Category Archives: Writing
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.
People sometimes ask why I still bother with writing workshops. You get the: ‘But you’ve been published in journals, you’re on all these shortlists, you seem to know what you’re doing?’ Knowing it’s all a bit excruciating, obsessional, frustrating, maddening…that dealing with loneliness is a big part of being a writer. Not being sure if any of it is any good anyway: mollycoddling your own unmoveable masochism. Yet there is something really peculiar that happens your own writing when you’re surrounded by people pushing the boundaries with theirs. It’s contagious and corrupting; reading the crushed muffle of someone else’s secrets, their desires, their strange reveries, their intuitions, their truth. How others in the room perceive those words differently on the page/screen, how the tutor feels it could or should work better. What is the writer really trying to tell us? How can they show it more effectively?
At an eight-week short story course at the Irish Writers Centre this summer, taught by Sean O’Reilly, the notion of the ‘repressed voice’ came up a few times. ‘Go change your name,’ he advised. ‘Because the person who’s writing is not YOU! It’s a different being and you have to let him/her out.’ In response to how nauseated or shocked newbie writers sometimes feel at what they’ve lobbed on the page, a story will often form a bizarre and unimagined curlicue. One that sets out with a calm, eloquent narrative, morphs into an ugly malicious pisstake; an angry rant at a family member; vengeance towards an old lover; hidden hurt at something that refused to happen despite unyielding desire. Life, essentially, and how it regularly doesn’t work out. We love to read about it. Peepers of mishap. Oglers of shame.
‘The writer’s voice is not programmed to say ‘kind things’ that will make you or others feel good for reading it,’ O’Reilly told us. ‘You don’t like this person, they terrify you. They contain everything you’re unable to say. The one who wants to write is a bad article! However, this other is the one that will write something interesting, the one that will produce art’. Hearing a base truth like this can be a real comfort when struggling to start a new story or facing into another redraft of a long abandoned novel. Embarrassment dissolves, the ‘stuff’ that’s been burdening you, that’s been stopping you writing, heads off into a grubby corner, leaving you to get the job done. It’s at this juncture that judgement wastes away and a group of writers really get to know each other, get to know the work. There’s nothing more gracious or satisfying than being part of shared trickery like this. It’s why I find myself back at workshops even though I know, essentially, that writing is something you need to grapple with alone, in the joyless hours. What is it that Rilke said? Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself.
So what do we do with fiction at these workshops? At its most elemental writing is about keeping ‘story’ under control in a form. We learn pretty quickly through reading each other’s work and listening to feedback that we need to lure the reader in with comprehensibility, with ordinary story (but even better if it manages to be gripping). We achieve this via a network that keeps the characters together, that makes the story glide and grow. ‘Action is thought!’ is the workshop mantra. In each paragraph something must happen, the story must move forward. Who is telling that story, point of view, the role of the narrator (close or from afar) will all impact on how the reader digests it, both consciously and subconsciously. This will determine if a story works or not. The obvious is often really tricky, we are told. It’s what blocks a lot of people from writing in the first place. You have a bunch of characters but for some reason nothing happens because the writer is avoiding the obvious in an attempt to be clever. But the obvious is often necessary. It’s that little link between one character and the other, why they are connected, we need that little bit of information, we need to know the intricacies of their relationship, we need to see it on the page.
If you doubt the veracity of your own story, apply the oral test: can you tell another person the story and keep them listening to you as if you were sitting in the pub on a Friday night rattling off the plot? Is the person going to get bored hearing you tell the story in an unexciting way? Similarly on the page you have to keep the reader linked into the guts at all times. You do this with action, with movement, you do it through the protagonist’s eyes. The reader cannot fade out if they’re not following at any point, if they get lost. It’s that awful, that crude.
For example if you’re going to deal with obsession, a character is obsessed with a ‘thing’ or someone…you’re going to have to treat that as a theme in itself. Establish the obsession, show it to the reader at work without relying or giving direct statements that ‘this is an obsession’. Timeline is crucial when it comes to hanging the story off a workable architecture. Writers often make the mistake of setting a story over a very short time-span. While a short story is just a ‘sliver of something’, a delicate insight, that sliver can still be set over weeks or months. It doesn’t all have to happen at a ferocious pace over half a day. You can’t establish obsession as a back story, you have to open out the metaphor. Dramatise it so we [the readers] can see it flouncing and floundering. We need to cringe and be entertained. We need to understand how this obsession works, how it is crippling or capacitating the main character. Trying to shove too much into a tiny little bit of action and not letting the idea establish itself over time if why a story falls on its rump.
After you finish that arduous first draft, you will need to ‘go back and rub your nose in it’ even if you let it sit for a while. It won’t just sit there and change itself. O’Reilly said there’s nearly always feelings of nausea and revulsion at ‘first attempts’, but that this can be a good sign. ‘It’s a bit painful to go back and face into what you’ve exposed of yourself onto the page like it is to go confront any situation where you’ve made a fool of yourself. It’s embarrassing, a bit disgusting, a bit shameful. But in there somewhere is what you need, the material trying to get out.’ One tactic is to resist it, the other tactic is to cover it in words so you can’t find it. We are often hiding the material from ourselves that drove us to write in the first place. After the workshop finishes, you’re free to head to the pub for some sneaky pints and a packet of Tayto, press *delete* on your laptop and vow to start all over again. This malarkey is all about resilience. Without it your stories are dusty ideas that’ll never make the gloss of day.
*This was written as part of my Online Writer in Residence gig at the Irish Writers Centre this autumn. Every year the Centre will host four writers on their blog to talk about the arts and to showcase their own work.
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, the architects, project managers, and bigwigs in PR 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 a problem dealing with ego-collapse. They got awful angry, awful quick. No one knew what to do.
Themes began to emerge 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, displacement, lack of sex, intimacy and 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 and diluted neurosis 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 and high-end literary fiction.
Sarah Griffin 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.
Women who are writing for young adults are writing the work they wish they had access to when they were growing up,” she says. “They’re composing their own cautionary tales, assembling toolkits 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 and focusing on the darker themes of women’s experience. “I chose to write a novel about two young female prostitutes and their experiences that 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 Harvesting is published by New Island in April 2017.
“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 these girls’ stories. I wanted to give a voice to these invisible women.”
Selina Guinness, who is the current writer-in-residence at DLR LexIcon, 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, 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 curmudgeonly old man as the narrator of 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.”
McKeon says: “It wasn’t until a year or so after I’d published my first novel that I realised how firmly and obediently it sat 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, was a conscious decision and one about which I felt nervous. Social media has made a huge difference to me, and I think to other women writers as well.
“When I started out, I felt like a woman in one of those 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 was originally printed in The Gloss on November 26, 2015, I’m republishing it here as I think it’s still applicable, especially for 2017. Here’s what to look forward to from independent publishers this year, including some of the names above.
He knew he smelt like a sardine but that’s what Polish beer does to a man on a low wage. With names like Tatra, Tyskie, and Zywiec, he may well have been downing fermented donkey piss the night before. The smug knotty face on the bent cop who ran the offie on a privately paid for unflappable hip made him madder than an IKEA jack saw, and to top it off he woke to Gina screaming blue shite cos he forgot the green lentils – she was on a wholefood buzz since her arse went all weather balloon – but it was the thoughts of the natterbeans that was pushing him pleasantly and comprehensively into the dark place.
If he’d half a brain or a quarter of a heart he’d feel sorry for the fuckers, but the natterbeans were a type of celestial cabbage he just abhorred, and when he passed Fanagans funeral home with the overflowing bottle bins slumped at its gates and bits of torn brown tights flying from the tangled railings of an aulone’s wet dream, one of them jumped in all lickety spit and said, ‘Alright bro, you and me are mates aren’t we, you nor gonna give me no jip cos I’m having a fuck of a day like…I’ll pay ye goodo, yeah, I’ll see ye alright when I get me glasses as me old Ma used to say but I never really did know what she meant. Ma’s are fucking mad aren’t they, but you know what I’m gerrin’ at, don’t ye? Ah sure, I’ll shut me trap and we’ll probably get there quicker, isn’t that the way bud?
‘Where are we going to?’, he found himself saying, a man in staccato, in a sock of shock. ‘Just tell me where we’re heading to.’
‘Well I tell ye what, I’m natterbean up at the clinic and they was fuckin’ me around cos they says I ain’t got a prescription or that I did have one in anyways but I don’t no more so I’ve to head to this other gaff up around Meath Street and talk to a Mr. Doody who’ll sort me out at another clinic till the Finglas one get word of where their prescription went to…a bunch of jokers’.
‘Where are we going to?’ He asked again, but not so politely this time, adding that he wanted to see the cash, out with the spondoolies, pass the notes to the front for him to look at.
‘Stall the ball there bud, don’t be going all Padraig Pearse on me…you think I’m just another trackie don’t ye, but here, c’mere, I can answer most of dem questions on Deal or No Deal, do ye watch dat, do ye?’
He’d been stung too many times lately by the likes of him. The last natterbean, well he had to reef him back into the car through the front window by the scruff, so far gone, so wasted, so emaciated, he would’ve been able to do a runner through a cat flap if he’d had his jimminy bits about him. That particular night he drove like a gazelle with a rocket up its hole, through the Port Tunnel and on up past the airport, out into the spuds and strawberries for sale countryside, with its vulgar houses and Breaded Chicken Breast With Pineapple pubs, dumping him in a field without his Nikes or jacket, a few farewell slaps…he took his social welfare & medical cards just so he’d forget forever who he really was, left him there at the hem of humanity for the dawn to deal with.
‘It’s nice to be nice, don’t be all rough bud like one of dem bleedin’ leg breakers,’ he said, ‘Didn’t I tell ye we were going up as far as Meath Street. I’m natterbean up at the bank, ‘ve plenty of paper on me so I ‘av. I’ll give ye extra if ye wait for uz. I’ll give ye a tenner up front now even though yezer clock only says a fiver, how’s that fur a bargain bucket?’
