Sinéad Gleeson is the editor of The Long Gaze Back, winner of the Best Irish-Published Book of the Year 2015. Amongst all of the attention The Long Gaze Back received in Northern Ireland the same question kept arising: What about women writers from the North of Ireland? Sinéad has since edited The Glass Shore, an anthology featuring North of Ireland women writers from the 19th to 21st Century. I spoke to her about its upcoming launchand her current writing projects.
The introduction to The Glass Shore is by Patricia Craig, a writer and anthologist with a vast knowledge of the Northern Irish literary canon. Craig works through the themes, starting points and histories in the twenty five stories with an ease that gives the reader a clear idea of the scope of this anthology whilst offering navigational starting points. Of particular interest are Janet McNeill’s long-lost short story The Girls and Frances Molloy’s The Devil’s Gift. Sinéad had just about given up on finding a short story by McNeill. She says; “I’d given up on putting her into the book because I couldn’t find her short stories. She’s better known as a novelist and to some people as a children’s writer so when I went to the National Library I found four collections of her work there but all for children and weren’t going to fit in The Glass Shore. Then I was in Belfast in June when the book was pretty much finished and was talking about how McNeill had written short stories but they were never put together in a collection or in a book so they were hard to find. A woman in the audience who had just done a PhD on Janet at Queens University came up to me afterwards and told me that as far as she could tell, McNeill wrote about five stories for adults and most were in published in the Belfast Telegraph. This woman had seen them in a box in Queens. So the Queens library scanned them all for me and I picked The Girls. This is the first time it will be published in a book; a lot of people won’t have read this story.”
The Girls shows a couple returning to their home town, a seaside setting in the North, partially to show off and partially to continue the wife’s mythical connection to her past. The story is dark and demonstrates the power of motherhood: having a famous TV husband means nothing if one is childless. McNeill has a particular way of viewing the characters; like a carnival mirror that takes pleasure in emphasising flaws. A key line that reveals everything about the wife character is: ‘She wore her husband’s fame as modestly as her fur stole’. The characters, although unlikable, are impressive and complex.
The title, The Glass Shore comes from Sinéad’s recognition of the importance of the sea in the selected works. The shore is shared with the Republic which is separate from the sea separating Northern Ireland from Great Britain whilst still a part of it. Sinéad understands it as a complex word that reflects the complexity of the place. The ‘glass’ part of the title, Sinéad says is “on some level it's holding a mirror up to what has been going on in Northern Ireland for a long time and why the book is representing the voices that I felt needed to be represented. If women haven’t been represented in the Republic then they definitely haven’t been in the northern part of the country.”
As with The Long Gaze Back, The Glass Shore features older work and new commissioned pieces by contemporary writers such as Roisín O’Donnell and Jan Carson. Many of the older works had not have been previously published widely. Sinéad was recently surprised to see a story by Sarah Grand in a reissue of a twenty year old anthology Daughters of Decadence, edited by the American academic Elaine Showalter, most known for her 1985 book The Female Malady. She says, “Sarah Grand is not included in many anthologies. She was part of the New Woman movement in the 1890s which would have been the time that Eithne Carbery and Alice Milligan were writing – even though they weren’t part of that movement necessarily. It was a time when writing was opening up for women, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and Kate Chopin’s work were published and there were a lot of quarterlies and journals.”
It was vital for Sinéad that the living authors published new works that, for now, are only available in The Glass Shore: “I suppose it’s like a gift for readers. I could have chosen thirty old stories that exist elsewhere in a book but in The Long Gaze Back there are twenty-two living writers and the fact that they were all represented by new work was exciting. I’ve been asked numerous times why Edna O’Brien isn’t in the book and Edna was one of the first people asked and at the time she was finishing The Little Red Chairs and she said ‘You can have any of my old stories and I’d love to give you a new one but I don’t have anything at the moment’. Anotheranthologist might do something different but for me I wanted to give people something new to read. If you look at other anthologies with the same theme as The Long Gaze Back you see a lot of the same writers – you always have Edna, Mary Lavin and often it was the same stories. So I wanted to take a further step away from that: I wanted there to be a newness about it.”
