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Skin Deep: Writers, Writing and Tattoos by Deirdre Sullivan

Writing.ie | Magazine | The Big Idea
needlework

Deirdre Sullivan is a writer from Galway now living in Dublin who has established a reputation for herself as a leading Irish YA author following her trilogy on the teenage years of Primrose Leary, which has been widely acclaimed (Ireland’s much-respected YA critic, Robert Dunbar, says it ‘sparkles with authenticity’); two of the Prim books were shortlisted for the CBI awards; and the final one, Primperfect, was also shortlisted for the European Prize for Literature – the only YA novel to be nominated for this award from any European country. Deirdre Sullivan’s fabulous YA novel Needlework has just been published by Little Island – here she talks to several well known authors about their tattoos and writing technique – prepare to be fascinated! But first the blurb:

‘I would like to make things beautiful, but a tawdry and repulsive kind of beauty. A braver sort than people have from birth. Sexy zombies on a bicep. That sort of thing.’ Ces longs to be a tattoo artist and embroider skin with beautiful images. But for now she’s just trying to reach adulthood without falling apart. Powerful, poetic and disturbing, Needlework is a girl’s meditation on her efforts to maintain her bodily and spiritual integrity in the face of abuse, violation and neglect.

So who did Deirdre talk to? First up, Louise O’Neill:

Louise O'NeillLouise O’Neill is From Clonakilty in County Cork. She writes primarily for young adults, with a strong focus on feminist issues. O’Neill worked as a fashion journalist in New York in the 2000s. In 2014, she was named Newcomer of the Year of the Irish Book Awards for Only Ever Yours. Her second book, Asking For It, won the Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards Book of the Year 2015

How many tattoos do you have?

I have nine tattoos

Tell me about a thing you have written that you love.

I really dislike reading my own work as I’m incredibly critical of my writing and always feel it could have been better. As you can imagine, that makes editing great craic altogether. There are certain passages in both my books that I feel proud of but in general I tend to avoid my own books. Once they’re published, that’s it. They belong to the reader then.

What prompted you to get your first tattoo?

I was living in New York and I was due to return to Ireland within two or three weeks. I had broken up with my ex boyfriend and had was beginning to recover from a rather serious relapse of anorexia. ‘Let Go’ had become a mantra to me; let go of everything in my life that no longer served me in a positive way. I decided to get that tattooed on my wrist.

What prompted you to write your first piece you were happy to share with people?

That would probably have been my first novel, Only Ever Yours. A lot of things prompted me to write that, mostly an overwhelming sense of weariness with the pressure put on young women to conform to a certain ideal of beauty.

Where, on your body, did you get your favourite tattoo, and why?

I love the swallow tattoo on the inside of the right elbow. It reminds me that I am always free no matter how restrictive the circumstances of my life may seem.

Where do you like to write, is there a place you feel comfortable and inspired?

I am a creature of habit. I have taken over one of the spare bedrooms in my parents’ house and that is where I feel most comfortable.

What is your favourite tattoo that you’ve seen on another person?

So many! I love Fatti Burke’s tattoos.

What writers inspire you?

Again – so many! Margaret Atwood, Curtis Sittenfeld, Jeanette Winterson, John McGahern, Marian Keyes, Catherine Doyle, Jandy Nelson…. I could go on and on.

Did you know going in what you wanted, or have you ever collaborated with an artist to design a piece?

I always know exactly what I want before I go in.

Tell me about your process, do you outline, or plan?

It depends on the book to be honest. I had to plan Asking For It in a very exact way because of how it was structured. Only Ever Yours was a much more free-flowing experience.

When you imagine a scene, is it verbal of visual? If there’s an image that hit you sharply or tenderly while you were making your latest piece of work, could you share it?

Oh, the images are always extremely visual for me. It’s like a jigsaw. Imagine my book is a 100 piece puzzle. 70 of the pieces will come to be as visual images, and then I must plot around those, create the remaining 30 pieces to tie it all together.

Where, as in place, did you get your  best tattoo?

Probably New York. It was with my friend, Angela, who is Korean-American and she brought me to her favourite tattoo place in K-Town. The artist couldn’t speak English so she translated our conversation and then aferwards we went to get Korean food (and get hilariously drunk.) That was a fun day.

