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Irish debut authors for 2023: Their own stories and the ones they made up

Twelve writers whose books explore a range of ideas, experiences and characters, from a thoughtful kleptomaniac to the real-life case of a ghost who testified in court

Irish authors making their debut in 2023

Michael Magee

Michael Magee is fiction editor of Belfast literary journal The Tangerine and a graduate of the PhD in Creative Writing at Queen’s University. His debut novel Close to Home (Hamish Hamilton) tells of a man who attacks a stranger at a party and is sentenced to two-hundred hours of community service, during which he comes to reckon with his past and the man he has become.

How did you come to writing? It’s something I’ve always done, since I was a kid. I remember going to my Auntie Mary’s house – she wasn’t my real auntie, she was my ma’s best mate. She lived across the street from us and had a typewriter in her livingroom. I would knock on her door every other day and ask if I could write stories on the typewriter. I was only about four or five and nothing I wrote made any sense, but the act of typing, of pressing the keys and seeing the letters appear on the page, blotchy and black, was like magic to me. […] She was a saint, really. One of those women from about the estate everybody has a story about. She died a few years ago. We miss her a lot.

You’re fiction editor of The Tangerine. Does that inform your writing? I get to read a lot of short stories, and then I get to edit them. It’s an education. You see what does and doesn’t work. Saying that, when it comes to sitting down and writing, you’re on your own. It’s trial and error, and it’s always easier to edit other people’s work. Carrying that over to your own stuff is the tricky part, because you can trick yourself. You can write a section of a story and think it’s the dog’s balls, but if you read that same section in somebody else’s story, you’d be like, ‘all right, mate, rein it in.’

Which authors inform your work? Too many to list. Recently I’ve been working my way through Toni Morrison’s novels and telling everybody who will listen that they should read Toni Morrison. […] Annie Ernaux, too. I’m not French and I wasn’t born during the second world war, but I’ve never read anybody whose work speaks so directly to my own experience of what it’s like to grow up poor, and then to go to university and assimilate into a world that’s totally at odds with the place you’re from. Her books changed everything for me.


Rachel Connolly

Connolly hails from Belfast but lives in London and has already built a name as an astute, witty essayist for outlets such as the Guardian, the New York Times Magazine and New York Magazine. Her probing, perceptive style is applied to fiction in her debut novel, Lazy City (Canongate), which tells of a young woman coming of age in the aftermath of a disaster.

How did you come to be a writer? I always thought everyone secretly wanted to be a writer, but no one ever got to do it. So, I thought I’d do something stable instead, and I would just feel bad about not writing, forever. I studied maths and physics at Uni […] then I realised as I got older that writing wasn’t everyone in the world’s dream, it was only mine. So, I [got] some tech work and [started] freelancing. And I got lucky with a few pieces when I started – a couple of them did quite well online – and my career’s kind of followed from then.

Maths and physics is an unusual path for a writer. I think that degree trains you to sit in a room by yourself and faff around with things […]. The patience that comes with spending a lot of time by yourself is the same. And there’s a lot of creativity in that field that people don’t give it credit for. Making links between things, having to remember a lot of things and put them all together in your head – to me it’s exactly the same skills.

Does your non-fiction writing inform your fiction? I didn’t start [Lazy City] to cover topical themes, or to answer questions, or anything. It was people in my head who felt real, and I wanted to give them life. But while going back and honing drafts, themes have come up and made themselves obvious. Similar to the non-fiction I do, I’m interested in probing the complexity of people. […] Nobody in this book is straightforward – a good or bad person – it’s not a book about villains and heroes. […] One of the big things – and I’ve written about this in the essay world quite a bit – is the way women and men interact with each other now, and trying to push past some of the narratives that have become a bit more commonplace.

Colin Walsh

Originally from Galway but now resident in Belgium, Walsh has won the RTÉ Francis MacManus Short Story Prize and been named Hennessy New Irish Writer of the Year. His debut novel, Kala (Atlantic), is a literary thriller set on the West Coast of Ireland. Fifteen years after Kala Lannan goes missing, her remains are discovered, and her former friends must confront their complicity in the events that led to her disappearance.

