The wave of acclaimed new literary talent emerging from Ireland, of late, is staggering. Accolades appear to be raining down on the smart, fresh takes and thoughts from a batch of new names appearing on the spines of books. We meet up with five first-time authors as they embark on their own journeys in the publishing world.
“We’ve always been a nation of storytellers, and that’s kind of cheesy but I do think it’s true,” says Sinead Gleeson, whose debut collection Constellations: Reflections From Life has just been published.
Ireland: the rain-spattered and ever-green island has brought us such literary luminaries as James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, Edna O’Brien, Kevin Barry and Sally Rooney, of late. It’s a place of independent presses, churning out colourful journals to be stocked in independent bookstores dotting the Dublin quays. It’s a place of literary-themed museums (the Museum of Irish Literature opens this summer), statues and pub crawls. Most importantly, it’s a place of stories, told across pints during evenings at the pub, or at plastic tables on the train to Galway, or in taxis as they weave their way to George’s Street.
“When you see people around you writing really good books, it makes it possible for you to think, okay I can do that, or I can attempt to do that, and it could be a real thing,” says Ian Maleney, debut author of Minor Monuments, a collection of essays concerning family and loss.
The words of Irish storytellers saturate pages of The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, The Tangerine, tales transcribed into essays and fiction and visual art. Once told, these stories live tucked under arms of Dubliners waiting for the bus, and sprawled across nightstands in stone Georgian apartments, and passed around by writers and readers and passersby at the Hodges Figgis bookstore. They have found their home here on an island of storytellers and listeners.
“Other voices can exist healthily in Ireland. The difference, I suppose, is the visibility. It’s quite healthy and diverse,” says Adrian Duncan, who dropped his debut novel Love Notes from a German Building Site in March.
Ireland is no stranger to a bestsellers list. However, releasing a first book, bestseller or not, usually takes more than a stint at an independent journal and the right connections on this revered island. It takes weeks, or years, or decades. It takes overcoming fears about incompetence and doubts about an audience. It takes endless encouragement, and even more criticism. As the publishing industry, and the Irish publishing industry at that, grows and adapts, writers continue to subject their words to permanence. Every debut book adds a new voice to the cannon and a new name to the shelf.
“I think that there’s loads of good writing going on in Ireland in the moment… There are so many interesting and exciting writers, and it’s really exciting to be living among them,” says Kevin Breathnach, debut author of Tunnel Vision, a collection of essays offering a candid self-portrait.
Five of this year’s debut books of Irish writing each tell a different and memorable story. They include one collection of short stories, one novel and three essay collections. Their covers range from yellow to white to peach, and they carry stamps from five different publishing presses: three from Ireland and two from the UK. Their stories travel from Germany, to the Irish midlands, to New York City, and back again. Their characters navigate abortion, family homes, foreign paintings and the body. Their writers have backgrounds in arts journalism, theatre, engineering, music technology and visual arts. They all hail from Ireland, the nation of storytellers.
“We really have been doing incredibly well, haven’t we? Irish writers?” says Nicole Flattery, debut author of Show Them A Good Time.
“I turned my hobby into my job”
Sinéad Gleeson’s story starts at the inception: with the blood and bodies of herself and the hundreds of Irish women who came before her.
“It felt like for a long time Irish women had been silenced. They had been told what they can and can’t be, and their roles were very minimal. They belong to their motherhood, or their sexuality, or their bodies: to being female,” she says.
That’s the history that pushed Gleeson to carve her place into the literary scene in Ireland. She started as an arts journalist, presenting The Book Show on RTÉ Radio One and writing for publications such as Granta and Banshee. “I turned my hobby into my job,” she says, smiling.
However, as more and more of her work was published in Irish journals and anthologies, she set her sights on telling a story closer to her heart. After editing three anthologies, two that focused on elevating the voices of female Irish authors, she signed with an agent and took on her first beast: releasing her debut book.
