Sinéad Gleeson: ‘There’s a huge issue with men not reading books by women’
As The Glass Shore, her third anthology of Irish writers, launches in Dublin, the Book Show presenter discusses her writing career and rich potential of creative non-fiction
Sinéad Gleeson: The only reason I put together two all-female anthologies was because the gender imbalance in past Irish short story anthologies is so shocking. It should only be about good writing and bad writing. Photograph: Paul McVeigh
Sinéad Gleeson’s essays have appeared in Granta, Banshee and Autumn: Anthology for the Changing Seasons. Forthcoming work includes an essay in Winter Papers and a short story in Looking at the Stars. She is working on a non-fiction collection and a novel, and is the editor of three short story anthologies: Silver Threads of Hope, The Long Gaze Back (which won Best Irish Published Book at the 2015 Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards) and The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Woman Writers from the North of Ireland (New Island). She presents The Book Show on RTÉ Radio 1. Paul McVeigh caught up with Sinead at the Belfast launch of The Glass Shore.
Your piece in Granta, Blue Hills and Chalk Bones, which The Irish Times republished, had a huge response online…
I honestly didn’t expect the scale of the response, or the breadth of it. You don’t know how people will respond, and you don’t think about it, you can’t think about that. You’re not thinking about the piece coming out of the tunnel at the end, you’re thinking about just getting it done – the draft and the edits. It was the range of the responses that surprised me, the way people related to different aspects of it. Sure, there were people who had been sick, which I expected, but it wasn’t just people who had my hip or bone problems, it was anyone who had been sick and, on top of that, others who had been religious and had lost their faith, people who had been on pilgrimages – all sorts of people responded to it. A lot of people who’d had terrible experiences with doctors too.
The writer Olivia Laing read it, and she mentioned the section with the cast saw – a few people mention that bit specifically – it really stuck with them, because I suppose it’s quite graphic. I included that bit to get across how the doctor spoke to me, as a frightened kid, and in a way there are parallels with the way the Church spoke to women, that mentality, that powerlessness. Ireland is getting better now but it was so patriarchal for a long time, and it was people in the Church, or in medicine, who held those positions of power, over women, children, the sick and vulnerable. I felt condescended to by religion and by doctors and the two cross over a lot in the piece.
One response that struck me a lot occurred recently when I was in the US, and I gave some classes to students about the work. One guy – who was an athlete – said that after he’d read the opening paragraph of Blue Hills, he spent half a day lying on the floor thinking about how his heart keeps on beating, and that his body does all these things without him thinking about it. So I made some poor American jock have an existential crisis about his own mortality! I guess he hadn’t read work like this before, or known where to find it, and I was fascinated to hear the effect that that one paragraph had on him.
Last year, I became ill suddenly. It was a long process or recovery. It changed me dramatically. One of the ways was how I felt that my body had betrayed me. I could no longer trust it. And there was now a separation between mind and body, not one unit but these co-dependents who weren’t on good terms.
You probably relate to this a lot – do you know that Susan Sontag line I quoted in the piece, about the kingdom of the sick and the kingdom of the well? It’s from her essay Illness as a Metaphor. If you’ve ever been sick and you talk to somebody else who’s been ill, you’re teammates, you have this shared experience. But if you meet a person who’s never been seriously unwell, or never spent time in hospital, never had a blood test, they don’t relate and they don’t realise how lucky and fortunate they are. It’s two different camps. People who’ve been ill hold what Sontag calls “dual citizenship” of both kingdoms.
I didn’t know I was going to write about illness. As far as I knew, I was going to write about Lourdes and was almost surprised when the focus became the body or the medical. But I’m interested in the body as subject. Hélène Cixous’s brilliant essay The Laugh of the Medusa says that women must write of the body. It’s a way of writing themselves into the canon. Giving themselves a voice. I don’t think writing about the body – just as writing about the domestic – is in any way lesser. It can be very transgressive.
I read a “domestic” book by a well-known male author a few years back which won a major award and I remembered thinking if this had have been written by a woman it would not have gotten this appreciation. Does a book on the body or about love or the family or domestic things have to be written by a man in order for it to be venerated? For example, My Struggle.
