Category Archives: Books
It’s safe to say that Irish writing is enjoying something of a purple patch. Between Molly McCloskey, Lisa Harding, Sara Baume and Lisa McInerney, the groundswell of new writers in particular has been a thing to behold; each of them confident, vibrant, and with an ear for the lyrical and a nose for innovation.
And now there is June Caldwell, a former journalist and prize-winning short-story writer whose debut collection has just been published. Caldwell has been on the radar thanks in no small part to her story ‘Somat’, a tale written from the point of view of a foetus whose mother is essentially dead of a stroke. Room Little Darker carries on this brilliantly inventive style with gusto.
Where some writers favour the lilt of poeticism, the cadence of beautiful prose, Caldwell has stirred up a bitches’ brew of anger, spiky rage and deft humour. She has captured the fetid air of Catholic Ireland, the pedestrian grey despair of the old folks’ home and the cloying stillness of suburbia. Yet the stories themselves are neither pedestrian, nor fetid. Each crackles with writing that doesn’t so much bristle the reader as approach them with a roaring chainsaw.
These stories may be relaying the familiar topographies of Ireland, but you’ve probably never read about contemporary Ireland quite like this. Chinese chicken balls, for instance, are described as “lava-hot balls of scrumptiousness, snowed in gorgeous lumpy rock salt… when you bit into them, the chicken played a strange trick on your tongue, opening up like a new expensive umbrella, pushing suitcases of hot batter around the gum-line”.
A scene on a Dublin street later on in the book features a “junkie with a pert arse (who) does a great car alarm with her toothless gob”.
This straight talking is Caldwell’s delicious, murky stock-in-trade, and every single sentence packs a similar punch. The alpine-fresh metaphors come thick and fast, and all of them land on target: a delightful, satisfying reading experience in and of itself.
Despite being a relative newcomer, Caldwell’s writing bristles with chaos and confidence. Her characters don’t always have the most charitable or charming worldviews, but they’re all the better for it. It’s clear there’s a strong, salty, swaggering writer behind such prose: better still, she has the literary nous to make her views on everything from dementia to contraception pulsate. The opening tale, ‘Upcycle: An Account of Some Strange Happenings on Botanic Road’, brings home the complexities of having a parent with dementia, while ‘Implant’ recounts the break-up of a long-term couple, albeit with an abortion inducement to complicate the tale. ‘The Man Who Lived in a Tree’, meanwhile, is visceral, shocking and malevolent.
All told, Caldwell has more in common with the likes of Irvine Welsh or Hubert Selby Jr than any of her homegrown contemporaries, but this is writing that does not lend itself easily to categorisation or comparison. Either way, consider our caps well and truly doffed.
This feels slightly weird but in the run-up to the launch of Room Little Darker next Wednesday, 31st May (Hodges Figgis, 6pm, all welcome!) I wanted to post this author interview Catherine Dunne did with me on her website as it discusses some of the stories in the book as well as wider themes. So excuse the narcissism, and enjoy!
1 – ‘SOMAT’ is also part of this new story collection. Narrated from the point of view of a foetus, it is, among other things, a howl of outrage against the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution which can reduce pregnant women in Ireland to the status of incubators. But it is the irreverent inventiveness of the language that really grabs the reader by the throat. Can you give us an insight into how you gave life to this particular voice?
J.C.: – There were two Frankensteinesque stories of women held captive in monstrous situations in 2014 that really smashed me in the gut and made me angry as hell. A woman from Texas called Marlise Munoz, who was 14 weeks pregnant with the couple’s second child when her husband found her unconscious on their kitchen floor. She’d suffered an pulmonary embolism. Though doctors pronounced her brain dead and her family explicitly said they didn’t want machines keeping her body alive, officials at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth felt differently.
The law in Texas is very like ours in Ireland. It required them to maintain life-sustaining treatment for a pregnant patient as long as there was a foetal heartbeat. Keeping a woman alive against nature’s will (her body was essentially rotting and she had to be drowned out in ‘somatic’ medicines to keep her ‘technically’ alive) as a human incubator when the baby/foetus is in no way viable was such a hideous scenario.
Her family fought their own grief and powerlessness for eight long weeks, having to go to court several times, before she could be taken off the machines. Think of the trauma of that? And the law is supposed to be there to ‘protect’ you?
Her husband, Erick Munoz, argued that sustaining her body artificially amounted to ‘the cruel and obscene mutilation of a deceased body’ against her wishes and those of her family. That was at the beginning of the year.
June Caldwell’s stories are the roar of fury and clarity that Irish fiction has been needing – no really, it has. You haven’t read anything like this before. You haven’t had anything before like the headspin that these stories will give you. And it doesn’t hurt that they’re gaspingly, gutsily hilarious, as well as formally brave and unbothered with the rules. Just brilliant – Belinda McKeon
At the end of the year, an almost identical situation happened in Ireland. A woman who had suffered a spontaneous ‘brain’ trauma who was 18 weeks pregnant, ended up at the mercy of bonkers legislation in an ‘unnamed’ hospital, being fought over by medical staff, legal eagles and the Catholic church. The hospital refused her family’s request to discontinue artificial life support, citing ‘the country’s strict abortion law’ as their guideline. Then there was the usual circus offerings: lawyers representing the rights of the woman and of the fetus, but not her family, said they accepted the ruling from the country’s second-highest court.
Pro-life organisations saw the lingering horror as a kind of triumph in real-time and the men in dresses were issuing statements from stained-glass windows on God’s law over woman’s fate.
It was insane and really upsetting to read about. One doctor commented that the fetus was essentially “facing into a ‘perfect storm’ from which it has no realistic prospect of emerging alive.”
Even the most cogent argument couldn’t alter the facts, the ‘baby’ had nothing but distress and death ahead. The hospital was afraid of being sued for negligence or having to face murder charges under a 1983 constitutional ban on abortion, the strictest in Europe. Keeping her deteriorating body functioning only with the help of machines and drugs deprived her “of dignity in death”.
It subjected her father, her partner and her young children to “unimaginable distress in a futile exercise which commenced only because of fears held by treating medical specialists of potential legal consequences,” the court decided.
And of course, Government officials said the ruling would be studied for possible exceptions to the blanket ban on abortion. We live in a time where we are contemplating colonies on Mars and yet there are women left lingering in this freakish state in our hospitals, with their families suffering ridiculously.
It boiled my piss.
I wanted to write a story that reflected the trajectory of horror and I felt that it was best told from the fetus’s perspective, to highlight the hideousness. After spending years in journalism and being restricted on what you could say and how you could say it, I firmly believe that fiction can be more effective, more politicised.
wrote the story in a fit of anger to the 3,000 word brief (which was hard to do and sent it into Sinéad Gleeson, who was editing The Long Gaze Back anthology).
I was really nervous about how it would be received, if it came across as offensive, if it would get people talking. It turned out to be one of the most talked about stories in the collection.
The Open University now want it on their MA in Creative Writing (fiction module) and have asked permission to use it for the next nine years. That gave me hope that I have it in me to make a difference. Up until that point I had no idea if I could write a short story or not. Writing the story helped me understand the stupidity of our laws and the need to Repeal the Eighth Amendment and go for a referendum. I hope it happens. It needs to happen.
June Caldwell’s writing is audacious, wicked and profoundly funny; her prose cracks and sizzles. The stories in Room Little Darker are literary electrical storms and Caldwell’s voice is a genuinely fresh, bold and welcome addition to the Irish scene – Nuala O’Connor
2 – The characters in your stories often inhabit a nightmarish world, such as that wildly imagined one in ‘Imp of the Perverse’. They are frequently transported there by the ferocity of sexual desire:
‘In the garden I watch the guests through the heat of amber eyes. Grasses bristle and jostle. I stretch forward to lie flat in the flimsy sunshine of early evening. The clouds are hungry and my mouth waters. Wind tears at itself as I pull layers from the sky to lay over me. Laughter grey and mocking. They do not know the danger love carries.’
Can you talk to us about this – about ‘the danger love carries’ in your stories?
J.C.: – Well, yes, in adult life we are obliged to be ‘civil’ always, aren’t we, to be well behaved?
We’re not marauding teenagers anymore.
But sometimes we can’t or don’t choose our desires and the people who counter-inhabit them. They choose us. They untangle us. They sweep in from the unconscious and take us over, eat us up, make fools of us, flood us. Crazy behaviour can only follow. Desire as the invisible puppeteer. And these desires are often strongest where hierarchies exist, where taboo beckons, where warped lust lurks. In this story I wanted to look closely at two stereotypes: the randy professor who has more choice than sense, and the love-struck MA student who at first is overwhelmed by a genuine admiration for him and his work, but pretty soon that morphs into a dangerous longing.
The longing takes over and acts as Theatre Director in the drama, leading into murky corners, embarrassing come-ons. He, of course, plays with this at first, before becoming sickened or appalled by her. He is used to seducing women with his mind, ‘pinning’ with his eyes, flinging provocative sentences, lassoing.
He sees himself as a Gingerman type character and everyone is fair game.
Until the game goes wrong.
His character is quietly psychopathic. He’s addicted to the pleasure he gets from luring people in, of women wanting him, lasciviousness. He pulls the strings, the wires, he cracks the whip. His position also allows for this. It is the milky environment of emotional cancer, the alkaline is missing. He has a vast brain and deeply abusive psychological patterns that direct him. He’s also a fail-safe opportunist.
She’s not a victim though.
She’s also very clever and plays the ‘little girl’ around him a lot, knowing he likes the dynamism of that. But then she loses control and spills overboard, along with her sanity, ending up in the freezing cold sea. The only way she can cope with the idea of him is to turn him into an animal in her head, where he is predator and she is [willing] prey.
All well and good, but the game goes wrong when she realises he has no interest in her. She cannot compete with what he normally goes for. She unravels. Self-annihilation and destruction consume her. It’s all a bit disgusting and shameful. On the surface she seems to be the gudgeon, the martyr.
But then she examines his behaviour inside the kaleidoscope of power and realises that he can behave as he likes. The expectations on her, in the ‘lower’ hierarchical role, are more demanding and rigid. She gets angry and this perpetuates even more destructive behaviour. It’s a no-win. Going back is futile, revenge is futile, going forward is futile. She is straitjacketed. He will never like her, consider her, want her. His available pool of lovelies who admire him endlessly is so large, he drowns in it. They both drown, but in different ways. In the end she wanders into the ‘den’ and has a breakdown. What will happen when she emerges from that desolate place and sees more clearly? Sees that he’s just a man (how boring!).
What then? Will she feel remorse, will she feel sorry for him? Will she learn important things about herself? He doesn’t care however, and formally complains, consequence pours in regardless. She’s punished severely for her ‘transgression’. He’s every right to do what he does.
He’s also every right to bob along never scrutinising his own behaviour because he never believes he causes damage. It’s all just light-hearted ‘stuff’ to him. Maybe he is the ‘victim’ here, maybe he did nothing wrong.
She could be just relentlessly nuts after all. I want the reader to consider the macro, to like and hate and understand both characters. The meaning of meaninglessness! I use Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Imp of the Perverse’ as a type of metaphor or structure for the story. In his original short story, which Poe wrote in part as an essay, he first discusses the narrator’s self-destructive impulses, embodied as the symbolic metaphor of The Imp of the Perverse.
The narrator describes this spirit as the agent that tempts a person to do things ‘merely because we feel we should not.’ He talks about how we are compelled to ‘commit acts’ against our self interest in life, that this is part of our intrinsically destructive impulses as human beings. The guilt that’s produced afterwards (even if we ‘confess’ to our ridiculous behaviour, our sins) is also futile. No one cares! Poe’s character eventually commits murder, gets away with it, but the overwhelming desire [triggered by an ‘invisible fiend’ pursuing him, the conscience] to confess leads him to the hangman’s alley.
I thought it would be the perfect metaphor to look at destructive desire and the crippling lonely lows it can lead us into.
I use some of Poe’s text in the story, sneakily.
It’s there in some of the sentences, but the modern context of the setting submerges the original text.
The moral of the story is that desire can be as treacherous as love is relative. We need to know how to handle it, how to bury it, how to accept defeat and walk off, how to forgive ourselves. Ultimately how to accept that sometimes we have no control. Perhaps it’s the only way we can truly learn.
This story could also be written about a priest and one of his congregation, a paedophile and a child, an alligator zig-zagging towards a juicy deer strolling aimlessly by. Ying without the Yang, sexual chemistry in a cul-de-sac.
Poe’s theory of the Imp of the Perverse is an early notion of the subconscious and repression which would not be fully theorised until Freud.
When people meet they’ve no real idea what private psychologies they’re banging off. It’s why we have boundaries in life. Rules. When we ignore them, or evade our own splurging instincts, we get into trouble. It was too tempting to have the student protagonist ‘win’ in the end by ripping him to shreds for hurting her, but that’s not realistic. The end is deliberately anti-climactic. Maybe they are both still out there and have learnt nothing in their separate dusty cubby-holes. That’s what I imagine anyway. Love, lust, desire, even the ugly deluded kind, are potentially traumatic and betraying to the delicate self. There is no midway point, no resolve, no understanding. We become marked, spoiled, swinging off the rope forever. Tread carefully and make sure there’s rubber soles on your slippers to cope with the rain.
June Caldwell’s stories are savagely inventive, full-throttle snapshots of the creepy, pitiable world it seems we all now have to live in. If the ghost of Angela Carter and a hungover George Saunders ever got together, they might turn out tales as full of the righteous ire and strychnine wit as the uproarious stories in Room Little Darker – Colin Barrett
3 – Your writer’s imagination seems to me to be a heady mix of hilarity and horror. In the visceral tale ‘Upcycle’, a daughter recalls the chilling abuse of a now-demented father. Yet the tale is leavened with a hearty dose of black humour, such as the mother’s futile attempt, long ago, to ‘poison his stew’. There are many times when the reader laughs, and then feels uncomfortable for laughing. Can you talk to us about the role of humour in your stories?
J.C.: – I always see the funny even in the horrific or even just in the ‘every day’.
Maybe it’s a feeling of healthy dislocation, but I find a lot of life ‘unreal’, and that also includes how we cope with memory. I’ve never grown up, essentially. We forget too that there are always two in a tango, that everyone bears the weight of responsibility, for their relationships, for their actions, and most tellingly, for their lack of action.
The crime of nonchalance, of missing the point of life. The ‘wife’ character in ‘Upcycle’ is portrayed first of all as a bit of a victim but really we have to ask ourselves, what’s in it for her staying with a man like that? Is it societal pressure of the time (the story swings back and forth from the 1970s and 1980s to the present day where the ‘husband’ is in a nursing home)? Again it is a story about the shifting sands of power: a man who is a bully in his marriage but is now out of control with the mites of madness eating his brain, behaves accordingly.
He loses control but tries to regain some of that control by haunting his family. Is he really haunting them or is it their own conscience playing havoc in the aftermath of a traumatic situation? The house becomes a metaphor for the man’s strong seething will and starts to break up all around them (the wife and daughter).
I guess there’s unintentional humour in that.
In the scenario itself. Fun in the absurd. We expect justice in life, appeasement, release from hard situations. It often doesn’t arrive, it doesn’t grace our doorstep.
Life tells us, ‘You picked this shit, deal with it, smell it, stick it right up your nose.’ Humour is sometimes our only saviour. Without giving too much away, by the end of the story, the protagonist realises that the father was always terrified of them, while they lived it in real time the other way around. Humour in hopelessness, the wrangle for reason.
What else is there to do sometimes but laugh? I hope that there is fun and humour is most of these stories. In ‘Leitrim Flip’ for instance, the scenario is horrific, but again the couple’s predicament in the cage is a consequence of not thinking things through clearly. There’s buffoonery in the role reversal: the ‘submissive’ character relents and accepts her fate. The ‘Master’ continually fights their predicament and refuses to accept it. Yet in his traditional role he’d expect her to handle anything he’d dream of dishing out.
In ‘The Man Who Lives In A Tree’, the tree is seemingly a ‘friend’ but Rashi soon realises that he’s a malevolent git. A Facebook friend who was sent a review copy wrote to me today to say she had ‘nightmares’ after reading the story.
She dreamt Liam Neeson turned into the tree and chased her.
I couldn’t stop laughing at that image. If I give people nightmares or make them laugh, I’ve done my job as a writer.
