Q & A with author of The Sandstone City, Elaine Canning

3rd November, 2022

1. Tell us about yourself and your work as an author to date?

I was born and grew up in north Belfast as part of a working-class family and I’m one of six siblings: I have two sisters and three brothers. As you can imagine, we had a very lively household which I absolutely loved! When I was twenty-six years old and completing my PhD at Queen’s University, I was offered my first lecturing job in Spanish at Bangor University, north Wales. That’s what enticed me away from home: I planned to return to Belfast when my three-year contract came to an end. But sometimes, new paths are paved for us and we follow a different trajectory to the one originally envisaged. That’s why I still find myself in Wales, although Belfast will always be home.

In terms of my work as an author to date, I have, perhaps, had a less conventional route into writing fiction. After six years at Bangor University, I worked as an academic at Swansea University in south Wales, publishing papers and articles on Spanish Golden-Age drama and Spanish contemporary cinema. But a particular pathway opened up before me and took me in the direction of literature in its widest sense. I’m now a writer, editor and public engagement professional specialising in arts and culture. At Swansea University, I’m Head of Special Projects which include the international Dylan Thomas Prize and the Rhys Davies national short story award. I have published several short stories and edited various short story collections. The Sandstone City is my debut novel.

2. When did you first begin writing and is it something you’ve always done?

Stories have had a special place in my heart ever since I was little. My mum used to take me and my siblings to the library occasionally; then, when we were old enough to go by ourselves (we’d moved house by then and there was a local library just a few minutes’ walk away), we used to spend a lot of time there. If we weren’t borrowing books, we were doing our homework in there. I loved being surrounded by books.

The oral tradition of storytelling was hugely important to us as a family. My grandparents in particular used to regale us with a whole range of stories: my grandmother’s were always fictional, whilst my grandfather claimed his were factual, based on his travels. It was only as I got older that I realised all the things my grandfather told us couldn’t possibly be true! Teaching a mermaid to sing? Receiving a certificate from King Neptune when he crossed the Equator for the first time? Of course, I never questioned him; I liked to pretend the spell hadn’t been broken.

I used to make up stories in my head, as well as create new lyrics for popular songs and series theme tunes with my sister, Joanne. We had so much fun reinventing songs! My first foray into writing was when I began to keep a diary at the age of eleven. The notebook itself was one of those small hardbacks laced with pink and yellow butterflies with a padlock and tiny key: a gift from my mum.

3. You now live in Wales but are originally from Northern Ireland. How have these places influenced your work?

Northern Ireland is highly significant in my work – most of my short stories to date have been set there. The Sandstone City is also partly set in contemporary Belfast with a nod to a Belfast of other earlier periods. Wales features much less prominently at the moment, but who knows what future direction my writing will take. My connection with home, with Belfast, is integral to my way of thinking, perhaps more so because I’m physically distanced from the city. When you grow up with a family of storytellers, it becomes an inherent part of you. Perhaps my tendency to write about Northern Ireland is a way to recreate and replace what was no longer within easy reach when I moved away.

4. What can you tell us about your new book, The Sandstone City?

The Sandstone City begins with Michael Doherty, an eighty-eight-year-old man lying in an open coffin and listening to all those who have come to pay their respects. But Michael is not yet ready to pass over and his granddaughter, Sarah, is the reason. Sarah has abandoned the Sandstone City and the life she was determined to carve out for herself there; Michael doesn’t know why. He is granted a forty-day grace period in which he’s determined to discover and heal Sarah’s trauma and during which he must also confront past versions of himself, long buried. The Sandstone City is a story about love, loss and longing and the relationship between the living and the dead, the real and the fantastical, and multiple iterations of the self.

5. Who are the writers who have influenced and inspired you the most?

The magical realist worlds of the fiction of Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende have been extremely impactful upon me, as well as the wonderful Maggie O’Farrell and her beautifully inventive transitions between time, character and place. There are many brilliant contemporary Northern Irish writers whose works also inspire me: these include David Park, Lucy Caldwell and Jan Carson. And I’m a huge admirer of the works of Anne Enright – her prose is pitch perfect.

6. Reflecting on your career so far, what have been the highpoints and is there anything you wished you’d have done differently?

I consider myself very fortunate to have been surrounded by the most amazing, supportive friends. A particular highlight for me has been chairing many literary events with brilliant writers, both locally and internationally. In addition, I am forever enthused by the fantastically creative young people I have the privilege to be in contact with as lead of DylanED, the educational strand of the Dylan Thomas Prize.

Most recently, the unrivalled highpoint has been working with my publisher and editor, Rebecca F. John of Aderyn Press. Rebecca herself is not only an editor but an award-winning, Costa-nominated writer. It has been both an honour and an incredibly humbling experience to work with someone like Rebecca whose love of words makes her the most meticulous and generous reader and editor.

I would imagine that many of us would say we wished we’d done things differently in a given moment. I’m a firm believer in trying to accept that things happen for a reason. It’s my coping mechanism; I try to build resilience and strength from lessons learned.

7. What advice would you give to someone just starting out in their writing journey?

The best piece of advice I could give, which I’ve learned from talented writer friends, is to remember that your voice is entirely unique to you. And while sometimes the words will flow, on other occasions, nothing will come – that’s very natural in my experience. But I feel that no moment you spend with your ideas is wasted, be it when you’re in the process of writing, or whether you’re far away from a desk and notebook and spending time with loved ones.

8. Any tips for getting your work published?

Whenever you’re ready, it’s helpful to consider submission calls for magazines or themes of interest to you as a writer. If you have a full-length manuscript ready for submission, it’s also really useful to be on the lookout for open calls from literary agents whose interests and expertise may match the genre / themes of your work. I’ve also found that having a close circle of writing friends who mutually support each other through positive critique is a fantastic way to build confidence as you consider publishing opportunities.

9. What’s next? Are you working on any new projects?

I’m very excited to have the opportunity to take The Sandstone City to a number of launch events and panel discussions this autumn. These include events in Cardiff, Swansea, Belfast and further afield – more news to come!

I’m also delighted to be collaborating with my publisher, Aderyn Press, on a ‘New Audiences’ project launching in spring 2023, funded by the Books Council of Wales. This will involve workshops for underrepresented individuals and communities in harder to reach areas of south Wales on the worlds of publishing and writing.

And in terms of new writing, I’m working on a short story collection and the first seeds of a second novel.

10. When will the book launch be and where can the book be purchased?

The Sandstone City is published on 3 November 2022 and can be purchased from your local bookshop or from the publisher’s website: