DBF Interviews: Sinéad GleesonPublished 18/10/2016
Sinéad Gleeson is a writer, editor, freelance broadcaster and journalist. She currently presents The Book Show on RTE Radio One and was a reporter on the RTE Television arts show, The Works. She reviews books and writes arts features and interviews for The Irish Times, and is a regular critic on RTE Radio One’s Arena.
DBF patrons can see Sinéad and authors from The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland (New Island Books) in conversation with Sunday Independent Literary Editor Madeleine Keane on November 12th. A short story by Sinéad is featured in Looking At The Stars, a limited edition anthology of Irish writing edited by Kerrie O’ Brien which aims to raise €15,000 for the Rough Sleepers Team of the Dublin Simon Community. DBF will host contributors Colin Barrett, Tara Flynn, Joseph O’Connor and Mary O’Donnell in conversation with Rick O’Shea on the 12th November.
You wrote a beautiful piece for Granta entitled Blue Hills and Chalk Bones earlier this year, which described a very personal experience in your teenage years. It was received to great acclaim, and you were rightly lauded for both the beauty and intimacy of your writing. What prompted you to share such a personal experience? Did you have any hesitations about laying bare your trauma?
It’s been my intention to write about that trip to Lourdes for years, but in my mind it was always going to be a piece about the physical space of it – the geography, the grotto – and also the sense of religion. I didn’t know it was going to focus so much on the body, but when I began to write it, that’s what seemed to come to the surface. It was very unconscious, and If I’d set out to write something so personal, I know my conscious self would have shut it down immediately and started censoring that voice. The first draft of Blue Hills was very focused about the church, and less about myself, which was deliberate, I think. A good friend – who also happens to be a writer – read an early draft, and said I was hiding behind dogma and to knock it off. To her, as a reader, she said the most unique part of the story was my own experience – no one else had had that, or knew about it – and she advised me to focus on that. At first, I chopped a lot of stuff reluctantly, but I knew she was right.
You have been a champion of women’s writing, with the publication of anthology of Irish women writers The Long Gaze Back in September 2015, and more recently The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland. When did you first decide to promote women’s writing, or did you consciously decide to do so?
It goes way back, I think, all the way to studying English at UCD, and becoming aware of the so-called canon. That is, what’s taught, what’s championed, and who become the names that trip off people’s lips when we talk about Irish writers. It was clear to me in college, that this canon was full of men, and only a handful of women – and usually the same brilliant women, like Edna O’Brien, Mary Lavin, Elizabeth Bowen – got a mention, if at all. It was there in every Irish short story anthology published anytime before 2000. The gender imbalance was hard to ignore, so both The Long Gaze Back and The Glass Shore are an attempt to highlight forgotten writers. It’s also about uniting great writing by women in their space, their own canon, which highlights their omission from the mainstream one. Things have changed a lot, even in the last five years, so I’m hopeful that in the future, other anthologies of Irish writing will be more equally representative of both sexes.
You have published essays, short stories, fiction, non-fiction, radio essays, alongside compiling anthologies and presenting the weekly Book Show on RTE. Do you feel that your strengths lie more in the shorter form, and overseeing projects such as the production of The Glass Shore, or do you ever plan to grace us with a novel or non-fiction book?
As a freelancer, I’m usually spinning a lot of plates, so my pull towards essays and short fiction is that they feel like something achievable, something I can finish. A novel can feel like a mountain to climb and I’ve such respect for writers who publish them with regularity – look at someone like Donal Ryan, who has been so prolific with the novel, but is so gifted at the short story too. I should point out that I redraft and edit a lot, so even an essay will take months for me to finish! There’s nothing quick about shorter forms, sadly. I’m definitely taking a break from editing projects to try and focus on my own writing. I have part of a novel on the go, and have done for a while, but my heart and head are currently focused on non-fiction. I think it’s an essay collection, but it might just be a book. We get very hung up on form, and naming things, and for me at the moment, it’s about just trying to get the words on the page, and finish some things.
What have you read lately that has stayed with you?
A lot of what I read is for The Book Show, so there’s often a lot of interesting work put my way. I just read and really admired Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice, a book that blurs form between poetry, fiction and memoir. Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors is a short collection of micro essays on parenthood and writing. Paul Beatty has a shot at the Man Booker Prize for his comic novel about race in the US called The Sellout (he reminds me a little of George Saunders), and one of my books of the year is Max Porter’s stunning Grief is the Thing with Feathers. It’s so concise, and manages to be both heart-breaking and funny about grief, in such a poetic way. I’m also on a Shirley Jackson kick with her Dark Tales collection of stories, and a very fine biography of her by Ruth Franklin. I’m about to delve into Winter Papers (edited by Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith) too, a very fine addition to Irish publishing, and one of the fanciest literary journals I’ve ever seen.