Susan Lanigan

Historical fiction author & Cobh resident Susan Lanigan has published three novels to date; White Feathers, Lucia’s War and Unfortunate Stars. Susan graduated from Trinity College Dublin with a degree in English and History in the late 90s, then pursued a Graduate Diploma in I.T. in Dublin City University and a Masters in Writing in NUI Galway. She has a particular interest in World War I and the surrounding period. Susan has a burning desire to rip through the sentimentalized narratives of this era and tell powerful stories that will keep the reader enthralled.

In this episode, we discuss how history has a tendency to repeat itself, her writing process, her love for history, the challenges of being an author, censorship and her latest book, The Planter’s Daughter.

About this podcast

Date:         07/03/2023

Duration:   21:50 mins

Susan's Takeaway Tip

“Be careful on social media.”

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Episode Transcript

Geraldine Hennessy: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Cork Creative Podcast. With this podcast, we hope to promote local creative businesses and people. I’m your host, Geraldine Hennessy from Flux Learning, and today I am joined by historical fiction author Susan Lannigan.

Cobh resident Susan has published three novels to date. She has a particular interest in World War I and the surrounding period. Susan has a burning desire to rip through the sentimentalized narratives of this era and tell powerful stories that will keep the reader enthralled. In this episode, we discuss how history has a tendency to repeat itself, her writing process, her love for history, the challenges of being an author, censorship and her latest book.

So you’re very welcome to Cork Creative Susan.

Susan Lanigan: Thank you very much.

Geraldine Hennessy: So can you describe your writing style and the types of books you like to [00:01:00] write to those not familiar with your work.

Susan Lanigan: Yeah. I write mostly historical fiction. Mm-hmm. In fact nearly all except for my short stories, which are sometimes contemporary and sometimes other genres.

But all my long form works are historical fiction, mm-hmm, centered around World War I and the, um, historical background to that because it’s a very fertile topic for not only Irish politics, but also what was happening in England in, um, the colonies of England or the UK, I should say. Mm-hmm. All those elements, there’s just so much happening, going on, you know, that it’s still resonating today and people really haven’t dealt with it or got past it.

Yeah, definitely. Yeah. It’s my take that. If somebody is dressed up as a giant poppy and appears on a cricket field, mm, in, was it 2021, 2020, then we’re not done with World War I yet. Mm-hmm.  We’ve got some processing to do.

Geraldine Hennessy: So you like to write about that whole period of history. .

Susan Lanigan: I like it because [00:02:00] there’s a lot of political subversion going on.

Okay. That you can tap into. I think it’s a terrible waste to simply tell a story straight, mm-hmm, about World War I, you know. That gallant Tommy goes to the trenches and you know, gets blight or gets shell shock, and then he recovers and he goes back and you’re ticking boxes. That’s. …. I’m guilty maybe of it even a bit myself, but we tend to have these boxes ye tick ,mm-hmm, when you do World War I, including Spanish flu, which I actually, um, was writing about, uh, during the runup and the early months of the pandemic. So that was interesting.

Geraldine Hennessy:  Oh my gosh .

Susan Lanigan: Yeah. Yeah. No, I was, I was looking back on my draft and it said all about, you know, everyone was wearing a sanitary mask. And I thought, yeah, more masks. More masks. 

Geraldine Hennessy: Oh my gosh. How, how times have repeated themselves. Huh?

Susan Lanigan: They do, yeah. That’s the whole thing. There’s a meme that goes round on Twitter. Mm. Which is, uh, like, um, a picture of James Connolly and you have all this slogans saying, well now I effing warned ye I did, [00:03:00] didn’t I?

I warned ye,Yeah. And I just be like, 1914 to 1918 could have that meme, you know?

Geraldine Hennessy: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. Um, history has a habit of repeating itself, unfortunately sometimes.

Susan Lanigan: Yeah, for sure. For sure.

Geraldine Hennessy: Okay. Okay. And can you describe your writing process and how your process has evolved from book to book?

Susan Lanigan: Well, I think with White Feathers, my first novel, mm-hmm, that was just an idea that was lodged in my head for quite some time. I tried to write a short story about it in 2009 , but the story didn’t really work. Okay. And then I sat down and I had this idea that I was going to write about, um, disillusioned poets. All, you know, like Rupert Brook, they all went and they lived in these kind of grand mansions and they wandered around naked,

mm-hmm and, uh, had their rituals like the Bloomsbury Set and their adjacent little sets that all went to the same prep schools and, and that kind of thing. And then of course Rupert Brook died in World War I and um, he had a little sonnet that ended forever England. But yeah, I was writing that and um, it was kind of going along and [00:04:00] I had this idea of a kind of a, of a girl who didn’t have that privileged background, but who somehow ended up with these people, fell in love, and then got jilted and then, um, gave the guy a White Feather out of jealousy and said they were all so sophisticated and she just wanted to stick it to him.

