Walk the Line with Cathy Sweeney: ‘Whatever you are meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible’ is a mantra I live by

The acclaimed Dublin writer talks about her pivot from teaching to writing, the one book she’ll always returns to, and inspiration for her first novel ‘Breakdown’

Cathy Sweeney: “In many ways writing for me means living in a state of receptiveness..and carrying a notebook.”

When it comes to writing, I feel more compelled than inspired. I am stimulated to write by my environment, whether that be a news item or a book I am reading, a film, a conversation with a friend, an observation in the supermarket, an overheard conversation on the bus.

In many ways writing for me means living in a state of receptiveness..and carrying a notebook.

In autumn 2019 I was at a loose end. My short story collection Modern Times was due to be published and my career as a full-time teacher was coming to an end. It wasn’t clear to me what I should do next so I was spending time in libraries and coffee shops, trying to think about the future.

In that mindset, I got a clear mental image of a woman in drift, leaving her home one day intending to take a few hours for herself, but never coming back. I knew then that I would have to write her story and that became the foundation for Breakdown.

I think most people carry around inside themselves the knowledge that they might have lived another life, and that much of what happens to us, including the choices we make, are circumstantial.

For most people this is not an issue, merely the subject of a few moments of idle contemplation from time to time. But for the woman in Breakdown the situation is more serious, not because she thinks she has made wrong choices, but because she comes to understand that the choices she made were based on social norms rather that personal desire.

On one level it is a privilege to live in a society where choice is possible, especially for women.

But on the other hand, while the dominance of the Catholic Church has been more or less dismantled, the insidious aftershocks of acculturation to obedience and conformity are perhaps more pervasive than we care to think. Our narratives about what constitutes a good life are perhaps too narrow.

“I am proud to be related to creative people..those who model a way of living that is full of struggle and not all about money, but one that continually suggests the possibility of a future.” Picture by Meabh Fitzpatrick Photography

I adore short stories and my taste ranges from Anton Chekhov to Lydia Davis. I also read poetry in small intense doses, anything from John Milton to Li-Young Lee. I love personal essays, anything from Michel de Montaigne to James Baldwin and I re-read, or re-listen to, classic novels, for pure pleasure.

There are many contemporary writers I admire and I am currently on a wonderful reading binge of novels I missed while I was writing Breakdown. I am also excited about the forthcoming publication of Maggie Armstrong’s collection, Old Romantics.

I am obsessed with the novel A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov, probably because I cannot come to a stable understanding of why I love it so much. The structure is bizarre: five sections that connect by association rather than logic and a protagonist who is intensely complex. I admire the fact that Lermontov never tries to explain Pechorin’s behaviour and, most importantly, he never apologises for it.

The writing process for Breakdown was completely different to Modern Times. I wrote the stories in Modern Times over a ten-year period and in the margins of a busy life.

To write Breakdown I had to devote myself to it full-time, thanks to support from the Arts Council. It wasn’t always easy to write and it took a while to find the narrator’s voice, but by the time I signed off on the final proof, I was satisfied that I had given it everything.

Compared with most women on the planet, the obstacles I have faced are miniscule. And I’m uneasy about the idea of ‘overcoming’ them as I find myself looping around the same issues again and again, unlearning them as fast as I learn, making new pacts to do better, to take more care, to love more generously.

“Whatever you are meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible,” is a quote from novelist Doris Lessing that I live by.

I am proud to be related to creative people. Those who plant gardens or work in ceramics, who make art and films and music, who design posters and publish books, who return to education in their thirties, forties, fifties. Those who model a way of living that is full of struggle and not all about money, but one that continually suggests the possibility of a future.

Breakdown follows Sweeney’s 2020 release of short stories, Modern Times

I am currently delivering a creative writing workshop to undergraduate students and a course on the short story to adult learners. At its best, teaching is an exchange of energy and therefore I am happy to have it in my life.

My passion for language finds expression in a classroom in a way that is very uncomplicated, which is different to writing, but complements it.

I am writing a novel called The Villa based on a short period in the life of Oscar Wilde. It is a daring project but I heard someone say in an interview – I forget who – that each book you write gives you permission to write the next one, and that rings true for me.

Breakdown by Cathy Sweeney is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson and is available in all bookstores now