OTwo Interviews: Emilie Pine

Image Credit: Ruth Connolly

Aoife Rooney sits down with author and Associate Professor Emilie Pine ahead of the release of her fiction debut Ruth & Pen.

Professor Emilie Pine sat down with The University Observer (virtually) to talk about her upcoming book, and fiction debut, Ruth & Pen. Pine, who works in, what we referred to as her ‘day job’ in the interview, the UCD School of English, Drama and Film as a Professor of Modern Drama. She spoke reverently about the School and the staff in it, especially within the context of her colleagues being accommodating of her requests to take time off to write full-time. 

Pine started writing in January 2020, and had to quickly come to grips with the process of writing a novel, a job that is already one of isolation, in a time when she wasn’t allowed out of her home to do research for a novel that is deeply entrenched in the city of Dublin as a setting “Dublin city is quite to the fore because they walk around a lotI had a really strong sense of the places I wanted to use in the book.”

The novel follows two main characters - you guessed it - Ruth and Pen as they unknowingly cross paths on October 7th 2019, a depiction of a real day in Dublin city where climate action protests were taking place. The novel, which takes place over the course of one day, took its inspiration from when Pine found herself immersed in that exact day “When I got the idea for the novel, I was writer in residence in the National Maternity Hospital, which is on Merrion Square.That day my mother was also there but I didn’t know, and so I really like this idea of people we connect with but also connections we miss and that’s what it’s like living in a city.”

For Ruth it's about something going to end, and for Pen is something going to start, and thinking about how these are the two big things we are going to face in our lives

“I was really interested in how climate justice protests bring a different range of people together in the centre of Dublin and make us think both locally and globally.”

The two main characters, Ruth, who is in her mid-thirties, and Pen, a teenager, are tasked with making big decisions over the course of the novel “Ruth’s marriage is in trouble, and it comes down to a decision she’s going to make on this one day - is she going to stay or is she going to go. Pen has a relationship with her best friend Alice and wants it to be more than just a friendship. “For Ruth it's about something going to end, and for Pen is something going to start, and thinking about how these are the two big things we are going to face in our lives.” 

We spoke about the author's approach to concept development and what came first, the story or the characters “two characters, I started with them rather than the abstract. The two characters have a lot in common even though they are at different points in their lives. They are both introverted and need their own space, but the crux for them is how they connect to other people.”

I noted it was interesting that Pine started the process with the characters front and centre and not the abstract or larger plot, but then again I’m not writing a book. “You say you would never be able to write a book but I thought that for 40 years, it turns out that you write a book by writing a book.” This was not my trying to muscle my way into an elevator pitch by any stretch of the imagination, but Pine proved well able to dole out advice for those who do actually have a book to write “if there’s one thing I could say to a younger version of myself, it would be to just ‘try Emilie.’ I had always wanted to do it and had always told myself I wasn’t capable, and I think it's such a terrible thing we all say to ourselves.”

Write for yourself and try to protect it. I didn’t want to have to open up about something that was very fragile

Pine, who published her Butler Literary Award shortlisted collection of essays Notes to Self in 2018, gave comforting advice to those who feel they’re fighting against the clock to start writing “I highly recommend writing your first novel in your forties. When I pushed Notes to Self I didn’t think anyone would read it, I was both pleasantly and terrifyingly surprised.”

Ruth & Pen is Pine’s first venture into fiction writing. The distinct move from the personal writings of Notes to Self is something I asked the author about, curious to see the distinctions they encountered. While I thought it would be the other way around, Pine said that there was more pressure for fiction to be accurate because she “wanted people to be able to feel that it was their Dublin too. In some ways fiction, though it’s not factually true in the same sense, it feels more like a reflection of the inside of my head.” 

Notes to Self deals with topics incredibly personal to Pine yet “with Ruth & Pen, to some extent it feels more personal. It’s totally fictional, but that, oddly, means that it’s more subjective - I invented it.” Pine also found that she was more protective of the world she had created in the novel, and noted the challenge of having to share that world with friends and family when full drafts were finished: “write for yourself and try to protect it. I didn’t want to have to open up about something that was very fragile.”

Pine was able to take over a year away from teaching to write full time, a period she described as “It was amazing, this is living!” The break from writing maybe one day a week while working full-time was a welcomed change for the author, not from the perspective of having less responsibilities to juggle and more structured days to maximise productivity, but in freeing up her headspace “the mental freedom that came with it was extraordinary for me.”

