Best of Irish: 10 shooting stars of Irish writing
In advance of St Patrick’s Day, we celebrate leading lights of our creative industries
Sarah Davis-Goff: has written an Irish feminist post-apocalyptic novel called Last Ones Left Alive
All week, in celebration of St Patrick’s Day, our writers and correspondents are bringing you the best of Irish talent in the arts and other fields. Here, Books Editor Martin Doyle looks at 10 great talents in Irish writing and publishing.
Sarah Davis-Goff and Lisa Coen
Last Ones Left Alive, Sarah Davis-Goff’s dystopian debut novel, was only launched on Tuesday but is already garnering positive reviews. However, it is as a publisher at Tramp Press, alongside co-founder Lisa Coen, that she is really turning heads. Their first nonfiction title, Notes to Self by Emilie Pine, was a surprise bestseller and their second Irish Book of the Year success in three years following their biggest success to date, Solar Bones, Mike McCormack’s comeback novel, which also won the International Dublin Literary Award and was longlisted for the Booker. Revivals such as Dorothy Maccardle and US imports like Jade Sharma and Sarah Henstra show a breadth of vision.
Nothing Special is the title of Nicole Flattery’s debut novel, due out in 2021 as part of a six-figure deal, but as a description of her writing, nothing could be further from the truth. She deservedly won the 2017 White Review Short Story Prize for Track, one of the best Irish short stories of this millennium, and backed that up with a dark, funny debut collection, Show Them a Good Time (Stinging Fly), that trips up modern life’s absurdities. “Flattery can do almost anything with the sentence,” says Colin Barrett. “She captures characters and relationships in one-liners that crackle with unerring timing and verve and terrible lucidity.”
Nothing Special will follow two 18-year-old girls in New York who transcribe tapes at Andy Warhol’s Factory. It will explore voyeurism, language, addiction, naivety and the divide between our public and private selves.
Bloomsbury publishing director Alexis Kirschbaum said: “Nicole Flattery’s short stories are urgent, disorientating, and full of a kind of humour that opens up emotions and experiences normally at odds with anything funny. She is a thrilling talent.”
North Belfast, once the cockpit of the Troubles, is suddenly a hotbed of fiction, thanks to Man Booker winner Milkman by Ardoyne’s Anna Burns, flanked by Paul McVeigh’s The Good Son and David Keenan’s For the Good Times. Next up is Lyra McKee, a 28-year-old journalist, whose debut, The Lost Boys, will be published by Faber next year.
The Lost Boys will explore the disappearances of a number of children and young men during the Troubles. Many of them were not believed to be victims of the IRA or the UVF. Some were kids who left home for school and never came home and their disappearances were never solved by the police. McKee will investigate what happened to them.
Faber’s Laura Hassan said: “I was hooked by McKee’s singular, crisp prose and I loved the blend of investigative journalism, true crime, memoir and social history in The Lost Boys. McKee has that knack of engaging the head and the heart – the fate of these children is deeply affecting.”
In 2014, McKee’s piece about growing up gay in Belfast, Letter To My 14-Year-Old Self, went viral and was made into a short film. In 2016, she was named one of Forbes 30 under 30 in media in Europe.
One of the perks of this job is getting to read in advance books that you know are going to be hits. Notes to Self, Emilie Pine’s debut collection of essays, blew me away last year with her fearless honesty and emotional intelligence, addressing difficult subjects such as addiction, infertility, family break-ups and overwork. It went on to win the Irish Book of the Year Award.
I first came across her writing when publishing a series on the legacy of the 1981 hunger strikes. Pine’s impressive contribution was this feminist critique of the exclusion of women from cultural portrayals of this seminal period, which drew on her 2010 book, The Politics of Irish Memory: Performing Remembrance in Contemporary Irish Culture.
Pine is associate professor in modern drama at UCD, editor of the Irish University Review but is taking a sabbatical to work on her next book. Expect it to go in a very different direction.
Sinéad Gleeson has made her name as a literary critic, moderator of cultural events, presenter of RTÉ Radio’s book show and influential anthologist of Irish women’s writing with The Long Gaze Back and The Glass Shore. However, with the publication by Picador next month of Constellations, her debut collection of essays, her own literary star will be in the ascendant. The publication in Granta and subsequently in The Irish Times of her essay, Blue Hills and Chalk Bones, signalled the arrival of a startling new talent.
