Writer’s Block with Eleanor O’Reilly

Sophie Grenham speaks to ELEANOR O’REILLY about her teaching career, autism and her debut novel …

Photograph by Garrett Byrne

In the five years since Eleanor O’Reilly took up creative writing as a serious vocation, she has made some remarkable strides. To date, she has collected the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen International Short Story Award 2013, the Writing 4 Autism Award 2014, the RTÉ Francis McManus Radio Short Story Award 2015 and the Bonnier Twenty7 Open Submissions Award 2016. O’Reilly has been shortlisted for numerous others, including the Colm Tóibín Literary Award 2016. When she isn’t putting pen to paper, she is a teacher of English and Classical Studies at The Community School in Gorey, Co Wexford, and recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University.

M for Mammy is a tale that will no doubt resonate with families far and wide, as we meet the Augustts; comprised of Kevin, Annette and their two children. As with most Irish clans, this crowd are not without their own unique set of issues. The narrative is told from the perspective of the ever-resilient Annette, Jenny whose wisdom extends beyond her ten years, and five-year-old Jacob who has yet to utter a word. Each of the three, as the reader will soon learn, has a completely different mindset and behavioural patterns. M for Mammy is fundamentally about language and how we express ourselves, and what we do when the words won’t come. When misfortune knocks at their door and Annette suffers a stroke, Granny Mae-Anne arrives on a mission to pull her family back together. Right from the beginning, M for Mammy has been recommended for fans of Marian Keyes and Roddy Doyle, perhaps due to O’Reilly’s jolly sense of humour and tender authenticity. Jacob’s chapters are particularly impressive, as we experience the world through the eyes of a child with severe autism.

Ruth Hogan has said of the work – “M for Magnificent! Heart-breaking, heart-warming, and hilarious…a glorious debut.” Anne Griffin has called it “Strong and taut” while Felicity Hayes-McCoy deems it “Lovely, sharp, compassionate, well-observed writing.”

M for Mammy (€14.99) is published by Two Roads and available from all good bookshops.

Eleanor O’Reilly lives in Arklow, Co Wicklow with her husband Brian Kelly and their daughter Ella.

On home

I live in Arklow, Co Wicklow, in a quiet neighbourhood of speed ramps and rowan trees, five minutes away from the beach. As a secondary school teacher I am lucky to have very generous holidays (as anybody who isn’t a teacher will always say!) and no, before you ask, I don’t ever get bored! When I’m not teaching, I am playing with LOL dolls or making pizzas or hats for LOL dolls out of tiny buttons and beads. When I’m not doing that, I can be found either in my study, writing, reading or painting. I am addicted to books and coats. I have not mastered the art of grocery shopping and so I can also be found, bewildered and lost most days, somewhere around the frozen food aisle in Tesco.

On roots

As a child, I lived four minutes away from where I live now. In fact, much of my childhood was spent in the corn fields behind our house, where my current home now stands. My back garden is the place where I probably picked blackberries in autumn. In winter, I most likely sleighed down the bank where my driveway is now, on one of the NET sacks we used for everything. In summertime we caught newts and frogs in the pond and played late into the evenings. I know all the people around me. I grew up with them. But still I often catch a glimpse of us as children, as we were then, when I walk up the broad road of my childhood or if I catch the smell of shepherd’s pie in the air.

On early reading

Both my parents are great readers and would always either have read to us, or told us stories as children. I remember my father used to change the endings or edit some of the more unsavoury details of certain tales, to shield us from the truth about why Hansel and Gretel were left in the woods or to show how the Children of Lir had actually had a fantastic multi-destination holiday on Lake Derravarragh and then on to the Sea of Moyle!

Later, as an independent reader, I had a brief encounter with Adrian Mole, but we weren’t compatible. I did however fall in love with David and his dog King from Anne Holm’s I Am David. And although I didn’t fully understand it at the time, nor the importance of the diary, Anne Frank left an indelible mark on my young mind.

On formative years

I’m not entirely sure when my formative years began or indeed if they stopped at any point, believing as I do that I’m still being formed. I have spent most of my life in school. As a child, I loved writing stories. As a teenager, I loved English class and the texts we had to study. I went on to read English at university and then I became a teacher of English and Classical Studies. I have spent the last twenty years teaching, analysing and evaluating language. Becoming a writer simply feels like a natural progression, a follow-on to everything that went before, rather than a conscious decision. I did my MA in Creative Writing with a view to developing my language skills and not in pursuit of a publishing deal. I have been very lucky.

