Category Archives: IWC

Two courses, one writer, and a fantastic story

The Secret Son

By Jennifer Burke

I am so excited, I think I might spontaneously combust. My first novel – The Secret Son – is hitting Irish bookshelves this month. Yet this time two months ago, I hadn’t the smallest inclination of what was about to happen. On 4th July, Martin King of TV3’s The Morning Show burst into my office where I work with the Commission for Energy Regulation and announced that I was the winner of TV3’s “Write a Bestseller” competition. Life since then has been a whirlwind – of the best kind. I had spotted the competition, which was run in conjunction with Poolbeg Press, when I was happily procrastinating from writing my third novel. Clicking around Writing.ie I stumbled across it and my mind flew to the dusty old copy of The Secret Son sitting in my drawer.

lawI’ll go back a few years. In 2008-2009, I was training to be a solicitor. While studying Wills & Probate law I was genuinely amazed at the amount of cases that came before the courts involving families having fallen out with each other over the contents of a dead relative’s will. An idea began to form. What if I could write a story about a will that went one step further than the cases I had been studying. Instead of just dividing up the family fortune in an unexpected way, the will could reveal a dark secret that threatened the very stability of the family. And so the character of Andrew Shaw began to form in my head. A sick young man in need of a kidney transplant who is horrified to discover that a recently dead stranger is in fact his biological father. Unsure how to even begin constructing a full novel on this scrap of an idea, I attended Juliet Bressan’s one day ‘How to write a novel’ course in the Irish Writer’s Centre.

Meeting other aspiring writers was itself inspirational. I learnt the basics of creating a story arc, marking plot points and developing characters, all which enabled me to structure the novel in my mind. Though the story ultimately changed and matured over the months, I had a plan to work from and I finally got down to the serious business of writing a novel. I wrote whenever I could. I got up early before work, scribbled down sentences in the evenings and stole some hours at the weekends. Eventually, the words added uPictured Jennifer Burke, author. Picture Conor McCabe Photography.p and I had my book done. Sort of. It was mostly finished, but I knew it was lacking. I just couldn’t put my finger on the exact problem. So I returned to the Irish Writer’s Centre and took Conor Kostick’s Finish your Novel course over ten weeks. He gave me the tools to shape and polish the book – being true to your voice, how to write dialogue authentically and creating villians; writing love scenes, being certain of your theme and book endings. I left the course with the skills I needed to hone and perfect my story.

It took many edits, more reading around (I particularly recommend Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages), and ultimately taking time off work, but I eventually finished. A year later, I came across TV3’s competition and sent The Secret Son off to Poolbeg. I had no conception at the time how it would change my life. In the past two months, I got to see a whole new side of writing – the process of turning a manuscript into a book for sale. Normally this process takes months, but we had weeks, if we were to capitalise on the publicity I have been so fortunate to receive from TV3. The editing process was the best part. I was nervous – you hear horror stories of editors cutting characters and decimating storylines. But that wasn’t the case at all. All of the edits suggested were spot on and mostly centred around making the book readable and consistent. It was the final polish and ultimately professionalised the novel. Aside from editing the actual book, there has been plenty of other fun stuff to do – acknowledgments, dedication, front cover consultation, photo shoot, marketing and PR. I’m still not entirely convinced this isn’t all a dream. It’s just unbelieveable that all this has been made possible in such a short period of time. Right now, I’m busy organising the launch of The Secret Son and I have my minions (ie. my very dedicated family and friends) spreading the word to their friends, colleagues and book clubs. I hope The Secret Son does well and that I get the opportunity to keep writing. For the moment, I’m enjoying the crazy, crazy reality that I’m actually being published. To anyone who is mulling over a spark of an idea, I say go for it. Just look at what can happen!