‘Do me a favour,’ he said, this time pulling the taxi over at the side of the road before they headed further into the cesspit, ‘Will ye try to shut your hoop on the way, I can’t concentrate if someone is nattering constantly, nothing personal, I’m sure you’re a nice fella, blah blah blah, but we’ll get on much better if we can get there as quickly and as peacefully as we can.’
He adjusted his mirror to take a closer look. He had the same mushroom pallor and knee jerkiness as the other natterbeans, but with a thin pointy face that was extra alert; a morning fox in an industrial estate looking for crane flies. His uneven shoulders and busted nose were also a bit typical. Teeth yellow as corn on the cob, stinking of Lynx over dirt and cherry bubblegum.
‘Yeah yea yea yea what did I fuckin’ tell ye, he’s a messer, don’t mind him, fuckin’ spacer so he is,’ he whined into his mobile. ‘I’m natterbean up there with Natalie dis morning and she says it’s sorted, I’ve to go here first on a message, gizza buzz back in an hour.’
He was glaring at his phone, pressing on the buttons like a physio prat would on a scabby foot. ‘Here, bud, will ye pull over there for a second, there’s me old Homie at the corner, I owe him a fiver.’
Homie was a fat man on one leg with a squeegee of green hair you could wash a pile of dishes with in a hotel kitchen. He could hear the Honda 50 drawl of both their voices building up at breakneck speed into an ambulance ‘warrrhhh warrrrhhh warrrrh warrrr’, before he was back in the car again. He better not be messing him around. The clock was up to €14 already. He wasn’t about to bring him on a round-trip of inner city Dublin dealers in dank car parks and lurid lane-ways strewn with needles and cabbage leaf.
The last one had the wool rightly pulled, taking him to five different chemists for her ‘fy’ while robbing them of expensive face cream. I’m only trying to make an honest living like you,’ she’d said, jumping back into his car. ‘I’m natterbean in prison four times already and I’ll never go back, so relax .’ His reg was taken on CCTV and he had to call into the guards and explain. It’s not his job to ask questions as long as the punter pays up, but he got a fine from the carriage office regardless.
‘Can ye turn down here for a minute bud,’ he said when they hit the grey bulk of Christchurch. ‘There’s me mate Bottler, just want to say howayea, his Mrs had a baby a few weeks back, they had to sew up her piss bag, she’s in an awful state.’
Bottler staggered out of a doorway looking like a Grade-A psycho who’d snap yer fingers off quicker than a fat kid at de zoo would break up a Kit Kat. Natterbean gave him a man slap on the shoulder and made his way back to the car.
‘He looks a bit of a head-the-ball, that fella, if you don’t mind me saying?’ He wanted to say something to draw his attention to the clock. ‘Just letting you know with the few stops already, It’s up to €18 now.’
‘No bother bud,’ he said. ‘Here’s another Lady Godiva, I’ll give ye the rest when we get there. That fella used to be a brilliant house breaker, so he was, but the Hungarians have all that wrapped up now. They put fucking broken glass outside bedroom doors so if you hear noise in the middle of the night ye smash up yer feet if ye have a gander. Filthy stuff that is. We never did anything like that. Always straight in and out. It’s not on, some poor old prick cuttin’ his feet te ribbons, you don’t do shit like that but dem Hungarians and Russians are mad, they’ve no respect.’
At the corner of Meath Street and Engine Alley a red hoodie made a run for the window, ‘There ye are ye mad cunt!’ He roared in. ‘I’m natterbean only been talking about you to Skittles and the lads!’ He held onto the boot as the light turned, falling over on his arse and rolling towards the drain. Natterbean was punching more digits on his mobile as the chemist came into view. He thought of Gina. ‘It’s €22 on the clock,’ I’ll need paying as soon as you come out.’
He’d accidentally seen her Tinder talk a few weeks before. Gina left her pink iPhone in the newly-built utility room ironically enough thrown on top of some dirty duvet covers – he hadn’t even heard of dating apps for phones – a kind of Hailo for getting your hole. It might’ve only been a chat with this Paul fella but it still hurt like fuck to know she could’ve been that lonely or desperate after 22 years. Now this knucklehead of a natterbean was punching on his phone just like she’d done with Candy Crush. There was probably a junkie app as well, swaying thumb tacks on Google Maps for those desperate for a hit. He’d made a good few stops after all, no such thing as convenience or coincidence in their cosmos of chaos. ‘You can pay me what you owe and get out of the car.’
‘Don’t be freaking the beak,’ he said, ‘Jaysus I’m natterbean in a queue the size of a black man’s mickey, It’s pure mayhem! They’re making everyone down it in front of the nurse on account of dem wackos keeping it in their gobs and spitting it out into plastic cups to sell outside. Here, there’s thirty euro and I need one more favour in Ringsend.’
Is this what she’d been doing too, sending him off on ‘little jobs’ as she called them, all over the city, cut price curtains in Debenhams, a parasol in Woodies, while yer man was messing with her plumbing controls at home?
‘Are you dealing skank and using me as a Muppet to drive you around?’ He barked at natterbean, who was once again, punching the shit out of his mobile phone.
‘No way, no way, I’m not a scummer, not like dat bud, no way.’ He could see him now in the mirror pulling at a sausage shape in his crotch. He’d heard about heroin making them extra fertile and methadone making ye horny, it was an endless cycle of new drugs and new wombs full of babies. To think that him and Gina planned their sprog right from when her ovaries were steaming, up to the Camengo Lollipops & Animals wallpaper he’d ordered from France as a surprise after she’d done the big heave-ho. Didn’t even wet Sindy’s head so he’d be there, bolder soldier by her side. He waited til the stitches healed enough to let her home in his taxi laced with cerise balloons chasing all three of them through the cobbles of Dublin. ‘I’ll suck out de snot if I have te,’ he told her, ‘And when she gets on a bit I’ll collect her in the work limo from school so she’ll feel like a rap princess at her first gig in Wembley.’
Natterbean pulled out a wad of notes, at least a couple of grand and told him a mate of his, a good guy, a dad, a brother, a footballer before he kicked into the smack, was gonna get it in the head tonight from a nackbag worse than The Nidge…that’s where they were heading now and he’d done a collection to get him on the boat to England. ‘I’ll give ye a hundred to collect him at Ringsend and bring him to the boat in East Wall. Have we a deal bud?’
He wasn’t expecting this. ‘Sure thing, no problem, it’s no harm to help a bloke out, this town is gone rough as a nun’s moustache.’
Clippers open when they reached the docks cos it wasn’t that long since Nulty had his license swiped and car impounded by Special Branch for helping Cocaine Crispin drop off a load set for the UK jog into Europe. Matters piggery shite if the cops know you’re just a cog, they’re more likely to go after the deputies than the mofos who can afford water wheels and brass dragons outside big dirty gaffs in Meath and Kildare. Nulty’s Mrs shut the door and kept on power walking when he could no longer pay the mortgage. Never got over it, though he got back on track as a security guard after. ‘That’s it for me’, he told the lads in the Come On Inn. ‘No more fish in the fryer when ye marry your first and pray she’ll be the last. I wouldn’t know what to do with a new bird’s bits. I’d fuckin’ shit meself so I would.’
The docks had a sheeny buzz since they’d done them all up on Fine Fáil chips. No more rust bunks sitting on giant metal plinths. Through civil wars and world wars and the IRA’s gun-running gobshites on the run from themselves, they’d all hid down here. First batches of heroin were held up here. Prozzies from Eastern Europe were brought in through here, young lives spent sucking on office peckers dreamin’ of getting out in a footballer’s convertible before been shot in the head as a favour to a crack Baron in Cabra for a write-off of a few quid or other. He could even imagine the scrawny famine families dressed in linen sacks carrying malnourished mites onto ships here.
He imagined Gina and yer man up on deck staring down with grotto faces knowing they’d never be back again but being sure they’d starve to death on the way. He’d like to send her back to screaming famine and shove a pile of typhus down her gullet for good measure. Not in a million fucking years did he think she’d put out for anyone other than him. That had been the Majorca promise. Nothing but the egg smell of sewer and seaweed sea had stayed the same since those rotten times back then. There was even an apartment block now in the shape of a cruise liner for those twats that worked in Google and the likes. At night you could see the neon fish swimming up their walls as far out as Howth.
‘There’s de purr cunt there!’ said Natterbean, pointing to a plonker in a grey duffel coat, slumped up against a wet wall with black anchor chains, arguing with a seagull. ‘Breezer, over ‘ere, c’mere, ye fuckin’ queer!’ He froghopped out when the car was still only slowing. They wobbled towards each other, slap slap, mind yerself, where’s me gym bag, take care, no you take care, I’ll take care, but will you take care, let uz know. Stay gizmo’d until he heard of them getting de chop. All of ‘em uns ended up sucking worms before they were thirty.
‘I need a hundred now before we go further,’ he told him. ‘The clock’s been off over an hour.’ He drove slowly, snakily out, ignoring the fact that the gobshite was crying. ‘Junkies don’t cry,’ he thought. ‘They wouldn’t know what it meant’.
She’d be moaning the toss when he got back. Ye forgot this, ye didn’t pick up dat. Where’s me bleedin’ lentils? Didn’t I say no matter wha bring me back de green lentils. He’d be in no mood for an ear-lashing, the night shift only a few shite hours away. ‘Would ye ever give me a bitta space,’ he’d say. ‘I’m natterbean out all day working, the least you can do is shut that sinkhole of a gob and put the kettle on.’ Then he’d smile and tell her she’d a nice ripe arse.
**This ditty/story was written (in a hurry!) and performed for the Barrytown Trilogy Readings at DLR libraries in April 2015, as part of Colm Keegan’s writer in residence gig. It’s a deliberate nod to Roddy Doyle’s style of writing, with a contemporary twist, of course. I read alongside Stephen James Smith, Colm (of course), Karl Parkinson, and musicians Enda Reilly and Sinéad White. My next reading will be part of the Bogman’s Cannon ‘Fiction Disco’ on November 13th at 7.30pm in Toners, Baggot Street, where I’ll read a story about 1916 in relation to the Ireland we endure now.