On creating

Originally designed as a fourth bedroom, I stole my writing space, turning it first into a studio (I used to paint). Later, it became my study. A lovely old oak desk, tired and in dire need of a makeover, stands opposite the window. The windowsill hoards pieces of driftwood and pottery, a candle, a seated Buddha and a plant that seems more than capable of keeping itself alive. A black leather chesterfield chair (oversized but vital) sits in the corner. Usually sprawled unapologetically between chair and desk, is an equally supersized Newfoundland hound who occasionally answers to the name Bear. Two of my own large paintings hang on opposite walls. A framed pink-and-white collage heart with I Love You to Pieces, written underneath by my daughter, is on another wall. There are books, notes, pens, post-its, photographs everywhere. An exquisite fairy door made by my husband, glitterised by my six-year-old, is fixed to the skirting board. I am never giving this space up!

On bookshops

Unfortunately there is no independent bookshop in Arklow and as such I can’t say that I spend a great deal of time in some charming little spot, browsing through books and getting excited about special corners or window displays. Bridge Street Books in Wicklow town however, is a small family-run bookshop that I like to visit with my daughter when we are in Wicklow. The little in-shop fairy called Blue, who lives behind a tiny blue door in the shop, is an enchanting creature.

On her “To Be Read” pile

I don’t believe in TBR piles, favouring the TBR row as a far healthier and altogether more practical option. Piles fall over and have this strange way of regenerating themselves and growing from the top; the danger being that the ones on the bottom often remain dusty and forgotten when one adheres to this form of squirrelling, which clearly is counter-productive to the whole act of piling in the first place.

Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed is at one end of my TBR row, like a bookend. Atwood and Shakespeare together – in all the world, could there be a partnership so perfect? Next in line is Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata. Having read Restoration, this is the spot allocated to brilliant, beautiful storytelling. Markus Zusak’s Bridge of Clay is there because of The Book Thief. Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending stands at the other end of the row, because he is Julian Barnes!

On escapes

I never really feel the need to escape, unless it’s from an unruly second-year class after lunch on a Friday. However, I do love being outside and can think of nothing more frustrating than not being able to get out for a long walk. I have always and will always live by the sea, and can be found at some point every day (regardless of the weather) on the beach, with my husband and my daughter and our two dogs. Or alternatively (particularly if it is raining) just me, the dogs and a great audio book. I like being on my own. In fact, I find myself to be very pleasant company, but that isn’t so much an escape (because I love being with my family too). It is more just a space in the day I grab for myself, because teaching in the biggest school in Ireland means I’m completely surrounded by people and noise for much of the day.

On M for Mammy

M for Mammy was born through an image in my head – of a young boy being driven away in the back of a car. I can see the back of his head through the rear window. He doesn’t look around, so I don’t see his face, but I know he is going and he will not be back. When I was eight years old my younger brother died. I remember creating this image as a way of trying to understand death. Putting him in God’s car was much easier than putting him into the ground. This image was central to M for Mammy, but it never really finds a specific place in the narrative. Yet Jenny, the imaginative child, creates fantasies to ease the torment of reality, constantly trying to protect her little brother, who through his autism has been removed somewhat from this family. Jenny’s fear is in the loss of those she loves. So in a way Jenny writes the book that has been inside me for so many years.

On parenthood and family

I suppose it is the timelessness of these themes, the simplicity and ordinariness, that lends itself easily to universal appreciation. Families, as we all know, can be very complex. However, beneath all the complications, there is love. How that love is expressed will vary and it is in such variations that we, as readers, are interested. We like to see inside other people’s homes, inside other people’s minds, inside their relationships, not merely out of curiosity but out of an empathy with and understanding of the human condition. We are social beings – therefore we seek society, even in stories.

On what’s next

The immediate horizon involves two writing-free weeks. I simply need to create a little space between myself and the work because it is often in this break that the writing will grow. After that I will get back to book two, which has been gathering dust in my laptop for far too long, as I have been extremely busy with articles and interviews relating to M for Mammy.

I will at the same time take my Leaving and Junior Certificate students happily towards their exams, and most likely resume the very important LOL doll games.

@SophieGrenham

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