The debut books and authors to look out for in 2019
We asked some writers to tell us about their debuts ahead of their publication
Sarah Davis-Goff. Photo by Bríd Donovan
Sarah Davis-Goff: Last Ones Left Alive (Tinder Press, publication March 7th)
A girl called Orpen journeys from east to west across a post-apocalyptic Ireland in search of a future. Along the way she has to fight off a monster called the skrake (from the Irish word for ‘scream’) and to come to terms with her own past.
Introduce yourself, please. I grew up just outside Swords and now live in Dublin city centre. I was a sickly child so was on my own a lot and I read everything I could get my hands on! Eventually I realised I wanted to work in publishing. Lisa Coen and I started up Tramp Press in 2014. Thanks to the talent we have in Ireland it’s been successful and fun and we’ve published outstanding writers like Sara Baume, Mike McCormack and Emilie Pine. But I was always chipping away at some writing project in the meantime.
Did something in contemporary life inspire you to write about a post-apocalyptic Ireland? The question of why a person feels compelled to write is so interesting, especially when you know you won’t be making a living from it. I write mostly to try and make sense of the world around me and I write to express myself (usually, because of the state of the world, that expression is one of anger; but it’s also one of love, joy and wonder).
I’m fascinated with dystopia and the apocalypse - my favourites are books like The Road, How I Live Now, Never Let Me Go, and of course The Handmaid’s Tale. Like Margaret Atwood, I’m interested in using the dystopic elements of our own world to inform my writing. The patriarchy is the gift that keeps giving in that sense: we see elements of dystopia in our lives here daily. I’m interested in societies gone wrong, so there’s a lot to draw from if you’re a woman living in Ireland, with medical disasters, the Iona Institute, rape trials and regular murders, as well as the monstrous direct provision scheme. I’m amazed we aren’t rioting, to be honest.
You’ve brought plenty of new Irish fiction to the light of day; what’s it like on the other side of the fence? It’s mostly really fun! Ha, if all the reviews are terrible I’ll have a very different answer for you. But as a publisher I’m definitely approaching the process from a privileged place. I have some idea of what to expect and I know to try and keep expectations realistic (while still of course daydreaming about being able to buy a huge house in Dalkey one day).
What next? A follow up, I’m afraid, so it’s going to be very awkward between my publishers and me if you all don’t like Last Ones Left Alive.
Adrian Duncan: Love Notes from a German Building Site (Lilliput Press, April 12th)
The novel is about a young Irish engineer, Paul, who during the last recession follows his girlfriend to Berlin where he finds work on a building site. Wrestling with a new language, on a project running behind schedule, with a relationship in flux, Paul begins to see his world and his personality in a strange new light.
What made you choose this story? I was a structural engineer in my 20s and early-30s, and I always found building sites intriguing. Then I moved to Germany and at first struggled with the language and elements of the culture. I realised putting these things together might be interesting.
How do you join the dots between visual art and writing? A lot of what I write about comes from or is driven by things I make or am researching, working in visual art. Though I don’t distinguish much between the two activities, different types of thoughts come when working on, say, a sculpture, compared to when you are writing a short story. Then down the line a sort of cross-current of thinking happens and thoughts from one activity appear in the other and they become incorporated into the work at hand.
Introduce yourself, please. I’m from Ballymahon, Co Longford and live mostly in Berlin, but I work often in Ireland. I studied and worked as a structural engineer in the UK and Ireland for over a decade before I returned to university to study fine art in 2008, when I also began writing courses in the Irish Writers Centre. Though I enjoyed engineering, after a decade in the industry I felt disconnected from my work and the thought of writing came to mind, so, during the recession, I pursued writing and realised after a while that I was not so bad at it.
Explain about building and its connection with mapping emotional reality and the structure of the mind or soul. My father is an engineer and I have worked as one for years, so I’ve been looking continuously and closely at structures and buildings since my youth. Though I’ve left my engineering career, I still find the act of building fascinating. I think contemporary architecture, however, is an inappropriate lens for considering building because it’s an activity now closer to image-making and branding. So by looking at the structure behind the architecture, the content and spirit of the act of building becomes more apparent to me. And a glimpse then at the complexity of this structure’s emergence says more to me about the stuff of being human than what the architectural statement does. So it is into these substructures of building I delve.
