EM Reapy is a writer and tutor from County Mayo, Ireland. She was featured in The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers and released her debut novel Red Dirt, published by Head of Zeus, in June 2016.
What are your earliest memories of writing?
I was always reading and writing, as far back as I can remember. My parents reckon I always had a pencil or book in my hand as a child. I have memories of folding A4 paper and stapling it together then writing and illustrating stories on it to make it look like a book. I also remember the moment when I was taught about quotation marks in maybe 2nd class (66 and 99) and being thrilled, ‘I can make words speak?’
When did you realise writing was going to mean something in your life?
I’ve always known that I wanted to spend my life writing and reading, it’s never been any other way for me but the question was more of when I’d be able to do so professionally and what form it would all take. I had ambitions of becoming a music journalist or a screenwriter when I was a teenager.
You said you like to start writing groups wherever you go – why is this? How supportive are other writers of each other?
I set up things I’d like to be involved in if I can’t find them where I go. I love the energy when a bunch of creatives are together, I find it very motivating. It’s nice to chat about writing and books to people who genuinely share that passion and to share ideas, collaborate, experiment and have fun too. Most good writers I’ve met have been supportive. They possess high levels of empathy and understand the journey that fellow writers are on, the downsides to a life of writing, the loneliness and pressure of it, financial instability, creative frustration and so on. Many have been encouraging and generous to me and I try and repay their kindness to others when I can.
You have an MA in Creative Writing from Queen’s Belfast. What attracted you to this course and how did it help your writing? Would you recommend an MA to aspiring or published authors?
I went down a teaching road after getting an Arts degree, having been dissuaded from doing Film and TV but I was miserable as a mainstream secondary school teacher so I applied for all the masters in writing courses available in Ireland at the time. I was rejected by Trinity, UCD and NUIG. I applied to Queens even though it was a longshot but it was free to apply that year and I had the portfolio ready to go (all the other applications had a fee). I was probably last in the door up there and so surprised to have been accepted after the other rejections. It was one of the best years of my life so far and I worked really hard, immersing myself completely in the course. It was a total luxury, looking back now, to be in such a creative environment with the space to write and to get professional advice and assistance easily. Belfast was great fun too, a really vibrant and interesting city. I loved it.
However, I don’t think the MA is for everyone. Some people are able to self-teach and others are already secure, knowing instinctively what to do and how to go about getting their work out there. Some people won’t benefit from the structure of the course, the formal setting, the classroom-ness of it. Others won’t be able to access it, but there are many good non-MA writing classes available and other ways to improve – ‘when the student is ready the teacher will appear.’
What I got from the MA though were the skills to look at my writing critically, to work on feedback, a taste of a writing lifestyle, self-discipline and an awareness that I could sustain word counts. Most importantly though, I gained some confidence in my ability – that I wasn’t completely crazy to leave the safe option of teaching and pursue writing.
You have been nominated for and won a series of awards, including: Hennessy New Irish, PEN International / New Voices Award and RTÉ Guide / Penguin Ireland: how did these help you towards your novel – did it bring you to the attention of agents?
Awards and competitions helped because they gave me an incentive to keep going, people were connecting to the work. I was scouted for an agency but I know that having a writing CV that shows previous successes is advantageous for getting published, for grant applications and for offers to read at festivals and events.
Tell us about acquiring your agent? Did you face many rejections before this?
I hadn’t intended to start looking for an agent until I felt the book was nearly done. In the meantime though, I was scouted by Sinead Gleeson for Mulcahy Associates. On meeting with Sallyanne Sweeney in London, I had a good feeling that we’d be compatible, that she felt passionate about the premise of the novel and that she liked my writing style. I admired her intelligence, work ethic and determination and signed with her. So I was very lucky in getting an agent.
Your novel Red Dirt has been making waves. Tell us the background to the book – you had writing bursaries to travel to Australia to write?
I went to Australia in 2011 for a couple of months (not writing initially) but was really inspired over there by the amount of different Irish backpackers and workers I was meeting along the way. Ireland was in recession so lots had headed down under. I got a real sense of dislocation from them, or maybe it was my own projection. I went back home, I had been awarded a residency in Annaghmakerrig and completed that in January where I worked on some different projects, including compiling an anthology of young Irish writing. I mentioned I was going back to Australia over breakfast to an artist and it was one of those right place right time moments. She put me in touch with the director of TGH about an exchange programme between there and Oz. So on my second trip to Australia that April, I worked and travelled around for a few months before a residency in Varuna’s Writer House in NSW.
