Category Archives: Irish Writers

Meet our intern!

kelly

Born and raised in Galesburg, IL., Kelly Ricketts graduated from Knox College with a degree in Secondary Education and English Literature in 2012. She is now a high school, English teacher in Knoxville, IL and is spending the summer working and studying in Dublin with the Gaelic Girl Program.

For the past 3 weeks, I have been working here at the Irish Writers’ Centre as a part of the Gaelic Girl Experience My job responsibilities have ranged from compiling databases of different literary magazine contacts to contacting past winners of the Novel Fair and updating the website with information. Though I’ve been told the summer can be quieter than autumn for the centre, I have thoroughly enjoyed my work so far.It has been a pleasure getting to see first-hand what it takes to be an actual, real, published writer. (Though, the writers might argue that I don’t actually know the extent of the sleepless nights and painstaking hours they put into their work!) Back home in small town Illinois, I was never around the writer/agent/publisher process and talk that I’ve had the chance to familiarise myself with this summer. I now know the difference between being longlisted and shortlisted, what a ghost writer actually does, and the possible frustrations of an editor/proof-reader. Besides all of the practical information, tools and viewpoints I’m gaining, it’s been a pleasure getting to know and work with the employees here at the Irish Writers’ Centre. Their kind and inviting demeanours have made my experience, and I’m sure the many experiences of writers who come into the centre, most gratifying.

Coming to Ireland a James Joyce fan, I was extremely excited to delve into whatever hauntings of Joyce and other Irish writers Dublin had to offer; so many hauntings, I have found. The first time I realised what living, working and studying in Dublin for eight weeks would do for my literary fanatic side, I was standing in the Oscar Wilde House. Here, during a class with American College Dublin, I was lead through a summary of the Wilde family lives and told the story of Joyce meeting the love of his life, Nora Barnacle, just outside the building I was standing in. Being a bit of a literary “geek”, my enthusiasm soars sitting in a room in the middle of America reading about these literary masterminds. Seeing where and how they lived their lives makes their life stories and works that much more magical for me.

The thing that is so incredible about Irish literature is that, for the country’s size, it has produced so many great writers. From Joyce to Wilde, Yeats to Beckett, Swift to Shaw, the island is certainly not lacking in talent or worldwide respect. While I did recognise this before coming to Ireland, one thing I didn’t appreciate enough was that the people of Ireland’s capacity to produce quality literature didn’t stop in the twentieth century. Writers such as Colum McCann and Emma Donoghue have recently earned international attention. (I read Emma Donoghue for the first time while here this summer. Room is an extremely captivating and unique novel.) And seeing the work that is done here in the Irish Writers Centre every day instils me with a confidence that Irish literary success is nowhere near an end.

Though the end of today will mark the halfway point in my work here at the centre, I’m sure there is much more to experience and learn before my time is up.

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Playwriting at the Irish Writers’ Centre: a review

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When the Irish Writers’ Centre asked me to pen a review of the playwriting course with Jimmy Murphy, I was delighted to oblige them. As someone who has wrestled with a career in freelance journalism for more time than I care to recall (well, it’s only been a few years but the black lines under my eyes tell a different story), the chance to write a first-person review was too good an opportunity to ignore. I didn’t ask them to put a profile picture beside my by-line, with me looking out a window posing; wearing glasses that I don’t have a prescription for and chewing on the neck of a pen with one hand while stroking my chin with the other. I didn’t ask them to do that, but I have dropped several subtle hints. Unfortunately, I now regret that I agreed to write it.

playwriteIt has been a few weeks since I said my goodbyes to my fellow classmates and shared a firm handshake with Jimmy Murphy thanking him for the two-day course. When I got home I started rewriting a one-act I have been jousting with for two years – you’ll notice a common theme of combat when I discuss my relationship with writing. I have not left its side since: forsaking sleep, food, drink and other things. Regrettably my obligation to the IWC has dragged me away from my brilliant script and for that I thank them. Really though, I’m very glad to have the chance to recommend such a course to people who might otherwise not have considered it.

Firstly, the Centre is one of the most beautiful, intimate places I have visited in Dublin City for some time. From the moment you walk through the door to the sad but inevitable moment when you leave it, you cannot help but feel inspired. I arrived on Saturday morning with all my many anxieties about playwriting and left them all behind me on Sunday evening. The class consisted of people who wanted to write something but needed to relieve themselves of the inhibitions which led them to do the workshop. In the morning we gathered in the reception area and had a chance to meet and greet over tea and coffee. I found that iwcdoorI wasn’t the only participant in the workshop who suffers from what I call ‘Manhattan syndrome’. The opening scene from Woody Allen’s 1979 comedy/drama features a writer struggling with the opening lines of his novel, which he rewrites a couple of dozen times. Some people have trouble finishing their novel, but a more common problem is starting it.

It’s like Alcoholics Anonymous. You stand up and say: “My name’s Mark and I cannot finish a play!” And then someone else gets up and, patting you on the back, tells you they have the same problem. And then the tutor, in this case Jimmy Murphy, tells you what you need to hear. Jimmy, in the first half hour of the course, illustrated the importance of finishing work before getting all perfectionist with it. You can’t, after all, fix a car unless you have a car to fix. When you start a play – and this is the part that holds many people back – you need to finish it. Jimmy put us into groups to work on a play together. This allowed the chance to share ideas with one another and see how we all deal with the writing process. A good gender and age balance in the group gave the class the insight to get different perspectives on characters from colloquialisms to mannerisms.

“How do you deal with this character’s feelings towards that character?”

“Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. I like your idea.”

This is a great way of learning the fundamental skills of playwriting.

Gathering around a table and listening to someone who has been writing plays for over two decades was an invaluable experience.  Jimmy spoke candidly about problems which have arisen in his writing and exhibited the techniques he used to correct them. Using his own play, the engaging Hen Night Epiphany, he went through the entire writing process from early drafts to the final published piece. He detailed how he first envisaged the story; how some characters were nearly removed from the final draft, down to vital scenes from the script so that all of us could apply his techniques to our own work. Nothing instils a young writer with greater confidence than hearing a published author discuss the transition from original idea to published work. Jimmy said he simply had the idea for the play and got to work writing it.

A scene from Jimmy Murphy's play 'Hen Night Epiphany'.