Where can we buy, read, or otherwise support your work?

In all good bookshops….

 

tara_flynn 200x300Tara Flynn’s You’re Grand: An Irishwoman’s Secret Guide to Life  shares the often hilarious wisdom of the Irishwoman, and why she holds the keys to success in life and how to live it – especially the rough bits. Armed with her all-purpose ‘You’re grand’ philosophy, there is nothing the Irishwoman can’t weather (even the weather).  Tara was born in Kinsale in Co. Cork but moved to Dublin to work as an actress. As a comedian, she has performed all over Ireland and the UK doing stand up and improv, as well as numerous radio & TV appearances including Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle, Line of Duty and Irish Pictorial Weekly. Recently she’s come to international attention for her satirical videos, most notably the anti-racism piece Racist B-and-B. Tara is married and lives in Dublin with her husband, a dog and a cat.

How many tattoos do you have?

Just the one. It’s true what they say, though, once you’ve had one you want more. I’ve been tempted many times.

Tell me about a thing you have written that you love.

I love the anger that comes through the comedy in Giving Out Yards. But the thing I’m probably proudest of is my sketch Racist B&B (it’s on YouTube), directed by the insanely talented Diarmuid O’Brien. It tackles casual racism with a “nice” face – perhaps the most unkind of all.

What prompted you to get your first tattoo?

I’d had a few tough years emotionally and I wanted something just for me, to remind me I’d survived and that I was tough. It was a while ago. Tattoos were still pretty tough.

What prompted you to write your first piece you were happy to share with people?

Doing stand up. You kind of have to share that material or it doesn’t exist. From there, I was asked to do a weekly column. It wasn’t really me, to be honest – I was trying to be entertaining rather than letting it come as it needed to and then finessing it. But it was a great discipline and a lovely thing to be asked to do.

Where did you get your favourite tattoo, and why?

I got mine on a now long-gone place on South William Street.  I remember thinking it was great because the guy made me (and everyone else) wait at least 48 hours. If we came back and were still sure, we had earned our tat.

Where do you like to write, is there a place you feel comfortable and inspired?

I write at the table at home (I have one end, my husband has the other). If I need a change of scene I hit a coffee shop with good wifi. I’m a cliché like that.

What is your favourite tattoo that you’ve seen on another person?

I love everyone’s tattoos! They’re all cool in their own way. I’m more interested in their signifcance and why people got them.

What writers inspire you?

Can I say you and Louise O’Neill? Because it’s true. I have Belinda McKeon, Ian McEwan, Rob Doyle and Nora Ephron all on the go at the moment. And Beckett. And Shakespeare. His bloody work ethic! The output!

Did you know going in what you wanted, or have you ever collaborated with an artist to design a piece?

I got a tiny moon and star on my foot. I knew what I wanted. I wanted simple, strong, natural geometric shapes. I was born in June so some people say the moon is for Cancer and the star is because “Tara” is “star” in Hindi but in truth it was the shapes I liked. It’s also the Turkish flag, but no one spotted it when I was in Istanbul or asked me any Turkey facts. Thank goodness.

Tell me about your process, do you outline, or plan?

Books and longer pieces I plan out on a whiteboard and break down into chunks. It helps them not to meander too far. Shorter pieces or sketches, I just sit down and start. Then edit, edit, edit.

When you imagine a scene, is it verbal of visual? If there’s an image that hit you sharply or tenderly while you were making your latest piece of work, could you share it?

Mixture of both. I’m working on a theatre piece right now – it’s only at the talks stage so might never see the light of day but my subconscious has started already. I woke up at 5am with a song – and opening number – very clearly formed. I had to get up and write it down/ record the tune. So, the words came first but, while I can’t tell you the subject matter, I can tell you it’ll require at least one smoke machine in the staging.

Where did you get your tattoo? (see above).

Interesting fact, when my nerves were jumping about under the needle and I apologied, the tattoo artist said not to worry: he got two fainters a week and they were always blokes. He never worried about women’s pain thresholds.

Where can we buy, read, or otherwise support your work?

On YouTube, or You’re Grand and Giving Out Yards are in bookshops now. In the UK, I’ll be in Beckett’s All That Fall for Out of Joint Theatre Company in the spring.

 

sara-baume-authorSara Baume was born in Lancashire and grew up in Co. Cork. She studied fine art and creative writing and her short fiction has been published in journals such as The Stinging Fly magazine and the Dublin Review. She won the 2014 Davy Byrnes Short Story Award and the 2015 Hennessy New Irish Writing Award. She now lives in Cork with her two dogs. Her book Spill Simmer Falter Wither was shortlisted for the Costa Novel of the Year, longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the winner of the Sunday Independent Newcomer of The Year, Irish Book Awards 2015. Spill Simmer Falter Wither is a wholly different kind of love story: a devastating portrait of loneliness, loss and friendship, and of the scars that are more than skin-deep.

How many tattoos do you have?

Depends how you count them! They only appear on the backs of my hands.

Two on the left and on the right – four separate ones which were gradually joined together.

Tell me about a thing you have written that you love.

I love nothing I have written. You mean there are writers out there who actually love the things they write?

What prompted you to get your first tattoo?

Teenage vanity.

What prompted you to write your first piece you were happy to share with people?

I wrote this mad story about a mouse who died in a humane mousetrap because the person who had, humanely, set the trap forgot to check it. It was first-person-mouse and based on a true story, of course.  I had mouse guilt. It was a mouse tribute. I showed it to my mother as a kind of atonement.

Where, on your body, did you get your favourite tattoo, and why?

I’m not too fond of any of them now. Perhaps the one I’m least fond of is a swallow on my fist. I later learned that this is a prison tattoo. But its ironic occasionally makes me smile.

Where do you like to write, is there a place you feel comfortable and inspired?

Nowadays I have ‘a room of one’s own’ in the rented house where I live. It’s small and beautifully book-cluttered. I have a cork-board wall and a floor-window complete with dog seat. The view is North Atlantic plus a gnarly tree.

What is your favourite tattoo that you’ve seen on another person?

I saw a girl on the Staten Island ferry with a tiny crescent moon and star in the space between her eyebrow and hair line.

What writers inspire you?

Sebald, Solnit, Orwell, Salinger. Not writers though – writing

Did you know going in what you wanted, or have you ever collaborated with an artist to design a piece?

You mean tattoos I presume? I’ve always dictated the piece. For better or worse.

Tell me about your process, do you outline, or plan?

You mean tattoos again? I’m a little confused. God no. I’m done with all that crap now.

When you imagine a scene, is it verbal of visual? If there’s an image that hit you sharply or tenderly while you were making your latest piece of work, could you share it?

Visual as opposed to verbal. But sound is important too. Smell, feel.

Where, as in place, did you get your  best tattoo?

Holy Cow Tattoo, Midelton, Co. Cork

Where can we buy, read, or otherwise support your work?

All good bookshops!

 

roe mcdermottRoe McDermott is a journalist, arts critic, Fulbright awardee and sex columnist from Dublin. She lives in San Francisco, where she’s completing an MA in Sexuality Studies.

How many tattoos do you have?

I have five now, which sounds like a lot (my mother will hate reading that), but they’re all pretty tiny. I have a wing behind my ear, the phrase “tiny beautiful things” on the back of my neck, a white quill and book on the insides of my wrists, and a white bell on my ring finger. And I have another one planned, a quote from an author I adore. I always get tattoos on my birthday, so that one will be revealed in May…

Tell me about a thing you have written that you love.

I always love my pieces either just before they’re done, or years later – when they’re first published I keep mentally rewriting them and driving myself crazy. But then they’re not quite finished, they always have that gorgeous, seductive potential of being The One. And then years later I look back at all of them and realize they were all The Ones, just for that time, and their flaws are a part of that deal.

I have an essay in the works that I’ve poured a lot of heart and rage into, so I love what that might become. It’s about reductive and repetitive cultural responses to rape narratives -both fiction and non-fiction- and hopefully it’ll cause people to pause and think. I do love an essay I wrote for The Rumpus last year, called His Greatest Masterpiece, which is about the stigma about sexual assault. It has threads of memoir and cultural criticism, and uses fragments of film to punctuate them. It was an important essay for me personally because recounts some of my trauma, but it was also one of the first essays where I felt I’d really honed my style of weaving a narrative together, and balancing personal revelation with art and commentary.

