Meet the bright young things of Irish writing

Young Irish fiction writers have made strides in recent years, and 2018 promises some fine debuts. Here six authors introduce their books

Helen Cullen

The Lost Letters of William Woolf  (Penguin, July)
William Woolf works as a letter detective in the dead letters depot of east London; daily he tries to solve the mysteries of hundreds of undelivered letters and parcels to help them complete their journeys. When he starts to find letters written by a woman named Winter to her great love, whom she has never met, the most important mystery to come his way unfolds.

What made you choose this story? I remember discovering John Donne's poem To Sir Henry Wooton in Soundings. The line, "More than kisses, letters mingle souls" stirred something in me and lingered in my mind for many years. It triggered a meditation on the lost art and power of letter-writing, intermingled with questions concerning how love endures with the passing of time; the juxtaposition between the pragmatism required to sustain a relationship and what the arts and media suggest about affairs of the heart. I wanted to create a world of infinite possibility where magic and realism could collide, and the depot manifested itself.

In Belfast there is an actual dead letters depot. I’m sure it’s a thousand times more productive than the somewhat dysfunctional world of this book.

What writers do you enjoy or influence you? When I was little my mother introduced me to all the great classic children's novels, and I believe that is one of the fundamental reasons I write now – it opened my imagination to a world of possibilities. I feel I've probably been absorbing influences unwittingly for a lifetime, but it's difficult to explicitly identify them in my work; my list of inspirational writers is endless and evolving. This year I discovered, far too late, the incredible Niall Williams, undoubtedly one of the greatest living Irish writers.


Introduce yourself, please. I live in London now, but grew up in Portlaoise before moving to Dublin for university and work. My partner and I went home for a year in 2014 to embrace the good life in a little cottage in Cliffoney, Co Sligo, where I finished writing this book. I have a very special relationship with that spot where the mountains meet the sea.

Plans? I'm writing my second novel about an Irish islander and potter named Murtagh Moone.

Danny Denton

The Earlie King & The Kid in Yellow (Granta Books, just published)
Set in a fallen, rain-drenched Ireland, it is the story of the myth of a 13-year-old boy who kidnapped a baby and went on the run.

What made you choose this story? I'd always wanted to write something that was full of rain, and I'd always wanted to investigate how a legend might be born and develop over time. In a waiting room I saw on a Take A Break magazine cover a pale shaven-headed boy headlined "A Dad At Twelve". Well, my imagination was borne away by the idea of becoming a father when you were still a child; it stayed with me for weeks (and now years), and became The Earlie King & The Kid In Yellow.

Is The Earlie King's speculative Ireland related to the one where you grew up? Yes and no. I grew up in a small town near Cork, and there is a bit of field-roaming and pondering from those wonderful, awful years in the book. Historically , 1970s and 1980s Ireland are a big influence. What a strange and fallen place it was: miracle statues, corruption, poverty, strikes, addiction epidemics, bombs and hostages...which I drew on constructing my alternative/fallen Ireland.

Influences on the novel? The work of Marie Heaney and John Moriarty were formative in my personal experience of the world and the building of this book. The music of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, World's End Girlfriend and Tom Waits. David Lynch, Blade Runner, tons of anime. I admire adventurous writing and seek to be adventurous: I'm indebted to Russell Hoban, Faulkner, David Foster Wallace, Dermot Healy, and the holy trinity of Flann, Beckett and Joyce.

What does the combination of mythical tradition and post-digital future say about us? The Irish philosopher John Moriarty talked about the world now being in the Faustian Age. Faust's quest was to know everything, and he traded his soul with Mephistopheles. I think our obsession with statistics, our need to categorise and demarcate everybody and everything, and for total surveillance over streets, cities, citizens, the earth and even the stars – I don't think that quest for omniscience or dominion is good at all.

I’m not sure what “soul” might be. It could be a collective consciousness; spirituality; simply love or shared existence. One possibility is story-telling is a form of redemption. But on that front I have only questions and darkness to explore.

Introduce yourself, please: I'm from Cork, living back there after years away. I've done all manner of jobs, but most recently in admin and teaching English in secondary school. I've no idea what made me want to write. I've loved reading books since childhood. I read for pleasure and for insight, and maybe I want to pay that forward. Or maybe I'm indecisive and being a writer is a roundabout way of being many things at once!

