Tuesday, 3 June 2014


Dublin author Lia Mills’ third novel Fallen is out this Thursday from Penguin Ireland. It is a beautifully written narrative about grief, sister-love, loyalty, and family and its uneven nature.

Katie Crilly’s beloved twin brother Liam is killed on the Western Front. While trying to come to terms with her loss, Katie is confronted with a very real war on her own doorstep, as well as the internal war in her family precipitated by Liam’s death.

Anne Enright says, 'Lia Mills writes superbly about the human heart.' And so she does. I'm honoured to have Lia here at my blog ahead of publication day.
Lia Mills - portrait by Mark McCall
Welcome, Lia. Fallen is set in a Dublin which is being convulsed by the Easter Rising while in Europe WW1 is also taking place. What attracted you to this time period?

In a former life, I did a lot of research into the literary and social history of that period, it’s fascinating.  It was a time when Irish men and women seemed to be intensely alive and engaged, looking forward as well as back, eager for change … My interest was in re-discovering forgotten Irish women writers.  It’s strange – no matter how often we ‘discover’ the role of women in civic and artistic life at that time, the impression doesn’t seem able to get traction in the public mind.  We have the Rosie Hackett bridge now, and that’s great, but it’s depressing to hear young people say we must find out more, now that we’ve learned about these women we mustn’t forget …  it’s like reinventing the wheel every time.

The Rising is our version of a foundation myth. It’s a brilliant story, with all the right ingredients: the few against the many, the brave against the powerful, thrilling speeches from the dock and across open graves, romance, betrayal, sacrifice.  As I was growing up I loved the story, what child wouldn’t?  But it bothered me that the city of Dublin – my city – got bad press.  As usual. 

I used to think my family had nothing to do with the Rising because my parents were of that ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’ generation.  Then I realized that both sets of grandparents were living and working right on the edge of the fighting: my mother’s family on Parnell Street, with the Briitsh Army camped outside their door; my father’s family on Merrion Row, with the British Army camped outside THEIR door.  I began to ask myself what that must have been like, when all hell breaks loose on the streets of your city and you don’t know what’s going on or where it will end.  The novel is set in the past but it’s a relevant, contemporary question.

For me it was wonderful to see the Rising from the POV of a young woman, Katie Crilly. It gave a fascinating view of both the events and of Dublin. In fact, female relationships are to the fore in the story as a whole. Was it important to you to have a female protagonist? Talk to me about her friends, Dote and May – are they based on real activists of the time?

Katie was there from the beginning. Liam and Hubie came later but in many ways it’s their story as much as hers. She’s the one who gets to tell it, but Liam’s voice comes through in letters and Hubie talks a lot.

A lot of women lived together then, as Dote and May do. It was a way of getting out from under their families without giving scandal, and of pooling scant resources. They’re not based on any particular women, but Dote is linked to the suffrage movement, for example, while May’s family is more Anglo, with a military tradition and links to India etc. There are real historical figures in the novel, but they only have walk-on parts.

There is a great sense of Dublin being taken over in the novel; of the weirdness and menace that that entailed. What form did the research take for that very vivid, threatening atmosphere in the city?

That started in Paris!!  It was the strangest thing.  I was plodding along with a draft, but it was quite sterile and I was unhappy about it when I arrived in Paris to start a residency in the CCI.  My arrival coincided with the anniversary of the liberation of Paris and everywhere I looked there were plaques and memorials and flowers to named individuals and events.  Remembering the wars seemed part of the fabric of the city and it jolted me out of my complacent sense of the Rising as a neat, almost clinical event with a logical and proper outcome.  I spent my time in Paris wandering around graveyards, looking at memorials and reading about Irishmen who fought in the Great War and getting angry on their behalf.  Furious, actually. The artist Gail Ritchie was there at the same time, and she was working on memorials too. We spent hours talking about history’s many forms of amnesia.  So you could say that the graveyards of Paris started it.

That’s when I found the novel’s pulse.  For research I read – a lot.  Contemporaneous accounts, historical accounts of the war and the Rising; contemporaneous novels  for a sense of how people used language.  I went to the Imperial War Museum in London and read original diaries and letters. I spent a fair amount of time in Collins Barracks, too.  And there’s a brilliant WWI website: http://firstworldwar.com/  But I also spent time walking around Dublin, visiting sites that feature in the novel (and plenty that don’t feature in it any more).  I spent a lot of time looking at photos of the period – two books I’d recommend are Christiaan Corlett’s Darkest Dublin and Catriona Crowe’s Dublin, 1911.  The National Library has a fantastic collection online as well: http://www.nli.ie/

Do you enjoy research?

