In 2022, Sheila Armstrong made her fiction debut in the form of the stunning short story collection How To Gut A Fish, which was released to staggering critical acclaim. Proving herself a force to be reckoned with in Irish fiction, Sheila returns barely a year later with her gorgeous debut novel Falling Animals.
Falling Animals is the haunting story of an unidentified man, found in the dunes of a small Irish coastal town, told by those who crossed paths with him on the last day of his life. A beautiful series of vignettes are woven together to reveal the fate of this passing traveller, calling attention to the unfathomable impact we can have on everyone and anyone we encounter. This gorgeous story is positively dripping in lyricism, beauty and sentences that leave you breathless with their punch.
We were so excited to get to put a few questions to the amazing Sheila Armstrong about this story, her writing and her favourite books.
How does it feel to have your debut novel out in the world?
It’s a relief! Publishing is such a drawn-out process. You sit with a story for so long that it takes over your entire life, but then you have to wait to see what the rest of the world thinks. It’s like waiting a year to have your homework marked. I really hope people will enjoy it but I’m trying to accept that I have no control over that. It’s up to the readers now.
Falling Animals is, first and foremost, a mystery, beginning with the body of an unidentified man found amongst the dunes of a small Irish coastal town. What follows is a beautiful, lyrical and often melancholic series of vignettes by the locals who may have crossed paths or stories with this man, no matter how seemingly unsubstantial. What inspired you to write about this kind of fleeting interaction or butterfly effect?
I knew from the beginning I wasn’t going to write about the dead man himself. That wasn’t a story I was comfortable telling. What I was more interested in was imagining the reactions of those around him, using him as a cypher for something bigger. We all have thousands of tiny interactions each day, and we have no idea which are significant until much later. I stop to tie my shoe, hold up a passer-by, they miss their train and lose their job – you can imagine any amount of cascading consequences. In this book, there’s a similar chain of effects – a man dies on a beach, then, chapters later, characters grapple with their own experiences of grief, guilt and loss.
Falling Animals revolves around the sea and its connection to the townspeople. Did you draw on personal experience to encapsulate the impact the ocean can have on the lives of those around it?
I grew up by the sea and I’ve spent a lot of time in and on the water, so it felt natural to look there for inspiration. Some of the experiences are familiar – small town coastal life – but others are far out of my knowledge. I had to do a lot of research into the shipping industry and it’s a whole hidden world that keeps our modern economy afloat (pardon the pun), but often at an awful cost.
Which of your characters did you most enjoy writing?
I really loved writing the diver’s chapter. I’ve recently learned to scuba dive and it’s my favourite thing in the world. The quiet, the slowness, the glimpses of underwater life – it’s one of the few times my brain stops buzzing. I also enjoyed writing Yesica, the barman’s sister – she’s such a firecracker and she gets the best lines.
From my own experience, I think you perfectly captured the intricacies and complexities of small town Irish relationships and lives in this book. I was blown away by the affection and appreciation for these places that oozed from your writing. Is this insight based on experience and was it important to you that your debut novel be set on the Irish coast?
The setting is fictional, but it is reflective of any number of small villages along the Irish coast. The love of the sea but also the respect and sorrow. The new clashing with the old. The web of interconnected lives. There’s so much natural beauty and violence along the coast, sometimes at the same time, and it can feel otherworldly. But, as one of the characters in the book says, “every speck of land on every continent has as much history”. There’s no place on the planet that isn’t rich in stories and community.
The writing in this novel is nothing short of extraordinary, it is lyrical and delicate, yet bracing and deeply profound. What do you think is the most important thing one needs to write well?
Thank you! It might seem strange to admit, but I’m not a particularly visual person. I don’t see my scenes in my mind’s eye, I don’t know what my characters look like, and I don’t make maps or sketches of what I’m writing about. For me, language always comes first. I usually don’t have a structure in mind – I just get into a rhythm and follow an image or emotion. Then I go back and shore up the plot. I think playing to your strengths is important – I spent years thinking I was crap just because I couldn’t write snappy plots or bouncy dialogue. If you can do those things, lean in. If you’re like me, try to find a slanted way of looking at an idea or image.
Ram words together, embrace punctuation, find the right rhythm for each sentence – make your words work hard.
What are you currently reading? Are you enjoying it?
I’ve just finished two debut Irish novels – Close to Home by Michael Magee and Though the Bodies Fall by Noel O’Regan. Set on either ends of the country, urban versus rural, they’re both exceptional.
What books are you most excited for this year?
Mike McCormack’s new book. It’s been too long since Solar Bones.
Do you have a go-to book that you recommend to everyone?
For short story lovers, it’s The Art of The Short Story from The Paris Review. I read it back when I was trying to figure out what kind of writer I was, and I finished it knowing what I wanted to be.
With Falling Animals about to be released into the world, is it time to sit back and relax for a bit or are you currently working on any upcoming projects?
I’m much happier busy than bored so I’m really looking forward to starting something new. The editing part of writing is enjoyable in its own way, but the playfulness and frustration and freedom of a blank page is looking pretty appealing at the moment. It’s a precarious way of life so you always need to be looking forward.
Falling Animals is out now and comes highly recommended by the LitVox crew!