‘I’m glad I didn’t know Eggshells would be published: not knowing was liberating’

Authors and Editors: Caitriona Lally and her editor Zoë Jellicoe discuss with Sarah Bannan how Eggshells came together

 

Caitriona Lally was a finalist in the 2014 Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair. Her first book, Eggshells, was published by Liberties Press in May. She has been shortlisted for Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year at the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards. She works as a cleaner in Trinity College Dublin

Zoë Jellicoe is an editor at Liberties Press, co-founder of the Made It series and columnist for Dublin Inquirer

Sarah Bannan is the author of Weightless (Bloomsbury Circus)

Caitriona, Eggshells is your first novel, and you submitted it to the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair (and were one of the finalists!). How had you approached editing before you landed a publisher?

I submitted the first 10,000 words to the novel fair contest in October 2013. I edited those words ruthlessly before the deadline, and then between October and February – when I found out I’d won a place at the fair – I worked on the rest of the book. I was brutal with myself on the edits; I did five rewrites to pare it down.

Also, I was lucky enough to be part a writing group – well, a former writing group and current drinking group – that I could share my work with. Some years ago, I did a writing course with Some Blind Alleys, taught by Greg Baxter. Our group had 30 weeks’ practice at giving and receiving feedback, so there was a lot of trust there. I sent them a second draft, and got some very useful feedback. Apart from that, I didn’t show my work to anyone because if you take on too many opinions, you risk losing sight of what you’re trying to say or losing confidence in how you’re trying to say it.

Zoë, what made you know you wanted to publish Eggshells?

I started interning in Liberties Press in April 2014, just after Dan Bolger, who was managing editor at the time, had been at the Irish Writers’ Centre novel fair. He had a big stack of manuscripts, and Eggshells was one of the first that I read. I was immediately captivated by Vivian and so carried away by Caitriona’s focus on detail. I loved Vivian’s relationship to inanimate objects – how she was careful to sit on all chairs equally so that no chair felt left out – and way of informing acquaintances about her great-aunt’s death by posting each friend some of her ashes. Sam Tranum, our managing editor, read the opening chapters and loved them, then immediately contacted Caitriona and circulated her manuscript within the office. We’re an incredibly small team that work collaboratively, and if we publish something it’s because we’re all very excited about it.

Caitriona, what made you know you wanted to work with Liberties and Zoë?

Before the novel fair, I had researched all the publishers who were going to be there, and I knew that Liberties published some great character-driven, slightly offbeat books – A Model Partner by Daniel Seery, for one. But what you want and what you get are entirely different things, so I didn’t allow myself to pin my hopes on any particular publisher. Sam Tranum at Liberties got in touch a few months after the fair and asked for the full manuscript, which kicked off negotiations, and I signed the deal in October. When I visited Liberties, I got a feel for the kind of books they published and the beautiful covers, and it all went very smoothly from then on.

Zoë, debut authors are always risky for publishers (or so everybody says), and Eggshells is a (beautiful) literary novel at that. Were you worried it would pose too much of a risk?

I know publishers are said to express wariness of poetry and short stories, as well as debut authors, but I’ve never found that to be the case with Liberties. Our publisher Seán [O’Keeffe] is himself a poet, and it’s never something we’ve been afraid of. We’re also lucky to have an incredible array of debut writers that we’ve formed close relationships with. We’re openly enthusiastic about debut fiction. It may be more difficult, in some respects, but it’s also genuinely thrilling.

Caitriona, I’ve read that you wrote Eggshells during a particularly difficult period in your life and, like a lot of first-time novelists, you were never sure it would be published. Did your feelings towards the novel change when you realised it would actually hit shelves?

It was hugely exciting to realise that words from my head would be put into print, but also a little scary. I had never had anything published before signing the book deal, so I hadn’t been eased into having my thoughts being out there in public.

I’m glad I didn’t know Eggshells would be published; the not-knowing was liberating, I was writing unselfconsciously and just for me; having no readers in mind gives you more freedom.