A little too much.  Research is the guilty secret of this kind of writing.  You’re stalking a subject through time.  It’s like the hours you lose following a thread online, but a lot more fun.  The thrill of the hunt, of finding something fresh, sparks new connections in your mind and sets all your synapses popping ...  it could go on forever.  That’s the problem. At some point you have to call a halt.  In the end I’d accumulated too many details and impressions, they threatened to choke the novel to death.  You have to know when to stop and that’s never been my strong point, with anything.

There are some gorgeous details in the book. For instance a weird and wonderful insight into the Wellington Monument which I am dying to know if you invented or if it’s true. I was also fascinated by Paschal the monkey who looms large in the book and provides levity from the difficult events taking place. Where did he come from?

Someone told me the Wellington Monument story years ago and it stuck.  I don’t actually know whether it’s true or if it’s an urban legend, or a myth-trap for tourists. There are other rumours about it – a secret staircase inside, a vault, a haunting.  I didn’t care whether it was true or not, the story was too good to waste. The way Dote tells it, it’s not entirely clear whether she believes it herself.  It’s a test, for Katie.  Paschal is a bit of a test too.  As soon as he appeared I knew I had to have him. People did keep monkeys as pets  – One of my mother’s sisters once told me that my mother had been immune to my father’s charms until he gave her a monkey to win her over – Paschal became something of a touchstone in the novel; he represents something vital in Katie.  You can tell a lot about the characters by how they respond to him.

Katie meets Liam’s war buddy Hubie and from him she learns more about her brother and about the realities of being on the Front. Their dealings with each other are at once spiky and warm. They are two strong-minded but also, at this period, needy characters; was it tricky to find a balance in writing their relationship?

Is it balanced?  I’m not sure.  They are both quite difficult, each in their own way, but the more difficult they became the more real they were. They are both damaged.  The question of how to live is acute for both of them. I don’t want to say too much here.  I don’t mean to be coy, but I don’t want to give too much away, either.

Historian and author Clare Wright spoke recently about ‘The Dick Table’ – the space in book shops given over to men’s books, usually non-fiction about ‘male’ topics (war, sports etc.). She has written a book about goldfields and says it does not appear on The Dick Table purely because she is a woman (she moves it there!). You have written about The Rising and WW1. Do you think it likely your book will be positioned beside, say, Sebastian Barry et al? Would you like it to be? (Link here to article).

The Dick Table?  That’s brilliant.  I suppose we’ll have the Mick Table next? I want Fallen to be wherever readers will find it. I could say that I’d like it to be near the cash register, but people would disapprove and think I’m shallow and grasping so maybe I won’t say that.  Oops.  But it IS a very real issue. Someone should start a survey like the VIDA statistics, charting how books are positioned in shops and how sales are affected.  My last book, In Your Face, was a memoir of illness and I don’t think any two bookshops had it stocked in the same category.  In some it was shelved under Health, others had it in Self-Help and one had it with the New Age books.  No one could ever find it!

You write non-fiction as well as novels. How do you find the writing of memoir vs novels? Which is your preferred form?

I write short stories too.  It depends on the story, and the context: what’s the most effective way to tell it – or to explore an idea? Memoir is easier because you don’t have to make anything up.  But then you have ethics (and sometimes legalities) to deal with.

Why do you write?

It’s a physiological thing for me, like breathing. It’s the best way I know to experience what it is to be alive in the world, to be human.  If that sounds grandiose I’m sorry, it’s just the truth. I don’t mean that I think everyone should write, or even that I think writing is any better or any worse than other things that people do with their lives, I just know that it’s my thing and I have to do it.

A more moderate reason is that I’ve been an obsessive reader from a very young age.  The world behind the lines was absolutely real to me then and still is.

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

Sometimes I think I’m writing all the time, even when I’m asleep – I get great ideas and solutions in the middle of the night. I keep a notebook by the bed and scribble in the dark.  It’s annoying when you wake up and see that you forgot to turn the page and the best idea you’ve ever had has been completely overwritten and you’ve no-one but yourself to blame.  Writing has different phases, too – it’s more varied than people realise.  And there’s a surprising amount of admin. I teach as well, which is fun but time-consuming, with recurring deadlines that have a horrible knack of coinciding with times when your need to immerse yourself in your own fugue is at its most intense. My best writing time is very early in the morning.  I’m a bit insomniac, and instead of fighting it I like to get up early and start to work before anyone else is awake. But the dogged hours I put in later can be productive too.  What often happens is that I’m getting ready to quit for the day but if I make myself stay on and just try to loosen one single knot, something unexpected will open up and I get a few extra hours. 

