Extraordinary Women

‘Extraordinary Women’ is a series of interviews with some of society’s most inspiring and intriguing women. It is an attempt to redefine the conversation around women in the media, without sensationalism but instead to authentically listen to and record their voices.

Sinéad Gleeson

Typically, we have little choice in our name, it is given to us before our personalities and interests are shaped and formed. However, I appear to have struck gold.

Sinéad Boyle, Sinéad Crowley, Sinéad Cusack, Sinéad Doyle, Sinéad Gleeson, Sinéad Keenan, Sinéad/Roe McDermott, Sinéad McPhillips, Sinéad Mercier, Sinéad O’Connor, Sinéad O’Doherty and Sinéad Ryan.

I share my first name with a litany of thoughtful, creative, smart, witty, complex and talented women. A gaggle of great gals, if you will. 

One particular Sinéad has had a monumental impact on how I view the world, the way in which I question my surroundings and the reading material I subscribe to. Like many of the women I admire, I was introduced to her through Twitter and in the most implicit and explicit ways, she has taught me the importance of work, of supporting other women and how to be curious and kind.

Sinéad Gleeson is the co-founder of The Anti Room, the presenter of The Book Show on RTÉ Radio One, interviewer of Margaret Atwood and Sabina Higgins, editor of ‘The Long Gaze Back’ and really, a bit of rockstar. It is an honour to include her within the ‘Extraordinary Women’ interview series and I wholly recommend that you make time to absorb her attitude and appetite for life.


How would you define yourself, both personally and professionally?

Professionally, people think of me as a journalist, a broadcaster and an editor. People always want to talk to me about books, wherever I go, or ask for recommendations, and I love that I get to talk and write about books for a living. I’ve always been obsessed with reading and books, so to get to meet authors and ask them about the mechanics of a book – how they put it together, where characters come from – never gets dull. My questions are always framed within a professional lens, but I’m naturally curious and a great interview for listeners can feel like a great conversation. I recently interviewed Judy Blume and the questions that I asked her were probably very similar to what I wanted to know when I was 13. If the teenage me, sitting curled up in my bed could see that I met and interviewed Judy Blume… [laughs]. However, I’ve finally discovered a downside to my job, in that I’ve been tentatively writing myself, and it’s hard not to feel you’ll ever be as good as so many of the writers I admire. I’m slowly trying to get past that, by turning off the inner critic and just getting on with the words…

Personally, how would you describe yourself?

I’m pretty upbeat, happy with life, busy… Busy is such a contentious word though, I hate the narrative that has come about surrounding the word busy – as if we no longer have no time for one another and it’s boring for other people to hear how busy we are. This is part of being a freelancer though, you have that fear about not being paid when you’re sick or paid holidays. It’s a driver for sure, but I never forget how lucky I am, and that I get to meet so many interesting people. But back to “personally”, well, I guess I’m a Dubliner, a sister, a daughter, a mother… I should probably start saying ‘writer’ too, but it’s so hard to say that. Like it’s some sort of admission of a secret, but it’s terrifying! But… I do enjoy spinning plates.

Do you know why that might be?

Life is very short and why wouldn’t you put all of your energy and enthusiasm into it? I don’t relate to the idea of sitting around and doing nothing. Gosh, describing yourself is hard… I once interviewed American writer Daniel Woodrell, (who wrote ‘Winter’s Bone’, which was adapted for screen and starred Jennifer Lawrence) and he said, ‘It’s none of my business what anyone else thinks of me’, so I can relate to that. Also, Sinéad, you seem to be someone who constantly spins plates!

That’s a great idea and possibly much more palatable if it’s a positive description, how do you manage negativity or does it not enter your consciousness?

Thankfully, I haven’t had too much of it and recently someone asked if I received much criticism when Anna Carey and I set up The Anti Room. They just assumed that we received this barrage of negativity because we were open and explicit in articulating our feminism. However, Anna and I were surprised that we didn’t receive more criticism, grief and negative comments. We have a Twitter account and very rarely we get a nasty anonymous tweet but I genuinely can’t remember the last time that happened which is interesting because we regularly tweet about abortion, feminism and lots of topics that you might think would attract the most vocal and negative parts of the internet.

Is that because you have curated a very niche audience?

Maybe. The people we follow and who follow us are from a very diverse background, many of whom probably disagree with a lot of our opinions, but they rarely engage. With online life, if someone says something negative, is it worth your time, energy and emotions disputing their claims, or is it better for you to just ignore them? If it’s someone you don’t know or if they’re anonymous, why bother? That’s how I feel anyway, life’s too short [laughs]. I also don’t understand the mindset of someone who gets a thrill out of making others feel less. I find it baffling. Do you know Lindy West? She used to write for Jezebel and wrote this superb piece about confronting her troll. It’s excellent. A random stranger sent her horrendous abuse about her father dying and other really personal and cruel stuff. She tracked him down and when she confronted him, he apologised. It’s that disconnect between reality and online, we don’t understand or claim ownership of the impact our words have on others.

It’s so important and something I’m actively trying to be more conscious of as I get older. But if we were to rewind a little, can you remember any particular moments from your childhood whereby your love for literature was overwhelming?

I was in second class and had a teacher called Mr Hanafin. He was a very old and lovely man – he taught us music, and used a tuning fork. In the corner of the classroom, there was a bookshelf that no one really went near, but I was always rooting through it. I remember being particularly engrossed in one book and him asking me if I’d like to bring it home. It couldn’t believe it, I was so excited. It was a compendium of poems and stories and the cover was red and blue – but I have no idea what it was called. It’s so funny to think now that it was an anthology, but I remember being amazed at how many different stories were held within the one book. Apart from that, my love of reading stemmed from Enid Blyton, Mallory Towers, Joan Lingard and then as you get older, you graduate to Judy Blume.

On Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday last year, I wrote a piece for the Irish Times about growing up with books, and how I moved from young adult fiction to Agatha’s novels and crime fiction. It was  definitely the bridge between childhood reading and discovering literature. I adored those Christie books, and I’d love to find time to go back and reread them. I thought it was quite a personal route but so many people got in touch to say that they too experienced that trajectory through reading. It was great to hear! I was always reading, particularly in my teenage years. Between the ages of 13 and 17, I spent a large chunk of my time in hospital. I had a hip problem that left my very immobile and often confined to bed. I knew that I would have to go to hospital frequently, so I’d stock up on essentials – lots and lots of books. I gobbled them up [laughs].

Did you need to talk to others about the stories you were reading or did you just allow them to percolate within your own imagination?

I had a very close friend in school who was also an avid reader and when she was a teenager, she liked to shoplift books and make-up and share them with me. She stopped when she got caught stealing a bra from Roches. They called her parents and she was so mortified that it was the last thing she stole [laughs].

So yeah, I talked about what I was reading with friends but family was important too. I wrote an essay for Banshee and mentioned my aunt who really supported and encouraged my appetite for reading. She bought me a hardback copy of Little Women and abridged classics. She always emphasised how important it was to read. We’d go to sale of works and second hand bookshops together to scout out books (she also loves Agatha Christie). I read everything that I could get my hands on and I went to great lengths to get new books. When I was going through all the hip stuff, I clearly remember hobbling on crutches to a library that was over two miles from home, just to borrow some new books. I planned it meticulously too, so I knew that I had to bring a schoolbag with me because my hands would be busy with the crutches and I wouldn’t be able to carry anything. What was I like? A total nerd [laughs].

 As you became an adult, were there any pinnacle moments that shaped your love of reading?

I studied English and History in UCD and you learn how to read closely, and critically. I remember in my final year, I panicked and picked an elective that didn’t interest me and frantically went to the office to try to swap to the Virginia Woolf class. A lecturer, Declan Kiberd, overheard me trying to explain this to an disinterested secretary. He told me to follow him, went out into the corridor, scratched my name off a list and signed me up for the Virginia Woolf class. He said that if anyone had a problem with it, they had to take it up with him. He was a great teacher, who gave fascinating lectures and made Joyce and other writers so accessible. Equally, Danielle Clarke, who taught the Virgina Woolf module, instilled in me a life-long love for Virginia’s writing. In recent times, she has been a big champion of The Long Gaze Back, as has Professor Margaret Kelleher, who keeps telling me I should do a PhD. (if I could just clone myself…)

 When you emerged from college and began to hone your critical voice, were you ever concerned about how it might be received?

Initially, I read all of the critics that I admired and those who I hoped to be as good as, but you’re also trying to cultivate your own voice. People often think that being a critic means being critical but instead, it’s critically assessing something and attempting to qualify if the object achieved what it’s set out to do. That’s the only requirement.

I started out in journalism, mostly writing about music and eventually moved onto books but I’d hate to read any of those early reviews! I bet they’re mortifying [laughs] but like anything, it takes time and practice to craft your voice. During those early days, I did a journalism class at night because I assumed that was what was needed to become a journalist. That works for some people, but it didn’t for me. You can teach journalism, certainly, but there’s a lot to be said for just writing and honing and learning how to shape a piece. So, I wrote and wrote and wrote. I did a lot of stuff for free initially and you begin to notice that you’ve found your rhythm and your niche.

Is it difficult to say that you don’t like something?

It can be, because Ireland is a small country. When a book is published, it’s the product of someone’s phenomenal workload and time, but if something fails to do what you expect of it as a reader, you have to say that. Your treatment of the work, however, is important. Hatcheting and being deliberately destructive in your review is not helpful to anyone. But if you’ve been asked for your opinion on a piece of work, you have to be honest about it. It’s important to interrogate a piece of work, but always be constructive in terms of criticism.

You mentioned The Anti Room earlier, but what made you and Anna set it up?

Simply, we didn’t think that there was anything like it in Ireland. We had been reading Jezebel (it’s a different beast now), Bitch, Bust and lots of great feminist American magazines and saw a space for something like that at home. Anna was on the organising committee of a festival called LadyFest and we put our heads together and realised how many Irish women were interested in feminism but that there was no Irish platform for them to read about it or engage with it.

Originally, there were four of us and it was anonymous and furthered the liberation we felt in that we could write what we wanted. We expected huge opposition but it never arrived. Anti Room went away for a while because the other two founders were busy, so Anna and I decided to start it up again. We knew that there was a gap and since then and FeministIre sprouted up but unfortunately, it took up so much time that it just couldn’t last. I still think that there’s a market for an Irish feminist conversation online, I would love to see someone do it.

I really enjoy The Coven, I think it’s a great example of a cauldron of feminist voices.

I love the writing in The Coven and really enjoy the weekly newsletter. Sarah Waldron curates such interesting articles from all over the internet. The Coven is a great example of how multi-faceted and multi-disciplinary feminism is – from fashion to politics, it’s all relevant. Maybe Sarah could be talked into setting up an Anti Room successor? (laughs)

How has the conversation surrounding feminism changed in Ireland since Anti Room?

In recent years, people like Caitlin Moran helped to make feminism accessible and moved it away solely from academia to become an everyday topic, and a topic that we all – men, women and particularly teenagers – need to have. That conversation was made possible because of the internet and Twitter. For all of its issues, Twitter has been a vehicle for feminist conversations, it has allowed people’s opinions to be challenged – and Moran herself has experienced this – and encouraged like-minded people to meet. It’s also helped to engage a much younger audience and more men. The internet has made feminism into something that is, and should be, for everyone. It has been misrepresented in the past, but it’s about equality – who doesn’t want that?

A lot of women now feel a huge sense of pride to identify as a feminist.

Yes, absolutely. The five women who travelled on the contraceptive train were interviewed my Marian Finuacane last year and one of them said that young women think it’s sufficient to merely call yourself a feminist but you have to get out and march. Huge numbers of women are marching for their rights – look at what’s happening around Repeal the 8th. Being vocal on Twitter does have an impact, but action is more important. You need to pair the two for real change to occur.

The publishing world is often critiqued because it overly favours stories by men and stories for men but with such feminist values, how do you meander through and work in that domain?

I’ve always been aware of this, and for a long time in Irish writing, there was a sense of “Where are the women”? I noticed this particularly whenever I picked up an anthology of short stories. With The Book Show on RTÉ Radio One, I have a female producer and whenever we put together a panel discussion, we try to strive for gender balance. I’m so conscious of the imbalance in the industry but you have to speak out and speak up when you see it in action, whether it’s all-male panel discussions or the Waking the Feminists debate. I try to do that, as do Tramp PressBelinda McKeon and most people I know who work in publishing and the arts. Things only change if you call out the imbalance. When I was reading Irish anthologies for The Long Gaze Back, it felt like the imbalance wasn’t about malice – it just didn’t and doesn’t occur to men that we should include women or that they have been left out.

Is the continuous calling-out of misogyny not exhausting?

It reminds me of an illustration of an old women at a feminist march and she’s holding a banner that says, ‘I cannot believe I still have to protest this shit’ [laughs]. It does feel a bit repetitive but if we do nothing there’s a huge chance that’s we’ll recede and regret that we could have made a difference.

Speaking of doing something, what instigated ‘The Long Gaze Back’?

In 2001, I was working in RTÉ, doing interviews and writing reviews of books, music and theatre. One day a book called, ‘Cutting the Night in Two’, edited by Evelyn Conlon arrived and it was an anthology of 34 stories by women. I couldn’t believe it, my experience in academia had led me to believe that only a handful of Irish women wrote short stories. I loved it and like The Long Gaze Back, there were women in it that I had never heard of. The book made me really curious to find out who else was out there that I had yet to discover.

Three years ago, I published an anthology called ‘Silver Threads of Hope’ with New Island and had a meeting with Eoin Purcell, who commissioned the book. I was sitting in his office and from my viewpoint, over his shoulder, I could see a copy of ‘Cutting the Night in Two’. I gushed on about how much I loved it and said to him: ‘You should do another one of those’. He responded immediately saying, ‘No, YOU should another one of those’. That’s how I walked myself into it. In just a moment it was commissioned.

 Did you feel a sense of responsibility when you were putting together the thirty writers?

Yes! I felt a huge responsibility. Straight away I decided that I wanted the anthology to include dead writers, high profile writers, up and coming voices and I absolutely wanted to include those who we have forgotten about. I wanted to arc back and illustrate that in the modern era women are free to include a talking foetus in their story, like June Caldwell does, but also illustrate that in Charlotte Riddell’s story – which was written over a centenary ago – writing about anything topical would have been completely unrealistic and controversial. She published 50 books and the first eight were published under a male name because of the connotations attached to being a woman writer.

I was really wanted writers to create new work, so there are 22 stories in The Long Gaze Back that for now, aren’t available anywhere else other than in this anthology. In an era where you can find everything online and download endless torrents, that was really important to me, to give readers something new.

Was it difficult to find the texts?

Oh man, it was so difficult and I really hope that technology makes many of those challenges obsolete. For example, Norah Hoult has four or five collections of short stories but I could only physically find two of them. I don’t know where they are and unless someone has one in their attic somewhere, those stories might disappear. Hoult was one of the real finds for me – funny, clever, ahead-of-their-time stories. I’d highly recommend her.

What were the most successful and challenging days that you experienced during The Long Gaze process?

The most successful day is when you hit ‘send’ [laughs]. But actually, it’s probably when the first copy arrives and the work that you have laboured over is a physical, tangible object. It’s surreal that something which existed solely in my head and in my laptop for over two years was finally in my hands. The most challenging aspect was probably copyright, and Hannah Shorten in New Island did brilliant work on this. We managed to get nearly everything I wanted to include, but there was another story by Mary Lavin that I really wanted to use, but I just couldn’t clear the copyright. Some day maybe…

One of the best parts was approaching all these amazing women – Anne Enright, Eimear McBride, Mary Costello – and having them say yes right away. They were genuinely excited and interested in having their work included and that’s incredibly humbling. There would be no book without their brilliant stories.

Were you conscious of diversity when you were selecting the writers?

I had really interesting conversation with someone about LGBT writers after the book was published. Emma Donoghue was one of the first people I asked, but she wasn’t available. It was important for me to include Kate O’Brien, given how outspoken she was about sexuality. Diversity is so important and I would like an anthology to exist in a decade that highlights the Irish-Polish voice or the Irish-Nigerian voice. We’re still quite a homogenous, mono-theistic, white country but that’s changing thankfully, and I really want to hear those new voices.

That notion of tokenism is something that impacts me. If I’m asked to take part in a discussion or to be involved in a project, a small part of me questions if the invitation is so that they can tick the diversity box but you have to believe in yourself and have confidence in your own skill and work, that your presence is valued and valid, despite your difference.

Exactly. It’s not a simple discussion but one which we must become better at. It always goes back to the ‘woman on the panel’ idea – it should be the norm, not the exception.

We spoke earlier about the role of a critic and how their objective is to measure a book against its outcomes. What outcomes did you assign to The Long Gaze Back?

The aim was to create an all-female anthology in a landscape where there were very few – the last one was fourteen years ago. I wanted to create a snapshot of the modern era, but also one that looks to the past and celebrates the women who paved the way for new female voices. I hope that the book endures, and that it’s a way for people to access a host of Irish women writers when previously, they might not have been able to name many, apart from the ones we already know.

As a PhD student, we’re told that our research will further and add to the conversation. What do you want to add to the conversation and where do you think the next one should start?

I want to encourage people to ask questions. For example, check your book shelves – make sure that all of your books aren’t by men, by white people or by able-bodied people. I hope that it encourages people to question the diversity, or lack thereof, that they subscribe to – whether that be literature, film, television. Explore more, wander further away from your comfort zone. That’s something that has been intrinsic to my career: ask questions, be curious, dig deep, there’s so much all of us don’t know.

One major thing that has come out of conversations around The Long Gaze Back is the lack of a similar anthology representing the northern part of the country. I chaired two panel events in Belfast last year and the audiences all loved the book but asked ‘where’s our book’? Lucy Caldwell (who is in TLGB) and New Island really encouraged me to take on the project, so that’s one of the things I’m currently working on. It’s called ‘The Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland’ and will be published by New Island in the autumn. It’s a lot of work – a lot of digging! – but I’m really enjoying the process.

We started our conversation by examining who we were and are but you achieved so many different things already, is there anything remaining that you would love to conquer or do?

I’m tentatively writing and really trying to find time to focus on that. I had an essay called ‘Hair’ published in Banshee (a brilliant new journal full of great new writing – I’ve discovered so many new voices because of it), and an upcoming piece for Granta. I’ve got a bit of a novel I started a long time ago and occasionally tinker with, but it’s in a very early stage. However, I’m really interested in essays. They’re such an elastic form – you can do so much with them. A lot of the writing I’ve loved in recent years have been essay collections or memoirs.

People like Rebecca Solnit, John Jeremiah Sullivan, Olivia Laing, Roxane Gay, Leslie Jamison, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Robert MacFarlane, Amy Liptrot. I’m really interested in place, and nature, and people’s stories.Time has been a big factor in not writing, but also, in a way, fear. In my industry, you’re surrounded by writers and you can’t help but hold yourself up to their standard. But I’m slowly putting down words and trying to make something come alive. It’s happening in fits and starts, but I’m hoping I’ll get there eventually…

Thank you to Sinéad, Hannah and Ger. ‘The Long Gaze Back’ is available from New Island for just €19.99. Before you go, make sure to follow Sinéad on Twitter.

Interview originally posted March 20, 2016

Sinead Burke