Books are like children – Interview with Lia Mills


Books are like children, leaving home. You want the world to treat them well

What was the first book to make an impression on you?

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. My brother worked at a riding school and I was mad about horses. *Spoiler alert* I howled when Ginger died.

What was your favourite book as a child?

Eilis Dillon’s Irish Myths and Legends and a book of Greek Myths that belonged to my sister. I used to hide it from her so I could spend as much time with it as I wanted. Oh, and The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett).

And what is your favourite book or books now?

How long have we got? I’m a love-the-one-you’re-with kind of reader, but I have excellent relationships with previous reads. If my life depended on it and I absolutely had to make a choice, I’d probably go for the complete set of The Paris Review Interviews, edited by Philip Gourevitch. A comfort book for years of living abroad was Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman; I’ve recently taken up with it again, with all the joy of rediscovery. And I’ll always have a soft spot for A Room of One’s Own, by Virginia Woolf – not just for content but for style, and for the graceful, witty expression of the birth of an idea, when it must have been such a headache to pull together.

What is your favourite quotation?

Better to light a candle than curse the dark.

Who is the most under-rated Irish author?

Celia de Fréine is principally a poet, playwright and screenwriter but she also writes fiction and wrote the libretto for Fergus Johnston’s opera The Earl of Kildare. She writes in both English and Irish. Her Irish language work has won many prizes, and two of her films (one in Irish, one in English) have won prizes at the New York International Film Festival. Writers and scholars are well aware of her, but even though much of her work is available in translation and some in dual-language format, she doesn’t get as much attention as she deserves. All that’s about to change: two collections in English are out this year. One is a collection of prose poems set in a school for Travellers, cleverly entitled A lesson in Can’t; the other is an English translation of her poetry collection Fiacha Fola which will be published as Blood Debts. It’s 10 years since news of the Hepatitis C scandal broke – when it was first admitted that some women may have been given contaminated Anti-D (more than 1,000 women and several hundred haemophiliacs were affected). Blood Debts tells the story from the point of view of one woman infected with Hepatitis C. I think when these two collections are published, many more readers will become aware of Celia’s work very quickly. Treat in store.

Which do you prefer– ebooks or the traditional print version?


What is the most beautiful book you own?

The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (2 Vols)

Where and how do you write?

We converted our garage into a study and I usually work there, on a Mac. Sometimes I commandeer the kitchen table.

What book changed the way you think about fiction?

Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I was nine, or maybe 10. I was scandalised by the twist at the end. I mean outraged. I was an extremely moralistic child, and I thought Christie cheated. Up until then I’d been a committed but naive reader: if it was in print it had to be true. That book showed me there was a mind behind the world behind the lines, whether I liked it or not. It also taught me that rules are not to be trusted.

What is the most research you have done for a book?

This one (Fallen), definitely. Years of it. Too much, maybe. I had to spend a long time covering the traces.

What book influenced you the most?

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (see above).

What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?

No Logo by Naomi Klein.

What book do you wish you had read when you were young?

Proust: In Search of Lost Time – I’ll never find it now.

What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

If you want to be a writer, you have to choose it – and keep choosing it until you know it’s what you are. Then nothing will stop you. You’re the one who has to do it. Don’t wait to be asked, or for someone to show you the way; you have to figure it out for yourself through practice, word by word and page by page. If something is stopping you, look that thing in the eye and ask yourself why, and if there’s something you can do to change it. If time is your issue, then half an hour a day will have to do – and it can. A book isn’t written in one sitting, it comes one word at a time, and a few words a day will get you there in the end. Maybe it won’t come as fast as you’d like, but it won’t come at all if you don’t put in those hours to begin with.

What weight do you give reviews?

I’d love to say I don’t care but of course I do. Books are like children, leaving home. You want the world to treat them well. You want them to realise their potential and be happy and safe. You know life rarely turns out that way, but it doesn’t stop you hoping.

Where do you see the publishing industry going?

