Martina Devlin: On Writing Truth and Dare

(Martina Devlin talks about her latest book, a collection of short stories: Truth And Dare: Short Stories about Women Who Shaped Ireland)


LM: Why did you decide to write fiction about these real historical figures, rather than historical/biographical accounts?
Martina Devlin: There’s magic in fiction. Also, I wanted to breathe life into my women and thought I could do it more convincingly with fiction which allows greater potential to explore human frailty. Some of these women notched up exceptional accomplishments, especially considering the times they lived in, so approaching their stories as biography carried a risk. It might end up like a shopping list of achievements. The project is unusual in that I blend fact and fiction – I reshape known episodes from their lives, inventing conversations and some scenarios while remaining true to the general thrust of what happened. For example, Speranza, Lady Wilde, wrote to the governor of Reading Jail asking for her son, Oscar Wilde, to be brought to see her before she died. That’s a fact. As a writer, I took that nugget of information and imagined (a) why she thought the governor might accede to her request and (b) how she reacted to his refusal. I admire the women I write about – their selflessness and idealism, as well as their practical streak, finding ways to circumvent obstacles – and hoped this fact-into-fiction method might bring them as vividly alive for readers as they are for me.


LM: Where did the idea of writing fictional portraits come from? I’m thinking about your Alice Milligan story in The Glass Shore, was that the first?
MD: Yes, Alice was the catalyst. I wrote about her for The Glass Shore, a wonderful collection edited by Sinéad Gleeson, and people seemed to be interested in Alice although she’s largely unknown among the general public outside her birthplace, Omagh (also my hometown). I learned her poetry in school and knew where she lived. That engagement people showed with her fictional portrait helped me to realise how stories can reach people – they seem to be more real to the audience, somehow. After Alice, I had a go at conjuring up Countess Markievicz and followed her up with Anna Parnell, by which stage I was hooked. Recreating these women is an act of ventriloquism, of course. But I don’t intend it to be fake or disrespectful. For me, it’s an act of celebration.

The idea for the collection came to mind because this year is the centenary of the vote for (some) women in Ireland and Britain, and I wanted to find a way to mark it. I’m a storyteller so it was natural for me to do it by telling stories.

LM: How does writing a collection of short stories like this differ from writing a historical novel, like The House Where It Happened?
MD: You tackle a short story via a sideways manoeuvre, whereas a novel is full frontal – at least the way I approach them. To be honest, the collection was more manageable than a novel because each story is bite-sized, although several are halfway to being novellas. When I was writing them I had the strongest sense that I was slipping inside each person’s skin – I felt like a character in a fairy story who finds a swan’s coat, tries it on and is transformed. The Truth & Dare women dared to imagine a different world and I had to find a way of entering their world, too. Metaphorically, I borrowed their clothes.

LM: How did you choose who to write about?
MD: It was partly a case of them choosing me. Belfast born Mary Ann McCracken has been tapping on my door for ages, except I didn’t know how to tell her story. The same goes for Countess Markievicz. When I decided to try my hand at a collection, I thought about who I admired and why – I chose my heroes. Mary Ann topped my list. And that told me I was looking for women who were daring, who pushed against boundaries. One of the lessons they taught me is the value of partnership because they supported one another.

Every society, every generation, needs heroes. But we have to be reminded about the women, in particular, because so many pioneering women who rattled their cages and challenged the status quo (man-made rules for the benefit of men) have been submerged, minimised or reduced to two-dimensional figures. That’s a misrepresentation of our past. And the past matters because we can learn from it and be inspired by it. These women didn’t ask anyone’s permission before taking control of their own destinies; they just did it. Some of them, such as Hanna Sheehy Skeffington, Dr Kathleen Lynn and Dorothy Macardle, were jailed for their beliefs but that didn’t deter them. I see these women as sticks of dynamite – the repercussions from their actions reverberate still. We can vote, attend college and enjoy workplace protection because of them.

LM: Who did you leave out? (Will there be another collection later?)
MD: I’m haunted by all the women I left out – it’s a really long list but the one I regret most is Anne Devlin. The best I can say is I’d like to write more stories. However, I don’t believe in follow-ups or sequels. For me, I mean. They work for other people. I think if a writer isn’t changing and challenging themselves, they’re not simply standing still but sliding backwards. It is not a question of my becoming bored with a subject. It’s to do with the artist’s responsibility to stretch their parameters. William Golding said the writer should be a moving target and I’d go along with that. I accept that I may lose readers but perhaps I may also gain some. Fundamentally, I don’t want to be an old lady looking back on my life and wishing I’d taken more chances.