My 83-year-old Ma asked me why I wrote about ‘a tree who could talk’, and I said, ‘why not?’ Hippies believe that trees whisper and have voices. Maybe they do. And we, as people, as wreckers of the environment must piss them off no end. But all we feel is pity for ourselves, not for the havoc we wreak. The tree doesn’t care too much for humans, even ones like Rashi who are homeless and desperate. Why should it? That shouldn’t be funny, but maybe it is. I also feel guilty sometimes about using humour in inappropriate ways.
In ‘Dubstopia’ we should feel nothing but concern for the heroin addict character, but we end up laughing at the pointlessness of his day, at his own lack of control, at a city sizzling in menace. When I worked at the Irish Writers Centre, I remember one day standing outside in the porch to get some air, and I saw this really dishevelled junkie, he looked in a terrible state, really emaciated… and he stopped to read the menu outside Chapter One (you know, that really posh expensive Michelin star restaurant!). He looked like he’d emerged from a crumby bedsit, woken by the pains of hunger that pulled him out onto the street. He was reading the menu out loud driving himself mad! I knew it wasn’t funny per se, but I couldn’t stop laughing.
I felt bad but laughed for two days over that.
I felt ugly for my own immorality of being able to find this funny. It made me uncomfortable. I want my stories to do the same. Humour, laughter, to just plomp your face in your hands and say, ‘For fuck’s sake!’, is a great balm. We laugh uncontrollably from the time we’re babies and everything is hideous and new and distorted, to the hilarious cartoons of childhood that calm and teach us, to our mortifying teenage romances, right up to the myriad of things that can and do go wrong for us as adults. Humour is also a close colleague of pain. There is so much in life that is privately hellish or impossible to cope with. If we can take a moment to laugh, then isn’t that great? We’re all strolling towards the crematorium anyway. Imagine taking any of this shit seriously?
There is a seriously charged imagination at work here. Line by line, page by page, Caldwell brings a dangerous new voltage to the Irish short story – Mike McCormack
4 – Your stories deal with characters who find themselves ‘unmoored’ in a strange and hostile parallel universe. Although dark and terrifying, the world that you create is kept vibrant and somehow optimistic by the sheer energy of the language that you use – your metaphors are arresting, startling, illuminating. Is language or character the starting-point for you?
J.C.: – I love language!
I listen to how people speak, not formally, but how, you know, we have conversations in the pub or even in our heads (have you ever taken time out to listen to your head, it’s terrifying!) With ‘Natterbean’ for instance: that came about one day in a taxi. A junkie walked out in front of the cab and the taxi driver said, ‘I hate them fucking Natterbeans’. I asked him what he meant. ‘Every time they get into the car, they’re all ‘I’m natterbean up at the clinic and yer man said…’ and so on. It was his word for ‘I’m after been’, said in a frenzy. I thought, ‘I’m robbing that!’ Language straight off the street, right from the gob of a taxi man, you can’t get more Joycean than that.
Taxi men are the modern-day carriers of all things Ulysses.
Their warblings are a great example of how language is used to best effect in ordinary ways, in storytelling. Taxi men always tell you stories and they do it brilliantly.
We learn how to write ‘essays’ in school in Victoriana English. Short story writing is the opposite of that, in any fiction, we’re trying to mirror reality as we live and experience it. In SOMAT the foetus is not really talking like a foetus (we all know they can’t talk, right?) and the voice is peculiarly adult and ‘knowing’, but at the same time it breaks up/away into baby speak sometimes.
I wanted to give a flavour of ‘what if’. Voice for me is the most important thing in any writing. How that character inhabits their own reality. I admire writers who use language in subtle beautiful ways, but that’s not me.
My heroine in this regard is Eimear McBride, what she does with language in ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’ is off the scale brilliant.
She knows how language is formed in the brain through her study of linguistics and she worked with that. It floored me. Seeing it performed on stage shook me to the core. It’s the best example of stellar use of language I can think of. I’m not in that league at all but I take inspiration from her.
I love reading a book where the character (and the writer in their role of occupying that character) seems almost possessed. Ross Raisin in ‘God’s Own Country’ or even ‘The Lovely Bones’ by Alice Sebold.
I hope that I use language effectively to make each of the stories different from one another. I’ve read short story collections where ‘the voice’ is the same throughout and while there’s great skill involved in achieving this, it’s not for me. I want each story to be so separate and identifiable from the next.
The average word usage for anyone using spoken English is between 20,000 and 35,000 words, but the Oxford English Dictionary lists at least 171,476 words with thousands of obsolete ones no longer in use. Look how much language has changed since the advent of social media? All those new buzz words and vowel-less offerings?
Language, like sexuality, is fluid, and it’s the writer’s job to exploit this to the best of their ability.
It’ll be interesting to see if some of the language in my ‘Oirish’ stories carries to an audience outside of here. Will it work or will it bore? Writers like James Kelman and Irvine Welsh have done Scottish street language proud. How will we move with the high-tech languages of the future and still stay true to our own unique way of expressing ourselves?
5 – After this blistering collection Room Little Darker, what’s next for June Caldwell, Writer?
J.C.: – I’ve a few short story commissions to write now (for The Lonely Crowd Welsh literary journal and Winter Papers here) and after that it’s time to return to an abandoned novella: a murderous tale about one of Ireland’s missing women, told from the dead, with a twist.
I was obsessed with the ‘triangle’ of missing murdered women that happened in the 1990s, but my story moves on a bit in time and looks at the idea of murderous intent and how so many men get away with the ultimate violence against women, and how as a country, we are still utterly unprepared to deal with that scenario.
I began the story on the MA in Belfast, but I’d never attempted fiction and it was very disparate and all over the place. That’s the next job at hand. After that, I may go for a ‘big’ novel. I also love hybrids: mixes of non-fiction and fiction. I feel like I’ve spent two decades in an incubator ‘waiting’ to write.
I can’t understand why I didn’t do it earlier. So I want to have all my babies now in quick succession. Then I’ll retire to the countryside to have as much sex as I can and look at the sea endlessly before I die. Well, hold on, I’m only in my forties so maybe there’s plenty of time to write a whole slew of disturbing books where I’ll be labelled a lunatic but one day someone will say ‘Yer one, she was a difficult narky character alright, but she could string a sentence together OK’. That to me, would be a life well lived.
Lisa Harding is a writer I truly admire. She nails *voice* like no-one else I know both in her short stories and in her newly-penned novels. This month (October) she signed with New Island Books for a controversial novel about trafficked teenagers (published next Spring) and she’s also Writer in Residence with Pavee Point in association with the Irish Writer’s Centre. I meet with Lisa fortnightly at our writer’s group in Brooks Hotel on Drury Street, so am familiar with her work and also with her struggle to stay earning while pursuing a life as a writer. I wanted to ask her some relevant questions that may be of use to other writers starting out on a similar track.
Let’s start with where things are at for you at the moment and that includes being on the radio recently to talk about your current accommodation difficulties. You made a very valid point that one in four people in Ireland rent and these numbers are growing, yet nothing solid has been done about the appalling conditions and escalating prices. You have your first novel coming out in 2017 with New Island Books; you are trying hard to contribute to society but as a freelance teacher, actress and writer, you feel that your own basic needs are being violated over. It’s a side to the writer’s life that’s maybe not talked about a lot. Can you elaborate?
This tension is a biggie for me: How to continue with my creative work while keeping a roof over my head? My balance isn’t what it used to be, and I don’t think I like teetering on that high-wire anymore…I moved back to Dublin almost seven years ago after thirteen years living out of a suitcase as an actress in London. That was all fine, then. But the time came when I wanted to move home to create some stability and focus more on writing. Since moving back I’ve had six moves in six years because of landlord’s vagaries: rent increases, taking back property for family members, selling under my feet and sometimes impossible living conditions such as no heat and damp.
How do artists live in a city where the average cost of renting a studio/one bedroom sub-standard dwelling is €1,000 a month? As Martin Doyle wrote in the Irish Times on the 7 Oct, the median income of professional authors is €12,000, but the typical median income of all writers is less than €4,000. So boohoo, some people say, grow up, get a ‘proper job’, or marry a rich man (yes, I’ve heard that one a few times!) or move out of Dublin, or share with a bunch of twenty-somethings. I love my hometown and happen to believe that the arts are an important, integral part of any society. Also, having spent over a decade in London, I don’t want to uproot again and be in a place where I know no one. Dublin has a rich tradition of producing writers, actors, theatre-makers. We pride ourselves on our culture, yet some prominent arts practitioners that I know live on less than the minimum wage.
I wish I knew the answer to this conundrum, but I know for sure that if I weren’t running around stressing and doing all my other jobs, which still don’t bring in enough for me to create a stable home I’d have much more time to spend on creating new work.
Tell us about your first novel, the genesis of the idea, how you decided to go about it?
When I was acting in Fair City, I was approached by a representative for The Body Shop to read some monologues written by girls who had been trafficked into this country. This was part of a campaign run in conjunction with the Immigrant Council of Ireland to stop the trafficking of children. I had no idea of the extent of the industry; how so many of these girls were so young and were being visited by men from all sectors of society, some of whom had daughters at home. I found the experience of reading the statements traumatic and wondered how their young bodies and minds could survive and assimilate this abuse. Or could they?
The testimonies I read aloud were true stories of girls who were now in safety, but I could feel their splintered psyches even in the simple language they used to relate the facts of their captivity. I really didn’t want to think any more on it, but I was haunted by their stories and couldn’t push these girls out of my mind. I tried. I wrote a series of unrelated short stories, but something was gestating and Iliterally felt compelled to write it. Some kind of a testament to these girls, to try to give ‘voice’ in some way. There was always the worry for me of ‘trespassing’ on other people’s misery, and not writing about something I’ve had no first-hand experience of, but once I became convinced that my motivation was coming from a pure place, I gave myself permission to write Harvesting. The novel has subsequently been read and approved of by a number of NGO’s who believe that the immersive accounts of two girls trapped in this world may raise awareness in a way that no amount of journalistic reports could.
You are currently the IWC Writer in residence with Pavee Point, what does this involve, what have you learnt so far?
My group is very varied in age and writing ability, so the sessions are mainly being mediated through discussion and aural storytelling. We are exploring the concepts of identity and purpose through the prism of inter-generational change. Some of the older women in the group are in their seventies and have lived through the enforced settlement and assimilation program of the 1960s. Others in the group are in their twenties and were born in houses and have never experienced life on the road. High levels of unemployment and suicide, are, the older generation believe, a direct result of loss of identity and purpose that the traditional traveller embodied in their roles as tinsmith, palmist, storyteller, voyager. They also cite a loss of connection with nature as instrumental in a growing depression. We are in the process of documenting these changes for each individual in the group. I want to record a series of podcasts addressing these issues, with personal resonances.
Your career before now was mainly acting, do you find that this has helped with ‘voice’ and ‘character’ in your fiction?
It’s definitely my strength in writing fiction, but also one of my limitations. I wrote a series of plays before attempting prose, and tend to approach all my fiction with that same dramatic intent. I always write in ‘voice’, even in a third person narrative, which is instinctive, but also highlights (for me) my lack of ability to write a long-lens third person, past tense narrative. I find the traditional form of the novel highly intimidating and have long put off attempting one, but now I just let what happens happen. It’s all story-telling at the end of the day, even if much more clever writers than me attest otherwise! I respond to character-driven work, where things happen on the page. I love beautiful prose too, but never at the expense of the truth of the psychology of the character or the sensibility of the world.
You write both short stories and novels. How do you manage the switch between genres?
I think everything I write is mediated through a dramatic lens, so my first short stories were really long monologues and mini-plays. Likewise my attempts at novels. I love short stories and find the process of writing them really freeing, especially with writers as diverse as Amy Hempel, George Saunders and Lydia Davis out there creating fresh forms. I enjoy writing scenes, where some conflict occurs, some tension in the central character is laid bare. Sometimes I write a series of disconnected scenes with the same characters and then lay them out on the floor like a patchwork quilt. My approach really is that lacking in technique! If the scenes about the same character keep coming then it’s more likely going to be bigger than a short story. I’m beginning to trust and luxuriate in the immersive process of living with characters for a longer period of time and fully inhabiting their psyches. I tend to step inside their skins, in much the same way I used to approach my acting roles. I don’t think I’m any good at ‘genre’ though. I just write in the way that comes naturally to me.
Do you have a writing routine?
My days are too varied, too caught up with making rent to allow a same-time-every-day approach. However, and I’ve only recently implemented this, I do try to write every day, at whatever time that particular day allows. As I’m in the process of first-drafting my second novel, I’m attempting to adapt the Stephen King approach of pushing out a set number of words a day. If I didn’t do this with the longer form, I’d lose momentum and energy. I’m also about to start into the editorial process with New Island on Harvesting and will happily carve out the time and space to do this.
You and I are both involved in Brooks Writer’s Group that meets fortnightly on a Monday afternoon. Have you found being part of a writer’s group useful? What are the pros/cons?
I have mixed feelings about writing groups as I believe sometimes remarks that come about because of another person’s need to sound knowledgeable or intelligent can be damaging, particularly at the beginning stages of a process. It’s important to be able to listen to other people’s opinions and yet not lose your instinctive flavour. I have attended groups where the tutor tried to corral writers into writing how they themselves would write. This is bad practice, and not one I would actively seek out. I have also participated in groups where the opposite was happening: where the individuality of each participant’s voice was nurtured. I believe that we are, in the main, highly critical of our own work anyway and don’t need further slamming, or excuses not to do it.
The pros of belonging to our particular group far outweigh any negatives for me, as we have a good deal of trust in each other’s motivations when critiquing. Everybody’s work is of a standard that means we can only get better by listening to each other. Also, as writing is a lonely undertaking, it’s great to be part of a group of like-minded passionate people. May I also say that I’m delighted to be debut-ing alongside yourself, my fellow Brooks Writer’s Group member, with New Island in 2017!
What keeps you awake at night?
Financial worries (and its attendant shame), family concerns, cruelty to animals, exploitation of vulnerable people… I could go on, but these are to the fore at the moment.
What [further] resources would you like to see for writers aside from workshops, retreats, etc?
In an ideal world I’d magic up more funding opportunities, particularly for writers who really are stressed financially. At the moment none of our funding bodies take the financial situation of the applicant into consideration. Perhaps some sort of a means-tested application would be helpful, alongside a foregrounding of the quality of the work of the applicant? Obviously, I wish publishing houses in Ireland were properly supported and resourced too.
Give me a few examples of fiction that really blew you away/had an emotional impact?
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, The Narrow Road to the Deep Northby Richard Flanagan, Eyrie by Tim Winton, Cloudstreet by Tim Winton. At the moment I’m in a manic novel-reading phase hoping to unlock the secret code! I’m currently obsessed by Tim Winton: his storytelling voice, the beauty, brutality, grace, muscularity, humour, idiosyncrasies of his prose, his flair for writing exciting storylines, for creating colourful characters. He makes me want to read on and then read back again. Gorgeous stylist and masterful storyteller. Maybe some of it will leak through by osmosis. Sigh.
Lisa Harding graduated from the M Phil in Creative Writing, Trinity College Dublin. Three plays: Starving, And All Because, and Playground were performed at Theatre503, Battersea Arts Centre, and the Project Theatre Dublin respectively. Doghouse was work-shopped at The National Theatre Studio. She was awarded an Irish Arts Council Bursary and a Peggy Ramsay Grant for Playwriting. Short stories have been published in The Dublin Review, The Bath Short Story Award Collection 2014, and online on the Irish Writer’s Centre website. Her story ‘Counting Down’ was a winner in the inaugural Doolin Writer’s Weekend Competition. Other work has been short-listed for the Bath, Fish, Listowel, Cúirt, Over the Edge, and Penguin Ireland/RTE Guide short story awards. She has just completed her first novel.
This year, the Irish literary scene has seen a nimble rise of female-crafted fiction. Women are rejecting tradition and giving much-needed voice to untold stories.
In 2010 I returned from Belfast to Dublin at the height of a miserable recession and it seemed everyone I knew was retreating back into the garret to write. The cocktails and carousing were finito. Friends who had thrived in high gloss work environments (architects, project managers, journalists, big wigs in PR, etc.) were sidling up to social welfare windows like dehydrated cats. Next came the volunteer slots and ‘internships’ to stay sane. The men I knew had more of a problem dealing with ego-collapse. They got awful angry awful quick. No-one knew what to do.
