Sophie Grenham speaks to author LOUISE HALL about Medjugorje, escapes and her debut novel, Pilgrim …
For debut author Louise Hall, publishing her first novel is the result of hard work, perseverance and the right idea, but one might like to think fate also had a part to play. Inspired by the mystical allure of Medjugorje, a Catholic pilgrimage site in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Louise has written non-fiction books, Medjugorje: What It Means to Me (2012, The Columba Press) and Medjugorje & Me (2014, same), two heartwarming volumes containing testimonials from international visitors. Having first experienced the place as a child and a number of times since, it was only a matter of time before her in-depth knowledge of Medjugorje would rub off on her imagination.
Pilgrim is a blissful read from start to finish, with prose so smooth it could be made of silk. Hall’s work has a natural fluency beyond her position as a first-time novelist; a shining talent which has been quickly recognised. Donal Ryan has said, “In this cynical age it’s a joy to encounter such sincerity, and wonderfully unexpected to see contemporary fiction as a profession of fervent yet gentle faith. Louise is a brave and humane writer, a breath of the freshest air.”
In addition to writing books, Louise has published articles with a variety of magazines and newspapers, including the Sunday Independent, Irish Independent Weekend Magazine, the Irish News and Woman’s Way. She has been longlisted for the Penguin/RTÉ Guide short story competition (2014, 2015), as well as shortlisted for the Jonathan Swift Creative Writing Awards in 2014 and the Colm Toíbín Short Story Award in 2016. In December 2016, the Irish Times published Frankie’s List, Louise’s short story on homelessness, as part of their twelve stories of Christmas.
Louise Hall lives in Dublin with her family. She is currently writing her next novel.
Pilgrim (€18.99) is published by Mercier Press and available from bookshops nationwide.
I live in the coastal town of Malahide, in north county Dublin. The village is charming with no shortage of restaurants, shops and pubs. We moved to Malahide about eleven years ago and the estate we live in is a mixed development of houses, duplexes and apartments. The gardens are maintained beautifully and there are common areas for the children to play. In the summertime, when the weather is good, we barbecue outside with our neighbours. The secondary school is right next door (which means my kids could probably roll out of bed and into school each morning). Malahide Castle is just around the corner. When the concerts are on during the summer, we can sit in our kitchen with a glass of wine, open the window and let the music travel inside.
I love to walk along the coast. We have a Cockapoo, Riley, who is nine years old. Riley and I walk from Malahide into Portmarnock and Portmarnock back into Malahide. I put my earphones in and my Spotify on. Most times, about half way through our walk, I’ll get down onto the beach and let Riley off the lead. He’ll chase the waves and climb small rocks and I’ll take photos of the sea and the sky, even though I’ve seen the sea and sky a thousand times already.
As a child, our family lived in a small cul-de-sac, close to Beaumont Hospital. My mum always wanted to live by the sea and when I was twelve, we moved to Sutton. I was sad at leaving my friends back then. Growing up there in the ’80s was such fun. We played rounders and had lolo balls; we went to “hops” and made up dance routines. The summers always seemed to be hot. We had eating paper that only cost a penny which we bought in the little shop up the road. And we had a lovely neighbour who worked up in Cadbury’s and always gave us bars of the chocolate she brought home. When I moved to Sutton, I wasn’t sure I would be happy there. But I soon met a great group of friends and my future husband. We all still keep in touch today.
I write mostly at the kitchen table, on a laptop that badly needs a new battery so can’t be plugged out of the mains for fear of crashing and losing my work in progress. I write in the mornings when I’m not working and when the kids have gone to school, or sometimes in the late evenings. Where I sit, the window is to my right and I’ll usually pull the ivory wooden blinds open so that the light can come in. Sometimes, I’ll light a candle or open the window but I don’t have any set routine. I don’t plan out too much. If I’m writing a short story, I’ll get stuck into it until the first draft is done. If I’m writing chapters of a novel, I’ll write a bit, read back a bit, edit and write some more. Most times, I’ll have already gone for a walk and Riley will be snoozing contently in his bed in the corner of the kitchen. We have a small couch and family photos on the wall. I bought a big painting of a horse race from an Irish artist a couple of years ago. It bursts with colour and action and sometimes, when the family are sitting at the kitchen table, we like to pick which horse we are in the race. It really has to be seen to be appreciated. I love looking at a painting, photograph or picture and teasing out the story behind it.
