Writer’s Block With Ann O’Loughlin

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to author ANN O’LOUGHLIN about friendship, escapes and her WRITING PROCESS

Photograph by Eoin Rafferty

Bestseller Ann O’Loughlin has built a stellar career in journalism that has covered all major news events over the last three decades. Currently a senior journalist with the Irish Examiner reporting on legal matters, Ann gained the majority of her experience with Independent newspapers, where she was the Security Correspondent at the peak of the Troubles. Ann made her authorial debut with The Ballroom Café, which was a major hit first as an e-book in the Amazon.co.uk Top 20 chart in 2015, before rising in print. Having now established a fan base for her elegant prose style and immensely empathetic characters, Ann’s winning streak surged ahead with The Judge’s Wife in 2016.

Ann’s new novel, The Ludlow Ladies’ Society has already received excellent reviews. Fellow author Kate Kerrigan has said the book ‘brought me to a beautiful place and into a circle of friends I didn’t want to leave. Unputdownable. Ann’s world is uniquely Irish in its warmth and charm.’

Ann has travelled extensively; she met her husband on the famous Trans-Siberian railway journey and they have lived and worked in India. Ann’s books have gathered much international interest with rights sold to the USA, Italy, Hungary, Holland, Bulgaria, Germany, Portugal and Norway so far. The Ludlow Ladies’ Society has just been short-listed for The Guardian’s Not the Booker prize 2017.  

Ann O’Loughlin lives in County Wicklow with her husband John and their two daughters.  

The Ludlow Ladies’ Society (€11.99) is published by Black & White and available now from all good bookshops.

On home

We moved out of Dublin city over twenty years ago to Co Wicklow and we love it. We are beside the sea with the mountains behind us and I can commute into the city to work. It really is the best of both worlds. Most mornings I get up around 5am to write before getting ready for work. When I want to relax, I love a stroll around Ashford gardens. I would just love to live in the house there beside the river. When our children were young they loved the gardens, because of the bridges across the river and the little paths weaving in and out around the trees. Now they are older, we make sure to go a few times a year, but particularly in spring when the rhododendron and azaleas are in bloom. We went there for Mother’s Day this year, had lunch in the Avoca restaurant before strolling through the gardens. It was the perfect day: family, beautiful gardens and food. We never leave without buying cheese bread or maybe a pear and almond tart in the Avoca food shop.

On roots

I was brought up in a small village outside Ennis, Co Clare in the west of Ireland. It was an idyllic childhood in many ways. We had a huge garden and grew all our own produce and my mother, a dressmaker, made all our dresses. We did not have a car until I was a teenager, so we got used to cycling everywhere. Our favourite trip was to go with my mother to pick out fabric in the fabric shops in Ennis. My mother could run up a dress as quick as lightning. I loved to sew with her and that was the huge inspiration behind my latest novel, The Ludlow Ladies’ Society, when the women stitch memory patchwork quilts to remember those they have lost. I made a patchwork quilt one summer with my mother, from pieces of fabric she had squirrelled away over the years. The fabric was from all the outfits she had made for me. It was a special time between us, stitching the quilt. My patchwork quilt is precious to me now; it is my blanket of memories.

On creating

I like to get up early to write. I have a big comfy chair in the kitchen and I flop there with the laptop. There was a time the dogs would give me an excited welcome so early, but now they know the routine and don’t budge until I have reached the first 1000 words. That is when they get breakfast. If they are lucky, we try to get a walk in before the next stint of writing.

Where I sit, I can see directly across the room to two important pictures in my life. My grandmother, the only photograph of her; she died of TB when my mother was only five but that picture has been part of my life. She has kind eyes, like my mum had. There is also a print of a painting by artist Mary Cassatt of a young child leaning in to her mother’s knee as she stitches. It reminds me of times with my mother as she sewed.

