Unquiet Giant – interview with Emma Langford


Limerick based singer-songwriter, Emma Langford is sweeping through the Irish music scene. With almost non-stop touring, she is one of the most uplifting artists gracing our stages right now. We spoke to Emma about her musical background, the pressures and joys of touring, anxiety and inspiration.

How did you get into music initially? Did you take music classes? 

No, I had none of the discipline to do music outside of school. My parents tried to put me into violin lessons when I was very young and I have really distinct memories of being put at the back of the group at the Christmas performance and being just told to mime! I had no discipline at all as a child. I was always going to be an artist, I was going to draw. I grew up with that as my ambition, with my parents both as artists. I was drawing all of the time in school. I only started into music in a serious way in my teens. I started song writing and a sort of vague attempt at playing guitar. But I still didn’t start pursuing lessons seriously until about three years ago. 

So you were mostly self-taught? 

Yes, I was, entirely. I actually developed vocal nodules when I was twelve because of poor technique, singing. 

I was singing all of the time, I was like a Disney princess, you couldn’t stop me! But I had really poor technique and I was a teenager and I thought I was doing everything right! But because of that I had to quit singing for about two years. 

I wasn’t allowed to sing around the house, around my friends. In my teens I started going to vocal therapy, just to bring back my speaking voice. It was around then that I started to consider the idea of singing as a career. 

Your sound is incredibly unique, you have a wonderful blend of influences and genres – was that a conscious decision? 

I grew up listening to The Beatles, the house was full of a lot of different sounds. So I was never drawn to anything in particular. 

I just filtered elements of different sounds that were around me at the time. I think being a singer songwriter, you have the freedom to do that, which is great. 

With your album, The Quiet Giant, what was the process that went into creating that? 

The Quiet Giant is kind of a culmination of the work of five or six years. When I started working on it, I hadn’t been expecting to be producing an album! I had been writing for years and I had produced an EP in 2016, which was a crowdfunded project. And then 2017 rolled around and I was offered a tour in Germany but it was contingent on my producing an album and a music video. So I had about six months to do that. So the songs that are on the album span from when I started writing to the year I produced the album. The backing and the arrangements all kept them on the same page in terms of tone, but A Quiet Giant is actually one of the first songs I ever wrote, so it’s kind of nostalgic for me. 


It was nice to allow the album to celebrate that process of just starting songwriting to being a songwriter. 

You’re currently touring at the moment? 

Yes! Sometimes it feels like it never stops! I am touring in Germany and Switzerland in July and in August I’m touring for a week in Denmark! In October I’m hoping to take a break for a little while, hopefully work on some new music, learn some new instruments and go to songwriting seminars hopefully! At the moment I’m really enjoying touring, it’s really good fun, but you do need a break from it sometimes, I’ve learned. 

It must be a lot of pressure constantly going from place to place? 

It can be, but I’m really lucky, I’m living with my parents in Limerick, that’s where I’m based, so I’ve got a really nice place to come back to, to reset and de-compress. But at the same time, when you’re touring so consistently, you are always on and just keeping your energy up all of the time both for the gigs and for promoting them can be draining. It’s probably more mentally draining than physically draining. When your brain is always ‘on’ that takes a lot out of you. 

It was nice to allow the album to celebrate that process of just starting songwriting to being a songwriter. 

I suppose the upside is getting to perform in front of different crowds and getting to meet all kinds of people at your shows? 

You never know who’s going to be in the audience, and you never know what opportunities are going to occur as a result of a particular gig. You might do a gig that you don’t think went great, but someone will be in the audience and they will have heard something that they really like and they might invite you to go somewhere else. Those kind of knock-on opportunities are great. For the last few months I’ve been touring with Sara Ryan (who was also featured in Cinders) the two of us have been hanging out and learning from each other and learning from each other’s sounds. There is so much opportunity for growth and learning when you’re working with another musician. I think I’ve learned a lot from Sara about kindness and patience and giving of yourself which is great. With touring itself its really special to be able to share your songs and your stories with totally new people. That’s really special.

What would you say your process is when you’re writing a new song? 

Most often I don’t really know that I’m dealing with something until I write a song about it. Like a good Irish person I have a tendency to push all of my worries and concerns into a little ball and not deal with it. I just let them condense until it becomes unbearable.

Most often I don’t really know that I’m dealing with something until I write a song about it.

 Until it becomes a song. in terms of a writing process, it’s different every time, depending on what I’m working on. I could wake up in the morning with a melody in my head that I dreamt up and then I start working on that. I could be walking down the street, and see a person stopped at a traffic light and that becomes a melody. The nice thing about song writing is that you get to channel the world around you and show people life through your eyes. Once you’re telling your personal story in a way that only you can do, it’s very important. 

With that in mind, songs of yours like Tug O’ War are very powerful with its message of anxiety and how that can affect you? 

Most of my songs take a bit of time to write, but when I wrote Tug o’ War, it just poured out of me. It had all really compounded, that anxiety, that stress and that panic. I had allowed it to build up that when it came to writing the song, it just flowed out. A lot of the time when you’re songwriting you have a tendency to second guess every word, every sentence, but sometimes you have to just let it happen and the most obvious way of saying something, can be the best way of saying it. You’re just saying exactly how you feel about something and I think that’s what made Tug o’ War such a relatable song for lots of people. The last thing that someone with anxiety needs is a song they have to deconstruct to understand. I just wanted to get the message out there, that I was feeling this and a lot of people feel this and that people aren’t alone with it. 

There’s a lovely gospel flavour to Tug o’ War, was that intentional when you were writing it? 

It was a combination of things really. One of my tutors in college was Kathleen Turner, who is a gorgeous songwriter, and she is incredible. She would have thought me Gospel in college (I did the BA in Voice and Dance in UL) and we had the opportunity to take gospel lessons, which was really cool. She always has been a real role model for me in music and she writes a lot of gospel music. On top of that I had just been supporting Ben Caplan who is a  brilliant Canadian musician and he also has a very gospel flavour to his music. So between listening to the two of them I think it really evoked something in me that I wanted to communicate. I felt that that gospel vibe was the best way to express what I was feeling and that it would be ‘healing’ for the listener. I feel like gospel music as a really healing element to it. It just seemed like the perfect genre to tell that story through. 

And alternatively some of your other songs have a strong trad influence, like Closed Book? 

That was totally accidental in a way! I didn’t grow up with trad at all, although I love it. I didn’t grow up with it so it didn’t have too much of an influence on my writing but somehow it sort of permeated through! Maybe it’s in my bones or something!

Shane Horan_Emma Langford6

 I adore the sounds and I’ve let it take over a lot of my songs, and the next album is actually headed even further in that direction. It’s really nice to be able to represent in the Irish tradition in some way when I travel with my music! 

What is the best advice you’ve gotten in your career as a musician?

Well one, it’s a little clichéd and cheesy but my mum always says that old quote, ‘To thine own self be true’. In any moment of doubt in secondary school, I’d come home mimicking something that someone else said, and my Mum would always say, ‘that’s not you, to thine own self be true. To hold on to that sense of yourself, and that’s found its way into my music as well. That’s really helped. And I don’t remember where I heard it, but just make work happen. Just do it. Whether it’s successful, or whether you’re going to continue with it, just write the song, learn the scales. Come up with guitar riffs, just keep working, keep constantly creating and eventually something will come of it. I think most musicians will tell each other that. Just keep creating work. That’s always been very good advice that I often for get to follow for myself but will always give to someone else, you know the way!