A scene from Jimmy Murphy’s play ‘Hen Night Epiphany’ © Irish Theatre Magazine

Jimmy introduced techniques he used when certain characters were giving him trouble. He showed us a scene from his play done two ways: as a conversation between characters and as a monologue. Both told the story but it was obvious which did so more effectively. This served to show how there are so many ways to advance your characters and, indeed, get a better insight into their relationship with the other characters. He encouraged us to take characters that proved troublesome out, put them by themselves and write out what they want to say. Then bring what they have to say back into the play, turning monologue into dialogue. This practice advances the characters; who and what they are and exactly how they are feeling about the situation they find themselves in.

When we broke for coffee I found that other classmates were gaining confidence and had a better understanding of the writing process. We all agreed that if the class was to end prematurely we could at least take comfort from being able to get home and work on our respective plays. A weekend course might sound like very little time to learn anything of significance but the pace of the course, the constant, confident nature of its structure proved enlightening. It reignited excitement, an enthusiasm which informs the greatest creative thinking and leads to better creative writing. It’s all constructed in such a way that you go home with the confidence to say, “Wow, I know what I’m doing now. It makes sense.”  In my case I realised what was getting in my way was myself and my own anxieties. Others realised that they were on the right track. Some brought in work to be read out aloud as the class acted as an audience. When you hear other people react to your work it helps you see where you might be going wrong.

If you do take a course in the IWC try to show up early for class as the collection of books in the reception might take your attention as does the art scattered around the building, it’s well worth a good look around. I will be making a point of dropping in for a cup of tea and a goo at the shelves more often. I texted a friend when I left the centre that Sunday. He had recommended the course to me and I had to sum up my thoughts to fit a text: “Just home after what was an excellent weekend. Very enjoyable, informative and most beneficial. Thanks a million.”

MARK FOR BLOGIf only all reviews could be so brief.

Now you’ll have to excuse me. I’m going back to my baby and I might not be out until summer.

**Mark works in communications and PR. He is involved in local dramatics, is a keen theatre-goer and blogger of unpopular, serially-contrarian opinion. He also likes to read and write and basically do anything that doesn’t involve lifting heavy things.

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On Never Having Been Struck By Lightning

coloured lightning

I have been waiting almost 50 years now to be struck by lightning. It hasn’t happened yet. And I don’t expect it will anytime soon. So in the meantime I have simply been reading and writing. Waiting. For? Something. The tap on the shoulder. That moment of self-recognition. The moment when I become a true writer: someone inspired.

Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m misinterpreting the signs, missing the signals. Writers are inspired, of course – all the time. They are kissed by the gods. Beloved by their muses. Seduced by characters. Overwhelmed by plots. Overcome with ideas. To be honest, I’ve not had an idea since … I don’t know when. And the closest I’ve come to inspiration is a slight physical discomfort.

So, in the absence of all else, I have had to rely on my own resources – a little common-sense, some self-discipline, a few books. I have also sought out the example of other writers who seem as utterly uninspired as me. I have turned often, for example, to the work of the Oulipo group of writers – Raymond Queneau, Jacques Roubaud, the truly inspiration-deficient. (Oulipo stands for Ouvroir de la littérature potentielle, the ‘Workshop for potential literature’.) ‘The goal of potential literature’, according to the Oulipo writers, ‘is to furnish future writers with new techniques which can dismiss inspiration from their affectivity.’ To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what this means. But it makes sense.

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iansansomIan Sansom will be teaching a Writing Fiction workshop on 23rd & 24th March: Sat & Sun 10.30am-4.30pm. €150/135 members. The course will seek to debunk some common myths about creative writing and will provide some simple methods and techniques that can be used by writers at any stage of their writing careers. Using class exercises, examples and reading, the course will explore some of the different ways in which writers appropriate, recycle and steal ideas. There will be no discussion of inspiration or story arcs, nor any profound insights into the meaning of life or the human condition.

Ian is a novelist, journalist and broadcaster who currently teaches creative writing at Warwick University. He has been a columnist for The Guardian and has written also for The Irish Times, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, The London Review of Books, The Spectator, and The New Statesman. His essays and reviews have appeared in numerous international magazines and journals, including The New York Times. He is a regular broadcaster on BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4. Books include The Truth About Babies (Granta, 2002), Ring Road (4th Estate/Harper Collins, 2004), and the Mobile Library series of novels including The Case of the Missing Books (2007), Mr. Dixon Disappears (2007), The Delegates’ Choice (2008) The Book Stops Here (2008), The Bad Book Affair (2010). A cultural history of paper, Paper: An Elegy (4th Estate/Harper Collins), is due for publication in October 2012. The first in a new series of novels, The County Guides: Norfolk (4th Estate/Harper Collins) is due for publication in June 2013.

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, Bestsellers, courses, Creative Writing, creative writing course, Irish Writers, Irish Writers Centre, literature, new writing, novels