On bookshops 

I am a big fan of Dubray Books. I probably end up in the Grafton Street shop more than the one in Bray, Co Wicklow. But no matter which one, they have such a welcome for a newly published author and they love books. I am astounded by their knowledge and willingness to share it. There is something so special when you ask about a book and the person behind the counter knows exactly what you are talking about and may even have read it or has read a review. These days, I think that is what people are looking for in a bookshop, somewhere you can linger, chat about books and know the books recommended you are surely going to love.

On her nightstand

I have so much to catch up on. When I am writing I don’t read, but now that The Ludlow Ladies’ Society is published, I have a mountain that is the TBR pile before fully disappearing in to my writing cave. On the top of the pile is a book I have been itching to read – The House Between Tides by Sarah Maine. Hetty inherits a large old house in the Outer Hebrides and wants to turn it into a hotel. When a cracked skull is found under the floorboards, there is a crime of the past to be solved and long buried secrets begin to tumble out. Maine moves between timelines following the lives of two women a century apart, but both connected to this big house on the island. Big old houses are my thing! Also on my list is Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Next is The Uncommon Life of Alfred Warner in Six Days by Juliet Conlin. Alfred is eighty and has only six days to live, but holds an astonishing family secret, which he must share before he dies. I have been warned it will make me cry.

On escape

Sometimes if the characters in my head are not talking and the words won’t come out on to the page so easily, I abandon the comfy chair in the kitchen, throw my laptop and a flask of coffee in the back of the car and drive deep in to the Wicklow mountains. I have a favourite spot where the clouds are practically on top of me some days. If you can’t sort out the characters in your head there, you never will. Deep in the Wicklow mountains is just good for the soul.

I love the city of Porto, Portugal and there is a little spot on the Douro river where we love to go. It is a two hour train journey from Porto and there is not much there, but that is its charm; a wooden chalet type house with a balcony over the river. Life is very simple there, but it is a great place to unwind. When we were last there the owner brought us out on the river in his boat to a fish restaurant upriver. On the way home it was late and the stars were so bright in the night sky, it was breathtaking.

On India

At the start of our Indian adventure, I travelled in the Irish delegation with President Mary Robinson on her state visit there. I was reporting on the visit; it was a whirlwind tour of India, but when President Robinson flew home, my husband and I stayed on. I had taken a sabbatical from my journalist job at the time. We stayed in Delhi for a while, but it is when we moved to Bengaluru in the South, that we really began to enjoy the Indian way of life.
We made friends with an Indian family and they really took us under their wings. We were there in the happy and sad times and we are still the best of friends. Even though we are miles apart now, we still call them our Indian family. Our friends live in the centre of the city and that can be so busy, so my favourite place in India is actually the coffee estate in the Nilgiri Hills. Anyone who knows my books will recognise the coffee plantation in The Judge’s Wife. It really is where peace comes dropping slow. There is no better time than when the mist is curling across the plantation, the peacocks are calling and the air is still. Anything seems possible.

On friendship

Where would we be without our friends? Friends sustain us, keep us going, make us laugh and hold us when we cry. Family is family, but friends are friends. There are many different types of friends, but the best friends are those who make it their business to be always there. They are by your side when life has delivered a few hard blows and they are there at the good times ready to celebrate and cheer you on. They are there in the normal days and every day. When I sat down to write The Ludlow Ladies’ Society, I knew one thing. I wanted to celebrate that great friendship that can bloom between women even in the most unusual circumstances. I have been very lucky in life with my friends both male and female. There is a saying to surround yourself with people who are good for you and I do that.

On what’s next

Who knows? I have taken the first tentative steps in to book four. With The Ludlow Ladies safely on shelves across the country, I can go back to full time writing now. It is my favourite time with any book, when nobody knows what I am writing. I live with the characters and the story. It is almost a secret world where I can retreat. Not even my agent or publisher know what I am doing, they don’t even get a hint until I type the magic words ‘The End.’

@SophieGrenham

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