The Long Gaze Back and now The Glass Shore continues a small but important thread of recognising women writers that includes Evelyn Conlon and Hans-Christian Oeser’s Cutting The Night in Two: short stories by women writers and The Female Line: Northern Irish Women's Writers edited by Ruth Hooley. Asked where she sees this thread moving next, Sinéad says that “Books beget books” and that The Glass Shore wouldn’t have happened if The Long Gaze Back had not been published. She says of the 2015 anthology: “A lot of people spoke to me about that anthology. At two different events in Belfast people stayed behind after to talk to me really passionately about writers from the North of Ireland and the need for an anthology of women writers from the North of Ireland. So I knew I really needed to do this. To me, it is pretty disappointing and shocking that no one has thought to publish a book like this before 2016 - to me and others it was obvious there was a gap there.” Sinéad was encouraged by writer Lucy Caldwell to edit a Northern Irish anthology even though she initially felt uncomfortable about editing a geographically-specific anthology of a place she wasn’t from: “Lucy said that I’ve proven myself as an anthologist and championing women’s voices, and people will recognise that. She said when she was growing up in the North she found every part of the discourse – particularly politics - was voiced exclusively by men. Every part of her growing up and cultural experiences in Northern Ireland were dominated by men. That’s why Lucy wanted me to edit this book – the canon of women writers has literally been talked over.”
The Glass Shore is also contextualised by The Ulster Anthology and The Belfast Anthology, both edited by Patricia Craig. For Sinéad, it was “necessary to have Patricia involved, she’s a fantastic anthologist and well respected. She has edited an all-female collection but it wasn’t just Ireland. She knows so much about the landscape of writing in the North and she’s incredibly smart – her introduction in The Glass Shore is more than what I hoped for. She has a real sense of what’s going on now and what has happened in literature in Northern Ireland.”
The Glass Shore had a much shorter research period than its predecessor, with Sinéad spending a lot of time in the National Library and UCD, while liaising with writers and editors in Belfast and in Queens University, often not knowing if she would find what she was looking for, or in some cases, not knowing what could be there. When asked if she enjoys this part of the editing process, Sinéad responds; “You have to enjoy that part or you wouldn’t be an anthologist. I found this book much harder, not least because I was finding myself geographically. Northern Ireland wouldn’t necessarily be a place strongly associated with the short story yet there are so many short story writers – I only have twenty-five in The Glass Shore but I did find an awful lot of good stuff. With older stories you’re trying to read it and asking yourself ‘is that too archaic, too dated?’ You want things to be represented well. When I read Eugenia it just makes me laugh, the guy’s an idiot I think it’s a really funny story. A lot of the older works were harder to find –I’ve had days in the library where you read all day and you don’t come away with anything. Those days are disappointing but then you just have to go back in the next day and read with the mindset of, ‘this could be really good’. The other problem with older stories is that the fashion for short stories as we know them today didn’t really kick in until late in the 19th Century: they were a lot longer or serialised for journal publication. For example I found a lot of stories by Charlotte Riddell but they’re all about eighty pages over six parts. So you could easily find thirty stories you want to include but they could each be seventy pages long. I had this problem with Iris Murdoch, I found out that she wrote one short story in her life so I was determined to get it for The Long Gaze Back and then when I found it was 70 pages long!”
The Queens University library and the UCD folklore department were very helpful with the McNeill story, while Dublin’s National Library houses all of the Shan Van Vocht - Eithne Carbery and Alice Milligan’s 1890s Belfast based journal. “They published some of James Connolly’s first political writings. The library has large old print reviews, they’re hardback ledgers. I went through every issue looking for anything by Eithne Carbery or Alice Milligan - and a lot of times Alice wrote under a pseudonym. Once you find something you are allowed take photos, you transcribe to gauge the length. I had no idea what the final line up would be or what the contemporary writers would give me so there is an element of surprise in editing an anthology as well. This is one of the things that keep you going when it’s getting tiring.”
Alongside this literary archaeology, Sinéad was simultaneously commissioning new work: “The brief for writers was very open but clear; it didn’t have to be about or set in the North of Ireland. Sinéad says of the context: “It’s complicated: so many people have a different idea of what ‘Northern Ireland’ even means. I never assumed for a moment that someone would write about The Troubles – it would be presumptive and a lot of people don’t have any interest in writing about that. I didn’t know what people were going to write about, I just gave them a deadline and a word count. There are very few stories about politics and the North itself. And in some stories when it is there, often it’s only in a line or two, it’s not the fulcrum of the story. There are some references to living in Belfast or growing up in a different time. There is one story by Rosemary Jenkinson that’s overtly referencing the Troubles, The Mural Painter, but that’s quite surreal and comic and isn’t really about politics even though there is a central theme or visible aspect. And then Evelyn Conlon’s Disturbing Words which, in a post-Brexit context, is really interesting. It’s about borders and being from Monaghan. There’s an added dimension about what that means for writers like Evelyn. It’s a brilliant story.”
