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.
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.
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.
Balloon faces from years on the gear; bodies so thin they could thread through gaps in gates all across the lit grid of suburbia. They squalled and mauled their way around the city in the limp hours, hassling the likes of him trying to live out a life on his own. Most were just passing through the bend at Broadstone; heading on south towards Smithfield to score, or back down the crack in the road to Phibsborough and Finglas in the direction of home. “Story, bud!?” they’d shout up at him in unison, “Story?”
He wondered how they’d managed to spot him at all. For six months, four days and a couple of lean hours, he’d peeled off the pathways entirely and headed up the tree beside Comiskeys’ pub and the old abandoned factory that looked like a Sealink ferry flopped on its side. There was a small patch of avocado grass on the bend, where the houses tattletaled behind a hairy park, in front of redbrick flats (mostly boarded up) and the bulk of bus station with its kinked parked army poking out above a tall Victorian wall.
In the squiggle of high branches he laid out a single-plank bed using pilfered council clothing full of cotton wool to pinion him in. On the lower branches he flung bits of clothes, old bags, photographs, a leather satchel his father used as a revenue man, a tablecloth he’d stolen from Jury’s Inn, letters from his mother, Euro-shop tool kits, grilled crisp bags, and a lifelong collection of medals. If he lay on his side he could watch the locals paint their lungs in russet outside the pub,crowing about monies owed and goods stowed.
On his back, the 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 overcooked stars that seemed to have a lot in common with him. When he closed his eyes he was still able to muster up Lorna in their flat in Camden, pirouetting across the floor to Kate Bush’s The Whole Story, goading him about reconstituted spuds.
“One, two or ten?” she’d ask, cocking her leg behind her in a kind of chef-jest. “They taste of nothin’ but poxy water!”
For an entire summer they lived on tinned potatoes and Fray Bentos pies. She was taking a course in Contemporary Dance at a small amateur getup in North London and liked to prance about in the evenings in her blue knickers & bra, cooking up the same leaden fare on the one-ring cooker over and over. He adored her milky boobs and olive eyes, her animal cackle and the fact she could only fuck with her clothes on because she was so ‘County Wexford shy’.
On those smoky summer nights in ’88, he sprinted all the way from the building site in the still sweltering glare of evening to pin her to the bed for as many hours as he could. She found it impossible to look at him straight on but he’d stretch her elfin hands out behind her as far as the bed bars, jammed like a butterfly, until she gave in, squealing. He’d kiss and lick the sweat off her for ages afterwards. He would’ve sucked her up whole through a straw if he could.
It was a good six weeks before the tree spoke to him. Speckles of information at first: age (169 years); classification: Grey Willow; planting date (as yet unknown, same too for exactly how he got in the ground); how he loved the rain and sodden soil beneath him; the classic oval-shaped leaves that tickled all year ’round; his greyish green fleece-like belly; the sawflies, aphids, caterpillars and leaf beetles that populated his arms and legs since the primary days; things he’d seen and witnessed: famine, republican marches, car crashes, building booms, child rape, dog snatches, stabbings, carnivals, Christmas celebrations, guided tours, industrial strikes, Luftwaffe raids, surreptitious deals beneath his bough when the chickpea moon was at full-flourish; his hopes and dreams for any kind of future at all.
“Is me being here dragging you down?” he asked Willow, and the tree told him that all was “grand & dandy” as long as he didn’t spill chemicals on him or cut into the branches with any sharp objects. He handed back tips on the art of being indistinguishable, what was the best time of day to leave the tree to find food or other sundries he may need, all kinds of kind advice he never expected from anyone anymore under any circumstances at all.
Willow also told Miller about the escalation of drugs in the area, gangs hawking their trade in the all-encompassing daylight. “They’re as brash as you like,” he said,”knack-bags dropping off stacks of cash and even guns, young kids from the flats flailing about in the grip of addiction, that bloke form over there who bit off the security man’s ear outside McFrowans where nurses go sniffing for prison officer husbands.”
It was all drink, drugs, litter, loss and mayhem, according to Willow.
“The residents have a right pain in their hole,” he explained, “.complaining 24/7 that there’s nowhere safe for the kids to even kick a ball”.
