Rachel McCarren talks with Emer Martin on generational trauma, its role in Martin’s trilogy, and her dreams of landing an American publisher and adapting the work to film.
Published by The Lilliput Press earlier this year, Thirsty Ghosts, Emer Martin’s latest novel, is an unstoppable tour de force following the first book of her trilogy, The Cruelty Men. I was lucky enough to attend her launch at Books Upstairs in Dublin, meet Emer, and set up an interview to learn more about her creative process and future publishing goals. Martin lives in San Francisco with her family in sunny Silicon Valley. Her current setting contrasts the settings in her books, which span the rainy island of Ireland, from Kerry to Dublin. Thirsty Ghosts continues where The Cruelty Men left off, following the lives of a series of storytellers through the most challenging eras of Irish history. It traverses time and space, each chapter a vignette narrated by a different character.
The structure of Thirsty Ghosts gives the experience of a psychoactive trip through the complex realities of Ireland’s inhabitants from the Stone Age to modern times. With chapters narrated by the Hag of Ireland herself, sections of the book transition from brutal realism to magical realism, which creates much-needed levity while exploring Ireland’s most violent episodes of colonialism, oppression, and sexism. The narrative evokes an atmosphere of hope by repeatedly referencing Ireland’s folklore and magic. Storytelling helps the characters cope with the severity of their realities, even in the face of cruelty, undue punishment, and the absurd.
Martin’s style and tone are totally and uniquely hers. Through her writing, Martin effortlessly shapeshifts into her characters and captures their moral essence, demeanor, gender dilemmas, and varying dialects. Martin herself is incredibly welcoming, intuitive, warm, wise, perceptive, and empathetic, and she has a hell of a life story to tell. Having grown up in Ireland in the 1980s, Emer “ran away” to Paris when she was 17, where she met a group of Irish squatters with whom she traveled all over Europe (Martin).
Martin: I failed the leaving cert in protest. I turned in empty pages. I looked around in the exam room and saw the life trajectories of all the young women I was about to graduate with: go to college, meet a man, get married, have babies. I thought: Fuck no! That’s not the life I want!
After moving to New York City and having success there as a writer for many years, Emer married and moved to the West Coast to raise her two teenage daughters. She works full-time as a teacher at a local high school. Although she enjoys her quiet street in San Francisco, she misses New York dearly.
Martin: You could do a reading anywhere in New York or Brooklyn, and the world’s top publishers and agents would be there. Everyone is there. Finding the same scene on the West Coast has been hard for me. I had everything I needed in New York to be a successful writer. It was easy to network there. I could be an artist there. I lived on the streets- squatted, hitchhiked, begged; I made it work. Now I have two kids- I can’t live that way anymore. I have to work full-time to afford rent in San Fran, which leaves me little time to work on creative projects. I don’t know if there is anywhere left in the world where you can exist as an artist anymore. Even the artists’ bursaries provided by the governments are only a few thousand dollars here and there. Nothing consistent. Nothing you can live off. Times have changed- especially in the US. Here, I need to work full-time. Here, I need to pay for health insurance.
In Thirsty Ghosts, Iggy (Ignatius) is a nod to Martin’s years living abroad as an artist on the streets of various cities. The Hag describes Iggy, whose street persona is Zozimus, the storyteller, as: “A stinking man, stinking worse than my desiccated babies, rises from the doorstep where he sleeps on cardboard,” (Thirsty Ghosts 338). In her books, Iggy is seen as the last of Ireland’s great bards. He stands on Essex Bridge, reciting stories to tourists for pennies. His niece, Deirdre, a disillusioned youth, is frustrated with her life in Ireland and seeks something more fulfilling. Iggy catches Deirdre on Marlborough Street engaging in self-harm after scoring a bag of heroin. Iggy convinces her to give up the baggy and make plans to “get on the fuck out” and go abroad (Thirsty Ghosts 321).
Martin: I grew up in Dublin in the 1980s, and it was grim. I felt disconnected from everything. I was numb, and everyone around me looked like zombies. I needed to get out and experience something else. So, I left. Only the stories my father’s housekeeper told me as a child kept me connected to Ireland. Her stories taught me about the magic of old Ireland. My father would tell me, don’t listen to that míréasún- that rubbish- but her stories made me feel more connected to Ireland than any history course in school.