I never want my personal experience to be the main story which is why I combine it with commentary; I only use my experiences to illustrate a larger point. My mate recently described my writing as “academia written in eyeliner and blood”, which I feel is pretty on-point.

What prompted you to get your first tattoo?

I was 19 and I had dropped out of college for a year; I was emotionally recovering from being sexually assaulted by another student and had spent two years feeling very defined and constrained by that experience, by having to see him everyday, by how trauma and literal geography were trapping me. I essentially halted as a person; I couldn’t engage with anything, couldn’t form any real friendships or relationships and couldn’t move past it.  I hadn’t told anyone, and when I was 19 I finally started reaching out to people and reclaiming my life. So when I went back to college, I got a tiny tattoo of a wing behind my ear, it was my little Phoenix-from-the-ashes moment. No-one can really see it, so it was just for me; this little reminder that I wasn’t fully free yet but I was getting there.

Which is all very serious and poetic but soon after I got it, I was on a night out with my hair up and a drunk guy asked my if I only had one wing. I said yes, to which he slurred “IS THAT ‘CAUSE YOU FLY IN CIIIIIRCLES?” Which is also a pretty perfect.

What prompted you to write your first piece you were happy to share with people?

I’m a journalist so I was used to making my work available, but my first personal essay-style piece was a response to a conversation a friend and I had been having about fury, specifically the fury we felt as women in a world designed to silence us, and how we could harness that anger into something beautiful and constructive. And I had just extracted myself from an abusive relationship where I had spent two year apologizing, and shrinking, and trying to do everything I could to try and please someone who wanted to hurt me. I had stayed and put up with constant emotional abuse because I thought that I deserved to be abused, that I didn’t have a right to be angry at how I was being treated. So I wrote an essay about that relationship and how in a larger sense, anger is a physical sign that you’re being wronged, and how fury can be this glorious, empowering and constructive force that women should let themselves feel. The piece served this dual purpose of me responding to my relationship and reclaiming a narrative he had decided for me, and also acting as a manifesto for myself and other women. My editors actually initially didn’t want to publish it; I think they thought I’d regret speaking out about my relationship. So I had to fight for it to be shared, and it’s still the essay I got the biggest response to.

Where, on your body, did you get your favourite tattoo, and why?

I don’t know if I can definitely pick a favorite, but I love the white bell on my left ring finger, just because the placement does feel significant. I got it on my 27th birthday after my first year in San Francisco. Moving to San Francisco changed me; I felt so liberated and really had space to figure out who I was now, without all the baggage that comes from other people’s expectations. I had also fallen hopelessly, ecstatically in love, and wanted to capture that – loving the city, and myself in it, and the new sense of possibility I felt, and the people I was choosing to have in my life. So I turned to a column by Cheryl Strayed, then writing as Dear Sugar, where she describes the word love as this clanking, iron bell – and how we’re so paralyzed by all the expectation and fear that we attach to love to say and feel it how and when we should. The final lines of the column are “Don’t be strategic or coy. Strategic and coy are for jackasses. Be brave. Be authentic. Practice saying the word love to the people you love so when it matters the most to say it, you will. We’re all going to die. Hit the iron bell like it’s dinnertime.” So I got myself a tiny white bell to remind me. And I got it on my ring finger, because it felt like a more important interpretation of love than limiting the idea of love to romance and a diamond – which is also what the column addresses.

Where do you like to write, is there a place you feel comfortable and inspired?

I’m a night owl, and no matter how many cafes or libraries I sit in or how beautifully I make my desk area (which is pretty damn gorgeous, to be fair), I have and always will do my best work at 4am on a sofa in my house, where it doesn’t feel pressurized or like work, and where I can just write and read it back to myself until I realize it’s morning and the pages are full.

What is your favourite tattoo that you’ve seen on another person?

