Writer’s Block with Aoibheann McCann

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SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to AOIBHEANN MCCANN about SUPPORT FROM IRISH AUTHORS, London life and rural Ireland’s literary appeal …

Photograph by Mike Shaughnessy

Donegal native Aoibheann McCann’s debut novel, Marina, is a slim but perfectly formed volume that has all the makings of a cult classic. Fellow writer Alan McMonagle has called the book, “A cautionary tale and modern-day fable; a cri-de-coeur on behalf of a purer state of being, and return thereto; a story about existing in the world, and how difficult existing in the world can be” while Danielle McLaughlin has said, “Rich in insights and wry humour, the novel explores what it is to be isolated, lost and stranded between worlds. Aoibheann McCann writes exquisitely of the magnetic pull of sea and water, and the yearning to belong.”

Clearly these commentators all have excellent taste, for the reader is effortlessly transported inside the protagonist’s painful reality, as she struggles to connect with her state of being and the people in her life. The text flows with ingenious aquatic symbolism – it’s no surprise that Aoibheann is also a poet. As well as exploring global issues such as the environment and mental health, the narrative brings us through the small-town young Irish person’s hugely relatable experience of 1990s London. This is a work that resonates, long after closing the final page.

The first draft of Marina was actually written in 2004. Over a decade later, it was brought into fruition through a Stinging Fly mentorship with Dublin Literary Prize winner Mike McCormack who said, “this is a genuine original, a singular enchantment.”

In addition to fiction and poetry, Aoibheann has published non-fiction, and is a regular voice at literary events around Ireland. Her work has appeared in numerous literary journals and has been anthologised by Pankhurst Press (UK), New Binary Press and Arlen House, as well as shortlisted for Words on Waves and the Sunday Business Post/ Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition. She has been awarded the Tyrone Guthrie Residency by Galway City Council for 2018.

Aoibheann McCann lives in Galway with her husband, daughter and two dogs. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.

Marina (€14) is published by Wordsonthestreet and available now from selected bookshops and Amazon.co.uk.

On home

I live in Knocknacarra on the outskirts of Galway City. I am very lucky to have a view across the bay to the Burren from my bedroom window. I like to walk my two dogs around Cappagh Park and Barna Woods in the evenings. Silver Strand beach is just a half an hour walk, and I love swimming there during the summer. The city centre is only a bus ride away, where my favourite pub Neachtains, my favourite venue The Black Gate, the newly opened arthouse cinema Pálás, Evergreen health food shop, and my favourite café The Kitchen at the Museum are all a five minute walk from the bus stop. We are lucky to have the lovely Cappagh Stores here in Knocknacarra for newspapers and a brilliant wine selection. My hairdressers Talents is on the East side of the city. I go there because they use vegan hair dye.

On roots

I was brought up in Shrove, a small village that is almost entirely populated by relations from my father’s side. It overlooks Lough Foyle onto County Derry, and on a good day you can see Rathlin Island and Scotland. You can also see the ferry crossing from the fishing village of Greencastle to Magilligan Point in Northern Ireland. As I grew up surrounded by the sea, the smells and sounds I remember are mostly that connected to the sea: the crash of the waves, the salt air and the smell of fish as you got nearer to Greencastle. The smell of honeysuckle always reminds me of there too; it was my grandmother’s favourite flower and even grows on the beach down there.

On creating

I have a large IKEA desk in my writing room which I try to keep it as clear as possible. I love art, so at the moment I have a beautiful piece by Ruth Le Gear which is a photo of a woman in a white dress underwater. I bought it the same year I started writing Marina and it reminds me of her character. I also have three originals by Gionatan Alpini who illustrated the three pieces of short fiction I had published in Inkroci (an Italian magazine). There is also a small green Habitat sofa and a large IKEA sliding wardrobe. I am finding it hard to stick to a writing routine at the moment, so I often write in bed or at the kitchen table. I love writing in friend’s houses when they are away as there is so little distraction and I always get loads done.

On bookshops

Well I live in Galway, so Charlie Byrne’s of course! It is an amazing resource and has been around since I got here, though it seems to constantly expand. It has such a great selection of books, new and secondhand, you never know what you might find. The staff are lovely and very knowledgeable, you never feel like you are being rushed out of the shop. They are always happy to give recommendations so it’s my first stop for presents. It’s social too; you always meet someone you know in there. They often host book launches and it’s always a great evening. It was so amazing to read there for the first time last year at the launch of Washing Windows by Arlen House (one of my occasional poems was included in the anthology!). It is lovely to see Marina for sale there, I have a peek every time I’m in!

On her “TBR” pile

I am a bit of a book addict – if I’m not reading books, I’m reading book reviews. I just bought quite a few books I’ve been meaning to read for some time that kept appearing again and again in book review sites such as Goodreads and The Rick O’Shea Book Club. I am currently reading Home Fire by Kamilia Shamsie, the first book I have read of hers. It is based on Antigone and is fantastic. Next up is Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness in my Mind. I have read at least three of his books, he is an amazing writer. I also have Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng lined up because everyone has been praising it. I’m saving Kudos by Rachel Cusk for last as it is the last in her trilogy and I don’t want it to end.

