Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Next Big Thing (here’s hoping)

juneconsidineLaura Elliot, aka June Considine, tagged me in the Next Big Thing Author Blog Hop. I know June from the Irish Writers’ Centre where she regularly teaches and is a member of the Board. She is the author of three novels: Stolen Child, The Prodigal Sister and Deceptions and twelve books for children, including the fantasy Luvender trilogy, the Beachwood series and the two teen novels View from a Blind Bridge and The Glass Triangle. Her books have been widely translated. You can read Laura’s contribution to the Next Big Thing on her blog.

Here are my answers:

What is the working title of your next book?

Dubstopia, a book of short stories that are connected but also stand alone. A confused book, for our times! Am also going to throw the dust off a novella I tried to write on the MA called Little Town Moone, a murderous tale told backwards. June Considine very kindly called it ‘spell-binding’ when I read an extract last year at the IWC for the first leg of the Italo-Irish Literature Exchange. But it was my first frivoling with fiction after a long stretch in journalism and it was hugely flawed so I left it under the stairs with the hoover. I’m ready go to back to it now and hammer out a good draft. So I’ll mainly talk about Dubstopia here because it makes me laugh and is fun, something I’m writing to stop taking the business of writing so seriously.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

A course I did at the IWC called Tales of the City which examined the cityscape as a type of icing layer of realism: writing about the things we see under our noses, uncomfortable things for the most part, as far away from stone wall farms and finches singing on thatched cottages and begorrah Ireland that so many writers are still overly concerned with. I wanted to write gritty awful shit, but pull it up a notch, play around with language, rob from Joyce’s Edwardian bread bin, make the reader cringe and laugh, but most importantly portray the characters as real in their tiny turmoils. There’s a ‘bigger story’ going on too, a thread with the Russian mafia and some junkies in Phibsboro who are squatting above an empty bank. The first story introduces all the characters (including a heroin addicted Jack Russell) but mainly involves the chaotic day in one of their lives. Stories that follow on are like a relay, they shove the bigger story forward, though some are just stand-alone fingerprints of how a particular character ended up where they did. Widearse Wendy for instance, who grew up in an affluent north Dublin suburb but ends up on the streets because of one awful thing that happens her. Leather Joe who is dangerously charismatic but a seasoned psychopath. Stories too from growing up in a crazed repressed Ireland that was brilliantly cruel. I want to mess around with form, with the idea of connected short stories that could also be a novel. There’s a lot about the traditional short story I love, but I hate the exclusive treatment it gets, that kind of meliority makes me uncomfortable. And a lot of the time I find novels boring, or at least they don’t drag me all the way to their end point without losing the plot. I like the idea of mulch, knocking some of the gentle beauty out of the short story, upsetting its privileged rhythm.

What genre does your book fall under?

Social realism panini’d with surrealism.

