I first came across Cork writer Gráinne Murphy’s evocative writing thanks to the wonderful Madeleine D’Arcy and Danielle McLaughlin, who run Fiction at the Friary. It was the tail end of the lockdowns, and the Cork literary salon was being conducted online. Gráinne was interviewed about her second novel, The Ghostlights, which ties together a mysterious death and troubled family dynamics (you can watch the interview here).
In what seems like no time at all, she has now released her third novel. Winter People follows three isolated characters – Sis, Lydia and Peter – each trying to cope with change, whose lives intertwine by the sea on the west coast of Ireland. Set over three days in which the characters are on the verge of losing everything, Winter People is a story of forgiveness, resilience and the power of the sea to unlock what we are most afraid to say.
I do these Q&As because I’m endlessly fascinated with the different ways writers work, and Gráinne speaks very eloquently about her writing process, as well as the things that have inspired her along the way.
Gráinne, congratulations on the publication of Winter People. You wrote the novel during lockdown, and isolation features largely in the book. Was that your intention from the outset or was it the influence of your circumstances at the time?
Thanks, Anne. I decided to write Sis’s story at Christmas 2019, and initially I saw it as featuring three women, three neighbours, all of whom lived by the sea and had their own issues. In that sense, it was always going to be about people struggling to find the right thing to say to the people they had pushed away. When the pandemic hit, the isolation in their stories definitely deepened. I became more interested in the assumptions that people make about the ease of other people’s lives, particularly when they themselves are fearful and blinkered. So I deliberately distanced Sis and Lydia from one another and had them imagining these grand full lives for each other.
I also wrote the three characters in three entirely separate standalone sections – Sis, then Lydia, then Peter. Of course, by the following year, when things felt a little more integrated again, I was more than happy to take my agent’s wise advice and interlink their stories a little more, and structure the novel to reflect the setting rather than emphasising the characters’ isolation.
The sea also looms large in the book, and I find that many of my own stories have a coastal setting, having grown up in east Cork. Do you have any theories on why it has such a hold over us?
The scale of the sea brings a shift in us, whether in our mood or our perspective, so it’s a good fit for stories of inner conflict and moments of contemplation and decision-making. It has the advantage of seeming both unchanging – giving constancy – and also never quite being the same – giving that bittersweet sense of potential and loss. Dark humour has that same duality, I think, and it’s the reason it can be such a solace when things are at their worst. Thinking about Irish writing in particular, I find that the sea brings weather alive – stand at the Atlantic coast any time between October and April, with the mist rising, and the sky feels full of stories.
Winter People is your third novel. How easy was it to let go of your characters from your previous novels Where the Edge Is and The Ghostlights? Do they ever pop back into your mind?
Typically I’m consumed by the characters I’m writing at any one time. Holding current imaginary people in mind – wondering about them, worrying about them, poking at them – is usually enough to be getting on with. I’ll sometimes get restless when I’m around the sticky 50,000-word mark of a first draft, but that’s more to do with looking ahead to the next thing rather than back at the last. I do still wonder where one of the characters in Where the Edge Is ended up, but as yet I don’t have the urge to write about her again.
…and the protagonists in Winter People started out as characters in a short story who had more to say, didn’t they?
Yes, funnily enough, Winter People started out as the short story ‘Further West’, which showed Peter and Sis meeting when he comes to repossess her house. It was written from Peter’s perspective, but Sis made herself the heart of that story. After I finished it, she remained very much alive in my mind and kept butting into The Ghostlights when I was writing the first draft. I would be trying to write Ethel and realise that the words weren’t hers, they were Sis’s. So when I finished The Ghostlights, it was a clear choice to write Sis’s story, and that became Winter People.
How long have you been writing? Were there any particularly useful workshops, masterclasses, creative writing MAs along the way that helped you learn your craft?
