At the beginning of this month the Irish Times featured an article on shortlisted candidates for the best new Irish writers category as part of the the Hennessy Literary Awards. Twelve out of 18 nominees listed were women. If anything, it showed a remarkable change from the years when female writers might have used a pseudonym to be taken seriously and, as women continue to make their mark in Irish writing, it is perhaps a sign that things are now on a more level playing field.
'I would like to think that things are the best they’ve ever been,' says the author and playwright Lucy Caldwell when asked about the progress that has been made for female writers in Ireland and Northern Ireland specifically. 'We have been missing, suppressing, dismissing or ignoring women’s voices for far too long, in all public spheres of society, and maybe in 2016 and 2017, they will be seen as years that the balance finally tipped.'
This sentiment is shared by writer Jane Talbot, who founded the group Women Aloud, an initiative that is seeking to provide a space for Northern Irish female writers to celebrate, collaborate with and support one another. 'I would say it is a really good time to be a female writer in Northern Ireland,' she affirms.
'Previously there wasn’t a platform for women writers and we didn’t have a voice. Conversations had been had and books published but there wasn’t really a space to gather women who were writing, and that is why I started Women Aloud.
'Initially there were 130 of us and in the last year we have grown to 250 members,' Talbot adds. 'There is a real sense of community within the group. It includes writers from all sorts of backgrounds – from total beginners to more established writers and no one has to earn any status to join the group; we are all equal. We connect through Facebook, where everyone supports and shares good news stories with one another.
'We also run events for members to participate in throughout the year, including the annual Women Aloud event (running until March 11). Plus, we’re looking forward to being part of the Belfast Book Festival this summer.'
Damian Smyth, Head of Literature, Arts Council NI, with Women Aloud members Joanne Zebedee, Anne McMaster and Felicity McCall
I first came across Caldwell last summer at an Open House Festival book reading event in Bangor. She read from one of her short stories, 'Streets Like These' and I couldn’t help but be transported to the streets of Belfast detailed within the book, with her use of natural, vivid and flowing language. She strikes you as someone who is making a mark for Northern Irish female writers and in her recent adaptation of Chekhov's Three Sisters for the Lyric Theatre, she proved she isn’t shy of taking risks. Like many writers, Caldwell also comes across as someone who has needed to be resilient.
'Every single published writer will have a folder, real or virtual, of rejection slips, from the standard to the scathing,' she says. 'Every writer will have had readers who were hurt or huffy or derisory or offended. Every writer will have had bad reviews. Every writer will face bouts of writer’s block where it seems they’ll never write again. You just keep going.
'I always think of Chekhov’s words in The Seagull, where Nina, a young aspiring actress says that she used to think it was the fame that mattered, or the fortune, but she’s learned that all that matters is the ability to endure and keep on enduring. You write because you have to, because you would anyway, and you hope that your work will find its way to the few readers to whom it will truly, deeply matter. Those rare, precious moments of connection can keep you going for years.'
Bangor-based writer and Women Aloud member, Lesley Allen, published her debut novel The Lonely Life of Biddy Weir last year and admits to facing several obstacles along the way.
'The biggest challenge was getting my book published in the first place. It took eight years and over 80 rejections, one offer for publication that fell through at the eleventh hour, and several radical rewrites, but my agent and I were equally determined that one day people would get to read my book. Now the challenge is simply getting the time to write. With a busy full-time job, setting aside dedicated blocks of writing time is very tricky. But becoming a full-time writer is simply not a viable option. It’s a classic catch-22 conundrum.'
It also appears that Allen learnt a valuable lesson about her identity and purpose as a writer, one that many of us writers could take onboard for ourselves.
'I realise that this book isn’t the thing that makes me a writer,' she says. 'It makes me a published writer, but the writer bit, well, I’ve been that for years. I’ve been a writer ever since I started a creative writing class more than a decade ago, where slowly but surely the words I’d buried deep inside me began to crawl out and find their way onto pages. I would never dream of telling my friend who sings in a choir that she isn’t really a singer because she hasn’t cut a record, or my photographer friend whose day job is teaching that she isn’t a real photographer because she hasn’t had an exhibition.'
Hearing from fellow writers is something I can't get enough of as there is no replacement for sharing tips and learning from our contemporaries, and it is groups like Women Aloud that are feeding this longing among female writers within Northern Ireland. Furthermore, it would have been an opportunity missed not to glean from both Allen and Caldwell their own advice.
'Read. Read often and read well. Choose books in the genre you want to be published in,' offers Allen. 'Study your genre, keep abreast of debut publications in your field, read different styles and examine POVs.
'I know a lot of authors don’t agree with me on this as they feel reading other writer's’ work can influence them, even on a subconscious level. But for me it is essential. It’s my springboard – when I read something magnificent I want to dive into my own work and swim around in it. And never give up. It sounds like such a cliché, but if I’d given up, well, you wouldn’t be reading this now!'
Caldwell, meanwhile, urges newcomers to consider joining a writing group. Allen agrees: 'It’s the best possible thing when you’re starting out, to get used to reading and critiquing other people’s work, and to having your own work discussed and dissected publicly,' she says. 'Take advantage of the many, and often free, writing workshops that the likes of The John Hewitt Society and most literary festivals offer.
'And don’t worry or fantasise about the perfect writing space, or the perfect notebook, or anything like that. I used to buy beautiful notebooks that remained endlessly blank because I was worried about spoiling them with half-baked thoughts in a terrible scrawl. What's more, my current 'writing space' is a desk in the corner of the bedroom, which is also the toddler’s bedroom.
'Since having a baby, I’m less precious than I ever used to be about noise, distraction, long stretches of uninterrupted writing time. But I do defend the scraps of writing time I have like a lioness: they’re non-negotiable. Get used to writing regularly and get those around you used to it, too! And start calling yourself a writer, even if you haven’t published yet. A writer is someone who writes. It’s as simple and as terrifying as that.'
Allen will be reading as part of a session hosted by Libraries NI Storyteller-in-Residence Liz Weir this afternoon at Bangor Library from 2.30pm to 4.00pm. It is one of a wealth of events in Northern Ireland and the south organised by Jane Talbot and Women Aloud NI to celebrate International Women's Day. For more information go to www.womenaloudni.com.