Themes began to emerge both in the writing workshops I sat in on as an employee of the Irish Writers’ Centre. Men were writing about disaffection, not being taken seriously, Camuesque displacement, lack of sex, intimacy or belonging. The writing was good, sometimes great, but it was startlingly similar. Women who had, during the Tiger years, concentrated on romantic relationships and the pearls of materialism, diluted neurosis, etc., were turning to more serious issues: violence, misogyny, rape culture, crime, retribution. Chick-lit fell off the carnival float and was replaced with edgy young adult (YA) and high-end literary fiction.
Sarah Griff began writing around this time. Her novel Spare & Found Parts is published next year with Greenwillow (Harper Collins); a story about a girl who builds herself a robotic companion. It takes the creation myth out of Victor Frankenstein’s hands and puts it back in the hands of a teenage girl.
“Women who are writing for Young Adults are, in some ways, writing the work they wish they had access to when they were growing up,” she says. “They’re composing their own cautionary tales, assembling tool kits for the ongoing madness of being an adult woman. I think these novels are equipping the next generation with more than we had – like a new mythology, a different compass for the road ahead.”
Justine Delaney Wilson whose novel An Ordinary Face is published next Spring by Hachette Ireland says that women are writing about what it means to live and cope in a fractured modernity, especially since recession. “The truth of human relationships, loss of self, coping with emotional turbulence – certainly these themes are prevalent now,” she says. “I wanted to write a tale about a family, about what’s left when the structures we’re used to collapse.”
New writers are emerging focussing on the darker themes of women’s experience.
“I chose to write a novel about two young prostitutes and their experiences could only happen to, and be felt by, a female body as a receptacle of the male gaze and desire,” explains Lisa Harding, whose novel is currently being sent to agents and publishers.
“The book came about because I was involved in a campaign run by the Body Shop and the Children’s rights alliance to stop sex trafficking of children. I heard firsthand accounts of the girls’ stories I wanted to give a voice to these invisible women and to try to inhabit their skin as closely as possible.”
Selina Guinness who is writer in residence at DLR Lexicon for 2015/16 maintains that Ireland has always had a tradition of strong women writers of literary fiction: Elizabeth Bowen, Kate O’Brien, Edna O’Brien, Jennifer Johnston, Deirdre Madden, and that list is expanding and warping all the time. “I think society’s loss of faith in the authority of institutions generally, many of which were strongly patriarchal – banking as well as the church – means we now invest more hope in the informal communities which women have always sustained. And women tend to be supportive of other women writing,” she says.
There are some signs that contemporary fiction by Irish women may be consciously moving beyond female narrators, according to Guinness.
“Sara Baume’s choice of a lonely old curmudgeon as the narrator for her debut, Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither, is brave for a young woman; Anne Enright is a straight woman who inhabits the voice of a young gay Irishman with effortless conviction in The Green Road; Belinda McKeon focuses on male gay sexuality again in Tender.”
Belinda McKeon says: “My first novel is a novel I’m still proud of, but it wasn’t until a year or so after I’d published it that I realised how firmly and obediently it sat with and with respect to a male literary tradition. That wasn’t a conscious decision. Pushing myself in a different direction, with a female protagonist and a female consciousness fully and unapologetically on the page, was a conscious decision and one about which I felt nervous.
“Social media, the support network, the sense of people talking about the process and the accompanying anxiety and challenges of trying to be a writer, has made a huge difference to me, and I think to other writers who are women as well. When I started out, I felt like a woman in one of those old-fashioned Gentlemen’s clubs on St Stephen’s Green. Now it feels more like a decent party in someone’s house. A house with a view.”
**This article of mine was published in The Gloss Magazine, 1st October, 2015.
This story of how a widow deals with her grief is taken from The Long Gaze Back, An Anthology of Irish Women Writers edited by Sinéad Gleeson
She felt that she should do something to mark her husband’s passing – a personal project, some self-improvement – so she learned to drive. It was harder than she imagined. Her husband had made it look easy. He drove while consulting the map or groping under his seat for the Al Green CD he loved, one hand stroking the wheel, open-palmed. She drove with her hands clamped firmly at ten and two.
She got lessons from a boy forty years her junior from the local town. He always stared straight ahead, avoiding her eye, even when she pressed a fifty euro note into his hand at the end of every lesson. She knew it wasn’t personal; it was just her husband’s death, lingering like an awkward joke at a party. Nobody knew what to say to her.
The interior of the car looked different from the driver’s side. The seat was moulded to the contours of her husband’s body. There were remnants of him everywhere; the door pocket stuffed with music and chocolate bar wrappers; tangy traces of tobacco from his rolled cigarettes. She couldn’t bear to vacuum them away.
She practised every day; she had time, in her widowhood. Driving even infected her sleep: she dreamt of hill-starts, of endless three-point turns, of cars driving towards her in the wrong lane. She awoke with handbrake precision. When the time came she sailed through her test, and drove home feeling reckless and free.
In the last few weeks of her husband’s short illness, he told her not to be lonely. Go out, he said. Meet new people. Have a life. That’s what he would’ve done had she been the first to die. But then it was different for him. He was on parish committees and hurling backroom teams; he could hop onto a high stool at Kennedy’s and talk to whoever was beside him. The pure ease of him.
She loved him, but by no means had he been a perfect husband. There’d always been indiscretions – even a love child, about ten years into their marriage. The other woman had been local; though she didn’t know who it was, she fretted that it was someone she knew, someone she liked. When she went into town, she sometimes scrutinised the faces of twentysomethings, looking for the shadow of her husband.
She tried to honour his deathbed request. She developed a routine: every Saturday evening, she readied herself, got into the car and left. It took her two hours to reach the coast, driving in any direction. She would make for a city or a big market town. She’d wear every piece of jewellery she owned, a long dress, a shawl. She would go into a hotel bar, order a Jameson on the rocks, and wait. It was never long before a man approached, looking for company, asking if she was OK for a drink. She usually let them buy her one.
She knew she was a point of fascination. She drank steadily but was careful to never appear drunk. Men who were young enough to be her sons approached her, asking what was she doing out on her own, at her age. Their eyes skimmed over the curves of her body, the clinging swirls of fabric, her neat cap of downy grey hair. Some of them told her she reminded them of their mothers.
The men would drink themselves to the point where they had the courage to reach out and touch her face. Her skin was creased, but still soft. Sometimes she pulled back in a kind, maternal way, and they would splutter and apologise and blame the drink. Other times, she went home with them.
She thought she saw her husband, sometimes. A man coming towards her on the street, smoking a cigarette, would turn out to be a woman eating an apple. She stared at strangers who shared a trait with him: a beard, a dark coat. She began to harbour a belief in ghosts.
She willed him to reincarnate. She was alert for the way a crow might turn its head, or a cat yawn with its whole body, the way he used to. She looked into young mothers’ buggies and expected to see his knowing eyes smirking back at her. She was the one who hadn’t wanted children, and now she cursed herself for it, for failing to hold on to even a piece of him.
Tonight’s candidate watched her from across the room for two hours before summoning the courage to approach. He was in an armchair, hunched over a low coffee table, pretending to do the crossword. She bided her time.
He was a bulky man, but so was her husband. They bore it differently, though. Her husband’s heft was like a bulwark against the world; he seemed insulated inside it. This man wore his weight apologetically, like a ratty old coat. She felt a pang of pity; she allowed him in.
Later, at his apartment, all shyness melted away. When he bent her over the couch, the blood rushed to her head. She had the phantom sensation of hair tumbling, tugging at her scalp; the long hair of her youth. It was different from sex with her husband – there was no way she could pretend it was him. But she still enjoyed it.
Grief was like a creature from folklore, sitting on her chest while she slept. Her excursions began to leak into midweek. She tried to pick a quiet time when there wouldn’t be much traffic, when her only company would be the wildlife: the slink of small animals on the narrow country roads, or a flock of dark birds in the evening sky, like fragments blown from a fire.
She would enter the city in the murky dusk, the street lights just beginning to spark up, reminding her of the glow of her husband’s cigarettes as he smoked out the kitchen window before bed. It hadn’t even been the cigarettes that killed him, in the end – it had been some other, stealthy mutation. It could have happened to anyone.
Her lovers would ask her to stay till morning, offering to cook her breakfast, expressing concern about the long drive.I don’t mind, she’d reply. I like long drives. I can listen to music. Actually she did mind, travelling in the dark from Cork, from Galway, from Kilkenny, from Limerick. She minded being trapped in the dark capsule of her car, hurtling into blackness. She couldn’t see her hands on the wheel; the night seemed to invade the car. Her eyes were tricked by tail lights and she’d hallucinate hitchhikers, heavy machinery, trees blown into the road.
After every journey she’d arrive home, climb into their old shared bed, and whisper into the pillow what she’d done, and who she’d done it with. I’m meeting new people, she’d say. I’m living my life.
Six months into widowhood, she made the mistake of becoming attached. He was a tall, stringy Corkman, a businessman who told her he had no time for relationships. He said he found it hard to talk to women – except for her.
He talked about everything: how he really wanted to be a doctor but didn’t get the points; his mother’s early death; his disabled younger brother whom he worried about constantly. In return, she told him about the hotel bars, the men. How she’d been a virgin when she married. How she’d become convinced that her teeth were about to fall out; they tingled as if preparing to wrench themselves from their roots. She tongued them when she drove, daring them to make a crone out of her.
When they went back to his place, he only ever wanted to lie down, hold each other and talk. Sex was something he paid for, she gathered. She was irritated by the way he compartmentalised his life, but then, wasn’t she doing the same thing? Still, she liked him for his staccato accent, and because he reminded her of her husband – his directness, his sardonic humour.
Though she rarely saw the same man twice, this one became a habit. She would drive down midweek, or whenever he could meet. She would feel her pulse quicken as she drove through the tunnel at the outskirts of his city, with its puzzlingly inverted instructions painted on the tarmac, commanding her to LANE IN STAY.
When they were apart, she would text him from under the covers, curled up, the smartphone glow flooding her tired eyes, and thought of reading by flashlight as a child, her mother scolding her: You’ll ruin your eyesight.
He asked her to stay the night once, and for him, she broke the rules. He made her breakfast with charming nerves, checking that she had enough juice and coffee, forgetting where the spatula lived. It was a pleasure to watch him move about the kitchen, quiet and smiling, like a tall sturdy geisha. Her husband used to make her breakfast too, but with a flourish, as if conjuring French toast from the midmorning ether. This man, by contrast, made humble scrambled eggs, pouring in entirely too much salt. But she ate them with gusto, savouring the shrivelling saltiness on her tongue and lips like a kiss.
Something changed between them that morning, and they found themselves undressing again and going back to bed. The sex was warm and straightforward, like him. Afterwards, he cried in her arms and told her he’d never felt such intimacy in his life. She rocked him, dismay seeping through her. She’d thought he understood that this wasn’t about him. But he was coming undone in her arms, and she knew there was no way of explaining. She left as normal, giving him a kiss at the door, and drove home. In the tunnel, she weaved around the other cars, ignoring the directive to LANE IN STAY. As she was passing over the Blackwater, she pitched her phone into the river. She didn’t trust herself not to text him again.
She fell back into her old routine – Saturday nights only, different towns and cities, different men. She drove home from Kilkenny one night, slightly drunk, knowing she was tempting fate, that she’d be put off the road if she was caught. She wouldn’t know what to do with herself then, sitting at home, trying to distract herself with bad television, or the death notices on the radio, or by staring into the fire until her vision blurred. The things widows were supposed to do.
There was someone thumbing on the outskirts of the city, on the road that pointed home. He stood in the faint wash of a streetlight. She slowed down and squinted to make sure he was really there; most of the hitchhikers she saw turned out to be trees, or wheelie bins. But this one was real. When she saw who it was, she almost laughed – it was the boy who’d taught her to drive, whose name eluded her. He looked tired, unsteady on his feet. She stopped the car, skimmed her mind for his name. It was a new-fangled name – Darcy or Bradley or Cassidy – more a surname than anything.
Davin, she called, easing down her window. He looked shocked that someone had stopped for him, even more shocked that it was her. He ducked his head and peered in the window, and her heart quickened, keeping pace with the tick of the indicator.
She’d only ever really seen Davin in profile before, sitting sullenly beside her during driving lessons, deliberately not looking at her. But his eyes, the cast of his brow – they were achingly familiar.
I’ll take you home, she said. He got into the car.
He made small talk, though in her jolted state she’d have been fine with his usual silence. He’d been at a college friend’s birthday party, he explained. But there’d been a fight. Something stupid and drunken – he could see that now – but he’d stormed off, and it would just be hassle to go back. He’d been planning to walk home if necessary – all the way back to their sinkhole town in the midlands. It would have taken all night. She smiled at this. Aren’t you lucky I came along?
She looked at him; no longer the boy from the driving lessons, but a revelation. His arms looked coiled with strength. His jawline, dark with stubble, revealed no acne. He couldn’t see her watching him in the dark.
You’re a good driver, he said, but you’ve been drinking. He must have smelled it on her.
When they were nearing home, he turned to her and looked at her in a way he never had through all those lessons. He said he was sorry for his gruffness before; that he hadn’t known what to say to her. I don’t know if you know this, he said, but your husband – he was really good to me.
The turn for their town was coming up. The night sky spattered onto her windscreen; she flashed the wipers.
He was friends with my mother, he went on, and I suppose he was always kind of like an uncle to me.
They stopped at a set of lights. There was no other traffic this time of night. He seemed unaccustomed to talking about emotional matters and he stalled, puttering out of words like a broken engine. She put her hand on his knee, the way she used to with her husband when he drove.
Do you want me to take you home? she asked.
He didn’t object when she pulled up to her house, not his, and unlocked the front door. He followed her mutely. Inside he was nervous, asking for a cup of coffee – if it’s not too much trouble; it might sober me up.
When she came back from the kitchen, steaming cup in hand, he had taken off his jacket. He was crouching beside her husband’s CD storage tower, running his fingers over their spines. Her eyes lingered on the hollow between his shoulders, a space that would fit the flat of her hand exactly. He stood, holding up a CD. Sly and the Family Stone, he said. I love this record.
She took it from him in exchange for the coffee. His shy smile as their fingers touched nearly undid her. Davin, she thought – the one she’d brought home. She wondered if her husband had named him. She shrugged off her own coat, inserted the CD in the stereo, and pressed play.
Eimear Ryan’s stories have appeared in The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, Town & Country (Faber) and Young Irelanders (New Island). She is co-editor of the literary journal Banshee. From Co Tipperary, she now lives in Cork
**This story was published in The Irish Times today. Eimear Ryan’s stories have appeared in The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, Town & Country (Faber) and Young Irelanders (New Island). She is co-editor of the literary journal Banshee. From Co Tipperary, she now lives in Cork The Long Gaze Back – An Anthology of Irish Women Writers is published by New Island, €19.99
An orgasm in a caravan with a convector heater on full blast and a thousand rounds of toast popping. Nothing can adequately describe the frenzied claustrophobia in Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept. When I read it at age 22 in a damp smelly bedsit in north London in the clinch of obsessive love for a co-worker who’d chosen a brilliantly achieved woman over me, I understood the heart-stopping power of literature for the first time. This little book grabbed me by the hair and dragged.
She had been there in the 1930s, Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart, and was able to explain it to me six decades later. Swallowing the earth with a married man, putting the whole untidy world into a nest, declaring that ‘love is strong as death’, especially the vetoed kind. I was flailing around with delusion in Wood Green, a harpy of relentlessness, addicted to hummus kebabs, drinking too much, longing for life with this man I’d met in a pet insurance company, screaming at him in red phone boxes, being mental. It was all a bit ugly and engrossing as often young love is.
The stifling descriptions of how Smart felt for poet-floozy George Barker after enticing him and his young wife to America – the length and latitude she was prepared to go to in pursuit of carnal hunger (she’d planned seven kids with him, though reality & economics restricted her to four) – her long-lived love story and how she wrote it became a strange anchor for me. I was relieved by its lunacy. In some ways it helped me move on. I entombed my man in London, moved back to Ireland, grew up a bit and learnt how to behave. Though the book, like sea lichen, left its tidemark.
