Award-winning poet and writer, Una Mannion talks candidly with Dave Kavanagh about her early life, her writing day and why she finds particular comfort in prose.
DK: First off, your debut novel, A Crooked Tree is to be published by Faber this coming spring, huge congratulations on that. How long was this novel in the making, and where did the inspiration for it come from?
Una Mannion: Thank you very much. The book will be published by both Faber and Harper Collins (USA) in January 2021. I have been working on it since 2016 on and off and was finding it hard to progress, so in January 2018 I had to reckon with myself. Was I going to do this or not? I committed completely and that year I spent all my spare time trying to write and in January 2019 submitted it to an agent.
I had an image of a twelve-year-old girl being put out of the car at dusk long before I began the book and when I decided on place and the time, Pennsylvania in the early 1980s, these started to shape both the atmosphere and plot. The story is told by the girl’s sister who looks back at her standing on the side of the road in the coming dark, sensing that something terrible will happen and already feeling responsibility.
While I was writing the book, I watched Stranger Things with my kids and was struck by their worldview. They didn’t say that the Upside Down or all the paranormal stuff seemed implausible, what they found hard to believe was the absence of adults in the lives of the kids. Where are the parents? I grew up in the seventies and eighties and I began to think about both the dangers and gifts of that freedom and the intensity of relationships between friends and siblings in the face of familial and social breakdown.
DK: You grew up in Philadelphia and attended university in Tennessee. What influence do those formative years have on your writing? And do you consider yourself American or Irish?
Una Mannion: I just watched the stunning documentary My Octopus Teacher and have been thinking about first places or childhood places and how they shape us and our sensibilities. In the film the narrator who is emotionally and creatively broken goes back to the ocean where he spent his childhood on the West Cape in South Africa. Every day he swims in the kelp forest and literally immerses himself in that environment, tries to be inside it. It is staggeringly beautiful, and the film shows how when you really look, a place starts to speak. There are countless narratives.
I grew up on the edge of a hiking trail surrounded by woods and it was deeply formative for me. When I started writing, I found I kept coming back to those the woods and trails. For me it is the site of my first yearnings and loss, the home I can never get back to. It is also a geography that resonates with other stories. We were always conscious not just of the Revolutionary War but the Lenape stories connected to the topography. It felt like hallowed ground and we spent an inordinate amount of time in those woods. It became, for me, an imaginative landscape, a place I can still conjure, the turns of the trail, how the light falls through the canopy, the tree roots that break through the surface. I hadn’t been back in over thirty years and I returned while I was writing the book and walked the Horseshoe Trail. When I saw the first marker, a yellow rectangle painted on a tree, my throat caught. Everything these woods had given me.
I moved to a mountain in south-eastern Tennessee when I was 17. I had never spent time in the South before but in many ways it felt familiar. Southern storytelling reminded me of Ireland where I had been visiting since I was a child. Not just the stories of outcasts and longing but how stories were the language, the way people interacted. I loved it and my reading life began there.
I have lived in Philadelphia, the American South and Ireland and ultimately it is hard for me to say what I am because I am all of those things. I consider myself American because that’s where I was born and raised but there are cracks in that identity because I have spent the majority of my life here in Ireland outside America. I think I will always feel a bit on the outside in both places and maybe in some ways that separation is why I started to write in the first place.
DK: Tell us a little about your journey to becoming a writer? And when did you realise that you had arrived?
Una Mannion: Oh God, that journey is full of wrong turns, dead ends, shipwrecks. I’m definitely on the long road and most of the disruptions have been self-sabotage. It took me a very long time to get beyond a pile of images or anecdotes I had been collecting and to actually try to craft something and to share it. So getting over myself was really the first step. I think the point of the journey for me is that I will never arrive and I have to accept that. What I do will always be fraught with uncertainty, disappointment but also possibility. I think I am trying to reach towards something but the whole point is that it will always elude me, and I will always fall short.
DK: You edit The Cormorant, along with Louise Kennedy and Eoin McNamee, which though not limited to the region, is very much rooted in Sligo. Tell us about the future plans for that project?
Una Mannion: The Cormorant is a broadsheet of poetry and prose. We’re about to publish the 5th issue although I am not sure how we will distribute or where because as I type this the government has announced we are moving to level 5 again. The broadsheet is rooted in Sligo and is committed to publishing new writers alongside published writers. I think this ethos is the broadsheet’s heart and energy. For the moment, we’d love to keep printing it. I love that it is a tactile and beautiful thing that you hold in your hand. So far we’ve published over 150 writers.
DK: Along with your editorship on The Cormorant you also teach, you are a mother, and I understand that you run an author series at Sligo Library. How do you balance all of that and still find time to write? Are you ultra disciplined?
Una Mannion: I just spent a week incapable of doing anything but sleep, my right arm is in a cast and like many people I am feeling anxious about the months ahead. I know the work could be a salve but at the moment, I am finding it difficult. Ultra-disciplined? No. I have periods of time where I just crash and then durations of intense discipline. I don’t write every day. I write when I can. I try to cordon off time where I write in intense bursts, day and night for two or three weeks where I am totally immersed. I am not sure this is a recommended practice, but for me it has been a necessity because of work, being a mother to three kids and other commitments. I find it hard to dip in and out the work; I feel like I need to plunge into the world and be completely in it.
