Writer’s Block With Paula McGrath

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to author PAULA McGRATH about writing during SCHOOL HOURS, her 18-year-old DREAM COME TRUE and running away …

Photograph by Eoin Rafferty

Kildare-born Paula McGrath has lived many fruitful lives, with previous incarnations as a barista and a bookseller in California, and more recently as a yoga teacher. While Paula is now practically bathing in reams of praise from critics and peers, her path to becoming an author had some twisty bends in the road. Over a couple of decades, Paula had a handful of false starts before emerging victorious with her debut, Generation, in 2015. The Sunday Times called it ‘a remarkable first novel.’ Paula’s new book, A History of Running Away, was published in June this year. The feminist prose is branched to follow three different quests, as the characters strive to make fresh starts. Joseph O’Connor has called the work, ‘urgently contemporary in its concerns but is also a quietly compelling exploration of home and belonging. Paula McGrath is a wonderful storyteller.’

Paula has a rich academic background in English Literature and is currently an Irish Research Council (Government of Ireland) PhD scholar at the University of Limerick. She holds a BA in English from Trinity College, Dublin, as well as an MA in Women’s Studies and an MFA in Creative Writing, both from UCD. Last year, Paula received an Arts Council literary bursary, and was recently an Irish Writers Centre Writer-in-Residence in St Mark’s English Church, Florence. 

Paula McGrath lives with her husband Tim and their four children in Clontarf. She is currently writing her next novel.

A History of Running Away (€17.99) is published by John Murray and available from all good bookshops.

On home

I live in Clontarf. I grew up in the country and have lived mostly in cities since, so I’m not great at being suburban. But it’s a lovely place to live and ideal for kids. St Anne’s Park and Bull Island are a few minutes’ walk away and our kids’ school is around the corner. Everyone in the family cycles to school or work, except me; I lost my biking nerve years ago. Luckily, I don’t have to go anywhere to work, but the old Clontarf Baths are currently undergoing refurbishment and I have delusions of braving the new seafront bike path for early morning swims. I’m very fond of my local Insomnia, where I always order a skinny latte with an almond croissant – a balanced diet. We love Da Mimmo’s, on the North Strand, and Kinara, by the Wooden Bridge, for a treat. I hate shopping, especially for groceries, so Tim, my husband, does it all – he likes it, I swear! Now and again I go to Nolan’s Supermarket, which is not so big as to be intimidating, and carries all the nicest stuff.

On roots

My parents moved to the house where I grew up, near Athy, Co Kildare, when I was a few months old. My mother still lives there. It was built by the Great Southern and Western Railway in 1846, to replace an existing house they’d knocked to make way for the railroad. There are other, identical houses along the route, built from the same plans. The house is surrounded by 150 year old beech and lime trees which often prompted my father to recite an old school poem: ‘I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree.’ I found a place for it in my first novel. The soundtrack of my childhood was the train going past the end of the field, and the dog barking, chasing it. In the evenings, a woodquest’s melancholy hu huu huu hu-hu came from a tree near my bedroom window. It perplexed me by always ending on a leading note, unresolved.

On creating

My first novel was written at the dining room table. My mess had to be cleared away for dinner every day, which was a good discipline. When my first book found a publisher, I rewarded myself by commandeering a corner of the living room. My desk is a gate-leg table, oak, which I bought in an antiques/junk shop in the Coombe in the nineties. There’s only room to have one ‘leg’ open. It’s covered in piles of books and folders, to the point that there’s often no space for my laptop, which is why I usually just work at the kitchen counter. It’s warmer there, too. In a previous house I had my own office but couldn’t write anything. Writing in the main living area means I can only work during school hours, but I’ve come to see that as a positive, in that it forces me to be more focused and more productive with the time I have.

On bookshops

Dublin has fantastic bookshops. To single one out would be like declaring a favourite child, so I’ll tell you about the one I worked in instead, The Upstart Crow, Long Beach, California. This was where I broadened my literary horizons, and learned a few barista skills into the bargain. It was part of a tourist village incorporating the retired Queen Mary cruise ship. Years later, I discovered that my father, flush from his years’ mining in Canada, had sailed home on her. The big seller was When I Am An Old Woman I Shall Wear Purple. There were mugs, bookmarks, t-shirts, totes. . . The idea of merchandising with books was new and shocking. Long Beach is a naval port, and lots of sailors came in for coffee and a chat. They were lonely, I think. My fellow bookseller married one of them. Other bookshops that give me a tingle are City Lights, in San Francisco, and Shakespeare & Co, in Paris. Seeing my novel on the shelf in Shakespeare & Co on a recent visit was my 18-year-old dream come true.