Red Dirt began as a bunch of short stories about young Irish migrants in Australia, their life and experiences and what the craic was with them back in Ireland but it evolved into the way it reads now – the story of three self-destructive characters who are grappling with responsibility. They are messing up their lives but they have an opportunity to change, if they’d face their demons.
I was sort of obsessed too with the idea of meeting someone who’s going to set your life on a different trajectory, what comes before that, how do people end up being where they end up to have this moment together. Over the course of writing and editing the book, I grew a lot personally and professionally and I can see some of that reflected in it now. I would never be able to write that story again, if that makes sense.
How did you feel when you were told Red Dirt would be published?
Relieved. Affirmed. Excited. My editor Neil Belton at Head of Zeus totally understood Red Dirt and what I was trying to do with it. It was wonderful working with him and the team there.
How long did you spend writing and rewriting Red Dirt – is it impossible to let it go, or were you happy to?
It took four and a half years from the first words on the page to final product. I was delighted to let it go and be free energetically to focus on new writing. It’s great being back at the beginning of the process again but this time with some experience on what happens next.
What is your writing routine?
I get up around 6.30am, do morning pages then go to the desk for a couple of hours brainstorming and drafting new work. I take a break around midday for food and errands. In the afternoon and evening I read a lot of different books and make notes then I go to the gym or pool or to a fitness class. This current routine will change when I go deeper into drafting and redrafting. I’m a morning person usually but I sadly have a tendency to turn nocturnal when I’m editing.
Who has been the biggest influence on your writing?
The books and writers I was in love with as a child like Roald Dahl and Dick King Smith; or as a teenager – Roddy Doyle, JD Salinger – would have been influential. Music was probably a bigger influence on me. Finding Beck’s Odelay and Midnite Vultures as a 15 year old in smalltown Ireland was life changing in terms of connecting with music that was imaginative and genre bending, in understanding risk-taking with artistic direction. David Bowie, PJ Harvey, Bob Marley, Radiohead, Alanis Morrisette, The Beatles, Blur, Prince, Talking Heads, Van Morrison, The Prodigy, Daft Punk, Nirvana, RATM – I could go on – all the music I was obsessed with as a teenager helped me figure out creative expression.
Have you ever suffered from writers’ block?
I’ve suffered from crippling self-doubt about writing or from exhaustion, both of these have stopped me writing. With self-doubt, it’s tough because only you can talk yourself through it, write yourself through it even, and with exhaustion, you need to let it be, take a break, do other things, let the ‘well’ fill up again with new experiences and ideas and love for the craft.
The first time I got properly blocked was scary. It happened to me before my trip to Australia and continued over there for a while. I wasn’t sure I’d ever write again and yet I ended up writing a novel after that. Writers’ block is temporary. Trust that, like everything else, it will pass.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m writing a lot of short stories at the moment. It’s like I have four years of catching up on ideas to do because I’d been so focused on editing the novel and seeing that through to fruition until this point. I’m in the middle of a creative outburst and writing is really fun again.
What do you like to read?
I love short stories, just adore the form; the intensity, variety, artistry of them. I enjoy novels but not in the same way. Non-fiction – I read a lot of books on spirituality, creativity, health and productivity. Poetry is great but demands a lot of space to be absorbed.
Where do you write?
I write at a desk in my grandmother’s house at the moment. I put notes into my phone or a notebook if I’m out and inspiration strikes.
Red Dirt is available from bookshops or on Amazon here
LadyNicci comment: I met Elizabeth at Doolin Writer’s Festival and again at a book launch in Dublin where we got to talk writing for an age. I was fascinated by her comments on setting up writing groups wherever she went – and it struck me how writers like to congregate and socialise like any other group, and talk and communicate about their work. When I read Red Dirt (you can find a review here) I was stunned. I’d an idea from talking to Elizabeth that it was going to be good, but I was taken aback at how good it was. Here was a voice – a fresh voice that publishers say they are always looking for – and a setting and characters that generations of Irish people could relate to – the diaspora in Australia. I flew through the book – it was one of those that I just couldn’t put down and all through my reading I thought – this is how I want to write. I don’t want to settle, I want my book to be as good as this. Isn’t that what, as writers, we all want to reading? To be inspired? To learn from the authors before us? I admire Elizabeth and her courage to leave a safe job and follow her writer’s dream. It hasn’t been all plain sailing, but she has never given in and has remained authentic to herself and her voice and waited for the right agent and right publisher for her work. A writer to be admired and a writer to watch.
Featured profile image – source: irishtimes.com
How I write is a blog post series published on Sundays on www.ladynicci.com. The posts aim to give a voice to writers, published, unpublished and everywhere in between, to help and encourage other writers. If you would like to take part email firstname.lastname@example.org with How I Write in the subject line.