What’s next? I’ve completed a second draft of a second novel and have finished a collection of short stories. I’ve been writing non-fiction for the last few years, so I hope to pull together a collection of essays. I’m co-directing, with filmmaker Feargal Ward (The Lonely Battle of Thomas Read), a feature-length film about the buildings of Irish engineer Peter Rice. It is called Floating Structures and premieres at Dublin International Film Festival in February.
Nicole Flattery: Show Them A Good Time (Stinging Fly Press in February; Bloomsbury in UK in March 2019)
Show Them A Good Time is eight short stories that explore “types” - men and women, their assigned roles and meanings - in modern society, as well as work. Several have appeared in literary journals (The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, The White Review, Winter Papers).
Introduce yourself, please. I’m from Kinnegad in Co Westmeath and lived for a short while in New York before I settled in Galway. I studied theatre and film in Trinity College. I feel I’m as influenced by playwrights and film-makers as I am by novelists. The first “serious” work I wrote (there were several unserious attempts) was a play in my final year of college, directed by a friend. Looking back, it was awful. I’m not being self-deprecating – it was dreadful. We had a great time. It felt like a genuine moment of freedom after four years of academia.
Why short stories? I concentrated on short stories in my 20s. There was no particular goal. My first story Hump was published in The Stinging Fly in 2015, when the brilliant and generous Tom Morris was editor. It led to my agent Tracy Bohan of the Wylie Agency. Declan Meade of Stinging Fly helped me towards a collection.
I’ve been immensely lucky. I don’t think luck can be underestimated. I love the short story form. My most memorable reading have been story collections - Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behaviour, Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, Colin Barrett’s Young Skins.
Does humour help you get at the truth of an emotion or an action, which is not funny in itself? I don’t have an answer. I have never intentionally set out to be funny, for emotional truth or otherwise. Donald Antrim, a writer I admire, says, “Many people who are truly funny will tell you that their humour is the natural outcome of elaborate strategies for survival”.
I’ve been told the book is quite dark - stories about survival, essentially - so maybe no-one will find it funny? Antrim ended that interview – “The truly funny subjects are death, alcoholism, etc”. God only knows what is contained in that “etc”. I, unfortunately, agree with him. This is a convoluted answer when what I really want to say is - everyone I love is very funny. I wrote the book for them.
What’s next? I’m working on a novel (Nothing Special, Bloomsbury in 2021) set in factory-era New York. There is a lot of research involved, which I enjoy. It has similar themes to the stories - voyeurism, language, the divide between our public and private selves. I’ve also written criticism and would consider a book of non-fiction.
Anne Griffin: When All Is Said (Sceptre, January 24th)
When All Is Said is a tale of a single life, but the story of a lifetime. Maurice Hannigan, a successful 84-year-old farmer, sits at the bar of the Rainsford House Hotel to raise five toasts to the five most important people in his life. Through them Maurice unlocks the mystery of who he really is - his triumphs, his failures, and his secrets.
What made you choose this story? The inspiration came from a chance meeting with a man in his 70s at a bar in Mayo four years ago. We spoke for no more than five minutes. “I’ll not see the morning,” he said, before walking away. I never saw him again and do not know what he meant. But the writer in me needed to give a story to his declaration and in the following days I created the voice and tale of Maurice Hannigan.
Introduce yourself, please. From Dublin, I live in Mullingar. I’ve always loved stories, from reading Enid Blyton as a child, to working for Waterstones in my 20s. As a bookseller I met many authors. They felt like a special breed. Their world was so other that the possibility I might be able to write too never even occurred to me. My journey over the next 20 years took me from books into the charity sector. In my 40s I found myself in a rut and a friend suggested I write. Five years and one debut novel later, turns out I just might have what it takes to be a storyteller.
Are the most interesting or illuminating things unspoken or hidden? Maurice Hannigan is a fiercely proud man. His rule is to never show weakness to anyone, not his son, his wife and certainly not the outside world. But on the night we meet him he’s ready to set the record straight. It is time, he says, to reveal all that he has been and all that he will never be again. Our secrets can hide our shame but they can also, as we see with Maurice, conceal our humanity.
