Trinity writers making waves in the literary world

Writers from Trinity give their take on their student experience, how it influenced their writing career and what advice they’d give to aspiring writers

Irish writers are making waves in the national and international literary world. While Trinity may be the college of Wilde and Goldsmith, many students are perhaps more engaged with the works of recent graduates such as Sally Rooney and John Boyne. These two are but a select example of the many Trinity graduates who are both modernising and maintaining Trinity’s literary legacy. Speaking to Trinity News, Claire Hennessy, Giséle Scanlon and Sara Baume recounted their experience as students and writers.

Getting started

When asked if there was anything about the Trinity environment that made Claire Hennessy want to become a writer, she remarked that while she was already writing before college, and even though she was writing essays for class, her “writing life always felt very separate particularly from English, where the focus is on analysing existing literary texts rather than creating your own”. Hennessy studied History and English Literature as an undergraduate, before completing her Masters in Popular Literature and Creative Writing, which she described as “its own little world”. She has since published thirteen books, encompassing genres such as teen, young adult, and historical fiction. She has worked in publishing as an editor with Penguin Random House and was a long-time teaching favourite at the Centre for Talented Youth Ireland (CTYI) and the Irish Writers’ Centre, as well as co-founding and teaching in the Creative Writing school, The Big Smoke. She also co-runs the literary journal Banshee, with Banshee Press publishing its first book later this year, a debut story collection by Lucy Sweeney Byrne.

Regarding her experience as an English and History undergraduate, Hennessy believes she “didn’t take advantage of all the extra-curricular opportunities available”, even so, “the course taught me a lot about how to get work done when there isn’t a rigorous structure in place there’s sometimes a lot of eye-rolling over arts degrees due to the low number of contact hours, but putting you in a position where you have to manage your own time and energy is a really valuable experience”.

“Gisèle Scanlon described her first day in Trinity with nostalgia, emphasising how Trinity presents an environment cultivated for the appreciation of literature.”

Sara Baume too expanded on how differing skill sets can enhance writing technique. When probed about the possibility of transitioning from one art form to another, Baume’s advice to students wanting to branch to another artistic medium was “Do! There’s a significant number of writers who have emerged in the past couple of years from disciplines other than literature film, music, psychology and this seems to have enriched their writing in unique and interesting ways.” Not to belittle the necessity of reading within the practice of writing, she asserts that “you must read, of course, and if you are a student of literature and obviously already reading, then I’d emphasise the importance of looking to other fields, and other art forms in particular, in order to learn more about your own.” Baume studied Fine Art at IADT before obtaining her Masters in Creative Writing at Trinity. Baume also spent nine months as an intern at the Douglas Hyde Gallery in 2008 and has since published two novels, Spill Simmer Falter Wither in 2015, and A Line Made by Walking in 2017. Her novels reflect a fusion of visual and written images, and her work has received vast critical acclaim internationally as well as winning a range of awards, including the 2015 Rooney Prize for Literature.

Gisèle Scanlon described her first day in Trinity with nostalgia, emphasising how Trinity presents an environment cultivated for the appreciation of literature: “I was swept up and into the gentle hush of a close reading of Seamus Heaney’s poem The Tollund Man and for me, Heaney is just as potent and complicated as Homer, Dante, Gilgamesh, and in that sense for the last three years in Trinity I am simply an inheritor of literature, literature’s spiral-like lineage.” She expressed her interest in Irish identity, and mentioned a “famous lecture given in the Sorbonne the year of Joyce’s birth in 1882 by the French philosopher Ernest Renan called ‘What is a Nation?’” She explained how this lecture and the arguments surrounding it anticipated the European Union producing a multilingual identity.

Scanlon has attained her Masters in Creative Writing and Popular Literature in the last few years, and is currently studying the M.Phil in Art History and Ireland before applying for a PhD. Before returning to Ireland, Scanlon published two best-selling non-fiction books, The Goddess Guide and The Goddess Experience. In addition, she spent a decade as a culture critic, featuring in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Guardian, The Irish Times, Condé Nast Traveler, and Vogue. She is a recipient of the Galaxy Irish Book Award and two British Literary awards from the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of the College Green Literary Journal.

“Considering their popularity alongside other young Irish writers, it seems that Ireland is becoming a fertile landscape for emerging authors, a sentiment which all three authors agreed with.”

Scanlon’s experiences in Trinity have influenced her as a writer in varying ways. She describes her experience editing the College Green Literary Journal, and the “process of editing, and giving advice and feedback to writers” as an “immensely tender one”. When studying for her first Masters in Creative Writing, she was “workshopped in long fiction, the short story, creative nonfiction, the essay, poetry” reading every genre “with that discipline’s rules firmly in mind”. Scanlon values how “understanding the rules means that one can then experiment with breaking away from them,” referencing Irish writers who have exercised this skill such as “the fearless Anakana Schofield and Eimear McBride and Mike McCormack” as they have “opened up the sentence”. In addition, she cites examples further afield: “Ocean Vuong, Teju Cole, Han Kang, Deborah Levy, and Maggie Nelson whose Bluets is an astonishing piece of writing…there are many rule breakers creating fresh new things and reading these writers shows the newest possibilities.”

Achieving success

Regarding their respective literary successes, Hennessy expressed curiosity with the concept of “literary success”. She doesn’t “consider it a phrase that lives anywhere near” her, “perhaps that’s telling in itself once you’re publishing work, you realise that there are still all these other levels that you could potentially achieve – that others are achieving – as well as the difficulty of continuing to publish”. She sees moving up in the literary world as “a giant game of Snakes and Ladders”.