I re-read it again recently and wanted to puke! A nauseating and brilliant ecology of desire and mental oblation. The reader is a peeper, an ogler, a watcher, through something mad, thrilling and rare. We witness Smart baiting her lover while sacrificing his martyr wife, the steamy affair that ensues across America, Canada and England, the ‘real’ trouble they get into because of the social mores of the time, the disgust her family experienced (Parent’s imaginations build frameworks out of their own hopes and regrets into which children seldom grow, but instead, contrary as trees, lean sideways out of the architecture, blown by a fatal wind they never envisaged) and her own mercenary journey through marvellous filthy love, horrible loneliness and eventual abandonment by a man who went on to have 15 kids with a bunch of women, while never managing to nab a full-time job. By today’s standards, he really was a Casanova shithead.
While the language and depth of feeling is still affectingly brilliant, it reads a little indulgent for our time. Nature, birds, prophecy, insects, shame, cheap hotels, Macbethian blood, betrayal, weather systems, crazed sex, all the things that suffocated her senses would peter out in a string of maniacal text messages today. Smart seems not very smart in truth, a posh girl hell bent on self annihilation and pissing off her parents, but her ability to sculpture language into terrifying and wonderful reflections marks her out as a unique and brilliant writer whose ‘whoring after oblivion’ with claws of biology and pity and hysterical hypnotism will leave you reeling in the trees. There should be a penance of a lot of pints after finishing this book. My dear, my darling, do you hear me where you sleep?
*This piece by moi will be part of Colm Keegan’s We Are What We Read exhibition, taking place at the dlr LexIcon, Dún Laoghaire, from 28th August – 31st October 2015, featuring a range of writers talking about books that had an impact on them.
A quick advertisement now, but I’ll be reading at the dlr LexIcon, The Studio, Dún Laoghaire, 8-9.30pm with Colm Keegan & friends – Karl Parkinson, Stephen James Smith, June Caldwell (that’s me, yeah?) – musician Enda Reilly and singer Sinéad White. The reading includes both an extract from the infamous Barrytown Trilogy (The Commitments (1987), The Snapper (1990), The Van (1991)) by Roddy Doyle as well as fiction of my own.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the One City One Book initiative, showcasing some of the great literary works which have become synonymous with the city throughout its history. It’s 28 years since The Commitments was published, the first instalment of the Barrytown trilogy which had us all in stitches and set a new precedence for realistic Irish fiction (read as you hear it). The ordinary going-ons of a bunch of working class hedonistic musicians based on the north side of Dublin marked the end in literature of a youth supposedly choked by the church and abandoned in a hopeless and endless recession/suppression. In the same way that James Joyce put the cuffs on a ‘modernist’ take on Irish culture, Roddy Doyle’s savage hilarity of 1980’s suburban life gave people permission to be themselves regardless of where they came from and what they wanted to do in life. Unlike Joyce, this fiction was as accessible as it was memorable. The ‘success’ of the book’s band was irrelevant as one of the protagonists in the novel would later claim, ‘Sure we could have been famous and made albums and stuff, but that would have been predictable. This way it’s poetry.’
Do you not get it, lads? The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once, say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud.
In a recent Irish Times article Doyle maintains little has changed for the residents of Ireland’s capital despite the events of intervening years. ‘People still get pregnant I think, don’t they? People are still unemployed, young kids still form bands, they still talk in much the same way they used to. The city has changed but it’s still the same place. The books came out of a recession. We didn’t use that word back then, it seemed like normal life in Dublin. The difference with this recession was that we had seen what life could be like so it came as an almighty shock. I think it took a while for the city and country to catch up with its sense of humour, there wasn’t much laughter in the first couple of years. Hard times seem to give birth to good humour’.
The Commitments was voted best Irish film of all time in a 2005 poll sponsored by Jameson Irish Whiskey and launched a generation of Irish musicians and actors. It also won a BAFTA for Best Film. A follow-on The Snapper (my own personal favourite) revolved around unmarried Sharon Rabbitte’s (surname ‘Curley’ in the film) pregnancy, and the unexpected effects this has on her conservative family (Jaysus, me fanny!). Again it was made into a 1993 movie, this time for TV, directed by Stephen Frears and starring Tina Kellegher, Colm Meaney and Brendan Gleeson. The third in the series, The Van, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1991. Jimmy Rabbitte Senior (Sharon’s dad) is unemployed, spending his days alone and miserable. When his best friend, Bimbo, also gets laid off, they keep by being miserable together. Things seem to look up when they buy a decrepit fish-and-chip van and go into business, selling cheap grub to the drunk and the hungry–and keeping one step ahead of the environmental health officers.
Doyle went on to win The Booker Prize with Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha in 1993 and has since published a glut of adult novels, novels for children, plays, screenplays, novellas, short stories and works of non-fiction. In 2013 he won the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards (Novel of the Year) for The Guts.
There are over 60 events organised by Dublin City Council for the month of April to celebrate. I am delighted to be taking part in one of them.
I’m ethically pinching the text of an article (below) from The Irish Times as it mentions The Long Gaze Back, an anthology of Irish women’s fiction I’ll be published in next year, edited by the lovely Sinéad Gleeson and published by New Island in autumn 2015. I look forward to sharing sacred print space with some fantastic writers (living and dead) such as Éilis Ní Dhuibhne, Anne Enright, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Mary Lavin, Eimear McBride, Belinda McKeon, Mary Costello, Lia Mills, Lucy Caldwell, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Maria Edgeworth and Elizabeth Bowen. In January I’m on a much-needed writing break to Salthill for a few days, in March I’ll be attending the Doolin Writers’ Weekend (invited back as a *guest* in return for helping with the first two years’ programming). I’ve been short-listed by Over The Edge to read at Cúirt International Festival of Literature 2015 (but will have to wait to see if I make the grade!). In May I’ll be in situ in the Loire Valley in France working on the novel at Cirlce of Misse – which is my reward from the 2014 Moth Short Story Prize – and on April 23rd I’ll be taking part in the Barrytown Sounds with Colm Keegan, dlr Writer in Residence and Friends at the The Studio, Dún Laoghaire, so already, even before the Auld Lang Syne sets in…an exciting and productive New Year. The very best of luck to all my writer friends spilling their dauntlessness as they do. Make 2015 a year that counts.
Next year brings plenty of emerging talent to the bookshelves, both in Ireland and internationally.
Four brothers deal with a madman’s prophecy of violence in 1990s Nigeria in Chigozie Obioma’s The Fisherman (One, February). In Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James (Fig Tree, January) Etta, an octogenarian, goes on a 3,000km journey to see the Canadian sea. Sara Taylor’s The Shore (William Heinemann, March) maps out the secrets of generations of women living off the coast of Chesapeake Bay, in Virginia. Sara Novic’s Girl at War (Little, Brown, May) explores the devastation wreaked by the Serbo-Croatian conflict. More Saras as we move to Ireland, with the Davy Byrnes 2014 winner, Sara Baume, one to watch for her poetically titled Spill Simmer Falter Wither (Tramp Press, February), which tells of an unlikely friendship between two outcasts in rural Ireland.Weightless (Bloomsbury, March), by Sara Bannan, focuses on cyberbullying with the arrival of a new girl at an Alabama high school. A murder in Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies (John Murray, April) affects the lives of five misfits in postcrash Ireland. From Ireland to Illinois, Paula McGrath’s short novel Generations (John Murray, July) delivers interlinked stories of multiple characters as they seek to rebuild their lives after loss. Set in Victorian England’s theatre district, The Curtain Falls (Ward River, March), by Carole Gurnett, details the secret life of a gay writer. Henrietta McKervey’s What Becomes of Us (Hachette Ireland, April) looks at the role of Cumann na mBan in the 1916 Rising from the perspective of a journalist in 1960s Ireland. Debut authors are also well represented in the short-story form, with Andrew Fox’s Over Our Heads (Penguin, April) and Thomas Morris’s We Don’t Know What We’re Doing (Faber, August). The Stinging Fly continues its tradition of publishing new talent with Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond (April) and Danielle McLaughlin’s highly anticipated collection due later in the year. Short Fiction Ireland’s love affair with the short story continues to grow, with a host of new anthologies and collections on the way. The Hennessy Book of Irish Fiction 2005-2015, edited by Dermot Bolger and Ciarán Carty (New Island, March) is the third anthology in the series chronicling an emerging literary generation.
The Irish Times contributor Sinéad Gleeson is at the helm of a collection of Irish female writers, among them Éilis Ní Dhuibhne, Anne Enright, Christine Dwyer Hickey and Nuala Ní Chonchúir. New Island also releases the seventh instalment in its Open Door series, featuring novellas by Roddy Doyle, Catherine Dunne, Colette Caddell, Ciara Geraghty and Claudia Carroll. As Gaeilge, Micheál Ó Conghaile makes a welcome return with Diabhlaíocht Dé (Cló Iar-Chonnacht, May), his first collection in 12 years. A combination of traditional prose, poetry, monologue and music, Alf Maclochlainn’s Past Habitual (Dalkey Archive Press, March) depicts an Ireland struggling with the effects of war. Edited by Deirdre Madden, All Over Ireland (Faber, May) is a mix of emerging and established Irish writers, including Colm Tóibín, Eoin McNamee and Mary Costello. Under the Rose (Faber, June) is a new collection of previously published stories by Julia O’Faolain, with an afterword from the author looking back on her work. In keeping with the themes of his novels, the human cost of loneliness and displacement is at the centre of Donal Ryan’s first collection of short stories, A Slanting of the Sun (Doubleday Ireland, September). Collections from international authors to watch out for include Honeydew (John Murray, January), by the American writer Edith Pearlman, and the Impac winner Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The All Saints’ Day Lovers.
He lived in an ancient place. His house of three rooms sat to the side of a fort. Stone walls ran through the fields.
His back yard was a field of whins and grey gravel. Beyond it was the railway line where a few trains a day ran over and back between Sligo and Connolly Station in Dublin.
He was always at the back door to watch them go by as he learned his lines. After the first train in the morning he made the porridge. After the second he ate the pancakes. The midday train meant a shot of Bourbon. The one heading the other way in the late afternoon meant climbing on the bike, and heading for Henderson’s pub where the carpenters, plumbers and house painters gathered and met up with local farmers.
They talked of nothing but money, local deaths and shouted out laughter in a nearly insane manner.
He grew to hate that laugh.
It was not humour.
He could not enter the banter. He grew to hate that talk of hard times as more drinks were ordered. His face grew grim. They thought he thought he was above them. Sometimes his face would suddenly appear in an ad on the TV, and there’d be a momentary silence as they grinned and looked at him, and then at each other, and shook their heads before they re-entered the aggression of the recession while he checked the time.
Good luck men, I have to go, he said downing his glass of gin.
Goodbye Mister O’Hehir, nodded the barman.
Good luck Joe, called the plumber.
I would not like to be here after I’m gone, he thought as he stepped out the door.
Joe O’Hehir hopped on his bike and rode to The Coach Inn which was surrounded by cars. He sipped his Sauvignon Blanc and ordered goujons of cod with chips, and then sat by himself for two to three hours watching the old folk collect for meals alongside groups of young folk. Old professors, architects and electricians, sat alongside ancient nurses, doctors and secretaries. A nun and priest led a funeral party all in black to a table. In the background Frank Sinatra was singing, then along came Dean Martin as soup bubbled in spoons and prawns slipped through leaves of rocket. Joe read his books on Ghosts and Mysteries, then headed back to his script and began mouthing the lines to himself.
For weeks he’d disappear, take the train to Dublin and enter rehearsals, and eventually take his place on stage. He always stayed in the same B&B, a place filled with tourists and backpackers and computer screens. Amidst the entire furore his silence grew.
He’d stand under the bridge down the street to hear the train pass over his head. He reread old scripts in Mc Donald’s Café. The hallucinations grew.
Then on the opening night of the play towards the end he dried up. The others waited. He stared out at the audience. It was a sad moment in the script, and the distress the audiencre saw in his face they read as part of the character’s inner self as he approached the bad news.
Off stage a cue was whispered.
It looked like a tear appeared in one of his eyes.
He lay his head down, and the other actors watched their mate’s extreme trauma. In rehearsal the sadness lasted only a minute. Now it had reached three minutes of silence. Then suddenly he threw up his head and out of his mouth came all the mad laughs from Henderson’s, the laugh at what was not a joke, out came scattered lines with always the Ha-Ha, Jesus there’s not a penny to be had, Ha! Ha! Bastards, give me a half one, Ha! Ha!; he bobbed to and fro tossing imaginary glasses into his mouth, read imaginary papers for a second, Look at what’s going on down there he said prodding the non-existent article, Ha! Ha! They know nothing, nothing, do you hear me, nothing! Win a stroll in Christ! and he roared laughing as the curtain came slowly down and the lights went off, ten minutes before they should have.
I have inherited the gene, he said to himself as he ran down to his room, undressed and prepared to go.
Joe, stay there please, shouted the director. We need to talk. Badly.
Joe eyed him.
What happened? he asked.
His books include Banished Misfortune (stories), The Bend for Home (memoir), Fighting with Shadows, and Long Time, No See. which was selected for the International IMPAC Literary Award by libraries in Russia and Norway.
He also wrote and directed plays including The Long Swim, On Broken Wings and Mister Staines. He won the Hennessy Award (1974 and 1976), the Tom Gallon Award (1983), and the Encore Award (1995). In 2011, he was short-listed for the Poetry Now Award for his 2010 poetry collection, A Fool’s Errand.
Born in Finea, Co Westmeath, Mr Healy spent his childhood in Cavan before moving to London and back to Ireland, to Sligo.
The totally wonderful and short story obsessed Paul McVeigh – whose blog on all manner of creative writing is the best I’ve ever read – invited me to join this blog tour, though I’m horribly late given the month that was. Paul is a short story writer, blogger of renown and curator of the London Short Story Festival at Waterstones in Piccadilly. I took part in a blog hop last year too, asked by another wonderful writer and having read what I wrote then, I haven’t moved an inch. Sick family members aside (one dead too soon, one toying with the notion, the other hoping for renewed life beyond), it’s very hard to etch mental space to write but it’s still not a legitimate excuse either. Two months ago I pulled the old musty back bedroom apart, got the walls slopped in ‘warm grey’, carved out some book space (well, IKEA billy book cases), shoved in a cheapo writer’s desk, a lovely new bed, lobbed Annie Sloan chalk paint on the woodworm wardrobes, bribed a mate for an old rocking chair and away I went. This is the year it happens, says I. God belss June and all who ride and confide in her.
1. What am I working on?
I’d love to say I’m working ‘on a collection’ of short stories, because that’s oh so in vogue. Something’s happening with Irish writers at the moment a bit like the property bubble. Nothing less than a collection and even better if it’s a disaffected theme: gouging the retina of the young male psyche, drug-addicted Georgian basement flat living, a swanky flâneur destined to skim the city sewers in a terminal loop looking for mislaid love, stories from a fucked-up suburban street (twitching curtains, lawnmowers, Shepherd’s pies), or the ageing psychopath’s screaming regrets in rural Ireland, all rolled into a tar barrel with a dead woman decomposing in a purple wedding dress. Humour and intolerance get in the way. Once I tell myself to write on a certain theme, I can’t be arsed with the mental rigidity of it. I hate being told what to do.
Last year I was stuck in rigamortis fiction, some stories published about my dead brother in literary magazines. It seemed a great way to process the shock. I thought that maybe this could be a theme if I worked on it backwards, from death to life, a bit like Jim Grace did in Being Dead (I love this book!) but off I ran on the Elipsos overnight train to Spain with my repackaged grief. I toyed with the idea of a ‘Dublin city’ book of stories but it seemed so vague and pointless, the kaleidoscope of packed place is no longer interesting or fun. Phases of life. A collection based on lovers. Places I’ve lived. People I’ve met and hated. My years as a journalist shouldn’t be wasted. I could take snippets of real stories, steal the kernel and crumple into something new. A plotless story I wrote for Literary Orphans in the USA is based on a real snippet from a journalist pal: a junkie having his ass robbed [of drugs] in Talbot Street…it never made the papers. The editor thought it was too unsavoury, so I stole it instead. Another story remnant I sent off for a competition was based on a man who lived in a tree in Broadstone in Dublin 7 for the last few years, before he was dispatched, unmourned, to the madhouse. So, real stories, with an unreal twist, maybe. Where an ex journalist sees some unholy scrap of truth and does something with it.
After that’s over, it’s back to the Domestic Blitz novel that’s more a ‘movel’ – part fiction, part memoir – a longer project that’ll take me into winter and some of next year. There’s already periphery interest in this from a potential agent in UK so I have to take my time (now that my time is back to being my own) and feel satisfied with what I write and how I write it. At the moment it’s blather fragments written in two time frames and it’s not exactly gelling. I know instinctively it will work if I get into it. It has universal appeal. My heart is in it. The story is worth telling.
