Zibby speaks with Irish author Claire Kilroy about SOLDIER SAILOR, an urgent, gut-wrenching novel about new motherhood that explores the clash of fierce love for a new life with a seismic change in identity. Claire describes the relationship between her characters: Soldier, the new mom, and Sailor, her young child. She dives into the challenges of motherhood and the emotions that range from love to resentment. She also delves into her own writing journey, the long gaps between her novels, and her best advice for aspiring writers.


Zibby: Welcome, Claire. Thank you so much for coming on Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books to discuss Soldier Sailor. 

Claire: Thank you for having me. 

Zibby: It's my pleasure. I have to say, Claire, this book came in the mail. I mean, I requested it, but anyway, not like it just like showed up.

But anyway, uh, it came in the mail and I started reading it like in the kitchen, like often in the, when I'm opening the mail, I just like open the first page and I found myself like still standing there like half an hour later. And I was like, I cannot read this right now. Oh my gosh. But I couldn't put it down.

So anyway, . 

Claire: Brilliant. Thank you for saying that. 

Zibby: So tell listeners what Soldier Sailor is about, please. 

Claire: It's, uh, the preschool years. There's no plot. There's just a mother and her. He starts as a baby by the end of it. Sailor is the baby. Soldier is the mother. By the end of the book, sailor is, he's coming up on about three or four years old and really it's just a mother speaking to her infant boy and telling him about those years that you don't remember anything when you're that age so you know you were there but you have no recollection of it and it's it's soldier telling sailor, how it was for her. Um, kind of explaining certain things, certain stressful occasions that came about and why they were so stressful or so difficult for her but above all, it's a love story. I love that. 

Zibby: You really take the reader right in to the stresses, the like sleep deprived panic of new motherhood in a very sort of literary arresting way where you wonder sort of, will I go on the straight and narrow here ever again, or is this life? Tell me a little bit about writing this and how it came about, what inspired it, and all that.

Claire: It's my fifth novel, but the other four novels had been published, well it seemed quite slow, each one took three years. Which seemed like a slow process until I got to motherhood and I realized it's a constant state of interruption. So there's an 11 year gap between my fourth novel and soldier sailor, my fifth.

And really it, like some people say, I took a break from writing, which some did not. I was trying, but it's that thing of how do you do two things at once? And women are, we're told we can multitask, which is, you know, It's just not true. Apparently we can shift focus very quickly, but shifting focus doesn't ease a novel into the world.

A novel is all about focus. So I was trying all the time and failing all the time to put this book together. And it wasn't this book that I was trying to write because I was trying to access my old self. And that's largely what this book is about, is how, when you become a parent, the old you is erased.

You know, it's, to be a self, you have to think about yourself and who you are. And when you have a child, that thinking time is, it's just gone, you know, which is, it's nature, it's meant to happen. So when I did try to write this book, and I wanted to write one of my old books, But there was nothing there other than this intense relationship I have with, he was two when it became clear I'm going to write a book about being a mother.

All I was, was this woman speaking to her little boy. That, that was my existence, was talking to him and, you know, thinking about him and also lamenting. The loss of the woman I used to be because she was a writer and I'd always wanted to be a writer, you know, it's not a job you're given. It's a job you fight for.

And I thought I got it and I was thrilled. So it is a lament for lost self, lost youth, but it's a story of love. But also rage, resentment, I'm trying to, you know, put that on paper. I mean, when I, when I started writing, I just would sit there and cry. And, you know, you only have a short window, you know, you, you drop your baby to the crash and, uh, I'd come back and I was like, right, right, right, a chapter.

And I just sit there and cry and all I write is like, I love you, I love you so much. I'm really sorry about everything. I love you. I love you. I love you. Cry. It came out of this emotional plane that I had never encountered before and never knew I would exist on because, you know, I was a writer. I was cerebral.

I had ideas. I had thoughts and plots and all of this going on. And suddenly all I was was love and. rage and confusion. I'm kind of a very interrupted person. So I suppose that's all, because it's all I was, that's all the book is. And that's all I could write was you and me, here we are, we're doing this.

And this is what it feels like. It's just a book about feels, you know, about feelings and about how everyone says it. Oh, you won't know yourself about the love. Like you don't, you know, and it's very hard to dramatize an emotion like love and That's what I was trying to do, right? That this has brought into my world a love that will outlive me.

Zibby: That is so beautiful. 

