Writer’s Block With Orla McAlinden

Winner of SHORT STORY OF THE YEAR at the 2016 BORD GÁIS ENERGY IRISH BOOK AWARDS author ORLA MCALINDEN tells us which books are on her nightstand, the best places to go in Co. Armagh, and how she became a SELF-MADE SUCCESS

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Orla McAlinden, born in Portadown, was a practicing veterinarian and a secondary school science teacher before embracing the writing craft. She has been on a unique quest as a storyteller, with a few twists and turns along the way.

For a start, Orla self-distributed her first short story collection, The Accidental Wife (Sowilo Press, 2016), personally delivering copies to independent bookshops. The book has proved quite a phenomenon in the time since. The Visit, selected from the collection, triumphed at the 2016 Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards with Short Story of the Year.

The Accidental Wife has been chosen as the inaugural Armagh Big Read for 2017 by Library NI, with many exciting events to come in February and March. Orla has also penned The Flight of the Wren, which was a winner in the Inkwell/writing.ie Date with an Agent competition in 2015.

Orla lives in Newbridge, County Kildare, with her husband and four children. She has begun work on her new collection, Full of Grace.

On home

Twenty years ago my boyfriend came to work in Kildare and I said, “Whatever happens, we’re never living in Newbridge. What a dump!” We have now been living in Newbridge for 14 years.

It’s a fantastic town, which has doubled in size and population in 25 years. We both remember when our thriving estate of 320 homes was a farm. With a vibrant arts and cultural life, Readers’ Festival, superb art centre and theatre, annual Junefest, and numerous writing groups, Newbridge has everything I need and more…except Secondary Schools (but that’s a different article).

I rarely drink, and my four children have a far more active social life than I do. But when I hit the dizzy heights of a properly pulled pint of Guinness, O’Rourke’s pub on the main street is my venue of choice; quiet, log fire, no TV, a few steps from the theatre. It really is perfect and reminds me of my very misspent youth in Dublin. I was always happiest in “oul fellas’ pubs” maybe with an old dog under the table, and a few cocktail sausages on a Friday night, to encourage you to stay longer.

On creating

I always write at home. I write while I wash the dishes, and do the hoovering and iron the clothes. What I mean by that is that the process of sitting a keyboard typing with two or three disorganised fingers is the smallest part of my writing life. By the time I sit down with the computer, which might be only once a week, the story has been already written,

and rewritten, endlessly, in the hindbrain. If I was waiting for solitude, or for the perfect environment, or for the “muse” to strike, I’d have another ten to fifteen years to wait, I reckon.

As far as typing goes, that happens anywhere that I can find an empty space large enough for the laptop. You might see the breakfast dishes still on the table. You might see the utter chaos of my tiny freezing “office” (hollow laugh). You might even see my pillows or the contents of my dressing table. But no matter which room you happen to catch me in, you will always find books. Books on the floor, on windowsills, on bookshelves, in teetering stacks looming dangerously on nightstands beside sleeping heads. Open, closed, pristine or well-thumbed. Ubiquitous. Books are the scenery of my physical as well as my mental life.

On bookshops

I adore all independent bookshops. Anywhere that sells books and permits authors to earn a mite, per book sold, is fine by me. The treatment of authors by huge multiples, supermarkets etc, horrifies me. I’m not going to pretend that I never buy remaindered books, or that I haven’t succumbed to a giant set of Enid Blyton for €20 in TK Maxx. Of course I use Amazon when I absolutely have to and I finally caved in and bought a Kindle six weeks ago. Let’s not dissemble.

However, there is something special about a real, proper Aladdin’s cave of an independent bookshop. I have such happy memories of hours, and I do mean hours, spent in the second-hand bookstores of Nassau St in the 90s, and in The Winding Stair…blowing the dust off things, jingling my coins, weighing up whether to buy a pint of Smithwick’s or a battered copy of The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B. The books didn’t always win.

