4 weeks ago

Writer’s Block with Evie Gaughan

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Evie Gaughan is the author of three books in her writing career to date, including The Heirloom (2015) and The Mysterious Bakery on Rue de Paris (2014). Growing up in a walled medieval city on the west coast of Ireland, she developed a love of history and folklore early on. When Gaughan isn’t conjuring up stories, she is a visual artist and blogger.

Gaughan’s most recent novel, The Story Collector (2018), transports us to Thornwood Village in 1910 where Anna, a young farm girl, offers to assist an American visitor in translating fairy stories from Irish into English. Of course, not all is as it might appear, and Anna is soon swept into a mystery that threatens her culture and community. A century later, entranced by the myths and legends that surround Anna’s unusual story, newly single Bostonian Sarah Harper finds herself treading the same path. From the very first page, Gaughan’s infectious humour and gravitas grabs you by the hand and draws you into her world. In her signature storytelling style, she blends the everyday with the fantastical, dually creating realism and an escapist quality that’s hard to resist.

Fellow author Niamh Boyce has said of The Story Collector, “Evie Gaughan has skillfully created a magical, original novel. Beautifully written and steeped in folklore – this suspenseful story is told with warmth, wit and charm.”

Evie Gaughan lives in Galway. She is currently writing her next book.

The Story Collector (€12.15) is published by Urbane Publications and available from selected bookshops.

On home

Having casually flirted with other cities in my twenties, I always knew I would find my way back to my hometown of Galway. There’s a very artsy, bohemian vibe here, which I’ve always loved. I complain about a lot of things – the weather, the traffic and the fact that the library is way overdue a makeover, but there are still pockets of magic in this town.

I live on the outskirts of Galway City, between the sea and the woods. I quite like being on the edge of things, in every sense, just dipping my toe in and out of the maelstrom of life. I don’t own a car, so I’m lucky that I have lots of different places to walk nearby like Barna woods and Salthill prom. Walking is a great way to plot and to think, away from the screen. It’s also a nice way to meet people, because writing can be a very solitary existence. Not to mention the perfect antidote to sitting all day. My back goes out more than I do! (Little writing joke there).

I love living close to the sea. When I’m feeling brave I go swimming at Silver Strand – actually, it’s more like dipping, screaming and running back to shore! It is invigorating though and feels so good afterwards. Even more so if you head up the road to Barna for a warming bowl of seafood chowder in one of my favourite spots, Donnelly’s. It’s a traditional pub with a snug and a warm fire that feels like home.

On roots

I grew up just on the other side of the Corrib, on the main Dublin Road. My mother would transform the house into a bed and breakfast during the summer months, providing my siblings and I with our first taste of an unpaid internship. Although we did eat into the profits, as I remember stealing fried breakfasts from the kitchen!

The setting was idyllic really; I had lots of cousins nearby and the school was a short walk across the field at the back of our house. In fact, that field is what really reminds me of home. Melody’s field (named after the ill-tempered farmer who owned it) was our playground. It was a beautiful meadow edged by great big oaks and sycamore trees. Rain, hail or shine, I walked through that field to get to school, to mass and the tennis courts where I failed to blossom into the next Steffi Graf. The farmer invariably shouted at us for flattening the grass or making pathways, but we largely ignored him, claiming squatters rights. In the summer we built forts and castles from the hay bales and played until dark, with secret societies and clues to puzzle over, like the Famous Five.

On early reading

My health wasn’t great as a child. I spent a lot of time in and out of the hospital and recuperating at home in bed, so people would bring me books, mostly fairytales. I read voraciously when stuck in bed and wouldn’t need to wait for anyone to read them to me! Books became a constant companion during those times. Like many children, I loved the folklore of the Brothers Grimm and had my favourite versions of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and most especially, The Elves and the Shoemaker. That story always fascinated me and probably inspired my love of magical realism. Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels made a big impression on me during those years too, and I remember being quite smitten by The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I moved on to my sisters’ books and annuals, and got hooked on series like The Four Marys and any other characters who had the good fortune to attend a boarding school, which seemed so exotic at the time.

