Today we’re delighted to be joined by bestselling author Una Mannion who tells us about the Sandy Field Writers’ Group, her ‘deeply formative’ MA in Writing and the importance of keeping heart
Did you always want to be a writer?
Probably since my early twenties, I carried this desire to write. It wasn’t something I would admit to anyone, I could hardly admit it to myself. The aspiration made me feel something close to shame. The hubris, like who did I think I was?
I was gulping books at the time, especially by women: Lorrie Moore, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Marge Piercy, Mary Karr, Donna Tartt, Louise Erdrich. I was reading poetry by Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Eavan Boland and Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin.
That desire or impulse to write never went away and by my late forties I had to stop mythologising what I thought a writer had to be and just step into the fray and try.
Crafting a work to completion, be it a poem, flash fiction, short story or novel, is the most satisfying work I have ever done. And while it is uncertain and the work may not find readers, the impulse to do it doesn’t go away.
You’re a member of the Sandy Fields Writers’ group in Sligo. Can you tell us how being part of the group has benefited you?
The Sandy Field Writers’ group began in January 2014. Most of us had never written a story and none of us, bar one, had ever published anything. The group included me, Louise Kennedy, Niamh Mac Cabe, Nora McGillen, Julianna Holland, Rose Jordan, Mairead McCann and a few others.
We agreed from the start that as a group we wanted robust feedback and that we were all prepared to accept constructive critique. I know many writing facilitators might not agree with the approach, but we defined the terms of what we wanted and we said honest and incisive feedback.
We were serious about the work. We met every week, assigned readings and workshopped a story that the writer would send several days in advance. The group gave me deadlines I never missed, feedback, the opportunity to get inside someone else’s writing and try to understand what they were doing and why it worked. I read stories by writers I had never heard of.
It was also through the group that competitions and submissions were first mentioned, and it is how we all started getting published.
Looking back, so many of the prompts in the group became seeds for stories.
When I started working on the novel, I stepped out because I needed to stay completely in the manuscript I was working on, and I couldn’t commit the time on top of my job.
The group doesn’t meet anymore, but the writers in it continue to be my people. I am so proud of what they have all done. It’s staggering really to think about how it began here in Sligo on dark Monday nights in a small room in the corner of the college.
Have you experienced much rejection or self-doubt as a writer? Is there anything in particular that has helped you to deal with this aspect of writing? For instance, you’ve won numerous prizes for your short fiction and poetry – did these prizes give you a sense of validation?
Yes, I’ve experienced rejection, and I am plagued with self-doubt. I think every writer would say the same but maybe to a lesser extent. While I know self-doubt can become a stumbling block, I am more and more convinced that it is part of the struggle, the knowledge that you are reaching towards something that can never be properly expressed.
It seems to me that an abundance of self-confidence could be a worse handicap, thinking you’ve nailed it and not second-guessing or revising or questing for the words.
I take comfort in the panicked honesty of other writers. Dorothy Parker’s telegram to her editors sums it up: ‘all I have is a pile of paper covered with wrong words.’
You completed the MA in Writing at NUI Galway. How did this experience help you as a writer?
The MA in Galway was deeply formative. I started it after a year and half of the writing group. I was working fulltime, had three children in school and was travelling up and down from Sligo, staying away one night a week.
It was tough to juggle but I was giving myself permission to write and taking myself seriously. That was enormous for me.
In terms of my writing, it feels like certain forces gathered.
My fiction tutor Mike McCormack asked me not to send him any more stories but to try something long form. On that prompt I started the novel that became A Crooked Tree.
Each week we had a visiting writer as part of a seminar series. Some talked, some gave workshops. They shared their own development as writers and how they found agents and how they got published. It was incredibly practical.
We also were given tickets to events of our choice at Cúirt. I saw Tobias Wolff, Kit de Waal, Patrick deWitt, Sarah Marie Griffin, Tom Morris, and many, many more.
The MA gave me a body of work to continue with after graduation, but it also gave me this fleeting moment where I felt part of something. It remains singularly invaluable.
Your debut novel A Crooked Tree was published by Faber and Faber in 2021 and was a bestseller in Ireland for five weeks. Can you tell us how that deal came about, and how you felt when you realised you were going to be a published novelist? How did it feel to have your debut novel receive such a great reception?
After the MA I worked on the novel and started to submit stories to competitions. I felt like I had gained some traction. I had won a few competitions and had been shortlisted.
Sinead Gleeson had been the fiction judge in several of them and, unbeknownst to me, she sent my published stories to her agent Peter Straus.
I was in the middle of a Shakespeare class when I got an email from Sinead to call her straight away. Peter Straus wanted to talk to me.
He rang me that afternoon and I remember trying to find a space near a window at work to get good enough reception. He liked the voice in the stories but was interested in the novel.
I had just completed the manuscript for A Crooked Tree and told him I could send it in three months. I worked tirelessly, sometimes 17-hour days to get it through a few more drafts.
