On Friday 20th February, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne will be awarded the 2015 Irish Pen Award for Literature. Her first short story was published in the New Irish Writing page of the Irish Press in 1974. Since then she has published 25 books and collected many awards, as well as being widely anthologised. She writes long and short fiction, poetry, books for children, plays and essays in both Irish and English, and has been widely translated into other languages. Often asked to adjudicate writing competitions, she has also served on many boards and committees related to writing, such as the Board of the Irish Writers’ Centre, the committees of Irish Pen and the Irish Writers’ Union. She teaches on the Creative Writing MA programme in University College Dublin. She was elected to Aosdána in 2004.
Éilís took time out from a busy teaching and publicity schedule to answer some questions about her work, this award, and writing in general. She was (typically) generous with her time and her ideas, so this is a longer blog than usual. Put the kettle on and get comfortable …
LM: You’re often asked to judge prestigious writing competitions such as the Listowel Short Story Award, The Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair and so on – and you’ve been on the receiving end as well, having won loads of prizes throughout your career from the early Hennessy award to being shortlisted for the Orange Prize with The Dancers Dancing. Are awards important to writers? Why?
ENíD: The awards such as Listowel, the Hennessy are important insofar as they provide an outlet of kinds for emerging writers, and are hugely encouraging to those who win them. Having judged some of these competitions, I am aware that the competitions are exceedingly fair, that every attempt is made to select the very best piece of writing, and that the winners owe their prize to their talent and the quality of their submission. I would also say that usually a number of submissions are worthy of winning and usually when I am adjudicating I regret that I cannot give several awards. Another thing to bear in mind is that there is a kind of story which tends to rise to the top of the pile: very well written, of course, but also tight, imaginative, and a bit unusual. It is the story which stands out that gets there. Finally there will be an element of subjectivity in the adjudicator’s choice. What all this means is that if you don’t win a competition it doesn’t mean your story is not excellent. But I think most writers know this very well, are not discouraged if they don’t win. So I think the advantages of these competions far outweigh the disadvantages.
The awards for published books are somewhat different in that these are in the nature of rewards or recognition for established writers mainly. Reputation can play a role in deciding who gets on a shortlist. I’d suspect that the lottery element is higher at this end of the prize spectrum. We all know great writers who seldom get the big awards. For example, when Edna O’Brien won the Frank O’Connor Award for a collection of short stories, I am pretty sure she made the point that this was the first big award she’d received in her life. David Lodge, whom I think an outstanding novelist, is hardly ever on the Booker shortlist. I don’t know why. The reward for the writer who wins a hugely prestigious prize such as the Booker can be enormous, in terms of sales. Though I think this effect – huge sales – might be mainly associated with just that one prize, the Booker. Some prizes seem to have little impact on the buying public. This year, for instance, my impression is that most people in Ireland, even in the literary world, haven’t read anything by the 2014 winner of the Nobel Prize, and don’t remember who the winner was. I have been told he is wonderful and have intended to get a novel by him for several months now but haven’t got around to it.
Are the prizes important? The stock answer to this question is that they focus media attention on books and that this has to be a good thing. That seems to me to be a valid response. The risk that they promote a celebrity culture, that they focus attention on just a few authors at the expense of others, is also there. But my instinct is to trust the reader. Fiction readers, the book clubbers, are discriminating. They can see through hype and often demonstrate this in robust criticism of celebrity books. Of course, this robust rejection may come after they have actually bought the book – the prizes certainly work as a great publicity machine for the works involved.
LM: What does this award (the Irish PEN Award for Literature – given in recognition of an outstanding contribution to Irish literature) mean to you?
ENíD: It means a great deal to me. I am thrilled and humbled to receive this recognition from Irish PEN. The prize has been awarded to many great Irish writers and it is a huge honour to have my name on that list. I feel as proud and pleased as if I had won the Nobel Prize.
LM: You give a lot of your time to working behind the scenes to develop career structures for Irish writers – I’m thinking of your time on the committees of the Irish Writer’s Union and Irish PEN, on the Board of the Irish Writers’ Centre and in Aosdána – not to mention your teaching work on the MA and MFA programmes in UCD. Can you talk about that? How necessary do you think it is?
