First of all: Irish writers on their debut novels coming out in 2021
From Louise Nealon’s coming-of-age tale to Una Mannion’s American nightmare
Louise Nealon lives on a dairy farm in Kildare with her family. Snowflake (Manilla, May) is a coming-of-age tale about a young woman who struggles to cope when she moves away from her family farm and steps into life in Trinity College Dublin.
What was the hardest thing about writing Snowflake?
The thought of sitting down to write is not very appealing to me, which is unfortunate, as well as embarrassing, for a person who calls herself a writer. When I was working on Snowflake, I had to constantly confront my own insecurities. Every day without fail, my inner critic would remind me that I couldn’t string a sentence together. The moment I finished the last sentence of that first draft was miraculous. It was the best moment of my life.
And the easiest?
Getting to work with the characters. It took a long time for me to get to know them, but once they came alive, they really helped me to get over myself. The story was never about me. It’s all theirs.
In 2020, Snowflake was acquired in a six-figure deal, and TV and film rights subsequently bought by Element Pictures. What was that like?
It was mad. I’m still trying to process it. All of this is beyond any of my wildest dreams. I have no idea how the publishing industry works so I didn’t know what to expect. I had braced myself for the idea that no one would want to publish the novel. The best thing was being able to celebrate with my family. They have always supported me and believed that I could make a career out of writing.
Waterford native Megan Nolan now lives in London and is a columnist for the New Statesman. Acts of Desperation (Jonathan Cape, March) is about a woman’s unravelling through a doomed relationship with a beautiful man.
What made you want to write this book?
I started writing it when I was 26 and had come out of a long-term relationship. When that ended it shook a lot of my convictions about what love was like, and also the possibilities of what you could do with your life – what you should be doing as a woman. What made me want to write this book was trying to sort out for myself, and hopefully for others, those questions about what place romance has in your life, and what to do when it becomes too much.
What are your strengths on the page?
I think my strength is … I don’t mean “unfiltered” as in it’s not considered, but I guess there’s an immediacy to the way I write. When I started, I didn’t have a theory of what was good, or a style I wanted to ape. Almost every writer I liked, I thought, I’ll never be able to write that way, so I’ll just have to do the most natural thing. And I think there’s some intimacy to my writing that connects with people.
How do you keep going as a writer?
That’s such a hard question. We didn’t sell the book in advance. Nobody was beating down the door looking for the manuscript. And honestly, I think what kept me going was that I never expected to make a big windfall from writing, or to have fame, or success. I just thought, if you keep going, and you’re good, people will read it. Also, I had the experience of growing up around my dad, who’s a writer. But he’s a jobbing writer. I think it was having the example of someone who’s very successful and talented but for whom it’s a slog to make the bills, as it is for everyone, and knowing you have to treat it like a job and keep ticking away. I find it dangerous to think, Oh, if I work hard enough, then I’ll make it, and that’s the end of my journey. That’s when the writing gets the most boring.
Mel O’Doherty is an English teacher who lives in Douglas, Cork. Fallen (Bluemoose, June) is about the tragedy of a woman whose child was left to die in mother and baby home Bessborough House.
What research/inspiration informed Fallen?
I was stunned and outraged with the scale and systemic nature of the abuse in residential institutions. This was all unfolding in the late 1990s. My brother had been working part time as a security guard in the abandoned convent in Sunday’s Well. This was, of course, a notorious Magdalene laundry for more than 100 years. I decided to accompany him a number of nights, the two of us walking through the silence with flashlights. Your whispers echo in the halls; the bats, rats, broken religious statues, rows of sinks. I became deeply interested in those places, the lives within. My research brought me to Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork. My wife and I were walking in the grounds one day in early 2014, discussing a novel I had been working on and struggling with. She looked up at the facade of the convent and said: “Why don’t you write a novel about this place?” I started the following morning. But that summer, the Tuam scandal broke, which changed everything, including my novel. Fallen became a tragic tale of a fictional Cork family, set against a nation’s crime and its unearthing.
What are you most looking forward to this year?
I’m looking forward to setting these characters free into the world. I’m proud of the novel and excited to see how others receive it. What you come up with on the page is deeply personal, but those characters are only yours for so long, and then they belong to everyone.
What are you most nervous about?
While my novel is fictional, Bessborough most certainly is not. The survivors’ trauma is very real. I wanted to be true to the reality of the experience, and it would be a failed novel, in my view, if I skirted this in any way. I hope survivors and their families accept that as the artistic mission of Fallen.
Niall Bourke hails from Kilkenny, but now lives in London with his partner, daughter and cat. Line (Tramp, April) is a work of speculative fiction about a man, his mother and his girlfriend who have spent their lives in an endless procession.
What made you want to be a writer?
Reading. When I was a teenager, I loved the escapism that came with disappearing into a good novel. I probably read less for escapism these days, but I’ve always wanted to try and write a book that might capture those experiences.
