Born and bred in Dublin, writer Shauna Gilligan has worked and lived in Mexico, Spain, India and the U.K. She lives in County Kildare with her family. Her fiction has been published widely and Happiness Comes From Nowhere is her first novel.
Welcome, Shauna, and congrats on the book.
Thank you, Nuala, for having me here and taking the time to talk to me!
It is an unusual book in that it is a novel-in-stories. Talk to us about the genesis of Happiness Comes from Nowhere and about its structure.
Yes, it is a different sort of debut novel. It actually started life as a typical novel with a linear story but as I edited and revised it, minor characters came to the fore which transformed into something different, something with a more disjointed or composite structure. I like to think of the structure as similar to Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (the film based on some of Raymond Carver’s stories). In a way, seeing that process happening (and resisting it, at times), was a real learning curve for me as a writer – really learning to let the writing lead.
Some of your characters are rather exuberantly named: Dirk and Sepp Horn, for example. Is naming something you take time over? Do you enjoy that part of the process?
I do take my time over naming my characters. I think the name has to say something about them – like in real life, really, either your name suits you and is part of who you are or it is a complete mismatch. Either way, names are part of the story of who we are. I enjoy this part of the writing process. It reminds me of naming babies in some way.
You are a mother, you volunteer at Fighting Words and you also have a job in a university. How do you fit writing into such a busy life? What is your writing process – morning or night – longhand or laptop?
For me it all ties together. It’s part of who I am as well as being what I do. I’d like to have more writing time but right now my serious writing happens on a daily basis from late evening to late night. I take a residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre each year to really get my teeth into longer pieces. This year I’m delighted to have been awarded a bursary from Kildare County Council! I always have a notebook to hand so will write in it – usually the start of a piece or a random scene. Then later when I’m more into the piece, I’ll work on a laptop.
Which women writers are your favourites and who would you cite as influences and why?
To be honest, I hate these questions because for me, saying someone is an influence somehow means there is a worthy comparison there. Anyhow, I do have favourite women writers who may or may not be influences on my own writing: Alice Munro to start. And then (in no order) writers such as Margaret Atwood, Katherine Mansfield, Carol Shields, Claire Keegan, Anne Enright, Clarice Lispector, Elizabeth Bowen, Isabelle Allende. It’s not an exhaustive list; I could go on!
You write short fiction as well as novels. Which short story would you like to see on the Leaving Cert exam?
I have no idea what is on the Leaving Cert exam these days but I’d say it embraces more female writers now than when I was doing it. I think a good short story for the leaving cert could be one that tackles social and personal issues, a bit of bite in it. I’m thinking of Enright’s “Little Sister” where the narrator brings us through her sister’s anorexia yet the reader really gets a great feel for their sisterly relationship and their place in the family. Or, perhaps Claire Keegan’s “Dark Horses” for its portrayal of a particular mindset, a generation, the sense of the landscape as character.
Is there any writing advice you received that stays with you always? What one piece of advice would you offer beginning writers?
One that springs to mind is a piece of simple, practical advice: if you want to be a writer, you’ve got to write. Writers write. I think it’s too easy to be deluded by the idea of being a writer rather than the writing itself. I’d say trust yourself, as hard as it is to do that, just trust your writing. And keep at it.
What is your favourite bookshop?
Books Upstairs in Dublin just opposite Trinity College. It’s a treasure-cove of books (bestsellers, established and new authors) and the staff are all so knowledgeable and helpful.
What are you working on now?
I need to settle myself into a meaty piece of writing again. I couldn’t say right now what it will be. It will be my next novel, more short stories or working on fleshing out the ideas (all in notebooks) for another novel.
Thanks for stopping by, Shauna. Readers, you can buy Happiness Comes from Nowhere here.