Sophie Grenham speaks to author FIONA GARTLAND about journalism, writing what you know and ageism in publishing …
Newcomer Fiona Gartland’s prose perfectly demonstrates the old saying, “write what you know.” She has been a legal and current affairs journalist with The Irish Times for thirteen years, covering many trials at the Criminal Courts of Justice. The result of her tenure is debut novel, In the Court’s Hands, about a stenographer who witnesses a secret meeting between a defendant and a woman that contacts a member of the jury – only for the juror to end up dead. It is the first outing for protagonist Beatrice Barrington, a bystander that gets dragged into a dangerous world. In her quest for the truth, she receives the counsel of her friend, retired Detective Gabriel Ingram. Barrington easily represents those who fade into the wallpaper of important institutions; they meticulously record and document, but are seldom noticed – just how much do they know? Fiona’s powers of keen observance have been highlighted by critics and colleagues since the book’s unveiling. In the Court’s Hands was launched by RTÉ’s Vivienne Trayor, who praised Gartland’s “razor sharp” reporting.
“It goes without saying that her work as a court reporter in many similar trials in real life lends an accuracy to her fictional writing which is crucial to maintaining a credible story line and believable characters,” she said. Prior to her current position, the author was a dental nurse, before fate landed her a job at the Dublin People, after a few years at home tending to her young family. Fiona has already made waves as a fiction writer; her work has been shortlisted for the Francis MacManus Short Story Competition six times, as well as broadcast on RTÉ Radio and featured in such literary magazines as The Stinging Fly. She recently spoke out about ageism in publishing by penning an illuminating account of her experience for The Irish Times, one that no doubt resonates with industry insiders.
Fiona Gartland lives in Dublin with her husband and four children. She has just completed her second novel.
In the Court’s Hands (€14.99) is published by Poolbeg Press and available nationwide.
I live on Griffith Avenue, Marino, on the north side of the city. The avenue is well known for its trees and is particularly beautiful at this time of year when the leaves are falling. I consider myself blessed to live in Marino, which has a great community spirit, good schools and is close to the city centre. My favourite local shop, on Philipsburgh Avenue, is Donnelly’s Bakery. Apart from its lovely pastries and breads, it has also been an employer to each of my four children in turn when they were in their teens and seeking Saturday jobs. It’s great for teens to get a job in their locality; it gives them an appreciation for where they live. My husband Paul and I chose Griffith Avenue because we always loved the houses here, built in the 1920s, as well as the trees.
For most of my childhood I lived not far from where I am now, in Donnycarney parish. When I was very young, we lived in Stoneybatter. When I think of Dublin, I think of the bustle of Henry Street, the sounds of buskers and street traders on Moore Street calling out their prices. I love Grafton Street too of course, and St Stephen’s Green, but for me the heart of the city beats around the Spire. Dublin is a rich and wonderful place to live. And as a writer, though sometimes daunted by those writers who have managed to distil its essence so perfectly on the page, I consider myself lucky to call it home.
On local inspiration
I do agree that we are to some extent products of our environment. For example, I wonder whether I would be writing at all, if books hadn’t been available at home when I was a child, if eight-year-old me hadn’t been given my very first set of Enid Blyton’s Five Find-Outers. I still remember the thrill of getting new books and the smell of the pages. On the other hand, there must be more to it than that, there must be some innate drive to write that is complemented by but separate from the desire to read. Otherwise every avid reader would want to write, and they don’t. As for writing what you know, I think it helps in writing about location, for example, if you know it well and have some feeling for it, particularly when it has an important role in a story. But for me, the most important thing to know when writing is human nature. If you can strive to understand that, then perhaps it doesn’t really matter whether you’re writing a spy novel, a murder mystery or science fiction – as long as you do the research of course.
I write in a room at the end of my garden built a couple of years ago by my husband and some of his friends. It is perfectly peaceful with white walls and patio doors that look out on our garden. The room is dominated by a large writing desk that my father gave me not long before he died in 2017. It has his green reading lamp and a lot of papers on it on which I scribble questions for myself. The room also has an old two-seater blue leather couch, which once lived in our sitting room. I have some souvenirs on shelves to one side, from various holidays, and a small glass table with family photos. On the wall I have a framed page from The Irish Times, which was printed a few years back, entitled Irish Writers, and featuring only images of women. I take encouragement from looking at them and sometimes imagine they are frowning at me when I accidentally get distracted on Twitter. Mostly though, I do manage to stay focussed and find, like most journalists, that deadlines help. I don’t write anywhere else, but if I need a change of scene I just walk out into the garden and up to my kitchen and make a cup of tea. I drink a lot of tea! If my head is really melted I go for a walk along the seafront at Clontarf.
