Interview with an Author: Ruth Gilligan

Irish author Ruth Gilligan started writing when she was in Transition Year, and her first novel Forget was published in 2006. Ruth was the youngest person ever to reach the top of the Irish bestsellers list. Two more novels followed, before Ruth took a break from the publishing world to begin her studies in the UK.

Ruth studied English at Cambridge, and also holds an MA in Creative Writing from both Yale and the University of East Anglia, as well as a PhD in English from the University of Exeter. She’s currently a full time lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham.

Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan, Ruth’s fourth book, was published in January 2017, her first book since 2009. Ruth told me about bringing work home, and how plans are going for her upcoming wedding.

Image via Goodreads

Image via Goodreads

How would you describe Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan in five words?

Interwoven stories of identity/home.

Were there any of the three characters you identified with most?

Aisling is the most obviously autobiographical of the three – I am also Irish and living in London; I also once had a Jewish boyfriend; I also struggle with the pangs of homesickness versus the blissful autonomy of living abroad. Then again, I definitely have the same eager-to-pleaseness (and name) as Ruth, and also the same oddness/love of puns as Shem, so I guess I’m a weird combination of all three.

Which of them was your favourite to write? Why?

Shem was always my favourite to write, just because I love the complexities of his story, the bizarreness of his circumstances, and also his irreverent tone. That said, some reviewers have commented that he feels more like a construct than a wholly believable character in his own right. So perhaps there is a danger in enjoying the writing of a character too much – perhaps that does somehow prevent them from truly coming to life…

It’s been a while since your last book, as you’ve grown yourself how do you feel your writing has changed?

I feel like it has changed immensely! I was 16 when I wrote my first novel; I am now 29. When I started out, I adhered very closely to the whole ‘write what you know’ mantra – and with good reason. However, as time went on, I began to feel very constrained by that, and also like I had been pigeon holed because of it. So I took some time out and decided I wanted to do something totally different – to write about something I absolutely DIDN’T know (at least, to begin with). I spent five years in total researching and writing Nine Folds, but the journey of discovery was so fascinating, and that is now bound up, for me, in the whole writing process. It’s difficult, of course, but it’s also immensely liberating.

Ruth Gilligan | Image via the University of Birmingham

Ruth Gilligan | Image via the University of Birmingham

You lecture in Creative Writing, what are your top three tips for someone thinking to start their own novel?

  • I really like to have a plan; that is, a sense, from the outset, of your beginning, your middle and your end. So I think it’s worth getting a structure (however rough) in place before you launch. This may change wildly over time, but I think embarking without a framework in place is a risky business indeed.
  • This might seem to slightly contradict the above, but I would also say SHUT UP AND WRITE THE THING! For all that I think a bit of a plan/structure is key, I think that people often spend FOREVER doing character profiles and research and exercises and mind maps and post its and basically ANYTHING they can possibly think of to ‘prepare’ rather than to write. But actually, until you have some words down on the page, it is impossible to know exactly what is going to work and what isn’t. My advice is to get a rough draft down and THEN focus on actually making it good. Otherwise it may never happen.
  • READ! And then read some more! So many students tell me they don’t read because they don’t want their style or ideas to be influenced while they work, but I think that’s nuts – you need to keep your mind brimming and your critical eye ticking and your taste forming all the time. This is essential to any writing project. It’s also naïve to think that being influenced is a bad thing – we are constantly being shaped by the books we have read. Such is the beauty (and importance) of fiction.

How do you write? Have you got a routine, a space, a play list etc?

 As you say, I lecture full-time, so during term I’m afraid I don’t get nearly enough writing done as I would like. The students come first – their projects, their requests – they take up most of my time. During the holidays, though, I try to really crack on. I begin the day by making a cup of tea and getting back into bed with whatever novel I’m reading at the time. I find it a really good way to way up; to get the imaginative juices flowing. After an hour I get up and make breakfast, head to my desk, and write for the morning. I don’t really listen to music, and if I do it will only be something instrumental (for example The Gloaming, or Colm Mac Con Iomaire). Then I’ll go for a run to clear my head, eat some lunch, and then do some more writing/editing in the afternoon. That said, the imagination does start to tire after a full day, so in the late afternoon I’ll turn probably turn to whatever admin or reviewing tasks I have, just to change it up a bit.

You’re currently planning your wedding, how’s it going? (Is it a little smoother than Aisling’s?)

 It’s going very well, thank you! We got engaged almost a year ago, and I am a fairly organised (read: anal) person by nature, so we got a lot of the organising done pretty promptly. Slash, it turns out that in the Irish wedding industry everything books up MILES in advance, so we kind of had no choice but to be pretty proactive. We just did our tasting last week, which was a hoot, and the invites (and cheesy website) have finally been sent out, so yes, now it’s just a question of sitting tight until September (and also, crucially, planning the honeymoon…)

Noah and Aisling’s tattoo idea was very sweet, would you and your partner ever do something similar?

Not in a million years! I fainted when I got my ears pierced – I am pathetic. Lord knows what would happen to me if I tried to get a tattoo…

Sounds interesting? Check out my thoughts on the book!


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