The Following is an interview with Shauna Gilligan, a friend of mine who has recently published her highly successful and very well received first novel ‘Happiness Comes from Nowhere’. I was honoured to have been asked by her to launch it at NUIMaynooth last October. ‘Happiness Comes from Nowhere’ is an episodic novel that Shauna has melded into a cohesive unity. In it she has addressed some serious life issues through the painting of convinving characters that disappear so that when they reappear you are glad to be with them again. There are amongst the episodes some lovely lighter touches, though still of serious import. In one she indulges her passion for baking and as you read you can smell the cakes freshly out of the oven and beautifully presented on top of the piano. See her website www.shaunaswriting.com
Pat, you have published a great variety of books (poetry, novels, travel, memoir). How does your writing self balance all these different types of writing and, of course, teaching and blogging?
Oh Shauna, I haven’t the remotest idea how to answer this question, but I’ll try. If by ‘self balance’ you mean how do all these different types of writing relate to each other, the simple answer is that the same person has written them all. By that I mean the same life experience and the same perspective on life informs all of them. I don’t think that the form used by the writer matters. It’s what he or she says, the content, that matters and I think in all of these forms you will discover what I have distilled from 73 years of trying to make sense of people and of the mystery that surrounds us. With a different sense of ‘self balance’ the answer to this question may be ‘I just do what I have to do.’
Do you have a preferred form of writing? In other words, which form do you find the best fit for you to express yourself?
I think memoir. Memoir time sequence is pretty simple and straightforward in form, and my travelogue is in effect memoir. Form is much more of an issue in poetry, novel and short story. Insofar as memoir is easier to handle it suits me best. This does mean however that memoir may be lazier but not better writing than the others.
Tell me about your writing life on a daily basis.
I’m a lark and not an owl. In my early years of writing I would get out of bed around six o’clock and in my dressing gown sit straight down at the computer and write before I went to work. If I as much as made a cup of tea I might find something to distract me and not write at all. These days I can make the cup of tea without being distracted. First thing I go over and edit what I wrote the previous morning.I write for two or three hours or even longer depending how it goes. Very occasionally in the afternoon I might do a little editing of the morning’s work if I were going over it in my mind, but that would be rare.
How would you describe yourself as a writer? Do you feel your religious background and the transition from belief to atheism has informed (and formed) you as a writer?
I have great difficulty thinking of myself as a writer. I didn’t start writing prose until I was 48. I always wrote verse, but I would never refer to myself as a poet. Since you ask me, I would describe myself as a Johnny-come-lately amateur. Yes, I do feel that my religious background has informed much of my writing and my transition from belief to atheism in the last ten years has certainly informed my recent writing. I think, however, that what forms a writer is a more complex matter.
What’s your favourite part of the writing life? What part of the life of a writer do you least favour?
Being published, to the first and being rejected to the second.
What writers would you say have had an influence on your writing?
I really don’t know. Perhaps this is for somebody else to glean. I am however conscious occasionally of the influence of Robert Frost on both my prose and verse.
In Being Published you recall how you wrote your first short story at age 48.
“One day I went back to my office after lunch, sat down at my desk and wrote a short story. It was fiction but it was based upon an unlikely couple that I had known who lived in a remote place up the hills in the heart of the country. I called it Bill’s Wife.”
It seems very spontaneous but also brings to mind the advice you often hear – write from what you know. What one line of advice would you give based on this experience?
I’m glad you said ‘one line’ as I’m being verbose. If you feel like writing just sit down and write and don’t worry what anyone else may think of it.
You’ve travelled a lot, some of which you recount in your 2012 Curious Cargo. Can you tell me how travelling puts perspective on Ireland as a country and the Irish? Or does it?
I was born only seventeen years after Independence so as I grew up I heard at every turn the espousal of Ireland and everything Irish, but always felt that ‘self praise is no praise.’ I became aware that this narrow and extravagant Irish Nationalism came from a national inferiority complex that resulted from having been for so long a colonised people. The old saying is true: ‘travel broadens the mind’. Travel has helped me to put my Irishness, of which I am proud, into perspective in that self conscious nationalism is not exclusive to Ireland but that older more confident nations don’t wear it on their sleeve.
What books are on your bedside table right now?
There are four: Coleridge, Poems and Prose selected by Kathleen Raine. The Journal of Aarland Usher. The Spring 2009 edition of Slightly Foxed. The Poolbeg Golden Treasury of Well Loved Poems. I read in bed only if I can’t sleep and I sleep well!
What’s next for Patrick Semple?
Perhaps a sequel to the novel Transient Beings. Five or six people have said to me words to the effect: ‘You can’t leave it there. What happened next?’ I’m not sure however if I can write a sequel.