Again, I was at work the January morning he rang to say he would like to sign me. I walked out of my office and hugged the only person there. I tried to sputter out an explanation. I went out to the parking lot and sat in my car and cried. It was overwhelming.
A few months later, I was talking to Louisa Joyner from Faber (again in my car in the parking lot at work) who was talking about the characters like they were real and already telling me her ideas about how we could make the book better.
I feel incredible nostalgia even writing about it, those months, the sheer magic of it all. I am so grateful.
A Crooked Tree came out during hard lockdown so I didn’t see it on bookshelves. I had no sense of how it was doing and when I got a phone call from Simon Hess to say it made the Irish bestseller list I was completely floored.
I still have the cut-out of the list from the newspaper that first week taped above my desk to try to haul me out of the depths when I feel like I am writing all the wrong words.
How do you balance the demands of work, family life and writing? Do you have a writing routine?
When I started writing with the Sandy Field group, my youngest daughter was nine. She is sitting her last exam for the Leaving Cert tomorrow. My eldest son was thirteen. He will finish university this year. I have another daughter studying in Galway.
I feel like they have mostly reared themselves while I carved out time to write. There are times where I feel a snag of worry, like should I have been a better mother or something. But mostly I am proud that they saw me do this.
I have never been someone who calibrates things easily. I think I am an all-or-nothing person who plunges in deeply. Writing an hour a day doesn’t work for me. It has to be immersive.
So when I am writing it tends to be all day or at every grabbed moment. I find it hard to get back to the manuscript if I have left it for a few days.
For the last two books I have written in intense bursts, weeks at a time. I spent six weeks alone in Tennessee in the mountains housesitting and another eight in a rented space, all day every day.
I don’t feel like I have a regular routine, but I have started to trust that if I do sit down with the intent to write something will happen.
You’ve spoken before about writing in a ‘hippy caravan’ beside your house, which sounds wonderful! Could you tell us about your writing caravan, and the importance of having your own space?
The caravan. I miss the caravan. I bought it up in Tyrone and drove back to Sligo with it hitched behind me. It was old, like maybe from the 1960s. That was part of its charm. Everything inside was wooden.
I parked it at the front of my house and ran an extension cable out to get the electrics going. I wrote a chunk of A Crooked Tree in it, listening to Philip Glass on repeat.
I don’t have it anymore. But space to write remains an issue.
For the past two and a half years, I’ve rented a studio in a yard outside the Model Arts Centre [in Sligo]. It’s a little 8’ x 8’ room with a glass door that looks out on a crab apple tree. When I arrive there, I know it’s time to work and there will be no interruptions.
I’ve never had a space inside my own house where I can write. I am in the process of moving house and my ambition is that in my new home I will have a proper space to work that is just mine. I imagine it in the garden.
You’re represented by the literary agent Peter Straus at RCW. How has Peter helped your career as a novelist?
I think editors in London and in the USA first read my manuscripts because Peter sent them, because they know him and respect him. Peter has worked a lifetime in editing and publishing and is hugely respected.
He represents internationally renowned writers as well as emerging writers.
Having him on side has been completely integral to getting my novels published.
He is also an experienced editor with an instinct for what the manuscript might need in terms of structural edits. But he is more than this. While he represents Booker Prize Winners and has been awarded a CBE for his contribution to Literature, he is very human and passionate about story.
He is also very kind. I am blessed that he is my agent.
As programme chair of the BA in Writing + Literature in ATU Sligo, what is the most common mistake that you see emerging writers making?
This is difficult to answer. I don’t think I can position myself to say what works or doesn’t because the vagaries of publishing mean there isn’t a right or a wrong or even any kind of explanation sometimes as to why one work soars and another tanks.
One of the things I do say to students is if they are sending work to an agent, think of it as a one shot, to take some time with the work and ensure that what they send as a sample is the very best representation of the work in progress.
I say this but at the same time I am also telling them to not be too precious, to have guts, that waiting for the work to be ‘ready’ could take forever.
They are probably going home and pulling their hair out, complaining about my mixed messages. But I mean both. Yes, take risks, be bold, send work but, also, don’t send just anything.
You have this chance to engage someone, to hear your voice. Make it count.
Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring authors trying to crack the world of publishing, but who might be getting disheartened?
Literally the success of anyone I know came because they stepped into the fray. They entered a competition, submitted to a journal, did a workshop, did a course, read, went to festivals.
This is what happened to me and to others in my writing group and to writing friends that I know. Literally with all of them, smaller risks led to lifelines.
We are so lucky in Ireland with the number of journals, festivals, workshops and supports. Be part of it. Step in.
Every time you complete a work to submit, maybe get a longlisting or make a shortlist you are in it. And not doing it, for me, feels so much harder.
Una Mannion’s second novel Tell Me What I Am was released in June 2023 by Faber & Faber