Author of The Herbalist, Inside the Wolf, and Her Kind...
Wednesday, June 3, 2015
Interview with Caitriona Lally
'A fairytale of contemporary Dublin, both edgy and eloquent.
A remarkable debut.' —Declan Kiberd.
Caitriona Lally's excellent debut novel Eggshellsis published by Liberties Press. The book is about Vivian, a woman who doesn't fit in, and never has. 'She believes that she is a changeling, left by fairies on Earth, replacing her parents’ healthy human child. Now, as an adult, she’s trying to get back to the 'other world', where she feels she can finally belong. The thing is, Vivian is having some difficulties going back, so she’s forced to go about her Earth life in the meantime.'
Here, I ask Catriona about setting, voice and writing advice.....
Vivian travels through Dublin, listing place names and tracing the shape of her route till it almost feels like city is woven into the pages of this novel. Was where you wrote, as well as where you lived, an important element in writing Eggshells?
The places I did the actual writing weren't as important as where I went to research the book. I walked my legs off around the city, writing down details of graffiti and unusual street signs and encounters with eccentric people in a notebook, but I saw the note-taking and the novel-writing as separate activities. When I finally came to write Eggshells, I had several scrawled notebooks and hundreds of paper-scraps, so the main work was putting some sort of shape on the notes. I'm not so organised as to have actually created a structure before I started the novel, so there was a lot of sifting through notes and scratching out.
Having said that, I wrote a lot of Eggshells in the National Library on Kildare Street, and I spent so much time staring around me when I was supposed to be writing that I ended up setting part of a chapter in there.
Do you think it will be a factor in future work?
Where the character is located is hugely important to me – voice and setting would be the two main things I need in my head before I start. Once I can hear the character and see where he or she is situated, it all falls into place from that. That makes the rest of it sound easy, and it's not – it's just that I'm more character-driven than plot-driven, so maybe the setting is more important if I don't have a very structured plot to fall back on.
The novel I'm currently working on is set in Hamburg, but this happened totally by chance. After I finished Eggshells, I had the the characters of the second novel in my head, but no location. I felt I was all Dublined out, but I didn't know where to set the next book. Then I went to stay with a friend in Hamburg, and I was drawn to an old part of the city, so I decided to set the current book there. Again, I'm working from notebooks of stuff I saw and heard in Hamburg, but I'm doing the actual writing in Dublin.
Vivian Lawlor places huge importance on names. How did you come by hers?
You're right – names are massively important to Vivian, but I wrote the entire novel without a name for Vivian or even a title. When I started Eggshells, I had another untitled document open on my laptop, so this one was called “Untitled 2” and that's how it remained until just before submission. I didn't have a name for Vivian in the first couple of drafts; I was using the first person, and also Vivian isn't hugely sociable, so her name doesn't come up in conversation a lot. I gave her the same name as her older sister, and maybe that partly explains Vivian's obsession with names; she isn't unique within her family.
The main characters in the book I'm working on now still aren't named – they're “G” and “R” and I may not even stick with those initials.
The voice of Vivian is original and convincing. How did that voice come to you? Was getting under her skin something you enjoyed, and how was it to leave her behind?
Ah thanks! I have no idea where that voice came from. I mean, there are parts of me in her, but she has a completely unfiltered approach to life which was very refreshing to write. Most of us reign in our thoughts, but Vivian says everything that comes into her head and acts on it. I really enjoyed writing her, and seeing the world through her eyes – but there was a sadness to it as well. Vivian is quite lonely and is desperately trying to connect with the world, and when she fails, I felt for her.
I also got used to looking at Dublin through her eyes, and even now, it's hard to stop myself noticing street signs or graffiti that Vivian would enjoy. I was happy to leave her behind, though, I felt I was done. Maybe because I was writing in the first person, it got fairly intense reinterpreting my own version of the city as Vivian's.
We know a lot about Vivian’s immediate inner life, and we can guess some of the things she doesn’t tell us by her encounters (which can be very funny), yet there is little information about her personal history. This worked really well; I enjoyed how much you decided to leave out. The balance between what we know and what we don’t, are perfectly judged. Did you decide from the beginning to leave these gaps, or did they evolve naturally from following her voice? How do you feel about writing advice that emphasises plot, hooks and so on? It wasn't a conscious decision from the beginning to leave out the details of her personal history. I started with the voice, and the story grew from there. I had no idea what was going to happen next or what kind of an ending Vivian faced. As the story developed, I realised there was some unhappiness in her background, but I wanted her to refuse to acknowledge or deal with it, and just sort of muddle through in her own way. I found that more interesting to write than painstakingly going through every childhood trauma. I think it becomes clear from the few details she offers throughout the book what has happened in the past, but I didn't want it to become a therapy novel with lots of gut-spilling and weeping and heart to hearts - that's not Vivian's way.
I think writing tips that emphasise plot and hooks can be really useful for people who write more plot-driven books. I suppose you write what you like to read, and I'm drawn to character-driven books so I don't prioritise hooks and cliffhangers. When it comes to TV and movies, however, I'm a total plot junkie and a sucker for cliffhangers, and I have to stop myself binge-watching whole series back-to-back.
It was fascinating to meet with some of the other Novel Fair winners after reading their work, and to find out about their writing processes. Some were motivated first and foremost by plot and had mapped out the exact plot of their novel before they began. That's completely different to the way I write – I haven't a clue where my character is headed - but I don't think either approach is better.
Any advice for writers working on their first novel? Keep at it. I had very little confidence that I could write a novel, let alone one that was publishable, so it's important to persevere in spite of what the negative voice in your head is saying.
And don't wait for the right mood or the right weather or the right pencil; just write.
And know that some days your writing will be complete muck and you'll have to delete almost every word – that's when it feels like two steps forward, three steps back – but in general, as long as you keep pushing forward, you're doing grand.
The other thing I'd say is to read hugely. Don't just read books by white men writing in English; read beautifully written books by writers from different genders, ages, races, languages. There is a world of fiction in translation that is pure magic.
About the author:
Caitriona Lally studied English Literature in Trinity College Dublin.
She has had a colourful employment history, working as an abstract
writer and a copywriter alongside working as a home help in New York
and an English teacher in Japan. She has travelled extensively around
Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and South America. Her essay about
Grangegorman appeared in a recent issue of We Are Dublin. Eggshells
was selected as one of 12 finalists in the Irish Writers Centre Novel