Another beautiful Saturday here on the farm, another beautiful interview with a beautiful writer. Today, the Irish noveslist Oona Frawley.
1. Tell me about your latest project.
I’ve just published my first novel, Flight, with Tramp Press. It’s about four travelers whose lives intertwine in Dublin as Ireland is about to vote about citizenship laws: Sandrine, a Zimbabwean teacher, has left behind her family and is secretly pregnant as she works as a carer for an elderly Irish couple with dementia; Tom and Clare, the couple she cares for, have returned to live in Ireland after decades in Vietnam and the United States; and Elizabeth, Tom and Clare’s daughter, is strangely out of place in Ireland after her peripatetic childhood.
Besides a few non-fiction projects (I’m an academic by day), I’m writing a new novel based on my parents’ experience as Irish immigrants living on ranches in New Mexico and Arizona during the 1960s.
2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?
I was an obsessive reader as I suspect many writers-in-the-making are. It helped that my parents were actors who prized language, so the house was filled with books and scripts. I would cue my dad’s lines from a very early age and read parts opposite him. My parents’ friends were regular dinner party guests who recited monologues by everyone from Shakespeare to Beckett, sang bawdy songs and told daft stories; there were inevitably singsongs that sometimes ended in sentimental tears. It seemed natural that I’d read tons as a result of the atmosphere; left to my own devices, I was either making up never-ending stories with dolls or reading in a nook in some room.
3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?
I don’t have a routine – the demands of my days change too much – but I do write every day in some form. That could amount to an hour’s intense writing or a period of editing; the editing would always be a longer period of time than the writing. If I’m editing I always have a cup of something hot so that I can read closely – two hands on the keyboard would mean I’d be more inclined to add words rather than focus on what I had there already. If I am aiming to produce something by a particular date than I am always very focused and will do nothing else; my determination has been to never miss a deadline.
4. Who are you reading now?
I’m reading Suite Francaise by Iréne Némirovsky, which is biting and and quite distressing. I’ve just opened Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, and also have Bill Bryson’s Home on the go. I’m also reading a lot of academic work on ecology and the environment… there are books in every room in the house that I’m in the midst of reading.
??5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?
I tend towards work that is brilliant at evoking place and feeling. Ondaatje’s The English Patient is a book that I re-read often; like all of his work it eschews straightforward time-ordered narration for something far more evocative, and is marked by a lyricism almost unsurpassed in prose. It is one of the perfect books to my mind. Thoreau’s Walden remains a book of inspiration for me through several decades; I loved the power of his revolutionary vision as a teenager, and now find I love different things – the language itself, the passionate denial of consumer capitalism. Marguerite Duras is another favourite author; The Lover is her best known, but I would re-read anything of hers when I spy a title on the shelf – there is a terrifying depth to the work, a philosophical quality matched only by a writer like Beckett, but it is accompanied by something searingly emotive.
6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?
The simple answer is that I’ve never aimed to build a writing platform; I wrote for myself for many years and never considered a platform – I think that could be detrimental to the craft, in truth.
7.What is a typical day like for you?
Every day begins with a run – if it’s a weekday when I have to get the kids up and out to school, the run is on a treadmill in the kitchen; if it’s a weekend it’ll be outside unless I feel like I haven’t managed to see my kids and my husband much during the week, in which case it’s back on the treadmill so that I can talk to them at the same time. The run is essential to clear my head, get my thoughts moving and set up my day. Then it’s getting myself and the kids to school / work. Work consists of meetings and giving lectures / seminars and is very intense, so I’ll usually stop everything at lunchtime and write after I talk with my husband on the phone and go for a walk. I tend to get writing done just before I go home for the day; I’ll get a coffee and sit there quietly for half an hour.
If it’s a day when I’m working at home and have no lectures to give, then as soon as the kids are at school I’ll sit down and write until I have to pick them up, so that would be about 4 hours straight minimum.
There are also a lot of days when I only think-write, and I need those as well; days when nothing goes down on the screen when I’m too busy with my day job but when I daydream about what I want to do while doing other work.
8. Describe your dream writing space?
Since having children I no longer have an ideal writing space; I’ll write anywhere. I love writing in my living room, which is womb-like. The kitchen has windows on three sides and feels like it’s in the garden, so I do a different kind of writing there that is less mood-dependent, more practical. I’m fickle, though; I like writing in cafes, on trains…
9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?
A review of my (first) novel was critical of what was perceived as a lack of plotting and painfully slow pacing. I read it late at night and then was restlessly awake; my husband was already asleep and I didn’t like to wake him to blurt it all out. I fretted over it, in and out of sleep, and by the morning I felt very clearly that I was trying to do something very different to pushing a story along at a clip. I was able to move on much more quickly than I would have thought possible; I felt that the reviewer simply didn’t get my book and I knew that I couldn’t please everyone.
My reaction to a critique of an early draft of my first academic book, which tore it to shreds, was different – I was shocked, but mostly because I recognized that it was a fair assessment. I set to and revised the hell out of the book, rewriting the whole thing in about 6 months. It was accepted for publication then and I knew it was a far better book than it would have been without the initial critique. So I think you have to try to be objective: some critiques will be unfair or reflect a different taste, and some will be bang on. The trick is to realize that neither reflects upon you as a person.
10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?
Born in New York City to Irish actor parents, Oona Frawley spent a lot of her childhood backstage, hearing plays through green room speakers, cueing her father for roles and listening to her mother sing. Her parents’ attachment to Ireland meant that the family travelled ‘home’ once a year. Oona eventually settled in Ireland in 1999 full-time, and completed her PhD (City University of NY) in 2001. Prior to becoming a full- time academic Oona worked in a beer factory, and as a lifeguard, a waitress, an ad copywriter, and a freelance editor. Oona has taught at UCD, QUB and TCD, and has lectured English at Maynooth since 2008. She is married, has two children, and runs daily – slowly but compulsively. This is her first novel. Flight is available from Tramp.ie, or from Kennys.ie with free worldwide shipping. Tramp Press is a new independent Irish fiction publisher. You can find out more at www.tramp.ie. Follow us on twitter @tramppress and @OonaFrawley.