Well, Erica Jong said that on The Book Show last Saturday. She met Karl Ove Knausgård at a festival and heard him read, and Jong concluded that he wouldn’t get away with that kind of subject matter if he were a woman. Possibly… but the divide goes deeper than that. There’s a huge issue with men not reading books by women. Even some male writers don’t read books by their contemporaries. And I don’t know how you change that. Anybody who is writing is trying to create some kind of truth or replicate something important, to bring a piece of art to life in fiction or non-fiction. I don’t see why the gender divide is an issue. The only reason I put together two all-female anthologies was because the gender imbalance in past Irish short story anthologies is so shocking. It should only be about good writing and bad writing. My reading is probably a little more skewed towards women but it isn’t always – I go through phases, but my bookshelves are very balanced.
Do you think that humanity has become more fascinated with the brain and less with the body? That the body is just this house of us and the mind is what we worship because our thoughts can develop our external world and also create internally and we largely forget, disconnect from or disrespect our bodies. And because of this, if women write about the body then it will be seen as being work of lesser importance?
All writing is internal. And the greatest writers in the world will tell you that they made it all up, but I don’t always buy that. So much of what writers present to the world in fiction is partially or wholly autobiographical. They may change the city, the age, the name of the person… but even the fantastical, otherworldly protagonist in Alice in Wonderland is based on a real little girl. A writer’s ideas are internal but they become an external act of imagination when it reaches the page or screen. The body is something we all have in common, so how can writing about the body be lesser, or niche? It’s utterly familiar to us, just as the themes a writer examines are to the writer. Not everything I have written or will write is about the body, but as a writer, sometimes you access that things that feel furthest away from you, the things that are not so close to the surface, even if – and it sounds like a contradiction – it’s about your own experience.
What will your first book be about then?
I don’t know! I’ve had this very specific idea for a novel for years but I’ve only written a bit of it. I read some of it at Kevin Barry’s Cross Town Drift event in Cork over the summer, where I was paired to read with the brilliant Danielle McLaughlin and she described it as “very atmospheric”. When I started it, like Blue HilIs, I thought it was going to be about one thing, but then it went off in another direction. It’s probably the same thing for you as a writer that you don’t know what’s going to come out when you go to the page. That’s the best part of it. John Irving’s line, and Joseph Heller’s too, was that they needed to know the last line of a book before they could start it. They needed that signpost. Maybe a writer should have an idea of the ending, but to know the last line? I think the mystery would be gone for me. I don’t think I’d want to write it if I knew that.
I thought my novel would focus on a female character but then very quickly another character – a man – came along, insisting that I listen to him. Now, I’ve heard writers say this and I’ve been a bit – does that really happen? I was writing this female character and this man was literally butting in and wouldn’t go away. And you can’t ignore that. Maybe you’ve had that experience as well?
I’m a plotter. I write stories and books in my head too, over a long period of time, so more than likely I’ll know exactly what I’m going to write when I sit down – like I’m just transcribing it. I change a lot while editing, move bits around and find new things. Following on from what you were saying, there’s an EL Doctorow quote something like: ‘Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way’. I’m always like: but you always know the destination when you set out and you’ve followed the signs, that’s why you can trust just seeing as far the headlights. So here you are, on your journey, as it were, moving from nonfiction into fiction. Though when I read the piece in Granta I thought: this is a powerful piece of writing, why isn’t it called a story?
A couple of people said that to me, and one was playwright Deidre Kinahan, who was very involved in Waking The Feminists. We met at Annaghmakerrig, and she was funny and opinionated, a real raconteur. We were both there, hiding from the world trying to write and finish things, and she said “I loved your short story”. Funnily enough, you and I have spoken about this before at Cork International Short Story Festival, that there’s an awful lot of taxonomy, calling a thing a thing, the obsession with labelling a form, the need to be specific. Is it a novel, or a collection of short stories? If it works as a piece of writing, what does it matter? Is it fiction or autobiographical? We’re all just telling stories…
And people, authors, can get snippy about it. I think partly because people can be dismissive of work if they assume it’s autobiographical, as though they’re suggesting there is no art in it.
Lucy Caldwell’s’ story in The Long Gaze Back, which is also the last story in her collection Multitudes, was written when her child was very ill in hospital. I read the story (almost holding my breath) and knew a lot of it was Lucy’s own experience, but as she said, you change things, and her piece is a short story, not an essay. She said she couldn’t have written it as non-fiction, but that she’d definitely never written that close to her own experience before. Maybe when I do get back into writing this novel, into the fiction, who knows what sort of stuff might come out...
