September has become a major month on the aspiring Irish novelist’s calendar. That is the window when the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair is open for entries. Described as Dragon’s Den for writers, it allows twelve winners the opportunity to pitch their manuscripts to a large group of agents, publishers and editors. Many have found publishing success through it.
One of the most recent successes is Olivia Fitzsimons, a finalist in 2020 whose debut novel The Quiet Whispers Never Stop was published by John Murray Press in April. Set in a claustrophobic farming community in Northern Ireland during the 80s and 90s, it centres around the thwarted needs of a mother and daughter.
It’s a real pleasure to have Olivia stop by this little blog today because not only is she about as talented a writer as you can find, she’s an all-round good egg. She is extraordinarily supportive of her fellow writers and willing to share what she knows wherever possible (which is a lot, believe me). We met in 2018 at the University of Limerick Creative Writing Winter School in Doolin, and have been cheering one another on ever since. Olivia is also one of the funniest people I know, someone who takes her work seriously but not herself – my favourite kind of person. I spoke to her about her experience of becoming a published author, her writing routine and why 80s pop singer Tiffany has a lot to answer for…
Hi Olivia, and thanks so much for chatting to me about The Quiet Whispers Never Stop. Could you tell us firstly a bit about your journey to publication?
I started tapping away on my mobile phone when one of my mum friends told me about a short story competition that was happening in six weeks. My kids were small and I didn’t even have a laptop. Plus I’d never written a story before, but something made me start. I sent the story off and it got shortlisted for The Sunday Business Post/Penguin Short Story Competition in early 2018. Then I didn’t get anything else published for another year.
I was writing bits of flash because that was all I could do in the time I had. It was a good lesson as this business is all about rejection and you need to be resilient to cope with the no’s. But the yeses, when they come, are super sweet.
I got a place on The Stinging Fly Summer School [at the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin], and then their Six Month Fiction Course. At that point I’d written about three short stories, one of which became my novel; so I started the course thinking I was a short story writer and ended up with the first draft of The Quiet Whispers Never Stop. I entered it into the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair and got selected for that in 2020. I met my agent and publisher there, and the book came out just over two years later, in April 2022. Whirlwind.
Your two protagonists, mother/daughter Sam and Nuala, are very troubled – and in the world of the book are both branded ‘difficult’ [Olivia wrote an excellent article on this topic for the Irish Times]. In interviews, you have referred to them as often unlikeable. Did you find it easy to write such flawed individuals, warts and all, or did you feel pressure to soften their edges?
I’m clearly a very difficult individual, so no, it was a cakewalk to me, as my own mother might say. Ha! I grew sick of these saccharine depictions of women on screen and so I turned to writing a novel to create women who felt real, flawed and complicated. Luckily, my editor Becky Walsh [at John Murray] agreed with me. Human beings are so complex you can never truly know anyone, and literature gives us a glimpse at that inner life through our characters.
In Book Two, I’ve upped the ante and created what I consider my most ‘unlikeable’ character yet, though I don’t like that term and I don’t think I should have used that word – complex is a better description. I love all my characters and try to let them live on the page and in the imagination. Readers might judge but I refuse to, otherwise I’d limit my ability to write about uncomfortable emotions.
You came to writing relatively recently. Was there any particular turning point for you, where you were able to see that this could be something more than a hobby? A course, a competition, feedback from a mentor?
There were a few things. I got onto The Stinging Fly course and was awarded a WORDS Ireland mentorship around the same time, and they were transformative for my practice. Both came relatively early on, and brought so many good people into my life who helped me keep writing.
The University of Limerick Winter School in Doolin was another huge catalyst. Sometimes just applying for something, whether you are successful or not, can signify a change in your perception of yourself and your writing. A very respected agent heard me read at the Winter School and told me afterwards (I was hiding in the toilets – very on brand for me) that she loved my reading. That was a huge deal for me. Huge.
As one of the Novel Fair success stories, what advice would you give to anyone thinking about entering it this year?
Just do it. I really had no expectations around the Novel Fair – I used the deadline to get the book finished. I did not think it would get selected. It was wonderful to get in a room with all those agents and publishers and meet other writers – it’s such a great insight into the industry, and you become part of the Novel Fair family as the writers who have gone through the process before are so supportive. I’m a big fan of the Novel Fair and the Irish Writers Centre in general. They support writers at all stages of their careers, it’s a brilliant organisation and we are lucky to have it. Then get your 10,000 words into the best shape possible. Ask someone else to read it for typos, voice, etc. You have nothing to lose. Be brave and submit. I did and it changed my life.
And on the subject of advice, what top tips would you have for early stage writers looking to improve their craft and connect with other writers? It can seem like such a mystifying world, can’t it?
There’s a rake of advice about – only pay heed to what applies to you now and not future you.
I want to write every day for hours, but I can’t. One day, when my kids are bigger, I will be able to do that, but for now what I can do is think about my writing, write for a teeny tiny bit, read on public transport, write in the car after I drop my kids off. Read whenever I can. Poetry. Memoir. Journals. Make use of the library – free books, what’s not to love!
Kit de Waal told me that your voice, your experience, is the most unique thing about you as a writer – she is right, it’s that voice that draws people to your work. Believe in that voice.
Find mentors and writers and peers who can cheerlead, console and collaborate with you while trying to navigate this life – like your lovely self, Anne.
