Writer’s Block With Tina Callaghan

Sophie Grenham speaks to author TINA CALLAGHAN about Stephen King, the Irish Book Awards and her debut novel …

Emerging author Tina Callaghan is sending shivers down readers’ spines with her debut chiller, Dark Wood, Dark Water, the first instalment in a new Young Adult series.

A librarian by day, the Wexford native’s writing taps into irrational fears that many of us held as children (or even grown adults), and brings them to life with the use of vivid, nightmarish imagery. Dark Wood, Dark Water is an intriguing combination of the supernatural with local mythology. The story is set in Bailey, a historical town loosely based on New Ross, with a community plagued by an ancient curse. Whatever you do, don’t go near the river…

Since iconic hair-raiser Stephen King moved from the horror genre and more into crime fiction, Poolbeg Press have suggested there lies a vacancy for an Irish equivalent – namely, Tina. In addition, writer Peadar Ó Guilín has called her novel, “A story Stephen King would have written if he’d grown up in Ireland – a read-in-one-sitting, sleep-with-the-lights-on sort of book” while Ruth Frances Long has said, “A sublime fantasy horror grounded in dark and sinister folklore.”

Judging by Tina’s swift progress since Dark Wood, Dark Water was commissioned at the start of this year, her future as Ireland’s queen of fright looks promising. She has already published short fiction next to Dean Koontz, Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch. Her latest piece will feature in the forthcoming Shivers 8 anthology (Cemetery Dance) alongside the aforementioned King. Dark Wood, Dark Water has been shortlisted in the Eason Dept. 51 Teen/Young Adult Book of the Year category for the upcoming An Post Irish Book Awards 2018.

Tina Callaghan lives in New Ross, Co Wexford with her partner Joe. She has just finished her second novel.

Dark Wood, Dark Water (€9.99) is published by Poolbeg Press and available from bookshops nationwide.

To vote for your favourite Irish books of the year, please visit: www.irishbookawards.irish/vote2018.

On home

My home is on a country lane outside of New Ross, where I was born. The lane is pretty, tree-lined and has a grass spine running along its middle. It’s full of foxes, rabbits, stoats, pheasants, kestrels and hedgehogs. I once met a duck and a rabbit loitering about together. I live here with my partner Joe, and our four dogs and one cat. The house is close to my parent’s home, bought when they were still with us. The local pub is three miles from my door and is a proper country pub with plenty of striking characters! I work in New Ross Library, which is about ten minutes from home and I’m half an hour’s drive away from my favourite restaurant and the cinema, which I adore. I love the experience of going to the movies. It is always exciting no matter what’s on!

On roots

I’m a native of New Ross, a historic town with a colourful past. It has been a den of pirates and smugglers, one of the most important ports in the country in the middle ages, and cursed by corrupt monks. The broad, deep river is its predominant feature. I spent a lot of time with my family messing about in little boats and I love water, whether river or sea as a result.

I lived in Saudi Arabia for a year. We travelled a lot, got stuck in the desert, looked at unexcavated tombs in a city carved from rock, and drank homemade Baileys for St Patrick’s day! I had surreal, dangerous and horrible experiences in Brazil and strange ones in beautiful Canada. A lot of my experiences abroad make good stories but were not enjoyable to live through. I nearly kissed the ground when I came home!

I have always viewed the lights of New Ross with pleasure. I’m a sociable person and I love people, but having been a shy child who loved to read and write, I still love being home better than anything. The town itself has meant a lot to me as a writer. My first novel Dark Wood, Dark Water borrows from the medieval history of the town (previously mentioned corrupt monks and curses) and the story of the curse, along with the ghosts of the past that inhabit any old settlement, were woven into my childhood mythology.

On creating

I write in the sitting room, on the sofa with the recliner extended, laptop on my lap and earphones in. The TV is directly in front of me, although I don’t notice it when I’m writing. My bookshelves fill the corners of the walls. I don’t mind company in the room, as long as my work is not overlooked. I have tried having a home office, or a corner of the room, but I can’t bear being away from the heart of the house. I have always been the same. As a teenager, I studied for exams in the sitting room with the rest of the family watching TV. I spook myself sometimes with my stories, so I don’t want to be in a silent room by myself! I can’t listen to new music as I would focus on the lyrics. I have a playlist that contains songs that are so familiar that I don’t really hear them at all, although they’re all quite atmospheric.

