven novels especially when the character in question is an outsider. Anne Tyler is an expert on mining the ordinary and finding what is extraordinary. In Barnaby, she has created a wonderfully complex anti-hero.

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

Oh, don’t get me started....a lot of perceived “chick-lit” authors are seriously under-rated by the media. The public know better, though. Rant over.

Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?

Print version every time. Nothing like the smell of a new book, or the feel of a new book. Nothing like wandering into a bookshop and seeing the massive choice laid out before you.

What is the most beautiful book you own?

It’s a children’s book – Night and the Candlemaker by Wolfgang Somary. Illustrated by Simon Bartram. The prose and the pictures are beautiful. And of course, a copy of my own first ever published book, a teenage tale – Livewire.

Where and how do you write?

I write in an office in my house. I write mostly when my children are in school and give myself weekends off.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

Aside from Robert O’Brien’s The Silver Crown it was actually the play Lovers by Brian Friel. It excited me to see the way he structured it so that the audience knew the future before the characters did. It freed me up to play with narrative structure in my own novels.

What is the most research you have done for a book?

The most research I have ever done for a book was research for a novel called Something Borrowed. It was about adoption and I wanted to get a view of the adoption process from all angles. I interviewed adopted people, natural mothers and adoptive parents. It was incredibly moving and very humbling for people to share their stories with me.

What book influenced you the most?

Every book I have read has influenced me in some way. Some books I admire for their descriptions, others for the play on words, the irony, the characters. Even when I don’t like a book, I learn something.

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?

Depends on the child. I suppose Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger is an obvious choice. I’d also give them an audio book of the play, A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare. It is only when you listen to Shakespeare’s words spoken aloud that you fall in love with the guy.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young?

Would it be cheeky to say my own teenage books? I wrote Livewire when I was 15 as there was nothing out there for me to read. I’d also have liked to read Harry Potter.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

In the words of Nike – Just do it.

What weight do you give reviews?

I’m always happy to learn. If the reviewer has a valid point I take it on board. But I never put out a novel that I’m not proud of, so I’m not easily knocked by a bad review.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

I’d imagine ebooks will continue to grow but I do hope that the bookshops will continue to thrive as well. As long as well-told stories are still getting published in future years – it’s all good.

What writing trends have struck you lately?

I tend not to bother with trends so I haven’t a clue.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

Quite simply, that good books reflect what it is to be human.

What has being a writer taught you?

Discipline. Focus. And to believe that what I have to say is important.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Shakespeare and Roald Dahl. Need I say more?

What is the funniest scene you’ve read?

It was in Hugh Leonard’s Home Before Night. I have never laughed so much reading any book. The funniest moment was when the boy Hugh decided to break the 10 commandments and had to ask his father what adultery was. His father’s response is worth reading the book for! In fact, in reference to an earlier question, I think Hugh Leonard was very under-rated.

What is your favourite word?

Nonchalant. (It’s just a perfect description)

If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?

It’s not exactly historical but I’d like to write about women in sport in fifties and sixties Ireland. Our first woman Olympian is in her eighties today, she has set track records in master age groups that still haven’t been broken. It took guts for a woman to get out and run in those days and I feel that they didn’t get enough credit.

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