Seeing Like a Writer: Tell Me What I Am by Una Mannion

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Tell Me What I Am

By Una Mannion

‘Writing is when I feel best . . .’, says Una Mannion, discussing her new novel, Tell Me What I Am.

When the writer Eoin McNamee greeted the new students on the Writing & Literature course we both taught on, he told them something that has resonated with me ever since. He said that if you look at something long enough, it will start to speak to you: a place, an object, a character. He wanted them to look at the world as writers. His words stayed with me, and I think about that intensive act of looking when I am working. Now when I choose a setting, I try to really look, and the place does reveal itself, or parts of itself that start to seep into the psyche of the story I am writing.

In Tell Me What I Am, a woman goes missing in Philadelphia. In the aftermath, her four-year-old daughter, Ruby, is taken away from her mother’s family by her father to live in Vermont on the Lake Champlain islands. Her narrative is from the lake where she is being raised in close proximity to nature, hunting, fishing, foraging and growing her own food. I had spent time there and so I was vaguely familiar with how the place felt, the texture and sounds. I began to read everything I could about the islands, the stories, history, the environment. I watched YouTube videos listening to the roar of ice breaking on the lake, the song of spring peepers, the turkey hen’s call. Over and over again, the natural environment there offered itself not only as detail to create the world but also atmosphere and something like metaphor. Ruby ends up at a vernal pool, one of those temporary pools that occur in Vermont after snowmelt and where different creatures come to lay their eggs, including blue spotted salamanders. Like sea turtles, the mother returns each year to the place where she had hatched, to a pool that only exists sometimes. When I read more about the salamanders, I discovered that if attacked, they circle themselves with their tail and emit a toxin, so that while the predator is holding their tail, and maybe getting stunned or weakened by the toxin, the salamander can just slip off the injured part, wriggle right out, and run away. The predator won’t have the heart of them, just a part of the body that can grow back. These details seemed, somehow, to feed Ruby’s storyline, her missing mother, the pain she has experienced, her own survival. Even the cobalt blue of the salamanders’ spots became part of a palette in her narrative. I am not sure this amounts to a writing tip, but this ‘looking’ is integral to my writing practice.

Researching is a part of the writing process I actually love. When I am writing, I tend to research at the same time. I look everything up and walk down streets using Google Maps street view. On it, I walked along the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia and stumbled on the Playing Angels, three statues of cherub angels playing music against the sky on high plinths. I had forgotten about them and when I went back to Philadelphia, I visited them. Strangely, angels kept surfacing in the work, again the way in which the place itself began to speak back to the narrative and shape it – The Playing Angels along the river, the Angel of Resurrection in 30th Street Station. Part of the research has also meant talking to other people. I realised how willing others are to share what they do. I spent three days in Philadelphia with a former homicide detective and got to spend an afternoon in the homicide unit in the infamous Roundhouse as well as a day in the Criminal Court. While I didn’t feel I was writing a procedural, I wanted to be in the buildings and rooms my characters were in. Again the detail accumulated into more than just descriptions. It became atmosphere and more.

I think this part of the writing process, the looking, has come instinctively but there are practices that I have failed to do that would make the writing process richer. I don’t really keep a journal, not consistently and not as part of my practice, and for the third book I have just started I am trying to. This past year I worked with a student on the Writing + Literature course at ATU Sligo who writes three observations every day. The notes are stunning vignettes, the poignancy heightened by writer’s refusal to provide causation or interpretation. They just are. And they are beautiful. I have other students who keep journals where fleeting thoughts or ideas are pinned to the page. It’s invaluable, this storehouse of thoughts, observations, descriptions, quirks, a record of how they are seeing and encountering the world. I am learning from them. And while I know this, I have failed to keep one or I have randomly captured thoughts or research in multiple places that I can’t find because there wasn’t one dedicated space.

Not keeping a journal is connected to another aspect of the writing process that I wish I had understood earlier. Writing is when I feel best. Having a project to return to, that is there waiting for you, is grounding and reassuring. So many other writers have articulated this, but I suppose we each have to go through it ourselves to understand and remind ourselves that the only way to stave off despair, being stuck or emptiness is to sit at the desk and write. The novelist Jennifer Egan says, ‘When I’m not writing I feel an awareness that something’s missing […] There’s something vital that’s not happening. A certain slow damage starts to occur.’ I know that exact mutation she is describing, and I know that I am most present, most awake, most alive when I am writing.

(c) Una Mannion

About Tell Me What I Am:
Tell Me What I Am

Two women, wrenched apart by a terrible crime, must find a way back to each other

When Deena Garvey disappears in 2004, she leaves behind a daughter and a sister.

Deena’s daughter grows up in the country. She learns how to hunt, when to seed the garden, how to avoid making her father angry. Never to ask about her absent mother.

Deena’s sister stays stuck in the city, getting desperate. She knows the man responsible for her sister’s disappearance, but she can’t prove it. Not yet.

Over fourteen years, four hundred miles apart, these two women slowly begin to unearth the secrets and lies at the heart of their family, and the history of power and control that has shaped them both in such different ways.

But can they reach each other in time? And will the truth finally answer the question of their lives:

What really happened to Deena Garvey?

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Una Mannion was born in Philadelphia and lives in County Sligo Ireland. She has won numerous prizes for her poetry and short stories. Her work has been published in the Irish Times, Winter Papers and anthologised in story collections. Her debut novel was shortlisted for the An Post Irish Book Awards, the Dalkey Literary Awards, and won the 2022 Kate O’Brien Award.

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