Claire: Well, I hope it will because you want your love to infuse your kids, you know, you want it to outlive you to help them become happy people. fulfill people. So it's important to infuse them. 

Zibby: Do you feel that the love of people who have passed away stays on? Because I feel like, you know, like my grandmother, for instance, she loved me so much.

I felt that love all the time. It was a safe space to always call and everything. And part of her loss is the loss of the love that used to come my way. Do you know what I mean? It's not just the loss of the person. It's the loss of the feeling that she could put out, but when she was gone, I didn't feel it being put out anymore.

Claire: I absolutely do. And it's funny, the older I get, the more, and I just turned 50 last year, and it seems that I'm only growing up now. It's more I understand these bonds, and they can never be replaced. You know, this is all we have is now. So once it's over, it's over. Therefore, try and forge those bonds. And reinforce them, you know, turning 50, I was trying to explain this to a friend that, you know, I wanted to, it was, I was looking at my friendships and you know, what I wanted in the future. And he was saying, Oh, you're going to have a cull. And I went, actually it's the opposite. I want to try and stay connected with the ones I love. You know, because it's all we are is, is these links between us.

Yeah, it's very, it's just very strange. You think you know it all, you're middle aged, but you don't. So what else is going to surprise me? This is not what I thought middle aged would be at all. What did you think it would be? Kind of comfort, safety, knowledge, security of who you are. You know, when you were a kid and you look at your parents and they seem to know everything and be the ultimate authorities, And then when you're the parent, it's like, you're making it up as you go along.

You really are, and you're hoping to get away with it. So I had taught you kind of get into a rush. I remember going to my GP when I was about, GP is your doctor, your general practitioner, your family doctor. I'm going, I was maybe 25 and starting out as a writer, having had a very turbulent work situation before it.

And I remember him saying, your problem is you're not in a rush. When you're in a rush, you're going to be fine. But then, what do you get? Is there a rush? Like, where's the rush that you can just get in and be in the cozy space? But then actually, do you want to be in a rush? No, I don't. Do you? 

Zibby: Interesting.

Well, it's like, When you're in a rush and like, I do feel like I'm always fighting against time. I mean, don't you feel like now that you are aware of that, it makes you feel that time pressure? 

Claire: Yes, and also that you're wasting it a lot of the time. Yeah, it's suddenly seems such a privilege to be on this green earth and I never thought of it that way.

But as it was another part of middle ages, you realize you're saying goodbye. as well. You know, you're no longer on the upward slope. Maybe not the downward slope, but like you've learned that you're not immortal. Um, and you're going to have to say goodbye to whatever this is, this life we have. I mean, God, at times it's the greatest pain, you know, it's not like I'm going around going, Oh, wow, this is just amazing.

A lot of the time it's a drag, but when it's over, I'll be very sad, you know, and I will miss. those behind me and in answer to you talking about your grandmother, yes, you need your grandmother, you know, and I need my child and my, I didn't have that link with my grandmother, but it's quite sad that actually young people have died in my life and that I cannot get my head around.

The fact that they're gone because they were, they were younger than me. One was my cousin who died at 39. One was one of the school mothers who died at 37. And one was my dear friends, five year old who died suddenly. And like, I can't understand it. And the grief she and her family are going through. I don't know how long it will be before I understand what she's going through.

That a child can be gone. You know, it's, it's, such an inversion of the laws of the world. 

Zibby: I mean, it's, it's horrific. I have a friend who lost a child too, and she posts about him all the time. And I think it's her, you know, it's how she's trying to keep him alive. You know, I think it makes some people feel uncomfortable.

And I'm always like, liking, cause I'm like, Oh my gosh, you look so cute there. Cause I think a lot of times people who've lost kids or anybody, they just want to keep, you know, to your whole point of keeping love alive. Right? They just want to like keep that going in some way, shape or form, you know?

Claire: Absolutely. Because they can't forget him because they still have the love for him. And I don't know whether your friends tell us a little boy or a little girl, but that little boy or little girl wants the love, always to be loved and never to be forgotten, even if they are no longer with us. So the parental role is to love and keep loving, even if their child is gone.

It's very strange. 

Zibby: Yes. Oh, it's so tragic. And I'm so sorry about your cousin and your mom friend. And I know it's When you've lost people and you realize it's time is short, that's when you have to, you know, kick it into high gear, if you will. 

Claire: Yeah. 

