A Tale of Two Cities - article about Wild Quiet in the Derry Journal

"Acclaimed writer reveals her first stories were letters to her granda in Derry." 

As a kid, Roisin O’Donnell says she always looked forward to her visits “home” to Derry. The Sheffield-born, Dublin-based short story writer says the summer sojourns spent in her parents’ home town were anticipated with “great excitement.” “For me, Northern Ireland was a paradise where we would spend summers building castles on Knockalla Strand and being spoiled rotten by relatives who only got to see us once a year,” she says. “Tayto crisps, clove rock, brandy balls and Club Orange  were the flavours of my childhood summers and I saw Derry-Londonderry as a magical place woven from family stories.”

Roisin - whose debut collection of stories, ‘Wild Quiet’, has just been published by New Island Books - says her parents grew up on “opposite ends of the same long road” in Derry. “They also came from opposite communities in what was, at that time, a more mixed Protestant and Catholic area.  My maternal grandad had had fought at the Battle of Al Alamein while my paternal grandfather remembered being in Dublin at the time of the Easter Rising.”

“At school, my mum learned about the Battle of Hastings while dad learned about the Battle of Clontarft. Growing up a short distance from each other, in some ways, they might as well have come from two different cities.”

“Cupid’s arrow” struck for Roisin’s parents in the 1960s. “It wasn’t easy for a ‘mixed’ couple in the Northern Ireland of that time,” she says. “This, coupled with the lack of job opportunities at that time, was one of the reasons why parents moved to England and got married. Yearning for home, after a few years they moved to live in Sheffield because they’d heard that the surrounding Yorkshire countryside looked ‘a bit like Donegal’.

In their house in Sheffield, Roisin says her family were “simply Irish”. “Although my parents were from different communities in the North, the beauty of growing up in England was that, with the benefit of distance, I was able to feel included in both worlds.”

During holidays in Ireland, she says, the family would spend long summer days on the strand at Portstewart, being treated to ice-cream from Morelli’s, fish and chips in Portrush and a trip to Barry’s Amusements.  “The dodgems, the Ferris wheel, the ghost train with its host of illumious-green-and-pink plastic ghouls - all of this was heaven. Sometimes we would rent a house in Inishowen for a fortnight and, once, we stayed in a house on Inch Island. The place was like a time warp, with saints watching us from the walls and a turf fire in the grate, and from the windows we had a view down to the lake and its colony of swans.”

When she was in her mid-20s, Roisin lived in the North for a year while attending university. During her first week in the city, she spent all her free time walking the city, “gradually getting to know the streets where my grandparents and parents had walked.”During her first week in the city, she spent all her free time walking the city, “gradually getting to know the streets where my grandparents and parents had walked.” However, she says, living in the North only reinforced her status both as an outsider and as, somewhat, of an anomaly.

She recalls: “With a name like Roisín, people would generally presume I was Catholic and would then give me funny looks when I casually mentioned calling over to my aunt’s house in the Waterside - a largely Protestant neighbourhood - for dinner. It made me realise that being equally comfortable in the living rooms of both Northern Irelands is not that common in some areas.”

Roisin acknowledges that, while always loving Northern Ireland, for years she avoided writing about it, feeling “crippled by a feeling of inadequacy”. “Not having grown up there, I felt that I didn’t have the right to say anything about it.” Eventually, however - with the urge to articulate something of her connection with her ancestral home pursuing her - she found her voice in a story called Ebebezer's Memories.

Recently Roisín was commissioned to write a story for a new anthology by women from the North of Ireland, which will be published by New Island Books in September. "I think the title of the anthology – The Glass Shore – beautifully articulates the fragility of the invisible boundaries in the North," she says. "For me, Northern Ireland is still one of my favourite places in the world, home of so many beautiful landscapes, warm and friendly people and happy childhood memories. I hope these invisible boundaries will one day fade away. "

“I will always feel a strong connection with the North, and I’ll always yearn for a deeper understanding of my family roots.” Roisín says her first “stories” were letters she used to dictate to her mum who would write them down and send them to her granddad in Derry. “Writing to the North was my first instinct as a writer, and, when I wrote my first novel at the age of fifteen, it was an awful across-the-barricades romance set in the Troubles. Looking back, I see this as my first scrambling attempt to articulate my feelings towards Northern Ireland; something I’ve been trying to do ever since.”