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, Bestsellers, Competitions, Creative Writing, creative writing course, Fiction, How to Write A Novel, Irish Writers Centre, IWC, Juliet Bressan, literature, novels

Telmetale Bloomnibus, the e-book, streaming live around the world!`

ulyssesTo celebrate Bloomsday we asked 18 writers to bring Ulysses into the 21st Century. As Joyce once took inspiration from the texts of Homer, the writers have taken the 18 episodes or chapters from Ulysses and transported them to modern Dublin. They have each written a story inspired by a title from Ulysses and will perform them in the Irish Writers’ Centre on the 14th of June. Stories will be told through prose, poetry and song. The only rule we gave the writers is that the stories cannot mention Ulysses, The Odyssey or Joyce (though inspiration from the texts is allowed).  The stories are all original pieces of work set in contemporary Dublin. Guided by love, lust, alcohol, drugs and ever present moons, our heros and heroines battle scangie-gangies in Adidas, hooded drug pushers, administrators, chauvinist school principles, tourists, junkies, priests, giant cannibals and catholic computers. Pissheads riding the storm. We wake up handcuffed to beds, sanitary towels on the kitchen table; we encounter a Dublin where stealing laptops is the new stealing bread. A Telmetale Bloomnibus embraces both the beautiful and the obscene.

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Click on pic to buy the book!

When Joyce first started writing Ulysses 99 years ago the landscape of the city was very different from today. Globalisation, technology, independence, women’s rights, church scandals, Starbucks, Ryanair, Google and other such things have, in many ways, created a new city. But with all of these changes one thing has remained constant, high quality writers are constantly emerging. Writers that burst boundaries, challenge our perception. A Telmetale Bloomnibus celebrates Joyce by showcasing some of these writers and captures the modern landscape.

A Dublin of: HIV, Hep C, KFC, Twitter, Facebook, The Late Late, Dr Quirkey’s Good Time Emporium, the Pantibar, the millennium spire, Madigans, The Gathering and Viking Splash Tours.

You can buy the e-book by clicking on the pic, and you can watch the event streamed ‘live’ thanks to our partners at Breac via this link from 7pm tonight.

Line-up in order of appearance:

Pat Boran, Colm Keegan, Jane Clarke, Niamh Boyce, June Caldwell, Steven Clifford, Christodoulos Makris, Jude Shiels, Jack Harte, Maire T Robinson, Emer Martin, Niamh Parkinson, Deirdre Sullivan, Graham Tugwell, Alan Jude Moore, Oran Ryan, Doodle Kennelly, Nuala Ní Chonchuir.

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Filed under Benefit Reading, Bestsellers, Creative Writing, Dublin Event, Irish Writers Centre, IWC, James Joyce, literature, Ulysses

That storytelling instinct

We’re chuffed to have Keith Ridgway read at the Centre on Friday 9th November at 1.05pm, as part of the Lunchtime Readings series. His most recent novel, Hawthorn & Child, published by Granta has been met with huge acclaim. His novella, Horses, was published by Faber & Faber in 1997, and was followed in 1998 by the novel The Long Falling (which was awarded both the Prix femina étranger and Prix du premier roman étranger in France). He won the Rooney Prize for Irish literature in 2001 for his short story collection Standard Time. His novel The Parts followed in 2005, and Animals in 2007. His stories have appeared in various anthologies and periodicals in Ireland, Britain and the United States, including The New YorkerDublin ReviewZoetrope, and Granta. Here, IWC intern Ferdia Lennon interviews Keith about storytelling, subversion, and preposterous thrillers.

The protagonists of Hawthorne and Child are detectives, yet it is far from being a traditional crime novel. Was subverting readers’ expectations part of what attracted you to these characters? Well, it was more the other way around. I was attracted to detectives because they are involved in a formal way in what I wanted to write about – our desire and our instinct to shape random events and experiences into narratives that make sense. That’s what policemen do. It’s what we all do, to some extent. I didn’t set out to subvert a traditional crime novel. But you become aware in the writing that having policemen on the page sets the reader up in a certain way. And I played with that, a little.

A chapter from Hawthorne and Child appeared as a stand-alone story entitled ‘Goo Book’ in the New Yorker, and you have described the novel as having a deliberately fragmented structure. Was Hawthorne and Child initially planned as a novel, or did you first envisage it as a short story collection? It was always a novel. But it was always, in my mind, very fragmented. In fact originally it was far more fragmented than it is now. I wanted dozens of tiny bits and pieces. As it is that instinct that I spoke about – that annoying story-telling instinct – came on pretty strong, and there was this tension between coherence and fragmentation in the writing of it. But it’s very much a novel. In the sense that there is no other name for it. It’s certainly not a short story collection.

