A Conversation with Caoilinn Hughes

The Irish debut novelist sounds off on her excruciating writing process, and how not all poets wear berets.

Caoillin Hughes

In Orchid and the Wasp, Caoilinn Hughes introduces us to Gael Foess, a heroine of mythic proportionsA tough, thoughtful, and savvy opportunist, Gael’s determined to live life on her own terms. Raised in Dublin by careerist parents, Gael learns early how a person’s ambitions and ideals can be compromised—and refuses to let her younger brother, Guthrie, suffer such sacrifices.

After Gael’s financier father walks out on them during the economic crash of 2008, her family fractures. Her mother, a once-formidable conductor, becomes a shadow. Determined not to let her loved ones fall victim to circumstance, Gael leaves Dublin for the coke-dusted social clubs and galleries of London and Manhattan, always working an angle, yet becoming a stranger to those who love her. Written in electric prose, Orchid and the Wasp is about gigantic ambitions and hard-won truths; it’s a charged debut chewing through sexuality, class, and politics, and crackling with joyful, anarchic fury.

Recently, Caoilinn sat down with Read It Forward’s Abbe Wright to discuss the arc of writing a novel that’s both personal and systemic in nature, and how cutting her novelist teeth with male protagonists led her to the wonder of Gael.

Read It Forward: Congratulations on your debut novel! How does it feel to be a novelist?

Caoilinn Hughes: It’s much more legitimizing than being a poet. As a poet, I used to always just say, “I teach.” It was too awkward to handhold people through that moment of picturing you in a beret eating baked beans.

Get recommendations for the greatest books around straight to your inbox every week.

RIF: But you’re not just a poet—you’re an award-winning poet. Tell us a little bit about what Orchid and the Wasp is all about.

CH: My way into describing the book is through the title, which I came upon in a philosophy book by Deleuze and Guattari. It’s this mammoth tome about things that are impenetrable and obscure. This orchid and the wasp they use as shorthand for describing something societal. There’s a type of orchid in Western Australia that resembles a wasp; it emits a female wasp pheromone and structurally looks like a wasp, so male wasps try to mate with it. In the process, they’ll get the pollen attached to their forehead, this orange, highly humiliating feature, and they fly off in frustration. But a few minutes later, they’ll be lured by another orchid. It’s a process in nature that isn’t very common, something non-symbiotic.

I wanted to use this shorthand for talking about non-mutualism in nature, societally. On a larger level, I was interested in what was happening with the LIBOR scandal, the London Interbank Offered Rate, around 2011—reading a lot about that at the time, really interested in talking with people about what was going on in the world in a way that didn’t simplify, or wasn’t afraid of acknowledging our own complicity in our exploitation. There were these things going on in my head when I was writing the book, and I had this character who I wanted to put on the page. She was in my head all along, all my life. I wrote two novels that had male protagonists because I didn’t want to learn on her. I wanted to be ready, you know?

RIF: I feel like she’s perched on my shoulder saying funny, smart-alecky things. Tell us about Gael Foess.

CH: The book spans a decade and each chapter, or section, is one day, and you’ve got 16 or so days; it’s all very active and in-scene. You see Gael when she’s 11, in the opening chapter, and it’s one of the formative moments. She’s already her own person on the first page. That was really exciting for me as a writer, because I didn’t want to write a book that was about a young woman discovering her own worth, her own flaws, and learning how to overcome them. I just wasn’t interested. I wanted to write this character who was already herself, negotiating the world in a way as informed as you can be at 11—perceptive, involved, and active. So, you see her in one of what are many moments that are formative, in that she comes away from them potentially more cynical and hardened.

RIF: You can tell that she stands on her own two feet, but she’s very shaped by the other members of her family, like Jarleth and Sive, her dad and mom.

CH: Sive is another one that every American reader might think is ‘Sieve.’ But there’s a very famous Irish play by John B. Keene called Sive. So, when you see the name Sive—Irish readers, their guts will turn. It’s such a wonderful play.

RIF: Her brother, Guthrie, talks a bit about the way these three characters in her family shape Gael.

