Sue Rainsford: "I think the moment 'Follow Me To Ground' began to work as a novel was the moment I gave up on it ever being read." PHOTO BY ALI RAINSFORD
Page Turner / Edited by Peter McDermott
The dust-jacket notes for Sue Rainsford’s debut novel, “Follow Me to Ground,” begin, “Ada and her father, touched by the power to heal illness, live on the edge of a village where they help sick locals – or ‘Cures’ – by cracking open their damaged bodies or temporarily burying them in the reviving, dangerous Ground nearby.”
“Father was always more creaturely than me,” Ada says early on in the tale. “There were nights when he’d let his spine loosen and go running on all fours through the woods, leaving sense and speech behind.”
We are told that Ada, who is a “being both more and less human,” has little interest in the Cures, until she meets a man named Samson, with whom she starts an affair, to the displeasure of her father and Samson’s sister, who is widowed and pregnant. Those dust-jacket notes say that the reader is drawn into a “dream between fairy tale and nightmare, desire and delusion, folktale and warning.”
A fellow Irish novelist of the younger generation, Colin Barrett, has called Rainsford’s book a “dazzlingly troubling dream.” And that’s about right, in that a dream is real when you’re experiencing it.
Barrett wrote that Rainsford’s talent is “fierce, palpable, and hypnotic,” while another young novelist, Daisy Johnson, said that “Follow Me To Ground” is a “tangled, gnarled, wonderfully original, strange, beautiful beast of a book.
“I will be reading everything that Rainsford writes,” Johnson added.
The graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, and Bennington College, Vt., won the Kate O’Brien Award when her debut was published by New Island Books in Dublin. The novel was named a Book of the Year by the Irish Times, one of the Guardian’s best books recommended by authors in 2019, and described as a “wildly imaginative exploration of desire, fear and what it means to be human,” by the Sunday Times.
Advance American reviews ahead of today’s official U.S. publication of “Follow Me To Ground” have been just as enthusiastic and admiring. Kirkus, for instance, commented in a starred review, “An astonishing debut heralding the career of an exciting new writer. Strange, lyrical, and arresting, this novel will draw readers into its extraordinary spell.”
Date of birth: March 17, 1988
Place of birth: Dublin
Partner: Conor O'Toole
What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?
I try to get up at 6.30 but I’m a terrible sleeper, so most days it's a 7.30 a.m. or 8 a.m. start. I make a pot of coffee and start writing at my desk which is about four feet from my side of the bed. Before “Follow Me To Ground” was published I’d been working as a full time art writer since around 2016, so now my working day is about 60 percent fiction and 40 percent whatever commissions I’m working on for a given month. On a good day I finish up at about 6 or 7 in the evening. I’m incredibly tied to my work space, which has all my books and notebooks to hand and is mercifully, blissfully quiet. On a perfect day there’ll be a storm raging, which stops me wondering if I should go for a run, and a full fridge that stops me fixating on whether or not I have something to eat for lunch and dinner.
What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
I think the moment “Follow Me To Ground” began to work as a novel was the moment I gave up on it ever being read. There had been so many close-calls with agents and publishers where it seemed the book was about to have an audience, and that feeling of closeness evaporating over and over had broken me in a very real well. Ultimately, though, that sadness equipped me a very harsh, generative objectivity, and allowed me to go back into the book and take out everything that wasn’t working (I can’t remember the exact amount but it was well over 100 pages). Suddenly I was left with this brief, dense story that seemed to be neither one thing nor the other, but I could feel in my body that something had changed for the better. So my advice would be, if you’re in that terrible, lonely place where you feel your work will go unseen, to make use of the unlikely freedom that feeling brings you.
Name three books that are memorable in terms of your reading pleasure.
Samanta Schweblin: “Fever Dream”; Peter Rock: “My Abandonment”; Anakana Schofield: “Martin John.”
What book are you currently reading?
I usually have a couple on the go and right now I’m reading two; “The Criminal Child: selected essays by Jean Genet,” and “The Lost Children Archive,” by Valeria Luiselli.
Is there a book you wish you had written?
Ágota Kristóf's “The Notebook.” I was still working on “Follow Me To Ground but had started making notes toward my second novel, and The Notebook” seemed so completely to be that book (only more devastating and pristine than I could ever hope to be) that I felt crushed reading it. The differences between “The Notebook” and the book I was trying to write eventually came to the fore, but I've never forgotten that uncanny feeling, and how impressed and surprised I was by the novel right until the end.
If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?
Somewhat obviously: Elena Ferrante. Part of me is grateful there’s no way we’ll ever meet, because I think it would be kind of terrifying to meet someone who’s articulated segments of your inner life so perfectly.
What book changed your life?
I don’t know that I could name a single book. I tend to group the books I’ve read into seasons—times of my life where I know I shifted as a person (The summer of 2015, for instance, I finally read Flaubert’s “Sentimental Education” alongside Mary Ruefle’s “Madness, Rack, and Honey).” Having said that, when I was 15 “The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy certainly changed how I looked at the world, and Sheila Heti’s “Motherhood” did that again last year.