Grainne Murphy: Where the Edge Is

In Gráinne Murphy’s assured debut novel, Where the Edge Is, she explores the very personal stories at the heart of a community tragedy. Impressive and skilfully executed, Where the Edge Is is published on 15 September by Legend Press.

Hello Gráinne! Congratulations on the imminent publication of your debut, Where the Edge Is! How are you planning to celebrate your big day?

Hi Wendy – I’m very happy to be here. I’m a big believer in taking your joy where you can so I’ve celebrated every single step so far – the offer from Legend, signing the contract, the public announcement, the final edits, final proof, holding the copy in my hands. That said, on the day itself, I’ll go for lunch with my family and then a walk on my favourite beach in west Cork.

How have the constraints of COVID-19 affected your plans to promote your novel, and how have you overcome these issues?

A lot of the promotion will be virtual - Legend have arranged a fantastic book tour with 40 bloggers and reviewers – I love the idea that people might read the book from someone else’s recommendation, it’s organic in a way I really like. My two local bookshops – Bookstór Kinsale and Kinsale Bookshop – have been very supportive, ordering the book and putting up posters. Waterstones Cork have also invited me to sign some copies there, which was very thrilling to my 10-year-old self, who asked for Waterstones vouchers for every birthday and Christmas. The themes of the novel – identity shifts, confronting ourselves – are universal and should hopefully resonate fairly widely - I look forward to getting out and supporting the book everywhere and anywhere possible!
In Where the Edge Is, which is set in a small town in rural Ireland, you expose some of the insularity and casual cruelties of small, close-knit communities, as well as the collective care and kindnesses. Why did you choose this setting, and did you find it liberating or constricting?

I grew up in rural Ireland so my experience is absolutely steeped in everything that goes with that environment – the traditions, that funny mix of small-mindedness and big-heartedness, how local everything is. It was only when we went to live in Brussels that I realised how important it all is to me. Choosing that as a setting felt entirely natural – I knew what each character would love and hate about it, how it would shape their views and their decisions. I now live in another small village and it’s a comfort to know that no matter what happens, you can knock on pretty much any door and get help if you need it. But it took a bit of age and experience for me to see the value in that.

Where the Edge Is is written through the eyes of five different characters, and their stories, which include themes such as racism, toxic relationships, fractured families and religious intolerance, lie at the heart of your novel. Which character did you enjoy writing the most, and why?

Multi-part narratives are my favourite as a reader. Done well, you feel regret moving from one to the next but are quickly absorbed into the next character. The fact that you have to balance their stories means that, as a writer, you have to believe equally in each character’s pain and joy and journey. I enjoyed writing Richie because his story has flashes of humour that the story needed so I was very grateful to him. That said, I also worried most about him – he is the least resilient of the group and I was afraid for quite a long time that he wouldn’t find himself by the time we left them.

The story thread of the death of a child weaves through the narrative and is never far from the surface of your novel. These scenes are difficult to read and feel raw and painful – how did you approach such difficult subject matter?

Each of the characters has experienced a shift in their sense of who they are – Alina, in discovering that she is not accepted in the way she believed herself to be, Lucy, in finding unexpected parallels with her mother, Richie, without the anchors of the two women in his life, Nina and Tim, having experienced the sudden death of their baby daughter. My daughter, Ali, was born with SMA Type 1 and died before her first birthday. My experience was very different to Nina’s and Tim’s – we knew very early on that she wouldn’t be with us for long and we chose to view that time with her as a gift. When I began to think about this story, Nina’s voice was very strong in my head – I would have these grief thoughts that just didn’t reflect my experience. All writing is a way of imagining yourself differently and Nina and Tim were an exploration of what a different form of grief might have been like. If I had Tim’s faith, for example, or had been freer or less polite with my feelings around others.
You clearly recognise the power of a beautifully-crafted sentence – and in Where the Edge Is there is an abundance! How do multiple redrafts affect your feelings about your manuscript, and what does a typical writing day look like for you?

