Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Ruth Gilligan

Ruth Gilligan is a writer and academic from Dublin now based in the UK. She has published five books to date and was the youngest person ever to top the Irish Bestsellers’ List.

Her most recent novel, The Butchers [US title: The Butchers' Blessing], is set in the Irish borderlands during the 1996 BSE crisis, and was published to widespread acclaim in March 2020.

Gilligan holds degrees from Cambridge, Yale, UEA and Exeter. She contributes literary reviews to the Irish Independent, Guardian, TLS and LA Review of Books. She works as a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham and is an ambassador for the global storytelling charity Narrative 4.

My Q&A with the author:
How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

I would have said that the title of my novel was key – the thing that came almost before the story itself; the one aspect of my work-in-progress that I was happy to talk about.

‘What are you writing at the moment?’ people would ask.

‘A novel called The Butchers.’

‘Ooh – great title!’

And this was still the case when the book came out in the UK and Ireland – a book about the clash of tradition and modernity in late 90s Ireland; a book about a group of eight men, known as the Butchers, who travel the country slaughtering cattle according to a set of ancient folkloric customs; a book about the women they leave behind.

But then the book was bought by an American publisher and the first thing they said was: ‘We love the novel, but we need to change the name.’

They said it was too violent; too savage; that although the Butchers were a key feature of the plot, there was so much else going on too – there were stories of family and loss; of folklore and feminism; stories of individuals – and the country around them – finally coming of age. The Butchers, as a title, was too specific; too harsh.

In the end, we compromised on The Butchers’ Blessing. It meant there was a continuity between the UK and US editions, but it was also a little softer; a little less gory; a little more suggestive of the focus on faith and tradition and superstition. I will never know for certain how the different titles effect readers’ experience of being taken into the story on either side of the Atlantic, but I definitely have some thoughts…

What's in a name?

Because, as I mentioned, The Butchers’ Blessing is all about the tension between ancient and modern Ireland, it felt important that the Butchers – and their families – all had Irish (ie. Gaelic) names. So we have Úna and her father Cúch, which is short for Cúchulain, the ancient Irish hero. We also have Cúch’s wife Grá, which is, incidentally, the Irish word for love – something she struggles with as the novel goes on. All my British friends would message me asking me to send a Whatsapp voice note explaining how to pronounce these unfamiliar words, but I resisted, because that was the whole point – I wanted them to feel unfamiliar, a bit strange, part of a language that has all but died out; to give readers that sense of the Butchers and their families hailing from another time, another world.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your new novel?

Unbelievably my teenage self wasn’t just a reader she was also a writer – I published my first book at eighteen! But it was a very different thing – a semi-autobiographical commercial novel set in suburban Dublin, all about young people finishing high school and coming of age and making stupid mistakes. People liked the ‘authenticity’ of the voice given I was drawing directly on the world I knew; with The Butchers' Blessing, the opposite is the case. Farm life, the Irish border counties, the folklore and superstition of that wild landscape – all of that was completely new to me and required years of research. So yes, teenage Ruth would be pretty surprised!

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

In terms of plot, I tend to have a fairly clear sense of where I want the novel to start and end – the latter in particular feels like the punchline I am always trying, eventually, to work towards. In terms of writing style, however, I find openings really difficult – they can feel so laboured, so much like the author (ie me) is trying to find their groove; like they are trying a bit too hard to lure you in. So yes, in terms of editing, I definitely find myself revising the beginning over and over again.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I definitely see myself in Úna who is arguably the main character in The Butchers’ Blessing. She is an odd, devout, curious child who is devoted to her father, and who is totally bewildered by the fact that certain aspects of her life might be dictated by her gender. She is a rebel, but also a sensitive soul – I can definitely relate! There are other characters like Fionn the farmer who seems a world away from me and my experience, but I do relish the challenge to trying to put myself in someone else’s unfamiliar shoes – that is the whole point of fiction, for me, to develop empathy and to experience new perspectives.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I listened to a lot of great Irish music while writing this novel – The Gloaming and Colm Mac Con Iomaire were particularly influences, creating the perfect, haunting backdrop to this windswept, eerie landscape. Great Irish playwrights like Brian Friel and even Enda Walsh were great for dialogue, the musicality of their characters’ speech. This novel, for all its preoccupation with folklore, is also steeped in fact – I read every Irish newspaper from 1996 to make sure the headlines and pop culture references were accurate throughout. Who knew I would ever write a novel that featured cattle and the Spice Girls?!
Visit Ruth Gilligan's website.

--Marshal Zeringue