Crannóg acknowledges the assistance of:

Arts Council of Ireland and Galway City Council.

Site design:

Ireland's premier fiction and poetry magazine since 2002

Fiction and poetry




The Crannóg Questionnaire

Mary O’Donnell

How would you introduce yourself as a writer to those who may not know you.

It always depends on the person who doesn’t know me. I’ve become better at simply introducing myself as a full-time author if the question arises. I mention ‘full-time’ because that fends off any doubts the person has about what kind of writer you are. A small number of people are surprised to discover that I’ve published whatever number of books, despite just having heard me describe myself as a full-time author, so sometimes I do wonder where the credibility gap is and if they think some writers write to pass the time!!

When did you start writing?

I always wrote even as a child, then as a teenager. There was good validation to the activity of writing in our house.


Do you have a writing routine?

I write in the mornings from 10 – 1.30. After that anything else I produce after a raid on the fridge, followed by a half hour rest on the couch, is really tweaking words, or perhaps preparing a few lines to remind myself, in the case of fiction, what I might do the following morning. Then I try to just stop working and free my mind a little.

When you write, do you picture somehow a potential audience or do you just write?

I just write. I know anyway that it’s mostly women who read my fiction (mostly but not exclusively) but I don’t think about that either. I haven’t a clue who reads my poetry. Again, I don’t consider potential audiences because if I did it would inhibit me. The act of writing for me is a compulsion that makes me feel connected to something unnameable. It is necessary, and audience considerations are beyond me while I’m in the middle of something.

Some writers describe themselves as planners, while others plunge right in to the writing. Would you consider yourself a planner or a plunger? 

I’m a plunger, who may have collected small scraps of random information without realising beforehand that they were going to be relevant to what I’m about to write! The random bits could be newspaper cuttings, phrases, new words, actual objects, links to music, and have been fossils and pieces of quartz in the case of one novel that evolved (The Elysium Testament, 1999, Trident Press). I rarely have a novel entirely planned out, and I never know how it will end either.

How important are names to you in your books? Do you choose the names based on liking the way they sound or for the meaning? Do you have any name choosing resources you recommend? 

The names of my characters do matter to me. I am aware of my own aversion to certain names, especially fashionable ones, so I have to distance myself from that. And names can be socially significant, of course. So, if you have a male character and call him ‘Sledge’ or ‘Moro’ that tells the reader something about class (perhaps). Call him ‘Matthew’ or ‘Donal’ and that presents a different impression. With women, a ‘Tracey’ and ‘Chardonnay’ (a la Katie Hopkins!) suggests quite a different type from an ‘Eithne’ a ‘Medhbh’, or a ‘Rose’.

Is there a certain type of scene that’s harder for you to write than others? Love? Action? Erotic?

I believe I have a gift for crowd scenes in which something important is revealed, and in three of my four novels this has been the case. I discovered this capacity as a short story writer, long ago, and realised that I quite enjoyed keeping my eye on the ball while dealing with crowds, groups, or several characters in particular scenes.

Tell us a bit about your non-literary work experience please?

I have some non-literary work experience, as a teacher of German and English at second level in the 1980s, as a personal assistant to various people during the early 80s recession, and as a library assistant at the then NUI Maynooth. I also worked in Concern’s head office for a time. But gradually most of my work was connected to literary life. I presented various poetry programmes for RTE Radio, which, obviously, I scripted. I worked as the Sunday Tribune’s Drama Critic, then in freelance journalism, and then more and more began to teach Creative Writing – most recently on Galway University’s MA in Creative Writing.

What do you like to read in your free time?

Both fiction and non-fiction. I read little new poetry and concentrate mostly on poetry that actually pleases me. I like experimental poetry that is clearly trying to well, ‘experiment’, which is what we should all do as poets. Regarding fiction, I don’t often read the latest raved-about novels and short story collections unless I have a personal connection with the author. Often I prefer to wait until I’m ready and uninfected by hype.