Zibby: My goodness. This is, this has become a very, uh. I'm sorry.

Claire: Yeah. But it makes you think about what life isn't. 

Zibby: Yeah. No, don't apologize. I think about this stuff all the time. You know, it's nice to chat about it. 

Claire: But people are frightened of it. 

Zibby: Yeah. 

Claire: Of, of a loss anyway, and of acknowledging somebody else's loss. So I have learned, as you say, with your friend to like posts.

My friend has suffered from people not knowing how to acknowledge her loss. So it's, it's really important to say, I'm so sorry. And to keep saying it. 

Zibby: That's true. Cause then they have the added thing of like all their friendships being weird. 

Claire: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. So just talk about it. Say it. 

Zibby: Yeah, until I feel like until you've had lost, sometimes you don't know what you just feel so uncomfortable in it, you know, and then as soon as you have some, you're like, Oh, okay, this is what I can say and do, which is not necessarily good.


Claire: Well, no, there's people have written books about what to say to someone who's grieving. So, you know. People who are bereaved have written books. 

Zibby: True, yes. 

Claire: And I have found them really helpful to read so I know what to do. 

Zibby: Yes. 

Claire: There is no math. 

Zibby: I've had a lot of those authors on this podcast. 

Claire: Yeah, great.

Zibby: I'm like, tell listeners, what should they say? 

Claire: Yeah, grief is mortifying in a strange way to those who are not bereaved, you know, you are at a loss yourself. So if there is some sort of template that can help someone grieving, read it and, and, and you can help someone. 

Zibby: Yeah, it takes a motivated person, though.

You know, it takes, I don't mean to say it that way, you have to really care. You have to stop what you're doing in life and read a book on how to make your friend feel better. And it's great for people who want to do that. And I advise everyone to do that. But when people are making spur of the moment time decisions of what to do versus you just show up at the funeral and you do your best, right?

People often just do their best and they don't take the time to read the books or the articles. 

Claire: Yeah, it depends on what you want from your friendships, I suppose. Yes. No, how much are you giving, how much are you taking? So if you want a real friendship, then, yeah, it's worth it. 

Zibby: I totally agree. I think I was talking more about, like, the person who's just going to show up to, you know, send their 

Claire: Well, that is a role for us.

You know, a lot of people and, you know, we, we can't all be someone's best friend, you know, we can't, and there's only so many dear friends a person can have. So that is also, that is also a valid response. If you're not a dear friend of that person who is. 

Zibby: Yeah. So back to the book. I feel like though this is so relevant because the intensity of feeling in this conversation echoes the intensity of feeling in the book.

It is when you said the book is all the feels like that is exactly what it is. There are books about being moms and there are books that feature moms as characters, but this is very much the interior life. Of a mom and the, you know, the jarring effects of that, not just, you know, it's a show don't tell situation.

Claire: Yeah. And that, that's another thing I've learned is that show don't tell applies to all sorts of stuff. Like how you love someone. You don't just go, I love you, you have to show them, you know? And the book starts out like page one is a mother is saying to her baby. He's a baby at the beginning. I love you.

Yes. I love you. Do you understand me? I love you. I'm trying to make a baby understand that I love you, but actually it's in your act. How you treat someone that you show them that you love them to say it isn't enough. You love is it's an action. It's not a. word, not just a word. 

Zibby: Gosh, now I feel bad about the way I treated my husband this morning.

Claire: I don't spend a lot of time feeling bad about how I treated my husband, so, nor does my character.

Zibby: Good reminder though. Very good reminder. So you mentioned that the book already came out in Ireland. What was that like? And were you surprised by some of the responses or just tell me a little bit about that? 

Claire: Yes, I was actually deeply, deeply surprised. Yeah, it came out in Ireland and the UK in May 2023.

And I had a friend who read it for me, say to me, you know, this could make people very angry. And I was worried, you know, I was, nobody wants to be the target of a lot of anger. Well, it isn't a story about how uniformly wonderful motherhood is, though the wonder of motherhood I hope is there, but there is a lot of resentment, like just a lot of resentment in soldier towards her husband.

So, and then the book did come out and I was astonished by the reviews. It's a funny one. I felt so kind of broken by Motherhood and like I'd never be a writer again and I could never, I find, I still find it hard to remember the end of the sentence when I'm halfway through it. So, when am I going to write a novel, you know?