I even know what I’ll write after this is done, a story I ditched about one of the missing women, told backwards from two perspectives. I tried that on the MA at Queens’ and got caught in a hamster run. Stories for when I’m distracted, novel as a means of protracted focus, a novella I promised a dead woman I’d write if it killed me on the situation that killed her. In a nutshell.
2. How does my work differ from others in the genre?
Er, dunno. Social surrealism. I write like Joyce, says one (being all tea party nice), but I don’t at all! A nice lady whose course I was on a while ago said I write like Eimear McBride; the new best thing since the electric waffle maker. Anne Enright, sort of (yeah right!). An old humper from the past (now a novelist himself in London) emailed to say I write like David Foster Wallace, though his marriage recently ended and he might be trying to get his cyber leg over. I think comparisons with other writers are silly, hard to live up to, useless. I value and look forward to difference in writers, not sameness. I don’t know who I write like but I just know I get in a zone where sometimes I don’t even fully understand the language incursion, or the voice that ‘happens’ or the tone or the story or the need to write a certain way. There’s definitely a rage there and a feeling of ‘I don’t have a reputation to lose, so I’ll write it like this anyhow’. I even know when I’m writing something that it won’t be popular, will probably make a decent editor barf and a reader unfriend me on Facebook, with any luck. I also feel it could be different because part of me never wants to write for publication, so I don’t target it that way. The freedom of an affair! What I do know is there’s a lot of good people giving me the thumbs up at the moment and it feels very odd and reassuring.
3. Why do I write what I do?
I’ve no idea. Am I supposed to say it’s cos I’m lonely? I’m not. Writing is hard. But there really is nothing else.
4. How does my writing process work?
Snippets of mind dust. A journo interview I did a decade ago still haunts me. A woman being told in the early days of training to ignore a phone box in O’Connell Street where boys were being brought to and abused. The magazine in question didn’t want the feature in the end, as it seemed a bit libellous and kooky, but I still have that info and want to write it as a fictional story. Another who sought out a journalist to expose a cult who allegedly forced her to have tantric sex and when her husband found out, he dumped her. If the group was exposed then the husband would leave her best friend he ran off with and take her back (I’m not even kidding!) The radical feminist with the tea cosy on her head who’s spent a lifetime already living off men but fails to see the structural flaw in her politics. The man who chopped off people’s fingers in the Troubles and kept them as souvenirs. A swinger who travels the length and breadth of Ireland shagging abandoned wives but cries his lamps out because his own wife won’t dish up the turkey. A child who told her teacher that mummy ‘makes fire’ on her legs. An alcoholic taxi woman raped as a child by a farmer who used butter so he wouldn’t hurt her too much. Stories we tell each other in semi-occasional moments of privacy or hilarity: ‘I can’t print this but wait ’til I tell ye…’. Stories full of holes and for the birds. Start with a sentence that makes you sick or scud. I don’t want to write about good or perfect people. I don’t see the point. At the moment I’m writing Jesus of Wexford for a competition in July. I haven’t sent anything off all year so it’s a good self-recruitment exercise. He lives in a wheelie bin and his bible is a pizza box.
At some point I always manage to disturb myself and leave whatever I’m trying to write aside…I may dump a work in progress for good or come back to it. I don’t really know why I write, but as I said in a recent Irish Times article:
This is about spilling your guts in a dignified way, but don’t be frightened if a speckle of madness rears its head, too. Let it bring you where it will; don’t look back. Be excited. This compulsion is a courtesy, not a curse. Don’t compare your writing to others’. Instead get totally obsessed with what you want to write and start chewing the cud of the storyline or idea every day. Feel the words, develop a voice, put manners on your demons, write regularly.
I’ve nominated three writers I love to answer these same questions how they see fit… look out for their blog posts! Two are in a newly-formed writer’s group (with me!) and all are friends! Oh and one I roamed the streets of Dublin with at age 13/14 during the feral mod years. They’re all stupidly talented, dedicated, quirky and wonderful. Enjoy.
Alan McMonagle has published two collections of short stories, Liar Liar and Psychotic Episodes. Earlier this year his radio play Oscar Night was produced and broadcast as part of RTE’s Drama on One season. It’s about two sweet old ladies who go to the bad when their annual ritual is interrupted by an escaped felon.
Doodle Kennelly was born in Dublin and spent her early years there. As a teenager, she moved to the United States, to Massachusetts, where she completed her secondary education. Later she returned to Ireland and attended the Gaiety School of Acting. In addition to her regular newspaper column, she has published autobiographical essays relating to the subject of female identity and body image. She has also appeared on national television. Doodle is the proud mother of three daughters; Meg, Hannah and Grace Murphy.
Lisa Harding completed an MPhil in creative writing at Trinity College Dublin in September 2013. Her short story Counting Down was a winner in the inaugural Doolin writer’s prize 2013. This summer she has been short-listed for Doolin, Cuirt, Listowel and the Bath short story awards. A story Call Me Moo is to be published in the autumn issue of The Dublin Review. Playwriting credits include Starving at Theatre503, And All Because at Battersea Arts Centre (as part of an emerging writers festival: Connect Four) and Playground at the Project Theatre Dublin. She is currently working on a new play Pedigree for which she was awarded an Arts Council bursary and a Peggy Ramsay award. As an actress she has appeared at the Gate, the Abbey, the Lyric and on RTE, among others. Her collection of sixteen short stories Crave is a work in progress, alongside an embryonic novel with the working title: Transaction.
Galway-based author Ken Bruen is an enormously prolific, and celebrated author of crime-noir fiction. His many works include the Jack Taylor series which began with the Shamus Award -winning The Guards. As the series grew, it garnered many more awards. More recently, a selection of novels from the series have been adapted for a series of TV movies (one which was screened in 2012 and two more to follow in 2013). Ken’s novel Blitz was also adapted for the screen in 2011 starring Jason Statham, Aiden Gillen and Paddy Considine. In 2010, London Boulevard was turned into a film starring Colin Farrell and Keira Nightly. Other works include Dispatching Baudelaire, The Killing of the Tinkers, The Magdalen Martyrs, The Dramatist and Priest (nominated for the 2008 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel), all part of his Jack Taylor series, which began with The Guards. Bruen is also the recipient of the first David Loeb Goodis Award (2008) for his dedication to his art. Ken will be reading at the Irish Writers’ Centre on Friday 22nd February at 1.05pm as part of the celebrated Lunchtime Readings series.
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:
Some 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.
With 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 Tango, 12:23 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.
Three months since my brother died, laid out in his naff crocs & Hawaiian shirt, coffin stuffed with kid’s presents in a flat-pack funeral shed whiffing of piss, ulcers, Airwick and necrotic tissue. Since then there’s been a number of misadventures: his mate was found dead in the Orwell river a month later, an early morning gynae plunge from a doctor in Cathal Brugha Street after bleeding for a month (stress, it turns out), low-blood pressure blackout in the Botanics, an easily forgotten triptych, frenzied attack from a phlegminist with duck eyes, drink binges with a purple cauliflower and an unpleasant encounter with an S&M coked-up oily intellectual I mistook for a friend. All of it: a dance with neutrons and protons. The kind of weird shit ghosts probably do with each other. Grief is not what I imagined it would be. Some mornings I wake up kicking like a frog.
Days when I cannot slink out of bed at all. Ceiling seals me in and I crave the very thing that’s set to ruin me. Lanky spiders dangle as doom so often does, perilously, timidly, lowering and hiring like arcade claws.
I didn’t see my brother for months on end as he lived in the UK but I always went over for New Year, booking a flight around now. This year it’ll be early-February for a fund-raiser to pay for his headstone. Everything and everyone in the ever meantime is getting on my tits. Junkies sucking jam at the ATM, flat cap aulfellas snailing on crutches smelling of tobacco and cabbage, gym bunnies, crusties who tie terriers to the trolley train outside Tesco, colleagues talking incessantly, cultural crusaders who turn up to events blah-blahing for litre dollops of free wine, nosy neighbour frog-sprawling the compost bin to scavenge for news, backpedal/backtrack/capsize, geriatrics sky-diving into scones in the cafe. Isn’t it well for them, long life!? Remembering how shit and old and thin and tumoured my bro looked, dead in his 40s, neat little blood clot at the end of his nose where they’d drained him. “Madam, would you like a glass of water before you go in?”. Will I ever forget that day, limping into the cheap shit-arse industry job-lot of death, intestinal stench, tiny lobby where the receptionist filed her nails, fan buzzing on the desk, being led through a door to a pencil-case line of collapsible booths – one open at a time – other refrigerated bodies waiting for family members to park-up. Back home in Ireland, the witch in the off-licence around the corner counting the bottles of wine & winking, headless woman struggling to goo out her own body, forgetting she no longer has eyes.
I walk out past the squiggle of purposeless shops and homeless men who nudge their heads up like broken birds from splintered eggs in the basement of the church, and on to the Tolka Bridge where an orange city fox once followed me in the first draft of morning, calling me a slut.
My head has been [and is] a tin of mushy peas. As of this week I’ve told friends to piss off till mid-2013 and have dived back into the novel. It’s about junkies squatting above an abandoned bank in D.7 who get mixed up with the Russian mafia. There’s a rake of Band-Aid fleeting characters; Beamer the old tramp with no veins. Hasslebat, his ginger eyebrows lighting up hot worms in a snow of forehead. Widearse Wendy: ‘Scuzzz me scuzzzz me scuwizzzzmeee. Do you want me to be like you? Is that it, do you want me to be like fuukin’ you?’ There’s end-of-rope junkies all over the city and everyone’s ignoring it in literature. Writers are still concentrating on haybarns, finches, the country-girl’s lightening exit to London, angry farmers and the phasing out of EU quotas, lonely men sitting on Calor Gas barrels in winter! That’s the global impression of Ireland in books. There are amazing Irish writers like Kevin Barry who are beautifully pissing about with form, with language, Mike McCormack’s dazzlingly strange short stories, Mary Costello’s quiet collection of small agonies. Few are writing about Shit City with the exception of maybe naff detective novels. I grew up in the city so I feel compelled to write about it. I was a Mod at 14, roaming the streets when the first heroin users were struck down with AIDS, that sliver of time when girls were still sent to laundries but the morning after pill was just available if you knew where to go. This novel is about Gonzo & Carol and their Jack Russell, Phib, a story of second-generation drug use, turgid love, the grisly struggle to survive. It’s grim, hairy, stupid, and it’ll be told from three different points of view. I’ve no idea if it’ll work but am determined as hell to give it a good go. Here’s a [wee taster!] on how they got together, part of the back story late in Chapter One:
The city tipped down in a duck beak towards the Garden of Remembrance, rain scattering Swarovski beads on the path as he plonked along. He thought of Carol’s fresh face at 18. Cement angels leaned chin forward from Georgian chimneys. Dogs of light barked down. ‘I’m out of me bleedin’ nugget!’ he said, out loud, pissing himself. Pains fostered out elsewhere, he felt boundless, happy. Met her roight here with a gang of inner-city boys from de flats around Dominic Street, drinking cans and dancing to U2 songs on a ghetto-blaster sometime in the middle of 1994. She’d weight on her then, chubby sweet smile, horse-tail of hair whooshing from end to end in de sunbeams. They kissed for an hour without stopping: wet balmy tongue slosh he’d never done with any other bird. Sometimes he still felt guilty, but Leather Joe said, ‘There’s no stopping some, and ye never forced her to take it.’ The counsellor from NewPaths also explained that ‘damaged people have a knack of stumbling on one another no matter what, in the way that water always seems to meet its own level.’ It made sense that first time they tried to get off it together. Both their dads were alcos and bashed them. Both their Ma’s couldn’t see anything wrong with their Da’s, and bashed them. Few weeks later, they fumbled and gorged and slopped into one another under the flat-leaf bushes in the Gardens. ‘What ye doin’ to me boy, wot ye bleedin’ doin’ to me!?’ Lads circling the railings, clutching chimps, uuumphin’ them on. ‘Slapper! Do her one!’ Afterwards they said Gonzo was a right grunter, like those fuckin’ mating seals on RTÉ. ‘It’s you and me babe, no-one else babe, you’ll do me babe.’
Writer Sean O’Reilly is hosting an erotic writing course this autumn – a bit of an experiment for the Irish Writers’ Centre – at a time when sexy stories are being sucked up by the global publishing industry. How can we write about sex in a tasteful effective way, causing a stir in the reader, while giving enough insight into the character’s psychology to make the story believable, intriguing, real..? Irish writing seems to shy away from any attempt to represent the reality and complexity of our erotic lives. Sex is a secret. Desire is merely a plot-device. The story of a character’s erotic life or the growth of a character’s erotic taste seems to have no bearing on a convincing psychological portrait of a literary character.
This 10-week course looks at the history of the genre of erotic writing, examining classic texts in both prose and poetry, and concentrating on student’s writing in this field. Using both poetry and prose, participants will learn that the ‘erotic’ is more than the description of sexual acts but the context in which they take place, about power and phantasy, and in particular, about the representation of desire itself. O’Reilly has a unique approach – forensic even – to analysing words. He is deeply interested in people who are serious about writing, and will do to your writer’s block what Polish builders did to concrete here during the boom. A story I wrote on one of Sean’s previous courses made it to the ‘Top Ten’ in the 2012 RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition and is published on the RTÉ TEN website. A second one [a Dystopian tale about Dublin junkies] is being edited for inclusion in a literary magazine and has developed into a novel-in-progress.
Below is a Q&A I did with Sean for the IWC blog on the erotic writing topic. His published work includes Curfew and Other Stories, the novels Love and Sleep, The Swing of Things and an experimental erotic novella: Watermark. [Click the book cover above to buy Sean’s book]. The Writing Desire: Flesh Made Word course runs from 25th September, on Tuesdays for ten weeks – 6.30pm to 8.30pm – and costs €280 or €260 for members. Places are limited so if you’re interested…See you there!
“Degenerates are not always criminals, prostitutes, anarchists, or outright lunatics,” the physician and journalist Max Nordau cautioned in 1893, “they are often writers and artists”…is there any truth in this statement!? In the current situation in Ireland, where the arts seem to be a branch of tourism, of green jersey consensus, yes, it’s important to remember that the artist may be an outsider, an angry voice, a twisted voice, a moral outlaw, jailed and loathed, or a voice that doesn’t give a damn.
What empowered you to want to teach a ‘writing desire’ course at the Irish Writers’ Centre…was there a literary gap that needed to be filled (no pun intended)? Not sure what ’empowered’ means. I’m interested in desire as a literary theme. As a subject. A premise. As the basic predicament for story. The question of pleasure for example. Anybody doing a deal with the devil will have erotic pleasure high on their list of demands. Or seduction. The magic of seduction. What is it to seduce, to cast a spell, to invade the fantasy life of another person? The story of a character’s desire-life is as interesting as the story of their intellectual or spiritual development. Or emotional. As morally interesting. In this course, I’d like us to look at how desire is represented in fiction, at how erotic tension is created, at descriptions of sexual fulfillment and disenchantment, at the body and its tastes but all of this with the aim of inspiring, reading and talking to inspire writing around these themes. People are there to write at the end of the day.
What is the core difference between ‘romantica’ and ‘erotica’ in fiction, given that our romantic and sexual lives are so inherently fused in real life? Are they? All I can say is good erotic writing is an investigation of the character’s world. The foundations and the Iimits of the self. Power. Society. The Law, the inner legislator. Bernard Schlink’s, The Reader, for example. Or Kundera’s hedonists in occupied Prague . Or Edna O Brien’s House of Splendid Isolation. Books exploring a culture, a time, through the story of desire. Or Angela Carter’s work; the sense we are backstage with the dramatis personae of desire, the bored divas, the villains with their false moustaches, the acrobats, the broken-hearted, all our dreams dripping with greasepaint. Or those poets interested in the physicality of the line, the tactility of the spoken.
Is there a long-strong tradition of good erotic writing that we’re not particularly aware of? There’s been writing about sex and sensuality for as long as there’s been storytelling. For as long as we’ve wondered about what the meaning of life is or been curious about other people. Long before there was even a notion of the individual self. We have some erotically charged early Irish poetry. Chinese literature has some very early examples. Boccaccio’s Decameron, published in the 1400’s, the source for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is a good starting point for the European stuff. Or you can go right back to the some of the stories in the Old Testament. What was happening in Sodom that had to be stopped? Aside from the Marquis de Sade, and his forensic encyclopedias of pleasure, and censorship, I’d say the most powerful effect on the development of erotic writing in the West has been psycho-analytic theory. I’d point to Philip Roth, and books like Sabbath’s Theatre, as an example of a modern writer using desire as the driving force of his characters.
