Interview with Claire Hennessy

 
 

Claudia Dalby sat down with author Claire Hennessy (pictured above with Dalby), before her event with LitSoc, to talk writing, political issues, and creativity.

 

Take any creative person, and they will probably have more than a few creative projects going on at any one time, and probably too many to be able to manage their time accordingly. However, they are probably putting all they have into each and every project.

Claire Hennessy fits this description perfectly. She admits to falling behind when it comes to time management, but her creative output is immense. You would almost think she was restless, if it were not for the quality of each aspect of her (many) jobs and her dedication to them. “Sign of not having a life isn’t it,” she laughs.

For Hennessy, life has always been this way. When she was 14, she published her first book. This clearly, is no mean feat, not only being focused enough to dedicate yourself to something at that age, but also to be successful at it. She went on to continuously publish books throughout her teens and twenties. Now, in her thirties, she is involved in multiple creative endeavours, from editing for publishing giant Penguin, to co-running her own literary publication Banshee, to facilitating creative writing workshops, where she shares her knowledge from a 20-year career in writing.

“Hennessy’s books are often very topical, and in recent years have dealt with issues such as eating disorders, abortion, sexuality, gender and difficult relationships.”

The first book she published, Dear Diary, was inspired by some of the stories she’d been writing since she was eight or nine; however, it was her first novel. “Well, unless you want to count the long awful stories that are sitting gathering dust in my parents’ house somewhere.” She laughs, but then reminisces on a time of writing before being published. “There is a freedom that comes with it, where you’re not worried about what anyone thinks of it, because you have no audience!” Once readers come into the picture, it’s easy to worry, “but the second you start worrying about what people say about your books you just freeze up.” Her tactic for combatting this is to keep the audience completely out of her mind’s eye. “I realised after a few goes that it was never going to be successful unless I forgot about it. You just have to put your head down and write.”

Nevertheless, for the genre she writes, Young Adult (YA) fiction, it can be challenging to keep the vultures flying ahead out of your sights. Many concerned parents who are dedicated to constantly berating the books that their vulnerable children are reading manage to get popular YA authors like Rainbow Rowell, John Green, and David Leviathan banned because of the ‘dangerous’ content of their stories. These authors are showing teenage life as it truly is, and not attempting to hide the complexities and difficulties involved in being a teenager (or anyone) in modern society.

Many parents and teachers view it as premature exposure to topics that may be inappropriate for young people, or that they may not understand fully. Hennessy, however, sees over-controlling content to be disrespectful towards young people. “This kind of attention comes from the left and right sides of the political spectrum, too. Parents who don’t want their children exposed to sex, drugs and alcohol (god forbid) but also, those who don’t want them to be exposed to triggering or difficult topics like suicide, mental health or abuse.  These adults however, in all their concern, aren’t respectful of teenage issues.

“I don’t see fiction as being an effective vehicle for change, in fact, it is a terrible way of getting a coherent political message out there.”

This is not to say young adult novels are not highly impactful, or that authors have no responsibility towards their audience. As an author it is important to remember that you are not in logo parentus. Teenagers are, to state the obvious, people too. They can critically engage with work, and they can handle heavy and difficult topics. “It’s important not to censor your work, and not to say that you can’t make it clear that topics may upset people.” She talks of a distinction that isn’t often made. “There is no way of controlling the way your audience might react to something. You can indicate what might be upsetting, but you can’t control what someone might be triggered by, as it could be anything.

Nevertheless, it becomes clearer every day that under the current political climate, it is more important than ever to hear stories that are not often told. Hennessy’s books are often very topical, and in recent years have dealt with issues such as eating disorders, abortion, sexuality, gender, and difficult relationships. Hennessy’s most recent novel, Like Other Girls, sees a girl facing the harrowing experience of an unwanted pregnancy under the eighth amendment. She is joined by other Irish authors, such as Louise O’Neill, in being unafraid to discuss serious issues affecting women and framing the novel in this way. Hennessy talks about where she thought literature fit into political discourse, “I don’t see fiction as being an effective vehicle for change, in fact, it is a terrible way of getting a coherent political message out there. Fiction is slow, and if you can sum up the contents of a book in one line its probably not a very nuanced book.”