On favourite escapes

Lanzarote. I’m heading off again this November. It is so relaxing, you can feel it the minute you get off the plane. It is a great place to get a blast of sun in the winter. I used to find November to be a difficult month to get through but trips to Lanzarote have made me actually look forward to it. There are beautiful beaches, you can swim in the sea all year round and the red volcanic landscape is really beautiful. The flight is only four hours, food and drink are cheap and it is very vegan friendly. When I am there I like to swim in the morning, then read for the afternoon (I can easily get through a book a day there). I then swim again in the late afternoon, then go for a long walk before relaxing over a meal and a few drinks.

On support

I was really honoured to get those blurbs from three such amazing writers. I remember talking to Ger Burke, my publisher, when the proofs were being sent out for review and saying to her “But what if they really hate it?” She just told me that I’d have to accept it if they did and that not everyone would like the book! So when they all came back with glowing reviews it meant a lot. I do know Mike McCormack and Alan McMonagle from Galway writing circles but they genuinely seemed to like the book. Danielle McLaughlin judged a short story of mine that was shortlisted in a competition and when I met her once at Cúirt she remembered it. I was so pleased. Doubting your work can be really crippling so it is good to have these affirmations from writers you admire.

On Marina 

I had always wanted to write a novel but actually started out writing poetry. Then one day I was in the Aquarium in Salthill and I was looking at the fish in the tanks and they looked pretty miserable. I had just run in the local elections for the Green Party (I didn’t get in thankfully) and had also been interested in Buddhism around that time, so I started thinking about the wheel of reincarnation and wondering if humans really were superior incarnations, given the environmental destruction we have caused. So the idea sprung from those three things. So I took six months off work and sat down every day to write the first draft. I didn’t really have a plot or anything but Marina’s voice appeared and it kind of wrote itself.

On nostalgia

Marina would essentially be the same age as me so although we are incredibly different, I naturally brought in details from my childhood and young adulthood into the book. I can’t remember any significant historical events to be honest, but music forms a lot of my memories. I had two older sisters who were very into music but I took my own path. The first albums I got were Hazel O’Connor’s Breaking Glass and The Boomtown Rats’ The Fine Art of Surfacing when I was only six or seven. Apart from a brief foray into Wham! I then became what is known as a “rocker” in Donegal. I was into all things metal including Nirvana. I wore ripped jeans, long boots and a leather jacket. My music tastes have broadened since then but I still have what I call my Metallica moments.

On London life

I first went to London a few days after the Leaving Cert with my older sister by train and boat. I got a live-in job in a bar in Pimlico for the summer. It was quite a change from rural Donegal, as you can imagine, but I loved the freedom of it. I returned to work in a bar for the summer after my second year in college and lived in Streatham. Strangely my husband is from Brixton, which is just down the road from there. We met in Galway (his father is from here) and moved to London just before we got married. When my daughter was born I just didn’t want her to be brought up in a big city, so we moved back when she was two. I am still a regular visitor though and have even done a few readings there in the past year or so. 

On rural Ireland’s literary appeal

I think it is because it was quite unique culturally in the English speaking world. The influence of religion, large families and the ties of the extended family (I had eight uncles and aunts and twenty-nine cousins on my father’s side) are very different to that of other English speaking countries. Irish villages were always filled with eccentric characters and unique customs. My village for instance has “shotgun weddings”: when local brides leave for the church the men of the village stand by the door and shoot over her head! I also think most Irish childhoods had a distinct connection with nature that is being lost now with the advent of TV and gaming. As a child I played out all day unless it was raining.

On mental health care

I worked at Galway Rape Crisis Centre for fifteen years and many of our clients suffered from depression, addictions and other mental illnesses as a result of their abuse. I do think Irish society has progressed, as we are now talking about abuse; the scale of it has been acknowledged and the blame has been shifted away from the survivor. One thing that has definitely changed is that when I started at the centre in the early 2000s people were coming for support around abuse in their childhood but keeping it to themselves, whereas when I left more people were coming in accompanied by their families and friends, which is a huge step in the right direction.

I would love if hospitals could be less hospital-like and more like a retreat for people who needed help, and that follow-up supports like counselling were free and without waiting lists.

On what’s next

A short story collection. Many of my short stories have been published in literary journals and a few have been anthologised. I have been finalised for a few competitions so I was delighted when I was approached by Arlen House about a collection for 2019. I was just awarded the Tyrone Guthrie residency by Galway City Council so I plan to collate a final draft there and even write a few new stories. I also have a novel in the making with a draft for the first half and lots of scribbled notes for the second. As for readings, I am reading at Bray Literary Festival on 30th September, Books Upstairs on 4th November and Dublin Book Festival on 17th November.

@SophieGrenham

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