LM: Not much chance of that! Do you have favourites among the women?
MD: Mary Ann McCracken because she was loyal, honourable and persistent. In 1798, she walked her brother, Henry Joy McCracken, to the scaffold after he was condemned to be hanged as leader of the United Irishmen’s Northern army. Afterwards, she discovered he had an illegitimate child by a Cave Hill gamekeeper’s daughter and insisted on taking the little girl into the family in 1798 – to heck with any wagging tongues. She made a difference with her life, championing all sorts of causes from the anti-slavery movement to a campaign to stop children being used as chimney sweeps.
I also have a soft spot for Constance, Countess Markievicz. Her heart was in the right place and the people knew it: they turned out in their thousands in 1927 when her coffin passed by, although the Cumann na nGaedheal government refused her a state funeral. The people snapped their fingers and gave her a de facto one. I came across a telling detail during my research. A countrywoman offered the Countess some eggs to help build her up during her final illness. She didn’t manage to deliver them in time … so she left a nest of eggs among the wreaths. A promise was a promise and she felt Madame ought to have them anyway.

LM: What are you working on now/what’s next?
MD: I’m writing a novel about Edith Somerville as part of a PhD in literary practice at Trinity College Dublin. It’s set in 1922-3 when the new Irish state was taking shape – imagined into being; a period of adjustment for someone such as Edith, associated with the ancien régime. I find the period fascinating. Also, I’m interested in Edith’s act of faith in staying and throwing in her lot with the new state – the Ascendancy class didn’t know if property rights would be respected, for example. It’s a pity someone like her wasn’t offered a place in the Senate because she had plenty to say and her contributions would have been worthwhile.
She and her writing partner, Violet Martin, aka Martin Ross, intrigue me for a number of reasons – not least because they pushed against boundaries and were business-minded about their work. They were among the first to have a literary agent, James Pinker from London, who also represented D.H. Lawrence, Henry James and Arnold Bennett. Somerville and Ross were quite clear that they weren’t dilettantes but wanted to earn a living from their writing, asking for royalties rather than one-off payments because their books sold well and pushing for serialisation rights, too. I believe their reputations as writers suffers today because of their Ascendancy backgrounds but we have to find a place in modern Ireland for people of all traditions. Our definition of Irishness remains too exclusive, too racially pure – we have a tendency to pay lip service to diversity despite making a song and dance about our European identity. I deliberately included women in my collection who weren’t born in Ireland, such as Maud Gonne, but who are identified with the place and the people.


Martina Devlin is a novelist and journalist. She has had ten books published, including a collection of short stories Truth & Dare, a novel about Ireland’s last witchcraft trial, The House Where It Happened (optioned for film), and About Sisterland, a dystopian novel about a world ruled by women.

Her work has won a number of prizes including the Royal Society of Literature’s VS Pritchett Prize and a Hennessy Literary Award, and she was three times shortlisted for the Irish Book Awards.

A current affairs commentator for the Irish Independent, Martina has been named columnist of the year by the National Newspapers of Ireland. She is vice-chair of the Irish Writers Centre and a PhD candidate at Trinity College Dublin.

Contact Martina via her website

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Nuala O’Connor & Sarah Maria Griffin at the LexIcon (October 23rd)

This blog is disgracefully late, but I still want to record elements of a most enjoyable interview/conversation that took place in the Dun Laoghaire LexIcon a fortnight ago between Nuala O’Connor (Nuala Ní Chonchúir) and Sarah Maria Griffin (SMG), current dlr writer-in-residence. They were talking about Nuala’s latest novel, Becoming Belle (Penguin, 2018).

The Belle of the title is Isabel Bilton, who left a middle-class English military family in the late nineteenth century to become, first a music hall star and then the wife of the young Viscount Dunlo, ending up as the Countess of Clancarty despite his family’s objections. The novel is based on a true story. Nuala’s last novel (Miss Emily) was also based on the life of a real person, Emily Dickinson.