CH: Her mother is an orchestra conductor, a formidable artist, and Gael intuits this from her mother’s personality. You can tell from the first page that she’s quite absent as a parent, she’s not really committed to motherhood. She’s a loving person, but a lot of children might come out of that parenting situation feeling unwanted, secondary. Gael has an awful lot of respect for her mother and that way of life, to live outside the conventions we expect people to adhere to, and know that it’s possible to be contrary not for the sake of being contrary, actually for something far more noble.

Her father, Jarleth, is a financier. He happens to work for Barclays later on, one of the banks tied to the LIBOR scandal. That’s one of the notches in my head that bound the personal aspect of the book to the larger systemic ones. Jarleth is his own kind of force. I was aware of the fact that people would want more. They knew why there wasn’t more of him in the book, and that wanting is its own injury. The energy that comes from him toward Gael is kind of negative and scarring. His life would’ve been made had Gael been born male, and she senses this.

Her brother’s very spiritual, and she perceives him as vulnerable. He does have health issues, and she wants to look out for him, but sees her father’s disappointment in his failure of masculinity, and that causes her anger and trauma. It lends her a grit that she’s constantly feeling the friction of, constantly working against. Gael and Guthrie are two sides of the same coin. Their environment has informed them and their very worked-through ideologies. They’re thoughtful kids, but their lives couldn’t be more different.

RIF: Gael is so self-possessed. When she sees her mother as busy, it’s as if she knows, “I understand your life is taken up by creating art and telling other artists how to interpret music”—that Gael understands she doesn’t have time to be a mother. It’s heartbreaking and awe-inspiring that she, at 11, can understand, and see her father’s shortcomings, call him out, and be a sensitive protector of her brother. She’s wise beyond her years. 

CH: One of the things she sees in her mother is that it’s possible to live this life with your primary goal and ambition being something that has nothing to do with other people; the pulse running through your life not being relationships.

RIF: The story takes place in three different cities. When you were writing, did it feel like each city had a different energy? Did you try to capture that?

CH: Because Gael gets older, the energy changes a lot. I’m fascinated by how readers are going to respond depending on how quickly they read it. The energy changes so much, and this is reflecting where Gael is, her age, her impatience, and the escalation of her pursuit, her own line of inquiry. With the Dublin chapters, it begins in 2001, 2002. It’s the Celtic Tiger era, this moment where the sensibility of the people was divorcing from the everyday interests and pursuits. There was this strong sense that we were living in a way we’re not proud of, but isn’t it great craic? It’s great craic to have a panic room, go on five holidays a year, and have a house in Malaga.

After the bubble burst, there were taxi drivers on the radio who admitted to being 30 million Euro in debt. They’d leveraged their property so much that they got themselves into that intractable situation. Ireland’s economic history is unusual, even within the context of Europe. We had multinationals coming in, a boom in all sorts of sectors, and funding from the EU to build the infrastructure. We had proper roads, the Euro currency, we identified very much as European. The change was too fast for an ideological and philosophical calibration, so that’s what you see in the first scenes.

Then at the end, it’s post-crash. I remember hearing people talking about getting a tombstone, and they’d been offered one that had the stonecutter’s email address on it for a big discount. That kind of negotiation hadn’t been going on. Nobody would have been spending their emotional energy on the mortification of having someone’s email address on their husband’s tombstone. That was heartbreaking, to see the embarrassment.

RIF: How quickly it changes. Talk a little bit about your process from reading these banking world headlines that planted a seed in your head, and how the novel grew out of that.

CH: I spend months tearing my hair out and hitting my head against a wall. I have some horrendous habits. I’ve taught in the past, and whenever students ask me about my process I say, “As long as you’re not going to take any of it onboard.” Like, don’t do what I do. I have this awful habit of scratching my skin, my whole chest, face, neck, and everything. My partner will walk in my study, and it’s like I’ve been caught red-handed. I’m covered in scratches and he’s like, “How’s the writing going?” He can tell how well it’s going by how scratched I am.

RIF: By your welts.

