Writer’s Block with Cethan Leahy

Sophie Grenham speaks to CETHAN LEAHY about Cork, filmmaking and writing about teenage suicide …

Photograph by Phil Connolly

Cethan Leahy is an author, filmmaker and editor of Irish literary magazine The Penny Dreadful. A native Corkman, his short fiction has appeared in The Looking Glass, Wordlegs and Five Dials. He has written two Fiction Express eBooks for Middle Grade, called The Chosen One and Prince Charming and his Quest for a Wife. Cethan has made a selection of brilliantly offbeat films, including animation short The Beast of Bath, which was broadcast on national television. His short film The Amazing featured in Cork film anthology Cork, Like in 2013. His programmes such as children’s drama Tales from the Fairy Fort have been aired on national radio. He has also contributed illustration work to Turncoat Press.

Leahy’s debut Young Adult novel, Tuesdays are Just as Bad, was published in 2018. The story begins when teenager Adam Murphy finds himself virtually shackled to a bizarre new companion, following his attempted suicide. Of course, only Adam can see his ghostly pal. Told from the perspective of an intangible entity, what unfolds is a genuinely wise, empathetic, sharp-witted and compulsive read. Fellow writer Catherine Doyle has called the work, “A poignant story that deftly touches on themes of suicide and depression, Tuesdays are Just as Bad is full of heart, humour and tenderness. A fresh, distinctive voice and a charming cast of characters make this a novel worth reading.”

Cethan Leahy lives in Co Cork and is currently writing his next novel. His 6-Week Starter Kit course with the Irish Writers’ Centre begins on March 14. To see his short films, visit www.cethanleahy.com/film.

Tuesdays are Just as Bad (€12.99) is published by Mercier Press and available from bookshops nationwide.

On home

I am in Cork City, living sufficiently central that at night I am kept up to date on the musical tastes of today’s UCC students. There is no shortage of people to tell you how great Cork is, but for me, that everything is in walking distance really suits my notions of being a flaneur. I like being able to wander from bookshop to lunch to a park in the course of an afternoon. There are many places to while away time. When writing, my most common coffee stops are The Woodford and Café Eco and when not writing, my favourite pub is the Abbey and The Triskel Christchurch is my local arthouse cinema. One hasn’t quite lived until you watch The Exorcist in a former church.

On roots

I was born and raised in Cork, so I’m never far from my childhood home. I grew up in an old house, so in life feel most comfortable in slightly drafty, mildly Addams-Family-esque buildings. My childhood home means lying in bed at night and being able to recognise who was coming up the stairs by the sound of their footsteps, our cat who was somehow able to open the door when you were taking a bath, and reading books while sitting on the stairs. I write for teenagers, so being at home makes it easier to get back in the mindset of my audience if I can pull out fifteen year old Cethan’s favourite t-shirt from the wardrobe.

On Cork teenagers

Cork is a good place to be a writer. There is a thriving scene, lots of libraries and a wide selection of poets wandering the streets. My YA novel Tuesdays are Just as Bad is steeped in Cork. Since I was a teenager here, it made sense for me to set it there. The book isn’t necessarily autobiographical but it very much exists in my memory of the secret Cork of teenagers, the spaces where we could go and be ourselves, hidden in plain sight. I tried to use as many real places as possible but many spots have since vanished, so there are some made up locations in the book based on long gone cinemas or cafés. So the Cork of Tuesdays exists somewhere between today and 2001, a fun liminal snapshot of a city.

On creating

I’m not quite Cassandra in I Capture The Castle, writing while sitting in the sink, but most of my more fruitful writing has happened at the kitchen table. Kitchens generally have the correct amount of light, table size and background noise. The added bonus of the kitchen in my house is that due to some structural quirk the Wi-Fi is terrible in here. Outside the window is a lot of greenery, a bit of nature to keep you in the real world. While editing Tuesdays, there was a spider web outside I recall getting unusually invested in. I find it hard to write in silence, so I write to music a lot. I generally listen to a short playlist on repeat. At a particularly intense moment while writing Tuesdays, I remember listening to one song on loop for a couple of hours. It worked perfectly, but I definitely can never listen to that song again.

On bookshops

Cork City recently had something of a cull of independent bookshops so it’s heartening to see Vibes and Scribes still standing. Selling both new and second hand, it has an eclectic selection of novels at affordable prices and an excellent range of art books. I have fantasies of one day being so wildly successful that I’ll be able to buy every Taschen art book in there. I would also like to mention Uneeda Bookshop, a fantastic second-hand book shop on Oliver Plunkett Street, for both the chats and the fact I only noticed the pun in the title last year.

On his “To Be Read” pile

At the moment, my personal reading is being interrupted by novel writing and project research, but I have some things on the go. I just started Expletives Deleted: Selected Writings by Angela Carter, which is a collection of book reviews and non-fiction. Angela Carter is such a strong voice, that she could be reviewing a vacuum cleaner manual and take some compelling insight from it. These days, there are a lot of questions on the purpose of literary criticism, but for me, I think it’s more interesting as personal reactions rather than a consumer guide (though obviously I appreciate well written hoover instructions). After that, I have Milkman by Anna Burns, which I’m pretty excited about as I believe it has won some kind of award…

On escapes

I walk a lot. A particular favourite location to stroll is the Lough nearby, which is quite serene despite the amount of grumpy geese having face-offs with curious kids. It’s a circle so you can walk around it a couple of times quite easily and take in the sounds of nature meeting the city.

I don’t take enough holidays abroad but when I do, I like to have at least one day with no plans other than wandering about the place, getting lost and doing nothing. I once found myself at a loose end in Edinburgh so I spent the day reading a J. M. Barrie book. It ranks as one of my favourite reading experiences, so would recommend theming your reading material with your travel.

On Tuesdays are Just as Bad

I was on the Aircoach when I got the idea for Tuesdays are Just as Bad. Somewhere around hour two, I was thinking about the logistics of what a ghost is. Eventually I hit upon the question “what if you were haunted by yourself?” and it all developed from there. It was initially daunting to tackle a subject as big as mental health and teenage suicide, but once I started, I found the characters and plot clicked immediately. There were two main challenges, the first was keeping the rules I set for the ghost straight and clear to the reader and the second was being responsible about the topic without being preachy. With Tuesdays, I wanted to take a weird idea and turn it into a relatable story. The reaction so far has been great, so I’m happy I at least somewhat achieved it.

On film

Filmmaking is great as it’s a collaborative medium. I love prose but it can be a lonely experience, so being part of a team and having people to bounce off is very rewarding. Actors and cameramen finding nuances on the page that you didn’t anticipate means the process can always be surprising and go in unexpected directions. I also find my ideas for film, stage or radio tend to be a little sillier and lighter, so it scratches an itch.

Since the book, I don’t get to do it as much as I would like, but I have an idea for a feature length screenplay I’m planning to get to this year, a kind of murder mystery rom-com.

On what’s next

I’m currently working on my next book. I won’t say too much but it’s a YA novel, this time set in West Cork involving missing people, unrequited love and the dark side of Irish folklore. I love supernatural mysteries and fractured fairy tales, especially Irish ones, where the moral is usually some version of “Don’t mess with The Good People or they will poison your butter.” I also have some teaching and workshopping, so I suspect it will be a busy 2019!


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