Ruth Gilligan Q&A: ‘the tension between modern and ancient Ireland fascinates me’
The Butchers author on her new novel set along the Border during the BSE crisis
Ruth Gilligan: I have this very vivid memory of finishing The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and thinking “yep, I think I’d like to be a writer”. Photograph: Paul Musso, Hay Festival 2019
Tell us about your new work and how it came about – the story behind the story.
Like many writers, I’ve always been fascinated by the tension that exists between modern Ireland and its ancient superstitious side. Then years ago I went on a road trip with my housemate from Tipperary and somehow we got chatting about his father’s work as a large animal vet. He was full of stories about the mad things his Dad had seen over the years, especially during the BSE crisis; by the end of our drive, my jaw was on the floor!
So I went away and began researching the beef industry, the Borderlands, late ’90s Ireland, mad cow disease, cattle smuggling – you name it. I also dug up a load of strange old Irish traditions and myths related to cows. Finally, combining fact and folklore, I settled on four different points of view to tell the story of The Butchers, which centres around a murder in 1996.
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
For some reason I have this very vivid memory of finishing The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and thinking “yep, I think I’d like to be a writer”. There was just something about the prose, the directness of the voice, the combination of the sinister and the magical that flicked a little switch inside of me.
What was your favourite book as a child?
Skellig by David Almond and Bloodtide by Melvin Burgess. The latter was so dark I couldn’t believe I was actually allowed to read it!
And what is your favourite book or books now?
Probably Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward or Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. The former takes place in a small Mississippi town in the week leading up to Hurricane Katrina (which Ward herself lived through); the latter is set in New York over the course of a single day in 1974 when Philippe Petit tightrope-walked between the Twin Towers. I’m a big fan of McCann’s work and, a few years ago, became an ambassador for his charity, Narrative 4, which uses storytelling to foster empathy between young people around the world.
Which Irish author should everyone read?
The women! All the women! Your Enrights and your Rooneys and your McBrides and your Gleesons and your Baumes. I will also say that, sentence by sentence, I reckon there is no greater living prose stylist than Kevin Barry. I could read his shopping list and be in awe.
What is the most beautiful book you own?
For my 21st birthday my best friend bought me a special edition of Ulysses which comes in its own fancy box and has the most beautiful gold-embossed illustrations. I also think the cover and purple sprayed edges of Belinda McKeon’s Tender are to die for (and what’s inside is pretty gorgeous too).
What famous book have you not read?
So many! My knowledge of the classics is pretty feeble – I live on far too rigid a diet of contemporary fiction – but War and Peace and Middlemarch are top of my list; rumour has it they’re worth the effort, so maybe this will be the year I take them on…
Where and how do you write?
I work at a large desk in the small second bedroom of our creaky London flat. All five of my novels have been written on a laptop, but recently I treated to myself to a desktop to try and prevent my eyes from capitulating entirely. I begin every morning by reading fiction for an hour – I find it a great way to wake up “creatively” – before sitting down to my desk and grafting away for the day (with far too many breaks for tea and exercise and spoons of peanut butter straight from the jar).
Some days I get the train up to Birmingham where I lecture creative writing, and it is such a pleasure to see my students and colleagues; the simple thrill of other people! Otherwise I am by myself just plugging away, making endless plans and PostIt charts, before finally committing words to the blank page / desktop screen.
What book changed the way you think about fiction?
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout showed me how much emotional truth can be distilled from the most ordinary, everyday encounters. It also killed any lingering snobbishness I might have had about things that appear too “mumsy”. Her writing may not be “edgy”, but it leaves me completely floored.
What book influenced you the most?
In terms of writing The Butchers, probably All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld or Everything Under by Daisy Johnson. Both are these intensely dark, atmospheric novels with elements of feminist folk horror and the most incredibly intricate structures. I don’t know how many times I have dismantled them both to try and figure out how, purely on a nuts and bolts level, they work. The process sometimes feels more akin to being a mechanic or an engineer than an author.
What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?
Notes to Self by Emilie Pine. There is so much wisdom in that slim book – especially to do with identity and family and finding your way in the world – I think it would make an excellent coming-of-age gift.
What weight do you give reviews?
I want to play it cool and say none, but in reality I am not cool in the slightest and I let the bad ones affect me far too much. My husband makes me promise not to fall down a black hole of reading negative comments on Amazon or Good Reads, but that never quite seems to work out either…
What lessons have you learned about life from reading?
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge is such an eye-opener in terms of everyday privilege, and indeed, how defensive white people get when it comes to even acknowledging that term. Recently I have been thinking a lot about the possibility of motherhood, so Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work and Sarah Moss’s Night Waking are wonderfully candid about the realities of trying to be both a writer/academic and a mum.
What has being a writer taught you?
People love making jokes about the fact that your husband has a well-paid job!
What is the funniest scene you’ve read?
Hands down, the scene in Anne Enright’s The Green Road where Constance Madigan braces the supermarket chaos to buy the Christmas groceries. It is utterly hilarious and completely spot on.
Do you have a favourite poem?
The Republic of Motherhood by Liz Berry. In fact, that whole wee pamphlet is astonishing – I always give it as a gift to my friends when they find out they are pregnant.
What is your favourite word?
Gobshite has to be up there, no?
What is the most moving book or passage you have read?
To the End of the Land by Israeli writer David Grossman carved out a little hollow in my gut. It follows Ora, who sets out from her Jerusalem home on the basis that, if she isn’t there to receive the news that her son has been killed in combat, it somehow cannot happen. In a devastating twist, Grossman’s own son died while he was writing the novel; autobiography aside, it is such a thoughtful mediation on war and grief and parenthood.
Where is your favourite place in Ireland, and in the world?
Donegal and Waiheke Island, New Zealand. We visited one and then the other shortly after our wedding and both were total bliss – all rugged coastlines and dramatic vistas, perfect for long blustery walks and feeling a million miles from the rest of the world. Turns out I need the slap of the wind in my face to make the noise in my head shut up.
What is your life motto?
Be kind; do nothing by halves.
Ruth Gilligan is an Irish novelist and academic now based in England where she works as a senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Birmingham. Her fifth novel, The Butchers, is set during the BSE crisis of 1996. Ruth is an ambassador for the global storytelling charity Narrative 4.