Walk the Line with Jacqueline O’Mahony: ‘In another life I’d like to have been a wrangler, but in this life I’m a writer, and that’s that’
On the back of Jacqueline O’Mahony’s second book release ‘Sing, Wild Bird, Sing’, the author talks refining her focus, literary inspiration, and writing being an arduous labour of love
I wrote my first book when I was about eleven, and on the back of that I started doing book reviews for what was then the Cork Examiner. Then I started to win writing prizes. It went from there. I studied Arts at University College Cork, because I wanted to be a writer; I was a journalist for years when what I really wanted to do was write books.
During my time as an editor and stylist at British Vogue, I learned that not all forms of writing are equal; writing about a lipstick is essentially writing in a different language to the language you need to write a book. I was fundamentally unsuited to the work I did at Vogue. I was distracted by the company there, the clothes, the parties, when really I needed to be in a room on my own, writing.
I thought of the title for Sing, Wild Bird, Sing before I knew what the book was going to be about. I had a feeling of what I wanted to write: it had a colour to it. Then I heard the tragedy of Doolough, Co Mayo, in March 1849. Approximately 600 starving people journeyed through terrible weather to seek help from their English landlord, but were turned away, with many dying by the banks of Doolough Lake as they walked home. The tragedy is commemorated by a Famine Walk between Louisburg and Doolough, which I recently undertook. The book grew from there.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to write. I think I was born a writer, in the way that you are born a painter, or a long-distance runner, or a singer. It was always something that I could do. Very early on I realised that when I wrote I was unlocking a fundamental part of myself. When I wrote, it felt like a cathedral of space was opening up inside of me. It still feels like that.
Music inspires me, and film: I’m more inspired by other artists’ interpretation of experiences than my own first-hand encounters with life. I’ve always felt slightly at a remove from what’s happening, like I’m unconsciously recording my existence for the retelling, the reshaping of it. That said, I find being in the American West inspiring.
I was my own biggest obstacle: I was undisciplined (read lazy and distracted) until I started my Masters in Creative Writing at City University of London. I was lucky enough to have a wonderful teacher there, Jonathan Myerson, who made me submit a certain number of words each week and really helped me to see and understand what I was trying to do. And motherhood has been an obstacle, because it’s a time and energy consuming business. But really, throughout all the years I spent not writing, the problem was me.
Amongst my favourite authors are Rachel Cusk, Larry McMurty, Claire Keegan, Ann Patchett, Susanna Moore, Annie Ernaux, James Joyce, Colm Tóibín, and John McGahern.
That They May Face The Rising Sun is a book I always return to. I love the rhythm of John McGahern’s language, how the book reads like a poem, and I love his descriptions of the land. And Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurty, is a masterpiece. I read a section of that book – any section – before I start writing. It helps me reach a certain register.
For a long time I wanted to have ‘per ardua ad astra’ (‘through adversity to the stars’) tattooed somewhere on me: I had a star tattooed on my hip instead and then lost half of it during an emergency surgery. I don’t know what that portends. In any case, now I’m happy to have the words run through my mind when I sit down to write. Writing is hard work, for me, almost a physical labour like building a stone wall. It costs me a lot. But through difficulty we reach the stars, I tell myself, and so I keep on going on.
I’m kind of a stranger to pride. When I’ve achieved something in the past, I’ve mostly felt relief. Pride seems like a one-dimensional, fairly childish emotion to me.
‘Just do the work’ is the best piece of advice I have received in life. Jonathan Myerson told me that: stop complaining, stop overthinking things, just do the work.
If I wasn’t a writer I’d be a wholly different person, not me at all, so it’s a hypothetical to think of what I would be doing. In another life I’d like to have been a wrangler, a rancher, a rider, but in this life I’m a writer, and that’s that.
I’m looking forward to travelling to Montana this summer, and I’m getting older, and getting worried about my output, and determined to write my next book more quickly than my last two. I’m very aware these days of what the poet Andrew Marvell meant by ‘but at my back I always hear time’s winged chariot hurrying near’. The first time I heard that line it was from a boy who was trying to seduce me (it worked). Now it has an entirely different meaning for me.
Sing, Wild Bird, Sing by Jacqueline O’Mahony is published by Lake Union and is out now