Writer’s Block With William Wall

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to WILLIAM WALL about living in Cork, spending summers in Italy and his views on the current LITERARY SCENE …



Cork native William Wall is a multi prize-winning novelist, short fiction writer and poet. Perhaps one of the finest wordsmiths to emerge from ‘The Rebel County’, William’s beautifully lyrical work, often laced with an infectious dark wit, has reached audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

In his career so far, William has published four novels, three compilations of poetry, two collections of short stories and has contributed to countless literary anthologies, journals, magazines and websites. His most recent work includes poetry book Ghost Estate (Salmon Poetry, 2011), and short story collection Hearing Voices /Seeing Things (Doire Press, 2016).

William’s words have been translated into Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Latvian, Serbian and Catalan. The author has a special connection with Italy, where he habitually participates in festivals. He translates from Italian and has co-presented workshops in the exercise. In 2014 William was part of the Italo-Irish Literature Exchange, organized through the Irish Writers’ Centre.

One imagines a rather crowded mantelpiece and heavily stamped passport when considering Wall’s achievements. Just some of his accolades are the Virginia Faulkner Award, the Sean Ó Faoláin Prize and the Patrick Kavanagh Award. He was a Fellow of the Liguria Centre for the Arts and Humanities in 2009, has been a Writer in Residence at the Princess Grace Irish Library in Monaco and an Irish delegate to the European Writers’ Parliament in Istanbul (both in 2010). William has just been crowned the 2017 winner of the Drue Heinz Prize for Literature.

William Wall lives in County Cork with his wife. He is currently working on numerous projects.

Hearing Things/Seeing Things (€12) is published by Doire Press and available nationwide.

On home

I live on the outskirts of Cork City, fields front and back, but fifteen minutes from the city centre by bus or car. We’ve been living here for more than thirty years, adding bits as necessity made itself felt and money allowed. Living in the same house all your life has many advantages, not least of which is that you’re not on a mortgage ladder to infinity.

It’s a peaceful place to live and work.

My day always starts with a coffee between six and seven and I start work within thirty minutes. I generally work most of the morning with breaks. I’ll often return to it in the evening, usually to edit. We both cook and enjoy buying at the English Market in Cork, or the Saturday morning farmer’s market on the Coal Quay.

My favourite Cork café is the Farmgate in the English Market. We know Kay and Rebecca and the staff very well by now and always feel like we’re among friends.

There’s a great openness to the arts there too. So many of our friends go there it’s like a club. My favourite restaurant is Cafe Paradiso, the only vegetarian restaurant where I don’t miss meat. Again the atmosphere is great and the food outstanding.

On roots

I grew up in the harbour village of Whitegate and during my childhood Ireland’s first oil refinery was built there. Looking out our front door you saw, first, a narrow road, a large shallow bay and then Corkbeg Island with its tank farm and the huge jetty where the oil tankers tied up. In bad northwesterly storms the waves broke against our windows and equinoctial floods invaded the house bad years. The smell of the shore – seaweed, mud and the salt tang – still brings me home in one breath. I spent the summers alternately swimming and picking potatoes, like any child of a tillage farmer.

Our house was always painted yellow, hence the title of my next poetry collection – The Yellow House.

On escape

I spend some time every year in Italy, in Camogli, Liguria. Camogli is still a living fishing village – if you go down around eleven to the Co-op you will find that morning’s catch. The area is famous for its focaccia. If you take the train from Genoa to Cinque Terre you’ll pass through the little station. The mountains fall right down to the sea here and the sea is deep. In the evenings you see the lights of the ships going into Genoa. I used to watch those same lights from my bedroom window in Whitegate.

If you go there take a swim from the stony beach, launching yourself quickly into the deep water behind the walled island on which the medieval church stands.

It has not escaped my attention that islands, the sea and swimming have found their ways into all of my books.

David Sleator

On creating 

I work in a room that looks out on the garden, facing south. There is a lot of window space so I shift the small school desk around quite a bit for shade. A long bookcase runs under the south facing windows, but it contains mostly old anthologies and such. The walls are hung with seven pencil drawings, the original Pete Dobson illustrations to my first collection of poems – a diver’s helmet, a butterfly, a mushroom ring etc. Pencil, I am told, is stable in bright sunlight, and so far, after nearly twenty years they are as clean as ever. We have a stove in this room for winter because it has poor insulation.

On treasured bookshops

I am very fond of Liam Ruiséal’s bookshop in Cork. I used to go in there as a teenager and old Mr Russell would speak Irish to me. He used to read my poems – in those days I went by the name of Liam de Bhál and wrote in both Irish and English. It’s the best bookshop for local history and Irish related material, but it’s a good place to look for anything. It’s in Oliver Plunkett Street, one of the older commercial streets, still troubled frequently by flooding from the sea which comes up from the old river channels that run everywhere under the city. Cork was once (and may well become again if global warming predictions turn out to be true) a set of marshy islands on a tidal reach.

Another bookshop, a little remote, is the beautiful bookshop Ultima Spiaggia overlooking the sea in Camogli. The first book I ever bought there was a little collection of letters from Antonio Gramsci to his sister-in-law. It has an amazing range from philosophy and history to literature. There are barrows outside to encourage you to browse and Fabio, the owner, loves Irish music.

On his nightstand

It’s a mix. I have Stephen Greenblatt’s brilliant Will in the World, a biography of Shakespeare which was a Christmas gift from my soon-to-be daughter-in-law Miranda; Mike McCormack’s magical Solar Bones, finished but not yet shelved; The Comrade from Milan, a beautifully written memoir by Rossana Rossanda, former member of the Italian Communist Party and founder of the Manifesto movement and the newspaper Il Manifesto; Frantumaglia, a selection of letters by Elena Ferrante, which I dip into from time to time; Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood, which I’m about to start reading; and Elizabeth Bowen’s Pictures and Conversations, essays towards an autobiography.

On the literary scene

I’m not sure why there has been an explosion in literary magazines and journals, but it can’t be a bad thing. Unfortunately, much of the work that is expected of a writer now is unpaid which raises the question of whether art is worth paying for. My own feeling is that every citizen should be paid a living wage which would allow all of us to make our contributions to society on a voluntary basis if we wish, including writers.

As for the merry-go-round of ‘getting yourself out there’, it seems to me a complete waste of time. Recently a would-be writer wrote to me with a list of the social media ‘power-brokers’ who were poised to promote his work to millions of readers online.

People say it’s the new world and we’d better get used to it, but in the end of the day readers will like the book or not, and that will come down to the writing, not the social media footprint. Too often new writers concentrate on ‘the business of publishing’, and there are usually events at festivals led by agents or publishers that feed into that. Perhaps I’m outdated, but it seems to me that a writer’s business is writing and this is transacted at a desk, in front of a laptop screen (or by hand), in a quiet room over a very long period of time.

On what’s next

I’m publishing my fourth collection of poems in September (The Yellow House, Salmon Poetry), a third collection of short fiction in the USA in October on foot of the Drue Heinz Prize (The Islands, UPP, Oct 2017), and new novels in 2018 and 2019. I’m in the process of completing a novella. I think I need a life!


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