Debut novelist Sarah Gilmartin tells Books Editor Orna Mulcahy what it’s like to live in Dublin 8 …
Fiction reviewer turned author Sarah Gilmartin’s debut novel Dinner Party: A Tragedy, plumbs the depths of a dysfunctional family coping with the death of sister and daughter Elaine while keeping a sharp eye on each other for signs of weakness. Borderline-anorexic Kate is outwardly poised but a sibling get-together in the first opening pages sets nerves a-jangle, and that’s well before we meet her terrible Mammy. Highly entertaining and acutely sad, critics have compared Gilmartin’s writing to that of Anne Enright and Tennessee Williams.
Gilmartin studied English and German at TCD before a masters degree in Journalism. In her 20s she worked on business magazines before switching to a communications role in Danske Bank. But the lure of writing was strong, and she wrote her first novel, then enrolled in UCD’s MFA in Creative Writing, all the while reviewing new fiction for The Irish Times. Dinner Party: A Tragedy is published by One.
I live with my husband in Dublin 8. We moved there about four years ago but we’d both spent time living in the area in the noughties, so in a way it was like a homecoming. City centre living isn’t for everyone but it suits us well. I like being able to decide on a whim to go to a play in town, or to meet someone last minute for a drink or coffee. Even during lockdown, when everything was closed, I enjoyed where we were. Stephen’s Green was within our two kilometres and I used to cycle down Grafton Street with no one around. It was properly apocalyptic and kind of cool.
I grew up in Limerick, about 20 minutes outside the city near the Dublin Road. It was a good mix of rural and urban, lots of green space, yet close to the city, the place to be once McDonald’s arrived. My parents are from Limerick and Clare respectively and they now spend their time between the two counties. Growing up, I was lucky to have three grandparents – and four for a time when my granny remarried – who lived nearby. I was especially close to my grandad on my father’s side. We used to sit in his chair and do crosswords together, well beyond the age when it was comfortable for him. He was that special kind of person who seemed to have a unique bond with each of his grandchildren. All my cousins would say the same thing.
On My Neighbourhood
I love the buzz around the place, the diversity, the mix of people you meet. There’s nothing homogenised about the area. It reminds me (in microcosm) of East London. In recent times there’s been an influx of younger people into the neighbourhood, and lots of great cafés and restaurants. Some favourites are Gaillot et Grey, The Headline Bar, Clanbrassil House and The Wine Pair. Alma’s is lovely too, if you can get a table. For walks, I like the Grand Canal. Close to 1.5 million people living in Dublin and you still meet the same faces and the same dogs.
Myself and a friend used to write odes in secondary school, half serious, half jokey, somewhere to put our energy and creativity and boredom. Ode to Sussed Jeans. Ode to Radiohead. Ode to the Bluebottle on the Window that Hasn’t Moved for All of Irish Class and Might Actually Be Dead. Beyond that I forgot about writing fiction, through college and working as a journalist in my 20s, until the summer I turned 29 and came across a writers’ group in San Diego, where I was living at the time. They met every Thursday afternoon in a small, windowless room and wrote for 45 minutes to a prompt pulled from a bag. You could write whatever you want, read it afterwards or not. It was freeing and interesting. It’s where I started to write my first short story, and the first time I experienced the drug of a live audience laughing at something you’ve written.
On My Desk
Both my husband and I are self-employed. For years he worked in an office close to our house and I worked from home. When we moved to Dublin 8, he insisted on swapping. I was reluctant at the time – noise, distractions, not being able to wear my pyjamas etc – but he won the argument with the JK Rowling-Harry Potter-coffee shop defence. I prefer the office now, that feeling of distance between home and work life. I wouldn’t swap back. My desk is a standard office one, dull and white and perfectly fine.
Years late to the party, I’ve discovered the novels of Gwendoline Riley. Over the summer I’ve read My Phantoms, First Love and her debut Cold Water. I’m looking forward to Eimear Ryan’s debut Holding Her Breath, which has gotten great reviews. Lastly, and shamefully, John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies has been in my TBR pile for years. My husband read it recently and absolutely loved it, so it’s my turn next.
On What’s Next
I got an Arts Council grant earlier this year which has allowed me to take a step back from the day job of arts journalism and lecturing to focus on my next book. In 2020 my short story The Wife won the Máirtín Crawford Award at Belfast Book Festival and I’m trying to develop that story into a full-length work. The story was from the perspective of the wife of a celebrated chef accused of sexual misconduct at work. The novel is set in a Michelin-starred restaurant in Celtic Tiger Dublin and will be from multiple viewpoints, including that of a waitress, the head chef, and his beleaguered wife.
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