Elaine Feeney: As You Were

In As You Were, Irish debut novelist Elaine Feeney introduces us to three unforgettable women, offers us an unflinching view of modern Ireland, and delivers it all with flair and compassion. As You Were was published in August, 2020.

Hello Elaine! Many congratulations on the very recent publication of your brilliant debut As You Were! How did you celebrate on publication day?

I got up super early as I had some interviews. Then I had a very lovely Zoom call and toast with my editor, Kate Harvey, my agent, Peter Straus, and all the wonderful people who worked on the book. That was fun. My mum and sister Andrea called in, and then, as I have to limit my contacts with people as I am high risk in these times of Covid, I had a Zoom party late into the night with some friends – at which I drank all the prosecco! It was a great day, and a little surreal. I’m not mad into my own party, or being the centre of attention – I eloped in San Francisco rather than face a big wedding party. But I love a party if it’s yours!

You are very well known as a poet and have performed your work widely. How has COVID-19 affected the fortunes of your novel and how have you dealt with the restrictions to its promotion?

Covid didn’t affect the book’s content and that’s the bottom line for me. As for its fortunes I
not really sure about this. Being a debut novelist, a poet and a teacher, I am blissfully unaware of fortune of any sort. Covid impacted meeting readers and signing, and that’s a lovely part of the industry, as readers are everything to a writer. I know on the business end though, it’s a very hard time to be trying to push art into this mad world we are living in. Everything being delayed, huge upheaval to people’s lives, and then this big wave of books that was coming this autumn sounded terrifying. But I also think a wave of books at any time is a good thing. And perhaps I’m naïve, but I think books will find their readers in time. On a practical level, I feel for the booksellers and shops, all the frontline staff – it has been a tremendously trying time for them.

What inspired you to write As You Were, and what prompted the move from poetry to fiction?

I was a sick child, and it really stayed with me, as it was something that bugged me. I didn’t want to be frail – I wanted to be hardy. I loved sports and the outdoors, and sadly I had a very bad chest from a young age, some very serious illnesses in my twenties and thirties, and one in 2014 that laid me up for quite some time. I had ignored a sickness for a while, thought it was work stress, and eventually ended up being resuscitated in a hospital here. That was a jolt from my active life to lying in bed for enormously long stretches of time, completely alone. Firstly, I wrote a poetry collection, Rise, after it – considerations on the decaying body of me as a woman, juxtaposed with the 1916 Rising celebrations here – a sort of antagonistic book, rejecting the lyric form. But as I pushed the work, I realised I wanted to try to write characters, get out of my own head a little.

I wrote As You Were in a time before we repealed the 8th Amendment in Ireland, gaining abortion rights for Irish women. I was vocal on the pro-choice movement for years, and suddenly it all seemed to be gaining momentum. Sadly, the catalyst for this appears to have been the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar in a Galway hospital, the city where my novel is set. Also, the Tuam Mother and Baby Home story broke, and I teach in that town. All of this combined, and it really unsettled me. Voices kept knocking through, those of my grandmothers and mother whose lot was far tougher than mine, and I wanted to write them, to represent them in literature. My grandmother gave birth to 11 children, and was born in the town of Tuam, where simultaneously women were incarcerated for falling pregnant.

So something about my illness coincided with the voices of women from Ireland’s past and started to really haunt me, and once I started, I couldn’t actually stop writing. The work came in intrusive fragments, and in auditory hallucinations. As for poetry, the poetic form didn’t tell the tale, or adequately reflect the chaos I felt as an Irish woman during this time. It was too insular, too inwardly focused; I felt it wasn’t a time either, in our history, for individualism. There was a wonderful community feeling around Repeal, a sharing of stories and trying to open up space to break ground. It was truly inspiring. So I wanted to write about community – how meritocracies and theocracies are not the foundation of any healthy state, that for a state to function, community and grassroots must be the foundation blocks – and the spirit of resilience of Irish women, whose history is so bleak, and so trying and violent, was calling to be represented in story form. It was a very frenetic energy in me that wrote As You Were.
Despite the very bleak premise of As You Were, there is so much to entertain us here. You deliver dark, caustic comedy with an incisive turn of phrase – how easy did you find it to balance the humour with the traumatic issues you bring to the reader?

I think all funny people come with a large shadow. As a child I used humour as a defence mechanism. I think many people do this, often at times of pressure. Growing up, I had a wonderful rapport with my siblings – we learned to laugh when we should, very possibly, have cried. Something of the resilience of the human condition in the dark times can be absolutely liberating and there’s humour in this. When I meet up with my siblings as an adult, we can laugh about experiences we had growing up that other people would (quite rightly) find very unfunny, and we can laugh a lot. My sister is one of the funniest people I know. It’s probably often from a place of hurt, but it is so cathartic. In As You Were, so many of the characters are hurt, and also funny. I have experience of loved ones with dementia and there is humour in scenarios that erupt. If we didn’t laugh we’d go mad. I think seriousness in literature is an awful affliction – most people are good-spirited, they keep on keeping on for the most part. I think we have become awfully serious, quick to outrage. People are funny. It should be represented in art.

You have written As You Were in short, dynamic paragraphs, and you use lists, monologues and one-sided phone calls to move the action along and give us great insight into Sinéad’s mercurial state of mind and predicament. How did you retain the clarity of your vision throughout, and how long did the whole process take?