Ken Bruen at the Irish Writers’ Centre

Ken BruenGalway-based author Ken Bruen is an enormously prolific, and celebrated author of crime-noir fiction. His many works include the Jack Taylor series which began with the Shamus Award -winning The Guards. As the series grew, it garnered many more awards. More recently, a selection of novels from the series have been adapted for a series of TV movies (one which was screened in 2012 and two more to follow in 2013). Ken’s novel Blitz was also adapted for the screen in 2011 starring Jason Statham, Aiden Gillen and Paddy Considine. In 2010, London Boulevard was turned into a film starring Colin Farrell and Keira Nightly. Other works include Dispatching Baudelaire, The Killing of the TinkersThe Magdalen MartyrsThe Dramatist and Priest (nominated for the 2008 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel), all part of his Jack Taylor series, which began with The Guards. Bruen is also the recipient of the first David Loeb Goodis Award (2008) for his dedication to his art. Ken will be reading at the Irish Writers’ Centre on Friday 22nd February at 1.05pm as part of the celebrated Lunchtime Readings series.
When (and why) did you start writing? I found it was a great way to off load rage, guilt, frustration. I was in my teens when I began to jot down notes, and see the value of words on the page, they seemed to dance, lilt and run riot on the very pages, fascinated me then, and even more now.
Do you plan more dark tales for Galway? Yes, C33, is out in September and is yet another jagged slant on Galway.
How does the ‘capital’ of Connaught view your portrayals of the city? Do you ever think they will make you a freeman of Galway? Will they put up a blue plaque? Galwegians  like Jack Taylor a lot as there have been five films shot in the city and as well as money for the city, many of the people appear in the movies. Channel 5 showed the the first of the Taylor movies last night.
Reading your work, is it true to say you adhere to Thomas Hobbes’ warning about the state of nature being nasty, poor, brutish and short? Indeed but always, vitally shot through with humour, and truly, if there is laughter, there is some light.
There has been an explosion in Irish crime fiction of late, at least in the Republic of Ireland. Do you have any thoughts on why that is so? Conversely, there seems to be a dearth of crime novels (Stuart Neville might be one exception) emanating from the north…any thoughts as to why this is the case? The Celtic Tiger and its demise made crime writing almost inevitable, chick lit isn’t quite the genre for deep recession and despair. I disagree about the North as there are a whole range of fine writers: Eoin Mc Namee, Gerard Brennan, Adrian Mc Ginty, Colin Bateman, Sam Millar.
magmartyrsDo you think that in the world of Irish letters, there is a snooty attitude towards crime literature? Some might even baulk at putting crime and literature in the same sentence! Yes, absolutely, it’s the poor relation you hide in the attic, and literary writers who do stoop to write a crime novel, describe it as………..slumming. A literary novel can bore you to a coma but a crime novel needs to be always…………always……….entertaining, entertainment in literary circles is regarded as sacrilege.
Is there any area of crime fiction yet to be explored in Ireland, geographically or topically? We haven’t yet seen canine sleuths but it can only be a matter of time. And probably canines with dope habit.
Do you think Ireland is finally coming to terms with the dark side of the Catholic Church and its abuse scandals? You wrote hard, disturbing, gritty books on those subjects….is the truth that leaked out about institutional abuse worse than you could have imagined fictionally? Every day, I read horrors that I didn’t dare put in my own works and on the news daily, the most abominable child abusers walk free because of age or some other supposed excuse.
What was it like growing up when the Church was such all pervasive political and social force? Did you experience the lash of the Christian Brothers’ strap? Yes, it was a long reed, fine honed for max swing and it cut into the side of your hand with precision, it had a sound I can still summon up. It was the sound of savages.
Edinburgh has its Rebus-Rankin tours, London’s Baker Street still attracts if fair share of Sherlock Holmes’ fans just as the east end draws in the Jack the Ripper devotees. How would you feel if Tourism Ireland started Ken Bruen tours around Galway? Unlikely as I’m on the Tourist Board Hit list, yet a bus of Japanese show up, asking for the Taylor tour.
Do you sleep well at night? I cycle a few hours daily so that kind of takes care of the sleep. My best and I hope darkest themes come when I’m walking past churches, in daylight.

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, Bestsellers, Creative Writing, Irish Writers, Irish Writers Centre, Lunchtime Readings

Lawless on lawlessness

In the first of a new Irish Writers’ Centre members & alumni series we are publishing the first chapter of James Lawless’ novel: Finding Penelope. It is essentially a love story marking a growth in self-realisation in the protagonist Penelope Eames. It delves into the drugs culture and its associated criminality in Spain (where a lot of Celtic Tiger money wound up laundered), Ireland and the UK. “The prompt for the novel was from Cervantes (I have Spanish in my degree) and a motif may be interpreted as a sort of modern day parallel of Don Quijote’s attack on the proliferation of romance novels of that time,” says James. “As seventy per cent of readers are now female, I wanted to understand more of the female mindset. So I picked the brains of women I knew, including two adult daughters and researched contemporary women writers and books like Everywoman and I re-read with new female (or at least androgynous eyes) my well-thumbed de Beauvoir, Anna Karenina and Portrait of a Lady. Simultaneously, I was studying the crime culture on the Costa. The result was the character Penelope Eames”.

James has won many awards for his poetry and prose, including the Scintilla Welsh Open Poetry Competition in 2002. His first novel Peeling Oranges (2007), a paternal quest set in the Liberties of Dublin and Franco’s Spain, was highly praised by Gabriel Byrne. He is also the author of two other well-received novels For Love of Anna (2009) and The Avenue (2010), and an acclaimed study of modern poetry Clearing The Tangled Wood: Poetry as a way of seeing the world (2009). A debut collection of his own poems Rus in Urbe was published in 2012. He is a freelance writer and editor who has worked with The Irish Times, The Stinging Fly, Sunday Independent and Poetry Ireland Review. You can contact James via Facebook, Twitter, or through the Contact page. You can also find out more about James at Goodreads, on LinkedIn and on his Amazon author page or James | Irish Writers Online and James Lawless at The National Library of Ireland  and James LawlessWikipedia.

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She hears the voice on the sand, gravelly and authoritative like that of her father’s. Press the button and reject, that’s me, she thinks, Penelope Eames, that’s how I feel, or rather how I’ve been made to feel over the years, by him. Oh yes, the former esteemed professor of Histology and Morbid Anatomy with textbooks and learned articles to his name, who couldn’t teach compassion or filial love. The early Spanish sun is lulling her, making her mull over things, things that she had decided belonged to the past now, to another country. The top of her left breast is burning slightly, the new red bikini being skimpier than her usual black swimsuit (she should have thought of that), and then the skin is more sensitive there after submitting to the knife. It was Sheila Flaherty, her agent, ironically who had suggested she go in and get the implants  –  her breasts were an average size. ‘Good for your image,’ Sheila had said.

She was reluctant at first, considering it a vanity to don the anaesthetic mask to undergo an inessential butchering of oneself (she never even put a tint in her hair, for God’s sake). Sheila had had the job done a year ago, transforming her into the well-upholstered blonde that she now is. And for what?

For men.

Yes.

It was then they discovered the lump in her left breast. Quite young for that, the nurse had said, and Sheila tried to make a joke of it   –  ‘you’re the lump out and I’m the lump in,’ and the nurse taught her breast awareness.

She hears the voice on the sand, the smoker’s huskiness reeking of pseudo-wisdom; he thinks he is the cat’s miaow. ‘Not at all, my dears,’ the voice (clearly English) is saying; ‘on the contrary, chewing your nails is good for you; rich in protein you know. If I could reach my toenails, I…’ Men, stupid old men, but maybe there is a humour there  –  who can account for taste? She looks up coyly from under her straw hat to locate the provenance of the voice: that elderly guy a few yards away with the silver ponytail sitting under a huge parasol in the canvas chair. He is holding forth with a bevy of young sycophantic beauties  –  just like him. Trying as he is to be youthful looking like a born-again hippie or something out-of-date, just like him, the slate blue eyes, her father to a T.

Except of course for the ponytail.

