Should you look through back copies of Open Pen, right back to Issue Five, you will find a curiously titled tinyplay by Irish writer, then a Londoner, RM Clarke. “The Ice-Cream Robbery of Sherkin Island” is a funny little farce as playful as it is minimal. So it was with eyebrows raised comically skyward of my sunglasses that when I caught up with Clarke in the last orders of summer gone, she told me of her high concept novel, the protagonist of which was a… omniscient foetus.
Sean Preston: I think we first spoke about this book, The Glass Door, several years ago, feels like you’ve had quite the journey with it in just getting to this point.
R. M. Clarke: It’s been a journey, that’s for sure. I started writing it in my first London flat when I was auditioning for acting jobs ten years ago, and for about seven it’s been winning awards and winning and losing and winning again agents, and being consistently rejected by publishers across the board.
Sean Preston: You mentioned that after it won a prize at the Dalkey Book Festival an author in attendance suggested it was, ahem, “chick lit”, and that didn’t sit well with you. Is half the battle with these things avoiding labels, avoiding being pigeonholed as a writer? Avoiding idiots?
This author — who is an extremely successful one — took one look at me and said, “Oh, does it have lipstick and high heels on the cover?”
R. M. Clarke: I think that’s unavoidable, especially as a female writer. I mean this author — who is an extremely successful one — took one look at me and said, “Oh, does it have lipstick and high heels on the cover?” And I’ve had similar assumptions made since. But I was already used to that from the acting world, and from simply existing as a woman.
Sean Preston: But then these labels make it easier to sell these books to bookshops, no? Publishers told you it was “unplaceable” precisely because they couldn’t label it.
R. M. Clarke: In terms of it being “unplaceable,” to me that’s its strength. It makes me proud of it, in a way, that it resists that on its own merit. Though maybe I can only say that now that IS being published. The character, Rosie, who we grow with from the womb to teenagehood exists within a very dark adult world, which in itself is a tension, but alongside that, the story is framed inside a hypnosis session, so it’s a liminal, quite submerged landscape. So I can understand why publishers and some agents have had similar qualms about how to market it.
Sean Preston: You certainly have range. I know you do because I published a comic miniplay of yours in one of the early editions of Open Pen, which you performed at a bookshop in East London for us. The novel is so different — fair to say it’s the opposite of lighthearted. Is this the real Remie?
R. M. Clarke: I actually find this book quite funny at points — what does that say about me, I wonder? And the Ice Cream Robbery of Sherkin Island had a dark undercurrent of greed for all its apparent lightheartedness. I like a certain tautness in tone, having opposing moods pulling against each other — which may be why I’ve had trouble finding a home for this (although perhaps I’m the only one who finds The Glass Door funny). I do think the Irish have a great appetite for suffering, and Irish writers a great appetite for writing in that medium, in their own blood, in a way. In terms of it being the “real” me — it was the first piece I wrote seriously and sent out, so perhaps it has a more unvarnished quality than what I might write now. But my writing is constantly evolving — I don’t think I could write this book now. So much time has passed since then and I, and the landscape of my life, has changed so much, which isn’t to say it’s completely unrecognisable to me. The same obsessions seep into all my writing, and The Broken Spiral anthology, that I edited and launched last year in aid of the Rape Crisis Centre, dealt similarly with ideas of healing from trauma and power abuse that seems to creep into every piece I write.
Sean Preston: You’re also an actor and a voice actor, you touch on that. Does physical performance inform your writing?
R. M. Clarke: I don’t court jobs in front of a camera or on stage any more; I’m am at home squirreled away in the studio or at the writing desk (read: kitchen table) at the moment. But performance absolutely comes into my writing. I live inside the skin of my characters, and always read my writing aloud, as if it were an audiobook recording, to feel the rhythm. The sentence for me has to have a sort of music to it.
Sean Preston: Irish literature, in particular fiction written by Irish women really feels like it’s flashing all over my radar at the moment. I lumped the Open Pen budget on Sally Rooney to win Man Booker. Maybe I got carried away. Does it feel like there’s a fresh literary surge occurring over that way?