Previously, you have cited Roberto Bolaño as a major influence. What other writers have been important, both in terms of inspiring you to write, and, then later, in your development? As a reader, I love Bolaño. As a writer, I’m very wary of him. I hope in many ways that he is not an influence, though our thoughts sometimes align. He is of course a sort of inspiration in terms of his ambition for his writing and his fearlessness. There are a lot of writers who I think of in a similar way – from Beckett to Gombrowicz, to Dennis Cooper, Gary Indiana, Flannery O’Connor, Dermot Healy, Cesare Pavese, José Saramago, Muriel Spark. I mean, there are dozens.

You have published novels, short stories and one novella. Do you have a preference for any particular form? No, not really. I just write, and things tend to find their own length. I am increasingly ambivalent about the divisions between these forms. I dislike a short story that is very like a short story, or a novel that it very much a novel. I say dislike, I mean I suppose that it gets boring, now.

You teach Creative Writing, do you find teaching writing has affected the way you approach your own work? I don’t teach creative writing. I don’t know what that is. I teach fiction writing. And no, it hasn’t affected the way I approach my own work.

Your short story The Spectacular looks at the plight of a struggling literary writer who attempts to write a commercial novel about a terrorist attack on the Olympics. Have you ever, in darker moments, been tempted to do the same? For example Sixty Shades of Grey? Well, not the Fifty Shades stuff. But I like preposterous thrillers and well crafted crime-books. It takes a huge amount of skill to do that sort of thing well, and is embarrassing in the extreme when done badly – especially by writers who think they can do it as a sideline. The writer in The Spectacular is one such – he’s lowering himself to writing a thriller. And you see that attitude in quite a few “literary” writers. It’s not one I share. I try to learn what I can from genre writers, and I try to apply it. And in most of my books there have been elements of genre. The Long Falling is a murder story. Horses is a small-town whodunnit. The Parts involves prostitution and kidnap and conspiracy theories. Animals bumps up against terrorism. So I’ve been writing half-genre novels my entire career. It’s just that nobody really noticed until I wrote one involving a couple of detectives.

What are you currently reading? Denis Johnson’s Tree Of Smoke, very slowly; Anthony Burgess’s Napoleon Symphony; and some science stuff from Lawrence Krauss and Douglas Hofstadter.

Are you working on anything at the moment? Yes.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers? Read more. Write more. But mostly, live more. Live an interesting life. Never settle. And always be ready to kill, and get out of town.

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, Fiction, IWC, Lunchtime Readings, Readings, writing

Emma Leavy on her love of lists

Emma Leavy is an Intern at the Irish Writers’ Centre this summer. She is a rising senior at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Washington, DC where she majors in Culture and Politics. Emma fell in love with Ireland as a study abroad student at UCD this past fall. She is delighted to be back for the summer as a part of the IWC team. In her free time, she dabbles in short stories and spends inordinate amounts of time poking around used book stores.

As a lover of words, I am fascinated by lists. I find them inexplicably comforting: lists of the top ten liveliest pubs in Dublin, lists of books that will change my life, lists of the most gruesome serial killers to roam the streets of Edinburgh. I take a sick delight in to-do lists, scribbled on loose leaf with little boxes I can check off. The anticipation of checking off one of those tiny boxes is enough to get me through a first draft or a sinkful of dishes. Some of my very favourite writing exercises involve lists. For example, I find it helpful to list the contents of my characters’ nightstand drawer or CDs which line their shelves. Lists like these help me grasp onto the shadowy details of the characters lurking in the crevices of my brain, transforming them into a living and breathing imaginary friends. This bizarre interest of mine bubbled to the surface whilst looking for online resources for writers. The internet is chock full of lists. So my fellow neurotic writers, I present to you a LIST of the top lists for writers on the internet:

12 Essential TED Talks for Writers

I have a confession: I love trashy television. I find the antics of reality television stars incredibly therapeutic. My life seems instantly normal and organized in comparison. TED Talks are the perfect antidote to the delights of reality TV. It’s a non-for-profit organization which holds conferences where people from all walks of life give fantastic talks on their passions. These informative and moving talks are then uploaded on their free website. Here’s a list of the best TED talks for writers.