 

“It can be really interesting, as a writer, to see the difference between those who get published to those who really, really don’t.”

One thing books can do to enact change is produce a personal story. “We saw this during the marriage referendum. People heard personal stories from people who were actually affected by the law, and it changed their political views.” Perhaps when people read Hennessy’s book, from the perspective of a young girl having to suffer under a restrictive law that turned her life upside down, they may be inclined to empathise. However, when it comes to enacting real political change, “there are much more effective ways to do it. Canvass, talk to people, change their minds.”

Like Other Girls also looks at sexuality and gender, the protagonist is learning to understand her bisexuality, and one of her best friends comes out as transgender during the novel.

Hennessy likes writing first person narratives, where you can show multiple perspectives; where the reader can see everyone’s context and where they are coming from. Friendships and relationships can be complex, especially during the coming of age years. Someone reading out of context might see the interactions as problematic, but it is really just teens dealing with things how teens do. Hennessy trusts her readers to understand the emotions and perspectives of a character. “People are messy and relationships are even messier. Lauren and her friends don’t always say the right things to each other. No character has the answer. They’re talking about issues like real people do.”

“The literary journal Banshee, which she works on with two other editors and writers, Laura Cassidy and Eimear Ryan, is her most rewarding venture.”

Not only does Hennessy write about young people, but she also spends a great deal of time facilitating creative writing workshops, where she is able to encourage young (and older) budding writers to put time and effort into their creative work. She runs evening classes, and also goes around to schools to run one-off workshops. This can often be difficult. When in school, it isn’t necessarily cool to have a solitary hobby that sounds a lot like schoolwork, and it can be hard to show some students the magic that writing can offer. No one knows this more than Hennessy, who avoided telling her friends about her book until days before it was published. Now, she gets to show kids that it is cool to write: “look at me, I’m ‘hip’ and ‘down’ with the kids, right?,” she laughs.

Other endeavours of hers include working in Penguin, which, has shown her the wider world of writing. “It can be really interesting, as a writer, to see the difference between those who get published to those who really, really don’t.” Of course, she has to read heaps of manuscripts, and say no to the majority. “At the start it was heartbreaking to have to reject people but at the end of it, you just have to have a hard heart. Sometimes we get emails off people saying they want to be a writer, but they’ve barely written anything. I mean, you wouldn’t pick up a guitar and ask a band to hire you, and teach you guitar!” Especially in such a competitive industry as publishing, where it is extremely rare for people to live exclusively off the money made from their books, “you just have to select the best material and run with that.” Hennessy can sympathise with those who are struggling to make it in the industry. A lot of the time, your confidence can be affected by your creative output. “To be honest, insecurity rarely goes away. You are only ever as good as your last book, sometimes and of course, there are always people ready to tell you that you’re crap.”

“There is no way of controlling the way your audience might react to something. You can indicate what might be upsetting, but you can’t control what someone might be triggered by, as it could be anything.”

However, she attempts to make the creative world a bit less of an intimidating place. The literary journal Banshee, which she works on with two other editors and writers, Laura Cassidy and Eimear Ryan, is her most rewarding venture. It is an opportunity to see small writers who have never been published progress and to help them out with their career. The publication started because of a discussion the three women had about the problems they noticed in the publishing industry. “Writers are always the last to get paid, which was a huge issue for us. Most publications rely on writers for their content, so why are they paying the printers more than the writers themselves?” The excuse of ‘exposure’ is a well-known cop out for not paying writers. “If you can’t afford your writers you should question why you have a publication at all.” Exposure, after all, does not pay rent. They say they are for “readers first and writers second. First and foremost, we want to show cool new work that we want to show the world, we want readers to enjoy.”

Like Other Girls is Claire Hennessy’s latest novel, out now. You can find her spending far too much time drinking tea and tweeting at @hennessybooks.

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