A prestigious university just awarded a literary prize to one of its janitors

Caitriona Lally, writer, cleaner, award winner.
Caitriona Lally, writer, cleaner, award winner.
Image: Sharpix/Paul Sharp
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As the newest winner of the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, awarded annually by Trinity College Dublin to one of Ireland’s most promising young writers, Caitriona Lally joins a list of past recipients whose work is now read across the English language world, including Anne Enright, Colum McCann, and Frank McGuinness. She is also 10,000 euros (US $11,500) richer. But it was the fact that Lally scrubs lecture halls, offices, and a library at Trinity every morning, rising at 4:45 am, and cleaning from 6 am to 9:30 am, before returning home to care for her infant daughter, that brought her international media attention.

Like a real-life Good Will Hunting, the enduringly popular janitor-makes-good movie starring Matt Damon, Lally’s story is a reminder of the hidden talent lurking in the people we typically overlook in our lives. It is the kind of story most people would find charming.

“This author also works as a janitor. She just won a prestigious literary prize from the university she cleans,” the Washington Post headline read.

But is cheering for a cleaner’s moment in the sun also perhaps demeaning to her day job? Is it a sign of elitism? Or is it a reverse of the classism on display just last month when actor Geoffrey Owens was job-shamed for working at a Trader Joe’s, and people came to his rescue by publicly listing their past job doing menial labor before they “made it”?

“I understand that my choice of job is an unusual one for a writer, and that’s what has attracted media interest, but as long as my story is represented accurately I’m ok with it,” Lally tells Quartz At Work via email. (A full transcript of our correspondence with her is below.)

Either way, Lally’s employment history both before and after she wrote her only novel, Eggshells (Melville House, 2015), may be reassuring to anyone who has left university intent on making a living as an artist.

Lally hasn’t just worked at Trinity. She studied English literature there, too, graduating in 2004 with a undergraduate degree. As a student, she had worked as a cleaner for the university during pre-spring and summer breaks. Immediately after graduating, she taught English in Japan for a year, then returned to Dublin and found odd jobs, at one point moving to New York to be a home aide for seniors. Later, back in Dublin, she was hired as content writer for a website, a job she lost during the financial crisis.

After that, she spent the better part of a year wandering the streets of Dublin, looking for “staff wanted” signs. As she did, the idea for her novel came together in her imagination. Eggshells is about “a socially isolated misfit who walks around Dublin searching for patterns and meaning in graffiti or magical-sounding place names or small doors that could lead to another world,” as Lally described it to the Washington Post.

When she later landed a job in data entry, she began writing the book. And, finally, three years ago, she returned to cleaning at Trinity.

In her correspondence with Quartz at Work, she explains why. We also asked her what she would tell other creative types who (perhaps mistakenly) don’t see their day jobs as contributing to their artistic ambition.

Can you tell us more about the data entry job you had when you wrote Eggshells? Was it the type of job that allowed you to make mental notes about your novel-in-progress while you worked?

The data entry job wasn’t my dream job, but after a year of unemployment, I was grateful to get any kind of job. I had plenty of research done for my novel while I was unemployed, so I quite motivated by then to put all my notes together into a novel in the hours before work and after work. At a certain point, I realised that sitting all day at a computer for my paid work wasn’t conducive to sitting down to do my own writing, so I hunted for some physical work. Around that time, some of the women I worked with in the housekeeping department in Trinity College when I was a student ten years previously, told me that Trinity was hiring housekeeping staff again, so I decided to go back.

What are the upsides to being a cleaner?

Even though getting up early is difficult, I love having my work finished early, and leaving work as other people are starting work. I definitely find it easier to work in a job that is completely unrelated to my writing. Whenever I’ve written articles or other non-fiction work, I found it hard to switch between different forms, so I made the decision to take a job as far from writing as possible. There is something about the rhythm of cleaning that allows the mind to wander.

There’s been some debate about whether the media’s framing of your accomplishment revealed that job snobbery lives on. What do you think?  

I understand that my choice of job is an unusual one for a writer, and that’s what has attracted media interest, but as long as my story is represented accurately I’m ok with it,

The only thing I’m uneasy about in the coverage is any implication that my life is tougher than it actually is, or that I’m inspiring because I work a menial job, because I feel I’m in a very privileged position. I have a partner who works full time, which allows me to clean part-time, write part-time, and be at home with our daughter most of the week. There are individuals who have to work two and three jobs who don’t get to see their children as often as they like. I’ve also had the privilege of going to university and I’ve been able to choose a physical job.

I’m proud of my job, I think it’s a necessary one—sure, if you count success in terms of money and status, then I can be considered a failure, but if anyone turns up their nose at someone doing menial work, I think that says more about them than it does about the worker.

One thing that might be important to point out is that my hourly wage as a cleaner is pretty much the same as my hourly wage when I worked as a content writer. Also, it’s a public sector job, it pays more than minimum wage, I’m a permanent member of staff, so I’m fortunate not to be struggling with job precariousness.

The lives of artists are always mined for tips about balancing work and personal projects. We’d like to keep up the tradition. Can you tell us about your routine?

I started work as a cleaner in 2015, just before my novel, Eggshells, was published. It was a conscious decision to do a physical job that would be finished early in the day and would leave me time to write. Also, being physically active for my work means that I look forward to sitting at the computer to write after work.

Before my daughter was born, I would spend my afternoons writing. But now that she’s here, I have her in daycare three mornings a week, and those three mornings are my writing time. I finish work at 9.30 am and I have two and a half hours to write until I pick her up from creche, so it’s important those hour are productively spent; that time is so precious.

My daughter is 15 months old, a very active age, and she has an aversion to napping, so there is no writing done in the afternoons, only playing, which is a lovely way to spend your afternoons!

Now you’re writing a second novel. Has your work cleaning had any influence on this book?

My cleaning job has directly affected my second novel in that one of the main characters works as a cleaner. I initially gave him a job of security guard, but I wanted him to have more physical interaction with his surroundings, and also I could put some of my thoughts about cleaning into his words. It was fun to be able to explore both the satisfactory and unsatisfactory aspects of the job through this character—the meditative quality of the work versus the sometimes disrespectful attitude towards cleaners.

What do you tell people who want to be an artist and find themselves in and out of jobs or stuck in what they call a day job?

I find it very difficult to offer advice because I feel I haven’t figured it out myself! I’ve tried to write with no job, and with a job I disliked, and with a job I liked. If you’re lucky enough to be able to get a stress-free day job which leaves you the mental energy to write before work or after work, that’s fantastic. But everyone has different financial situations and responsibilities, so it’s hard to give a one-size-fits-all answer. Finding the time and energy to write is the trickiest part—I’ve had to bribe myself with rewards of Netflix series to watch when I finish a chapter. As soon as I finish the second novel, my True Movies Christmas months-long binge begins.

A previous version of this story misstated the name of Trinity College Dublin.