Ruth & Pen is being published by Penguin Books, the same publisher who was behind the English version of Notes to Self. The initial Irish publication of the essays was commissioned by the female-run, Irish publisher Tramp Press. While doing press for Notes to Self, Pine found herself talking to her editors at Penguin, including Simon Prosser, who was at the helm of Pine’s upcoming publication “I was in London quite a lot trying to promote, or doing events related to Notes to Self, and I would have coffee with him, and he would say ‘what are you thinking of working on?’ and we started talking about a day in the life as an idea for a book.”

there are at least equal moments where you think this is trash and I need to go back to being a lecturer because that is the only thing I’m good at

We spoke about the importance of diversity in fiction, and wider media in general, the inclusion of underrepresented groups is something that Pine is very steadfast in including in her work “I realised how important it is to be open about all our forms of diversity.” Pen (short for Penelope) is neurodiverse, and Pine spoke of the importance of being able to write the city from her perspective in an accurate way. Pine spoke of the obligation to include these voices in her writing, and how it is rightly becoming commonplace.

“There is such a degree of neurodiversity in the world that is finally, slowly being acknowledged, that it's amazing that all novels don’t have neurodivergent characters. She’s not dissimilar with how lonely and out of kilter with things I was when I was a child for different reasons. The publishing industry needs to become more diverse, they don’t want to take the financial risk of doing something a little bit different. Yet we know that people want to see themselves, and to see broader and more inclusive representation - not more of the same. That’s also ethically important.”

The novel is written in alternating chapters, going from Ruth to Pen and back again. “Sometimes the way the timeframe works is that Ruth and Pen are doing things at the same time, and there’s a simultaneity to it.” I asked Pine if it was difficult to get track of who is doing what, and if she struggled in trying to maintain their distinct voices, “that alternation is there both in terms of activity, but also in terms of voice, and it was easy for me to keep them separate.” Pine was able to avoid any chopping and changing by writing each component in its entirety before moving on to the next, simply keeping some notes on her phone to earmark anything that needed to be remembered for the alternating chapters. 

Image courtesy of Penguin Books

Pine wrote the entire novel in copybooks, “like from school.” The author, who wrote six pages a day, chose to write by hand as sometimes the words couldn’t match the pace of her typing. Pine argued in favour of the rhythm of writing by hand, and how “would sometimes surprise (herself), there were times when I didn’t know what words were going to be coming out of the pen.”

The author’s love for the structure of academia is not lost on me over the course of our conversation. Pine spoke openly about the hyper-critical nature of writing for oneself. “There are moments when you’re thinking this is great, I’m really enjoying this and it’s worthwhile, but there are at least equal moments where you think this is trash and I need to go back to being a lecturer because that is the only thing I’m good at.” The pressure to be left to your own devices as Pine was - who noted that her publishers had very little back and forth regarding her progress - and emerge with a fully-fledged novel was a concept somewhat lost on the only non-author in the room, “you go off into the wilderness and write it and come back when you’ve got something.”

The novel, like Notes to Self, deals with the topic of infertility. It is an issue Ruth and her husband Aidan are dealing with, and including it in the novel was a very conscious choice for Pine - “I guess I wasn’t done writing about the subject (infertility). I had written about it autobiographically and that had both cost me and given me something.” Pine has not written her own experience with IVF into the novel, “Ruth and her husband do IVF and that is something I never did”, but found value in including it in the context of a larger discussion. 

She’s not dissimilar with how lonely and out of kilter with things I was when I was a child”

Pine was very vocal about the issue of second parents within the world of maternity and IVF, and how “Irish and international culture is obsessed with maternity, but not with paternity.” Pine was writing the novel at a time where government were implementing restrictions on hospitals, meaning second parents were largely excluded up until the point of labour. 

She argued that it “demonstrates the extent to which we think of women as primary parents and the second parent gets excluded from a lot, culturally as well as medically. I certainly feel that in my own experience. Being in the maternity hospital as a writer, fathers voices are really absent. I really wanted to bring a male perspective into the novel.”

Pine rounded out the interview by discussing what really all of this is: her work. It is clear from chatting to her that there is a real love for academia present - one that was totally lost on me.

“The pandemic and this new job as a writer makes me so grateful for what I think of as my primary job as a lecturer - I just love coming to work.” Pine spoke of the value of her non-academic writing and how it helped her with her academic work, “that’s why I started to write Notes to Self, I had fallen out of love with my job a bit.”

We spoke about the upcoming weeks and how it is going to be an exciting time for the author with a publication date getting close. I argued that this should be the ‘fun part’ where everyone gets to see the fruits of your labour. Professor Pine argued otherwise, understandably apprehensive about handing such a large body of work over for public consumption and comment. She told me what the real fun part was for her: 

“I would say the best part is writing. Where it’s quiet and it’s just you and your desk is the best part about it for me, because that’s the part where it’s about the integrity of the work you want to do, everything else is about reception and it can be challenging even when people are nice in terms of maintaining boundaries.”

Ruth & Pen is set to strike a confident balance between the novel in a day style book with the complex and likely heavy subject matter the protagonists are dealing with. It is an automatic preorder for any fan of Pine’s writing, or anyone looking for a beautiful story told in a city that has been expertly written.  

Ruth & Pen will be published on May 5th 2022.