dgoldWhat actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

The whole of Phibsboro, especially down the canal. I’d offer a caravan-load of Dutch Gold to each citizen actor to star as themselves, no scripting required. If that sounds mean, go live in Phibsboro for a year.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Dublin’s dank underworld and its visceral phlegm-filled charm, as seen through the eyes of ordinary struggling lunatics, not gangland or criminal butch.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I don’t imagine anyone will want to publish a book of short stories by an unknown fiction writer, so one thing I’m going to do is send off each story to a decent literary magazine (Stinging Fly, Dublin Quarterly, The Moth, etc.) and see what happens. Here’s another thing that makes me uncomfortable: there are so many online journals, electronic post boxes to shove your stories through, but should we give our work away so easily? We’re in this [awful] era of self publicising as a form of arts mania. Writers belt-notching by sending out their work to all kinds of irrelevant places, just to get their name in print. Reading poems and stories in public every chance they get, flinging up websites with wonderful credentials they think set them apart from the next person with wonderful credentials. I feel exceptionally shy about all that yack. What is it to be published if you don’t care where or how? I just want to find out if I can be a good writer on the page, not to get carried away with the business model. I made the mistake of sending off first drafts (of anything) to competitions over the last two years, just to see if I could write and they all got shortlisted, but none of them were particularly up to scratch, writing I could feel proud of. I’ve learnt from that. Posting off imperfect tat even if it’s good enough to make the grade so far, I want and need to do better. It’s about borrowing the confidence until it happens on your terms, to stop grappling with that inner Stalin that sits smugly on every writer’s shoulder. I’m too conservative to consider self publishing, I know many people are making great headway here, but the idea makes me cringe. My idea is to let each story ‘get somewhere’ on its own accord and maybe then I’ll stick them together into a yoke with a gooey cover and give it to friends and dying enemies for Christmas. With Little Town Moone however, I’m relying on conventional publishing bewitchery! A friend of mine whose a book scout has said: “Hurry up June, I want to read it…it’s just you and one other person in Dublin whose books I’m waiting on!” A mix of orgasm & heart attack, that someone could believe in me that much from the little smidgen they read.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Writing Dubstopia now, gizza chance! The novella will be tackled on Eoin McNamee’s course, followed by a stunt away alone writing that my lovely lover is organising. Both will be done this year. Determined!

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Ross Raisin: God’s Own Country, slight shades of The Butcher Boy gone urban, an ex lover said I write like David Foster Wallace, but I think this is more to do with guilt over leaving me crying in a phone box in Tottenham in 1994.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

No-one seems to be writing the nitty about our gloriously shit city, it seems to be the reserve of the skewed detective in a crime series novel or tales of the middle classes struggling to find themselves in the underpants of a dreary bedeviled partner, or ghost stories about great grannies or worse, as is a recent trend, writers writing about writers writing, the worst type of literary cannibalism there is.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Ridiculous characters too true to life, talking dogs, a Russian war-lord who lives in an electronic house standing on chicken legs, oh the things that drugs make you do, the city as a compost-bin Atlantis, liberal use of swearing and made-up words that still manage to make sense.

How the Next Big Thing blog hop works
An author answers ten questions and then tags authors to do the same thing the following week on the same day, which in this case is a Wednesday. For this purpose I’m tagging the wonderfully multi-talented Emer Martin whose books are ‘up there’ with the best of modern Irish fiction. She’s written three novels and has just completed a fourth. She’s also a painter, film director and creative writing teacher. Niamh MacAlister who also took part in the Italo-Irish Literature Exchange in Verona in May (and put up with my mood swings). She was shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing awards 2012. She also writes poetry and took part in the  ‘New and Emerging Poet’ Poetry Ireland Introductions Series and has been published in The Stinging Fly, The Moth, Raft, and Washington Square Review. I’m cheating abysmally here: Henry McDonald, author of eight non-fiction books and also my partner who shares my blog. He’s already completed one novel (a thriller) that’s looking for a publisher and he’s working on an exciting new novel about kids during one day of The Troubles.
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Writing the short novel

Eoin McNameeblogpic

Often criticised for stories that swerve uncomfortably close to truth, and yet hailed as a master of historical research, Eoin McNamee is one of those writers who never fails to cause a stir with his tales of dark, damp menace. The New York Times describes McNamee’s style as ‘refreshingly taut and spare, full of active verbs…He does not describe what his energetic characters are doing. He just lets them do it’. Eoin admits to having a strong interest in ‘people who have been corrupted,’ that this is what often drives his fiction. “My purpose as a writer is not to be controversial, it’s to explore themes and narratives…I draw things very close to me when I write and often emerge blinking into the sunlight”. For the next ten weeks he will be teaching a Writing The Novella course at the Irish Writers’ Centre on Monday evenings until 25th March. Here he answers a few strategic questions on the art of writing the short novel and why the term ‘novella’ is in need of overhaul:

