Mayo author E.M. Reapy talks about her debut novel set in the wake of the 2008 recession
“Was turning out to be worse than the way we were back in Ireland. Off our faces all the time and running too low on dollars. I didn’t want to go robbing. It was supposed to be a fresh start from here.”
These words, taken from Elizabeth Reapy’s debut novel Red Dirt, will have been spoken by many an Irish person in the wake of the 2008 recession, writes Adam Shaw. With the situation spiralling ever downwards at home – particularly for young people – they packed their bags and headed for pastures new. Some came to Britain in the hope of finding steady work.
Others ventured to America in search of a dream. Several made the long journey south to Australia with the promise of adventure. Whatever their aims and ambitions, the common goal was escape. Escape from Ireland, escape from a seemingly hopeless situation and a desperate need for a new beginning. However, as Elizabeth shows in her fast-paced thriller, these heady plans were often shattered – sometimes in dramatic circumstances.
“I didn’t think I’d be able to write something so dark but that was how the situation was,” she said. “There were lots of people who had travelled to Australia because it seemed exotic and there were plenty of construction and engineering opportunities. “But in the end, although there were lots of people who got on just fine, there were many who were left broken by their experience.”
Elizabeth herself went over to Australia looking for something different. Fortunately, she hasn’t been broken and she thoroughly enjoyed her time travelling. She spent most of it with a pen in her hand, just as she has always done, and around every corner she seemed to find inspiration, however tragic the subjects might have been.
“I was in Australia and I kept meeting all these young Irish people,” she explained. “Many of them had lost their jobs and it stuck with m e hearing all of their stories. It was quite bleak for them at home but then some had also struggled to find work out there as well.
“I began by just writing a short story in Perth but at some point I decided I wanted a firmer challenge and so it morphed into a novel.”
What she’s produced follows three young Irish people, who, though fictional, were easy to conjure up in her mind. There is Hopper who, out of his head on acid, is left for dead in the outback. Then there is Fiona who, devoid of self-respect, has just fled an abusive relationship. Finally we have Murph who, following the collapse of the Celtic Tiger has to come to terms with his family’s financial struggles. Three different stories which are bound together by the concept of Irishness, they are just some examples of the kind of things Elizabeth heard on her travels.
She has tried to be honest with her writing, making it clear that this is a rough and ready, vivid and gritty account.
“I’m not trying to trick anyone. There is a lot of bad language in this book; you only need to take a look at the cover of the book,” she said. “There’s also swearing on page one but, that’s how it was. I’m always a bit wary of showing it to my granny and her friends but for anyone who was likely to be offended by it, they wouldn’t get too far in.”
The emotional strain of writing such a hard-hitting novel, never mind a debut outing, means Elizabeth has since taken a break from writing. But she is keen to return – referring to an irrepressible hunger to write – and has plenty of ideas in the pipeline. Fans of Red Dirt can hopefully look forward to another novel as she explained how she has one written and that it “just needs fixing”.
A collection of short stories should also be round the corner, in addition to a book of poetry. For the time being, the hot, red, behemoth that is Australia has been replaced by a fresh, green corner of west Ireland and Elizabeth believes that things are looking up for her native country.
“Things are beginning to improve, for sure, and there is more work available,” she said. “I think people are able to cope as well because many of them, whether they remained or went abroad, know what it’s like to have been through such a tough time.
“There’s a positive vibe about and you sense that most people are back on their feet. There’s more of a spiritual outlook and, at the same time, people are being realistic.
“The government as well – I know they get a lot of stick – but they are actually doing okay in what is a very tough job.” Ireland might be on the rise, or at least on the recovery, but it’s important to remember the darker days of 2008. It’s also important to recognise that trying to escape wasn’t always the answer.
Red Dirt by E.M. Reapy has been nominated for the Sunday Independent Newcomer of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. It is available at www.amazon.co.uk