Irish writers on why they hang out with writers: ‘Gossip’
‘We’re monkeys picking insects out of each other’s fur.’ By Anne Enright, John Boyne and more
Writers are prone to write, but the craft and those who aspire to it are often in need of that kind word or helping hand. Photograph: Getty Images
In much the same way as plumbers tend to have a disproportionate number of friends who are plumbers, I have a lot of friends who are writers. I don’t consciously think of these friends as any kind of support network, but there is a mysterious succour to be had from regular contact with people who do the same slightly weird thing for a living as yourself.
When I spend time with friends who are writers, actual conversations about writing per se are vanishingly rare – probably because there are few topics more boring than the act of writing – but I’ll admit to having developed an unexpected taste for frivolous gossip. Most writers are virtuosic gossipers. This, surely, has a lot to do with a necessary interest in narrative, character, and language; but I think it probably has at least as much to do with the solitariness of the work itself. Gossip – which, if evolutionary psychologists are to be believed, is a social-cohesion mechanism that grew out of the primate practice of grooming – is a way of feeling connected. We’re all just monkeys sitting around picking insects out of each other’s fur.
Mark O’Connell is a writer based in Dublin. His first book How to be a Machine won the Wellcome Prize last month. His work has been published in the Dublin Review, the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book Review, the Observer, and the Independent.
Kit de Waal
Being in a writing community is very dear to my heart, to the extent that when I finished my creative writing MA I set up a writing group to keep the students together so we could continue to share our work.
But beyond the sharing of the work and us telling one another what works or doesn’t, the fellowship, friendship of other writers is key to keeping going as a writer. With who else can you query the placement of a comma, talk about the evils of procrastination, share the joy of an appearance on the most minor longlist? And then there is an encouraging word from someone you admire.
At the Costa Awards in 2017 I was queuing up to meet Sebastian Barry and before I could open my mouth, he said “hello Kit”. Now that little encounter, the fact of one of my literary heroes recognising me, the notion of him having read my work (did he really, could he possibly?) keeps me going even now, over a year later.
Kit de Waal’s debut novel My Name Is Leon was an international bestseller, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, long-listed for the Desmond Elliott Prize and won the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award for 2017. Her second novel The Trick to Time was published in March.
The most thrilling author encounter I’ve had as an eternally up-and-coming author myself happened at the Listowel Writers Week Festival five years ago.
I was in John B Keane’s pub. There were some trad musicians sitting in a corner and I found myself joining them in a rendition of Kevin Barry, albeit a version bowdlerised of excessive anti-British content out of sensitivity to the Sassanachs in my company.
Next thing I knew Colm Tóibín was in my ear asking me if I knew any Wexford songs. I said I knew a few verses of Boolavogue, and so we sang a duet, earning the hushed attention of the rest of the pub. The words of the song were coming out of my mouth but of course the only words that were going through my head were: “Oh my god, I’m singing here with Colm Tóibín and everyone thinks I’m somebody. And I’ve made it now and look at me, I’m brilliant.”
It felt like some kind of induction into the inner circle. I was buzzing on it for days, weeks and months. The next time I met Tóibín was a couple of years later in a book shop. I mentioned the duet in John B Keane’s and his face was like, “who’s this bozo?”
Gavin Corbett is the author of This is the Way (London, Fourth Estate/New York, Faber, 2013), for which he received the 2013 Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year and Green Glowing Skull (Fourth Estate, 2015). He lives in Dublin.
My mother still treasures the memory of meeting Maeve Binchy at an event in Andrews Lane Theatre in 1990 shortly after my first book came out. The panel was all female and included Clare Boylan, also now gone – I am not sure who else. Maeve, being canny, did not compliment me (I was, in those days, a little intense) but instead praised me to my mother, making great predictions as to my future success. She bought, with bank-fresh notes, a hardback copy of The Portable Virgin, took it in her arthritic hand and passed it over her shoulder, saying, “Gordon will read it on the plane”.
She may have then dropped it. Gordon may have been there to catch it. And all of this was done without leaving her perch on a high stool in the foyer. I managed, in my youthful sensitivity, to be mildly insulted by the whole encounter. Who was this Gordon and why talk to my mother? But her words were indelible, they have made my family life easier for 30 years. I remember (and misremember) many things other writers said to me at that starting-out time. It is important to be nice to the young.
Anne Enright is the author of two books of short stores and six novels including The Gathering which won the ManBooker Prize in 2007. She was the first Irish Laureate for Fiction and has recently been appointed professor for fiction in University College Dublin.
I only started meeting other prose writers after my first novel HellFire was published in 2006. It took me a while to understand how the literary scene works.
Writers are isolated, but they also thrive on contact. There’s an element of competition: we all want our books read by as many readers as possible and we know readers can’t read everyone’s books. But beneath that, there’s a huge web of support. Nearly every week I have a great conversation with a writer. Sometimes it’s about books; sometimes just life. In 2010 I interviewed one of my literary heroes, Kate Atkinson. I was asking her how she structured her books and was moving my hands around.
She said something like: Oh, I can see you’re like me, you make books like they’re physical things. I was in the throes of finishing a first draft of my difficult second novel and feeling very shaky about it. The generosity of Kate’s comment stayed with me, helped me through the challenging years that followed. Whenever I can, I try to encourage writers who are coming up, to remember that we are all the same, flawed – and often insecure – little beings, making physical things called books.
Mia Gallagher is the author of two novels, HellFire and Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland. Her award-winning short fiction has been widely published and anthologised. Her new book of short stories Shift has just been published by New Island Books.
