Elaine Feeney’s take on gaining a generational perspective

The As You Were author talks about her debut novel, Ireland’s beauty and its flaws, generation labels and a modernist approach to writing

Just two days after her highly anticipated debut novel was released, I spoke to writer Elaine Feeney about As You Were, a moving story which tells of a woman dealing with a terminal illness within the confinement of her own mind and a hospital ward in Galway city. In between book signings and meetings, Feeney managed to make time for a chat with me. Her kind nature was clear from the get-go, as she regularly checked that the sound was alright and thanked me numerous times for interviewing her, even though it was me who was grateful. No unnecessary formality was required; Feeney is as genuine as her writing.

Feeney is a renowned poet, having published three collections of poetry: Where’s Katie? The Radio was Gospel, and Rise, prior to the release of her novel. She has also dabbled in playwriting and has written the drama piece Wrongheaded.  Alongside her writing, she teaches creative writing at NUIG and English at St. Jarlath’s College. Hailing from Athenry in Co. Galway, Feeney’s experience growing up in the west of Ireland has heavily influenced her writing. The protagonist Sinéad, like Feeney, has an agricultural background and often recounts the time she spent on the farm as a child. Feeney informs me that she wanted to write about “the ruggedness” and “the waywardness” of the west, and that Irish novelist Mike McCormack’s influence was a big part of this, outlining the “aesthetic landscape” as a powerful source of inspiration. Setting the novel in Galway, though Feeney deems it “ambitious” to build a full book around a city that small, contributed to the sense of authentic Irishness which can be traced throughout.

The references to pre-Christian Irish myths added to this. In the introductory chapter, which is titled Piseogs, the protagonist Sinéad informs us that the only living thing she’s spoken about her illness to is a magpie. Throughout the novel, Sinéad makes references to this magpie and the superstition surrounding magpies, emphasising how the solitary bird was emblematic of her pending sorrow. When speaking to Feeney about this trope’s involvement and the inclusion of this trope in the novel, she explains that she finds this set of ancient Irish beliefs “colourful” and “consoling… Sinéad’s back is to the wall,” she says, and “wherever she can get solace” she should take it, and if that means saluting a magpie, let it be so. Feeney was adamant on conveying Piseogs as a “positive cultural thing” and underlining the beauty in how many people in Ireland, especially in rural areas like the west, “don’t let go” of the past. She discusses how it’s almost a characteristic tendency of Irish people as a group to “hold on to things”. “We respect so much of pagan Ireland,” she remarks. “Even when Christianity came into Ireland, [pagan beliefs] never crept away.”

Feeney was very close to her grandmothers growing up,  and this played a role in her decision to integrate Irish folklore and the character Margaret Rose, one of the two women Sinéad becomes  close with in the hospital ward, into the story. “Margaret Rose was influenced by my urban granny,” she says, while speaking about both her “urban” and “rural” grandmothers’ influence. She describes her “urban granny” as a matriarch who would have “planned the moon landing,” and Margaret Rose, who manages to run her household from a hospital bed on a gold Nokia phone, also fits this description. 

“We’re feminists until it comes to our own mothers.”

While writing the novel, Feeney was determined to portray Irish mothers as the strong compassionate women they are. “We’re feminists until it comes to our own mothers,” she states. “We put them on pedestals they can’t live up to.” Feeney also felt it was important that the three main female characters represented different generations. The hospital space is a place where Sinéad can “meet women she wouldn’t normally meet”. Feeney affirms that we should never be dismissive of the generations that have come before or after us: “The old can guide the young, the young can guide the old.” At a time when generations are divided into categories, it can be easy to fall into the trap of distancing ourselves from other generations. Feeney discusses how generations are “reduced to labels” in the media,  which she feels is a “reductive” and “horrendous thing” that “doesn’t do any generations any favours”.

Another reason why we may feel far away from previous generations in Ireland specifically is because of the rapid pace Ireland has evolved at in recent years. “My generation has moved furthest from my mother’s”, Feeney notes, musing how less than 60 years ago, Ireland was a “whole other realm” in comparison to the Ireland we live in today, a place where contraception wasn’t legalised, where education wasn’t very accessible, and where it was unusual for women to go to college. The elderly character Jane, who suffers from dementia, “grew up in a time when Ireland was still conservative.”  During the novel, Jane tells Sinéad and Margaret Rose a story about her friend, Anne, who went to a convent to “serve out her time for the sin of sex”, as an infuriated Sinéad puts it. Jane also confesses  that she was in love with Anne, and of course same-sex relations were also not tolerated by society back then. It’s chilling to see how the Catholic Church’s mindset was so deeply rooted into the behaviour of people of Ireland at the time, and how so much hardship festered from this toxic conditioning. 