There are two that I love but will never get. One is the violin-style back markings from Man Ray’s Le violin D’ingres that is just so gorgeous and sensual, and I spent years thinking about getting it – but now it has been used as a plot point in Mozart In The Jungle and feels horribly cliche so I shall love the idea forever but never commit. Another was this stunning and delicate version of a Dali elephant I saw on a girl’s back, where its legs stretched down her spine. It was so beautiful, but too big a piece for me.

What writers inspire you?

So many, too many. Lidia Yuknavitch writes about the body and the primal and corporal in a way that’s breathstoppingly raw and visceral, but she also molds and shapes language in the most evocative way; I’ve never read writing that I’ve had such a physical and emotional reaction to. I literally missed two planes because I was so engrossed in her writing.

Maggie Nelson blends the personal and the academic in a way that burns understanding and insight into my brain. Both Cheryl Strayed and my friend Sarah Griffin have this pulsing poetic tenderness to their writing that feels like vines of truth gently embracing you.

Rebecca Solnit is a philosopher, nothing less, and the way she uses metaphor and intellectualism and memoir to enlighten is sheer genius.

Roxane Gay illuminates emotional complexity and messiness and richness in ways that make me understand myself more clearly – while Bad Feminist is witty and brilliant, her book An Untamed State eviscerated me, by somehow hearing and repeating things I had never said aloud.

Claudia Rankine’s poetry-prose writing on race in Citizen was so emotional and razor-sharp but also inspiring in that it made me realize that I don’t know so goddamn much. It made me want to devour books and information and art like food, so I can know the world better and contribute some tiny thing to it. That’s what I want from writers. I want to walk away from their writing and be torn between writing for days to express something new, and reading more in order to learn.

Did you know going in what you wanted, or have you ever collaborated with an artist to design a piece?

My tattoos are all very small and simple, or text, so I’ve never had to collaborate. I drew the small designs myself, and I like the fact that they’re not another artist’s work, because they all feel so personal. They’re not the most intricate or sophisticated artwork, but they’re mine.

Tell me about your process, do you outline, or plan?

I tend not to plan before I start writing – when I get an idea I start writing blind. It’s only when I have something down that I can really begin to tease and flesh it out, and the strands become clearer. I often write essays with multiple, intercutting sections – usually memoir, cultural criticism and a framing device of quotes or a story within the essay – and I usually freewrite the first parts of each section and see how they’re linking thematically. Then I’ll roughly outline the points I want each thread to hit, and how best to order the sections that they not only make sense individually, but flow into each other. It’s not very scientific, as my ideas tend to evolve a lot as I’m writing and researching. But I find that process exciting – it makes the work seem manageable while still open to possibilities.

When you imagine a scene, is it verbal or visual? If there’s an image that hit you sharply or tenderly while you were making your latest piece of work, could you share it?

It varies. The personal and memoir-style sections of my writing are visual and sensory, so I can see the scene from memory (that wonderfully odd and fallible beast) but also feel it quite viscerally, so the writing tries to evoke the scene and also the feeling of being inside it. The other strands of my writing tend to be quite intellectual or academic as I try place my experience in a broader cultural context and explore ideas, so that’s verbal. I have a very Body Vs. Mind relationship with my emotions and my experience of the world – I intellectualize everything which can help me process my experiences, but it can also be an avoidance tactic to protect myself from truly feeling my emotions. I’m constantly trying to strike a balance between them, which emerges in my writing. They’re always definitively separated, and I jump back and forth between them – but they’re bound by a thread. I want to learn how to linger in the visual and felt aspects of my emotions and writing more, and am in awe of writers who can write of embodied emotions skillfully.

Where, as in place, did you get your best tattoo?

I think Bulldog In San Francisco was probably the best – they were brave and skilled enough to do white tattoos, which very few studios will do. I’ve been so patronized by Dublin tattoo artists when I told them I wanted white tattoos; in the San Francisco studio they trusted me to know what I want, and were skilled enough to do it.

Where can we buy, read, or otherwise support your work?

