New voices in The Long Gaze Back: June Caldwell, Roisín O’Donnell & EM Reapy
‘When the anthology came out I felt like I’d gatecrashed the best banquet in town’
The launch of The Long Gaze Back as Dublin One City One Book, with Elizabeth Reapy and Roisín O’Donnell, second and third left
It was a white-skied summer evening back in 2015 when a phone call changed the course of my writing career. The caller was broadcaster Sinéad Gleeson, and she was phoning to ask if I would contribute to an anthology of short stories by Irish women writers. The book was called The Long Gaze Back.
Sinéad told me she had secured stories by some of the most prominent writers working today, and had also sourced stories by women whose work had fallen from recognition. As Sinéad related hours she’d spent in dusty archives tracking down stories long-out-of-print, I was struck by the depth of her knowledge of Irish women writers, and her ambassadorial passion for their work. The list of names was impressive, from Elizabeth Bowen to Maria Edgeworth. But Sinéad was also willing to take editorial risks. Unusually, the landmark anthology included four emerging writers like myself, who had yet to publish their first book. At this time, I had published a few stories in journals and anthologies and was working on my debut short story collection, but I knew The Long Gaze Back would be my biggest publication yet. As I enthusiastically agreed to contribute a story, my heart did a mini breakdance and swallows swooped through the still-bright evening sky.
Months later, on a dark autumn night in the cosy cavern of a basement gin bar, The Long Gaze Back was launched. At one point I found myself signing books in between Anne Enright and Mary Costello, feeling as if I’d somehow crashed the gig. I honestly expected someone to tap me on the shoulder and ask me to stop grafitii-ing the handsome stack of hardbacks with my signature. Looking back at the group photo taken at the launch, it seems I was wearing my newness like an luminous banner. I’m the girl in the green dress at the edge of the shot, looking slightly shell-shocked. Yet while the literary scene was very new to me, when I began to read the anthology, the feeling of solidarity and validity was instant. For the stories in The Long Gaze Back are as varied and diverse as you would expect from an anthology that spans 150 years. Writing styles vary greatly, as do subject matters and political opinions. Far from being an outsider, I began to see my work as part of a long tradition of Irish women’s writing.
Surely the hallmark of great anthologies is that they spark new projects, conversations and creative partnerships. Since the publication of The Long Gaze Back, three of its previously unpublished writers have now published successful debuts; EM Reapy’s Red Dirt won its author the Rooney Prize for Literature, June Caldwell’s Room Little Darker continues to garner critical acclaim, and I also published my own collection Wild Quiet. Other Long Gaze Back writers have taken their work in exciting new directions, with Lucy Caldwell publishing her first collection of short stories and Bernie McGill publishing her first novel. And it’s not just the living writers who have benefited from the literary elixir of The Long Gaze Back. Thanks to the anthology, Maeve Brennan has been rightfully reinstated as a recognised master of the short story form, with the reissue of The Springs of Affection and The Long Winded Lady (The Stinging Fly Press, 2017). Master storyteller Norah Hoult has also been introduced to a new generation of readers through publication of her collection Cocktail Bar (New Island, 2018).
A few weeks ago, on a Wednesday morning suffused with post-snow brightness, I stepped out of Pearse Street Library into startled spring sunlight, my footsteps made light with the feeling of things being possible. The event that had triggered this surge of hope was the launch of The Long Gaze Back as the choice for the Dublin: One City One Book festival for April 2018. As the authors gathered in the book-lined reading room, I fell into conversation with Susan Stairs about novel versus short story writing; Anne Devlin reminisced about a Belfast reading we had both taken part in; Evelyn Conlon recommended books about writing and motherhood. By the end of the morning, I felt a sense of renewed energy and determination. This has always been my experience of The Long Gaze Back. Over the two-and-a-half years since its first publication, over many readings and discussions, friendships have been forged, connections made, ideas ignited. I’m incredibly grateful that Sinéad and New Island were willing to take a chance on newbie writers like myself. Far from being just another anthology, The Long Gaze Back has blossomed into a literary movement.
