Brought To Book: Yvonne Cassidy – ‘Find your own voice, don’t write for other people’

‘Don’t worry about getting published, or getting an agent or any of that, just write until you are finished. You can’t control these external factors, but you can control the focus and time you put into your own work’

Mon, Jun 23, 2014, 12:00

Yvonne Cassidy is the New York-based author of three novels. Her latest, How Many Letters Are In Goodbye? (Hachette Books Ireland, £12.99) is the story of Rhea Farrell, a young Irish girl, homeless on the streets of New York, trying to find out more about her mother who died when Rhea was only three. Rhea unearths buried secrets of her mother’s past, all the while confronting some secrets of her own: the truth behind a childhood accident and her confusion around her sexuality. As Rhea discovers who her mother truly was, she starts to figure out just who she herself wants to be. @YvonneCassidyNY

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

From the opening paragraph of The Catcher in the Rye, I knew it was going to be different from any other book I had read. The fact that it was on my reading list at UCD was even more eye-opening: I didn’t know “literature” could sound like that.

What was your favourite book as a child?

The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 ¾. I read it when I was 11 and thought Adrian was very grown up. Before that it was A Little Princess and anything by Enid Blyton.

And what is your favourite book or books now?

Such a hard question. The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle is a book I return to again and again. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell is another. Recently, I’ve really started to really enjoy memoirs – Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson is one I know I will read again.

What is your favourite quotation?

Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Paula Spencer.

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

John O’Donohue.

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

Traditional print. I embrace technology in other areas of my life but a Kindle doesn’t have a smell. Or it shouldn’t. Plus, you can’t see what people are reading on the train.

What is the most beautiful book you own?

I have a gorgeous hardback copy of a lesser-known book by John O’Donohue called To Bless the Space Between Us. I gave it to my wife so technically it’s hers, but I think it counts.

Where and how do you write?

Everywhere – libraries, Starbucks, on the subway. I have to leave my apartment to get started, although if I have a good morning, I can come back home and keep the momentum going. At home, I write at the kitchen table, which is ironic really, because it faces my desk.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

The Color Purple was the first novel I read that was told through letters. I loved how that gave me a different experience of Celie and that I could hear her voice long after I finished reading. I always wanted to create a character with a voice as strong as hers.

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

My latest book, How Many Letters Are in Goodbye?, is set in New York in 1999 so there was a lot of research about minor things like subway lines and token machines and how much pizza slices cost back then. A central character in my second novel, What Might Have Been Me, has Alzheimer’s disease and we see her at several different stages during her decline. I wanted to portray her journey as accurately as possible, which required a lot of research including volunteering at an Alzheimer’s respite centre.

What book influenced you the most?

The Catcher in the Rye.

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

The Little Prince. (And if I was feeling generous I would also give them The Catcher in the Rye.)

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

Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? – even though she didn’t publish it until I was 37.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

Find your own voice, don’t write for other people. Don’t worry about getting published, or getting an agent or any of that, just write until you are finished. You can’t control these external factors, but you can control the focus and time you put into your own work.

What weight do you give reviews?

I read them and I’m glad when I get them. The thing that frustrates me is when the reviewer gives too much of the plot away.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

Hard times for the industry make it harder for authors – especially first-time authors. I see more people going down the self-publishing route first and then being picked up once they’ve proven themselves and found an audience. It’s less risk for publishers that way.

What writing trends have struck you lately?

It could be more of a US phenomenon but novels about the immigration experience seem to be on the rise over here.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

The biggest lesson was that what was going on inside someone’s head didn’t always match what was happening outside. That there were people out there who thought and felt like I did.

What has being a writer taught you?

Patience – not something that comes naturally – and how to sit with uncertainty. Books can only be written a word, a sentence, at a time. You have to keep moving forward even if at times you don’t know where you will end up – especially then.

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

Sue Townsend, Raymond Carver, Charlotte Bronte, Nuala O’Faolain, JD Salinger. I just realised they are all dead, so I’d check and see if Lorrie Moore and David Mitchell were free to balance it out.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read?

Lorrie Moore has a short story called Charades in her collection, Birds of America, that I can’t read without laughing out loud.

What is your favourite word?


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

I spent time in South Carolina last year and felt a pull to write about slavery from a child’s point of view. I’d like to try that, but I’d be intimidated because it’s such a big topic and not my story to tell.

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