The old abandoned railway line was now off limits even though all plans to develop the Northern Luas line had fallen off the government’s fiscal arm like a scab.
By early evening Miller was gathering his bob-bits from the grass from under the scrag of bushes beside Comiskeys. Across the way Lower Dominick Street was coming alive, the plywood apartments with artificial fireplaces and hoary Formica kitchens emptying residents out through the gates in search of something to do. He’d lived up that stink of road before, sold himself when his mother composted him for good and he could do nothing but guzzle himself into more torpor after Lorna’s death.
“You can’t stay around here destroying yourself, making a show of us, not caring a damn,” she whined. He understood. She had, after all, seen his father do it for a bucket of years.
German men on ‘culture holidays’ looking for a group jiggle, brawny truckers with a furtive hunger they’d prefer their A-line wives not know about, the mobile phone boss who needed to be sucked off before bi-monthly stock flotations. There was more sex on the streets of Dublin than could ever fit in the snug mousy insides. It didn’t bother him much, it even worked for a while, and he was able to pay for a small room in an apartment in Parnell Street near the cinema. But two winters in he’d been roughed up too many times and found himself back out on concrete, living at the back of a wall beside a restaurant fan. There was always food in the laneways, a vortex of throwaway, and some of the foreign workers would leave dregs out for him after they’d cleaned up the spillage of nightshift: bits of sloppy burrito, jerk chicken, wild wilted spinach and other khaki leaves plucked from the roadsides of Wicklow and Meath for the benefit of three stars in Dublin.
“Take it out here and be good to it,” Dhudha would tell him, passing out plates of food through the ventilator hole. All the way from Uttar Pradesh, his English was hilariously bad and nothing he emitted made sense. “My boss says you are the baggabond! He kill me if he knew I food you!”
Sometime in 2010, the Somali dealers moved in around the laneways of Parnell Street pegging their needle-loads to the retro-famished. A lot of the restaurants closed down because of racketeering. He never saw Dhudha again but dreamt he was back in India in a jam-packed town selling clunky wooden toys to foreign children on the side of a hill, spending afternoons pointing his donkey-skin feet into the eggy sunshine. Three people were done with blades in the laneways and two men pretty much like him were hospitalised after been beaten to beyond what he thought might be the level of atoms. It became a tracksuit catwalk of mêlée & mayhem – not a ruddy-faced Garda in sight – so once again he moved on to the porch of a deserted banana factory at the back of the Four Courts and later, when the gang of teenagers began throwing cans at him when he was out for the count, moving up towards Broadstone to a bandstand in Temple Gardens.
“You are better off here in any case,” Willow told him. “I’ll watch out for you in case those scallywags come back.”
How could he intervene if they did more than shout at him this time? Willow was begotten to the earth shaking him and not the other way around. And lately, just lately, he’d asked for a cut of Miller’s street profits. “This way, we’re both self-respecting,” he explained, but Miller was becoming less sure. There were even nights where Willow was ‘finding’ punters for Miller and in the depth of agladdening sleep, he’d be hauled out of the tree to do the business.
“Come out Tarzan ye mad yoke!” the punters would roar, and Willow would gently push him towards them with his large hairy branches.
In truth, he was exhausted running away for a living, worn-out with people badgering and hassling, of voices following and shadows prickling him. He be even better off as an addict himself, as if he could ever afford it! He didn’t get why they were so angry in general but also at him, blaming the recession on everything. It’s not like they even worked during the good times, like he’d done for so many years; and as for the women in the flats across the road who started shouting abuse out the barred windows at him: “Get off the grass ye mentler!” “Stop scaring the kids!” The old guys from the pub who said he was upsetting the little ones making their First Holy Communion; babe-in-arms bouncing in meringues on rubber apparatus to the side of the bus station, and the traffic cop who told him that the man driving the Ghost Bus almost swerved when he saw him up the tree. He could wring all their necks at once.
