SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to author YVONNE CASSIDY about EMIGRATING to New York, leaving her career at 02 to become a full time writer, and discovering the gift of VOLUNTEERING …
New York based Yvonne Cassidy is the bestselling author of four novels, most recently I’m Right Here, published in February this year. The remarkable story is told from the dual view points of Cassie, an Irish-American teen from Brooklyn Heights, and her friend E.L., a slave girl from a cotton plantation in the 1850s.
Raw themes of sorrow, loss, alcohol abuse and the perception of mental health run through the book, with a transcendent friendship at its core.
Yvonne, a former Head of Marketing Communications role at O2, moved to the Big Apple in 2011 to chase her dream of becoming a full time writer.
Her other titles include The Other Boy (2010) and What Might Have Been Me (2012). Her third novel, How Many Letters in Goodbye? (published in Ireland in 2014 and the U.S. in 2016) was given a prestigious top ten position in the American Library Association’s Rainbow Book List.
When Yvonne isn’t dreaming up new characters, she teaches creative writing and gives much of her time to fundraising and helping the homeless.
Yvonne Cassidy lives with her wife on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She is currently writing her next novel.
All of Yvonne’s books are published by Hachette Ireland. I’m Right Here (€19.60) is available from all good bookshops.
I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, actually it’s technically the ‘Upper-upper West Side’ because it’s above 100th Street. Our apartment is an old pre-war building, the same era as most of the buildings around here. I love our block – it’s wide enough to have lots of cherry blossom trees and at the end there’s a statue of a man on horseback and steps down to Riverside Park with a view across the Hudson River to New Jersey. If you walk to the other end of the block there’s another little park and then Broadway – full of shops and restaurants – and a few blocks up from our apartment there’s Columbia University. I’ve always loved Columbia – coincidentally it’s where I spent my first ever night in New York on a J1 visa back in 1993 – and even before we moved here I used to come up to wander around the campus when I was writing my third novel, How Many Letters Are in Goodbye? It’s one of the good things about being a writer that you get to put places you love in your stories, or maybe your stories just grow around them.
I remember as a kid sitting too close to the telly watching Different Strokes and saying that someday I would live there [New York]. That said, it was strictly a place to come and visit until I met the woman who would become my wife on a writing trip in 2009. I moved here in 2011 and for the first year, I felt pretty at sea. It’s hard to uproot your life, even to a place you want to be. And everything was so different – even going to the supermarket, all the brands are different, not that we even have proper supermarkets here in New York! At the time we lived in a tiny apartment in Hell’s Kitchen – so tiny the shower was in the kitchen – and while the location was great, I found it hard to deal with the crowds 24/7. Moving uptown was much better and even though the rent is twice my mortgage was back in Dublin, you just kind of accept it because for that, you get to live in Manhattan. There’s a lot of juggling: I work part-time, write, teach, sometimes coach writing too, and somehow it all works out.
I feel very fortunate to have grown up in Dalkey. And I very much consider Dalkey my home town. When I think of Dalkey, what comes to mind automatically is the sea. The sound of it, the smell, the different colours throughout the year, the size of the waves. I went to school in Loreto and the sea was right there, all the time, a presence so constant it’s like a heartbeat – you barely notice it but it’s giving you life. I loved climbing on the rocks with my friends and later, in science class when the weather was nice, we used to go out and investigate the rock pools. The falling down tunnel out to Dalkey Island was a fascination for a kid like me – a real life Famous Five style adventure on my doorstep. I remember writing adventure stories about tunnels and islands and I suspect these borrowed heavily from Enid Blyton!
Mostly I miss it after a trip home. I can have a restlessness that lasts for a few days or a week until I settle back into New York life again. What do I miss? The people, of course – my family are there and so many friends – but I miss other things too; walking by the sea, the feeling of the air on my face, the colours of the sky, Teddy’s 99s, McCambridge’s bread, cream, butter, cheese – Irish dairy is hard to beat!
And yes, there were things I was happy to leave behind, or at least not have as part of my everyday life. While I like the familiarity of Ireland, living there I found it claustrophobic as well – the sense that my life was somehow already mapped out, that other people knew my business before I did. I’ve always loved the anonymity of New York – the freedom of that. I love that it’s just normal to expect difference; that sometimes I am the only white face in the Subway carriage, that I almost never have a second thought about giving my wife a kiss on the street.
Actually I very rarely write at home. Part of my creative process is getting out, for a run or even just a walk around a certain part of the city, then finding somewhere to write – usually a café that is just quiet enough. For my most recent book I’m Right Here, Brooklyn was my writing zone and I had this perfect quiet café in the heart of Brooklyn Heights to write in – which unfortunately was a bit too quiet because it closed down! Even though it took me the guts of an hour on the Subway every day to get there, my creative process would start as soon as I left the house, listening to music or thinking about the characters, so that by the time I got to my spot in the café I was primed and ready to go. Now I’m working on a new novel and I’m finding myself drawn to Washington Heights which is a mostly Dominican area in the north of Manhattan. A large part of writing for me – especially in the early stages – is that it has to feel fun, it has to feel like an adventure.
On her nightstand
Right now Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is what I’m currently reading. I’m taking my time and really savouring it. It’s not the kind of book that you rush through – at least I’m not – because I feel every paragraph, every line, is so dense and has such an impact.
My nightstand also has some books I love that I dip in and out of and even when I haven’t for a while, I like to know they are there! In no particular order those are: Love, Christopher Street – Reflections of New York City, Flannery O’Connor’s A Prayer Journal (both gifts from my wife), a fancy hardback edition of The Little Prince from my Dad with a very touching inscription and a hardback book called Carver Country with the best of Raymond Carver in there, including my favourite of his poems, ‘Late Fragment’.
My favourite independent bookstore is a place called Book Culture, up on 112th street. They have another branch that just opened and is further downtown and trendier and sells really cute journals and bags and things, but I like the original which although it has that stuff, is really focused on books. It’s on two floors and my favourite is the upstairs part where they have second hand books. The shelves are really close together so if someone else is browsing you have to weave your way around each other – a bit like The Strand down near Union Square which is another favourite. Book Culture is much quieter than the Strand though and at the end of most of the aisles, by the windows, there are some old beaten up arm chairs where you can sit and read and not be interrupted. I’ve read a lot of Nora Ephron sitting in those chairs – for some reason she seems to be my ‘go to’ author while I’m there!
It was strangely easy how I found myself at Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen – I needed a part time job and someone who would sponsor me for a visa. They needed a part time fundraising person and were willing to do that. It was only after I started I realised they had a creative writing programme for soup kitchen guests. While fundraising was my main focus, teaching was the most fulfilling part of my job and hugely inspirational for my novel How Many Letters Are In Goodbye?
I would highly recommend volunteering to someone who is visiting New York. It will take up about three hours of your morning and you’d be one of fifty or so people there serving 1,000 plus meals. You could be filling trays or handing out drinks or cleaning tables. But really, you’re giving and receiving so much more. So many people who come through the soup kitchen are pretty isolated – whether they are homeless or not. Having a joke or chat with someone and literally seeing their face light up is a very special feeling. I think it’s the volunteers who get the real gift.
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