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Una Mannion: ‘Children have lost the freedom to make mistakes and wander into danger’

Una Mannion talks to Hilary A White about her hometown Philadelphia’s role in ending the Trump era and how the adventurous gang of friends in ‘Stranger Things’ influenced her debut novel ‘A Crooked Tree’

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Award-winning author Una Mannion. Photo by James Connolly

Award-winning author Una Mannion. Photo by James Connolly

Award-winning author Una Mannion. Photo by James Connolly

It’s a day to be emotional, as Una Mannion sees it. From her family cottage by Strandhill Beach, the Philadelphia-born writer is feeling the glow of relief emanating across the Atlantic from Washington DC.

I feel intensely American right now,” she says, becoming slightly overwhelmed as she recalls her hometown’s key role in turning the election result the way of Joe Biden.

“Philadelphia people went out on the streets and dressed up as postboxes and danced outside the counting centres, and I just thought, ‘These are my people’.”

She would normally visit home regularly from Sligo. While it has been hard to watch over the last four years, Trumpism, she feels, has had a consolidating effect on those who might have been otherwise politically apathetic, engaging people in a way she didn’t see growing up in Reaganite Pennsylvania.

“They got politicised over the last four years, including women I went to high school with who were trying to build bridges. They went to the women’s march in DC, they’ve become community activists, they worked their districts for this election, they cared about Black Lives Matter.

“What was happening to America with Trump’s bully tactics and the degradation of language and decency, it brought out something really quite human in people’s response.”

Mannion has always straddled Ireland and the US. Born to Irish parents, she grew up in Philadelphia but was constantly back and forth to Connacht. The term “Irish-American” was not one her family used to describe themselves. There was never that layer of disconnection, she says, because a foot was always planted here. Just “American” will do, something she maintains after 30-odd years here with a Sligo husband and three children.

In fact, she explains, it was the regular stints in Ireland that allowed her to “see” America more vividly. It’s no surprise, then, to find that A Crooked Tree, her debut novel, is full of grainy, early-1980s Spielbergian nostalgia, a place where plucky kids in leafy US suburbs come of age in the face of formidable challenges.

“There’s definitely something about distance and longing,” the 54-year-old nods, “when you’ve lost something or you’re not part of something any more, of yearning for it. I’ve heard several people say that we’re always trying to write our way back home, trying to compensate maybe for things in the past or make sense of them.”

A Crooked Tree is told through the eyes of 15-year-old Libby, whose family are struggling to pick up the pieces after the death of her father. There is a heated row during a car journey and her younger sister is kicked out at the side of the road in rural Pennsylvania, resulting in a chain of events that will change their lives.

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It is a novel that manages to be both propulsive and contemplative, dark and yet homely, and it announces Mannion as the latest in a seemingly unstoppable run of mighty debuts by female Irish fiction writers.

There is no overnight success here, however. Before A Crooked Tree, before the many awards that she won prior to that (including a Hennessy New Irish Writing Poetry Award, Cúirt International Short Fiction Award, Doolin short story prize, Ambit fiction award, Allingham short fiction prize), Mannion had to get over herself, as she puts it.

“That fear of exposing yourself or showing work was definitely a huge part of my inability to write,” she says, “even though it was something I’d wanted to do for a long time. I just started to get sick of hearing myself, and didn’t want to carry that grief that I could have tried but never did.”

Following a tip-off form a friend, Mannion joined a writing class in 2013 given at the Galway Arts Centre. When the tutor asked who would like to submit first, the notoriously self-doubting Mannion found her hand going up in the air. The following week, she was “physically nauseous” at the idea of presenting her work to the entire class. The tremors were soothed, however, by the “gorgeous little group” that she found at the class, and an inspirational tutor in the form of Dara Ó Foghlu.

When the course had finished, the group continued to meet, but the long drives down to Galway and back after a full day of teaching in Sligo each Monday became unfeasible. Mannion started her own more local writing group. This has yielded some major items of fruit besides her own work. There was a chef by the name of Louise Kennedy who had never written a thing, but was recently the subject of a nine-way bidding war for her debut short story collection. Another was Niamh Mac Cabe, who would go on to become one of the most decorated short story writers in the country (and, coincidentally, the writer of this month’s winning New Irish Writing short story).

In 2018, meanwhile, Mannion helped launch literary journal The Cormorant, which she co-edits with Kennedy and ‘emerald noir’ legend Eoin McNamee. That was also the year she decided to get serious about her long-held novel ambitions.

She recalls watching sci-fi drama Stranger Things with her three kids while writing the novel, and how the show’s nostalgic air and the derring-do and candour of the young characters rubbed off on her story. Amusingly, she notes, it was not the fanciful dimension-jumping in the show that her children (aged 15, 17, and 20) found hard to swallow. It was the long-leash attitude to parenting that existed in those days, one that is all but extinct today.

“They couldn’t suspend disbelief,” Mannion chuckles. “For those kids to be out without the parents just didn’t ring authentic to them. I thought that was really funny because, to me, that’s how we were.

“There is something about that freedom to make mistakes and to wander into danger or mix with the wrong people. It’s healthy, that’s life, and we’ve lost that. I live in a remote area. My kids are totally dependent on me for lifts. I would change that in the morning to give them more freedom. There was no phones back then, no one knew where you were, until you arrived.

“I guess I would be losing my mind now if I couldn’t figure out where one of my kids was for a full day, but when I was a child, we would do that. You could be miles from home.”

The Wi-Fi is patchy at home in Strandhill, a tricky thing with both a Leaving Cert student and a transition year pupil trying to learn remotely. Her oldest has been exiled back home from Trinity College Dublin, while musician husband Michael is unable to tour.

The house, not far from the ancestral parish of Mannionstown (wouldn’t you know it), has not been as full for a while. But places mean stories and connectivity, things that clearly nourish Mannion’s creative soul.

“The setting in the book is a place that I love because I did grow up there,” she says. “In the book I’m writing at the moment, there’s a lake which is probably from right here — I’m about 20ft from the high-tide line while I’m talking to you. I love that thing in Ireland about the lore of place, that tradition of evoking place and place-naming. It provides us with so much.”

 

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A Crooked Tree by Una Mannion

A Crooked Tree by Una Mannion

A Crooked Tree by Una Mannion

‘A Crooked Tree’ by Una Mannion, published by Faber & Faber, is out now


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