ORNA ROSS is an award-winning poet, writer, and powerful advocate for independent authors and other creative entrepreneurs. She has been named “one of the 100 most influential people in publishing.” Her work includes nonfiction guides for creatives, and she is Founder-Director of two popular online communities, the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) and The Creativist Club. She lives in London with her family and writes, publishes, and teaches in workshops and podcasts around the globe.
Orna’s novels and poems are often haunting in what they evoke and hold a stillness that reminds me of the Japanese poet Basho. After the Rising, the first book of her Irish Trilogy, is a sweeping, multigenerational tale that merges 1920s Ireland with the present. It is a remarkable reading experience. Throughout, I ceased to know I was reading at all — the immersion into the characters’ lives was that strong, evocative, and riveting. Here is just one line from its pages:
The sea-chant of the prayers, breaking in a holy wave across the headstones, down to meet the sound of the sea itself.
I am thrilled she has agreed to an interview.
Greetings, Orna. You have a successful career on three fronts, as a poet, a novelist, and as a leading force in the world of independent publishing. With over 29 books to your credit, what is it you enjoy most about being a writer?
All of it keeps me real, which for me means connected to the invisible, the place beyond place. As Director of ALLi, and as publisher of my own work, my feet are always on the ground. As a writer, my head can traverse the sky and the oceans and I can live many lives, imaginatively. 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.
Tell us about the poetry. 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. The most recent one I wrote arose from a young man cutting ahead of an older woman in our local supermarket. It’s voiced by her. 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. Expressive poetry is very popular at the moment but yes, I prefer poetry to go beyond the emotion to what lies beneath it, beyond difference to the dimensions of life that we all share, that are the same for us all. But of course, 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 about a particular mood?
Yes, definitely moods, especially in haiku, a short, verbal postcard which I try to write as often as I can, as a practice in creative presence.
Yes! I don’t believe I could write anything, and especially poetry, if I didn’t meditate.
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!
What drew you to writing poetry in the first place?
I wrote my first poem (aside from the usual adolescent stuff) after the death of a close friend. It was spontaneous, but the act of writing down what I felt was so soothing and helped assuage the grief. I just kept on writing after that.
I am still. Held in place by her. Blood moon. Blue moon. Supermoon. Eclipse passed, she is shining out her heart. For me.
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.
The Irish Trilogy: Writing
Your first book in The Irish Trilogy, After the Rising, is lyrical and powerful and compelling. I couldn’t put it down. Sometimes it was as if I were actually there in a deep and unexpected way — for the dialogue and people and what happened to them become so real. It begins to tell the story of such a division in Ireland, and you center it around three families. But the level of detail, both historical and in the dynamics of the families involved, is so absorbing.
Thank you for being such a great reader, Regina. For me one of the great challenges of these books, especially the first one, was integrating the research without interfering with the story. I wanted to tell people what I’d learned about the Irish Civil war — it’s a hell of a story — but more than anything, I wanted to bring the people who lived it, and their way of life, to life again. I’m glad that worked for you.
Your dialogue between the characters is incredibly true-life — nothing labored about it, all of it in such a flow, so effortlessly it always seems real, not written. It is part of why I got so absorbed in the books. So the question is — how did that come about? Was it planned, somehow, or did it just flow for you, and did it need much editing? Did you hear the characters speaking together? It seems to just flow on as if no editing was necessary. It is the most powerful feature of the writing.
It was hard work, mostly, with the help of a great book — Writing Dialogue by Tom Chiarella — and dismantling the techniques used by great writers to see how they did it. The further I got into the book, and the more I knew the characters, the easier it flowed, but it is the most heavily edited part of my fiction… always. As Yeats puts it so beautifully:
“A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.”
Did you plan a trilogy from the start?
No. It was all one book but it was too long and had to be split. And then a third and final part of the story presented itself…
Did you know what each book was to have in it in detail, or just the overall arc?
