Deirdre Sullivan's latest book Precious Catastrophe is the darkly magical follow-up to Perfectly Preventable Deaths. Deirdre is a writer from Galway. Her 2016 novel Needlework was awarded a White Raven and the CBI Honour Award for fiction. Tangleweed and Brine, a collection of dark fairy-tale retellings, won an Irish Book Award in 2017, and her first book for Hot Key Books, Perfectly Preventable Deaths, was shortlisted for the Awards in 2019. Her most recent book is Savage Her Reply with Little Island Books, a companion title to Tangleweed and Brine. Deirdre loves reading, knitting, bodily autonomy and guinea-pigs.
Precious Catastrophe & Perfectly Preventable Deaths (Hot Key Books)
Precious Catastrophe, the darkly magical sequel to Perfectly Preventable Deaths, takes the reader back to Ballyfrann, a town where magic and evil lurk side by side and where the past still comes to haunt its present day inhabitants. This is a haunting story of siblings, love, loss and healing with plenty of secrets and twists along the way. We asked author Deidre Sullivan to tell us more.
Chapter extract from Precious Catastrophe
Q&A with Deirdre Sullivan
1. What was your route into writing YA? How important are your Irish roots to your writing?
My route into writing YA was a little different. My voice and interests as a writer align more with YA than with other genres, typically, but I may not have had the confidence to put my work out into the world as early as I did were it not for the support of a wonderful writer called Siobhán Parkinson. I attended one of her courses while I was in college, and she took me aside at the end and asked me to write a book for her publishing imprint, Little Island.
As for my Irishness, of course it influences my writing. The concerns that I deal with are things that many Irish people have had to confront and consider, and I think growing up in an Ireland where Magdalen Laundries were still operational (the last one shut when I was in primary school), and with the eighth amendment impacting women and pregnant people until very recently, that there was an added awareness of the visceral impact of misogyny from very early on.
I think there's also a sense of the importance of story growing up here, the folklore and old legends but also family lore, stories you love as a child but interrogate a little more as you grow up and gain perspective. There's also the fact that I write in Hiberno-English, and my word use is influenced by the Irish language, which colours the way we use English here. While the penal laws were in effect, Catholics were forbidden from speaking or reading Irish and so it was folded into our syntax. When I was editing Precious Catastrophe, I was fascinated by how often my phrasing was a little unfamiliar or foreign to the reader as a result of its Irishness.
2. Can you tell us a little about your books Perfectly Preventable Deaths and Precious Catastrophe?
I'll try my best to do it in a spoiler free way!
Perfectly Preventable Deaths
Madeline Hayes and her sister Catlin move to the town of Ballyfrann when her mother remarries. Ballyfrann is a place they have only heard of as a result of it being a place where the corpses of missing girls have been found over the years, and the girls find it hard to adjust to living in a castle and making new friends. There is something humming underneath the surface of the place that they can't quite put their finger on, and with Catlin falling in love and Madeline coming to some very important realisations about identity, a distance is opening up between them…but when some of the towns secrets come to light in the most brutal of ways, Madeline will have some hard choices to make.
In the wake of the events of Perfectly Preventable Deaths, Madeline and Catlin are living increasingly separate lives, but both trying to reconcile who they are with who they were before tragedy struck. Madeline finds solace in witchcraft and work, but Catlin is haunted by dreams of Lon, and turns even more to prayer as a coping mechanism. But an answered prayer can be a dangerous thing…
3. At the heart of the story is the mystery around murders of local girls across many years. Were you drawing on real stories, or did something else inspire the series?
While I was a child, there were a number of high-profile missing women cases that were linked to the Dublin mountains, and there was an awareness that murder was probably the explanation. The idea that someone could disappear from their life in a brutal manner, living on as a series of memories and clues is something that I found very powerful.