“There’s nothing illegal about me being here,” he told Willow. He’d looked it up in the National Library, the new-fangled anti-loitering laws; there was only mention of being firmly on the ground, outside ATMs, beggars holding out their hands to collect money in polystyrene cups, Roma who live on roundabouts. Some of the laws were so old at this stage even though it was surely teetering on an epoch of hovercraft; the statute books in Ireland still insist you carry a bale of hay with you to feed your method of transportation. No-one could tell him he was doing anything wrong and Dublin City Council itself was not aware of any deeds for the tree.
He imagined the end would come just as he was dozing off, when he rested his tender neck on a gnarl for the night, faint buzz of white noise approaching. Dosed up on blue and green shots, glops of Goldschlager, gobs of Guinness. The gang would hunch up the road from Parnell Street banging the railings with sticks and bars, jokes and jars, in search of him or anyone like him. It was the coke too, sending them clear bats.”Let’s kick the living shite out of him; head right open, the seagulls will have his brains scoffed by morning.”
In front of them Lorna’s ghost is teaching his dead mother how to dance: two sets of legs, knitting needles in the dark, clanking. Willow wakes in a rage, sees what’s happening and spurts his tree sap all over the gang and the ghosts, submerging them beneath the ground. How funny that Miller’smum didn’t know the jive before now. “Like this Mrs Malone!” Lorna tells her, “Just let yourself go!” They would dance on for him even when he lay on the grass, wholly broken.
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!
How did you become interested in poetry? Betty McMahon. She was my primal Jean Brodie, my crème de la crème, my Sweet Afton twenty a day tab merchant, for five out of seven years at St Mirren’s Primary School. We had a text-book way back when, something like ‘Mainlining English’, so I was clearly a word junkie from around the ages of eight or nine I reckon. At home my Mother was a fierce reader of devoutly catholic tastes, still is, lovely pocket leather-bound sets of Dickens, Trollope, Thackery, Austen, the Brontes, Faery Tales – Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. My Father was more of a Harold Robbins/Mickey Spillane/Willbur Smith kind of prod but as a young Glaswegian Merchant Seaman, he’d picked up a hard back copy of ULYSSES in some port of ill-repute – it’s the ‘durty’ Bodley Head 1967 Seventh impression, with the wrap around black & white cover of stills from Joseph Strick’s film version, with Blazes Boylan and mad-eyed Molly staring up from the crumpled bed sheets on the front cover and Milo O’Shea as Bloom, looking pleased as punch beneath his Homburg on the rear. The sleeve note talked about its wit, its poetry and it sat on the shelf with its white spine greying untouched and unread – my Da’ having quickly discovered it wasn’t the kind of filth he’d been led to believe during the ‘cultural revolution’ – until I was able to reach on tiptoe, able for the first few pages, to swim in its forty-foot echoes of Introibo ad altare Dei. Betty McMahon taught me poetry doesn’t have to rhyme. She also told me I wasn’t as green as my cabbage looked. I was and remain confused. And smitten.
Why poetry (as opposed to other forms)? I don’t think of poetry as being ‘opposed’ to other forms (see above). Look at Tarkovsky and the primacy of music in his compositional approach to cinematography, his ‘poetics’. Or Bill Douglas in his use of silence to embody specific sounds, amplify images that might otherwise go unseen. Paul Klee said, “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible”, and later you have Rilke saying of Klee, ‘even if you hadn’t told me he plays the violin, I would have guessed on many occasions his drawings were transcriptions of music’.
Your latest collection, eight years in the making: Daytime Astronomy covers topics as varied as abandoned love, prison camp, birds, birth, death, hill climbing, body painting, and recession. Do you choose the subject matter or is it the other way around? Me…Prison camp, birds, body painting? Sounds kinky. I’m reminded of Bertrand Russell citing Heraclitus, ‘The Lord who is the oracle at Delphi neither utters nor hides his meaning, but shows it by a sign’. Or as a wiser man than me once said, sometimes you eat the bar and sometimes the bar, well, he eats you.
Do you consider yourself a certain type of poet? If I’m any kind of poet, a lucky poet; lucky to be alive and out of hospital; lucky to be a peredvizhniki with a pen and a pot to piss in.
How long do you spend on a poem? How long’s a piece of string (theory). As long as it takes, I suppose is the honest and mundane answer. I used to measure them in cigarettes, but the price of a twenty deck these days, it’s just not on. I tend to work like the kind of painter who goes at several canvases at once, sometimes concentrated bursts, other times constipated fits of rage. I’ll stop that when the oul’ Duke of Argylls kick in.