Daydream Believer – Interview with Dayeanne Hutton



For webseries and gaming fans Dayeanne Hutton‘s voice is no stranger to them. From starring in the Emmy award winning Emma Approved to voicing Kate in Life is Strange Dayeanne is a bright ray of sunshine in the web content world. We were lucky enough to chat with Dayeanne about voice acting, webseries and the wonder that is Harriet Smith. 

1. What is your first memory of acting? 

I’ve been surrounded by theatre for as long as I can remember due to both my parents’ involvement/enjoyment of it! My first memory of being in a show is from Kindergarten. I was about 5 and my school did Wizard of Oz. I played a Jitterbug as well as a member of the Lullaby League! My mom choreographed both pieces.

2. When did you know that acting was something that you wanted to pursue?

I’ve always enjoyed books and fantasies and the idea of playing around in a life that is different than mine. I began to take acting more seriously around age 12 or 13. I had to choose between acting classes and soccer (which I’d been doing poorly for years). I chose acting and began expanding from just theatre to also submitting for film projects! There was never a moment I even considered not having acting in my life somehow.

3. What was the experience of Emma Approved like for you? Were you familiar with the novel beforehand?

Emma Approved was an incredible and joyous experience! We all worked together for a whole year, and the cast and crew are all phenomenal people. I was also thrilled to be bringing a Jane Austen character to life. Pride and Prejudice has been a favorite book of mine since school. I read all of Emma before my audition so that I would have a good grasp of the original piece!

I continue to do my best to create a safe and positive space on the internet during my own Twitch streams.  

4. Did you enjoy translating Harriet’s story into a fresh medium? 

Absolutely!! I’m so honored to be among the handful of actresses that have brought Harriet Smith to life. And I really connected on a special level with her. There is definitely a piece of her in me all the time, and I brought real aspects of myself to my portrayal as well.

5. We assume you can’t tell us anything about the current hints of a revival, however can you tell us if you’re excited by the activity happening on Twitter and the moments App? 

Ah yes, spoilers… I’m quite excited over the characters renewed social media activities!

6. Since Emma Approved you’ve moved into voice acting – how was the experience different from traditional acting? What are the aspects that you enjoy? 

Voiceover is so much fun, but a very different experience. You’re not being filmed, so you don’t need to focus on how you look, or where the camera is. You just have to connect with the characters and feel what they’re feeling; so you can breath life into them. It’s so much fun providing different voices to animated characters. I’m a big nerd, so being in a video game is a dream, I can’t wait to do more!

7. What are the challenges you face when voice acting, particularly voice acting for a game? 

Sometimes roles can be very vocally demanding, however my experience with Life is Strange didn’t involve much screaming or yelling.

8. What was the best part of voicing Kate Marsh in Life is Strange?

The best part is being a part of the beautiful Life is Strange community. The fans are amazing; supportive and kind, they really love this game and appreciate the actors involved. Kate’s storyline in particular has helped many people come to terms/deal with their own depression and struggles. I’m honored to be even a small part of that. I continue to do my best to create a safe and positive space on the internet during my own Twitch streams.

9. Can you tell us about any upcoming projects that you have? 

I’m currently focused on the growth of my Twitch channel and some Approved secrets!



Coping with the future – an interview with Stefanie Preissner

Stefanie Preissner is not a new name to the Irish writing scene, but is one that’s getting called all the more frequently. Through her work in theatre, her critcally acclaimed series, Can’t Cope Won’t Cope and her new book, Stefanie Preissner has gone from ‘one to watch’ to someone we’re all watching closely. We sat down with Stefanie to discuss writing, advice and the new season of Can’t Cope Won’t Cope. 

1. Can you remember the first time you thought ‘I want to be a writer’? 

No. I don’t think I have, even to this day, thought that sentence. I still feel like ‘writers’ are very serious, intellectual people and I’m just here in a café on my laptop. I wanted to be the first female Garda Commissioner, then I wanted to act, and now… while I still see myself as a performer I feel like I have too much to say to speak someone else’s words. The world is chaotic and the only way I can process it is to write. I’m just fortunate that I get the luxury of being able to combine what feels like a contribution to society and my passion.

2. Did you feel more pressure approaching season two of Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope, given it’s success in Season One? If so, how did you combat this? 

Of course. I think that Season One hit a nerve and while it was good, I think it was received as ‘great’ because people hadn’t seen young Irish women represented on screen in that way. In season one, I was free to sort of write whatever I wanted but in Season Two I had to respond to the reaction to Season One. I think it’s inelegant and a sign of hubris to rebut every single criticism of your work, so I take criticism seriously. I don’t always react but I always consider it. And I had issues with Season One too. So I looked at what worked, and looked at how Ireland of 2018 is markedly different to that of 2015 and I went into the scripts with the intention of writing a show that was relevant and provocative.

3. Who do you identify with more, Aisling or Danielle? 

I identify strongly with different parts of each of them. I identify with Aisling’s impulsiveness and her impatience. I identify with Danielle’s wishes to be a good friend, to be a good student, to put other people’s plans and needs ahead of her own.

4. What advice would you give them if you could speak to them?

I wouldn’t bother trying to give advice to Aisling, I’d be wasting my breath. I’d probably encourage Danielle to be a bit gentler on herself which would inevitably make her see the world and other people with more sympathetic eyes.

The world is chaotic and the only way I can process it is to write. I’m just fortunate that I get the luxury of being able to combine what feels like a contribution to society and my passion.

5. What was it like unveiling your innermost thoughts in ‘Why Can’t everything just Stay the Same?’

It was a beautiful luxury. Writing for TV, the scripts have to be so lean and the writing so sparse. It was a luxury, and –  let’s be clear – an exercise in indulgence. I have always been paralytically indecisive. I ask my friends to confirm my opinions and to guide my tastes so it felt strange to commit opinions, feelings and thoughts to print but that’s why I have the caveat in there that I reserve the right to change my mind. And in one of the chapters “GENDERALISATIONS” I actually change my opinion half way through the chapter but I didn’t delete the first half because I think it’s crucial, if society is to progress in a meaningful, functional and empathetic way, that people are not held to things they have said in the past and they are allowed to change their views and grow if they choose.


6. Do you find you have to get into a different mindset when writing fictional series like Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope versus writing about your own experiences, like you did for your book? 

Not really. They both come out of my head, my experiences and my imagination. Its more fun being able to construct a false narrative but it’s important in this day and age that we have books and art and theatre that use extreme truth. There’s too much fake news and lies out there. You don’t have to look further than Instagram filters to see it.

Its more fun being able to construct a false narrative but it’s important in this day and age that we have books and art and theatre that use extreme truth. There’s too much fake news and lies out there. You don’t have to look further than Instagram filters to see it.

7.You’ve spoken frequently about mental health and bullying, do you think creative outlets like writing have helped you deal with these experiences?

I mean, they help as much as a nice hot bath helps. But I think it undermines the experience of being bullied or depressed to think that creative outlets can solve the problem. It helps of course, to talk and process but the psychological weight of those things shouldn’t be undermined or underestimated.

8. What’s the best piece of advice you were ever given? 

What other people think of you is none of your business.

 9. What would you like to be working on next?

I have loads lined up for 2018 so I’m going to be working hard on taking breaks. I love my work. But I love not working too.

What other people think of you is none of your business.

