Writer’s Block With Lisa Harding

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to actress, playwright and author LISA HARDING about her debut novel …

Lisa Harding is a renowned actress, playwright and the critically acclaimed author of Harvesting, which was nominated for the Newcomer of the Year award at the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards 2017. Her acutely sensitive study of today’s harrowing sex-trafficking underground draws us into the lives of two young friends Sammy and Nico, as they find themselves at work in a Dublin brothel.

Roddy Doyle has said of Lisa’s debut, “Harvesting is shocking – and shockingly good. It is thought-provoking, anger-provoking, guilt-provoking…a brilliantly written novel.”

Alongside moving readers all over Ireland with her breathtaking words, Lisa is perhaps best known for her role as Connie in Fair City. She has walked the boards at some of Europe’s most prestigious spaces; the Gate, the Abbey, the Lyric and the Manchester Library, among others. Her plays include Starving, And All Because, and Playground.

In 2014 Lisa completed an MPhil in Creative Writing in Trinity College Dublin.

She has received an Irish Arts Council Bursary and a Peggy Ramsay Grant for Playwriting. Her short stories have been published in the Dublin Review, the Bath Short Story Anthology and Headstuff. Her story, Counting Down, was a winner in the inaugural Doolin Writer’s Weekend Competition. Lisa’s other prose has been short-listed for the Bath, Fish, Listowel, Cúirt, Over the Edge, and Penguin Ireland/RTÉ Guide short story awards.

Lisa Harding lives in Dublin. She is currently writing her next novel.

Harvesting (€13.95) is published by New Island and available from all good bookshops.

On home

I’m currently renting a small space near Herbert Park, an area I’ve lived in since I returned home from London over six years ago. Although I’ve had six moves in as many years (due to the property market vagaries which allowed landlords to hike rents up and to sell rental homes underfoot), I managed to stay in the vicinity for work purposes. I now, finally, have found a kind and decent landlord and some kind of security. I adopted a little rescue dog at the same time I moved home, and she brings me to the park once or twice a day. I love jogging and walking around that park in all seasons and am intimately acquainted with the various ducks, swans, trees, squirrels and dogs of all varieties, who are allowed off leash at certain times of the day. Doggie-heaven!

On roots

I grew up in Rathfarnham, and my bedroom had a view of the Dublin mountains. This was something I missed the most in my thirteen years of living in London: the proximity to hills and wide-open spaces. We used to go on Sunday hikes, which I’ve now taken up again, in later life (I know!).

Random memories of that house are: swirling pink and brown patterned carpets, heavy crepe-silk pink curtains, a baby piano that no one played, lino on the kitchen floor, Formica-topped kitchen units, my mum’s pavlova, the smell of next-door’s chip pan which leaked through the very thin walls, the sound of my dad’s snoring through said thin walls, and my large and rather creepy collection of Pierrot dolls that lined every surface of my bedroom.

We lived in an estate, which was pretty cool, as there were always other kids around to hang out with. It was a very sociable, safe childhood in that respect. We used to hang out in the open field opposite our house, and make up games and I’d write plays and boss the neighbourhood kids around. Later, there were boys and Spin-the-Bottle.

I remember as a teenager developing an allergy to the whole idea of a place where all the houses looked the same. I craved the lure of big cities and wanted a more cutting-edge existence to suburban life. Now, though, I’d be perfectly content if I could afford a house with a garden and a view of the Dublin mountains.

They said it would happen…

On creating

I work in my living room as it’s the only space available to me. My desk is positioned below a window, which is north-facing, so fine on the eyes, and looks out onto a pretty tree, which partly obscures the view of other apartments directly facing mine. The room is dominated by my work desk, and piles of books on all surfaces. In time, my ideal situation would be to have a garden and a separate seomra to work in. I was recently at a retreat in a Devon writing house and there was a wooden pod in the grounds with circular windows giving out onto woodland. This is the dream for the future.

On bookshops

Books on the Green in Sandymount and Hampton Books in Donnybrook are my absolute favourite spots. I live between them and am a regular visitor to both. I love the intimacy, the obvious love of books which both booksellers share. A small space lovingly crammed full of books. What’s not to love? Oh, and both had a copy of Harvesting in the window for a while, which was an absolute delight and honour.

