'I don't believe in plot," says Alice Lyons with cool impunity. "I don't believe in a plan."
e have been talking for an hour on this Friday afternoon in Dublin when the revelation comes, just a couple of weeks before she publishes her debut novel, Oona. Most novels, however unconventional, have some semblance of grand scheme, or at least their authors might pretend they do. Lyons, who trained in painting and worked in the visual arts while producing three collections of poetry, was not bothered by such an expectation. "I didn't want it to be too much like a story," she grins.
Nor is the book a version of her own life in disguise. Like the anti-heroine of Oona, Alice was born in Paterson, New Jersey and later settled down as an artist in Co Sligo, but, she explains: "I don't really trust autobiography. I think we're too complicated and contradictory to put down things factually. Fiction for me is a way of applying imagination to experience."
What she does believe in is "forward motion. I think you start with desire. Desire leads you to the next step, and then you follow it. But I think it's got to come from the process of writing and not pre-planning. For me it's the joy of discovery."
She must have had fun writing Oona, an almost promiscuously playful work filled with imagery and offbeat typing, from stanzas of poetry to held-down letter keys to entirely crossed out paragraphs. "I could have written a long poem. In some ways there's a lot of poetry," says Lyons.
If there is a story, Oona is about the young American artist trying to comprehend the death of her mother as she grows up. We go with her from her discovery of pigments to her panic attacks and explorations with men and women and much in between, as she settles in John McGahern country in Cootehall, Co Roscommon. Lyons says she wrote the book for anyone who has been hit by grief - and anyone who loves language and the arts, too. She lost her own mother, Jane, to cancer when she was just 14.
"There was kind of a shame around death in that fast-paced, getting-ahead culture.
"In the States, very often when you meet people, the first question is what do you do? Where do you sell your work and how much do your paintings go for? Here, it was space to be creative without it being completely hooked up to money."
In Oona, she describes Ireland as being "like turpentine" - "a life-giving, enabling substance". She can't recall writing this, but agrees with it. "I had the sense that my material was here."
When she settled in Ireland in 1997, she was able to buy a house without a mortgage and devote herself to writing while teaching art in NUIG. She wrote a collection of poetry in six weeks which earned her the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award and later she won the inaugural Ireland Chair of Poetry Bursary.
What made her want to write a novel? "I think I'd got to a point in my life where there was something that couldn't be said in poetry," says Lyons. There was a narrative that "wanted to happen", she explains.
"It's why I'm 59 and only now making this work. It's taken so long to synthesise."
She began the novel during a poetry fellowship to Harvard in 2015. "I was juggling so much including being a single mother. In Harvard they said bring your daughter, we'll find her a high school. The fact that I was given the time to write and dive deep made all the difference in the world.
"I still hadn't encountered the decision to write with no 'O'," she then says referring to the quirkiest innovation in her book, it's lack of the circular letter.
Alice talks about her process almost as something driven by ghostly outside forces. "I don't know how it happened, I just know it was intense," she goes on.
She had called her character 'Oona' because she liked the name. Then she decided to literally destroy the word. She took out the 'Os' from the name and then set about eradicating them from the whole text.
"I was trying to be real. Not ironical or stylish," she says. "What I'm trying to investigate is what it's like for a person who doesn't feel fully in touch with herself.
"She's trying to find out who she is but grief is in the way, she's dissociated from herself. I wanted to hollow out the language, insert some silence into it."
She also liked that it slowed down her process, because "you can't just fire it off when there's no Os". Some 30 or 40 drafts later, she entered Oona in the 2019 Novel Fair. "I met Antony Farrell from Lilliput and within 24 hours he came back and said 'please hold this for us'."
This is the same Alice Lyons who one day set about making a 'poetry film'. "I was getting really bored of poetry readings where poets were reading from a book with their head down." A poetry film, she explains, is "a way of taking the visual parts and the language parts and putting them together".
She tried to teach herself animation with her iMac, photographing her drawings with a 16mm camera before finding a collaborator - the result being her Ifta-nominated The Polish Language made with Orla McHardy. "Seamus Heaney loved it and sent us a postcard which was like winning an Oscar."
People don't read poetry, she says at one point in a tone so matter-of-fact I almost miss the hugeness of the statement coming as it does from a distinguished poet.
"Oh, yeah. Definitely. They feel intimidated by it, like you have to be smart or you have to be taught how to read it… or they've been traumatised by the Leaving Cert."
When she approaches a poem with her students, in the writing and literature BA at Sligo IT, she asks them: "What's it making you think? There is no right answer, the right answer is what is happening in you."
Her different disciplines overlap and play into each other. She writes like an artist - in pencil in big sketchbooks, and when she gets stuck, she draws pictures on the manuscript. "It's a space to play," she says. "You have to be really free and a sketchbook feels like a really free space to me."
Like this, she has begun her next novel, set in Poland with two sisters at its heart. She thinks it will contain the full 26 letters of the alphabet.
It's "scary", to think of having a book published, she admits. But painting taught her early on how to fail. "You have to get used to it, otherwise you'll give up. I realised you have to make 100 really sh*t paintings to get one good one. Keats called it 'negative capability'. The ability to be in the void."
'Oona' by Alice Lyons is published by Lilliput Press and out on Thursday, March 12