Mary O’Donnell privilege of inventing things from within her own head

‘It is a simple contract with yourself, so be true to it’


What was the first book to make an impression on you? Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls, when I was a teenager.

What was your favourite book as a child? Patricia Leitch’s novel The Horse from Black Loch, about a mysterious giant water-horse that two young people are protecting from the vested interests of science. I loved the mixture of myth and adventure.

And what is your favourite book or books now? Always hard to say as my favourite changes all the time, but Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies. I didn’t want to leave the period or the people. Poets like Ted Hughes, Tishani Doshi and Irish poets Sean Lysaght and James Harpur also hit the spot for me in a big way.

What is your favourite quotation? Words from Nelson Mandela:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate,
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.”

Who is your favourite fictional character? At the moment? Thomas Cromwell, Hilary Mantel’s semifictional creation.

Who is the most underrated Irish author? Most writers believe themselves underrated on a scale from 0-10!

Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version? I use both versions and although I find the smell of print and paper a potent part of the reading experience, I find ebooks incredibly useful. I like the idea of carrying a library in my handbag.

What is the most beautiful book you own? Years ago, my husband got two of my novels bound in traditional hardcover, with beautiful leather spines and marbled front and back covers. For reasons to do with that, my novels The Light-Makers and The Elysium Testament are my most beautiful books! However, I do have a copy of Celtic Wonder Tales by Ella Young, illustrated by Maud Gonne, and it’s signed by Maud Gonne MacBride, dated 1938.

Where and how do you write? In a pea-green study at the front of the house. I write on a laptop and morning is my best time because that’s when I have most energy. But I do need a quiet house too. And order.

What book changed the way you think about fiction? The way I think about fiction has evolved, but mostly I’m fascinated by writing from John Berger, the Icelandic Sjøn, and people who don’t do the complete realist narrative.

What is the most research you have done for a book? My new novel Where They Lie required a lot of research because it dealt with the Disappeared and events in Northern Ireland.

What book influenced you the most? Most novels and poetry I read as a teenager influenced me, from John Steinbeck to J Hubert Selbie to Edna O’Brien to Juanita Casey. Influence lessens as you grow older.

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday? It would depend on the child. I’d give them what interested them and not what interested me.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young? Crime and Punishment.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author? Ah, where to begin? Work hard, stay in touch with people who nourish you, avoid people who pretend to be interested but may have their own agenda. Mostly read attentively and write, write, write. It is a simple contract with yourself, so be true to it.

What weight do you give reviews? I read them. It’s great to get good notices, of course, but neither they nor the hatchet-job have much bearing on your writing, only briefly on the ego.

Where do you see the publishing industry going? I don’t believe in “the death of the novel”. The novel is alive. I think publishing will evolve more and more digitally, and in ways we can’t fully imagine as yet.

What writing trends have struck you lately? A kind of Irish Magical Realism is running at full throttle currently, also good historical work is on the ascendant. Bleak, black comedic writing is also doing well internationally as much as here in Ireland.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading? I’ve sometimes learned more than I could ever have learned from any one person, no matter how intimate the relationship. I’ve learned about endurance, about love, about cruelty, about fickleness but also about the strength of the self.

What has being a writer taught you? I’m fortunate to be a writer, but I haven’t always thought that. Nonetheless writing has taught me a lot about privilege. It is a privilege to be allowed to invent things from within one’s own head. I love that.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party? Hilary Mantel, John Berger, Maeve Binchy, Peter Cunningham, Bernard Farrell, Kate O’Brien, Anthony Cronin.

What is the funniest scene you’ve read? The part in Garrison Keiller’s Lake Woebegone Days where the family are driving along for hours in a nothingness of straight highway, and he endures his aunt’s comments about advertising hoardings.

What is your favourite word? Eschatology. I never have reason to use it.

If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject? Dreyfuss. And there have been so many books already . . .

Where They Lie is out now from New Island, €13.99

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