Evelyn Conlon, an Irish writer I was lucky enough to meet in Spain at an artists residency in Mojacar, is an accomplished novelist, essayist and her short stories have been both collected and widely anthologized. Her 2003 novel, Skin of Dreams, was shortlisted for Irish Novel of the Year and her latest collection of short stories, Moving about the Place, New and Selected Stories was published to great acclaim in 2021 by Blackstaff Press. The book demonstrates “how borders, movement and history can change and transform people’s lives.” She is the author of a total of four novels (Skin of Dreams, A Glassful of Letters, Ny Head is Opening) and four collections of short fiction, including Not the Same Sky.
Famine, capital punishment, borders, sex and deceit fill the pages of her books, with an accent on personal relationships and social responsibility. Evelyn has been a Writer in Residence at UCD, as well as a visiting writer at Mishkanot Sha’anamin, Jerusalem; The Djerassi Foundation in California, The National Writers’ House in Australia, and the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota. She is an elected member of Aosdána (an Irish association honoring artistic work). Her fiction has also been translated into many languages, recently, Chinese and Tamil. She currently serves as an Adjunct Professor at Carlow University, Pittsburgh’s MFA Programme, and lives in Dublin.
Millicent Borges Accardi: You and I met at Fundación Valparaíso, a residency in Mojacar, Spain, where we took a road trip to the Alhambra and enjoyed wine on the veranda nearly every evening before dinner. If I can ask, what manuscript were you working on that September?
Evelyn Conlon: I was working on the very beginnings of Not the Same Sky, a novel about Irish Famine orphan girls shipped to Australia, and was trying to find a way into it. I did not want to overload this book with tragedy, while at the same time stating the cold cruel facts of it. I remember trying out different ways of approaching it. It’s easy when the task is done to say, well that’s what I did, but, as we well know, when you’re beginning you do not know what will and won’t fall into place.
The sheer number of words to be done, their tone, the re-writing could send you to off to train as a plumber. But at a residency like this, some markers for the year ahead can make themselves clear.
As a break from that, I worked on a few short stories for the bank, but which ones? Possibly, “Reasons that I know of why we’re not allowed to speak to my Grandmother.”
And, as a break from that, I prepared for our pre prandial on the veranda.
MBA: Our connection excluded lol, did you form any friendships or literary partnerships at residencies?
EC: Obviously in a setting closer to home I’ve established acquaintanceships, more than friendships.
And they might have happened anyway. I have kept in contact with some people from Varuna in Australia, the librarian in Monaco and an artist I met in Schwandorf. Yes, perhaps that’s odd – I wonder should one expect more friendships to have been established? Maybe it’s got to do with the residency being an out of normal experience. And the fact that I really do see them as a precious opportunity to concentrate solely on my work. With exceptions of course.
MBA: In general what impact have residencies and writer-in-residence stints had on your writing? Bad, good, helpful?
EC: My feeling is that they have generally been good. Of course, there have been blips, indeed in a recent places. But I’m trying to tell myself that even the bad in that one had its worthwhile moments.
MBA: Have you ever selected a residency because you wanted to do research in a particular location or to gain insight on a location, area or city?
EC: No, actually. But, I did select Djerassi because I wanted to complete work that had been researched in the US. I felt I needed to write it there, because I might have lost the determination to finish it if I had returned home.
MBA: What’s the difference between a residency and being a writer-in-residence?
EC: A residency is set up so that artists can get on with their work, the emphasis is on that. A writer in residence can be a job, or a short posting, given usually because of work already done. Commitments vary. I’ve done a number; University College Dublin involved both a continuous workshop and individual lectures.
One in Leuven in Belgium involved a number of university visits, but gave me a lot of time to work. The Residency at the Princess Grace Library in Monaco involved readings, but mainly gave me time to work in the library. This one was slightly thrown in the air by Covid; I had to take a last flight home in the first instance, as the runways at Nice airport began to close. But, delightedly, they had me back in 2021 to have another fortnight. My projected school visits were cancelled. I did their last reading before Covid lockdown and their first when they re opened. It will always have a special place in my memory.
MBA: How many residencies have you been on in total? What’s the longest? Shortest?
EC: Annaghmakerrig, Ireland. Mojacar, Spain. Varuna, Australia. Djerassi, USA. Mishkenot, Jerusalem, Schwandorf, Germany. Leuven, Belgium. I wouldn’t include the last one because it didn’t fulfil certain requirements. I’ve gone to Annaghmakerrig for short periods, my longest was a month.
MBA: Have you left a residency?