On her nightstand

I don’t often read in bed so my current reads are lying all around the house. I just finished House of Names, and it has ousted The Master as my favourite Colm Tóibín. John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a powerful, and highly entertaining history of (being gay in) Ireland. I’m in the middle of Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends and I’m enjoying it immensely. I’m also reading Prisoners of Geography, about how geography shapes politics, as recommended by my friend, Tracy – it’s very improving. And on my Kindle (it’s too many, I know!) is Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal, a beautiful meditation on a heart transplant, translated from French, and recommended by my sister, Hilary.

On escapes

Anywhere works, as long as I have a comfortable room where I can read, write, and think, and where I don’t have to worry about cooking. Even a single night away is enough for that crucial mind-shift to happen. Recent getaways include London and Paris, for book-related business; Florence, for a writer’s residency; Bilbao, to visit the Guggenheim; and Limerick, for a conference. Now that I live by the sea, it’s hard to imagine ever living away from it. It’s the sense of space, a particular light, the air. I walk down the Bull Wall most days for the exercise and sense of well-being it brings, and to process whatever I’m working on. Solutions to problems that stumped me at the desk often appear while my mind is wandering off across the water. The Bull Wall is also the setting of some of the scenes in A History of Running Away, and even after I’d finished writing it I kept half-expecting to meet Jasmine, out for her run.

On yoga

When I moved back to Dublin from the US, the only available yoga courses were beginners, or teacher-training, which is how I stumbled into teaching. I taught Iyengar, Ashtanga, and finally Shadow, a style influenced by martial arts and traditional Indian dance, developed by charismatic Hungarian, Shandor Remete. Training was intense, and took place at different locations around the globe; a highlight was three weeks in Bali. For years, I taught three or four evenings a week, plus private and corporate classes. My daily practice began at 6am. It came to an abrupt halt with my twin pregnancy. I could barely walk towards the end, and after they were born, there was no time to do anything but keep them alive. I returned to teaching in a small way, for a break from the babies, but I’d begun writing seriously then, so something had to give. I maintain a practice, of sorts, and try to get to a class occasionally. What’s important is to be attentive, no matter how short the available time. Even a few sun salutations, when done with full attention, can bring that movement inwards towards stilling the mind (vritti chitta nirodha), which is the aim of yoga.

On running away

It’s natural to run away from problems. For decades we were content to abdicate responsibility for all our social ills to the Catholic Church and the State, both dominated by men. We know better now, but the legacy of a State, bound up with a church with a virgin-mother fetish, remains. Is it any wonder that the Irish State has issues with women’s bodies? This is the theme of my novel: my character, Jasmine, wants to box when boxing is illegal for women, and this story led to mother and baby homes, illegal adoptions, male violence, the 1983 abortion referendum and the Eighth Amendment. Running away ought not be an option for a State, yet that’s exactly what it has done. It can’t be a coincidence that the issues the State has failed to resolve concern the under-represented half of the population. We can argue that ‘my TD doesn’t have to look like me to represent me’, but surely we have evidence enough to prove that a male-centric Dáil has not served the nation’s women. We need equal representation in Government; we need a Constitution which does not ‘privilege’ women’s special place in the home; and we need to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

On Joseph O’Connor

I’m a doctoral student in UL, and Joe, for his sins, is one of my supervisors. This means I get to chat with him about my work every few weeks, and, yes, I am completely aware of what a privilege this is. He is a frank, generous and supportive mentor, and a gracious, funny and all-round lovely man. I can’t imagine him being horrible about anyone’s efforts, but still I was nervous about him reading A History of Running Away, not least because it was in a very rough, pre-proof state. To have Joseph O’Connor describe me as a ‘wonderful storyteller’ – I’m blushing even as I type it – at this stage of my career was a real boost.

@SophieGrenham

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