Careers in the arts: Irish novelist Niamh Campbell

Author Niamh Campbell on her debut, the Dublin writing scene and the death of literary style

Niamh Campbell, winner of the 2020 Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award, does not consider herself a short story writer: “it’s kind of just something I do on the side.” Her winning story, Love Many, was “originally part of a sequence,” and she is pragmatic about leftover stories: “if something gets cut from a novel, I’ll usually try and see if I can re-write it as a short story. Reading Love Many, it’s easy to see why Campbell won the prestigious £30,000 award. Her narration flows, her imagery is vivid and her pacing is perfected for the piece’s length. Yet, Campbell sees herself as far more of a novelist. 

Her debut novel, This Happy, was released in June, in the very midst of the craziness of 2020. “When the lockdown began, I knew immediately that I was not going to have a book launch and there was not going to be any book tour”, she affirms.  Releasing her first book has been a muted experience, and she feels unlucky: “it’s like missing your Debs or something; you’re waiting for this big event that’s going to happen, and then it goes away.” People around her have admired her success this summer, while Campbell has felt everything has “been kind of more the same,” sitting on Zoom calls on the daily like the rest of us. Her short story win brought her solace. She recalls how, “among other things, that made up for the lack of any kind of excitement happening.” She gained new readers from Love Many, so it felt like “a bit of a trade-off really.”

Campbell is similar in some ways to Alannah, her protagonist in This Happy. Both Campbell and Alannah did their undergraduate studies at UCD, their Masters at Trinity, then their PhD at King’s College London, Campbell writing on weather and atmosphere in John McGahern’s work for her dissertation. However, as Campbell put it in a Vogue interview, Alannah is the “most concentrated version of the worst parts of [her] explored in a person.” Campbell found writing the novel therapeutic. In exposing hints of her twenties, she expected to feel more vulnerable than she did: “I think it’s because I’m a bit older.” Now in her early thirties, given that she began writing This Happy at age 27, she feels a great distance from the novel. She recounts how she had been playing around with the idea of being a female writer and first person industrial complex. “You are writing your own life unfiltered, and this gives people a right to ask about it,” she states.

She mixed parts of the story with real life events and fiction, stating that “anything truly glamorous in it is made up entirely, and anything really banal is probably from a real conversation.” The infidelity and marriage plot points in This Happy are among the things that Campbell did not draw from her journals, but rather placed them in for symbolism, “as a skeleton to allow me to explore purely emotional states.” She does not shy away from the emotional, and has “no interest in pretending that emotions are not overwhelming.” She wanted her debut to be “embarrassingly intense, like the first album of a band when they’re in their teens” confessing, “I wanted to go for that effect gratuitously.” This Happy was her way to tell an “unvarnished truth” about her life, and since she takes interest in “atmospheric memories and truth being tied to memories,” ideas she explored in her McGahern thesis, it makes sense that there is emotional sincerity in her words.

[“‘There is a big shift to content, this idea that culture should do what politics won’t and that books should be full of ground-breaking social justice content all the time.’” ]

Campbell has a lyrical writing style and is highly-skilled in crafting beautiful imagery. On this topic she notes, “my style would be very naturally that way, very naturally florid.” This Happy is dream-like and reflective, the narrative going in circles in a gripping way that helps you understand Alannah’s brain. Campbell intended it to be a story in which “not an awful lot happens in the level of plot; it’s really just about emotion, and emotion being anchored in memory.” It is atmospherically dark, darker than what she would normally write. Campbell believes her literary style is “out of fashion,” but it is where her heart is set. “Because the fashion has shifted to content so much, style is being devalued,” she tells me. “There is a big shift to content, this idea that culture should do what politics won’t and that books should be full of ground-breaking social justice content all the time.” The author sees this as a disservice to everyone, “because a book without good style will not be read in ten years.” She maintains that originality in style will get you further, no matter the content: “it’s not just about being ornamental, it’s more like being able to express something with a great authenticity. It doesn’t really matter what [the something] is.”

One stylistic trait of Campbell is her lack of inverted commas for dialogue, inspired by one of her favourite writers, Garth Greenwell. Reading What Belongs to You, she noticed his style, detailing how “it’s dark but it’s poetic and you’re always nervous when you’re reading it because you never know where the stories are going to go.” She loved the flow that resulted from the absence of inverted commas: “it was just somebody’s brain, it was just a monologue… I love that, it’s kind of mischievous and kind of eerie, and I just copied him!” While it is a popular stylistic choice for contemporary writers, Campbell chose it for its deadpan effect: “it was definitely an atmospheric choice.” She recently read Greenwell’s Cleanness, which she loved, and she doesn’t often feel that way about contemporary work. “I’m still in my post-Garth Greenwell glow,” she says.


