Ruth Gilligan is an Irish novelist, journalist and academic. A graduate of Cambridge, Yale, UEA and Exeter, she now works as a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham. She has published four novels to date, and has had a number of short stories featured in international publications. She also contributes regular literary reviews to the TLS, Guardian, Irish Independent and LA Review of Books. Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan is published by Tin House and is her American debut.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first novel came out when I was just eighteen. It was all a bit of a blur – I hadn’t written the book for publication, I just did it as part of a school project – so when it was actually released (and then made number one on the bestsellers’ list) the whole thing was sort of surreal.
It was a very commercial book, based almost entirely on personal experience, as were the next two. But I then took a break and realized I wanted to write something completely different. I did a Creative Writing MA and PhD and then finally I wrote Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan which is a historical novel inspired by the Jewish community in Ireland. It is totally different from my previous stuff, and involved almost five years of research, but because of that I feel a lot more invested in it. I put everything into that book!
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I wrote some dodgy poetry in my youth, but I think the novel form was always what I read so that was just naturally what I wanted to emulate. I have colleagues (and students) who seem to be able to turn their hand at all the forms, but I don’t think I’d be very good at anything other than the novel. I guess I’m naturally long-winded.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I make a lot of notes and do a lot of research, but I also reach a point when I know the best thing is just to take the plunge and write a first draft and then worry about actually making it good. I get so bogged down by all the various ideas or possibilities running around my mind that it’s just easier to figure stuff out once its down on the page.
4 - Where does a work of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Again, I think I know that at this point, novels are my thing – short fiction is so much harder! But my books (or at least, the last one and the one I’m working on now) usually come from something very small – a newspaper article or an overheard snippet or a vague curiosity. It will be weeks later and I will realize I’ve been thinking about it the whole time and that’s when I know I’m onto something. It won’t let me go.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I haven’t done too many yet, to be honest. But yes, I really enjoy them. I used to do a lot of acting so the notion of performing in front of an audience doesn’t faze me too much. And it’s so lovely to hear from people who have really engaged with your book. It turns the whole thing into a conversation.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
My work lately has been a lot to do with otherness; with minority groups and outsiders and discrimination. But of course, even writing about these groups presents a massive amount of ethical questions. So I’m interested in how writers answer these questions; how we get comfortable with the idea of writing our way into someone else’s world. In many ways, the language of empathy and the language of appropriation are kind of similar, so I’m concerned with how best to wrangle with that.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think the writer is enjoying a pretty prominent role in larger culture at the moment. I really noticed it this year that whenever someone died, or when Trump was elected, various papers would run a series of opinion pieces they had solicited from authors. I think that’s great – I mean, who else scrutinizes contemporary culture so closely and then writes about it so beautifully?
That said, I don’t like the idea that the writer has to be politically engaged at all times; that there is a certain burden or responsibility that comes with the job. That seems like a bad way to encourage art.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
SO essential! On a micro level, having someone prod at your purple prose or your dodgy metaphors is so important. On a macro level, it’s often so hard to see the wood from the trees, so any external guidance is really welcome. Also with Nine Folds I was writing it as my PhD so I used to meet with my supervisor ever six weeks, so I was kind of spoiled with constant input. Writing the new one has been much harder without that.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
When I was a child, my father used to be forever uttering the words ‘take your time, no rush’. And guess what? It turns out I am as impatient now as I was then! But publishing – and creativity in general – requires eternal patience. Every day I struggle to have just a little more of it.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (short stories to novels to essays)? What do you see as the appeal?
My big move has been between the so-called ‘chick-lit’ genre, and literary/historical fiction. It came about mainly because my own reading tastes changed, and I realized that I preferred books that took me completely out of my own familiar world. But the shift has been difficult, especially because once you’ve been pigeon-holed in a certain way it’s very hard to escape that. On the other hand, I think there’s also a risk of over-emphasizing these distinctions. At the end of the day, all good novels share the same qualities – sympathetic characters; a compelling story. I think once I realized that I found things a lot easier.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
At the start of every new semester (I work as a full-time Creative Writing lecturer), I always say I will get more writing done during the week, but it never happens. The students always take priority and it seems impossible to carve out the necessary time/headspace. So in the holidays I have a totally different routine. I start at about 9, do a bit of writing then head to the gym, eat brunch, then pick it up again. I think I have long, mildly productive days rather than short, super-productive windows. I suspect the latter would suit me better. Maybe I will shake it up a bit soon…
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I keep a copy of Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin on my desk. It is my favourite novel of all time, and kind of my writing Bible. It never fails to inspire.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I think music, a bit. But no, I must confess for me it’s mostly books upon books upon books.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I’ve mentioned McCann already, but he really is a huge influence. His whole belief in storytelling and writing beyond the self has become sort of integral to my whole ethos. Inspired by these beliefs, he also founded a storytelling organization called Narrative 4, which I now do some work for too. It brings together diverse teens from around the world to try and foster empathy through sharing stories. It’s amazing.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Write a perfect novel! I would also like to live in the States again for a bit, or maybe Australia. Even though I haven’t lived in Ireland for ten years now, I still have itchy feet to go somewhere a bit further afield…
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I guess I do have another occupation, in that I work as a full-time lecturer, although even that feels like just another aspect of my writerly existence. I suppose if the novels hadn’t worked out I would very likely just be a more traditional English Literature academic. I like universities far too much to imagine myself beyond them at this point…
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I guess in my case it all kind of got off to an early start – even before I’d really given any serious thought to writing as a potential career. That’s not to say there haven’t been times that it didn’t look like it was all going to fall apart – especially when I was trying to change direction – but by that point it was too late. I knew writing was what I had to do.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I know everyone has been saying it, but The Underground Railroad really is amazing. It feels particularly timely too, given everything that’s been going on in the news recently in terms of race relations in the US. It makes you realize how it’s all just the latest chapter in a longer, supremely bleaker narrative.
The last great film is harder – I don’t watch a lot of movies – but 45 Years definitely made me weep.
20 - What are you currently working on?
My fifth novel, The Butchers, which is set in 1996 during the BSE crisis in the UK/Ireland. It’s very different again, and also I know nothing about farms, but my research is slowly amassing and my characters are slowly coming to life. I can’t stop thinking about them, which is always a good sign.