Recalling an idyllic childhood in East Cork

William Wall will launch his novel, Suzy Suzy, at the Cork World Book Festival later this month
Recalling an idyllic childhood in East Cork
William Wall will launch his novel, Suzy Suzy at the Cork World Book Festival this month.

Tell us about yourself?

I’m a writer from Cork. I’ve written many novels and story collections as well as poetry.

I was born in Cork city but grew up in the village of Whitegate. For as long as I can remember our house in Whitegate was painted yellow. In 2008, long after our family had sold it, the house was destroyed by an explosion and fire. It was quite a shock to see the empty space where it should have been. I named my fourth collection of poetry after it — The Yellow House.

I had, I think, an idyllic childhood, summers swimming from the Sawmills Pier, walking to school, being paid threepence by my grandmother to listen to her play the melodeon, hurling on the road outside our house, fishing with my father, or Sunday afternoon drives ‘around The East Ferry’.

In those days there were many retired sailors living in the village, including some who had fought in the two world wars. The harbour area had been a recruiting ground for the Royal Navy for several centuries. This gave the harbour a somewhat cosmopolitan feel, because so many men had been at sea.

My uncle, who had fought on the Arctic convoys, lived on one side of us, and on the other was Mrs Meehan, whose husband had died in the Battle of Britain. Another well-known figure in the village was Bob McGowan who had been badly shellshocked in the First World War.

Ours was the first house in the village with a television and my friends used to come in to watch westerns. My memory of the shooting of John F Kennedy was that it happened during an episode of a very popular western series called Bat Masterson. The announcer came on to say that Kennedy had been shot and wounded in Dallas and normal programmes would be suspended. To which one of my friends replied, in absolute shock: “What about Bat Masterson?”

At the age of 12 I contracted Still’s Disease, a kind of rheumatoid arthritis that affects young people (sometimes even babies) and which is characterised by crippling joint swelling and pain and twice daily fevers. I spent six months in hospital and the following year out of school. I think it was during that time that I became a writer. I still have some of the many poems and stories I wrote, sitting up in bed, and some of them were not too bad either.

My earliest memory

Falling into my grandmother’s fire. At that time we lived in her house. It was one of those old village houses without running water, though we were lucky enough to live beside the village pump, so it was almost in the house!

My grandmother used to keep a coal fire, winter and summer, in her little sitting room, and I can remember falling backwards into it. I literally sat on the coals. However, I was still in nappies and I wasn’t sitting there long enough to get burned. I can remember (or think I can remember) my grandmother yelling: ‘What are you doing there’. That sounds bizarre and unlikely and I may have invented it. In any case, she pulled me out and I lived to tell the tale.

Person you most admire?

I’m not sure there’s any one person that I admire more than anyone else. There are, of course, many writers whose work I admire and respect.

We’re lucky, in Cork, to have so many great poets and prose writers, and also that we have the support of great organisations dedicated to literature — the City Library, The Munster Literature Society, O’Bhéal, Fiction at the Friary and UCC. The city has a very vibrant cultural life.

But there are also many non-writers that I admire. For example, I’m a big admirer of Jeremy Corbyn. I like his politics and the fact that he has steadfastly stood by what he believes in all these years. I think it’s predictable that the media hate him, since the media is mostly privately owned or dominated by conservatives.

Person you’re most irritated by?

Like almost everybody else in the world, I’m irritated by Donald Trump. It’s not just his politics, xenophobia, misogyny, racism and tendency to lie, but the way he has brought a completely empty language to public discourse. Not only are his tweets full of lies, but when they’re not they mean nothing. He’s a spoiled child who has never grown up, a schoolyard bully.

Where was your most memorable holiday?

I think my most memorable holiday was a recent one in Brittany. It was my 60th birthday and the whole family came. We rented a gîte that was big enough for all of us, including the two grandchildren, and spent the time swimming, cooking seafood, drinking Muscadet and talking books and politics. We all get along very well and enjoy each other’s company and the weather was mostly good.

Favourite TV programme?

We don’t have a TV in the house. We got rid of it when the boys left home. We’re both agreed that it was one of the best things we ever did.

Of course, when kids are young you have to have one or they’ll be out of the loop, but once they’re gone there are so many other things to do. We read a lot, listen to radio and to music, and I often write in the evenings. And now there are so many ways to stream films for those evenings when you just feel like watching something.

Favourite radio show?

I listen to the review shows a lot — I love Sean Rocks as a presenter for Arena, for example, and there are some great shows on BBC4. But John Kelly’s Mystery Train is great too. He has a magical radio voice. Philip King’s The South Wind Blows is almost as eclectic as John Kelly’s, and we often listen to John Creedon.

Our wallpaper music is a Dutch classic music station, literally and unimaginatively named Classic FM. That’s what’ll be on when we’re not deliberately, listening to anything. And of course The News.

Your signature dish if cooking?

My signature dish, if that’s not too grand a term, is seafood risotto. I was taught how to make it by an Italian friend. The best is when I have prawns. I start by making a stock by frying the prawn heads very hot and fast (it’s called a fumetto) and then adding water and celery and sometimes a carrot. The fried prawn heads give the stock a nutty prawny flavour. In fact, you could make a perfectly tasty risotto with just that stock.

Irish prawns are amazing, of course, and if you go to the markets you can get them cheaply enough. You only need a fistful to make a risotto. It’s not an easy one for guests though, because it can’t be cooked in advance. It takes 20 to 30 minutes and you have to stand over it.

Favourite restaurant?

In Cork I have a number of favourite restaurants. The Farmgate can hardly be beaten for lunch. The Paradiso is my favourite spot for dinner. If you like Italian, Da Mirco is properly authentic. But the Farmgate is the one I go back to over and over, partly because it’s a great place to meet people, to have a morning coffee or a late afternoon glass of wine.

For a long time I used to work at a table at the bottom left several mornings a week. I like working in cafes. But nobody ever complained that I was taking up space. The Farmgate is very welcoming to writers, artists and musicians.

Last book you read?

I recently read The Shadow of The Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It’s a mystery set in Barcelona and centres on a missing writer. It’s utterly charming. I’ve just begun Catherine Kirwan’s first book, Dark Matter. It’s a crime novel set in Cork city. So far it’s brilliant, and very evocative of the city. It begins on the night of a flood.

William Wall is the author of six novels. Of the two most recent, Suzy Suzy will be launched at the Farmgate on Friday, April 26, during Cork World Book Festival, and Grace’s Day came out in 2018.

He has also published four collections of poetry and three of short stories. He is the first European to win the prestigious Drue Heinz Literature Prize in the USA, and has won many other prizes and awards. His 2005 novel, This Is The Country, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

His books have been translated into many languages and he translates from Italian.

William was the first person to gain a PhD in Creative Writing from an Irish university.

More information at his website: williamwall.net

William will also be in conversation with Francesca Melandri and Daniele Serafini for Italiani: Italy in Prose and Poetry in the City Library on Saturday, April 27 at 3pm as part of Cork World Book Fest.

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