Book review: Red Dirt

Despite seeing ‘Red Dirt’ rejected by 14 publishers, EM Reapy stuck with the writing and it’s finally paid off, as her debut novel garners the plaudits. She talks to Sue Leonard.

EM Reapy

Head of Zeus, €16.99;

Kindle, €6.00

IN 2011, when Elizabeth Reapy set off for Australia, she was seething with anger. A child of the ’80s who had previously only known good times, she could no longer stand living in recession-fuelled Ireland; she saw it as a grim place, where there were constant suicides.

Travelling in Australia, working in a factory, and for occasional events, Reapy observed all the Irish around her. She saw the madness; the wild partying and excess, and she saw people who, through lack of money, ended up in difficult, and potentially dangerous situations.

She listened to stories and anecdotes, and began to write a series of short stories. There were rich pickings. There were some Irish there who appeared to have learned nothing from Ireland’s crash.

“I’d been horrified by the Celtic Tiger, even if it was great fun at times. People would be showing off with their money, so I wouldn’t have to buy a drink all night. But they were doing stupid things,” she says.

“My then boyfriend, from a farming background, went to university and stuck it out, but his friends were making €2,000 a week as a carpenter or an electrician. These were 19-year-olds who didn’t know what to do with it except blow it all.

“I saw a lot of that in Australia with the guys who were working down the mines.

“They were making so much money again, and were throwing it away. I thought, did you learn nothing? You were signing on last year, and now it’s ‘I’ll put four grand on the red.’

“I stayed in Australia for three-and-a-half months, then I came home and went to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig where I had won a residency. Someone mentioned that the centre had an exchange with a writer’s house in Australia. I spoke to the director and, in 2012, ended up in the Australian mountains for a month. It was amazing.”

Meanwhile, a film producer, reading one of Reapy’s stories in a magazine, got in touch with her and asked to see more.

“I sent the story about Murph, that forms the start of the book, and he said, ‘This should be a movie.’ So I wrote the rest of the first part, Me, as a film script. It took three weeks and was the most fun.”

It’s a great premise. Needing to work on a farm to fulfil his visa obligations, Murph travels across the Outback with three acquaintances. Halfway across, Hopper produces some acid — three of the lads take it; Hopper falls out of the car. When the others can’t find him, Murph is complicit in the decision to leave him to his fate.

“It was about guilt, and the crazy things it can make people do,” says Reapy.

“We’re the first generation without the Catholic Church; that got replaced by money. People are suffering spiritual loss. Guilt is the elephant in the room. We’ve no way to deal with it, and it could obsess and haunt someone.”

The producer wanted more; so she wrote a section based on Fiona, who, facing debt, gets herself into an extremely abusive situation, and for the third part, took up the story of Hopper.

When the film producer eventually rejected the script, Reapy was too far in to give up on the idea.

And that’s lucky. Red Dirt is astoundingly accomplished; so thought-provoking and addictive that I spent the first five minutes with Reapy acting like a star-struck fan. I marvelled at the way she captured the three voices so astutely.

When I liken it to Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies, last year’s multi-prize-winning debut, Reapy says I’m not the first to make that comparison.

This, though, is no overnight success. Reapy has wanted to write since she read Roddy Doyle’s Barrystown Trilogy at the age of 15. But, having studied English and history at NUI Galway, she was railroaded into teaching.

“I did my DipEd in Cork, and went to Essex, but I quit after eight months. The teenagers were great, but my heart wasn’t in it. I just wanted to write stories all the time, and I got really miserable.” Besides, she had an idea for a book.

“I had already started a novel, at 21. That was about a gay GAA star. The new one, set in the Celtic Tiger, was about a narrow-minded woman who fell in love with a foreigner. I abandoned that too.”

She then decided to take a master’s in creative writing, but her applications to Trinity, UCD, and Galway were all rejected.

“I was advised not to apply to Queen’s University, because it was so competitive, but they gave me my break. I wrote short stories every week there, for Ian Samson, and I wrote another novel for my thesis. An agent and a publisher were willing to read it, but I never sent it in. It wasn’t good enough. I tried to fix it but it was never right.”

Around this time, Reapy set up an online journal to showcase the future of Irish talent. “We had four issues a year — 20 in all. We had two ebooks, a printed book, and we organised a lot of events.”

She was living at home in Mayo, working in a dress shop. She moved to Dublin after a year, but then felt she had to go.

“Everyone was leaving. They were all going to Australia, so I went too. It wasn’t a place I wanted to go to, but two of my best friends were going to be there.”

Since her return from Australia, Reapy’s luck has changed. A short story — one based on an incident from the book — was shortlisted in an Irish Times competition.

Sinead Gleeson asked for a story to include in the prize-winning collection The Long Gaze Back, and Reapy acquired an agent, Sallyanne Sweeney, from the Mulcahy Agency in London.

“I worked on the book for months before sending it to Sallyanne,” she says. “I worked on it more with Sallyanne before she submitted it to publishers in 2014.”

Fourteen publishers rejected it. In retrospect, Reapy feels this was the best possible outcome.

“It really hurt me at the time, but it taught me not to be so obsessed with writing. You can’t be, because although that’s fine when you’re alone at home, the rest of the process is out of your control. It was time to get a life!”

Moving to Clare, Reapy worked with Jessie Lendennie of Salmon Poetry. “They have a book shop. I had a brilliant time. I took up yoga and taught myself Spanish. I worked on the book, rewriting the third section, but I detached a bit from the obsession. I had other things to do.”

Reapy now lives quietly, in Mayo with her grandmother. She hopes this will enable her to write full-time. And she’s happy.

“Last year I took a total break from writing and concentrated on editing and working on the book before resubmitting. I did that so I could say I’ve done my best and given it my all. I can’t feel sorry or bad about anything.

“I’m happy to have seen the project through. I can do new stuff now and will never get asked, ‘Where are you working.’ I was very self-conscious when I was asked that; It was, ‘I thought you had a master’s, why are you doing all these random jobs?’

“Life is good. I love coming up to Dublin, and I was in London last week; that was good craic, but I’m really happy just to go back to granny to write.”

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