Dr. Eibhear Walshe is a senior lecturer in the School of Modern English at University College Cork. His recently published novel The Diary of Mary Travers is shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award 2015. Set in 1895 it is a re-imagining of the story of Mary Travers and her secret connection with Oscar Wilde. Eibhear’s biography Kate O’Brien: A Writing Life was published in 2006 and he has edited numerous anthologies and reviews. Among his other publications are Oscar’s Shadow: Wilde, Homosexuality and Ireland and A Different Story: the Writings of Colm Tóibín. We are delighted that Eibhear will direct our Non Fiction and Memoir Workshop during Listowel Writers’ Week.
Q. You have described autobiographical writing as one of the most popular and exciting forms of creative writing. Why are you particularly drawn to this genre?
A. It was my first adventure into creative writing and, for a start, I’ve always loved reading memoirs. My favourite (and a real inspiration) was Lorna Sage’s wonderful, sharp and funny Bad Blood and I thought after reading it, well, my own childhood was, in many ways, just as singular as hers, what with working in an abattoir and living next door to a mental asylum. But my main reason for choosing memoir was the opportunity to write about my grandmother, Cissie, one of the most important influences on how I see the world. For all who knew her, she was a woman well worth remembering.
Q. Are creativity and imagination just as crucial to a life-writing project as they are to fiction and poetry?
A. Yes, in fact I think they are all linked in some kind of essential way. To create fiction and poetry, often the writer draws on life experience, memory, an interior world of sensation and recollection to shape the fictive or poetic words. I feel that all writers benefit from experiments in life writing, or writing the self, because it can provide great imaginative resource for whatever genre most interests you.
Q. How crucial is the role of memory?
A. The recall of physical sensation was at the centre of my own process of writing memoir and in workshops, I draw on music, photographs, smells, tastes and colours to aid the process of remembering. When I was writing myself I felt very lucky in that so much of my childhood in Waterford seemed to be very near still, even thirty years later. Sitting at my desk, I could close my eyes and still recall the sound of my grandmother’s voice as she retold some saga from her day, or made herself the hero of some encounter she had had.
Q. How do you manage this blending of fact versus fiction?
A. To be honest, in life writing, I believe that you must adapt the materials to become part of the arc of your narrative, as you would do in fiction and so I think that, when you write of your own life, you must consider the reader at all times and therefore not allow your recollections to overwhelm the dramatic shaping of the unfolding story. You must allow yourself the licence to take what you need from your memory and make a purpose, a structure, a sense out of your life, a sense that you were perhaps unaware of at the time.
Q. Would you say that some life writing narratives are generated, for example, by the experience, or perception of loss? In other words, is the writer trying to re-imagine a life?
A. I do think that a writer does try to imagine a life by producing a memoir and, yes many writers do see loss, alienation, dislocation as the starting point for their own discovery of their creativity but it wasn’t at all like that for me. I had quite an anxious, shut-in kind of childhood, and my adult life, particularly since leaving Waterford has been so fortunate in every way that I would dread a return to that past. And yet…and yet…I still went back. I wanted to return in my imagination to that time and to celebrate the people and the things that helped me escape.
Q. What writers influenced you growing up?
A. Jean Plaidy influenced me as a teenager and all for the bad… I just wanted to be Mary Queen of Scots and nothing else would suffice. As an adult, Kate O’Brien was key, another Irish provincial upbringing, someone who escaped, transcended and got out, to love Spain, writing, opera, and to create such marvellous novels. John Banville was another. I wrote my MA on his work, and without Doctor Copernicus, I could never have written The Diary of Mary Travers.
Q. The Diary of Mary Travers is about a woman who has a secret, hidden connection with Oscar Wilde. Why did you want to write her story, albeit fictionalised?
A. I wrote an academic book on Oscar Wilde and Ireland, called Oscar’s Shadow, about what Ireland made of him and all the Irish biographies kept talking about the Mary Travers libel trial, a case taken against his mother, Jane, by an erstwhile friend, Mary Travers. It was a huge scandal for the day and had really interesting parallels with Oscar’s own trial and, in all the books about the Wildes, no one has a good word to say for poor Mary Travers, calling her hysterical, made, a woman spurned. So, I thought, well, someone must speak up for her and so I wrote her side of the story, in the form of a first person narrator, her fictitious diary, written when Oscar is in trial in London but recalling the events that led to her own disgrace thirty years before. I loved writing it and loved the voice I found for her, a flawed, not always admirable but fascinating woman.
Q. Who are your favourite contemporary writers and why?
A. Hilary Mantell is another important exemplar, because of her historical fictions, so true and solid and moving and Colm Toibin’s The Master is the best novel I’ve read in 20 years… apart from Margaret Attwood’s The Blind Assassin. It is the book I most would have liked to have written – perfect structure, a hidden love affair, a series of un-guessable secrets and a wonderful style. Emma Donoghue’s The Secret Letter is another favourite.
Q. Have you visited Listowel Writers’ Week before?
A. When I was 16, in 1978, my mother and father brought us on holidays to Listowel, to attend some of the festival and it was the first literary event I remember. Both my parents were avid readers and befriended writers in Waterford and so I was privileged to see creative writing at first hand from an early age and so respect it and also feel that I could write if I wanted.