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Writer Caoilinn Hughes on ‘The Alternatives’ : NPR

NPR’s Andrew Limbong talks to Irish writer Caoilinn Hughes, whose new novel explores the bonds of sisterhood and the ways those bonds can be tested.


Sisters have a way of being there for you, holding you down when you’re going through it or standing up for you when your back’s against the wall. But also, golly, do they have a way of getting on your nerves. Just the decisions they make sometimes force you to really wonder, how are we related? This dynamic is deeply and thoroughly examined in the new novel “The Alternatives” by Irish author Caoilinn Hughes, who joins us now in studio. Hey, Caoilinn. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CAOILINN HUGHES: Hi, Andrew. Thank you so much for having me.

LIMBONG: Thanks for being here. So there are four Flattery sisters, right? There’s Nell, the youngest. She’s a philosophy professor in the U.S. There’s Maeve, a cookbook author and a Instagram famous chef, right?


LIMBONG: There’s Rhona, a high-powered political science professor at Trinity College in Dublin. But can you tell us about the eldest daughter?

HUGHES: Yes. So Olwen Flattery is a geologist, and she was really my starting point with this novel. So I knew I wanted to write about women at work, and Olwen was the first one that arrived. And she’s a geologist, and I find that work to be really kind of deeply existential and fascinating. And I was writing the book in the west coast of Ireland, where I grew up, with this beautiful, wild landscape where you’ve got these kind of limestone shouldering through the fields and these wind-stripped hills. And that landscape is kind of like her in the fact that it’s wild and dynamic but somehow immovable. So that gave me a sense of Olwen. And also, she had big-sister vibes off the bat.

LIMBONG: She definitely does that, yeah.

HUGHES: Yeah. So I knew that it was going to be a book about women at work and also a novel about sisterhood – and a geologist, political scientist, a philosopher and a chef. And they definitely do walk into a bar.


LIMBONG: Yeah. You mentioned the big-sister vibes. Their parents died when they were younger. Olwen decides to deal with their grief by bailing, right? She leaves her partner, Jasper, and his two kids. And she sort of quietly ships off to a small town in Northern Ireland. She hides out there. She makes friends with the locals, sort of. And there’s a scene where she’s at the local pub, thinking about the current moment that I was hoping that you could read.

HUGHES: Oh, I’d love to.

(Reading) No radio played in the background. No TV was mounted in the corner. It impressed Olwen a great deal, that sort of commitment to the moment. What with Jasper’s video work and the fidgety sons and the students using apps to rack up telemarketing gigs in five-minute increments, she wasn’t used to such minimalism – the unadorned moment, the absolute basking in it. For all the cultural products having a moment, very few moments were up for grabs. Mindfulness was having a moment, and Nell had to gut her philosophy syllabus in response to present all thought as ahistorical. Localness was having a moment, a preview to the scarcity moment. And Maeve had to rehash her U.K. menu to flaunt its blue-and-red roots. Sustainability was having a moment, and Rhona had to dash off her op-eds explaining why the Green Party wasn’t. It was to do with the localness moment, which meant that Sinn Fein was having the sustainability moment. After so many years of trying to dig into the moment, to put it in context, to know its makeup, Olwen had forgotten how it felt to take it for granted.

LIMBONG: What is Olwen running from?

HUGHES: I think that she’s had a role as a caretaker, you know, and from a very, very young age. She’s had to be – to project hopefulness. And I wanted, in a way, to write about people who are caught up in the existential ropes of the climate crisis and what it is to love someone who does that work. And, you know, I do think that all novels are about love and care. In fact, I wanted to have an epigraph by James Baldwin where he says, love is the only reality, the only terror and the only hope.

And I think that moments – there’s moments of direct caregiving in the novel, you know, obviously, between the sisters, certainly towards Olwen and towards each other, between Rhona and her son, Leo, but also, you know, between one student who is gregarious and another student who doesn’t want to speak between, you know, a passing cyclist and a sheep stuck in the briar. I think paying attention is a form of care. So this is a type of – she wanted almost to relinquish herself of that responsibility – to care – for a moment.

LIMBONG: Outside of the core four, your writing has such an efficiency with side characters. And I’m curious. How much thought are you putting into the lives and backgrounds of these characters?

HUGHES: Yeah. I do think that if you were to take any five-minute segment of your day and think about the people that you bump into or someone that you just walked, brushed by and, you know, had an encounter with in a cafe, those people are so specific. And so I’m always trying to render that specificity when I’m writing. And so it’s not even something that I think about in terms of craft. It sort of happens naturally.

I’ve obviously taught a lot. And thinking about the types of students, you know, the ones that come in in these huge pairs of sunglasses and, you know, who – with a spliff on the table. Like, I taught in the Netherlands for a few years. And – I don’t know – I love thinking about each character with an un-capitalist amount of attention.

LIMBONG: (Laughter) You have sisters, right?

HUGHES: I do, yeah, two brothers and two sisters.

LIMBONG: Have your siblings read the book?

HUGHES: They’re – two of them are reading it as we speak.


LIMBONG: I was – yeah. Is this what it’s like in the Hughes house? You guys are just duking it out all the time?

HUGHES: Well, we so rarely get together now because we all live in different places. And, in fact, I suppose that’s partly why these sisters do live very distanced lives. At the beginning, it’s Olwen’s disappearance that brings them together, you know, for the first time in years. But it is chaotic. And it’s wonderful. And I do love being part of a big family. I loved being able to kind of disappear within it. And I am aware that this is now something that marks my generation as being maybe the last generation in Europe that has the privilege of having multiple siblings. And so, like, I’m, in a way, chronicling that.

LIMBONG: That was Caoilinn Hughes, author of “The Alternatives.” Caoilinn, thanks so much.

HUGHES: Thank you so much, Andrew.

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