Mary Costello is from Galway. Her short story collection, The China Factory (2012), was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award. Her novel, Academy Street (2014), was shortlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award, the Costa First Novel Prize and the EU Prize for Literature. It won the Irish Novel of the Year Award and the overall Irish Book of the Year in 2014. It has been translated into several languages.
She received an Arts Council bursary in 2011 and again in 2013.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when writing The China Factory?
The stories were written over a long period so there was never any sense that I was writing a collection. Each story had its own challenges - you’re always a little at sea, and you never know if it’ll come together until it’s done.
The greatest challenge with writing in general was - and is - self-doubt. For years I doubted that I had anything worth saying or any story worth telling, and even if I did, who would want to read it! I think this is a common enough anxiety in writers. And when you think about it, it’s not surprising, because it is absurd to think that anyone would want to read the stuff that rattles around inside our heads. Who do we think we are anyway? And what a cheek to expect complete strangers to invest time and money in reading our random imaginings. And yet we do it. Something in us needs to be heard, or maybe the stories themselves need to be removed, evacuated!
This self-doubt, and the fear that the writing might be no good, probably prevented me from sending work out for many years. There’s a degree of exposure attached to putting any work in the public arena which is truly daunting. I never harboured any longings to be a writer when I was a child or a young adult. I wanted peace, a normal life but the stories would press up and plague me.
Though the self-doubt never really leaves, being published has helped greatly. Now I can call myself a writer. And because I’m a relatively late comer I’ve learnt to be patient, to hold my nerve and keep faith with a story, even in the early stages when it looks hopeless!
How would you describe your daily writing routine?
I try to be at the desk by 9.30am. At weekends it’s usually a bit later. I cannot start a story until I have lots of notes gathered, and I work off these. I keep adding to the notebook all the time, right through to the last draft, if such exists.
The first draft is tough. Finding the right voice and tone is crucial. You have to be patient. You have an image of how the story should be, how the voice should sound, but of course the effort to execute these falls way short. So you keep at it and maybe something starts to show itself. Occasionally, you’re lucky and you hit on the voice early on, and things are a small bit easier then.
I work until lunch time, but of course I drift away from the desk frequently... for coffee, to browse books, daydream - there’s a fair bit of sitting and staring going on. The day seems to evaporate. Sometimes I take a walk.
If the work is going well I return to it in the afternoon and at night too. If it’s not, I tend to avoid the desk. I used to agonize about this – the inability to keep at it, the fear that if I leave it, I’ll lose it – but of course writers are ‘working’ all the time. I’m a little more accepting and trusting now that if it’s good, it’ll keep.
Once I’m rewriting it’s easier. The story is on my mind constantly, spilling into every part of life, all-consuming. I don’t like being away from it then. The desk and the notebook beckon all the time.
What has receiving a bursary award meant to you as a writer/for your writing career?
I applied for my first bursary in 2011 - I was planning to take a career break from teaching in order to finish my collection for Stinging Fly Press. Though I had written most of the stories written over the years that I was teaching I needed to polish them up and write some new ones. Receiving the bursary meant that I could give myself over to this without the pressure of having to work. Psychologically, as well as financially, this was hugely liberating.
Secondly, there was an enormous feeling of validation attached to receiving a bursary. The panel and the Arts Council were putting an act of faith in me and my writing, based on the sample of work and the proposal statement submitted. It was a vote of confidence. After years of uncertainty about my writing the sense of affirmation that this induced was crucial.
What is the best piece of advice you received as an emerging writer?
‘Write with your heart and don’t be afraid to bleed.’
What book/author has influenced your writing the most?
I don’t think there’s any one book that spoke to me. Though Ian McEwan’s two collections of stories, First Love, Last Rites and In Between the Sheets made a great impression on me when I first started writing stories in my early twenties. It was to do with tone and atmosphere, and voice too.
Various authors have influenced and impressed me over the years and my preferences have, naturally, changed and shifted. But two have remained constant: Alice Munro and J.M. Coetzee. I found Munro when I was 24 and she never fails to deliver, on every level. I came to Coetzee later, through a short book called The Lives of Animals. Thematically – and in subject matter – he has a great reach. The writing can seem simple but it is infused with depth and profundity so that, suddenly, one is floored. It’s very controlled too and the language, like Munro’s, is always exacting. The Life and Times of Michael K, In the Heart of the Country, Elizabeth Costello - well, just citing the titles can take me down. His non-fiction, too, is addictive.