1000 novels everyone must read: the definitive list

This list of 1000 novels both terrifies and delights me. The folks at The Guardian really know their stuff and the list contains both well-known literary classics and a few mysterious gems. I intend to post this on my desk and tick off my reads one by one.

The 18 Most Popular Articles on Writing of 2011

A direct channel into some great and varied advice for writers. There’s a bit of business sense and some solid words of wisdom on the nuts and bolts of writing. Your writing will thank you for poking around this website.

Best Creative Writing Exercises

An entertaining and useful list of writing exercises. Some of them are silly, but all will make you smile. Some might even make you write. My favourite? “Open the dictionary to a random page. Find a word that you do not know how to define. Write an imaginary definition for it. Repeat.”

Top Tens

This is a list lover’s wet dream: over 400 “Top Ten” Lists of Books. Searching for the top ten bedtime stories, the best tales of Americans in Europe, or the ten best deranged characters? Look no further! Some author has contemplate the same bizarre theme and made a list for The Guardian.

Thirty-Three Twitter Feeds to Follow

Twitter is a virtual treasure mine of literary advice, suggestions and ideas. If you’re having trouble sorting through the endless amount of feeds, this list will give you a sold starting point.

The Joy of Lists

A wonderful mediation on lists in literature and why we enjoy them. I would love to have lunch with the author, Arthur Krystal. I have a feeling we would have a lot to talk about. Favourite line: ‘Isn’t every list in reality a ceremonial flourish against amnesia and chaos?’

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IWC Novel Fair – A Winning Tale

I always kept notebooks full of poems, lists, drawings and rants but I started writing seriously in 2008. I went to a workshop facilitated by John Mac Kenna and became hooked on writing short stories. I wrote till the early hours of the morning most nights during that time, it was like there was a backlog of stories needing to get out there. My stories were very short, 1,000 words and eventually they got longer and I started sending them out to magazines. I was lucky that the first story I sent out was published by Crannog, a Galway-based literary magazine. It was called The Wild Cat’s Buffet. My next story was published  by The Sunday Tribune and shortlisted for New Irish Writing Award. It was an encouraging start and I think encouragement is important to writers, it helps keep you going. Literary awards and magazines are vital in that regard, especially for short story writers and poets.

Nowadays poetry would have the strongest pull. I enjoy writing it more than I do fiction, it feels closer to the bone, more powerful (though short stories come a close second). For me, poetry can say things that the other two can’t. When I’m working on a novel I get terrible cravings to write poetry, I keep it at bay by buying beautiful notebooks with birds on them and stack them by the bed, for later, for when this project is finished, that’s what I tell myself. Often when I’m writing I don’t know what form the piece will take - I have a piece in a notebook for months now that still doesn’t know if it’s a poem or a story, and neither do I…it’s the tale of a woman whose brothers turn into wolves, so maybe it’s a hybrid…

The novel fair was a great experience for me, there were no negatives. It may have been more useful to have had more than 15 minutes with each agent/publisher but obviously it worked out very well for my book as I met my agent Ger Nichols and publisher Patricia Deevy on the day and because of that The Herbalist will be published in May 2013.

Yes the first draft was finished, I’d written it in 2008 and it took between 8 to 10 weeks to write. I wrote it fast and in the mornings longhand, typing it up at night when everyone was in bed. I averaged around 2,000 words a day and they seemed to flow out. That wasn’t the case with my other novel. Saying that, writing that fast meant I didnt edit or worry about meaning, contradictions etc.. so the second draft was a much slower and harder process. In many ways it was like reading something a stranger had written!

The novel is about a herbalist coming to a small town in the late 1930s – it is written from the point of view of four very different women who become involved with him.

