Sarah Gilmartin: ‘There’s a weight of expectation that my book will be well received’

The critic-turned-author on her debut novel, coping with rejection and life as a freelancer

Sarah Gilmartin: ‘I’ve always been interested in contrast, or things that look one way but are another’

Sarah Gilmartin: ‘I’ve always been interested in contrast, or things that look one way but are another’

 

“I’ve reviewed God knows how many [books], Irish debuts particularly, over the course of the last seven years,” says Sarah Gilmartin. We’re sitting on a bench in Stephen’s Green, and I want to know whether the critic-turned-author will read reviews of her debut novel, Dinner Party: A Tragedy, when it comes out this September.

“I feel like there’s a weight of expectation that my book will be well received,” she says. “And also, if it’s not, not only has my book not been well received, but – am I out of a day job as well?”

This last part is a joke, but it’s nonetheless clear that the Limerick woman has thought a lot about the crossover between her work as a books journalist and her new fiction writer role.

It’s a book about family. I was interested in how a person copes with not feeling good about themselves; with feeling wrong about themselves or, I guess, feeling shame

“Something I’ve tried to say to myself is criticism and writing fiction are two different disciplines... With criticism, I think there’s more detachment needed. You’re looking more at the technical aspects of writing, the mechanics of it. You need a cooler eye. And I speak from experience when I say this: if you approach your fiction in that way, you can get stuck very quickly.”

So, the reviews, will she read them?

She smiles. “I would love to say no.”

She hardly need worry. Dinner Party is a gorgeously wrought and moving read. It tells of Kate, a woman in her 30s, who is having a hard time in life and refusing to face up to the facts. Opening with a dinner party on the anniversary of her twin sister’s death and set between Carlow 1999 and Dublin 2018, it gradually feeds through a story of family, trauma and growth.

“I’ve always been interested in contrast, or things that look one way but are another,” says Gilmartin. In Dinner Party, this manifests in Kate’s relationship to food. We see dinner parties with beef Wellington and baked Alaska, extravagant meals at the Merrion, childhood dinners, Sunday scones, and the unwritten rule that once a girl hits secondary school age, she is “no longer free to eat food without noting it in some imaginary ledger”. Kate’s imaginary ledger grows in significance as her life goes on.

Gilmartin says she was influenced by Susie Orbach’s work when writing, starting with her book, Bodies – “I was drawn to it because it’s about how the body and the mind work together, and sometimes the mind controls what the body’s feeling” – then Fat is a Feminist Issue, and then a book called Hunger Strike, which examines women’s eating problems as a reflection of society’s demands. “I didn’t think immediately, I’m going to write a story about that, but I did think, Oh, there’s that thing where something’s going on, but actually something else is going on, too.”

Gilmartin is “loathe to say this is book about anorexia”, because, indeed, it’s not.

“It’s a book about family. I was interested in how a person copes with not feeling good about themselves; with feeling wrong about themselves or, I guess, feeling shame. I’m interested in how people supplement bad feelings.”

Gilmartin has reviewed debut fiction in these pages since 2014, only recently stepping down from her New Fiction column, because it didn’t sit right with her to critique a cohort of which she is a part. She continues to review fiction by established authors, along with writing interviews and features, and lecturing in journalism in DCU. Her final lecture in this course always concludes with a warning: only pursue this if you really love it, because it’s really difficult.

We talk a little about the industry and how tricky it can be to stay afloat as a freelancer. She says she’s lucky because she’s managed to keep a regular gig at The Irish Times. Irish Arts Council also awarded her two grants, which helped immensely with writing fiction.

And her husband has a good job, she says.

I tell her my boyfriend has a good job.

We conclude that “marry well” might be the best advice for a budding freelancer.

Still, the precariousness of the work has never managed to scare Gilmartin off. After completing a BA in English and German, she completed a master’s in journalism, “mainly because I loved writing and thought this would be a way to continue”.

Sarah Gilmartin’s debut novel Dinner Party: A Tragedy is published on September 16th
Sarah Gilmartin’s debut novel Dinner Party: A Tragedy is published on September 16th

She got her start working for a public affairs magazine, followed by a business and finance magazine. She travelled quite a bit in her 20s, and even did a stint in the bank – “probably the most secure job I ever had, like, a grown-up job”.

But even job security couldn’t shake the bug out of her system. She needed to go back to her “first degree and first love”, fiction.

In 2011, she left the bank and began writing a novel. She signed with agent, Sallyanne Sweeney, who still represents her to this day. She spent three years writing, but ultimately, the book didn’t get picked up by publishers.

“That was tough. It felt, at the time, you know, what am I doing? Maybe I need to go back to the bank or give up on this.”

She turned her focus to arts journalism. She had been publishing reviews here and there, so she built on this.

“But then every so often I’d have an idea for a story and I’d start tipping away,” she says.

One story in particular excited her. “It was called, I think, The Dinner Party, at the time,” she says. She sent it to a number of literary journals. More rejection followed.

“I was ready to be like, right, I’m done with writing now, when a friend recommended that I do a writing course with Claire Keegan.”

Keegan, the Rooney prize-winning short story writer, is also legendary in literary circles for her intensely sharp and focussed writing workshops.

“I’ve never come across anything like it,” says Gilmartin. “I was quite literally about to go well, I thought there was something with the story, clearly there isn’t, it’s been rejected, [when] she was like, no, you have to keep on with this.”

Keegan’s advice prompted a U-turn for Gilmartin, who then applied to do an MFA at UCD. “I decided kind of in a rush I was going to do it. And from that point on, things have taken off a little bit. I’ve had some luck with stories, and I grew that particular story into a novel.”

That novel was acquired by publisher, One, last year. If it took 10 years to get there, this 10 years shows itself in the assured nature of the writing. I can’t quite put my finger on who it reminds me of – Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright, Belinda McKeon? I tell Gilmartin it had an older world feel compared to some debuts I’ve read recently, and she brings up something unexpected: My Therapist Ghosted Me, the hit podcast by Joanne McNally and Vogue Williams. (And there I was thinking two books critics were supposed to connect over our love of Russian short story writers).

McNally is a similar age to Gilmartin, and in a recent episode she talked about the difference between the generations. “She had a great phrase for it, showponying,” says Gilmartin. “Our generation were told to sit down and be quiet a little bit more, until there was a change where that was no longer [considered] a great way to bring up children.”

“Sit down and be quiet” is a good way of describing Kate’s upbringing, and part of the book’s tension is created by her need to break away from this.

“I’m 38, I do find that I’m in-between,” says Gilmartin. “I remember full, ardent, Catholic Ireland. I grew up with that. I went to Mass every Sunday. And when you come to college – I went to college in 2000/2001 – everything starts to change. And obviously I’m a woman living in today’s society. So, I feel like I have a clash. But it’s an interesting clash.”

I believe myself that it’s a good book. So, if people don’t like it, I can withstand that

If the book’s themes sound weighty, the book itself is in fact gentle and hopeful. “Definitely, the book is character oriented, which makes it quite difficult to describe,” says Gilmartin. “But, I mean, it’s the kind of fiction I like to read. I like identifying with characters. I become interested in their progress.”

Perhaps this is why she thinks negative reviews are unlikely to phase her. “If you’d asked me a year ago, I would’ve thought, Oh, I’d be crushed,” she says. But now that she’s written the book, her outlook has changed. “I think the reason for that is... I believe myself that it’s a good book. So, if people don’t like it, I can withstand that.”

And if they do like it?

“If they do like it,” she raises her eyebrows, as if she’s barely considered this. “If they do like it, bonus!”

Dinner Party: A Tragedy is published by One on September 16th

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