Over the past few years, I have had to just put myself in situations where I have no choice but to write. I arrive hours early at the school pick-up or at discos, writing in the car, a sort of self-inflicted lock-in. I started doing writing retreats and this is where I have done the bulk of writing. Shutting down the outside world is very hard. I just read an interview Kevin Barry did with the Irish Times where he talks about ‘fighting off the conscious world’ each morning on the way to his writing shed. That resonates for me, something about the trance of the work is lost when you let the phone or emails or the news slip in too much.
DK: So, are you a planner or do you allow each story to dictate its own route?
Una Mannion: I want to be a planner. It would be such a relief to know where the story is going, to have a clear vision of it but I am not a planner either in my day to day life or in my creative one. I keep finding that something gathers in the story that I hadn’t planned, that I am not even aware of and that the emotional weight is there and not where I thought it was. It’s as if stories have their own unconscious life and these latent forces start to gather. So as terrifying as it is, I face the abyss pretty much every time. With the novel I had two images that I knew would begin and end the book but had no idea what would happen in the space between them.
DK: Is teaching something you do to the pay the bills, or is it something you would do anyway? And if you had the opportunity to be ‘just a writer’ would you grasp it with both hands?
Una Mannion: For the very first time in my working life, I have taken a semester off in order to write. I imagined how much I would get done, all the productivity. That hasn’t happened. This past month when Louise Gluck won the Nobel Prize for Literature I read how she spent two years at a desk trying to write and she couldn’t, so she took a job teaching and suddenly she started writing again. She says, “Your work will come out of an authentic life.” I am still trying to figure out what my authentic life is. Teaching makes me feel alive, connected, stimulated. It also exhausts me and sometimes leaves little head or emotional space for work. But it feels real and energises and disciplines me. Students have gifted me in immeasurable ways, making me feel better about who I am and what I have to give. With them I feel like I am part of something. Teaching pays the bills but it is more than that.
DK: You are well known for your short stories and well as your award-winning poetry, but which is the favourite child, or are they both equally important to you?
Una Mannion: I feel slightly embarrassed when people ask me about poetry because I would not call myself a poet. I think I write prose and the times when the subject matter demands a different resolution or when the language starts to get heightened or really compressed, it has become a poem. But it wasn’t really a conscious choice. I am afraid that poets reading this will be horrified but all of the poems I have written began as prose pieces or lists or notes to myself that seemed to seek form. I hope this doesn’t excommunicate me, but it is the truth. I love poetry and often read poetry before I start writing to try to get my head into words, but I am more comfortable in prose.
DK: You have won a number of awards, including The Hennessy New Irish Writing Award for Poetry. The Cúirt International Short Fiction Award and Doolin Short Story Prize in the same year. Also the Ambit Fiction Award and Allingham Short Fiction Prize. How important are these awards to an emerging writer? What do they mean to you?
Una Mannion: I started writing with a group about five or six years ago. Most of us were beginners and after a few months one of the experienced members convinced the rest of us to submit work to the Fish Short Story Prize. We all made the longlist or shortlist and while we weren’t placed or anything there was just a tremendous sense of achievement. We were collectively exuberant, and it helped to motivate us to keep going. Writing is solitary and lonely and there is no gauge but your own to tell you if you are getting it approximately right, hitting truths, emotional chords or whatever. The recognition and encouragement those prizes gave me has been invaluable and I am so grateful to the organisers and judges. I think for many emerging writers in Ireland, these have been stepping stones. It also has kept writing accessible. The competitions are largely anonymous so it’s okay to be writing from the outside and to have never published before. They are so important for new writing.
DK: I recently spoke to Kevin Barry, who also bases himself in the Northwest; what is it about that area that seems not only to produce native talent, but to nurture creatives, and in particular, writers?
Una Mannion: I was just reading Kevin Barry’s essay on Dermot Healy where he talks about ‘the strange sea-blown forces and occult shimmers’ that prevail on this island and that are tapped in Healy’s work. People talk about the psychogeography of place which I guess is a term generally used for cities and built environments but when you stand on top of Knocknarea or Carrowkeel or walk through the Ballygawley hills and encounter these ancient cairns and structures, markers that not only commemorate but speak to one another across the topography, you start to feel something else shaping the experience of being here. In this place, I feel there is always something mysterious and a story for every quarter acre. I remember my very first trip to Innismurray. On the map, every rock outcrop, field, hillock had a place name connecting it to a story about the nature of that place or something that happened there, the map itself a palimpsest. The Atlantic is here and the grey town and we are hemmed in all sides by hills. It has been the most magnetic force in my life and I kept coming and then stayed. This place works on the psyche. Dermot Healy spent almost thirty years looking from his headland at the Maugherow shoreline and bird migrations; Sean McSweeney up the road was painting the same bog land for forty years. There is something here beyond solitude and it has drawn so many writers: Kevin Barry, Dermot Healy, Leland Bardwell, Molly McCloskey, Tess Gallagher, Jean Valentine, Brian Leyden, Louise Kennedy, Niamh MacCabe.
DK: Finally, what single piece of advice have you found most useful to your career as a writer, and where did that advice come from?
Una Mannion: Write. It came from everyone.