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.
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.
It is hardly worth telling, this story of mine, or at least in a modern context, because so many people go through the same these days and feel it too dull and inconsequential to mention. We have to take our modern horrors on the chin in the same way sewage is turned back into drinking water, axiomatically. Some small trace evidence of evil was always there, hanging on a hammock off his organs, in the grubby suitcase inside his head: laughing at a rape on the television, laughing at the old woman up the road dying of cancer (in the most excruciating way). Laughing at a crushed dog out on the main road, a cut knee, house repossessions, floods, poverty, puberty, forest fires, riots, stock collapse and all else sitting mean and keen in-between. It’s funny to think of the exact relay now, as I have not been able to leave the house since. And I have not been right in the heart since! Both of them dead now, lost to me, lost to the ignorant beauty of everything.
There are days when I crumple on the couch giving in to endless interlude, boom-box of Jeremy Kyle, mini flask of vodka, crows crying their lamps out in the chest-hair back garden. Slow Joe next door moving his furniture around to nothing but his own sound. Eventually I’ll squirm up to bed when I know I’ve successfully folded enough hours of the day into the next so that neither is in much of a shape to be useful. Even then I cannot escape the watching. That his eyes are stuck on me and me alone, I am completely sure. That she is unable or unwelcome to come through at all, I am also completely sure.
From his hospital bed he seemingly figured it all out. ‘Here ye go Frank, have some nice yoghurt, c’mon now, try to eat a little something’. The mind is a peculiar thing, the manager told us. He seemed to know we were doing up some of the rooms, I told her, he said so. He said he could see it in his mind’s eye. ‘That’s impossible,’ she replied. ‘He might’ve heard one of the staff talking about renovating a house or something along those lines. If you think of it a bit like the way magpies work, on clear days when the blood flows normally, they can snatch bits and bobs of other people’s reality, processing it as their own.’
I always had a strange relationship with this house. When I left for University in London twenty five years ago, I was plagued with memories of levitating in the sitting room as a small child. When I returned to Dublin on holidays my mother wrote it off, sniggering ‘oh my daft daughter!’ but he didn’t. ‘I used to do that in digs years ago, down the quays,’ he told me. Levitate after concentrating like mad. Best done standing upright with your fists clenched by your side, head up, breathing deep. Think your way through the weight of human rubbish, out the lid on the other side, slowly ascending. Think yourself into lightfooted, sheer, unsubstantial. ‘If you lose confidence even for a second, that’s you,’ he explained. ‘You’d be right back on dry land again. Sometimes it might only be an inch or two you’d go but what of it. Other times you could rise high into a dusty corner of the room no bother.’ One night after his room-mate caught him the old bag who ran the boarding house called in a priest to ceremoniously bash and threaten with stern words. The priest, when he realised my father was a moss back atheist, called in a mutton-faced guard and the guard called in a doctor of psychology after he demanded to know what the exact charge was. In 1950s Ireland it was put down to a physical malaise caused by communist blathering. They backed off with a polite warning. He was a public servant by then: that particular type tended to get away with a lot.
My brother Arnold, six years older than me, remembers Top of the Pops posters falling from the four walls in the back bedroom when he stared into the old gritty dressing table mirror. The same dressing table that recently got a chalk paint up-cycle by Annie Sloan. Myself and a teenage pal used to sit drinking cider and smoking dope in that mirror until she eventually got the creeps sufficient and wouldn’t come to our house any more. Another brother went clear mad in that room. Ran off to the army and got stranded on Carcass Island during a far-off war – not actually fighting – but overseeing penguins and derelict buildings when everyone else scarpered. He put a £90,000 bet on a horse and flung himself out a B&B window in Warwick after they paid to get rid of him. My mother invited him home to rest it out but he stayed five years and turned mustard in the room. He eventually died giving himself over to numerous drug trials to feed his gambling habit. He always said he saw faces and not just in the dead leg of night. Mean wizened women’s faces, out of holy nowhere.
There were so many rumours about the clump of houses (not just ours) not far from the old walls of the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin. In Irish: Glas Naíon, meaning ‘stream of the infants’. A stream infected with famine-time cholera from sinking bodies in the nearby crater of graveyard. That was one theory for some residents going a bit plinky plonky. Ley lines, lead pipes, electrical brain teasers from mobile phone masts. Nothing was ever proven. Point is, he was never going to leave the house willingly. And the house was never going to spew him up willingly either. In reality he had this vulgar indwelling of power despite the brandy having pinched his mind, his heart, his intellectual abilities, his ambition, his bowels, his bank, his false teeth, his legs.
When they first married my mother was his Word War II coal queen for sure. The newly-built 1950s semi had four fireplaces, including one in a double bedroom upstairs for any wife to squeeze babies out in comfort to lay snug in a chest of drawers. No one bought cots in advance then. A mantelpiece adorned with a Padre Pio genuflection, ceramic Holy Mary, broken fireguard, a photograph of her dead father dancing at a dinner party and Dusty Bin won in a Blackpool bingo hall. I was born in this room.
Back in the days of Pat-a-cake, of hand-jive, when asked that first time she curbed a smile and ran like mad, in her A-line skirt & bobbysocks. My father ran after her. All of what you’d expect, naturally. It may have been the dead baby; lifeless in a Clark’s’ shoe box on the bedroom floor, that had the final say. Or it may have been nothing peculiar at all. Missed promotion in work, boredom, a stray urge. But sometime in his forties, he left himself and us behind. Yet we continued to love him despite the emotional violence, the daily drudge, the drinking, the incessant arguing, the drab awful iron-clad impossibility of it all. As you’d expect towards a father or a husband by a certain societal proxy. A hangover from Victorian times, maybe. We loved him because it was required of us. We battled hard to understand why he was always in such pain, why he needed to pass on some of that pain to us.
For the last three years, with everyone else gone, he’d wandered into the smelly elderly and utterly struggling pit. Manning the walls all day like a wood-turner. Agonising over what we now know were mites of madness softening at the base of his brain-stem. He cried out in the Murano glass corridors of sleep and at least a few times a night would clamber into our bedroom, where my mother and I slept after he became incontinent. He’d enquire as to where he was, looking for an explanation for the clatter trap in his head. Kept saying “sorry” for something he was never able to remember having done. ‘I can’t cope with him any more,’ my mum said. He had dementia. We were exhausted. It seemed no one else out there cared. Our local GP said he no longer made house calls because the HSE wouldn’t pay doctors for such variants of care since the recession. He had to make it to the surgery or rot. Towards the end of two summers ago, maybe in 2009 or thereabouts (it’s hard to recall exactly) I rang social workers attached to the local health board, put a plan in place and that was that. We were not to know what would happen. We had no experience of this kind of thing. Even in retelling the story, I find I’m just as upset and confused as when I lived through it. I cannot be absolutely sure of what occurred, of the timeline, except for the following:
The day came. We both said, ‘Be strong, this is it, the only way forward!’ Even as he sat in his wheelchair facing out at the eggy sun for the first time in four years, the house showed signs of a problem. A water tank in the attic only replaced the previous year decided to manifest a swollen belly on the toilet ceiling, bursting through its own guts before the lift arrived. A mirror smashed with no window open or air circulating anywhere. The fridge gasped itself to a halt. I looked right at her and said, ‘Don’t even say it! Don’t be ridiculous! Don’t be reductive! We’re doing the right thing.’ The whole point of being here, of being human, was to take responsibility. That’s what we were doing, surely? God knows he couldn’t do it! He was incapable of doing anything. ‘Try to remember that much,’ I said to mum. She suffered hugely through all of this. She had made her bed. She would ‘till Doomsday’ lie on it.
Four days in a row he rang pleading for his life. We told him ‘NO!’ He could stay there for a month and give us time to clean up the house. It smelt like a Berlin urinal. It would have to be fumigated for starters. We would have to organise a new bed. Possibly a downstairs toilet with washing facilities. There might even be a grant available to convert the garage as elections were only around the corner. ‘I cant cope with this awful place, you’re my wife, please take me home!’ My mother never stood up to him, ever. She tried to poison his stew once, but that was a long time ago. ‘You’re in there for a rest, I need a rest too,’ she told him, slamming the phone down. On day three he had a stroke. On day seven we were summoned. ‘He has deteriorated significantly, especially emotionally,’ the nurse said. ‘I’m so sorry, but it could’ve happened at any time, anywhere.’ We didn’t quite know what she meant by that but when we saw him, by Jove we got a shock for sure. We’d traipsed the wards three times before we accepted the sack of crumpled grey maudlin was the same feisty person we left off for ‘respite’ just the week before. It took three more days and threats of legal action to get him moved from the stinking old TB sanatorium in the park to a proper hospital for the specialist treatment he needed.
Do Not Resuscitate, the sign above the bed read. Young slip of a thing from Killiney or somewhere affluent like that said with his age, with his expected quality of life, with the general prognosis (of which they were still not fully certain) there was no point in doing much at all. Just sit it out, wait it out. His life was now a junk-shop egg timer. Throat broken. Stomach empty. His head, well, basically, it had begun to thoroughly scoff itself. Middle cerebral artery: considerable shrinkage. Clots, many. Brain bleeds, more to be expected. Aspiration pneumonia. Muscle damage. He screamed. Roared. Pegged at us as if he were grabbing on to a half-inflated lifeboat. We should go home and take it handy, try to get on with things. Especially her, his wife, the overseer of his decline. She needed to push ahead, look after herself. Try to put things in perspective. Everyone will get to this point. There’s really little to do when it happens.
