Writer’s Block with Martina Devlin

Sophie Grenham speaks to author MARTINA DEVLIN about memorable interviews, female writers and her new short story collection …

 

Omagh native Martina Devlin is the bestselling author of ten books, as well as one of Ireland’s most revered, award-winning journalists. Hers is the sort of career many budding writers in today’s market could only dream of. Before moving to Dublin, Devlin worked on London’s Fleet Street, where she interviewed an array of iconic cultural figures. She now writes a weekly current affairs column for the Irish Independent, and has been named National Newspapers of Ireland Commentator of the Year.

Devlin’s catalogue of work includes About Sisterland (2015), set in a future world ruled by women; The House Where It Happened (2014), a ghost story inspired by Ireland’s only mass witchcraft trial in 1711; Banksters (2009), an account of the Irish banking collapse written in collaboration with her husband, RTÉ’s David Murphy; Ship of Dreams (2007), a novel which stemmed from a family connection with the Titanic tragedy – and her memoir, The Hollow Heart (2005).

The author’s latest book, Truth & Dare: Short Stories About Women Who Shaped Ireland could not have a more timely arrival. In what is considered a golden era for the achievements of Irish female figures past and present, with many beautiful new editions of work by greats such as Maeve Brennan and Nuala O’Faolain, this collection is very much at home. Truth & Dare is an elevating tribute to the women whose indelible contribution to Irish society and culture is finally receiving the recognition it deserves. Sinéad Gleeson has called it “An impressive and important book.”

Devlin began publishing fiction after she won a Hennessy Literary Award for her first short story in 1996, and has either been awarded or shortlisted for a number of accolades, including the Royal Society of Literature’s VS Pritchett Prize. She is the Vice Chair of the Irish Writers’ Centre, with a diploma in company direction from the Institute of Directors. She has also been Writer-in-Residence at the Princess Grace Irish Library in Monaco. She holds an MPhil in Anglo-Irish Literature from Trinity College Dublin, where she is currently working on her PhD.

Martina Devlin lives in Dalkey, Co Dublin.

Truth & Dare: Short Stories About Women Who Shaped Ireland (€14.99) is published by Poolbeg Press and available from bookshops nationwide.

On home

I live in Dalkey with my pet cat Chekhov and husband David. My favourite places there are Benito’s where we go whenever neither of us is willing to cook, The Grapevine wine bar where we always run into someone we know, and The Country Bake bakery and café where I treat myself to coffee and a fruit scone after a walk. I’m also partial to the post office where I mooch in for a chat with the staff. They must think I buy a lot of stamps – in fact, as someone who works from home, often I simply want a little human interaction.

I spend most of my day with Chekhov who joined our household when he was seven and a half weeks old; he’s four now. I was reading Chekhov’s short stories at the time, which influenced his name. Lucky I wasn’t reading Dostoevsky! Chekhov is an enormous tabby, the size of a small dog, and nocturnal. During the daytime he sleeps in my study keeping me company while I work. Sometimes he snoozes in the bottom drawer of my desk, other times I find him on my writing chair (or just muddy paw prints where he’s been). When I settle down to read he climbs onto my lap and has a thorough sniff of the pages. He loves the smell of books, the older the better. What more could you ask in a pet? I often pop him into my fiction now. He’s in the Alice Milligan story in Truth & Dare – except she calls him Willie after W. B. Yeats, who visited her in Belfast and lifted her cats onto his knees while they talked about poetry.

On roots

We lived opposite the convent grounds and as a child I used to play in them. In time, I went to Loreto Convent primary and then grammar school in Omagh. The nuns were a permanent presence in my childhood and a benign one: I know what I owe them because they gave me and generations of Omagh girls a solid education. They were ambitious for us to be the best possible version of ourselves.

I’m always happiest spending Christmas Day in Omagh if at all possible, because my mother died on Christmas morning and I like to visit my parents’ grave with flowers. It’s a country graveyard outside the town, a peaceful place like something from Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost. My five brothers are all living in Omagh and I enjoy seeing them and their families. My sister is settled in the Wirral in England. We’re all very close – there are only ten years between the seven of us, so it was noisy and crowded growing up. We’re great friends; partly, I suspect, because we cooperated to care for our mother in her own home after she suffered a massive stroke. It was sad but we did our best by her and the experience helped us as a family. Bridie lived for seven years after her stroke, longer than expected, but my theory is it was because we ran the place like a one-person nursing home. And she knew she was loved.

On London

I worked in London from the late 80s until 1995. It was a wonderful experience: I was fortunate enough to interview a range of fascinating and memorable people. Chubby Checker taught me how to do the Twist. How’s that for a boast? Reggie Kray was my pen pal (it was all one way). I was sent to Parkhurst maximum security prison to interview him and he wrote to me a few times afterwards, but I never replied. I might now but back then I was young and terrified. I interviewed the actor David Hasselhoff and we ran out of time, so he suggested I should go with him to his next appointment and whisked me off in his limousine. En route, he saw a dispatch rider knocked off his motorbike and sprang into superhero mode. “Stop the car!” he thundered. Out he leaped and started directing traffic, checking if the injured party needed medical treatment and calling to his staff to ring for an ambulance – he was a one-man whirlwind.

I also met Elizabeth Taylor who was wearing a jacket covered with Andy Warhol’s prints of her as Cleopatra. It seemed a little odd to be wearing a jacket with your own image on it. But anyhow I found myself just staring at her: she was so iconic. To be honest, I could hardly think of anything to ask her. It’s the closest I’ve come to being tongue-tied. Best of all was having afternoon tea with Anthony Burgess (author of A Clockwork Orange) at the Savoy– he was such fun and so clever. We met twice. Both times he took the leftover cakes upstairs to his room for a midnight feast. In hindsight, I always preferred talking to authors, although I didn’t know I’d write books myself.

