Aingeala Flannery’s writing life: ‘I Airbnbed my house and we couch surfed for a summer’

Writing her first novel, The Amusements, meant taking a huge leap of faith. It has paid off, writes Jennifer O’Connell

There is a moment of hesitation when I ask Aingeala Flannery whether she would prefer to sit inside or outside. We are meeting at the cafe in the Coastguard Cultural Centre in Tramore, Co Waterford. Outside offers picnic tables overlooking the chopping, roiling Atlantic and the strand that curves away like an accusatory finger. The clouds are skittering across the sky and there is the imminent threat of rain.

Inside offers guaranteed warmth and no chance of the tape recorder getting wet. But the tables are close together and the cafe is busy. The people sitting around with pots of tea and scones don’t have the look of tourists, which means they are likely to be residents of the town that inspired Flannery’s first novel, The Amusements. She looks around her for a second, and decides we’ll risk staying inside.

She seems slightly more concerned about how the novel goes down with locals than with how it will be received by literary reviewers. “I hope if people here read it, they’ll see it as an affectionate portrait. And it is fiction. It’s not a travelogue,” she says, once we’re seated.

The people of Tramore don’t have much to worry about. The Amusements is a sharply delicious and warmly empathetic jaunt through the low-stakes scandals, bitter heartbreaks, rude awakenings and moments of redemption in the lives of the residents of a place which could be anywhere, and is simultaneously entirely particular to this Victorian seaside town.

Flannery was born in Waterford city and spent her early childhood in an estate near the glass factory, before moving first to rural Kilkenny when she was eight, and then to Clondalkin. She has never returned to Tramore, other than for occasional holidays, but the place imprinted itself on her in early childhood. She seems to have absorbed the dialect and eccentricities of the town almost by osmosis, listening to the conversations of her mother and aunts. “It’s what I grew up listening to. I knew what their accents were. I knew what their attitudes and opinions were. It’s not based on my family, but I could get their voices,” she says.

As a journalist harbouring private ambitions to write fiction, Flannery is hardly unique. But a few things set her apart. The first are the lengths to which she went to make it happen. Five years ago, she quit her job of 16 years as news editor and producer with Today FM, a role she loved. She gave up several freelance gigs, including a restaurant column, and took a part-time job in the arts to allow her to give fiction a go while her son, then 10, was at school. “It [got] to the stage where I was well into my 40s and I thought, am I ever going to actually do this? I’m not unless I do it,” she says.

“It was a really big financial decision. And it didn’t really work out. I realised by the summer that we had no money. So I Airbnbed my house, and we couch surfed with friends for the summer. My son was young enough so it was a bit of an adventure for him, and thankfully I have friends who have much nicer houses than me. And they all have pets and they were off on holidays” and in need of someone to housesit.

She insists this was less stressful than it sounds. “I don’t worry a lot. I don’t care about money. I’ve got a really old car. I don’t care about clothes. I don’t care about holidays. I care about having a roof over my head and liking what I do every day. And my son being fine. And, look, we got to stay in really nice houses. I had to move out of my house, but I got to move back into it in September. I mean, I wasn’t homeless.”

It’s just a pity, she laughs, “I wasn’t better at maths and personal finance.”

She texts me later to add that an Arts Council literature bursary she got in 2020 and 2021 kept her afloat. “I don’t believe I would be able to juggle and make ends meet going into the second book without it.”

Taking such a momentous leap of faith meant that “I needed to make it work. There was no faffing around. I was giving up a job that people would cut their arm off for, so this had to work.”

The second element that sets her apart is that she actually finished a novel and got it published. The third is that it is wonderful. Her writing has been compared with William Trevor — by no less a writer than Anne Enright — and, more than once, to Elizabeth Strout.

Both comparisons thrill her. Strout is one of her favourite novelists and in the acknowledgments she writes that The Amusements owes thanks to William Trevor’s devastating short story, Honeymoon in Tramore. Flannery had been working on an earlier novel which was selected for the 2018 Irish Writers Centre novel fair and ultimately got her into the highly sought-after MFA in creative writing at University College Dublin, “but it wasn’t working. I was really struggling with it.”

She came across the Trevor short story. “I’d never read anything that was set in Tramore, which amazed me. It’s so generous to writers, there’s so much colour here, so much history. And I just thought, wow, writers have really missed out on this. I’m going to try to do this; I’m going to write a Tramore story.”

Her first “Tramore story” was Court Order which won the Bath Short Story Award. Another Tramore story followed, Visiting Hours, about a little girl called Helen Grant who goes to visit her father in hospital in the weeks before Christmas, which won the 2019 Harper’s Bazaar short story competition. She tried to return to the novel she’d been working on, “but Helen wouldn’t get out of my head”.

Another story followed — Kamikaze, this one shortlisted for the Francis MacManus award — “and I found myself thinking, is that Helen in that story? And then I realised, that’s not Helen, that’s Helen’s friend.” At this point, she realised, “It wasn’t a short story collection any more, that it was a composite novel.”

Eventually, she began to sew all the threads together. What emerged was a rich tapestry of stories with an interlinked cast of characters who meander through pages, turning up in places that surprised even Flannery. “It was like knitting an Aran jumper and dropping a stitch somewhere down here and having to go back,” she says. “I had all the Post-its. I had Venn diagrams, which was ridiculous because I’m terrible at maths. In the end, I got blackboard paint and I painted a wall in my kitchen. It was pretty ugly looking, but it definitely worked.”

Flannery didn’t have a bookish upbringing. “My parents weren’t readers. There were only two books in our house, Walter Macken’s Brown Lord of the Mountain, and Maeve Binchy’s Light a Penny Candle.”

But there were always newspapers around, and the radio was always on. As a child, she dreamed of being a journalist. “I thought I’d be John Pilger or someone like that. I wanted to go on crusades and save the world, but I ended up in radio.”

On the side, she wrote constantly. Her bylines included a restaurant column she wrote for several years for the Irish Independent — a clue to her future novelist credentials may have been the fact that she wrote nearly as much about the people she dined with as she did the food itself. “If you’d put them all together, you could have followed the stories of these people’s lives. In retrospect, it all makes sense,” she says.

She also had a sports column in the Evening Herald, and contributed essays to Image magazine. But it was only after she won an award for her magazine writing that it occurred to her that if she wanted to give fiction a go, she needed to pull back from “all-consuming” journalism.

Flannery is a “very slow” writer, who edits and re-edits each paragraph before she can move on. The whole idea of hammering out an ugly first draft is not for her. “I couldn’t bear it.”

The process can sometimes be tortuous, but she relishes it. “When I gave myself the time to do it, it was so gratifying to be able to go in at word level.”

Doing the masters in creative writing under Anne Enright was “amazing. Being able to sit there, with your work, and have Anne Enright going through a close reading of your work. It was really special.”

Unlike other novelists, who insist they never read anything written about them, she plans to read all the reviews. “I want to improve. I want do the best job that I can do. Anyway, I was a reviewer for years, it would be a bit rich to say I don’t want to know what other people think of my work.”

The Amusements by Aingeala Flannery is published by Sandycove

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O'Connell

Jennifer O’Connell is a feature writer and opinion columnist with The Irish Times