Writers Chat 61: Katherine O’Donnell on “Slant” (New Island: Dublin, 2023)

Cover image of “Slant” showing three women standing in front of bookshelves, and smiling directly at the camera.

Katherine, You’re very welcome to my Writers Chat series. We’re going to chat about your debut Slant (New Island: Dublin, 2023) which I devoured, and loved, though it did make me cry.

SG: Let’s start with the title – taken from the Emily Dickinson poem “tell all the truth but tell it slant” – which, to me, seemed to describe Ro McCarthy’s life experience. She’s on the outside, spectoring her own life. Can you talk about this theme of not being able to face or talk about the truth head on, at always having to tackle it at a slant?

KOD: Dickinson’s line for me is a perfect summary of the super-power of fiction – which has the potential to make a world for a reader but only when it resonates as ‘true’. Fiction is created through sentences running across pages – slantwise – yet when fiction works for an audience it is not received as ‘fake’ or ‘false’ but as illuminating the real world – all the truth.

Ro McCarthy appears as a reliable narrator but we also experience her as a young, naïve woman; as foolish, duplicitous at times, unaware of danger, inexperienced, and sometimes cowardly. I wanted to write a young voice that we see mature. The older Ro sees more – but as you point out, both young and older Ro have their own particular turning into and away from the environments in which they find themselves in. Their perspective is framed by their orientation to the world and is always partial – just like all of our perspectives. In seeing how the experiences and hence the characters of Ro younger and older are shaped by their environment, readers get a taste of a fundamental truth – we are all formed in and through the contexts in which we move or remain stuck.

SG: Of course, the narrative of Slant is not only the communal story of life for Irish emigrants in Boston in the mid-eighties but is also a looking back novel, that of the formation of self, and ones place in the world. Towards the end of the novel Ro, sitting at her window, muses (quite movingly, I felt):

I feel a type of loneliness, a singular aloneness, that makes me feel secure and that the world I am in is full of possibilities. I know myself by my loneliness. This is me. This is me.

It struck me that she is right – despite the parties, the craic, the people, all with the wonder and grief of life – Ro is comfortable in her own skin and, in her fifties, is finally content enough to allow herself to feel that singular aloneness. Can you talk a little about the individual/ communal support in the community (especially the Lesbian community) that she seeks and finds in Boston in the mid-eighties?

KOD: I am very gratified to see how deeply you’ve connected with Ro and Slant. I am so glad that Slant has found such an engaged first reader! When I wrote those lines about Ro’s loneliness I was drawing on that wonderful poem by Adrienne Rich “Song” where the speaker is responding to the question ‘Are you lonely’. She answers ‘yes’ in four short, intensely lyrical and visual verses and she describes her loneliness as a sense of journeying, independence and expanding freedom. She answers that yes, she’s a plane riding lonely over the Rockies aiming for ‘blue-strung aisles/of an airfield on the ocean’; she’s a woman driving across country; she’s the first person awake in a house full of sleeping people, at dawn in a city; she’s lonely like a frozen rowboat at a lake at the end of December, ‘that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither/ice nor mud nor winter light/but wood, with a gift for burning.’ I have always loved that poem and it was a touchstone for developing the character of the older Ro.

Ro’s ‘ singular aloneness’ is buoyed by her deep experience of community so that she remains confident that world is still alive with possibilities. When she threw herself into the tribe of lesbians in 80s Boston, she had no idea where she would land – we remember that she didn’t want to describe herself as ‘coming out’ but ‘coming in’ – she came into herself, into a lesbian life and was caught in a safety-net of connection with Eily, Mels, the Boys, ACT-UP. We see her in her later life among deep friendships and in a ritual calendar of dyke activities that continue to structure her days and support her in joyful connection.

SG: Yes, “joyful connection” really sums it up. Ro also finds community through social activism – in the 80s she throws herself into AIDS activism and in the 2000s she’s marching the streets of Cork and remembering that in the 80s she

was part of a tribe moving as wind: sometimes salty, sometimes rain-drenched, sometimes howling, then playful, tickling, a gentle breeze; but always bringing more oxygen and possibility to the world, changing the atmosphere and dappling the light.

All of those times “were already an overlooked history” and she feels “the dissonance of that time” with her life as she now lives it. These sentiments echo not only the passing of time but also the huge changes in Irish society and attitudes towards sexuality and identification. And yet, going door-to-door, Ro finds that not much has changed at all. Can you talk about how the personal echoes the social throughout Slant?