Try to think longterm. I’ll always be trying to match my craft to my ambition, and I want to work with organisations who support writers and help them build a career. My acknowledgements are a handy how-to-guide, thanking all the people and institutions who helped me, so buy the book (see what I did there!?!) and use that list.
Live a creative life as much as you can, and remember the beauty of friends who aren’t writers, and who love you for everything that is nothing to do with this literary life.
When do you write? Do you have a set routine or do you grab moments here and there?
I’m dreaming of a routine. Like a kinda 80s aerobic style writer’s workout, where I manage thousands of words a day and have abs like a steel trap encased in lurex spandex while listening to Sheena Easton – but it just isn’t happening. I’ve had my primary school-aged children at home all summer, and a sick mother in a nursing home. I’m recovering very slowly from Covid, that has robbed me of some energy since I had it a few months ago. So mostly this summer, instead of fighting against the urge of why-am-I-not-as-productive-as-I’d-like-to-be, I’ve tried to accept that I would get little bits done here and there and that’s just my life currently. September is the start of the year for me, and for the first time I will have proper childcare three days a week. So I’m still writing around the children for now, but that’s okay. That’s life.
…and what’s your dream writing location – busy café or cabin in the woods? Or indeed something in between?
My new dream writing location is The Dean Arts Studio in Dublin, where I have a studio for the next year. I’m so grateful to be one of the twenty residents here. My neighbours are a plethora of incredible artists and creators, like This is POP Baby!, Chinedum Muotto, Jesse Jones, Leah Hewson and artist Bríd Higgins, to name but a few. It’s a creative cornucopia and it’s inspiring me already, with child-friendly hours in the space. I can come in over the weekend and in the evenings, which has been a real boon during the summer with the kids off school. I’m in love with the people and the place, and so grateful to Ben Barclay and the Press Up Group, our wunderbar manager Kate Farnon, and Dublin City Council for giving us this brilliant artistic space and the supports to go with it.
Changing the subject completely, your top five books, please!
Oh, my goodness – tough one. I mean with the library you can have all the books FREE to your heart’s content – can’t I just have a library? No? Okay.
I adore Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From, I read him often, like a balm. Edna O’Brien’s (whom I came to quite late in life, blasphemous I know!) In the Forest, intensely good, I love her writing on women and desire. A Girl is A Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBride because it blew me away when I read it. I reread it and it still has a dark raw magic. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, which I have loved, in many ways and for many reasons, and also conversely got annoyed at, since I was 17 years old. Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba; my husband often buys me books abroad, things I might never pick myself and they nearly always captivate me. This is such a short sharp shock of a book and one I find myself obsessing over.
I’m going to break rules – shocker! – and also include Hans Christian Anderson, and all the stories that I read to my children. The days of reading to them are running thin – the eldest is eleven going on twenty – so I cherish the chance to curl up and tell tall tales to my absolute favourite audience of two small boys, with impossibly large imaginations, for as long as they will let me.
And as you have a background working in the film industry, are there any films that feed into your writing?
This is the bit where I could just say Heathers because, I mean, who doesn’t love Heathers? But actually, this second book owes quite a lot to Don’t Look Now, Dead Ringers and body horror movies in general. David Cronenberg, Peter Bogdanovich and Nicolas Roeg are the father, son and holy ghost of cinema who are influencing me for this next project. My talismans Jeremy Irons, Bob Hoskins and Kathleen Turner get a mention too. I’m listening to a lot of CMAT. That’s all I’m saying.
So what’s next for you?
Apart from the badly titled second novel-in-progress, I’ve got several scripts in various stages of development, some literary adaptations/some original ideas, an essay and short stories on the go and a couple of short films that I’m hoping to direct. Every project is at some nefarious stage that requires intense periods of writing, or leaving it rest, or starting all over again. I’m very hopeful that an ambitious and exciting literary project I’m working on with the magnificent poet Emily Cooper will happen in 2023. Heart set on that one.
I’m also trying to fit in modern dance and growing potatoes if none of these work out.
And finally, if you had a time machine to hop into, what’s the one piece of advice you’d like to go back to share with young Olivia? It could be writing-related or anything else, really. Mine would be not to attempt that perm in 1989…
I too fell foul of the late 80s perm; I hold Tiffany responsible for follicle war crimes against poker straight-haired teenage girls.
I’m not big on regret, but I’d say believe in yourself more. I spend a lot more time than is useful second-guessing myself.
Maybe don’t jump out of that cake? And perhaps I should have tried harder to remain the lead singer of Euroshopper. The band thing was short-lived. Writing is the closest I’ll get to rock’n’roll.
Olivia Fitzsimons is from Northern Ireland and now lives in Wicklow. She is the recipient of the Centre Culturel Irlandais Paris/Literature Ireland Residency 2022/23 and has been awarded grants from the Arts Council of Ireland and Northern Ireland for her writing. Her work has appeared in publications such as The Irish Times, The Stinging Fly and The Cormorant, and has been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Short Works. The Quiet Whispers Never Stop (John Murray Press 2022) is her first novel and was an Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair Winner in 2020.
Novel Fair 2023 is open for entries September 1-30, and the requirement is the first 10,000 words of a novel plus a synopsis. Twelve winners will be selected to pitch their finished books to industry experts in February 2023, and will attend a seminar beforehand to help them prepare. All the details can be found on the Irish Writers Centre website here. Why not throw your hat in the ring?