I’m lucky to be walking distance from Farrell and Nephew bookshop in Newbridge. They have been immensely supportive to me in my writing endeavours. I do my browsing online now, and then wander up to Farrell’s. Anything they don’t have on their shelves will arrive within days.

On her nightstand

On any given day this could be a lengthy catalogue so here are the titles right now:

The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm

The Faerie Thorn by Jane Talbot

Jihadi by Yusuf Toropov

Wilde’s Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons

Short story collections by Fay Weldon, HG Wells, Joy Williams and Roald Dahl.

Sue Leonard is reviewing The Accidental Wife in the January issue of Books Ireland, and she told me the stories reminded her of Roald Dahl. I don’t think I have ever had a bigger compliment from a stranger before in my life, so I celebrated by buying a 900 page Dahl omnibus…The Collected Stories from Everyman’s Library. The other books have arrived on my nightstand by some strange process of random eddies in the space-time continuum. I carry books from room to room unconsciously, shedding them off and gathering up others like lint on a sweater.

On escapes

I am utterly lucky… I have good health, loving family, adequate income, a thoroughly comfortable life in a modern, increasingly diverse democracy. I literally do not feel any need “to get away from it all.”

I sing all day long, and I am an active member of the Nás na Rí Singers and the founder of Cór Ghael Scoil Chill Dara children’s choir, and I attribute some of my good mental health to that. The physical and psychological benefits of singing are well-known, and they provide me with a perfect excuse not to take up running, or any other form of exercise, because singing is (nearly) as good for you and doesn’t involve being cold or dirty.

On County Armagh

In Ireland, breathtaking scenery of world-class grandeur is traditionally associated with poverty and with very poor agricultural land. Portadown on the other hand is prosperous and neat, with tidy farms and isn’t the least bit scenic or romantic in that sense.

If I worked for the tourist board, I would emphasise the many historical and cultural landmarks to be seen within a short drive of Portadown: Navan Fort, the ancient site of Eamhain Mhacha in Armagh; the site of The Battle of the Diamond (a rather grandiose term for a sectarian farmyard scuffle with world-shaping consequences, as it was the catalyst for the foundation of The Orange Order) in Loughgall; the twin Cathedrals of Armagh city with the grave of Brian Boru, and for a bit of fresh air, Oxford Island discovery centre on nearby Lough Neagh.

On recent success

I am frankly stunned. It has been incredibly hard work, and without an agent, an advertising budget, an Irish publisher, or an Irish distributor, it has happened almost entirely by word of mouth. I have been literally driving out to independent bookshops with ten copies and an invoice, and posting individual books round the country.

I’m so grateful to the half-dozen indie booksellers who had faith and who took on The Accidental Wife with no idea if they would ever sell one copy. And now the book is also available post-free worldwide from www.kennys.ie and at a better price than Amazon.

If you don’t mind, I’ll list them: Farrell’s in Newbridge, Barker and Jones in Naas, Woodbine in Kilcullen, StoneHouse in Kilkenny, Dubray on Grafton Street, No Alibis in Belfast and Little Acorns in Derry.

Processing the fact that I have been the recipient of this goodwill and good fortune has been difficult and I shake myself sometimes to remind myself it is actually happening. When I feel myself getting smug, I remind myself that I (not my publisher) personally own, and that I (not my publisher) have personally paid for, every single copy of The Accidental Wife which is currently sitting on bookshop shelves or in storage boxes in my office— that rather sobering thought brings me back to earth quickly!

On what’s next

My second book The Flight of the Wren won a place at the Greenbean Novel Fair last year, which was incredibly exciting and a hugely beneficial experience. I met a lot of supportive and experienced people and benefitted greatly from their advice in several aspects of my writing. Since then the novel has been rejected over fifty times. So I think we can fairly say, I’ve given her a good chance. Yesterday I wrote the first story of my new collection, Full of Grace. It’s time to move on.

The Accidental Wife  is available from selected bookshops nationwide (€12.00) and amazon.co.uk (€18.00).

Sophie Grenham @SophieGrenham

Don’t miss our February issue, out Thursday February 2.

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