EC: No, but I should have. Once, because quite frankly one of the artists was a manipulative harassing machine. The other, completely lacked the ethos, and facilities required, and I was almost overcome with virtue signaling humourlessness.
MBA: What is your dream residency? People. Set up? Situation? Do you look for isolation or do you prefer a group of other residents?
EC: Room with a bit of a view, reasonable people who know what they’re doing and also respect everyone else’s work. It’s good to have others around in the evening, but I’m happy enough to be on my own too.
MBA: What was the first residency you attended?
EC: Tyrone Guthrie Centre, Annaghmakerrig, Co. Monaghan.
MBA: Where was the most exotic writer-in-residence or residency that you participated in?
EC: Probably Monaco, but Varuna is a close second for all sorts of other reasons.
MBA: Can you match one of your books TO a residency and say, OH yes, I wrote half of this novel there or this residency was where such and such CLICKED for me and I was able to work really well there?
EC: Djerassi, I wrote the really hard bits about Capital Punishment for the novel Skin of Dreams.
MBA: What do you look for in selecting a residency?
EC: Suitable location. In view of my last experience I may be more diligent about finding out details of the next one.
MBA: What purpose do residencies serve in your life and writing process? Like some people use residencies as a place to get away from day-to-day life and spend the whole time working. Others use residencies to do research for a book or project.
EC: I would use a residency to do a particular piece of work. I’ve never gone to one to simply think. I need to be ready to hit the ground running when I get there.
MBA: What residency has the best food? The best view? Sorry to ask such silliness.
EC: Annaghmakerrig for food. Varuna for view. Mojacar wasn’t bad – all those lovely olive trees.
MBA: What residency was most memorable for you and why.
EC: In Jerusalem I looked out at the walls of the old city every day. I was supposed to be turning a play about the sculptor Henri Gaudier and Sophie Breseska into a short story. I’m afraid the politics, the history, the beauty, the sadness of it left me stumped. The work had to be re-done when I got back to real life. We eat our boiled eggs from the cups I bought there.
MBA: One of the other residents in Spain, Sonia, she was a residency “whore” jumping from residency to residency as a vagabond way of life.
EC: Did Sonia describe herself like that? I think she did? You’d have to say that in the question just in case she took exception, been there, done that. Shall explain.
MBA: I think she put her life in storage and lived for two years JUST at residencies. Covid perhaps put a halt to this for awhile, but what are your thoughts on residencies as a life style?
EC: Dear me. I wouldn’t like that.
MBA: What advice do you have for writers who have never been on a residency or applied for one? What would you advise? Warn them about? Share with them?
EC: They are usually great places to get work done. But come prepared to deal with the occasional looper – have plenty of work to do. And go home with five times more done than you would normally have achieved in that time.
MBA: What makes for a great residency?
EC: A good room, good company and not too many loopers.
MBA: What non-writing activities do you take part in or enjoy during a residency?
EC: None. other than socializing at dinner.
MBA: Any suggestions for what to pack, to take on a residency?
EC: A home comfort or two.
MBA: What annoys you at a residency?
EC: Too many loopers.
MBA: What tips or suggestions would you give to writers who have never been on a residency?
EC: Go. Honestly.
MBA: How do you select which residency to apply for, is there a process?
EC: I’d have to think about that one. Some of mine have been exchange programmes, others because I thought the place would suit the work I was doing.
MBA: You’ve been to the residency in Monaco twice, is that right? Can you describe what you like about it?
EC: This was not the usual sort of event. It is an Ireland Fund Bursary, for Irish writers, one month in the Library. They also have one for Academics.
MBA: What are you working on right now? Do you have a residency lined up for 2024?
EC: No residency lined up, am waiting for other dates to be agreed. I’m working on a collection of essays and the beginnings of another book. So, two books, and not liking either of them. Yet.
MBA: No naming names– unless you want to– but what traits make for a BAD fellow resident? Or an overall BAD residency situation?
EC: The same traits as make for a bad fellow train journey traveller, only more so. Self centered narcissists show themselves early. I’ve had two bad residency experiences, hard going really, but I stuck them out.
MBA: Can you match residencies with the work you produced? Can you list a few that you can remember? What you worked on and where? If possible?
EC: Skin of Dreams, at Djerassi. Not the Same Sky at a few places, that book took a lot of re-writing. Individual short stories in many places.
MBA: What is the value of residencies to writers and artists (in general)
EC: They exist to give artists guilt free time and are wonderful for that reason. Also at the beginning of ones work they can be good as symbols of encouragement. You can see others working away, chipping at the block, climbing up the word count.