Category Archives: Novels

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept

by-grand-central-station-i-sat-down-and-wept-by-elizabeth-smart

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.

George-Barker

Poet George Barker

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 11890440_10206884928495408_5758888108711341254_o (1)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?

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*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.

Jaysus, me fanny! The Barrytown Trilogy

 

bjtrilogyA 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’.

A one-page extract from The Commitments

A one-page extract from The Commitments

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.

2015 in books: Literary debuts and short fiction

longgazeback

30 writers in this anthology are are: Niamh Boyce, Elizabeth Bowen, Maeve Brennan, Mary Costello, June Caldwell Lucy Caldwell, Evelyn Conlon, Anne Devlin, Maria Edgeworth, Anne Enright, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Norah Hoult, Mary Lavin, Eimear MacBride, Molly McCloskey, Bernie McGill, Lisa Quackinerney, Belinda McKeon, Lia Mills, Siobhán Mannion, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, Kate O’Brien, Roisín O’Donnell, E.M. Reapy, Charlotte Riddell, Eimear Ryan, Anakana Schofield, Somerville & Ross & Susan Stairs.

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 McKeonMary Costello, Lia Mills, Lucy CaldwellNuala 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.

Sara Baume, winner of the Davy Byrnes award this year, will release her debut novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither in 2015 (pic from Irish Times).

Sara Baume, winner of the Davy Byrnes award this year, will release her debut novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither in 2015 (pic from The Irish Times).

Next year brings plenty of emerging talent to the bookshelves, both in Ireland and internationally.

theshoreFour 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. mcinerneyMore 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.

Sinéad Gleeson, who will edit an anthology of 30 Irish women authors in 2015

Sinéad Gleeson, who will edit an anthology of 30 Irish women authors in 2015

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. honeyIn 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.

Ken Bruen on crime, canines and the sound of savages

Ken BruenGalway-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 TinkersThe Magdalen MartyrsThe 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.

When (and why) did you start writing? I found it was a great way to off load rage, guilt, frustration. I was in my teens when I began to jot down notes, and see the value of words on the page, they seemed to dance, lilt and run riot on the very pages, fascinated me then, and even more now.
Do you plan more dark tales for Galway? Yes, C33, is out in September and is yet another jagged slant on Galway.
How does the ‘capital’ of Connaught view your portrayals of the city? Do you ever think they will make you a freeman of Galway? Will they put up a blue plaque? Galwegians  like Jack Taylor a lot as there have been five films shot in the city and as well as money for the city, many of the people appear in the movies. Channel 5 showed the the first of the Taylor movies last night.
Reading your work, is it true to say you adhere to Thomas Hobbes’ warning about the state of nature being nasty, poor, brutish and short? Indeed but always, vitally shot through with humour, and truly, if there is laughter, there is some light.
There has been an explosion in Irish crime fiction of late, at least in the Republic of Ireland. Do you have any thoughts on why that is so? Conversely, there seems to be a dearth of crime novels (Stuart Neville might be one exception) emanating from the north…any thoughts as to why this is the case? The Celtic Tiger and its demise made crime writing almost inevitable, chick lit isn’t quite the genre for deep recession and despair. I disagree about the North as there are a whole range of fine writers: Eoin Mc Namee, Gerard Brennan, Adrian Mc Ginty, Colin Bateman, Sam Millar.
magmartyrsDo you think that in the world of Irish letters, there is a snooty attitude towards crime literature? Some might even baulk at putting crime and literature in the same sentence! Yes, absolutely, it’s the poor relation you hide in the attic, and literary writers who do stoop to write a crime novel, describe it as……….slumming. A literary novel can bore you to a coma but a crime novel needs to be always…………always……….entertaining, entertainment in literary circles is regarded as sacrilege.
Is there any area of crime fiction yet to be explored in Ireland, geographically or topically? We haven’t yet seen canine sleuths but it can only be a matter of time. And probably canines with dope habit.
Do you think Ireland is finally coming to terms with the dark side of the Catholic Church and its abuse scandals? You wrote hard, disturbing, gritty books on those subjects….is the truth that leaked out about institutional abuse worse than you could have imagined fictionally? Every day, I read horrors that I didn’t dare put in my own works and on the news daily, the most abominable child abusers walk free because of age or some other supposed excuse.
What was it like growing up when the Church was such all pervasive political and social force? Did you experience the lash of the Christian Brothers’ strap? Yes, it was a long reed, fine honed for max swing and it cut into the side of your hand with precision, it had a sound I can still summon up. It was the sound of savages.
Edinburgh has its Rebus-Rankin tours, London’s Baker Street still attracts if fair share of Sherlock Holmes’ fans just as the east end draws in the Jack the Ripper devotees. How would you feel if Tourism Ireland started Ken Bruen tours around Galway? Unlikely as I’m on the Tourist Board Hit list, yet a bus of Japanese show up, asking for the Taylor tour.
Do you sleep well at night? I cycle a few hours daily so that kind of takes care of the sleep. My best and I hope darkest themes come when I’m walking past churches, in daylight.

The Next Big Thing (here’s hoping)

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

Here are my answers:

What is the working title of your next book?

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

Where did the idea come from for the book?

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

What genre does your book fall under?

Social realism panini’d with surrealism.

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

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

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

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

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

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

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

Eoin McNameeblogpic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strange times; sharp sickle peaks

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.’