But in the end, what happened was I was working away writing on that, and I thought, well, she’s got to get into that society first. Mm-hmm.  So I just, I, I gave her this, um, legacy to send her off to a finishing school. And she went to the finishing school and then she’s gotta get educated. So I got this teacher and this teacher just leans on the desk, folds his arms, and he says, “try to get outta here if you could possibly help it”.

And the entire story turned left because I had inadvertently found my romantic hero. Ok. And after that, it was a completely different story. So that was the writing process behind White Feathers. And many of the other books I’ve written since then have been influenced by that storyline. Okay. The, uh, element of betrayal of the White Feather and the other characters and their [00:05:00] stories and, um. Even at the current work in progress I have is about the Irish Civil War. Okay. And there is an element, um, one of the characters from Light Feathers does end up there.

Geraldine Hennessy: Okay. So is it very much of the moment that you write the book or do you kind of come up with an idea first? How it’s all gonna work out? Or is it very much just as you’re writing it, kind of ideas come to you?

Susan Lanigan: I try outline, but what tends to happen is in the very early drafts of White Feathers, and this is where historical fiction can be handy,mm-hmm , you scaffold your narrative around real events. Yes. So you have this battle, this battle, this battle, this battle. And you kind of string it along from battle to battle. But I find that it’s very hard to keep control of a story to a very kind of granular degree. You have a kind of an overall thing that’s working and then this detail changes, mm-hmm, and suddenly the whole thing just, uh, turns right. Okay. Turns left. Okay. You just have to really go with that when it happens.

Geraldine Hennessy: You just go with the flow, so as such?

Susan Lanigan: I think so, yeah.

Geraldine Hennessy: Okay, very good. Does your [00:06:00] experience in software development and IT lend itself to a particular systematic approach to writing?

Susan Lanigan: I think it’s more the philosophy, mm-hmm , that if you have a problem that you need to solve, through working through an algorithm, it can be solved. Mm-hmm.  You just have to figure out the right steps. Okay. And while writing is more intuitive and there’s more… it’s more open ,mm-hmm, as to where you can go with it. Writing fiction. I do find that when I’m deeply coding something, mm-hmm, or kind of working out an algorithm for something, or when I’m writing, I’m in that same mode of concentration.

Geraldine Hennessy: Mm-hmm.  Okay. They’re different, but they’re little elements of similarity I suppose.

Susan Lanigan: It disciplines you into knowing that you can do a project.You can kind of make it into a sausage thing, you know? Okay. And cut it up into little bits, you know, and just to do bit by bit by bit. Okay. It’s good project management really is the main thing.

Geraldine Hennessy: Was it always your ambition to become an author? And when was the seed planted?

Susan Lanigan: Oh, absolutely. Like I think ever since I was a kid,mm-hmm , [00:07:00] I just wanted to write.

Geraldine Hennessy: So have you always loved books? You’ve always been an avid reader.

Susan Lanigan:  Pretty much like when I was a kid, I just read whatever was there. I think I remember once picking up book saying toilet training in, in less than a day or something and just reading it just cause it was there.

You know. So it’s always been there. The internet has, um, dropped my reading output, but um, it’s kind of gone up again now because I’ve kind of, I’ve come to the end of the internet, so. Okay. I’m just going back towards reading again.

Geraldine Hennessy: Go back to basics so as such.

Susan Lanigan: Pretty much.

Geraldine Hennessy: Okay. And you obviously have a grá for history with your books based in the First World War era. Do you feel a responsibility in your writing to present the historical period accurate?

Susan Lanigan: I do, mm-hmm , because I think that sometimes people just put in stuff that doesn’t make any sense. Mm-hmm. And you know, just little things even because I’m a bit of a geek of the period, I’ll notice. Like I’ll notice if, uh, if a British soldier is fighting in the Battle of Verdun, I’ll be looking up to see if that was the case.

Okay. And in one case, there [00:08:00] was even a book, and it was kind of about the theme of the, the White Feather. And they talked about these people called Feather men. Okay. And I said, who the hell are the Feather men? Because I was there writing my book, looking at all my research books and all thinking, ooh,  I don’t remember those. What the hell are those? And the author just made them up. Oh gosh. Which is fair enough, but the problem was they were all treating them like they actually happened, you know. Okay. If you’re going to embellish what you’ve got, you have to really know where fact ends and embellishment starts, and maybe make a note in the acknowledgements then that you’ve decided to kind of go off on a riff.

Yeah. I think that you do need to, you do need to show that you have a competent handle on the period, Mm-hmm, and knowledge of how things would’ve worked, because if you’re winging it and just making up stuff, the reader’s probably going to get a sense of that. Mm-hmm. And the thing is that the research is kind of interesting, you know?

Okay. It’s just so bizarre. About 90% of my stats for White Feathers were related to stuff that actually happened. Okay. Like the editor would say, nah, that, that’s crazy. They couldn’t have done that. Yes, they did. Yeah. Did [00:09:00] they really say that? Yes, they did. Did they really send a whole band of pipes over the front line to get mowed down by the Germans? Yes, they did.

Geraldine Hennessy: Oh gosh. You love the whole research element of it as well do you?

Susan Lanigan: Well, my pros doesn’t tend to be very researchy. Mm-hmm. And I have been complimented for that. Okay. That I don’t tend to dump everything and I don’t, I, I didn’t get too many, uh, kind of editorial remarks in that I brought in too much stuff.

But it is kind of fascinating. And I think the fact is there’s this kind of, uh, bleak humor in a lot of the, um, sources, primary and secondary. Like I read Goodbye to All that by Robert Graves, and it was horrific, really. So day after day of slaughter after slaughter. And he just had this guy and he just has this weary tone as Yeah.Yeah. And then the way, the way, like for example, I was doing a battle scene, mm-hmm , which I had at least four different sources for, I think three of them were primary sources. And I was reading them all and, um, putting the battle together, the, they were trying to let off [00:10:00] gas. And they absolutely messed it up.

They had the wrong…. they didn’t have a spanner, mm-hmm, I think, mm-hmm. for the gas cylinders, Okay. And they’re looking for a spanner. And then the gas, eventually when it was released it floated back on them . So it was…

Geraldine Hennessy: oh gosh. Okay. Okay.

Susan Lanigan: It was just a crap show. .

Geraldine Hennessy: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And you write a blog. Do you find this a good way of keeping in touch with your audience in the periods between publication of your books?Or is that a place to vent ?

Susan Lanigan: It’s kinda more for me, I think, though I have, Okay, I have tightened it up and I’m, I’m trying not to share every single passing thought. I think the thing was, I was very active on Twitter and then when all the Musk stuff started, I think I was gradually less and less, and now I, I’m mostly over on Mastodon and, um, it’s kinda nice and quiet there and I can ramble on and not get into fights.

Because that was the thing, I think I was processing a lot of stuff to do with the, um, kind of Irish literary world and trying to deal with it. And I wrote a bit about it and then eventually [00:11:00] I just thought, oh, I’m so sick of, I’m just sick of these people and I’m sick of all of this. So I removed a few blog entries and, um, just kind of, um, refocusing all my energy at the moment.

Geraldine Hennessy: And what is the most challenging aspect of being an author?

Susan Lanigan: That essentially the world around you is a rigged game. It’s rigged and if you call it out or speak out, people get very angry, mm-hmm , because everybody needs to have their snout in the trough. Everybody’s got their skin in the game. Mm-hmm. And most people who are working in the industry, they would be struggling to combine  a job and their artistic work.

And if they rely on artistic income, they’ll probably need assistance from, you know, bodies like the Arts Council or other prize funds or whatever. And in order to feel comfortable getting these, applying for these, they’re not going to be critical openly. They’re not going to say, you know, um, this is wrong. This is not appropriate. They shouldn’t have done this. [00:12:00] I had a, I had a bit of a brush with the arts council a little while ago. Mm-hmm. And, um, I put it up on Twitter and I was, I was kind of a bit annoyed because they’d sent out an inappropriate communication, basically. Mm-hmm. And they did apologize to everybody who got it. But there was silence actually on social media, on Twitter. No Irish person was speaking out. Okay. Um, Except either those who were not involved in writing, disproportionately people who were black, oddly enough. Mm-hmm. I think about four of the six people who commented, maybe because, um, well, some of them were Irish, some of them weren’t. But I think maybe it’s kind of the, you know, when you’ve seen the dark side of institutional prejudice, you probably have some kind of empathy. Yeah. And you know, just stuff like, just, just stuff like that. It’s very close knit. It’s very tight. And if somebody is ambitious enough and they want to elbow you out of the way and they have kind of their own power to do that. Hmm. If you sort of say anything about that, there’s enough people who are scrabbing [00:13:00] the way up the greasy pole, that they will absolutely kick you in the head to get you down the bottom. Okay. So, and the stakes are so low, there’s no money in this guys. There is no money in this. Yeah. There’s no point .

Geraldine Hennessy: You either play by their rules or get out as such is it?

Susan Lanigan: Well, like White Feathers, and maybe to a lesser extent, Lucia’s war, but particularly White Feathers is about people who don’t play by the rules and they get ostracized socially. So it seems to be, it seems to be a subject dear to my heart.

Geraldine Hennessy: Yeah. Okay. Okay. In your writing process, is there some additional software beyond the standard word processes that you use?

Susan Lanigan: For the latest, uh, novel I’m writing, Mm-hmm , it’s a crime novel, set in present day, uh, Ireland, and also there’s, uh, flashbacks to the Civil War. Okay. I used Scrivener. Okay. And I did a bit of Googling and you know, about the Protestant people murdered in Dunmanway and um, other places, and I just took them all into my [00:14:00] Scrivener and just pictures, whatever I wanted. Notes.

And I just wrote all the chapters and I kind of divided them up and it was a very rough draft, but it was something. But the problem with Scrivener is it’s hard to export it somewhere else. Okay. I had a license for Windows, but I didn’t have a license for Apple. And I thought, but you know what? I couldn’t be arsed.I’ll just export it as an .rtf. Okay. And, um, I’m even having problems with the way it does the headers because it formats the headers of each chapter or section, so they keep changing and just stuff like that. Okay. I’m not dishing Scrivener .I was able to write a first draft and I wrote it very quickly.

Okay. So, you know, it’s good. But I don’t find that I mind Word so much either. Okay. And like you have editors come in and I have a feeling, I have this feeling that I’m gonna be asked to stet it and I’m gonna refuse. Okay. Okay.

For editors, you need Word is what I’m saying .For the comments in the margin- you can’t really work with  Scrivener.

Geraldine Hennessy: Okay. Okay.

Susan Lanigan: So I think Scrivener has its uses, it’s good for collecting stuff. Mm-hmm. And. It’s fine. And word is fine. [00:15:00] And anything that has a screen and ability to type characters and indent the first line of each paragraph, that’s all you need.

Geraldine Hennessy: Very good. Okay. And with the decade of commemorations coming to a close and historical fiction being a constant on TV and cinema screens is an adaption of your work, something you’ve considered?

Susan Lanigan: I would love that. Yeah. I would absolutely love that. I, I have even written a play one time and we put it on when I was a student in the creative writing programming in Galway University. Yeah. Yeah. I would love it. I would love, love, love, love, love them to. I suppose my fantasy would be that they take White Feathers in Lucia’s War, which is a story of another character out of  White Feathers, yeah, kind of put them together and kind of make it a whole big Netflix series.

Geraldine Hennessy: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. You never know

Susan Lanigan: Because the thing with White Feathers and Lucia’s War and also Unfortunate Stars, which is actually, it’s got Germans in it and it’s set kind of in the, in 1938. The thing with all of these is that, it’s not just the same old [00:16:00] story.

I’ve kind of, I do have a lot of representation. For example, I’ve actually had White Feathers censored in translation. Okay. Um, because of LGBT content. Oh, right. That was a, I’ll talk about that for a moment actually, if you don’t mind. Cause that was a very, that was an interesting process really. I just got this mail saying, oh, it’s a…. you know, conservative country. We’re not sure about the LGBT stuff. So I forwarded onto the publisher and said, help, what do I do ? Yeah. So anyway, there was back and forth and back and forth and they showed me a sample of what they would do. And there was a scene, there’s a scene in White Feathers, I dunno if you’ve read the book, but it’s in, it’s, uh, when the two women Cybill and Roma are trying to drive a pigeon van ,okay, to Dunkirk. And, uh, they’re not getting anywhere very fast. But anyway, then there is a, then there’s explosion and um, the guy who’s supervising them is killed, and then there’s this incredible erotic tension between the two of them, mm-hmm, that’s kind of there with ‘the excitement’ [00:17:00] of the war then the attack. And um, when I saw the version that the translator sent back, it was as if somebody had picked up a Dyson, gone to the scene and hoovered out all the power and all the forcefulness and the connection between sex and death. It just didn’t work. So anyway, what we did was I gave up a more explicit scene further on in the, in the book to retain that one and to retain at least a reference that they had a connection that was more than friendship.

And I think, I think we got the best, uh, deal we could. I mean, I’m not making any judgment on that decision because I’m comfortable here. No one’s gonna throw a brick through my window. Yeah. You know? Yeah. I don’t tut tut so much. I think if the story can be retained, if the spirit and heart of the story is still there -that’s the main thing. And that’s what might have been lost. But um, Kunak and O’Brien Press did a great job of them making sure that it was there.

Geraldine Hennessy: And do you [00:18:00] find that frustrating though, having them come and wanting to take out stuff out of your book? Isn’t that integral to the book?

Susan Lanigan: Well, I’d been through the whole editing process. Yeah. And I had jumped so much of the book that it was less alarming and shocking, okay, than if I was totally new to the process. Yeah. But I wasn’t sure what line to take and I kind of, I’d never been censored before. Yeah. I dunno had Kunak I had either. I remember emailing her and saying, it’s not every day we’re haggling over sex scenes, yeah, before nine in the morning .

Geraldine Hennessy: Oh gosh. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Susan Lanigan: She said, its the joys of publishing.

Geraldine Hennessy: Exactly. Yeah. That’s it. And what piece of advice would you give to other aspiring authors?

Susan Lanigan: Conserve your energy. Be careful on social media. Mm-hmm. Be very careful of other writers. And I will say this, if you get a really egregiously awful review in a national newspaper, don’t stay quiet about it. Mm-hmm. Don’t kind of do what the PR people tell you to do, which is [00:19:00] gloss over it. Fight. Mm-hmm. Because I should have done that when it happened to me. Mm-hmm. And I didn’t, and this sounds bad because you’re saying that, you know, to challenge criticism, but if there’s something else going on, if it’s not really legitimate criticism and, and you see other work that’s just not as good as yours, getting the, getting the, the shoe in, then I think you’re entitled to speak up and say, I don’t respect that opinion. Mm-hmm.  I don’t think it’s valid. I think it’s been written out of ulterior motives. I discard it and I reject it.

Geraldine Hennessy: Okay. Okay. Fair enough. And what are the plans for the future? So you, you mentioned there that you’re writing a book so at the moment is it.

Susan Lanigan: Yeah. I work full-time ,mm-hmm , um, with a logistics company and it, so, um, I don’t always have a lot of time and it’s taken me longer than I’d like, but I just feel, since the beginning of this year, I don’t feel as stressed about how long it takes. Cause I realize that sometimes when I’m kind of blocked with the scene, it’s because I’m missing something and then this, the thing will just occur to me and it’d be a little click and I’ll say, okay, well I [00:20:00] have what I need to start that scene or write that.

Like in the most recent example, it was basically that the murder victim was a bit of a femme fatale, I suppose you could say. Okay. That she just was the kind of woman that men fell in love with. Yeah. And I had to write one of these scenes and I don’t consider myself a femme fatale, and I don’t know what the right thing is to say, you know? Yeah. I wasn’t sure what the dialogue should be. Yeah. But then I kind of got a little bit of inspiration. I thought, okay, I’ll, I’ll, I’ll go with that. Mm. That’s my way in. So, that’s how I did it.

Geraldine Hennessy: Do you hope to have it finished this year?

Susan Lanigan: Oh, yes. Okay. Yes, I’m, I think that’s a reasonable goal.

Geraldine Hennessy: And is there a name on this book?

Susan Lanigan: The Planter’s Daughter.

Geraldine Hennessy: Oh, very good. So we’ll keep an eye out for that. So the Planter’s daughter.

Susan Lanigan: Might I add,yeah,  Um, that my story, the Defamation Suit has now been published in the Cork City Libraries Words 3 Anthology. Very good. And I’m so delighted that that story’s been finally published. I’ve been pushing for it and [00:21:00] pushing for it for so long. And I was able to turn a rubbish experience into a call to action and speak in a truth to power. So I think of all the things I’ve written, I’m really proud of it.

Geraldine Hennessy: That’s great. Well done. Congratulations. Very good.

Susan Lanigan: Thank you. I’m delighted

Geraldine Hennessy: So thanks so much, Susan, for joining us on the Cork Creative podcast.

Susan Lanigan: Oh, it’s been an absolute pleasure, Geraldine. Thanks so much.

Geraldine Hennessy: If you’d like to learn more about Susan and her books, you can find links to her website and social media on corkcreative.ie

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