The fine fawn-coloured sand she slides freely between her fingers, letting go, easing her life. She is delaying. The sun has made her lazy. She should be gone back to the quiet of her apartment to work on that recalcitrant second novel, before the sun reaches its zenith. She knows that, and to avoid the sunburn. There is a sound of laughter. She can just make out through the rising waves of heat: grinning young males (is the broad bronzed chap one of the lifeguards? She thought she saw him earlier on his perch) and two females among them playing volleyball as she gazes up into the sun from under the awning of her hand (for she has removed her sunhat which was chafing her forehead). She hadn’t noticed the net before. There are shouts in Spanish of ‘Anda’ and ‘Ole’ subsuming the elderly guy’s utterances. The young men, in a veil of light and heat, are laughing at a monokini-clad girl who has just missed the ball. The putdown. What always emanated from her father. She wanted him to be proud of her as he was of Dermot, her younger brother, when he started on his science degree. Oh, such voluble praise. A scientist in the family. Mixing chemicals and potions in Quinlan’s Laboratories. How right, how prophetic he was. And earlier her first book which she stuck at, she was sure he’d be proud of; she was hoping  -  her first novel to be published  -  but all he did was wonder if anything could be done about it, her writing that is, as if it were one of his studied pathologies.

Her right arm is going dead from resting on her side. She turns. Svengali of the bitten nails is calling the girls in from the sun. They are gabbling in different tongues  –  mainly Russian she thinks  –  among themselves, and in strained broken English to him. ‘You’ll sizzle up, my dears, out there.’ She can see him clearly now as he looks this way and that, his ponytail bobbing like a pendulum. And the girls come running. And he sits on his chair like a king on his throne, his harem in the shade at his feet, and the blonde who had been playing volleyball without her top  -  the shameless hussy. It’s a different matter to lie prone demurely in a topless state, Penelope convinces herself, with the towel on the ready to cover for any required movement, but to flaunt oneself in such a manner at sporting males, and he talking about fingernails… really! The girls are ignoring the taunts of the volleyball boys to come and play; they’re concentrating on the mature man, positively drooling over him. Is he some rich dude? Is that it? They’re after his money, or maybe he’s a powerful film director  -  the chair after all in its canvas making could be interpreted as directorial. They’re looking for parts; that’s it, to be made famous in his next film. And the chrome-haired lecher pulls at the string of the nearest girl’s bikini bottom.

Her father always called for Dermot, never for her when he wanted something, whether to announce or to confide, he made his bonding with Dermot. Dermot, the scientist, the proud son, the drug addict  –  pick the odd one out. Oh yes, Father did not know. In a moment of pique and green-eyed envy, which occurred of course when he called for him, she thought of telling her father, of releasing the cat from its miaow as it were, and of revealing to him what his whitehaired boy was really up to all those purblind years. The cocaine habit that started after their mother’s death at the in-set college parties, the social round ofDublin’s elite (some of whom less canny are reduced like Dermot now ironically to the gutter). The mutual admiration society was what she called it, of all that talent and intelligence of neophyte lawyers and doctors and dentists and financiers, and scientists, a veritable whirl of brilliance in a newly vibrant country.

But he called for him, at the first sign of failing, for this junkie. It was like a dismissal to her, a rejection to one who had been tending to his needs all along.

All those needs. All along. All those demands. All her life. The best years.

And the last time Dermot came  -  Penelope had found him with the help of the drug unit in a down-and-out place: a lane, she can’t remember the name of it  –  Crow’s Lane, that was it, strewn with bottles and syringes and faeces and a pungent stench of urine which was trapped in the narrow street by overhanging buildings, so that, she mused, junkies would find their way home like animals by following their own smell.

Sometimes she wished her pain on both of them for all the years, not of material neglect  -  she was never left short in that regard  -  but for all the years of indifference. It must be the cruellest of wounds to inflict on someone, she considered, to do something unaware of or indifferent to the harm it would cause: to impose on one a habituation to worthlessness.

But   –  and she looks down at her wriggling toenails like a chorus to her thoughts  –  she is not worthless. She is a writer. She wrote to stitch the wounds, to seek affirmation from other sources. The great world out there.

She had her first story published in a teen magazine. ‘Shows a lot of promise,’ the editor had said. The story was about an orphan girl. What else could it have been about? she realises now looking back, indulging the warmth of the Mediterranean sun at its zenith now (cajoling her to linger). And then her first novel several years later, Smelling of Roses, a romance about the unfulfilled yearning of a young woman until she met the dark foreigner on a beach just like this one, feeding into what her father deemed the frenzied imaginings of impressionable females.

Men, she muses, as the waves beat rhythmically (she will venture into the water soon; she is sweating; she can feel the drops meandering into her cleavage). She was able to give up her job  -  her last job where she’d worked as a temporary tour guide in aDublinmuseum, after a previous disastrous sojourn in a bank and an earlier stint at Telesales. She had wandered through an Arts degree but did not know what to do after it; had no one to guide her. ‘Any dolt can get an Arts degree,’ her father said, and that was the end of it as far as he was concerned. In contrast, she remembers some of her college friends with their careers mapped out for them by doting parents; the sangfroid of those young women, she marvelled at, as single-mindedly they pursued careers in the media or the diplomatic corps or later appeared in the society columns marrying some rich lawyer or dentist.

She bought an apartment on the Costa del Sol on the recommendation of Sheila (‘Such a romantic country’) from some savings she had, abetted by the royalties of her first book and the advance for her next one. A sequel, well not really, but in the same vein, more of the same, that’s what they said, don’t change a winning horse. Another love story maybe with a bit more umph this time, yes that is what they said. She could afford to be more daring in this second one  –  it is the twenty first century after all, Sheila said, as if  Penelope were not aware of that. Not exactly a bodice ripper no, we’re not looking for that, but quality of writing and candour of expression, those are the things we are seeking in a novel for the independent woman of today, who is not afraid to venture forth et cetera et cetera. But there is a problem this time: Penelope’s mind is in a flutter. After all, the first novel had been completed before her mother had died and before Dermot really went downhill. A mind needs, if not a stability, at least the semblance of it to write. She is thirty three now, and has to think of her future. All the time previously, because of her father’s conditioning of her (she blames that), she thought not of what she wanted but of what men demanded. But not anymore. Better not to have got hitched at all than to painfully suffer afterwards as her mother had done  –  such acrimony, and she was a witness to it all. Penelope Eames had run the whole gamut of negative emotions before she left her teens, and without having to put a foot outside of her family home.

She feels a palpitation as Mr Nails folds up his chair to make his departure. It’s like she’s missing him already in a sick sort of way, her father who is waning now, she has to admit, no matter what. She is afraid of loosening chains. Wanting and fearing at the same time. How had she come away? In what manner? The stubborn defiant Go if you must of his followed by the demented Where are you off to? And he refused to go into the nice nursing home in Booterstown which she would have arranged. To let someone else look after him, to take her place. But he would have none of it. Always winning the moral battle, to make the guilt hang on her.

