Denyse Woods

Posted by Sue Leonard on Sunday 17th June 2018

Cork writer, Denyse Woods, arrives for our Dublin meeting wearing black – her exotic jewellery reflecting her passion for the Arab world. She’s travelled there extensively and, listening, over the years, to stories of the Jinn lore which pervades throughout the Middle East, it struck her that the tales resemble, closely, our own stories of fairies.

“Jinn lore is similar in many respects, including interaction between Jinn and human beings,” she says. “There are stories of haunted houses, crops failed or didn’t fail, and like fairies they have a whole society.”

In her sixth novel, which is set, mainly, in Oman, Denyse explores Jinn lore, to produce a love story with supernatural overtones, and the feel of a thriller. It’s a fascinating and atmospheric read. But where did the idea come from?

“My books always start with a tableau,” she says.  “I can see a scene and a setting and see what is going on. I make myself step out of the room to ask myself, ‘who is that? What’s he doing and why is that happening?

“It’s a sense of something. It happens when I’m in the bath or going to sleep at night. Some ideas pass me by, but they often come back again. For this one, I saw a remote cottage in West Cork, and a guy looking in the window at a woman inside. But when he steps into the cottage there’s no one there.”

The novel opens in 1982, as Gabriel arrives in Oman to stay with his sister. The two are close, but there’s tension between them. Gabriel has escaped Cork in disgrace, having harmed Max, his elder brother in some way. This happened on Max’s stag night.

“Why do men do these things to each other,” asks Denyse, rhetorically. “This ritualistic violence does have victims. It shocks me.”

In Oman, Gabriel falls in love with a woman whom nobody else can see. Locals insist that she’s a Jinn. After a while she disappears, and, heartbroken, Gabriel stays in Oman, but is restless, and never marries or makes anything much of his life.

There’s tragedy in this, because Gabriel has a gift for music. He excelled but has chosen not to pursue it – and that, too, has something to do with his brother.

“I’m fascinated by that business of having a gift. Are there repercussions if you don’t address it?”

Meanwhile, Thea arrives in Baghdad to work as a secretary. When she becomes sick, she fights the mystery illness, determined not to be sent home, but her condition worsens, and she’s evacuated, along with the war wounded. That experience was lifted straight from Denyse’s life. But how did she end up in Baghdad?

As the daughter of the first Irish diplomat to suggest that diplomatic wives should be paid, Denyse is aware that her father had progressive ideas. When he suggested that she should take a gap year rather than head to Trinity to study English, she happily fell in with his plan.

“He felt, I think, that I wasn’t in the groove to choose my future. My mother had died two years earlier, and I’d been in boarding school. He found this course, French, Italian, typing and shorthand, and it set me up for every job I’ve had since. In America, for instance, I worked in an office, not a bar.

“I met some Algerians who were in Ireland learning English before doing engineering, and I was entranced by the language. It flows so well, and you can’t hear the gaps between sentences. I was intrigued, and started to do an evening course in Arabic.

“I had a job in the exam office of University College Dublin by then, and the professor in charge of languages stopped me in the corridor one day. He’d heard I was learning Arabic and asked if I’d like to do a degree.”

She did so, then got a secretarial job in Baghdad, where, after a few, happy months, she contracted hepatitis and was sent home.

“I couldn’t eat, and I couldn’t drink, and I got progressively worse. Nobody could tell me what was wrong. One doctor said I was homesick. The not drinking was the scariest part. I craved Coca-Cola, but it wasn’t available.”

She was escorted home by an architect, and, once he’d found her some cola, which brought temporary relief, the two talked all the way to London.

“I asked him what had brought him to Baghdad, and he said, ‘A book.’ It was called Travels in Arabia Felix and was about a Danish Royal Expedition in 1761 which ends in the Yemen. He lent me the book when he came to see me in hospital, and that book, alone, is why I went to the Yemen.”

She’s been there three times now. The first time in 1983, and, having fallen for the country and its people, she travelled there again to research her second novel as Denyse Woods, Like Nowhere Else. Then in 2005, she gathered together a group of – mainly – Irish women writers and artists and organised for them to get together with some Yemeni women whilst exploring the country.

Meanwhile, Muscat had always been calling – and she finally arrived in Oman in 2008, travelling to the desert, and listening to all the stories of Jinn lore.

“Everyone has a Jinn story,” she says.

What is the attraction of the Arabic peninsular?

“It’s the history and the mysticism, the atmosphere and the desert. There’s a loveliness about the towns and cities, and, in Oman, the natural springs and wadis. And I love Islamic architecture, and not just Yemen’s tower houses – there are beautiful mosques, and all these low white buildings and mysterious alleyways.

“The people are very relaxed, friendly and welcoming. And everybody is informed, and they have a similar humour to us.”

A mother of two daughters, Denyse published her first novel in 1992. The critically acclaimed, Overnight to Innsbruck described the accidental meeting of a couple who, years earlier, had travelled to the Sudan.  She followed this up The Catalpa Tree, and, as the novel was more romantic, wrote it as Denyse Devlin. Three more novels followed, one as Woods, two as Devlin, then she felt like a new challenge.

So when, in 2009, she was offered the position of Artistic Director for the West Cork Literary Festival – she jumped it, staying in the post she until 2013. The festival thrived under her directorship – and she gave it a distinct international flavour.

“I loved it. It’s great for the town of Bantry, bringing in visitors, and I loved meeting my favourite writers. I will always remember a conversation with Anita Desai when she advised me to ‘just write,’ a book I was doubtful about. But what I loved most was that it fed the organiser in me.” Then, smiling ruefully, she says, “I thought I’d still be writing alongside organising the festival, but the reality was different.”

Since then, she’s done some teaching – something she had started, before her festival days, in an effort to overcome her fear of reading in public.

“I was writer in residence last year in a library group. Libraries keep you so grounded. The librarians are wonderful, and the groups were self-motivated. There was so much good writing in them.”

With its complex three-part structure, and superb sense of place, Of Sea and Sand is, arguably, Denyse’s best book yet. Her intention with this book, as with all her writing, is to open a window onto a part of the world that readers think they know from the news headlines and show them something totally different.

“And with this one, I want them to see that myths tend to be the same the whole world over. It was really interesting looking at our myths and seeing what freaks us out, so that we have to produce a folklore around it.”

Of Sea and Sand. Published by Hoopoe: €12.95. Kindle: €10.08.

Published in The Irish Examiner on 19th May

© Sue Leonard 2018

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