I had the great fortune of meeting Una Mannion in the Writing (MA) Programme at NUI Galway. She consistently amazed me with her impressive knowledge and the sincerity of her writing.
Una is a lecturer in Performing Arts at IT Sligo and is Programme Chair of the new B.A. Writing & Literature (Hons) Programme. Her poem ‘Crouched Burial’ won the Yeats Society’s Seamus Heaney Memorial Poetry Prize 2015 judged by Paula Meehan. Also in 2015, she won second place in Dromineer Literary Festival for flash fiction. She was one of the four shortlisted writers in the Listowel Writers Week Originals Short Stories and was shortlisted in the Fish Memoir Competition and Bridport among others. Una won the 2017 Cuirt New Writing Prize in Fiction and third prize in the 2016 Bare Fiction Prize for Flash Fiction for her story ‘Frozen Planet.’
Her work has been published in the Irish Times, The Incubator, and Ambit among others.
Una lives in Sligo with her husband and three children.
How does it feel to be an award-winning, published author?
I still have a little bit of imposter syndrome. I’m just waiting for someone to come along and say ‘You’ve made a terrible mistake,’ yet it’s been magic. I suppose it’s generated a lot for me. There have been readings, articles and interviews. In terms of my own students and the new Writing and Literature BA it has provided a profile to the course. It is also good for my own students: I’m stepping up the challenge and attempting something. We are always encouraging them to do that as well and so I think that it has been really positive and quite overwhelming. I feel so underserving at one level and then at another I just feel gratitude beyond measure.
It’s funny with women and writing. We have a tendency to put other’s needs in front of our own and so that whole part of this experience is challenging for me but I’m doing it. I’ve developed more boundary with my time and space.
How are you able to balance writing, work and your family?
Probably not always very well. It’s very challenging. I think because I have so little time I use it. I know a lot of people have a word count every day or a writing discipline every day but that’s very hard for me. There are days where I might be at work until late, in a rehearsal, or I have to be up at the crack of dawn. I can’t be in that rhythm every day. I write in spurts.
In terms of my family, my kids have gotten really accustomed to the fact that I write and they’re respectful. I go out to my caravan. It’s a total hippy caravan. For my birthday, my family hired someone in to take out the kitchen and the bathroom because I wasn’t using it. I have now a couch and table and chairs. It’s literally ten feet from the house.
At Christmas, I write every day — all day and I generally have no problem doing 8-10 hours of writing and I if get the chance to do it, I’ll do it. Sometimes I‘ll stay up quite late at night if I’m starting a story or if I’m in the middle of the story. But I wouldn’t say ‘I’m someone who is very disciplined and writes every day’ — a more precise term is that ‘I’m very disciplined and I write whenever I can.’
In your writing there seems to be a theme of motherhood and nature — do you do this intentionally?
It’s funny. I often think I write more about being a child and the absence of a mother and wanting a mother. The earth maybe in a way is mothering me. I think you probably saw that I posted that flash fiction piece today (Frozen Planet). I guess that’s a story about a mother and her disconnection from her emotions in the suspended landscape and actually again through nature. She knows facts about the planets and that Pluto the frozen planet has the shape of a heart on its surface. There is a reckoning that she has to make with something that she’s cut off from herself.
It’s funny, I think sometimes in spite of myself there are repeated motifs that come up, mothering is one of them and the piece I did for Doolin is very much about mothering. This is the short story I wrote that won the Doolin competition and it’s very much about generations of mothers and daughters, particularly in Ireland, and the expectations of daughters from mothers and how it can sometimes separate the bond between the two.
What was an early experience in which you learned that language had power?
My father, as an Irish immigrant in America, loved literature. He was a landscaper and we’d be in his truck and he’s start reciting something. He’d recite lines from the Deserted Village from Oliver Goldsmith. The Song of Wandering Aengus was also one he recited a lot. My father would have such awe of these words and the power of words to transform you emotionally but also words to transform a situation.