I just had the overall arc of the first two to start. Once I knew it was going to be three books I went back and changed things, to make the story work at different levels, and to have three separate but related and ascending, climaxes. It took a bit of figuring out.
The Irish Trilogy: Genesis
What was the turning point in your life — the moment when you decided to write the trilogy? What inspired the work? And what made you write what you did, carry it on the path it took?
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.
For me, a book is not ready until I get that finishing impulse. Then everything else shifts into second place. And I find life usually comes in around such creative intentions, to support us. In this case, my husband got a work transfer that took our family to the North of England for two years. I set aside my other obligations and focused only on writing this book and raising our two children. It was a very happy period for me.
I have to ask this, because I knew almost nothing about the historical period you describe before reading the first two books of the trilogy. How could this happen, brother against brother, friend against friend, at a cost of lives, all based on how they perceived their truth? The Civil War in Ireland was a fierce time. Were you aware of the effects of this growing up?
This was precisely the question that led to my writing the book: how could this happen? My uncle was killed in that war, and I grew up not even knowing. The whole episode was buried under fathoms of secrecy.
When I was growing up, our school history books jumped 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.
As you say: how could this happen? 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.
The Irish Trilogy: Characters
Jo is the central protagonist. A suitcase of old documents and photographs her mother left her are the framework for the books, the documents bringing awareness of life as it was during the war, and a modern Jo wrestling with what it had come to mean about her relationships with her family and their role in the wars. She seems to feel the guilt of them all, though she doesn’t want to yield to that. What made you choose that framing?
I love books like that myself and I love old documents and how they use the same words as us, but so differently. But above all, using documents allowed me to give dead people their own voices. I felt that mattered, that it was important.
Peg is a redemptive figure. Is that deliberate? She is a great contrast to her sister, Jo’s mother.
Totally. She is the grandmother I didn’t have. All of my grandparents were dead by the time I was seven.
Dan O’Donovan — this man is an enigma — was he modeled on someone from the past?
Yes, he’s a mix of two older men I knew, who lived at that time and were involved in that Civil War. Half-heard stories were mixed with imagination. But he’s seen only from Peg’s viewpoint, which is biased, in Books One and Two, and so he is necessarily enigmatic. Book Three sheds more light!
The Irish Trilogy: Covers
The covers for your Irish Trilogy are full of portent and meaning. Did you work with the designer on them, influence their outcome?
Oh yes! Working on the cover in this way is one of my favorite parts of the self-publishing process and one of the reasons I so love being Indie. My fiction was first published by Penguin and one of the reasons I took back my rights to the books they published was that I didn’t like the covers. AT ALL. They also, I believe, pitched the marketing wrongly in loads of ways.
It was such a joy for me to be able to put the books out with the titles and covers and treatment I had originally envisaged for them. And to know, I would add, that I have now sold significantly more copies of those books myself than Penguin did.
The Irish Trilogy: Timeline
In Book Two, Before the Fall, why did you add in the 1980s as a flashback time for Jo? What generated that?
The first two novels are a series of flashbacks for her, in almost chronological order (after establishing the San Francisco chapters at the beginning of After the Rising). I wanted Jo’s intimate war to mirror that of her ancestors, the sexual politics to mirror the national politics.
Jo can’t make her life work until she lands in liberal San Francisco. There she finds friends who help her to overcome her addiction, the Irish disease… alcoholism. In San Francisco, she becomes herself and we see that emotional journey through flashbacks that proceed from her childhood up to her mother’s funeral.
It means that in After The Rising and Before the Fall, there are three time frames: time past (1920s), time recent past (1960s to 80s), and time present. I didn’t want the past to be something looked back at but something utterly alive and connected to the present.
The final part of the trilogy, In The Hour, is proving easier to write, as there are just two time frames: time past (1930s to 50s) and time present (2010s).
Taken together, the three build to a complete history of Ireland’s 20th century, through the history of this one family.
It’s hard to let go of writing we love even when we know it benefits the book to do exactly that. Are there chapters you wrote and loved that you had to let go for the final version?
