Orna Ross is a pen name, how did that come about?
It goes back to publishing my first novel, which was early 2003. My then publisher, Penguin, was a London based publisher and they felt that my real name, which is Áine McCarthy – it’s a real Irish name, all those vowels – they just felt it was unpronounceable and a hindrance people would trip over. So they said go home, come up with something that's phonetic in English and easy to read and easy for people to remember.
Later that evening, I was calling my kids down for tea and I shouted “Orghna! Ross!”
Orghna’s my daughter’s name. Ross is my son’s name. And I thought Hmm… that kind of works. If I take the GH – because my daughter also had the Irish spelling to her name – away for “Orna”, we’ve got a name that is phonetic in English, short, easy for book signings – just 8 letters. So that's how it came about.
What is it you enjoy most about being a writer?
Writing connects me in a different way to the world by connecting me to what seems to lie beyond the world. Trusting the mystery of the creative process allows me to trust the mystery of who we are, why we’re here, where we’re going. Oh, and of course playing with words is the best possible fun. I just love producing them, moving them about, seeing how they fit.
When it came to your writing, which came first – fiction or poetry?
In writing terms, the poetry came first. I began writing poems as a teenager, but in publishing terms, the fiction came first.
I stopped writing poetry when I left school and I didn't go back to it until at the death of a very close friend in my early forties. And then I started to publish it myself. So now I write both and they're equal for me.
What was the turning point in your life — the moment when you decided to write the Irish Trilogy?
When I was 16, I told the girl who sat beside me in school that I would write a novel about all this, the intimate and intertwined war of Irish history and family history. But I carried the different parts of the story around until I was almost 40 — that is when I first set out to finish it.
History books jump straight from the “glories” of 1916 and the War of Independence, to the mid-1920s. “The War of The Brothers” was literally a blank page. And the few sources I could find had even less time for the sisters, the women who played their part in that time.
I knew that my great-aunt, who lived with us, had been in Cumann na mBan, the women’s auxiliary IRA. And that during the Civil War she was on the side of the ‘Irregulars,’ as those against the Treaty were known. Her brother had been shot during the Civil War, allegedly by a former friend. The older generation wouldn’t speak about it. There was this sense of shame, drowning in silence.
A magnet, of course, for a writer. I couldn’t find out what really happened, so I made up this three-volume novel instead. It tells the truth of those times as I see it. And stories are so much more truthful than facts.
As a poet, you go deep into the heart and soul. What inspires a poem for you?
Life. Love. Death. My country. Nature. A poem can come from anything. An image. An event.
Like most poets, though, I’m drawn back again and again to certain themes or images. Things that turn up often in my poetry: The sea. Ireland. What it means to be a woman. Moments of transformation.
And sometimes I just write ditties or pieces for fun, that are quite different. I love the poems that take me by surprise, that come almost fully formed, most of all.
What matters most about poetry for you?
Poetry keeps depth in my life, keeps me from being pulled about by distractions or doubt, especially when outer life is busy. In a room full of poets is my favorite place to be. Always an open and interesting space, and slightly mad. I love it!
Who has inspired you along the way? Who do you feel are your mentors?
Though I have never met them, I’ve learned most about writing from these grand masters: Maya Angelou, Eavan Boland, George Eliot, Natalie Goldberg, Winston Graham, Toni Morrison, Mary Oliver and W.B. Yeats.
My life mentor is the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hanh, whom Goldberg also follows.
Which of your characters do you find the most compelling, the most real to you, out of all of your books?
Maud Gonne, the Irish revolutionary heiress who inspired W.B. Yeats — she was actually a real person. (Was she exactly like the character in my books? I’d like to think: yes.) Maud made so many mistakes with her life, and was so dogged and single-minded, she makes me laugh and cry. I can see why to some she was a joke and to others an inspiration.
But most striking for me was when I first started to read about her and her women friends, who were all activists, artists, or writers. I realized that in the 1920s, they were thinking about, and working for, the same things we were thinking about and working for, as women, in the 1970s and 80s. Maud moved me beyond seeing old women as grannies, so it was she who brought that time alive in my mind, though I didn’t write about her until some two decades later.
Is there a writer who has been the greatest influence on you, or someone in another field or walk of life?
W.B. Yeats. He was a poet who wrote exquisitely and often while living a super-active public life. He showed it could be done.
What is your writing schedule like?
I have dedicated writing times punctuated throughout my busy day. And every day, for 15 minutes, I f-r-e-e-write by hand. (That’s essential for me in some deep way that I don’t quite understand. I only know that when I don’t do it, I write far less, and less well, at other times.)
Aside from those dedicated time capsules, I write whenever I can, “in the gaps”. I’m always pulling out the laptop: on the tube, while waiting for the dentist to call me in for my appointment… Until 6pm. Then I cut off and nothing more than a spoken note into my phone if a good idea strikes.
All of this writing is built on a foundation of deep silence, though, which I nourish by Inspiration Meditation, a form of meditation that I teach which emphasizes the power and depth of the space between words.
How do you write? Is it different from the books versus the poems?
Each and every way: longhand, on my phone, at my desktop… aside from the F-r-e-e-writing sessions I mentioned earlier, which have to be handwritten, it’s interchangeable.
What does your writing space look like? Do you have any rituals to get yourself ready to write?
I have just changed it up. It was a very busy space, covered with postcard pictures of all the artists I admire. Now it’s decluttered, very zen. I think it’s an age thing!
Who do you read for relaxation or fun or escape?
Winston Graham’s Poldark series. Soooooo much better than the TV series. Feminist literary theory and literary biographies — not everyone’s idea of fun, I know!
In fact, what do you find the most fun to do?
Dancing and wild swimming.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
“What’s in the way is the way.” Irish poet, Mary Molloy.
Your favorite place to spend time?
By the sea.
If you could meet several writers — time travel being no obstacle — in a coffee shop for a chat, who would they be?
Jane Austen. David Bohm. Charles Dickens. George Eliot. Natalie Goldberg. Mary Shelley and her mother, Mary Wollstencraft. Thich Nhat Hanh. Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard. I’d also like to meet Willie Yeats but after the others had gone. I’d like to go one-to-one with him!
How have you evolved both as a writer and in your writing?
Going Indie has given me far more creative confidence. I love the feedback from readers.
Have you advice for writers out there who are just starting out?
Write. Every day. Creative confidence is a muscle. You have to flex it. Always take that opportunity to move yourself another small step towards where you want to go. Always.
What do you have to say about your book/writing experience?
My writing inspirations are Irish history, the lives of women and other outcasts, and the mysterious movements of the creative spirit itself. I leap on vision but rely on revision. I agonise over word choices and punctuation. I believe in the magic of two human imaginations meeting across space and time in a book.
I know I'm not just a better writer but a better human being for being a reader. For me literature is a gift, a calling, and our best gateway to a better world.
You often talk about writers being Creative directors. What do you mean by that?
I mean that the writer takes control of the creative decisions, which includes decisions about how the book is going to be found and read by readers.
Do you, the author, have a unique background different from most authors?
One unique aspect of my background is that I’m a publishing industry insider. As founder and director of the Alliance of Independent Authors, I’ve spent a decade championing the rights of authors in the publishing space, so much so that The Bookseller named me “one of the top 100 most influential people in publishing.” However, specifically to my fiction and poetry, I’m well-travelled and have lived what I believe to be a rich life, which shines through in my work.
Finally, who is Orna Ross, in fifteen words or less?
A woman with a dedicated belief in the transformational potential of the written word.