When I’m down in the village, I’ll try to pop into Manor Books, our local independent bookstore. I remember Robert from when he had a bookstore in Sutton, so I was delighted when he opened up in Malahide. It is a gem of a bookstore and the staff are extremely helpful and supportive to local authors.
On her “To Be Read” pile
Like most writers and book lovers, I buy a lot of books. They pile high on my bedroom dresser waiting to be read. Some there at the moment include books by Carmel Harrington, Hazel Gaynor, Orla McAlinden, Joanna Cannon, and Anna Burns. I read most nights, but sometimes my head is not always in the right place for reading. I know this when I have to re-read lines in a book several times. This is generally not the fault of the book, but rather that other things in my life are making my mind wander. Thankfully, this feeling will always pass, and most times, I get back into whatever I’m reading and lose myself in the story. Sometimes, I find myself there too.
We holiday in Vilamoura, Portugal every year. It is home away from home for us. Two years ago, my husband brought me to Italy for our wedding anniversary. We went to Florence, Sienna, Lucca and Pisa. I fell completely in love with Italy, especially Florence. I also love New York. My sister Suzanne has been living over there for the past eighteen years with her family. She lives and works in the city and always pulls out all the stops for me when I go over. This year, my sixteen-year-old daughter came with me. We stayed in New York for three nights where we shopped, ate, walked (a lot), saw the sights and went to a show. I also enjoyed a night of shooting the breeze with New York Times sports journalist and best-selling author, Joe Drape, when he, his wife and son came over for dinner. We spent the next three days in New Jersey where we got caught in a “snow squall” (I had to Google that too at the time) while driving up Breakneck Road. Temperatures dropped as low as minus 12 and the lake beside their house froze over. We had a traditional Thanksgiving dinner in New Jersey and my sister cooked for eighteen people. I tried not to get too emotional when she dropped us off at the airport. We always get this way when one of us is travelling home. It can be hard when your loved ones live far away.
It was Suzanne who urged me to write my novel, Pilgrim. I had been writing fiction for a good few years but it was difficult to find a publisher. Whenever my sister visited she would always ask me about my writing and I would share with her my frustrations of not being able to get my fiction work published. She made a suggestion: why not write a book loosely based on Medjugorje? I did and the result is Pilgrim. I had done a lot of research for my non-fiction books and so set about weaving a story set back in the 1980s when Ireland was going through a recession. I loved every minute of writing this book. My agent emailed me a few days before Christmas last year to let me know that Mercier wanted to publish Pilgrim. From editing to publication, the whole experience was a joy.
It was important for me to write this book for a few different reasons. I had visited Medjugorje as a child when it was under communist rule. It was a very poor farming village and I remember the rolling fields, the vineyards, the Church of St James and the mountains. I remember how the local people opened their homes to the influx of visitors. I went back to this village a few years after my sister, Nicky, died suddenly and although commercialism had inevitably arrived, the authenticity remained. My two non-fiction books on Medjugorje contain the stories of people who have visited the village. They talk about what inspired them to travel there, the experiences they had while there, and the impact this little village has had on their lives today. Life is not always easy, and no one is exempt from troubles, yet people are finding healing and hope when they visit Medjugorje. In this cynical age, I think these stories deserve a platform. When I was writing Pilgrim, although I wanted it to feel authentic, I didn’t want it to be a book just for religious people. Pilgrimage for me is also about a journey of self-discovery.
On what’s next
I lost my dear father last year, so 2018 has been a tough one. My new year’s resolutions for 2019 are to walk more, to love more, to appreciate more, to travel more, to be kinder and to be more generous to others (especially with my time). I’m also going to read more and of course write more. I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing, be it short stories, fiction or non-fiction. All I need – all any writer needs – is to find the right home for my books.
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