With How to Build a Boat longlisted for the Booker Prize 2023, we spoke to Elaine Feeney about why Ireland is a nation of storytellers and how her main character was inspired by her son

Read interviews with all of the longlisted authors here.

Publication date and time: Published

How does it feel to be nominated for the Booker Prize 2023, and what would winning the prize mean to you?  

It is a huge honour to be nominated. I was very happy for the book, and grateful to the judges for choosing it. As for winning – I genuinely haven’t given that consideration.  

There are four Irish authors on this year’s Booker longlist – more than any previous year – and some commentators have argued that there could or should have been even more. Ireland obviously has a rich literary tradition, but there seems to be a lot of exciting fiction coming out of the country just now - why do you think that might be? 

Language, expression and our relationship with the oral tradition of storytelling is a strong part of our culture. We are a nation of storytellers, with a history of resistance.   

I am from the west of Ireland where there is a rich custom of story and many people speak Gaelige, and that informs the rhythms of my work. There is also a great tradition of drama. The Druid Theatre Company was formed in Galway, and Tom Murphy, a playwright I draw inspiration from, was born in the town where I taught. Most Irish towns have a writer inspiring the next generation. Claire-Louise Bennett, Lisa McInerney, Mike McCormack and Alan McMonagle all live close by me. Sally Rooney lives in the next county. There is a very strong camaraderie among writers here.  

For me, I am constantly imagining and reimagining this place; its socio-economics; geo-political landscape; pagan versus Christian traditions; new cultures; power and who holds it; the post-colonial effect on language, emigration, class and agriculture. Our proximity to the sea seems to energise writers. 

Of course, much is discussed about the decades of a deeply oppressive church regime, and the aftershock we grapple with, culturally and systemically. On a practical level, there are good supports for Irish writing. We have a very vibrant literary magazine culture, including The Stinging Fly, Banshee and The Tangerine magazine. We talk books a lot, everyone I meet is reading a book. 

How long did it take to write How to Build a Boat, and what does your writing process look like? Do you type or write in longhand? Are there multiple drafts, long pauses, or sudden bursts of activity? Is there a significant amount of research and plotting before you begin writing? 

How to Build a Boat took many years, and several drafts. I was desperate to simplify it. I wrote much of it longhand and, as with all projects, there was a copious amount of research. But there was a moment where I said, it’s fiction, stop reading about boats.   

I am a ‘sudden burst of activity’ person, and then long naps. Much like my cat.

Elaine Feeney

Considering the book retrospectively, my writing impetus was parental anxiety: Can we live in an inclusive society by recognising each other, accepting one another without explanation of categorisation?

Where exactly do you write? What does your working space look like? 

I live with my family in a small bungalow surrounded by fields and stone walls, it’s the house I grew up in. There’s a farm across the road and I look out the windows a lot. I write in the kitchen at a desk, watching the farmer’s cows grazing, or crows picking stones, or the rain – that’s never far away. I write with my back to the wall. But ultimately, I write anywhere. And when I get stressed, I take off for a walk or I jump into the sea.  

You initially began your writing career as a poet. What made you want to shift your pen to longer-form narratives? And what did your experience as a poet bring to the writing of How to Build a Boat

I began my career writing mad poems in a wild and intensely political Irish poetry scene in the noughties. Ireland had not repealed the Eighth Amendment, or gained Marriage Equality. As institutional abuses were being uncovered, people were responding in real-time. Poetry felt like a powerful and immediate form, but I also felt very nervous about some of the issues I was writing about.  

In 2014, I became ill and during a long recovery, I wrote my first novel, As You Were. It was a frantic time in Ireland when people were telling harrowing stories on the radio about personal traumas at the hands of the church and state. Poetry no longer felt like an appropriate way to decant some of the shared national trauma, and so began the novels. I try to resist poetry when I write fiction, but it seeps in. 

I write across forms now, and I am currently finishing up a new poetry collection.  

For a while you were a teacher at an all-boys’ school. How much did you draw on this experience for How to Build a Boat?  

Eoin, Jamie’s father in How to Build a Boat, makes the decision to send his son, Jamie, to an all boys’ Catholic school due to lack of choice in the town where they live.  

I began my career as a teacher in an all-boys’ school in 2000. There were a total of five secondary schools in the town, four were single-gender schools run under the patronage of the archbishop. The fifth, the only multi-denominational school, is still named after an archbishop. The five schools were funded by the state but run by the religious orders. None were private schools. This lack of choice, and continued dominance of the church in the culture of education, inspired me to create the fictional Christ’s College in the novel.  

As for my fiction – I write what I know – and then I tell lies.  

How to Build a Boat by Elaine Feeney

Jamie, the 13-year-old boy at the centre of the story, has been described as neurodivergent by readers, yet you don’t label him within the text. As a parent of a neurodivergent child yourself, was it important that you resisted categorisation to avoid stereotypes, or ensure Jamie is not simply reduced to a condition?  

Jamie was inspired by my son. He was hyperlexic as a very young child and this is a catalyst for the story. Jamie, of course, as characters do, soon grew into himself. Some readers say he’s a savant, but I disagree – I think his hyper articulation belies a naivety that can be powerful, but leaves him vulnerable.  

Considering the book retrospectively, my writing impetus was parental anxiety: Can we live in an inclusive society by recognising each other, accepting one another without explanation of categorisation? Can we be tolerant? Essentially, will he be ok? It’s likely a primal concern for all parents. Therefore, the not labelling was an important consideration. I wanted the novel to speak to belonging without having to compromise who we are.  

Jamie forges a connection with two of his teachers, who offer him guidance amid his grief. Several novels on this year’s longlist are centred around the aftermath of pain and trauma, and the way people respond individually and communally. What is it about pain that draws people together, and what made you want to explore this through your writing?   

People often identify pain in each other without an explicit need to articulate it. As the characters developed, it became apparent they understood each other. A consequence of our thirst for individual success is sometimes the notion that this is attainable without other people. 

When considering the ways we communicate, I am also interested in how off-kilter and missed communication can lead to further alienation. This is particularly resonant in the women I write. My women characters so often, seem in a state of stasis – this likely mirrors something intrinsic in me. 

It is impossible not to consider pain and loss when writing.  

Which book or books are you reading at the moment? In particular, are there any other Irish authors who you think deserve more recognition? 

I am reading all the novels on this year’s longlist.  

Poets always deserve more recognition, and as for the Irish, I would start with Jess Traynor’s The Quick and Pit Lullabies. Traynor writes the best hex poems. I also recommend Victoria Kennefick, Rita Ann Higgins, Martina Evans, Nithy Kasa, Oein DeBhairduin, Jane Clarke, Eleanor Hooker, Sarah Clancy and Liz Quirke.   

I’m also reading Jamaican poet, Ishion Hutchinson and the work is extraordinary.  

Do you have a favourite Booker-winning or Booker-shortlisted novel and, if so, why? 

In recent years, I loved The Gathering by Anne Enright and Milkman By Anna Burns. I was thrilled when Douglas Stuart won, I think Shuggie Bain was a brilliantly political and timely read. And Percival Everett’s The Trees was genius.

Elaine Feeney