She also has a short story in Lucy Caldwell’s new Faber anthology of Irish short stories, Being Various.
“Sinéad Gleeson has changed the Irish literary landscape, through her advocacy for the female voice,” says Anne Enright. “In Constellations, we finally hear her own voice, and it comes from the blood and bones of her body’s history. Sinéad Gleeson is an absolute force: if you want to know where passion and tenacity are born, read this book.”
“Utterly magnificent,” says Eimear McBride. “Raw, thought-provoking and galvanising; this is a book every woman should read.”
Anne Griffin’s debut When All Is Said has dominated the Irish fiction bestseller charts since publication in January, selling over 15,000 copies already, a remarkable achievement. Maurice Hennigan sits at a hotel bar, raising five glasses over the course of an evening to key figures in his life. “Griffin is a writer of unusual confidence and authority, and a welcome arrival to the literary scene,” wrote Éilís Ní Dhuibhne in her Irish Times review. Graham Norton is also a fan. Her follow-up, expected next year, is said to feature another simple but ingenious plot, an undertaker with a gift for divining the last thoughts of her clients.
Minor Monuments by Ian Maleney, a journalist late of this parish, due out at the end of this month from Tramp Press, is more of a slow burn than their big hit last year, Emilie Pine’s Note to Self, but it is a powerful debut that lingers long in the atmosphere.
Set around a small family farm on the edge of a bog near the river Shannon in Offaly, Minor Monuments is a collection of essays exploring the power of sound and music, the effects of his grandfather’s Alzheimer’s on the family, and the nature of home, memory and belonging.
“Maleney writes with both a poetic serenity and a starting immediacy, a combination as rare as it is absorbing,” says Fintan O’Toole. “Minor Monuments is brilliant, pulsing with intellect and insight, with each observation composed so beautifully as to be deeply moving,” writes Lisa McInerney. “This is the kind of book that changes its reader.”
Colm Tóibín may not quite have compared Karl Whitney’s debut Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin favourably to James Joyce’s Ulysses but he did declare: “It would be great then if the Americans and the Germans who come to Dublin in large numbers, and claim to love the city, had Whitney’s book in hand rather than, say, Ulysses, or some official guide book, and began to pay attention to the city’s underground rivers and its great unfinished estates, not to speak of the strange bus routes and the many holes in the ground, the hidden and essential life of Dublin.”
Now decamped to Sunderland, this talented psychogeographer’s follow-up, Hit Factories (due out in June), tells the story of British pop through the cities that shaped it. After discovering a derelict record plant on the edge of a northern English city, and hearing that it was once visited by David Bowie, Whitney embarks upon a journey to explore the industrial cities of British pop music. He tracks down the places where music was performed, recorded and sold, and the people – the performers, entrepreneurs, songwriters, producers and fans – who made it all happen.
Ciaran McMenamin, from Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, made his name initially as an actor, starring in the title role of a BBC adaptation of David Copperfield in 1999. Joseph O’Connor called his debut, Skintown, “a supercharged riot of a debut novel, zinging with confidence and intelligence.”
Sarah Gilmartin in The Irish Times wrote: “McMenamin writes with verve and honesty. . . it lures the reader into the madcap night and then delivers a hairpin twist.”
His follow-up, The Sunken Road, a Northern love story set against a historic conflict that is still being played out today, is to be published by Harvill Secker to coincide with the centenary of Partition. The tagline is a winner: “Most men came back from the Great War expecting to find a land fit for heroes. Francie Leonard came back to a land fit for another war.”
Chosen from more than 12,000 entries, The Curfew by Belfast poet Stephen Sexton won the 2016 National Poetry Competition in Britain, worth £5,000. “The Curfew rose to its number one position, as a completely unexpected poem, a tour de force, dreamlike in its shifts, wide-ranging and deeply felt,” the judges said. “The language is alive, very much the poet’s own, and impressively adventurous.”
His debut collection of poems, If All the World and Love Were Young, will be published by Penguin in August. The author of a pamphlet of poems, Oils (Emma Press, 2014), which was the Poetry Book Society’s Winter Pamphlet Choice that year, he teaches at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry in Queen’s University Belfast.