When David Butler met Tanya Farrelly in 2014, the writers hit it off at once. Within a month the friends became a couple and, shortly afterwards, Tanya moved into David’s seafront home in Bray, Co Wicklow. Two years later they were married, and since then, the two of them have been writing in the livingroom in perfect harmony.
They met at a writer’s event — both were reading from their work. Writing in the same room, Tanya says, is motivating.
“We don’t chat,” she says, when I interview the couple via Zoom. “We have this thing: ‘If I’m in the zone, don’t interrupt.’ If I’m just sitting here, listening to David tapping away at the keyboard I think, I need to get started. I know he will ask me what I’ve done, and I’d better have done something.”
Their synchronicity is such, that the two of them have recently launched books of short stories at the same time and by the same publisher. And although their styles are individual, some of the, mostly dark, stories share the same themes. David’s collection Fugitive, and Tanya’s Nobody Needs to Know, both include stories dealing with death, suicide, gay tendencies, seduction, and sexual manipulation.
Some years ago, when their neighbour had a mental breakdown, and turning violent, caused the couple trauma, both of them eventually took to the pen. Tanya’s resulting story, ‘Ding Dong Johnny’, written two years after the event, appears in her new collection and David’s will appear in the future.
“I think the truth always comes out in fiction even if you don’t intend it to,” says Tanya. David agrees.
“It’s like the mirror and the mask,” he says. “My dad died two years ago and for eight years his dementia had been getting worse and worse. In fiction, I wrote about a grandmother with dementia, but in poetry, my dad was my dad. I wrote it directly.”
Both authors excel in producing unexpected, twist endings, but Tanya says they’re not planned.
“I never know where a story is going,” she says. “It’s all about discovering things as I go along. And when a story works the ending is inevitable.”
Nobody Needs to Know is Tanya’s fourth published work and second collection of short stories, (she has also written two novels), but when she met David, she hadn’t yet published a book.
In contrast, David was already much published, with several prestigious awards behind him. Yet he took his time to get started.
After a maths-based degree, he spent 10 years teaching around the world.
“I taught in the Seychelles and Australia before returning to college in the 90s to take a humanities degree,” he says.
Then it was three years teaching in the UK, followed by a year in Ashfield College in Dublin.
He started getting published around 2000, but it wasn’t until 2010, when he gave up teaching Spanish and English in Carlow College, that he started writing full-time.
“It began well,” he says. “I published a poetry collection in 2011, short stories in 2013, and novels in 2012 and 2014.”
Tanya had a short story collection and a novel published within six weeks of each other in 2016.
“It was bizarre when I’d waited so long,” she said. “Arlen House published the collection and Harper Collins in London took
the novel. It was brilliant, but a bit odd.”
When I ask David if his writing life has changed since his marriage, he says it hasn’t.
“But sharing my house has changed my life,” he says. “I’d been living alone for seven years and if I was still on my own, I would have had difficulty with solitude. I don’t want to sound dramatic, and I’ve never been a heavy drinker, but when you’re alone come 6pm, you’re looking at the bottle. Social life tends to be at weekends, so you’ve a lot of time to fill on your own.”
Tanya has always wanted to be a writer.
“I knew from as a kid in primary school,” she says. “I’ve never changed my mind.”
Leaving school at 18, Tanya worked in an office – and continued in her job when, at 23, she took a degree in literature, drama, and film at night.
“After that, I decided I wanted to teach”, she says, “So I took an MA in 20th Century Irish Literature in Maynooth and continued to work part-time.”
Then she took a course in teaching English as a Foreign Language and worked in an English Language School for 13 years, only giving up last year, when she was appointed as writer in residence in NUI Galway — an assignment she adored.
Both writers still teach part-time, and have found teaching on Zoom, made necessary since the pandemic struck, has in some ways been an advantage.
“When Covid hit I was still at the language school,” says Tanya. “And the classes went online. And now, I teach at the Irish Writer’s Centre and the People’s College — it has saved me the commute to the city centre, and that’s about three hours a day.”
The couple have very individual ways of writing. Tanya concentrates on one project at a time and aims for 500 words a day.
“It’s a way to trick myself to get work done,” she says. “Some days I write a lot more, and then I feel I can take the next day off.”
David’s working method is more scattered.
“A novel will be a progress of work over a couple of years,” he says, “and if I get blocked, I might try and see if the chapter will work as a short story or a one-act play. My play, Blue Love, won prizes in London, Cork, and Bray. And it had started like that.
“But I have absolutely no control over my poetry,” he says.
“A year might go by without me writing any, then three might come in the space of two weeks. It works itself in terms of imagination — the way music and rhythm of language meshes in some way.”
David tells me he is idle; and often suffers from terrible guilt — especially if he goes for a fortnight without writing anything, but Tanya, disagreeing, says that David is a writing machine. And he’s certainly prolific. 2021 saw a poetry collection from him, Liffey Sequence, as well as the story collection.
“There was a novel too,” he says, “But I can’t talk about that. It was written under a pseudonym.”
Tanya is a huge support to other writers. She is the founder and
director of the Bray Literary Festival, and in 2020 she edited The Music of What Happens in aid of the Purple House Cancer Support Centre. “I teach writing to cancer survivors and to those undergoing treatment,” she says, “and the director, Veronica O’Leary, suggested we should produce a book for the charity’s 30th birthday. I emailed a lot of the writers I know and admire, and the majority agreed.”
David and Tanya love the balance in their lives between teaching and writing. In their spare time they walk Mr Shelby, their jack russell, and enjoy watching box sets. Pandemic allowing, David is highly active in amateur dramatics, and Tanya plays the ukulele and sings.
And when they want peace, they escape to their cottage in Co Kerry. “We bought it in the summer, to use as a quiet place to write,” says Tanya. “We’re busy doing it up. It’s freezing cold and damp but it’s gorgeous.”
- Fugitive by David Butler; Arlen House, €15
- Nobody Needs to Know by Tanya Farrelly; Arlen House, €15
- Liffey Sequence by David Butler; Doire Press, €13