An Interview with Ruth Gilligan

Ruth Gillligan was born and raised in Co. Dublin, Ireland. When she was 18 years old, she moved to the UK, just one month after she had published her first novel Forget, which became a number one bestseller. She works as a full-time lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham. She writes regular literary reviews for the Times Literary Supplement, Guardian, LA Review of Books, and Irish Independent.

Interviewers: When do you find inspiration to write? How do you find the time to write while having to balance your time as a lecturer at the University of Birmingham?

RG: Since I work full-time as a lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham, I tell myself every semester that I’m going to be better at carving out a day or two a week to focus on my writing. But there is always a student who needs help; always some admin that requires attention, so I find I get very little done during term time. Thankfully, we get holidays, so I always try to make a real dent in the writing at those moments.

I: In what ways does your latest novel, Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan, differ from your first published novels other than its content? What challenges did you face while writing this historical novel?

RG: Because my three previous books were almost entirely in- spired by personal experience, writing a historical novel was a new challenge for me. I did too much research, so trying to find the balance between fact and fiction was tricky. However, I had to remind myself that although I like the idea of readers learning something new, the thing that matters most has to be the story.

I: Having studied at the University of Cambridge and Yale University, what would you say are the major differences in UK vs US university teaching and/ or grading styles, particularly in regards to English and Creative Writing?

RG: I studied English — as opposed to CW – at Cambridge and Yale, so I can only really comment on that. To be honest, the biggest difference I found is that in the Cambridge school of English, the author is essentially dead — their personality, their background, their literary or family connections are irrelevant. The work must be taken and examined and appreciated in isolation, with a particularly close attention paid to details and formal decisions via close reading. In Yale, however, context was everything — we would spend weeks on historical background; on the author’s life and connections; on the book’s wider influences and implications. Close reading was nowhere near as valued, and the whole thing took a more macro- rather than micro-level view. To be honest, I much preferred the Cambridge style — I find it far more interesting (and important) to think about why an author has chosen a certain recurring image, or to notice their unorthodox use of punctuation, rather than to have to put together an entire presentation on the fashion trends of the time, or to figure out how they might or might not have known Virginia Woolf. Who cares! But that is just personal preference, I suppose.

I: What difficulties do you find in writing a story about an experience or setting you are unfamiliar with as you do in Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan? Does it take notably more time to research/prepare?

RG: My first 3 novels were very autobiographical. As a young writer, I had of course been taught about the whole ‘write what you know’ approach. However, increasingly I realized how limiting that was, and also how so many of the writers I admired went directly against that, and actually wrote far outside of their own immediate experience. I think ultimately that is the beauty and power of fiction — to make imaginative leaps into other worlds — both as a writer and a reader. It is, ultimately, about empathy. That’s not to say this doesn’t present its own issues – from misappropriation and ventriloquism, to inaccuracies and misrepresentations — but I would rather take on those challenges than just churn out novel after novel about my own, rather non-interesting world.

I: Whilst marking or reviewing literary fiction, what is a common mistake or drawback you often tend to find in other people’s’ works? This can either be
a macro (e.g. having a clichéd idea) or micro (e.g. formatting/presenting their piece undesirably on the page) issue.

RG: Formatting may seem like a minor thing, but it is SO import- ant. If a student submits a piece of work that is incorrectly for- matted, it suggests two things to me — 1) they have never actually read a book in their life, and 2) they are lazy and don’t really care. Needless to say these are not good things to suggest! More broadly, I find a real tendency amongst students towards the melodramatic; the over the-top. I was the same when I started out — I wanted to force my ideas down the reader’s throat — so I used dramatic language and repetition to HAMMER. EVERYTHING. HOME. But if the ideas are strong enough they will speak for themselves, so the writing needs to ease up and not appear over- worked.

I: As someone with a MFA in Creative Writing, what advice would you offer to any student wishing to pursue creative writing as a way of making a living?

RG: Find a day job! Seriously — there are only a tiny tiny number of writers in this world who can make a living just from writing fiction. I work full-time as a lecturer; many of my writer friends work in journalism or publishing or teaching; some work in tech or media or something totally unrelated — anything that will pay the bills! But really, it is an unreliable career, so the trick is to have something stable to support it. Luckily I find my lecturing work feeds directly into my obsession with reading and writing, so it all feels part of the same process — the conversations with my students and colleagues are integral to my own development as a writer — so I’m very lucky in that regard.

I: What process do you take to find editors that will help push your work forward upon reviewing it?

RG: When I finish a book, my agent sends it out to various editors at various publishing houses. Then, depending on what they say — and how much money they offer! — I sign with one of them, and begin editing the book together. It’s always a really enjoyable process, especially when you find someone who really gets the book (and indeed someone who, often, gets certain aspects of the book even better than you do).

I: To what extent does the family of the Greenburgs, within your 2016 novel Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan, resemble your upbringing as a child in Ireland?

RG: The Greenbergs lived in early 20th Century Cork, so there aren’t a lot of similarities I’m afraid! That said, Ruth Greenberg, like me, is the youngest child, and very eager to please. However, in Nine Folds, the present-day character of Aisling is much more autobiographical — like me she is from Dublin, now living in London, and has fallen in love with an English boy. She has to deal with questions of identity, homesickness, belonging, religion, familial ties, so a lot of my own experience is in there.

I: Are there any particular themes or ideas you wish were better presented in literature? (Either commercially or just generally)

RG: I think in Irish fiction there is still a real lack of diversity in terms of people of colour or minority groups being represented. This is slowly starting to improve, although only really amongst certain small presses, so the bigger houses really need to get on board with this.

I: In what ways do you believe the American and European literary markets differ?

RG: The American publishing industry is just HUGE! Which is quite intimidating for an outsider. However, luckily I found a US agent, who then found me a wonderful indie publishing house who really took Nine Folds under their wing and pushed it as much as they could, so I felt a lot more nurtured than I might have if I had been at one of the huge US publishing houses.