Constellations: Reflections From Life is a collection of personal essays about navigating a body through illness, motherhood and growing up in a changing culture. It speaks to her own experience with losing and claiming autonomy over her physical self, and it pulls on a dense history of Irish women who have had to battle for their agency.
“I think my book comes out of a place where women have started to find their voices, and the anthologies are connected to that as well,” she says. “[It is] coming at the tail end of a long period where Irish women were told to be quiet. I think this book is about breaking down those silences and speaking up.”
With this debut, she joins a growing group of Irish writers who are speaking up about their individual stories through the form of an essay collection. While Ireland may have been slow to catch up on this trend, they are now running full speed at this genre that combines memoir and cultural criticism in order to capture something authentic, powerful and universal.
“I do see it as a very intrinsically Irish book, but I hope that it looks outwards and makes connections with people no matter their nationality,” she says. “I think Irish writing has changed, it’s not as small-town, and as green-tinged, as it used to be.”
This may be because of the number of publishing outlets that Irish writers have access to. These journals, from The Stinging Fly to Gorse, have opened the door for a number of diverse Irish voices.
“The journals here cannot be understated,” Gleeson says. “They’re accessible. It feels doable to get something potentially published by them, even if not the first time or the second time. There are so many places to send your work today, so many places where it can appear online. You can immediately find audiences, you can find readers who go up to you and say, I read your piece and I liked it.”
This is what allowed Gleeson to finally publish the story she had been wanting to tell for decades: “I talked about it for a long time,” she says. “We all have a fear that we won’t be good enough, that no one will want to read it… We make excuses all the time not to do it. But you’ll never know, if you’re a writer and you never try. It got to the point where I was like, do it now or stop going on about it.”
What’s up next? “I really want to finish this novel. It’s an idea I’ve had for a really, really long time, and every time I think about it, I think, somebody else is going to write that if I don’t bloody get on with it.”
Who’s inspiring her right now? “[During Constellations] I got into reading poetry again, which I think had a huge impact on the book… So I was reading Sophie Collins, Liz Barry (who I quote in the epigraph) and Anne Carson.”
What’s inspiring her right now? “It’s wonderful to sit down [at the University College Dublin], where I teach the Creative Writer MA and MFA courses. The students are really inspiring… I’m learning something from all of them, and the only way writers learn and get better is by reading other writers.”
Constellations: Reflections from Life is published by Picador. Our review is here.
Sinéad Gleeson and Tracey Thorn are in coversation with Jim Carroll in Smock Alley on Sunday May 26 at 4pm. Tickets €10/€12
“I like it when other writers leave a little bit of a trail”
Ian Maleney is a storyteller of circumstance. In the case of his debut work, his circumstance called for a collection of essays.
“I just am a writer, it’s not a case of having any kind of plan or strategy,” he says. “I’m interested in making whatever feels right at the time. Whether that’s a book or whatever else, that’s fine with me.”
For Maleney, writing itself came out of circumstance. After graduating college with a degree in English and Music Technology, he settled into music journalism, writing freelance for The Irish Times. This limited niche, however, led him searching down avenues and alleyways for pieces of inspiration. With fragments of ideas about films, paintings, books and visual art, he began puzzling together longer forms of writing: essays that gave him a new perspective on an old genre.
“After figuring out ways of doing that, and publishing some of them, I realised it was what I wanted to be doing,” he says. “Something that could accommodate all of these different reference points and forms that I liked.”
Thus came Minor Monuments, a hybrid collection that moves swiftly between contemplations of familial loss, and in-depth examinations of sound, or lack thereof. Like Gleeson’s debut, it takes advantage of a growing genre in Ireland, one that twists a traditional memoir into a criticism of life, death and culture.
“I like it when other writers leave a little bit of a trail,” he says. “To show your work a little bit, to say, I’m not the first person to think these thoughts.” This is the foundation of an essay, which quotes theorists and artists, and then adds something new.
Maleney is following a trail of distinguished Irish authors, adding his own footsteps to the path. He, too, found a community through Ireland’s welcoming and established independent journals, alongside the voices of fellow up-and-comers as well as literary celebrities.