4. Can you tell us about the town the books are set in, Ballyfrann, and is it based on somewhere you know or have lived?
It's a fictional town, but elements of it are drawn from small towns outside Galway, largely in Connemara. It's a place, where the natural world is very close to the human one, and that sense of wilderness encroaching, as a healer or a threat was something I thought a lot about as I wrote.
5. Twins Maddy and Catlin have a great relationship and repartee, how did that develop? Do you have a favourite twin?
Their dynamic has been the same since the very first draft of the book, and their relationship is the most important one in both books. Their dialogue in particular flowed really naturally and I really enjoyed writing their back and forth. I think a lot of people cope with stressful situations with a bit of humour and it was important to me to reflect that, the warmth that sisterhood can give you in dangerous times.
6. Why did you decide to give Mamo, the town's formidable (and fabulous) 'witch', such a big role in the story?
Mamó is inspired by folklore around fairy doctors, such as Nano Hayes and Biddy Early that I would have read about or heard growing up. I also liked the notion of apprenticeship, as Maddy comes into her own, but I didn't want to give her a straightforward supportive mentor. Mamó is a bit murkier than that, she has her own motives and agenda.
7. The powerful women in these stories give the books a strong feminist slant, too. Is it important for you to raise questions about patriarchy in your writing?
It's not something I go in seeking to do, I think it arises organically. I write to make sense of the world and the patriarchy unsettles and enrages me at times, which then comes out in my work. I think it is important to interrogate the structures we exist within in general, particularly when those structures seem designed to oppress one group of people, and benefit another.
8. The story gets very dark in places with themes of animal torture, paedophilia, abuse and trauma. Did you find it hard to write? How do you keep the reader on the journey with you?
I trust the reader to come with me, if they feel themselves able to do so. I will never ever judge anyone for shutting a copy of one of my books and leaving it to one side if it is the right decision for them, we all read for very different reasons and books can impact a person in a variety of ways. I do however, try very hard to do justice to the subject matter in my work, and to treat those themes with the respect and sensitivity that they deserve.
It isn't up to me to say if I've succeeded or not. When my books go into the world, they belong to the readers, and will impact each reader a little differently.
9. You have previously written a lot about dark fairytales; do you feel this series, with its shift into witchcraft and local legends, is a progression of that? How did you go about researching it?
I actually had a draft of PPD written before starting Tangleweed and Brine, but I do think my fascination with folklore and fairytale did inform the book, this was a lot more explicit in earlier drafts - and there was a bit more retelling, particularly of the story ‘Mr. Fox'.
I read a lot of books about witches, explored a lot of wilderness and became much more interested in herbs and healing plants than I had been before writing Perfectly Preventable Deaths.
10. You've said before you get a bit obsessed about your research; how 'witchy' did you get for this one?
I did two herbalism courses, and a tarot course, read a lot of witchy books, fiction and non-fiction. I found Culpeper's Herbal to be incredibly useful when writing Precious Catastrophe in particular.
11. The book finishes with some loose ends - will you return to Maddy and Catlin?
I'm not sure. There are definitely some secrets about Ballyfrann that didn't make it into the book, but at the moment I'm quite happy to leave them where they are at the end of Precious Catastrophe and work on my next project.
12. Where and when do you do your best writing, and what are you writing currently? How do you find life as an author?
I tend to call myself a writer rather than an author because I feel that I have more control over being a writer. All you need to do to be a writer is to write things, but an author depends on gatekeepers more, if that makes sense.
I do my best writing in coffee shops but have learned to write at home since the pandemic! I'm currently working on another YA book, and doing some very interesting and creepy research that's making it difficult to sleep at night.
12. What are your favourite escapes from your desk?
I like knitting, yoga, going for walks, reading but when I'm stuck at the desk generally my two escapes are either stress tidying or working on a secret other project I shouldn't be distracting myself with. It's the best cure I know for writer's block. My short story collection, I Want To Know That I Will Be Okay, is a patchwork quilt of escapes from other books.