Baume too seemed to struggle with the term success, deeming it “hard to say”, as “the success itself has probably been the most unexpected part”. Related to her initial studying of Fine Art before Creative Writing, she said: “I always thought I’d be an artist; I’d always thought I’d work with my hands. The success I’ve experienced, though wonderful of course, has always, in my mind, been twinned with failure.”

Considering their popularity alongside other young Irish writers, it seems that Ireland is becoming a fertile landscape for emerging authors, a sentiment which all three authors agreed with, with Baume observing “at the moment especially, with the phenomenal success of Sally Rooney”. Hennessy concurred, saying: “Absolutely, and I’d suggest that anyone who thinks otherwise dives in a bit deeper there are sometimes times when media coverage or what the bestsellers are can make it feel as though only ‘certain books’ get published, which isn’t true at all.” She emphasised that there are “a wide range of writers across all genres doing cool stuff, as well as many opportunities for people to share their work whether that’s at an open mic event, or through a competition, or in a literary journal, or with a small press, or with a larger publisher”. On a similar note, Scanlon appealed to readers to “prioritise supporting independent publishers in 2019” like the Stinging Fly Press, Galley Beggar Press, and Tramp Press, all of whom support Irish literary talent.

Scanlon highlighted the “renaissance” the Irish literary landscape is currently experiencing, with a host of literary journals “continuing to offer space for interesting, challenging work”. She mentions how “Banshee, edited by Laura Cassidy, Eimear Ryan, and Claire Hennessy, The Stinging Fly, under the editor Sally Rooney, and Susan Tomaselli’s gorse are vibrant and important platforms for emerging talent”. Scanlon discusses the idea of a “new Irish writer” that has been slowly growing in the last decade: “In 2006, I counted it as unbelievable when my first book was discussed in British, French, and American Vogue in amongst only British and American titles, but finally just this month, March Vogue 2019 has a feature ‘How a New Wave of Irish Women Writers Are Making Their Mark’ and it celebrates this new female Irish writer who is the voice of Ireland. It’s very exciting to see, and long overdue.”

Scanlon mentions the impact of the death of the novelist and short-story writer William Trevor while she was a student at the Oscar Wilde Centre in 2016. “I’d been studying his work my first year and at the beginning of 2019 I was brought back to that time by Haruki Murakami’s short story, Birthday Girl, which was published and re-released for the author’s 70th birthday last January. Birthday Girl is partly based on a William Trevor short story. It’s about a girl who is granted one wish. My wish is for aspiring, emerging writers to know that, as writers, we are simply inheritors of Irish literature, and as European writers, we are a part of literature’s spiral-like lineage.”

Authors to look out for

Speaking of emerging writers, all three authors mentioned Nicole Flattery’s collection of short stories, Show Them A Good Time, with Hennessy highlighting that it was “published here by The Stinging Fly, whose journal is always excellent”. Scanlon describes it as “a collection of eight short stories exploring ‘types’ men and women, their assigned roles and meanings, and again I’m drawn to the idea of identity in one of the stories where a returned emigrant struggles to get her life back on track in the grim Irish town she previously couldn’t wait to leave.”

Scanlon also recommends Bloodroot by Annemarie Ní Churreáin, Lies by Doireann Ní Ghríofa, and Caravan of the Lost and Left Behind by Deirdre Shanahan, a novel that “looks at Brexit, belonging and the consequences when you’re pulled from your natural environment,” dealing with “the movement between the rural-urban divide”. Scanlon mentioned her interest in new historical fiction following her immersion in Irish Famine and 19th century literature, and a dissertation examining the gothic aspects of it, singling out “Joseph O’Connor’s Shadowplay which follows Bram Stoker through the fogged streets of Victorian London”. In addition, Scanlon endorses Minor Monuments by Ian Maleney, an essay collection coming out at the end of March with Tramp Press. She highlights her interest in “Maleney’s attempts to catalogue a disappearing way of life in rural Ireland and the complex nature of our belonging. It’s similar in a way to Notes to Self by Emilie Pine, which is outstanding.”

“It’s useful to have an outlet for writing that isn’t related to your course, particularly if you’re taking an essay-heavy subject and are drowning in footnotes.”

Hennessy, also expressing her belief in the quality of current literary journals, comments “I probably would say this, as co-founder and co-editor of a literary journal, Banshee, but I do really think they’re the places to look for identifying the cool new people to watch out for”. In addition, she noted that “The Tangerine, The Dublin Review and gorse are all worth keeping an eye on”.

Though successful writers emerging in Ireland can be comforting for budding writers, it is still an area that can be unpredictable. Hennessy emphasised extracurricular participation: “Join LitSoc. I did not do this as an undergrad and it was foolish of me. It’s so valuable to be around other humans who are interested in and excited about stories and words and writing, in addition to any particular events they organise. Write for a student publication. It’s useful to have an outlet for writing that isn’t related to your course, particularly if you’re taking an essay-heavy subject and are drowning in footnotes.” Baume advised not to “try and be a writer,” but to “try and write”. She believes “you should feel a certain urgency about it, a weird obligation whether or not you even enjoy it. If you don’t feel the ineffable urgency, there’s no point.”

As for Scanlon’s advice for the aspiring artist, she advises, “read, read, read, and then read some more” especially as the “novel form is changing and there are works of literary fiction now that are made up of tiny sections with each section having the force of a poem”. On a “micro level” she believes “reading improves writing because a good piece of work offers a tiny moment of revelation, the author shows us how to read and see the world, and, in turn, write more succinctly about it”. Already upholding Trinity’s literary past, all three seemed confident in the future of literary alumni, crafting prose and capturing an Irish essence inherent both within and outside the College gates.

Grace Farrell

Grace Farrell is the current Arts and Culture Editor of Trinity News.