I don’t think books are going anywhere. Publishing is adapting and evolving but it’s far too early to tell what will happen next. I’m a great believer in cycles of change, but I also believe in reading as an essential human faculty and I don’t believe we’ll throw it away.

What writing trends have struck you lately?

The return of the short story, in full force and in triumph. The rise of performance poetry and experimental fiction, especially in short-short/flash fiction – there’s a great sample of flash in the recent issue of the Stinging Fly, in a section guest-edited by Nuala Ní Chonchúir. In Ireland, there’s been a rise in speculative fiction set slightly in the future, as a way of casting a beady eye on the present, such as John Kelly’s From Out of the City. It’s refreshing. Then there’s docudrama. Gerald Dalton combined the last two recently when he staged a clever trilogy of plays, The State We’re In, in the Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire. The trilogy imagined a series of “debates” set in 2024, reflecting “back” on imagined developments in Irish society over the intervening 10 years. Great idea and very effective.

What lessons have you learned about life from reading?

Everything I know about life has come from reading. Fiction is all about perspective: reading gives us an appreciation of other people’s point of view; it shows that truth is relative; it keeps language alive and teaches us about shades of meaning, how to read the world and other people.

What has being a writer taught you?

No one else can do it for you. Keep trying until you get there.

What is your favourite word?


If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?

Em, I just finished one. Fallen is set during the Great War and the Easter Rising. You mean you want me to write another one?

Fallen by Lia Mills is published by Penguin Ireland.

This interview is published with kind permission of The Irish Times where appeared on Tuesday, Nov 18, 2014.