“People are very supportive of each other,” he says. “You have people like Anne Enright and Kevin Barry, majorly successful writers who are extremely connected to people who are just starting out, and they support the magazines and the journals that publish this work. That’s where it all starts.”
This is the beauty of Ireland’s unique and tight-knit literary scene. With independent publishers as the norm, as well as an expansive community of writers and readers and supporters, Irish voices are given a place in which to thrive.
“It’s very encouraging to see people you know, or people your age or younger in some cases, having real success both in terms of publishing success, but also in the maturity of the books they’re writing and the risks that they’re taking in writing those books,” says Maleney. “It’s quite different than any time in the recent past, and that is very encouraging in terms of yeah, you can do whatever you like, and if it’s good there will be a home for it.”
What’s up next? “I’m sure I’ll continue to write nonfiction, but it probably won’t be as personal as this book is,” he says. “[I’d like] to try and find other ways of conveying the same sense of meaning or intimacy without relying on the personal narration to do that.”
Who’s inspiring him right now? “John Berger is the guiding figure for the whole book in a lot of ways,” he says. “I think [his writing, particularly his early, nonfiction writing] was really instructive in terms of what a book could look like and how it could mix the reporting of what’s happening along with the theoretical or political concepts.”
What’s inspiring you right now? “There is an essay in that book about links in the brain and computation, and I think that’s an area I will come back to. The links between the brain and computers is certainly going to be a big issue for people to come.”
“The smaller publications were very important in those early years, and the critical feedback definitely would be very, very important for me”
Adrian Duncan has always been a storyteller, but his stories haven’t always taken the form of writing. After spending over 10 years in the engineering industry, he took a class in fine arts and found his way to writing from there.
“From my point in view, I think of buildings like publications,” he says. “There’s a printing process, there’s a design, there’s a whole editing process. I do think of buildings as a book, to a certain extent, a printed entity.”
In this way, Duncan is still a builder. In fact, it was his career as an engineer that inspired his debut novel, Love Notes from a German Building Site. The story came from fragments of his life: moving from Dublin to Berlin; working with a variety of people in vastly different industries; reading writing such as The Wrench by Primo Levi.
“That book was really important because it [showed me that] you could write about technical things accurately and compellingly,” Duncan says. “I realised that this is possible, to actually write about engineering and for it not to be a total snore fest, that it could have some weird current of interest.”
This is how Duncan’s writing career began: by learning what worked, with trial and error, and figuring out how to combine his distinctive current of interest with his newfound passion for writing. This became his writing education, and it relied on his communication with Ireland’s collection of independent journals.
“I learned my trade, as it were, by getting rejections from The Dublin Review,” he says. “What things didn’t work, or did work – I learned by doing it. I didn’t study literature… The smaller publications were very important in those early years, and the critical feedback definitely would be very, very important for me.”
After five or six years of learning his trade, Duncan set out on constructing his novel. Although he was living in Berlin when he began, he still leaned on the writing community in Ireland for support, ultimately working with Dublin’s Lilliput Press to put five years of writing and editing into official binding.
“When they took the first book, it was like someone lifted this concrete helmet off my head,” he says. “And then just sat down and I battered out the second book, and it was easy.”
His one piece of advice? Seek out those critical, creative conversations with editors and writers who will give you the truth, while also encouraging you to keep moving.
“I always think about [writing my first stories] now as somebody learning how to ride a bicycle,” says Duncan. “Once I was going forward, I was cycling, I was riding, but once I needed to think about having to do something, changing a story, having to turn the bicycle, I would just fall over. And that’s craft. I was able to blurt it out, but I didn’t know how to arrange it. Over the last 10 years, I feel like I’ve learned something of that.”
What’s up next? “I love writing way too much to stop,” he says. “It’s such an interesting way to think about the world… I like being outside of the world, or being in another, or trying to make one that’s interesting. I can’t imagine a day going by where I wouldn’t just be writing something.”
