in conversation with Shauna Gilligan, author of Happiness Comes from Nowhere

Born and bred in Dublin, writer Shauna Gilligan has worked and lived in Mexico, Spain, India and the U.K. She lives in County Kildare with her family. Her fiction has been published widely and Happiness Comes From Nowhere is her first novel. We chatted about writing and Ireland, and here are the results:

Thank you, James for featuring me on your blog. It’s lovely to be chatting to a fellow Irish writer who happens to be living on the other side of the world!

How did you come to the writing life?

I think it came to me. I found a poem I’d written when I was 7. I like to think it’s like a haiku, it’s short, succinct and quite, well, poetic and philosophical. Thankfully, I abandoned poetry in my mid teens and turned to short stories that just wanted to be long stories. I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve always written. I didn’t take it seriously, though, until about five years ago. 

Where did the genesis of Happiness Comes from Nowhere begin?

Bizarrely, it started with one of the main character’s names: Dirk Horn. And it grew from there. There were different layers to it – what I wanted and what the book wanted. There was a desire to write about social issues and a desire to explore what happens when boundaries are pushed. But, as happens with fiction, my initial ideas as to what the novel might be evolved and changed as I wrote it, as the characters and stories grew.

What role does autobiography play in your fiction?

So far, none. Though of course, parts of myself, life experiences, travel, what I see or hear around me slip into my fiction. This is inevitable.

Being a new father, I wonder how do you balance motherhood with writing?

Motherhood is part of who I am. Writing is part of who I am. My children (8 and 5) know that I write and accept this. However, there are times when it is very hard – working late into the night, or, for example, I gave a presentation at the AWP Conference in 2010 in Denver and got trapped in the US because of the ash cloud. I was away from my family for over three weeks. Not such a balance in that case!

Do you find yourself handcuffed in any way writing about Ireland and Irish characters while living there? I ask this because I wasn’t able to write about Ireland until I got a good many years and five thousand miles distance.

This is a really interesting question, James. It’s something that you see repeated again and again  – the typical notion of the writer-as-émigré hankering for the old sod.  I think that sometimes you can be too close to something to be able to write about it. I have to confess, that the thought process for this novel started while I was living and working in the UK, near London. So there is something – for sure – in gaining a distance from that which you are writing. Having said that, I wrote the book living in Ireland and travelling frequently to Wales. But I must say, I’ve never consciously felt restricted in writing about Ireland while living here. Maybe it’s because I’ve lived in many different places and made that conscious decision to return. I don’t know. I’m working on a novel set in Mexico now – and I’m so far from there – I’m sure it must have a bearing on the work. Whether it’s positive or negative, I’m not sure!

HCfN came across to me as almost episodic in structure, as opposed to a strictly linear style of storytelling. Was this a conscious decision that you made, or can you explain the process of putting the novel together?

It actually started life as a typical novel with a linear story but as I edited and revised it, minor characters came to the fore. And then it became more disjointed and gained a composite structure. In a way, seeing that process happening (and resisting it, at times), was something that I feel helped me understand how I write and also, importantly, learning to let the writing lead. It was an evolution rather than a conscious decision from the outset.

Dirk is a sensitive soul, and has a self-destructive edge to him, at least as far as I was concerned when I read the book. I related to his struggles in life and love, and wondered where his character springs from in your imagination?

The book started out with Dirk’s name and his act of suicide. I had that image of the bed (in the Prologue) and also of the cardboard box (in ‘Happiness Comes from Nowhere’, the last chapter). It’s been a very imagistic novel from the get go. Dirk’s character then developed and he grew and evolved as the narrative developed.

How hard was it for you to find a home for the novel?

I once made the mistake of sending work out too soon. I didn’t do that with this novel. I was also careful about who I sent it to and didn’t send it out randomly. I did my research on publishing houses and agents.

What’s the best writer’s advice you ever got?

Trust your instincts.

What are the books on your bedside table right now?

Howard Jacobson Zoo Time

Paul Auster Winter Journal

Elizabeth Strout Amy & Isabelle

Kevin Barry Dark Lies the Island

My mother lives in Celbridge, and completely unrelated to writing, what are the top five things about the town?

Not in any particular order:

  1. Castletown
  2. The River Liffey
  3. Being in the countryside
  4. Being near Dublin
  5. Its history

What is next for you?

I’m working on short story collection, my second novel and sketching out some plans for my third novel.

Thank you, James, for such interesting and insightful questions on Happiness Comes from Nowhere on the eve of my Dublin launch! I look forward to reversing our roles some day as I also enjoy reading your fiction. 

Shauna’s book, Happiness Comes from Nowhere, can be purchased here.

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