On creating

My writing room is quite the loveliest room in the house, I planned it that way. I can see the back garden from the two windows – it gets a lot of light. On one wall is a Sheela na Gig, and on my desk a witch sharpener – these are among my little totems. Two other walls are covered in books from floor to ceiling and I often stand up to lift one down. On a shelf is a sign saying: careful or you’ll end up in my novel. No truer word was spoken. I have a couple of súgán chairs in the room because they remind me of my grandparents’ house in Oola, Co Limerick, where my mother grew up, although Grandad made his whereas I bought mine. On the wall behind my desk are framed copies of the covers of my ten books. No, I tell a lie, I only have nine. The tenth is Banksters, co-written with David Murphy, and he has it in his study along the corridor – which is really a junk room for bicycle equipment and accessories.

On her favourite bookshops

The Gutter Bookshop in Dalkey: when I need to get out of the house I often stroll up for a chat with the staff there. Marta, who is from Poland, runs it and we have great chats. I also love hopping on my bike and pedalling over to the Dubray shops in Dún Laoghaire and Blackrock (I always stop off in the Bear Market coffee shop in Blackrock). Another favourite in Blackrock is Raven Books – I’m a fan of their stationery.

On her “To Be Read” pile

I’ve recently finished Milkman by Anna Burns and I think it’s the best novel about the Troubles yet written. My sister was reading it as the same time as me and we kept having to talk to each other about it on the phone. I have The Branchman by Nessa O’Mahony on my to-read pile because I love the idea it was inspired by her grandfather who was a Special Branch man – I’m a pushover for family connections to work. Also on the pile is a short story collection by Rosemary Jenkinson called Catholic Boy – I love her bone-dry wit – and a poetry collection, The Work of a Winter by Maureen Boyle who was at Loreto Convent Omagh when I was there. I’ve sneaked a look at a couple of the poems and this lady is the Real McCoy.

Currently I’m reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which was two hundred years old this year – I’m in awe of the fact she was nineteen when she wrote it, creating a memorable character in the creature known only as the monster, yet more human than the scientist who created him. Finally, I’m about to get stuck into When All Is Said by Anne Griffin, to be published in 2019. The premise is if you had to choose five people to sum up your life, who would they be? I’ve been compiling my own list. It’d be a great after-dinner party game if I wasn’t too lazy to cook dinners. I live on sandwiches or bowls of cereal when David is away.

On Truth & Dare

I’ve always had an absolute loathing of unfairness, large and small, and I felt an enormous injustice had been done to generations of extraordinary women whose struggles gave us the vote, access to education and the professions. Yet they’ve been submerged – sidelined or forgotten. They wanted to reshape the world and transform it into a fairer place not just for themselves but others. They had to fight their families as well as the status quo in a number of cases. But they persevered, were inventive, collaborated across political divides for common goals, and realised change could be effected by chipping away.

I understood that I needed to write about them when I found myself wondering what they’d make of the situation today, with relatively few women in public life or positions of power, which makes society unbalanced. In politics, for example, there are only 22pc of women in the Dáil, and we are nowhere near to having a female Taoiseach. I found myself having conversations in my head with Countess Markievicz about it, and that’s how her story developed. I imagined her telling us to shape up and lobby for change.

I hated leaving so many women out – I couldn’t include all of the women I wanted to, such as Anne Devlin, Helena Molony, Rosie Hackett, Louie Bennett, Winifred Carney, Margaret Skinnider, Lady Gregory or Lily and Lolly Yeats…it’s a long list.

On the female voice

More attention is being paid to women writers and deservedly so. Sinéad Gleeson is among those who deserve credit for that with The Long Gaze Back and The Glass Shore. Cliodhna Ni Anluain from RTÉ is always keen to commission women writers, too, and Alan Hayes of Arlen House only publishes women. The team of librarians in the Dublin UNESCO office are also proactive about women writers. But many women writers remain overlooked and what can we do about it? Read books by women, buy them, recommend them.

My favourite texts by women include anything by Elizabeth Bowen, a marvellous writer of both long and short fiction and non-fiction; but particular favourites are The House in Paris and To The North. Among her collected short stories I especially like The Demon Lover. I enjoy everything written by Joan Didion, Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Johnston, Anne Enright, Lia Mills, Catherine Dunne, Kate O’Brien and Virginia Woolf (To the Lighthouse is my favourite). The Real Charlotte by Somerville and Ross is an underappreciated classic.

I was delighted when the Dorothy Macardle novels The Uninvited and The Unforeseen were reissued by Tramp Press, while Maeve Brennan’s The Springs of Affection and The Long-Winded Lady have been reissued by The Stinging Fly, and I can see all of those titles from my desk. Reissues are important because so many writers’ work goes out of print.

On what’s next

I’m in my second year of a four-year PhD in literary practice at Trinity College Dublin, knee-deep in work on Somerville and Ross. I was able to use my research to include a Somerville and Ross story in Truth & Dare – waste not, want not. Mind you, they deserved their place in the collection because they pushed against boundaries to be considered as professional writers rather than dilettantes. Coincidentally, Elizabeth Bowen was asked to write Edith Somerville’s biography but declined. There are so many connections among all of these women once you start drilling down. Lady Gregory was a relative of Ross’s. I’d also like to write another Gothic novel, in the same vein as The House Where It Happened, my novel about a witchcraft trial (with a ghost story thrown in for good measure). And I’ve recently finished an essay on the Troubles for an online project called writers@work from the island of Ireland.

@SophieGrenham

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