She tells us that she’s a hermit by nature. Life makes her uptight and anxious but when she’s writing she’s free. Relaxed. She likes novels because they offer more space to work in but she loves poetry and short fiction too – she’s in love with language, basically.  She had a bilingual childhood and has a degree in Irish.  Her sisters were into crocheting, knitting, always making things. She remembers her mother saying ‘Nuala’s not artistic’ and her sisters cracking up, laughing. Because of course she’s an artist – in language.

She was working with a theatre company in Galway when someone suggested she should join a group and try to publish her stories. She says she was clueless and needed someone else to say it to her. Her first writing teacher was Mike McCormack, then she took a poetry course with Louis de Paor and a group grew from that.

SMG asked if there’s a central question in her work. Nuala said that she had felt that Emily Dickinson had been largely misrepresented and misunderstood. In school she’d been given the dark, depressed version of Dickinson – “it suited me, I was a goth.” But Nuala (who is also a poet) felt there was so much more to Dickinson: the cook, for example. The woman who loved flowers. She wanted to create a real, human representatio

When writing these women, she’s trying to bring them out onto the page. Day to day, she’s at her desk, trying to write scenes, working in the dark. She doesn’t know what she’s doing until the end or even later. She first came across Belle Bilton in Ballinasloe in 2005, doing local history research. She discovered a woman who was a deeply flawed but very human character. Nuala wrote a poem about her first, then a piece of flash fiction, and the story grew from there.

She has a real gift for research, unearthing the telling detail and expressing it in such a way that the time and place she writes about become real for a reader.   She used the British Newspaper archive (she’s a subscriber) and the National Archives at Kew, where she found the marriage certificate and the divorce petition that Viscount Dunlo signed; she went to the Café Royale for something to eat and to Conduit Street, where Belle had lived – ‘ghost chasing,’ she called it.  Staff at the National Portrait Gallery in London were helpful, giving her images to photocopy. Since the book was published, people with connections to the story have come forward – the current Earl Clancarty has a copy.

SMG: So it’s a magnet then, as well as a book.

NOC: She was a real person; it’s a huge responsibility.

 Inventing the Victorians (by Matthew Sweet) was a great resource. ‘It’s a brilliant book,’ and shows the Victorians as real people, with as much excess in their lives as any of us. They were into opiates, for example; self-soothing.  But they weren’t supposed to acknowledge those experiences. ‘Then you had to deal with editors who wanted to remove the opium scene, or the childbirth scene … Dickens, the Brontes, George Eliot – they weren’t allowed to include such things in their writing, but I’m writing in the 21st century…We get a sanitised, biased account of that time. The Victorians were a lot freer and more open than we give them credit for.’

SMG: Those missing pieces are really important …

SMG remarked on a quality of incantation in the narrative. ‘How do you do that? Do you keep a diary?’

NOC: As a kid, yes, I kept a diary. I keep a journal when I’m travelling.

SMG: Now, though: aren’t you keeping a journal of the book you’re writing?

NOC: I’m trying to; I’m creating this document, it’s a tool. It’s so helpful when talking about it later – after I finish, when it comes to promotion, figuring out what the book is about. I’m using a brilliant notebook – Claire Keegan says buy the best, then you feel something beautiful in it…

SMG: … ritual, intentional.

Nuala does her research at night: reads, takes notes; then does her creative work in the mornings; gathers her notes and tries to make a scene.

SMG: It’s full of shards, like a mosaic. There are movements  in it – like music.

NOC: If it’s all on one note, it’s like shouting at the reader.

They talked about endings; readers’ expectations and the expectations of editors – who generally want a positive outcome. But readers, Nuala says, are intelligent. They get ambiguity.

SMG loves the use of fabric in the book, remarks on the ways in which Nuala is alert to fabric; Nuala talked about her college experience of putting on plays, amateur dramatics. She bought loads of clothes second hand. Her sister made costumes; another sister was a set designer. Her writing is tactile but she also uses colour and smells.

SMG: (Reading Belle) is a sensual experience for the reader.

NOC: As women too… It’s about our presence in the world as bodies, how our bodies are valued. Belle would have been very much of that world. Her image was on cigarette cards, posters etc.  Reviews in her time said that she had more heart than talent.

SMG: Belle is a good example of acquiring an artistic practice as a method of achieving freedom. She sets her life in motion by artistic practice – which is kind of what we do. Can you talk about that in your own life?

NOC: Working in a theatre in Galway, I became aware of writers as people, colleagues. I wanted their lives, knew the life would suit me. But someone had to say it to me. Someone had to suggest that I find a group, try to publish my stories.