That night I woke at 2.22am. I will never forget the exact time because I saw in the pitiful light of the green alarm clock my father crawling around the wall, a crazed lizard. His body partially flattened with his old office clothes flipping and sagging. A much smaller head, but his eyes: a ferocious sickly yellow. His neck bent as if it had been snapped and yanked back into place with a heap of loose skin sewn back on roughly. Flipping and flopping around on top of the Billy bookcases, side to side, like you’d expect to see in House of Reptiles at Dublin Zoo. The most revolting noise as well. A kind of clacking sound that didn’t befit his human form. His smaller body thumped along the furniture as if he/it wanted to attack, priming itself for incursion.
I sat up and rubbed my eyes. Flicked on the bedside lamp. Checked for my mother in the other bed to see if she was at ease. Her small frame slowly rising and falling back into the salmon sheets. I was stuck in the forecourt of some outlandish car wash with the engine on and no idea where to head to next. I stayed like that for a good hour and the vision of absolute repugnance didn’t falter or fade or go away. I could barely breathe or move, my limbs became sore with fright. I could hear the mechanism in my chest chug out and suck in stale air, but I carried on watching him flip and hurtle and scoot with no sign of diminishing.
‘I heard him calling all through the night, Liz! Liz! Liz!, I’m not the better for it,’ she declared, the next morning. I was up at the crack of dawn trying to steady myself, doing things around the house that had been abandoned for some time. ‘It’s understandable!’ I assured her. ‘It’s a kind of guilt, you know, you’re feeling all out of sorts with the way he is, what he’s going through.’ No, she was utterly convinced it was really his voice she heard. ‘At one point I even heard him knocking on the window trying to get in.’ I thought of their window, the front double bedroom window, climbing out when we had the silly séance with a matchbox as a planchette back in the day. We all legged it from the house in unison, a herd of 11 year olds. ‘Move if there’s anyone here! Move if you can hear us!’ Then it flew off the bed, hitting the radiator all the way over at the far wall. It seemed an impossible manoeuvre for one of us with our small fingers and no experience yet of the trickery out there in the vast sickly world. Vickie Cawley laughing as ten crows. Me in pure fright mode. Billie Dunne jumping out that bloody window twenty feet up and running for dear life.
It was only two weeks after she found the baby in the plastic bag down the lane-way backing onto the Sisters of Our Divine Lady of Endless Charity. Same location where they later found twenty two babies and sixty skeletons of women whose deaths were never registered. Billie stumbled across the bag in 1981, opening it up without really understanding what she was looking at. Though a tiny bloodless hand was enough to send her rocketing. I guess this was how young women got rid of unwanted evidence then. It wouldn’t happen now with advances in DNA, with advances in social conscience. The laundries continued on into the mid 1990s unabated.
On the day of our séance my mother was working at the RDS Horse Fair on the Rowntree’s chocolate stall: Munchies, Caramac, Mars Bar. All the leftovers were piled into a large shopping bag and dragged across the city home to us. It was the first time I was allowed look after the house without Arnold or my sister Maedbh in situ. When my mother got home, she slapped me clear across the chops. She may have already met one of the mothers on her way – Billy Dunne’s was particularly hysterical – but if not her trademark intuition told her I had got involved with something unenlightened. Something mischievous and corrupt. She could feel it. The cold throughout the house was cavelike, wet and heavy as culm.
The next visit wasn’t even in the deferential cubbyhole of night. I was sitting on the toilet with the door wide open, staring out into the landing, thinking. It was mid afternoon. Thinking of how to make her life better in the time she had left (she was already eighty three years old). Thinking about how to access funds to do essential repairs to the house, especially the kitchen and bathroom which were, after years of neglect, in a dreadful state. Everything was in his name. She was Mistress of Nothing. What I saw next makes me feel like I may have already been a composed and submissive inmate of the asylum. He thundered up the stairs, his head intact as I had remembered it but a spider’s absurd blackened body, eight legs quivering on the carpet in front of me. Darted about turning to stare me right in the face. In a moment’s stampede of panic he was gone again.
She better shut right up about him. All this harping on about how the stroke happened was not our fault. We didn’t give it to him! And if he had just allowed a bit more for our help at home, we would not have insisted he be removed in the way that he was. Obviously he had a problem with it too. What we needed to know was if he was doing this deliberately. Was he wilfully, determinedly, trying to teach us a lesson for what we had done, when in reality, we were left with no choice by then. ‘Dealing with this is like dealing with a forest fire,’ nurse Cáit said. ‘Even people with the height of expertise cannot deal with this at home sufficiently. There comes a time when you have to let the person go.’ He is talking about old relations long dead I told her. ‘Could he really be seeing them?’ It is a ‘thing’ with people who are sick, apparently. He will not be aware that they have already passed. Is he caught in some foyer between? I wondered. ‘It doesn’t make sense that he would ask about Stan,’ my mother said, ‘God knows he couldn’t stand him when he was alive. Him or his ugly West Cork wife’. We have to stop this, I told her, we have to accept that he’s getting the proper care and we have a right to live in the house now, the best we can.
The kitchen had been fixed up coffee colour shaker with high quality Italian orange stone tiles, a new water tank with titanium coating, floorboards in the front bedroom replaced entirely (as the urine had burnt right through). ‘For a second I thought he was there in the porch late one night,’ she said. No! that was the milkman I told her. At this stage it helped to be stern about the whole ordeal. Such was her slave mentality towards him for so long that she found it almost impossible to disentangle in any form. We painted the bedroom at the back where we both slept a genial grey, with some of the furniture a Provence green to ward off the evil eye. The garage was cleared of his things and the garden tidied up to such an extent that you could now sit on a small stone chantry down the end and draw in the air in long protracted puffs.
At evening time I thought it best to summon him in the mirror to stop any of the nonsense that would no doubt occur later on. She was already so scared of going to bed that I moved her into the spare single room where he wouldn’t think to go. All the years growing up he never bothered any of us in there. I gave her some ambien along with a few panadol to aid sleep into the night and sprinkled some valerian and chamomile on her pillow. Tucked away in there from early evening until well into the following day, I began to feel that she was not part of this any more, that I had chaperoned her away from potential suffering or fright.
His presence in the dressing table mirror was amorphous and vague, as if to show his full self to me was not part of the greater plan, that I was somehow not worthy. He would not have been like this with any of my brothers, had they been still alive, but men of his generation were sodden in misogyny whether they cared to admit to it or not. Though I didn’t doubt for a second that he was there, looking back at me, sneering, informing me that no men would come to do the door in a rush to take me out. That my skin wasn’t the best, that really I wasn’t the cleverest of them, a few forks short of a picnic basket.
His seething hatred began to make me laugh, as if any empathy I had left for him and his lousy condition was hidden away in a beanpole storage facility, the type people use for bundles of clothes they hope will come back into fashion some day. ‘Do you think I don’t remember what happened on Bingo Nights all those years ago?’ I told him. ‘When I pissed the bed and you rolled me out like a sausage roll and said I had to wait in the hall until she got home.’ What a lousy father you were but still you made us feel sorry for you. It was always about you! And what the hell did you do for your parents after they left Ireland? You barely bothered your arse ever seeing them again! When you did you were pissed out of your mind. They rang us here to complain, across the Irish sea, you with no respect, turning up for funerals two days late. You who demands so much of us now! What a bloody joke! Do your worst, go on, do your worst! Do whatever you think will work at this stage and do it with your sick brain in all its shrinking glory! Oh but if you think it stopped him slinking into those horrible animal forms and darting around furniture at night, my grousing in the mirror only made him worse and brought him nearer to me, instead of up on top of the bookshelves or the wardrobes or the wall. A ferret slinking in and out of the bed bars at the end of my feet, leaving drops of sweat and other depositions for me to see in the mornings.
When she passed in the single room I didn’t have her removed straight away because that’s exactly what he would’ve expected to happen. He’d expect her to be lying there, in state, in Fanagans Funeral Parlour on the Old Finglas Road, a twin-set and her navy skirt (always in navy, like a sailor’s wife on a first trip abroad, hoping to appear smart no matter where they went). I didn’t mention to him either that she was gone as I wanted to see if he’d tell me about it, if he really had the upper hand when it came to using his intuition, his greedy appetite for a good hunch. But he hadn’t a breeze! He did however begin to appear more frequently, more sonorously if you like, in the mirror. I am not sure if this was a kind of latent protest, but the house joined in by breaking even more of itself up. The heating system gave out and the plumbing at the back of the shower fell to pieces completely…twice I had to get a local hood in to bash things back into place or replace the piping entirely. Black mould broke out on the walls of both bedrooms. Dreadful shapes in butterfly splats and distant familiar patterns (the one of the Eiffel Tower was amusing, but I made sure not to laugh out loud), which I’d rouge over with chalk paint within hours of appearing.
I miss her terribly but part of me is glad she is resting up accordingly. No more, ‘Oh God, do you think we should go back out to him today? Does he have enough dark chocolate? Is there still a problem with his swallow? Are there enough clothes out there, I don’t want them to think we’re not making enough of an effort’. She had herself tortured to the point where she gave Catholic martyr wives a dreadful name! I miss her dressing gown shuffle and the barrage of tea that clicked into our day the same way felt tacks do on school board maps. Sad too that she would never get to go on a Royal Caribbean Cruise ship that I had promised we’d do. Those ships are something else! Ascend 300ft above sea level in a North Star capsule! Fine dining extravaganza that holds more than two thousands revellers at a time! He hardly took her anywhere truth be told, not for a long time. Hadn’t the energy, or the self governance.
The year he retired may have been the exception. He took her to Nerja in Spain. She knew by then he’d been with her friend very early on too. It was her first sun holiday and she’d never seen anything like it. Three bedrooms in the apartment even though it was just the two of them. She thought it might be a mistake at first. Only two minutes from the beach and twelve minutes from the marina. Bakery on the ground floor. Fish in all the restaurants cooked any which way you wanted it. Sun as hot as an Aga. Of course he didn’t like that bit but she took to it like gravy on a turkey leg. Every morning bang on 8.30, she was down at the beach while he had a good lie-on.