What one book do you wish you had written? 

The Great Gatsby.

Do you see writing short stories as practice for writing novels?

No, not in the least, though I know that in my own case I did write short stories before I wrote a novel. But a short story is as different or as similar to a novel as a poem is as different or as similar to a short story, if you get my drift. Poem and short-story share certain concerns, among them brevity and concision, space for the lyrical and also for narrative. But the scale of the novel, although it shares narrative concerns with the short story, has to scale very different levels of credibility. These are achieved through the handling of time, for one thing, and through large-scale events (not literally events, but episodes and turning points) that simply could not be incorporated into shorter fiction. And although character can indeed be thoroughly explored in short fiction, there is more space for many characters of depth within a novel.

Do you think writers have a social role to play in society or is their role solely artistic?

I think we are a little like unofficial liars. We take ourselves away from the group (or tribe, if we look on it as an anthropological phenomenon and think of storytellers) and go off into a corner (meaning artists’ retreat, your study, or a cave in the back of beyond) and weave these yarns which we hope our group will be drawn to and from which they might discover new ways for themselves to see and dream. Objectively speaking, it may be a semi social role, but one isn’t conscious of it during the act of writing.

Tell us something about your latest publication, please?

In July, 451 Editions reissued my 1992 debut novel, The Light Makers. I really just wanted to get this book back in print, twenty-five years later, as I felt it might well be enjoyed by a new generation of readers. Its themes are certainly relevant and it has a strong undercurrent of feminism which carries my protagonist Hanna Troy right to the end. I’m delighted by this novel, which I hadn’t read for years. It was like revisiting a younger self and discovering how she wrote, years after you’d forgotten. The cover is fabulous, by the way, and it’s available in some bookshops and online and from Kindle.

Can writing be taught?

Writing can be taught to someone who is hungry to write and who possesses some talent. Not all published writers are talented, remember. Some are, some are less so. But hunger and an appetite for reading and expression in language will carry the right person a long way. What talent is, is sometimes elusive, but those who have it really do rise.

Have you given or attended creative writing workshops and if you have share your experiences a bit please?

The first two workshops I attended as an apprentice writer were interesting in different ways. Julia O’Faolain ran the first one. She was a good teacher and you knew you were in the presence of someone with an excellent mind and a certain rigour of approach. The second one was a poetry workshop and I came away from it on a high, because the teacher gave such encouragement. There were others, one in which I observed the teacher diminish a woman (the administrator), for no obvious reason other than pettishness, I felt.  It’s always interesting to see how much clay our heroes and heroines in literature have between their toes!

As a writing teacher I’ve led groups everywhere, in Ireland, and abroad. Participants have changed since I taught writing for the first time in 1983. And over the years I’ve watched how participants expect more and come with a more usefully critical literary vocabulary than heretofore. Often they are working people, not unemployed, and often they are very directed and focused too. In the past, American students were easier to work with because they understood the language of critical discourse, but Irish participants and students are very tuned-in nowadays, and have other cultural, native advantages at their disposal.

Flash Fiction-how driven is the popularity of this form by social media like Twitter and its word limits? Do you see twitter as somehow leading to shorter fiction?

I don’t read a lot of Flash Fiction, although I’ve read some pieces I thought were so perfect, among them work from Nuala O’Connor. I don’t think Twitter is the link to shorter fiction, so much as paucity of time.

Finally what question do you wish that someone would ask about your writing, and how would you answer it?

I’d like them to ask, ‘Well Mary, and how has it been for you?’

Finally, finally some Quick Pick Questions:

E-books or print? Both

Dog or cat? Both

Reviews - read or don’t read? Read some.

Best city to inspire a writer: London Dublin New York (Other)? Paris.

Favourite meal out: breakfast, lunch, dinner? Lunch (long!)

Weekly series or box sets? Box sets.

Favourite colour? Vermilion

Rolling Stones or Beatles? Beatles

Night or day? Night with the hope of day.