A Conversation with Sophie Grenham, Author of “14”

“…we’ve had a gaping void that no amount of Netflix binges can fill. When Ireland eventually opens up fully, I hope everyone makes up for lost time by pouring their money into cultural experiences. I urge people to book those cinema/museum/gallery/theatre/festival/concert tickets when the time comes. I hope they fill their boots.”

Photo Credit: Eoin Rafferty

Sophie, we are so happy we could give your first fiction publication a home. “14” tells the story of a teenager who has a romantic encounter at a party in – what feels like – Irish Suburbia.
What aspects of being a teenager in Ireland do you deal with in “14”?

It’s been a tremendous honour to feature in Tír na nÓg’s inaugural issue – thank you for having me. When the idea for “14” first entered my imagination, I was thinking about the summer season and the feelings and sensations associated with it. I reflected on my most memorable summers: all arrows pointed to my teenage years. I thought about the heat, about fields, about what music played on the car radio, about how school holidays seemed to go on forever. I’m not sure my story qualifies as a depiction of Irish teenagers per se. I wanted to create an immersive experience loosely based on my own, which was socially awkward and often lonely as I tried to navigate new terrain. Your typical adolescent, really.

At the end of “14”, the protagonist still thinks about the boy she kissed at the party, even many years later. The ending feels romantic, but in a world of online dating and flighty romances: could it also be considered an act of rebellion, a statement for the specialness of human interactions?

I wrote “14” with the aim of capturing the innocence of youth and hormones and infatuation. If you could bottle that purity, you would probably pocket a small fortune. When I was a teenager in the late 90s and early 00s, we didn’t have the distraction of social media – thank goodness. The best we had were bog standard “dumb” phones. Texting was cutting edge. If you wanted to meet your friends, you called them up and picked a time and a place – technology just didn’t feature. I find it interesting that you read my protagonist’s romantic yearning as an act of rebellion or a statement of some kind. That part is coincidental.

You are a very active figure in the Irish literary sphere – a writer’s blog, a booming Twitter account, and numerous journalistic publications. Do you want to give us an overview over your current projects?

I suppose you could call me an active figure. From 2015-2020 I was very busy with an online interview series I had with The Gloss Magazine called Writer’s Block. Each week I asked a different author about their home, creative habits, their roots and what makes them tick. Over the course of five years, I featured hundreds of different writers of all disciplines and experience. I’m not sure how I found the time to do all this, but I did. I’ve never really blogged. Perhaps when I get my website up and running, I’ll make monthly posts. At the moment, I’m contributing some pieces to IMAGE magazine’s shiny new website as well as in print.

What can you tell us about #SavetheArts?

The Save the Arts hashtag is something I display on my Twitter page as a reminder of how important it is to support our cultural institutions, lest they disappear forever. Since Covid-19 entered our lives, we’ve been able to feed ourselves, exercise and perhaps see a friend for a socially-distanced coffee outdoors. In less restricted times, we could go to gastropubs, restaurants and stay in hotels. I don’t think arts venues are deemed essential enough for one’s mental state and general well-being by certain figures. This is unfortunate, considering the sheer amount of us that visit such places each year. Since all cinemas, galleries, theatre and music venues closed due to restrictions, we’ve had a gaping void that no amount of Netflix binges can fill. When Ireland eventually opens up fully, I hope everyone makes up for lost time by pouring their money into cultural experiences. I urge people to book those cinema/museum/gallery/theatre/festival/concert tickets when the time comes. I hope they fill their boots.

When it comes to your writing, where did you start off, and where do you see your future? Fact, fiction, or a combination of the two?

I actually celebrated the 14-year anniversary of my first ever published article recently. On April 1st 2007, I published a small piece on The Blizzards band in The Sunday Independent. I know 14 is a funny number, but I also published my most recent print interview on April 1st 2021. It felt like I’d come full circle. Champagne was popped and a chocolate cake was consumed. My start in journalism was a series of fortunate events, the order of which has begun to feel fuzzy with time. I was in the middle of studying journalism itself, as well as working at Social & Personal magazine part-time.