As much as we are saying that boundaries and labels aren’t always necessary you are making a conscious move towards becoming a writer – staking your flag in the ground. Why now? What excites you about the shift?
I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone, given the various jobs I do, that first and foremost I’m a massive reader. And it’s all holistic and interconnected; I’m an obsessive reader because I spent all that time in hospital and was bedbound a lot. I’m the person I am, the reader I am, the writer I am, because of those early experiences. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I thought I’d like to write but I had no confidence. I wouldn’t dare. And crucially I didn’t put the time in, or sit down to write regularly, I just didn’t take it seriously. Then last year I’d submitted an essay to Banshee, an essay about hair, and when that got accepted, and there was positive feedback, it gave me some confidence. I also had a huge realisation that one thing (apart from the faffing around) that had held me back was that idea of the default: that if you wanted to become a writer you must write a novel. Publishers want novels. It’s the ultimate form, we’re constantly told, and that you have to take a run at. I felt that I’d never have the time to write something that was 300 pages.
The main reason I’m drawn to creative non-fiction is because I’m really excited by the possibilities the form allows. You can do a lot with it, and when I get time to read non-work stuff, that’s the work I gravitate towards… Didion, Sontag, Rebecca Solnit, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Annie Dillard, Leslie Jamison, Olivia Laing, Robert MacFarlane, Roxane Gay, Zadie’s Smith’s non-fiction, but also older work by Hubert Butler, Woolf, Hazlitt, William Gass. Most recently, I just read Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors on motherhood and writing and it’s incredible.
A short story writer friend of mine says the thing for her is that short stories are finishable. Now, I know they take a lot of crafting and redrafting and it’s the same with my essays – I work on them for a very long time – but it did seem like something finite and achievable. I say finite – but when I read them out now at readings, I cringe and think “Oh Christ, I’d change that bit”.
I don’t think that ever stops.
No it doesn’t. I remember I saw David Mitchell reading at the Hay Festival in Wales, where he stopped in the middle of a paragraph and said “Oh my God. I’ve used the same work twice in a paragraph. How did I not see that?”
So why now? Because life is short and I’m well aware of that. But more than that, I want to see if I can actually do it. And if I do it and I finish it and don’t think it’s good enough I just won’t put it out there. Nor would I assume that someone will want to publish it! If I’m not happy with it, I won’t show it to anyone. I’ve always been good at starting things but the real challenge is actually completing work. I’ve finished essays and a handful of short stories, so I’d like to see if I could get to the end of the longer work.
I’m hearing that this is something that you’ve always wanted to do. The little girl doing all that reading, was she at that point thinking “I wish I could do this”?
Yeah, I used to write little stories when I was little and I edited a magazine with my brother when I was about 11 or 12, which was in aid of a charity for the elderly. We’d write it, and my Dad would photocopy about 20 copies in work and we’d sell it, making about £2 an issue. Paltry by today’s standards, but for a good cause! There were word searches and recipes but sometimes I’d write little stories in that. I don’t remember what they were about. I always felt I wanted to write and I’ve always admired people who do it. Maybe people outside of the writing world have this romanticised idea of writers in lofty garrets, sleeping until noon and bashing out a few words a day, but any writer will tell you it’s really bloody hard. Thankless, underpaid, all that stuff you hear writers say. And to sit down at your computer and write a novel of 300 pages... I mean, I haven’t written a novel. You have. It can’t be easy. With all that redrafting and all the crisis and wondering where you’re going to go. There are times I felt like I’m going mad when I’m writing, you tie yourself up in knots. And when it’s going well you’re thinking “OK OK I can do this” and other times you’re like “what the hell am I doing? This stuff is rubbish!”
Is this also why you went into reviewing and presenting the Book Show?
No, I don’t think so, it was more to do with that fact that I’m an indefatigable reader. When I was younger, I was a broad reader, as kids are, so I read across all the genres – everything I could get my hands on. To be asked for your opinions on books is a total privilege. So being able to write reviews or talk about them on the radio is an honour. I’ve become more committed to my writing in the last year or so, and my job is both a curse and a blessing. It’s hard to turn your critical brain off when you’re trying to write your own work, but on the other hand, I get to talk to writers about craft and pitfalls, it’s so fascinating. I love hearing authors talk about how they actually conjure up words. What I’ve learned from all those interviews is that there is no one-size-fits-all rule for how to write. There is no secret truth to being a writer other than that idea of sitting down and doing it every day (which I don’t do, for time reasons). But I also had a lot of fear for a long time because I read so many books for work. It’s so easy to tell yourself “my work won’t be as good as that so I just won’t bother”. And that’s a cop out that I had to get past.
