I am delighted today to welcome Irish writer and blogger Niamh Boyce to WWR for a chat about The Herbalist, her début novel. A Hennessy XO New Irish Writer of the Year winner, originally from Athy, Co. Kildare, Niamh now lives in Ballylinan, Co. Laois, where she's writing her next novel.
The Irish Times said recently of the book: 'Boyce’s subject matter may be dark, and she treats it with the seriousness it deserves, but she writes with a lightness of touch not often seen in the genre; this is the most entertaining yet substantial historical novel I’ve read since Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea.'
Hi, Niamh, and welcome to WWR.
Your novel The Herbalist is out now in trade paperback and the cover is really gorgeous. As you are also a visual artist, I imagine the cover looking 100% right is very important to you. Talk to me about the cover and how you felt when you first saw it/feel about it now. And are there different covers planned for the paperback and the UK editions?
Delighted to be here, Nuala! And I’m glad you like the cover. I’ll be honest - I’m delighted with the cover now but I wasn’t too fond of it at first. I saw it then on a screen, without detail, and the girls dress was black, not red. Because I paint and love art, I had visualised many possible cover images and had certain expectations regarding ‘the look’ of the book. The publishers asked that I bear with them, and explained how it would appear in the final version, which, as you can see, is beautiful with a matt texture, embossed gold lettering and wonderful attention to detail on both the outside and inside covers. I realise now that the image, as well as fitting well with the story, has a much wider appeal than anything I might have chosen. I’m partial to a slightly gothic aesthetic which might have misled readers as to what genre it was! (And it will be the same cover for the paperback and UK editions.)
The Herbalist is set in rural-ish 1930s Ireland. The men in the novel are somewhat shadowy – apart from the herbalist himself, though he is mysterious. Was it important to you to have women as the main agents of this story?
With regard to women being the main agents of this story – no, it wasn’t a conscious decision made from the outset. Actually in the earliest drafts, Dan was a main character. So the men in the novel are secondary characters in the same way that some of the women like Birdie Chase and Mrs B are secondary characters. Voice was important and I followed the voices instinctively and decided who got main parts on the basis of how many words they gave me (I made a graph!) rather than gender. But gender, voice and silence are of course very much linked. So as my pen crossed the page, I felt as if I was scratching away at silence, that the voices I heard were confiding, telling secrets, crossing over. For example, there was a palpable silence around the tiny newspaper article [that inspired the book], a few sentences really, that eventually led me to write the novel. It told me nothing. And it was a nothing I was ready to dive into. As Rose says in the book – You wouldn't know it but it's my story. You won't find me in the column inches. You won't find me in the newsprint. You'll find me in the gaps, the commas, the full stops - the small dark spaces where one thing led to another. So I was aware, that on the level of voice, I was working against a silence. In reality, the tale of that summer, the summer of The Herbalist, would never have been passed on. So I was conscious of that. And that in turn is connected to shame and to the wider dynamics of power – of class, religion and gender. But for me to consider those issues as I wrote the book, to make a conscious effort to weave them into the narrative would have been death to the fiction, so I didn’t. But it all comes out in the wash as they say…
You write both short and long fiction, as well as poetry. Can we expect a short fiction collection from you anytime soon? A poetry book?
My short story collection is finished. I might play around with the order of the stories but I just need to find the time. I’ve no definite plans for publishing them at the moment. I also have the guts of a poetry collection, but not the whole shebang yet!
How does the long haul of the novel compare to writing short? What are the positive aspects of novel writing for you?
Short fiction is very satisfying to write but with novels, you get to enter a whole world, a world of your own creation and you get to build it at a slower pace, step by step. You get to explore further and in a more winding way. You get to spend ages looking up strange and wonderful things and call it research! You get to change your mind, rewrite, have characters walk in and announce themselves, or walk of in a hissy fit; there’s so much room for the unexpected. It’s exciting.
Oh, I know, I love research.
The voice of Emily sings from the book – she is sassy and funny. How easy does humour come to you as you write?
It comes naturally or not at all, it depends on the character. I’ve never tried to be funny but I think the absolute bald truth of any situation can be hilarious. So if you have an honest character or a young character who speaks as they see, I think that humour is almost unavoidable then. The truth of how we are as people is funny in and of itself.
Who are the women writers who make you think ‘Yes!’ and for what reasons?
As a young woman in the 1990s a trio of poets made me aware that my life, my ordinary, everyday life might be worth writing about, might even be rich with a myth and magic of its own. They were Paula Meehan, Mary Dorcey and Rita Ann Higgins. The title alone of Higgins poetry collection Goddess On The Mervue Bus made me think ‘yes!’ Especially as I rode the Mervue Bus in and out of Galway City with my baby girl on my lap. And she put a community welfare officer in a poem, and she told the truth about power. And Dorcey wrote about mothers and daughters, real women, not some Róisín Dubh or Mother Ireland, or dying swan, or gormless muse. That was new then, or new to me at least!
Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber also really spoke to me – it said, ‘never mind all that paring it all back and good clean prose, the short story can be a lush baroque burlesque of prose!’ At the moment I’m enjoying how Tove Jansson writes about women sharing a life and making art. There is something stunning in the calmness of her delivery, the understatement, the lack of ego in her writing.
Writer Sara Crowley tagged a Smash Hits style set of questions to an interview she did with me and I thought it would be a fun way to end with you, Niamh, so here goes:
What’s your favourite biscuit? Toffee Pops rock!
Who is your favourite Sesame Street character? Has to be Oscar- the Heathcliff of Muppets.
Cheese or chocolate? Cheese.
Who is the most famous person you have ever met? I met the song writer Mick Hanly last week in Castlecomer library and he was really lovely.
Whose poster did you have on your teenaged bedroom wall? Paul Young. So unpunk. Don’t know what I was thinking…
Ha ha, me too. I was going to marry Paul Young!!
Best milkshake flavour? Strawberry.
Niamh, wishing you all the best with The Herbalist. Readers, you can buy it here and visit Niamh’s blog here for the latest on appearances, reviews etc. Signed copies of The Herbalist are available from Stone House Books in Kilkenny.
Thanks for having me over Nuala, and for the questions, they were thought provoking and good fun.