 Why Can’t Everything just Stay the Same is available in a bookshop near you now.

Re-writing the story – an interview with Theodora Goss

Theodora Goss is  an author, poet, and fairytale professor. Cinders editor, Méabh McDonnell spoke to Theodora about heroines, fables and the adventures of her 19th century feminist series, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter.

1. Can you remember when you realised you wanted to be a writer’?

No! I must have been very young, though. Some writers always knew they wanted to be writers, and some come to it much later. I was one of the former–I always knew. I still have a folder full of poems I wrote in high school, and my very first publication was in the high school literary magazine. It was a poem on Icarus. I kept writing through college, but my family wanted me to have a practical profession, so I went to law school. After a few years of being a lawyer, I realized it would never give me enough time to write–so I went back to graduate school and got a PhD in English literature. Now I teach both creative writing and composition at the university level. It’s still a lot of work, but I have enough time to be a writer!

2. As a fairytale professor, can you give us any insight into why fairytales remain so popular and why they still are a natural part of our cultural language?

I think it’s partly because they’re about the most important things in our lives. Most fairy tales were originally told rather than written down–they were originally oral tales. Why do people tell tales? Because they are important not just to one person, but to entire communities of people. So fairy tales are about thing that are important to many of us: hunger, jealousy, revenge, justice, love. They are about the relationships within families, about marriage, about journeys into the dark forest.They are about very real, concrete things like bread, apples, shoes, as well as things that can be read metaphorically, like throwing frogs against walls. When you get into literary fairy tales, such as those of Hans Christian Andersen, they become more sophisticated–they can be about the soul, or the relationship between the artist and society. But the old oral tales collected by the Brothers Grimm and other folklorists were about our most basic needs and emotions.

3. Your blog series on the fairytale heroine’s journey struck a chord with a lot of people – what was it about the journey that inspired you?

I was surprised when I first noticed the pattern! I thought of stories like “Snow White,” “Cinderella,” and “Sleeping Beauty” as very different. And yet, when I started looking at them closely, I realized that they shared a series of common events. For example, in all of them, the heroines receive gifts, face trials, and undergo a real or metaphorical death. It was interesting to study and then try to describe an underlying pattern of twelve stages. What inspired me to explore and write about this journey was the way in which I could see these stages in my own life and the lives of my female friends. My hypothesis is that these fairy tales reflect real events in women’s lives at the time they were told and written down–they are symbolic representations of an underlying reality. And women’s lives often still follow the same pattern, although in more modern ways. But there are also fairy tales that provide alternate patterns–they’re just not as popular in modern culture. They haven’t been made into Disney films!


4. For readers who want to read about fairytale heroines they may not have heard of can you give us your best recommendations? 

I’ll give you three of my favorites! The first one is Vasilisa, in the Russian fairy tale “Vasilisa the Fair.” She has to confront the fearsome Baba Yaga, who lives in a house on chicken legs. Luckily, she has the help of a magical doll left to her by her dead mother. The doll helps her in Baba Yaga’s hut, but in the end it’s Vasilisa’s ability to weave and sew the finest linen shirts that wins her the hand of the Tsar. The second is the heroine of a beautiful Norwegian tale called “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” She marries a white bear who comes to her at night in the form of a man, but when she tries to see his face and accidentally wakes him up, he tells her that he was under a spell, and if she had just waited a little longer, she would have broken it. Now he must go marry a troll who lives east of the sun and west of the moon. He disappears, leaving her alone–but rather than falling into despair, she sets out to find her husband and goes on a long journey to win him back. The third might not be considered a heroine by most people, but I would argue that she is one–the cat princess in Madame d’Aulnoy’s “The White Cat.” She helps the king’s youngest son bring home the finest linen, then the smallest dog, and then the most beautiful bride (herself, in her human form), so she is a sort of magical helper–but if you read the fairy tale closely, you’ll notice that she has her own story, in which she was turned into a white cat. She gives the king’s son what he needs in part so he can disenchant her and she can resume her human form. Each of these heroines works for her happy ending. I suppose that’s why I admire them so much!

5. Your fantasy stories take place in beautiful worlds that are full of possibility and myth- do you use any aspects of the real world to create these? 

Thank you! And yes, absolutely. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien said that “Faërie,” which was his word for the world of fantasy and fairy tale, “contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted.” I think all the fairy lands we can imagine rest on a solid foundation of the real. That gives them what Tolkien called “the inner consistency of reality.” In order to make you believe in an enchanted castle, I must show you the grayish stones of which it’s made, and the ivy growing up its walls to the arched windows. Fantasy is built out of reality, and in order to write it well, I have to experience reality in as much depth and detail as a writer of entirely realistic novels. But I will say that I see the possibility and myth in the real–I’m bringing it out, rather than spreading it on top, like butter. If you look at an average tree, for example, you will realize that it is an entirely magical creature, not average at all.

I started noticing that there were an awful lot of female monsters in nineteenth-century literature, and they all died! Well, I had to do something about that. So I wrote my own story.

6. The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is such an enjoyable- and unusual – story; can you remember the first idea you had that led to the novel?

It wasn’t an idea yet, but a particular passage–the one in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein where Victor Frankenstein, who has started to create a female monster, takes her apart again and throws her body parts into the sea. I thought, Hey, wait a minute! It was so unfair . . . He’s afraid that she and his male monster will mate, to produce offspring that may outcompete mankind. So he doesn’t even create her. And then I started noticing that there were an awful lot of female monsters in nineteenth-century literature, and they all died! Well, I had to do something about that. So I wrote my own story.

7. You took some very well known characters and re-cast them in your story, was it difficult to re-imagine them in your own way?

Not really! I think that was because they get so little say in their original narratives. Frankenstein’s female monster isn’t even created. Dr. Moreau’s Puma Woman does not say anything–she just kills him and is killed in turn. Beatrice Rappaccini does get some lines of her own, but her story is told entirely from the perspective of her lover, Giovanni. It’s not primarily her narrative. And I made up Mary Jekyll and Diana Hyde. I really just asked myself, knowing what we know from the original narratives, what would these characters be like? What would Catherine be like, as a Puma Woman created on Moreau’s island?

8. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the book is how realistically it portrays 19th century life – did you have a very rigorous research process? 

Yes and no. It wasn’t rigorous in the sense that I knew exactly what I needed to research, and then I went out and researched exactly those things. But I did go to London several times, specifically to walk the streets where my characters walked so I could figure out where the action of the novel would take place, how long it would take to get from one place to another . . . I went to Regent’s Park, the Royal College of Surgeons, even the Sherlock Holmes Museum because I wanted to see how large the average parlor would have been in one of the houses on Baker Street. More than anything else, I wanted to get a sense of where my novel would take place. I have a PhD in nineteenth-century British literature, so there were a lot of things I knew about the nineteenth century, but that wasn’t enough to write a novel with. I needed to see things, hear things, smell things, so I could describe them for my reader. I looked at a lot of photographs from that time period, and while I was drafting, I read only late nineteenth-century prose. The research process continued throughout the time I was writing the book. Sometimes, to write a sentence, I had to crawl around on my office floor, comparing a contemporary map of London with one from the nineteenth century, to make sure I knew where my characters were going . . .

I wanted to write about the women, and not just the monstrous ones. I wanted to make sure that a housekeeper like Mrs. Poole also had a voice. Honestly, if it were not for Mrs. Poole, I have no idea how the Athena Club would sustain itself.

