‘A lot of Eggshells is from conversations I overheard. People just have no filter’

‘You do write the book you want to read, and I love reading books that aren’t perfectly plotted and aren’t all wrapped up tidily at the end’

 Caitriona Lally: “It definitely bothered a lot of people that I never explained Vivian’s backstory, but I wanted her to repress it. Nowadays everything’s about going to therapy and talking, and talking, and talking, and I didn’t want her to have a big emotional climax.” Photograph: Alan Betson

Caitriona Lally: “It definitely bothered a lot of people that I never explained Vivian’s backstory, but I wanted her to repress it. Nowadays everything’s about going to therapy and talking, and talking, and talking, and I didn’t want her to have a big emotional climax.” Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Meeting debut author Caitriona Lally in the Book Upstairs Café on D’Olier Street, I was extremely relieved to discover that, unlike her novel’s main character, her hair wasn’t brittle and her hygiene was impeccable. The stinker in question, Vivian, is a woman of unknown age who lives alone in the house she inherited from her great-aunt, along with a bunch of chairs and a rapidly deteriorating pet known as Lemon Fish. She is, as Lally sums up for me, “bonkers”.

Eggshells records a series of walks Vivian takes through Dublin in her efforts to find a portal to the otherworld. Settling down with a mug of tea and a latte, I began to talk with the creator of one of the strangest and foulest-smelling characters ever seen in fiction.

How have you found being a novelist?

Surreal… you just see your name in the paper or you go into a bookshop having forgotten and all of a sudden it’s “Oh gosh! There’s me on a table!” Moments like that are just bizarre.

There was no specific routine; I’d write it in bed, at the kitchen table, a desk. I did try for the 1,000 words a day. Sometimes I got more, sometimes I didn’t get there, but I did always try and I think you should.

Tell me about the publishing process: how did you get in touch with Liberties Press?

There was a novel fair competition in the Irish Writers’ Centre, which I advise anyone who wants to write to enter. It gives you deadlines and the motivation to keep writing. Basically October 16th was the deadline and you had to submit 10,000 words by then as well as a synopsis, and then you only find out if you’ve won a place in the fair in February, so you have to have a full novel by then in case you win it, which gives you another deadline.

In February I got the call, 12 of us won a place, and then you have a day of meeting publishers and agents and I got one of each out of that. It was amazing but it was also really intense. You meet a lot of different people and you have to know everyone and their preferences so you know what they publish. You really had to study up. So going into it I knew that Liberties Press could be interested in the novel because they do quirky independent stuff.

Did you have any sort of writing routine? Did you go on the walks and plot them out on greaseproof paper like Vivian did?

I did go on the walks, and a lot of what ended up in the book is from conversations I overheard. People just have no filter. I didn’t have any routine when writing Eggshells though, no. Back in 2011, I was made redundant and was unemployed for a year and it was literally a year of just trying to stay sane, and I started the notes for the novel back then. I only started actually writing it when I got a job. I was working 12 to 9, kind of a strange shift, and I started squeezing in hours before work and after work. I’d often go to the Kildare Street National Library to write as well. I ended up just slotting it around whatever I was doing at the time. So there was no specific routine; I’d write it in bed, at the kitchen table, a desk. I did try for the 1,000 words a day. Sometimes I got more, sometimes I didn’t get there, but I did always try and I think you should.

There’s no point getting precious about it and saying, “oh, the muse hasn’t come”, when you can just force yourself to get something down. Even if you write 1,000 and then end up deleting 800 the next day, that’s grand because you’ve still moved forward. So I definitely feel you should force yourself to always write something at least.

Was it tough writing a character who was…?

Bonkers? Extremely. There was no routine, no method acting, but it was hugely intense. There’s a lot of sadness in her and there’s a loneliness to her which I found very hard to write. She has no friends, or family who like her, and I can’t really imagine that.

Having travelled widely yourself, were you tempted to send Vivian away on a trip at any point?