SMG: Is there anything you would tell yourself, maybe back when you moved to Galway – what advice would you give yourself?

NOC: Don’t worry about what people are thinking. Do what you need to do. 500 words a day, or 200. It doesn’t matter. Set modest goals and stick to them. Keep your hand in with reading, exercises. Walk by the sea. Anything that feeds you.  Wake up telling yourself a story.

SMG: Tell us about your ‘cabin.’

NOC: It’s new, an investment, I love it. It has two desks, one for the computer and one for writing. Even doing my taxes in there I’m happy, smiling. I protect my time. The first thing I do every day is the creative part. Mentoring and teaching come later.   I do it in sickness and health. I’m a writer for my sanity; it’s my job as well as my passion and vocation.

SMG: Is this bit (book promotion) anti-writing?

Well, Nuala enjoys this part too. Travel is a bonus but the real bonus of the writing life is in the friends you make. Still, most of the time she just wants to be alone, writing.

SMG believes in the well (of inspiration?) we need to fill so that we can be creative.

NOC: Don’t only fill it up with books.

SMG: Is there anything you go back to for inspiration?

NOC: Visual art. I take the bus to the Hunt Museum  or the National Gallery. I did the Julia Cameron 12 week course (The Artist’s Way).  Certain books are talismanic: Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast; Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice; I’m happy those books are in the world.

She also has a list of books she wants to write. At the moment she’s writing about the wife of a well-known person, but she wasn’t telling us who. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait very long to find out.

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Feminism, Brexit and the Irish Border: Rita Duffy at the Courtauld Institute of Art


(Images are low-res screenshots of overhead projections, taken on an iphone on the night. Go to for proper images)

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Low-res screenshot of “Soften the Border” by Rita Duffy

Edwin Coomasaru, a post-doctoral Fellow at the Courtauld Institute introduced Rita Duffy as ‘an artist getting to the heart of the turmoil around us.’ His introduction asked what feminism/gender have to do with Brexit. For answer, he gave us a lightning tour of recent statements, tweets and newspaper headlines to remind us of the inflammatory rhetoric of eg Boris Johnson, pointing out that both Leavers and Remainers use metaphors of powerlessness and that descriptions of effeminate masculinity come thick and fast as Britain is represented as being pushed around by EU bullies. It’s in danger of becoming an EU colony, according to Breitbart. This is classic military strategy, Dr Coomasaru tells us – before showing us a tweet from Nadine Dorries reminding everyone that David Davis is ex SAS, trained to survive and trained to ‘take people out’; followed by a headline from Clare Foges of the Sunday Times “Our Timid Leaders can learn from Strongmen”: i.e.  Trump, Putin, Dutarte, Erdogan… (yes, those individuals are name-checked in that article).


Then we got Arlene Foster declaring that the Good Friday Agreement is not sacrosanct. He didn’t mention the DUP’s ‘red line’ being ‘blood red’ but I think we’d all got the point. The audience was quite agitated by now, (well, this section of the audience was agitated, you’re lucky the notes are in any way legible) so it was a good time to bring on Rita Duffy.

She reminded us at the outset that the Border is not an Irish Border, it’s a British Border (Take that Boris!) The border in Ireland is the beach.  (Oh, we were in excellent hands, here). Rita Duffy lives on the Border. She talked about the experience of women on both sides of the political/religious divide being similar: ‘a paradox of similarities’ and quoted someone whose name I really wish I had caught: People who grow up in war zones are like clay pots fired at too high a temperature – ‘we have fatal cracks we spend the rest of our lives trying to fill.’

The tradition of murals – she loves the idea of taking art out of the galleries and began to make mural sized images herself. She showed slides and talked us through her work, including her Divis Flats project (Drawing the Blinds) and looming portraits of communities divided by walls, and massively dark portraits representing paramilitaries and soldiers. You couldn’t give these away in Belfast then, she said. They were eventually bought by the Imperial War Museum. Other images included a painting of the parka Mairead Farrell was wearing when she was shot( “a haunted garment”) and an orange jumpsuit: “Guantanamo, amas, amat …” Irony is a key feature of Duffy’s work.

She told a story about a policeman who bought a painting, and said if there was anything he could do …? She asked for an AK 47; then cast it in chocolate. That same policeman carried it through security on its way to be displayed in the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. It was also shown during the West Belfast festival. In London people talked about the smell of chocolate. In Belfast they read the serial number and wondered where she’d got the original.