Mr Nails has folded up his chair, his flapping gaudy shirt revealing a Brillo pad of hair on his tanned high ribbed chest. He is moving away, the line in the sand filling in already from the mark of his chair as his seraglio disperses.

She must get back too. She will forego the swim. But how can she write? She has lost the thread. She does not know where Dermot is, her only sibling, her kid brother. She thought it would be easy, just a matter of coming away to leave such preoccupations behind her, but it’s not so easy, she realises now; for such thoughts can travel too and can find their own berthing. Dermot started his disappearance act after their mother’s death; he would vanish for days, for weeks on end, and then reappear out of the blue with his dirty laundry and expect her to skivvy for him, while he chilled out, just as she did for her father. She was caring towards Dermot; she accepted it in the beginning with her mother the way she was. Even to know where he is, no matter what travail he may be going through, it is self-inflicted after all. But it would be a relief; it would put her mind at rest, just to know he was all right, still on the straight and narrow where she had tried to place him before she left, for she could not in her heart have abandoned him callously in the condition she had found him in Crow’s Lane. She brought him to the drug recovery unit on Merchant’s Quay before he realised where he was going, driven there, she remembers, to the repugnance of the taxi driver. After a few days with her cajoling (the strain of it she still feels), and on a course of methadone, he slowly improved. She spruced him up in a tie and suit, got him a job, not the big scientific position, no, none of  that now, but part-time work in a Supervalu off-licence. She knew the manager there who had worked with her in Telesales. It was all a rush but at least it was something to keep him off the streets before she departed forSpain.

The day she was leaving, she gave him her mobile number and her forwarding address.

‘You’re fucking off on me,’ he said trying to make her feel bad, just like their father had done.

‘If you ever want to come over…’

‘Ha.’ The sneer.

‘I mean it, Dermot…’

But she didn’t mean it, she knows, as she looks out on the crystalline water.

No, she is not settled here yet despite the apparent tranquillity of the surroundings: the rolling hills, the lenitive evening beaches sufficient to provide the balm but not the longed-for obliteration. But she is only a few days here after all; one must give time a chance to exact its healing powers. Her skin has hardly changed colour; she is still pasty-faced. Who used call her that? Dermot yes, pasty-face, he used to say, and he ironically always more pale than her. She intends to stay a full three months, at least, what Sheila had recommended. And who knows she may stay longer. Who can tell? She may even stay permanently; after all who wants to go back to what she had left behind. But a full three months gestation period is needed to make inroads into a novel, Sheila had said, thinking it was her only reason for her move to Spain, for Penelope never revealed the intimacies of her family to her. Once that initial foray has been got over, Sheila told her, it can all be tidied up in gloomy old Dublinduring the dark autumn evenings. And ‘the bleak midwinter’, Penelope adds mentally, finding masochistic consolation in the sadness of a song. And she looks now at the Spanish sky and is dazzled by the light. But  –  and a panic seizes her  –  she has made no encroachment, not even the slightest indentation on that carapace of the imagination, and nothing to constitute the happy ending de rigueur for her publishers. ‘God knows,’ Sheila said, ‘there is enough misery in the world, without adding to it in our imagination. Write that blissful ending first, and then go back and recount the obstacles.’

So what am I to do? she wonders. What are the obstacles to happiness?

Her own life now.

She can’t be worrying about Dermot. He’s what? Twenty five years old for God’s sake this June, a full quarter of a century. And yet the words: ‘I want out of it, I want out of it,’ which he kept repeating in Crow’s Lane are haunting her now, the cry of his, rebellious but hopeless it seemed to her, that time she met him sprawled as he was in the slimy alley, calling out to the world that he wanted to get off. Oh, will he relapse into that state again? That is the fear that is haunting her. And, as for their mother, where was she during all of this filial malformation? She was on a metaphysical journey of her own incapability through a fug of alcohol and self pity. An unloved woman, a woman scorned, the cruelty of the words hurled at her by her overarticulate spouse. How can one be overarticulate? No, but overendowed with the bad words, the cutting words, the saw words that fell one. A woman betrayed many times, and she looks towards the sea and a girl dipping her crimson toes in the water’s edge. Betrayed by his fawning acolytes who frequented the professor’s room in the hope  –  in exchange for some momentary fleshy transaction  –  of summa cum laude in the examination. All done and dusted behind closed doors in those pre-PC days. She saw one such creature with her own eyes the day she went to summon her father when her mother had taken an overdose of analgesics  –  they didn’t kill her of course but they were an alarm bell. She remembers the rumpled girl, freckled blueeyed, blushingly exiting, straightening down her skirt. Young enough to be his own daughter. To be her! And she remembers the monosyllabic dismissiveness of her father, ‘What, what is it?’ as she entered; the decoy of tidying his desk, lifting documents and placing them down in the same place again. ‘Why did you not contact the secretary with such matters?’ ‘The secretary? About Mam, Daddy?’ Did she not realise how busy he was, or could she not wait till he got home? Was it really that urgent? Not the first time. Not the first time, he repeated, that she had abased herself in such a manner. And there was an uncharacteristic dishevelled look in him too, she remembers, a brylcreemed hair out of place, hanging tellingly over his high brow.

A volleyball lands near her, tossing up sand, forcing her out of her reverie. She hears Spanish boys shouting, ‘Bravo’ to a good smash. And as she stares, here he comes, the lifeguard (it is he) towards her, that handsome, young man in his cornflower blue togs with their yellow side stripes, and that quiff of raven hair falling like a wave so… so sexily over his right eye. He is what? in his late twenties, thirty at the most, just right for her to snatch him away if only in her imagination. She sighs as he stoops to retrieve the ball so unhurriedly, so maturely, unlike so many impatient young men, such as… yes, such as her brother. ‘Lo siento,’ he says. ‘It’s all right,’ she says understanding the phrase. ‘It’s quite all right.’ She smiles but is conscious of the tremor in her voice. And someone shouts, ‘Ramón,’ and he turns answering to the name.

