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Q&A with Aefa Mulholland, writer of "The Lean Years"

We published "The Lean Years" – Aefa Mulholland's brilliant essay – this week, and recently we had the privilege of speaking with her about the piece and her work.

Aefa Mulholland is a writer, journalist and editor who has worked with The Irish Times, Miami Herald, RTE, The Advocate, Curve, Diva, AOL, the Mysterious Package Company, and others. Aefa’s writing appears in Cagibi, PRISM, Slackjaw, and elsewhere. Born in Scotland, she divides her time between Toronto, Tipperary and Glasgow. We're thrilled to feature her work as part of our first call for submissions.

Aefa spoke with Umbrella managing editor Grant Burkhardt, and the 30-minute conversation is condensed for reading here on our website.

Grant Burkhardt: I was laughing along with the essay in a lot of places, but the deeper feeling and the emotion are right there under each sentence. How did the piece come together? The writing of it, did it all flow out at once, or did you have notes in notebooks over time and it came together when you sat down to write it?

Aefa Mulholland: It's a rare one for me actually, because normally I have a wee idea and you scribble down a few ideas or some bullet points. But this one...I think I had just spent a lot of time with my father, and I was working through how to understand what he was going through in a slightly kinder, more understanding way, and I thought, 'perhaps I can write it out of my system a wee bit'. So it started with my exasperation with my dad, now that he was roaming the internet and there was nothing to stop him. As I said in the piece, every time I went home there were more things and more accumulation. And he's thrilled with it. Every time he's got something, he knows it irritates me beyond belief, so he almost delights in it.

So yeah, the piece, I think I did write the first draft top to bottom the whole way through, and then I carved out most of the exasperated bits.

GB: Do you think there's something different about how your dad's generation discovers the internet? You used the phrase "no boundaries, no safety nets" in the piece. Do you think there's something about the lack of boundaries that's exciting to them?

AM: It certainly seems to be. He was so reluctant to even look at the internet. Like, why would he bother? When he had my mom there, she was the answer to everything. So once he was on his own, he started discovering all these would have been my mom's department. In his case, as devastated as he obviously was and is at losing my mom, after being with her since he was a teenager, there was a freedom to all these things he never imagined. So there's some exhilaration that he was just rampaging around the internet. There was definitely glee, all this discovery of this new world he didn't know was there all along.

GB: One of the things that hit me the hardest in the piece is your mom teaching your dad how to cook. The sort of hidden, unseen scenes in the essay, to be in the kitchen cooking meals over and over again. I'm curious how often food finds its way into your writing, even when you don't expect it to be there?

AM: Food is definitely something that pops up in pretty much every piece. You can encapsulate so much of love and history and every single part of the time my mom teaching my dad how to cook Spanish omelette. The number of times he phones me still and says, 'how do you cook your mother's this-thing-or-that-thing". Actually one of the things I am working on at the moment is an essay – sort of in the same timeframe as this essay – [about] all the women in my mother's kitchen, and how differently they treated it. The French girlfriend who came in and started cooking oysters in Pernod mother would never have touched a Pernod let alone oysters. I think it's a wonderful way of showing character and love and a million other things.

Also, my first degree was in food. I'm a Scottish Hotel School graduate, and food in literature was my favorite subject there, so I guess it was always my destiny.

GB: You've lived in a lot of places. Does any place feel more like home than another?

AM: Yes and no. I grew up in Glasgow with a mom from Tipperary. [When] we were kids, we all had Irish accents. In school they definitely tried to get us to lessen our accents. I am Glaswegian, but then when I moved to Dublin in my early 20s, then I was very aware of not being from there either, because I had the Scottish accent. Scotland and Ireland still both feel like home. Canada has never felt much like home, though I have my passport. I think I'm always going to be half and half, one parent from each, I think that's how it divides.

GB: In what ways do feel your Scottish and Irish heritage influencing your writing, especially the humor in it?

AM: Funny you mentioned it. I did my MFA over here, at Guelph [outside of Toronto], and my first fiction workshop there I was submitting the things every week, and every week there was something people were humming and hawing over, and eventually they just said, "you cannot write Canadian." My language, just the expressions, I just can't do it. I'm working on a couple novels at the moment, and in both of them I've made them have Scottish parents. The way that we speak if we're Scottish or Irish, or spent a lot of time in those countries, I think it influences the rhythm of the prose. Even though a lot of my work is set in Canada, I'm never going to be a Canadian writer.

GB: In [The Lean Years] you mention going "off grid" at nights while your dad was doing his browsing. I feel like we all do it, even when we don't need to, we find our way off the internet.

AM: Necessary.

GB: Do you find yourself doing that in general?

AM: I love doing it. You talked early about the freedom of our parents' generation discovering the internet and rampaging off into the distance...maybe because the internet has been more of our lives, the freedom is in turning the stupid thing off, so you don't get WhatsApp calls or other things. My dad still will forward me jokes someone sent him, but maybe not as much. Or leaving the phone at home and going out, there's just this huge sense of relief. I'm not as big a fan of the internet as my dad is. He still is, but me not so much.


Headshot of poet Elisabeth Murawski
Aefa Mulholland

Aefa Mulholland is a writer, journalist and editor who has worked with The Irish Times, Miami Herald, RTE, The Advocate, Curve, Diva, AOL, the Mysterious Package Company, and others. Aefa’s writing appears in Cagibi, PRISM, Slackjaw, and elsewhere. Born in Scotland, she divides her time between Toronto, Tipperary and Glasgow.

Headshot of poet Elisabeth Murawski
Grant Burkhardt

Grant is one of the Umbrella's managing editors. He's a poet and writer with work featured in or forthcoming in the Great Lakes Review, the Martello Journal, Nightingale & Sparrow, Icarus, and others. His poem - 'The Thing About People Knowing You Cook' - is a 2023 Sundress Publications 'Best of the Net' nominee. He’s also one of the Umbrella's poetry editors and non-fiction editors.


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