Irish Tatler spoke with the author fresh from the virtual launch of her newest book on Zoom (so very 2020).
As the youngest ever person in Ireland to reach number one on the bestsellers' list, Ruth Gilligan's name might strike a familiar chord.
And so too might her face, in another lifetime, she played the role of Laura Halpin in RTE's Fair City.
Now, the Blackrock-born, Cambridge-graduate resides in the UK, where she works as a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham and has published five novels to date.
Her fifth book, The Butchers is, as Ruth herself describes it, 'a sort of feminist folkloric murder mystery set during the 1996 BSE crisis.'
Capturing Ireland’s ancient traditions, the story begins with a photograph of a dead man hanging from a meat hook and quicky takes the reader back to unravel the circumstances that make the picture possible, telling the story through the deeply intimate stories of four people caught up the churn of the mad cow disease epidemic.
'I binged it like a Netflix show... It's stunning' @LukeKennardMarch 26, 2020
With self-isolation being the order of business and all activities in the outside world currently on pause, Ruth shares some shelf-inspiration; the writers who’ve inspired her, her childhood favourites and the three books to add to your quarantine must-read pile ASAP.
What are you reading right now?
I’m currently reading an advance copy of a novel called The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott which comes out in July. He’s an Australian writer and the book is a sort of magic realist eco-fable inspired by the recent bushfires. It’s mystical and weird and incredibly beautiful; I’m sort of mesmerised.
What’s your first book-related memory?
I had this gorgeously-illustrated copy of The Teddy Bear’s Picnic, which I carried around with me everywhere. I then learned all the words off by heart and recited them proudly (and no doubt, annoyingly) to anyone who would listen. I can still remember the whole lot today…
Was there a book from your childhood/teens will always stay with you?
Skellig by David Almond. It’s about a boy finding a strange fallen angel creature in his garage. I was always an anxious child and had trouble sleeping, so I used to collect guardian angels; the thought of finding a real-life man-with-wings in your house really struck a chord.
Was there a particular book that made you want to write?
I have this really clear memory of finishing The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and thinking, ‘yep, I think I’d like to be a writer’. I also inhaled all of my mum’s Marian Keyes collection and then wondered ‘where are the novels like this, but featuring young adults?’
Print or Kindle?
Print all the way. Partly it’s because I love physical books so much – and they’ve definitely got even more aesthetically pleasing in recent years – but also because I already spend my life staring at a screen, so my poor eyes need a change of vibe.
Last book that made you cry?
I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I literally never cry at books. Or films. Only, weirdly, at the theatre – there must be something about it being live that really gets to me.
Favourite literary character?
It’s got to be Olive Kitteridge as created by Elizabeth Strout. She is this cantankerous old woman from Maine who is both profoundly unlikeable yet profoundly sympathetic. She sort of winds you up and then breaks your heart. It also helps that Frances McDormand played her in the HBO adaptation and was absolutely perfect!
Most read author?
I’ve read everything ever written by Colum McCann. He’s an Irish-American author with about ten books to his name, and each one is a complete masterpiece.
His most recent one, Apeirogon, came out in February and it’s all about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I also work for McCann’s charity, Narrative 4, which uses storytelling to foster empathy between young people around the world.
What’s the one book you think everyone should read in their lifetime?
For fiction, it’s got to be Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann (see above). It’s set in New York over the course of a single day in 1974 when Philippe Petit tightrope-walked between the Twin Towers.
For non-fiction, Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Renni Eddo-Lodge was such an eye-opener for me in terms of the machinations and implications of everyday privilege; This Book Will Change Your Mind About Mental Health by Nathan Flier also does exactly what it says on its beautiful tin.
three recent-ish reads you’d recommended reading during quarantine?
If, like me, your attention span is a bit goosed at the moment, I think short stories are a really great way to dip in and out of fiction.
Also, you get to experience loads of different worlds, which is the exact opposite of the confinement we’re all dealing with right now. There are so many exceptional Irish short story writers out there (Kevin Barry, Lucy Caldwell, Danielle McLaughlin) but one recent collection I found really quirky and great was Wendy Erskine’s Sweet Home, set in contemporary Belfast.
Going entirely against what I just said, now is also the chance to dive into those longer books that are sometimes just too hefty to lug on your daily commute. Two recent, chunkier novels I adored are The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall (set along the Scottish border) and America is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo (set amongst the San Francisco Filipino community).
Finally, for a bit of non-fiction – and a bit of positivity – I would highly recommend Hitching for Hope by Ruairí McKiernan. Ruairí is a social activist who went hitchhiking around Ireland in the wake of the financial crash. The stories of the people he met along the way are both heart-breaking and full of resilience; it’s kind of perfect for where we’re at right now.
The Butchers is available to buy now, here.