Writer’s Block with Roisín O’Donnell

Sophie Grenham speaks to author ROISÍN O’DONNELL about the concept of home, Toni Morrison and winning an Irish Book Award …

Roisín O’Donnell is an award-winning writer of short fiction, who has contributed to some of Ireland’s most important anthologies in recent years. She was born in Sheffield, England with roots in Derry, Northern Ireland.

O’Donnell’s astute observance of an ever-changing Ireland through the eyes of the foreigner has caught the attention of many literary commentators. She has the mind of a visual artist, due to her powerful use of colour and the sheer clarity of her images. Her wit and effortless realism gives her work an addictive quality.

She has been shortlisted for several prizes, such as the Cúirt New Writing Prize, the Pushcart Prize, the Forward Prize, the Brighton Prize and the Kate O’Brien Award. She won the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award and the Dorothy Parker Award in 2015.

Her stories are included in The Long Gaze Back (2015) and The Glass Shore (2016), both edited by Sinéad Gleeson. Her work has also appeared in The Irish Times, Young Irelanders (edited by Dave Lordan) and Unthology 7 (edited by Ashley Stokes) and Reading the Future: New Writing From Ireland (2018, Arlen House/Hodges Figgis).

Roisín released her first short story collection Wild Quiet in 2016, some of which first featured in the aforementioned anthologies. Dave Lordan has said, “Roisín O’Donnell is among the most talented of the new generation that are extending the range of the Irish short story and updating it for a twenty-first-century readership. Reading her is like picking through a treasure trove of the human imagination – you can’t but be enriched by it.”

The icing on the cake came for O’Donnell when she received the Short Story of the Year accolade for How to Build a Space Rocket at the An Post Irish Book Awards 2018. The story was published in The Broken Spiral, edited by R. M. Clarke, which raised much-needed funds for the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre.

Roisín O’Donnell lives in Navan, Co Meath with her husband Richard and their two daughters Áine Rowan and Mary.

Wild Quiet (€10.95) is published by New Island Books and available nationwide.

On home

Navan, County Meath is home for the moment. Mum and dad are from Derry, and I grew up in Sheffield before moving to Dublin to study at Trinity. About a year ago, my husband and I left Dublin. Once our eldest daughter started crawling, our tiny apartment became a death trap and we couldn’t afford to rent anything bigger. So, in a mad experiment in multi-generational living, we moved in with my parents while saving for a home. Mum and dad hardly expected their fully grown daughter to return home with husband and two babies in tow, but they’ve been so patient, and I love how my daughter Mary is so close to them. I used to work in a university, but now I drive to work through a tunnel of trees and teach at a school near Trim. Right now I’m on maternity leave, so days cartwheel through train-track building, paint splattering, puddle splashing, helter-skeltering into the calm of evening, when I get to write. From our estate it’s a short stroll into town, where we enjoy having lunch in the cosy hubbub of Chekov’s, or in the Solstice Arts Centre. At weekends, we head out to the Hill of Tara, where our toddler charges around like a wild thing amidst the majestic scenery, followed by breakfast in Maguire’s.

On roots

Purple heather and curling ferns remind me of my childhood and the great fun we had when my parents took us out into the hills of Derbyshire for walks at weekends. My parents were from opposite sides of the divide in Northern Ireland. This, coupled with the lack of job opportunities in Ireland at that time, prompted them to move to England in the 1970s. After a couple of years in London, they moved to live in Sheffield, because someone had told them that the Peak District looked a bit like Donegal. We lived on the top of one of Sheffield’s seven hills, and at nights you could see across the city, strings of orange streetlights slung across the hills. It’s difficult to live somewhere flat, if you’re used to mountains. I feel slightly claustrophobic if I can’t see the horizon.

On origins

I’ve always felt conflicted around the concept of “home.” Although I grew up in England, all my relations are from Derry city, and whenever we made our annual summer trips to Ireland, these were referred to as “going home.” Home was not the place I lived, but the place of my family’s origins. It just shows you how stories shape our sense of identity. Growing up hearing my parents’ stories about Derry made me feel connected with the North in a way that perhaps seems strange. I think this is why my short stories often concern people from mixed cultural backgrounds, immigrants and the so-called “new Irish,” because that experience of having a conflicted sense of national identity is something I’ll always be fascinated by.

On early reading

My wonderful mum had me enrolled in Hillsborough library when I was only weeks old. Mum is a voracious reader, so I definitely got my passion for books from her, and I’m so grateful to her for that. At the age of seven, I was taught by Mattie Doherty, a teacher who lived and breathed literature. Her sister-in-law was the writer Berlie Doherty, author of novels like Granny Was a Buffer Girl, set in the Sheffield steelworks, and Children of Winter, which takes place in the plague village of Eyam (my friends and I used to play at being “children of winter” stuck in a plague village – rather morbid when I look back). Berlie’s books made me realise stunning fiction can be crafted from everyday surroundings. She even came into class to read to us, and I remember the momentous realisation that writers are… real people!

