For those that haven’t heard about Herself Alone in Orange Rain yet, can you tell us a bit about it?
Herself Alone in Orange Rain is part two of my Celtic Colours trilogy which explores 100 years of conflict in Ireland. Part one, Green Dawn at St Enda’s, focuses on the 1916 Dublin Easter Rising and came out last year to coincide with the Rising’s centenary. Green Dawn’s main protagonist is a schoolboy, Finn, who becomes embroiled in the Easter week rebellion.
But this is not a typical trilogy where part two picks up shortly after wherever part one left off and Herself Alone in Orange Rain is mainly set in the 1980s. The novel is about a young woman who joins the IRA, becoming an active service volunteer for them and taking part in many of the high profile attacks of that period. Before the late 1970s women were not commonly ‘on the front line’ for the IRA but that’s what I wanted to explore so that meant setting the book about 70 years later than Green Dawn.
The main character in Orange Rain is a 19 year old art student called Caoilainn. A family connection runs through the whole trilogy so she’s related to Finn from part one (I’m not saying how– you’ll have to read to find out!). This way I can show how the Irish conflict impacts on one family down the generations. Caoilainn (and Finn) is entirely fictional but her experiences, attitudes, decisions and actions are based on the real life accounts of IRA women from this period. I think people who’ve read Green Dawn may be surprised because part two is very different, telling a more emotive and divisive story. But the one thing that both books have in common, and part three will develop this too, is the cost of conflict.
Where did the inspiration come from for the book?
Once I had the idea for Green Dawn and started doing the research I quickly realized I would be writing a trilogy; there was too much for one novel. I always felt part two would be set during the 1970/80s because, historically, that was a pivotal period in terms of IRA activity but originally I thought I’d be writing about a man because, probably like most people, I assumed the IRA was all male. Then a friend and fellow writer, Natalie Scott, said it would be interesting to tell the story from a female perspective. This was an intriguing proposition that raised lots of questions about the role of women in the IRA and about how that is portrayed in fiction so I started researching, discovered that women had indeed operated in combatant roles for the Provisional IRA and from the extensive research came the novel. In fact there was such a wealth of research to do that the novel actually became my creative writing PhD project.
What was the writing process like for the book, did it take you long to complete?
The whole process of researching, writing and editing took me three years because that’s how long I had to do the PhD. But of that the research and the editing took far more time than the initial drafting because doing a novel in an academic context for a PhD meant I
had to go much deeper with the research. Handily it has resulted in a much strong, more maturely written novel, I feel.
Now that the book is about to be released, what are you working on next?
I’m furiously tapping away at part three of the trilogy which currently has the working title White Leaves of Peace. This concluding part is focused on life in Ireland since the signing of the 1998 Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and will go up to 2016, looking at whether or not there truly is peace in the north of Ireland. Again there is a family tie the main protagonist, a young man called Cian, is related to Caoilainn from Orange Rain (but again, I’m not telling you how).
You’ve written in a whole range of areas, from non-fiction to flash fiction, do you find it difficult switching between them?
I don’t really find switching between types of writing difficult. After I’ve finished doing this feature I’ll be back later today to working on part three of the novel. I just take a short brain break in between, I’ll probably go to the gym. What also helps is thinking about what I’m writing before I sit down to do it. I write in my head constantly and if I know tomorrow I’m doing a short story I’ll be thinking about it when I get up, while I’m in the shower, eating breakfast, cleaning up etc. so that when I sit down I’m already in the ‘short story’ zone.
You’ve also been a writer in residence on several occasions, what was that experience like?
Being a writer in residence is, aside from writing, my favourite writer’s job because it gives you an extended opportunity to work with others on a particular project that really focuses creative energy and sees amazing results produced. When I was working on the Silent Voices project in Helmsley for an exhibit at nearby Rievaulx Abbey I got to work with an entire primary school of enthusiastic young writers who were all thrilled to be able to exercise their creativity.
More recently I’ve been writer in residence for the Crossing the Tees book festival, working with them on a brand new aspect to the festival: a short story competition. And I’ve been privileged to help emerging writers really develop their craft through a series of short story writing workshops and some one-to-one mentoring sessions, hopefully inspiring them to keep writing and one day seeing their work in print too.
Finally, can you recommend us a good book you’ve read recently?
I recently read what I think is one of the most brilliantly creative, experimental pieces of storytelling published in a long time. It’s called This is the End of the Story by Jan Fortune. She happens to be my editor so, admittedly, I read it because I was curious about her own writing, especially when I’ve had to read some harsh, but justified, criticisms of my writing from her. But, having read her novel, I hold my hands up and say my God, she can write and I consider myself lucky to have her as an editor, guiding my creative practice.
Big thanks to Tracy for answering my questions, and be sure to check out the other stops listed below!