Painting Through the Dark (2022, Shangana Press)Gemma Whelan is an award-winning director, screenwriter, educator, and author. Her own experiences as an immigrant from Ireland inform her perspective on art and culture. Gemma was the founding Artistic Director of Wilde Irish Productions in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Corrib Theatre in Portland, Oregon, where she now lives.
Painting Through the Dark is her second novel.
How did you come to write your new novel, Painting Through the Dark?
My novel is based on certain experiences I had when I arrived in the U.S. several decades ago at the age of 21, with no contacts and little money. This particular story mirrors a situation where I landed in a menacing household and felt trapped and powerless. People with power and influence tried to use that power to coerce me, and they also assumed that because I was a young Irish woman with no resources, I should be grateful for what they offered me.
Most of the story takes place in San Francisco in the summer of 1982. What drew you to this setting for your novel?
I fell in love with San Francisco when I arrived there. To me it was a mecca! It whispered freedom. In my twenties, it felt like a place I could discover who I wanted to be. The city itself is stunning — the hills, the setting on the bay, the cable cars, the architecture, the different neighborhoods. I wanted San Francisco to be a character in my story.
What is you background and how did it lead to writing fiction?
Very shortly after I arrived in San Francisco I signed up for an acting class and knew immediately that theatre was what I wanted to do. I loved that you lay on the floor (gorgeous hardwood with sun streaming in…) and actually breathed! Imagine a profession where you began with the breath! And where the process called for you to go deep into yourself and also to explore the inner workings of others. I had always been an avid reader and loved words, and theatre was a continuation of this. I studied directing at UC Berkeley in the 80’s, and in the mid-90’s enrolled in an MFA program in Cinema at San Francisco State University. That’s when I started writing. Two of the screenplays I wrote then became the basis of my first and second novels (Fiona: Stolen Child and Painting Through the Dark.)
Your main character, Ashling O’Leary, leaves Ireland for San Francisco to become an artist and uses painting to fight the demons in her past. Why did you choose painting as her medium?
She made that decision! It was possibly a way to express what she wanted to without using words. Words would have been too direct. With painting she could experiment with color and texture and light and dark and discover what she needed to express. The Ireland of my and Ashling’s youth was one of silences, taboos. You weren’t supposed to speak of certain things. Painting is a way to get around this and is also a direct line to emotions.
Did you know right away, or have an idea, how you were going to end the story? Or did it come to you as you were in the process of writing?
I had an idea of the outcome but had no idea how it was going to happen, how it would work out. I had several drafts where Ashling took different paths, but none felt right. In the end I had to let the writing lead me to finding the right way for Ashling to work her away through to the place she arrived at. I also learned that her art had to lead her there.
What themes do you hope readers will find in your novel?
Resilience, overcoming obstacles, belief in yourself, belief in art and that it can change us, and the world.
What do you hope readers will take away from your book?
I hope readers might see some of their own journey, or that of someone close to them in Ashling. She’s tough, and she has to negotiate her way through hard and often frightening circumstances. I also hope that it shows how art can heal, that it can be transformative.
What is your favorite review or compliment you received about your book?
A friend wrote: “It is living in my soul. The story, the wonderful characters, the emotional landscape, your poetic descriptions, the depth of feeling, and the skillful expression of human behavior with nuance and color, and above all, believability, you have written the story of so many people.”
Were books an important part of your household when you were growing up?
There were a lot of books in my house growing up and I worked my way indiscriminately through the library. I loved carving out time for reading. In the long summer holidays, I’d disappear for hours on end and seek out a place to read – a hidden place up the fields or by a river on the farm where I was raised. I also sneaked out of bed after lights out to sit on the landing where I could catch some light. That was before I got a flashlight so I could read under the blankets.
Who are your three (or four or five) favorite authors? Is your own writing influenced by the authors you read?
Ann Patchett, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Colm Toibin, Samuel Beckett, Tana French. So many more! I’m not consciously influenced by the writers I love and can only hope that some smattering of their brilliance seeps in somewhere! Beckett is light years away from Garcia Marquez in style and content. I can immerse myself in the lushness of Garcia Marquez, and also appreciate and connect to the stark beauty of Beckett.
What are you reading now?
I’m reading an ARC of a novel, About the Carleton Sisters by local author, Dian Greenwood. It’s a story of three vastly different sisters in middle age, facing the consequences of past decisions. The writing is sharp and incisive, the first-person narratives allowing us inside the heads of these fascinating women, all grappling with demons from the past, and facing down long held secrets. It’s a stunning debut—due out in June by She Writes Press.
Do you have any events coming up to promote your book?
I’ll be at the Garden Home Library in Portland on May 16, 6:30 pm, hosted by former Oregon Poet Laureate, Paulann Peterson. On May 21 at 4 pm, I’ll be at 21ten Theatre with veteran Portland actor Vana O’Brien. All readings are on my website.
What’s next? Are you working on another book?
I’m working on a book set mostly in India, and partly in Sri Lanka and Guatemala. As their marriage crumbles, a young American midwife with indigenous Guatemalan and Irish parents takes her husband back to India where he was abandoned, adopted, and raised, to try to understand the roots of their conflict. While Kiran heads for the past, Frankie — overwhelmed by the state of lower caste Indian women — resolves to face a future free from the bonds of society’s — and her own conditioning.