Deirdre Sullivan

Prim and Improper

Maeve Mulrennan

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Deirdre Sullivan is a Dublin-based writer from Galway. She tweets @propermiss. Curator Maeve Mulrennan met her in Galway before the launch of her fourth novel, Needlework.

Maeve Mulrennan: I only looked at the blurb on the back of Needlework after I read it which said ‘I read it all in one go’ – I did as well, I don’t know if that’s just that I had the time but it is one of those books that is a  compulsive read.

Deirdre Sullivan: I wrote all in one go, over one month in 2010 between writing two other books. I thought however that the tattoo imagery was too much, too different from my other work, that it would be one for the drawer and not be published.

MM: Were you already committed to the ‘Prim Improper’ trilogy at that time?

DS:  Not particularly, I had to audition each book with the publisher. I had the full story in my head even though there was no-multi book deal. I had edited Needlework and given it to them but they didn’t want to publish that before the rest of the trilogy was out because it was so different.

MM: Needlework is a book for the Young Adult (YA) audience, but there is a trend for YA books to be promoted to an adult audience now too. YA books are a lot more prolific now, and the YA sections in bookshops is not down in some dark corner of the book shop where you would expect to find seedy dirty things.

DS: Yes, Area 51 in Easons is a great comic book and graphic novel section and their YA section beside it is beautiful and really well stocked. It’s the same with the Dubray Books childrens' section and Charlie Byrnes bookshop is magical with its signpost to Narnia in the middle of the space.

MM: Dubray Books in Galway had an entire – window display for your work! I was reminded of an article you wrote about reading for a teenage audience. It reminded me of the Lena Dunham & Judy Blume podcast - did you hear it? – It’s supposed to be interview but it’s more of a chat, and they are talking about what books people think are suitable or not for children. Blume thinks it’s up to the reader to decide. They also discussed how older and younger people read differently: the young reader is really absorbed and invested, whereas an adult reader may be more emotionally distanced. I found that I was reading Needlework in the way I used to read as a teenager, completely absorbed and an active reader. Have you experienced that?

DS: I went to see Judy Blume speak before, she’s amazing, so cool, she’s a pioneer who doesn’t talk down to any reader. I actually asked her to  sign a blank notebook for a writer friend and she wrote a really supportive note. She’s the pope of children’s fiction, not fluffy. Actually she was asked in an interview before, Who was her first sexual experience – I’d be taken aback! But she replied, “myself” – cos she’s Judy Blume! I do re-read favourite sections of books for comfort. If I love a book I like to go back to it. What I like about being in YA section is that it’s a demographic and not a genre, so it can be anything: fantasy, contemporary.… Everything is on same shelf. You don’t happen upon things as much in the adult section of a bookshop that’s divided by genre. But I write for teenagers – they are the intended audience, and if adults like it they can read it too. There is genre snobbery, and children’s and YA books are seen as ‘a lovely thing for a woman to write’.

MM: It’s like feminine idea of the children’s writer, like… Beatrix Potter – I was going to say Enid Blyton but she was a real bitch...I was so upset when I found that out!

DS: Yeah, me too! She really was not nice to her own kids.

MM: And she was systematically cruel! She would invite her fans her for tea parties and games and exclude her own children, but make them watch. It’s a pity because I was a ‘Faraway Tree’ child. [i]

DS: Yep, me too, Moonfaced and his circular house - when I was in college a friend lived in a rented house with a circular room. I never saw it but I was jealous.

MM: To go back to children and teenage books being more a female thing– Young male readers are treated differently to your female readers - the really successful book Gone by Michael Grant is a typical dystopian themed YA book, that was read by girls and boys, but it was marketed to boys through the cover design, the cover was a shiny silver edge with large capital letters on it. There’s a luminous orange spray ink edge – so now some publishers think this is how to sell books to boys - girls still get the pink, the illustrations and the curved, small text on the covers. It’s now perceived that boys only like shiny things, it’s a junior version of the thinking that men only wanting to read books written by men, not by women. Women writers are automatically classed as chick-lit unless the books have a male protagonist like Hillary Mantel’s books.

DS: I agree, Marian Keyes hasn’t won half the amount of awards she should have won. I think she’s genuinely one of the best writers in Ireland today. I read Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married six times.

MM: Rachel’s Holiday has the Marian Keyes that spoke to me and my best friend when it came out.  We knew men like the male characters in the book that all have long hair and leather trousers and love Led Zeppelin. Actually one of them looked like he should be the lead singer in a Norwegian death metal band, and he admitted one night that his ideal woman was Doris Day. His brother’s was Judy Garland….