KOD: Ro McCarthy’s personal trials and tribulations have allowed me to write a micro-history of Ireland from the last two decades of the twentieth century into the first two decades of this twenty-first century. It surprises me that fiction and film have not focussed much on the tens of thousands of Irish ‘illegals’ who lived in the 80s and 90s in cities across the USA. Even in more recent years the figure of Irish illegal aliens in America is reliably estimated to be about 50,000. The Irish ‘illegals’ are embedded in distinct communities and I wanted to write about that culture, particularly as I imagined it existing in the 1980s. I hope that acknowledging Ireland’s very recent history as a strong exporter of economic migrants during our dire economic recessions in the 1980s that we might remain sensitive and sympathetic to economic migrants living and working and enriching Ireland today.

Ro’s other community in Boston is her queer community who lived through the battle of the AIDS crisis – Ro remembers it as a war and her shell shock is reactivated in her experience of the Marriage Equality campaign. I wanted the reader to be able to witness the cumulative trauma-toll of social marginalisation and oppression on one individual who doesn’t quite understand herself that she has PTSD. In the reader’s empathetic experience of Ro’s life, I hope to inculcate an understanding of the undue suffering of all those whose social identities leave them vulnerable to prejudice and exclusion.   

SG: And you capture this cumulative trauma subtly, and well. Russ declares to Ro “I don’t know if fags and dykes will ever get to write the history, dear Rose Marie, but we will certainly make the art.” There’s a meta-narrative in Slant that of creativity allowing people to be more themselves – for some it’s through singing/dancing/ music and for Ro it’s through writing. Like many writers, Ro writes to make sense of the world, she often wakes with “a wisp of a story” in her head and she tries to chase it down. Can you talk about how writing, for Ro, is about (as she says) “re-membering” herself, reclaiming her body, trauma, grief and from always having “to be brave facing the public world”.

KOD: Yes, the central claim of Slant is that creativity allows us to connect with empathy and understanding, and kindness, and maybe even joy, both to our own experience and that of strangers. I hope that the ending reveals how readers as much as writers of fiction play their part in fostering these enriching connections.

SG: I loved the tone of Slant; Ro’s humour and wry observations of the world around her. She likes American people despite the fact that they “were astonishingly, uniformly intent on amplifying happiness…all that positivity was the perfect antidote to being Irish.” Despite the horror and devastation AIDS brings to many of Ro’s circle, it’s this humour – often self-deprecating – that allows her to be honest, and this can be seen in the wonderful employee/employer relationship she has with the elderly spirited Clara as well as the great friendship groups she has – the misfits – and Eily and Mels. Did this voice come for you through characterisation or theme?

KOD: What another lovely observation and question! The humour came from both the character and the theme – groups that struggle collectively to resist social prejudice and oppression can only survive if they routinely create spaces for joy and laughter. And Ro is simply very funny.

SG: Without plot spoiling, Slant manages also to cover power, abuse, control and silence in close relationships. Again, this seemed to me to echo society as a whole. I’m thinking here of two central relationships to the story – that of Jenny and that of Terri. Can you talk about this theme? 

KOD: In writing the dynamic of the ‘bad’ lesbian relationship I was inspired by In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado (2019) but also definitely prompted by that line in the glorious Lesbian Avengers Dyke Manifesto (1993) – “Lesbian Avengers are old fashioned: pine, long, whine stay in bad relationships”. That line – amidst the juicy rhapsody on LESBIAN SEX – has always made me laugh. I feel a bit apologetic to lesbian readers – as we are so starved of cultural representation – that I wrote a lesbian character who was so controlling and manipulative – but, dear reader, she was a complete delight to write and I remain very fond of her. I gave her a happy ending.

It is interesting that you also think that Jenny was in a similar relationship of control, I hadn’t quite realised that. I think that we are so culturally used to the conventional dynamic of traditional heterosexual relationships that we can be blind to their overtly transactional nature.

SG: Yes, for me, Ro and Jenny had a type of echo and call with each other from within their unhealthy relationships. And Machado’s Dream House is such an impactful read. So, we’ll end this Writers Chat, Katherine, with some short questions:

  • New York or Boston? Provincetown.
  • Sorry, I should have offered Provincetown as an option! So, coffee or tea? I need coffee, I enjoy tea.
  • Mountains or sea? Always, always the Sea. In, on, under, or within sight or smell of it.
  • What are you writing now? Reworking a novella entitled Close/Close and also working on developing more picture-book stories for infants (with my friend Soren Mayes) based on Buddhist teachings.
  • I love the title of your novella, and interesting that you’re also working on stories for infants. Tell me, what are you reading now? Couplets: A Love Story by Maggie Millner (Faber 2023) and about to start Lara by Bernardine Evaristo (1999) – I missed it the first time around
Photograph of Katherine O’Donnell seated at a table resting her face on her hand, looking directly at the camera. Photo provided by the author Photo Credit: Emma Jervis.

Thank you to New Island and Peter O’Connell for the advance copy of Slant.

Thanks to Katherine for such an engaging Writers Chat – I wish her much success with this novel. Readers can purchase Slant directly from New Island.

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