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Low-res screenshot of “Laundry Day in Derry” by Rita Duffy

“Laundry Day in Derry”, a painting of hundreds of bright clean shirts hung out to dry across the top of William Street, recalls the iconic photo of Edward Daly waving a white handkerchief while trying to help Jackie Duddy on Bloody Sunday (that photo was taken on William Street).

Recent work is playful, using humour to puncture prejudice and historical posturing no matter how entrenched they might be. She began to make artefacts that pun episodes or slogans in our history: Nurse O’Farrell’s Suture and Save (Repair the Nation) riffs on the famously airbrushed photograph of Pearse surrendering to General Lowe in 1916. Those nurse and soldier dolls ask: who gets to tell the story and in what way? Who has to stay silent inside the story? “Somme Sticking Plasters” tell their own story. The Unite Ireland Sewing Kit tea towel – with map – is a bestseller. “Don’t be surprised,” Rita Duffy tells this hall (by now) full of students, “if this is the outcome of Brexit.”

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Low-res screenshot of artist’s photo

The items sold in her 2016 “Souvenir Shop” are familiar by now or should be. Items from that project have travelled around the world and found their own correlatives – in Washington her Civil Rights March pillow was displayed alongside a Martin Luther King ‘I Have a Dream’ pillow.

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Low-res screenshot of artist’s photo of a “Souvenir Shop” installation (Washington)

“Soften the Border” was a colourful textile installation on the bridge between Belcoo (Fermanagh) and Blacklion (Cavan) aimed at softening the Border with cushions. It was adopted and added to by locals furnishing soft items and witty afterthoughts of their own. Shown on TV, it went viral, which led to surreal happenings like Al Jazeera turning up to interview a local farmer on the bridge.

Someone commented on the prevalence of food in her work, which she put down in part to feeding growing men.  But seriously, she talked about the Irish tradition of hospitality, how insistent we are about feeding people.  And about famine, then, the memory of it; and the hunger strikes.  To refuse food is a particular insult.  It says, I do not accept you, I do not accept your food, I will not give you friendship or respect.  Someone else mentioned her use of fabric, material etc.  She referred to the history of linen in the North.

Her most recent project involves groups of women North and South – including a group of Travellers who know all about being prevented from passing – coming together to knit, sew and make dolls. There is a group that meets every Tuesday evening to knit and sew together, during which time tea is drunk, biscuits are eaten and stories, inevitably, are told … the withdrawal of funding from Brussels will mean this kind of human communication and exchange will be stopped. It’s a chilling thought. This whole evening was like a masterclass in how skilfully art can subvert politics through invention, intelligence, wit and above all, openness. It is light years away from the posturing and jingoism that constitute the contribution of supposed leaders and policymakers. I wish even one of them had been in the Courtauld Institute tonight. Which is a question in itself – the arts have power, but do the powerful pay attention?

[P.S.: Has she read Anna Burns’s Milkman?  Not yet, but it’s the first thing she’ll do when she gets home and isn’t it brilliant that she won (the Booker)?]

Posted in Art, Brexit | 7 Comments


One year ago today, Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese journalist who exposed corruption and criticized the Maltese political establishment, was assassinated. She had received several death threats; fires had been set near her home; her dog had been killed. She knew she was in danger. The final line in her last blog says: “There are crooks everywhere you look. The situation is desperate.”

She posted her blog, as any of us might, stood up from her desk and went out. Within half an hour the car she was driving blew up.

Tonight, we went to a vigil held at St James’s Church, Picadilly organised by International PEN, other NGOs and Maltese citizens living in London. The church is opposite Malta House. I’d guess there were two hundred people there, maybe more. Some holding images of Daphne, some with tealights, candles, other forms of light. There were speeches calling for justice for Daphne, for, at the very least, a public inquiry to be held. Three people have been arrested for her killing but there doesn’t seem to be much appetite to find out who ordered it. On the contrary, life has been made extremely difficult for her husband and sons as they try to discover the truth.

We crossed the road and laid flowers and lights at the door of Malta House. It felt urgent to be part of this vigil, as we wait, with little optimism it has to be said, to hear what really happened to Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Embassy. Knowing that human rights lawyers such as Waleed Abu Al-Khair and bloggers like Raif Badawi are still in prison in Saudi. Knowing, it has to be said, that so many writers and human rights workers are in Turkish prisons too. Because of their work. Because they speak truth to power, because they question power. And maybe because power has stopped caring when its excesses are publicly exposed.

