New Irish authors to watch out for in 2020

It’s shaping up to be a strong year for new writing

Debut authors (from bottom left): Rachel Donohue, Séamas O’Reilly, Naoise Dolan, Dara McAnulty, and Susannah Dickey

Debut authors (from bottom left): Rachel Donohue, Séamas O’Reilly, Naoise Dolan, Dara McAnulty, and Susannah Dickey

 

Naoise Dolan

Exciting Times (W&N, April) is set in Hong Kong, and follows Ava, an Irish TEFL teacher, Julian, an English banker, and Edith a Hong Kong-raised lawyer. It explores love, class, colonialism, language and more.

Naoise Dolan’s debut Exciting Times is set in Hong Kong
Naoise Dolan: I wrote Exciting Times while working as an English teacher in Hong Kong

Tell me about yourself.
I’m from Dublin, where I studied English at Trinity. I then went to Oxford for a Masters in Victorian literature. I love all things 19th century. I’m also interested in left-wing politics, especially climate justice. I don’t fly and I’m vegan, but I also believe we need a socialist restructuring of the global economy to avert climate catastrophe. I wrote Exciting Times while working as an English teacher in Hong Kong (before I stopped flying, and before the current pro-democracy protests unfolded!).

Are you more of an Ava, a Julian or an Edith?
I think I’m a Julian. Granted, he’s a banker and I’m a communist, but he and I are both wry, goal-oriented, and direct to the point of seeming curt. Ava is far less focused than I am, and she often expects people to guess how she’s feeling. She’s not the sort of person I intuitively understand, so I found it an interesting challenge to narrate from her perspective. Edith is the kind of person I admire, but could never be; the perfect love interest!

This book feels ground-breaking in its portrayal of female sexuality. Was that your intention?
That’s lovely of you to say, but I definitely wasn’t trying to be ground-breaking! That said, I think there’s room for progress in the representation of LGBT female characters. They’re appearing more often in novels, but it’s still rare for them to have sex, for that sex to be described as explicitly as the sex between women and men, and for them to grapple directly with their identity and the discrimination they often face as a result of it. I would never purport to depict a monolithic LGBT woman experience, but I’d like to read more books that deal with female sexuality in ways I can relate to, and I do think that influenced how I went about writing.

What’s next?
More books, followed by death. I’m editing my second novel at the moment. I know I’ll keep writing books; the only question is whether I’ll have to simultaneously do other things to pay rent. For now, I feel very lucky to be able to make a living from writing!

Michelle Gallen

Big Girl, Small Town (John Murray, February) is set in a borderlands town in Northern Ireland, in 2004. Its protagonist: odd, reserved Majella, is thrust into the spotlight of her gossip-fuelled community when her grandmother is murdered.

Michelle Gallen: Big Girl, Small Town is set in a borderlands town in Northern Ireland, in 2004.
Michelle Gallen: Big Girl took three years to finish, and I spent 10 years trying to get a publisher

Tell me about yourself
I was born in the North and grew up in Tyrone in the Troubles. Our small town was, at one point, the most bombed in western Europe. It was right on the Border. Later, I studied English in Trinity and publishing in Scotland. Then I moved to London and worked as a copywriter and in tech.

What drew you to writing this book?
I started in 2005. I was living in a deeply loyalist part of Belfast, but working on an Irish language project for the BBC. You couldn’t imagine 10 years before being able to that, so on the one hand it felt like we’d taken a massive leap forward. But I felt that what was being said and portrayed in the media was different to what I was seeing. The character of Majella came to me really strongly. I took a month off work and wrote 70,000 words. Then it took three years to finish, and I spent 10 years trying to get a publisher.

That’s a long time.
I kept getting one question back: what’s wrong with Majella? I thought: there’s nothing wrong with her! But then a close female friend got a late diagnosis of autism. I read up on it, and I was like: oh, okay! Majella has autism. So I sat down – I knew the (Irish Writers Centre) novel fair was coming up – and I rewrote the whole thing in this kind of fury. It got picked up at the novel fair.

The book’s epigraph comes from Anna Burns’s Milkman. What does it mean to you?
I think what Anna really got was this humour and trauma, which I very much associate with Northern Ireland. When Milkman came out, you felt like you could talk about the North again. It gave me confidence that I was on the right path.

The quote is about this painful kind of hope and potential and the possibility of light. To be honest, I very much associate it with Lyra McKee. Lyra was one of those bright, shiny lights and somebody who was so different and lovely and amazing. When I read that quote it reminded me of all the lights – there were just too many people who got lost, you know.