9. The five members of the Athena Club are a refreshingly feminist crime fighting team – was this a response to the lack of women in 19th century science fiction and horror literature? 

Yes, absolutely! And when there are women, they tend to be killed off, as in Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla or Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan. The rare exception is Mina Murray in Dracula: she survives, but only because she does not become a vampire. Most of the nineteenth-century narratives I read for my dissertation were focused on the lives of male protagonists. I wanted to change that. I wanted to write about the women, and not just the monstrous ones. I wanted to make sure that a housekeeper like Mrs. Poole also had a voice. Honestly, if it were not for Mrs. Poole, I have no idea how the Athena Club would sustain itself. She is absolutely central.

10. Which of the girls would you say you are the most like? 

Mary, I’m afraid. All of the girls have something of me in them, because when you write, you’re always drawing out of yourself. But I’m most like practical Mary, who can be annoying sometimes–she could use some of Catherine’s imagination, Beatrice’s artistic sense, Justine’s sense of justice, and even Diana’s impulsiveness. But of course, if any of them were perfect characters, they would not be interesting–they all have their flaws. Mary has many of mine.


11. Can you tell us anything about what adventures the Athena Club will get up to next?

In the second book, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, Mary, Diana, Beatrice, Catherine, and Justine must rescue Lucinda Van Helsing from the evil machinations of her father, Professor Van Helsing. Summoned by Mary’s former governess Mina Murray, they travel to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where they meet new friends, confront even more dangerous enemies, and eventually face the fearsome Alchemical Society! Also, Mary learns to like coffee and Diana eats a lot of cake . . .

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is available in bookshops near you!

Rocking the World – An Interview with Siobhán Parkinson

First published in Cinders Volume Two, Issue Two

Women of Irish history don’t usually get a large amount of pages in school history books. Rocking the System is a book that wants to change that. Written by Siobhán Parkinson, Rocking the System from Little Island Books, opens a window into the histories of 20 Irish trailblazers. Méabh McDonnell spoke to Siobhán about the empowering figures that made up the book. 

When we look back on 2017 and 2018, I don’t know everything we’ll remember about the year, but I know that it will stick out in my mind as a year of revolution. Of women making noise, standing up for one another and calling for an end to unjust systems. One hundred years after some -but not all- of us were granted the right to vote, it seems right that the revolution should carry on in a new way, in a different way. We have shouted, screamed and made new noise.

And we are not done. Part of that revolutionary spirit has boiled over into many different areas including publishing, both for children and young adults. We’ve seen this through the upsurge of stories about rebellious women throughout history. We are telling women’s stories of the past and they are affecting us today, inspiring us to reach higher and keep on telling our own stories to the world.

Siobhán Parkinson and Grainne Clear of Little Island Books were inspired by this idea and wanted to create a book, highlighting some of the trailblazing women of Irish history. “We went to the book fair in Bologna and we saw that lots of different countries were doing this and we thought, ‘wounldn’t it be great to do this for Ireland?’ because we have some amazing women in Ireland and many of them wouldn’t be known outside of Ireland’. We also were thinking about the centenary of votes for women coming up and we wanted to do something for that,” said Siobhán.


Putting together a who’s who of significant Irish women was always going to be a challenge, how to narrow down what is a long list of remarkable people. This was something that Siobhán and the team who were researching the women had to face early on, “Some of them were activists, some of them were actively involved in the votes for women campaign, particularly Hanna Sheehy Skeffington and then of course, Countess Markievicz who actually stood for election in that first election where women were allowed to vote,  won a seat in Westminster, (which she didn’t take) and then went on to be Minister for Labour in the Dáil.

“So you couldn’t leave those people out, first because they were important to the suffrage movement along with being very big names.”

There is no doubt that female activists have changed the political landscape in Ireland in the last 100 years, but the wonderful thing about Rocking the System, is that it’s a book that reflects all the wonderful roles women have contributed to Ireland. This is something Siobhan is particularly proud of.

I think these women had to fight to become their own woman, to overcome all of the pressures and prohibitions that were on women.

“But we didn’t want it to be just political activists, so we also wanted to feature people who had made a difference, made history, people who had changed the landscape. They could be people like Eileen Gray, who was a wonderful designer. After her, design changed. She was inventing wonderful things, she was a woman who changed the way things were done. We wanted people who had done things that had mattered whether it was in the political sphere, the social sphere or in the artistic sphere,”she said.

“Every single one of these women, whether they would think of themselves as feminists or not, they were all their own woman. That’s the message that I want to give. When young girls read this book, I want them to think, ‘They’re their own woman, I want to be my own woman.’

“It doesn’t matter what your area is, you can be your own person, and make your mark. Now, today it’s true girls do have many more opportunities to become their own women, there are much more subtle and hidden pressures on women now than there were. I think these women had to fight to become their own woman, to overcome all of the pressures and prohibitions that were on women, in spite of these obstacles they were able to become their own person. They couldn’t vote, they couldn’t go to university. If you go back as far as Anna Parnell, she came from a very privileged, upperclass background, but she was out fighting for tenant farmers rights like her brother Charles, but she had much more constraints on her than he had. It was much more difficult for her to do what she did. Yet she achieved so much and afterwards she was sidelined. Most people haven’t even heard of Anna Parnell,” Siobhán pointed out.

Women of history have had incredible lives in order to overcome this terrible misogyny. In researching their lives new details come to light that make these ideas even more incredible. That’s the great joy of historical research. Siobhán learned this with Anne Devlin.

“The one that surprised me the most was Anne Devlin. This woman was always  associated with Robert Emmet and the Rising. She was ‘his housekeeper’. That was all we knew about her. But  when you read the story of Anne Devlin, she was a poor woman who came from a humble background. She was tortured because of her association with Emmet, she was half-hanged, and she was sent to jail along with her whole family. Her youngest brother who was only seven was arrested and sent to jail. He died as a result of his stay in jail. So that, to me was an absolute revelation. She was known because of a recent film made about her but she passed me by. But when the research was done and I looked into her she was a complete revelation to me.”

She might seem unusual feminist, a woman who wrote a love poem, but when you read into who she was and what she did you see that she was unconventional, but by god was she her own woman!

“Dervla Murphy who is a travel writer was another unusual inclusion. You don’t usually think of a travel writer as being an amazing feminist achievement but actually, she was such a brave, fearless, woman. In fact I think it may have been from Dervla that we got the word fearless for the title! I mean, going off to India on her bicycle at the age of thirty five, was just amazing. She, to me, is a woman who is her own woman.”

“She just went off and did her own thing, and that’s so admirable. I remember my mother reading her books and it stuck in my head. So when it came time to choose some of the women to include, I said, why not pick Dervla Murphy? Someone who flew in the face of convention.”

Rocking the System shines a light on women from a multitude of different backgrounds, with an incredible breath of stories that inspire them. Some of these are less well known, such as Dervla Murphy, and others are downright dramatic, such as Eibhlin Dubh Ní Chonnaill, who wrote  Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire, a famous love poem. After being widowed, she fell in love with Art Ó Laoghaire and married him for love.

This wasn’t something her family approved of, but she did it anyway. A few years later Art Ó Laoghaire was killed and she rode off to find his dead body. “Apparently, she was so grief stricken that she knelt down and sucked his blood!” said Siobhán. “It would have been as a kind of ritual to give her strength maybe. But she then wrote this wonderful love poem about him. It’s just so brilliant and moving and romantic, I feel like she was an important figure in the book.”