How did Kala come about? I started writing fiction in 2016, and I’d been writing for a year when I won the RTÉ Francis McManus Short Story competition. Through that, I ended up getting my agent. We were chatting about a collection of short stories, and at the time I’d already started working on what would become Kala. I began to describe the story to her, and after speaking for maybe thirty seconds, her whole demeanour changed and she was like: this is what you need to be doing.

Was there an event or image that inspired it? I had an image of a teenage girl sitting on the porch outside her house on a dusky summer evening, smoking a cigarette. She was thinking of her grandmother, and she was waiting for something. That tone, that feel of the book, was there. But then you spend a lot of time just writing and teasing out different characters and possibilities and getting to know the world.

What’s been the most challenging aspect of writing it? I think the one thing everyone who’s written a book will attest to is that a lot of it is about holding your nerve. You’re dealing with so much doubt all the time that you have to have some strange faith in yourself. [And] Kala is a literary thriller. So, it’s juxtaposing two modes of storytelling which are often conceived to be in opposition. You have the voice-led character study of literary fiction, with a propulsive page-turning plot that’s associated with a thriller. Those things are in a constant tension.

Noel O’Regan

Kerry-native O’Regan has published work in The Stinging Fly, Ambit and Southword. He worked for many years as an editor but was let go when the pandemic hit, and he decided to use the time to complete his first novel. Though the Bodies Fall (Granta) tells of a man who has grown up in a suicide black spot and who feels compelled to save those who come by. But when his sisters want to sell the land, he faces a reckoning.

What prompted you to write Though the Bodies Fall? My ideas tend to build out of an engagement with place, whether that’s the layers of meaning we bring to certain spaces or the ways we’re shaped by our surroundings. A lot of Irish literature tends to be categorised as either urban or rural, and I often try to write into more peripheral spaces. In this instance, I found myself thinking about one such liminal space – a black spot – wondering what it would be like for a family to live in such a place across generations. How would it shape them? And how would they shape those who arrived?

Has your work as an editor informed your writing? It informs it in good ways and bad. You’re probably drawing from your own creative well in working on other people’s writing, so quite often by the end of the day, that well has run dry. [But] it’s good in that working with full manuscripts, you see the myriad ways in which they can fall apart, and you begin to see how to fix them.

What was the publishing process like? It was surreally straightforward. I understand that’s not typically how it goes, having worked on the other side. I wrote the book during lockdown and even though I’d been publishing stories for a while, I’d never sent material to an agent, because I wasn’t ready. And there were a couple of novels that I worked on that didn’t work – didn’t coalesce. But once I felt I had a solid draft [of this one] I sent it out […]. I was very fortunate to get three offers of representation and I went with my agent, Euan Thorneycroft […]. When he sent it out, I had zero expectations. But literally three or four days later he got back and said there was an offer from Granta. It still feels surreal.

Aoife Fitzpatrick

Dublin-native Fitzpatrick is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing at UCD. Her debut novel, The Red Bird Sings (Virago), won the 2020 Lucy Cavendish Prize – an award aimed at helping undiscovered female writers launch their careers. The book is based on a real-life trial in West Virginia, 1897, surrounding the murder of Zona Shue, and her mother’s ghostly vision suggesting Zona’s husband, Trout, was the killer.

How did you come across the story of Zona Shue? I heard it on a BBC science podcast. They said this is the only case in US history where the testimony of a ghost was accepted in court. […] It just seemed extraordinary. It sounds audacious that somebody would get up on a witness stand and say this is my understanding of what happened in terms of ghostly testimony. […] I couldn’t stop thinking about it. And I started reading about spiritualism in the late 19th century, and how it could be a steam valve for women who had no authority to speak publicly. […] There seemed to be so many possibilities around this trauma.

How did you research the book? I wanted to be able to inhabit the characters during a very specific number of months, in this specific county, in this specific town, in a very particular year. […] I read letters, newspapers, magazines, agricultural reports, everything that I could, until I found a tone and approach to the language that rang true. […] And I went to West Virginia. It’s such a great town, Lewisburg. It has a lot of original buildings from the 18th century onwards. The people were so nice. It’s an incredible community.

