Q&A with Eibhear Walshe: 3-Day Non Fiction & Memoir Workshop Director

Dr. Eibhear Walshe is a senior lecturer in the School of Modern English at University College Cork. Éibhear’s novel The Diary of Mary Travers was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award 2015 and longlisted for the IMPAC Award 2016. Set in 1895, it is a re-imagining of the story of Mary Travers and her secret connection with Oscar Wilde. His 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. He has just completed a second historical novel on Handel’s first visit to Dublin in 1742 to conduct the first performance of Messiah. We’re delighted that Eibhear will again direct our  3-Day  Non Fiction & Memoir Workshop during Listowel Writers’ Week in June.

The Diary of Mary TraversQ. You directed the very successful Non Fiction & Memoir Workshop last year at Listowel. What were your experiences of it?

A. I enjoyed it very much, we had a nice full class, a great range of writers from different places and a lively and fun atmosphere each morning. We explored aspects of memory recall each day, taking a different angle and in one class, we used photographs to recall key moments in life writing. I hope to build on this work this year and expanding on these very enjoyable writing exercises, using music and food as key elements within memory and memoir.

Q. How did you enjoy the overall festival experience?

A. Very much, the range of writers, the sense of a nice busy buzz around Listowel, the Arms Hotel as the centre of all, and all within walking distance.

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 Different Story
A Different Story

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 the 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.

A Writing Life
A Writing Life

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. Your historical novel 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. What are you currently working on?

A. I’ve just finished what I hope is the final draft of my new novel, it has gone off to be edited and I have my fingers crossed that it will find a home and, eventually, will appear. It is another historical novel, about the visit of the composer, Handel, to Dublin, in 1742, to conduct the first performance of Messiah and I loved every minute of working on it.

Q. What are you reading at the moment?

A. Carlo Gebler’s wonderful memoir, The Projectionist.

Q. What are you most looking forward to at this year’s festival?

A. The workshops, the food, some good weather and being free to dip in and out of the readings, the book launches and the book shops.

For more information or to book Eibhear’s Workshop, please see below.