When I’m asked about my fiction, I tend to start rabbiting on about the things I am trying to explore, the political implications and so on. But if I stop and think about it honestly, I don’t have as much control over it as all that. The real reason I write, is personal necessity.
A few years ago, I found primary school copybooks chockfull of childish handwriting and illustrations – ‘Stories for 6-year-olds, by Elske Rahill’. I laughed, cringed, and threw them out. But I shouldn’t have sneered at my six-year-old self. I was a tiny, ugly, anxious child, often sad and always scared – writing was my way of coping with my world, and of constructing a self that was different to who I was told I was.
If you can see into a situation, if you can describe it, judge it, categorise it, it no longer has you by the throat – language is how we conquer the overwhelming bamboozlement of ‘real’ experience and order it into something we can process. Maybe writers are people who rely excessively on language. Or maybe it’s more complicated than that; maybe they are people for whom the entrance into the symbolic was particularly unsatisfactory, maybe that’s why we have to keep grappling with it. I don’t know.
The year my first child was born – the year I wrote the first draft of the title story of In White Ink – writing became more than ever about mental survival.
I had become pregnant while at university – I was twenty-two, which really isn’t that young, but I was the only person my age I knew who was having a baby. I was told I looked younger, and that this was why strangers kept asking me what age I was, and men spat at me in the street (this is no country for unsanctioned pregnancy). I went through with the pregnancy for various reasons, none of them based on any coherent life-plan. During those months, I stopped writing almost completely.
I sat my finals when the baby was 4 months old. For a while, my peers hung around, proffering teddy bears, taking photos, but I soon found myself alone in a flat with my infant son. Motherhood had me cornered; or that’s how it felt.
Thankfully, mothering itself worked out for me – those many natural things that can go wrong, went right. I had a wonderful birth and adored my child, and I was smugly confident that I was a good mother. But I could feel myself getting consumed by the whole experience, I was losing all sense of myself as anything else.
Before becoming pregnant, I had applied for a writing M.Phil in Trinity. I was just very lucky – my father offered to pay the fees, my little sister offered to babysit during some of the lectures, and, the September after my baby was born, I began the course. Writing became my lifeline; it was my way of recovering myself.
They were extremely supportive at Trinity – more than once I ended up sitting in a lecture with the baby on the breast because I had no sitter. That year I wrote all the time – I wrote during every one of my son’s naps, I stayed up at night and wrote, I sat in the park and wrote. I worked mainly on my first draft of my first novel Between Dog and Wolf but one night I woke at 3am and stayed up until daylight writing what would become ‘In White Ink’.
That was eleven years ago, and it took me a decade to realise what that story was about. It only worked once it revealed the things the first draft was trying to deny. The finished story is almost the opposite of its original. It changed from autobiography to fiction; but it became much more real in the process.
Most of the stories in the collection were first written years ago. The first story, ‘Toby’, for example, was originally written eight years ago after I saw a live mouse in a mousetrap. It was about a woman who kills a mouse. Again, it took me a long time to understand what I was getting at with the mouse thing, and to find the right narrative for it. There is no mouse in the finished story.
When I hear about people writing brilliant novels in a couple of months I am insanely jealous. I can’t do that. I could blame motherhood, money-work, or other practicalities, for my slowness, but I think I’m just a slow writer. I write all the time, but I am slow to understand what I’m writing about.
Having said that language is my best tool for psychic survival, I should confess that, for me anyway, it is always a failure. What is ‘real’, is that which is pre-categorical; that which belongs entirely to the non-linguistic world. Language always occludes something, and the title In White Ink is about that – that problem of using language to recover the ‘real’ world of the mother, trying not to lose the fullness of it to the either/or of language.
When I was eventually published, it was due to series of unlikely flukes. In a roundabout way, Neil Belton who worked in Faber at the time, read the novel. His feedback on both the novel, and my stories, gave me the confidence to keep trying. He also recommended the novel to some other publishers including The Lilliput Press where some interns – Sarah and Lisa (now Tramp Press) – pushed it through.
As for placing In White Ink – Lilliput sent it to the London Book Fair with their agent, Marianne Gunne O’Connor. She got a bidding war going for a two-book deal. When I heard that Neil Belton was now Head of Zeus, I told her I wanted to go with them. I was thrilled when I got a contract with them.
I wrote a second novel three years ago, and put it aside while I worked on the short story collection. As I said, I am slow. I needed time to let it sit. Since okaying the final proof of In White Ink, I have been working on the final draft of this novel – it is essentially about the last year of an elderly woman’s life, and how her past haunts her children, who all begin a jealous scrabble for inheritance. I think it’s finally, very nearly finished.
(c) Elske Rahill
About In White Ink:
Motherhood, nurture and violence – these are the themes of Elske Rahill’s remarkable first collection, In White Ink. Rahill brings to life the psychological and physical reality of mothering, pregnancy and childbirth in ways that few others writers have attempted. Here is a biting realism, in the relations between men and women and in the expectations and failures of their assigned roles.
Each story is illumined by moments of harsh poetry. They are carefully crafted snapshots of our condition. In the title story, an isolated young mother is locked in to a custody battle with her abusive husband; ‘Right to Reply’ shows three generations of women confronting the terrible legacy of their family’s past; in ‘Toby’, a woman obsessed with hygiene finally snaps, when she finds her home is infested with fleas. The precision of Rahill’s prose, the stoicism of her unflinching narrative gaze, reveal characters caught up in violently emotional situations.
The version of motherhood found here is painful. Yet its endurance, as nature’s greatest force, is brilliantly and compassionately rendered.
Praise for In White Ink:
These stark, brave and powerful stories could only have come from Elske Rahill, one of the most interesting writers to come out of Ireland in the past decade. Her eye for the savage truths of how people, particularly women – particularly mothers – must navigate the territory allowed to them is original, determined and necessary.’ Belinda McKeon
‘This is the real stuff, no doubt about it. A collection of beautifully balanced short stories written in prose which is both visceral and exquisite in its emotional unrest and intimacy.’ Mike McCormack
‘Rahill writes pain and pathos and disillusion very beautifully; In White Ink is a fine and enthralling collection.’ Sara Baume
‘Elske Rahill’s sentences are relentlessly heat-seeking. Her prose takes risk upon risk, and a marvellous dark clarity governs the worlds inside her stories.’ Mary O’Donoghue
Order your copy online here.