MAs in action: dispatches from writing’s frontlines

Debut novelist Susan Stairs credits a creative-writing MA with the completion of her book ‘The Story of Before’


In the middle of a conversation with Susan Stairs, in a Dublin hotel full of tourists, we talk about that most divisive of writerly topics: the creative-writing master’s. Not everyone (including many writers) is a fan of their write-to-schedule ethos, so I lob a devil’s advocate grenade – can the work of one class become identikit, and do they “hothouse” writers?

Stairs is an ardent defender, claiming her debut novel The Story of Before, would simply never have happened if it weren’t for UCD’s MA in Creative Writing, taught by James Ryan.

“I don’t know why there’s a controversy about creative-writing classes. We don’t question people who take music or art degrees in the same way. The MA – and a course in the Irish Writer’s Centre before that – really focused me. It was the best decision I ever made. I was immersed in literature for a year, surrounded by people who had the same outlook and interest. If I hadn’t done the course, I simply wouldn’t have finished this book.”

It was not her first attempt at writing. She began a novel in the 1990s, and another in 2003, neither of which she finished, or would like to return to. After a degree at NCAD, she published several art books (including a biography of Gladys MacCabe) and set up an art gallery with her husband. In 2009, her story The Rescue was one of six stories shortlisted for the €25,000 Davy Byrnes Irish Writing Award.

“I always loved to read, and to write, but I never had it in my head that I wanted to be a writer. During the MA, we were asked to devise a novel plan, outlining our story and characters. It was the most challenging thing I’d ever done . . . trying to nail something down that was like a dream in my head. Once I got the bones of it down, I felt I could do it.”

Set in the 1970s, The Story of Before centres on a family who move to a suburban Dublin estate. They are a happy, contented unit, and on the day of the move, the mother gives birth to a baby boy. The story is told from the point of view of 11-year-old Ruth, caught between childhood and burgeoning adolescent feelings. She is drawn to two boys on the estate and their lives intertwine catastrophically.

‘Everything fell into place’
A kernel of the narrative comes from a true story, but Stairs has altered it radically. “I’m always drawn to the first person, and knew my narrator would be a young girl. At first I didn’t know why she was telling the story, or where she came in the family lineage, but once I had the first line [‘The others used to say I was psychic’], everything fell into place.”

Several Irish literary debuts have been published this year, and all of this work seems anchored in the past. What motivated Stairs to look backwards? “For debut authors, there is a natural inclination to look back. The past shapes us, it’s how we understand who we are, so for anyone taking their first steps in the literary world, the past is a place we are familiar with.

“When I pick up a book to read, I love that reflective tone. There is a sense of memory and lesson learnt. With writing, I really enjoy the experience of being immersed in a completely different world – it helps that there’s a large distance between where I am and what I’m doing.”

Except for weekends, she writes every day and tries to write all day. Every writer has a work ethos, superstitions and mantras, and Stairs believes the muse is like an engine “that can take a while to warm up”.

“I find that I’m usually in full flow from 3pm to 6pm or 7pm, which is the time when people are arriving home and the house is busy. You have to find a pattern that suits you. The internet is full of tips on how to be a writer, but you never find advice on how to be a dentist or accountant. Writers are so solitary and insecure . . . we’re always looking for the best way to do things – but no writer is ever sure that what they’re doing is the right thing or the right way.”

We talk about writers who gripe about the process of writing, of building up pages, but who hate the isolation of typing at a desk. Stairs doesn’t understand this at all. When parted from her characters, she longs to get back to them and is beguiled by the idea of a world she has created and is the only person with access to.

Currently, she is a third of the way into another novel, which is set in the 1980s. “I don’t know what will happen in the future, because I only had a one-book deal. This time around, I have an agent. Writing the first book I had nothing, but I kept going and there was never a moment where I thought I wouldn’t finish it. Now that I’m doing this, it’s what I want to keep doing.”

The Story of Before is published by Corvus/Atlantic