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Leeanne O’Donnell: ‘If you go where things are a bit less tamed ... you can catch remnants of ancient stories’

Author talks about her latest book, Sparks of Bright Matter, folklore, nature and more

Your debut novel, Sparks of Bright Matter, has a rich plot. Tell us about it.

In 18th-century London middle-aged Peter Woulfe, respected scientist and secret alchemist, loses his temper with disastrous consequences. He gets caught up in a foggy, gothic blackmailing scheme that awakens the ghosts of his first summer in London 40 years earlier.

Back in 1744, at 17, while desperate to learn about alchemy and spiritual enlightenment, he falls in love with the elusive Sukie, gets completely diverted by lust, loses a precious book belonging to a mysterious baron and ends up embroiled in a dangerous Jacobite plot.

Who was the real-life Peter Woulfe, an Irishman known by some as ‘the last true alchemist’?

He was a scientist of some note, a fellow of the Royal Society. Born in Co Clare in 1727, he ended up living in notoriously cluttered rooms in Barnards Inn in Holborn where he secretly sought the elixir of life.

You’ve made award-winning radio documentaries, including The Ladies of Llangollen. Tell us more.

Telling stories for radio with RTÉ’s Doc On One was great fun. The ladies were two feisty 18th-century Irishwomen who wanted to be together very much against their families’ wishes – so they upped and ran away and built a life based on their enduring love and commitment to each other.

You produce and present a podcast about the ancient stories of Irish mythology. Do you have a favourite?

I loved the last story we did for Into the Mythic – it’s about what happened to the Tuatha De Danann, the original, magical inhabitants of Ireland. If you have ever felt like we share this island with invisible otherworldly beings (I have!), then listen to this one.

You are also a trained psychotherapist. Does this help get inside your characters’ heads?

No, I think it might hinder me! Psychotherapy is about listening to people very carefully and not making up stories about them in your head.

Your work features unconventional portrayals of love and sexual desire. Tell us more.

All the characters in Sparks turned out to be complex, contradictory individuals who wouldn’t let me make them just fall in love and live happily ever after. They experience all flavours of love and desire in their roundabout journeys in search of connection. Sukie, my favourite character, has a strange capacity to make people fall in love with her regardless of gender, class or sexuality.

How important is landscape in your work, especially Mount Gabriel in west Cork?

It’s very important. If you start to see that the earth itself is alive, if you’re prepared encounter it as a living, sentient being, then wherever you are there is an invitation to be in relationship with the landscape. If you go to the periphery, where things are a bit less tamed, places like Mount Gabriel, I think you can catch the remnants of some very ancient stories.

Can the rational mind and magical thinking and folkloric beliefs coexist?

That’s the six-million dollar question. You’ll have to read the book to find out!

Which projects are you working on?

Some of the characters in Sparks are still very with me – I think they have more stories to tell so I’m feeling my way into that.

What is the best writing advice you have heard?

Keep going. More poetically expressed as “onward” by the wonderful Niall Williams.

Who do you admire the most?

My dearly departed parents – they created such a loving, generous life for our family. They knew how to have fun, how to share and how to be kind.

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

A law that makes it a crime to exploit and abuse rivers, woods, mountains and oceans for personal profit. Offenders would be tried as if they had beaten up and robbed a human neighbour.

Which current book, film and podcast would you recommend?

I’m loving Mary & George.

Which public event affected you most?

The passing of the marriage equality referendum.

The most remarkable place you have visited?

Taman Negara National Park in Malaysia.

Your most treasured possession?

A plastic compass. Long after my mother died, during a terribly lost time in my life, I dreamt that she gave me a compass. The next morning our friends unexpectedly returned some camping equipment that I had forgotten all about and I came down to find the compass from my dream sitting on the table.

What is the most beautiful book that you own?

Graeme Gibson’s Bedside Book of Birds.

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

Virginia Woolf, Carl Jung, Shakespeare, Rumi, Sappho.

The best and worst things about where you live?

The best things are the landscape, the community, Levis’ Corner House and Budd’s restaurant. The only bad thing is the insufficient sunlight in winter.

What is your favourite quotation?

“If the path before you is clear, you’re probably on someone else’s” – Jung

Who is your favourite fictional character?

Stephen Maturin from Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series. Clever, brave, funny, often wise and also terribly human.

A book to make me laugh?

Leave it to Psmith by PG Wodehouse. The Efficient Baxter gets locked out of Blanding’s Castle in his lemon yellow pyjamas.

A book that might move me to tears?

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible.

Sparks of Bright Matter is published by Eriu