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Vivian doesn’t feel like she fits in – never has. She lives alone in a house in north Dublin that her great-aunt left to her. She has no friends, no job and few social skills. She knows she is different. Before they died, her parents used to tell her she was a 'changeling' who belonged to another world. Each day, she walks the streets of Dublin, looking for a way to get there. ‘I need a big wind that could turn into a cyclone because today I'm going to visit Yellow Road and Emerald Street. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the cyclone carried Dorothy to Oz, and she followed the Yellowbrick Road to the Emerald Palace to find her way home.’ It doesn't work. After all, Dublin has a certain charm, but no actual magic. And so Vivian sets off on a new quest: to find a friend. A very specific kind of friend. ‘WANTED: Friend Called Penelope. Must Enjoy Talking Because I Don't Have Much to Say. Good Sense of Humour Not Required Because My Laugh Is A Work in Progress. Must Answer to Penelope: Pennies Need Not Apply.’ A Penelope replies, but will the two women become friends? Will she make a connection with another person in this world so she can stop searching for a portal to another one? She sets off for their first meeting. ‘I huddle and tighten myself against the wind and think up ways to describe it to Penelope. Is a “rape” of a wind too strong for the first sentence of a first meeting?’ Rooted Dublin’s Northside, Eggshells is a whimsical, touching story about loneliness and friendship and hope.
Q&A with Caitriona Lally
When did you realise that you wanted to write?
It was never a major realisation, more a slow gnawing, a feeling I should be writing. I had written stories for fun as a child but had gotten out of the habit. I studied English in college, and that was brilliant for my reading, but I didn't have the confidence to even think about writing then. It was only in my 30s that I talked myself into joining a writing class to make me write. I had been running marathons but injured my knee, and when it became clear after surgery that I wouldn't be running seriously again, I decided I needed a new obsession, so writing was it! I would hugely recommend joining a writing group - to meet other people who want to write and to learn how to give feedback, and accept it without weeping.
Tell us about being selected as one of the winners of The Irish Writers Centre Novel fair 2014.
That was the most incredible moment. I had entered my 10,000 words in October 2013, and had given up on the idea that I might be selected. So I was in the process of forcing myself to keep plugging away at the novel – at this stage I was on the fourth or fifth rewrite – and trying to stay motivated. Then when I got the phone call from Brendan at the Irish Writers' Centre, I just shrieked and shrieked, there was no sense out of me for a while. I suppose it was the first real validation I'd had for my writing – I had never been published anywhere before this, so I didn't really know if what I was doing was worth anything.
The Novel Fair itself was fantastic. I'd encourage anyone who wants to write a novel to enter – if nothing else, it gives you a deadline to work to. So, 12 of us were selected to meet lots of publishers and agents for 15 minutes, and pitch our novels to them. It was very intense, but great fun – and lovely to meet another bunch of writers. I got an agent, Ger Nichol, and then Liberties Press signed me, both as a direct result of the fair.
When did the idea of Vivian come to you? Before or after deciding to write about the streets of Dublin?
Somewhere in the middle I think. I'd been made redundant in 2011, and spent lots of time walking from my house in Cabra into town. I'd started noticing street signs that had letters missing, and I was making notes of them. Then the notebooks began to include interesting conversations I overheard on the bus or buildings that seemed to belong in fairytales or Bond movies. I thought I might write an essay about Dublin streets, but then I realised I was having more fun imagining why these street signs might have letters missing, or what these buildings could house. So Vivian grew from those imaginings. I decided to go the fiction route, but I think a lot of her impressions of Dublin are mine.
I am from Dublin and know most of the areas mentioned in Eggshells, yet have never viewed them for the angle that Vivian did. Was it a conscious decision to portray Dublin from a new angle, or was that the original goal?
There was no conscious decision to do that, but I'm delighted you think it's a new angle. It's just the way my strange mind works. I think that came from spending so much time wandering around Dublin; when you're not working, your mind is free to mull on things. Vivian views places as possessing secrets or magic, and a lot of the fun of writing Eggshells came from Vivian's perspective coming up against the realities of Dublin and its people. She's seeking a pattern or a code that will help her to find out who she is, so everything in the city becomes packed with potential meaning.
Vivian may be one of the most memorable characters I have read in years. She is considered ‘slow’, ‘different’ or ‘away with the fairies’ yet has a realness about her. Do you think the Vivians of this world are given a fair presence in fiction?