I spent my summers coming to Sligo and my aunt is an absolute storyteller. She holds court and everyone gathers around to listen and I saw the power of story from a young age. I was not a voracious reader as a child — I did not grow up thinking books were my best friends but I think there were a lot of story tellers around me and people who had a respect for language. That was probably my first encounter and my sense that there is something special about language.
What was the first book that made you cry?
Catcher in the Rye probably. I read it quite young and there was a moment where Holden is remembering the time he told his little brother he couldn’t come with him, that he was too young. Allie is dead now and Holden is imagining how he would do it differently now, “Okay. Go home and get your bike and meet me in front of Bobby’s house.”
Maybe I was about 12 when I read the book the first time and that scene made me cry.
What was the hardest or more difficult scene you’ve written?
I think at times I find it very difficult to write scenes where the character is out of control or quite violent. It requires a lot of sensitivity to not be judgemental, even to have empathy and to also show that kind of extreme where it is out of character. It’s not as though I write a lot about that sort of stuff but I have in stories situations where you see someone at their absolute worst moment. What they’re doing is awful.
At the same time though they have their own nuances. You have to have nuances in characters. People are complex — they’re not two dimensional. They have contradictions. Those moments where they’re doing something underhanded I’ve always found that difficult. I guess the instinct is to make it more one-dimensional. Psychologically, it’s not honest.
On the more technical side, I find action hard to write. I can scene set and do descriptive passaged and write dialogue but setting my characters in motion sometimes is really difficult for me.
Do you have favourite literary journals?
I love the new edition of the Stinging Fly. Louise Kennedy, who is in my writing group, has her short story published in this edition. The Stinging Fly, as an Irish journal is absolutely brilliant. I love some of the nonfiction pieces in the Dublin review. I suppose there are journals more recently that I’m starting to see more and read more because I’m entering competitions and having them published.
I love journals where you’re being introduced to writers you’ve never heard of. The Bare Fiction journal — the story of Frozen Planet and some of the stories in it were really good. There are people publishing for the very first time and there are people publishing who’ve had several books and I love that kind of mix — seeing new writing hold its own next to more experienced writers.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
Not really. I think we’re all going through something in our lives. I can’t speak for other people but for me, the times I can’t write I think it’s because I’m not trying enough. I do find there are times when it is difficult to write, maybe I’m tired or something is going on emotionally in my life and it’s harder to come to the desk. I’m allowing my anxieties to take over and I think it’s important to step away from a computer if nothing is happening at all. Go mix it up with the world. I don’t have times where I stare at the computer and there’s this ‘blankness’. I would probably get up and go because that would make me demented.
Tell me a little bit about the new B.A. Writing and Literature program at Sligo IT:
First of all it’s a three year honours degree in literature and it is pretty much an applied writing course. Each semester students have a ‘writing in practice’ — it is always workshopped and there will be a visiting writer delivering those every year. Of the three years they’ll have intensively worked with three different writers in those workshops. It’s built on top of the preforming arts so over the course there are shared modules. Students will do something with theatre or modernism or post modernism but they’ll also have courses in writing that is much more specific on form, genre and history — in terms of the emergence of the story.
But I think it really is an applied writing course. We have a lot of students who are interested in cultural journalism. There are visual artists who are interested in art criticism or working for creative magazines. We have people interested in public relations and journalism. And so because we are going to be so small, our cap is at 16, our hope is to really tailor the programme so that the portfolio of work that they are building over the three years will help them get published or even to have a work practice in their third year. We are trying to tailor it as much as possible to help students develop their writing practice. There are a lot of opportunities to realise work.
We are hoping to produce a journal. There is no literary journal in the Northwest and we’d like to see it happen here at IT Sligo.
I think it’s going to be a brilliant course. We’ve had huge interest. It’s a brand new venture and what’s great is that it will create a community of writing which is good for the students as well as Sligo IT.