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A dynamic new MFA in Creative Writing

The majority of ‘lit-interested’ tourists visiting Ireland seem to show a preference for dead distingué, while ignoring a very vibrant ‘living writers’ scene. How will the new MFA in Creative Writing at American College Dublin concentrate on contemporary Irish authors and what their writing can offer students? The historical legacy of the Irish literary canon is extraordinary. Still, its weight can be a burden in terms of the perception of contemporary literary activity. The quality of writing produced in Ireland right now is remarkable. The recent Guinness world record Read For The World marathon event at the Irish Writers’ Centre was a striking snapshot of the excellence and breadth of the work of Ireland’s current writing fraternity. Over a hundred contemporary authors read from their works and the standard never flagged. It’s not surprising. A quality standard has been established in this country over a long period of time. Much as it’s hard to get anything less than an excellent espresso in Naples, the expected writing standard in Ireland is such that the general quality is very high – and the best of it is world class. And the writing environment is great. You need only attend a book launch on any given evening in Dublin, or indeed a random event at the Irish Writers’ Centre, to be impressed by the vitality, generosity and enthusiasm of Ireland’s writing culture in the here and now. Without wanting to gainsay the glories of the past – indeed, much of the MFA is delivered in Number One Merrion Square, the childhood home of Oscar Wilde – the programme seeks to tap into the rich and diverse resources of the present Irish writing and publishing scene, in terms of teachers, engagement with the contemporary Irish literary community, exposure to a wide variety of writing styles and approaches, and access to current publishing industry players and trends.

Who will be teaching on the MFA for the first year, what are their credentials? The writing workshops will be taught by Sean O’Reilly and Mike McCormack, both of whom are highly regarded authors and experienced teachers of creative writing. Sean is the author of a short story collection Curfew and Other Stories, novels Love and Sleep and The Swing of Things as well as an experimental novella Watermark. He is also contributing editor to the literary magazine The Stinging Fly and has a wide range of contacts in the Irish writing and publishing communities. Mike was awarded the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature in 1996 for his short story collection Getting it in the Head and has also published novels: Crowe’s Requiem and Notes from a Coma. He has been a writer in residence and teacher of creative writing at NUI Galway. The academic modules will be taught by our head of liberal arts, Dr Peter Sadowski and Dr Peter Rooney, both of whom have long experience teaching in the English literature field. There will also be a number of guest lecturers teaching on the publishing industry module in the second semester, among them agents, publishers, booksellers and publicists. The second semester also provides for master class presentations by a variety of well-known writers.

American College Dublin is a small University compared to most, but this surely has several advantages above some of the gargantuan institutions out there? The established institutions have many advantages over a small, private, not for profit college like ACD – vast resources, lofty reputations, the unswerving support of the state. But they are also, by nature, establishment-bound, conformist and conservative organisations. The state institutions have an internalised, inward-turning hierarchical culture that makes them genetically less predisposed to a programme of the sort we have developed – outward-looking, drawing heavily on interactions with the writing community outside the academy, open and reacting to the influences of non-academic prose practitioners and organisations. Make no mistake, the MFA is as academically demanding as any master’s level creative writing programme in Ireland. However, it does not limit itself to the confines of academia – it pursues an active and intimate engagement outside the walls of the academy with the current practice and practitioners of writing in Ireland today.

Could a compendium of courses by living Irish writers across many genres - the short story, the novel, artist as critic - make the point to the world Irish literature is not parked in the past but is very much part of the present? Exactly, that’s the point. The achievements of Ireland’s literary past are astonishing. We’re right to treasure them. We’re delighted to be able to deliver a creative writing programme in the childhood home of Oscar Wilde. But let’s use those historical associations as inspiration for new achievement, not huddle meekly in their shadow. There’s a richness of writing in Ireland today. Let’s celebrate that. Forget the robber bankers, the vapid ephemera of the recession, the gloom – writers and writing are building new monuments right now – ones that will stand long after the last ghost estate is bulldozed. We’re living in an exciting age for literary endeavour. This MFA wants to be a part of that.

Do you hope this course will allow students to see 21st century Ireland through a modernist prism, to observe a country not through the misty lens of rural Celtic arcadia and theme-park Paddy-Whackery!? There are no prescriptions on subject matter or interpretive approaches. The students’ themes may or may not be Irish, and the programme accommodates all manner of writing styles. The only thing that the programme insists upon is that the writing is done well. Having said that, students will be encouraged to develop material that steers clear of cliché, that is located in original experience and perception and reflects their own imaginative impulses. Some of that process may involve referencing of historical issues, popular imagery, popular culture. On the whole, the direction of the course is geared towards the production of material that is engaged with the writer’s contemporary concerns, rather than the creation of self-consciously canonical works.

The publishing industry and how writers are ‘getting their work out there’ is changing rapidly at the moment, so much so, it will be hard to apply the usual retrospective learning techniques to a module on publishing, for instance, how do you propose to overcome this? With difficulty! The pace of change in publishing is such that whatever you describe today will be different tomorrow. We’ll be using a team teaching approach on the publishing module in order to cover the gamut of publishing possibilities available. There are challenges in publishing as there are in all sectors of the economy. That said, the new technologies mean there are a lot of opportunities for getting work into the public domain. Alongside a full coverage of mainstream hard copy publishing and marketing in the programme, the class will also hear a lot from industry experts in present and emerging fields in electronic publishing, social media and the like.

How cost effective is the course for US students? Very. The tuition for the course is €8,000, currently about $10,000. Add accommodation and expenses for the year and return airfare and the total outlay is competitive by US standards for a master’s degree in creative writing – especially when you throw in the overseas experience in Dublin, a literary epicentre and as stimulating a city for the creatively inclined as you could expect to find. One important matter to note for US students – American College Dublin’s accreditation with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education means the MFA, like all the institution’s programmes, is eligible for US federal financial aid.

What other resources and add-ons will be available to students during the year? The programme’s association with the Irish Writers’ Centre is the first that springs to mind. Although most of the classes will be delivered at ACD’s Oscar Wilde House on Merrion Square, there will be regular programme events at the Centre. Students will be members of the IWC for the duration of the course, and will be encouraged to be fully involved with its community of writers and to participate in its schedule of activities, such as the novel fair and publishing days. It may be whimsy, but we also like to think that the regular peregrinations between ACD’s campus on Merrion Square and the IWC building on Parnell Square will provide a stimulus for the students’ creative processes!

Would one of the key achievements of the course be the production of real material from students potentially for publishers…to have this course as a practical launch-pad for writing careers on both sides of the Atlantic? That’s the ultimate goal. First and foremost, we want to work with the students so that they are producing material that is of a publishable standard and represents the best of their abilities. Over those processes we have a lot of direct influence. The goal of publication follows on from those primary aims and, although we cannot guarantee publication post-graduation and have a limited influence over such decisions, the course will do everything it can in terms of technical instruction, advice, motivation and education in how publishing works to facilitate the students in developing careers as writers.