I think that, like many first novels, Eggshells is flawed and there are certain bits I wouldn’t write now, but I’m proud of it for what it is. It’s absolutely my best effort, the best that I could do at that time. Cliche I know, but it’s like running your first marathon – getting to the finish is the goal, but for the next one, you’re harder on yourself.

Zoë, there is an oath among some editors: “First, do no harm”. Do you find it easy to stick to that? Are there parts of editing that you feel you’re stronger at than others? For example, are you happier to fix plot or would you rather concentrate on the sentence? (Maybe you’re happy doing both, of course!)

The best way of first doing no harm is probably familiarising yourself with an author’s intentions. When it comes to fiction, I love working with authors on the particulars of language. It’s a fascinating way of getting acquainted with someone’s brain, and I like learning about the author’s relationship to and intentions for her characters through that sort of detailed back-and-forth. Plot issues are ideally addressed in the initial read-through, early on in the editorial process. We do try to keep last-minute surgery off the table.

Caitriona, what was the most challenging part of Eggshells for you?

Living inside Vivian’s head was the toughest part; it’s a very intense place to be. Vivian’s world is quite limited – she has no friends or close family, she doesn’t go to pubs, she doesn’t travel, she doesn’t run or ever work up a sweat: all very important parts of my life! Maintaining the voice of a very character, and keeping her enclosed in quite a prescribed set of Dublin streets got claustrophobic at times.

Same question for you, Zoë.

Eggshells didn’t need anything more than the lightest touch, and I was conscious of the precision with which Caitriona had chosen her language. So much of Vivian’s thoughts are based not just around wordplay, but on the visual impact of letters and numbers, and the sounds and textures and feelings they evoke. There was quite a bit of thought that went into how this needed to be portrayed. I remember being at a loose end as to how the blued-out street signs, in particular, could be portrayed on the page.

Caitriona, did the two of you argue about anything in Eggshells? Were there questions or changes that Zoë suggested that you wouldn’t engage with? And, if so, are you happy you stuck to your guns or do you have doubts now?

There were very few changes made in the end. The editing process was short, only a few weeks, so there wasn’t much time for debate. One thing I remember getting quite pedantic and pernickety about was the definition of knuckle – there were a few mails over and back sending links to anatomical websites and diagrams, which was surreal and fun. Zoë and I had different ideas about which of the joints in your hands were your knuckles, and whether it was physically possible to touch your knuckles with your thumbs (I have unnaturally long fingers and thumbs). There was another discussion about speech marks, which I’m not a fan of. I tried arguing against them (I’d written Eggshells with speech indented) but Zoë pointed out that it could be hard for readers to see the difference between Vivian’s speech and thought. I fought to keep some grammatically incorrect things that Zoë spotted; I preferred the rhythm of them, even if they were wrong.

Zoë, in what way do you make your edits? Is it a series of questions? A red pen? A chat over lunch or coffee or drinks?

Once an author comes into the office to sign their contract we’ll have usually met them at least once before and chatted a few times over the phone, depending on what sort of condition their manuscript is in and whether it needs any restructuring. I always think it’s nicer meeting over a drink somewhere other than the office. I give manuscripts an initial read in bulky paper and then do the editing digitally, either in tracked changes or by making highlighted additions and questions in comments. An old friend who used to run a copy-editing service always used green biro as she thought that red looked too aggressive, and as a result I work mostly in green, a pleasantly conversational colour.

And finally, Caitriona, can you give us a hint as to what you’re working on now?

I’m in the throes of a very rough first draft of a novel set in Hamburg. While I was finishing Eggshells, I had the characters for the next novel in my head – it was like cheating on Vivian, a serial monogamy with a bit of overlap – but I didn’t know where to place these characters. I felt I had written Dublin to death and needed a new setting but I didn’t know where. After the novel fair, I went to visit a friend in Hamburg and came across an exhibition that I became obsessed with, so I chose that as a setting. There are two narrators; after the intensity of Vivian’s head, it’s quite nice to split the work between them.

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