Q&A with Alumni Award Recipient Michelle Walshe

Q&A with Alumni Award Recipient Michelle Walshe

This year is the fifth year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered the Alumni Award. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting Q&A’s with this year’s recipients of the Alumni Award, today’s with Michelle Walshe.

Michelle Walshe was born in England but raised in Ireland where she resides after living abroad for many years. She worked as a teacher at third level before she began writing in 2017. Her work has been published in print in the national media in Ireland and the UK and in Teachers Who Write: An Anthology, online on Writing.ie, Skelligmichael.com and Silverbirchpress.wordpress.com. She has been shortlisted in short story competitions and won a prize for flash fiction. She has won residencies, a scholarship, and bursaries to the John Hewitt Summer School, The Stinging Fly and The Bronte Parsonage. She volunteers at Roddy Doyle’s Fighting Words, an organisation promoting creative writing for children, and at literary festivals. She is working on a memoir and a children’s book. All her published work can be found on her website www.thesparklyshell.com.

How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?

I first saw the Iceland Writers Retreat on Twitter with an eye catching photo of the Northern Lights. I’ve seen the Northern Lights many times but I have never been to Iceland and for a country I’ve never been to, it has impacted my life in various, curious ways. When I was teaching I used to take my students to Finland on work placement. The year the programme expanded to take in Malta and Iceland, I fell ill and had to stop teaching and never got to Iceland. In 2010 I was performing in the Albert Hall in London when the volcano erupted and grounded flights with the result that I saw not only London that weekend but most of the UK as I had to travel by boat, train and bus to reach the city. Just before I began writing I heard Hannah Kent speak on Irish radio about her book Burial Rites. Her interview inspired me to stop talking about writing and start doing it. I read her book and if you don’t want to go to Iceland after reading it well…

Have you ever applied for the Alumni Award before?

Yes, I applied last year and was surprised and delighted to find myself a finalist. That gave me the confidence to apply again this year. And I’d encourage anyone who was a finalist this year to do the same.

Have you ever participated in a similar kind of Retreat? If yes, how did the experience benefit your writing?

Yes. The very first bursary I won was in 2018 to the John Hewitt Society Summer School in Armagh, Northern Ireland. It was a week of workshops, lectures and meeting authors. I met Patrick Gale there who is at the IWR this year! This win was a game changer for me. The selection committee saw something in me that I couldn’t see myself. I felt if they believed in me, the least I could do was believe in myself! And sure enough, soon after July 2018, great things started to happen — I was shortlisted in competitions, was a finalist in the IWR, had a piece published in an Anthology and the voice inside me that said ‘you can’t, you can’t, you can’t,’ began to dim. That voice hasn’t gone away completely. Does it ever I wonder?!
In the summer of 2019 I won a bursary to The Stinging Fly Summer School which was a week of creative non-fiction workshops. This helped me to focus on my book and again reignited my fragile confidence in my own ability. And in September 2019 I won a bursary to the Bronte Parsonage in the UK to a festival of womens writing and there is something about being surrounded by fellow writers and creatives that is inspiring and energising and the effects are long lasting.

What are you most looking forward to about the Retreat?

I’m most looking forward to the workshops, to meeting other writers and to finally seeing beautiful Iceland.

What and/or who do you find inspiring?

Place and landscape inspire me. I’ve always been drawn to sharp, hard landscapes. I lived and worked on Skellig Michael in Co. Kerry, Ireland and writing about my experience there was one of my first published pieces. The Sahara in Morocco, Wadi Rum in Jordan, the Outback in Australia, the wideness, the openess, the apparent emptiness of all these places inspire me — somehow words come to fill the space. My Dad, the memory of him, inspires me too. The IWR begins this year on his anniversary.

How has writing influenced your life?

Even though I only started sending out writing in 2017, I’ve been writing all my life. I’ve kept a diary since I was nine years old. It’s how I process life.

What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?

The biggest challenge of my writing life is a hard question to answer — there are lots! Finding time to write is one. The other one is waiting for results of applications and competitions. That’s really agonising!

Any final comments you’d like to share with our followers?

I feel honoured and privileged to have won this. I’m so looking forward to it. I’d like to thank everyone involved and I know I’m going to be inspired there. I just know it!

The prestigious Alumni Award is funded in by generous IWR alumni and friends. It gives its recipients full or partial funding to attend the next Retreat, which will take place April 29 to May 3, 2020 in Reykjavik. The winners are chosen based on both merit and financial need, and submissions were reviewed by IWR alumni volunteers. We received hundreds of applications from around the world and the quality of submissions was extremely high. Read previous interviews with Abak Hussain, Jo McClelland Phillips, and Chelsie Bryant here, here, and here on our blog.

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