These days we need courageous journalists more than ever. Is that why more and more journalists are coming under attack?

At this year’s Nollaig na mBan celebration at the Irish Writers’ Centre I spoke about Daphne as part of the Freedom to Write Campaign (the other speakers, about other women writers who have been killed because of their work)  were June Considine, Liz McManus, and Éilís ní Dhuibhne).  Here’s an extract from that speech, to refresh your memory about who Daphne Caruana Galizia is and what she stood for. What she still stands for.

“I knew nothing about Malta until Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated but the more I read of her work, the more familiar it began to feel. She wrote against the marriage bar for working women & the financial dominance of husbands (it persisted, as legal fact, until the mid-90s); she wrote in favour of divorce (legalised in 2011) and of same sex marriage, legalised last September. Malta is the only EU country that has a total, outright ban on abortion in any circumstances – Maltese women go to Italy or elsewhere for terminations.

Daphne worked as a newspaper columnist and editor until her death. Newspapers have lawyers that try to anticipate and avoid lawsuits, but her blog, Running Commentary, allowed her to be more expressive and direct in challenging corruption and cronyism in Maltese politics, to say what she damn well meant & to hell with consequence. She was provocative and controversial but her courage is breathtaking. She investigated connections between politicians and money, between business and politicians, politicians and known criminals/underworld figures/rogue states. As the first person to break news of Maltese involvement in Panama, Politico named her as one of “28 people who are shaping, shaking and stirring Europe” & called her a “one-woman WikiLeaks”.

She received frequent death threats. Her home was subject to more than one arson attack, the family dog was killed and its body left on the doorstep as a warning. She was the subject of a campaign to ruin her financially through libel suits which froze her bank account – still frozen at her death even though a crowdfunded precautionary fund had been paid to the courts.

Daphne broke news of members of the Maltese establishment’s links to Panama on 22nd February, 2017. You can read her own account of how she did it on her blog

In her last blog post she wrote about some of individuals she named in February: They “hunted around the world for a shady bank that would take them as clients. In the end they solved the problem by setting up a shady bank in Malta, hiding in plain sight. … There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate.”

That blog was posted on 16th October, 2017 at 2:35 pm.

Half an hour later she was dead.”

One year ago today.

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GUEST BLOG: Write the Book You Want to Read? by Nuala O’Connor

It’s a treat for me to host a guest blog by Nuala O’Connor – who has featured in earlier blogposts as Nuala Ní Chonchúir – to mark the publication of her new novel Becoming Belle, a historical novel set (mostly) in Victorian London.

Becoming Belle is based on the story of a real woman, Isabel Bilton, who left her protected garrison life at 19 and became a music hall star before marrying a young aristocrat, Viscount Dunlo. His father is appalled and does what he can to destroy the marriage…


Write the Book You Want to Read?

by Nuala O’Connor

When I hear the phrase ‘Write the book you want to read’, I always stop to think on it for a moment. But how could I do that? I wonder. Isn’t that utterly impossible? The saying may have originated with Toni Morrison who said once in a speech: ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ But this phrase, this thinking, presupposes two things: one, that I know what I want to read and, two, – more crucially for me – that I know exactly what it is I want to write. For me, neither of these things is ever clear or obvious.

Yes, I like to read biographical fiction and historical novels – I’m a fan of Emma Donoghue and Andrew Miller, among many others. And, yes, I like to write those kinds of novels and stories too – my latest novel, Becoming Belle, is about a real life, nineteenth century music hall girl who married into the Irish gentry and ended up as the Countess Clancarty. But I also like to read dystopian fiction and hybrid narratives and long-form essays and, so far, I haven’t written much of any of that.

Until I’m reading it, I don’t really know what I want to read, or what I will enjoy. Some books, on paper, sound dull but turn out to be exquisite; others, with rave reviews and garlands of prizes, have left me decidedly unimpressed and wondering if there’s something askew with my literary tastes and/or critical faculties. But, like everyone, I just enjoy what I enjoy and I truly don’t know what that is until I’m in the immersive act of reading it.

