Michelle Coyne won the Listowel Originals Short Story Award 2015 and placed second in the 2016 Doolin Writers’ Weekend Short Story Competition. She was shortlisted for Fish Publishing Flash Fiction prize 2015, and achieved third place in Over the Edge New Writer of the Year 2015. She has had a number of stories placed in literary journals. She lives in Galway.
At what age did you realise writing was going to mean something in your life?
I spent years in denial. After my first child was born, I was forced to accept that I had been depressed for most of my life, and luckily I was able to ask for—and get—the help I needed. Once the weight of anxiety was lifted, all I wanted to do was write. I also realised that I’d always been skirting around the idea.
In primary school, I wrote Choose Your Own Adventure style stories for the kids in my class. In secondary school I relished the creative writing portion of the English curriculum. I wrote all these thousand word stories for my English teacher, my first champion.
Then, I went on to do IT in university. (Obviously.) But I think, most people when faced with a CAO form make strange decisions. I did join the Writer’s Society in university, and even took up a committee position one year, but I wrote little or nothing myself.
Looking back, I know I was holding a lot of anxiety. I was never able to process criticism in a healthy way, and the idea of presenting some raw piece of myself to the world, actually inviting criticism, was terrifying. So I shut the writer in me down.
So, rounding back to an actual answer to your question, I always knew it meant something to me, but it took me thirty-one years to embrace it.
What is your writing routine?
Ha! Routine? That’s a good one. I try to do a little every day. Generally, this occurs after my day’s work, after the children are settled down to bed. Depending on the levels of tiredness, I will decide whether to edit something or write something fresh. I find utter exhaustion can be handy for turning off the inner critic. I know Lucy Caldwell gets up early and writes at the crack of dawn because the doors to dreaming are still open. I think it’s the same for me when I write tired. My mind will take some strange and wonderful paths and I’ll let it. Then sometimes I’ll find myself typing with my eyes shut and I know it’s time to close the laptop. Basically, I don’t get enough sleep.
You have been the winner and runner up of some notable writing competitions. With full permission to brag, can you name them for us and tell us how you started entering writing competitions; how many you enter throughout the year and what advice you would give to people who are thinking about entering competitions themselves?
I was thrilled to have my story chosen as winner of the Listowel Originals Short Story prize last year. Listowel Writers’ Week is a fantastic festival, and it was a huge honour to be part of it. And speaking of fantastic festivals, this year I was fortunate enough to come second in the Doolin Writers’ Weekend short story competition.
As for advice… After my second child was born in 2013, my husband encouraged me to take a writing class to get me started again. I chose to take a class with Susan Millar DuMars (who is also co-founder of the Over the Edge open readings initiative in Galway City). Susan gives the best advice. She told us that when you get into the business of submitting, it’s good to always have something sent out. That way, when you get a rejection—and you will—you still have your little nugget of hope out in the ether.
My own advice is not to focus only on competitions. While competitions are great, and look just swell on your author bio, I would rate getting your work published in journals just as highly, if not higher. We have an amazing selection of literary journals in Ireland at the moment. Crannóg, Banshee, The Stinging Fly, The Moth, Gorse, Silver Apples, to name but a few. Take a look, they might be the perfect home for your work.
Tell us about your upcoming literary reading at the Cuirt Festival? Have you read your work like this for an audience before?
It was an honour to be selected for the New Writers’ Showcase at this year’s Cúirt Literary Festival. I adore the festival, and it’s always been one of the things that makes me proud to be a Galwegian. Being part of it is indescribably awesome. I have done a few readings. The first one was the hardest, but since then it’s been easier. I’ve never read on a proper stage, and this particular stage is the same one I saw both Seamus Heaney and John Montague read from in the past few years. But I’m going to try not to think too much about that in case I faint.
Tell us about your novel, the stage you are at and your plans for its future?
Sleeper is about a man who hasn’t been able to sleep since his wife’s suicide. He feels responsible for it. He’s getting desperate as he’s started to hallucinate and is seeing her everywhere. The only way he’s found he can sleep is when he’s with a particular woman, a fellow insomniac. He struggles to keep her onside as he searches for a more permanent solution to his insomnia, and makes the disturbing discovery that his visions of his wife might be more than just hallucinations.
I’m in the late self-editing stages now. My plan is to try to find an agent for it, but I need it to be as good as possible before I do that. I’ve learned a lot during the process. Finishing the story is the biggest hurdle. If you get your first draft done you have achieved something most others haven’t. There is far far more work in editing than first drafting, but there is nothing harder than getting over that first finishing line.
Have you ever suffered from writers’ block?
Not since I started in earnest. I think I suffer from the opposite, my head overflows with ideas that get in the way of one another. I couldn’t write when I was pregnant, though that was more to do with feeling seasick than the lack of inspiration.
What would you say to writers who are struggling for inspiration at the moment?
Taking a class is a great way to gear up. You’ve paid for it, and you have a weekly deadline. You’d be surprised how prolific you can be under those circumstances. Obviously not everyone can afford to take a class, but most bigger towns have writers’ groups. Keep your eyes and ears open, ideas can come from anywhere. I came up with a story idea once from a level in Super Mario Bros. Write like no one is ever going to read it.
What do you like to read?
I love literary journals for short stories and poems, but mostly the short stories. It’s a form I adore: an entire world in a few thousand words. I always have a few novels on the go at once. I have an audiobook in the car, one on the kindle, one on the nightstand, and I also tend to have a graphic novel. I love a gorgeous turn of phrase, but for me story and character are king.
An incomplete list of books I’ve adored in the past year: Anne Enright’s The Green Road, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga (Graphic Novel), Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls, and Moira Fowley Doyle’s The Accident Season. My all-time favourite is Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Do you know many writers and do you get to spend time with them?
Galway-smallway. There’s a healthy literary scene in the city and you soon get to know almost everyone. The Over the Edge open readings in the City Library are great events to meet (and re-meet) people at. I’ve made some wonderful friends, friends who actually like to talk about poetry in the pub. There’s my writing coven too with Gemma Marren and Lorraine J. Kelly, who are my absolute favourite writers.
Where do you write?
In bed, on the sofa, in my head as I commute to work.
Michelle features in this year’s Cúirt New Writers’ Showcase on April 20th in the Town Hall Theatre, Galway. Visit her blog which features some of her stories at Mastering Thursdays. Follow her on Twitter at @easytyger
LadyNicci comment: Ok, I’ll admit my strongest memories of Michelle are the two of us and her good friend Evelyn making our way up the Burren by-roads of Doolin, gigglng after a few too many rock shandys at Doolin Writers’ Weekend. But what a CV? I’m a massive fan of writing competitions. Getting long or short listed will do wonders for your confidence, inspire you to enter more and in some cases, bring you to the attention of literary agents. (They watch these things you know, like farmers watch the weather). Michelle is doing what every master of the written word has professed to us so far: make sure your book is as good as it can be. I love that she is taking the time and soundings from her trusted writer friends to do that; all the while perfecting her craft in the form of the shorty story. See you at the next festival Michelle. (Just try to stop winning and give others a chance, OK?)
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.