Caitriona Lally on Madame Bovary, Beryl the Peril and other heroines
‘I work as a cleaner in Trinity College and when I get to dust the bookshelves in the Old Library, it smells like musty heaven. I can’t imagine ever sniffing an ebook’
Caitriona Lally: “Learn a trade, one that pays. Worrying about money wastes mental energy that would be better put towards your writing. And don’t expect too much from your first attempts at writing; know that they will be complete muck, but keep ploughing on through the muck.” Photograph: Alan Betson
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
Alice in Wonderland – pure magic. I loved the rhythm of it, the nonsense that somehow made sense, the madness of it all. This year’s 150th anniversary of the book is bankrupting me. I’m a sucker for different editions of the book, and the house is bursting with Alice notebooks, mugs, and paraphernalia.
What was your favourite book as a child?
I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure series; the idea that you could control the fate of the character was compelling – and still is. I found my childhood editions recently in my parents’ attic and have since spent happy hours reading them when I should be writing; taking wrong turns and killing off the main character before starting all over again.
And what is your favourite book or books now?
John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, and Three Men in a Boat and Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K Jerome – all hilarious. And Kjersti Skomsvold’s The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am is dark and funny. Anakana Schofield’s Malarky is completely off the wall with a bonkers Mayo woman at the centre, the best kind. I love WG Sebald’s Austerlitz, Thomas Bernhard’s anything really – there’s something about those long, slow sentences that is captivating. And Rachel Cusk’s Outline, JM. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K, and Rebecca Solnit’s essays. Then there’s Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, especially the beautiful Time Passes mid-section with lots of decay and cobwebs and weeds. Now I’m just being greedy but I want to add William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. And Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina – I like a dramatic and desperate heroine living intensely outside of her shoulds and ought tos.
For short stories, I love Tobias Wolff, George Saunders, Ann Beattie, Lorrie Moore, Kevin Barry, James Salter, Claire Keegan, Lydia Davis and Alice Munro.
What is your favourite quotation?
“Shite and onions”, from Ulysses, which I finally got round to reading this year. I had been terrified of the book, but phrases like this made it less daunting.
Who is your favourite fictional character?
Beryl the Peril from The Topper. She gives as good as she gets, she’s feisty and cheeky and a messer. When my brothers and sister and I were young, our parents would buy up mounds of comics at jumble sales – The Beano, Dandy, Topper. There were Mandys and Judys and Buntys too, but the characters seemed to be either tragic orphans or stuck-up girls with ponies; neither of which appealed to me. I preferred Beryl’s utter fearlessness and her total disregard for other people’s opinions of her.
Who is the most under-rated Irish author?
I don’t know enough about how authors are regarded critically to answer that properly. Also, I think that if you’re lucky enough to get published, you have some sort of validation, regardless of whether you’re slated or feted or something in between. There are exceptionally talented writers who can’t get a book deal because they’re not commercial enough, so I’ll pick them as my under-rated, or not-yet-rated.
Which do you prefer - ebooks or the traditional print version?
I’m afraid I put the late into late adopter when it comes to technology. I only came to smartphones this year and am still fairly awkward with a touchscreen, so an ebook is a long way off. And I hanker too strongly after the physical book. I work as a cleaner in Trinity College and when I get to dust the bookshelves in the Old Library, it smells like musty heaven. I can’t imagine ever sniffing an ebook.
What is the most beautiful book you own?
A friend gave me the graphic novel of Antoine De Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, illustrated by Joann Sfar. The soft, strokeable, dark blue cover and illustrations are just gorgeous. The text contains this wonderfully strange sentence: “Nothing in the universe can be the same if somewhere – nobody knows where – a sheep we’ve never seen may or may not have eaten a rose.”
When I’m struggling to find the right words, I like the idea of explaining things more effectively with a picture. The world will get along just fine without my bockety matchstick men for now though.
Where and how do you write?
I have yet to find a steady routine; I’ve written while jobless and written while jobbed, squeezing words around normal and abnormal working hours. Right now, my paid work takes up the early mornings which, in theory anyway, leaves afternoons for writing. I used to write in bed, but after my early starts I tend to fall asleep if I’m near a mattress, so the kitchen table is better for the word-count.
What book changed the way you think about fiction?
Roddy Doyle’s The Snapper. The age at which you read a book probably affects its influence on you. I was 11 or 12 when I read The Snapper and I remember being very excited by the dashes instead of inverted commas for speech (yes, I was a total nerd of a child). The dialogue was so intensely real and raw and natural, it made me realise there was more to books than soppy teen crushes and pining after the knuckle-headed jock.
What is the most research you have done for a book?