“Alannah, to Campbell, is ‘manipulative,’ invests in ‘power play, and gets off on winning and losing in this context – the men around her don’t notice because they underestimate her so much.’”


The husband in This Happy, who is never named, is based on a person Campbell considered marrying. She decided to play with the idea of what would have happened if she did decide to marry him – what happens to Alannah could have been Campbell’s reality. I ask her why she decided to explore the themes of marriage and adultery, and to answer, she tells me a quote, one she couldn’t attribute to anyone (and neither could I): “Marriage is the most political thing that most people will do.” Relationships are central to our lives, “yet literature tends to treat these subjects as if they’re frivolous almost because it’s afraid of looking straight at how they are not frivolous.” As a woman, she feels it is traditionally in her nature to find these subjects interesting. Alannah, to Campbell, is “manipulative,” invests in “power play, and gets off on winning and losing in this context – the men around her don’t notice because they underestimate her so much.” I ask her about her Bluebeard references, and I tell her that the novel reminded me of Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, with the relationships between older men and a naive, young girl and the memories of a certain place – in Campbell’s case, a cottage. Campbell responds, informing me that she finds satisfaction in readers spotting things that others have missed, and is conscious of homages to the literary canon: “I think it’s because I studied English for so long, so very little is innocently done… Nothing is really all that new, so I suppose at heart I’m kind of a bit modernist like that.”

Campbell’s writing so far is predominantly set in Dublin. Returning to Dublin after being a part of the emigrating generation of 2010, there was nobody left: “I struggled to reorient myself, so I spent a lot of time hanging around the city.” Her attempt to integrate herself into Dublin again has found its way into her writing, and she feels close to her literary hero: “Whenever you’re writing Dublin, you’re never really far away from Joyce, who’s one of my gods. There’s kind of an homage going on all the time with that as well, because I read Joyce before I knew Dublin.”

The writer is currently working on her second novel, which will also be based in Dublin. She described the book as a “somebody who’s spending all their time hanging around the city going to parties kind of book”. She has challenged herself to change up her style for this novel, “to break away and do something that was a little bit less reflective” than This Happy. Working on it during the pandemic was not as creatively freeing as she expected it to be: “I did get into some blind alleys as a result because there wasn’t a lot of variety in my life.” Nonetheless, there will be lots of variety in the book, as it will be centred around events, parties and activities that are almost extinct in today’s Dublin: “I wanted to write about the arts scene in Dublin, about just going out all the time to different arts events in a kind of satirical way.” Now she is conscious she is writing of a much simpler time in Ireland’s capital: “it’s accidentally become a chronicle of a world that might not come back for quite a while.”


It’s not about who your friends are, but rather the confidence to send your work around: ‘Chances are it will be read. [Editors and publishers] read everything. Even if they reject you, they will probably tell you why, and you can start working from there.’”


I asked Campbell for some advice for writers looking for inspiration and motivation: “I think with writing, it’s always good to remember what you first started doing it for. Once you become aware of the industry, you get a little bit contaminated and you shouldn’t have to be aware of it… It’s always good to return to the only reason why you were doing it and to see it as a form of play.” But awareness of the industry is important for budding published authors: “there are a lot of resources in Ireland because it’s such a small country with a lot of literary magazines and a lot of events. People are quite accessible.” She advises writers to start with literary journals, where she herself started out: “the first person in Dublin to read my work was Susan Tomaselli who edits the literary journal gorse.” She also received help from Brendan Barrington, editor of Dublin Review, who was “a massive, massive help” and knew “how to make your interests and your passion compatible with a book that could speak to people.” Campbell believes the recent success of Irish writers is down to the close networking in the community. She’s never been part of some exclusive clique – she just took advantage of the writers who live nearby: “it wasn’t an impossible dream – that’s one of the benefits of writing in Dublin.” It’s not about who your friends are, but rather the confidence to send your work around: “Chances are it will be read. [Editors and publishers] read everything. Even if they reject you, they will probably tell you why, and you can start working from there.” 

As useful as building relationships in the literary community can be, Campbell emphasises the paradox of staying “artistically autonomous.” When in doubt about your writing, ditch the contemporary: “maybe read Tolstoy.”  She encourages young writers to sit with their writing and to return to themselves: “Ultimately, it only ever really comes out of you, and that’s the best stuff. You can hammer it out into shape later, but the real good stuff is very intimate.”