Subscriber OnlyBooks

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne: The literary world is more inclusive – but it’s also much more competitive

Ní Dhuibhne talks about her newly published collection Selected Stories, the Irish literary scene and more

You’ve just published Selected Stories, 14 short stories from your five collections. How did you choose them?

In consultation with Patsy Horton, my great editor, I picked a few from each collection – stories I liked.

Anne Enright called you “a fully contemporary writer working old magic [who] calls on ancient tradition to renew the way we see the world”. How does your background in folklore and appreciation of traditional storytelling influence your writing?

The great folktales inspire my imagination, and episodes in real life often remind me of the ancient themes.

You’ve written six novels in Irish and five in English, as well as seven collections in English. How do you decide what language to write in?

If the theme seems suited to Irish, I choose Irish. So my new little memoir of childhood, Fáinne Geal an Lae, which is about growing up as an Irish speaker in Dublin, had to be in Irish. English is my first language so often my first port of call.

Your novel The Dancers Dancing was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, now the Women’s Prize for Fiction, in 2000. Do you see it as your finest work?

A writer’s finest work is always the next book! It was fantastic to be on that shortlist. I found it hard to select 14 stories so selecting one book as the finest… I won’t go there.

In 2021, you edited an anthology, Look, It’s A Woman Writer, for Arlen House. Today, is there a level playing field for women in Irish publishing?

Yes. We have come a very long way since the 1970s.

Alice Munro and Ailbhe Smyth were big influences on you in different ways. Tell me more.

I adore Alice Munro’s way of writing a short story and her works showed me how to compose a long, deep, serious but entertaining story. Before Alice Munro I wrote without much conscious consideration of how to shape the tale (although I studied literature and had read reams). Ailbhe Smyth opened my eyes – I’d been writing and publishing from 1974 but hadn’t noticed that the “woman’s voice” was a rare enough note in Irish literature. In my 30s I was drawn to other kinds of writing: research, scholarship. Feminism encouraged me to keep at the creative writing.

You have mentored a new generation of writers teaching creative writing at UCD. How would you compare today’s writers to the scene you grew up in?

There are many more good writers, a great variety of acceptable literary genres, and fewer biases about gender, race, class. The literary world is more inclusive – but it’s also much more competitive.

You said after your husband Bo died in 2013: “After he died I didn’t feel like writing anything for a while. [Writing] seemed so trivial.” Did writing your memoir, Twelve Thousand Days, restore your faith in your art?

It certainly helped me more than anything get through the first tough years after he died.

How did having children inspire you to write for children?

I wrote my first book for children, The Uncommon Cormorant, when I was escaping from my two little darlings for a week in Annaghmakerrig. I missed them so much that I wrote a book for them – much to their embarrassment at them time.

Which projects are you working on?

I advise my students that the correct response [to] this question always is “I am working on a novel”. Actually, another anthology of essays, poems and stories on the theme of ageing. Well, You Don’t Look it!, due out in 2024. And loads of other things.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?

I love going to see the places where writers lived, and have made many such pilgrimages. And I go on walks around my neighbourhood looking at the houses where writers lived – Patricia Lynch, Séamus Ó Grianna, Peadar O’Donnell. [James] Joyce, of course.

What is the best writing advice you have heard?

Write exactly what you want to write yourself (Jon Fosse said it somewhere recently).

Who do you admire the most?

My children.

You are supreme ruler for a day. Which law do you pass or abolish?

Jail, except for people who are violent and a danger to others.

Which current book, film and podcast would you recommend?

Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting, and books by some of my friends – Cathal Póirtéir’s book on Lord George Hill, Mary Rose Callaghan’s memoir, The Deep End.

Which public event affected you most?

The election of Mary Robinson as president.

The most remarkable place you have visited?


Your most treasured possession?

My laptop.

What is the most beautiful book that you own?

Among my more recent books, Maria Simmonds-Gooding’s Mícheál Ó Gaoithín, The Blasket Painter.

Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?

Eight is the right number for a dinner party. Anton Chekhov, Alice Munro, Charles Dickens, Edna O’Brien, Thomas Crofton Croker, Louisa May Alcott, Bo Almqvist.

The best and worst things about where you live?

The good neighbours and the Tolka river. The worst thing: the cars.

What is your favourite quotation?

“Make ‘em cry. Make ‘em laugh. Make ‘em wait.” Attributed to various writers.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Robinson Crusoe.

A book to make me laugh?

Anything by David Lodge.

A book that might move me to tears?

Selma Lagerlof, The Emperor of Portugalia.

Selected Stories is published by Blackstaff Press