Rosita Boland: ‘I am exposing my vulnerabilities. It’s okay to say you’re vulnerable’

Rosita Boland. Photograph: Alan Betson
the Irish Times journalist talks to Patrick Freyne about her new book of essays on the subject of friendship

Rosita Boland has just published Comrades, a thought-provoking, beautifully written book about friendship.

She explores different kinds of friendships in essays such as Imaginary Friends, The Desired Friend, Souvenir Friends, Lost Friends and The Essential Friend. She hasn’t yet written a chapter called The Pesky Friend Who Is Currently Interviewing Me but I’m sure she will add it to a later edition.

Boland, who Irish Times readers will know as a skilled journalist, is more used to being the interviewer than the interviewee. Is it weird for her to be interviewed?

“It is. I mean, I know how it works, of course. But it’s Alice through the Looking Glass.” She pauses and adds: “It’s so nice to be interviewed by a friend, because this whole book is about friendship. So it feels beautifully appropriate.”

I would consider that I still write like a poet, that I have the sensibility of a poet and it’s sort of innate in what I write

Boland has arguably been a professional writer since having a poem published in the Puffin Post in her teens (“I got paid 50 pence for it by postal order”). Her first book was a collection of poetry, Muscle Creek, published by Raven Arts Press when she was 25.

“They’re very visual, a lot of poems, and I wanted to find a way of writing about things I saw and felt,” she says. “I was never a particularly good poet but I tried. I just knew when it hit something that it was really satisfying and I wanted to do it again.”

She loved the metaphysical poets, she says, and would learn poems by heart. “I loved Hopkins, I love John Donne. I learned the whole of The Waste Land. I learned most of the Four Quartets.”

She doesn’t write poetry anymore, she says. “I mean, I would consider that I still write like a poet, that I have the sensibility of a poet and it’s sort of innate in what I write… Also, when you’re writing poetry… every single word, because there’s so few of them, has to work really hard. And you have to think very carefully about the structure of every sentence and the words that you choose and you’re always trying to make somebody feel something… So I think that I learned from that and brought it into other kinds of writing later on.”

Boland spent her 20s travelling, and she documented some of these adventures in her last essay collection, Elsewhere. By her 30s, she felt she had “sacrificed” any chance of a career due to her wanderlust and a string of short-term jobs. But that’s when she “fell into journalism”.

After getting a few travel articles published in The Irish Times, someone suggested she email in a list of ideas. Her soon-to-be friend and mentor, the late Caroline Walsh, responded with, “Do all of them.”

She loved it. “It was the most joyful and satisfying experience possible... I loved reporting. I loved meeting people. I loved having ideas and getting to actually explore all my curiosities. I loved to travel. I loved writing things up. I loved the thrill of seeing my name in print. And I found it really easy.”

Part of me was horrified but at some point I just thought, I actually have nothing to be ashamed of. I think there are some things that have some universality and other people might want to read about them

We talk a little about reporting and how we accumulate details for an article. “Details, even tiny ones, they’re like epigraphs, they tell you so much more about the wider story,” she says. “Also, readers love details, the more granular you can be in your reporting, the more people really enjoy it, because it helps them feel like they’re there, that they can see it.”

With Elsewhere, Boland started writing about her own life and experiences after years of writing about others. “It felt strange because I knew I was making myself vulnerable by writing personal things and I’m actually quite a private person,” she says. “Part of me was horrified… but at some point I just thought, I actually have nothing to be ashamed of. I think there are some things that have some universality and other people might want to read about them.”

Was it cathartic? “Catharsis is beside the point… I am kind of exposing various vulnerabilities but it’s okay to say you’re vulnerable, because that’s part of life. Sometimes life is hard and complicated and messy and gritty, and it wouldn’t be authentic to ignore that. We’ve all had periods of vulnerability in our lives.”

I never realised until I met my friend Nancy in my 20s that you could really love a friend and love them really deeply

I outline a long and complicated theory about how the current Irish memoir essay boom is a long-awaited response to decades of repression during which all personal experience had to be sublimated into fiction. She laughs. “I don’t have any theories of my own. So I’ll leave you off with that.”

Comrades is a wonderfully constructed, moving and honest book. Her first essay, Imaginary Friends, is about feeling isolated as a child.

“As a kid, I didn’t really have any friends,” she says. “So the first essay is about loneliness, and what it’s like to be a child with no friends. I had to survive in some way and I have a vivid imagination and when I learned to read, which was really my passport to another world, characters that I loved in some of the books became my friends... And they were very real to me, my imaginary friends and my imaginary dog, and I survived.”

