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Writer Maggie Armstrong: ‘I wanted to be a wastrel. I had no ambitions ever, for anything. Is that a symptom of the age?’

A former journalist, the writer was always a ‘bit envious’ of the people she interviewed. She reflects on her decision to take her writing seriously

Art can reflect life, but it can also be a beast of its own making. And so for authors of fiction, talking about their work can mean trying to put words on to their creation in a way that feels awkward. They might have sat down with themes or ideas to hash out on the page, but how to explain the certain sort of magic that happens once the writing begins?

When The Irish Times Magazine meets debut author Maggie Armstrong, the 39-year-old Dubliner is still trying to figure out how to talk about her work. It’s her first interview about her book, a collection of short stories called Old Romantics, which is published by Tramp Press. Its cover, designed by Fiachra McCarthy, is all pretty pastel colours, but prettiness can conceal something more complicated. Indeed, Old Romantics is anything but light and fluffy, and Armstrong is negotiating exactly how to describe what it is about and what it means to her.

The linked collection features stories about a protagonist named Margaret, who at times deludes herself about what she wants, who she is, and who others are. Armstrong’s publishers compare her writing in part to Kristen Roupenian, author of the 2017 viral New Yorker short story Cat Person, and reading the accounts of the awkward relationships in Old Romantics, you can see why.

We follow Margaret’s stumbles as she meets unsuitable men and gets involved in relationships even though she suspects something is “up” from the get-go. She has encounters that threaten to damage her, but aims to escape with her sense of self intact.


Throughout, Armstrong’s prose matches her protagonist’s state of mind. It’s clear in its aim but maintains a feeling of propulsive fluidity. For Margaret, relationships are not easy, jobs are not easy, motherhood is not easy. What sustains her throughout is writing, and though that’s not easy either, together with classic novels it creates a form of refuge to which she can retreat. The stories are written alternately in the first and third person, bringing the reader both close to and slightly at a remove from the protagonist.

Armstrong, a former journalist, sent some stories to Tramp Press in 2018, believing the independent Irish publisher the best home for her work. Tramp’s founders, Sarah Davis-Goff and Lisa Coen, have published books hugely important to the landscape of postmillennial Irish literature, such as Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s stunning A Ghost in the Throat, and Emilie Pine’s fierce essay collection Notes to Self. Davis-Goff and Coen are adept at finding female authors in particular who use language to unpick Ireland’s gender booby traps.

But Armstrong’s 2018 stories weren’t ready. “They were juvenile stories. I’m glad they were rejected and they weren’t published anywhere,” says Armstrong. As the years moved on, she began to be published in journals such as the Stinging Fly and the Dublin Review. Then Coen got in touch in 2023, asking if she had any work that hadn’t been published. She sent some stories on. A few months later, Armstrong, Coen and Davis-Goff met in a coffee shop. Tramp had a proposal to make.

“It was just so bizarre and strange and amazing,” says Armstrong, her wide eyes widening further as we talk in a city-centre hotel bar. “They made me an offer there. We had coffee, and [Lisa Coen] came in with an offer for a contract, and I didn’t even drink my coffee – it was completely cold at the end of the meeting.” Even now she seems surprised that “these two publishers who I really admired” wanted to publish her. This is in large part because, until she was published by the Dublin Review just three years earlier, she was beginning to feel in despair about her writing’s trajectory.

There’s always the question in fiction of how close a story is to the author’s real life. It can be a pointless and even invasive question, and women authors in particular tend to suffer from the presumption that they couldn’t possibly not be mining from real life. But it naturally comes up with Armstrong because her own biographical details are close at times to her protagonist’s. Like Margaret, she is also a single mother of two young children who lost her father during the Covid pandemic period. But as she outlines, there are many ways in which they differ.

So how would she describe Margaret? “She’s a young journalist from quite a privileged background, who has maybe no moral guidance and very little sense, and is inclined to trust people who she shouldn’t trust, and get into trouble. God love her. I wish I could sit down with her and give her a good bit of advice. Like panto – ‘look behind you!’,” says Armstrong. “Some of the scrapes this alter-ego gets herself into are so disturbing that I couldn’t possibly write it in the first person. I needed to achieve a critical distance from such a deranged girl.”

Initially Armstrong wrote stories to amuse herself. Then she became a “slightly disillusioned” journalist reading at small literary events and being published by literary journals. This book will see her reach her biggest audience yet and she says it’s “terrifying” to know strangers will be reading her work.

“What a bizarre project, to write a whole collection of short stories about a person with the same name as you,” laughs Armstrong. “I cannot believe I wrote that book and I cannot believe people are going to read it.” But while she laughs at this in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way, she’s very serious about her stories and creating a fictional world for readers.

After working in publishing following an English degree at Trinity College Dublin, she entered journalism during the recession. Some of the first pieces she wrote were for The Irish Times. “They were completely florid pieces, they were completely overwritten,” she says self-deprecatingly of her early work. “I wanted to interview people. I was very, very curious about people and about uncovering scandals. I wanted juicy gossip. Obviously I wanted to tell a good yarn, but generally speaking I suppose I got caught in a cycle of late-night deadlines. I was burning the candle [at both ends], working all the time not necessarily knowing why, and writing about showbiz.”

She didn’t want to do this forever, and found that while doing interviews she was “the tiniest bit envious of anybody doing something that they really wanted to be doing”. “I always envied actors, particularly male actors for some reason,” she goes on. “I always felt they had the charisma monopoly. There was something about a male actor in their prime, I thought, ‘f*** you – so many brilliant women are in your shadow’. I was very drawn to these characters, but I didn’t really belong anywhere either.”

