I walk into The Hibernian Hotel on Main St in Mallow 15 minutes before the scheduled interview time. It’s the start of summer and the place is teeming with First Holy Communion kids and their families.
I ask at the front desk if there’s a quiet place to meet someone, explaining I’m doing an interview. “Oh are you meeting Stefanie Preissner? She’s in the bar,” says the staff member, adding with pride that Stefanie is famous.
I walk in expecting to meet someone who is a bit weary given I watched her on The Late Late Show the night before and I know she’s been signing books in Eason for a few hours, but instead she jumps up to greet me.
She’s absolutely buzzing from her book signing and being welcomed back to Mallow like a returning hero; people want to share in her success.
Stefanie was Munich-born but Mallow-raised, having returned to Cork with her mother aged four. She graduated from University College Cork with a BA in drama and theatre studies and Spanish.
Alongside her career as a screenwriter and playwright, she has won several awards as an actor. She’s the creator of Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope (if you missed it on RTÉ, you can watch it on Netflix), her first book Why Can’t Everything Stay the Same? was an Irish bestseller. Her latest book, Can I Say No? One Woman’s Battle with a Small Word, is published by Hachette Ireland.
We joke about how committed she is to saying no that she told The Late Late Show audience that if they already had a stack of unread books then say no to this book, and not to feel the pressure to say yes just because they thought they should read it.
Stefanie is incredibly comfortable with who she is, she says what she thinks, not what you (or her publisher) wants to hear.
Within a few minutes, Stefanie has mentioned her mother and grandmother, two strong influences on the woman she is today. Her ‘nana’ is Instagram famous among Stefanie’s followers, and is also her link to this part of the world — she’s from Kanturk.
This community in Mallow means so much to her. She talks about the people who showed up to support her at the book signing earlier that day.
“There’s a sense of community here that I definitely won’t be seeing anywhere else on this book tour,” she says.
Her cheerleaders turned out in force today — “teachers from my old school, the cleaner from my old school, friends, parents of friends who moved away” — as she signs books for sons and daughters that will be packaged up and sent to America and Australia. Stefanie smiles as she speaks about her hometown and the welcome she has received.
She still references Mallow as home even though she is creating a new one in Dublin, it’s the eternal conflict of growing up in a small town and moving to Dublin. “Mallow is where all of my history is, all of my heritage, my friends and the people who believe in me and that’s what makes a home.”
Stefanie’s mother put down roots in Mallow when she returned from Germany, buying and running a stationary shop in the town — “it was a hub of activity on a Sunday after Mass where people would come in to buy newspapers but also talk about the news”. She really felt like she belonged there and was part of something bigger.
She describes the day of Princess Diana’s funeral when, “Mam took our television out of our home and into the shop and there were all these people standing around with arms crossed. They had TVs at home but wanted the warmth and support of sharing it collectively.”
And it’s recognising the importance of and the need for these shared experiences that drives Stefanie’s approach to writing.
“As a screenwriter I feel an intense responsibility to pre-empt life experiences and give people options to navigate through tricky situations,” she said.
It is this sense of responsibility that led Stefanie to fight with an exec on the second season of Can’t Cope, Won’t Cope over the fact that lead character, Danielle didn’t have a love interest. That season covered a period of seven weeks and they considered it unrealistic for a woman not to have a romantic interest in the time span.
“I don’t want to contribute to the narrative that is based on and propagates an underlying assumption that you are not whole if you’re not in a romantic relationship.”
It was about friendship and that needed to be the focus.
“Thinking that everyone else is having a different experience because you’ve seen it on screen can be quite damaging.”
There’s a slow but deliberate shift in how female characters are being portrayed in books and on screen because writers like Stefanie are creating the stories they and others want to read and see.
We just don’t have the templates or scripts that help us to deal with these very real situations – often when female friendships are written in scripts, they are romanticised and unrealistic.
“We need realistic versions, now more than ever. We can do a lot to help young people’s coping mechanisms and mental health by giving them more examples on navigating friendship that isn’t romanticised.”
Stefanie has recently bought her first home in Dublin and is building a new sense of community. It’s very different to her Mallow support network but it is simply adapting to a newer way of living.
Stefanie felt the pressure of doing a book tour and knew she wanted to look the part so she reached out to her community.
Up stepped Amy Huberman and Sile Seoige with advice and dresses — they actually sent her dresses. Now they are good friends. Her honesty means she doesn’t find it difficult to make friends.
“I’m very clear about what I need.”
When you don’t live in a small town but need a small-town community, you can just create your own — and that’s exactly what Stefanie has done.
Her books and screenwriting appeal because they have a familiarity to them, you find yourself nodding while reading or watching because she has an ability to articulate our hopes and fears in an honest and often hilarious way. In a way her writing is a sort of coming home for all of us where we feel a bit more supported, understood and free to say no... or yes.