The ‘Writing Desire: Flesh to Word’ course will be taught by both you and poet Kimberly Campanello, how will this work in practice? Will participants have to be au fait at both prose and poetry or can they simply write in one genre if they prefer? The basic idea is to use the reading of both prose and poetry to inspire writing. Participants can write in whatever form they want but shouldn’t be afraid to read across a whole range of sources. For example I would encourage anyone to read Jean Genet’s play The Balcony. The course will suit anyone who is already working on/thinking about a piece of work with desire as the main issue. Each week there’ll be a loose theme, we’ll try to identify some of the different currents in erotic writing, the celebratory approach, the big Yes, as opposed to the more conflicted erotic text. Kimberly and I will take alternate weeks, using extracts from prose and poetry for discussion before we look at participant’s own work. Like I said, people should be there to write.
What do you think of the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon? I think we’ll have to make it the starting point of the course. “This is wrong,” Anastasia says early in the first book during a romp with Mr Grey, “but holy hell is it erotic”. We’ll have a look to see if the writing actually manages to get above clichés and create any erotic tension, what makes a bad sex scene. And we’ll look at this notion of wrongness, of transgression, a common ingredient of erotic writing. But then again it’s interesting to think about reading and pleasure. Reading is sexy again. That can’t be bad. The book has now become a fetish object; it means much more than the words inside the covers.
There was a story recently in the papers about a court case involving a couple who had a row about the book, the man annoyed at the woman for reading the book again, for talking about it too much. The woman went round to her mothers. After a while, there was a knock at the door and when she opened it there was her boyfriend who, she told the judge attacked her with a bottle of brown sauce, pouring it over her head. Saucy? the man was shouting, You like saucy? I’ll show you what saucy means.
How do you delineate between the erotic and the downright pornographic? Or are we being unfair to porn….discuss? Does some porn contain literary value? I don’t think there’s any need to delineate anymore when artists in every medium play freely with them. Filmmakers, writers, cabaret, hip-hop, painters. Porn, like erotic art, wants to arouse. To stimulate. To turn the reader on. That used to be seen as not a fit ambition for literary art. A half-decent sex-scene should cause a bit of a stir in the reader. But when it’s a very good scene, I’d say, it should also be telling us something about the characters involved, about the meaning of the sex between them, and about the context in which it’s happening.
Is the widespread availability of internet pornography ruining natural erotic thinking/feeling, i.e., expectations of what a sex life should/could involve, the pull/drive that gets people together, how this is then expressed in literature & art? I’ve heard it said the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon is a reaction against men and online porn. Against the infidelity of men on their machines. A rebellion. I’ve also heard it argued porn helps men NOT do certain things, a palliative so to speak. It keeps them off the streets. But the same was said about the use of prostitutes. And about sport! It could be entertaining to wonder what the 50 shades of Grey trilogy will help women NOT to do? Hopefully the internet is educating as much as it is ruining appetite. The sexual appetite, like any other appetite, can be sated and overindulged. It’s an old parable. The parable of excess. Think of Casanova. Those who have searched for wisdom in sensual experience. Enlightenment. Ecstasy. Think of Yeats poem, The Pilgrim. The sensualist, after years of erotic wandering, turns to fasting on Lough Derg, tired of “…passing around the bottle with girls in rags or silk/ in country shawl or Paris cloak” but by the end of it all, after excess and austerity, he concludes on his life’s journey, “I can put the whole lot down, and all I have to say / Is fol de rol de rolly O.“
What is your favourite piece of erotic writing and why? It would have to be JP Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. Published in Paris in 1955, it’s part of the uninhibited big Yes style of erotic writing. It was banned for obscenity. The central character is an American in Dublin, he’s got a wife and a kid, and money troubles. And when it comes to women, he just can’t stop himself. That’s his crime and his innocence. He can’t control himself. He is comically beyond any moral judgement or censor. His lust is all he has and leads him round in circles and deeper into the world of Dublin at the time, giving us a very real picture of the place, and even the predicament of women at the time. It’s the Dublin of Behan, Kavanagh, etc., and Cronin’s Dead as Doornails. He’s got a bigger appetite than any of them, free, guiltless. The writing, moving from sparse, short imagist sentences to rampant flows of interior randy monologues, will make you laugh from your guts as you savour and feel – and admire – his hunger: a powerful concoction. The flesh made word. I wish I’d been around to see Richard Harris in the stage version. Three nights it lasted in Dublin in 1959 before it was shut down!
What the heart is like (by Miroslav Holub)
Officially the heart
is oblong, muscular,
and filled with longing.
But anyone who has painted the heart knows
that it is also
spiked like a star
and sometimes bedraggled
like a stray dog at night
and sometimes powerful
like an archangel’s drum.
And sometimes cube-shaped
like a draughtsman’s dream
and sometimes gaily round
like a ball in a net.
And sometimes like a thin line
and sometimes like an explosion.
And in it is
only a river,
and at most one little fish
by no means golden.
More like a grey
It certainly isn’t noticeable
at first sight.
Anyone who has painted the heart knows
that first he had to
discard his spectacles,
throw away his fine-point pencil
and carbon paper
and for a long while
One of the major Eastern European poets to emerge after World War II, Miroslav Holub was celebrated for his surreal mixture of scientific exactitude and absurdist humor. The poet Ted Hughes called him ”one of the half dozen most important poets writing anywhere.’ In The Government of the Tongue Seamus Heaney praised Holub as a poet who could lay things bare, ”not so much the skull beneath the skin, more the brain beneath the skull.” Mr. Holub’s poetry, he wrote, is ”too compassionate to be vindictive, too skeptical to be entranced.”
Miroslav was born in Pilsen, Western Bohemia, on September 23, 1923. His father was a lawyer who worked for the railways and his mother was a language teacher. After World War II, he studied medicine at Charles University in Prague, and worked in a psychiatric ward there. His dislike of “poetical” embellishment, his concern that poetry should be rooted in plain, unadorned fact, is a product of years of Communist propaganda in Stalinist Czechoslovakia. As well as Poems Before & After: Collected English Translations(1990/2006), Bloodaxe publish The Jingle Bell Principle, a book of his prose pieces, and Supposed to Fly, a highly original and entertaining illustrated gathering of poems with some prose interruptions drawn from his native city of Plzen (same as the beer).
Denise Blake is reading this Friday at the Irish Writers’ Centre (1pm), the last in the popular Lunchtime series. She was a participant on a creative writing workshop I attended two years ago at the Boston College with Dr Brenda Flanagan, Cultural Ambassador for the United States Department. Denise’s first collection of poetry, Take a Deep Breath, was published by Summer Palace Press. Her second collection, How to Spin Without Getting Dizzy, was published in Spring 2010. She’s a regular contributor to RTÉ’s Sunday Miscellany and her work has been published in The SHOp, Poetry Ireland Review, The Stinging Fly and West 47. She is a founder of the Errigal Writers’ Group and received an MA in Poetry from Lancaster University through the Poets’ House. Here’s a quick Q&A I did with her this week:
When did you start writing poetry? Firstly, I know the moment when I started to love poetry, it was when I read Seamus Heaney’s poem, Docker. We were studying the poem as part of the English segment in a foundation course in Magee College and I loved the imagery in the line; He sits, strong and blunt as a Celtic cross. It was the first time that I could see into a poem for myself. The course was to be my return to education but instead it was my awakening to poetry. I was in my thirties and I had young children. I would never have considered writing a poem before that time. I started reading poetry and writing my own pieces. I was so thrilled with myself when I started producing work. The excitement of seeing new words appear has never left me. There were two strong forces in Co. Donegal at the time – The Killybegs Writers Group and Letterkenny Writers Group – so there were people who were supportive and showed great encouragement. Eventually a group of us evolved into Errigal Writers and we still meet twice a month.
What’s been the greatest obstacle to becoming (and remaining) a poet? The “who do you think you are?” chorus sitting on my shoulder. But the question could be; what has helped you stay writing? This is a great country for writing and I have had so much support, starting with my local community. There isn’t a week goes by that I am not asked “are you still writing?” by someone who is willing you on. When we first started Errigal Writers we organized Gerard Byrne to give us workshops and the Irish Writers Centre helped us out. We continued to bring other established writers to Donegal over the years and they have all treated us with a professional respect. I was lucky to be chosen for the Writers Workshop in UCG ( as it was then) with Paula Meehan as our facilitator. You can’t get a more professional, and yet compassionate, person to work with. I was fortunate also to be able to do the MA course in the Poets’ House in Falcaragh. There are so many established writers who are generous with their time and energy. I’m on the directory for Poetry Ireland’s Writers in the Schools and that experience is wonderful.
What gets you started on a poem—idea, image, personal experience? The greatest motivation I have is being a member of the Errigal Writers. When I know we are due to meet things start moving in the back of my mind for a while. I become more aware of my surroundings and more susceptible to imagery around me. I will read more poetry in those days and watch performances on you tube. And then I try to find a silence that lets creativity come into the room. I have found my favourite type of moleskine notebooks and I always write the first drafts in longhand. I just love that moment when the first draft is finished.
How did you go about getting your poetry published? You have to get work published in magazines; Poetry Ireland Review, the Stinging Fly, The SHOp were the magazines who first accepted my work. I also had pieces on Sunday Miscellany and I love recording for radio. Again I’m fortunate in that Joan and Kate Newmann of Summer Palace Press have a home in Donegal. They used to hold wonderful workshops and readings in their home in Kilcar. Eventually they accepted my manuscript and published Take a Deep Breath in 2004. They put so much work into the editing process that it is a gift when the book is published. My second book, How to Spin Without Getting Dizzy came out in 2010.
You’re very involved in community-based projects, how did this happen and why is it important to you? I’m not as involved as I should be but I live in Co. Donegal, we don’t have organisations running readings and workshops on an ongoing basis so the Arts Scene kind of works from the earth upwards. Our Arts Officer, Traolach O’Fionnain is very approachable and he encourages us to create events. There were times in the group energy where we needed to perform, or meet other writers, or work with established writers or publish work, so the only thing for it was to organise it ourselves. North West Words is a group who now hold readings with featured writers and open-mic on the last Thursday of every month. I do think there is a hunger for poetry readings here.
Are festivals a good outlet for poets? Festivals have the funding for organising events and advertising. Anything that gets poets and writers performing in an area is good.
Do female poets face particular challenges? Do young male poets seem to have a higher profile? Yes. But whether that means that female poets face more challenges I’m not sure. It is a very long road.
What are you writing next? I’m writing poems for now. That is what is coming when I put the pen to paper and I’m grateful for them. Hopefully it will shape into a third manuscript.
Any advice for emerging writers? Love what you are doing. Work at the craft. Read. Be prepared for the long distance not a sprint. Don’t be crucified by rejections. Look carefully at the word emerging, it carries hope and a future. It isn’t: never-going-to-happen writers, but emerging. I love the feeling that anything can happen once you are writing and sending out work.
Nuala O’Faolain terrified me. I met her in May 1997 at her home in Ranelagh for a student interview. “You’re ‘too sensitive’ to make a go at journalism, too wide-eyed for shitheads in a newsroom,” she concluded, after just half an hour. Her family history had parallels with my own and despite the fact that she was completely intimidating, we somehow clicked. She scoffed a sausage sambo and laughed at me for being vegetarian. I was obliged to throw sticks at Molly the Collie and admire the ‘Victorian blue’ paint on the sitting room walls (sourced by her lodger Luke from a stately home in UK). Her grand plan was to live out latter days “writing about other people’s cats & dogs” in a cottage in Clare. Three hours later she drove me home in a battered car that could’ve belonged to a learner driver in Wexford and not a woman whose book Are You Somebody? was topping the best seller lists worldwide.
When I sent her the typed interview she thanked me by dumping a cat in a basket on my doorstep with a £20 note & strict instructions where to buy ‘Sandra’ a hysterectomy. ‘Anyone who wants to be fully human should own a cat,’ the note said. I zipped around to Tesco on Baggot Street, turning the nice crisp hysterectomy dosh into a bottle of bacardi, fresh pasta & some scented candles. Sandra got duffed by the lesbians-in-the-basement’s ‘Felix’ and three years later, while Editor of a revenue magazine, I emailed her to come clean. She called me ‘despicable’, saying I was the worst type of person there was. Nuala’s emails were hilarious, often sad, always sickeningly candid. I was forever chuffed to hear from her, even when she told me not to have kids, that I’d make a lousy mother (and various other insults): ‘You can’t even look after yourself or a cat, imagine what you’d actually do to another human being!’ Another email read: ‘Perhaps an interesting job isn’t your destiny June, so boredom and sexual frustration will force you to write fiction.’ Every few months she’d write to ask me how I was, without fail. Her messages were always packed with funny little nuggets of advice: ‘Don’t go to male shrinks, they’re even worse than ordinary males.’
In 2002, she agreed to be my ‘referee’ for a Foundation Course in Psychotherapy at the Tivoli Institute, Galway. ‘After you’re done there, there’s a place in north Belfast that does great training at weekends, you’d be a brilliant counsellor, I’d go to you, just don’t ever ask me for a writing reference’. It transpired I was way too neurotic for counselling training and Nuala changed her mind about a writing appraisal when she read a feature I wrote for the Sunday Business Post. Once again she ended up as rent-a-judge, this time for an MA in Creative Writing at Queens’ University Belfast in 2007. ‘You will soar, eventually, but the effort will probably kill you,’ she said. After she died I wrote an article in The Guardian which I think would’ve surprised her. Last night when RTÉ aired Nuala, a profile by a cherished friend, Marian Finucane, I dug out the original interview I wrote 15 years ago, which I’m pasting below. Bear in mind it was my first attempt at a journalistic profile (it’s written in the present tense of 1997), so some of the language is manuka-sticky, but a few worthwhile insights survive.
Relations between men and women are in an awful state. The old world is dead, but there’s no new world yet, we don’t know what to do or which way to go. There’s young-ones with money taking over Temple Bar and old Dublin, Joyce’s Dublin, is dissolved into paltriness. The whole point to Dublin was that it was accessible, shabby, alive. People wandered around it all day. Now they go from A to B, spiritually impaired. The wandering has stopped and mass exodus towards apostasy has begun.
This is what Nuala O’Faolain feels today, 11 months after her book Are You Somebody? was released. This arresting memoir, by a dedicated controversialist, presented itself by pure accident and topped the best seller list for 20 weeks in 1996/7. The book indwells itself in the public and private life of Ireland, so much so, that Nuala herself is stunned at the emotional episode it has created. People wrote to her from Trinidad, Australia, China, Chicago, and even from a trekker’s hut in Nepal, to offer her images of themselves in response to hers. In an unpublished extract called ‘Afterwords’, she writes:
‘I never envisaged such cherishing. When I called my memoir Are You Somebody? it was largely to pre-empt the hostile people who’d say, at my writing anything about myself at all, ‘who does she think she is?’ I never imagined awakening something a bit like love.’
She was asked by New Island Books to write an introduction to a decade’s collection of journalism articles. She felt it was impossible without chronicling some fundamental aspects of her life. She had no intention of ‘writing a book’, rather the lengthy introduction was an unavoidable resolution to a complex and lacerated childhood.
‘Trying to live and push as much life into myself,’ is Nuala’s motto. “Sensation and feeling, that’s how I want to live. I want to really live. On the other hand I can hardly live because I am missing all kinds of skins that enable other people to live fully. I’m 57, but it’s as if I’m 17, trying to learn how to be happy. Yet sometimes I feel it’s not happening, because I’m the only person who knows about me.”
Her cat Hodge is so like Patrick Kavanagh it’s not funny! He has the same cynical pissed off expression and he’s a begrudger. I imagine PK’s eyes were as strikingly gold on occasion, when he woke half dead from alcohol. But Hodge doesn’t indulge in the ‘wrong’ kind of drink or write poetry. He’s a misanthropic feline, with attitude, Nuala adores him, despite his mucky personality. “I bought him off a sinister man for £150,” she explains. “They’re both the same, they don’t have very good personalities…ah sure Patrick had his good days too, like when he’d win on a horse and want to share everything with you!”