As for writing what I want to read that seems a hopeless task. When I start to write a novel or story, I have a fizzle of excitement about a character but, mostly, I’m clueless. I’m with Stephen King who says, ‘Plot is … the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice.’ Plot, for me, grows not from thought-out plans but from getting to know my characters by writing them, from seeing how they negotiate the trickier aspects of life. This happens because that happened, but I don’t plan the happenings, they occur because the characters are who they are: faulty, humane, nasty, sweet, contradictory, selfish, loving, narcissistic. Whatever.

I am, as a writer, what George R. R. Martin calls ‘a gardener’ – I sow seeds and see what will come up. I prefer this organic approach – there’s mystery in it, excitement and possibility. This is why I’m always uncomfortable when anyone asks me ‘So, what’s your next book about?’ ‘How on earth would I know?’ is what I want to answer, but I’m more likely to mutter some incoherent, semi-stewed plot idea and then go on to write an entirely different novel.

So, can a writer write the book she wants to read? I don’t think so. She can write a book that she hopes other people may want to read and characters that she enjoys and anticipates that others will too. But a writer cannot read her own book the way every other person does. Her relationship with the material is too knotty, she’s too aware of seams and patchworks, too loaded with the memories of the hows and whys, the weight of research, the questions asked and perhaps left unanswered, the long days of getting the story down word by word by word.

Generally, by the time I’ve finished, edited and published a book, I am gone past it, done, saturated and exhausted by the whole enterprise. The last thing I want to do is read that book. I’m already on a journey into another novel by then, I’m at the new friendship giddiness stage with fresh characters and, hopefully, an intriguing situation. For me, that’s the satisfying part of writing. Not the book launch, or the thoughtful reviews, or the literary events, but the first draft stage, the point where I don’t know what I’m doing but am joyfully starting to piece things together and find out what it is that I’m about to write.


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Manderley, again: On re-reading Rebecca, 80 years after publication

(Dublin Review of Books essay, May 2018)

In an essay entitled “Romantic Love”, Daphne du Maurier wrote:

There is no such thing as romantic love. This is a statement of fact and I defy all those who hold a contrary opinion. Romantic love is an illusion.

Yet she has been classified, and dismissed, as a romantic novelist and her best-loved and most enduring work, Rebecca, as a romantic novel. Since its first publication in 1938 it has never gone out of print. As recently as 2013, du Maurier’s son, Christopher, claimed in an interview that it was still selling four thousand copies a month.

One reason for Rebecca’s success is that it tells a good story, in the classic, narrative-driven sense – the sort of story at which it has become quite fashionable to sneer. Another is that the reader is never entirely sure exactly what is going on beneath the thrilling surface. Like all unresolved questions, Rebecca’s powers of suggestion haunt us long after the book has been restored to its shelf.

Du Maurier said it was a novel about jealousy, and so it is. She also said that it was about the imbalance of power between a man and a woman in a marriage and yes, it is that too. Part bildungsroman, part psychological thriller, it is also a crime drama with its conventions turned inside out. Not “how will the criminal be identified, caught and punished?” but “will they get away with it and how?”

Read more:

Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier, Virago (80th Anniversary Edition), 448 pp, €18.20, ISBN: 978-0349010267

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Grandparents for Repeal launch & Why I’m voting Yes on 25th May

This morning saw the launch of #GrandparentsForRepeal in the Board Room of Buswell’s Hotel. The room was absolutely jammed with people who’d come to hear from and support the main speakers. Carol Hunter, who founded G4R, spoke first  – about the need for older people to talk to each other and share the experience and wisdom they have gained through years of living. Liz MacManus, Catherine McGuinness and Gemma Hussey took us back to 1983 and across decades of change to the present.

Gemma Hussey reminded us that no one really knew (or admitted to knowing) where the impulse for the 8th arose. There was an organisation called PLAC (Pro-Life Amendment Campaign), an idea that abortion was about to arrive on our shores like a foreign invasion and some leaflets saying that x or y politician was ‘soft’ on abortion. They never found out who was behind those leaflets – but momentum built towards the 1983 referendum.  Peter Sutherland, Attorney General at the time, warned that the amendment was unsound and unsafe but was shouted down by louder voices.

All of the speakers paid tribute to the work of the late Monica Barnes, whose funeral took place that same morning. They also recognised the work of Frank Crummey and Ailbhe Smyth, both of whom were in the front row and contributed to the proceedings.

