News and Views
Q&A with UCC Writer in Residence Eimear Ryan
With her debut novel, Holding Her Breath, due for release this week, we spoke to the Arts Council/University College Cork Writer in Residence for 2021, Eimear Ryan, about her career, her writing inspirations, and her advice for emerging artists.
What inspired you to become a writer?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a kid. I was lucky to grow up in a house full of books, and read a lot from an early age. I remember being interested in the ‘Also by the author’ page towards the front – the likes of Roald Dahl had such a long list, and I became fascinated by the idea of becoming an author. I wrote stories from a young age – all my early efforts were Enid Blyton rip-offs, and then as a teenager I wrote X Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer fanfiction. It’s amazing how much you can learn through imitating your favourite writers.
I opted to study journalism in college, reasoning that it was a more practical or realistic career path than fiction. Then, on a semester abroad in Boston University in my final year, I took a creative writing class, and have been writing seriously ever since.
Could you give us an overview of your path into your career?
It’s been very circuitous, as these things tend to be! I knew from quite early on that creative careers are difficult to establish and sustain, and 2021 is the first year that all of my earnings have been connected to writing – a mix of teaching, editing, events, journalism and the book itself. But I’ve always worked with books in one way or another – whether in bookshops, educational publishing, or setting up a literary journal (Banshee) with my fellow writers and friends, Laura Cassidy and Claire Hennessy.
I published my first short story in New Irish Writing in the Sunday Tribune when I was 21, and published stories steadily for the next decade or so in various literary journals like gorse, The Dublin Review and The Stinging Fly. I graduated from a creative writing masters in 2012, and signed with my agent, Lucy Luck, the following year. I wrote a crime novel and a collection of short stories in my mid-twenties that were submitted to publishers, but they didn’t get picked up. I found it really hard at the time, but looking back, I don’t think I was ready for publication at that stage. I began writing Holding Her Breath in late 2013, and six years later got the news that it would be published by Penguin Sandycove.
You took up the role as Writer-in-Residence at UCC during a particularly difficult year. What was the experience like for you, and what are some of the challenges that the pandemic presented?
I’m really enjoying the residency even though it’s been a tough year. I love teaching, and being able to share some of my favourite writers and short stories with students has been fantastic. Remote learning isn’t ideal but the students have been brilliantly engaged. The School of English reading series carried on via Zoom, and it was great to be able to participate in that. It would be lovely to be on campus of course, and to be able to meet and chat with students and colleagues in a more organic way, but hopefully we’ll get to do that in the autumn.
This has been, and continues to be a very challenging time for those working in the creative arts sector. What piece of advice would you give to budding young artists at this time?
Back yourself and take your work seriously, but also be kind to yourself – there are so many ups and downs in a creative career, and you’re always learning and evolving. It’s useful to think of your creative work as a strand of your career, a string to your bow, rather than an all-or-nothing situation; most writers have a day job or multiple freelance gigs to supplement their writing.
In more practical terms: apply for funding and residencies, both through the Arts Council and your local county or city council. Submit stories to competitions and literary magazines. Find peers and friends that you can swap work with and create a support network. Know that all writers (even established ones) get rejected. Remember that nothing is ever really wasted and you have to produce a lot of bad writing to get to the good stuff. Revise.
Your debut novel, Holding Her Breath, is due to be released in June. Could you tell us a bit about the book, and the process of taking it from an idea to a printed work?
Holding Her Breath is a coming of age novel about identity, grief and family secrets. The story follows swimmer Beth Crowe in her first year of university, as she recovers from a sporting disaster, embarks on a secret relationship, and is drawn into a mystery about her grandfather, a poet who died tragically before she was born.
I got the idea after reading a book about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. I started thinking about literary myth and legacy, and how the death of a great artist impacts the people around them. I also wanted to write about being a young sportswoman, and sporting failure as opposed to glory. The book went through about five different drafts over the years, with characters and subplots appearing and disappearing, but the core ideas remained. I’m so excited that it will be available to readers soon!
Holding Her Breath will be published on 17 June. Click here to pre-order online.