It’s fantastic that it’s out there in the world now. I wasn’t confident in terms of how other people might see it, but because I had worked on it very hard over quite a few years I knew there wasn’t anything more I could do with any of the stories and that I had done my best. By the time it was published I thought this is the best I can do with all these stories. There weren’t any stories where I was thinking if I had another month, or another few rewrites I would do that differently. I was happy I had done all I could do with it and at that stage you have to let the book go and give it to the readers.
Tell us about how you write.
My process is very messy. I tend to have a lot of drafts. I have a block of writing and that might take many redrafts and turn in to a number of stories, but I won't know if at the beginning if it’ll be one or two or three. There have been years between first and final draft and sometimes there is almost no resemblance because I have discarded a lot on the way, but there might be a core central feeling I've been chasing through the drafts.
Do you ever set out with a particular topic in mind, or have an issue you specifically want to explore through your writing?
I’ve tried on a number of occasions to write to specifically about something, a particular issue and that has never worked. I think the idea of starting with something ahead of the story doesn’t work for me, it grounds me and brings me to a halt. When they work it’s a starting image, something I overheard or a lorry we overtook on the road from Cork to Donegal and the smell from it. If I start by saying “I'm going to write a story about…” that usually doesn’t work for me. It’s been interesting now I’ve a body of work to look back on to see there were preoccupations emerging that I wasn’t conscious of when I was writing and certainly I didn’t write with any particular theme in mind. It’s interesting to read the reviews and see people commenting on different things.
Mother-daughter relationships are at the heart of a couple of the stories in the collection. I'm thinking of The Art of Foot Binding and Silhouette. Is that dynamic a preoccupation?
Mother–daughter relationships in Silhouette and The Art of Foot Binding both grew out of the same block of writing that was messy and tangled. I was conscious of issues faced by women, the struggles of women. I couldn’t explain how they went their separate ways. In Footbinding I had an image of two Irish girls interested in the idea of footbinding. It lodged in my head. I was interested in the idea of footbinding as a means of showing the problems women face in a historical context. It’s nothing new that women face discriminations and lack of equality, so I was interested in a historical perspective against a contemporary story. Something that interested me about footbinding, was that it is an awful practice of patriarchal society carried out by women, on other women. So it was about the complicity of women in other women’s suffering.
The book introduces a modern cast of Irish characters. They seem like ordinary people doing ordinary things, and yet you have found something compelling and unique about them, if not their circumstances. How did you manage to make the everyday so absorbing?
It seems to me that everyday life and the world we go about in, doing ordinary things, is a strange and frightening place and we don’t need to have any major dramas of an international scale to experience fear, or to feel on the edge of crisis. There is a sense of crisis in the everyday and I'm conscious of that. I am drawn to people on an edge of something that might not be immediately obvious to others looking on. Lives in quiet crisis are what interest me.
How do you plot?
My plotting process, my whole writing process is all over the place. I start longhand, roughly jotting hand written in notebooks for a couple of weeks or months. I’ll come up with all kinds of plots that might have little resemblance to the end result. I try to be a plotter but I’m not good at it. As I write and rewrite the story will change. I am happy to go with that. I understand for me that’s how my stories happen, they emerge out of the rewriting. The rewriting isn’t just about polishing, it’s about finding the story. I just go with it and I take the approach that nothing is wasted. I have a lot of scenes I write that never make their way in to that story but they’ll come back for something else.
Do you prefer to work on one piece until you feel it is finished, or do you flit between stories?
I’m usually working on a couple of different things at any one time. Some would advise you to work on one thing and finish it. I like my way because if you get stuck on one you can move to the other. I’m very fortunate to have a writing group I meet twice a month. We've been doing that for four years now. It's fantastic. We met in late 2010 and the four of us formed a group.
How important is that safe space to share your work in its early stages?
“Safe” is such a good and relevant word. It is a safe place and that is crucial. To know in the very early stages of development, that you can bring something and know it isn’t working, that you can trust they wont crush you or be nasty about it, but they’ll say "this needs more work", or "I'm not getting this." It is invaluable. It's great having people identify an area that isn’t working. If more than one person identifies it then you know that really needs to be fixed.
I get feedback on my work in progress. We email the work in advance, prepare notes and then meet and share thoughts. We comment and offer solutions if we can. It’s one of the things I would say to anyone starting out- join a writing group. The writers are honest, and kind at the same time, which is crucial. They would never tell me something is working when it isn’t even if that is easier. It is so difficult for writers to judge our own work. A good writing group shouldn’t have people dictating what others should do with a story. We try and be aware of what others are trying to achieve with a piece rather than imposing our own styles or ideas.
Tell us about the practical side of getting published. What was your route to making it in to the bookshop.
All About Alice was published in Spring 2012 in The Stinging Fly and they published another of my stories in Winter 2012, and from there Declan Meade approached me about working towards a collection. The process started then and took a number of years before I had enough stories that worked together. I then met Lucy Luck at Aitken Alexander, who is a fantastic agent. We were introduced at a book launch in Dublin and I was lucky to not have to go through that very difficult process of going out and finding an agent.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing a couple of new stories and a novel that grew out of a short story in 2012. It started in a workshop with Nuala O’Connor in Waterford. I tried to write it from so many angles with many plot ideas. I have so many versions on my computer, then I realized it was a longer piece. It has come together and joined up to make the novel that’s a work in progress.
Who and what are you reading?
Nuala O’ Connor, Mavis Gallant’s short stories, Lucia Berlin, The Long Gaze Back and the Winter Pages anthology.
Which writers influence or inspire you?
I like re-reading Flannery O'Connor, Anne Enright and Kevin Barry. I also like innovative writers like Eimear McBride. Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond really impressed me.
What advice can you offer to new writers?
I started trying to write at home but without workshops and the writing group I wasn’t getting anywhere. The Short Story Festival in Cork is when the writing started working. My social life revolves around my writing group, my book club and going to writing festivals. Get a good writing group who you can share your work with.