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Caoilinn Hughes: ‘I suppose it’s in our DNA, that instinct to leave and to move’

Irish author Hughes talks about her third novel, The Alternatives, writing in a camper van and getting hit by a truck

Had you gone for ice cream in Magherafelt on March 19th, 2022, you might have seen Caoilinn Hughes tapping away, in a near trance, at the final pages of her novel, The Alternatives.

“I felt so bad – whenever I was able to snap out of it for a few minutes, I would go over and apologise to the women working [in the ice-cream shop],” she laughs.

The ending she’d had in mind for the book didn’t seem to be the one the book demanded, so she followed her go-to method of writing: “Into the dark, without a plan.” When at last she’d captured what she needed, she phoned her long-distance partner, who always reads her drafts.

“He was at a party. I said: ‘I sent it to you, read it!’ And he went to the bathroom, read it, called me back, and said: ‘I don’t know how you did that.’”


Immediately, she hung up, and sent the completed draft to her agent.

“And that was it. Really, when I get to the end of a book, I’m at the end. Which is the benefit of writing in one draft. It’s the ecstasy of [completion].”

The Alternatives, published this month, is an audacious, intelligent, form-bending work, centred on four grown-up sisters, Olwen, Nell, Maeve and Rhona. Orphaned since they were young, they lead fiercely independent and separate lives. But when Olwen goes missing, the siblings find their lives converging once again.

Large themes and ideas – climate disaster, the collapse of deep time, political instability in Northern Ireland, family, care, food shortages, philosophies for living – are funnelled through the lens of these brilliant women. Olwen is a geology professor in Galway, Nell a philosopher in the United States, Rhona a political-science professor in Dublin, and Maeve a chef in London. But when Hughes at first jokingly announced to her publisher that she was writing about four sisters, each of whom had PhDs and none of whom had husbands, the publisher’s face dropped.

“It’s not a bestselling premise,” Hughes laughs. “It’s like a dork’s version of Sex and the City. Honestly, at the beginning, I thought it was humorous kind of leaning into the fact that it’s a really tricky thing to take on, writing about smart women like this.”

The novel is contending with grief, not just on a family level but an ecological level

The sisters all have different modes of operating in the world, but each lives in a way that’s somehow “alternative” to the norm.

“I had the book’s title pretty early on. I always thought I would change it. But at the same time, it accommodated so much […] It allowed me to write this particular book about ways of arranging ourselves [whether] in a family when someone needs care; arranging ourselves as a species – that idea that there are alternatives [to the] status quo; a trajectory that’s different from inertia.”

The book concerns itself closely with ideas around the environment and the natural world, and uncertainty about our planet’s future.

“At any point in history, I don’t think there’s been such general pessimism about the future,” says Hughes. “And the novel is interested in how individuals respond to that species-wide phenomenon, which is rooted in environmental collapse, and weakening democracies, and the dehumanising siloing effects of ungoverned capitalism.”

As Hughes sees it, there are many ways to respond – from despondency and despair; to angst, guilt, shame and rage; to seeking out community support, and taking change-making action.

“The sisters definitely respond in different ways. And I think maybe the fact that they grew up without adults in the room primes them for the moment that we’re living through ... The novel is contending with grief, not just on a family level but an ecological level. And it isn’t a grief that’s located in the past. It’s not so much about what’s been lost as what’s being lost.”

When she was writing, Hughes challenged herself to set the novel almost exactly when it was due to be published. In the end, she missed out only by a few months (it’s set mostly in mid-2023).

“I think that it feels very urgent to try and process what’s happening, and maybe relinquish the privilege that novelists sometimes have, to take a little beat – to have some perspective and set a novel maybe 20 or even 10 years ago. [I wanted] to resist that and see what happens if you’re trying to capture the now, and also anticipate what’s about to happen. Because that process felt close to what the novel’s about – that attempt to lurch forward in the story while the carpet’s being pulled from beneath your feet.”

The very act of writing a novel, as she sees it, is “committing to some future point in time”.

“Embarking on a novel is to kind of believe that the novel exists somewhere if you stick with it. There is a certain level of optimism in writing one.”

Hughes appears on my screen with brown shining hair, a smiling face, and a demeanour that belies the claim that she finds interviews like this one hard. She’s speaking over Zoom from Connecticut, where she’ll be doing some book promotion, and where some of The Alternatives is set. But it’s not unusual for her to be stationed in some faraway part of the world.

Raised in rural Galway, with two brothers and two sisters, Hughes (38) has lived at various points in New Zealand, the Netherlands and for the past year has been Cullman Fellow at New York Public Library.

“I suppose it’s in our DNA, that instinct to leave and to move,” she says.

The first time she flew the nest was to Galway city in her late teens. She had just completed her Leaving Certificate, but years of feeling disgruntled with the secondary school system left her without enough points to get her into a Level 8 university course. Instead, she did a foundation year for art college.

“I’m a terrible, terrible drawer, I have no talent whatsoever. But I was drawn to being in that environment among people who are expressing themselves in some peculiar mode,” she says. “And I was writing at the time.”

It was her writing that would eventually get her into Queen’s University Belfast, to study English.

“I didn’t have the grades. I had a B- in English and you needed to have a B. But I went up there with all these poems I had published and said, I really want to do this. And maybe they just needed to fill their quota, but it was one of those instances of privilege and luck that they bent the rules and let me in.”

She would go on to complete a BA in English, and an MA in 20th century Irish theatre and culture, before moving to New Zealand, working for Google, then completing a PhD in English literature.

“My plan was always just to go in [to Google] and save money. I was just trying to buy myself like six months to write. And then you kind of get sucked in. So, the PhD was a way of extracting myself.”

She had written poetry alongside working for many years, and her first collection, Gathering Evidence (Carcanet, 2014), won The Irish Times Shine/Strong Award. Her debut novel, Orchid and the Wasp, was published in 2018 and followed, in 2020, by The Wild Laughter (both by Oneworld). But despite the fact that she’s been writing poems since she was “embarrassingly young and please don’t go looking them up!” she has an interesting philosophy about publishing work as a writer.

“I’m so disinclined to want to publish stuff. I really hold off. And I throw so much away. I think there are so many books being published that you can really only put out what you think is your best work.”

When teaching, Hughes recommends to students to write first a manuscript they don’t publish. It’s something she did at the start of her career.

“I wrote a whole novel before writing a novel that I would try to publish. Because then you have a tuning fork for what it feels like to believe something is working.”

The Alternatives, Hughes’s third published novel, was written, in part, in the back of an electric van she had converted into a camper, at the start of Covid. But a dramatic halt was put to her van life soon after, while driving in Spain.

“We were in the emergency lane and got hit at 100km/h by a truck. I was very far into the novel when that happened, and as soon as I saw the truck hitting me, I just kind of wondered: will I get to finish it?”

Hughes was badly injured and knew she wouldn’t be able to do anything active for a long time.

“It was bad. It wrote off the van. But at the same time it was enormously lucky because another inch and it would have been the end of the story. And someone else would have had to finish the novel.”

Stuck in Spain, unable to walk without pain, she would write sitting on the couch – “because lying down was sorer”.

“There were obviously days where I couldn’t write, being on drugs. It was very soporific and I didn’t want any of that energy in the book. But thankfully there’s a certain point when you’re that far in that [the book] is giving you energy back ... I’m very sporty and [not exercising] can be quite tough in terms of your endorphins. And I felt so, so grateful to the novel, then.”

The Alternatives by Caoilinn Hughes is published by Oneworld on May 2nd