Evelyn Conlon, like Mary O’Donnell, is from Monaghan and the anthology also includes two Donegal-born writers, Margaret Barrington and Erminda Rentoul Esler, who later moved to Belfast. These inclusions mean that the anthology is not strictly Northern Ireland, but the North of Ireland, or Ulster. Sinéad explains; “The main reason for this is if you’re going to include stories from the nineteenth century, there was no such thing as the border then so it didn’t make any sense to me to make the focus of The Glass Shore on the six counties. This political border didn’t exist when Rosa Mulholland, Alice Milligan, and Sarah Grand were writing. ‘Six Counties’ is a very loaded and political term for some people and this book isn’t that – it’s about stories and art and women’s voices. Like The Long Gaze Back it’s about righting an imbalance that I think is very glaring so it had to be done.”
Through commissioning new work, it is clear to Sinéad that writers may still be searching for the best way to write about The Troubles: “I spoke to a woman after a Long Gaze Back event at the Lyric Theatre last year and she said to me: ‘There is still so much trauma up here, we can barely have discussions about what happened never mind commit it to a page forever, it’s just too traumatic’. Often a lot of the narrative that is written emphasises what physically happened rather than attempting to make sense of it. It’s very raw and not finished for a lot of people.”
As well as The Glass Shore, Sinéad continues to present the successful Book Show on Radio One, working with the talented Zoë Comyns and Regan Hutchins. She has also been dedicating more time to writing. Her non-fictional work Blue Hills and Chalk Bones was recently published with Granta and an abridged version appeared later on in The Irish Times. The essay is personal and speaks of the body in a very interesting way: it is personal but not pitiful. Gleeson also published the essay ‘Hair’ in Banshee journal this year. The essays, like Blue Hills and Chalk Bones, talks about the body in an honest and open but not overtly confessional or sensational way. Sinéad received a lot of feedback from, she describes: “People who are sick or were sick when they were young, who had orthopaedic problems, women who have had things done to their bodies which changed their relationship with their bodies, men and women who have had bad experiences with doctors, people who’ve lost their faith, people who used to be very holy, people who’ve gone on pilgrimages and people who still go. I had one response from a good friend of mine who also has problems with their hips. She said to me made me that it made her cry and she was surprised by it as it is such a private story and I’m so public with my career. I didn’t notice that and it was only when I read it out loud recently I can relate to what she said, but then creative non-fiction is not just about the literary ‘I’ as first person – that ‘I’ is also a persona as a writer”.
Sinéad’s work blurs the lines between creative non-fiction and memoir, but what is important to her is that its a good story that connects with a reader: “It’s of no interest to anyone if you just write a story that’s about you and your experience. The brilliant American writer Vivian Gornick talks about the ‘disinterested reader’[i] and says that if you are talking about yourself or events in your own life you have give the reader something interesting that will make them read the whole piece– transforming something that’s of value to a reader that doesn’t know you or not necessarily care that you were sick or went to Lourdes. People assume it’s all completely first person but any piece of nonfiction has an element of persona in it. I didn’t think Blue Hills and Chalk Bones was so personal until afterwards but I did want to write about pain, particularly in the context of Ireland and the church. However I was talking to Siobhan Mannion (my first reader) and for her the most interesting part of the story was my own story and she thought I was trying to hide it behind the big story of the church. And I absolutely was! I was trying to bulk in lots of stuff about the church so I wouldn’t have to talk about myself but that is what’s unique – everybody knows about the church but nobody knows about my story that I’m trying to tell. I met Deirdre Kinahan – a playwright I’ve never met before and she had read the piece and said ‘I thought it was a short story’ because it is a story – as opposed to a piece of memoir and I’m interested in those things that blur the lines whether something is a memoir or whether something is creative non-fiction or something else - a lot of writers do that really well. It’s an interesting form. It wouldn’t interest me to write it as a factual piece of ‘this is what happened’ memoir – there is no nuance for me and I think it’s more readable if there’s a bit more art into the way you lay things out and how you tell the story. They are all stories- whether you’re writing nonfiction or fiction. I think we get very hung up on putting things into boxes when it comes to form.”
Sinéad recently gave a reading alongside Claire-Louise Bennett at the Cork Short Story Festival, making the switch from interviewer to author. She also read at Crosstown Drift, an event put together by Kevin Barry as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival. For Cork Short Story Festival Gleeson read a new piece that will be published in Looking at the Stars, a limited edition anthology of Irish writing edited by Kerrie O' Brien and Alice Kinsella to raise money for the Rough Sleepers Team of the Dublin Simon Community.
The Glass Shore is published by New Island: www.newisland.ie