Lia Mills: ‘Books are like children, leaving home. You want the world to treat them well’

A book isn’t written in one sitting, it comes one word at a time, and a few words a day will get you there in the end'

What was the first book to make an impression on you?

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. My brother worked at a riding school and I was mad about horses. *Spoiler alert* I howled when Ginger died.

What was your favourite book as a child?

Eilis Dillon's Irish Myths and Legends and a book of Greek Myths that belonged to my sister. I used to hide it from her so I could spend as much time with it as I wanted. Oh, and The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett).

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And what is your favourite book or books now?

How long have we got? I'm a love-the-one-you're-with kind of reader, but I have excellent relationships with previous reads. If my life depended on it and I absolutely had to make a choice, I'd probably go for the complete set of The Paris Review Interviews, edited by Philip Gourevitch. A comfort book for years of living abroad was Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman; I've recently taken up with it again, with all the joy of rediscovery. And I'll always have a soft spot for A Room of One's Own, by Virginia Woolf – not just for content but for style, and for the graceful, witty expression of the birth of an idea, when it must have been such a headache to pull together.

What is your favourite quotation?

Better to light a candle than curse the dark.

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

Celia de Fréine is principally a poet, playwright and screenwriter but she also writes fiction and wrote the libretto for Fergus Johnston's opera The Earl of Kildare. She writes in both English and Irish. Her Irish language work has won many prizes, and two of her films (one in Irish, one in English) have won prizes at the New York International Film Festival. Writers and scholars are well aware of her, but even though much of her work is available in translation and some in dual-language format, she doesn't get as much attention as she deserves. All that's about to change: two collections in English are out this year. One is a collection of prose poems set in a school for Travellers, cleverly entitled A lesson in Can't; the other is an English translation of her poetry collection Fiacha Fola which will be published as Blood Debts. It's 10 years since news of the Hepatitis C scandal broke – when it was first admitted that some women may have been given contaminated Anti-D (more than 1,000 women and several hundred haemophiliacs were affected). Blood Debts tells the story from the point of view of one woman infected with Hepatitis C. I think when these two collections are published, many more readers will become aware of Celia's work very quickly. Treat in store.

Which do you prefer– ebooks or the traditional print version?

Print

What is the most beautiful book you own?

The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (2 Vols)

Where and how do you write?

We converted our garage into a study and I usually work there, on a Mac. Sometimes I commandeer the kitchen table.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I was nine, or maybe 10. I was scandalised by the twist at the end. I mean outraged. I was an extremely moralistic child, and I thought Christie cheated. Up until then I'd been a committed but naive reader: if it was in print it had to be true. That book showed me there was a mind behind the world behind the lines, whether I liked it or not. It also taught me that rules are not to be trusted.

What is the most research you have done for a book?

This one (Fallen), definitely. Years of it. Too much, maybe. I had to spend a long time covering the traces.

What book influenced you the most?

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf (see above).

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?

No Logo by Naomi Klein.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young?

Proust: In Search of Lost Time – I'll never find it now.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

If you want to be a writer, you have to choose it – and keep choosing it until you know it’s what you are. Then nothing will stop you. You’re the one who has to do it. Don’t wait to be asked, or for someone to show you the way; you have to figure it out for yourself through practice, word by word and page by page. If something is stopping you, look that thing in the eye and ask yourself why, and if there’s something you can do to change it. If time is your issue, then half an hour a day will have to do – and it can. A book isn’t written in one sitting, it comes one word at a time, and a few words a day will get you there in the end. Maybe it won’t come as fast as you’d like, but it won’t come at all if you don’t put in those hours to begin with.

What weight do you give reviews?

I’d love to say I don’t care but of course I do. Books are like children, leaving home. You want the world to treat them well. You want them to realise their potential and be happy and safe. You know life rarely turns out that way, but it doesn’t stop you hoping.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

I don’t think books are going anywhere. Publishing is adapting and evolving but it’s far too early to tell what will happen next. I’m a great believer in cycles of change, but I also believe in reading as an essential human faculty and I don’t believe we’ll throw it away.

What writing trends have struck you lately?

The return of the short story, in full force and in triumph. The rise of performance poetry and experimental fiction, especially in short-short/flash fiction – there's a great sample of flash in the recent issue of the Stinging Fly, in a section guest-edited by Nuala Ní Chonchúir. In Ireland, there's been a rise in speculative fiction set slightly in the future, as a way of casting a beady eye on the present, such as John Kelly's From Out of the City. It's refreshing. Then there's docudrama. Gerald Dalton combined the last two recently when he staged a clever trilogy of plays, The State We're In, in the Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire. The trilogy imagined a series of "debates" set in 2024, reflecting "back" on imagined developments in Irish society over the intervening 10 years. Great idea and very effective.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

Everything I know about life has come from reading. Fiction is all about perspective: reading gives us an appreciation of other people’s point of view; it shows that truth is relative; it keeps language alive and teaches us about shades of meaning, how to read the world and other people.

What has being a writer taught you?

No one else can do it for you. Keep trying until you get there.

What is your favourite word?

Yes

If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?

Em, I just finished one. Fallen is set during the Great War and the Easter Rising. You mean you want me to write another one?

Fallen by Lia Mills is published by Penguin Ireland. Her review of How the World Was Won: The Americanization of Everywhere, by Peter Conrad, will be published in The Irish Times next month.