I remember there was a bit of a hoo-ha about reviewing books in Ireland and whether everyone was just too worried about offending authors – the literary world is a small one on a small island. That’s a problem.
I think it can be. I know some people go out of their way to make sure that the review is objective by searching for a reviewer who doesn’t know the author. There are lots of books I don’t like, but I don’t expend energy offering to review them or dissing them online. I’ve written reviews or spoken on RTÉ’s Arena about books that don’t work, that don’t fulfil what is expected of them as a piece of work. You want to love every book that comes your way, but it just doesn’t happen. And if you feel you can’t be unbiased, or that you can’t say how you really feel about a book, then you shouldn’t be in this game.
What was a standout moment for you in your book interviewing career?
I went to London for RTÉ’s The Works o to interview Lorrie Moore who is one of my absolute heroes as a short story writer. She’s someone I had loved from years ago and I’d never have imagined I’d get to meet. Leslie Jamison is a real touchstone for me, in terms of her non-fiction. I think she’s an incredible writer and it’s interesting that a lot of the most impactful contemporary essays are coming out of America, not here. The only places we get see them here are the literary journals, like Winter Papers, Gorse or the Dublin Review. I’d love to see more people writing them, or for them to be more widely published. It’s a form I find fascinating. It’s so malleable, you can do some much with it.
So you’re reviewing, presenting, starting to write essays… how did The Long Gaze Back come about in the midst of this? And what made you take on what must have been a huge amount of work?
It absolutely was so much work. There were many, many people to choose from. I had edited a collection called Silver Threads of Hope for New Island, which was in aid of charity, which Anne Enright had suggested me for as editor. One day, after it was published and out in the world, I was in New Island’s offices talking to Eoin Purcell (who commissioned the book), and over his shoulder I spotted Evelyn Conlon’s Cutting the Night in Two. That book had landed on my desk as a young journalist in 2001, and I remember opening it to see there were 34 short stories by Irish women in it. Based on every Irish anthology I’d seen prior to that, you’d think it would be impossible to fill a book with Irish women writers. Every collection I’d seen before had three or four women it in at most. I loved Evelyn’s book – it was big deal for me.
So I said to Eoin, “You should do another one of them” and Eoin, without missing a beat said “You should do another one of them”. And I knew I would, and that I wanted all the work from the living writers to be new. Edna [O’Brien] isn’t in there because she was finishing her last novel and didn’t have anything new to give me. I wanted that for the reader, to give them a gift of stories that wouldn’t be available anywhere else.
This time last year I was doing an event for Long Gaze Back up in The Lyric in Belfast and when it got to the Q&A people just started standing up and saying “This book is brilliant. We don’t have a book like this.” And another got up and said “No one cares about women’s voices up here”. I stayed around for an hour after the event talking to women who were really emotional. The general message was “Nobody cares about our voices” and “We’re underrepresented”. There was the wonderful collection, The Female Line, edited by Ruth Carr, which is 31 years old, and it’s not just short stories, so The Glass Shore is definitely one of the only anthologies that’s solely women, solely stories, and solely by women from the North of Ireland.
Lucy Caldwell really pushed me to do the book even though I had concerns about not being from the North. She reassured me by saying “You’ve proved yourself, this will be your third anthology, you care about women’s voices, everyone knows you’ll do it and you’ll do it right”. Lucy said she had grown up here and all she’d heard in politics and civic discourse was men’s voices, even in the arts and publishing.
There is no denying that women’s voices have been ignored in the North but I think the short story as a whole has been ignored up here.
I was talking to a woman outside The Lyric last year, I asked why she thought there hadn’t been many collections, or much attention given to women and the short story in the North. She said something that really struck me: that there is still so much trauma there that people haven’t processed, so they can barely talk to each other about it, let alone commit it to paper, to put it into a book forever.
Someone else said to me that poets and dramatists dominate the North, with fiction writers below it. Poetry can be opaque and allegorical and mysterious; you can hide behind a poem because of its compression, but it can very hard to hide behind a more expansive narrative like a novel or short story.
The Glass Shore – 25 women short story writers not hiding and no longer unheard.