Monday, 13 June 2011

Anne Skelly - interview

Author Anne Skelly
Today I interview writer Anne Skelly. I met Anne at the last Peregrine Reading I did in Longford where she told me about her début novel Foolish Pride, which will be out soon from Book Republic. Anne is originally from Dublin and now lives in rural Longford with her husband and three dogs. She has been writing short stories for about ten years and has been shortlisted in a number of literary competitions, most recently the international First Writer Award. She teaches Creative writing in the Midlands.

Welcome, Anne. Tell me about your début novel Foolish Pride.

Thanks, Nuala. The novel is loosely based on the plot of Jane Austen’s Persuasion.  It’s narrated by Beth Maguire, a thirty-four-year old primary teacher.  The storyline follows her struggles to make the right choices, and to reshape her life after a failed romance from ten years earlier.  On the way, as all heroines do, she encounters a number of obstacles in her path.  However her life begins to brighten considerably with the arrival of a male teacher from Edinburgh who arrives in Carrigmore to take up a substitute position in the local primary school where Beth teaches.  To sum up, it’s primarily a love story, but also a reflection of the way of life of a whole community.

Clearly you are a Jane Austen fan. Which other women writers are your favourites or would you cite as influences and why?
I read a lot of contemporary Irish women writers, and at the top of my list would be Jennifer Johnston, first introduced to me by my English teacher when I was still at school.  I really admire her ability to create a whole world within the structure of a tightly written novella where political tensions abound and class division, especially that between the Anglo-Irish and the indigenous population, is rampant.  Other favourites would include Molly Keane, for her intimate and witty portrayal of life in the Big House, Martina Devlin, for her use of detail in drawing character, Edna O’Brien, for her lyrical evocations and startling imagery, Catherine Dunne, for her inspired and multi-layered storytelling, and Deirdre Purcell, for her exploration of the dilemmas thrown up when friendships and marriage come under pressure.  I’ve also become an ardent admirer of Marian Keyes, especially her later work with its focus on such dark topics as domestic violence and alcoholism.  And then there’s the younger generation coming up with the most luminous short stories and novellas, like Claire Keegan and Claire Kilroy; the kind of writing that glistens and makes you want to savour every line.

Moving a bit further from home, I read a lot of Anita Shreve, who seems to me to combine a highly polished prose style with gripping storylines that keep you reading late into the night.  It’s this meeting point of commercial and literary fiction that I really admire, and that I try to emulate in my own writing.  And finally, I’d like to mention Kate Morton, an Australian novelist I’ve only recently discovered, who opened my eyes to the power in fiction of secrets from the past, multiple narratives leaping between past and present, and individual stories from these shifting timelines gradually drawing together to unveil their mysteries.  I think one of her quotes aptly sums up her whole approach to storytelling:
Of course the characters are where the book starts.  But the story has to feel like a place you can live inside.” (Weekend Australian Review, October 2010)  I know that once I disappear into the opening pages of her novels, I’m totally immersed in the universe she creates, and I so much admire that ability to draw the reader into the world of the imagination.

Your novel centres around a school. Were you a teacher before becoming a writer?

Yes and no.  I did a degree in English and taught for a couple of years in secondary schools, but I very quickly moved into adult education, initially teaching English as a Foreign Language, and then later on became a tutor in adult literacy.  And although ‘Foolish Pride’ is set in a primary school, that’s something I have no direct experience of, so lots of research was called for.  Needless to say, any blunders which may be picked up on by ‘real’ primary teachers are entirely down to my negligence.

Why do you write? 

Simple answer: because I enjoy it so much.  I’ve always been passionate about reading, and I think writing is like an extension of the pleasure I get from that.  I just love being able to find the right words to express what I want to say.  I think my literary heroine, Jane Austen sums up perfectly the art of fiction writing in ‘Northanger Abbey’:  “Oh, it is only a novel ...or in short only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.”  For me, this captures the essence of good writing, and is what I aim for in my own work.