Are you writing or planning something else at the moment? More chaos, more apocalypse, in a slightly more familiar place [Cork], and with a more "everyday" sense of doom.

Caoilinn Hughes

Orchid & the Wasp (Oneworld, June 7th)
Set in Dublin, London and New York, spanning a decade, Orchid & the Wasp brings to life the charged, singular voice of Gael Foess as she strives to build a life raft in the midst of economic and familial collapse.

What made you choose this story? The protagonist has lived in my mind for as long as I can remember. I had to write a couple of practice novels before I was even scantily equipped to bring Gael to the page. I also had to wait for the right set of concerns and ideas to flare up in my mind: how we fail our loved ones by what we want for them; what makes for a "good life"; how events can turn us into people we never intended to be. There were questions I wanted to explore; there were others that Gael was seized by; and others the motion of the novel raised from the seabed. The book is also picaresque, and I hadn't read any novel – besides William Thackeray's Vanity Fair – whose whole story and structure were borne of a young woman's ideology and actions rather than her relationships.

What writers – or thinkers – have influenced you? In their philosophical writings Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari use an analogy from nature as a shorthand for describing a societal phenomenon, and I borrowed that analogy for my novel's title, which refers to a rare type of orchid that resembles a wasp. Besides mimicking its physiology, the flower emits mock female wasp pheromones. When a wasp tries to mate with it, pollen latches to his head. The wasp eventually gives up, aware of his new burden but unable to shake it off. Soon he's lured by another orchid, and so becomes the pollen-bearer. It's one of the few examples in nature of a non-symbiotic system. The wasp gains nothing. Orchid & the Wasp explores the question: is it really exploitation if the loser isn't aware of his loss? It follows the orchid in this dynamic; a person (from a downwardly-mobile broken home) who believes in individualism over mutualism; who believes meritocracy to be a fallacy, and who goes to extraordinary lengths to protect her exploitable loved ones.

Introduce yourself, please: I'm from Galway, and went to Queen's in Belfast for a BA and MA. I worked for Google in New Zealand, ran a business, and completed a PhD at Victoria University of Wellington. My poetry book, Gathering Evidence (Carcanet 2014), won the Irish Times Shine/Strong Award, the Patrick Kavanagh Award, and I published work in Tin House, POETRY, Granta, The Rumpus, Poetry Ireland, Best British Poetry and BBC Radio 3. In 2014-2017 I was visiting writer at Maastricht University, and now divide my time between Ireland and the Netherlands. I'm editing a story collection and am in the early (torturous) stages of a new novel.

Olivia Kiernan

Too Close to Breath (riverrun, April 5th)
Too Close to Breathe follows the investigation into the murder of Eleanor Costello by Dublin's Det Chief Supt Frankie Sheehan. Sheehan has just returned from work after a serious knife attack and is suffering the first awakenings of post-traumatic stress disorder. Eleanor's murder soon spirals outwards, more victims emerge, and Frankie and her team delve deeper into victims' secret lives to find the killer who likes to play dead.

Why this topic? I wanted to write a book with a strong but identifiable female protagonist, a plot with plenty of psychological complexity and an intriguing victim at the centre.

Who are your favourite writers? Too many to name! I love Tana French, Gillian Flynn, Anne Enright and Sebastian Barry, and recently I've really enjoyed Jane Harper's The Dry, a really clever and satisfying read.

Did you always want to write a thriller? Over the past few years I've recognises my writing tends to veer towards the darker side of fiction, so crime writing is the perfect fit. On a process level I like puzzling out how my characters have ended up in the places they have, why they make certain decisions. The same can be said of any writer looking out into the world. Who would do this? And why? The two perfect starting points to any crime novel.

Was plotting difficult? I started with an idea I wanted to explore. I had a few key scenes in my head and wrote as the story unfolded. As I writer I like there to be an element of discovery when writing a novel.

About yourself: I grew up one of six in the countryside a couple of mile outside Kells, and moved to the UK to study almost 19 years ago. Journaling and writing has always been part of my life. I think the Irish have a long love affair with storytelling and words, and I know that's been an important background for me. I was that headache student in English whose teacher would assign one essay out of three and I would hand in three. I'm sure my English teacher appreciated that. I embarked on a career in healthcare, graduating as a chiropractor 15 years ago. I moved to Oxford, and continued to write in the evenings after work, completing an MA in creative writing with part-time study. I began writing Too Close to Breathe when my daughter was eight months old, working in the night as she slept.