There’s so much hope involved and so much at stake when it comes to saving relationships

It wasn’t until the pandemic hit in March 2020 that she decided to make a proper go of fiction, and exit journalism. “The morning all the children were sent home from school, my editor was giving me my next feature to do, and I said ‘I can’t do it, I’m really sorry – I have to be home’. There were children that I had to take care of. So that decided that for me.”

Today she works (as she has for many years) part-time in copy-editing and proofreading mostly academic books, which she enjoys as she is a “magpie” on the lookout for interesting words and phrases. “I want to write fiction,” she says. “I want to write books. I have so much that I want to do, and time is so precious. It’s terrifying really, isn’t it?” Life is short. “So short.”

How short life is was made clear to her when she lost her mother before and her father during the Covid lockdown period. “When my mother died, it was 2018 ... that was just bizarre ... but my father’s death, everything seemed to fall apart when he died,” she says. She adds at a later point in the interview that her siblings are a great support to her, and her children have a loving father.

She describes her parents, Fergus and Jacqueline, as voracious readers and very intelligent, literary people. “My father really loved anything written or done by his [four] children but he also had very careful notes and criticism. My brother writes as well. They were both bibliophiles, they both introduced me to basically all the writers that are important to me. My mum gave me Anne Enright when I was 17, and Muriel Spark, and Edna O’Brien, Anita Brookner, Elizabeth Bowen. I remember her giving me Bowen’s The Death of the Heart when I was in school. She would present these books to us as talismans, and the books would go viral in the house. We’d all be reading Patrick Hamilton or something about Russia.”

Armstrong’s family contains many lawyers and politicians, and her great-grandfather was Fine Gael TD and twice-taoiseach John A Costello. “He was an important figure in the founding of the Republic. He announced to a press conference in Canada [in 1948] that we were going to declare ourselves a republic, and that began the disentanglement from the Commonwealth. He was also a barrister, he was quite a brilliant barrister – he was the defence [for The Leader publication] during Patrick Kavanagh’s libel case,” says Armstrong. “An unflattering profile had been written of [the poet] and he basically ran rings around Patrick Kavanagh and they had this hilarious cross-examination where Kavanagh lost the libel case.”

Did the young Armstrong ever feel called towards the cut-and-thrust of political life? “Oh God, no,” she recoils. “I wanted to be a wastrel. I had no ambitions ever, for anything. I don’t know, is that a symptom of the age?” Her ambition as a writer came later. “If you hang on, it can occur to you even in your late 30s or your 40s, any age, that there’s something you can get your claws into, and then you have to find a way of doing it.”

In Old Romantics, her protagonist suffers several indignities, but she’s also propelled forward by believing there is something better out there waiting for her. Even when her romantic partners are clearly unsuitable, Margaret persists. “There are very unhealthy traits in some of the relationships in this book that I did very much want to write about,” says Armstrong. She adds: “When things go wrong for a woman from a south Dublin postcode, let’s say, it’s going to be a lot easier to find your way to safety. That’s not saying that things aren’t perilous for everyone in intimate relationships, in marriages that are unhappy.”

There’s a blended family in the book, with Margaret caring for the children of her fiance. This prompts Armstrong to discuss how Ireland treats carers. “There are a lot of people caring for young people in this country. A lot of people caring full stop, realising that they didn’t really sign up to do it,” she says. “But I think this [recent] referendum really showed that the care – it may lie in the family but that isn’t fair, and it’s not fair on either person in the caring relationship and it can be bewildering, difficult and very rewarding, but it can also be just very disenchanting. And it falls to women mostly, so I wanted to write about that.”

She also wanted to get into the room of a couple’s counsellor and explore that space in fiction. “Because it is such a tremendously draining and sometimes frustrating experience which costs so much money and resources. There’s so much hope involved and so much at stake when it comes to saving relationships,” she says.

In Old Romantics, a couple go through protracted counselling sessions, and visit several therapists, but there’s the sense they’re dragging out the inevitable. “You put so much trust in this professional, you invest so much money and sometimes the outcome is so much less than you hoped for,” says Armstrong.

We turn to the challenges of single parenting two young children, and how single mothers have been treated in Ireland. It’s “just terrible” what women went through in Irish history, she says. “This is a very enlightened time to be a single parent with two children, which I am. I think that there was a room in hell reserved for unmarried women with children ‘out of wedlock’, as they were described,” she says.

Recently, she was looking at an old Home Economics textbook while researching a story, and found a list of ‘problems and threats facing society today’. One was single parents. “This is what we were taught in school. We were basically [taught] this was an aberration in society,” she says. “And you’re still a little bit the weirdo, you’re a wallflower at the orgy of the nuclear family. Which is kind of amusing, really.”

It must be hard. “Yeah. And you know what, it’s fine. Even having a baby on your own, that’s a privilege. I wouldn’t swap it for anything. A little bit glamorous even. You’re there, you have your little baby and everyone’s taking care of you. But having a toddler as a single person, that is not glamorous, that is at times nightmarish.” She became single while pregnant with her second child, a period when she says she felt “cast adrift” for a time.

Despite the more positive societal changes, Armstrong also believes we are “back in the Dark Ages when it comes to accepting difference in our society”, though there are “incredibly brave people who have made amazing strides towards trans rights in particular, disability rights, women’s rights”.

Through her fiction, Armstrong – who is currently working on a short novel, stories and essays – gets to explore circumstances that will feel familiar to many readers. “This is a fictional book. If it was a memoir, it would be a very dull book,” she says. “It is a fictional ragbag of experiences, some are pilfered, some are closer to my heart. There are some things that happen to us that simply have no place in a conversation in a room. There’s simply nowhere else for them to go. Therapy doesn’t cut it.”

Writing might not replace therapy, but for Armstrong creative expression appears to help her find her way through the world, even when life is at its most difficult.