On creating

“I can forgive failure. Everyone fails at something. But I can’t forgive not trying.” Those are the words that used to be on a poster above my desk at the time when I wrote Wild Quiet. It’s a quote from the basketball player Michael Jordan, and I’d made the poster for a child I taught when I was a special education teacher. He’d been struggling with his learning confidence, but this piece of advice from his idol seemed to motivate him. So, in the spirit of “practice what you preach,” I decided I could glean some inspiration from this too. Sometimes the hardest aspect of writing is simply having the confidence to try. Nowadays, my writing space is mobile. I don’t have a desk, but the only thing I need is solitude. Like a cat, I’ll naturally gravitate towards the sunniest room in the house, and get comfy on the sofa or the bed to write.

On bookshops

The Gutter Bookshop in Dublin is one of my favourite book shops. There’s a lovely, chilled atmosphere, and they have a great selection of new fiction. It’s the perfect, intimate venue for book launches and readings. I wish we had a bookshop like that in Navan, but sadly the town lost its only independent book shop when Blackbird Books closed its doors last year. It’s difficult for small bookshops to compete with the big chains, even though the large stores don’t offer half the selection of books. When Wild Quiet was launched, several friends in Navan called me up, frustrated they couldn’t find anywhere in the town to buy my book. Before being published, I was oblivious to the impact of PR. Big stores are telling us what to read, which is quite scary.

On her “To Be Read” pile

I’m looking forward to Jan Carson’s new novel The Firestarters, which is published in April. It’s set in East Belfast during parade season, and it features a siren, a baby and a host of magical children. In Jan’s words, it’s about a single dad figuring out how to be a father, against a backdrop of riots and enormous bonfires. I’m also looking forward to Sinéad Gleeson’s essay collection Constellations, also published in April. Sinéad has such a beautiful, lucid prose style and I’m interested to read her autobiographical essays. I’ve been working my way through some of Toni Morrison’s early novels, and next on my “To Be Read” pile is Jazz. Morrison has been one of my touchstones as a writer, ever since I read Beloved as a teenager and was blown away by its lyricism and its passion, so it’s been interesting to read her early work and chart her emergence as a writer.

On escapes

Inishowen is one of my favourite places to escape to. A family friend has a house at Shrove, just outside Greencastle, so we go there for a week most summers. The house is called Ceol na Maramusic of the sea. Out there, you’re worlds away, and the lighthouse keeps its own time. Day, night, the lap of the waves. I’ve been going to Inishowen since childhood. From first footsteps in the sand, something has always called me back to the shores of the Atlantic. Looking across Lough Foyle, the distant coast is another country, as you’re looking over to Northern Ireland. The beaches of Donegal are spectacular, and my favourite is Kinnagoe Bay with its golden sand and dramatic backdrop of cliffs. One of my favourite Irish writers Danielle McLaughlin describes this setting beautifully in her story A Different Country.

On Wild Quiet

At the time when I wrote the stories that became my debut collection, I was living and working in Blanchardstown, a very culturally diverse area of Dublin. In the school where I was teaching, ninety-nine percent of the children had at least one parent who had been born outside of Ireland. Their Irishness was of a different kind to that portrayed in much of Irish fiction, and I started writing partly to explore this new type of Irish identity. I wrote about a Brazilian school teacher who comes to Ireland for love. I wrote about a Somali girl suffering from selective mutism, leading her Donegal classmates to dismiss her as “wild quiet” – giving both the story and the collection its title. I wrote about culture clash, and what happens when a dead Japanese girl decides to taunt her ex-lover. After a while, the stories started to speak to each other, and I realised I might just have a collection.

On How to Build a Space Rocket

In 2017 I received an email from Remie Purtill-Clarke, asking if I would contribute a story to an anthology in aid of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. It was such a worthy cause that I said yes immediately, and then spent weeks deliberating over which story to send. The theme we’d been given was “the long and winding road back.” While I had another story which would have been more fitting in terms of the work of the DRCC, I really wanted to contribute something more unexpected. I’d had the story How to Build a Space Rocket completed for a while, and I decided this would be the perfect home for it. It’s a story about the clash between adult and child worlds, and about the search for love and acceptance. Remie phrases it beautifully, “it’s about being listened to and accepted for who you are, wherever you are at the moment.”

On her Irish Book Award

I was probably the least well-known writer on the shortlist for Short Story of the Year, so I didn’t think I had any chance of winning. As I rose to receive my Irish Book Award, the main thought on my mind was “please don’t fall over!” I was massively pregnant at the time, and feeling a little off balance. It really was the most overwhelming moment, to hear my name read aloud, and to make my ungainly way onto the stage. There was such a feeling of warmth and goodwill in the room, particularly when I mentioned The Broken Spiral in my acceptance speech. Before that, I’d been having a major crisis of writing confidence, and had honestly been considering giving up completely. Winning the award changed that, and I’m so grateful to everyone who read and voted for my story. About ten days after the awards ceremony, my daughter Áine Rowan was born. It will be a great story to tell her one day.

On what’s next

Winning the Irish Book Award has given me a new lease of energy. I have a new short story collection almost finished, and I’m busy at work on my debut novel. The process of writing a novel is very different to writing short stories, and I’m enjoying the freedom of being able to stretch my legs and write in a longer form. With two babies at home, I have to be creative with my writing methods. I write on my phone, I write in the car, I scribble down notes in between feeding, changing and soothing. I’ve become a scavenger of time and energy. When time is precious, you’re less inclined to waste any. And when writing becomes condensed and squeezed into the margins of life, interesting things can happen.

@SophieGrenham

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