All of the speakers were calm and clear about the devastation the 8th Amendment has caused in the lives of women and families. Grandparents for Repeal brings the concept of family and intergenerational impact into the picture. All of the older people in the room remembered the Ireland that allowed the 8th Amendment onto the statute books. Liz MacManus recalled being a young TD addressing the Dail on the issue of abortion and being afraid for the first time as she looked around the chamber and saw all the men in suits, only a scattering of women – and knew that they had been addressed by priests, an immam, a rabbi, doctors and lawyers and not one single woman who had direct lived experience of the issue they were debating and would legislate on.

The parents of two women who had to travel to England for terminations of non-viable pregnancies described their experience.  One woman brought the house down reminding us all of the furtive transactions (‘no eye contact’) that had to be undergone monthly to acquire what was known as bona fide contraception, the five children outside in the car (’Loose!’ she reminded us. ‘No car seats then!’) and how she and her husband used to take turns because they hated doing it.  Another woman spoke about how she, a midwife, and her husband, a GP, could not believe that their daughter could get no medical help when she was told her anencephalic baby would not survive birth. ‘She was expected,’ this woman said with immense dignity and sorrow, ‘to be a life support machine for a baby that would die when her pregnancy ended.’

Ireland has changed. The very notion that there might have been a group called Grandparents for Repeal would have been unthinkable in 1983.  Catherine McGuinness believes the perceived divisions between older and younger voters, or between rural and urban voters, are exaggerated. Carol Hunter started Grandparents for Repeal to initiate and reinforce conversations with and among older people who have enough life experience to understand a need for compassion and to know, as she puts it, that life is not black and white. Gemma Hussey said we have a chance to put something right that has caused endless heartache in Ireland in the intervening 35 years.  I suppose the big question is, have we changed enough?

The Catholic Bishop of Cloyne, Dr William Crean, has advised us not to think about sad and painful cases. By that I suppose he means real people, real families, people who live real lives in the real world. I’m sorry, but I don’t think he would know or understand the first thing about this.

Dr Fergus O’Ferrall, Lay Leader of Conference in the Methodist Church, has reminded us that leaders of other churches opposed the original amendment. He says that church leaders who preach otherwise miss the point. They ignore the reality of abortion in Ireland and the need to face up to providing better services for the women who will seek out abortion no matter how difficult the obstacles. He says that defending the retention of article 40.3.3. is a morally defective stance and that it seems those church leaders have not studied the real legal, medical and moral issues in our current situation.

The campaign is turning dirty, with vile, unattributed posters being put up outside schools and hospitals; with the abuse and manipulation of language; with the sinister use of digital dirty tricks to disseminate misinformation in order to sway undecided voters.  Grandparents for Repeal was founded to encourage open, direct conversations that include the perspective of people who have experience of their own and have witnessed the suffering and difficult choices made by women, couples, families in the last 35 years.

(By the way, for an account of the chilling events in and around reproductive choice in the 1980s, see Emily O’Reilly’s Mastermind of the Right )


I am voting Yes because:

  • I want pregnant women to have the same constitutional rights as every other citizen in this country; to have confidence that their medical teams will see their needs as paramount and act according to their best interests; and to have the right to give and withhold consent to medical procedures – a right that other citizens take for granted.
  • I want everyone to stop assuming that women will opt for abortion in any crisis. Choice means considering all available options and making an informed decision to do what’s right for the individuals concerned. No-one else’s business.
  • I want Ireland to grow up and act like a republic. I want us stop exporting our problems for other countries to deal with.
  • Growing another life inside your own life and body is an incredibly intense experience. To harbour a wanted child is extraordinary, magical, rich. But imagine, after a violation such as rape, an unwanted being growing and moving around inside you for forty weeks. Some women will choose to go ahead with such a pregnancy. Some may even find it healing but that has to be their choice.
  • When conception occurs, there is only a potential for independent life. That potential needs to be fed and protected via the physical resources of a separate individual. If the personal cost to that individual is too high, for whatever reason – well, only she has the right to make that judgement.
  • Abortion is difficult. You may be opposed to it in principle but do you really feel you have the right to dictate to other people: women, couples, families, no matter what their circumstances?  The whole entire difference between people who are pro-choice and people who oppose choice is that pro-choice people might well imagine they would never have an abortion themselves, may hope to god they never find themselves in a situation where they suddenly need one – but they allow other people the democratic right to make their own life-changing decisions to suit their own circumstances, their own families, their own lives.


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