Caitriona Lally on writing Eggshells: from the dole to a debut novel
A first-time author’s compelling and frank account of the impact of losing a job and how the experience formed her as a writer
Caitriona Lally: “After almost a year, I found a minimum-wage job that felt like winning the Lotto. It was only when I had the security of paid work, and the sense of shape to the week that a job provides, that I finally had the confidence to move from my paper-scraps and notebooks to an empty computer screen, and begin writing Eggshells”
In the summer of 2014, I got word that Liberties Press was interested in publishing my first novel, Eggshells. Three years previously, I had kept notebooks to record conversations I’d overheard on Dublin Bus, along with interesting graffiti and street signs I’d seen in Dublin, and these notebooks formed the basis of Eggshells. I had been made redundant from my abstract writing job in the summer of 2011. The timing was not ideal. I’d bought a house at the peak of the housing market so I was steeped in negative equity; now I’d been laid off in the year unemployment reached more than 14 per cent. The company I worked for was bought up by an American giant which swallowed up our Irish office and spat us out onto the dole queues.
I’d never been drawn to job status. I’d never had a job that made people look at me with respect, but I had always worked and I hadn’t realised how important that was to me. I don’t particularly identify my sense of self with a career, but still I felt unmoored by the lack of stability.
While I was unemployed, I spent a lot of time waiting. Waiting in line at the dole office to sign on, waiting in line at the post office for my dole, waiting for appointments at the Fás office, waiting on lists for Fás courses, waiting for responses from job applications.
News reports about unemployment always show the backs of people’s heads or just their feet outside social welfare offices; I was almost surprised to see that unemployed people had faces, and bodies attached to their feet.
I applied for hundreds of jobs: jobs in data entry, administration, retail, housekeeping, customer service, hotel & catering, marketing, publishing. I carried out an online test for a cleaning job in a five-star hotel. There were pictures of hotel rooms and corridors and grounds accompanied by questions about what was dirty or out of place in the picture. In spite of several college summers spent working as a cleaner, I failed to get called to interview.
At a time when vacant positions received so many applicants, the vast majority of companies didn’t bother to send rejections. Rejections I could cope with; the certainty was easier to deal with than the waiting and hoping.
It was hard to retain a sense of identity when I was tweaking my personality for every job application. I constantly rearranged my CV and letters of application. I was hopeful at first, believing well-meaning people who talked about all these doors that were going to open after the first one closed, but there were more brick walls than open doors that year.
It’s difficult to describe the punch in the gut that redundancy gives you. Even though I hadn’t been fired, even though I was lucky enough to be part of a large group that had been laid off, it still felt personal. It’s only when you don’t have a paid job that you realise how often the subject of work comes up in conversation. People you meet for the first time ask what you do for a living, friends talk about their jobs; you have nothing to contribute. Since my experience of joblessness, I ask people if they work rather than where they work.
I did an internship. I did a couple of Fás courses. It was helpful to meet others who had also been flung onto the dole-heap, to swap war stories of shoddy treatment at the hands of former employers, to trade tips on where to buy the cheapest groceries.
I wrote an essay. I attempted a couple of short stories. I tried to get them published but they were turned down. Continual rejection got tiresome, so I decided to write a novel, if only to postpone the eventual rejection. Also, writing a novel would feel like an achievement in itself, even if it was never published. I didn’t know how to start a novel so I started to keep a notebook.
Your sense of time changes when you stop working. Hours feels looser with fewer deadlines; the individual days of the week lose their meaning.
I spent a lot of time wandering around Dublin. I would walk from my home in Cabra into town, noticing how street signs had some of their letters missing. I wrote the changed letters of these street names in a notebook, wondering what had happened to these letters. I decided my main character, Vivian, was a woman who believed she was a changeling and was seeking a way back to her original world. Vivian is an outsider who wants to belong. She tries to find a pattern or a code in these blue-ed out street signs, messages written in toilet cubicles, graffiti on walls, in order to find a way back home.
Changelings have always fascinated me: that sense of not belonging, the belief that there’s another world in which you belong. I walked the city looking for “thin places”, places that in Celtic mythology were believed to be portals to the Otherworld. I looked through an old map of Dublin and made a list of magical, otherworldly sounding placenames. Vivian visits these places in an attempt to find the portal.
I decided to make Vivian jobless, to heighten the sense of not belonging, of being separate from the crowd. But Vivian’s situation differed from mine in one important way: she had no financial worries. Worrying about a boom-time mortgage in a recession, wondering if any employer will ever respond to your job application nibbles away at the soul. I wanted to spare Vivian that. I wanted to spare myself reliving that. I wanted to write the fantasy of having a house that was paid for and lots of money in the bank.
Vivian regards her job-hunting “as more of a hobby than an action that could produce results” and this is how I felt after endless rounds of applications. Vivian and I also shared a similar approach to job-hunting:
“I type ‘Assistant’ into the search box of the job website. I have no particular skills or experience so I can’t be in charge of anything or anybody, but maybe I can assist at something.”
While living like Vivian, I made attempts to connect with people in an indirect, anonymous way. I put €5 notes in the pockets of cardigans that tend to be bought by elderly women. I wrote strange messages in books and donated them to charity shops. To this day, I still wonder what the person who bought the second-hand book from a Phibsborough charity shop made of the message:
The sardines have eluded us yet again.
Some day, Zolanda; some day.”
After almost a year, I found a job: a minimum-wage job that felt like winning the Lotto. I had colleagues again, and money appeared in my bank account every month. It was only when I had the security of paid work, and the sense of shape to the week that a job provides, that I finally had the confidence to move from my paper-scraps and notebooks to an empty computer screen, and begin writing my novel, Eggshells. I wrote before work and after work and at weekends. I wrote in bed and at the kitchen table and in the library. Some days I wrote 10 words; other days I wrote a thousand. I kept the character of Vivian obsessively in my head, which was good for my writing and bad for my personality.
I entered the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair in order to give myself a deadline, to stop me dragging out endless tweaks and rewrites. I was picked as one of 12 finalists and, as a direct result of the fair, I got an agent and a book deal with Liberties. Now, holding Eggshells in my hand, the physical result of words from my head, is worth anything.
Shaking off the character of Vivian after the book was finished was a relief tinged with sadness. I enjoyed writing her, but interpreting the city through her strange mind was intense. I walked Dublin with my legs and Vivian’s eyes, and sometimes it was hard to distinguish between the two.
After a couple of desk jobs, I realised that sitting all day in front of a computer made me dread writing in the evenings. I got a cleaning job, which, apart from the 4.40am starts, fits in perfectly with my writing efforts. Working hard physically means I look forward to sitting down to write. I find satisfaction in making a dirty surface clean again, in completing a task before moving on to the next one. And the rhythm of scrubbing and hoovering spurs unconnected thoughts: I keep a notebook in my cleaning smock to scribble anything useful that comes into my head as I work. Even better, I have most of the day free to promote the first book and write the second book, as long as I can resist the lure of the pillow.
Eggshells by Caitriona Lally is published by Liberties Press and is being launched on Wednesday, May 20th in Hodges Figgis, Dulbin by writer Anthony Glavin