the-blue-tangoSome of your novels, ranging from Resurrection Man to the The Blue Tango, are novelised versions of real life events, i.e. the Shankill Butchers and a pre-Troubles murder and fitting up of an innocent man. What are the pitfalls on basing fiction on factual events, and how close can you come to falling into what is known as ‘faction’? I’m still waiting for the ground to open under me, for someone to produce the definitive argument against the form, but it hasn’t happened yet. Defamation can be an issue. There is a moral dimension to entering other people’s lives and writing about them. I’ve always been wary about getting on an artistic high horse and claiming some kind of special pleading on the basis of art. I’d prefer to say that I’m drawn to these stories, that  I want to write about them and I’m a writer not a priest and am prepared for messy compromises and sins of intrusion into other people’s lives if it gets me a good book at the end of it. If there is a wrong involved, and there may well be, then that’s my business.

There are lots of novels that deal with the Northern Ireland Troubles such as your books (see above) and The Ultras. However, while many authors deal with individual incidents or ‘spots of time’ in the conflict, there are no contemporary authors that have done the ‘fictional grand sweep’ of 1969-1994. There’s no War and Peace, no Life and Fate, covering a range of characters and their stories over three decades of war. Is this overdue? Or is it even necessary? There’s no rule that says that events get the art they need or deserve. If someone wants to approach what happened in the North the manner of War and Peace, then you’d have to see how good the work is. Whether people would need it or not….I’m not sure that explaining things back to people is a function of fiction. I’m sure you could find the stories though – there was plenty of epic going on.

loveinhistoryWith the novella, can you define its difference from the short story and the full-blown novel? As far as I can make out the novella is simply a short novel. Or at least it should be. It doesn’t require the precision of the short story, the formal demands that put the story somewhere between a poem and a film script. In a short novel you can veer off course a little, digress, even slip up here and there. Let’s say it bears more resemblance to the novel than it does to anything else. Perhaps the problem of definition lies somewhere with the word novella itself. It sounds like something fragrant and a little racy that you’d find lying on the chaise longue in a Victorian lady’s parlour. Maybe we need a better name for the form.

Does the novella lend enough space and time for key characters to ‘fill out’ both psychologically and in terms of the narrative? Depends what you mean by filling out. You can define a character in a sentence or in a hundred pages. What more would you want to know about any character in The Dead for instance? (A short story) Or the old fisherman in the Old Man and the Sea? (A novella). What more story would be needed?

What is your opinion on experimentation with the prose form? Is it mere literary pretentiousness and showing off? Should writers stick with telling stories? The only criteria for judging technique is whether it works or not. As for defining what works, you pretty much know it when you see it. It would seem that there are limitations on what can be done in the prose form and that invention has run up against the buffers. But maybe asking questions about experimentation is missing the point. I admire people who can tell stories but what I’m drawn to are how wide open a writer’s eyes are, how they see the world and then tell it.

Your course Writing The Novella at the Irish Writers’ Centre kicks off on Monday 21st January, what will it entail, how will it be taught? It will involve I imagine a bit of discussion about what the novella is,  and then all the other things which go towards any piece of prose fiction. Story, prose technique, dialogue, character…It would be good if participants have a bit of work at the start to work on, and hopefully have added to it at the end of the course, but people shouldn’t feel under pressure. If participants come away feeling like better writers, and I have helped them towards that, then we’ll all have reason to be pleased.

Eoin’s ten-week workshop starts next week and is aimed at people who are working, or thinking about working towards completing a novella, those who have started a short story that looks as if it might outgrow the limits of the form, or a novel which may not fit the conventional length. It will be less concerned about the technicalities of what the form might be, and more concerned with getting words on paper, and hopefully having something to show at the end of the workshop. He is the author of fifteen novels including Resurrection Man (released as a film in 1998), Booker nominated The Blue Tango12:23 paris and Orchid Blue, and the novellas the Last of Deeds (shortlisted for the Irish Times Literature Prize) and Love in History. He was awarded the Macauley Fellowship for Irish Literature in 1990 and is Writer in Residence at Trinity College Dublin for the Hilary term, 2013. He lives in Co Sligo.