ENíD: The organisations, such as the Irish Writers’ Union, PEN, the Writers’ Centre, are important in that they nurture writing, provide forums for debate, and transmit practical information (e.g. regarding legal issues, funding, publishing contracts ) to writers. Perhaps even more importantly they give writers an opportunity to meet one another and become members of a community. Writers have always gathered together informally in coteries, ‘schools’ – think of Yeats and the Cheshire Cheese Club, Strindberg and the Red Room, the Bloomsbury Group. These groups seem to have evolved organically as it were but institutions like the Irish Writers’ Centre provide more formal opportunities for that sort of interaction – and for writers at all stages of their careers.
As a writer, it’s crucially important that one has time to devote to writing and reading and contemplation. But I value the social side of it too. Over the years, thanks to these organisations, and the writers’ group to which I have belonged for a quarter of a century, I have found many of my closest friends in the community of Irish writers. The committee work I do because I want to give something back – committee work is selfless, sometimes boring, largely thankless, and always voluntary. But none of these organisations would exist without the unpaid work of boards and committees and in a way I think one has a certain obligation to lend a hand.
LM: Do you think there’s enough support for writers in Ireland? Are there more effective things we could do?
ENíD: We have a reasonable amount of support, thanks to the Arts Council Bursaries, Aosdána, the artists’ exemption, and funding for publishers. Recently all of this has come under threat due to the recession, cutbacks, negative media coverage of state funding of the arts, and possibly a casual attitude to the arts by the present government. We need to protect the level of support that exists and to campaign to increase it. Writers in Ireland earn very little money, on the whole. The market economy nurtures an attitude which equates the value of e.g. a novel or a picture with its capacity to sell. Artists know that marketability is never a reliable gauge of aesthetic worth (although marketability doesn’t exclude it; best sellers can be a great works of literature. But frequently this is not the case.) Without good funding literature will suffer.
Could we do anything differently? Possibly we could consider forging tighter links between grants, publishing, and libraries. I often wonder why the artists’ exemption has never been used as a way of developing the Irish publishing industry, which has struggled since the Act of Union in 1800 moved the centre of Irish publication activity from Dublin to London, where a good bit of it still stays. If in order to avail of the exemption the most popular writers had to be published here, rather than in England, it would surely promote the growth of a healthy and prestigious home industry. (This move would now be unpopular among writers who have established their connections with London, and possibly it is too late for it to make much difference since publishing is in such trouble anyway.)
We could also consider asking Irish libraries to commit to buying Irish published books in quantity. Of course they do this to some extent already. But in Norway, for instance, the public library system buys a thousand copies of every book published in Norway (or something like this – I may not have the details exactly right.) This may indeed reduce ordinary sales, but it provides a guaranteed return to publishers and writers and means the books have the potential to reach a wide readership.
LM: You’ve been a member of a writers’ group for 25 years. What has it meant to you? Do you think every writer needs one?
ENíD: As I said above, it has been a very important part of my life, not just my writing life. I don’t think every writer needs a group. But for some writers, the structure a group provides is very helpful. And the literary friendships I have found invaluable. It’s wonderful to be at the launch of a book by one of the group members. There is such a feeling of warmth and celebration when one of us is published or has some success. And it is such fun! At this stage, my writers’ group is like my family.
LM: This award is generally known as an award for ‘lifetime achievement’. Can you remember what you set out to achieve in writing when you started? Could you have imagined the career that you’ve actually had? How do they measure up to each other?
ENíD: First, I just set out to write. I didn’t know what I was going to write, or what genre. I started with short stories because that seemed the natural way to start, and I stayed with that genre for a long time. I learnt how to write a certain kind of (modernist, epiphanic, metaphorical) short story mainly by writing it, and, of course, reading. After many years I figured out a different way of writing a long short story, and usually write ‘long stories’ now. When I wanted to write a novel I found I had not a clue how to do it, although I had read thousands of novels. I figured it out by studying closely the structure of a novel I admired (E.M. Forster’s Passage to India.) That structure I used in my first novel, a futuristic sort of science fiction book, The Bray House. For a good while I did not have any clear ambition about my themes – they changed from work to work; I just wanted to become a good writer. When I discovered literary feminism, sometime in the late eighties, I found a goal. For many years it was to write about women’s lives and women’s experiences in Ireland, since it dawned on me(finally! I was very sleepy and unobservant) that the female voice was to a great extent absent from Irish letters.
LM: You have a massive publication record. You’ve written across genres (novels, short stories, poems, plays, essays and critical reviews) and in two languages. Do you have a favourite form? How do you manage to be so prolific and have a working life as well?
