The author on writing about ‘difficult women in a difficult place’ and gaining entry to the arts from a working-class background
‘When I think about it now, it’s such madness,” says Olivia Fitzsimons. The Co Down native is recalling her time as a runner on film sets. “I would go and work in bar at night, so I could work for free in the day.” She remembers being sent for coffees “and spending money that was for food this week, but not telling the people I worked for that I couldn’t afford it”. The point was to gain experience so she could get a paid job in the industry, which she did, “but even now those access issues still fascinate me,” she says. “I think the arts really can suffer when people from working-class backgrounds don’t have entry points.”
We’re not here to talk about film; we’re here to talk about her debut novel, but Fitzsimons’ path to publication wasn’t straightforward.
Coming from a working-class rural background, being a novelist “just wasn’t something that you could do,” she says.
She studied history at university, a professor once suggesting fiction might be her true calling, which she brushed off. Instead, she moved to London to work in advertising before returning to Dublin to pursue film. She lives in Greystones, Co Wicklow, with her husband, who is a director, and two sons.
For a long time, she worked in production, all the while trying to get short films made, only to miss out on funding by fine margins. “I spent a long time like that, and got really disheartened, and kind of fell into the writing thing,” she says.
She had taken some time out to have children. Going back to production, and its relentless schedules, wasn’t yet a possibility. A friend suggested she enter a short story competition. Though she at first dismissed the idea, she found herself “tapping away” on her phone while her children did athletics. The story she wrote went on to be shortlisted. “I was so shocked,” she says. “But once I’d started, I couldn’t stop. I just kind of fell in love with writing.”
Skip forward to today and Fitzsimons’ debut novel, The Quiet Whispers Never Stop has just been published John Murray. Written in “snatches of time” between minding kids, it began as a “collated short story collection around a place” but, as it turned out, “I was writing a novel, but I just couldn’t really admit it to myself”.
The result is a powerful, multivoiced narrative, with two “difficult women” at its centre. Nuala is struggling with life as a wife and mother in rural Northern Ireland in the 1980s. A decade later, her daughter Sam struggles with the pressures of growing up in the same place but, as we learn early on, her mother abandoned her when she was a child, so coming of age is no ordinary ordeal.
“I think I wanted to write a book that was very much about the female gaze in Northern Ireland,” says Fitzsimons. “You know, the way women were seen, but also how they saw themselves.”
She points out that lots of female Northern Irish writers are bringing out books “rooted in a different kind of story” and she too wanted to write something different.
“I wanted to upend people’s expectations of what a book about Northern Ireland might be about. I really wanted it to be universal. It’s got difficult women, in a difficult place, surviving in whatever way they can, and I think a lot of women can relate to that.”
The book’s main relationships can be said to mirror the Northern Irish story. Nuala’s actions, for example, start a wave of pain that reverberates through the generations.
“I’m looking at trauma. It’s handed-down trauma, which is a big issue in the North — I think Northern Ireland has one of the highest suicide rates in the world — and those things continue to travel down through the generations, all those traumas,” she says. “I’m looking at that in a slightly different way.”
She is also looking at motherhood in a different way. A woman leaving her children is a charged topic to write about.
“It’s really hard for me to talk about this without, in the back of my mind, thinking, ‘Everyone’s going to think I’m a terrible mother’,” she says. “And it’s so interesting because actually, I shouldn’t be thinking that at all, because I know what my relationship is like with my kids.”
Nuala is, by many metrics, a merciless character. “She’s being incredibly selfish. But I wanted the readers to feel sort of sorry for her,” Fitzsimons says. “I’m sure every mother, at some point, has locked themselves in the toilet and thought: two minutes, give me two minutes. Or, you’re touched out from nursing, or whatever it is, and you’re just like: who am I? Who am I now? Who have I become? Who am I going to be?”
Misogyny is rampant throughout the book, something Fitzsimons feels hasn’t gone away in the way people think it might have.
“There are some very specific things in the 1980s with Nuala’s character, like in the North it would have been very difficult to leave your husband, and that’s sort of changing. But also, I think there are things that haven’t, like the way Sam is viewed by men and the general level of sexual harassment.”
Fitzsimons is in a writing group, Chekov or Fuckoff, that is full of other recent debut authors (Sheila Armstrong, Louise Nealon, Stephen Walsh) — and, Fitzsimons says, many authors-to-be. “I’m a great believer in access and abundance,” she says. “I think if one person does well, we all do well.”
For now, she is working on a second novel and several screenplays. She believes “support at key stages” can be hugely beneficial for artists, and was recently granted a residency in the Centre Culturel Irlandais, in Paris, where she will spend a month writing. “I’m so, so grateful,” she says. “But I’m also so excited just to see what’s going to come from time spent on my work.”
‘The Quiet Whispers Never Stop’ by Olivia Fitzsimons is published by John Murray Press