“There’s a discomfort around expressing vulnerability in Ireland.” 

Feeney proposes that the shame that was forced upon earlier generations still haunts us today. She speaks about how there’s a sense of “shame on a national level and on an individual level” in Ireland, and that Irish people are inclined to keep things to themselves. “There’s a discomfort around expressing vulnerability in Ireland,” she says. “People are not giving themselves permission to be free.” The stigma attached to speaking out about one’s issues is perhaps what prompts Sinéad to keep her illness a secret from her husband, as, to her, it seemed like a “dreadfully selfish thing to do to a person”. Sinead’s father definitely reinforced this way of thinking. Throughout the novel, we hear the voice of Sinéad’s father in her thoughts, reminding her that she’s useless and weak. Sinéad’s father serves as the archetypical Irish father figure, always telling his children that they’re too soft. “Humans never escape the voices of childhood,” Feeney remarks. The impact that Sinéad’s father has had on her sense of self-worth proves that the things we are told growing up follow us into our adult lives.

However, Feeney doesn’t see Sinéad’s decision to keep her secret to herself as an entirely negative thing. “It’s a choice she’s made,” she states. While this clandestinity is bound to take its toll on her mental health, Sinéad manifests the autonomy to maintain ownership over her secret. Feeney observes that she’s different to Sinéad in that she’s much more open, yet she’s fascinated by a person’s ability to be self-contained. “She’s very secretive,” she says. “I’m interested in people who can internalise their pain.” 

“You enter it on your own and leave it on your own, and that’s okay.”

Feeney’s also intrigued by the concept of individualism. Speaking about life, she says, “you enter it on your own and leave it on your own, and that’s okay.” Feeney goes on to explain how we’ve “woken up in” a meritocratic society, in which ideas surrounding independence and personal strength have become somewhat trendy. While Feeney believes that this is a positive philosophy, people still need each other at the end of the day. “You can’t live your best life from a hospital bed,” she remarks. Her individualistic views on life were, in some ways, influenced by modernist writer Virginia Woolf. At the beginning of the book, there’s a quote from Woolf’s essay, On Being Ill, in which she concludes that “human beings do not go hand in hand through life” and “like it better so.” Feeney demonstrates this idea through the protagonist Sinéad, who comfortably governs her own life. 

The Irish author employs features of modernism in her writing. In the novel, she adopts the stream of consciousness technique to convey Sinéad’s inner state. “The frantic nature of the language” reflects Sinéad’s troubled mind and the devastation she has found herself in. The novel also encompasses a number of lists, including lists of Sinéad’s Google searches. Feeney states that she wanted the Google searches to be “as odd as what Sinéad googles” and to “reflect the contemporary world” in which we “spend hours scrolling through life”. Feeney also discusses how she decided to include time shifts in the novel as opposed to writing in a chronological order as she personally feels quite “anti-chronology”. “Humans don’t live in that way,” she remarks. The use of an unconventional form and the shift in focus from society as a whole to the individual allows us to observe a modernist approach transpire within the sphere of contemporary Ireland. 

She speaks about how these modernist elements can be “quite challenging” for readers, and so she looked to modernist writers like Woolf and Joyce for “permission to challenge the reader”. Feeney opens up about being a devout Joycean. She recalls how she once came up to Dublin solely so that she could read Ulysses at the Martello Tower in Sandymount where Leopold Bloom, the protagonist in Ulysses, proposes to his partner, Molly, only to find that she had actually gone to Sandycove. She laughed as she told me the story, admitting that she had “notions” at the time.  

While discussing the transition from fiction to poetry, Feeney states that she saw a novel as an opportunity to put herself into different characters’ shoes. “I’m tired of my own perspective,” she explains. “I didn’t want to limit myself to poetry any longer.” Feeney felt that by getting into a fictional space, she was enabling herself to see from different vantage points and write about experiences that aren’t her own. She thinks that if she does write more poetry, it will likely be a concept collection with a fictional narrative.

Feeney and I discuss how it’s a great time to be a female writer in Ireland as contemporary Irish female writers, such as Sally Rooney and Naoise Dolan, have “generated an interest in Irish women’s writing” and put “Irish women on the map”.  While Ireland is certainly not entirely free of sexism, the Ireland we live in today is not the place it was 60 years ago. Feeney feels that “it’s about time we started to have open conversations” about the issues women are faced with, and she exhibits this desire to do so in As You Were. “It’s a time when Irish women are starting to speak out,” Feeney remarks. It’s fair to say that what it means to be a woman in Ireland has changed, and today, Irish women’s voices are more powerful than ever.