What’s been the greatest obstacle to becoming (and remaining) a poet? My undiminished fondness for the road of excess leading to the palace of wisdom.
Do you think a poet’s power diminishes (or grows), as the poet gets older? Indubitably. Dependent on the tigers of wrath being wiser than the horses of instruction.
Is too much Irish poetry rooted in the soil, too much of it centred on rural existence and nature as opposed to the urban experience? As a blow in, I wouldn’t like to say. But between yourself and myself, It seems to me that for every Rough Field and Great Hunger there are five hundred poems about fuchsia and having the quiet pint in some Nama infested rural bog water. Bertie had the right idea with beacons of shite like Adamstown, a car park and a carvery for everyone in the audience and not a blackthorn bush or dry stone wall left standing.
Is poetry in Ireland perhaps too serious? Are we not in need in these gloomy times of some mock-heroic/satirical poetry? Proper order! My next collection is provisionally titled: I Rattled it into Gerty, While her Mother was out for Turf.
How much does poetry intersect with forms of popular culture such as music lyrics or rap? When its horses for courses, my horse is distorted, as Scroobius Pip would have it in his introduction to Distraction Pieces.
We have a president who writes poetry. Is Michael D Higgins’ elevation to the highest office in the land an opportunity for poetry in Ireland? Can he be a force for encouragement? That would be an ecumenical matter.
Who were/are your biggest influences? See first answer, above.
With the rise of electronic poetry and digital books—what do you see for the future of poetry? It will all end in tears, under a bridge or in some batshit besmirched cave, two fetid packs of homunculi gouging lumps out of each other with the sharpened ends of their iPad 3s and Kindle Fires. This way to the Zombie Apocalypse Ladies and Gentlemen.
Readers are often apprehensive about poetry; do you have any advice about how to approach poetry as a reader? Be wise before you rise. Protect your vulnerable brain. They will want to eat it.
Paul was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1971. He moved to Northern Ireland in 1995, completing an MA in Creative Writing at the Poets’ House/Lancaster University; studying under the late James Simmons. In 2002 The Edinburgh Review published his first collection, The End of Napoleon’s Nose. His work has appeared in several anthologies including: The New Irish Poets, ed. Selina Guinness (Bloodaxe 2004); Magnetic North, ed. John Brown (Lagan Press 2006); The New North, ed. Chris Agee (Wake Forest 2008); Landing Places, eds. Eva Bourke & Borbala Farago, (Dedalus 2009). He lives in Belfast and is currently researching a PhD on the work of the Scottish poet and cultural philosopher Kenneth White for the University of Ulster. Paul’s most recent poetry collection Daytime Astronomy was published in 2011 by Salmon Poetry. If you’re interested in seeing Paul Grattan perform, he’s taking part in the Irish Writers’ Centre Luncthtime Series, next Friday, 17th February.
Paul Murray is reading this Friday at the Irish Writers’ Centre’s ‘Lunctime Readings’ series. He’s the author of two novels: An Evening of Long Goodbyes (Penguin), which was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award and nominated for the Kerry Irish Fiction Award. His second novel Skippy Dies (Hamish Hamilton) was shortlisted for the 2010 Costa Book Awards and longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. Skippy Dies has been described as funny, rude, dark, sad, ambitious, imaginative, surreal, briliant. The Guardian said it was ‘one of the most enjoyable, funny and moving reads…a rare tragicomedy that’s both genuinely tragic and genuinely comic’, while the Irish Independent dubbed Murray’s characters ‘so three-dimensionally drawn and brought to such vivid life that they may haunt your dreams.’ Here, the author discusses loneliness, capitalism, posh schools, suburbs, butter churns and how becoming a writer is no different to becoming a plumber, pilot or podiatrist:
A novel set in a posh Dublin school is a far cry from the worlds of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown or Dermot Bolger’s Finglas. Did you deliberately choose a radically different social setting with “Skippy Dies?” Or was this a purely instinctive, natural narrative backcloth? Well, I didn’t choose it just to be different. It was a world that I knew very well, which had the added attraction of having been somewhat under-represented in Irish books. In fact I had the suspicion, rightly or wrongly, that that world, the ‘posh school’ as you call it, and the boring, anonymous suburbs where so many people live now, weren’t seen as being worth writing about. They were seen as being less ‘Irish’, less authentic and therefore less fit subject for literature than more ‘real’ settings like the west of Ireland, for instance. That idea, that some places and some people are more real than others, and that we should all be writing novels about old peasant women scrubbing their butter churns, really bothers me. Maybe the suburbs are less real and less authentic. But the people living there are still people, and their experiences of this unreal world are absolutely real. So I wanted to write about that world I knew so well, and I wanted to write about it via teenagers – they’re the ones who experience suburbia most directly, because they’re stuck there. And again, teenagers seemed to be seen as kind of infra dig in Irish novels, so I wanted to give them their turn.