Eggshells is my first book, and most of the detail-hunting I did for that didn’t feel like research because I was walking many of the routes Vivian was walking around Dublin anyway. Some of the routes I went out of my way to find, and I took bus trips to the farther-out parts of the city that Vivian goes to. I had scraps and scraps of paper for notes, then I would come home from Vivian’s walks and plot the routes on an old map on the living room floor. I tried drawing them, wonkily, and came up with the shapes that are drawn in the book. I was delighted when Karen Vaughan, the designer at Liberties Press, suggested replicating Vivian’s attempted map drawings – it’s nice to break up a glut of words with something more visual.
What book influenced you the most?
I’m not sure if I can technically call it an influence, because it’s about as different to Eggshells as could be, but Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn was a revelation to me. Even though he’s writing sort of autobiographically about hard drinking and sex with prostitutes, Miller never seems like he’s trying to shock. I like the book’s plotlessness, the fearlessness of the writing, the fact that he doesn’t care if he comes across as an occasionally odious individual. I regret giving a copy to my younger brother though, completely forgetting about the very frequent, highly detailed sex scenes.
What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?
A blank notebook. Prescribed reading is the worst, so they may as well start their writing early, get the first ten thousand or so terrible words out of the way, and be raring to go in their twenties. I came fairly late to this writing lark; I would like to have gotten the terrible parts out of the way younger.
What book do you wish you had read when you were young?
I have no reading regrets. I filled my little head with lots and lots of tripe when I was young: pulpy stuff with total emphasis on plot and zero character development. I read for pure enjoyment – time enough for the tough reads in adulthood.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Learn a trade, one that pays. Worrying about money wastes mental energy that would be better put towards your writing. And don’t expect too much from your first attempts at writing; know that they will be complete muck, but keep ploughing on through the muck.
What weight do you give reviews?
Before my book was published, I had grand notions that I wouldn’t read any reviews, but I’m new to this game and not cool enough to ignore them. I do try to keep a certain distance from reviews, though. You could damage your mental well-being if you took to heart every rejection or perceived slight or bad review. I’m trying not to take the good or the bad too seriously, otherwise I’ll either become insufferably pompous or crawl into a hole and never come out. Neither is ideal.
When a really bad review does come, the biggest concern will be for the reviewer’s delicate parts if my mother catches sight of it.
Where do you see the publishing industry going?
I have no knowledge about the business side of things, so I can’t make pronouncements about it, but my (possibly naïve) hope is that publishers with big budgets take more risks with unknown writers. Small independent publishers seem to be the ones publishing books that don’t fit perfectly into any category and are potentially difficult to market, and I would love to see more newness from the big players.
What writing trends have struck you lately?
I don’t know if it constitutes a trend, but I’ve noticed a fair few oddball narrators in the last few years, possibly as a response to the economic boom. Wealth seems to bring a homogeneity in attitude and acquisition, and these misfits act outside of that.
What lessons have you learned about life from reading?
From the Sweet Valley High series I read as a teenager, I learnt that the twin who wears makeup and purple clothes is more popular with boys than the bookish twin who writes for the school newspaper. From my adult reading, I don’t know of any lessons I’ve learnt. Maybe I should have read more non-fiction “How To” books to tell me how to get through this living business more efficiently.
What has being a writer taught you?
That writing a book can be done, even if you think that books are things that are written by other people. I didn’t set out to write a book, it grew from observations and ramblings, so it’s still a surprise to me to see my name on a book cover.
Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Well, multitasking is not my strong suit, so cooking for people and talking to them at the same time would be a problem. I’d serve a main course of crisps on a bed of popcorn, accompanied by the finest supermarket own-brand cider. As for the guests, I’d invite writers who are ideologically very different as well as those involved in serious rifts. With the lack of proper food, the alcohol would have more of an effect and they’d really let rip at each other – and they’d be less likely to sit there rehashing tired old stories and spouting rehearsed aphorisms.
What is the funniest scene you’ve read?
There’s a bit in Kurt Vonnegut’s book Timequake, where he describes how he and his sister once saw a woman emerge completely horizontal from a tram, headfirst – I picture it like that scene in Father Ted where Mrs Doyle falls from the window – and how they still laughed hysterically about it years later. I know it’s unevolved of me, but someone falling on their face makes me laugh more than anything (once they’re not really hurt, of course). I do get angry if someone laughs at me when I fall, obviously. I fell down a boggy hill in Mayo recently and when my sister started laughing, I reached over and pulled her down into the muck with me.
What is your favourite word?
Conniptions. I like that you have to have more than one conniption.
If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?
Soviet rule in eastern Europe, or any all-encompassing ruling system where you can’t trust family or friends and don’t know who’s a spy. It fascinates me, the idea that the people closest to you are the ones who betray you, but I may also have been taken in by the glamour of James Bond.
Eggshells by Caitriona Lally is published by Liberties Press