A happy fact is that young women in Ireland are themselves trailblazing new exciting opportunities and building their own unique paths to success. One of the challenges involved in putting together Rocking the System was deciding whether to include younger Irish women or not.


“A lot of the women that  we have been focusing on are from the 20th century, we have about five women before the 20th century, which touches on different points in Irish history. We made the decision to stop at the 20th century. There are some younger women who we would love to have put in as well, from Saoirse Ronan to Joanne O’Riordan, who are incredible young women. But we made the decision that we wanted to be able to include someone’s whole career, from childhood to adulthood through to retirement. That’s a story in itself. The youngest person in it is Sonia O’Sullivan, who is not old by any means! But she has finished her running career. It was a hard decision to take.”

The democratic process is hard won, and that’s important to remember, it’s only when you realise how hard won it is, you realise how precious it is.

In recognising these women who fearlessly changed history, we can take stock of just how far we’ve come as women in Ireland. 100 years on from the first Irish women to get the vote, I asked Siobhán what that landmark date and legacy meant to her, “Well, it was really only the beginning because it wasn’t universal suffrage by any means but what it means is women got the vote as a result of enormous pressure from women and women who sacrificed themselves, women like Hanna Sheehy Skeffington who was in and out of jail and on hunger strikes and Countess Markievicz as well. They really did put their  lives on the line and they put their health on the line and they really had to agitate the system. It shows the vote for women was won at a cost, it was really fought for and we have to remember that, how hard won it was. The democratic process is hard won, and that’s important to remember it’s only when you realise how hard won it is, you realise how precious it is,” said Siobhán. She continued, “Women and girls should regard their vote as a precious thing. Every time I vote I feel like I’m exercising an important right. For me it is a very precious thing, the vote.”

We’re sure the women of Rocking the System would agree.

Illustration by Bren Luke

Diamond in the Rough – An interview with Aine Cahill

Rising star of the Irish music industry Áine Cahill is about to hit it big. Her new single, Blood Diamonds, is blowing up the airwaves and her tour has seen her perform with the likes of Kodaline and  JP Cooper. Having been named on multiple ‘ones to watch’ and ‘best newcomer’ lists, Aine Cahill is definitely someone to keep two eyes on in 2018. Méabh McDonnell spoke to her about her music, writing, and hopes for the future

There aren’t many people who would go up on stage and declare ‘I’m the biggest bitch in the world’ but Áine Cahill is not your average person. Of course she’s telling the story of the  girl in her single, ‘Blood Diamonds’ when she says it, but still, it takes guts.

Originally from Cavan, Áine wasn’t someone who considered music as a profession when she was young. ‘When I was younger I was really into sport, I was like a tomboy, and then when I was about 15 or 16, I was sitting in the kitchen, just listening to music and it was a performance that Lady Gaga did on the radio. She was just accompanied by piano, and I listened to it and said, “ I want to play the piano,” and then it just went on from there. I just started to focus on music, when I was 18 I started writing songs, and that was where I began.’

Having never gone for music lessons, you might have thought music was something daunting for Áine but she just jumped right in. ‘I didn’t even study music in school, it’s weird, I just found it, or it found me, I suppose you could say.’

‘I taught myself how to play piano from YouTube and singing, well that just came out of no where, I suppose it came from doing covers of my favorite songs. All of the Lady Gaga songs, I used to cover them, and sing them everywhere, that’s kind of where I learned to sing.’

From humble beginnings, Áine pursued music and kept going when she figured out this was her dream, ‘At the beginning when I first started I was really nervous, really nervous, but I just had to get out there and do it.  It comes with the territory, I suppose, you have to get out there and do it, if you want to perform.’

I didn’t even study music in school, it’s weird, I just found it, or it found me, I suppose you could say.

The last two years have seen all of that hard work pay off with Áne catapulting into the Irish and UK music scene, even getting BBC coverage at Glastonbury. ‘It’s crazy, I suppose the big turning point was when I played Glastonbury, that was a shift in my whole career. It just put me in front of a lot of people. To be honest I had no idea it would be like that when it was happening. Because you do so many things and get nothing from it, but this really blew up, it was crazy. We were just doing a normal set in a small tent at Glastonbury and the BBC just kind of stumbled across the tent and asked us to do Black Dahlia.’

Having done big name festivals such as Glastonbury and Electric Picnic and huge stadiums like the 3 Arena, Áine has experienced a multitude of venues, we wondered if she had a favorite among them? ‘I don’t know, because every gig is different. If I had to choose, I think I’d say the 3 Arena, because it’s so big and you get to perform to so many people, but then you have places like The Grand Social and that was where I played my first sold-out headline show, to 200 and that’s so intimate that you get to really connect with everyone. So it’s two different types of gigs really. I love all of them.’

Áine’s gigs are full of striking, powerful atmosphere, which is reflected in the quality of her music. Áine takes her inspiration from other female artists who use storytelling in their atmospheric lyriccs, ‘My biggest inspiration are Lady Gaga, Lana de Rey and Marina and the Diamonds, I think if I ever stumbled across team in real life I’d die!’

This inspiration is clear in Áine’s music which tells her own unique stories. . She tells the stories of unusual women. From Black Dahlia, which tells the story of a Hollywood murder in the 50s to Blood Diamonds, where she assumes the personality of a cold-hearted woman, ‘the biggest bitch in the world’. The lyrics stick in your mind. ‘When I first started writing all of my songs were like that [story based]. When I started developing my songwriting on my own I just realized that all of my songs were built around the story. Storytelling is a big part of my writing. I want people to listen to it and be able to picture themselves in the situation. To see it in their heads.’

Blood Diamonds is full of meaty lyrics, with powerful images. Áine talked about the inspiration behind this song, ‘Blood Diamonds is about just that, blood diamonds, that people are in Africa, risking their lives to get these diamonds over to people over here. That’s what it was based on, something that I see as one of the greediest industries in the world. And I wrote the song about that, it’s about greed and people with the mindset that material things are more important than people, so I’m just playing the role of a bitch, I’m not a bitch though!’

When I started developing my songwriting on my own I just realized that all of my songs were built around the story.

In the latest release of Blood Diamonds, Áine collaborated with Courage, who remastered the song and gave it, in Aine’s words, ‘A new lease of life, it’s still my song, but he brought something new to it. It was completely different experience and was really cool for me.’

Áine’s storytelling lyrics are so refreshing when compared to most hits and new music that is released week on week, and tells another love story. There’s something wonderfully different about that. She has a unique perspective, telling interesting, intricate tales. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever written a love song,’ said Aine. ‘I’m going to be doing a lot of writing over the next few weeks and then I’m hoping to put an album together in the new year, fingers crossed.’


The Irish music industry is booming at the moment and seems to be in a really good place right now. ‘Ireland is full of huge, huge talent, and even talent that hasn’t been discovered yet, haven’t been put on the radio yet. It’s really cool to be in such a thriving environment at the moment. There’s so much music and talent coming out now, it’s mad, we’re such a small country and yet we have so much to offer.’

It would be great to get more of a spotlight on female artists.

However, even for an industry that’s doing so well, we would always like to see some groups get more recognition, ‘I think it would be really cool to see more female artists, to hear more female artists on the radio, and get more press. It would be great to get more of a spotlight on female artists. There are a lot of male artists in Ireland that are huge and well done to them. But it would be nice to see some more female artists getting out there as much as the male ones,’ said Áine.

Music is a hard road to go down, but one that is filled with so many passionate and talented people. ‘If I was giving advice to people I’d say my golden rule would be having a good manager that you can trust and someone who is going to send you in the right direction is a really good thing to have but I think first and foremost you should write your own songs. It’s really important to write your own material.’

Áine’s music is going from strength to strength right now, and if things continue in this way then Aine is sure to go along with her heroes and inspire many girls to write interesting, lyrical songs of their own.

Follow Áine Cahill on Facebook or Twitter to find out where you can see her live.

Images photographed by Alex Douglas at The Roundhouse, London.

Beautiful release – An interview with musician Sara Ryan

Musician Sara Ryan is the next big thing in folk music. Here, she talks to Cinders about her musical background, being named new folk artist of the year and her plans for the future.

What was your first foray into music?

I grew up in Newbridge, Co. Kildare and growing up, the town was full of music. Every day of the week I had something musical I was involved in, between playing guitar in a trad group, my singing group, choirs, even dancing, just to name a few. But my favorite of all was my singing lessons with Lorraine Nolan my singing teacher, she is the most inspiring woman and she always believed in me. My family were much the same, they always encouraged me to write and to sing. I always had an urge in me to write too, whenever I have ever had anything going on I would right it down, it was such a release, and it continues to be, it really is my salvation to be honest. I knew I loved singing, I feel it’s the reason I’m on this planet, but when I realized I could combine the both of them, through songwriting, sure, jaysus I was delighted!  As I grew older I moved home a few times and one of the places I moved to was Stratford on Slaney, Co. Wicklow.

It was there that I threw myself even more into songwriting and started gigging with bands and solo too. This was so exciting at the beginning and it continues to be as I keep gigging away. I just love to perform.

What artists inspired you growing up? 

It varies a lot, I have always loved folk, blues and soul, artists such as Joni Mitchell, Eva Cassidy, Florence and the Machine, Lisa Hannigan, Melody Gardot, Erykah Badu of course, Lianne La Havas and Cathy Davey. I adore Luka Bloom, Christy Moore and Damien Dempsey’s music and songwriting. They write about today’s Ireland and the Ireland of the past, this has always moved me a great deal, as I feel the struggles of our realities is what makes brilliant songs, it’s the pain that draws you in, and the freedom within that. I was mad for bands like The Arctic Monkeys and Kasabian in my teens, I was attracted to how free their melodies were and the raw and powerful sound of band. I also have always found deep house and techno quite meditative.

Your sound is very distinctive and old world, what process went into discovering what your signature sound would be? 

I used to rack my brains trying to figure out what my sound was, it used to drive me mad, but I found that when I stopped looking and I just focused on singing and being comfortable with what that sounded like that made it a bit easier. The sound unfolds more naturally then when I let the song do the talking. I also am so grateful to have worked with outstanding musicians – Kealan Kenny, Fionn O’Neill, Brian Dunlea, Martin Atkinson, Alison Ronayne and an amazing producer (Christian Best) when recording this EP, “Glitter Skies”, in Monique Studios, Cork, and each person added so many beautiful elements to each song too. It was a really creative experience and I found that having each of their input was an integral part of moulding the sound too.

What was it like being named new folk artist of the year?

It really was such an honor and so surreal. It was an amazing feeling to have worked really really hard and then to receive such wonderful recognition just blew me away. It was a great confidence boost. The whole night was brilliant, and to be on the same line-up as artists who have inspired me a lot was an experience I’ll always treasure.

What are your ambitions for your music going forward? 

I love traveling around and playing in different places with new audiences, and bringing my band with me is such a bonus, we have such good craic and it’s deadly playing my tunes, that really mean so much to me, with people who like playing the songs too, that still blows my mind a bit – that people like my songs! So yeah, I’d just like to keep doing that, keep traveling around singing in different places, sharing my music. I would love to play in Europe and America and even further afield too. My main thing is that I want to connect with people through my songs. It’s my souls purpose and I’m just loving all of it so far.

What kind of stories do you want to tell with your music?

I just write about my own life experiences, different challenges I’ve faced and how I’ve dealt with them. I often write from a place where I haven’t dealt with them yet, and that, as I’ve said before is a beautiful release, it’s very healing. I write about real life things and people that I’ve seen, and my encounters with them. Through songwriting I just try to share that, there is beauty in pain. The struggles I’ve faced, that we all face, are far from glamorous but they too can be seen as beautiful.

Euphoric Recall has a haunting melody that makes me think of film noir – what was the inspiration behind the song?

Thank you so much, that’s such a gorgeous compliment and image. I wrote this song a good while ago, the phrase “Euphoric Recall” refers to glamourising memories, it’s a state of mind where the mind plays tricks on you. It’s like when you look back on a time in your life that wasn’t so great but you trick yourself into thinking it was actually fine, to avoid the truth. That sorta thing. Very uplifting altogether haha!

If you were giving advice to any other young ambitious musicians what would it be?

I don’t want to sound pure cheese-y or preachy saying this, so I’m sorry in advance if I do, but I really would say, trust in your dream, everyday, regardless of what anyone thinks about it, if you feel in your heart that it’s right and if you feel that that’s your truth then believe in it and do everything you can to make it happen. If there are people around you who believe in you, stick with them and they will lift you up. Those who don’t believe in you and your dream, don’t give them an ounce of your time, that’s what will make your dream a reality. I wish I would have done that myself when I was younger, I cared so much what people thought and it really is so time consuming! It’s such a human thing to do though it’s  so normal, but try to not let people who care more than they should into your head. What others think of you is none of your business. What matters is what you think of you, as humans we have more strength than we realise. And most if all, just enjoy it, music is such a wonderful gift to have.

Sara’s EP Glitter Skies is out now on iTunes and Spotify.

Double Exposure – An Interview with Adrianne Finlay

People have dreams of reaching the moon, defeating death, achieving perfection. Those are the dreams that fuelled the community of Adrianne Finlay’s Your One & Only and led to the society of clones that now populates it. We spoke to Adrianne about her writing process, her clone society and her favourite science fiction.

Have you always wanted to be a writer? 

I spent a good deal of time not knowing what I wanted to be, but I was always a big reader, and even as a child I entertained myself by writing stories. I became a professor of writing and literature, and certainly the fact that I enjoyed reading and writing had an impact on that path, but it took a while to imagine that I could actually do those things as a career.

Continue reading Double Exposure – An Interview with Adrianne Finlay

Animating Parvana – Nora Twomey on the making of The Breadwinner

Animator and inspirational woman Nora Twomey is one of the most impressive figures in the Irish film industry. After leaving school at just 15, Nora Twomey went on to graduate from the Ballyfermot College of Further Education animation programme and founded the incredible Cartoon Saloon animation studio with Tomm Moore, Paul Young and Ross Murray.The studio has reached international acclaim and has produced beautiful titles such as The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea. Today sees the Irish and UK release of their latest feature, The Breadwinner. Based on the acclaimed novel by Deborah Ellis, it tells the story of young Afghan girl, Parvana, who is living under Taliban rule in Afghanistan and disguises herself as a boy in order to earn money for her family. Nora took this on as her first solo directing feature which earned her an Academy award nomination. We spoke to her prior to the Oscar nominated movie’s release about animation, directing and the story that inspired her to tell this truly unique tale. 

What was the journey from page to screen for the Breadwinner? 