In her UCD years, Nuala shared a flat briefly with Patrick Kavanagh, who used to piss and groan out the doorway in the mornings. Dublin was dark and dramatic then…Noël Browne’s Socialist Party met regularly in Moran’s Hotel to discuss the future of Ireland. Students sat around Bewleys, scoffing potato pancakes, discussing ideas for short stories. Nuala spent many a night drinking bottles of Vintara in Leland Bardwell’s flat in Leeson Street, writing bits of scripts for Radio Éireann. There was an unselfconscious scattering of ideas all over the literary Dublin of the time. You were assessed in terms of yourself, and warmly welcomed if you fitted in.
In 1958, while studying English at UCD, things did not always run smoothly for Nuala. At one stage she had to drop out of University and work in a hospital kitchen in London. When she returned to Ireland, Mary Lavin gave her an allowance for six weeks so she could resit exams and finish her degree. Shortly afterwards she read ‘medieval romance’ at University of Hull and eventually secured a scholarship for a B.Phil in Literature at Oxford. After she graduated she taught English Literature (briefly) in Dublin, before moving on to the BBC in 1970.
She produced outlandish and stimulating programmes: protesting pornography with the Queen’s gynaecologist, querying religious sects that buried their prayers inside batteries at the San Andreas Fault, chronicling personal problems of Yorkshire transsexuals and a documentary on the Bogside Community Association. Yet she was never au fait with any aspect of her emigrant life. She became increasingly desolate and disaffected in the UK, to the point where she had not choice but to return home. The year was 1977. The same vigour that hauled her through those early years, was bulldozing her towards inescapable crisis. She signed herself into St. Patrick’s Hospital as a full-time alcoholic, addicted to tranquilizers, desperate for help. It became apparent that she had to go right back to the beginning of her life, and start again.
Nuala O’Faolain was born in 1940, in an era of art deco, when Cat Woman first appeared in comics, when faulty condoms were made out of sheep’s intestines and UFO sightings were reported on a world-wide basis for the first time. It was the same year John Lennon and Frank Zappa were born, and Scott Fitzgerald and Emma Goldman died. Irish ‘O’Faolain’ is a diminutive of ‘wolf’ and is among the fifth most numerous names in Ireland.
In 1939, Tomás O’Faolain joined the Irish Defence Forces, spending most of his spare time writing to his ‘chroidhe dhil’ (Nuala’s mother) with details of moving his young family to Donegal. The following year he cycled up to Dublin from Dunree on the Inishowen Peninsula to greet Nuala at the Rotunda hospital. Her mother and father were desperately in love. By the early 1940s, Tomás had metamorphosed into the auspicious Terry O’Sullivan. He began his journalism career by taking the ‘Radio Train’ to Killarney for Radio Éireann, and his ‘Dubliner’s Diary’ column for the Evening Press. His ostentatious career and social life, took him further and further away from home. Mrs O’Faolain, glorified wife and onlooker to numerous extra-marital affairs, began to feel totally cast aside. Increasingly, she sat in her armchair in the kitchen to drink and read. “This is how she chose to eventually die”.
Nuala attended seven schools in total, during these early years, when she lived in a farm-labourer’s cottage in North County Dublin. She was hauled off to boarding school in Monaghan in 1954, when puberty became ‘a problem’. There she nurtured her love of reading, and fostered an urge to learn. ‘My life only began when I learnt to read,’ Nuala once wrote. And she read everything she could get her hands on. Saul Bellow, Alice Munrow, Chekhov, Keats, Dacia Maraini, Dermot Healy, Joyce, Eoin MacNamee, Montherland, Richard Ford, Kaftka, Racine, Jane Eyre, Robert Lowell, T.S. Elliot, Shakespeare, Kawabata. For too many years novels were all Nuala cared about. She has read a book every few days of her life without fail. In later life, she sees the characters of decades, gathered around her, to keep her company.
“When I get on in age, I’ll have to write novels,” she insists. “Sure what else can I do here? I’m here on my own all the time: you can hardly call that living. I will go and live in Clare full-time and write my books, crammed with characters, men and women & other people’s cats and dogs.”
Her input in broadcasting has been sedulous and when she returned from England in the late 1970s, she took a job at RTÉ, producing the Open Door and Booklines programmes. Journalist Jonathan Philbin Bowman debated many issues with Nuala over the years, but states quite clearly that his various opinions of her don’t always fuse: “Nuala is a very fine writer, equally capable of great sensitivity and occasional near sanity. There are times when she is not sure herself, how to bridge that gap between intellect and passion. But overall, she is consistent in the amount of human compassion she shows people.”
Nuala joined the Irish Times in late 1980, following a conversation she had on radio with Gay Byrne, about elderly Irish women. Today, she is a highly respected columnist, who writes about all miens of Ireland in a unique, manifold way. Angela Bourke, writer and lecturer summed up her journalism in the following way: “They are essays that have urged us over the years, to pay attention to the weave of the society we live in, weft as well as warp. She notices always the threads that run always: the lives of women, of children, of quiet men, the hurts inflicted and forgotten or suffered and remembered. Class politics, gender politics, power relations. These are her particular themes.”
Some find her writing uncomfortable because she insists on adjusting to a certain understanding of how things really are. A certain amount of people recoil when truth flails around so unselfconcsiously, other embrace her honesty as if it were a long-awaited benefaction.
On Poverty: ‘If you live one of those local authority estates on the edge of small towns – the ones whose name appears predictably in the court reports of the local paper – who will care about you?’
On Drugs: ‘Hard drugs are the worst thing to happen to Ireland since the famine. But we forget, we lose interest, we fortunate ones can afford to.’
On Female Sterilisation: ‘Women are in no position to be airy-fairy about their bodies, they bleed, their wombs swell, they labour just like animals to bring forth children, then they feed them, wipe the waste from their bodies, shovel grunge into their mouths…to bring them through to independence.’
She writes her articles, pen avec paper, on a rough wood table in her kitchen, where we sit now. Molly the half Collie, runs in from the back garden with a stick for me. We fabricated a friendship in the isolated minutes after Luke, Nuala’s lodger, showed me in and handed me a cup of cha. Nuala trundled down the stairs, hair soaked, wearing a blue flowery dress and a big, amiable smile. There is an extraordinary expression in her eyes, as she talks unhindered, with a sausage sandwich hanging halfway out her gob.
“My lodger Luke is the dearest man in the world, but I am terrified of him coming in drunk, my whole life I’ve been watching people come in drunk.”
What comes across most fixedly about Nuala’s life is that she is dreadfully hurt by what she calls “one of those hugely damaged, big Irish families.” It is this unresolved ache that propels her to discover truths that would otherwise be unreachable. She has undoubtedly survived all the things that have entranced, beguiled, sickened and outraged her. Yet at this stage in her life, she feels she has no immediate or momentous purpose, and is very alone.
Sean MacConnell, Agricultural Correspondent in the Irish Times is probably Nuala’s closest confidant. He has known her well for ten years, and worked with her father in the Evening Press many years before. To sum up Nuala in a sentence he told me, “She is an amazingly bright, remarkably strong woman, with great integrity and great vulnerability.” His first impression of Nuala was that she was unbearably shy but had a suave charm. “Just like her father, the one thing that really stands out about Nuala is that life is a huge learning process, and because she is so open to new interpretation, she can be very unpredictable.”
Going back to the book where the explication of her life and success ultimately lies, I ask her why she began and ended with poignant accounts of her parent’s ill-fated marriage? “I hadn’t realised that I’d go back to them, I think out of some mixture of loyalty and being imprinted by pattern, I was trying to oblige them by ruining myself. I was tempted to join my mother in her despair all my life. I was actually very close to her, even though I didn’t like touching her or being with her. I pitied her so utterly that I copied her. I am very lucky they both died when I was about 40, it gave me a chance to live. I have been very lucky too, that there must’ve been some instinct for life in me, that I was lucky enough to get off with Nell, who insisted on life.”
She spent nearly two life-giving decades with Nell McCafferty until they split up last year  when their many differences became insufferable. “Back to whole relationship/family thing: take my brother Don, who just died recently in London. He had a family of his own, but couldn’t let go of the past. He sat in his room and drank and starved himself and drank again, until he could die. He was just following out the logic of it.”
She tells a story about ‘Michael’ and ‘Rob’, her two tremendous loves featured in the book. They haven’t even bothered to drop her a line, or pick up the phone in response to her story being published. Her whole life it seems has been flooded by moments of unimaginable intensity, followed by long spells of desert, and all-consuming work in between. Her mother had been the same in this respect; nothing matters except passion, mythos is something to covet, something to adore…
On the way out the door, Nuala points to the rocking chair in the kitchen and says: “You know I sit there and drink red wine and read and read and read, just like Mammy.” When the car chugs off up the road, almost of its own accord, I ask her if she travels around the countryside a lot. “I do,” she says, “just like Dad did.” So at 57, writing, reading, drinking wine and contemplating how to live, she is a synthesis of her mother and father. How could she be anything else?
How did you become interested in poetry? Betty McMahon. She was my primal Jean Brodie, my crème de la crème, my Sweet Afton twenty a day tab merchant, for five out of seven years at St Mirren’s Primary School. We had a text-book way back when, something like ‘Mainlining English’, so I was clearly a word junkie from around the ages of eight or nine I reckon. At home my Mother was a fierce reader of devoutly catholic tastes, still is, lovely pocket leather-bound sets of Dickens, Trollope, Thackery, Austen, the Brontes, Faery Tales – Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. My Father was more of a Harold Robbins/Mickey Spillane/Willbur Smith kind of prod but as a young Glaswegian Merchant Seaman, he’d picked up a hard back copy of ULYSSES in some port of ill-repute – it’s the ‘durty’ Bodley Head 1967 Seventh impression, with the wrap around black & white cover of stills from Joseph Strick’s film version, with Blazes Boylan and mad-eyed Molly staring up from the crumpled bed sheets on the front cover and Milo O’Shea as Bloom, looking pleased as punch beneath his Homburg on the rear. The sleeve note talked about its wit, its poetry and it sat on the shelf with its white spine greying untouched and unread – my Da’ having quickly discovered it wasn’t the kind of filth he’d been led to believe during the ‘cultural revolution’ – until I was able to reach on tiptoe, able for the first few pages, to swim in its forty-foot echoes of Introibo ad altare Dei. Betty McMahon taught me poetry doesn’t have to rhyme. She also told me I wasn’t as green as my cabbage looked. I was and remain confused. And smitten.
Why poetry (as opposed to other forms)? I don’t think of poetry as being ‘opposed’ to other forms (see above). Look at Tarkovsky and the primacy of music in his compositional approach to cinematography, his ‘poetics’. Or Bill Douglas in his use of silence to embody specific sounds, amplify images that might otherwise go unseen. Paul Klee said, “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible”, and later you have Rilke saying of Klee, ‘even if you hadn’t told me he plays the violin, I would have guessed on many occasions his drawings were transcriptions of music’.
Your latest collection, eight years in the making: Daytime Astronomy covers topics as varied as abandoned love, prison camp, birds, birth, death, hill climbing, body painting, and recession. Do you choose the subject matter or is it the other way around? Me…Prison camp, birds, body painting? Sounds kinky. I’m reminded of Bertrand Russell citing Heraclitus, ‘The Lord who is the oracle at Delphi neither utters nor hides his meaning, but shows it by a sign’. Or as a wiser man than me once said, sometimes you eat the bar and sometimes the bar, well, he eats you.
Do you consider yourself a certain type of poet? If I’m any kind of poet, a lucky poet; lucky to be alive and out of hospital; lucky to be a peredvizhniki with a pen and a pot to piss in.
How long do you spend on a poem? How long’s a piece of string (theory). As long as it takes, I suppose is the honest and mundane answer. I used to measure them in cigarettes, but the price of a twenty deck these days, it’s just not on. I tend to work like the kind of painter who goes at several canvases at once, sometimes concentrated bursts, other times constipated fits of rage. I’ll stop that when the oul’ Duke of Argylls kick in.
What’s been the greatest obstacle to becoming (and remaining) a poet? My undiminished fondness for the road of excess leading to the palace of wisdom.
Do you think a poet’s power diminishes (or grows), as the poet gets older? Indubitably. Dependent on the tigers of wrath being wiser than the horses of instruction.
Is too much Irish poetry rooted in the soil, too much of it centred on rural existence and nature as opposed to the urban experience? As a blow in, I wouldn’t like to say. But between yourself and myself, It seems to me that for every Rough Field and Great Hunger there are five hundred poems about fuchsia and having the quiet pint in some Nama infested rural bog water. Bertie had the right idea with beacons of shite like Adamstown, a car park and a carvery for everyone in the audience and not a blackthorn bush or dry stone wall left standing.
Is poetry in Ireland perhaps too serious? Are we not in need in these gloomy times of some mock-heroic/satirical poetry? Proper order! My next collection is provisionally titled: I Rattled it into Gerty, While her Mother was out for Turf.
How much does poetry intersect with forms of popular culture such as music lyrics or rap? When its horses for courses, my horse is distorted, as Scroobius Pip would have it in his introduction to Distraction Pieces.
We have a president who writes poetry. Is Michael D Higgins’ elevation to the highest office in the land an opportunity for poetry in Ireland? Can he be a force for encouragement? That would be an ecumenical matter.
Who were/are your biggest influences? See first answer, above.
With the rise of electronic poetry and digital books—what do you see for the future of poetry? It will all end in tears, under a bridge or in some batshit besmirched cave, two fetid packs of homunculi gouging lumps out of each other with the sharpened ends of their iPad 3s and Kindle Fires. This way to the Zombie Apocalypse Ladies and Gentlemen.
Readers are often apprehensive about poetry; do you have any advice about how to approach poetry as a reader? Be wise before you rise. Protect your vulnerable brain. They will want to eat it.
Paul was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1971. He moved to Northern Ireland in 1995, completing an MA in Creative Writing at the Poets’ House/Lancaster University; studying under the late James Simmons. In 2002 The Edinburgh Review published his first collection, The End of Napoleon’s Nose. His work has appeared in several anthologies including: The New Irish Poets, ed. Selina Guinness (Bloodaxe 2004); Magnetic North, ed. John Brown (Lagan Press 2006); The New North, ed. Chris Agee (Wake Forest 2008); Landing Places, eds. Eva Bourke & Borbala Farago, (Dedalus 2009). He lives in Belfast and is currently researching a PhD on the work of the Scottish poet and cultural philosopher Kenneth White for the University of Ulster. Paul’s most recent poetry collection Daytime Astronomy was published in 2011 by Salmon Poetry. If you’re interested in seeing Paul Grattan perform, he’s taking part in the Irish Writers’ Centre Luncthtime Series, next Friday, 17th February.
Paul Murray is reading this Friday at the Irish Writers’ Centre’s ‘Lunctime Readings’ series. He’s the author of two novels: An Evening of Long Goodbyes (Penguin), which was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award and nominated for the Kerry Irish Fiction Award. His second novel Skippy Dies (Hamish Hamilton) was shortlisted for the 2010 Costa Book Awards and longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. Skippy Dies has been described as funny, rude, dark, sad, ambitious, imaginative, surreal, briliant. The Guardian said it was ‘one of the most enjoyable, funny and moving reads…a rare tragicomedy that’s both genuinely tragic and genuinely comic’, while the Irish Independent dubbed Murray’s characters ‘so three-dimensionally drawn and brought to such vivid life that they may haunt your dreams.’ Here, the author discusses loneliness, capitalism, posh schools, suburbs, butter churns and how becoming a writer is no different to becoming a plumber, pilot or podiatrist:
A novel set in a posh Dublin school is a far cry from the worlds of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown or Dermot Bolger’s Finglas. Did you deliberately choose a radically different social setting with “Skippy Dies?” Or was this a purely instinctive, natural narrative backcloth? Well, I didn’t choose it just to be different. It was a world that I knew very well, which had the added attraction of having been somewhat under-represented in Irish books. In fact I had the suspicion, rightly or wrongly, that that world, the ‘posh school’ as you call it, and the boring, anonymous suburbs where so many people live now, weren’t seen as being worth writing about. They were seen as being less ‘Irish’, less authentic and therefore less fit subject for literature than more ‘real’ settings like the west of Ireland, for instance. That idea, that some places and some people are more real than others, and that we should all be writing novels about old peasant women scrubbing their butter churns, really bothers me. Maybe the suburbs are less real and less authentic. But the people living there are still people, and their experiences of this unreal world are absolutely real. So I wanted to write about that world I knew so well, and I wanted to write about it via teenagers – they’re the ones who experience suburbia most directly, because they’re stuck there. And again, teenagers seemed to be seen as kind of infra dig in Irish novels, so I wanted to give them their turn.