One of my modules required me to write an article about a public figure. The following week, I happened to run into guitarist Justin Ryan from The Blizzards after a gig of theirs at The Village (now Opium) on Dublin’s Camden Street, and promptly asked him for an interview. Around this time, I had a monumental phone conversation with The Sunday Independent’s late editor, Aengus Fanning. I was merely looking for a quote from him for Social & Personal, but we ended up talking for an hour. He liked the sound of me and said he wanted to bring more young writers into the fold, which you can imagine was music to my ears. My Blizzards article was soon published along with several others in quick succession, and I eventually wrote some pieces for Social & Personal as well.

Since then, I have written for The Gloss Magazine, The Irish Times, IMAGE, and The Sunday Independent again after many years away. I have covered a serious amount of ground, though in the last couple of years my head has turned towards short fiction and essays. I suppose this urge is a by-product of hanging out with writers: their influence has undeniably rubbed off on me. I’ve always wanted to write a novel and have made several runs at a completed first draft. In an ideal world, my writing life would contain a mix of journalism, fiction, essays and novels. I’ll get there one day: I just need to keep my head down and lay off social media.

As a journalist, writer, and reader – what changes do you observe in the Irish literary scene, and what are you looking forward to most after the lockdown lifts?

The Irish literary scene is the same as it ever was – bustling. However, it was admittedly a shock to the system when we weren’t allowed attend book launches and festivals. Celebrating literature is one of the things we do best in this country and it felt so alien when it was all taken away. Of course we all know this is temporary and we’re nothing if not a resilient people, but it will take a while to get it all back. After lockdown, I most look forward to wandering around bookshops and libraries. I crave the simple luxury of sitting in a café and having a good read while the world walks by. I greatly miss galleries and the cinema too; especially my beloved Irish Film Institute in Temple Bar, for which I ran an online fundraiser. I’ll be indulging in plenty of artsy activities, given the opportunity.

How do you feel about online literature events? Do you think online events are something the scene can profit from when this is all over?

I think online literary events have been a godsend during this bizarre year we’ve had. It’s hard enough to put a book out into the universe without getting to promote it properly and interact with readers. When we’re allowed have public literary events again, I do think we should record them for those who remain at home, so we can have the best of both worlds. Many people with mobility issues or disabilities have said they’ve greatly benefited from the live streams, because they might not have been able to attend or access these events otherwise.

You have a pretty legendary list of new publications featured on your Twitter account. Do you have any special recommendations for our readers?

At the start of 2021, I was concerned that writers who weren’t with a major publisher or who didn’t possess a certain amount of literary pull were going to get lost in a sea of best-of lists and an overly-saturated market. Without the support of an agent or a publicist, authors might not have the know-how or confidence to promote themselves. So I started a thread asking writers to tell me if they have a book out this year and a little bit about it. Well. The response has been astounding. Hundreds of authors got in touch and the result is an enormous thread with heaps of new books to choose from.

I’ve been slowly compiling them into a list and I’ve been amazed at the amount of talent out there, especially among smaller presses like Louise Walters Books, Profile Books, Bearded Badger Publishing, and Galley Beggar Press. Some of the many weird and wonderful books that have jumped out at me include Paradise Block by Alice Ash, Seven Nights at the Flamingo Hotel by Drew Gummerson, The Dig Street Festival by Chris Walsh, The Khan by Saima Mir, and Porno Valley by Philip Elliott – an Irish writer based in Canada.

Is there an Irish author – old or new – that influences you the most?

To name just one Irish author when I am surrounded by Irish authors is an impossible task, so I’ve picked a smattering of people I admire and whose work I regularly encourage readers to seek out. Edna O’Brien, Marian Keyes, Nuala O’Connor, Lisa Harding, Liz Nugent, Doreen Finn, Julia Kelly, Alan McMonagle, Wendy Erskine, June Caldwell, Sinéad Gleeson, Neil Hegarty, and the late great Maeve Binchy.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions, Sophie!