How did the MFA in UCD impact your writing? There were so many brilliant people on that course that give you the confidence to know where to go with your writing and how to approach publication, if that’s what you want. […] The MFA was a great way to learn the ropes and see that it’s possible, and that people are kind and encouraging. You can improve exponentially, I think, in an environment like that, when you have great minds being open with you. You can see how other people are going about their work, and learn a lot.

Anne Tiernan

Tiernan was born in Zambia but grew up in Navan, before moving to New Zealand in 2005, where she now lives with her husband and three children. Her debut novel, The Last Days of Joy, tells of an Irish immigrant in New Zealand, who suffers a catastrophic injury and whose family rush to her side, bringing their childhood hurt and dysfunction with them.

When did you first start writing? It was always something that I wanted to do as a young girl, and at University I studied English literature, so I always imagined I’d do something in that realm. But I got waylaid along the way. I ended up working in banking all through my twenties […] Then my thirties were all about having kids. So, it wasn’t until I was approaching my forties, and my youngest had just started school, that I thought, it’s now or never. I started to write a few articles and short stories, got a few things published, and then had a series of rejections. Everything I wrote seemed to get rejected, but just mini-rejections. So, I thought, I’ll go for the one big rejection. Why don’t I just try to write a book?

Where did the story come from? An initial image came to me, of a mother in a coma, surrounded by her children. Within that, there was a lot of ambivalence towards the mother, so I started to wonder how she came to be in a coma. I never intended it to be an attempted suicide, [but] she insisted on turning up on page one with a bottle of vodka and a gun. My own mother had taken her own life a few years previously, and I guess there was part of me that needed to process it. I don’t think I had properly grieved her death, partly because she died the day before my youngest child was born.

I’m sorry for your loss. It must have been an overwhelming time. It was. I got the news and immediately went into labour. […] It was a very surreal time. Maybe writing the book was my form of therapy.

You have a well-known brother, Tommy Tiernan. Has he read the book? He has. He’s amazing. He was the one who encouraged me to write the novel in the first place. Because I had this idea that I would need this fully realised concept, and characters, and plot, before I started. And he said look, just sit down and give it a crack. See what happens.

Senta Rich

Rich worked as a copywriter before moving into film and TV. She has a feature film in development. Her debut novel, Hotel 21 (Bloomsbury), tells of a friendly hotel cleaner who happens to be a kleptomaniac. When she starts a new job in her 21st hotel, the colleagues she meets – women whose lives are full of happiness, pain, joy – cause her to reassess her own life.

Declan Toohey

Declan Toohey

Born in Scotland and raised in Kildare, Toohey is a graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing at UCD, and a winner of the 2021 Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair. His debut novel, Perpetual Comedown (New Island), tells of a PhD student experiencing a mental breakdown as he tries to interpret an elaborate conspiracy: the existence of an alternate Ireland.

Disha Bose

Another graduate of UCD’s MFA in Creative Writing is Disha Bose, who was raised in India but lives in Ballincollig, Cork. She worked in the tech industry before turning to writing. Her debut novel, Dirty Laundry (Viking), tells of three suburban mothers whose secrets and lies lead to the murder of one of them.

Brianna Parkins

Irish Times columnist Parkins first gained international recognition as the Sydney Rose at the 2016 Rose of Tralee. Her first book, Can You Say That Again But Slower? (Sandycove), recounts her experience of leaving Australia and adjusting to life in Ireland, as well as her experience of being diagnosed with ADHD aged 30, and finding “the manual for her brain”.

Carmel McMahon

McMahon grew up in Meath but moved to New York in 1993. When she returned home in 2021, the country had changed significantly. Her debut memoir, In Ordinary Time (Duckworth), considers “the ways that trauma reverberates through time”, drawing on Ireland’s Celtic and Catholic history, the famine and the Magdalene laundries while unpicking her own past and trauma.

Alice Kinsella

Born in Dublin and raised in Mayo, Kinsella published the poetry pamphlet Sexy Fruit (Broken Sleep Books) and edited the anthology Empty House (Doire Press) before writing her debut book of prose, Milk (Picador). The book is a map of her first year of motherhood, which examines the reality of having children in contemporary Ireland.