Now that it’s just the two of us I feel I have an opportunity to understand him a bit more. I hope that if he sees that I know how he feels, how hurt he is, he might stop his games around the house and reach some sort of compromise. The dressing table was made for them when they first got married by a very talented carpenter, with the promise that no other identical piece existed in the whole of Glasnevin. The mirror carved in a classic baroque style. It’s good to concentrate on the positive aspect of where we now, and to forget all the things that didn’t work in the past. He wanted to be a writer, for instance, but couldn’t quite stick at it, not like I am now. ‘There is a lot more to life than jumping at every silly ambition that lands on your mat,’ I told him. He thinks this is a sound observation and one that will ward off disappointment from expectations that are perhaps a bit too high. ‘That’s the problem these days, people want so bloody much!’ he says. Isn’t it so true! We are able to agree, which I feel is genuine progress. I find it funny to think we were so scared of him years ago when he was the one who was clearly so terrified of us! That I would hide up here under the blankets with my fingers so deep in my ears they would be sticky and sore when my sister would burst into the room and pull them out again. ‘He’s gone to bed,’ she’d say, ‘The coast is clear for now and mum has shortbread in the oven.’
This story was a prizewinner in The Moth International Short Story Prize 2014, and is published in the Autumn 2014 edition of the magazine.
‘Charged language and a ferocious imagination; mad as a bag of spiders and genuine talent.’ – judge Mike McCormack
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.
Dubstopia is a long short story where nothing and everything happens junkie Gonzo as he wanders around Dublin – and his head – on a dodgy errand. It’s deliberately ugly & experimental and has plenty of swear words, bad grammar and other unsavoury linguistic bits flung in. It was written on a short story course at the Irish Writers’ Centre a few years ago now and was published recently [in April 2014] in US journal Literary Orphans, ISSUE 12: Swift (Ireland & the Irish). The journal also features work from:
–Background Art & Illustration for this story is by Zak Milofsky
–Photo Art of building by Sarah Hardy
Scrambled egg beside a steaming gee-pad Carol left on the mattress. Lidl brownie with ants. Two packs of Amber Leaf. Wet jeans. Sun tearing in the window through an A-Line skirt she stole from yellow teeth bag-face in Oxfam. Book of Yeat’s poetry open on a fumble in a greasy till and add a halfpence to the pence. Leather Joe’s address book with dead dealers whacked by the Nike gang in Finglas. A picture of his granny curled on a couch holding a bunch of Chrysanthemums; monster Holy Mary in a Punto blue dress peering down her seersucker top. Carol’s shoe stuck in an antique trumpet. His passport. Loose turf. Sunglasses mounted on a Stanley knife.
It was too late in the morning to leave The Old Bank: PinStripe would be downstairs showing clients around giving it the high-dough this and that: sash windows, safe room intact, De Valera around the corner, locked horses on the towpath, ladies with hats, worth a packet when the stock market convulses back, priceless mirrors, legend says there’s a ghost, sixteen rooms; would make a cracking hostel, Real McCoy Victorian chimneys. Gonzo decided to hang back a while and have a wank.
He wanted to bang the nurse in The Mater who took bloods. He wanted to bang her cos she talked down to him. He wanted to bang her cos of the dirty way she leant over and smacked the vending machine, pillow tits blobbing all over the gaff and well she knew it and well the old codgers with the fucked hearts knew it and well the pleated receptionist with the tall latte knew it and well the trolley-pushing hunchback in plastic green knew it and well he knew it: they’d jelly when he gave it to her goodo. She’d have to shut the fuck up saying shit about Hep-C, muscling, skin-popping, if Carol took mushrooms when breastfeeding the day the baby died. He wanted to bang her for saying things he didn’t understand – subcutaneous – posh words for abdominal bloating and liver damage, infertility and testicle shrinkage. He wanted to bang her.
She’d be down at the Old Mill on the canal sucking off Leather Joe for a bag. Willy would be there too with the scab-ho wrestling over a lukewarm tin of Stonehouse, suckin’ her face off. Beamer the old tramp with the no veins. Hasslebat, his ginger eyebrows lighting up hot worms in a snow of forehead. Smell of piss hacking the sun-up. Widearse Wendy with her tales of Berlin, before Guzz floated down the river with a bag of leaves in his mouth. Guzz who survived winters in Leeds in the eighties sleeping under truck stop Lorries, draining antifreeze through slices of white bread under the engine holes. Phib, their Jack Russell in a rusty pram lickin’ stolen Satsumas. They’d be swaying by now, talking bollox, tapping passers-by. ‘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?’
He didn’t mind what Carol did as long as no-one came in her. She’d be back with the gear in the afternoon, giving it the full candy: ‘Darlin baby I fuckin’ lurv you, d’ye know dat? I’d fuckin’ keel over fur yew.’ They’d lie on the wet mattress and roll into the Mournes biting sweat gashes off rivers, green slime, bits of broken helicopters, church bells in ears, cold tinny blue and God’s feet, big as cheese urns, landing unceremoniously in a crumpled scared heap, pulling at Carol’s scraggly hair to see was it a bastard lion’s head, vinegar swish-crash, fluff cellophane greed stirrup blood mount. Sometimes the bank would turn into a spinning barrel turning shrill pork belly with them naked rolling and banging into the ridges with running whiskey gag, the wood burner he nicked farting out leftover specks of fire on cling-film skin, until they couldn’t breathe alone or together and then Carol would hear the ghost of the bank inside the old windows, telling her to pick up the horse shit and bring it to the man in the Botanic Gardens for the flowerbeds.
“D’ye hear hiyim?” she’d say.
“He’s in heeyore, talk’n aggen.”
“Curse he is, shurrrup an’ he’ll go ‘way, fuuksaike!”
She’d hear the dead baby too, asking for his doo doo. ‘Gimme boy doo doo, doo doo mine!’, and he’d have to pretend to hand the absent baby something, anything that might look like adoo doo and then he’d slap it into her to get her to stop seeing the baby and she’d ask for another one – tits well gone since they’d started using again – nipples were teacher’s eyes squintin’ at the crap way he pronounced Irish words. Sometimes he’d bash them, but she never seemed to give out about that.
“Gimme a baybeee, I want mi babee back”.
He stopped bursting into her cos all three kids were reefed away. No way would he be doin’ that again. So he’d pull out and squirt on the wood floor, and she’d slip on it going to the jacks and call him a ‘prick’, falling asleep until the others came later. He’d collect them on the fire escape, one by one, no way hosay during de day in case PinStripe got to know about the squat. Couldn’t use the burner until late at night cos of the smoke snakin’ and they weren’t able to cook in it just on a camp hob so over and over again went without food for days sambo’d into a lot of other days. Lucky to have de place. Most had to sleep in the bandstand on the canal or in de laneway behind Doyle’s Pub that burnt down, sausaged in giveaway blankets with Leather Joe screamin’ inside night terrors of ginger arse rape Da until the sun flew up over the broken roof tiles and car beeps gnashed at them, pong of Spar hash browns, burnt dry, useless as donkey pelt.
By three o’clock the pains were rippin’ and no sign of her, so he lashed down the ladder with its shitbag of miry snails, out onto the North Circular Road. Chink Man was outside his shop with its windmill of sweeping brushes, Jesus clocks and Sudoku toilet roll. ‘You no come in here!’ he shouted. Carol dipped him too many times, taking a slash-swipe at his Mrs another time when she was packing the window with animal motion sensors. ‘Mine’s a beef satay bud!’ Gonzo hissed back, sticking his middle finger up in the air. ‘You complete b.a.s.t.a.r.d!’ Chink Man roared. Only once did Gonzo wonder why he hated him so much for taking a job he’d never want.
Quick glance down Goldsmith Street and onto more bump of side road. Every step up step down hurt like fuck. Fatsos by the cattle-cart stomping into Curves gym to the lyrics of I Will Survive. He sang along to stop the pain from slit-sucking out his intestines. And now you’re back from out der space…I jus walked in to find ye ‘ere with dat sad look on yer face. ‘C’mon now ladies, knees up and up and up again, that’s it, keep going, let me see those knees!’ The Russian tattoo shop and Made By Mary with its calf hole carvery, Brenner in De Joy on the left, IRA prick, dying for Mother Ireland in a 15 X 20 exercise yard, the hospital with its wheelchair morgue; militia of swollen ankles, around by the battered yellow flower shop and on and on, holding onto his guts like a stolen Christmas present. Sweats horsin’ down under denim, face the dye of fresh snot. Passed the launderette where his Ma used to wash the boy’s clothes on a Saturday before packet potato soup with dinosaur lumps. ‘Don’t sit on the machines Patrick, what did I tell you Patrick, are you listening to me Patrick?’ When he was small enough to be growing that snorkeler that would give him ‘Gonzo’ for all his days. He’d probably never see her again. She certainly didn’t want to see him again. Most days he’d clear forgot what she looked like.
Outside Reproductive Choices on Berkeley Street: he could see a scrape-load of them, redder than Mars moons, holding up placards for their right to life like taxi drivers at Dublin airport on the pick-up. He read in The Sun that Obama got rid of aborted baby cell flavours in fizzy drinks, the ones that make you belch. Bowed de corner onto North Frederick Street bucklin’ to puke; stream of moss green gooey liquor pouring into slick brick. “Look at de state of ‘im!” he heard a voice bellow from a basement flat. Gonzo wiped de puke with the corner of his jacket, using the other sleeve for his eyes. The worst was the misery of desperation. Digging up dead people for pocket watches, the scrap metal run, bashing old people in old houses for a twenty euro bag. He could hear more voices. More laughter. More bawl. Howling from inside the ancient sewers under Dublin filled with fibre-optic cables, calp, acorn turds, fermented Vikings, diagonals of dead birds flying through Centuries of tidal pools to get here to nowhere. ‘Down here ye wankorrrr! Gonzo, ‘ere!’
