Elaine Feeney: ‘I was shocked at what boys were expected to do from a young age’

Writer’s second novel, How to Build a Boat, is set in the west of Ireland and tells the story of Jamie who is on the cusp of adolescence


There is a charge of glamour as Elaine Feeney enters the Hardiman Hotel, just off Galway’s Eyre Square. She is a striking woman – tall, blonde and dressed in a dramatic checked coat over a jumpsuit that manages to be both cool and sophisticated at once. Her energy is not unlike the Corrib river that barrels through Galway city – rapid-paced, turbulent, free-flowing, constantly churning. You can feel the energy lifting off her, like atoms peeling away from her shoulders, regenerating even as they’re dissipating. I grab on, and hope I can keep up with her.

Much like that other extremely glamorous Irish writer, Edna O’Brien, Feeney is every inch the intellectual and, just like O’Brien, she is constantly appraising Irish life through her work.

She has been writing prolifically since her 20s, first as a slam poet, then as a written-word poet with four acclaimed collections, and more recently as a novelist. Her debut novel, As You Were, won the Kate O’Brien Award, the Dalkey Emerging Writer Award and was shortlisted for many other prizes, including the Rathbones Folio Prize. As well as writing, she works as the interim director of the creative writing masters at NUI Galway, and is a founding member of the Tuam Oral History Project, set up to record, archive and explore the life stories of survivors of the Tuam mother and baby home.

We are meeting to discuss Feeney’s second novel, How to Build a Boat, but her short story Same, Same, has just been published in the spring edition of the Paris Review, the literary equivalent of getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. ‘’It all feels surreal,” she says. “I just told a story, that’s how I see it.”

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Like much of her work, the story and her new novel are both set in the west of Ireland, where Feeney is firmly rooted. She lives with her husband and her two sons in Galway, in the same house she grew up in, on the same road where several generations of her family grew up before her. It is important to her to write about the place she is from.

I don’t even think about nothing when I dream. I’ve had whole stories come at me in dreams, I have to get up and write them

“I know that might sound quite claustrophobic but I think that the west of Ireland is a very difficult place to define. There’s a beauty, it’s difficult, it’s unyielding, it’s magical, it’s quite brutal. I will die here. But I also want to buck that trend of writers leaving to reflect on the place and to be able to speak honestly about it. I want to be able to be honest in the place I’m from. Madness,” she adds with a laugh.

Feeney entered the world of fiction in 2020, with the publication of As You Were, a glorious, noisy, state-of-the-nation book. “The first novel was very frenetic and written after my time in hospital,” she says. Feeney was hospitalised 10 years ago with life-threatening sepsis. “It was almost a panic-write. My mood writing How to Build a Boat was completely different. We were locked down. It was far less of an intrusion and far more of a patient unfolding.”

The book tells the story of Jamie, a young boy on the cusp of adolescence; Tadgh, a teacher from the islands; and Tess, another teacher who is crumpling under the unhappiness of her marriage, her sad family background and the injustice she sees at the school where all three characters cross paths. While As You Were cast its beam across the past 100 years of Irish social history, How to Build a Boat focuses its spotlight on relationships, families and community.

The character of Jamie has been described as “neurodiverse”. Why did Feeney want to write this kind of character?

“I suppose he is neurodiverse but I don’t label any of the characters in this book, and that’s not a get-out. I am the parent of a son who is neurodiverse and I wrote it from the perspective of the anxiety of a parent parenting someone with neurodiversity, but I think it would be reductive of me to overly comment,” she says.

While Feeney’s work is known for interrogating the contemporary experience of women, in this book she also looks at the experience of men and boys. “It goes back to the idea that the patriarchy destroys lots of people, everybody. I taught boys for 20 years and I have sons and I have a great husband, but I was really surprised and quite shocked at what boys were expected to do from a young age, how they were expected to behave with regards to being sporty, masculine, strong – all the usual stereotypes. I thought about boys who are outside of that, all of them are in some way, and how it didn’t feel nuanced enough to me. We need to embrace the complexities of the human condition.”

Feeney is joyfully complex, a vibrant mix of influences and interests that resist categorisation. “When I was being billed as a performance poet, I wanted to get published in hyper-literary magazines because I hate being boxed. And then the minute I was a page poet I wanted to try fiction, and then I wanted to genre hop. My husband was afraid to propose because the minute I feel trapped I run, I go for the light,” she laughs.

I wonder what her average writing day might look like? “I need not to feel under pressure. I like a very boring Monday where I look out the window. I could pour a glass of wine and I could decide to start writing something. I like the art of it, genuinely. I love those beautiful moments where it’s just me, the work, longhand sometimes, just bubbling. The end of How to Build a Boat was a nice moment. I knew it was coming, it was like giving birth to something.”

Is she working on something new now?

“No,” she says. Then, “a little bit”. And finally, “Yes. Yes-no. I’m working very slowly on something. I love swimming but since I’ve been sick I haven’t been able to go into the water. I can’t sit and meditate. That would just drive me ... I’m too hyperactive. But swimming, punching the water ... I’ll write whole paragraphs in my head.”

I suggest that most people like swimming because it completely frees them from their thoughts. She laughs, “I’ve never had a day where I haven’t had a million intrusive thoughts. I don’t even think about nothing when I dream. I’ve had whole stories come at me in dreams, I have to get up and write them,” she says.

Perhaps resisting being shoved into the author box too neatly, Feeney has also completed a new collection of poetry, her first in six years. It will be published next year by Harvill Secker and while How to Build a Boat is optimistic and beautiful, All the Good Things You Deserve delves into dark personal waters.

“I think for me it was a counterbalance to the novel. My poetic psyche is quite dark.”

One of the funnier poems in the collection is about lockdown. At the time, Feeney tweeted a daily account of her experience cocooning, which was side-splittingly funny.

“I didn’t know it was funny. I think I’m funny by accident. I don’t mean to be. I told you, I want to be a serious writer,” she says, and her gale of laughter echoes through the room once more.

How to Build a Boat is published by Harvill Secker on April 20th