In the Autumn of last year, I had the pleasure of reviewing The Accidental Wife , the debut novel by Irish Writer Orla McAlinden. I described it as the time as ‘an interwoven collection of short stories that introduces you to the characters young and old of the McCann family.’
Since then, Orla has been the proud recipient of The Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Award for her short story The Visit, (see link below) which was taken from this novel.
I was delighted recently when Orla agreed to come back and answer a few questions for us all, so without further ado let’s get started…
Orla, I was lucky enough to make your acquaintance some time back and I will always associate you, in my head, with the word ‘pedantic’. Obviously, writing, and writing with grammatical correctness, is extremely important to you. Can you please elaborate a little on this?
Oh dear, that sounds bad, and makes me feel like a joyless old school ma’am from a Dickensian boarding school.
I had forgotten that the first time we encountered each other online I was having a “who can be the biggest pedant?” contest with a few friends. It must have been a weird conversation to stumble into. Since I got my first smart phone, and learned how immensely difficult it is to create a cogent, coherent post on the tiny little keypads, I’ve stopped being pedantic about people’s online communications.
However, I still hate encountering mistakes in published works…not only because I’m of the generation where an unintentional “I done” or “I have went” can give me a palpitation but, much more importantly, because it breaks my suspension of disbelief. Like most keen readers, I read at the speed of light, turning a series of only about 40 different types of black marks on white pages into a 4-D imaginary film-scape in my mind. Any time a typo or glaring grammatical error knocks me out of that fantasy — in which I have wholly given myself up to the writer’s world — I remember that I am reading a book, not living the reality which I have been creating in my inner imaginings. I find that desperately disappointing.
There is a misplaced set of quotation marks in my debut collection The Accidental Wife and it drives me crazy.
After 15 years practicing as a vet, what was the turning point for you that encouraged a complete career change to writing? Do you still dabble a little in the veterinary field?
The animals of Ireland are safe. I’m not even on the official veterinary register at the moment, and am unlikely to return to it.
And I certainly wouldn’t claim that I have made, or have made any attempt to make, a career as a writer. I have one published collection, a few awards, an unpublished novel no-one will touch with a bargepole (although I adore it and think it’s the best thing since sliced bread) and a small number of new stories gathering towards a second collection, called Full of Grace. If I were trying to make a career as a writer, my children would be rummaging through other people’s dustbins for their dinner.
Writing is a fabulous way to spend time and money. I have certainly spent more money on ink, paper, petrol and postage than I have earned from my writing since I started in 2012.
I enjoy my characters and I even love the absolute bastards among them; that is why I write. If I needed a career, I’m a qualified science teacher, and I would try to find a teaching job. As it is I fill my days with my role as a mother to four children and I do a significant amount of voluntary and charitable work in my locality. (In reality, I spend most of my day reading other people’s books, but don’t tell anyone or they’ll all want my job too.)
Bring us through a day in the life of Orla McAlinden? Are you still writing in the garden shed?
My days are simultaneously too chaotic and too dull to describe, but at least I no longer have to resort to the garden shed to write. I wrote the first draft of The Accidental Wife during a six month period when I had an au pair (oh joy!) and she and the three year old baby used to occupy the entire house, watching CBeebies, while the three others were at school for a few hours each day. Meanwhile, I huddled over a radiator in the garden shed wearing a coat and a pair of fleece lined wellies from Lidl, tapping at the keyboard.
Now, I just sit down anywhere I can find a space among the Lego and the toast crumbs and try to write between school runs, hurling, swimming, ballet, piano, pony, football and choir. I secretly can’t wait for the day when I have four surly teenagers, who have abandoned all the activities I’m currently killing myself to facilitate, and who desire only to stay in bed with the duvet over their heads all day. Bliss.
Orla you did not go down a traditional path to publication with your novel The Accidental Wife. What path did you take to getting your novels published and is it a route you would recommend to other writers struggling to get their work seen?
