Deirdre Sullivan spends term times teaching children with autism to manage a challenging world, often through sensory play. Her first young adult novel, Needlework, sees a girl with a particular set of challenges finding strength and meaning in tattoos – learning to create them, rather than receiving them. Geraldine Brennan interviewed her for Books for Keeps.
‘I’m fascinated by tattoos’, Deirdre says. ‘There’s an element of self-harm about them but it can be a way to reclaim your body. The process is giving yourself a scar that you choose, while life gives you scars you can’t choose. For someone who lacks agency the thought of choosing what you put on your body could be a beautiful thing.’
Needlework is also Deirdre’s breakthrough publication outside Ireland, where she is best known for her Prim trilogy aimed at the Jacqueline Wilson readership.
‘The Prim books were meant to be for 8 to 11-year-olds but the characters were quite precocious and it’s turned out that I write books about teenagers and their lives. That’s what I would say rather than young adult fiction, which is a label that the readers don’t give to themselves. They’ll say they read fantasy or horror, but they won’t say they read young adult novels. They are looking for a story they can empathise with and there’s a story like that in every genre.
Needlework, the tale of Ces and her mother’s path towards recovery from sexual abuse and domestic violence, has a strong sense of reality and much to empathise with. Ces and her mother have escaped her abusive father to a new neighbourhood but her mother is traumatised and turning to drink. Their lives are blighted by practical and emotional poverty and Ces helps to support them with an exhausting part-time job.
Ces’s ambitions to become a tattoo artist offer her an escape from the chaos of her life into a world of precision, order, beauty and attention to detail. The calm, contemplative passages in which Ces describes the techniques and processes of her chosen art form offer the reader a retreat from the day to day challenges of school, home, work and relationships and also show how creativity is helping Ces fight against her victim status.
‘At one point she says that she hates people telling her that her life is ruined,’ says Deirdre. ‘If you’re a victim after the abuse has happened, you’re giving the abuser a power that they don’t deserve, so she refuses to be a victim.’
‘The character of Ces is very much based on my mum, not in terms of what she has gone through but in terms of her survival instinct and who she is. My mum was diagnosed with an aggressive form of rheumatoid arthritis when she was 14, she was the first person to go to college in her family, cycles every day with aching hips and had a second child when she was told she couldn’t. She wouldn’t stand for being told she couldn’t do something.’
Deirdre is also fuelled by current domestic violence statistics in Ireland. ‘It’s one in five women reporting physical abuse and one in three reporting emotional abuse, plus the fact that there is a lot of shame about a woman’s body and sexuality and young girls are receiving these messages all the time.’
Working full time as acting vice-principal of a school for children with autism, Deirdre has had parallel lives as writer and teacher since, while at Marino teacher training college in Dublin, she opted for a six-week Teachers as Writers of Fiction module ‘as a creative outlet because the teaching course was so intense’. The tutor was Siobhán Parkinson, founder of Little Island, who snapped up Deirdre for her list.
‘I’d written short stories and plays, having done a masters in drama, but I hadn’t written a novel and it was wonderful to have Siobhan’s belief that I could do it. Once you’ve finished one you know you can do it again.’
The first draft of Needlework was completed in National Novel Writing Month 2012. NaNoWriMo is an annual event in which writers commit to writing 1667 words a day for the month of November. ‘It was the only way I was going to get it done, and the pace was good for the writing. I was inside Ces’s head and almost vomited it out. That was right for the journey it describes.’
She only got her first two tattoos after the book was finished. ‘I’ve got a guinea pig and a little star and I want more.’ It’s significant, she says, that Ces never tattoos herself in the novel. ‘She recognises it as something too special and too pure to do before she’s ready for it.’
She finds daily inspiration in her pupils. ‘Working with these children uses my imagination and creativity in the way that writing does because you have to design a curriculum that works for each child. The way the children see the world is very inspiring. When you’re trying to empathise with them and meet their sensory needs you make all kinds of discoveries. One of my pupils this year likes slapping talcum powder and watching it dance. How would I ever have noticed that by myself? I love that, the beauty in everyday life.’
Geraldine Brennan is a journalist specialising in children’s books and education. She regularly reviews for the Observer and has judged several literary awards.
Needlework is published by Little Island £7.99