‘These stories are works of fiction. Any resemblance to real life is purely inevitable’

Tanya Farrelly on the elements of truth in fiction and the alchemy that transforms them

A statement at the beginning of Thomas Morris’s 2015 fiction collection We Don’t Know What We’re Doing smartly reads: “These stories are works of fiction. Any resemblance to real life is purely inevitable.”

I believe that all great stories contain kernels of truth. It is not necessarily the author’s truth, but it is somebody’s truth, which must be communicated to the reader with the utmost empathy. Without empathy, we cannot write. A writer, in order to engage an audience, requires the ability to envisage themselves living myriad lives – we must be able to feel what our characters feel when faced with a predicament. This has nothing to do with age or with gender, these things are for the most part irrelevant. What is relevant is to engage as emotional beings and to use both our lived and imagined experiences to entertain our readers.

More than one of the stories in my latest collection contains elements of truth. This is true too of my first collection, When Black Dogs Sing (Arlen House, 2016). Over the years I have mined both my own experiences and those of others and used them as kicking-off points for my fiction. Is this wrong? I don’t think it is – I think as an empathetic human being, it is impossible to ignore the things that affect us.

The title story of When Black Dogs Sing was inspired by a documentary I watched some years ago where a teenage boy went missing on his way to his friend’s house at six o’clock in the evening. No one in that rural community had seen anything. This boy’s parents were, naturally, at their wits’ end trying to find out what had become of their son. This story stayed with me – the perspective of the mother was, for me, the obvious one to choose. Imagine the emotions this woman felt: fear, anger, anguish, bewilderment... we have all felt these emotions at some stage of our lives, it was not difficult to empathise.


The setting of that story is a mix of places I know, I pictured Carla living in my step-father’s cottage, the black dog was my step-father’s dog. I moved the house to the Blessington Lakes where I used to walk an ex-boyfriend’s dog on roads so dark and narrow, that we’d have to almost jump into the ditch every time we heard a car come round a bend.

This mining of truth continues in my latest collection: Nobody Needs to Know. The truth can be something small, a familiar setting, an actual conversation, interesting characteristics or events that I might fuse to create something entirely new. At times, the truth is more personal.

A few years back my husband and I lived through a two-week period of real fear. A neighbour in our apartment complex had a mental breakdown, which resulted in unprovoked intimidation and death threats, forcing us to temporarily move out of our apartment for our own safety. This experience, two years later, inspired the story Ding Dong Johnny. I could not have written it at the time, it was too traumatic, I was involved – I needed the space to process what had happened. More elements in that story are true than in any other: the screaming of strange nursery rhymes in the middle of the night, obscenities, the Garda visits, our mail torn up and left outside our door, his asking me how long my husband wanted to live, returning to our apartment to pick up our clothes and personal possessions accompanied by a Garda escort.

The situation only resolved when we managed to track down a sympathetic relative who convinced our neighbour to check himself into rehab and afterwards found him a more suitable place to live. Even then, we dreaded his return. For a long time after, I would look out our apartment window and think that one day I would see him sitting on the bench across the road waiting to accost us – waiting to blame us for having had him moved on.

There are other, lesser or borrowed truths in this collection. Ashes came about when I was out walking around the fields at the base of Bray Head and noticed a tent hidden amongst the branches of a huge conifer tree. My curiosity was piqued when I saw a young couple return to this tent with their shopping bags. The rest is fiction. Rupture was inspired by the sudden death of a close friend. In the weeks that followed, everything I tried to write became about him, which I wanted to resist. He was 41, his death was incomprehensible. I found myself wondering what I’d been doing, what totally mundane task I’d been performing, when he left this world. I coupled that with another friend’s story of a rift with her brother caused by some foolish thing – and I asked myself what if? What if someone died and the last words you’d exchange were angry ones? Apart from these two elements, the story is fictitious – the characters entirely invented.

Many of these stories are set in a seaside town. This hadn’t occurred to me until a fellow-writer who I asked to provide a blurb made the comment. It is not surprising as I’ve resided in Bray now for the past seven years. We’ve recently bought a 120-year-old farmhouse in Castleisland, Co Kerry. Weekends are spent renovating and making it our own. I look forward to seeing what emerges once I start writing in this house. It’s surrounded by fields and plantations of pine trees, a narrow boreen leads to more fields and a bog beyond. Our rescue dog, Mr Shelby, the inspiration for the story Bat Ears and Fifi, loves it down there – he’s been helping me get the garden planted for spring.

The truth will out in fiction. And every day new truths and new stories are formed. It’s all about getting the balance right. An experience in itself is not a story – it’s the asking of the what if? and exploring those possibilities that transform it into a story. Perhaps my next collection will lure me from the urban landscape that I know so well, or maybe it won’t. Either way I’ve no doubt that fresh experiences will continue to fuel my work – but at the end of the day to go back to and borrow that quote: “These stories are fiction…” with many grains of truth mixed in.

Nobody Needs to Know has just been published by Arlen House (November 2021). Tanya Farrelly’s debut short fiction collection When Black Dogs Sing (Arlen House, 2016), was longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize and won the Kate O’Brien Award 2017. Two novels, The Girl Behind the Lens and When Your Eyes Close, were published by Harper Collins (2016/2018). She curated and edited The Music of What Happens, an anthology of poems, stories and essays by over 50 Irish writers published in aid of Purple House Cancer Support Centre (New Island, 2020). She holds a PhD in creative and critical writing from Bangor University, Wales, and teaches at numerous institutions, including the Irish Writers Centre, Dublin, and the People’s College. She is the founder and director of Bray Literary Festival and is writer-in-residence at NUI Galway.