Una Mannion: ‘Books that make me laugh are the same ones that devastate me’

Author on her favourite books, her new novel Tell Me What I Am and why Turkey is the most remarkable place she has visited

‘Tell Me What I Am is beautiful, haunting and beats with the heart of a thriller but is so much more,’ according to your friend and fellow author Louise Kennedy. What’s it about?

A woman leaves for work early one morning but never arrives. At one level this book is about what might have happened to her and has the literary thriller elements that Louise mentions. But the book is, I hope, “much more”. The woman leaves behind her sister, Nessa, and her daughter, Ruby. Her estranged partner takes Ruby from Nessa’s care and moves 400 miles away, refusing her visitation. The father can control Ruby’s narrative and her memories with no one to contradict. This book is ultimately about memory, how we remember and how we forget, and how forgetting possesses its own kind of violence.

How did it change as you wrote it?

At some draft stage, maybe four, the manuscript was 120,000 words. I cut at least half and then added new scenes. It was a ruthless edit but necessary for the pace of the book.


I loved your debut, A Crooked Tree, an evocative, atmospheric coming-of-age novel about what Eoin McNamee called ‘the badlands of family’. Tell me about it.

In A Crooked Tree, a mother makes her 12-year-old daughter get out of the car after an argument. It’s dusk and they are several miles from home. The child puts out her thumb to hitchhike. The book is narrated by the girl’s 15-year-old sister. The book is about what happens to the girl after she’s picked up by the wrong person, but it is also about a family falling apart and a teenager’s futile effort to try to hold them together.

Does living in Ireland give you the distance you need to write about the US, or is the passing of time more important for perspective and insight?

I think for me the distance has been critical. I yearn for places in America that feel lost to me. Because I am separated from the place, I am always conjuring it. I think it helps to see it.

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?

I drove to Connecticut in 1991 to interview Eleanor Clark, a leftist writer who had started a literary magazine with Elizabeth Bishop at Vassar and had then been a translator for Trotsky in Mexico in 1937. She married Robert Penn Warren, and I spent the day with the two of them in their home and it felt like a pilgrimage.

What current book would you recommend?

It came out last year but Tess Gunty’s debut novel The Rabbit Hutch is stunning.

Which public event affected you most?

A commemoration in Sligo on November 11th, 2018, the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day. Blue Raincoat Theatre Company staged a public performance to commemorate the Sligonians who lost their lives in the Great War. Over 5,000 volunteers had enlisted from Sligo, 621 of whom died (the body count has since risen through research by local historian, Simone Hickey). People volunteered for the commemorative walk through the town, each representing one of those fallen soldiers. All ages were there and from every demographic. Hundreds of spectators packed the sides of Wine Street as the soldiers lined up. Many of the participants I imagine had never even been in a theatre. We stood waiting for the walk to start, everyone was silent and then the church bells rang out.

The most remarkable place you have visited?

Turkey. I went with my son when he was 12 years old. In Istanbul we stayed with my brother-in-law’s great aunt. We visited the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. We drove to the Cappadocia region and saw the chimneys. Then in the mountains in Kizilcahamam we stopped in one of the villages where there are hot springs and went into a local hamam. My son went with his Turkish uncle into the men’s side. On the women’s side, the covered village women stripped off completely and chattered away to one another without an ounce of self-consciousness. When I went outside, I looked for my son. There was a large group of 20 or so men and boys over by some picnic tables and he was in their midst; they were feeding him plates of pickles and encouraging him and patting him on the back. Pickles help rehydration. They didn’t have a word of English and he didn’t have a word of Turkish.

What is the most beautiful book that you own?

In 2018, Tommy Weir travelled up and down the west coast photographing cillíní, those unofficial burial grounds for unbaptised children not allowed on sacred ground. Because the children were traditionally buried in the dark between dusk and dawn, Weir photographed them at night. The exhibition book, Cillín, sensitively marks their existence in photographs that are reverent and haunting.

Who is your favourite fictional character?

I think it’s always what I am reading rather than favourite character for all time. The characters I am walking around thinking about. At this very moment, it’s Jamie and Tess in How to Build a Boat by Elaine Feeney. Their conversations are ripping my heart out.

A book to make me laugh?

Books that make me laugh are the same ones that devastate me. Sophie White’s Corpsing: My Body and Other Horror Shows made me laugh out loud and then get caught in the throat. “Corpsing,” I learned, refers to the actor breaking character on stage, that moment when we see them and not the character they are performing. It’s exactly what she does in this book, and the honesty is so refreshing.

Tell Me What I Am is published by Faber & Faber