Who’s inspiring him right now? “There’s a writer I’ve come across recently, and I think he’s my favorite writer living or dead: Gerald Murmane,” he says. “He’s astonishing, and so strange, [his writing is] not like anything.”
What’s inspiring him right now? “The visual arts, as well, types of composition, definitely do contribute to the form of the things I have written,” he says. “When you’re working on a drawing or a sculpture, the thoughts are totally different from when you’re writing… But something from spending time doing that reappears when you’re writing later down the line.”
“I think there is a bigger appetite for women’s stories now, and many different voices”
Since graduating from Trinity College, Nicole Flattery had a story to tell: in fact, she had eight stories to tell. Like her fellow debuts, these stories first emerged in Ireland’s literary journals, testing the pages before settling into a collection of their own.
“When I got a story published in The Stinging Fly I felt like I had a community. I felt like I had readers. That was incredibly supportive. I was 25 – it would’ve been hard to keep going if I didn’t have that bit of encouragement,” she says.
Four years after her first story, ‘Hump,’ was published in The Stinging Fly, the renowned magazine decided to take on her collection, as well. Show Them a Good Time contains a series of dark, dazzling and unforgettable short stories, each wandering through a world of surrealism and female isolation.
“I’m fascinated by the resurgence of short stories. Some people say it’s because we have shorter attention spans, but I don’t think that’s it. You have to work harder than a novel. A collection I have to sit down and go through,” says Flattery. “Also as someone in their 20s, they felt achievable to me.”
With this collection, she joins a growing group of female short storytellers, from Belfast-native Wendy Erskine and her debut collection, Sweet Home, to American writer Mary Gaitskill and her collection-turned-classic, Bad Behavior.
“I think there is a bigger appetite for women’s stories now, and many different voices,” she says. “We’re very lucky to have such different voices, as opposed to just one woman short story writer. It’s a very exciting time. It’s allowing for writing that I don’t think even existed when I was in college. Other young women see this writing and think, oh I can do that. I can try.”
Like Gleeson, Flattery is making her debut at a time in Irish culture when women have claimed their voices. While her collection does not purely revolve around Ireland and Irish stories, her roots in this island have wrapped themselves around her storytelling. Her stories still speak to universal truths – yet she does not brush off her unique Irish identity.
“I do see myself as a Young Irish Female Writer,” says Flattery. “Especially in the last few years, with the women in this country. I’m not actually writing in response to that, but even if you try to insulate yourself against the world, these things still creep in. It seems disingenuous not to write about things like abortion, things that have been affecting me and other Irish women for a long time… In the past few years, things have been more open. There’s more freedom. There’s more women writing personal essays, and being completely honest about their experiences, and I really admire that.”
While this speaks to a championing modern movement – girls supporting girls – it also feels like an attitude of support that is intrinsically Irish. Writers in Ireland, new and old, are experimenting with words and stories and books in ways that they haven’t been able to before. More importantly, however, they are cheering one another on as they do so.
What’s up next? “It’s dangerous to think about the things you would like. I just want to keep enjoying it. I want to do something different with the novel [I’m working on]. But there’s no set thing that I want. You have no idea how your writing will change.”
Who’s inspiring her right now? “I read playwrights before I read stories. Enda Walsh is a really great Irish playwright. Marina Carr is another one, and Sarah Kane.”
What’s inspiring her right now? “I live near the sea. I read quite a bit. I watch quite a few films. Good advice is to just be interested in things other than yourself. If you’re constantly trying to pull things from yourself, you’re going to get very tired very very quickly.”
“It’s really exciting to be part of the community that’s based around the Tangerine magazine and the poetry press here in Belfast”
Kevin Breathnach wanted to do more than tell a story: he wanted to tear it down, reconstruct it and make something new out of it.
“I spent about six or eight months living with an artist called Eimear Walshe who was very influential on the way my practice sort of moved, in terms of the breakdown of the text,” he says. “Just thinking about the text in spatial terms, rather than linear… Then I had done a masters in textual and visual studies in Trinity, where I had written quite a lot about the film essay… I found that by trying to replicate the techniques of the film essay in my own form, that led to a less conventional shape or order or form for those essays.”