ENíD: I’ve written about twenty-five books, as well as many articles, reviews, stories and poems. It looks like a large output, but of course many writers would have a much bigger one. My favourite form, the form I feel best at, is the one I started off with, the short story. I think that following that is, surprisingly, the research article. I don’t do as much of that as I perhaps could but I still love doing research, posing a question, and looking for an answer. I love writing a scholarly article, finding the best words and clearest sentences. Novels I find quite difficult. A novel is a very complex animal and requires a great deal of commitment and stamina, and many diverse talents. It’s underestimated as a literary form, I think. When I hear people saying ‘the short story is harder,’ I think, not at all. But some writers have a knack for the short stories, maybe – being a short story writer is maybe a bit like being a poet.
I have managed by doing it one day at a time. There’s always time. You don’t have to have endless reams of it to write a story, or even a novel. You need to set up a rhythm, a regular routine, and stick to it.
I write in many genres because I can. Also, if you are trying to make any kind of a living from writing, you need to write in various genres and practise various literature-related activities. For most people, a patchwork career is what is feasible.
LM: Can you talk about writing in Irish as well as English?
ENíD: My father was an Irish speaker, but I became bi-lingual from the age of five – when I went to school. English is my first language. I always thought of it as the language of literature, when I was a child, because English was the language of my reading, which was extensive and catholic if not deep (I had no difficulty enjoying The Famous Five at the same time as I liked Pride and Prejudice and, one of my fourteen year old picks, GK Chesterton). Even though I went to an all-Irish school, and spoke and wrote fluently, I didn’t read much in Irish apart from course books. (As an aside, I would add that almost all the novels on the curriculum, in Irish and English, were odd choices for teenagers. Dicken’s least attractive novel, Hard Times, for instance, and the one by Thomas Hardy least likely to appeal to sixteen year old girls, The Mayor of Casterbridge. (The latter, as far as I remember, nobody, possibly not even the teacher, ‘got’.) We discussed ad nauseam sin and guilt and atonement, in our essays about The Mayor. As you may remember, his sin is that he sells his wife and child to a sailor for five guineas. As one does, in Wessex! This little mistake we equated with, say, missing Mass on Sunday or stealing a sheep. The enormity of the act, its implications for gender issues, was glossed over, and its point missed. Naturally anything touching on sex had to be brushed under the carpet. I don’t know who put it on the Leaving. Later they replaced it with the much more appealing Far From the Madding Crowd. And how I would have loved Tess of the D’Urbervilles at the age of sixteen. In Irish, we read An tOileánach, and Rotha Mór an tSaoil, and Dialann Deoraí. All books I appreciate very much now, but they did not resonate with fifteen year old me. Given that their subject matter was the lives of men in pursuit of arduous outdoor occupations – hunting and fishing, gold mining, and labouring on building sites in England – these excellent novels were not likely to be models for a young female writer from Ranelagh.)
Anyway. I began to write in Irish sometime in the mid or late 1990s. Somebody invited me to try and I realised I could. I’d never stopped speaking and reading Irish, since my folklore research meant I was usually in constant contact with the language and my family, my husband, and many of my friends were Irish speakers. It was a bit like a homecoming. I have an emotional attachment to Irish. My father was a native speaker, and presumably a long line of my ancestors in Donegal spoke nothing else. I realised I did not want to be the one to break that language chain stretching back through history, and writing in Irish is my link in the chain.
LM: Do you enjoy teaching (creative writing)?
ENíD: I love teaching creative writing. It’s very fulfilling, I learn a great deal about the craft as I clarify aspects of writing for students. And I love the interaction. It’s a real privilege to be with people as they develop their talents. I always loved discussing literature – closely analysing stories and poems and novels. I loved it in school and in college, and it’s a real pleasure to continue to have these wonderful conversations with young writers.
LM: What are you working on now?
ENíD: I have just finished a novel for young people, as Gaeilge. It’s called Aisling, at least at the moment. I have three or four projects lined up which I hope to work on over the next ten years. I have been quiet for a while, since my dear husband died late in 2013 and for most of last year writing fiction seemed too difficult, and, in the early stages of bereavement, somehow trivial. I took great comfort from fiction and films, though, even during the toughest months. And I wrote a diary, and several book reviews, which I could do, somehow. But now I’m getting my energy back and have plans!
LM: Thanks, Éilís. And many congratulations on the Award.
Previous winners of the Irish PEN Award for Literature include Brian Friel, Edna O’Brien, William Trevor, John McGahern, Seamus Heaney and Jennifer Johnston. For more information: http://www.irishpen.com/
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s website is at: http://www.eilisnidhuibhne.com/172275256