That’s my very favourite thing to hear, thank you! As a reader, I have lines from books that I carry with me, so it’s lovely to hear that some of my sentences might have that effect. Some lines and images will survive every draft because they are central to the story – there’s almost always a single line that summarises the core of the novel for me. That said, I need multiple drafts because I make the same mistakes over and over in my writing – I live in the characters’ heads and forget that they have a physical appearance, I avoid conflict and have to write it in later. I don’t have a typical writing day. I work as a freelance proofreader/copy editor so my days can vary wildly. I try to write every day but I write in scenes rather than wordcounts, as I find it more satisfying and less guilt-ridden.

You have written about the benefits of perseverance to new writers, and you’re a great supporter of writing competitions – how has entering them affected your confidence and development as a writer?
Writing can be very lonely – not because you do it alone (that’s a perk!) but because there is no way of knowing where you are going or how long the road is or if there will be anybody there when you arrive. Writing competitions are like sending out a signal and getting a little flash in return – someone is out there and sees you. It’s an act of faith in yourself to enter and every longlist or shortlist or placing is often just enough encouragement to keep going. There will always be something else to do – someone else’s book to read or a night out or a lie-in – and entering competitions can be just enough to get you out of bed and over to your desk in the dark.

As an enthusiastic advocate of reading – “Yay, books!” – which Irish writers have inspired you, and what have you been reading during lockdown?

So many Irish writers have inspired me. My favourite stories boil down to complex emotions, simply and clearly told. Niall Williams is a particular favourite – he is lord of the glorious tangent. Always Dónal Ryan, Anne Enright, Colum McCann, Joseph O’Connor, Kevin Barry, and more recently, Rónán Hession, Elske Rahill, Frances Macken. Some of my fellow Novel Fair 2019 winners – Marianne Lee, Alice Lyons, Michelle Gallen – had their debut novels out earlier this year and the range and confidence of their work is really striking.

Lockdown was a funny old reading time. I was working on the first draft of a new novel, which means being very careful with what I read or someone else’s tone can bleed into mine. I could be a few thousand words down a particular path before realising that it’s not me and I have to go back and unpick it. I read a lot of poetry during that time – Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Maggie Smith, Seamus Heaney, Matthew Sweeney, Barbara Kingsolver. Their work acknowledges both the beauty and weirdness of the world, which felt absolutely fitting.

And looking ahead – what can we hope for from you next? Short stories? Another novel? Something else entirely?

The Ghostlights will be out with Legend Press in 2021. It’s the story of a woman and her two daughters, who run a B&B in a small Irish village whose tourism industry revolves around a moving Virgin Mary statue. I have very clear memories of the summer of the moving statues in Ireland, back in 1985 – it was such a huge phenomenon in my childhood. This novel is about identity, remembering and forgetting who we are, the sense of place and the meaning of home. As I get older, these themes are increasingly important and keep popping up in my writing. I’m also just finishing up the first draft of a new novel – and I would like to see A Thousand Ways find an audience too – I’m hopeful that its time will come!

And finally, you were shortlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award 2019 with your novel A Thousand Ways – what advice would you give to anyone thinking of entering the Caledonia Novel Award 2021?

This is a great competition to enter for two reasons. Firstly, the format of the award is a very useful lens for looking critically at your work. If you’re wishing that you could submit more than the first 20 pages because the story hasn’t really got going or the voice hasn’t quite come through, then your first 20 likely aren’t strong enough yet. There’s brilliant learning in that, it focuses your attention and helps you to distinguish between action and immediacy. Not everything has to happen straightaway but your reader needs to feel they’ve landed in the middle of something. Secondly, the award is quite personal and engaging and that acknowledgement and sense of being seen is so meaningful for emerging writers. It has real kindness and heart to it and that’s quite rare.

Send your work out into the world – that’s where the learning is. Good luck!

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