When 1916 Meets Modern Day: Lia Mills

Siobhan Mearon talks to UCD’s author in residence, Lia Mills, about writing, the 1916 Rising, and the universal themes of revolution.[br]Lia Mills’ novel Fallen was published in 2014. This year, two years after its publication, and even longer since she began writing the novel, it has been chosen to represent Dublin in the One City, One Book programme. Mills describes her shock at the novel being chosen to both represent Dublin, and also commemorate the 1916 Rising. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “Fallen is dedicated to the city of Dublin, so I was beyond thrilled by the selection.”The novel follows Katie Crilly as she navigates life in 1916 Dublin. Despite its historical setting, Fallen creates a narrative that is familiar even today. “Many of Katie’s problems transcend time – they are recurring human issues that re-surface in every century, even if they come disguised as something else.”Problems such as dealing with the sudden loss of a family member and deciding on plans for the future are universal to every young person, but in Fallen, Katie must deal with these issues while at the same time living through a rebellion. Mills also describes her aim for Katie to be a strong female protagonist to inspire and relate the themes so recognisable to young women today. Was it important for Mills to create a strong character who could work through these universal issues during a time of such conflict? In her opinion, the issues remain the same while the world changes around them. “Circumstances might change, but I don’t think the fundamentals of human nature do, or not much.”The character of Katie Crilly must be revived after the traumatic death of her brother, Liam, fighting for the British army in 1914. “She’s been in a state of near-paralysis emotionally since he was killed. I wanted to bring her back to life.” This is where many young people would see parallels in their own lives, a situation that forces them to think about their choices, and for Katie: “what kind of person does she want to be?”
“Being a writer is a lifelong apprenticeship.”
Against the background of the 1916 Rising, it is fitting that this journey is one of strength in the face of adversity, just as the Rising itself was. “It’s about survival, re-engaging with life in a meaningful way.”The 1916 Rising as the setting for a novel is something Mills had been thinking about for a while. “Back in the 1990s I did research and taught in the Women’s Education, Research and Resource Centre (WERRC) in UCD. My area of interest was turn of the (last) century Irish women writers – so I knew something about the cultural history of the time.”The time period is of course one of conflict and tension, but also of new ideas and progression, which is what initially attracted Mills to the idea of basing a story in 1916. “I always thought it must have been an exciting time to be alive in Ireland, with so much change in the air – especially for women.” The aspect of change is evident in the novel, with Katie befriending many influential women, spreading new ideas and deciding on a path for her own future by furthering her education. Revolution fosters change, and we see this more clearly when looking back on the events of Ireland’s past, as today in 2016 we commemorate and delve deeper into the thoughts behind the 1916 Rising.
“There’d be no point in writing it if I was to turn coy or evasive, or try to soften the experience too much.”
Despite the novel’s portrayal of life during this period of change, Mills did not expect Fallen to come to represent Dublin during the centenary year. “When I started to write the novel, the centenary was years away,” she says. “It didn’t occur to me that publication would nearly coincide with it – when someone pointed that out to me, I assumed there would be so many other books set during the Rising that no one would want to publish mine. Luckily for me, that didn’t happen.”It is true, however, and even more noticeable this year, that there is an intricate link between the arts and Ireland’s historical identity, and the Rising in particular. Mills puts this down to several reasons. “The official narrative has all the elements of great fiction: strong characters and plot, romance and betrayal, high stakes, impossible odds, the surprise twist at the end that changes everything, new life in the ruins of the old world.” She describes the Rising as happening “in the context of an intense cultural renaissance.” Again, a time of change that is constantly reimagined in the works of literature and art commemorating the Rising.Essentially, as Mills sums it up, “it’s our creation myth, it’s no wonder we’re attached to it.” But she also praises the “re-assessments and honest critical engagement” with the 1916 Rising that this year has seen. “Maybe when this year is over we’ll be free to move on.”Fallen, as well as Mills’ other books, all share a sense of honesty and reality that contributes to the universality of their themes. Was it a deliberate decision to tell these stories as truthfully as possible? “I think fiction can explore and test truth in ways that non-fiction can’t. Reading fiction opens up that possibility for exploration to a near-infinite degree, depending on the receptivity of the reader and the skill of the writer.”The level of truth that goes into her novels is clear, and Mills has said that she found her memoir, In Your Face, which deals with her treatment for cancer, much less exposing than the novels. Honesty in writing is obviously something Mills values. “There’d be no point in writing it if I was to turn coy or evasive, or try to soften the experience too much.”As UCD’s writer in residence, Mills works with many aspiring writers, and her advice for anyone who wishes to succeed as a writer is simply to write and read. “We all have a lot to learn and the only way to learn is by doing it, so the sooner you start – and commit yourself to it – the better.” She stands by the idea that you must keep stretching yourself and changing in order to improve. “Being a writer is a lifelong apprenticeship. Everything you write teaches you something new, you’re always learning… And sometimes, inevitably, you’ll fall flat on your face, or not meet your own aspirations. Then you just have to suck it up and try again, try harder.”With a busy year ahead promoting Fallen for the One City, One Book programme, you could expect Mills to take a break. But the author promises a new novel is waiting.