Writer's Block with Mary O'Donnell - The Gloss Magazine

Writer’s Block with Mary O’Donnell

SOPHIE GRENHAM talks to author and poet MARY O’DONNELL about re-publishing her 1992 novel, NARCISSISTIC ARTISTS and GALICIA‘s connections to Ireland … 


Mary O’Donnell is one of Ireland’s most influential writers of the last three decades. Over her illustrious career she has produced seventeen books, including four novels, two short story collections and seven collections of poetry. She is perhaps best known for her monumental debut novel The Light Makers (1992), the second edition of which was issued in 2017, and has gained fresh recognition for what many consider to be her most important work. The Light Makers is a transcendent creation, with many of its societal and cultural observations as relevant today as they were over twenty-five years ago.

Her other acclaimed titles include The Elysium Testament (1999), The Place of Miracles – New & Selected Poems (2005 English, 2011 Hungarian edition), Where They Lie (2014) and Those April Fevers (2015). She has also co-edited To the Winds Our Sales: Irish Writers Translate Galician Poetry (2010).

Mary studied at NUI Maynooth, where she has taught creative writing, and was on the faculty of Carlow University Pittsburgh’s MFA programme in creative writing, as well as the University of Iowa’s summer writing programme at Trinity College Dublin. She has worked as a journalist with the Sunday Tribune (1988-1991), The Irish Times, the Irish Independent and contributed a series of poetry programmes to RTÉ. Mary’s many accolades for her immense impact on Irish literature include the Sunday Tribune Best New Irish Novel of 1992, the William Allingham Award, the Listowel Writers’ Week Short Story Prize, Prize-winner in the V.S. Pritchett Short Story Competition, The Fish International Short Story Award, Co-winner of the Irodälmi Jelen translation prize and the President’s Alumni Award at NUI Maynooth 2011. She is a member of Aosdána, the multidisciplinary organisation of Irish artists which is administered by the Irish Arts Council.

The Light Makers (€12.95, 451 Editions) and Those Autumn Fevers (€12.20, Arc Publications) are available from bookshops nationwide. Giving Shape to the Moment: the Art of Mary O’Donnell, a book of critical essays on Mary’s entire oeuvre, will be published this year. Mary’s new collection, Empire: a Novella and Six Stories (Arlen House) is due for release this summer.

On home

I’m based near Straffan, Co Kildare, and live on a bucolic country road. It’s lovely, but thankfully also just within convenient reach of the city from my point of view. I love the huge grain fields, the sound of the horses in the stud farm behind our house, the sight of an enormous full moon riding over the Dublin mountains, the mauve summer twilights in the garden. My husband is a gifted gardener who has created this beautiful space and it’s a great retreat at times. I was raised in the country and I like space but as I say, it’s good to be not too far from the city, because most of my friends are based there.

On roots

Our home and fields lay two miles outside Monaghan town. It was a very beautiful early Victorian house on a typical Drumlin hill with wide views out over the surrounding fields and wooded tracts. I go there often as my mother still lives there. I think of the large garden, amazingly wild and free birthday parties, and of the clanging of steel milk churns rising from the CoOp down the road as farmers delivered their milk there. My sister’s pony was part of our lives for some years, my maternal grandmother also lived with us for a time and I grew very fond of her. I remember the sound of her wedding ring clacking on the brass banister at night as she slowly climbed the stairs to bed.

On creating

I write in a peacock green room, modest in size but more than enough if it were tidy. But it’s never tidy. It’s a tumble of books, papers, archive boxes and many things that need to be organised. I keep some talismanic little things in this room on the window space: a compass gifted me by a poetry student some years ago and which I treasure because it reminds me to always honour my own true North! Also within my reach are several shells, some of them given to me by my friend, the artist Bridget Flannery, and a replica of a Roman water vessel bought many years ago in Hierapolis, Turkey. I have amethyst crystals, a lump of obsidian, and a decrepit plant called Gary. And I have a framed poster of Matisse’s Nu Drapé, that louche and lovely image of the female at ease overlooking me. My crazier self inhabits this room very happily.

On bookshops

My local one, The Maynooth Bookshop on the main street is my favourite. I’ve known the owners for years and it’s a terrific haunt of mine. I’m also a huge fan of the eclectic Barker & Jones in Naas, with its great book stock and appealing café.

On her nightstand

Engleby by Sebastian Faulks, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, and I’ve just read a proof copy of Nuala O’Connor’s marvellous new novel Becoming Belle and it’s still by my bed. I’m rereading Alain de Botton’s The Architecture Of Happiness due to a life-long interest in interior space and how this affects the human psyche.

On escapes

That’s a plan-in-the-making at this point! The dream of the bolt hole has always eluded me because I’m not a committer to any one place. But on balance I find that I relax completely anywhere near the sea, in Wexford especially. Otherwise it has to be France or the Italian Riviera.

On artistic company

I greatly value my writer and artist friends. All artists can be narcissistic, you know, the lot of us! Creatives are usually very hard-working though and my best encounters are with people who are serious about what they do, serious in the sense of having a particular way of seeing existence, and then balancing it with this great sense of mad humour.

On To The Winds Our Sails

Galicia caught my imagination on my first visit there in 2006, when I was invited to give a lecture on Irish Women in Literature 1986-2006. From the moment I walked the streets of Santiago, I realised that this was indeed a special place with many connections to Ireland. Further chats with one of the university professors there made me realise that Galicians had often responded to Ireland and its writers. However, we Irish hadn’t responded to Galicia! So I had the idea of getting an anthology of Galician women’s poetry translated to both English and Irish, as a means of answering back, of speaking to Galicia. My co-editor was Professor Manuela Palacios from the University of Santiago de Compostela.

On poetry

For me, poetry speaks to the spirit. Poetry is what happens when there’s nothing left, to say or do, when there’s nowhere to turn except into the deep interior of our faulty self-awareness.

On The Light Makers

I was beyond thrilled by the new edition of The Light Makers. The fact that it found a new generation of readers was really satisfying, and also the sense that this book is as modern now as it was then suggests it continues to be relevant. I’ve changed so much in those twenty-five years, but I can’t say how exactly because it would take much too long. Obviously my sense of myself as a writer has developed, and my belief in an Ireland that offers something to some (but not all, unfortunately) of its young women and men, has sharpened. I still think that in some ways we remain a society that doesn’t care enough about the young and the very old—a hallmark of civilised society for me is one that includes all its citizens. I have mixed feelings I guess, and I dislike what I can only call middle-class shite about good schools, the ‘right’ colleges, and all the nonsense of middle-class aspiration. I’m more classless than I appear, and I welcome anything that doesn’t quite fit in with the social norm. I’m quite oppositional, in case you didn’t notice!

On Empire

This collection focuses on Irish people who lived during the 1915–1919 period. One story is set in Burma, where the British Empire was very strongly established, but the other pieces concentrate on the lives and indeed passions of Irish people caught within the weakening empire. I’m very excited about this book and hope readers respond to it with enjoyment and interest. It’s due from Arlen House in June or July and will mark my seventeenth publication since 1990.


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