What’s next? I’m working on my second novel. Also set in modern Ireland, this is the voice of Jeanie Longley, a young woman who has sacrificed much of her youth for her parents. Like When All Is Said, its central premise explores familial relationships - what it is we do to love and protect those closest to us.
Eleanor O’Reilly: M for Mammy (Two Roads, March 21st)
M for Mammy is a story about home, about the language we find when words aren’t there and the power of a family to heal itself.
Introduce yourself, please. I teach English and classics in Gorey Community School in Wexford, Ireland’s biggest secondary school, with a hugely diverse demographic. Sometimes, as teachers, we must look beyond uniforms and homework. Some kids endure things most of us couldn’t. M for Mammy was a look through the window at some of their lives. The Augustts are ordinary people yet are extraordinary in their powers to overcome the obstacles of everyday life – illness, unemployment, loneliness, despair. The Augustts give voice to those who are often voiceless, to those who often go unnoticed in their ordinariness.
Why this story? I work with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) students in my mainstream classes and also one-to-one. These students are as complex and as varied as any of my other students, yet there seems to be myths about people with autism: they are all super intelligent, they are all unresponsive or even violently adverse to physical touch, they don’t like noise or change. These traits, of course, can often be found among ASD students, but they are not prescriptive, nor do they define these students. M for Mammy explores some of these anomalies and misconceptions.
While it deals with the heartbreak of this everyday family, it celebrates their resilience. It doesn’t provide for escapism into a romanticised realm, other than that of Jenny’s imagination. I tried to give the Augustts an importance, a space in which to be heard and give them a chance at writing their own happy ever after. This is what I want for those kids that I teach every day; the kids who have a sick parent or sibling with difficulties; the kids who find life difficult - and life is bloody unfair to many of these kids; the kids who don’t fit in and the kids who act out and are desperate for somebody to hear them. I wanted to write them with dignity, with care and give them a future, empowering them with a voice.
How did you begin to write? I started writing six years ago on maternity leave and gained some measure of success. I won the Elizabeth Bowen-William Trevor International Short Story Award in 2013, the Francis McManus Radio One award in 2015 and I was shortlisted for others. In 2014, I started an MFA in creative writing at Manchester Metropolitan University and had to write a novel for my dissertation. I was lucky enough to sell M for Mammy to Two Roads a year before completing my MA.
What next? I’m half-way through my second novel, a completely different story, about identity and finding our place in the world (actually maybe it’s not so different!).
Geraldine Quigley: Music Love Drugs War (just published by Fig Tree)
Music Love Drugs War is a novel about growing up, going out and getting into trouble. The teenage characters do all of that, and more, against a background of a bitter upsurge of violence and the tragedy of the 1981 hunger strike.
Introduce yourself, please. I am the youngest of 11 and live in Derry, in the house I grew up in. Did I always want to write? There was a vague notion that was not helped by a lack of belief in my ability to make stuff up. When Derry became the UK City of Culture in 2013 it dawned on me I didn’t have to be James Joyce to write. Permission was granted to give it a try. I worked 10-hour shifts in a call centre at the time and writing became a lifeline. The Penguin Random House WriteNow mentorship and the book deal that came from that has changed everything.
How did your experience of growing up in the North with violence around you, affect your coming of age story? My sister calls me “our war baby”. I was born in 1964 and all I knew was the army, riots, tear gas and shootings. There was fear when I was smaller, and excitement - I imagine we were over-stimulated to an extent, living with heightened emotions that we couldn’t deal with. But like everyone else my age, I normalised the situation and lived a teenage life despite it.
When I came to write the novel, I drew on that sense of normality, but also on the constant threat - a helicopter drones over the heads of the characters, as it always did, as the war droned on, a vibration, always present as a backdrop to our lives.
Tell us about music. Music was an escape, and a movement, in the post-punk early 80s. The music we listened to is at the heart of the novel. The small but vibrant music scene in Derry is central to the character’s lives. What they listened to is what I listened to, and the title Music Love Drugs War reflects what drove us, in order of importance, I think.
What next? I am working on a novel set, again, in Derry but this time in post-war 1945 - a very different era and yet still familiar. Is it strange that, as an ex-Catholic atheist, the structure and timeline for both novels is the liturgical calendar? Maybe not - I suppose you write what you know.