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Image / Living / Culture

Authors’ Bookshelves: Mary O’Dowd and Siobhán Fitzpatrick on becoming ‘accidental writers’


By Sarah Gill
19th Nov 2022
Authors’ Bookshelves: Mary O’Dowd and Siobhán Fitzpatrick on becoming ‘accidental writers’

Today we’re catching up with the women who edited these stories of Sisters, together, Siobhán Fitzpatrick and Mary O'Dowd.

Earlier this week, we shared an extract from Sisters: Nine families of sisters who made a difference, and today we’re catching up with the editors of these stories, Siobhán Fitzpatrick and Mary O’Dowd.

[M: Mary, S: Siobhán]

sisters

Did you always want to be a writer/author?

We are both accidental writers!

What inspired you to start writing?

M: I can’t remember a specific inspiration but always loved reading.

S: My job as curator of an important historical collection.

Tell us about your writing process.

M: Slow and painful.

S: Slow — a lot of research, drafting, re-writing.

sisters
Siobhán Fitzpatrick’s writing space

Where did the idea for this book come from?

S: The idea was inspired by the centenary of the 1919 Sex Disqualification Removal Act which opened up some of the professions to women. The roles and expectations of sisters within families has always interested me. There is a sense of the different ways in which daughters were treated as distinct from sons; yet women found ways to challenge the status quo and achieve some measure of independence in their lives. There is also the idea of unquestioning support for each other even when sisters didn’t agree politically or ideologically. My grandmother, one of a family of 10 sisters (and one brother!), had a saying: ‘We’ll girl it out’ — conveying that sense of sisters banding together to face the vicissitudes of life. I thought about well-known families of sisters who made a mark either within or beyond the family circle. A ‘Sisters’ lecture series grew from there and Mary suggested compiling them into a book.

What did you learn when writing this book?

We were struck by recurring themes in the lives of the women who feature in the book. Social status and/or literacy gave most of them access to ideas and activities not normally open to women. It was also striking how many of the women came from families in which daughters as well as sons were encouraged to participate in the public sphere whether as literary patrons, writers or political actors. Sisters encouraged and supported each other in these activities. We were delighted that the Royal Irish Academy supported the publication.

Three words to describe your writing process:

Write — Read — Edit – Repeat x 6

Do you have any quirky habits when writing?

We’re Luddites: we prefer to write and edit manually with pen and paper.

The first book you remember reading is…

M: Dick and Dora when I was learning to read in Kindergarten with Sister Polycarp in Muckross Park school.

S: Pierre Probst, Caroline’s party.

sisters
Mary O’Dowd’s to be read pile

Your favourite Irish author is…

M: Tana French: if she qualifies as Irish.

S: Toss-up between William Trevor, Elizabeth Bowen, Colm Toibín, Sebastian Barry.

The book you gift everyone is…

Sisters!

Three books everyone should read:

M: I don’t have a list of books that everyone should read but three books that I enjoyed reading in recent years and found memorable are:

Mohsin Hamid, The reluctant fundamentalist.

Robert Caro’s 4 volume biography of Lyndon Johnson (audio version!)

Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing.

S: Similar to Mary, I just enjoyed these books very much, but there were plenty more. Very difficult to choose!

Edmund de Waal, The Hare with the Amber Eyes.

Philippe Sands, East-West Street.

Betty MacDonald, The egg and I (1945)

The best money you ever spent as a writer was on…

Good pens.

sisters
Siobhán Fitzpatrick’s to be read pile

The three books you’d bring with you to a desert island are…

M: The Bible: I have never read it as a book!

Boxed version of The Oxford dictionary of national biography: it would keep me mentally occupied

Palgrave’s Golden treasury of English verse: it was my mother’s favourite book

S: Snap! Palgrave’s Golden treasury of English verse.

The Dictionary of national biography [Irish]

A good anthology of short stories.

A quote you love is…

M: ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the wee donkey!’ Ted Hastings, Line of Duty (2021)

S: ‘Put all your eggs in one basket and watch that basket’, Mark Twain, Pudd’n’Head Wilson.

The book you always return to is…

M: I mainly re-read non-fiction history books and it is difficult to choose one but I regularly reference Olwen Hufton, The prospect before her: A history of women in western Europe, 1500–1800.

S: James Joyce, Dubliners.

Seeing your book in shops is…

Exciting and surprising.

One book you wish you had written is ____ because….

M: Laura Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife’s Tale. A very readable history book, based on the diary of an eighteenth-century midwife living in colonial America. I would like to use it as a model to write an Irish version.

S: John Le Carré, A Small Town in Germany. I love Le Carré’s plot, the twists, but also the intelligence and humanity of his writing.

How do you use social media as an author?

We don’t.

Should books be judged by their covers? How did you pick yours?

To an extent. Book covers and images in a book make it more accessible to readers. One of Siobhán’s library colleagues, Antoinette, suggested the Cuala Press image by Victor Brown — ‘Silver Apples’ — for our Sisters’ lecture series poster. It worked really well in garnering attention. So it was a no-brainer to use it for the book cover. Our thanks to Dublin City Library & Archive for permission to use their version of the image.

Do you find it hard not to procrastinate when writing?

Yes!

The best advice you’ve ever gotten is:

Just write.

Order your copy of ‘Sisters’, edited by Siobhán Fitzpatrick and Mary O’Dowd right here.