At Bustlers’ Gym, the ugly bake of Dessie Kearney peekin’ up, a cortege of dagged ewes geekin’ out from the slip of lace curtain with meringue holes for suckin’ in the day. ‘Have you got any gear?’ Gonzo asked. ‘I’m in de bads’. Dessie beckoned him down the spinal. In the sitting room on the table, he could see the spoon, tang of cotton fever. Plug-in neon wolf picture on the wall to send heads carroty spinners. Two cans of UHT cream on de mantle. Skinner in a Sideline jacket handed him a leprechaun head of Nescafé. They could sort him out, Dessie said. He could sort them out too, with a favour. Gonzo wasn’t known, or wasn’t that known, or cared about. Bob’s your uncle. Fannywollop’s your aunt.
Dessie held him down like a barber might do with a six year old boy. ‘Scank the Russians are sellin’ is drivin’ the cops plinky plonky,’ he explained. ‘Low grade cack that makes punters scrabble around dem streets like hogs. Dublin City Council having a right old mickey fit with collapsing junkies everywhere and those Triad muppets fucking about chopping gigot chops off wackos owing as little as a tenner. Kip so it is. It’s not how we ever did things. Even dem grannies are gettin’ in on it selling horse tablets down the Boardwalk till new stashes arrive. Bitches used to be happy shifting cauliflowers & pears. All of it needs sorting or we’re toast’.
Skinner piped up: ‘Going for a song as well, so it is. And they’re lobbing chemical splatter into the gear Gonzo. No competition. More addictive than Big Whippet or Mullingar Mud’.
The drug scene in Dublin had got boiled egg bad. Four friends in as many months had dropped dead from bad gear. He looked at Dessie who was eyeing two lesbos on the couch. One of them, skinny as rashers, was pretending to grate her tongue. ‘Yewer fuukin’ gas’, she said to her mate, bending over to kiss her full on the gnashers. Both wore matching Dolphin necklaces.
‘There’s small kids farting about on bicycles picking iPods like apples off O’Connell Street,’ Skinner told him. ‘Muggings are up a thousand per cent, robbed cars selling for under €500, all cos of this new shit that’s on the streets. Havoc. Operation Stilts Gardaí are calling it. Clamping down like steel clips on a dirt-bird’s nipples’.
Gonzo hated Dessie even in school when he lobbed custard out the window at passing priests and pensioners, chasing after seagulls on de Buckfast zig-zag, giving his 15 yr-old girlfriend a black eye for buying de wrong smokes. Skinner was worse, he could tell. Grade-A psycho who’d snap yer fingers off quicker than a fat kid at de zoo smashes a Kit Kat. Now they were turkeychesting with Russians dealers, taking on the entire muscle-for-hire empire. Russian gangsters in silver jackets trafficking teenagers by day, raping dogs of an evening. Ghetto of mayhem and fear papers were calling it. Funnel-dump from ringworm roads right up to Talbot Street, Gardiner Street and down the flank of docks to Fairview, casting into surf and howling out of rust-caked eyes into waves, sand shifting beneath drug boats, narrow little sea gods sucking at gravel and dancing a slithery leap. Low-cost booze and spat-back-up methadone from lippy whores in slippery capsules was all you could see in the city centre before one o’ clock in the day. By early afternoon the needle peddlers creaked into the gush of lanes behind Moore Street, Abbey Street and beyond, sliding to a stop the same way drops of water do on Carol’s shampooed hair. Cops didn’t give a gypsies’ as long as people like him hurried de fuck up and died. Junkies only made news when they snuffed out at tourist sites or were found lynching from concrete tongues high up between those buildings on Dame Street.
He didn’t take much convincing. Skin’s hands spread his furry cheeks apart to do the business. Arse was a humongous burger, the ones he used to get in Wendy’s in O’Connell Street when it first opened in 1987: spongy warm baps, melted Easi-singles, hot pickle sauce. Slip slop, slip slop, up with de cacks. Three bags of scank in his butcher’s bin, street value: €90,000. He’d drop de sludge and be back by three ticks, home to Carol for around five.
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. 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 burd. 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 de 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.’
At the edge O’Connell Street where pigeons shat on the cement noggin of Charles Stewart Parnell, a crowd of mallets warbled about pay cuts. Aulone clutching a salad cutter was ranting blue horror about pension rights. ‘Sixty four billion to those feckers in the banks so they can fix their own balance sheets!’ Grey-haired Sinn Féin geezer smellin’ of haddock was giving it welly about Éire needing a game changer. Group of girls, no more than five or six with banners: It’s My Ireland Too. Normally he’d stick around for de dip, but Dessie warned him not to feck about, get it done & dusted ‘pronto’. Skinner held onto his social welfare card and Carol’s dead Ma’s gold locket she asked Gonzo to keep safe for always. Cash and more gear when the job was done.
Gonzo wolfed sideways shrieking his childhood battle cry: ‘Me head! Me head!’ He spottedHot Wok on North Earl Street, stomach doing a Hare Krishna pink salmon drum. Thai waitress with ladyboy lips looked like a hot slapper off the internet with a rake of sausages slithered in so her shaggy wangle was a filtering system inside an astronaut’s suit. He sat at the window starin’ out at so many formless faces, then back down at strips of steaming courgette. ‘Tolkuchka’ was the word Dessie used to describe the Russian drug cartel that had taken over. All those words ended in a choke. Carol had done a few down the canal when they were clear out of dough…said they were rough as horseshoe crabs, cocks reeking of sauerkraut.
‘Every bit of ‘em smells like a belch,’ she said. ‘Love slappin’ their wimmin’ as well’.
Pumped up on steroids, egg hatch maggot breeders, dripping sex trade, artificial money, begging scams. He could even see those Soviet-bloc prozzies too, a whole PVC red army of them soggy-spread over the back seat of metallic Audis’, slurping on mafia peckers. Head nut was like Keyser Soze from The Usual Suspects except taller again, well able to giraffe over the walls of Mountjoy Prison, boiled eggs in his gob crammed full of heroin, dropping straight into famished jaws. Baba Yaga they called him, because of his man boobs. Lived in a steel hut at the edge of Rooster fields in North County Dublin. A gaff that stood on electronic chicken legs, garden fence emblazoned with teeth he’d personally knocked from debtor’s heads.
When the crowd in Foley Street got this new gear that Dessie and Skinner had messed with out onto the streets, napalm vomit and bedlam would rain down on Dublin town. Hail struck down everything that was in the field in all the land, both man and beast. ‘Nuclear button is up me crack,’ Gonzo murmered. He had a looming vision of advancing Russians from every stone wall and crevice in Ireland, marching into Dublin, fat knuckles fisting indigo sky. There’d be black smoke meandering their necks, hiding bricks in plastic bags, Glocks in socks, AKs, MAC-10s with their spray and pray facility, lumpy grenades, nail bombs, acid pellets, even animal traps to pull down the enemy at window displays outside Cleary’s. Вы ирландского народа умрут самой ужасной смерти! Где твой Бог сейчас!
He spotted Widearse Wendy out de window crouching down at the door of Dunnes, knickers on display, damp with piss maps of the Philippines. She was swinging a bottle of Old Cellar at passing shoppers scouting cut-price gizmos from the pop-up shops. ‘Gonzo, ah me old bud, GONNNNNZO!’ she spattered.
‘Carol was reefin’ for ye,’ she said. ‘Some onion head lookin’ for you, says ye owe him a wormload of Euros’.
She was sitting with a Roma pleb, trombone full of bronze; old feet smashed up for begging bone pickle. He was only ten minutes now from de clop. ‘I owe no-one nutin’,’ he said, trying to figure out who yer man might be. ‘Is Carol alright?’ he asked. ‘Hope she’s not giving dem uns much grief?’ She could get snarky sometimes when juiced up to de girders. ‘Ah she was givin’ Phib a bit of a kickin’ cos he was in and out of the water,’ Widearse said. ‘Leather Joe says yez should get rid of the smelly little fucker, more mischief than worth. But I says ‘no way’ sure it wouldn’t be nutin’ round ‘ere without him, mad little yoke. Ah Gonzo ye shoulda seen him, in and out of dat water, de little ears on him, smellin’ of knacker nappies so he was. Have ye any odds for uz?’
Gonzo told her discretely he’d no spondoolies but he’d soon be in de loadser if a certain thing worked out later on. They’d have ‘em around the squat in de morrow, beer and boiled cocktail sausages, Bord na Móna goat turds in de burner, enough gear so they could all stay stub for a few days, sopping in boogie. He leaned over slowly, down to her waxy ear crack where he murmured de score as a morning prayer O Lord open our lips told her what was inside him in anyways in the darkness of this age that is passing away. If she said ought to any fucker dem Russians would make sure he was floating beetroot body parts in a stinkin’ pot of Zharkoye in some nameless side-door soup kitchen down the quays.
‘You always end up on your feet while the rest of us are on our bleedin’ heads,’ Widearse Wendy laughed, handing Gonzo de Old Cellar. Then she bowed over and whispered in Trombone’s ear. ‘Don’t be tellin’ that cunt anything of a consequence!’ Gonzo snapped, sorta raging now she’d trust a metal nicker with anything he prized on dem der Russians. ‘Don’t be a mean bollox! Ferka’s me good pal an’ he doesn’t have an easy go of it ‘ere’. He looked at Ferka who was by now grinding his teeth, some of ‘em small wallets of gold. Gonzo wondered if he picked this patch deliberately cos it looked out onto the towering stainless steel spire stuck in the Vena cava of O’Connell Street. ‘Him and his crew are probably going to melt dat fuckin’ thing down and live off de pickings for the next forty years and you won’t see him for angel dust!’ Gonzo told her, taking another glug. Metal was big business for his lot and they seemed to be spreading across Europe melting whole cities and trapping as much heat as possible. ‘Youza faggot fucker!’ Ferka roared, punching him in the crotch with his trombone. ‘I’ll bash de fucking granny outta ye with dat poxy yoke!’ Gonzo said, lunging at Ferka, crushing Widearse Wendy in the push forward. She started roaring and banging at the window: ‘Stop, will yez fuckin’ stop dis!’
