EM Reapy interview: anger at crash fuelled Red Dirt
‘I found Australia had this interesting thing of being familiar – anglophone, westernised – but still an immensely new and alien place’
Elizabeth Reapy: It was hard not to be angry about the state of Ireland after the Celtic Tiger but it was also draining and futile unless I did something with the emotion
Q: The inside cover of Red Dirt states that the novel is about “the discovery of responsibility” whilst also admitting that “it is easy to make terrible choices”. Was the dynamic between these two issues – the ease with which all people, but especially young adults, make mistakes on the one hand versus the difficult journey it takes before we accept those mistakes and move past them on the other – always the central crux for you when writing?
EM Reapy: Yes, I was deliberately exploring self-destruction when I wrote each of the stories. The characters make reckless decisions which cause ruptures to their experiences and notions of the world but until they become aware of what damage they’re doing to themselves and the environment around them, their internal and external conflict is amplified. They aren’t listening to their innate common sense. I wanted to explore the spiritual idea of “life giving you the same lessons until you learn them” when I was writing it too and I was also interested in how seemingly chance meetings with strangers can put life on a different trajectory, especially if you’re not owning responsibility for your actions.
I liked the echo of a new generation of Irish chasing the dream down under. These characters have taken the familiarity of it for granted but are awoken to the reality of the land
Q: In my reading it felt as if each of the three main protagonists were dealing with loss and being lost, both emotionally and physically; is this why you chose to set it in Australia, so that you could explore those themes fully? How important is the immigrant experience to the stories being told?
I chose to set it there because I had been there, it was a place so rich in potential for writing about. Ireland has an old relationship with Australia, some of the first white settlers there were Irish convicts and throughout history, because of its abundant natural resources and thus work, Australia has been a destination for Irish emigration. I liked the echo of a new generation of Irish people chasing the dream down under again. I found Australia had this interesting thing of being both familiar – anglophone, westernised and had many people of European descent there – but it was still an immensely new and alien place. These characters have taken the familiarity of it for granted but are awoken to the reality of the land.
Someone mentioned to me that they liked how I made the landscape a predator in the book but I have to admit that was unintentional
Q: There is a strong sense of authenticity to each of the three central stories: how much of this stems from your own considerable time spent working and travelling around Australia? Was it important for you as an author to have had a real, lived experience in order to help you create better, more rounded, human characters?
I don’t think it’s too important for me to have a lived experience in order to help create characters, but it is does help me be authentic with the setting and describing the feel of a place. The characters in Red Dirt could have been just as messed up at home, or in the States, or Asia, anywhere really. It just worked with the economic upheaval and mass exodus at the time for them to be in Australia. Someone mentioned to me that they liked how I made the landscape a predator in the book but I have to admit that was unintentional.
Q: That idea is really interesting. It also seems to reflect the juxtaposition of the aridness of Australia with the lushness of Ireland and how those things are reversed, economically and socially. Was it important for you to address post-Celtic Tiger Ireland? Or was this something that occurred naturally through the process of writing the characters’ stories?
It was important for me to address it. I was angry at the time about what had happened, what I was seeing around me with the recession. Though I am incredibly privileged and hadn’t felt like an emigrant in Australia, there were people who were forced to emigrate to provide for their families. People lost their jobs and purpose here. They lost their homes. They lost their lives. There was a tangible depression over the country. Though times are improving, there’s still many people in bondage to mortgages they can’t get near paying off and those who died by suicide are still gone. There are still too many people living on the streets. It was hard not to be angry about the state of Ireland after the Celtic Tiger but it was also draining and futile unless I did something with the emotion so I used the energy in writing the book.
Q: You made the bold decision to split the novel into three sections, told in first-, second-, and third- person perspectives respectively. How did this choice challenge you as a writer? Why did you decide to present the stories in this way?
I like to play around with perspectives in my writing, trying them on to see what fits the character and how that fits into the story. Murph’s voice came immediately in first person and it kind of suits how self-serving he is. Fiona’s was originally second person until she escaped from the Fletchers’ farm, then it reverted to a first person narration but it didn’t work. I changed it all to second person and felt that it was the way it should be. She’s stuck in victim mode, things are being done to her, she doesn’t quite own her story. Hopper’s section was originally a crazy monologue but again, it wasn’t working. I tried his out in third person limited and it clicked, reflecting his voicelessness.
Editing is where most of the skill lies and that it’s in that process the work releases its authorial shackles and really comes into its own
Q: The pace of the novel really stood out to me, reflecting the lives of the characters in its almost reckless acceleration, but, and I think this is crucial to the success of Red Dirt, and a testament to your skills as a writer, it never feels out of control. Do you think you’re naturally adept at this style or was it a very conscious decision to go down this road, and if so, how much editing did it take before you found the perfect balance?
When I was doing my Masters in Writing in Queen’s, the comma button was broken on my laptop and I had no choice but to write short sentences. I might have been praised for them during that formative year and so stuck with them. I do admire clean, tight sentences in books and how they increase the pace and energy of a story so I probably try to emulate that with my own writing. As for acceleration, the characters in Red Dirt were never going to stop to describe what was around them in great detail, they weren’t savouring the moment, they were running away, literally and unconsciously. The book went through many rewrites and edits and in the editing process, it evolved. I know going forward with writing that editing is where most of the skill lies and that it’s in that process the work releases its authorial shackles and really comes into its own.
Michael Naghten Shanks lives in Dublin. In 2016 he was named as one of Poetry Ireland’s Rising Generation poets and was shortlisted for the inaugural Listowel Writers’ Week Irish Poem of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. Year of the Ingénue (Eyewear Publishing, 2015) is his debut poetry pamphlet.
Red Dirt by EM Reapy is the Irish Times Book Club selection for May 2017. This debut novel won Newcomer of the Year at the 2016 Irish Book Awards and was shortlisted for the 2017 Kate O’Brien Award. Over the next four weeks, we shall run a series of articles by the author and fellow writers on Red Dirt, culminating in a public interview with Elizabeth Reapy by Laura Slattery of The Irish Times at The Irish Writers Centre in Parnell Square, Dublin 1, on Thursday, May 25th, at 7.30pm, which will be uploaded as a podcast on May 31st on irishtimes.com