Rachel Donohue

The Temple House Vanishing (Corvus, February) follows two young girls who are infatuated with their art teacher. That is, until he and one of the girls disappear. Years later, a journalist uncovers the troubled past of the school and determines to resolve the mystery.

Rachel Donohue: The Temple House Vanishing follows two young girls who are infatuated with their art teacher. Photograph: Shane O’Neill, SON Photographic
Rachel Donohue: I think I may be in the middle of a very loose trilogy. Photograph: Shane O’Neill/SON Photographic

Tell me about yourself.
I’m from Dublin and The Temple House Vanishing is my first novel. I began writing more seriously – short stories – nine years ago when on maternity leave.

What drew you to writing this particular story?
It starts with a mood and a setting. I knew it was autumn and I could see Louisa, one of the central characters, arriving at this isolated school, with the other students watching her from a window. I had a strong sense of her loneliness andabandonment. It really went from there.

In the book, the school is an elite Catholic girls’ boarding school. Did you go to boarding school?
No, but I do find them fascinating, they are a self-contained universe. I like worlds to pick apart.

What about those worlds fascinates you?
The book takes place primarily in the early 1990s and the Catholic ethos of the school was important. It provided a rich tapestry against which the characters could explore ideas of identity, forbidden desire, the body versus the soul, and shame. In telling the story I was partly trying to explore the hold of religion on a vulnerable but imaginative young person, how it colonises the landscape of their mind, even as that same individual might question or rebel against it. The cultural power of an institution or an ideology I suppose. The “vanishing” in the title of the book refers not only to the student and teacher who disappear, but also this world in a way.

You won the 2017 New Irish Writing Award. What did that win mean to you?
It was obviously a real honour. You shouldn’t need awards but in a way you do. Any kind of recognition gives you courage to keep going.

What’s next?
The Temple House Vanishing has been bought by Algonquin Books in the US. Audible has also bought the book and are producing an audio version. I am writing my second novel for Corvus Atlantic. One character from The Temple House Vanishing has oddly turned up in it. I think I may be in the middle of a very loose trilogy.

Séamas O’Reilly

Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? (Fleet, March) is memoir about growing up as one of 11 children in rural Northern Ireland in the 1990s, after the death of their mother when Séamas was five.

Séamas O’Reilly
Séamas O’Reilly: It’s hard to take a border seriously when the journey to your nearest pub crosses it eight times

Tell me about yourself.
I’m a writer and journalist from Derry and when not on Twitter, I spend most of my time chasing a toddler (mine) around London.

Was it difficult to draw on such personal material when writing this book?
I think a lot of people find it hard to talk about grief and death, but I guess experiencing it at such a young age, alongside 10 other children, makes you a little more accustomed. My mother died three weeks before my sixth birthday. She was just 43, and universally adored, not least by my dad. It was freeing, thrilling even, to ask about some of the things that went on. The material itself is hard, but my family have always worked at it through humour and an awareness that, as bad as it was, we did OK.

You recount growing up on the Irish Border at the end of the Troubles. How does it feel reflecting on it now?
My dad still lives in that same house. Nowadays, I love it for its stillness and beauty but as a kid I would have filled each stream with concrete for a four-storey cinema complex. Growing up on the Border teaches you how porous such delineations are. It’s hard to take a border seriously when the journey to your nearest pub crosses it eight times. But border living also teaches you how many lives these lines transect, and how fragile is the gap between open fields and the iron walls someone might seek to put in their place. We had a customs hut at the top of our field which was blown up by the IRA in 1988. It barely made the news and in our house it was mostly notable for depositing a wall – with sink attached – in our garden. Within weeks it was back to being a boring place, but the days of sinks-in-gardens weren’t that long ago, and people on the Border know that.

What’s next?
I write a weekly column for the Observer on parenting and regularly interview author and artist types for The Irish Times; I am currently prepping other writing projects, some of which will not even be related to my family’s life story.

Susannah Dickey

Tennis Lessons (Doubleday, June) is a misfit’s journey to something like happiness, spanning 25 years of a life, and navigating disastrous dates, dead pets, crashed cars, best friends and lost loves.

Susannah Dickey: Tennis Lessons spans 25 years of a life, navigating disastrous dates, dead pets, crashed cars, best friends and lost love
Susannah Dickey: I wanted to write a novel that looked at memory, and time – how we carry things with us

Tell me about yourself.
I’m a 27-year old writer, doing a PhD in creative writing at Queen’s – writing poems about the Isdal woman. I’ve been writing for about three years, and I’m the current Competitive Yoga champion for Ireland, an award I made up.