Sometimes it’s just a throw-away comment that sticks with you. I was giving a lecture on Eoghan Ó Tuairisc’s wonderful long poem Aifreann na Marbh, and more scarily, he was there himself. After the lecture I asked him how was it that he wrote poetry and novels and plays and essays, why not stick to just one genre and be done with it? It was a dumb question, but he just smiled, shrugged his shoulders and replied, “because I’m a writer”.
Such a direct statement shouldn’t have the force of a revelation, but it did. It took me some years to realise how firmly simple-minded critics start out with the measuring tape and can only think inside that box which we are constantly told to think outside of. There is a crass belief that a poet cannot write a story, a novelist can’t write poetry, a dramatist is only good for the stage. You must be this or that, and certainly not the other. It is cobblers to stick to you last, as your only last is words, because you are “a writer”.
Alan Titley was appointed Professor of Modern Irish at University College Cork in 2006. Among his several novels and collections are the short story collection Focrici agus Scéalta Eile and the essay collection Beyond the Knacker’s Yard. He recently translated Cré N Cille by Máirtín Ó Cadhain
Half my life is spent with made-up people. Sometimes I stumble back from 1918 or wherever I’ve been and come across as rather peculiar. Non-writers find this weird and who could blame them? But other writers, emerging blinking from their own worlds, get it.
They also understand about being a catastrophist. About having the kind of imagination that leaps straight to the worst-case scenario – my book wasn’t reviewed? My career is over! My novel on submission hasn’t been picked up yet? I must be a terrible writer and my career is over! I didn’t get invited to that festival? Everyone hates me AND my career is over!
Other writers talk you back from the edge. They buy you gin and lovely notebooks. (I’m looking at you, Deirdre Sullivan and Sarah Webb.)
Some other writers manage not to be rather peculiar catastrophists. These are rare specimens. I haven’t come across one in the wild.
Sheena Wilkinson writes contemporary realistic fiction for children and young adults. Her first three books books Taking Flight, Grounded and Too Many Ponies, were all shortlisted for the CBI Awards. Her novels Still Falling, and Name upon Name were published in 2015. She is a professional mentor for NUI Galway, and tutors for the Arvon Foundation. She lives in Co Down.
I spoke with a writer at a literary festival recently about their experience of winning bursaries and awards. It surprised me to learn how humble and conscious they were of their honours and roles.
They said that they know how competitive the writing world can be, with getting shortlisted, being published, wondering how many, if any, of the things you’ve applied for will come through. It reminded me that we often see other writers through the lens of social media, which really is a showing of our “best bits”.
In reality everyone suffers rejection and moments of disappointment or panic. I appreciated the honesty of this conversation and was grateful for the opportunity to be reminded that as writers, we often find ourselves in the same boat. In a world that is peppered with prizes and pinnacles, it’s very important to have other writers around you, to discuss the day-to-day realities all writers face, to gain and offer support and to learn from each other.
Dani Gill is a writer, and an independent curator, project manager and creative writing tutor, based in the west of Ireland. From 2010-2016 she was director of Cúirt International Festival of Literature, Galway. She published her first collection of poems, After Love, with Salmon Poetry in April 2017
One of the joys of being a writer is getting an opportunity to meet and sometimes become friends with writers you admire. Almost 20 years after publishing my first book, I still feel privileged to share stages with the likes of Sebastian Faulks, Emma Donoghue, John Irving, Cecelia Ahern, Edmund White, all of whom I’ve been on with over the last year alone, and it’s hard not to get that “how did I end up here?” feeling.
But the real joy comes afterwards, having a drink together and talking about the work, sharing our insecurities and discussing frustrations. It’s good to know that, no matter how experienced a writer is, every new book can be just as challenging, difficult and exciting to write as the first.
With social media and the growth of literary festivals, it’s easier now for new writers to connect with those of us who’ve been around a long time and, when asked, I’m always happy to share whatever I’ve learned along the way about sustaining a career. At its best, the community of writers and readers can be a supportive and thrilling place to work.
John Boyne is the author of nine novels for adults and five for children including The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and most recently The Heart’s Invisible Furies. His work is available in 50 languages. He has been a judge for the Hennessy Literary Awards, the International Dublin Literary Award, as well as chairing the jury for the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Before I became a writer, I was a children’s bookseller and I was lucky enough to meet some of the greats, from JK Rowling to Michael Morpurgo. But it was a conversation with Judy Blume in 1996 that changed everything. I was working in Waterstone’s and she was touring her new children’s book. I had arranged a school event for her and after the event we had lunch together.
We exchanged stories – she’s open and warm – and I told her that one day I’d love to write a book. “Write for children,” she told me. “They’re the best audience ever. And I think you’d be great at it.”
Greatly encouraged I followed her advice. My first children’s book, Kids Can Cook came out in 1997 and I’ve now published more than 30 books.
I also teach creative writing at the Irish Writers Centre and run writing clubs for children. I try to be as encouraging and supportive as I can – fragile dreams can so easily be crushed.
If Judy Blume had told me to stick to the day job things might have turned out differently. I am so grateful for her kindness, it made all the difference.
Sarah Webb is an award-winning children’s writer. Her new book for children, Blazing a Trail: Irish Women Who Changed the World will be published by O’Brien Press in October
- Words Ireland @ ILFDublin: A National Day for Writers is a one-day get together for professional and emerging writers working in all forms. It is a forum for writers to gather, reflect on creative and professional practice, catch up with industry leaders, and attend events. It takes place at Imma, Dublin on May 25th. Tickets including lunch are €55. Booking on http://wordsireland.ie/words-ireland-ilfdublin/