When is the deadline for application(s) and how can people apply? The course begins the week of 17 September. We will be accepting applications up until the course fills, which we trust will be before then! Potential applicants can ring our admissions office for guidance on the application process at 01-676-8939, or applications can be made directly online through our website at www.amcd.ie.

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June Caldwell in conversation with Rory McEntegart before the start of the new MFA. Rory has been with American College Dublin since its foundation in September 1993, serving as Lecturer in History until 2001 and later as Academic Dean. He holds a BA in History and Politics from the University of Auckland, an MPhil in Reformation and Enlightenment Studies from Trinity College Dublin and a PhD from the London School of Economics. He is the author of Henry VIII, the League of Schmalkalden and the English Reformation, as well as numerous chapters, articles and reviews in historical books and journals. His current research is concerned with Assertio septem sacramentorum and the development of the theology of Henry VIII and the culture of religious discourse in England in the 1520s. Rory was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 2007.

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Writing away from the agonies

In a week where we saw yet another person die on the streets of Dublin from random violence, do you think that contemporary novels are covering contemporary themes enough? I don’t know that we should look to novels to remedy the problem of violence on the streets – novels can do many things, but I think it’s a matter of some doubt whether they are capable of ameliorating severe social problems. But to answer your question more usefully, I think there is – at last – a gradual movement in Irish writing away from the agonies of the 1950s and towards an engagement with various kinds of contemporary experience. You can see it in Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies and you’ll see it in Claire Kilroy’s wonderful new novel, The Devil I Know, which comes out in August. It was bound to happen eventually – sooner or later, all the people who can’t seem to get over the 1950s will be dead, and all the young turks will be complaining that older Irish novelists won’t shut up about the Celtic Tiger.

What was the very first piece of fiction you wrote? When I was about seven I wrote a story about a boy who travelled into the future with his Professor friend and had a lovely day out. It was about a page and a half long and I still have no idea what obscure impulse moved me to write it. But that was it, from then on I was, for better or worse, a writer. The next thing I remember writing is a ghost story called “The Thirteenth Floor.” I suppose I was eleven or twelve by then. It dealt with a bed-and-breakfast with a haunted thirteenth floor. Must have been one hell of a bed-and-breakfast.

Bad Day in Blackrock was set in an era of ‘easy credit, two-car families and cheap cocaine’…what kind of ‘recession themes’ are we likely to see in books over the next few years? The four year period we now mean when we use the word “recession” is already the most written-about period in the whole of Irish history, and the flood of nonfiction coverage isn’t going to stop any time soon. I suspect this will discourage novelists from tackling it directly, in the short term. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: novels work best when they don’t have an axe to grind. I won’t make predictions, except to say that in certain quarters, the response to the crisis will be to write about farms and priests, just like always.  As long as there are Americans to think of Ireland as a priest-ridden potato field full of shivering orphans, there will be Irish writers to tell them they’re right.

How long did it take? About six months, all told.

What has changed for you since it was first published? I’ve become a full-time writer, which I never thought was possible. I’ve also learned that “being a writer” is pretty much just a job, as opposed to a permanent state of adolescent daydreaming. It’s a good job, though. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

Do you have themes that you explore in all of your work? It’s too soon to tell.

What’s something that might surprise your readers about your writing life? I write at night, from midnight to four a.m. Plays havoc with my social life.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Laziness.

What is the trait you most deplore in others? Humourlessness.

Who’s your favourite writer? Martin Amis.

Inspiration? I have a three-by-five card pinned above my desk that says in big letters, “IT’S FINE.” That’s usually enough to keep me going, whenever I start to worry about the work.

Give us a writing tip. The trick to a good novel is to tell a secret and keep a secret all at once. Not my quote but a good one! Obey the Ancient Mariner principle: your narrator simply has to tell this story – he/she has no choice. Tell every story as if your life depended on it.

Can people be taught how to write!? They can be taught how to write better – but only if they’re already passionate about writing.

Have you ever seen a ghost? No, and I never will.

What’s the first record you bought? Oasis, Definitely Maybe. It was the Nineties and everyone was doing it.

Kevin Power is an Irish writer and academic. His novel Bad Day in Blackrock was published by The Lilliput Press, Dublin, in 2008. In April 2009 he received the 2008 Hennessy XO Emerging Fiction Award for his short story The American Girl. He is the winner of the 2009 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. He is teaching a one-day writing workshop on The Novel at the Irish Writers’ Centre on Saturday 14th July, 10.30am – 4.30pm. It’s aimed at people who have already done some work on the first draft of a novel and are interested in completing a full draft. Accordingly, we will be looking at techniques for structuring a novel-length story (how the story might best be told), and examining point of view and voice(who’s telling this story?), as well as emphasizing page-by-page issues, such as tone, style, sentence structure, paragraphing, and characterisation. Close readings of participants’ work will be combined with discussion of general narrative strategies. Participants are asked to submit NO MORE than 15 pages of their work – ideally, a brief section from the beginning of their manuscript. Typescripts should be double-spaced. Due to the nature of the course, spaces are limited to ten people. Book a place on the course here.

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Denise Blake: work, read, sprint through poetry

Denise Blake will read this Friday at the Irish Writers’ Centre (1pm) as part of the Lunctime Readings. She was born in Lakewood Ohio in 1958 and returned to Ireland with her parents and family to live in Letterkenny, Co. Donegal in 1969. Her first collection of poetry, Take a Deep Breath, was published by Summer Palace Press. Her second collection, How to Spin Without Getting Dizzy, was published in Spring 2010. She is a regular contributor to RTÉ’s Sunday Miscellany and her work is in five Sunday Miscellany anthologies. She read as part of Poetry Ireland Introductions series, Out to Lunch readings and took part in the Clé Author and Publisher library tour. Her work has been published in The SHOp, Poetry Ireland Review, The Stinging Fly and West 47. She is a founder of the Errigal Writers’ Group and received an MA in poetry from Lancaster University through the Poets’ House. She has wide experience of giving creative writing workshops in national and secondary schools in Donegal as well as working with adult groups.

When did you start writing poetry? Firstly, I know the moment when I started to love poetry, it was when I read Seamus Heaney’s poem, Docker. We were studying the poem as part of the English segment in a foundation course in Magee College and I loved the imagery in the line; He sits, strong and blunt as a Celtic cross. It was the first time that I could see into a poem for myself. The course was to be my return to education but instead it was my awakening to poetry. I was in my thirties and I had young children. I would never have considered writing a poem before that time. I started reading poetry and writing my own pieces. I was so thrilled with myself when I started producing work. The excitement of seeing new words appear has never left me. There were two strong forces in Co. Donegal at the time – The Killybegs Writers Group and Letterkenny Writers Group – so there were people who were supportive and showed great encouragement. Eventually a group of us evolved into Errigal Writers and we still meet twice a month.

