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Rachael English: ‘I saw the figures for the amount of airtime Irish female musicians get, and I’m stumped as to why it’s still so low’

RTÉ journalist on her latest novel, about a female rock group in the 1980s; her Dennis Lehane pilgrimage; and love of The Poor Mouth

Tell me about your new novel, Whatever Happened to Birdy Troy?

It tells the story of an all-woman rock band called The Diamonds. In the early 1980s they were tipped for stardom, but after one single, they disappeared. In the present day, a podcaster tries to find out what went wrong.

How much is it about trying to recapture your own musical youth in 1980s Dublin?

I grew up at a time and in a town, Shannon, where there were a lot of musical obsessives. At 17, I moved to Dublin, where every group of hopefuls was dubbed “the next U2″. But those were also tough years to be a young woman in Ireland. I wanted to try and capture all of that.

What was the teenage Rachael English like? You’ve written for The Irish Times about how writing was a way of recapturing what you were passionate about when you were young.

I was about to say that I was restless and insecure. Then I remembered that on the day of my Leaving Cert results, I went to work, thumbed a lift home and called in to see a friend before eventually going to the school at five in the evening. I wish I was as cool and confident as that now.

You created your own Spotify playlist, featuring acts such as Stars of Heaven and Cactus World News. How fun was that? Irish girls bands were thin on the ground then and still under-represented on Irish radio. Why is that?

It was great fun. I picture The Diamonds as an Irish version of The Go-Go’s, only with Co Clare accents and fewer drugs. I saw the figures for the amount of airtime Irish female musicians get, and I’m stumped as to why it’s still so low.

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Did you dream of being in a band?

No, when it comes to music I’m completely talent-free.

Your previous novel, The Letter Home, similarly involved a woman researching the past, juxtaposing two periods in history, in that case the Famine in 1840s Ireland, and modern Ireland and Boston. Why does this framing appeal to you?

I’m fascinated by the way history reverberates, and I like focusing on the sort of characters who live through fascinating times but never make the history books. I also enjoy turning characters into detectives, so that rather than solving crimes they’re trying to unearth the truth about the past.

You spent a summer in Boston on a J1 visa. How formative was that?

I was 19 and had never been outside England and Ireland, so to go somewhere so different to home had a significant impact on me. It also gave me the idea for my first book.

You’re well known as a presenter on RTÉ's Morning Ireland. The profile must help but is it ever a constraint on the stories you might wish to tell? The American Girl, your number one bestseller, told of mother and baby homes in the wake of the Tuam babies scandal and church ownership of the national maternity hospital. The Paper Bracelet had a similar theme

No, I think I manage to separate the two. Although I have to let managers know what I’m doing, I’ve never had any interference.

Which projects are you working on?

I’ve started writing another novel, but 2024 is likely to be a huge news year so progress might be slow.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?

I love Dennis Lehane’s novels, and I’ve visited several of their settings in Boston.

What is the best writing advice you have heard?

Write the book you would choose to read.

Who do you admire the most?

Anyone for whom life is a struggle.

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

I know this is ridiculously obvious, but I would do whatever it took to build more houses. If my generation was blighted by lack of work, lack of housing is having the same impact on young people now.

Which current book, film and podcast would you recommend?

The Rachel Incident by Caroline O’Donoghue. Marina Hyde and Richard Osman’s new podcast, The Rest is Entertainment. I haven’t been to the cinema in a couple of months, but I’m looking forward to All of Us Strangers.

Which public event affected you most?

I was reporting from Stormont on the day the Good Friday Agreement was signed. I’ve never forgotten the atmosphere and the sense that even if everything wasn’t changing, something significant had happened.

The most remarkable place you have visited?

India.

Your most treasured possession?

I’m not sure that I have one.

What is the most beautiful book that you own?

When I was seven, my mother read Heidi to me, and then encouraged me to read it on my own, My copy dates from the early 1950s and originally belonged to my mum. I’m not sure you’d call it beautiful, but I’m incredibly fond of it.

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

Given what I’ve been writing about, I’m going to pick four musicians who wrote wonderful books about their lives: Patti Smith, Bruce Springsteen, Viv Albertine and Sinéad O’Connor.

What is your favourite quotation?

The William Faulkner line “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Recently, Demon Copperhead.

A book to make me laugh?

The Poor Mouth by Flann O’Brien.

A book that might move me to tears?

Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan.

Whatever Happened to Birdy Troy by Rachael English is published by W&N