What is your writing process – morning or night – longhand or laptop? 

I’m afraid I’m anything but disciplined when it comes to setting aside time for writing.  Contrary to following the advice I’m always giving my students about writing a little every day, I tend to write when the mood takes me.  Although I do try to sit down at least three times a week for a couple of hours.  And when I get carried away, I just go with the flow.
I’m an almost total convert to the laptop, apart from when I’m just starting out with a new idea for a story, or reworking a plot line, when I scribble on blank pages.

You write short fiction as well as novels. How do you find the writing of shorter vs longer work?

Obviously, the writing has to be much tighter.  In a short story, every word has to count, and you don’t have room for the more lavish descriptions I sometimes indulge in within the broader frame of a novel.  I find short stories more difficult to get right, but I really enjoy the editing process, polishing them until they glitter.

Which short story would you like to see on the Leaving Cert? 

If I had to pick one of my own short stories, I’d chose ‘The Lonely Orbit’;  it’s based on an elderly couple facing the later stages of Alzheimer’s, and I think Leaving Cert students are now keenly aware of the ravaging impact of that dreadful disease on family members.  To move away from my own work, I think it would be a William Trevor story that captures the need for compassion and connection in a society that has become fractured: ‘The Paradise Lounge’ is set in a rundown hotel bar where Trevor juxtaposes two adulterous loves, from two different generations; one affair has been consummated, the other not, but each is bitterly envious of the other. With swift pen strokes,  the characters emerge, trapped in lives crippled by low expectations.  In the closing lines, the old woman, Miss Doheny, thinks despairingly of the now liberal society that has come about in her lifetime, “mocking the agony of her stifled love.”  I believe Leaving Cert students would respond to the way Trevor dramatises alienation and disconnection in a world where the goalposts are constantly shifting.

What is your favourite bookshop? 

I love browsing through any second-hand bookshops, never knowing what gems you’re going to come across.  After that, it would be the small, privately-owned  establishments where you get treated as a friend, rather than the bigger, more commercial chain stores where no-one knows you.  On the local scene, the little bookshop in Grafton Court, Longford is one of my favourite haunts.

What one piece of advice would you offer beginning writers? 

Read, read and read more.  I think anyone trying to write fiction can learn a huge amount about technique from reading published writers.  I would also encourage them to go to literary festivals and get talking to their favourite writers, who are usually more than willing to discuss their work, and can be immensely helpful in giving tips.

What are you working on now? 

I have a couple of short stories on the go, and I’m messing around with the very early stages of a second novel.  Just in rough note form, jotting down what elements I want to include and a very dim outline of the narrative structure.  I can feel the influence of Kate Morton here, edging me towards shifting timelines and multiple narrative voices.

Thanks a million, Anne for stopping by. Anne's book can be pre-ordered here.


Anonymous said...

Well done, Anne and Nuala.
Very comprehensive interview which covers the nuts and bolts of writing and makes your passion for writing clear.


Thanks for stopping by, Derbhile. Always nice to see writers support their stable-mates :)
Best of luck with The Pink Cage.
N x

Ev said...

I'm always astounded when another writer gets inside my head and explains how I see it! We all seem to think alike don't we? When I started writing I remember saying to my husband - 'It was like walking into a room where, for the first time, everyone spoke the same language as me'. Lovely interview Nuala.

Donna OShaughnessy said...

What a great interview ! I love reading about the nuts and bolts of other writers, How they write, why they write. Many thanks to you both


Evelyn - when I joined my first workshop, years and years ago in Galway, it was like coming home.


Thanks a million Donna - me too :)

Rachel Fenton said...

I never tire of taking advice from other writers, and there's some brilliant advice in there - thanks Anne, and Nu - fab interview!


Cheers Rachel, thank you for reading :)

margaret said...

Congratulations Anne on your novel and a great interview too Nuala.