On family

I hadn’t realised how big of a role my roots would play in my writing, but they constantly inspire me. I have a lot of determined women on both sides of my family and I find their spirit coming through in many of the female characters that I write. My parents were raised in a rural setting, so I’ve always had that connection to the countryside, which almost becomes another character in my novel, The Story Collector. In fact, I based the cottage in the book on my mother’s home in Mayo, a place we often visited during our summer holidays. A lot of the stories in the book came directly from my family, so in a way, writing it took on an extra significance because it felt like I was passing these things down, like heirlooms.

Looking back, I can’t help but feel admiration for their self-sufficiency but equally their sense of community. I really wanted to write about that and how our connection to the land is perhaps losing its grip in our modern age. Your family is what shapes you, so I suppose their values will always have an impact on who you are as a person and how you relate to the world.

On creating

I write in my attic (or my artist’s atelier as I like to tell people, but it hasn’t caught on). I love looking out at the rooftops, with only the sky for distraction. I’m very easily distracted, like most writers, so it’s best if I’m not at street level, watching every dog/cat/delivery van go by. I painted the walls and ceilings white and left the beams exposed and stained them with a dark varnish. One might describe the look as hygge, if they could pronounce it. I also paint and needed a place to hang all of my paintings, so the gable wall doubles as a mini-gallery, which I love. It makes the space very cosy, although not cosy enough for winter – when I tend to migrate further south towards the kitchen table.

On my desk, I always keep a framed print from Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. It’s a list of what you need to be a writer and begins with the first rule “Show up at the page. Use the page to rest, to dream, to try.” That book was instrumental in my decision to pursue writing as a career and it’s one I often refer back to.

If I need to get out of the house and make sure that the world is still out there, I go to the library or use a hotdesk. I find cafés too distracting, so I need to be surrounded by other people who are working. Although I can only seem to edit when I’m in a public space – I can’t be creative when I’m being watched!

On independent bookshops

I love the quiet of a bookshop – especially independent ones. They are the rare places, like libraries, where you can hear yourself think. There is such a sensory overload in every shop you go into, so I love bookshops where you can just hear the creak of the floorboards, the sound of people leafing through pages and enthusiastic staff waxing lyrical about their favourite reads.

I always love popping in to Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop when I’m in town. There’s such a lovely atmosphere there, relaxed and eclectic. The layout of the shop with all its nooks and crannies makes it feel you’re in someone’s home rather than a shop.

I still feel the absence of Kennys Bookshop on High Street since their move to a premises just outside the city centre. But the Kennys are forward thinkers, because they were the first bookshop in the world to go online. And they were the first shop to stock my books!

Dubray Books on Shop Street is a new favourite of mine and another oasis of bookish calm. I’ll never forget the day I walked in and saw The Story Collector on the shelf beside Patrick Gale and Nina George. I tried to take a discreet photo, but I’m not sure I carried it off.

On her “To Be Read” pile

I try to keep the list short and manageable, but my Goodreads profile begs to differ! I’m going to cheat a little bit and mention the book I just finished, The Map of Us by Jules Preston. I adored it as it had all the ingredients I love in a book: quirky, witty and ultimately uplifiting.

Next is a book I’ve been anticipating since its release – David Nicholls’ Sweet Sorrow. To me, he is just the quintessential English writer and captures that hapless, slightly restrained yet bursting with emotion character we all fall in love with. I’m drawn to books that celebrate outsiders and it’s good to see so many of those types of books, like Eleanor Oliphant coming through in the mainstream.

I love getting recommendations from people, and my sister has been raving about Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star. She knows how much I love magical realism, so I’m looking forward to discovering her writing.