I write about film and the arts in Hot Press magazine, and on hotpress.ie, while my fortnightly column on sex and sexuality is on the Dublin Inquirer. My essays have been on The Rumpus (http://therumpus.net/2015/04/his-greatest-masterpiece/) and The Coven (http://thecoven.me/2015/11/29/roe-mcdermott-twelve-dancing-princesses/), and I tweet details about new work (plus a lot of random artsy links, and a dash of whimsy) from @roemcdermott. But you can support my writing by supporting Irish writers generally, and the writing of Irish women in particular. Outlets like Banshee and The Coven are so important in giving Irish women a platform, and I’m so grateful they exist.

 

sarah-maria-griffinSarah Griffin is a writer from Dublin, recently returned from San Francisco. Her collection of emigration essays, Not Lost, was published by New Island Press in 2013. Her next book is a sensational YA novel, Spare and Found Parts, out with Greenwillow Books in October 2016.

How many tattoos do you have?

Two! One on each foot.

Tell me about a thing you have written that you love.

I write lots of different things, but something I always go back to, especially for live performance, is Aspirational Fanfiction About Clothing I Can Not Afford. It’s a series of short flashes of prose about pieces of clothing I never bought, but I loved from afar. They’re stranger than just cotton and nylon, promise.

What prompted you to get your first tattoo?

To be honest, it was because I was 19 and had never rebelled. I wanted them, so I got them.

What prompted you to write your first piece you were happy to share with people?

The first poem I shared with folks was about jumping on a trampoline during a houseparty, written after staggering off the trampoline, full of night air and tequila, all 19 and wonderstruck by everything. It has a line in it that still might be better than anything I’ve ever written to this day. Felt like leaping up into the air and catching a star.

Where did you get your favourite tattoo, and why?

Well, my tattoos are a matching pair, so they’re both my favourite. One on each foot, they’re very similar but also very different, and they balance one another out. I got them on my feet because I could hide them easily, so that no matter where my life took me, if I chose to, I could keep them just for myself.

Where do you like to write, is there a place you feel comfortable and inspired?

I love to write in my parents’ house out in the suburbs. On their wide sofa in the coolness of the front room, in front of the telly, with my sister on the other sofa studying or clicking around the net. I love that the most. I have a little nook of an office in the house I live in with my partner, which it truly great – and I also have a little desk at a shared studio in town. The desk I commandeer there is a gutted, bright blue straight-back piano with a flat surface installed instead of a keyboard. I write all over. Lots of little corners of the world.

What is your favourite tattoo that you’ve seen on another person?

A friend of a friend has an incredible Daft Punk tattoo on her arm that I’m wild about. A writer I met in San Francisco who had a Willie Nelson tramp stamp, which she showed me in a bar one night and I thought it was the best thing. My buddy Hope, a pastry chef, has a whisk on her bicep.

What writers inspire you?

My friends and peers, most of all. Lately, Karen Russell and Lauren Beukes, too. It changes often.

Did you know going in what you wanted, or have you ever collaborated with an artist to design a piece?

I went in with a Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask strategy guide published by Prima in like, 1998 under my arm. I pointed at an illustration on the inside and the artist who did my feet, John, took from that and improvised different designs on each foot around them. He showed them to me, first, of course!

Tell me about your process, do you outline, or plan?

I tend to move from mood to mood, if that makes sense? I try my best to outline, but that’s pushed out of the way by whatever scene or interaction is most alive on any given day. I don’t write beginning-to-end, it’s more moment to moment and then the patchwork of things.

When you imagine a scene, is it verbal of visual? If there’s an image that hit you sharply or tenderly while you were making your latest piece of work, could you share it?

I had a really strong moment towards the end of rewriting/editing Spare & Found Parts where I realized that the protagonist’s mother had to be in the first pages of the work. I saw her in her bed, body full of artificial lights, and couldn’t stop thinking about it for days before I finally wrote it down. I think it’s a chain of words that triggers the image. Colours and texture.

Where did you get your tattoo?

The Inkwell, which used to be up Ormond Quay, but is now based out in Lucan.

Where can we buy, read, or otherwise support your work?

Not Lost is available from all good Irish bookshops, you can follow me on Twitter @griffksi for essays, and Spare & Found Parts will be released in North America this October – Irish & UK release forthcoming!

(c) Deirdre Sullivan

Needlework is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!

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