I move between laptop and desktop and I always have a notebook on the go.

Who are your favourite women writers and why?

Oh god, I really hate this question. Partly because I never know where to start or where to stop. I owe so many writers of both sexes a debt of gratitude for hours of pleasure or flashes of insight, I could go on all day and mean every word.  Another reason I hate the question is that so many of my friends are good writers – seriously good, world-class writers, but it feels a little incestuous to say so.  So I leave my generation of Irish women out of these appraisals, with apologies.

I tend to love individual books rather than writers, if you know what I mean.  For example, I’m not mad about her fiction but I truly love and still enjoy Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own.  Edna O’Brien, for A Pagan Place. Tillie Olsen, for Silences. Fay Weldon.  Margaret Atwood. Toni Morrison. Muriel Spark. Molly Keane’s late novels.  Clare Boylan’s Holy Pictures.  AS Byatt’s Possession. Elizabeth Strout.  Hilary Mantel. Janet Malcolm’s non-fiction. Claire Tomalin’s biographies.  Sylvia Plath. Katherine Mansfield, Flannery O’Connor, Lorrie Moore, Deborah Eisenberg. Mavis Gallant.  Isak Dinesen. Joyce Carol Oates & Lydia Davis … See what I mean?  Someone has to stop me.

What one piece of advice would you offer beginning writers?

Choose it. Just step up and begin. Do it – and keep practising until it becomes so much a part of you that you can’t imagine not doing it.  I wish I’d known this one simple thing years ago, I’d have saved myself a lot of grief and wasted time. If it’s what you want but you’re doing other things instead, ask yourself why and how to change it.  This is your real, your actual life you are living, it’s not a trial run. If there’s something you want to do, then it’s up to you to make the move and do it, otherwise it won’t get done. It’s as simple – and as hard – as that. 

What are you working on now?

I’ve been working on short pieces since Fallen left my desk last October. I’m enjoying the rhythm of finish, send, move on; finish, send, move on – it’s good for the soul after the years that Fallen took to finish. The rights of my last novel, Nothing Simple, reverted to me last year and I’ve decided to reissue it as an e-book. The process of getting it ready has been instructive.  It’ll be available online soon.  And I took part in a playwright mentoring programme with Fishamble at the Pavilion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire this year – it’s winding down now, we had a Showcase performance, of short plays and extracts, last week. Now I need to finish writing the play. I’m working on a commission to write a short story for DLRCC, and there are other short pieces lined up behind that one. The blog has been active recently too. A question I need to get to grips with is: given the amount of time it takes, is the blog justified? Oh, and I’ve been teaching on the MFA in Creative Writing Course in UCD, so I’m reading a lot and meeting students to give feedback – that goes on through the summer. Meanwhile, I’m sifting through ideas for the next long project, which I hope to start in October. 

Wishing you all the luck (and sales) in the world with Fallen, Lia. It’s a beautiful, insightful novel. Readers, you can buy it here.

Thanks a million, Nuala. And I’m looking forward to your own next novel, Miss Emily – do you have a publication date for it yet?

Oh, a question for me! Yes, June 2015 for Miss Emily, all going well. Final draft went to Penguin on Sunday. Yay!


Katyusha Rasputina said...

I love this interview especially as I have just read both your books and loved them. I am very interested in this period in history and doing some research for a novel of my own. I am interested in the notion of the "Dick Table" as I am a bookseller and I run the fiction section I try to have as much balance as possible except for my #readwomen 2014 table which is of course all female.

Lisa D, said...

am very interested in the idea of the "dick table" esp as a bookseller I try to have balance (I run the fiction section in Waterstones Drogheda) except for my #readwomen 2014 table

Nuala Ní Chonchúir said...

Katyusha - thanks so much for yuor reply. Best of luck with yuor writing and keep up the good work at the shop :)

Nuala Ní Chonchúir said...

Lisa D. - excellent. We need to obliterate the dick table!

Nuala Ní Chonchúir said...

Why am I spelling 'your' incorrectly?! Agh! Apologies.