What is your background?
I am the eldest of five children, born in England to Irish parents. My father was in the Navy, so I grew up in lots of different places including Malta and North Yorkshire. By the age of fifteen, we had lived in sixteen different houses and I had attended seven different schools. In between times, we used to spend long summers in rural Leitrim, in the North West of Ireland. Moving around a lot, I caught glimpses of other lives, other identities, other versions of myself I might have been. That precariousness of identity has stayed with me.
Did you always want to be a writer?
My childhood was saturated in stories, from the Bible, the lives of the saints, stories I heard at my Grandfather’s knee – about how the land was formed, creatures in lakes, wicked landlords, tales of the old IRA. The oral storytelling tradition was still very much alive when I was growing up. But no, I would never have presumed that I could be a writer. It just wasn’t part of the vocabulary of my childhood.
I left school at fifteen and went to art school, the (then) time-honoured route for wastrels and dreamers. After completing my MA at the Royal College of Art in London in 1985, I became a video artist.
So how did you begin writing?
I was always involved in narrative. If you think of video art as a poor man’s cinema, then I wrote experimental screenplays, voice-overs, soundtracks of voices heard but not seen. The Long Road (1991) began life as a performance piece, then a video. In its final incarnation as a radio play, it won an award and was broadcast on Irish radio station RTE (Radio Telefïs Éireann).
What type of fiction do you write?
My first publisher placed my work firmly within the Irish romantic tradition. My second novel is historical fiction, a picaresque novel, again exploring Irish themes. I like the term ‘modern gothic’, which to my mind is suitably post modern and all encompassing – after all, Bram Stoker was an Irishman. The weight of history, the psyche, magical transformations – these are the things that interest me.
What are you working on now?
The Ghost Hospital is set in a crumbling old Victorian asylum, which has been called into use one last time.
Have you got a proper job?
I’ve had lots of different jobs. I used to work in video art distribution and as a lecturer, and for a while, I ran my own department at the Byam Shaw School of Art in London. These days I run my own company Adventures in Fiction and for the past four years I’ve been director of Arts Council England funded Apprenticeships in Fiction scheme, a professional development programme for new writers.
Where do you live?
I live in Newington Green in North London, which spans the border between Islington and Hackney. Both my parents have links to this part of London; when my mother first came to England, it was to work at St Joseph’s Hospice in Hackney; home on shore leave, my father used to visit Collins Music Hall which is now a Waterstones in Islington Green.
If you could offer one final thought, what would it be?
Books are full of magical possibilities, they open up other worlds, offer us different versions of ourselves, allow us to escape, to retreat, to find hidden resources within ourselves. If I can offer readers even a small fragment of what books have given me, I will be a very lucky woman indeed.