Writer’s Block With Adele O’Neill

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to author ADELE O’NEILL about her escapes, IRISH SECRECY and her DEBUT NOVEL …

Photograph by Eoin Rafferty
Photograph by Eoin Rafferty

Newcomer Adele O’Neill has penned perhaps the most riveting thriller of the summer. Her debut novel, Brothers & Sisters, grabs the reader from the off with its unique blend of lifelike characters and crime scene investigation. The story switches from Kilkenny to Dublin, between the 1970s and present day, reeling us in as we grow immersed in the Fitzpatrick family’s murky history. Breaking from the expected style of a whodunit, this time the detectives take a back seat. Since the work’s digital release at the beginning of July, sales have soared, leaving Adele’s audience already hungry for more.

Prior to pursuing a full-time career in the literary world, Adele owned and ran the popular Little Angels Montessori, which she closed in 2012. The author’s hard work paid off earlier this year, when she landed an exciting three book contract. Adele is also involved with the Wexford Literary Festival, where she served on the committee this season.

Adele lives in Arklow, Co Wicklow, with her husband Alan and their two daughters Alannah and Ava. She is currently working on her next novel.  

Brothers & Sisters (€13) is published by Head of Zeus and available now in paperback from selected bookshops.

On home

I live on the south side of the town, right beside the Golf Links in Arklow with a view out over the Irish Sea that spans north to Wicklow Head. The South Beach, Arklow Harbour and The Cove Beach are all a stone’s throw away from my house so when I’m in need of a change of scenery or space to work out a plot, I can be found somewhere by the water, usually talking to myself!

In the evenings, when weather and time permit, myself and the family take our canoes out from The Cove Beach and paddle along the coast southwards past the jetty down towards Clogga Beach. There is a particular tranquillity you get when looking back into the shore up at Arklow Rock while floating on the deep blue sea that I don’t think I could achieve anywhere else. However, when a seal pops up to say hello it can disturb your tranquillity momentarily!

On roots 

When I think of Arklow from my childhood, I am immediately drawn to images of fantastic white waves crashing over the south pier with the sound of screeching seagulls overhead as fishing boats land their catch on the dock. I can still feel the grit of sand in my shoes and smell the fish from the quayside.

I grew up a mere five minutes away from where I live now. In fact I, along with most other teenagers in the town, used to walk through the fields where my house is now built on our way to The Cove Beach every day of our summer holidays. We would swim and sunbathe, and the braver amongst us jumped from the jetty and the platform into the Irish Sea. I still have a scar on my left ankle from a jetty dive that went a little wrong!

In my youth, I left Arklow in the mid-nineties as most young adults do for college and then for work in Leicester City Football club in the UK, so coming home for me was always associated with getting back to the sea with its amazing distinctive sea air, the sound of the gulls overhead and the familiarity and friendliness of the locals. Following the UK I moved back to Dublin for work and when I became pregnant on my first child, I convinced my husband to move back to Arklow for my first maternity leave – that was fifteen years ago and we are still here!

On creating

I usually need quietness to write, so I write in the room that is furthest away from the family at the north end of the house. It also happens to be the best room for views. The bookshelves are overloaded with books that I can’t wait to read, as well as some old firm favourites and some family photos. My favourite is a black and white photo of my parents when they first met in the late sixties.

On bookshops 

Much to my dismay there are no independent bookshops in Arklow. However, whenever I travel, I love seeking out bookshops that are unusual and quirky. My most recent discovery was Shakespeare and Company on the Left Bank in Paris. It opens until eleven every night and has a café that serves a lemon pie that is to die for. Inside the old building is a labyrinth of rooms that house bookshelves from floor to ceiling with a million stories folded inside the covers. Standing across the Seine in the shadow of Notre Dame, it’s like a sleeping giant against the chaos of Parisian nightlife. As much as I admire the principle though, I don’t think I would ever be able to partake in their ‘Tumbleweeding’!

On her nightstand

I tend to read on my Kindle in bed and keep paperback and hardbacks for day time. I’m currently reading Patricia Gibney’s, The Missing Ones in anticipation of her next novel, The Stolen Girls, which is out this month. I think Patricia has achieved what most authors could only dream of in such a short space of time – she is my current inspiration. After that then, Clare Mackintosh, I See You, is next on my To Be Read pile in paperback. I love sharing books and only keep a select few long term. I prefer instead to loan books to people and encourage them to give them to someone else or leave them in a hospital library or a holiday home for someone else to pick them up rather than return them. I should set up a movement called ‘The Sisterhood of the Travelling Books’.

On escapes

I love escaping. I do it quite frequently. I think I suffer with a restlessness and curiosity that makes me want to travel as much as I can, so I take any opportunity I can to travel abroad. I can even remember from a very young age, when funds were scarce in the eighties and family holidays to Mosney were a big deal, I joined any local club or team that were planning a foreign trip just so I could get away, even if I had no interest in the sport or club’s activity! I have always had a wanderlust for travel.

If I’m staying in Ireland to escape, I love to go to Kinnitty Castle whether it’s for a writing retreat or pure relaxation. The glorious atmosphere in the Castle is filled with an old world charm that makes you feel that you are truly stepping back in time. I especially love the Library Bar. It combines two of my favourite things – books and wine!

The shelves are heaving with such a selection of fantastic Irish and international titles, both new and old and even though Kinnitty Castle doesn’t know it yet, every time I visit I’ve been secretly leaving a novel that I really loved onto their shelves with a little note either from the book’s author or myself inside, for the next Kinnitty reader.

On Irish secrecy

They say that Ireland is the Land of Saints and Scholars. I’d like to say that Ireland is the Land of Saints and Scholars – and Secrets.

As a society, Ireland has been dominated for generations by religious and political institutions that have a patriarchal bias focused on power, secrecy and self-preservation, mostly at the expense of women and the more vulnerable people in Ireland. The buried secrets of Ireland’s past provide a magnificent resource and a wealth of information for writers looking to shine a light on historical injustices and discriminative practices. The historical notion that women should be defined by their family positions is no longer credible and the silence that was once afforded to crimes of the past is no longer acceptable or available. As generations mature I suspect that more and more horrific secrets from Ireland’s past will come to the fore and horrify generations to come.

On Wexford

My relationship with Wexford Literary Festival started in 2015 when I first attended as a delegate. For an aspiring writer, like I was then, it was an unrivalled experience offering advice and guidance from established successful authors like Carmel Harrington, Andrea Carter and Hazel Gaynor. So when I was asked back this year as part of the committee, I leaped at the chance.

This year amongst the many committee duties, I curated The Colm Toibín Short Story Competition and moderated on the Crime Panel with Alex Barclay and Michael O’ Higgins for the festival.

One of the attendees at this year’s festival referred to Wexford Literary Festival as ‘one of the friendliest festivals in Ireland’ and I would have to agree. It’s not every festival where an aspiring author can get the chance to sit at lunch or coffee with a multi-award winning and bestselling author and get practical advice in an engaging atmosphere, and that’s all before the workshops begin!

On what’s next

I am having a book launch for Brothers & Sisters today. My e-book publication date of Brothers & Sisters was July 1 and sales are going extremely well. The paperback will be available in local bookshops Easons in Arklow, Byrnes Bookstore in County Wexford, Dubray in Bray and at the launch.

I’ve just submitted the first draft of my second novel, so will be starting into edits and a rewrite on Monday July 16. It’s another dark, character driven story that follows the lives of two very different women on both sides of the Atlantic, one in Dublin and one in San Francisco who are faced with impossible choices that have the potential to have devastating outcomes. I like to get to know my characters’ limits very early on in the story so that I can push them a little past that.


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