Roisín O’Donnell’s debut short story collection Wild Quiet (New Island Books) was shortlisted for the Kate O’Brien Award and the Ruberry Book Award and long-listed for the Edge-Hill Short Story Prize. She is working on her first novel
On our first day in Galway I spent 10 hours looking at thatched cottages for sale online. For no reason. That evening we headed off to The Black Cat in Salthill and I bawled my eyes out over some fantastically creamy Aran Islands goat’s cheese. “I can’t write!” I said. He [the now ex] looked at me with terrific contempt, yanking calamari from his teeth. Sinéad Gleeson had asked me to write a story for an upcoming women writer’s anthology – The Long Gaze Back – and I knew she was expecting great things. Or at least for my choice of subject to be relevant, contemporary, even political. I didn’t consider myself clued in enough or good enough. I wondered what I could write about (in 3,000 words) that would be particularly germane to women: their fears, concerns, private horrors. ‘I can’t reveal the full line-up yet,’ Sinéad said. ‘Except to say there are some greats in there, Anne Enright, Eimear McBride, etc.’ Oh Christ!
Two news stories in the previous year had truly haunted me: Marlise Munoz’s case in Texas; a woman who was 20 weeks pregnant but had suffered a pulmonary embolism and was effectively braindead. Her ‘body’ was kept alive due to a foetal heartbeat. Months later a ‘Miss P’ in Ireland, same scenario, 17 weeks pregnant. The ‘somatic’ treatments their bodies went through to keep them intact as human hatcheries stems from a Greek word: somato or soma/somat, meaning ‘body’. Both the women’s bodies disintegrated slowly. Both families had to fight through the courts for the right to switch off life support. Hideous scenarios, the Fare of Frankenstein.
I had two days now to write a story we’d been given nine months to do. A terrible habit I picked up in journalism: deadline pistol to the frontal lobe. However, this self-imposed lack of time dictated the structure and voice/perspective of the story. Zero space for an intricate plot or singular point of view. The surrealist optique of an unborn entity listening to everything in CCTV-type surround sound, would be the most revealing, in a brief trajectory of horror I could barely imagine. Two nights later back at The Black Cat I pressed *send* and bawled my eyes out. ‘She’ll hate it!’ I said. He [the now ex] looked at me with terrific contempt, choking on a lamb chop.
When the anthology came out I felt like I’d gatecrashed the best banquet in town. The line-up was amazing and the range of stories, just brilliant. I was genuinely stunned when Katy Hayes in the Sunday Times singled my story out as her favourite. I roared out loud in Mace on Glasnevin Avenue, I didn’t even have the base dignity to wait until I got home. It was the road-turn in terms of allowing myself to take ‘the writing’ seriously. I wish it wasn’t so boring that a lot of women writers feel so incredibly self-conscious or vetoed about even attempting to write. A year later when New Island Books approached for a short story collection, I didn’t hesitate, I felt ready. They handed me a deadline pistol and I put it to my frontal lobe where it felt strangely comfortable. I’m reading from that collection, Room Little Darker, at Cúirt in two weeks’ time. SOMAT is in the book, and myself and my new partner are planning a return visit to The Black Cat to see if the menu has changed.
June Caldwell is the author of Room Little Darker (New Island; Head of Zeus)
It was an honour to feature in The Long Gaze Back amongst some of Ireland’s greatest writers, past and present. The anthology is really innovative and important to Irish literature. Female writing is so strong in this country, and has been so strong, that it seems hard to believe that this was the first anthology of its type. But it was, and I must applaud Sinéad Gleeson and New Island for having the vision to compile and produce it. It will undoubtedly inspire many more creative works (like The Glass Shore, which was an anthology of women writers from the North of Ireland) and conversations about gender imbalance in literature at home and abroad.
I was an unpublished writer when I was invited to submit to The Long Gaze Back and it was a great vote of confidence for me as I was struggling to rewrite my debut novel – Red Dirt – at the time. Red Dirt was eventually picked up and published in 2016. It was received well, thankfully, and I was happy to add my inclusion to The Long Gaze Back in the bio for it. I’m currently drafting a new book and working as one of the Unesco Dublin City of Literature writers-in-residence.
Elizabeth Reapy is author of Red Dirt