Niamh Campbell: ‘I do think life, for everybody, is a private hallucination’

Winner of the Rooney Prize and Sunday Times short story award on her new novel, We Were Young

When Niamh Campbell was 17, she had a poem published in Poetry Ireland Review. It was called Circles, and centred upon a memory of her Dad explaining that the planets moved around the sun. With the €30 she earned, she had a haircut.

But that early success wasn’t the watershed moment it might have been. Circles was the only poem she ever published, and she stopped writing poetry shortly afterwards. It would be a decade before she published something that wasn’t academic in nature, instead focusing her energies on the study of literature, going on to pursue a PhD in King’s College, London.

“I just enjoyed [academia] so much that I stopped writing completely,” she says. “There was a time when I don’t think I wrote a single word, which is amazing to me now.”

That she’s a professional writer, about to release her second novel, We Were Young, she attributes to “a particular constellation of lucky and unlucky things that happened when I was around 25”.


I've never felt certain of anything in myself or my identity for some reason

She had finished her PhD, broken up with her boyfriend, and moved back to Ireland. “I had no money, was back in my parents’ house, doing a job I really didn’t like. I felt like I was never going to get a job as an academic, so I thought I may as well do the thing I always wanted to do when I was younger, which is write a novel.”

In 2018, she was granted a Next Generation Artists’ Award by the Arts Council. She had promised herself that if she received this bursary, she would quit her job and take a year to focus on writing, which is exactly what she did.

Then in 2020, two things happened that raised the Balbriggan-bred author’s star. Her debut novel, This Happy, a biting love story, which would go on to win the Rooney Prize, was published in June. A month later, she won the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award, the richest prize for a single short story in the English language.

"I would have said the bursary I got was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me, until that. That was the luckiest thing that ever happened," she says.

With lockdown, and the relentless churn of the publishing industry, promoting her debut had not been the easiest. “It’s like those machines you see in arcades with the coins that are just rolling off a cliff. You’re like that, thinking: this isn’t going to get seen.”

But the award opened her work up to a much larger audience.

"I did not expect to win that competition. I really didn't. I thought the story was structurally weak. And I still think it is, because I would have thought they were judging based on quite academic merits. But I don't think, in the end, they were."

This mode of thinking – that her success boils down to luck, that her story was structurally weak – is a bit of a theme in our conversation. It’s not that Campbell is overly self-deprecating, in fact she’s confident and assured. But she’s also thorough, contemplative, questioning.

“I find my own life view is constantly evolving,” she says. “I’ve never felt certain of anything in myself or my identity for some reason. I’m always thinking about: am I wrong about this? Should I change that?”

The Lighthouse cafe in Smithfield is where we’ve chosen to meet. Nineties alt-rock plays on the radio, and outside, the idyllic January morning is punctured by construction sounds. In what feels like a cliched Dublin trope, glass facades rise over a former market square. I wonder how Campbell perceived this as she walked here from her home in Dublin 8. Her writing is certainly attuned to the ever-morphing city and country.

She appears to digest the world in layers, receiving not only what is there, but what once was, and whatever memory or thought it sparks anew. At one point in We Were Young, for example, the protagonist conceives of a walking tour in which holograms pop up over buildings. Instead of the Google logo, for example, you might see the State publisher, An Gúm. As he imagines it: “A button click would cause the past to cascade as contextless images, flat: time itself revealed to be circular after all”.

“I do think, in some way, life, for everybody, is a private hallucination,” Campbell says. “What a person scans or sees in anything says something about them […]When I’m teaching creative writing to my students, I’m always trying to get them to stop telling the story from above, through all the inherited ways they might have seen any scenario, and tell me purely what they are seeing.”

The book reflects on post-recession Ireland, through the lens of a cliquey art scene. At its most distilled, she says it’s “a book about love between and among people who can’t live conventionally”. Having originally set out to give nearly every character a perspective, she ended up zeroing in on the one she cared about most, a bisexual rake named Cormac. He’s a 38-year-old photographer, living in Dublin, haunted by past loss, dating former students, working very little, and feeling like “the leftover man”.

As with This Happy, and perhaps harking right back to that teenage poem, themes of memory, and the influence the past exerts over the present, are integral.

“I always write in flashback because on a very basic level that is exactly how I experience the world,” says Campbell. It’s something she sees in her PhD subject, John McGahern. “He’s kind of copying, a little bit, out of Proust. But basically saying: this is a kind of a cognitive experience. It does happen. I’ll be back in a moment.”

When it came to writing from the male perspective, “I enjoyed, most of all, objectifying women,” she says, mischievously.

“It’s all a bit dodgy, but also fun. […]Because that’s how I would look at it if I was writing female desire. I would have the same level of single-mindedness, but it would seem as if I was making a political point, whereas with a male, I think people assume that’s how they think.”

Cormac is of a very particular generation who came of age pre-internet, entered the workforce during the Celtic Tiger, and now finds himself adrift.

“The reason I find that era so interesting is because I consider it Irish hyper-modernity, and analogue life,” says Campbell. People of Cormac’s age didn’t grow up in a global space, but in a distinct time and place, where “history was something they were kicking against. It was not something that was forgiven and now fodder for writing.”

This is a point she explores in the book, as the characters attend art installations that engage with Ireland’s history and politics. In the opening scene, Cormac attends a show about the Magdalene laundries, which he deems “self-congratulatory”. Is this also Campbell’s view of politically engaged art?

“It’s not my full point of view. But I did want to be tongue-in-cheek about even the world I’m moving in as a woman writer, and the conversations that are so easy to have, and the topics that are so easy to use.”

She was hearing back from men who were tired of seeing women’s suffering in Irish art because it felt like those doing it were automatically getting precedence.

“I wanted to spoof on that a little, where [Cormac was] perceiving this as kind of indulgent, silly. But his own work is just as indulgent.”

For Campbell, art can’t but be political. “But it’s not an empty vessel for ideology. That’s crap art. And people do crap art a lot. It’s like marla [playclay] or something. It can’t not be indented by the moment it’s in, but it’s indented in far more interesting ways than art that will just replay the same humanist narrative.”

As she writes her third book (which “will bring in the Charles Haughey era in an ambient way”) she is conscious of wanting to push boundaries. “I do have a sense in my head of: are you just writing a Niamh Campbell book? […]Don’t do that. You have to break some ground.”

She’s also conscious of how the strain of modern life (in her case, doing postdoctoral work, book promotion, and, up until the end of last year, fulfilling her duties as writer in residence at University College Dublin) informs the writing, and that committing time to it is part of a larger imperative.

In a practical sense, early mornings work best for her. And in a spiritual sense, what’s important is “what [writing] brings into my life, which is often restorative and curative. It’s where I tell the truth and I privilege my own perspective on everything. And I don’t answer to anybody else. That’s the one space in which I do that.”