The Guardian flatteringly described the book as a ‘hilarious satire on modern Ireland‘? Did you set out with that intention? Was this a work principally of satire? I’m not really that comfortable with tags like comedy or satire or whatever, like your book can only be one thing. I wanted to tell the story of these characters as faithfully and honestly as I could. There’s a lot of humour, because most of the characters are teenagers and they act in quite an unguarded and extreme way, but it’s mostly realistic and I’m not setting them up to be laughed at. The word ‘satire’ to me conjures up images of the author mocking the foibles of humanity from some great height – everyone’s a grotesque, and their entire world is revealed to be fundamentally deluded and ridiculous. I didn’t have any interest in writing a book like that. That said, setting the book in this school was a useful way of looking at bigger changes that were happening in the country – because these were the most privileged children of the people who were reaping the benefits of the economic boom. They were handed this new world that generation had created, so they were at the coal-face of that new morality and that new attitude to money and materialism.
Although a comic novel there’s a darkness beneath it especially with menacing figures like Carl, how much of this came from your own experience of school days and the adolescent ‘jungle’? I went to secondary school in the 1990s, which though it wasn’t that long ago chronologically feels, from this vantage, almost prehistoric. So many interesting things have happened since then – the internet, the war on terror, mobile phones, X-Factor – and I wanted to write about those things. For all their supposed privilege, I think in some ways the kids in Skippy have a harder time than my generation did. Their world is so much more mediated, the forces of capitalism have a much tighter stranglehold on them so they have even more impossible expectations to try and fail to live up to. Compared to now, my time in school was quite benign. Certainly, it was a jungle, and there were large, terrifying creatures with BO lurking around every corner. But if you were fast, you could outrun them. How can you outrun Facebook?
Ruprecht concludes that our universe is built out of loneliness. Amid all the comic episodes and teeny angst there is this philosophical undercurrent via string theory, etc. Is this a central theme in your work, the loneliness, not only of teenagers, but man in general? Ruprecht comes to this conclusion shortly after Skippy’s death, when he’s hit rock bottom. The book doesn’t leave him there though. To say the universe is empty, that man is alone-in some ways those are quite self-aggrandising, egoistic notions. They ignore the infinite ways that we’re tied to each other, and they ignore the duties that we have to take care of each other. That seemed like a much more interesting idea to explore than this romantic-melancholic of loneliness, which perpetuates this fantasy of uniqueness, that no one has suffered quite like you have, and that your aloneness is somehow qualitatively superior to everyone else’s. Not to be glib but people in a famine don’t spend much time talking about man’s fundamental loneliness.
Any advice for aspiring writers!? Becoming a writer is no different to becoming a plumber or pilot or podiatrist. There’s no magical secret. You just have to work really hard. For me, regularity is really important – a set routine. Writing a novel is like running a marathon. It takes a long time, and although you’ll have your moments of grace and exaltation, inevitably some of that time it will feel like a pure slog. It will feel tedious and dull, and you’ll feel disillusioned, and the temptation will arise to give up or set it aside and work on something else. At times like those, the routine may be what carries you through – you keep going simply because that’s what you’re used to. And pretty soon you’ll find yourself re-engaging and getting excited again. But to finish a novel, you need the bloody-mindedness to persevere with it, even when you’ve forgotten why.