Your website says you had many false starts at writing a novel. Why do you think that was?
I’m not sure but I suspect I underestimated just how much resilience you need to finish a novel, particularly your first. You have to keep chipping away, evening by evening, week by week, month by month. You get home from a day’s work and no one cares if you write 500 words or not. I also needed to find the story I truly believed in, the one worth finishing regardless of whether it would be read by anyone else. It took me a long time to realise that.
You’re also a poet. How does writing fiction compare with writing poetry?
I’m increasingly drawn to the blurred boundaries between the two. In poetry I’ve drifted away from the lyric towards the narrative, while in fiction I’ve found myself going the other way. I’ve more than once written a poem that has turned out to be a short story and vice-versa. Recently I was lucky enough to be awarded a grant to (try and!) develop a “choose your own adventure” poetry collection, a la the classic Ian Livingstone adventure books of the 1980s. I don’t quite know where this will end, but suspect it will become another stage of this evolution.
Louise Kennedy grew up in Holywood, Co Down. She trained as a Cordon Bleu cook and spent years cheffing before moving to Sligo, in 1999. The End of the World is a Cul de Sac (Bloomsbury, April) is a short-story collection whose themes include politics, poverty, domestic abuse and more.
How did you get started as a writer?
When I was a child, I wanted to be a writer but thought it was something only special people did, and I wasn’t special. In 2014, when I was 47, I was persuaded to join a writing group. I found the first meeting excruciating but agreed to try to write a short story. The others were very kind and encouraging about my attempt, so I kept going.
What keeps you going these days?
I always seem to have deadlines, which keep me at it, but the main reason I persist is because of the support of those around me: my husband, kids, family. I also have the best first reader in Una Mannion. If it wasn’t for her encouragement and plain goodness, I would have packed it in ages ago.
Did any themes emerge as you pieced together The End of the World is a Cul de Sac?
I began writing the stories in 2016, a time of much debate over issues pertaining to women in Ireland. I was on the board of a domestic violence service, and on the first Monday of every month I listened to horror stories of women and children living in fear for their lives. On a radio phone-in, I heard a woman describe her life as the only resident of an unfinished ghost estate, on a road without tarmac or streetlights that was overrun with rats. The front page of a local paper had a headline about rising rates of cocaine use in farming communities. Below the article were photographs taken at a novena at a local church. Sometimes on the news there was footage of men in white overalls combing a bog or beach in search of one of the Disappeared of the Troubles. It seems now that my characters are fictional renderings of those voices and stories.
Born in Philadelphia, Una Mannion has lived, since her early 20s, in Sligo, where she teaches on the writing and literature programme at IT Sligo. A Crooked Tree (Faber, January) is about a family in suburban 1980s America and an incident that has unintended consequences.
Do you have a writing routine?
This is a sensitive question because I just took a semester off from work for the first time. I’d imagined I’d write all day every day. That hasn’t happened. Two weeks in, I broke my hand and have found myself disorganised and unfocused and I don’t know if it’s the hand, the lockdown or my inability to structure a routine when not under time duress.
What sparked the idea for A Crooked Tree?
At the start of A Crooked Tree a mother puts a child out on the road at dusk when she is misbehaving in the car, and drives on as the other children look out the window at their sister standing alone on the gravel verge. The catalyst for the story is something that happened to one of my sisters when I was maybe 10, and her small shape on the road is an image that has always stayed with me, along with a sense that something terrible would happen. I wanted to write a story about the fracture of a family and the efforts children make to compensate or right the wrongs of the adults in their lives.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever heard?
Anne Lamott’s injunction to just write, even though it won’t be any good, still resonates with me. I read her book Bird by Bird when I first started attempting stories – it’s a guide to get writing more than advice on writing well.
MORE DEBUTANTS TO LOOK OUT FOR
The Irish Times critic turns her hand to fiction with Dinner Party (One, September), a novel that explores how the past informs the present.
Primary school teacher Scarlett’s Boys Don’t Cry (Faber, April) tells of two boys growing up in a Dublin tower block.
John Patrick McHugh
Galway writer and editor John Patrick McHugh’s first collection, Pure Gold (New Island, February), is set on an imagined island off the west coast of Ireland.
Sports journalist and editor Eimear Ryan’s Holding Her Breath (Sandycove, June), is about a former competitive swimmer trying to build a new life, and who finds herself among people who adore the poetry of her long deceased grandfather.
Former journalist Tish Delaney’s Before My Actual Heart Breaks (Hutchinson, February) tells of a young woman growing up in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles, and her later self trying to repair a life gone off course.
Playwright Luke Cassidy’s Iron Annie (Bloomsbury, September) has a bisexual female narrator at its centre and is about “the delicate balance to be struck when two people have very different ideas about their relationship”.