Interning at Lilliput Press kind of put him under a spell, said Seán Hayes, standing on a recent Sunday before the small brick building that houses the Stoneybatter publisher.
“I’m still not over it to this day,” he says. In late 2017, Hayes did an editorial internship here alongside Catherine Hearn, who was also his housemate.
“We always joked that anyone who’s anyone has done a Lilliput internship,” he says.
Hayes and Hearn lived together in a squalid house in Drumcondra at the time, he says, and, as they struggled to forge careers in publishing, they often chatted at the same time about starting their own journal.
Later, Liam Harrison joined the conversation. Their plans remained vague until Covid-19 arrived and Ireland went into lockdown.
Meeting over Zoom, Hayes, Hearn and Harrison finally drafted an application to the Arts Council for its Literature Project Award.
They got €7,525 to publish the first two issues of Tolka, their new journal.
Tolka’s aim, according to their website, is to encourage writers “to test the creative boundaries of non-fiction”, which Hearn and her colleagues say is underrepresented in Ireland’s worlds of magazines and journals.
Hearn says the founder of Lilliput Press, Antony Farrell, once described non-fiction as the Cinderella of Irish literature.
It’s often neglected despite there being so many incredible writers around, Hearn says. “We suspected a gap existed for exactly this kind of work and, so far, we think we’ve been proved right.”
“I’m fascinated by the messiness of the human experience,” says Hayes, later in an email.
“So much fiction is made up of these neatly tied-up, often moralistic stories, but good non-fiction begins with no set agenda,” he said.
The Tolka team looked to the UK and saw journals – such as Granta or the White Review – that are committed to experimental long-form non-fiction in a way that, they felt, had not yet been seen in Ireland.
In Ireland, Hayes says, it was 43 years before the Rooney Prize recognised a non-fiction writer, Mark O’Connell, in 2019.
Journals such as Stinging Fly, the Dublin Review, Tangerine, gorse _and _Banshee do_ _publish both fiction and non-fiction. However, most journals in Ireland feature fiction more prominently.
Most submissions to gorse are fiction rather than non-fiction essays, says Susan Tomaselli, its editor. But she has published more essays than short stories, she says.
Why is there generally, though, a greater focus on fiction over non-fiction? “I think a lot of it is about risk and I’d say the publishing industry, despite being creative, is actually very conservative – in all meanings of the term – and risk-averse,” Tomaselli says.
Internationally, Ireland has been well regarded for its short story tradition, she says. “So the business is more geared up to accommodate that.”
But Ireland also has a rich history of essay writers, she says, Hubert Butler, Brian Dillon – who features in Tolka’s first issue – and more recently Sinéad Gleeson.
But “up to about 10 or 15 years ago it had been regarded mostly as an academic endeavour”, says Tomaselli.
Journals like gorse and the Dublin Review have been expanding that notion of what is an essay, says Tomaselli.
There is also the concern that non-fiction is expensive to produce, especially reportage, given the time and resources needed to research and rigorously fact check. There is also a greater risk of defamation suits by vexed parties, which is a further disincentive.
With creative non-fiction, the added expense that comes with reportage may not be a factor, says Harrison: “If anything, I feel like publishers are supporting quality non-fiction in Ireland and beyond.”
He points to places like Fitzcarraldo Editions, Peninsula Press, New Directions, Graywolf, Influx, and Tramp Press.
Hayes feels this support is new, as non-fiction had not, until recently, been acknowledged in the same way as fiction.
“The Nobel Prize in Literature wasn’t awarded to a non-fiction writer until 2015,” he says.
“So there is a sea change, it is finally being regarded in the way that we think it deserves,” he says.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that it hasn’t existed.
Harrison says there is a long lineage of incredible and innovative non-fiction. “Especially the kind that we’re interested in.”
He cites the legacies of essay writing from Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, and Susan Sontag.
Non-fiction is strong and rising in Ireland at the moment, he says, with writers like Sinéad Gleeson, Roisin Kiberd and Doireann Ní Ghríofa leading the charge.
Hearn says she was lucky to be able to intern at Lilliput because she had family support and a flexible retail job.
Unpaid internships create barriers to the industry, she says, and more needs to be done to make sure that publishing grows into a more accessible and diverse field.
Better-paid entry-level roles would help, she says, and “vastly widen the pool of talent, ultimately giving rise to a far more creative, progressive and stimulating atmosphere”.
Hearn says the Tolka team were privileged to have had the time during the pandemic to create the journal, as none of them support dependents or currently work more than one job.
“While we were all working full-time, our evenings were our own,” she says.
Harrison says the Tolka team is conscious of representation in the writing they publish. Eight of the 13 contributors to issue one were women, he says. “And we were privileged to give space to writers who identified as queer, working-class or people of colour.”
Tolka’s first issue of 12 pieces was published in May. It contains personal essays, autofiction, and an interview with A Ghost in the Throat author Doireann Ní Ghríofa by Molly Hennigan.
Dasom Yang, a writer and translator from South Korea currently based in Berlin, contributed an extract from her essay series Essays on Modern Love. It’s a personal essay about both her parents and the long-distance relationship she shares with Paul, a French-Congolese athlete.
In a twist on the archetypal love story, Yang finds great excitement, romance and possibility in their geographical distance. She writes: “I enjoyed that time we spent away from each other, the distance, that open window. It’s odd to say.”
Author Liadan Ní Chuinn contributed a deeply impactful essay about their ill mother. “Our mother has a bell that she rings when she needs us. She can’t speak any more; she’s been silent for months. Her body is eating itself: a wretched deconstruction,” they write.
The magazine has an open-submissions process and commissions pieces, says Harrison, meaning they can publish work from emerging and established names.
“We also pay all our contributors equally and transparently for their work,” he says. (The fee is €150.)
Although the Tolka editors don’t set themes for each issue, common ideas emerge. Much of the writing in issue one deals with a strong sense of place and familial relationships.
So far, they’ve only published one issue. “It remains to be seen if we’ll last the test of time,” says Hayes.
But the reaction from other journals, readers, and booksellers has been so heartening and energising, he says, “that we hope we’re onto a good thing”.
“Ultimately, if we can discover some new talent, give them a platform and introduce them to a new, wider readership”, says Hayes, “it’s been a good day for us.”