Nora: We spent about five months crafting the screenplay and then about a year crafting the storyboard, making sure the film was layered and subtle.

We worked with Deborah Ellis herself to make sure she was okay with what we were going to do with the characters but she was very excited for us to take Pavana into a new medium.

Then we worked with Anita Doron, the screenwriter. That was important for trying to find an emotional arc for the film without over-packing it or over-cluttering the film but getting the same sense when you watch the film as you do when reading the book.

The opportunity to tell Parvana’s story and put it up on the screen was something very precious to me I felt.

What was your idea when it came to character design and artwork?

Nora: We wanted to make sure that we honoured the look and feel of Afghanistan as much as we could and we wanted to honour the look and feel of Deborah’s book as much as we could. We always knew that we wanted the world that Parvana inhabited to feel really real. We wanted the animation to be quite subtle to hold a character like Parvana because we wanted to make sure that she felt Afghan. So she’s a character who would put the needs of her family above her own needs, she’s also someone who mightn’t express everything she feels as she feels it, as you might see with Western kids. For Pavana you can see a light in her eyes, you can see that she’s taking everything into consideration but she’s not expressing it openly.

We wanted  it to feel in ways like an epic adventure, like you had to catch your breath after watching it

We wanted the film to be very, very immersive, so even the way that we paint the background, it feels like Kabul in Afghanistan but it also feels very immersive, we wanted to make the film look as beautiful as we could possibly make it so that people take on the journey with Parvana. We wanted  it to feel in ways like an epic adventure, like you had to catch your breath after watching it.

Nora Twomey Self Portrait caricature
Nora’s self portrait.

What was the experience like as your first solo directing feature? 

Nora: It was interesting, in a way I was already well into the process before I said I was directing it! When I read Deborah’s book I just got completely carried away about making this film. I was into it a fair bit before I realised that I was in charge of a massive crew, working over three different countries . It was a tremendous challenge to be sure but it was one that I stretched quite a bit with. Your job as director is to identify all of the skills and talents of everyone you are working with and making sure that those skills and talents are used to the best of their abilities in service of the character Parvana and the story. Your job is to make sure that you know the character and make sure that everything the team do is always in service of the character and in the service of the audience.

We’re seeing more and more female directors emerge and tell their stories, was it refreshing being able to tell this story with your own voice and create The Breadwinner from your perspective? 

Nora: Absolutely it was. As one of the founders of Cartoon Saloon I’ve been working with directors for nearly two decades now. Half our crew in Cartoon Saloon are female and I really do my best to encourage young women coming up through the industry and in our company to try and continue moving up through the different disciplines, on from being a supervisor to being a director for example. It’s important to do so. When I started out in college I was one of four women in our year of 30 students and now I go to animation colleges and I can see it’s about 50-50. But making sure that women stay in the industry is that they stay encouraged and supported and hopefully in decades to come it will be a more equal situation and the stories that we tell will be better because they will be representing all of the population.

But making sure that women stay in the industry is that they stay encouraged and supported and hopefully in decades to come it will be a more equal situation and the stories that we tell will be better because they will be representing all of the population.

If you were giving advice to young people interested in joining the animation industry, what would it be? 

Nora: I would say keep drawing, find other people who love drawing too. Keep storytelling, keep writing, whatever part of animation or the industry or filmmaking that you’re interested in, just keep on doing it. Keep reaching out, keep asking questions. The worst someone can say is no. So keep interested in it. But I would broaden that out to anything that you’re interested in. I always believe that if you do the thing that you love the most, then you’ll never work, you’ll always be having fun. It will be a challenge, but it will be interesting.

How do you hope that people will respond to The Breadwinner?

Nora: I would hope that they continue to ask questions. The film is aimed at young adults, but even children from the ages of 10 upwards into adults and I would love for young people to talk to their parents, or to their educators or to each other about life for people like Parvana. I would love the idea that a character like Parvana is up on the big screen, you know that you get to experience life through her eyes, that you get to see that she is is strong, she’s independent, but she’s also flawed, you know she’s a real girl. And for me it is wonderful to see a character like her on the big screen.

The Breadwinner is in Irish cinema’s from today. 

06 The Breadwinner _Parvana and Shauzia_1920x1080
Parvana and best friend Shazia.

See Cinders Magazine’s forthcoming issue for the interview in full to hear more about the animation process, directing, and Cartoon Saloon’s forthcoming projects. 

Image credits to Cartoon Saloon and Nora Twomey for self portrait caricature.

Finding her voice – an interview with Louise O’Neill

In anticipation of the release of Louise O’Neill’s feminist retelling of The Little Mermaid, The Surface Breaks, we spoke to Louise about re-inventing fairytales, feminism, and the importance of owning your voice.

Why did you choose The Little Mermaid as inspiration for The Surface Breaks

Louise: Well, it was the summer of 2016 when the editor and director of Scholastic in the UK contacted my agent and asked, would I be interested in writing a feminist retellling of The Little Mermaid? It’s funny, because I should have said no! I was knee deep in writing Almost Love [which came out in March of this year] at that stage, and I was thinking about saying no. I had wanted to take 2017 and concentrate on Almost Love, which was my first novel for adults. So it was a bit of a transition. But I really couldn’t refuse the offer, because I’ve always loved The Little Mermaid. We lived right on Inchydoney beach until I was four: And I was obsessed with the water from when I was a child.

I would stare at the sea for hours and hours  and my Mam always used to say, when I was very young, and she was giving me a bath, I was always much more settled in water.

And then in 1989, the Disney version of The Little Mermaid came out. I was four at the time, so I was at a prime age for it. So the idea of The Little Mermaid really embedded itself in my psyche at a very impressionable age. So when Scholastic came to me and asked if I wanted to do this, I just couldn’t say no. As I said partly because I loved the story so much, but also because as a teenager, with a burgeoning sense of feminism, I began reexamining the fairytales like The Little Mermaid, which was always my favorite one. It became increasingly obvious to me that it was very problematic. It’s literally about a young woman who gives up her voice and silences herself to be in a relationship. And she mutilates her body, so that a man she barely knows will fall in love with her. So I think there were really interesting parallels there with what some young women go through today in contemporary society.  I felt that it was ripe for a feminist retelling – and I really wanted to be the one to do it.

Your little mermaid, Gaia’s, character is driven, not just by love, but also by desperation, a need to get out of a dangerous situation when she chooses to become human and leave the sea.Was that something you were consciously thinking about? 

Louise: Absolutely. It’s funny, someone was asking me recently, why all of my books are about someone who is trapped? I think it’s just a feeling with that I can really identify with, as a young woman, feeling really trapped by society, feeling you’re trapped by your family circumstances, by geography, by things that often feel very much outside of your control. And, particularly for women, you might feel like there are gendered expectations on you on how you should behave, and how you should look, and how you should feel.

It can feel very restrictive. It is for Gaia, growing up in that society, which is incredibly patriarchal, and having such a controlling and overbearing father who basically sells her to the highest bidder. He sells her body to a much older man who finds her attractive. So she is absolutely desperate. I think there’s an element of that in her decision, I mean of course she finds Oliver incredibly attractive and she does feel physical attraction to him, but I think she’s very quick to label it love. But she’s just so desperate to get out of her situation.

Her father is very much portrayed as the villain in this retelling. Was that an interpretation of the original story or inspired by the domineering father portrayed in the Disney version? 