Yes. These were my first books, and in writing them I was learning how to write, so a great number of pages hit the trash can. Literally, in those pre-computer days!
The writing in both books in The Irish Trilogy is often hauntingly beautiful — the poet showing through. Yet you seem able to write equally well with a realism that is so absorbing the reader cannot help but become deeply involved in the story. Did that merging of voices — your own voices — simply happen for you, unplanned?
No. It was hard work. Every sentence is worked and worked again, until it comes right.
But the merging… such a great question! For me, this is true realism. Isn’t life just like this, with stuff happening to us as narrative, the story we’re carrying in our heads at this moment, but the poetry also there, glowing beneath the surface, and sometimes breaking through?
You’ve lived in London a long time. But you’ve mentioned how connected you feel to the Irish landscape, even so.
Completely. I carry it with me around the big city in my bones and my blood.
The Irish Trilogy: Book Three
What motivates you to write the third book In the Hour now, after a long hiatus, and not before? Especially since the first volume was so well received?
It’s been brewing in my back brain for a very long time, as I worked on other necessary projects. I wasn’t ready to write it until now. It is my most ambitious project to date.
Letters across time help Jo discover her family’s history, but also help her discover herself. Is this thread going to continue in Book Three? Do you have an ETA for the book? And have you needed to travel — to revisit — the sites you wrote about in the first two books?
The places I wrote about are home to me. San Francisco I visit once a year (though not, as it happens, this year). Wexford is still and always will be, my homeland, though I haven’t lived there for forty years. I’m always hopping home to Ireland. I’ll be there again next weekend, not to do book research, but because it’s my cousin’s birthday. My mother and brother still live there, as do some of my childhood friends, and some dear friends from my 20 years in Dublin.
I can tell you the final part of the trilogy is going to move the front story (in San Francisco) forward fifteen years into 2010 and the back story (in Ireland) into the 30s and 50s.
Jo is now a single mother, with a teenage son, Richard, the baby who was born at the end of Before The Fall. Richard (“Don’t call me Ritchie!”) Devereux has a secret, which Jo knows about but they never discuss. That — and Jo’s enduring loneliness — aside, they have been as happy as a mother and son can be.
But now, Richard is hitting a late adolescence, and his life is growing fraught. He wants to break free and become his own person and Jo is brought to some realizations about her own coming of age.
This sends her back to find out more about her mother (could she finally, aged 55, be ready to understand more and resent less?). And about her father (why had she never cared about his side of the family?).
Jo finds that scouring through family history is a process greatly helped by the Internet. No need to travel to Ireland now as she did when she needed to know more about her family history back in 1995.
But then, the piece of Ireland that she was most attached to — Rory O’Donovan, who else? — turns up on her doorstep. With a suitcase and a 19-year-old daughter — to whom Richard is instantly attracted. And Jo’s carefully constructed life begins to fall apart.
The Writing Life
Now, this next question can’t be avoided. It’s the one everyone wants to know about. What is your writing schedule? Margaret Atwood says she writes anywhere and could care less about having a room for it. Stephen King says “The space can be humble … and it really needs only one thing: A door you are willing to shut.” Maya Angelou had to write in a hotel room away from her home.
Our house is divided in two with separate entrances from the road, one for our home, one for what used to be a self-contained flat that’s the hub of my writing, and ALLi’s “home office”. (ALLi’s public office is in town, about four miles away). There, I write first, every day, even if it’s only a few words of a poem.
I have dedicated writing times punctuated throughout my busy day. And every day, for 15 minutes, I f-r-e-e-write by hand with a group of other creatives in a closed Facebook group. (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.
I do find I’m doing increasing amounts of writing using speech-to-text and Evernote on my phone.
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. Again, I practice this first thing each morning (with the same Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/Go.Creative.Daily.Flow.Practice) and return there often during the day, also.