What’s been the greatest obstacle to becoming (and remaining) a poet? The “who do you think you are?” chorus sitting on my shoulder. But the question could be; what has helped you stay writing? This is a great country for writing and I have had so much support, starting with my local community. There isn’t a week goes by that I am not asked “are you still writing?” by someone who is willing you on. When we first started Errigal Writers we organized Gerard Byrne to give us workshops and the Irish Writers Centre helped us out. We continued to bring other established writers to Donegal over the years and they have all treated us with a professional respect. I was lucky to be chosen for the Writers Workshop in UCG ( as it was then) with Paula Meehan as our facilitator. You can’t get a more professional, and yet compassionate, person to work with. I was fortunate also to be able to do the MA course in the Poets’ House in Falcaragh. There are so many established writers who are generous with their time and energy. I’m on the directory for Poetry Ireland’s Writers in the Schools and that experience is wonderful.

What gets you started on a poem—idea, image, personal experience? The greatest motivation I have is being a member of the Errigal Writers. When I know we are due to meet things start moving in the back of my mind for a while. I become more aware of my surroundings and more susceptible to imagery around me. I will read more poetry in those days and watch performances on you tube. And then I try to find a silence that lets creativity come into the room. I have found my favourite type of moleskine notebooks and I always write the first drafts in longhand. I just love that moment when the first draft is finished.

How did you go about getting your poetry published? You have to get work published in magazines; Poetry Ireland Review, the Stinging Fly, The SHOp were the magazines who first accepted my work. I also had pieces on Sunday Miscellany and I love recording for radio. Again I’m fortunate in that Joan and Kate Newmann of Summer Palace Press have a home in Donegal. They used to hold wonderful workshops and readings in their home in Kilcar. Eventually they accepted my manuscript and published Take a Deep Breath in 2004. They put so much work into the editing process that it is a gift when the book is published. My second book , How to Spin Without Getting Dizzy came out in 2010.

You are very involved in community-based projects, how did this happen and why is it important to you? I’m not as involved as I should be but I live in Co. Donegal, we don’t have organisations running readings and workshops on an ongoing basis so the Arts Scene kind of works from the earth upwards. Our Arts Officer, Traolach O’Fionnain is very approachable and he encourages us to create events. There were times in the group energy where we needed to perform, or meet other writers, or work with established writers or publish work, so the only thing for it was to organise it ourselves. North West Words is a group who now hold readings with featured writers and open-mic on the last Thursday of every month. I do think there is a hunger for poetry readings here.

Are festivals a good outlet for poets? Festivals have the funding for organising events and advertising. Anything that gets poets and writers performing in an area is good.

Do female poets face particular challenges? Do young male poets seem to have a higher profile? Yes. But whether that means that female poets face more challenges I’m not sure. It is a very long road.

What are you writing next? I’m writing poems for now. That is what is coming when I put the pen to paper and I’m grateful for them. Hopefully it will shape into a third manuscript.

Any advice for emerging writers? Love what you are doing. Work at the craft. Read. Be prepared for the long distance not a sprint. Don’t be crucified by rejections. Look carefully at the word emerging, it carries hope and a future. It isn’t: never-going-to-happen writers, but emerging. I love the feeling that anything can happen once you are writing and sending out work.

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Mary Costello & The Short Story

As a reader I like the contained feel of a short story. The voice must reach me. I like to be disarmed, taken into a character’s head, to experience some small almost imperceptible shift in their being. The best short stories have a purity – like poetry – that reduces the reader. But of course, there must be a story worth telling, too – the reader expects this to be delivered. My own stories are fairly conventional in the sense that they tell a story in a mostly linear way. I’ve been writing for years and had some early stories published in New Irish Writing, and was shortlisted for a HennessyAward  in the 1990s.

I didn’t have much luck publishing anything then and I stopped sending work out. I did continue to write – I wrote a novel or two – but I was teaching full-time too so the writing waned. I taught in primary schools in Tallaght and more recently in Harold’s Cross. About two years ago I sent two stories to The Stinging Fly literary magazine. Sean O’Reilly was guest editing the summer issue and he liked a story I sent in and published it. Declan Meade liked them too and asked to see more. Luckily I had a bunch of stories written over the years. From that he wanted to do the collection. It was kind of a dream come true – I thought these stories and characters were destined to spend their lives gathering dust in the corner of a dark wardrobe! Getting a book published is something that stops me short when I think of it these days, approaching the publication. Putting it together for The Stinging Fly Press has seemed amazingly easy – Declan’s way of working with writers, I think, makes it feel that way.

It can be difficult to keep on writing if you’re not getting published. You lose heart and stop sending stuff out. That’s why literary magazines and online sites for the short story are so important. You need to feel part of some kind of writing community too. Some of the stories were written fifteen years ago, some are more recent. They are quite varied, both in setting and in characters; they deal with ordinary people – men and women of all ages – in both rural and urban or suburban settings. I am interested in the seemingly small events that can suddenly turn a life, and how the characters not only cope with these, externally, but more especially how they mediate them internally, how they strive for interior coherence. Fate and chance play have a presence in many of the stories. I always start off with a character, a voice. If that comes right early on, then you have greater faith in the story. If not, it can be quite disheartening.

Mary will read a story entitled And Who Will Pay Charon from her forthcoming collection The China Factory at the IWC tomorrow at 1pm.  

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Nuala O’Faolain: life of a somebody

 

WATCHING NUALA O’ FAOLAIN EAT A SAUSAGE SANDWICH

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, 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 [1996] 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?

Bibliography

  • A Radiant Life: The Selected Journalism of Nuala O’Faolain (2011)   
  • A More Complex Truth (essays from the mid-1980s to 2008, published in 2010)
  • Best Love, Rosie, published posthumously in 2009
  • The Story of Chicago May (nonfiction, 2005)
  • Almost There: The Onward Journey of a Dublin Woman (nonfiction, 2003)
  • My Dream of You (fiction, 2001)
  • Are You Somebody? The Accidental Memoir of a Dublin Woman (nonfiction, 1996)

 

 

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Filed under Fiction, Irish Writers, Irish Writers Centre, IWC, literature, Nuala O'Faolain