On her nightstand

Amy Hempel’s collected works and all of Tim Winton’s work sits next to my bed, even though I’ve read them over and over.

Both of these writers help me to recalibrate when I want to get into my own writing mode and they remind me of why I’m so passionate about words on the page. These are the kind of writers I can always learn something new from, and aspire to.

I’m currently reading Peter Murphy’s Shall We Gather At The River. It’s extraordinarily lush and poetic, and makes me delight in the power of language.

On escapes

I’ve been lucky to go on many writing retreats at home and abroad. I particularly love Annaghmakerrig and Cill Rialaig, which offer different forms of seclusion and inspiration. Annaghmakerrig has the most delicious food and evening dinners, which are a welcome rest in the day, whereas the splendid isolation of the cottages in Cill Rialaig offer a more intense “get-away-from-it-all” experience. I like to go to different places and experience new inspiration in the form of landscape, and next year there’s a retreat house in the Scottish Highlands in my sights.

On theatre and transition

I think theatre is an immersive experience which is hard to replicate in the novel form. It’s experiential and sociable, and the fact of having living, breathing bodies giving life to words is deeply satisfying. The theatre also has all these elements at its disposal: lighting, stage design, costume, music, not to mention actors and the vision of the director. Theatre is immediate and intimate and has all the excitement of live performance.

Actors instinctively understand “voice” and dramatic action. There’s no doubt that my training and subsequent professional work as an actress paved the way for the style of writing I’ve now adopted: immersive, dramatic and character-driven. The act of inhabiting a character’s psyche is great ground-work for getting right inside the skin of imagined psychologies.

My own trajectory was from actress to playwright to short stories to novels. My way in to any of these writing forms is the dramatic monologue, and I like to think I’ll be able to stay fluid in form going forward. Pinter (one of my favourite playwrights) also made the move from actor to playwright and I have learned a great deal from him. He understands how to keep the audience on the edge of their seats by employing menace, mystery and omission. Regardless of whether tackling a novel, story or a play, these elements are essential in writing gripping narratives. I am interested in drama, in human psychology and am very grateful for my acting training in this regard.

On trafficking

The only way to put an end to the trade is to tackle demand. Human trafficking is a crisis of humanity on a global scale and I strongly believe that young people need to be educated about the impact of pornography on the psyche – how this inures a viewer to the essence of the human-being on the screen. The normalisation of prostitution isn’t a solution, and it’s been proved that in countries where “sex work” has been legalised, trafficking continues to flourish.

Organised gangs are trading in human flesh in the same way they trade in drugs and arms. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide, which can only be starved by tackling those who partake of its “product.” The supply seems to be endless, because of the migrant crisis and the amount of vulnerable women and children worldwide.

It’s astounding how few pimps and traffickers are brought to justice. As it’s such a hidden, secretive world it seems impossible to police.

The Dáil passed legislation earlier this year, which follows the Nordic model of criminalising the purchasing of sex. This is a positive step, but again, it comes back to the resources that are available to implement this. The Gardaí have set up an anti-trafficking unit called www.blueblindfold.gov.ie which encourages the public to report any suspected cases of trafficking. “Don’t Close your Eyes”- is their motto, and one which needs to be adopted the world over if this heinous trade is to be stamped out.

Education and awareness are key.

On what’s next

Another novel called Overspill, which explores the generational effects of alcoholism. It is another socially-motivated piece of work, although the territory it explores allows for a little more humour and light and shade in the telling. It seems I can only write about topics which I feel passionately about, and which will hopefully shine a light on areas of society that are still somewhat taboo.

Of course that could all change in the future, and I remain open to the possibility of surprising myself by writing a frothy fun love story, maybe involving vampires or robots…or squirrels!

@SophieGrenham

Love THEGLOSS.ie? Sign up to our MAILING LIST now for a roundup of the latest fashion, beauty, interiors and entertaining news from THE GLOSS MAGAZINE’s daily dispatches.