The Guardian flatteringly described the book as a ‘hilarious satire on modern Ireland‘? Did you set out with that intention? Was this a work principally of satire? I’m not really that comfortable with tags like comedy or satire or whatever, like your book can only be one thing. I wanted to tell the story of these characters as faithfully and honestly as I could. There’s a lot of humour, because most of the characters are teenagers and they act in quite an unguarded and extreme way, but it’s mostly realistic and I’m not setting them up to be laughed at. The word ‘satire’ to me conjures up images of the author mocking the foibles of humanity from some great height – everyone’s a grotesque, and their entire world is revealed to be fundamentally deluded and ridiculous. I didn’t have any interest in writing a book like that. That said, setting the book in this school was a useful way of looking at bigger changes that were happening in the country – because these were the most privileged children of the people who were reaping the benefits of the economic boom. They were handed this new world that generation had created, so they were at the coal-face of that new morality and that new attitude to money and materialism.
Although a comic novel there’s a darkness beneath it especially with menacing figures like Carl, how much of this came from your own experience of school days and the adolescent ‘jungle’? I went to secondary school in the 1990s, which though it wasn’t that long ago chronologically feels, from this vantage, almost prehistoric. So many interesting things have happened since then – the internet, the war on terror, mobile phones, X-Factor – and I wanted to write about those things. For all their supposed privilege, I think in some ways the kids in Skippy have a harder time than my generation did. Their world is so much more mediated, the forces of capitalism have a much tighter stranglehold on them so they have even more impossible expectations to try and fail to live up to. Compared to now, my time in school was quite benign. Certainly, it was a jungle, and there were large, terrifying creatures with BO lurking around every corner. But if you were fast, you could outrun them. How can you outrun Facebook?
Ruprecht concludes that our universe is built out of loneliness. Amid all the comic episodes and teeny angst there is this philosophical undercurrent via string theory, etc. Is this a central theme in your work, the loneliness, not only of teenagers, but man in general? Ruprecht comes to this conclusion shortly after Skippy’s death, when he’s hit rock bottom. The book doesn’t leave him there though. To say the universe is empty, that man is alone-in some ways those are quite self-aggrandising, egoistic notions. They ignore the infinite ways that we’re tied to each other, and they ignore the duties that we have to take care of each other. That seemed like a much more interesting idea to explore than this romantic-melancholic of loneliness, which perpetuates this fantasy of uniqueness, that no one has suffered quite like you have, and that your aloneness is somehow qualitatively superior to everyone else’s. Not to be glib but people in a famine don’t spend much time talking about man’s fundamental loneliness.
Any advice for aspiring writers!? Becoming a writer is no different to becoming a plumber or pilot or podiatrist. There’s no magical secret. You just have to work really hard. For me, regularity is really important – a set routine. Writing a novel is like running a marathon. It takes a long time, and although you’ll have your moments of grace and exaltation, inevitably some of that time it will feel like a pure slog. It will feel tedious and dull, and you’ll feel disillusioned, and the temptation will arise to give up or set it aside and work on something else. At times like those, the routine may be what carries you through – you keep going simply because that’s what you’re used to. And pretty soon you’ll find yourself re-engaging and getting excited again. But to finish a novel, you need the bloody-mindedness to persevere with it, even when you’ve forgotten why.
What The Doctor Said (by Raymond Carver)
He said it doesn’t look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before
I quit counting them
I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know
about any more being there than that
he said are you a religious man do you kneel down
in forest groves and let yourself ask for help
when you come to a waterfall
mist blowing against your face and arms
do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments
I said not yet but I intend to start today
he said I’m real sorry he said
I wish I had some other kind of news to give you
I said Amen and he said something else
I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do
and not wanting him to have to repeat it
and me to have to fully digest it
I just looked at him
for a minute and he looked back it was then
I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me
something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may have even thanked him habit being so strong
Poetry is a craft as well as an art, and all poets, whether beginners or advanced, need to master the tools of the trade – form, language, pitch and tone. But over and above that, the poet needs to find his or her own individual voice, which takes time. So says Poet Michael O’Loughlin, who spoke at the Irish Jewish Museum on Thursday. He gave a great talk about the challenges he’s faced over the years as a writer, time spent living away from Ireland for 20 years, writing as a vocation (and a pain in the arse). I hadn’t realised but he’s also a short story writer, translator & screenwriter. His feature film, Snapshots (2003), starred Burt Reynolds and Julie Christie and an award-winning Holocaust drama, For My Baby, starred Alan Cumming and Frank Finlay. “I’ve never really distinguished between my activities as a writer of poetry, prose, screenplays and criticism – even translations,” he said in a recent interview with the Dublin Quarterly. “To me, it’s all a question of how the subject matter or the initial impulse presents itself. I suppose, ultimately I see everything I write as part of the same project.”
He believes that the job of the artist is to confront society with a different reality, and not reinforce stereotypes. “One thing that strikes me, as someone who lived abroad for many years, is how low a threshold we Irish have for self criticism. The mark of a mature society will be when we actively encourage opposition to the accepted social realities. There are many Irish writers who while they have created work of real artistic value, do encourage the cosiness, the consensus. I’m thinking in particular of theatre, which is the biggest offender. In general, poetry doesn’t figure very highly in this because nobody actually reads it, and when they do, they don’t usually read it properly. But again, I think the crunch has yet to come.” Michael was born in north Dublin and has published many volumes of poetry and translations, including Another Nation: New And Selected Poems. He’s been Writer in Residence in Galway and Writer Fellow at Trinity College Dublin. His newly published collection, In This Life, is dedicated to his wife and daughter and is published by New Island. Here’s one of my favourites from his latest work:
ELEGY FOR A BASSET HOUND (by Michael O’Loughlin)
Other dogs feared you, perhaps rightly –
All that weight so close to the ground
The heft of those padded shoulders
The not-so-comical teeth concealed
Beneath your sadman jowls and pouches.
English-bred and born, according
To the Basset experts, my neighbour plucked
You off the autostrada near Lucca
Where you were wandering confidently
Like a nineteenth-century English explorer,
His mind gone in Antarctic snow.
You settled into an Amsterdam bookshop
Your basket firmly placed between
The New York Review of Books
And Literature in Translation
Where you accepted the ministrations
Of single gentlemen, but fell in love
With my wife and daughter,
Running away from home as often as you could
To climb like a legless man onto Judith’s lap
Where you slept for hours with one eye open.
Untrainable, unbiddable, I could barely hold you
Back on the days I took you with me
To collect Saar from her school, and
You made a beeline through the crush
Of mothers and bicycles, to the class where
The children fought to touch your mighty ears
As you gambolled ponderously on giant paws
Like an Ottoman pasha in his harem.
And yes I loved you for something else:
How on a brown December night
When the light had soaked into the wet ground
I saw you through the dusk of Utrechtsestraat
With trams and teatime traffic crashing between us
Out of earshot, almost out of sight,
You turned on the crowded pavement
And, like the old God of the Kabbalah
Lost in the darkness and unknowing before Creation,
You raised your nose and sniffed the fouled air
And I knew that you had found me
Novelist John Connolly gave a talk at the Irish Writers’ Centre recently on the history of crime writing in Ireland, our problematic relationship with criminality and publishing trends. ‘We have a very peculiar relationship with genre in this country,” he explained. “So few reviewers want to engage with it, they’d rather categorise books they don’t quite get as literary fiction instead.” Avoiding the subject leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of fiction, a distrust of popularism. “Genre is embedded in fiction, if you don’t understand it, then you don’t understand fiction. Novels were always the great populist form, designed to be read by a lot of people; it wasn’t drama or poetry. The idea of high-brow literary fiction as a separate identity is a recent enough (20th Century) notion.”
Irish writers traditionally wrote fantasy by the bucketload (but crime writers didn’t really survive the test of time). As a result, Ireland has a rich legacy of gothic writing: Bram Stoker, Robert Maturin, Sheridan Le Fanu, Lafcadio Hearn, even Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. Yet somewhere along the line John believes we became very distrustful of genre. “I think it’s because we were a new country. One of the obligations on you as a writer in a new nation, is to engage with the nature of Irishness (in our case). What are we? What is our society? What does it mean to be Irish? There was also a distrust of humour…we viewed it as a lack of seriouness – which is a pity – as it can be a very effective weapon.”
So why did writers avoid Irish-based crime fiction? Ireland was a predominantly rural society for a long time and crime fiction works best set in large cities where everyone is knocking into one another. It’s a lot easier to imagine the sleazy bedraggled world of hardcore brutality set against a New York or Paris backdrop. Even an Agatha Christie mockscape is a microcosm of a city, filled with blackmailers, thieves, adulterers, murderers…people who’d usually be spread out over a large geographical area. “When Irish writers took on crime stories (plays included), they tended to borrow real life events as inspiration,” he says. “Historical crimes, cold cases, etc. The Field is a kind of version of what an Irish crime novel might be. We’re still obsessed about non-fiction stories. Books about scumbags in Blanchardstown are deemed fascinating for some reason – as if a dog will get up and start barking poetry – but they’re of no interest.”
The big elephant in the room is The Troubles. How could Irish writers pen fabulous fictional tales of Irish criminality when two hours up the road people were getting blown up for real? The real flourish in crime writing happened at the end of this phase in our history, when there was permission to write gritty urban stories. “The end of the war ‘up North’ gave us a certain freedom to pen the underbelly,” he says. At the same time there was a fracturing of Irish society to explore too: tribunals, white collar crime, institutional abuse, political corruption, it all came flooding into our social consciousness. “We’re now in a position to fully engage with Irish crime fiction and as a result there’s an explosion of it, though we’re still in a way waiting for someone to tell us it’s OK. That’s why modern Irish writers such as Tanya French make it onto the New York Best Seller list while hardly making a ripple here”.
I interviewed John in the run-up to the Peregrine series at the centre:
You have written 15 books so far. How do you keep such a prodigious tempo up?
I’m not sure, to be honest. I’m always surprised when a book appears, as I spend so much time fretting and doubting. I suppose I tend to work quite slowly most days, writing at least 1000 words daily, weekends excepted, when I’m working on the first draft. I’ll sometimes run away to Maine for a week or two if necessary, and my output is greater there because I cut myself off. In the end, though, it’s just small, consistent steps. I enjoy the act of finishing a book within a reasonable time frame. You learn from finishing projects and moving on. I’m distrustful of the tendency to equate the worth of a book with the many years that it took to write it. If you look at, say, Donna Tartt, there isn’t a decade’s worth of progress between THE SECRET HISTORY and THE LITTLE FRIEND, although a decade separates their dates of publication.
Recently the English writer Stephen Leather was successful in selling his novel as an ebook and made a considerable sum from by-passing traditional publishers – would you ever consider going down the cyber-publishing route?
Possibly, but not yet. I’m grateful to my publishers for what they give to me, and I like the relationship I have with my editors. They make my books better. In the end, self-publishing is a lot of work, and the quality of what results just isn’t as good as what comes from an established house in terms of presentation, editing, and copy editing. It just isn’t. For unpublished authors, it’s clearly a good option, as at least it gets your work out there, but there still exists a certain distrust of self-published books, and legitimately so. Most of them, frankly, aren’t very good. If there are issues with the quality of some of the product of publishing houses, it’s multiplied a thousandfold when it comes to self-publishing. Without filters, more crap gets through, and it’s hard for people to pick out the good stuff. Nevertheless, e-publishing, in all its forms, is going to be a big part of the future. What depresses me about the debate at the moment is that, when it comes to authors who are already being published, it’s being conducted solely in terms of the financial benefits — look how much more money I can earn! — with almost no mention at all of quality.
Have you ever considered setting a novel in your native Dublin?
No. I enjoy the freedom that comes from writing about other locations. I’m an Irish writer, but by setting my novels elsewhere I don’t feel obliged to conform to anyone else’s definition of what an Irish writer should be, or at least not that narrow definition of an Irish writer as someone who is engaged with the nature of Irishness.
Do you worry over the phenomenon of “trending” in publishing particularly in the crime/thriller/mystery genre? To be specific, at present for instance Scandinavian detective fiction is regarded as “hot”. Should writers track these trends or should you just write in the context, area, background of where you are most comfortable with?
Oh, there’s always some ‘trend’ in fiction, whether it’s genre or otherwise. Scandinavian crime fiction just happens to be the flavour at the moment in genre fiction, and they’re producing some very fine writers, but that trend has been spurred on by Stieg Larsson, and to a lesser extent Henning Mankell. Nobody could have predicted the Larsson effect, and it’s elevated a lot of other writers in its stead. So far, Ireland hasn’t produced a writer using an Irish setting who has captured the popular imagination in that way, but it may yet happen. The quality is there. But if you go following trends you’ll be disappointed, either because the public taste will already have begun to move on by the time you make your contribution, or simply because you’ll be producing inferior copies of pre-existing forms. You write what write because it’s what you have to do, and what you want to do, not because you smell a pay cheque.
How do you react to the description “Irish writer”? Does it often imply something unique and mutually exclusive to a writer’s DNA if there is Irish blood in their veins?
You can’t shake off your cultural or social baggage, so my work is infused with Catholicism and, I imagine, an world view that is Irish at its core. In the past, though, Irish writers were more admired than read, I think. It’s only in the last two decades that we’ve begun to encroach seriously on the popular imagination. I think Irish writers now have a different concept of what it can mean to be an Irish writer in the sense that you don’t automatically have to assume the historical weight and burden that the term ‘Irish writer’ used to bring with it.
There’s been a flowering of Irish crime fiction in recent years. Among those writers whom would you single out for praise?
I’d hate to do that, as I know and like most of them. If I start naming them all, I’ll leave someone out. With that in mind, though, I’m very proud to have contributed to the DOWN THESE GREEN STREETS anthology of (mostly) essays, to be published next month by Liberties Press. That really has rounded up the best of Irish crime writers, so the contributors’ list for that book would be a good place for anyone to start. Kudos, too, to Declan Burke and his website Crime Always Pays. He’s been hugely generous in his support for his fellow writers, and doesn’t get the credit he deserves for spreading the word about Irish crime fiction.
Will any of the Connolly-body of work get the Holywood treatment?
One of my short stories, THE NEW DAUGHTER, was filmed. It was a mixed experience. It didn’t get a wide release, and there are some problems with the last half hour, but everyone got paid, and everyone involved did their best for it. I’m probably more protective of my novels, but some of those are slowly inching their way to the screen.
Should Irish crime/thriller/mystery writers get out more and move off their home patch?
Not unless they want to. Mystery fiction is both a legitimate and interesting way to explore society, both contemporary and historical. In fact, Irish crime writers have more firmly grasped the thorn of writing about contemporary Ireland than a lot of their peers in literary fiction. I’ve just shirked my responsibility in that regard. Sorry.
Your work seems to be inching further into the borderlands of the supernatural especially obviously the ghost stories. Are we going to see a major ghost-horror novel from John Connolly?
I like the fusion of genres, as I’ve always felt that the most interesting work, whether in music, books, art, or film, occurs when one genre becomes infused with elements of another. I prefer the short story form for writing purely supernatural material, mainly because there’s no obligation to provide an explanation or major conclusion. It’s enough to allow people a glimpse behind the veil.
John’s first novel, Every Dead Thing, was published in 1999, and introduced the character of Charlie Parker, a former policeman hunting the killer of his wife and daughter. Dark Hollow followed in 2000. The third Parker novel, The Killing Kind, was published in 2001, with The White Road following in 2002. In 2003, John published his fifth novel—and first stand-alone book—Bad Men. In 2004, Nocturnes, a collection of novellas and short stories, was added to the list, and 2005 marked the publication of the fifth Charlie Parker novel, The Black Angel. John’s seventh novel, The Book of Lost Things, a story about fairy stories and the power that books have to shape our world and our imaginations, was published in September 2006, followed by the next Parker novel,The Unquiet, in 2007, The Reapers, in 2008 The Lovers, in 2009, and The Whisperers, the ninth Charlie Parker novel, in 2010. His first book for young adults The Gates was published in 2010. Its sequel was published as Hell’s Bells in May 2011.