CH: It’s an excruciating process because I write into the dark; I don’t do any planning. I don’t like to know very much at all. I start with a scene, and with that scene comes a setting and voice. I don’t need very much to start except a strong internal measure that I’m interested in that scene deeply. There’s something life-sized about that.

It’s excruciating at the start, the first six or eight months, because I see writing as a massive block of marble you’ve been gifted. You’ve been bequeathed this beautiful piece of Connemara marble, and your novel is within it. But the only tool you have at the start is an axe. When you start hacking away at the marble, all of the chunks that fall away are irretrievable, and those chunks represent the novels that could have been. A lot of writers would think that’s nuts, because of course it’s retrievable. Have you heard of editing? But for me, that’s not true. I can do gestural changes once a book is written, but I edit as I go, so by the time I get to the last sentence, I might spend three days on that last sentence, but it’s done. I’ll work on larger edits with an editor after that, but there’s no retrieving and gluing on marble.

RIF: But the paths that aren’t taken aren’t taken for a reason—those chunks of marble on the floor.

CH: Hopefully.

RIF: Is there anything in Gael of your experience being a woman that you translated to this heroine?

CH: I was listening to one of your podcasts, and one of the authors brought up Flaubert and said “Of course, I’m all characters, including Madame Bovary.” I am as much Gael as I am Jarleth, Sive, and Harper—a character Gael has a relationship with—and her brother. With Gael specifically, it was terrifying to write the book in that people would assume I’m Gael. I first met with my agent over here, and I had to say, “I’m not Gael, but you’re going to think I am until we get to know each other.” I’ve worked with Google, run a business, I’ve done all this dirty stuff, so I share some of her interest in approaching the world from a strategic perspective. But there’s an awful lot of her ideology I don’t.

As much as they’re nuanced, the differences in our ideologies are absolutely present. That made the book interesting to write because I had to figure out exactly what those were, where she sat, and whether she was deeply cynical, whether she was losing hope.

RIF: Right.

CH: She attends Occupy Wall Street, and you see how cynical and underwhelmed she is. The level of dialogue, to her, was hugely disappointing, so she sits in Trinity Church and works on business prospects while everyone else is out in the cold trying to live their beliefs. I could have written a 2,000-page novel following Gael. I’ll probably never quite let her go. A lot of the time, she’s on her own moving through the world.

The danger in writing that way was if readers don’t love Gael, I’m screwed. I knew they weren’t going to love her; she’s not necessarily likable. But if they’re not intrigued, I’m screwed. When I was writing, I wasn’t thinking about the markets, I was thinking about readers. It was like being in love with somebody and not having told them yet, and the prospect of telling them and holding onto that hope.

RIF: Is there something you hope readers take away when they reach the final page?

CH: There are loads of questions that will hopefully arise in the reader’s mind, a few large questions. One of them is, “What is a good life?” The way we try to lift one another up, or help people we love, is always biased by our perspective of what someone’s life should look like. How it might be improved, might be less tortuous. But individuals are the only people who can make that decision for themselves. Your life can look wonderful on paper and, in reality, it’s a different story. The other way around, too; it can seem incredibly grim, or dull, and in reality I spend half my time in a cave, tearing my hair out. But on paper, I have a book coming out.

RIF: And you’re an award-winning poet. Thank you so much, Caoilinn.


Author Photo: Danijel Mihajlović

CAOILINN HUGHES is an Irish writer whose poetry collection Gathering Evidence won the Irish Times Shine/Strong Award. She is a fellow of the James Merrill Foundation, the Bogliasco Foundation, the Tin House Workshop, and has received a Literature Bursary Award from the Arts Council of Ireland. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Granta, POETRY, Best British Poetry, BBC Radio 3 and elsewhere. She divides her time between the Netherlands and Ireland.

About Abbe Wright

Abbe Wright

ABBE WRIGHT is the Editor of Read It Forward. As a kid, she used to get in trouble at summer camp for using a flashlight to read inside her sleeping bag after lights out, but these days, she lives in Brooklyn, where nobody minds if she stays up late reading. She has written for Glamour, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Cut and tweets about books (and The Bachelor) at @abbewright.