Sophie Grenham speaks to author R.M. CLARKE about London life, Roisin O’Donnell and her debut novel, The Glass Door …
R. M. Clarke, aka Remie Michelle Clarke, is an author, playwright, editor and voiceover artist. She worked as an actress on stage and screen in London from 2006 with the BBC, ITV and HBO, before moving behind the scenes, where she has remained for over a decade, returning home to Ireland in 2012. Some of her credits include animated films The Adventures of Jules Verne and Geist, and advertising campaigns for HSE, Mastercard, Ford, Durex, Nescafé and Danone, as well as Coca Cola, Garnier and Audi.
Last year, Clarke edited and contributed to The Broken Spiral anthology, published in aid of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, and sponsored by Dublin UNESCO City of Literature. One of the works, How to Build a Space Rocket by Roisin O’Donnell, won the Writing.ie Short Story of the Year accolade at the An Post Irish Book Awards 2018. Remie’s other short fiction has been published in Spontaneity, LossLit, and The Open Pen Anthology, and she was part of the 2018 Xborders: Accord writing project in association with the Irish Writers’ Centre and Arts Council Northern Ireland. She holds a BA and the Gold Medal in English from Trinity College Dublin.
R. M. Clarke’s debut novel, The Glass Door, won the Discovery award at the Dalkey Book Festival and The Irish Writers’ Centre Greenbean Novel Fair in 2016. A work that was seven years in the making, The Glass Door is a tale that practically reaches out and grips the reader by the arm. The narrative follows disturbed protagonist Rosie in therapy; charting her family’s litany of complexities in the hope of gluing the shards of her life back together. Clarke’s experience as a dramatist becomes increasingly evident, as one sinks deeper into her pensive script. The author possesses a flair for building tension and tone, painting wild yet relatable images, while confidently holding her audience in the palm of her hand.
R. M. Clarke lives in Co Wicklow. She is currently working on her second novel.
The Glass Door (€15) is published by Dalzell Press and available from Amazon.co.uk, as well as selected bookshops.
I’m temporarily based near Kilmacanogue in Wicklow, on old Kilruddery estate land. Part of the estate rises up behind the house, stretching up into the Little Sugarloaf, a rare spot of biodiversity that homes – among the more recognisable woodland faces – hawks, pine martens and a special breed of cool climate lizard. But I’m also hemmed in on both sides by soulless and unnecessary retail and business parks. I try to forget this by visiting the estate, which has good walking, Elizabethan gardens and a working farm, and sneaking up behind the retail park to horse-grazing land where an ancient ring of oaks have been left standing for fear of angering the faeries. Wicklow council have tried to develop further up into the mountain, but the residents banded together and stopped them.
Like Rosie, I lived between the east coast of Ireland and London. I moved to London very young and came back with a cockney accent and a superiority complex, so I can’t say the English never gave us anything. Since that precedent was set down in my early months, I’ve remained a bit of a vagabond, hopping between the countries on and off all my life. I recall London in the autumn, swimming in leaves piled high on the concrete; the bright plastic playthings in a Montessori schoolyard. My earliest memory of a Dublin childhood was complaining to my new Irish friends, in Cockney, about how dirty the Irish streets were. Suffice to say they didn’t remain my friends for long… My itinerant lifestyle has bled into my writing, which is obsessed with the concept of home and home-coming, and navigating how we can harbour safely in the world. In the absence of my own, permanent one, I suppose I’ve developed what Behan would call a “psychosis.”
On London life
I lived in North and East London, beginning in Archway and ending in Bethnal Green. I loved Archway for its closeness to Hampstead Heath, which I would walk to at every opportunity to watch kingfishers skirt the rivers, and breathe. Fresh air is very hard to come by in London and it was one of the reasons – along with an illness coinciding with something of a career crisis (I spent a short, unfulfilling period as an actress on the London cattle mart) – that drove me back to Ireland in 2012. I miss being able to walk to Brick Lane and Broadway, swimming in the London Fields Lido in the mornings, the great markets and coffee and vibrancy and choice that the city offers, and I often consider moving back. Perhaps if I set up home in an island somewhere in the Irish Sea, I’ll be able to settle at last…
I sit at the cleared end of a usually junk-laden kitchen table, facing glass doors that look out onto the garden. There are many visitors to the garden from the mountain and the estate, the most welcome is a radiant pair of pheasants, who tag team: one forages while the other keeps a lookout. When they’re not rooting about for me to spy on, their lewd croaks echo over the wall. There is also the next door neighbour’s cat who is a regular visitor, allowing rubs in exchange for cheese or leftovers. The room itself is fairly sparse. Because it is Christmas, however, a festive mobile hangs suspended over the table, a repurposed roadside find that looks wonderful in its second life bedecked in bells and decorations, catching the last of the day’s winter light. I always light candles and burn essential oils when I work. At the moment it’s a Bomar Christmas blend, but usually it’s May Chang, or rose and jasmine. Tea is, of course, essential. I like to experiment. At the moment it’s white tea with rosebuds, brewed in my favourite pot, enjoyed in a china cup inherited from my Northern Irish Grandmother. While I drink, I like to muse fondly on the bitter arguments about the RUC we enjoyed, while she lived. I could keep the argument going now, I know – there are plenty of opportunities online – but I much prefer incarnate arguments, especially with family (which might be why I so enjoy Christmas). When I need a break from all that, I pop out to the Firehouse Bakery in Delgany for a change of scene and delicious food, or The Happy Pear in Greystones for a coffee and a hidden nook to write in. Some days I drive deeper into Wicklow and back in time for coffee and scones at Hunter’s, or to visit the gardens and ruins at Kilmacurragh. A blast of merciless sea air from across the tracks on Kilcoole Beach always works to shake up the energy, too.