Two security guards ran out of the shop to see what was going on. Big black blokes in fiend blue, large dangly batons, torches on their belts, fortified faces, boulder braces mineral ore. ‘If it isn’t the all-important rent-a-cops!’ Gonzo quipped, still gripping Ferka’s greasy swab of hair. ‘Dis fucker needs to know his place, but it’s nothing to do with youse, no trouble here.’ Widearse was beside herself, leaping about like Marlin. ‘He’s not bashin’ my mate’s head in, he’s not!’ she told the taller security brawn, smashing Ferka from Gonzo’s grip. ‘They’re both having a go for no bleedin’ reason,’ she wailed, deep now in her tiny grief of fly speck and goose egg, big fat smelly daddy raging up into life to bang her head off the rusty washing machine one more time in the small Cabra garden. Rolling around she was – from Marlin of the Seas off Cotez to a cuntarse cement mixer in an industrial sandpit on the outskirts of a Cappagh horse camp – too drunk to see what was really going on.
‘Get out of this doorway now! Our customers do not appreciate this!’ Ruby eyes looked like he’d seen his fair share of gang rape and coercive migration. He was pointing his liverwurst finger up the road where the curtains flailed in the wind outside Guineys’. ‘Fuck off back to Bangurawopa or wherever it is that youse eat one another, fukksake,’ Gonzo said, trying once more to kick one over at Ferka’s head. Ferka had fear soldered onto his face: wankstain nomad from North India following the Bisto fart of Alexander the Great to fertile lands where they settled on roundabouts melting metal and washing scarves. ‘It’s in his trousers!’ Ferka began to roar, ‘He is up to no good that bastard!’
Wendy bundled up the street, her chondrite meteorite arse blocking out the sun. Ferka too, gone in search of iron seraphs. Arms grabbed Gonzo from behind, smashing him forward, bursting his face open on the pleated gravel below. Arms, maybe even more arms (the city seemed so full of them) reefing his jeans down. ‘Fuck’s sake, stop it, I ain’t done nothing!’ But still the voyeurs fanned in, mud-puddling butterflies to blood. Three, maybe four or more fingers…drilling turnin’ twisting into his insides deep inside his trousers. Never crazed up pain like it. All the fists he ever knew in the big clench of years: priests, uncles, mad burds, the fat cat who owned the billboard company and beat the bollox out of him in front of faces outside Mass, nothin’ was worse than the arms smashin’ him up in this dirt-bucket of Dublin day. Blood, a lot of blood, that’d grow darker with the afternoon, if he ever managed to get out of it.
‘Shut it or ye’ll get it in the head,’ one of the arms said.
An aulone in brown bandaged legs shouted, ‘Bowsies, feckin’ bowsies!’
There was no way he could explain this to Dessie and his Basement Bandits. Already he could see Carol’s head mashed open; these cunts didn’t mess about. Arms conked like a discarded doll in the playground up de flats, broken bottle rammed right up there for good measure. He was flung and rolled, rammed and kicked down the street into a side lane, where the bashing went on for barbed eternity.
‘I’m fucked, I’m fucked!’ Gonzo roared as he saw two teenage girls pointing, laughing.
Dilly no douse no dee, dilly no douse no douse no douse dilly no douse no deeeeeee.
‘Yez ‘av no idea, I’m a gonner!’
Did he tell Dessie & Skinner where the squat over the bank was? Was he boastin’ about the gaff before they iglooed his arse? Carol would be back by now, pissing the mattress, eating a batter burger, waiting on Gonzo to come back with new gear. ‘Yer nothin’ but fuckin’ trouble,’ she’d say, ‘useless prick like ye, and ye gave dem yer card?’
Ring stinger, so much so, he could barely toddle up Church Street. Now he knew how she felt the first time he gave it to her in the arse. He had to use HB ice-cream to cool her down after. A seagull played the bodhrán gliding up the street squawking about ham. Nothin’ would ever be the same. These were serious heads. Dangerous heads. Mavericks. Think nothing of using shooters. Maybe they’d be OK just hidin’ out in the bank for a while. Rest of Ireland was doing the same. Stay gizmo’d until he heard of them being popped. All of ‘em uns ended up popped. Time & time again, saw it rolling. He wasn’t going back inside either, leaving her to her own devices.
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. He didn’t know if he was here already an hour ago. He didn’t know where he’d end up or how he’d come down and if he was really here or half here an hour or more ago. ‘I’m out of me bleedin’ nugget!’ he said. They’d have to lay still when he got back home, until a different kind of light shined. ‘Come out of charity, come dance with me in Ireland,’ that cunt Yeats said in the book under the mattress, but he didn’t know jack shit about the skank or de Russians or fiddlers like Carol, all thumbs and kettledrums, sucking off ghosts at the window in The Old Bank on Doyle’s Corner.
I will be reading more fiction in Cavan town on May 6th:
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.’
Screenplays break down roughly on the lines of scene, action, and dialogue. Let’s take the first of these. In terms of scene what are the basic rules of writing? ‘Get in late and get out early,’ is the best rule for writing a scene. Sometimes writers have difficulty writing or constructing a scene for a film or TV drama or short movie, mostly because of the visual aspect. There are two basic things to remember. A scene exists as an ‘event’ to move your story forward – i.e. it should be about something and it needs to have a purpose. The ‘event’ can be as big as a crucial moment in a battle between soldiers in Saving Private Ryan a revealing disclosure between lovers (i.e. why Ilsa dumped Rick in Paris without an explanation) or some kids finally freeing an endangered whale or it can be as small as a car driving down a street or even a knowing look between two apparent strangers. The other thing to bear in mind is we are writing for a visual medium – let’s ‘SEE’ what your scene is about, rather than ‘hear’ it. Film is a ‘story told in pictures’. It’s not a play or a novel. Only what we can ‘see’ or ‘hear’ should go into your screenplay. There are no internal narratives.
In relation to action is it a case of less-is-more? Is there a danger of someone coming from say, a literary background, being inclined to write too much direction? Does a novelistic background work sometimes as a disadvantage? Visual Writing is important. It’s a new way of seeing the world. Once a literary writer or a playwright or a short stort writer or a poet gets the knack of writing for a visual medium, then I believe it helps their literary work as well. There is nowhere to hide in a screenplay. Anything that isn’t essential or crucial must be jettisoned. I spend a lot of time in my workshops on Visual Writing because I believe too many screenplays are dogged by long banks of descriptive novelistic prose or excessive expositional dialogue. Your scene can be beautifully written, contain lots of witty dialogue and demonstrate intelligence and flair but if it doesn’t move your story along then it has no place in the screenplay. Keep it visual. Keep the pace going. Free your imagination. Learn a new language and have fun with it.
Dialogue, is there also a potential problem in terms of the character saying “too much”, spelling out the plot when an image, a fleeting glance, scene dissolving into another can tell the story rather than words from thelips of a character(s)? You said it. Too many screenplays come across like stage plays disguised as films. I come at these workshops from the POVs of a director and producer as well as a screen and scriptwriter so I hope that I can steer students towards more visual, creative and effective ways of realising their story.
Are there any templates of scripts/screen plays you would recommend fledgling screenwriter look at? The best book for me is Syd Field’s Screenwriting. It’s straight forward and clear and puts over the basics better than any other work I’ve come across. If you want a guide book into screenwriting, Syd is your man. Almost all screenplays are free and accessible on the internet. You should be able to find the screenplay of your favourite movie – from Casablanca to Dawn of the Dead or even Critters 3 – or sites such as Drew’s Script-O-Rama or – Simply Scripts. Reading produced screenplays is the best instuction for a budding screenwriter.
What in your opinion is the perfect screenplay/script? Casablanca is up there. But my favourites are The Third Man and the French movie, Amelie. I also hugely admire The Insider, As Good As It Gets. Walk the Line and American Beauty and anything by John Hughes particularly Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. I also love When Harry Met Sally and Four Weddings and a Funeral. And the Swedish film, Let the Right One In. I also have a huge weak spot for Zombie/Horror flicks and low budget trash. I don’t want to mention Napoleon Dynamite but I will. There, I’ve mentioned it.
Who are your favourite screenwriters and list some of the films they are noted for? John Hughes (Ferris/Pretty In Pink/’Breakfast Club). Eric Roth (The Insider). Epstein Brothers (Casablanca). Anything by Walter Hill, John Carpenter, Nora Ephron, Kathryn Bigelow and John Hughes. I also like Charlie Kaufman who along with Tarantino, has probably the most recognisable ‘voice’ in modern cinema. The most exciting and enjoyable screenwriter I’ve come across recently is the Irish writer Kevin Barry – he really has a style of his own and that’s a fiendishly difficult thing to achieve in screenwriting.
Do you think directors always make for good screen writers because [as you well know] some like to combine the two? Sometimes but not always. There seems to be a big emphasis on ‘auteurs’ in our culture. Not sure if that is always a good notion. I like to think that screenwriting is a difficult craft and possibly the most undervalued and unappreciated writing genre. Screenwriting is often collaborate, unlike say, novel-writing. It’s a tough craft to learn but once learned, I believe it really helps with other writing genres. It helps cut out excess description and it helps shape and present fictional characters.
Very few extremes. Too many unconvincing gangsters. I think we make very conservative movies at the moment and I’m not sure than Irish film-makers or producers think in terms of targeting an audience.