The story behind ‘Fallen’, my take on the Rising

by Lia Mills

I grew up with a fiercely romantic view of Irish nationalism. The stories thrilled me, all of them – rebellion, dissent, fiery speeches from the dock, or delivered over thrillingly open graves. Religion had taught us to relish the notion of martyrdom, and here was the same principle transferred to politics – but I was too far gone on the language and imagery of both to spot the overlap.
The Easter Rising. Well. The symbolism was about as perfect as anyone could imagine. The rhetoric of sacrifice. The few against the many. The brave handful facing the wrath of an imperial army and holding them at bay for a whole week, ultimately winning freedom for all of us, giving their lives for their country. Thrilling stuff.
But a thing that always made me prickle was the received notion that Dubliners were hostile to the Rising. After all, Dublin was the only place where any effective Rising took place. Dublin rose, and Dublin paid the price, and there’s posterity, giving out because some Dubliners – but by no means all – were angry.
I get defensive about my city.
I came to know something about the literary and social history of the time because back in the last century I had a teaching and research fellowship at UCD and my task was to rediscover forgotten women writers (1885-1915). Many of those women were political and/or social activists. It was an exciting time in Ireland – on the brink of change, opening to a future that was full of possibility. Women were winning the right to a university education and would soon win the right to vote. The story of the Rising was clear and hard as crystal at the heart of it, the absolute turning point of our fate as a nation. Unassailable. It’s our foundation myth and we’re proud of it. Proud of the men and women who enacted it. And rightly so.
So far as I knew, no one in my family had anything to do with the Rising – although I do come from the kind of family where total strangers turn out to be first cousins, and solitary (so far as we believed) ancestors are later revealed to have a clatter of siblings, half-siblings and step-siblings we just didn’t know about. My parents were of that “whatever you say, say nothing” generation.
One day I was sitting in my car at the bottom of Dominick Street, waiting for the lights to change, and suddenly it was as if the walls around me – new shops, flats, fast-food joints, apartments, hotels, cinema – faded and the old city rose in their place, crumbling, sooty and rotting at the seams. And I realised I was looking more or less directly at the place where my mother was born: over the shop, in Parnell Street. The lights changed and I drove away, thinking hard.
One set of grandparents were there in Parnell Street where the British Army massed in 1916 to squeeze the last of the fighters out of the GPO. My father’s parents were on Merrion Row in much the same situation: There was intense fighting around Stephen’s Green and the Shelbourne Hotel. My grandmother was pregnant with my father at the time. Both families lived and worked right on the edge of the fighting. Both had small children. Their businesses would have been shut, they’d have gone through the food shortages and looting; martial law, with soldiers and checkpoints in the streets; gunboats on the Liffey; half the city on fire. It must have been terrifying.
I filed the thought away, but I knew I’d come back to it. I had a vague idea that I might write a novel about some of the activists whose lives I’d studied. But when I came to begin that novel, years later, I couldn’t find a way in. Every word out of the characters’ mouths felt stilted and explanatory and politically correct. They tasted wooden. So, little by little, I moved the activists aside and let Katie (the main character) loose in the spaces between them. She doesn’t know what’s happening, or how it will end. When the Rising begins she’s still reeling from the news that her twin brother has been killed in the war.
When I began to research the novel I was shocked to learn the extent of the violence of the Rising: the damage to the city, the number of casualties. More than 440 people were killed. Nearly 1,500 were severely wounded. 100,000 people had to go on relief. If Dubliners were angry at the time – and there’s evidence to show that many of them were in sympathy with and supported the insurgents – they had reason to be. The anger didn’t last long: public opinion swung around fast enough, with the executions. But I do wonder why people still insist on referring to the 16 men who were executed as if theirs were the only lives lost, when the truth is rather different.
Reading about Irishmen who fought in the first World War – those who went because soldiering was the only way they could feed their starving families; and those who sincerely believed that fighting would help to bring about Irish independence – I was angry on their behalf. They were betrayed by absolutely everyone, after the Rising. The army they fought in, the British government, our own eventual government. After a few years they became one more uncomfortable truth that couldn’t be talked about.
I went to many schools, so I have a reasonable sample to base this on: when my generation were being taught about the Rising, the story was heavily edited. The emphasis was all on the rights and wrongs of the thing. You were on one side or the other, for or against, right or wrong. I never heard about the body count or a single word about the many people who went out under fire to bring the wounded to hospital or to fight the fires, or those who opened their homes as temporary casualty stations to strangers, no matter what side they were on. That’s a hell of a silence, when it comes to teaching young people about the choices we make in life, the kinds of people we want to be.
I began to question, seriously, the official gloss on events. I will always get a lump in my throat in the Stonebreakers’ Yard; or thinking about Connolly, strapped to a chair so they could shoot him; or the O’Rahilly writing a final note to his wife in a doorway, knowing he was dying. The stories – of the Asgard, or of Grace Gifford marrying Joe Plunkett in the chapel at Kilmainham hours before his execution – will always be thrilling. It’s our foundation myth, and we love it. But when I was writing Fallen I gave up the myth in favour of wondering what it might actually be like, to have your city erupt in sudden violence when you don’t have a clue what’s going on, or why.
The novel is set in the past, but it’s a contemporary question. The other day I heard a journalist on the radio, reporting from Ukraine. He said that there are extremists on both sides, but the vast majority of ordinary people try desperately hard to keep normal life going. That’s what the characters in Fallen are trying to do, while the world they know falls apart.
Katie is a completely invented character but her confusion and split loyalties feel truer than any of the proselytising I’d been assigning to characters in early drafts. She doesn’t know how to put her life back together, or whether she cares enough to try. Taking shelter from street violence in the home of friends, she meets Hubie, another casualty of war. Illusions shattered, each grieving a stolen future, they struggle to make sense of the disintegration of their world and to imagine a way through the ensuing chaos – and when old rules no longer apply, new possibilities begin to reveal themselves.
Although Fallen unfolds in a particular place and time, against the backdrop of the Rising in Dublin, it’s really about love and grief. Two damaged people try to muddle through the oldest and most difficult of human dilemmas: how to live.
Fallen by Lia Mills is published by Penguin Ireland (trade paperback, €14.99) on June 5th and will be launched by Anne Enright at The Gutter Bookshop, Temple Bar, Dublin, on June 10th, at 6.30pm.

This piece is published with kind permission of The Irish Times and appeared on Thursday, June 5 2014