Roisin O’Donnell’s debut story collection, ‘Wild Quiet’, has just been published by New Island Books

This article first appeared in the Derry Journal on Friday June 24th, 2016. 

Interview with January Magazine

So she tells you that she’s a writer and you ask what she writes and she says “short stories” and you say: “Are you working on a novel?”

I was delighted to be interviewed by January Magazine for their July issue. We had a great chat about the merits and challenges of the short story form, and I tried to answer the question 'why write short stories instead of a novel?' Stories can be harder than novels; with a novel, you create a world and then sustain it for a few hundred pages, but with each new short story you have to build a new world from scratch. But stories can also be incredibly liberating... 

The Irish Times names Wild Quiet as one of 'Five collections that will put Northern Irish Women Writers on the Map'

"Lucy Caldwell, Bernie McGill, Jan Carson, Roisín O’Donnell and a new anthology edited by Sinéad Gleeson are raising the profile of North’s female short story writers," writes Caroline Magennis in The Irish Times

Having had the pleasure of meeting Bernie, Lucy and Jan at various literary events, and having heard them read from their work, I feel honoured to be included in their company. Also named as one of the five collections is The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland, edited by Sinéad Gleeson. 

The Glass Shore is now available to pre-order here. 

Belfast Book Festival - Tues 14th June, Crescent Arts Centre - 8pm

I'll be appearing at the Belfast Book Festival next week as part of an evening showcase of Irish Women Short Story Writers. Joining local Belfast writer Jan Carson in conversation will be Mary Morrissy, Rosemary Jenkinson and myself. Each writer will read from their work, and we'll be talking about the writing process and sharing (hopefully!) a few insights into the short story form, from pen-and-paper to publication! Do join us for a lovely, relaxed evening of short stories and inspiration. Tickets are still available here.  

Podcast - Wild Quiet on RTÉ Arena - 31st May 2016

"As a writer, you're often playing a game of 'what if?'" 

I had a great chat with Séan Rocks about my debut collection Wild Quiet. We talked about the inspiration behind some of the stories, the dangers of drawing on real life, and how I used religious iconography to add to the strangeness of the title story. We also chatted about Derry, and Séan asked about some of the autobiographical elements in 'Ebenezer's Memories.'

Read 'How to Learn Irish in Seventeen Steps'

"Inspired by a blue-skied Sunday morning, buy some sheets of brightly coloured cardboard, cut them into uneven squares and write the Irish on one side, the English on the other. Man. Fear. Woman. Bean. Heart. Croí. Break. Briste."

For a short time only (!) my story 'How to Learn Irish in Seventeen Steps' is published on the Irish Times website.

Luana Paula de Silva O'Connor has moved from Brazil to Ireland for love. Settling into her new life as a primary teacher, she initially ignores the letters from the Irish Teaching Council which tell her she must learn Irish in order to keep her job. But with just nine months to go until her deadline, and with her relationship wavering, Luana sets out on a seemingly impossible journey: to learn Irish (in seventeen steps).

How to publish a debut (in 17 steps)

"Blissfully unaware that you are writing a collection, tell each story in the way it demands to be told. The result will be less a homogeneous symphony and more a lovingly-compiled mix-tape."

On the eve of the publication of my debut, I wrote this piece for the Irish Times, in which I explored my writing journey. I've been writing for literally as long as I can remember, but I've always struggled with writing confidence. Here I detail just a few of the roller-coaster dips and dives on my path to publishing a debut... 