What are you working on? The next instalment in the Frankie Sheehan detective series, The Killer in Me, is percolating on my hard drive (for publication April 2019).

Rebecca O’Connor

He Is Mine and I Have No Other (Canongate, June 7th)
Fifteen-year-old Lani is haunted by the orphaned girls buried in an unmarked grave in the cemetery next to her house. When she falls in love with Leon, whose mother is buried there, it gradually becomes clear he too is haunted – by a brutal family tragedy.

What made you choose this timely story? I grew up near the cemetery where 35 girls from an orphanage fire in Cavan were buried in an unmarked grave. In my late 20s I had this vision of a young boy walking up to that cemetery to visit a grave. I wanted to know who he was, what had happened to him. The story of the orphanage fire made its way into the book not so much as a sub-plot as a seething undercurrent. It was something I needed to write about.

What adolescent experience or reading was formative? I liked all the usual stuff: To Kill a Mocking Bird, The Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22. Sylvia Plath. Wuthering Heights blew my mind. I was terribly bored and terribly romantic as a teenager, desperate to fall in love – so I did, with a boy I hardly knew, and had my heart broken. Though the relationship may have been part-fictional, the pain was real, and I wanted to write about that.

How did you move from poetry to fiction? My first love was songs, then poetry, from about age eight. I started to write stories in my teens. It was then I think I decided I wanted to be a writer.

Introduce yourself, please. I live in rural Cavan with my husband and three children, where we run The Moth magazine. Writing always felt like a natural thing to do, though it only gained traction in my late 20s. I finished He Is Mine in 2005 while working as an editor in the UK, and put it aside (after some encouraging rejections) to start another novel. Last year I dusted off the manuscript and sent it to Donal Ryan, who had agreed to look at it. His endorsement gave me an impetus. Last March I emailed Caroline Michel at PFD, requesting an interview with her client Edna O'Brien for The Moth. She politely declined, so I brazenly sent her my novel instead. Her assistant Tessa David read it within a few days, and they sold it to Jo Dingley at Canongate. I'm still getting palpitations.

What are you working on? An edit of the second novel, and I'm some way through a third.

Caroline O’Donoghue

Promising Young Women (Virago, June 7th)
A gothic romance, a black comedy, and a HR crisis. It's the story of a young woman who begins an affair with her much older married boss, and the devastating consequences that follow.

It's a topical subject: It's strange how huge "women in work" has become socially and politically since I finished writing this book. I guess it's proof the #MeToo movement isn't happening in a vacuum: it's an explosion resulting from decades of unfair treatment of women in everyday jobs. It has been in the water for a long, long time, and Promising Young Women is just a tiny slice of that.

I wanted to write about the professional spaces where the line between banter and inappropriate conduct is routinely blurred, and you’re made to believe your boss is on your level because he is wearing the same Converse trainers as you.

You have your toe in many pies - your podcast School for Dumb Women, Work in Prowess blog, marketing, music. How have they fed into your fiction? I have the habit of throwing myself into a lot of creative projects at once. If I'm working on my novel and getting exhausted by it, I'll switch to a different tab and work on the podcast for a while, or I'll write something short for my blog, or work on a song. It's nice, because I don't classify myself as solely an author. By that logic my self-esteem won't rest solely on whether or not I become a successful author. Well, that's the theory, anyway.

What writers have influenced you? I love Daphne Du Maurier, Patricia Highsmith and Nancy Mitford because they all were able to master very dark moments with an incredible lightness of touch. I'm also hugely influenced by more contemporary writers like Mallory Ortberg, Lorrie Moore and Helen Ellis. Actually, those six writers would be my ideal dinner party.

Introduce yourself, please. I was born in Cork, and moved to London when I graduated from UCC in 2011. I've always written, I think, because it was the only thing in school I was any good at. I'm the youngest of four, so when I started to come home from school with gold stars for my short stories it was a way to feel special, to have a legitimate moment to show off. My parents were very encouraging, and it was understood from an early time that I was a writer, and that's what I would do. It has always felt like a big part of my identity.

What are you working on? I'm finishing my new book right now! It's a sort of lesbian Miss Marple set in rural Kerry. I'm having a lot of fun with it.