She writes beautifully about many different kinds of friendships. She writes about The Essential Friend and The Desired Friend. She writes about Lost Friends, in one essay, and she writes about Souvenir Friends, lasting connections made on her travels, in another.

“I never realised until I met [my friend] Nancy in my 20s that you could really love a friend and love them really deeply.”

The irony of this book is that it was written over the course of three lockdowns when she could see none of the people she was writing about. “It made me meditate a lot on friendship, because, like everybody else, I couldn’t see anybody. And I was living alone and I found it all incredibly challenging and difficult.”

I think in Ireland we have almost an unhealthy fetishism with the importance of family

Later she says: “We’re human, and we need to talk to people. That’s why being in solitary confinement is seen as the worst possible psychological torture… That’s what was awful about lockdown… people who lived alone were by themselves not by choice. It was very hard.”

It made her think a lot about how little friendship is focused on in Irish life. “I think in Ireland we have almost an unhealthy fetishism with the importance of family,” she says. “Let’s not forget, you’re born into a family and you can’t do anything about that... but friendship is voluntary and it is something that we choose... And this emphasis on family first and nothing being more important than family, I don’t know where it came from.”

She thinks for a moment. “We still live in a patriarchy, and the whole idea of the father as the head of the family and we’re not long in an era where women have freedom over their bodies and divorce and people can have relationships with the same gender,” she says.

“It’s actually incredibly old-fashioned... It’s not the same in other countries. Even in the States it’s completely accepted that your friends are a form of family.

“To me, my friends are so important. I consider those relationships to have the same kind of emotional importance as those that I have with some of my family members... But if there was a star rating, society would give five stars to the traditional family and one to your friends... And I don’t see it like that at all.”

For years she kept detailed diaries. Was there a gap between how she remembered things and how they appeared in her diaries? In many cases, she says, “I remembered it all exactly as it was. I never understood people who say that time heals everything, that you forget things in time, because I think deeply felt experiences remain fresh and current throughout your life, which is why you can hurt so much for a long time after a grief or a break-up... And what I have learned to do is to live with the difficult experiences of my past and manage them.”

I wasn’t confident at all until I was maybe 22, going to Australia. That was the best thing I ever did. Going far away and living a different life

The last chapter, Book Friends, deals with the importance of particular books in her life, including Tony Parker’s Lighthouse, a collection of interviews with Lighthouse keepers. Her account of this book’s importance is deeply moving, particularly the story of one man Parker interviewed, Alf, which affected her deeply.

“He had no life, no friends,” she says. “How could you not always remember that story? Reading it I knew how it was going to end [for him]. It could only end one way where he had to retire eventually and lose that structure and he had already become destitute once… I don’t know why but when I was 21, I was afraid I would turn out like Alf. I suppose having a very vivid imagination is a gift but it’s also a curse because you can almost believe that what you’re imagining is going to be true. So, because the story was so sad it just moved me so much. I just couldn’t forget about it. I don’t know why it stayed with me but it did… Some of the characters in the books I’ve read… they’re always somewhere in my consciousness.”

If you read her books or her journalism or are lucky to know her as a friend, you’ll know that Rosita Boland is a singular person. As a teenager she sent letters to writers and editors that she liked. She travelled far and wide. She published her first book at the age of 25. This all seems like the behaviour of a confident person.

“I wasn’t at all confident,” she says. “As a kid or in college, I was the least confident person ever… I wasn’t confident at all until I was maybe 22, going to Australia. That was the best thing I ever did. Going far away and living a different life. I didn’t ring home for three months. I just wanted to start again and become somebody else, and when I came back I was somebody else.”

She looks for a word instead of “confident”. She lands on “dogged”. “If I want something to happen then I will really try and make them happen.” It’s a measure of such doggedness that she texts me later to clarify that the word she was really looking for was “determined”.

Determination is personal, what you seek for yourself. It doesn’t have anything to do with other people

“I was always a very determined person, long before I was a confident one. Confidence is the way you engage with people in the wider world and what they notice. That’s a social skill. Determination is personal, what you seek for yourself. It doesn’t have anything to do with other people. You can do it by yourself. That’s what defined me as a child. And it still does.”

What will she write next? “I see these two books as companion books to each other, one is about my lifetime of travels and the other is about friendships,” she says. “I didn’t set out for them to be like that but I think that they’re really complementary, and now I want to do something totally and utterly different... Like you, I want more, I want to do more, I want to do something big.”

She pauses. “I don’t know if I can do it but I’m going to try.” She says it with determination.