Books Upstairs really is a cave of wonders; I can’t leave it without buying something. I love their café and readings, and the owner, Maurice, is a great supporter of Irish writers. Kenny’s in Galway is what I imagine the records hall of the universe to look like, presided over by the wise, supportive and keen-eyed Des. LXV Books in Bethnal Green is a second-hand bookshop full of hidden treasures and I have particularly fond memories of the place having done a live reading of my first published work there, a tiny play called The Ice-Cream Robbery of Sherkin Island, (published by Open Pen) back in 2011. The infinity room of Libreria off Brick Lane and Pages of Hackney deserve special mentions, too.
On her “To Be Read” pile
Usually it’s anything published by Persephone or edited by Diana Athill, but next on my list currently is This Hostel Life by Melatu Uche Okorie, and, because of a recent Writer’s Block, Wendy Erskine‘s Sweet Home. I have just started both Milkman by Anna Burns and Eggshells by Caitriona Lally. Between them, I’ve breakfast sorted.
Escape for me is always a forest or mountain, preferably both. Up around Enniskerry and Glencree are many wild places very dear to me. Also Galway, where I visit my aunt and uncle who live there, near Salthill. There are magical islands out on Lough Corrib near Oughterard I like to visit, with mossy mushroom forests that are straight out of Grimm’s fairy tales. Of all places, I adore the deceptive simplicity of the landscape around Killary harbour. It is such a special place, filled with mad characters and the most beautifully desolate, mercurial landscape: one minute you’re looking at an expanse of nothing, and suddenly a forest will spring up unannounced, or a lake will appear from in between the folds of the mountains. If you can venture a little further, Ballynahinch Castle is worth a visit for a drink, or dinner on the terrace, where the rushing Owenmore river keeps you company.
On The Glass Door
Writing this book involved walking old dark alleys, occasionally retracing my own experience as a child living amongst violent men. That was the stickiest part of the creative process, but there was also great relief in it, an opportunity for a sort of literary alchemy. It was my first “serious” work, so the process of creating it had a fearlessness, an element of play, a curiosity. A sort of, “what can I do here?” Each word was a discovery. The hardest part came when I finished it, and decided I wanted it to be in the world; the initial excitement that came with industry interest and wins and an agent dwindling into despair as one year dragged into two. Then before I knew it, seven had passed as the manuscript, despite its initial bright promises, gathered ever more dust at the back of the closet… Nevertheless I still felt it had value, and had something important to say about the life of women and Irish women in particular. So I decided not to burn it, despite often wanting to.
On Roisin O’Donnell
I entered Roisin’s story at the last minute, unsure if The Broken Spiral anthology would qualify for the Irish Book Awards, as it wasn’t published in the usual way. Spit and sticks it was held together with, along with the support of the brilliant Irish literary community. Making the longlist among so many brilliant writers was wonderful, the shortlist a joy. When her name was called out, everything kind of shimmered. I was so happy for her. Roisin’s story won at a pivotal moment in her career, just at a point when she was considering giving it all up. Her piece in The Broken Spiral was the first thing she’d had published in a while and she was losing confidence in her work. There was such magic in the win for that reason, along with the fact that from such a strong, all-female shortlist, she accepted the award days ahead of her pregnancy due date! The win also seemed to confirm that I had achieved what I set out to with the anthology and created something that would stand as a worthy collection of writing beyond its social activist drive. I had always wanted it to be both: a socially transformative work of art that would also raise money for a great cause. Not much to ask, I know. I think it resonated with readers because of the synchronistic timing – it was published right in the first wind of the #MeToo movement, which I could not have predicted. I think a lot of people needed something to support to offset the feelings of helplessness brought on by gazing up at this newly exposed monster that had lain – not quite sleeping, but invisible – beneath us for so long.
On what’s next
I have the bones of my next novel laid out. It’s a story that follows the friendship of two women from very different worlds. Both artists, each are pulled away from their work by the loss of control over their bodies, either through accident, unhealthy relationships, or illness. Like The Glass Door and the overarching theme of The Broken Spiral, this work is ultimately about healing; about moving through and out of broken states into something approaching wholeness, or the re-fusion of disparate parts, at the least. The philosophy of Kintsukuroi is something I try to thread – finely, and as often as possible in gold – through everything I write.
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