Because of this, his debut Tunnel Vision feels more like a hybrid of forms than most of the essay collections reaching the Irish market. However, it is still based on experience, and coming to terms with that experience within a specific time or cultural moment.
“I started writing personally when I witnessed a motorbike crash at the site of my grand uncle’s death in the Munich air disaster,” says Breathnach. “As that crash happened, I was horrified by it, in and of itself, but also horrified because I immediately recognised it as material that I wanted to write. So, I guess it was about trying to understand the initial mixed emotions that I felt about that crash, and the coincidence of that crash and the significance of it.”
After editing the literary pages for Totally Dublin and publishing pieces in The Dublin Review, Gorse and the Tangerine, Breathnach moved to Korea with the intention of saving up enough money to return to Ireland, take time off, and begin his full-form creative project. The result was a concoction of art, poetry, criticism, exposure and theory. It’s form nods to a fresh wave of experimentalism that is being embraced in the Irish literary scene.
“I’ve read it back a number of times now and have yet to come across a typo, so I’m very pleased with that,” he says. “I worked very closely with the layout designer, Paul Baillie-Lane, and I’m thankful for the work he did on it, making all my typographical dreams come true.”
Breathnach has since moved to Belfast, where he continues to work with Ireland’s independent literary community and experiment with his writing. Like his fellow debut authors, Breathnach points to the supportive group of editors and magazines for his growth as a writer.
“In Belfast there’s so many interesting and exciting writers, and it’s really exciting to be part of the community that’s based around the Tangerine magazine and the poetry press here,” he says. “Also writing for The Dublin Review has been really good for me in how I developed as a writer. Working alongside Brendan Barrington – he’s been a tremendously influential figure in the current landscape of Irish writing.”
What’s up next? “I think my work is moving. I don’t think I’ll stick with this [genre],” he says. “I feel like I have other questions that I am more interested in now that relate to the sentence. I think for the next while I will be working in shorter forms. I have been interested in the prose poem, especially since moving up to Belfast.”
Who’s inspiring him right now? “By large I just watch films. The film that I talk about most in the book is Sans Soleil by Chris Marker. I watch that all the time, and I think that it will continue to be influential on my work for the next couple of works. It’s full of ideas.”
What’s inspiring him right now? “When they asked me what building for the location for the photoshoot, the first thing that I thought of was City Hall,” he says. He goes on to quote a passage from Dublin by Christine Casey: ‘It was the first large scale neoclassical building in Ireland. An astonishingly ambitious design, it was the harbinger of Dublin superlative civic architecture of the late 18th century. An architectural competition was announced in 1768, and it was won by Thomas Cooley, a 28-year-old protege of an anglo Scottish architect, Robert Mill… In Cooley’s case, no other building of comparable quality can be cited, and suspicion of a ghost author persists.’ “So I guess I was interested in that idea of a ghost author.”
Tunnel Vision is published by Faber. Our review is here
Kevin Breathnach and Ian Maleney will be in conversation with Joanna Walsh discussing the essay format in Smock Alley on Sunday May 19 at 4.15pm. Tickets €8/€10
Nicole Flattery will join Pat McCabe and Danny Denton for Standing on the Shoulders of Giants to discuss creative inspiration in Smock Alley on Monday May 20 at 6pm. Tickets €8/€10. Nicole is also part of Mirrors, a hybrid of literature, projection, holographic imagery and live performance curated by Dani Gill. She will appear along with poet Jessica Trainer. In Smock Alley Theatre, Thursday May 23 at 6pm. Tickets €12.50/15.
Sinéad Gleeson and Tracey Thorn are in coversation with Jim Carroll in Smock Alley on Sunday May 26 at 4pm. Tickets €10/€12
All events are part of the International Literature Festival Dublin which runs from Thursday May 17 to Sunday May 26
Words: Hannah McKennett
Portraits: Sean Breithaupt