We chatted to the lovely Caitriona Lally about Eggshells, her debut novel that critics have described as 'dazzling', 'funny' and 'touching'.
Vivian is an extraordinary character. Where did the inspiration for her come from? Was she inspired by any aspects of your own personality?
Vivian is a bit bonkers, so I'd like to say she's completely different to me, but there are definite similarities. When I wrote her, I was imagining how any of us would speak and act if we didn't filter our thoughts, so I suppose there are aspects of me in there. But as I wrote, she took on a life of her own, she became very real to me and I found myself thinking 'What would Vivian do here, how would Vivian interpret this?' I'm drawn to people who don't follow the unspoken rules of society - people who see the world differently or act outside of convention, so there are definitely some characteristics of people I know in Vivian. I do share some habits with Vivian; making lists of nice words for example, and her obsession with maps. Fortunately, I don't share her hoarding tendencies, or her lack of personal hygiene.
Vivian doesn't like to look at herself in mirrors, going to far as to refuse looking at her own reflection while visiting the hair salon. What does this mean, if anything - is it an indication of her disengagement with reality?
I hadn't thought of it that way, but there may be some truth to that - it's really interesting to hear other people's interpretations of aspects of the book that I hadn't consciously thought about. Vivian says near the start of the book that when her great-aunt died, the mirrors were all covered with sheets, and when she inherited the house, she didn't uncover them. Initially, I wanted there to be no mirrors for the simple reason that I didn't want to give a physical description of her. I get fed up of reading about attractive female characters doing their make-up in front of mirrors, and I wanted to write a character that had no interest in her physical appearance. I wanted readers to make up their own minds about what she looked like, if they thought about it at all. Then as the story develops, Vivian actively avoids looking at her reflection - maybe it's a fear of what she will find there, or maybe it's linked with her refusal to fit in with society's expectations of how we should act. She doesn't shower for instance, and she takes great pleasure in sniffing and describing the unwashed sweat from her body.
People react to Vivian in varying ways: the tutting, gossipy, curious neighbours, the bemusement, irritation, disbelief and occasional kindness from strangers. The taxi driver looks at her like she's an 'interesting disease'. All of these reactions are very 'real' while reading them you can vividly imagine the sighs and the stares, yet these reactions don't seem to pierce her emotions too much. Did you find it difficult to write about a character that is so misunderstood by the people in her surrounding environment?
It was a huge amount of fun to create a character coated with Teflon - none of those horribly judgmental attitudes really affects her. I liked the idea of someone who could observe and describe the negative reactions to her, but just not be greatly wounded by them - there's an innate confidence to Vivian that assures her she's just fine. If she suffers a disappointment, she never really takes it to heart. It doesn't occur to her to blame her own behaviour for failed interactions with others, and I liked that lack of self-criticism, and maybe envied it a bit - wouldn't it be great to muddle through life, wreaking havoc and just not care how people reacted to you.
Vivian is definitely on the fringes of society, and when I meet someone like her, on the bus or in a charity shop, I feel quite protective of them, especially when you see some people's reactions to their unexpected conversations or behaviour. So, I suppose that was difficult; writing about negative reactions to Vivian, when I felt she was seeing the world in a more real way than some of the more "normal" people.
Declan Kiberd called Eggshells 'a fairytale of Dublin', with The Irish Times citing it as 'a dazzling trip around Dublin'. When Vivian maps out her daily routes in Dublin onto paper, were these based in your own drawings and observations?
Yes. I had been made redundant from my job in 2011 and spent a lot of time wandering the streets of Dublin, making notes of interesting street signs or graffiti and overheard conversations. The character of Vivian came out of those wanderings; I had notebooks full of observations to work from. And then when I walked Vivian's routes around the city, I came home and plotted the routes on a map and made rough sketches of the route. I threw them away though - I never thought the book would get published!
Where do you write?
Anywhere. I love reading interviews with writers who have a really strict routine of where they write and when they write and how they write, but I don't have a fixed routine. Maybe because I seem to drift from unemployment to short-term contracts and back to unemployment again - so my writing habits change with my circumstances. I have a beautiful wooden writing desk, but it mostly sits empty while I write from bed. If I need to escape the house, I write in the National Library on Kildare Street. Sometimes you see really talented, well-known writers working in there and I'm there trying to peer over their shoulders and steal some of their magic.
Who are your favourite authors to read?
Ooooh I can't narrow this down so bear with me! For short stories, I love Mary Costello, Kevin Barry, Claire Keegan, Raymond Carver, Alice Munro, James Salter, Flannery O'Connor, Lydia Davis, Lorrie Moore. Then there's Henry Miller, Anne Enright, Anakana Schofield, Charles Bukowski, Rachel Cusk, W.G. Sebald, Rebecca Solnit, Joan Didion, William Faulkner, Kjersti Skomsvold. And Alison Bechdel's graphic novels are just beautifully written and illustrated - what a talent to be able to do both.
Can you tell us anything about your next novel?
The next novel is about a brother and sister. It's been refreshing to write about two main characters after living so intensely in Vivian's head for so long. It's set in Hamburg, just by chance - I visited a friend who lives there, after I'd finished writing Eggshells, and I really fell for part of that city. I had only the characters of the brother and sister in my head but no setting - so I was delighted when I found that part of Hamburg. I took lots and lots of notes, and went back to visit a second time. That was surreal, because I'd started writing the book from my notes, I knew those streets intimately as if I'd lived there myself instead of just visiting for a few days.
If Eggshells was going to be made into a film, who would you chose to play Vivian, her friend Penelope, and her sister (also called Vivian)?
Tough question! I really don't know about Vivian, because I have no idea what she looks like. I spent so much time in her head looking outward that I never checked her reflection in the mirror. Instead of a famous actress, could we have a camera attached to someone's head, and just film what Vivian sees and never actually see her face?! The sister cares hugely about appearances, so she could be played by someone who does snobby and snide well - maybe Bree from Desperate Housewives (Marcia Cross). Penelope is just daft, I could see Helena Bonham Carter (pictured below) playing her.
You can order Eggshells from us here or if you'd prefer a signed copy, head to Hodges Figgis bookshop on Dawson St or Eason's on O'Connell St.