What is Irish cinema lacking in? Not enough comedy? Too much The Field style rural idyll drama? A dearth of urban gritty realism? Or should we expand our imaginations further? I like the look of Grabbers. I’m going to see it this weekend. I wouldn’t be a huge fan of recent Irish flicks. Too many boxes being ticked. The politically correct box. The intellectually correct box. Redemption buttons being pressed on virtually every character. Very few extremes. Too many unconvincing gangsters. I think we make very conservative movies at the moment and I’m not sure than Irish film-makers or producers think in terms of targeting an audience. We seem more focused on festivals and awards and that sort of thing. I’d love to see a situation where word-of-mouth attracts Irish cinema-goers to Irish films. Perhaps it’s a transition time. Irish films reached audiences at home and internationally in the 80s and early 90s with My Left Foot, The Snapper and The Commitments. Perhaps the success of The Guard will change things for the better. There’s no doubting the talent and the actors and our short films are superb along with our animators. Let’s hope we are entering a new era. Like I said, I like the look of Grabbers.
Would you like to see the great Irish sci-fi script-cum-movie? Absolutely. And if it’s a creature feature, I’d like a walk-on part please.
If you were to recommend one recently released film – either out on cinema at present or now on sale in DVD/Blu Ray- for your students on the course to watch and analyse what would it be? I would go for a classic like Casablanca. Everything you need to become a good a screenwriter is in there. The best TV drama I’ve seen recently is Breaking Bad. I would urge students to have a look at Season One. And to access the scripts online.
Some say one of the greatest modern British screenplays is Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I….do you agree? It’s brilliant, but it’s a one off. I just wish the writer would come up witty another wonderful maverick idea like that. But let’s be grateful it exits in the first place. It’s hard to get a film made and even harder to get a good off-beat indie flick to an audience. Outline the key differences between screenwriting for feature films and TV? Feature film writing is particular – you have 90 minutes or so to nail an audience. Usually it’s a three act structure that stands or falls on the set-up (i.e. the first fifteen or so minutes). If the audience doesn’t buy the first 15 mins, your film will usually fail. TV drama is quite demanding. It comes in many formats including what’s now known as ‘the 8 act structure’ ) mainly due to ad breaks on US TV. I’ll be looking at both film and TV drama in these workshops. Most of the best screenwriting is now happening on TV drama series such as Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Wire or The Killing.
Which TV drama-soap context would you like to set in an Irish context? Our stuff isn’t much fun. I’d like to see some really engaging extreme characters being created. An Irish Walter White. Or an Irish Cracker. Or an Irish Amelie.
What Irish book-novel would you love to dramatise on television? A really good question. My vote goes to City of Bohane by Kevin Barry. I’m also surprised that nobody has tried to make a movie out of Dermot Bolger’s The Journey Home.
Are we in danger of following ITV’s route and putting on too many cop-based TV dramas? Dunno.
*BIG thanks to Ferdia Macanna for this Q&A.
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!
Being part of The Guardian’s digital revolution has seen a blurring of the old boundaries between the print and the electronic media. Once upon a time, not long ago, the dividing lines between writing for a newspaper and scripting for radio and television were clearly demarcated. Until recently my own career in journalism was a constant to and fro across the ‘No Man’s Land’ between print and broadcasting. The advent of digital media though has wiped out that distinction so that in any given working day I could be writing a 300 to 500 word blog for the on-line edition of Guardian Unlimited; doing a major feature article of more than 1,000 words that could take up to two pages in Saturday’s edition of the newspaper or scripting a 60-second think-piece for broadcast on the Guardian’s audio section.
Blogging, tweeting, podcasting, online/self-generated broadcasting…are all words and phrases becoming increasingly common place for writers. Novels are going straight from the author’s imagination and keyboard to internet delivery systems like eBooks and Kindles, by-passing traditional forms of publishing. The newspaper industry is no different. The Guardian for instance now emphasises the ‘Digital First’ philosophy where news stories, features, opinion pieces, editorials, sports commentary and so on are given their first outing online as opposed to the three-dimensional space of paper.
In terms of media intersection perhaps the most interesting challenge for journalists like myself who have come out of the tradition of two separate media worlds (print and TV/Radio) is to constantly interchange between the two. So for example take this story I worked on back in the summer of 2010 when I went out on a drug interdiction operation with the Irish Naval Service along Ireland’s western seaboard. This was a combination of a relatively long news feature, which not only went online, but also appeared in the paper itself. In addition there was the accompanying film that a Guardian cameraman shot, and I co-produced and scripted. This required not only the ability to convey a fairly dramatic scenario out at sea but also to script to pictures; to be able to write voice-over that was germane to the images and the overall context of the story. This increasingly is my working world!
In terms of combining the written word with the visual the Guardian writer/reporter is now also required to be a broadcaster. One of the popular audio-visual tools to describe a story is the use of the photographic slide show combined with commentary as well as of course a back-up written report. So for instance this unusual story about a man who keeps a museum to the Northern Ireland Troubles in his garden shed is in the usual form. However, accompanying that story which appeared both on Guardian Unlimited and in the actual paper was an audio slide-show.
This was a gallery of pictures taken by our photographer Kim Haughton underneath which ran a recorded, broadcast-quality, interview with the owner guiding us around his private museum. Another example of the multi-dimensional aspect of modern digital journalism in action. This is where the reporter/correspondent/writer can no longer just think in terms of his or her words on a page but also has to be able to script to pictures and sounds.
Of course the corner stones of lucid, honest feature writing, reporting and indeed scripting remain essential. Good prose, to paraphrase George Orwell slightly (still the patron saint of journalists and writers alike) should be like a window pane: clear, devoid of jargon, verbal camouflage and crude propaganda, whether it be through the medium of printed paper or indeed cyberspace.
I’ll be teaching an eight-week course at the Irish Writers’ Centre from 26th April to 14th June. It will focus on new forms of writing and novel ways of delivery in the digital age. As a comprehensive series of classes on various aspects of writing in the digital world, the emphasis will be on practical training and hands-on drills. The weekly itinerary covers blogs, podcasting, tweeting and audio packages. More information is available here and here’s an audio interview on the topic of feature writing.
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.
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
By an odd coincidence I ‘ve just finished reading Michael Frayn’s novel Towards The End of The Morning. It was an apposite choice given the extraordinary events at Wapping in the last week, culminating with the Murdoch dynasty announcing the end of the News of The World.Frayn’s book is a comic memoir on a world long gone-by: the era when most British national newspapers were based in and around Fleet Street. The main setting for this mild satire on the print industry is an unamed newspaper that may or may not have been modelled on the old Observer, and its principal characters are a number of glorious eccentric journalists. In the novel they are portrayed as pushy, self-obsessed, indifferent, lazy or upstartish social climbers. All human life, as they used to say in the News of the World, is there.
And yet the editors, reporters, subs and columnists that Frayn lightly and subtly sends-up come from a more innocent age of journalism. There are none of the feral beasts on view that have so lately sullied journalistic ethics, especially given the phone hacking scandal which ultimately led to the closure of a profitable newspaper. It would be hard, perhaps even impossible, to apply the light satirical treatment Frayn gave to this corner of 1960’s Fleet Street when it came to any future novel about the decline and fall of the News of the World.
The Sunday tabloid and its staff have woken up with a mob around it baying for blood. Among those who applied the fatal boots into the cranium have been James Murdoch and by proxy from afar, his father Rupert. With the corpse still warm, the boys at the edge of the gang, who were once so coy about attacking such a feared institution, sneak in a few digs and kicks themselves. David Cameron now thinks it’s a good idea that News International Chief Executive thinks Rebekah Wade should resign. The Prime Minister also acknowledges that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all that former NOTW editor Andy Couslon should have been given a second chance….now of course that he faces a possible serious criminal charge.
Labour leader Ed Miliband decided that maybe his party could stand up to the Murdoch empire and has called not only for a public inquiry but also the head of Wade on a plate. Meanwhile 200 journalists and support staff on both sides of the Irish Sea are facing redundancy at a time with all media organisations are contracting staff numbers. None of the above is to suggest the NOTW was guilty of gross immoral practices and serious unethical behaviour. Conversely, my own newspaper (there, I have declared my hand!) The Guardian deserves all the accolades for doggedly pursuing wrong-doing at the tabloid including illegal activities such as bribing police officers and the unlawful interception of mobile phone messages. However, as with any mob on the march there is as always rank hypocrisy in the air. Ministers and politicians are up in arms over the practice of hacking into phones by the tabloid. Yet these servants of the state know only too well that this practice is ongoing in society. At times you could argue the use of phone hacking or electronic spying is justified. The security organs of the state need to hack into the mobile phones of terrorists or criminals as part of the wider public good. But this continual eavesdropping and spying encompasses a wider circle of people than just suspected terrorists.
It is a fact that many journalists’ phones are frequently hacked into and/or their offices bugged by police, military intelligence and the security services such as MI5. Senior police officers on both sides of the border have, in the past, informed me that my mobile calls were being tapped into, and that even email traffic was being secretly checked. Perhaps whatever security agency was (and still is!) behind this surveillance might think it’s useful to hack into reporters’ calls and email messages in case they happen to be communicating with paramilitaries and criminal elements. None the less the practice is wholly illegal and an abuse of the civil liberties of those journalists, the overwhelming majority of whom are law-abiding citizens.
We hacks are, by and large, stoical about the state hacking into our lines of communication. Some make a joke about it and even when I suspect they are listening I’ll even say something like: “Hello Mr Spook and how are we today? And did you find my conversation with my colleague about Everton’s inability to spend money in the transfer market endlessly fascinating?” And so it goes.
None of us are naive to think they don’t hack as well as the more unsavoury ethically blind hacks. But it would be interesting to find out exactly how many of us out there are the targets for this form of snooping, and the volume of calls, emails, etc., that the state’s servants track in their daily fishing-exercises. Whistleblowers who once served or still serve in the security forces are welcome to contact me: email@example.com and tell me all about it. The next time you see a politician beat their chest in protest over the illegal hacking of the phones of Z-list celebs or dead British squaddies remember that whether they are in power or have been in power recently, the governments they serve in have turned a blind eye to a much pervasive culture of spying on the Fourth Estate.
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.