Um, and this is a common thing, like the conversations I've had with other mothers were just kind of drifting off. And it's like, it's sort of because you're so scattered and focused on somebody else. It's hard to, so anyway, when the reviews came out and it's like, I've never had such beautiful reviews that treated me like an artist, you know, they were like, this is a work of art.

And if I could have seen those reviews when I was trying to put the book together, I would When I was sitting there crying going, you're not a writer anymore, you know, if I could have seen them, well, then it wouldn't be the book, but it was a real shock in the best way. And then the other thing that's been great is the reader responses, because I did spend when my boy was really small, that this is the little years before speech, before they go to school, the baby and toddler years, but I would find myself in playgrounds or just situations where I'd be with mothers of other little kids trying to suss them out, like, are you finding this as hard as I am?

Are you, uh, failing? Are you struggling? Are you, and I would kind of get smiled at nicely and backed away from, and I never really got the kind of interaction going. that I thought I'd find. I never encountered another mother who went, yeah, this is shit, the patriarchy is appalling, I have to do it. You know, I didn't hear the stuff that I really needed to hear.

So I felt like the lone whiner, you know, which is kind of how I spent my whole life anyway. But when there's reader responses on things like Goodreads and NetGalley, and they were saying things like, yeah, I recognize this. Thank you. I feel seen. I've been that soldier too. And that was immensely validating for me.

You know, then women find it very hard. Well, certainly on this side of the Atlantic. To confess to not finding this joyous experience that it's kind of sold to as and it's, it's, I think it's connected with failure, you know, that kind of it's reinforced all the time that you failed again, you failed this, you failed that.

So I didn't have that kind of conversation when. I was going through it so to hear it afterwards was first of all made me feel good but it also the fact that the book makes other mothers feel good too and actually there's a lot of men read it that that's bizarre to me because before like Irish writers Irish female writers became big in the time between me and the book.

Stopping writing and publishing. They became a thing, you know, and certainly for my first four books, I would almost never see a man at a reading. Men didn't read books by, certainly by Irish women. Now they do. And this gives me hope that the parental model will become more shared. And I think that's really good for the kids, you know, and for, The future and for the world and for humanity and all of those good things.

So it was an immensely positive response. And it also gave me more status in my own home, which is getting into mostly positive because I remember my kids, he said, daddy fixed things. Like, as in, that's what daddy does for a living. And I said, well, what does mommy do? And he said, Mammy cleaned things. 

Zibby: Oh, no.

Claire: Oh, get over here. And I probably did the bookcase and then I couldn't find the books, but I eventually found, look, mammy write things. Yeah. Mammy write things. But in his lifetime, mammy had never produced a book until last year. And suddenly I'm getting shy admiration from my child. And also in the domestic situation, I have a bit of clawback now that I didn't have before.

You've no structure when you're a writer. You've no office. You've no boss. You've no salary slip. You've no, you can't say I have to be there at two o'clock because of my, you don't, you know, just you, you have to do it while you can in between the crevices that are left to you. So now I'm more of a going concern within my own domestic kingdom.

Zibby: Oh my gosh, I love that. Okay, well, as a last question, do you have any advice for aspiring authors? This whole episode has been advice for aspiring authors, honestly, and persistence and all of that, but any last minute, you know, takeaways? 

Claire: You know what? The best thing, I remember when I was starting out, I went and bought a book on how to write.

And the only thing I can remember is, A writer writes. That's all you do. You just sit there and you write. I mean, my own method is to, I open a file called notes and I just write into it and I write anything, anything at all that comes into my mind. I'm supposed to write a thousand words a day, I used to back in the old days.

Now it's scattered, but I just write into this file called notes until a novel sort of emerges out of it. I might see a chapter and, but the main takeaway is just a writer writes. Write something. 

Zibby: I love that. Oh my gosh. Well, Claire, this has been so great. I can't even explain. I hope people listening feel the same way.

I feel like it shifted my outlook on the day and infused it with a little bit more, you know, perspective, solemnity, inspiration, you know, the, you know, carpe diem type of moments. And also just to connect with you, you know, another soul sort of going through parenting and writing and all that stress. So, uh, thank you for that.

Claire: Well, thank you. And thank you for having me. I really appreciate it. 

Zibby: My pleasure. Well, I'm excited for the U. S. release, so best of luck. 

Claire: Thank you. You too. 

Zibby: Thanks. Bye bye. 

Claire: Bye.


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