I started writing fiction in 2012. At the time we were living in Belgium, and I was lucky in that Brussels and Antwerp were fairly regular stops on writers’ tours so I got to go along and hear the likes of Salman Rushdie, TC Boyle, Julian Barnes, AS Byatt, Margaret Atwood and Douglas Coupland talking about how and why they wrote. Writers are often both very generous in sharing their own writing experiences and also very normal in how they approach it, all of which is very heartening no matter what stage you’re at. I found Writing.ie really helpful for articles and resources, and I bought a bunch of books on writing.
In 2015, I started an MA in Creative Writing with Kingston University in the UK, which had a couple of days a year in person and the rest online. As well as the excellent content, the MA helped me to get over the natural fear of sharing my work with other people. I had written Where the Edge Is the year before [in which a road subsides in a small Irish village, trapping an early-morning bus and five passengers inside], but it was a more commercial version – I was going for tension and pace, and more about the actual rescue itself, which really is not my thing at all. For the MA dissertation, I rewrote it as a character-based novel and was far happier with it myself. That was the version that was eventually published.
During the pandemic, I did two excellent online courses with the Irish Writers Centre – Elske Rahill’s Writing the Body (remembering that characters have bodies and are not just a pile of mobile thoughts that occasionally have to eat is something I struggle with, so this was excellent!) and Lynn Buckle’s Putting the Environment in your Prose. The latter has evolved into the Climate Writers Group, a free writing group that meets monthly and is a brilliant space for thinking and connecting with the wider world. I also did Niall Williams’ Kiltumper writing course online. It was enormously helpful on the details and the specifics that bring a piece of writing alive.
Locally, I try to get along to Fiction at the Friary when I can, as it is a very supportive, joyful, celebratory space for writers.
Do you have a writing group that you share work with and/or trusted readers, or do you prefer to go it alone?
I am in a writing group with two wonderful writers I met during the MA. For the last five years, we’ve met every month for an online workshop. We swap our work beforehand and then discuss each of our pieces in turn, and it’s hugely helpful. At this stage, we know each other’s work well and – crucially – we know each other’s blind spots, so we can help one another not to fall into the same trap all the time. They are my trusted first readers, and I will happily send them the rawest of first drafts because they ask all the right questions and help me to get closer to the version of the story I want to tell.
What is your ideal writing environment and are you disciplined in when/how much you write?
I write at home for the most part. I do a lot of my figuring-out while I’m walking and will get home with lots of shorthand notes in my phone, which gives me a jump start on the next session. I am self-employed so I don’t have a routine as such – I write when I can and try to write most days. Some days that’s just a couple of notes in my phone though.
When I’m actually writing-writing, I don’t have a set daily word count, but try to write scene-by-scene, so that I sit down with a specific character aim in mind and when that’s done, I’m finished for the day. Lots of things count as writing, especially at first draft stage – walking, reading (especially non-fiction that gets you thinking about something new, or thinking in a different way), thinking – it’s fair to say I’m generous in my interpretation of what’s been achieved on any given day!
As for discipline, writing gives me more than it takes – put simply, I’m happier when I’m writing – so it doesn’t require a huge effort of will to sit down and get stuck in.
Are you a plotter or a pantser? Has your approach changed from novel to novel?
Neither, really. I’m a start-and-end-er. The characters always come first, along with the question I’m interested in – for Winter People, that question was to do with getting people back after we have pushed them away (it became the tagline for the book: ‘who are we without the people who love us?’). The characters and the question have to fit together, otherwise the story won’t take off in my mind. Then I’ll spend weeks or months making notes on characters’ thoughts or motivations or actions, lines of dialogues, quotes I like that spark something. Eventually I’ll know where the novel starts and ends, but not what happens in between or how to get from here to there. At that stage, I might be fooling around with several titles, but when the right one comes along, something clicks in the tone or direction of the story and that’s it. I can start to write then.
Top five books, please?
I read fairly widely, but books on love and loss and humanity and the bittersweet everyday are my sweet spot. I could give you my top fifty, but I’ll make do with four, along with a book on writing to make me sound a bit more balanced:
History of the Rain by Niall Williams. This is my bury-it-with-me book. I don’t often re-read books, but I have read this one several times and return to it when I need its comfort. Aside from the beautiful language, lively characterisation, so-realistic-the-pages-nearly-feel-damp-from-the-endless-Faha-rain setting, whole lives are in this book. It is immediate and alive and its tangents crack the heart of our world right open. It lives on my desk as a reminder of all that writing can be.
Nobody is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood. When I finally picked this up, I was stunned that most of the reviews had so completely ignored the heart of the book. Everything seemed to focus on how smart it was, how satirical, how contemporary, but made no mention of the fact that this is a book about grief. It’s about what happens when our compulsive, shallow, fast-moving world comes right up against the most solid facts there are – love and loss and how little control we have over the big things in life – and how we reconcile those things to keep our sanity. It is absolutely true to the reality of living with and loving a terminally ill baby – reading it brought me right back into the long months of my baby daughter Ali’s illness and it felt like a gift to relive all the desperate, concentrated, daily love of that year.
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward. This is the story of how Ward lost five young men close to her in a very short space of time. Full of love and anger, it reflects all of the structural inequalities that conspire to destroy and derail the lives of young Black men. It is painful and precise and clear, and one particular chapter, late in the book, has some of the cleanest and most powerful writing I’ve ever read. It is also a masterclass in structure and having readers earn the right to your emotion.
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott – I have read a lot of books on writing over the years, but this is the only one that lives on my desk. When teaching writing, Lamott says, she starts by telling her students that good writing is about telling the truth. And this little book is full of truth and thus full of good writing. Two of her gems I carry with me: i) don’t save anything up for the next book – give this one the best you’ve got; and ii) no matter how many books you’ve published, you have to sit down again and face the blank page. Useful reminders that each book has to stand on its own and each book might be your best – or your last.
Towards a General Theory of Love by Clare Shaw. Like many people, I began to read more poetry during the first Covid lockdown, partly because it was really manageable – big life stuff in little bitesize pieces – and partly because I needed beauty. I first read this collection earlier this year – and many many times since – and it is extraordinary. Shaw takes Harry Harlow’s 1950s experiments with baby monkeys (he separated them from their mothers and kept them alone in cages with either wire or terrycloth ‘mothers’ to see how attachment and comfort interacted] as an entry point to explore what humans need to thrive and to feel safe, all the ways in which the world withholds those things from us, and all the ways in which we still continue to reach out for them. This is poetry with an ache in its soul and hope in its heart, and it lives on my desk, within touching distance. If you’re looking for poetry at its finest, here it is.
What are you currently working on?
I am in the very (very) early stages of a new novel. The stage where I’m quite certain about what I want to do and simultaneously afraid of frightening it away. I’ve been wool-gathering and making notes since July, and the title arrived during a walk on the beach in mid-October, so I am finally writing now I know the direction. I have the last line, I just have to get the characters there.
And finally, are you a winter person or a summer person, Gráinne?
Winter person, all the way. Cardigans, soup, rain on the windows, two hands around the coffee cup, closing the curtains at 5pm, all that.
As well as being set in November, the title Winter People reflects my notion that winter people are somewhat solitary souls, happy to live with the emotional front door closed, while summer people are more of an open book and have their arms out to the world. It’s deeply unscientific and highly unsound, and yet something about it feels true to me.
Gráinne Murphy grew up in rural west Cork and studied Applied Psychology and Forensic Research. In 2011, she moved with her family to Brussels for five years. She has now returned to West Cork, working as a self-employed language editor specialising in human rights and environmental issues.
Winter People is published by Legend Press. Gráinne’s previous novels, Where the Edge Is and The Ghostlights, are also published by Legend Press. Her work has previously been shortlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award 2019, the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair 2019 and the Virginia Prize for Fiction 2014. Her short story ‘Further West’ was longlisted for the Sunday Times Audible Short Story Award 2021.