I didn’t succeed in finding an Irish publisher or agent for The Accidental Wife, which isn’t surprising as short stories can be hard to place. I was lucky enough to come across a literary competition called The Eludia Award offered by a tiny boutique press in Philadelphia, Sowilo Press, which loved the collection and awarded it first prize. The prize was a small advance plus publication. Sowilo produced a really beautiful book, I’m very proud of the way it reads, feels and looks.
I’d say to anyone who has tried hard and failed to find a publisher to make sure that the work is as good as it absolutely can be, and then by all means enter competitions. Having an American publisher has certainly presented me with extreme logistical and distribution challenges to overcome, but it’s been worth it to have my book on my shelf and bringing happiness to readers.
I’d also say, if you feel you have exhausted every other avenue, investigate self-publishing. Traditionally published authors give away a lot of control, and the monetary rewards are tiny…why not consider self-publication? Self-published books are eligible for a new and increasing list of awards, for instance the CAP awards here in Ireland, and we have inspirational stories such as Hazel Gaynor’s self-published novel The Girl Who Came Home, which went on to be a New York Times bestseller. The cream does usually rise to the top.
The Accidental Wife is a wonderful insight into a family’s life across generations in Northern Ireland. I mentioned in my review it was almost voyeuristic in parts as a reader. How much of these stories are based on your own personal story of growing up through the Troubles?
I’d say the book is steeped in my childhood experiences. None of the characters are real people (relax, everybody, you’re all too boring to be in a book) and none of the plot devices are lifted straight from my personal experiences, but the background of tension and caution and, particularly, the dialogue, are 100% as I remember them.
Purchase Link : The Accidental Wife
As a writer, I’m assuming you also read a lot. Can you share with us the 5 greatest literary influences in your life and why?
Terry Pratchett: the most humane and life-affirming satirist in the English language in my opinion. I hope I have a quarter of his integrity.
Stella Gibbons: Cold Comfort Farm was one of the first utterly inappropriate adult novels I read as a very young child, and holds a prized place in my heart.
Marilyn French: I didn’t even know what the word Feminist meant when I first read The Women’s Room. I’m not even sure I had ever heard the word.
At the extreme other end of the feminism spectrum I loved the historical novels of Jean Plaidy and devoured them all. In truth, what fiction could be more bizarre than the lives of the crowned heads of Europe? A crash course in misogyny and history at once.
French led on to a pantheon of great women writers: Margaret Atwood, Erica Jong, Beryl Bainbridge, Maya Angelou etc
You were very recently the recipient of The Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards Short Story of the Year, sponsored by writing.ie. As a writer how does this amazing recognition make you feel?
It gives me a huge sense of personal satisfaction and I’m so happy for my character Alo O’Donovan — the pivot of the story “The Visit”. I adore him. If I ever meet Alo, I will divorce my husband and marry him. He is the epitome of everything that is good about Irish rural manhood.
I was delighted to win the award. The Visit is a difficult story about a difficult topic and showcases the life of rural Northern Ireland; it’s gratifying to know that people care.
On a concrete level, winning the award has made no difference to my writing life, but I now own a very heavy glass trophy if I ever need to bludgeon an intruder, so that’s helpful.
The Visit is freely available to read HERE
What next for Orla McAlinden?
The Accidental Wife has been selected as the inaugural title for the first ever massed-reading project in Northern Ireland.
Libraries NI have hundreds of copies of the collection currently available and during February and March the book will be the subject of “The Armagh Big Read”. All library members in Northern Ireland will be encouraged to read the collection, and I am attending four public sessions, where I will read, answer questions, sign copies and participate in interviews with Anthony Quinn, one of my favourite Northern Irish writers.
The library events take place on 21st 22nd and 28th March in Armagh, Bessbrook, Portadown and Lurgan branches and details can be found on www.orlamcalinden.com or by following the Libraries NI social media.
Orla thank you so much for answering my questions with such interesting responses and of course with your usual witty humour 🙂
I hope you have a wonderful time with your involvement with The Armagh Big Read and please drop by again soon. It’s always such a pleasure… x
You can follow Orla on: