Have you read ‘A Crooked Tree’? I pre-ordered this incredible book by Una Mannion when it was first announced and what a special piece of writing it is. A quiet, beautifully written book filled with moments which delve deep into our psyches and choices, this book stayed with me for a long time after I read it. In this issue of w|ė magazine we were fortunate enough to interview Una and ask her some questions about her own ties to the West of Ireland, how nature finds its way into her work and her love for the Wild West.
Q. What brought you to Sligo?
My father is originally from Strandhill, and I started coming for summers when I was young back in the 1970s. By the time I was a teenager, I was determined to live here. It was everything: the people, the wit, the slagging, and the sea. I kept coming back and then stayed.
Q. Favourite urban aspect of Sligo?
I love that Sligo is almost urban but not quite, that there are people fishing the river from the bridge, that you can still see the mountains, or that walking down the street you will know a handful of the people coming towards you. It’s small but it has everything culturally that a large urban centre has (including great coffee). It also has a disproportionate number of musicians, artists, writers, filmmakers and general creatives which powerfully impacts what it’s like to live and work here.
Q. Favourite wild aspect of Sligo?
The sea. The mountain. The woods. All of it. Being in it, windswept and weather-beaten. I have a photographer friend who recently was telling me about the difference between taking pictures from inside a landscape, that incomplete or fragmented view, versus drone photographs that give comprehensive, panoramic views but are sort of outside the place. I thought about the distinction for weeks, not just in terms of perspective and point of view in writing or photography, but in how place is experienced. I love that here we still get to experience the wildness from the depths of it rather than from platforms positioned for tourism.
Q. Favourite cultural aspect of Sligo?
Music. Any night of the week there is some sort of session on in Sligo. I haven’t been to a session in so long, even before lockdown, and all through pandemic when I thought about what I really, really wished I could still go do – it was sit in a pub squished between people, huddled around a circle of musicians. I was reminded of what I had forgotten I loved, and what I loved especially about Sligo.
Q. In what way does the wild nature of this part of the world manifest itself in your work/art?
In my first novel I wrote quite a bit about trees because the narrator grew up running through the woods and trails as I did. But it is only after I finished the manuscript of the second book, I realised how much nature surfaces in the work perhaps at an unconscious level. I seemed to be interested in protagonists who find solace and nurturing in the wild world when they can’t find connection or belonging elsewhere. It isn’t something I consciously decided.
Recently in an interview the facilitator said that she thought I’d written a reversed fairy tale, a story where the woods offer refuge and protection for a young girl rather than danger and threat. I loved that idea”
Q. How does your lifestyle here compare to where you came from? For instance: Are you busier? More relaxed? Balanced work/life?
I left Philadelphia in my early twenties to live here permanently. I thought my life was hectic but I was young, single with no children and was waitressing for a living. So. Perspective. Like many of my friends, my struggle now is trying to find the balance. I work full time, have three kids and two dogs and tend to get involved in projects outside of work. I am also trying to write fulltime. There are also bursts of needing to get fit. Sometimes it all feels too much. My salvation is that rain or shine I walk in the woods every morning with my friend Therese and it sets the day right.
Q. Thirty years in Sligo is a long stay in one place; do you feel rooted in this space between the mountains and the sea?
This is the place on earth I thought I felt most rooted to but recently my youngest daughter played Taylor Swift’s Seven for me in the car and when she sang the lines ‘With Pennsylvania under me,’ I burst into tears. Sligo and Pennsylvania both have a grip on me.
Q. You spent some time in the US last summer. Was it good to get home?
I spent last summer in southeast Tennessee, close to the Georgia and Alabama borders. I was on a mountain. I learned quite a bit about myself in terms of my ability to be alone, to write all day every day, to live in a different place. It was amazing. I went night swimming in a pond, the sound of frogs deafening. Neighbours invited me to sit on their porch and have drinks. It wasn’t home but I felt like it could be.
Q. Much of your book A Crooked Tree (2021) takes place among the wild woods of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Are there comparisons between that place and Sligo?
I am drawn to the woods in Sligo and I think that might be because it feels familiar, the smell of mulch and the quiet. But the landscapes are so different in how I experienced them. The heat of Pennsylvania summers, the autumn leaf fall and then snow. I miss those changes. But here I can now read the signs of change, frog spawn on water, the smell of wild garlic, blue bells.
Q. Would you write differently if you lived in a city?
I don’t think so. Being away from what inspires you or moves you can also be part of the process. You write to get back to something you’ve lost and maybe that was what I was doing when I was writing about trees. If I had always lived in a city and didn’t have the experiences of summers in Sligo or growing up in a Pennsylvania woods, then I think I would write differently.
Q. Despite living on the Wild Atlantic Way, it’s easy to become disconnected with our surroundings – especially in these times of pandemic; spending more time indoors; working from home; having to embrace technology and interact via Zoom calls. What is your favourite way to reconnect with your wild side?
Probably all the wrong ways! I wish I were one of those people plunging into the bracing Atlantic at the crack of dawn for the adrenaline kick and then got wrapped up in my dry robe heading off to start the day, being part of a wild morning flock. I think it’s possible my wild side is underdeveloped and now, since you’ve asked this question, I feel like I should pursue it.
About Una Mannion:
Una Mannion is a writer and teacher. Her debut novel A Crooked Tree was published in 2021 and her short stories have been published in journals and anthologies including The Art of the Glimpse: 100 Irish Short Stories. She is the editor of The Cormorant, a broadsheet of poetry and prose and is programme chair of the Writing + Literature BA at IT Sligo
Read more about Una Mannion at Faber
Interview by David North for wild ėden magazine