On favourite bookshops
Choosing one book shop is difficult. I love Books Upstairs, D’Olier Street, for its great selection, helpful service and also its coffee shop which has a very special atmosphere of calm. If I could have a second pick, it would be Bridge Street Books in Wicklow town. It’s in a lovely old building and its cosy ground floor, with low ceiling, is an Aladdin’s cave for adults and children.
On her “TBR” pile
I read widely so my book pile at the moment includes John Steinbeck’s The Pearl and Maria Hoey’s On Bone Bridge, both of which I’m reading. The former because I like its humanity, the worst and the best of us in one rich distillation, the latter because I read The Last Lost Girl and loved how I was drawn back to the 1970s. I intend to tackle Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks next, because I enjoyed his reading of one of his stories on the New Yorker podcast, and for the same reason, I have a collection of Lorrie Moore’s. I’ve only just bought Lethal White, J.K. Rowling’s latest Cormorant Strike novel, which I’m looking forward to and I’ve also picked up a copy of My Purple Scented Novel, a delicious, unscrupulous short story written by Ian McEwan and published by Penguin. It’s one of my favourite short stories.
I’ve found through trial and error that the best place for me to write is at home, so there is nowhere else I would go if I’m in the middle of writing. But if I’m taking a break from writing, I love to go with my husband to Waterford. We both think the Copper Coast is beautiful and greatly underestimated. A couple of days there, in and around the little town of Bunmahon, walking on the beach and watching the sea is a balm to the soul.
I’ve always found working as a reporter on court cases very rewarding. The job is challenging and entails trying to communicate the most important and interesting evidence in a given day to a reader. The trials I’ve enjoyed most are the ones I’ve been able to cover from beginning to end. It means that as a journalist you are aware of every nuance, every shift and when the trial is over, you are best placed to understand and explain to readers why the verdict, whether guilty or not guilty, turned out the way it did. I have also covered some cases that were deeply disturbing and which stayed with me long after they were over.
I would not necessarily agree that publishing fiction is a natural progression from journalism. Though I know a lot of authors have been journalists, I think many journalists are only interested in fact. A more natural progression, I would think, is non-fiction work, such as biographies, books on politics, on true crime, on history or memoirs. Having said that, working as a journalist allows a writer some great experiences, which will, in some, help feed the desire to write fiction.
On previous incarnations
Dental nursing was my first proper full time job. I worked in private practice initially and then in the Dublin Dental Hospital. I took a career break when I had my children, but never returned. I was at home full time for eight years after which I realised I wanted to work with words. I took a journalism course and got a part-time job with the Dublin People Paper Group. My husband who is a taxi driver had a hand in getting me into The Irish Times. He had then deputy news editor Miriam Donohoe in the car one night and he mentioned I was a journalist working for a local paper. She gave him her phone number and said I should ring if I had any good stories. I did.
On speaking out
I wrote about ageism in the publishing world because I had naively imagined that a good book was a good book regardless of the age of the writer and I hadn’t really considered it an issue until I went to a writers’ festival and heard a contributor say under 35s were a priority because they were an easier sell. For me it sounded like a door being closed not just in the face of older first time writers, but also in the face of women, who are sometimes later finding their voices for a variety of reasons. Happily, I don’t think ageism in publishing is as big an issue in Ireland as it is elsewhere and when it came to seeking a publisher, I luckily found Poolbeg Press who never asked me my age before offering me a contract.
On her debut
I first began to think about In the Court’s Hands after writing a feature for The Irish Times called The Secret Life of a Stenographer. I found their work and role in court fascinating. They record every detail of what is said, yet they are hardly noticed by others. A silent observer can make a great character, I think, because he or, in this case, she is not noticed. I wondered what might happen if a stenographer witnessed something connected with the case she was working on and how would she react. That’s where I began. I write a lot of short stories, and I suppose Beatrice Barrington could have ended up in one of those but as I continued to write her story, I realised it was a novel.
On the future
I hope when readers have finished my book, they will have enjoyed the company of Beatrice and Gabriel. Perhaps too they may have gained a little insight into the workings of the court, and the void that sometimes exists between truth and justice. But mostly, I hope they will feel they have been told a good story. For me, the essence of writing, in whatever genre, is spinning a good yarn.
In terms of my writing future, I have just completed my second Beatrice Barrington mystery for Poolbeg Press and will very soon begin on book three. I will also probably continue to dabble in short stories.
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