Yes, it was really claustrophobic keeping her within a small part of Dublin; you’re writing in a mad person’s head in a very small area. But that was deliberate and added to the intensity. Dublin is a very small city

Both Vivian and her friend Penelope agree that “hygiene is overrated”. Why’d you decide to write a character who treats cleanliness with suspicion and inhales her own musk as often as she can?

I think it’s just that female characters often in books are very glamorous. There’s smelly guys in fiction, but I’d never read about a woman who’s just stinking and loving it! Speaking of female characters, there are very few male characters in Eggshells, and the ones who are in it only have minor roles.

Was this a deliberate decision?

No, it wasn’t a deliberate thing. Vivian was a female from the start purely because it was my first book and also writing someone like her was hard enough as it was. Because of the kind of character she is, I just thought it was too big a leap to have a male friend. It would have sparked an “Is there a romance going on?” and there’s never going to be a romance with Vivian. And she’s just such an odd person that I thought she’d have an easier time dealing with females. So it was just to suit the character, but it was only afterwards that someone pointed it out to me that I realised how few male characters there actually were.

There’s no big reveal in Eggshells. A lot of Vivian’s backstory remains shrouded in mystery. Was this your plan from the start?

It was. It definitely bothered a lot of people that I never explained Vivian’s backstory, but I wanted her to repress it. Nowadays everything’s about going to therapy and talking, and talking, and talking, and I didn’t want her to have a big emotional climax, I wanted her to go through life keeping a lot repressed because that’s what a lot of people do. A lot of people do have traumas that they don’t process, deal with, and move on.

There’s not much plot in Eggshells either. Was this deliberate too?

No, that just came about with how the book was written, with me going on those walks. But you do write the book you want to read, and I love reading books that aren’t perfectly plotted and aren’t all wrapped up tidily at the end. I used to hate those books, they drove me mad, but I’ve gotten more into that lifelike style. I can see how that would drive some people crazy though. Some reviewers have said if you want a plot then don’t buy this book and I would say that too.

How did the title Eggshells come about? Did you have it from the start?

No, I didn’t have a title until the morning of the novel fair, and I was filling out the sheet and I just put Eggshells, because I had saved it as “Untitled (2)” on my computer up to that point! I googled Eggshells and it hadn’t been used so I was like “ok, there’s my title.” But when they rang me to tell me I’d won the fair place, I immediately asked would I be able to change the title, because I had just made it up on the spot. They told me I had to keep it for now but I could change it at a later point. And then when I met my agent I asked her if I could change it then, and she said she liked it, and Liberties liked it, so it stuck.

At one point in the novel Vivian lists the sort of questions she feels should be asked by interviewers, so brace yourself. If a cup of tea was put in your hand right now, what would your ideal biscuit be? You can do top three.

Hmm. Ok, I will go for Toffee Pops, but they’re very sweet so you have to be in the mood for that. I’m a real chocolate person, so a dark chocolate Hobnob or digestive, but it has to be dark chocolate now. And then there’s a biscuit, I don’t know what they’re called, you get them free sometimes at cafés and they have a wrapper on them. They’re almost like caramel-y, but it’s a plain biscuit. I don’t know what they’re called but I will look them up. See I’m more a cake person than a biscuit person, so this is a tough question.

If water had a colour, what should it be? Not what would it be, but what should it be?

Red. A deep red. Just imagine a red swimming pool.

Truly these are the hard-hitting reporter questions that need to be asked. Are there any plans for a second book?

I’m working on a second book now, nothing to do with Vivian, but who knows, maybe she’ll have a cameo role. But it’s going to be completely different, and set in Hamburg. I’ve done Dublin now, for the moment anyway, I might come back some day. Unlike Eggshells which was about one person, this one’s going to be dual characters, brother and sister. It’s nicer writing about two, it’s a lot less stress than writing about one character only, I can split the effort between them.

This article first appeared in Trinity News.

Eggshells is published by Liberties Press