Louise: I suppose it was a bit of both really. It was also that I wanted to portray cultural ideas of domination and overbearing fathers.

I suppose, in a lot of ways, he is the embodiment of the patriarchy, he is the embodiment of white male privilege and the embodiment of the idea of hereditary wealth and privilege and entitlement. He really does feel that he is entitled to control his daughters in that way. There are definitely shades of it in the Disney version, but he is still quite a  sympathetic character. Whereas in my version of it I wanted to have that sense that Gaia is a really trapped character. So much of that comes from her father, who believes he has the right to control her body, control her destiny, and make decisions about who she should be with. It was an interesting way of critiquing the patriarchy.

 It’s literally about a young woman who gives up her voice and silences herself to be in a relationship.

On the other hand, for the sea witch, Ceto,  gets a much nuanced portrayal, she is given much more of a redemptive arc.

Louise: It’s funny because you see the Disney version and it’s really interesting to contrast what you know as a child and what you know as an adult. Because Ursula is a villain when you’re a child but when you’re an adult Ursula is the best character in the entire movie, she’s such a badass!  I did a lot of research before I wrote the book, not just research about mermaid mythology, but also read a lot of academic essays about fairytales and the didactic messages that are contained in them for women. There were some really interesting points made about the role of the witch in fairytales,  it is a very sexist and agist portrayal. It portrays women as always being in competition with one another. If a woman is older and unmarried then the only thing she can do is move to the fringes of society and live there, plotting her revenge. So I wanted to reclaim the witch. I wanted to reclaim the mermaid as well but I actually think while writing it the witch is the most interesting and compelling character in the book. I wanted to explore other reasons why she has been ostracised.

For me, the reason she has been ostracised, is that she is a woman who inhabits and owns her sexuality. She’s also a proud and beautiful fat woman which I think is something that can be slightly looked down on in our society. She is also a woman who demands to live on her own terms. She doesn’t try to acquiesce to societal demands and that can often lead to being ostracised and having to live on the fringes of society.  As she says in the book, the most important thing a woman can do is live true to herself.

Gaia comes to that knowledge throughout the story, which she ends in a position of strength even though she has lost and sacrificed a lot to get to that point. 

Louise: I agree. This is probably the most hopeful, or the most empowering ending I have had out of all of my novels, particularly my YA novels. I think it’s interesting when you look at the story again. When I was preparing to write the book, I read and re-read the fairytale again and again. I listened to it over and over again, while I was at the gym, while I was in the car. So within a few weeks I could practically recite the whole thing verbatim. When you look at the original fairytale, she’s quite a passive character, the act of going to the sea witch is the only time she really demonstrates any real sort of agency. So the reason I ended it where I did was that I didn’t want to see her as passive and I didn’t want to see her as a victim. I wanted to see her as just a girl, a girl who wanted to take up more space in the world and not less. A girl who wanted adventure and love.

I didn’t want to see her as passive and I didn’t want to see her as a victim. I wanted to see her as just a girl, a girl who wanted to take up more space in the world and not less. A girl who wanted adventure and love.

She wants the truth of things, she wants to find out what happened to her mother. And it sounds like such a cliché but women are so incredibly strong. I have friends who have had children and even that  alone I think is just the ultimate act of strength, even that that women’s bodies can do that, it is just strength. And I have friends who have been victims of sexual violence, who have had horrible things happen to them, but just  have  resilience and strength. I think women are warriors and I really wanted to portray that in this book.

I think the patriarchy really wants to keep us weak and afraid because it makes us easier to manage and easier to control. But I think that absolutely all  of us have a core of strength inside of us.

What was your writing process for The Surface Breaks

Louise: I’d never started a book with the narrative framework already done. I knew that it was going to be a fairly straightforward re-telling of Hans Christian Andersen’s original fairytale. I knew there were certain beats I had to hit: her fifteenth birthday, the shipwreck where she sees the prince for the first time, going to the sea witch and taking the potion, etc. So that made it a lot easier for me, when I sat down to start writing. I finished the first draft of Almost Love on a Thursday, I gave myself the Friday off because it was my birthday, and then I started on The Surface Breaks on the Monday. Because I had the basic narrative set out for me, I could just let my imagination go wild in between. It was really fun. I had a lot of fun with the names, I had fun with the character development, like with the sisters, trying to make them all different and give them their own personalities, independent of each other. I would have the characters very well fleshed out before I start any book, I feel like I know them really well.

I think the patriarchy really wants to keep us weak and afraid because it makes us easier to manage and easier to control. But I think that absolutely all have a core of strength inside of us.

Fairytales were originally told by women, by housewives by hearthside, and were then collected by men. The most famous fairytales had female protagonists. Do you feel like it’s time that we are reclaiming these fairytales with a feminist perspective? 

Louise: I really agree with you, I do feel like it’s time. As you said, it’s interesting that fairytales would have been traditionally written and told by women about women and concerned themselves with issues that directly affected women at that time. May that be marriage or children or poverty. Then you see them appropriated by men and see them skewed to stick guidelines about how young women should behave. And it’s interesting that these stories are so much a part of our cultural consciousness. Most children will have been given a book of fairytales at some point, so these stories are very, very familiar. As an author and as a feminist, as you get older, you start to really look at the stories you were told as a child and see how damaging some of the messages in those could be and wonder about the affect that they had on you.

For me there is a sense of responsibility of wanting to reclaim the story and give it a more satisfying but also an ideologically sound twist to it

So for me there is a sense of responsibility of wanting to reclaim the story and give it a more satisfying but also a ideologically sound twist to it, so that any young woman who would read my version of The Little Mermaid would not be left feeling that their prettiness, or their beauty is their only ticket to success. That there are so much more important aspects of being a woman and being yourself.

Sometimes when I say to people I’m writing a feminist version of The Little Mermaid, they say back to me, ‘Oh for god’s sake, political correctness gone wrong, what was wrong with the original?’ But it just feels a little short sighted, I mean children are like sponges, and saying that they don’t understand or that they can’t absorb the messages in these stories is really reductive. The problem is is that they can. Particularly for little girls, when the only role models they see in popular culture or in books is the perfect princess figure. It’s a very heteronormative story. Even if you look at Rapunzel or Sleeping Beauty, there is the idea that you have to wait for a man to rescue you, or wait until you fall in love in order to be happy or in order for your life to begin.

It’s important to look at these stories a different way, these stories that have been with us for so long. Given #MeToo and #TimesUp it really feels like the right time for these stories to be told and given a new lease of life. 

Louise: I totally agree. In the last year with the #MeToo movement when women are speaking out, now more than ever a story of a woman who gives up her voice and allows herself to be silenced, that has to be reclaimed. I think it’s so relevant and so important. Because so many women, we have been silenced, our  voices have been quietened and it has just come to a time where we’re just so unwilling to accept that anymore. We’re speaking up, we’re speaking out. And we’re raising our voices, demanding that we be heard, and believing that we deserve to be heard and our stories deserve to be shared.

With Gaia, she has so much regret over the fact that she has given up her voice. And I think she comes to realise as the story unfolds that her voice was one of the most important attributes that she had, and one of the most important tools that she had. I think that that’s something that is really important for her and other young women.

Best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?

Louise: Other people’s opinions of you are none of your business.

Other people’s opinions of you are none of your business.

The Surface Breaks by Louise O’Neill is available now in all good bookshops

Illustration designed by Freepik. Photograph by Anna Groniecka.