Writers on the wall have words with Fiona Gartland

The crime writer and Irish Times journalist is helped to focus by an unlikely source

“I concede that to be quite oneself one must first waste a little time, but darling, haven’t you wasted enough today?”

I admit it. I have been too easily distracted, not turning the phone face down on the desk, too often on social media when I should have been writing. But this was new, hearing voices. There was no one but me in my room at the end of the garden, a good ninety feet from the kitchen at the back of our house. No radio on and no one else at home.

I picked up my mug, half full of tea, and brought it to my lips. Cold. Damn. A fresh cup was needed and while I was in the house, I could check to see if anyone had come home.

I went up the path, past the lavender and the copper beech, the silver birch and the Tibetan cherry, their foliage having conversations. The back door was ajar, as I had left it. The house was quiet and empty. I put the kettle on and made more tea.


Walking back down the garden, mug in hand, I wondered whether for the first time the characters in my novel had begun to talk to me. I’d heard other writers say that it happens. Mine never had before. I generally just followed them around, writing down the things they said and did. I imagined they regarded me with disdain, like an uninvited guest who insisted on lingering.

I opened the glass sliding door into the sparsely furnished, white-walled room and heard a different female voice, more delicate, Anglo-Irish, nasal.

“It is curious to observe the vast amounts of tea consumed in the exercise of creativity.”

Where was that coming from? I put my mug on the table.

“And she writes crime stories – I don’t think I would ever want to be a writer of crime stories.” There was a trace of Massachusetts in this one.

Who was it? Had living too much in my own imagination finally tipped me over the edge? I sat into the brown leather chair and ran my left hand along the surface of the writing desk. It was real and solid. I was not dreaming.

“What of it? Writing is for the reader and the reader always comes first. The question is how long is she going to take, for goodness sake?” This time in the voice there was a salting of New York overlaying middleclass Dublin.

I turned to my left and saw them then, as if for the first time – the 12 Irish women writers on the wall. They were contained in a white frame, with black and white images of each set into green borders, quotes from their works italicised below them. The poster was produced by The Irish Times in 2015 as an antidote to the all-male equivalent so often seen in bars or on sale in tourist shops. It's not that I hadn't looked at them before – each face was familiar to me. It was just that they had never seemed so vivid.

“Really dear, where is your work ethic?” It was Lady Gregory, sitting side on, her face turned to look out, her hand to her temple. She wasn’t smiling though her voice held a modicum of indulgence. Kate O’Brien only gazed, fiercely. And though she didn’t say a word, her eyes challenged my malaise, the firm line of her mouth communicating disapproval.

Edith Somerville was making notes, her head inclined toward the page, a small dog on her lap, while her collaborator Violet Martin sat beside her. They talked between themselves.

“What does she have so constantly at hand?” said Sommerville.

“I cannot tell you, cousin. Her time would be better spent applying herself to her type-writer.”

But Jennifer Johnston, eyes slightly closed behind her glasses, inclined her head in sympathetic understanding.

“It’s the modern curse,” she told the women.

“The curse?” Edna O’Brien’s voice was sonorous. “There isn’t much we don’t know about the curse.”

“No, no, not that,” Eavan Boland smiled. “It’s the mobile phone, always with her. She holds its knowledge at her fingertips, enlightening, addictive.”

“Addiction, is it?” It was O’Brien again. “Well we know about that too, like the warm hand of a young man at the small of your back on a Sunday morning.”

“Would you just listen to yourself, woman!” It was Anne Enright, inclining her gaze upward.

O’Brien shook her head. Her earrings caught the light. Misunderstood again.

“Sorry.” Enright was contrite. “It’s my inner Frank O’Connor – loses the run of himself sometimes.”

“Could you all be quiet!” Molly Keane spoke then, and her clipped authority made the others turn.

“Now listen,” she addressed me firmly. “We’ll have to put a stop to this phone-worming. No future in that.” I imagined, though I could only see her head and shoulders, that she was wagging a finger at me.

I acquiesced, opening the top drawer of the desk and slipping the phone inside. I closed the drawer resolutely, gave the women on the wall one more glance, and applied myself to the laptop.

They settled back into their images. The voices then only fiction.
Now That You've Gone by Fiona Gartland was published last week