R. M. Clarke: It’s always been there. I think it’s a national past-time, actually; we must have the most writers per capita in the world… I wonder is there a statistic somewhere? Perhaps the difference is that more people are taking Irish female writers seriously now the groundwork has been so well-established by powerhouses like Edna O’Brien and Anne Enright, and most recently the phenomenon of Sally Rooney’s success. But in the same breath there are a huge number of female writers who have languished forgotten and out of print, and there’s been a resurgence in recovering those lost voices in Irish publishing — Tramp Press have brought out some great editions of forgotten female writers. But what’s happening now does feel like a sort of rising up of the feminine, both in Ireland and globally — which is also reflected in the Irish political landscape, and the social movements around the world that are seeking to redress a balance that has been woefully tipped for far too long.
What’s happening now does feel like a sort of rising up of the feminine, both in Ireland and globally — which is also reflected in the Irish political landscape, and the social movements around the world that are seeking to redress a balance that has been woefully tipped for far too long.
Sean Preston: Perhaps my interpretation of this as being fresh or new is tied up in how much Ireland as a country has featured in news recently with the Repeal. You’re from Dublin, does it feel like the result has changed general life in the city outside of the obvious changes to law?
R. M. Clarke: With the Abortion Referendum and Marriage Equality Referendums passing, there’s been a sense of relief. It was an elated feeling in the city when the Mar Ref passed but just an exhausted, heartbroken feeling of relief after the Abortion Referendum went through — it was so hard won, and many people were genuinely terrified it wouldn’t happen, and there was an awful feeling of “what, then?” But it did. And with the Belfast Rape Trial months before and the great ugliness that threw up, along with the very dirty play of the Pro-Life campaign during Repeal, it’s no utopia, as wonderful as these freedoms are to have at last. In Dublin it feels like a series of almost daily protests against gender inequality and other forms of injustice in the country like the housing crisis, which single mothers, as one of the most economically oppressed groups, are usually bearing the brunt of (Roddy Doyle’s written a film about this, coincidentally called Rosie, which is releasing soon). The pope still came to Dublin some weeks ago, although the audience was considerably more anaemic than what it had been like in ’76. It feels like the Irish community, which has been damaged across the board by how things have been over many years, have really banded together to fight these great bullies of church and state. We’re not there yet, though.
With the Abortion Referendum and Marriage Equality Referendums passing, there’s been a sense of relief. It was an elated feeling in the city when the Mar Ref passed but just an exhausted, heartbroken feeling of relief after the Abortion Referendum went through — it was so hard won, and many people were genuinely terrified it wouldn’t happen, and there was an awful feeling of “what, then?”
Sean Preston: Back to the book, where can we get it, and why did you fight so hard for it? Some writers accept a book’s rejection as fate, move on. Why couldn’t you do that with this one? Why did you need it to be read?
R. M. Clarke: I’m enormously stubborn. And I think it didn’t help that I won a number of awards with it and had so much interest from agents — that really fed my belief that there was something in it, but it also made the relentless rejections from publishers doubly hard. I do think, in a strange way, that now is exactly the right time for it to be published with the Repeal and #MeToo movements and the rising up of Irish community against a system that doesn’t adequately represent it, as this book has the social oppression of three generations of Irish women at its heart. Perhaps it knows now that it has finally found its place.
It is being published by Dalzell Press and is available to buy since October 1st on Amazon White Glove and in selected American bookshops. Irish and UK bookshops to follow…
R. M. Clarke’s stories have been published in The Irish Times, Spontaneity, Losslit, The Open Pen Anthology and Dublin 2020. Her debut novel, The Glass Door, won the ‘Discovery’ award at the Dalkey Book Festival and The Irish Writers Centre Greenbean Novel Fair 2016. She lives in Wicklow.
Sean Preston is a London-based writer. He is also the editor of Open Pen, a magazine and independent publisher.