When Elske Rahill enters the coffee shop two things occur to me as I struggle with the batteries in my dictaphone: First, she is laden with baby-related paraphernalia (baby included) and also that I have not started any of my own Christmas shopping. I stare at the festive bags horrified until it becomes apparent that the young author needs some assistance with her luggage. I am then introduced to her 14 month year old son Broc who is now staring at me with benign confusion as we sit down to a worryingly neat coffee table. We open with Elske’s slight panic over an event she is due to speak at in Dalkey as part of the winter festival. “We have to talk about books we received as a gift…. I don’t know how to prepare for it!” Elske is nervous and between preparing for a panel with Anne Enright and juggling Broc it seems she is in for a rough evening. I tell her that we have met before. I saw her at the Red Line Luas Book Festival held in November as part of a panel discussion chaired by veteran publisher Ciaran Carty on debut authors and getting published. Elske joined her publisher Anthony Farrell and some fellow Lilliput Press authors including celebrated author Mike McCormack, debut novelist Kevin Power as well as noted literary agent Faith O’Grady to speak about her debut novel Between Dog and Wolf. She was nervous then as well – an effect which was heightened by how alarmingly young she looks. “I’m not very smooth I don’t think”she says of her experience with the festival “I really felt like everybody else knew what they were doing and had a persona ready? They had a linear narrative ready! I didn’t know the answers!”
I met the guy who said they wanted to cut out about 80 % of the sex [from the book]. I just said ‘what do you think the book is about? how can I tell my story without it?’
Elske Rahill is in fact a confident author who knows exactly what she wants to say and how she is going to say it. Between Dog and Wolf has also been championed by fellow Lilliput author Donal Ryan whose star has certainly risen with his first two books The Spinning Heart (Winner of the Irish Book Award and longlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and The Thing About December, so Rahill has cause to be proud. Ryan helped launch the book for her a few months ago, and Elske is still reeling from the shock of such support: “He was so kind […] I’m so narrow-minded in my reading. I was really surprised that he was so enthusiastic and generous you know?”. Rahill’s writing draws an assertive stance which is down not only to a gripping narrative and well-drawn, credible characters but also to what can only be described as shocking sexual honesty- an honesty which she fears may be misunderstood. She tells me of a recent interview she did which resulted in her being misquoted regarding one of the more interesting ‘orgasmic’ moments of the book. “I read it and thought-when did I say that? It’s really not what I meant! This is not sex advice for perverts!”
Between Dog and Wolf narrates the inner mental workings of three college students in their final year. Cassy is tall, thin and beautiful while her best friend Helen is curvier with angelic blond curls and bright blue eyes. When she becomes involved with country boy Oisin, their lives become intertwined in a mess of identity crises, sexual insecurity and the perception of gender roles and how they relate to one another. The book is certainly ambitious in its psychological scope and sexual candour.
Her previous interview experiences lead me rather nicely to my own initial confusions when reading Between Dog and Wolf – particularly in the disparity I found between the prologue, which was heavy and existential in its phrasings to the narrative itself – almost as if she were quoting from something authoritative at the beginning of an essay. Did she feel that she needed to direct her readers? “The truth is I wrote it after the book because I was trying to pitch it”, she explains- “I couldn’t explain what it was about. I kept changing the ending as well. Originally I had the character refuse to disclose the gender of the baby to anybody which actually happened to a child in Canada so the parents wouldn’t be informed by the gender of the baby or by society although they were always going to be informed by much bigger things than gender! I decided that it was too out-there though and that it risked being read as a very specific statement and one that I didn’t want to make. So I wrote the introduction thinking ‘how should this be read?’ and trying to offer little clues!”
As in- ‘this is how I want this to be read?’, I ask? “Most people didn’t understand from the first draft that the narrator was Cassandra- that wasn’t very clear and there was a real problem with what I was trying to do there so I had to give a few clues at the beginning. I also wanted to capture that weird post-natal state, which is where the book ends. The end happens before the prologue nearly. People say that it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s understood but it really does. It really upsets me. It’s a reflection of me that it’s not communicated properly. It means that I didn’t achieve what I was trying to achieve. What really upset me was that women hated it more than men!”
This is one of the more intriguing aspects of Rahill’s stylistic punch- the raw, honest and often quite aggressive sexual episodes in the novel have elicited more than a few negative reactions and particularly from those of women, she explains. Given that Elske studied for her Masters in Gender and Women’s Studies at Trinity College Dublin and is a self-declared feminist it is not surprising that this unsettles her. What is interesting, however, is what drove her to write about female sexual aggression in this way. I want to know if she was really as unprepared for some of the more vocal reactions among her reviewers as she thought she was. Some readers, according to Elske have reacted with horror and disgust at some of the more sexually overt and aggressive scenes. The book also came perilously close not to being published at all due its having divided editorial boards across both Lilliput Press and Faber (who had initially expressed an interest in the book). I ask her to elaborate on what she was trying to achieve with the book and how prepared she was for people who would not in the end get what she was trying to communicate. “It’s terrible because I don’t even know until somebody reads it and it’s only then that I realise that I have very stringent ideas of how it should be read.”
We now delve into the ‘gender’ bit- a word unbeloved by agents and publishers as I ask her about the graphic and near pornographic references peppered throughout the book. Elske looks thoughtful as she considers how best to answer: ” I just think that that’s the reality. That’s what pornography is so I’m surprised that it’s so surprising.” I qualify my comments by highlighting a scene in which one of the female characters performs an aggressive and dare I say masculine sexual act- a scene which marks out this debut novelists’ undiluted bravery in describing the ugliest of psycho-sexual behaviour in women as well as men.
Elske knows that this question has been coming. It is clearly the most shocking scene in the book: “I felt sick writing it and didn’t expect it to come either. You know it was the fact that women who really hated this scene which upset me. I wouldn’t have minded so much if it was men who hated it! Women don’t do that….they actually don’t do that generally! Men do that. The thing with me for that is that the patriarchy destroys women- I mean in that scene she actually destroys herself. You can’t do it like that- punishment.” And what of the more run of the mill pornography next to this scene with the leading male character, I ask? How does she reconcile writing so graphically in terms of pornographic impulses with her own revulsion of it? “Pornography is there … and yet I can’t watch it!” she says. “I just find it horrific- it really seems to be about mutilation. But then that’s the reality- that’s what happens! I feel very hurt by it- personally hurt. To even explain it is difficult. I’m not sure how much I’m communicating really because a lot of the Oisin stuff for example was really just chronicling a kind of a psychology and an attitude to the female body and to sex. It’s not an anomaly I don’t think – that kind of rating and performance aspect of sex.”