Ruth Gilligan’s timely novel, The Butchers, has just about made it across the line to be published during the virus crisis, writes Eoghan O’Sullivan
UBBED by critics as a timely novel, Ruth Gilligan’s fifth book, The Butchers, deals with the spread, from animal to human, person to person, of a cross-border disease. In this case, it’s not coronavirus but BSE, which hit Ireland in 1996 and saw similar fears raised among the populace.
Gilligan, over a Zoom video call from her London home, laughs off talk of its timeliness.
“I started this book ages ago — it takes me yonks to actually write the book,” she says. “I started this book in 2014/2015. And it was pre-Brexit referendum. So then when the Brexit referendum happened, and I was talking to people about what I was working on, they were like, ‘Oh my god, that sounds very in vogue’; everything about the border, and the border counties, and this idea of goods being smuggled from North to south or vice versa. ‘Oh, my God, very on trend’.”
Now, of course, Brexit is a distant memory. “And suddenly we’re immersed in this [Covid-19] and it was like, ‘Oh, my God, your book is so timely!”
The Butchers arrived right in the mire of lockdown, with all well-laid release-week plans put on ice. It was to be launched in Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town, with a room booked in a pub round the corner for 100 or so friends and family to raise a glass to her success. There were to be bookshop visits, live events, and then a trip home to Dublin and similar launches and toasts here.
“I feel like I’ve been even busier, in a weird way, than I would have been,” she reveals. “I’ve spent more time talking at my computer screen; I’ve had either an interview or live recording or an online reading or a virtual Q&A. I’ve had two a day or something at the moment, which I’m not really sure I would have had otherwise. So in a way I was like, ‘Oh, maybe this is actually not going to work out too badly.”
Then the reality dawns. “Obviously the fact that you basically can’t order books in Ireland anymore is the bit where it’s like ‘Oh shit’...”
Discussing other authors who’ve pushed back their releases to later in the year, Gilligan says it wasn’t really an option for her and her publisher, Atlantic Books, which also released her previous novel, Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan.
“I think mine was so late in the day — the copies were already printed, everything was already booked in. So I think there was no real going back, to be honest. And also the flipside is, what’s going to happen in late summer? Are there just going to be like a million books?”
She adds: “The slight downfall is the fact that if people can’t literally get their hands on it, is it all for naught?”
The Butchers is a melange of genres that is whatever the reader wants it to be: A literary thriller —check. A female coming of age tale —check. A story bathed in Irish mythology — well, kind of.
It centres on the titular butchers, a dwindling band of men who travel the country to perform a ritualistic killing of cows, the performance having been handed down from generation to generation. A cackling Gilligan admits to having made it all up. “The butchers themselves, as an idea, they are a conglomerate of loads of different kind of traditions and superstitions and myths about cattle that I just found in my research, and I just brought them all together and formed the butchers.”
Gilligan is based in London and for the last six years has been working at the University of Birmingham — about a 90-minute train ride away, a couple of times a week — as a senior lecturer in creative writing. Term finished towards the end of March, and with the Easter holidays also occurring, the students hadn’t been massively impacted by the crisis.
HE’S also an ambassador for the global not-for-profit Narrative 4, which was established by Colum McCann, who Gilligan dubs “my favourite author of all time”. She has a previous life as a commercial women’s fiction writer, having released three such titles between 2006 and 2009, the most successful of which was Forget.
“I was at a turning point where I wanted to write something different but I didn’t know what that different was going to look like. And Colum McCann’s books were reallyformative as I tried to figure out what direction I wanted my career to take.”
She recalled McCann, around the promotion of Transatlantic in 2013, talking about Narrative 4 and soon Gilligan, with a fresh, “fancy” university email address , got talking about working with the charity. Having facilitated multiple Narrative 4 events since, she explains how it works: “Two groups of young people from different backgrounds, maybe different sides of the tracks or different cultures or religions. We bring them all together and everyone gets partnered off and in your pair you swap a story on each other’s lives.
“Something that means something to you or something that defines you. And then you come back as a group, and you tell your partner’s story back to the group, but in the first person.”
They’ve worked with, for example, groups from Protestant and Catholic girls schools in Belfast, a gaelcholaiste in Limerick, and schools in Birmingham. By the end of the events, everyone is best mates, having heard of experiences they previously wouldn’t have been able to fathom beforehand.
As for having left behind commercial fiction for the more literary side of things, Gilligan is realistic. “I sold a bazillion more copies of the previous books than I ever will of these books. So my mum’s always like, ‘You’re mad! This is a commercially insane decision!”
As the current crisis has reminded us, however, some things are far more important than money.
The fictionalised aspect of the rituals of the Butchers Gilligan’’s novel has already claimed some unsuspecting victims, including her own editor — and her literary hero — Colum McCann.
She explains: “I’d given him an advance copy of the book and he’d read it and said very nice things about it.
“And he was telling me how he just got a taxi a couple of days previously, got chatting to his taxi man, who was from a farming family from Cavan or Monaghan. So Colum was like, ‘Oh, so you must know about the Butchers,’ and started telling him about it. And yer man was like, ‘Oh no I’ve never heard of this’.”
McCann was relating the tale to Gilligan until she felt obliged to interject, “Yeah, Colum, that because I made it up.’ And he was like, ‘Pardon?’ “So I don’t know if I’m showing my hand by even admitting that it’s made up because, yeah, part of the fun of it, I suppose is that like, it kind of could be real. It’s as real as any other set of the many, many traditions and superstitions that we still hold on to.”
Ruth Gilligan is a voracious reader. We asked her for some of herfavourite reads of 2020 so far.
Anne Enright: Actress
“It’s a masterpiece. She really is an incredible lady. And I think that is my favourite book of hers.”
Evie Wyld: The Bass Rock
“She’s one of my all time favourite writers. She’s only had — I say only —three novels, this is her third, but she is such a skilled writer, and this is brilliant. It has multiple points of view.”
Valeria Luiselli: The LostChildren Archive
“This is next on my pile. it’s about emigrants crossing the border from Mexico into the US. And it’s supposed to be a brilliant literary tour de force that everyone adores and is talking about.”
Ruairi McKiernan: Hitching For Hope
“He’s a social activist who after the financial crash , went hitchhiking around Ireland and just chatted to people along the way. Some of the stories are devastating but also show resilience.”