INTERVIEW: Deirdre Sullivan on NaNoWriMo, Fairytales, Irish Writers, and More

Deirdre Sullivan is an Irish writer who is well-known for her latest collection of stories, Tangleweed and Brine, along with her series Prim, and standalone novel, Needlework. Her work often tackles difficult topics in innovative and intriguing ways. Her books have been shortlisted for multiple awards, including the European Prize for Literature and the Irish Book Awards. Needlework was also the winner of the Children’s Book Ireland Honour Award, while Tangleweed and Brine has been shortlisted for the 2017 Irish Book Awards. I had the pleasure of speaking to Deirdre about her writing, fairytales, NaNoWriMo, and Irish authors.

While reading Tangleweed and Brine I was really reminded of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Short Stories. Did you find any inspiration from Angela Carter?
Yes. She is the dark mistress of the fairytale. I encountered her work for the first time when I was in college, in the anthology Don’t Bet On The Prince (ed. Jack Zipes), and tracked down all her books. The Bloody Chamber was so instructive in what you can do with old stories. They are nearly more reclaimings than retellings, she makes them thoroughly her own. There are books that make you more fearless as a writer and that was a big one for me, I’m flattered you were reminded of it when you read Tangleweed and Brine.

Was it difficult to adapt quite dark subject matters for a young adult audience? How did you approach it?
It came very naturally. I write for myself increasingly as I become more sure of my voice, and I wrote this book for me. I don’t censor myself because I work for a young adult audience. I tell the stories I want to tell. Teenagers are intelligent and emphatic readers, they can tell when they’re being patronised, and I don’t want to do that.

What drew you to writing retellings of fairytales?
My heart. I have loved old stories since I was a little girl, and throughout my teenage and adult years I have been so drawn to retellings, in the books I read and the fiction I write. Motifs from fairytales have appeared in all my books (apart from the Nightmare Clubs). This was an opportunity to focus on that part of myself. Initially, I was going to collect retellings I had already written into the collection, but I found the process of writing it so rewarding that I ended up with twelve new stories as well as The Woodcutter’s Bride, which was written before I got my first book deal.

What would you say is your favourite story in Tangleweed and Brine, and why?
This is a very difficult question, because they all satisfied me in different ways. I put a lot of care into all of them. I’m fond of the Woodcutter’s Bride because it led me towards where I am as a writer, I wrote it in a creative writing course with the woman who was to become my publisher, Siobhán Parkinson.

Needlework is a very intrinsic novel. It’s very much about Ces and less about the world outside her head. Was it difficult to write such an intrinsic novel?

It was and wasn’t. It was difficult, but fast. It felt a little like vomiting, she came to me very strongly and once I had the tattooing strand of the book, it fell into place. I got very into her head and I still feel quite close to her. I’m painfully aware of how society continues to fail people in her situation, survivors of CSA and domestic violence. We need to do much better. When I finished Needlework, I left it for almost year before I came back to it. I felt because it had been so quick and so full of emotion to write that it wouldn’t be any good. I’m glad I didn’t leave it in a drawer!

Needlework started off as a NaNoWriMo novel in 2010. Did you find the experience of writing a novel during NaNoWriMo different to writing a novel outside of NaNoWriMo?
It did! The year the first Prim book came out. So it was the third book I wrote, and it had to wait a long time before I was ready to share it. The experience of writing Needlework, and the two unpublished Nanos I’ve completed since then, was great. I found it challenging, but very creatively satisfying. I’m motivated by word counts, the editing process is more frustrating because there isn’t the same feeling of achievement.

Is there any advice you would impart to first time NaNoWriMo participants?
Be fearless. Nano is no time for second guessing. Get it down. It’s so much easier to mend something that’s broken than to build something from scratch. Also, reward yourself. I use jellybeans a lot. I am a simple creature.

There are a lot of great Irish authors writing at the moment. Who are some Irish writers you would recommend?
It’s such a vibrant and exciting time for Irish YA. It’s very hard to narrow it down. Sarah Maria Griffin and Moïra Fowley Doyle are poetic, beautiful writers who weave magical alternative Irelands. I drink their novels like water. I particularly enjoyed Meg Grehan’s debut novel, The Space Between. It’s wonderful to see more verse novels coming out of Ireland, and Sarah Crossan’s new novel Moonrise is very different from One but just as compelling. There’s something cinematic about it, it’s a very visual work with a strong sense of place. We have a lot of explicitly feminist books also, Star by Star by Sheena Wilkinson is a quiet, beautiful book with a very strong female protagonist whose self-possession I found so refreshing. I also loved Like Other Girls by Claire Hennessy, which deals with gender issues, reproductive rights and has a complex and troubled protagonist I really felt for.

In terms of fantasy, we have writers like Dave Rudden, Peadar Ó’ Guilín and Ruth Long writing books that use mythology and the Irish psyche and landscape to build something very unique and gripping. I’m reading one of Dave’s books at the moment and I’m absolutely bet into it.

This year, I also loved Maeve Kelly’s collection of short stories Orange Horses, which was reissued this year. The stories she crafts are incredibly special , she has a depth and weight to her language and characterisation that really spoke to me. In terms of writers dealing with adolescence whose books aren’t YA, you have people like Sally Rooney, Karl Geary and Belinda McKeon. And there are also up and coming writers to be found in literary journals and spoken word events. As a reader, I’m very grateful for the the range and wealth of story I’ve encountered around me.

Can you tell us something about your next project?
I can! I have a few things I’m dabbling away at, and I don’t want to discuss anything before I feel confident it’s found a home in case I tempt fate, but I’ve been developing a piece for Mairéad Folan’s Galway-based theatre company “No Ropes”. My masters was in drama, and it’s been lovely to think about crafting something for performance. It’s another fairy-tale based project. I think I’ll be returning to the well of childhood stories for a while yet.

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