Writer’s Block with Niamh Boyce

Sophie Grenham speaks to author and poet NIAMH BOYCE about kinship and ancestors, witch trials and 14th-century Kilkenny …

 

Niamh Boyce is an award-winning novelist and poet. The Kildare native’s first book, The Herbalist (2013), was an instant success. The Irish Times called it, “The most entertaining yet substantial historical novel since Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea.”

Inside the Wolf (2018), her first collection of verse, was met with similar positivity. Nuala O’Connor said, “In these clever, concise poems, Niamh Boyce resurrects the ancestors who gifted her a legacy of words…Boyce has the artist’s unpeeled eye: she dissects fairy tales and reassembles them with colour, menace and wit.”

Boyce’s powerful second novel, Her Kind, is based on the events leading up to the Kilkenny Witch Trial of 1324, the prime suspect being Alice Kyther, a daughter of wealthy Flemish merchants. She was a formidable figure and suspected sorceress, along with members of her household. The chapters alternate between different character perspectives such as lady’s maid Petronelle and her daughter Basilia, giving the historical narrative a fresh, accessible quality. From the very first page, it’s clear that Boyce became fully absorbed in 14th century Kilkenny through her extensive research. The fine detail in the work is superb, quickly transporting the reader into what can only be described as brutal world, the diabolical treatment of independent women an issue that’s very much relevant today. Mia Gallagher has said Her Kind “skilfully lifts a charred corner of the past to conjure up witch-hunting Kilkennie and its treacherous, grabby, politic inhabitants – pulling us into a world both seductively alien, yet uneasily, all-too-humanly, familiar.”

Boyce received the 2012 Hennessy XO New Irish Writer of the Year accolade and picked up Newcomer of the Year at the Irish Book Awards in 2013. She was also short-listed for the 2011 Francis McManus Short Story competition, as well as the Molly Keane Creative Writing Award in 2010. Her fiction is featured in such anthologies as Sinéad Gleeson’s The Long Gaze Back and The Hennessy Book of Irish Fiction 2005-2015. Prior to becoming a published writer, she worked as a librarian and community developer.

Niamh Boyce lives with her family in Ballylinan, Co Laois. She is currently working on her third novel, a collection of short fiction and a non-fiction book.

Her Kind (€15) is published by Penguin and available from all good bookshops.

On home

I live outside Athy, in a village called Ballylinan. We moved here after fifteen years in Galway City, so it was a big adjustment and I missed Galway and my friends there. Writing can be very isolating, so it’s important to keep in touch with the outside world. I’m part of a craft group in Ballylinan. I crochet, or pretend to crochet, with some of the nicest people I know. We have a great laugh, there’s such kindness and good humour in our group. We are all very different, at one stage our members ranged from eight to 80 years. The nearest restaurants to us are in Athy – all are excellent. I go to Bradbury’s, the Bay Tree and J-One. The hairdressers I use is called The Salon. I’ve been publicising Her Kind lately and need Annemarie’s help to look half human. My routine is topsy turvy at the moment – I mentor writers and teach – so I might be developing a writing course, or working on my current novel, or writing a piece for a magazine, in addition to running a house and feeding people. A writer’s life is much the same as anyone else’s really.

On roots

I grew up in Athy town. When you ask about memories of the town the strongest one is that of walking with my grandmother as a child, especially along the Barrow path, which we call “own the line.” We’d cross the Barrow bridge where Whites Castle has stood since 1417, and look down into the river and I’d get vertigo. She would lift me up to touch the carving of the monkey on the castle wall – it’s the crest of the Fitzgerald’s. It’s said that when the first earl of Kildare was a baby, he was rescued from a fire by the family pet monkey. The Barrow features in a lot of my short stories, and quite strongly in my first novel The Herbalist, which was set in Athy. I love that it’s used so frequently nowadays, by walkers, cyclists and rowers. You can often hear the beat of the dragon boats drummer as you walk the river.

On early reading

My mother read to me, from Ladybird books – The Gingerbread Man, Snow White and Rose Red, and The Elves and the Shoemaker were favourites. I still love fairy tales and can’t resist a beautifully bound edition of Perrault or Grimm or Anderson’s tales. As I began to read myself, I came to the What Katy Did books, and Anne of Green Gables. I loved C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The scene where the children move through the wardrobe, pass the fur coats, and step into the land of Narnia is just wonderful. It evokes for me that magical step we take every time we open a book.