On bookshops

I love every bookshop I have ever been in! I love The Gutter Bookshop in Temple Bar because Bob is brilliant to new writers and a lovely person. I also love the Book Centre in Wexford because it’s fab and I’m friends with lots of the staff (all writers too, Wexford is full of them). I won’t pass a bookshop wherever I am and although I work in a public library where I’m like a child in a sweetshop, I still buy books in great numbers. I especially love a bookshop where the books are amazing and the booksellers are in love with them.

On her “TBR” pile

The “To Be Read” pile is large and ever-growing. I read a lot of different things. At the moment, I have Sarah Perry’s Melmoth, several narrative non-fiction books about such things as waves, free diving, sharks and crows, none of which are for research. I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction about the dangers to democracy and the freedom of the press posed by the worrying re-emergence of populist leaders and the far right. I seldom read for research and always read for pleasure. Because I love making things up and letting worlds develop, I pilfer bits of geography and history which are real and do my own thing with them. Research is easy when you only have to remember the heart of the story and none of the details!

On escapes

I am a positive person and don’t usually feel like escaping. I love to walk, or sit by water and I am crazy about the sea. I love how it smells and sounds and it’s a tonic for anything that ails me. I love walking the dogs in fields. Nature is intoxicating to me and I don’t like to be too far from it. Go to the sea, people. Let the salty breeze clear your mind and lift your heart.

On her debut novel

When I was nine, I admitted to my mother that I wanted to be a writer. The house was full of books, comics and ghost stories. As I mentioned earlier, there was a curse…

In the thirteenth century, a group of monks called the Fratres Cruciferi, or Crutched Friars had an abbey in Priory Street. They were granted the right to levy tolls on river traffic. The port was very busy and the monks became greedy, raising the tolls higher and higher. After many disputes, the townspeople rose against them and drove them from the town. Several townspeople were killed and three monks drowned in the river. The abbot put a curse on the river that three people would die in it every year, as compensation for the three monks who died. There is a blue commemorative plaque which records the curse. The curse was lifted in the 1940s. As someone interested in spooky stories, it was inevitable that a fabulous tale like that would find its way into my first book.

After many years of thinking about writing and talking about writing and not doing much writing, it was a great pleasure for it to suddenly click. The right story, the right time in my life, opportunity, motive and means! The novel took twelve weeks to write. Because I’m a pantser (by the seat of my pants) not a plotter, I got stuck every three chapters or so, which made me panic. I learned to sit down with pen and paper and work out where the characters were and what they would do next. For the second novel, the panic was gone, because I know what to do now. Having walked the tightrope once, I knew I could do it again.

On Stephen King

I read my first Stephen King novel, Salem’s Lot, when I was eleven. After that, I read everything of his, and a lot more in the genre besides. Because my tastes are eclectic, I spent a long time trying to figure out what kind of story I wanted to write myself. When I finally got serious about my writing, and stopped getting in my own way, I realised that the ideas that occur to me naturally are spooky ones. I love Stephen King’s books because they’re about people going through crazy situations. His people feel real and I care about them. His stories are about relationships, about good versus evil, and about standing up for what’s right. That’s what I look for in any novel and what I try to do in my own work. A mutual acquaintance (an editor who has bought several of my horror short stories) has given a copy of Dark Wood, Dark Water to Stephen King. My book is on Stephen King’s “To Be Read pile.” How completely cool is that? Wait, there’s more. Next year will see the publication by Cemetery Dance of the anthology Shivers 8. Stephen King has a story in it and so do I…Life is full of wonders.

On the Irish Book Awards

I’m thrilled and honoured to be shortlisted for the Eason Dept. 51 Teen/YA Book of the Year. It’s amazing that my debut novel has got this far. I’m on the hunt for a glamorous dress. Joe and I will have a fabulous night with my lovely publishers Poolbeg and friends. I wouldn’t expect to win, but I would love to! The category is jam packed with amazing writers and wonderful books. I know people always say this, but it is genuinely brilliant to be shortlisted. If I win, I shall bumble my way through words of some sort and be incredibly happy, although I will probably wish I had remembered to lose weight before the event!

On what’s next

I’ve just finished my second novel for Poolbeg. I’ll have a wee break for a couple of weeks before starting on book three, although I will be itching to go! I intend to write lots of novels in the future. I turned my dream into a mission and I’m enjoying every second of it. I also want to tell other writers never to give up. On January 22 2018, I had sold a few short stories. On January 23 2018, I was offered a three book deal by Poolbeg. Tomorrow might be your day, so don’t stop today!

As for me, I’m the Irish Stephen King and I have lots of ideas, so I better get cracking!


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