I also have my eye on Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, which sounds really interesting. I love a bit of non-fiction, especially anything that explores where the hell we are right now, without being too preachy. Then somewhere in the middle of all that, I want to start getting into Muriel Spark, so I can absorb all of her talent and wit and use it in my next novel!

On where she escapes

Connemara. My very first holiday sans parents was to the Clifden Arts Festival and I’ve been hooked on that part of the world ever since. My first book, The Heirloom, features an Armada ship that sank in Ballinakill Bay, not far from Letterfrack. I rented a cottage there for a week and honestly I think it’s the best holiday I’ve ever had! There’s something about that place that just feels like freedom. The vastness of the Twelve Bens framing secluded beaches and sparkling waters. When the weather is good (that famous Irish-ism!) there is nowhere I’d rather be.

I find airports and travel a bit stressful, and sometimes you feel as though you need a holiday when you get home. There’s a timeless quality there and it’s easy to lose yourself in it and forget the daily routine. Even if it’s just a day trip to Roundstone or one of the beautiful beaches like Dog’s Bay, Connemara is a restorative – a wild and magical place.

On The Story Collector

I think the seeds for this story were planted long ago in my childhood, when fairytales became my escape, but it is truer to say that The Story Collector found me. I was doing some research online, getting lost down rabbit holes, when I came across an article about an American scholar visiting Knockma in Tuam, where the King of the Connacht Fairies is said to be buried.

It really captured my imagination and I couldn’t help wondering why a highly educated, sophisticated man from California, would risk the ridicule of writing an academic paper on fairies. As I did more research, I discovered that the man in question, Walter Evans-Wentz, was heavily influenced by Yeats and the Celtic revival of the early 1900s and I even found his book in Charlie Byrne’s! So it was meant to be.

I was really drawn to the idea of writing a story about those times that would honour our past without sounding twee or resorting to stereotypes. The challenge was to write a story about the good people that readers would believe. That’s always the balancing act when taking on a supernatural subject. The setting and the characters must have enough depth and substance to give credence to something unbelieveable happening in a very mundane, real world setting. My goal is not to invent a fantasy world, but rather to reveal the magic in this one.

On the fantastical

Stories that begin with “Once upon a time” are woven into some of our happiest childhood memories, beguiling us with strange, otherworldly tales of good versus evil. Fantastical stories have a timeless quality that seem to transcend the line between children’s fairytales and adult fiction. In fact, the Grimm fairytales were initially written for an adult audience and it was only in later years that people like Disney began to produce more sanitised versions for kids.

Fairytales help us to test our boundaries from a safe place, reading about the big bad wolf while we are safely wrapped up in our blanket at home, like Bastien in The Neverending Story. And I think that urge to escape into a fantasy world is still there as adults, perhaps even more so at times when the real world is unmanageable and overwhelming. I’m not sure if the current wave of grown-up fairytales in fiction is a form of escapism or a yearning for simpler times. Or maybe it’s because there is a part of us that wants to believe there is more to this world than the ordinary and the mundane. We want to believe in magic and fiction is the best place to rediscover that yearning. The Story Collector explores that idea – the appeal of a secret world that could exist alongside our own.

On what’s next

Retiring to a French chateau where I will write books late into my dotage whilst scoffing lots of wine and cheese, looking out at a vista of lavender and sunflowers. Not that I’ve put much thought into that particular daydream! In the meantime, I am writing a story laced with magical realism, shifting timelines and an intimidating number of characters. The reality of being a writer is that you never know what story will get picked up when, so in the background I’m also outlining something completely different and very contemporary. I try to keep evolving and experimenting with my writing. I don’t want to pigeon-hole myself into any specific genre, even though there can be pressure to do that. To create a kind of brand around your writing, or to find a niche and stay there. Things are changing though and it’s great to see established authors crossing genres and finding a whole new readership. I am just as happy writing historical as I am writing contemporary fiction. In fact, the first novel I ever wrote, which I have never published, was a romantic comedy, so I hope to write something like that in the future.

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