I have never maintained clarity of vision on anything, so that’s awfully kind of you to even suggest it. My mind works in mad intrusive bursts, constantly moving, swaying, and engaging in something. I find it extremely difficult to block things out, to shut things off – even practising yoga, I’ll be making lists; and while watching the TV, I’ll be online or reading a book. So for me, it was imperative that the mind/action chaos was reflected in the narrative, and that this modern life we have woken up in, a sort of hellish always-on-never-alone type world, was represented. The lists are an affliction of being a modern-day human. I am familiar with constant interjections from Google searches, Spotify, YouTube, other voices, phone calls, cathedral bells, birdsong, text messages, WhatsApp messages and yes, it is all to give us an insight into the mind of Sinéad, as this reflects my own experience of the world I inhabit. I also understand the need for distance, even from a first-person narrator, but I was influenced by modernism, and it was what I wanted the form of this novel to look like.

Regarding time, since I was so ill, I can’t think in terms of time at all. I get very unnerved if people start planning times and dates with me. I know, as a human being, I have to know when I’m meant to turn up and do things, but I abhor planning. Time terrifies me. So I know the novel took years, but I can’t tell you with any honesty when I started, or when I finished, what was the last day of writing. I do know it took a very long time. Years. Not thinking in time is self-protection; I definitely share that impulse with Sinéad.
The main characters in As You Were – Sinéad, Margaret Rose and Jane – are vibrant, individual, memorable women with tragic secrets and stories to tell, and their humanity shines through the desperate circumstances in which they find themselves. Did you set out to place the women front and centre? Did they evolve as you wrote them or were they all planned before you began?

That’s a great question. I set out to have Sinéad front and centre; all the characters were there from the beginning, but my editor, Kate, told me that I didn’t have to be as democratic to all characters, as there is quite an amount of them. They arrived very formed – I had worked out backstories and so on, and all the dialogue in the novel I said aloud over and over, and things changed. The characters, particularly Jane, and to some extent Margaret Rose, rarely did what I asked them to do and I wish that some of their decisions had been different. I wish, particularly, that Margaret Rose had made different decisions towards the end of the novel regarding her husband, Paddy. I also wish that Sinéad had told her husband Alex on the very first page of the novel about her illness and her father’s abuse, and that she didn’t go off having casual sex to keep herself from the spiralling of pain she was prone to. But I couldn’t control them, and I am glad of this. Are they flawed? Sure they are – they are meant to be. Humans are all flawed. I wanted the novel to reflect what it means to be human. And as for Jane, well, luckily she’s not on Twitter.
What are the best – and worst – pieces of advice you were given as you embarked on writing your first novel?

I didn’t tell a soul I was writing a novel… so this one went on submission without much advice!

I am lucky to have as an agent Peter Straus, who is a brilliant reader, and I am so grateful that someone else is invested in the work. So I will take advice from him, and from my editor at Harvill Secker, Kate Harvey, who was meticulous. Now I have two people to advise me going forward, and I trust them both! But I am slow to talk too much about projects. I just need to get on with them. I am also slow to seek too much advice, as I know I go with my gut on most things, so I will do what I want anyway! I am of the school of thought, Never Ask Permission.

I have a cynical antenna for bad advice, and I shut it out fairly quickly.

How did your writing process differ between novel writing and poetry, and which aspects did you find most satisfying? And as both published poet and now novelist, what are you planning for your next project?

Fiction writing was a far tougher gig. I had to think of very small details, and I am a big-brushstroke kind of person. Having to really plan and plot and do lots and lots of hard work at times was exhausting, as I was working full time, but at the end of the day, I guess it comes down to how much you want something. It was satisfying to be sculpting away, edit by edit – I liked this stage because it was structured and I had another voice in Kate, my editor, and this was wonderful.

Poetry will always come first, and come quicker.

I am working on a second novel, and then when that is on a break, I want to get back to the poems for winter. There’s something magic in writing poems in winter, by the sea maybe, or out on an island somewhere. But truthfully, I’ll be in the kitchen mostly, while I’m waiting for a wash to finish, or the dishwasher to beep, or the cat to cry out for attention as I write.

As an English teacher, what novels do you encourage your students to read (not necessarily the ones on the curriculum!), and what have you enjoyed reading during lockdown?

My classroom is packed with books, I encourage all reading – graphic novels, comics, newspapers, textbooks, sci-fi, dramas, anything at all. I run a Drop Everything and Read session in my class once a week, and I also read for the hour as I think modelling reading is good. I will never censor a book, though I have really wanted to ban one recently – I’m not telling what it was! – but I never will, and we will discuss at length merits of different books.

I have really loved Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, the voices and the vernacular, and I also read his short stories recently in The New Yorker – what a talent. I read the brilliant Donal Ryan’s Strange Flowers, reread Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations, John McGahern’s and Tobias Wolff’s short stories, and I thought Sisters by Daisy Johnson was tremendous. I loved Actress by Anne Enright, a beautiful novel The Truth Must Dazzle Gradually by Helen Cullen, and the quirky Laura Cassidy’s Walk of Fame by Alan McMonagle. I also read Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal, and Pauline Delabroy-Allard’s All About Sarah is one that remains with me. I was early to Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist, and I highly recommend it. He’s a wonderful young writer.

And finally, what advice would you give to anyone thinking of entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2021?

Just do it! Like that running company says, though I don’t run but I do write. Also, get someone to edit it if you can – I know that’s tough. And hold your nerve!
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