Listen to an extract from WILD QUIET

"It was as I sat swinging my legs that I first heard it: a low moan with the sadness of whale song, drawn out and muffled as if reaching me from across oceans, yet close enough to make the windowpanes shiver.."

May 16th has come around at last! Today is the official publication day of my first short story collection WILD QUIET. To celebrate, I've recorded an extract from the first short story in the collection - Ebenezer's Memories. Here, I chat a little bit about my family roots and about the origins of the story. Happy listening... 

"A master storyteller" - review of WILD QUIET in San Diego Book Review

"Ultimately, when you read Wild Quiet you will place a few hours of your life in the splendid company of a master storyteller."

"What so vastly impressed me about Roisin’s work... is her so very rare ability to balance a truly fantastic talent for observation and interpretation with the discipline to craft rock solid, leak-proof structures. It’s all rather like one of those three-tiered cake stands that are presented to your table at a high tea; every layer is filled with tastefully arranged scrumptiousness, but it’s not over-filled either. You get to appreciate both the savory and the sweet because there’s just enough of both.

...It amazes me – literally, truly, with no exaggeration amazes me – how this young Irish writer can mind meld and speak with the voice of (to name a few): a thirteen year old black immigrant boy with a learning disability, a heartbroken and suicidal Japanese woman, a young girl who is a refugee from Somalia and is afraid to speak of her past, or a thirty year old Irishman racing back to Indonesia because his childhood friend needs him. Every one of these voices, as most of the twelve stories are written in first person, is so linguistically distinct it is like reading stories by twelve different talented writers. Or one Chaucer. Or one O’Donnell."

Read the full review here

My Mental Knuckle-fight with Irishness

"Looking back, I see our house as an Irish space station which had drifted off orbit." 

I've been overwhelmed by the response to my article in the Irish Times this week. This morning I woke up to emails from New Zealand, Italy and the USA, from people sharing their experiences of growing up Irish abroad, or of growing up in Ireland with parents from elsewhere. I hope this will open up lots of meaningful conversations on Irish identity, and that we can really start to create a more inclusive definition of what it means to be Irish in 2016. 

I'm thrilled to have been asked to contribute to The Glass Shore, an anthology of stories by women from the North of Ireland

Last autumn, I took part in an event at the Belfast International Arts Festival in which the four Northern contributors to The Long Gaze Back read from and discussed their work. Joining editor Sinéad Gleeson in conversation were myself, Lucy Caldwell, Anne Devlin and Bernie McGill. One of the questions raised at the event was 'why hasn't there been an equivalent anthology of stories by women from the North of Ireland?' 

Not one to turn down a challenge, Sinéad has now announced the forthcoming publication of 'The Glass Shore.' The anthology will be published by New Island Books in autumn 2016, and features a beautiful cover by designer Martin Gleeson. The anthology will include work by: 

Linda Anderson, Margaret Barrington, Mary Beckett, Caroline Blackwood, Lucy Caldwell, Ethna Carbery, Jan Carson, Evelyn Conlon, Anne Devlin, Martina Devlin, Polly Devlin, Erminda Rentoul Esler, Sarah Grand, Rosemary Jenkinson, Sheila Llewelyn, Bernie McGill, Alice Milligan, Rosa Mulholland, Anne-Marie Neary, Mary O’Donnell, Roisín O’Donnell Tara West, Una Woods

I'm excited to see how the new anthology turns out. I have a sneaking feeling it might be quite different from The Long Gaze Back, but I'd better keep my predictions to myself for now!

Carried in Waves Short Story for Radio Competition

'Boomerang Baby', a story about being left behind, has won third prize in the Carried in Waves Short Story for Radio competition, organised by UCC 98.3FM, Ireland's only 24/7 student radio station.

The judges had this to say about 'Boomerang Baby': "This brilliant short story – makes a unique use of words... it describes a human world in breathless and original language “

Listen to Boomerang Baby on Soundcloud.