When I mentioned that reading her books felt like a psychoactive trip through the lives of my Irish ancestors, whose histories and stories were lost to time after they immigrated to America during the famine, Emer smiled.
Martin: When writing Thirsty Ghosts, I participated in a shamanic retreat in the Wicklow mountains with guided meditations led by a group of spiritual healers who use psychoactive drugs to connect with the land. I would attend these ceremonies and focus on evoking the Hag. I would become the Hag. I also spent a lot of time out west in caves on the coast of Kerry, where I did an artists’ residency and used my time to familiarize myself with the landscape for the book. Interestingly, you said it made you feel more connected to your own Irish ancestors and that the book filled in parts of Ireland’s history that your family had lost or were absent from. I wrote these books because there were many things I didn’t know. I wanted to learn more about my roots and the ancient people of Ireland. I did a load of research for these books- my sources are listed in the acknowledgments.
Throughout Martin’s books, the characters emphasize the importance of storytelling as an essential survival tactic and way of redefining their identity; they give the mind a means of escape while relaying real-world wisdom in moments of crises. Bright, the orphan imprisoned in Industrial Schools and Magdalene Laundries since birth, explains how listening to the stories of old Ireland is what keeps her going in such places: “The stories brought us all closer. They were the thread that sewed us all together, so they were. Teresa’s stories kept me alive” (Thirsty Ghosts 142).
Earlier, in the novel Dymphna, the Laundry runaway, explains:
“When I was telling them, it was as if Teresa was in me, and whoever told her was in me too, and back and back until the story happened itself in the old ago before history, when dogs and horses and trees could talk. The stories were a link to the first people, and no one could steal them or beat them out of us. They survived the steam in the Laundries and the icy nights by the canal. They were medicine for our shame” (Thirsty Ghosts 69).
Stories of shame, failure, tragedy, and personal loss run like a turbulent river through the heart of Martin’s trilogy, giving the feeling that perhaps, like my own, Martin’s family’s history was purposely withheld to conceal something. Nobody wants to talk about the laundries, the industrial schools, the brutality of the Catholic Church: the rape, abuse, and murder of innocents in Mother and baby homes, or the systematic oppression of women in Ireland. Nobody wants to talk about the poverty and starvation or the homelessness and displacement of the famine, the generational trauma of colonization, the addicts and beggars in Dublin City Center, or the lack of mental health care access since the banning of institutionalization. Instead, the Irish prefer idealized notions of their history, where Ireland is still the Ireland of old, where the underdog comes out on top, where Ireland is still the pristine green island with its rocky beaches and dramatic rural vistas and seascapes dappled with dolphins and seals. The reality is this: shadows are everywhere, and the harder you try not to see them, the darker and larger they become, until they consume you; until you become them. The ancients understood that mistakes and accidents were not to be concealed, but to be learned from, and that is why they chronicled even their most tragic memories in oral tradition. Martin uses this tradition of storytelling to fuel her narrative, she tears the veil off Irish history, exposing the shame and insisting this is part of who we are, learning from this is what will make us stronger in the future. Suffering precludes wisdom. Don’t look away, look closer.
Martin has been with The Lilliput Press since her debut, Breakfast at Babylon, which won Book of the Year at Listowel Writer’s Week in 1994. Since Martin now lives in the US, she would like to find a publisher on the West Coast to help distribute her books abroad. I encouraged her to reach out to talent agencies in Hollywood- a film adaption of her work would be brilliant to see realized.
Martin: I would love to see the books adapted as a series. The narrative is a bit too expansive for a film, but the structure of a television series with 3 seasons would suit perfectly.
Martin’s work is extremely important; it provides a portal for people who want to learn more about Ireland and its complex and convoluted history. Martin’s trilogy delivers an accessible history of Ireland through the Irish storytelling tradition and the retelling of ancient Irish folklore through the lens of the people who lived through Ireland’s most trying times.
Martin, Emer. Interview. Conducted by Rachel McCarren. 21 Oct 2023.
Martin, Emer. Thirsty Ghosts. The Lilliput Press Ltd, 2023.