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'There's an enthusiasm for writing about the messiness and uncertainties of sex'

Debut novelist Susannah Dickey talks to Hilary A White about publishers' search for 'Sally Twoney', her fondness for puns and why reading should 'reshape you a little'


Acrobatic wit: Belfast-based author Susannah Dickey. Photo by James Dickey

Acrobatic wit: Belfast-based author Susannah Dickey. Photo by James Dickey

Tennis Lessons by Susannah Dickey

Tennis Lessons by Susannah Dickey


Acrobatic wit: Belfast-based author Susannah Dickey. Photo by James Dickey

More bad sex, written well, and by women. With customary precision,  Susannah Dickey spells out what she feels the book-buying public is hungry for. Out with the Roths and Amises and their old, white male viewfinders of female sexuality. In their place, the current bumper crop of young Irish women writers who are embracing all that is normal, sometimes painfully so, about sex and relationships.

"Sex can be an objectively interesting subject," Dickey says from a pristine kitchen in Belfast, "for how it combines the visceral and the somatic with interiority. For so long, there have been these heavy hitters of the Western canon writing sex and presenting their perceptions of women experiencing it.

"I think there's a growing enthusiasm for writing about the messiness and the uncertainties of sex, the ecstasies of fumbling. Heterosexual sex is by no means subversive, but I think women writers are finding ways to make it subversive, capturing its potential risks and monotonies and horrors."

We have been talking about how women authors now dominate the fiction charts, and why this isn't being discussed more. The phenomenon, she posits, it partly down to "a certain amount of pecuniary-driven cynicism" in a publishing industry thirsting for another Sally Rooney, or a "Sally Twoney", as Dickey puts it. (She is fond of puns and wordplay - "It's almost definitely super annoying," she happily confirms).

Dickey's debut novel Tennis Lessons was a short story that outgrew its shell. Dealing as it does with early womanhood, it is sure to get a lift on this wave, something she is cautiously grateful for but also wary of.

"It would be fatuous to say that quality wasn't involved in my getting published," she says, "and my editor has been more generous than I could ever have hoped for, but I do wonder if a big publisher investing in a relative nobody like me is partially driven by the current mainstream appeal of 'the Young Irish Author'."

In her own way, the 28-year-old is being modest. It is impossible to imagine a world where a manuscript like Tennis Lessons would not be fussed over by publishing houses. Told in unflinching second-person perspective, its fragmented journal of a nameless Ulster girl from the age of three to 28 is a finely gilded, strangely sublime reading experience that you can't help but invest in wholesale. Before you ask, it is located a universe away from gloomy old Connell and Marianne.

With a second draft being readied for a follow-up, the champagne is on hold for now. We can expect, she tells me, something structurally different, thematically similar and containing shades of "grisly vengeance and flat-earth theory". "The concept and structure has been okayed by my agent, although she did comment on my dialogue, saying: 'Not everyone is a witty misfit.' I can't believe she would dismantle my entire aesthetic like that!

"The books that I've always been most drawn to are those that explore the interiority of seemingly unremarkable people," she continues. "For example, I read The Catcher in the Rye when I was very young and I remember being horrified by what I then perceived was the self-indulgence and unrelenting nihilism of Holden Caulfield. It was disconcerting to then reread it years later and find him so relatable."

Dickey grew up in Derry with her parents and brother, and was, she says, "the kind of child I find unbearable now". "A precocious, attention-seeking exhibitionist that ought to be put in a volcano," she deadpans. "That said, during my adolescence, my mum took great pleasure in telling me what a charming child I was - the implication being, of course, that I was a charmless teenager."

She inhaled books from a young age, and when the time came to put down words of her own, poetry was her first port of call. While studying English at Queen's University Belfast and later during an MA in Goldsmith's, London, she released the collections I Had Some Very Slight Concerns and Genuine Human Values. Both confirmed her as one of the province's freshest talents. Her acrobatic wit and wry visual motifs translated well into the short story format, winning her applause in that field too.

In 2017, she claimed the Verve Poetry Festival competition, while this year her most recent collection, Bloodthirsty for Marriage, won a slice of the Society of Authors' Awards mammoth prize fund.

Across the wobbly resolution of a Zoom call, Dickey makes for bright and hilarious conversation, very often parachuting herself into the firing line of her humour.

"How do you get a clown off a swing?" she suddenly asks me at one point. "You hit him in the face with a shovel. It seems like a good methodological model for writing. In fiction, I'm the one holding the shovel. The clown is flabby and inadequate ideas and the swing is my intention for the work. When it comes to writing poetry, the poem is the shovel and the person holding the shovel, and I'm the clown."

At the axis of her brilliant debut is a harrowing assault on her callow protagonist, and how she carries that on her continuing journey into adulthood. Dickey chats buoyantly about everything from her playing the oboe to supporting Arsenal. However, as she discusses her desire for Tennis Lessons to subtly draw in themes of gendered inequality and sexual power imbalances without explicitly commenting on them, she signposts a deeply political side.

"The best reading experience is when you feel a text is colluding with you while also bothering you, reshaping you a little. If you're choosing to read only within your pre-existing frame of reference, then you might as well not read at all. Also, I hate the propensity of some people to read one thing and use it to form their entire basis of thought and think it's credible. Great that you read The Female Eunuch once, but understand it in its historical context and then read something better."

'Tennis Lessons', published by Doubleday, is out now

Indo Review