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Anna Fitzgerald: I wrote seven novels over 15 years but ‘pure fear’ of rejection stopped me from seeking publication

Debut novelist on the power of reading, 1970s Ireland and her book, Girl in the Making

There’s a moment of confusion when I begin speaking with Anna Fitzgerald about what I thought was her debut novel.

“Over the past, maybe, 15 years, I’ve written seven novels,” she says.

Have I missed something in my research? Am I speaking with the wrong author? But no. Girl in the Making, which comes out this month, is indeed Fitzgerald’s debut novel. At least, it’s the first she’s published.

The author and translator, in her fifties, from Dublin, has been writing since she was a child. She first attempted to complete a novel when she was 22, a feat she didn’t achieve until about 15 years ago. Six more books followed, but it wasn’t until recently that she began to entertain thoughts of releasing her work to the world.


“I never really thought about being published,” she says, over Zoom. “I really didn’t. I guess I don’t like the publicity side of things. For me, writing is so private, and so intimate, and so important ... I was thinking, don’t. Because as soon as it becomes something out there, maybe a little bit of the magic will be gone.”

Later, over email, she reflects further on why she didn’t seek publication until now. She cites “pure fear that I would stop writing if I were rejected too many times”.

“The rejections – just a part of life – but cessation of writing, the end of a certain inner flourishing that writing brings to me. And also, I never honestly believed anywhere would publish my novels.”

It was only when Fitzgerald shared Girl in the Making with a friend, and that friend shared it with other friends, that it began its journey to publication. It made its way to author, Ian Sansom, who gave positive feedback.

“That gave me a lot of courage, because I know who he is, and he’s a really important person in the world of books,” says Fitzgerald. “So, after that, I just said, sure, share it with whoever you want.”

Eventually, it reached editor Brendan Barrington, at Sandycove, who worked with Fitzgerald to get it publication ready.

“The attention he gave the text was phenomenal. He didn’t interfere. He could see what I was trying to do.”

Girl in the Making tells the story of Jean Kennedy, a young girl coming of age in 1960s and 1970s Dublin. Through an intimate first-person narrative, we get a picture of Jean’s upbringing (from her early days to university), and of a family, and larger society, beset by dysfunction.

“I am very interested in the idea of childhood and how childhood shapes the rest of our lives,” says Fitzgerald. “If you grew up in the 1990s, you’ve a certain kind of approach to life. If you grew up in the 1980s, the 1970s, the 1960s, the 1950s, you’ve a different kind of approach to life. And you don’t just shake it off and move forward.”

As well as this “cultural baggage”, Fitzgerald explores the personal baggage and trauma that people carry from childhood to adult life.

“It was a hard book to write because you’re kind of aware, in this country, of all of the people who have had traumatic, horrendous, childhoods,” says Fitzgerald. “Some of the things that happen to [Jean] are obviously, you know, reprehensible. Nobody wants to write about that, and nobody wants to read about it. [But] you don’t need to write about it, and you don’t need to read about it, to know that it’s going on, because she’s telling you all the time what she’s feeling. Her emotions are central.”

In Jean’s orbit is a set of secondary characters, who exert different forces on her life. There’s her authoritarian father, her unmarried aunt, her faithful siblings, her cruel and abusive uncle, her mixed-up young au pair, and her beloved mother, who has her own troubles with which to contend. Much of the narrative takes place in the claustrophobic environment of the home. There is a rigid familial and social structure that begets a sense of entrapment. But while Jean, being a girl, is virtually lacking in agency, Fitzgerald wished to endow her with a different kind of power.

“I decided she was going to have all of the voice,” says Fitzgerald. “And in a way she has kind of got a power because she has moral power. She’s very honest, she’s very truthful, she’s very uncomfortable with things that aren’t right.”

Another thing that gives Jean power is her intelligence. Her reading life is rich and limitless and brings rare moments of redemption. Does Fitzgerald truly believe literature has this power – to save people from unbearable situations?

“I honestly do. Yes. I think the power of reading books for all ages – for children, for very elderly people – is just extraordinary. Jean can find beauty in literature. She loves her poetry, she can find great beauty there. And that can save a person, if you can see things that are actually so beautiful in the world.”

The book opens with Jean looking up at “a little piece of blue sky” through a giant yellow tree at the bottom of her garden.

“From the very beginning, she has this gaze that is fixed on something that is a little bit better ... She is one of those people who can just find something that is going to sustain her no matter what. She reaches for her poetry book, reads the lines from Gerard Manley Hopkins, and she’s uplifted. So, I really do think that books can have an extraordinary impact on people. I don’t think anything can really come close, except music, maybe.”

In setting the book in the 1960s and 1970s Fitzgerald wanted to capture an Irish society that was vastly different from today. In one chapter the mother is taken away to hospital, much to Jean’s confusion and terror.

“That chapter is called A Dangerous Lunatic, after the dangerous lunatic laws, which existed in Ireland since the 1800s, where a husband could put a wife [in an institution], just because he decided that she was mentally unstable. And many stayed there for their entire lives.”

The lives of women and children, in particular, come across as starkly different from the lives of women and children today. Without divorce, and without financial means of her own, Jean’s mother is dependent on her husband.

“She is a prisoner, really, in the circumstances. And there wasn’t divorce. I never knew anyone, when I was younger, who was properly, legally, divorced ... You were trapped in a bad situation, a lot of the time.”

Children, from their school days, learn that obedience is the bottom line, no matter the context.

“I think that children were afraid in school. I didn’t go to a terrible school, but I did go to the local national school and it was a pretty violent place. Just like any national school in Dublin, there was corporal punishment. And teachers could be vicious with kids. There were huge classes, absolutely huge numbers of kids. And you were okay if you were academic, but if you weren’t ...”

There are ways in which children’s lives in the 1960s and 1970s were better than they are now, however, Fitzgerald says. “You had so much freedom just to go out and play. All the roads were full of kids playing all around Dublin suburbs. And now the roads are all empty ... We’re so good at being parents, and professional at being parents, I think sometimes we don’t allow kids to sit on the wall for four hours and swing their legs.”

Fitzgerald has four children and the youngest completed his Leaving Certificate last year.

“You get all this space and time,” she says, of having adult children. But her writing still happens around a full-time job.

“I write anywhere, really,” she says. “In a coffee shop. In the kitchen. I don’t really have a routine because of work and family commitments, I just steal what time I can.”

The other novels Fitzgerald has written centre upon a similar world to Girl in the Making, with some of the same characters.

“They’re sitting there now, I don’t know what will happen to them, because publishers don’t really want you to throw six books at them at a time.”

Fitzgerald is happy to talk at length about her work but book publicity, and interviews such as this, seem to fill her with trepidation. Why is that, I wonder.

“You know what I think? I think that when you write a book, you give a huge amount of yourself, massive,” she says. “And it’s all in those pages. You’ve given so much of yourself there that I feel the book should then have its own legs; should have its own life. I feel this is Jean’s story ... And it shouldn’t be too closely associated with its author.”

The surveillance-focused world of today has its own oppressive force, she thinks.

“The 1970s and the 1980s were very challenging in Ireland, but I do find the contemporary world very challenging as well. Social media and all these kinds of [things], they’re massive pressures on people. I know lots of authors would have Twitter and things like that. But I can’t. I can only write the story. That’s all I feel I can do.”

Girl in the Making is published by Sandycove