What drew you to writing this book?
I wanted to write a novel that looked at memory, and time – how we carry things with us, how we’re shaped by our experiences, how living is a kind of leapfrogging from encounter to experience to encounter to experience. It began as a short story, and I just couldn’t let the character go; she became someone who I felt deserved longer. She’s slightly monstrous, in her thoughts and actions, but with a detrimental vulnerability and naivety. There’s such a gulf between the life she wants, and the life that’s available to someone like her. Eventually it just became natural and almost intuitive to follow her through the years.

You’re an accomplished poet. How do you relate writing poetry and fiction, if at all?
I guess I view the springboards for writing poetry and fiction differently. With a poem I’ll have a singular idea or image and then build the poem around it, like assembling a skeleton around a raw steak, whereas fiction I guess is a little more like trying to put a sleeping bag back into its container. I think there are advantages to attempting fiction having written poems for a couple of years – I felt more attuned to the musicality of the sentences, of deciphering the internal rhythm of a line. Likewise, I struggle to write a poem now that doesn’t have a certain narrative thrust – it’s very possible that my poems are better plotted than my novel.

What’s next?
I’m six months into drafting my second novel – I have a two-book deal, which is both threatening and motivating. The second novel is going to be fairly radically different; I won’t be attempting to span 25 years of a life; rather its events are going to take place over a matter of weeks, and it will have two first-person protagonists. That said, thematically it’ll cover some of the same ideas: the female body, intimacy, obsession.

Dara McAnulty

Diary of a Young Naturalist (Little Toller, June) chronicles the turning of 15-year-old Dara McAnulty’s world: his connection to wildlife and experience with Aspergers/autism.

Dara McAnulty has written about his love of nature in Diary of a Young Naturalist
Dara McAnulty has written about his love of nature in Diary of a Young Naturalist

Tell me about yourself.
I’m 15 and live in Co Down. I’ve been writing about my fascination for nature and campaigning for almost four years now.

What drew you to writing this book?
The idea evolved from a simple diary chronicling my observations of the natural world to a much deeper chronicling of life as an autistic teenager and the challenges and different perspectives that portray my intensity. I had written a blog and many people suggested they would really enjoy a book written by me. The huge public support I’ve received encouraged me to write it deeply and from the heart.

Is there anything you hope people might learn when they read it?
I honestly have no hopes or expectations. Although I would really love if people came away with the feeling that hope and magic can come from everyday experiences with nature. If they were encouraged to campaign for a better world and maybe learn lots of interesting facts about nature, poetry, mythology and the life of someone on the autistic spectrum, that would be amazing!

How have you found the experience of editing/publishing?
I have honestly found it really positive and humbling. Gracie and Adrian at Little Toller have looked after me like family. I was worried that an adult editing my book might take away from the teenager, but it remains angsty and intense and heartfelt and passionate. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous, but I’m really interested to hear feedback, both positive and negative. I’m not afraid of criticism. The book is personal and that’s daunting but if it resonates with a teenager who is going through similar things or an adult or parent who wants to understand more, I’ll be delighted!

What’s next?
I have another book planned for 2021 but I can’t say anything more about that. I’ll continue to campaign against the devastation inflicted on nature. I would also like to help with social issues that affect society. It’s difficult to love nature if you haven’t got a home or food – we can’t solve the problems nature is facing in a world which isn’t fair or equal.

ON OUR RADAR

Unlike Pokémon, you can’t catch ’em all, but equally exciting debuts to watch are…

Elaine Feeney: As You Were (Harvill Secker, June)
A poet and teacher at NUIG, Feeney probes at institutions in her hospital-set debut about a young property developer with a terrifying secret.

Niamh Campbell: This Happy (W&N, June)
A recipient of the Next Generation bursary from the Arts Council of Ireland, Campbell has secured a two-book deal with W&N, the first of which deals with the “irresponsible, if not deranged decisions love compels us to make, when we fall into it”.

Molly Aitken: The Island Child (Canongate, March)
Editor and ghostwriter Molly Aitken’s The Island Child will be a haunting tale about the power and danger in a mother’s love. It tells the story of Oona, born on the Irish island of Inis at the same time a boy called Felim is born on a deserted beach.

Patrick Freyne: Ok Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea (Penguin Ireland, May)
Freyne’s Irish Times features have had us in stitches for years. The same humour, humanity and quirkiness are said to define his first essay collection, which has been compared to the work of David Sedaris and Norah Ephron.

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