I'm delighted you find her memorable – I loved writing her. And I'm glad you think there's a realness about her, I didn't want her to be entirely in her own world, I wanted her to have dealings with other people in the real world. I do think there are a fair few oddball narrators in fiction these days, particularly Irish fiction – Ray in Sara Baume's Spilll Simmer Falter Wither, and Johnsey in Donal Ryan's The Thing About December, for example. It can be very interesting to write about society from an outsider's perspective – the misfit can be better placed to see the nonsense of things considered normal – for example when Vivian visits her snooty sister and the sister is boasting about her kitchen and uses words like 'ergonomic, timeless, accents,' Vivian asks what accent the kitchen has.
This novel had me entranced from the get-go, with the randomness of Vivian’s thought process and her awkward social interactions. Do you think she would mind that I found her so amusing, or indeed, endearing?
Aw no, I think she likes meeting with kindness, but the problem is when she feels safe, she talks more. Some strangers she meets have sympathy for this awkward person, but then she pushes the conversation too far into a strange dimension, and their sympathy wanes. On the other hand, I think Vivian is very resilient – when she has very awkward social interactions, she acknowledges it but even if she gets upset, she just picks herself up and sets off on her next adventure. I liked that about her, her ability to shake off any meanness she encounters, and crucially, to not blame herself. I didn't want her to look inward too much, or dwell on her own shortcomings – I'm not sure she's even aware of them.
It was wonderful to read about Dublin’s North side, for a change. Most Dublin based fiction is either based in the leafy Southside or the coastal areas of North and South County Dublin. Did you have any favourite moments while walking the routes that Vivian took?
I've had feedback from some southside readers who wanted more of the book to be set in the southside suburbs, so maybe there is a bit of a bias! I didn't consciously set out to make it a northside novel, I just live on that side of the city and that's where I'm most familiar with. I had Vivian live near where I live, so my walks into the city centre were where I got most of my notes. If I lived on the southside, I'd have been writing about those streets. But I didn't want it to be a suburban novel – it's very much city centre-based.
In terms of favourite moments – I had one encounter with a group of men and women drinking on Sackville Street. That conversation made it into the book – firstly they asked for money for a hostel, then money for drink, and one of them shouted 'An alcoholic without alcohol is like a bird without feathers!' What a gift – I had to add that into the book. If you wander the streets for any length of time you'll either witness or be part of the strangest conversations. The conversation Vivian has with a woman who says she's going to meet the president came from my encounter with a man who stopped me to say he was going to meet the president for lunch and asked where he could buy new shoes. We ended up having a lengthy discussion about the merits of cheap shoes that wouldn't last versus expensive shoes that you might not wear again, until I eventually realised that he wasn't altogether right in the head and that there was probably no lunch with the president.
Vivian’s trip to the city centre hairdresser was one of my favourite scenes in Eggshells. The contrast of the salon’s brightness and the character’s grey world worked so well. What was the inspiration for this particular scene?
It's so lovely to hear people's favourite scenes, and I love the way everyone's is different. I really enjoyed writing that scene. I'm not sure how exactly it came about, but I suppose there's some truth in it for me. I love going to the hairdresser because there's coffee and biscuits and magazines, but I find having conversations into the mirror uncomfortable, I'm not a big fan of seeing myself in the mirror while I look at the hairdresser. So, like with lots of Vivian's characteristics, I exaggerated my own unease to have Vivian refuse to look in the mirror at all. Also, hairdressers always have wonderful shiny hair and beautifully made-up faces, and I feel like this undone frump sitting in the chair wolfing the biscuits, which helped with writing about Vivian's discomfort.
There are many famous locations peppered throughout the book. Which would be your personal favourite?
Hmm, tough question, many of my favourites have made it into the book. I love the Natural History Museum, the one with all the dead animals. I find it fascinating – the old typewritten cards, the creepy-looking animals, the massive lobsters and crabs that I can't believe come from Irish waters. I love Trinity College too, I studied there ten years ago, and I came back to the college to work as a cleaner. As a cleaner, you get to see the insides of these beautiful old buildings at 6:00 a.m. when there's nobody else around, it can be magical, and sometimes quite spooky.
Vivian has a love of words, even writing her favourites down in a notebook. Have you ever done this yourself?
Yes, this is one of the ways Vivian and I overlap! I have a tendency to make lists of beautiful words, so for example, when Vivian writes the names of the moths and butterflies in the Natural History Museum, I did that myself before the character of Vivian even came to me. I have scraps of paper in boxes full of beautiful-sounding words that may never go into a book, I just like collecting them. I love passing shops with lists of the random things they sell – I'm the weirdo standing outside with a notebook and pen, listing them all.
Eggshells is published by Liberties Press and is available in paperback and ebook format. You can order your copy, with Free Worldwide Postage and 10% discount, here. The ebook can be ordered via amazon link below: