Mia Gallagher

Posted by Sue Leonard on Wednesday 10th October 2018

There’s something exotic about the writer, Mia Gallagher. She’s not traditionally beautiful, and doesn’t follow the vagaries of fashion, yet she always stands out. She secures her long hair with a decorative clip – and personalises her look with striking jewellery and long scarves. Tall with a balletic physique, she talks not just with her hands, but with her whole body.

When I remark on her poise – her air of utter confidence – and the ease with which she lives life differently, letting, for example, her hair turn naturally grey, she looks at me with some bemusement.

“I’m as insecure as anybody. I’m very insecure.” She screws up her face, and says, “Is it confidence? I think it’s that part of me is bolshie. If someone says, ‘you can’t do that,’ I’m like, hmm, who says so, and why can’t I? I try it. Always, since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to try that unacceptable thing.”

This trait comes partly from her low boredom threshold. She’s learned that to live happily she needs to keep her life interesting.

“I’ve done my time,” she says. “I’ve worked on various projects over the years just for the money, but they were never satisfying. I was once working for this very interesting woman in digital media, but I felt like a square peg in a round hole. I got angry and down.”

We’ve met to discuss Shift; Mia’s recently released collection of stories, which, like her two novels are original, literary and quite beautifully crafted. Many were written early in Mia’s writing career, between the early nineties and early noughties.

“Another batch came around 2004 to 2005, and a few are more recent,” she says. “Only one is totally brand new.”

Although many of the stories have been previously published, the author has reworked them considerably. From the scarily futuristic Pinning Tail on the Donkey, to the gender challenging Shift, all challenge the protagonists’ assumptions, and most contain a spectacularly clever twist.

My absolute favourite, Found Wanting, about a married woman’s obsession with a musician, is a case in point. And that story, Mia tells me, has gone through a complete revision.

“The basic arc, which is obsession and compulsion has remained the same,” she says, explaining that, in its original form, it appeared in a Fish Anthology.

“I didn’t look at it again until 2011, when I read at a lunch with women from a book club. Fifty Shades of Grey was all the rage, so I chose Found Wanting because it’s sexually explicit. But when I started reading it, I realised it wasn’t as good as I’d thought.

“In the first draft the narrator believed her own story too much. It read like wish fulfilment. I’d felt brave writing the sexual content, but a few years on it needed to be something else. In its finished form it’s become sadder, but, hopefully, more real.”

Brought up in middle-class South Dublin, Mia has always felt slightly different. Her father, from Germany, was a forester, her mother was a speech therapist, but both embraced the arts. Mia attended the Dublin Youth Theatre, an experience she adored, and, wanting to be famous, she was torn between studying drama and going to art school.

“But I wanted a year out, and neither course could be deferred.”

Her parents advised her to have something to fall back on, so she chose Communications in Dublin City University.

“I loved it. There were a load of Marxists lecturers who were brilliant, but being an overachiever I felt the academic project seemed inadequate in dealing with real life injustices. I wanted to do something more practical. A guy in the class had been to Nicaragua, and he said, ‘if you want to see a revolution happening go over.”

And the minute she graduated, she did just that. But when the work – with the coffee brigade – became fractious, she realised it wasn’t easy to change the world. After a few weeks she became sick, almost died, and returned to Ireland with a feeling of disillusion.

“If I hadn’t, I might have ended up in politics.”

The struggle to make a living as a creative is well known. So, when, in 1996, Mia left her paid job to pursue a career in acting, she was, knowingly, taking a leap of faith. And though she lived the life – playing in mostly, avant-garde theatre, also performing Brecht, and dancing in Opera Ireland’s Macbeth, it was hard to make ends meet. To make extra money, she began posing as a life model in colleges.

“I was interested to see how the experience would affect me. Would I be self-conscious?”

Fortunately, she loved it, and felt that the students viewed her as a series of shapes.

“I gained a lot from it. I saw it as a way of performance. From my theatre training it was interesting to bring fast gesture poses in, and I used the still poses as a way of meditating. And seeing so many versions of me helped me feel more at ease in myself.”

She also posed in prisons, with her clothes on, an experience that fascinated her.

“It was pretty brilliant. I wasn’t teaching, so I didn’t have to give the prisoners any authority. I was there to be looked at, but was absorbing the men, and the dynamics with each other. They would open up and tell me stories; it’s an intimate thing when they’re struggling to make these paintings.

“Their portraits were interesting and said as much about them as about me as a subject. Some would draw me as really old and aquiline, and others like a really soft, sweet looking person.”

Her first novel, Hellfire, published in 2006, grew from her experience in prions.

“I wrote it fast and it reads fast,” she says. “It started as this scrap of a story which I developed into a monologue that I performed, and it grew out of that.”

The novel did well, but the second one, Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland proved more problematic. It was finally published in 2016, but meanwhile, there were some tough years. Mia’s husband, the artist Sean Molloy had returned to college, because all his freelance work had dried up when the recession hit.

“I had a residency for the first year and a half, then it was really hairy. There were some grim years, some boiled egg and Ryvita weeks.”

She’s always got by, combining residencies, teaching and mentoring, but was delighted when, in May, she was elected onto Aosdȧna, the Arts Council organisation that honours artists whose work has made an outstanding contribution, and supports members by enabling them to draw an annual stipend.

“I’m feeling a bit dazed – it’s such a big thing,” she says. “Such a huge honour. Going back to my seventeen-year-old self, it’s my idea of success. A huge acknowledgment. There are some very fine writers in it, and a majority of them felt I was worthy to be included.”

Now that she’s settled as a fulltime writer, does she feel happy?

“I don’t know. But I do know that in 2011, that tough year, I hadn’t written for a few months because there seemed no point, and a friend said, ‘writing is what you do as a writer,’ and I started, and I immediately felt better. So, I think I need to do it.”

She’s currently working on a novel that she started back in 2011.

“I like to experiment with things – to try and maybe fail. I’m happiest when I’m making the work, even when I’m fighting it. That’s when I find the most meaning.”

Shift by Mia Gallagher. New Island: €10.95. Kindle: €7.91.

Published in The Irish Examiner on 25th August, 2018

© Sue Leonard. 2018

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