Today we welcome Irish writer, Orna Ross, who has recently published her first novel. “Lovers’ Hollow.” Her book is historical fiction but told through a contemporary lens, weaving backwards and forwards in time. Effortlessly interweaving past and present, and building towards a compelling and surprising conclusion, “Lovers’ Hollow” ranges across three generations and two continents to deliver a page-turning exploration of love, revenge and the true nature of freedom.
Q: When did you start writing?
Orna: When I wrote the first words of my first novel, “Lovers’ Hollow?” When I wrote my first nonfiction book? When I published my first article, the day somebody actually paid me for putting words together? When I took English lit at college and used to lie in my single bed, words chasing each other around my brain? When I wrote a poem in secondary school that my teacher read out to the rest of the class? When I read “What Katy Did” in primary school and copied out a few lines? I still love the way they sound good. It was something about limes I remember. I didn’t even know what limes were back then – but they sounded exotic and exotic was what I wanted and what reading gave me. When I first pulled my ABC together into meaning?
I am always amazed by writers who have a clear sense of beginnings and endings when it comes to their work. All of my work seems to overlap one into the other and I find it very difficult to say when something starts or stops. At the moment I am first drafting my third novel, editing my second and promoting my first.
Q: When did you decide you wanted to be a published writer? How did you go about it?
Orna: I had been working in freelance journalism for 15 years and my 40th birthday was looming. I always wanted to write a novel and knew the time had come — I had to make a start. At first I thought I would be able to combine fiction writing with my journalism work, which I loved. I didn’t know then what I know now – that the writing makes demands of you.
It is such a big thing to want, it can’t just be fitted in on the sidelines. Not the kind of fiction I write anyway. So it soon became evident that I was going to have to stop my other writing activities, not to mention TV watching and other pursuits, if I wanted to make this happen.
Q: Who is your target audience? What motivated you to start writing for this audience?
Orna: My target audience is women, although I know men read my books too. Women who want their stories to reflect the complexities of life. Mine are not simple boy-meets-girl stories, although of course I write about love as well as murder and mystery and many other things. I write for such women because that is who I am — I guess I write the kind of book I like to read. I’m not some somebody who’s with one-dimensional, easy answers. We get out on TV. Books are for deeper pleasures.
Q: How would you describe the writing you are doing?
Orna: I write historical fiction but the story is always told through a contemporary lens. I am interested in how the part plays itself out in our lives, our own past, and that of other people and the places we live in. My books are heavily layered and interconnected – getting that layering right takes me a lot of time.
Only the novel has the capacity to do this. Other forms – the short story, the drama, cannot move as a novel can in and out of different time periods, in and outside the mind, from the smallest thought of a single individual to the widest experience of whole societies, whole worlds. It seems to me that this capacity is what makes the novel uniquely valuable.
I enjoy novels that are a distillation of a single experience – but I think of them as long short stories really. The novelists I like best of those that write the biggies – Eliot over Austen, for example. Tolstoy over Turgenev.
Q: How have your personal experiences influenced the direction of your writing?
Orna: I grew up in Ireland where there is great focus on history but where the stories that are told about the past – our 800 years of oppression by the English, for example – never seemed satisfactory to me – too simplistic. “Lovers Hollow’ grew out of my own family experience. My father’s uncle was shot in the Irish Civil War but nobody in the family ever talked about it. Our village was still divided still about this conflict, with families not speaking to each other, though it had happened 50 years before. The silence that swirled around the topic drew me to it. It’s the same with anything I have written since. Wherever there is silence, there is pain.
Q: Where do your ideas come from?
Orna: Sometimes it’s something I know I want to go into a book – and I’ll go to great lengths to get it just the way I envisage it. For example, I knew I wanted Jo Devereux (“Lovers’ Hollow”) to live in San Francisco in order to connect her to the liberation movements there, so I had to visit the Bay area to research how the place felt (that was tough!). For “A Dance in Time,” I had to read every single word written by WB Yeats, Ezra Pound, Francis Stuart, Maud Gonne and Iseult Gonne and almost everything written about them – between them, those guys generated a lot of words. Sometimes it arises out of other work I am doing – Nora’s experience in Enniscorthy Lunatic Asylum (“Lovers’ Hollow”) was based on a case study I came across in research I did for an MA thesis. More often, the ideas arise, as if from nowhere, when I’m lying in bed, telling myself I should get up, or when I’m jogging or walking, or in the bath. And I engage in two daily practices that keep them coming: free-writing and meditation. I never have a shortage of ideas – my challenge is to manage my time so that I can get them written up.
Q: What are your main concerns as a writer? How do you deal with those concerns?
Orna: My main concern is to try to capture the subjective, complicated response we bring to all that life throws at us. I deal with this concern by ensuring that I sit down every day with it and do what I can to give it the fullest possible expression.
Q: Do you write every day?
Orna: Yes. The session starts with free-writing then I pick up where I left off the day before. How it proceeds very much depends on what stage I am at. If I’m in the germination stage, it might just be note taking or working on the index cards I use to plan out the plot. If I’m drafting, I’ll just write as fast as possible, accepting any words that come, knowing I can fix it up later.
I try to leave each writing session longing to go on, itching to get going again tomorrow. Hemingway called it leaving some ink in the well. It gives you that sense of continuity you need when putting together a long novel.
Our thanks to you, Orna, for sharing your experiences as a writer with us. Sandwiched Boomers, now is your chance to ask questions of your own – so jump in!