DS: Well that’s why female authors sometimes use their initials – AM Holmes, JK Rowling - so their books will not be defined by their gender. 

MM: A friend of mine committed to reading books by female authors a couple of years ago. He had never read Margaret Atwood – which, knowing the things that he’s interested in and the other books he had been reading, takes some doing to avoid.

DS: During the Writing MA our fiction lecturer gave us a list of one hundred books from the 20th Century to read and there was only one female writer - Virgina Woolf – his actual words were: “I don’t read girl books” what is that?

MM: It’s bizarre. I recently interviewed Lisa McInerney and she said that some men had complimented her on her ability in writing from a man’s point of view in her novel – like you have to be a bit more clever to write from a man’s point of view. They obviously didn’t know Lisa that well if they thought they could say something like that and come out of the conversation unscathed (You can find the very clever Lisa McInerney on Twitter @swearylady).

MM: So back to your book, the plot is more about uncovering, unravelling and the reader becomes very much a supporter of the protagonist and feels very connected to her quite quickly. It’s strange I only realised this morning that I forgot the protagonist’s name, because she hated it I rejected it too. 

DS: Yes, her name is not hers, she’s named after her father; it becomes a symbol of what’s been taken from her and what she has no choice in.

MM: I work with teenagers and something that we spoke about before is that they don’t have any say in a lot of things, even when they’re from stable backgrounds. They’re valued if they are consumers, but in the public sphere they’re regarded as outsiders. Things like not being able to vote really gets to them.

DS: That’s why the Internet is so important for young people – it’s a space for this young politically aware community. Young people today are far more open-minded and liberal. They have great ideas and strengths but can’t use them.

MM: The main character in Needlework is not a consumer so she doesn’t really exist in the eyes of many people and systems.

DS: Yes, she doesn’t have smartphone. She can’t pay for a doctor - she can’t pay for anything.

MM: The book has events and memories that are upsetting, and horrible things continue to happen. For me, the  worst was the neglect – not  that there is a hierarchy of shit things – but systematic neglect of a young person and the people around her preferring not to see – people close to her – physically or mentally, choosing not to see – imagine how horrible that would be?

DS: I really wanted to explore what happens after abuse has stopped.  A lot of the time the focus is on getting away because it’s an absolute heroic feat to get away. Fourteen women leaving abuse get turned away from shelters every day in Ireland. They have to go back, because there is nothing there for them to go to. They take this big step and then have to go back.

MM: I think sometimes people see children in these situations as innocent bundles but they don’t see the scars they have from witnessing abuse or that they are a vital support for the abused parent or other siblings.

DS: In the book Ces experienced and witnessed a lot of abuse. Recently I was reading the biography of the photographer Lee Miller.  After the Holocaust she made a work trip to Krakow. She says in her biography that all the corpses lined up changed her - the act of witnessing broke something in her and she was never the same. Witnessing abuse and cruelty alters a bit of your soul - you are aware that possibility of cruelty not only exists but is a constant threat that you may feel powerless to stop.

MM: You explore a complication at the start: the main character Ces still loves her father and in some ways misses him. She has his name and looks like him. It’s complicated because a lot of times people are either good or evil and others should have just one opinion of them that isn’t shifting or contradictory.

DS: There’s a paragraph referring to pigs that addresses that which I wrote quite late. The father is like a jigsaw puzzle with twenty terrible pieces and five good ones. No one is fully evil, which we find confusing – we like our villains to be villains in stories, and in real life too.

MM: I get really frustrated with those phone-in shows on places like FM radio 4 – I swear they’ve paid all taxi and bus drivers to exclusively play their station because they seem to be the only ones that actually listen. There’s a late night phone in show where the presenter reacts to something in the news, and people with a very 2-Dimensional way of looking at the world - and always from a position of judgement - phone in. They are allowed to either agree or disagree, never to explore the subject. This is every night, there’s also the  – every night – time effort & money – watching / listening – Daily Mail’s sidebar of shame on their website – people are constantly being judged and there’s no consideration for the bigger picture or other people that are effected by these topical news stories.

DS: I have a Radio/Taxi story too– there was a debate on breastfeeding. One contributor kept saying, in a whiny voice; “my body my choice”, as if it’s the most ridiculous thing a person could say - 

MM: Opinions get whittled down into entertaining or voyeuristic sound bites so often in the media, so looking at a fully formed character in a novel is refreshing: In a novel there’s time and space to explore.