You have many projects at hand. How do you juggle them all: creative work as a writer and poet, managing your own writing business (which includes a Patreon page, workshops, podcasts, Facebook live, book signings, and much more), and being so well-known and sought after as an entrepreneur and public speaker for the independent publishing industry?
Planning. Creative flow practice. Saying no to a lot of other things. The activities you mention are the things I most want to do. Each nurtures and energizes the other.
Longhand, computer, phone — how do you write? Is it different from the books versus the poems versus the business?
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 about the mechanics of production and selling — book signings, promotion, choosing cover images, getting reviews, using editors? Or do you delegate a lot of that?
I am blessed with an amazing creative team. Jane Dixon Smith and Andrew Brown at Design for Writers for design. Margaret at Daisy Editorial. And two wonderful assistants: Sarah who has worked with me for years, on ALLi and my book publishing, and Kayleigh, who has joined us more recently to focus on social media and other publishing.
Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi)
What led you to create ALLi? You left a very different career only a year or two earlier, yet you plunged right into establishing a platform to sustain the relatively new arena of independent publishing.
As soon as I self-published my first book, I could see that it changed everything and I wanted to be at the heart of this radical transformation, beating the drum for authors.
Is this a strange place for a writer like me to find herself? Maybe, but I like this quote from multimillionaire CEO Sidney Harman: “ ‘Get me some poets as managers.’ … Poets, those unheralded systems thinkers, are our true digital thinkers.” I believe digital business can be as creative as poetry when approached with a creative mindset. That’s what I practice each day alongside the authors and other creativepreneurs I work with: building digital enterprises around personal passion, mission, and sense of purpose.
You have recently joined Writer’s Digest as a contributor, writing about author-publishing. That is a powerful pairing, since for the longest time Writer’s Digest was focused on traditionally published work, only. Do you plan a specific approach in theme or is it wide open?
This is one of the initiatives we’re involved in this year, as part of the Alliance of Independent Authors’ Open Up To Indie Authors campaign.((https://www.allianceindependentauthors.org/indies-campaign/)
My column is called “Indie Lab” and I’ll be focusing on the potential empowerment, independence, and creative freedom that self-publishing can bring to an author who understands its challenges and potential.
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.
Writers are, most of the time, notorious introverts and loners. You are a successful writer but you don’t appear to be either a loner or an introvert. Your take on this?
I think the writer as loner has been overdone. Like people in other jobs, writers come in every shape and size and personality. Yes, we need solitude at times but when I emerge blinking from my darkened creative cave, I’m dying to connect with my family, friends, followers. I thrive on that contrast. I need it.
The reviews we get for our books can be rather mercurial at times. Do you find this is true, and if so, how does this affect your writing?
I have trained myself to only take note of what is useful in a review and not to take too much notice of them at all. Most critics are frustrated creatives. Of course it’s great when somebody “gets” our work, but not everyone will. Why should they? Onwards!
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.
Who are you reading now?
Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine. And I’m working my way through the shortlisted winners of the UK Selfies Award for Independent Fiction.
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.
Read Orna’s poem about the whole process of writing, weaving the inner world into the outer: Writer At Work
Do you read books primarily in your own genres of historical fiction and poetry?
I read everything and anything, but those two and literary biography are my three favorite genres.
Is any one of your own books a personal favorite?
The one I’ve just published is always the favorite. The ones I published before have moved away from me and the one I’m currently working on is always partly a pain. But the one that’s just released… that’s always the one I like best.
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 latest book?
A poetry collection called Keepers. A selection of the poems I’ve written over the past number of years that I want to hold. The keepers.
…as of all the places we call sacred, is the silence; you will have heard the voice of your own blood dropping into the deep.
~ Day Out At Glendalough
And finally, one last question: Who is Orna Ross, in fifteen words or less?
A woman with a dedicated belief in the transformational potential of the written word.
Where can people find out more about you or support your work?
More info here: https://www.ornaross.com/about/about-orna-ross/
Anyone who has been moved or motivated by my work in both fiction and poetry can support the efforts on Patreon: www.patreon.com/ornaross