On origins

I explore kinship and our ancestors in my poetry collection Inside the Wolf – where my love of fairy tales takes an adult twist. I have touched on my own roots when writing a sequence of poems about my grandaunt – the poem Kitty won the Hennessy Award in 2012. She was a seamstress in St Vincent’s Hospital, Athy formally known as the County Home. I’m interested at the moment in the collective unconscious, and in the connections between past events and memory, in particular the idea of “The ghost in our DNA” – the possibility that trauma can be inherited.

On creating

I write at a desk by the window of my bedroom. I keep a small altar to whatever I’m writing about. When I was writing about a medieval witchcraft trial in Her Kind, I needed lots of touchstones to get into that world. I kept a cairn of inspiration on my desk – amber beads, doodles of witches taken from the borders of ancient manuscripts, a tiny book full of sketches relating to the world of medieval Kilkenny, a note from my daughter Rosie saying “you can do it mom.” The desk overlooks my back garden, and a new writing hut that’s almost finished and ready to use. It’s really exciting for me – after eleven years of writing in the same room that I sleep in, I’ll be moving out into my own space. Other writers have said this has made a huge difference to their writing life. I cannot wait.

On bookshops

After so many years living in Galway, I’ll always be really fond of Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop, it was somewhere I visited often and loved the fact that I would always discover new writers on its shelves. I still have some books I bought there. They sold mostly second hand books in those days – my copy of Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue has the most poignant dedication on the inside the cover. I’ve always meant to write a story about it. I love the tactile history that comes with a second hand book.

On her “To Be Read” pile

On my bedside table are Sinéad Gleeson’s powerful collection of essays, Constellations. I feel very affected by each and every essay I read, it’s an incredible piece of work. Then there’s Helen Ivory’s poetry collection Anatomical Venus, which gives voice to women who have been seen as “Other” – the so-call hysteric, the psychotic housewife, the witch. I am still interested in witches, I guess! I’ve also got the Irish literary journal Banshee, Nessa O’Mahony’s The Branchman, Sally Vickers’ The Boy Who Could See Death and Pet Sematary by Stephen King as I’ve just seen the movie.

On escapes

I don’t go far to be honest! I escape to the nearby Stradbally Woods with our dog Sheba. We have discovered rather late in her life (thanks to Google) that Sheba is a Sprolly; a cross between a springer and a collie. It’s the most beautiful sheltered woods. There’s nothing like walking amongst the trees to calm and nourish. Just watching how Sheba races ahead, loving each moment, is great therapy. I also practice yoga, mostly at home – I recently qualified as a yoga teacher. It helps to steady, ground and refocus if life is hectic, and it helps to energise if I’m lethargic.

On Her Kind

I grew up knowing a little about the witch craft trials – mainly the name Alice Kytler, who was purported to be a sorceress with a connection to Kilkenny castle. I always suspected that the case was based on folklore or myth. I began researching while I was working on a series of poems about witchcraft. I began to discover more about the real-life Alice Kytler, and realise just how powerful she was, and how significant the case was historically. I became hooked, and knew I wanted to write a novel about the case. Unearthing the story was an intriguing process. On the downside, the novel took much longer than I expected – the research and writing took over four years of work which was exhausting and expensive – I spent a fortune on books. The research itself was incredibly fascinating, as was learning more about 14th-century Kilkenny. My sources were varied. I studied stone effigies, archaeology, history, the annals, bee-keeping, wolves, the Liber Primus Kilkennius, examined The Sorcery Trial of Alice Kytler: A Contemporary Account forensically, as well as returning time and time again to write directly from the setting, the beautiful and ancient city of Kilkenny itself.

On what’s next

I’m at a stage I really enjoy writing wise – with Her Kind published and released from my care, I’m free to explore other creative possibilities. I’ve left the middle ages for now, and am working on a time slip novel about spiritualism and photography – it’s currently titled The Spirit Cabinet, but that might change. I’m also gathering together a collection of short fiction, and working sporadically on a creative non-fiction work called Writing the Witch.

@SophieGrenham

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