DS: As you write you get to meet the characters, you start out and you don’t know them, so you take them for a walk. You know the main parts of the character and the notes you want to hit with them. For Ces in Needlework it was always going to be about tattooing. I’m interested in how people use tattoos for scar tissue reclamation. In writing you’re getting to know someone and they can surprise you, they do things you haven’t intended. You’re not controlling them, you’re exploring them. I wanted people to meet Ces first, before they read about what had happened to her. She wants people to take responsibility for what happened but doing this would entail her being labelled as victim. I get angry when other people talk about victims and how their life is ruined now and they’ll never get over it– how dare you put that on someone else, tell them what their limits are. Victims are more than what has been done to them.

MM: That’s something that’s seen as really important in a child’s development - having resilience.

DS: If you’re told you’ll never get over something, how does that help you live? An inspiration for the main character was my mother, who has lived with a lot of pain. She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when she was fourteen years old. She has never thought that she’s had a disability or that it hampered her way of living. If you want mum to do a thing tell her she can’t and she’ll do everything to make it happen. I took a lot of her strength and put it in to Ces, and of course some of me - when I was her age I had writing, for her it’s art.

MM: The last YA book I read had tattoos also, it was called Under My Skin by Juno Dawson – we had her over for Cúirt and you’re reading with her during ILF Dublin.

DS: I read it, she’s fantastic!

MM: To get back to your book, there’s a sad moment when the main character, Ces is really ill and she’s managed to get the money together to go to the Doctor. She goes by herself and drags herself home. Her next door neighbour and casual boyfriend of sorts, contacts her and - a booty call essentially. He knows more than he’s letting on about how bad Ces’ home-life is but he’s playing a role too, I suppose. She doesn’t ask him to look after her when she’s sick, she knows that he doesn’t want that kind of intimacy with her. I felt bad that no one was looking out for her, she has to struggle so hard just to look after herself.

DS: That character, Tom, he’s a teenager too, he’s deaf to Ces’ needs but he’s not looking for it either. He does like her, she’s available, warm, and easy. He’s the type of person that when things come easy to them they value it less. It’s not all negative through, the relationship is a good experience for Ces in reclaiming her body and finding out about her sexuality after the abusive history.

MM: Can you tell me what you’re working on now?

DS: I’m working with Little Island on a fairytale collection. I’ve always rewritten fairytales and I also love reading literary criticism about fairytales from Maria Tatar and Jack Zipes.

MM: Are you a fan of Angela Carter?

DS: (audible gasp) Oh my God yes! So hard!  Bloody Chamber is amazing.  I want to do a very Young Adult fairytale collection, there are teen protagonists, and stories that discuss female bodies and impulses. I’m having fun researching at the moment. I’m also editing another novel. I have three finished drafts that I’m fixing and tweaking.

MM: I’m researching Nordic fairy-tales at the moment, particularly from Of Gnomes and Trolls, which was a Swedish annual magazine for children that was at its most prolific at the beginning of the twentieth century.  John Bauer was the main illustrator at this time and he heavily influenced the illustrators that came after him. I’m looking at a story he illustrated about Princess Tuvstarr - she’s sometimes called Cottongrass.  It was written in 1900s during a cultural revolution in Sweden, where nationalism strategically focused on children. Teachers were very much involved in this revolution and reconnection to Swedish culture and heritage through fairy-tales. Are you seeing that in why a fairy tales are a good medium to that continue to connect people?

DS: There’s a power in fairytales, it’s like a prayer where the wording changes but the core remains and strengthens in the retelling. It’s always been that way, Charles Perrault wrote his fairytales very differently to how they were presented later on.  One story I’ve written is called Fair, Brown, and Trembling. There’s two older sisters, Fair and Brown, and they resent Trembling. It’s a modern Cinderella, she has a fairy godmother but instead of going to the ball she goes to mass, and everyone is like “Who’s this hottie at mass??”

MM: That reminds me of The Monk, the start of it is Mass – everyone is all like ‘look at your wan there in the veil.’ The author wrote it when he was only nineteen, he was working in the civil service, bored out of his tree so he wrote that.

DS: Have you read Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon? [ii] You’d love it. It subverts the Victorian image of the blonde, blue-eyed angel in the house, it’s twisty and brilliant. Fair Brown and Tembling was inspired by an illustration in a book I had as a kid. It's an Aubrey Beardsley style illustration and there’s a girl picking flowers, she’s all innocent and flowing hair and doesn’t notice that there’s a monster creeping out of the shadows behind her. It’s called What became of picking Jasmine. It’s a warning against women doing things for themselves.

MM: Oh dear…well on that note, I think it’s time to finish our conversation!



[i] The Faraway Tree, a series of four books written between 1939 and 1951 by Enid Blyton was inhabited by magical creatures, fairies, etc. and would have a different world in the upper branches every week.

[ii] This 1862 novel was described in 1989 by critic John Sutherland as "the most sensationally successful of all the sensation novels".