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The Novel Fair 2013 will be launched tonight at 7.30pm. It aims to introduce up-and-coming writers to top publishers and literary agents, giving novelists the opportunity to bypass the slush pile, pitch their ideas and place their synopsis and sample chapters directly into the hands of publishers and agents. By the time the deadline rolled around on November 11th last year, the Irish Writers’ Centre had received over 570 entries, a figure which demonstrates the vast number of people writing fiction in Ireland today. Twenty writers were selected for the Fair. Many of the shortlisted winners have signed with agents, a few of the books are under consideration as well as Niamh’s publishing deal above! This year’s Fair includes an additional prize of a place on a seminar on ‘How to Pitch Your Novel’ to help the novelists perfect their presentations and material for the day. The deadline for the competition this year is October 17th and the Novel Fair itself will take place on February 16th 2013. A judging panel will be asked to select a shortlist of ten successful entries, presented to them anonymously. There is no limitation on style, genre, or target market, the only requirement being that the writer has not published a novel before. Publishers and agents will be invited to come along on the day to the Irish Writers’ Centre and meet the ten selected writers in person. Each writer in attendance will have a stand at the Fair with copies of the synopsis of their novel, the finished novel itself and biographical material.”

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, Fiction, How to Write A Novel, Irish Writers Centre, IWC, Novel Fair

Why not to throw your novel away

I was half way through my first novel and like most of us, getting badly stuck. I’d been writing it in a bitty way for over six months, without any real discipline. I knew it was good enough to publish – I just didn’t know how to get the story tidied up and like a lot of us on our first attempt, I was rambling all over the place. Truthfully, I was just about to chuck it away and give up the whole sorry mess, but then I met up with an old friend for a coffee, the writer Conor Kostick, who was just about to start teaching at the Writers Centre. And Conor said, “You should do my course.”

Naturally, I resisted with every bone in my body. Going back to school was the last thing I wanted to do, I whinged. It was humiliating enough to be a failed novelist, without having to bear that in front of others who (I was convinced would be) brilliant and professional writers. I whinged some more.

“You should really, really, seriously do my course,” Conor said.

Of course, he was right. I hummed and hawed and eventually signed up, arriving late the first night – a sign of my fear and ambivalence! The others in the group were, I felt, streets ahead of me as writers. The last thing I wanted to do was to read anything aloud – and Conor made me do this, on the first night, a horrendously difficult writing exercise. I left the class, almost in tears, vowing not to return. But as Conor and I waited for the same bus, he gently suggested that as I’d paid the fee, I might as well finish the course. “But I’m the worst in the class!” I wailed.

“In that case, you should definitely finish the course,” he said.

So, yes, I did finish the course. By the end of the term we were a polished little group. I realised, after reading some more of my manuscript, that it was actually alright. Some of it was really good. It was publishable. From the feedback of the other writers I was able to quickly fix huge problems I’d been having – this is the major benefit of working in a group. Somebody else will immediately have the answer to a piece of bad writing you’ve been torturing yourself with, and you’ll cut blissfully to the chase. Joy of joys, by the end of that summer I had not only finished the novel but I had met a super group of friends, found a publisher, and had been signed for three more books.

I can safely say, that if I hadn’t had my arm twisted into doing that course at the Irish Writers’ Centre, I would never have become published. Like most people who have a yearning to write stories I lacked the professionalism and discipline to turn a story idea into a book. The beauty about working with a professional writer in a workshop is that you cut through a lot of time-wasting, and get down to the real nuts and bolts of what will make the story work. Now that I teach first-time novelists at the Writers’ Centre, I see the same problems that I had coming up over and over again – motivation to get the story down on paper, motivation to keep writing when everything else keeps trying to get in the way, and finding the confidence to just do it, just write it. Stop agonising over your words and write the story. Just write the story that you want to write.

Of course it isn’t easy. The most difficult thing, when you have set out to write, is knowing what to write. Then you have to know how to write it. Working in a group makes a huge difference. Working with a professional who’s done this before, who’s doing this all the time, can save you a lot of time wearing out the delete button.

I’d love to say that there’s a magic trick to getting your first novel published, but I guess that the magic is in taking a professional attitude (rather than dreaming that it will all just come together some day. . . ), and taking on the task.

Have the yearning and the love of writing. Learn the technique. Practice the technique. Practice some more. Get feedback. Use the feedback. Set goals. Stick to the goals.

Every professional writer will write in a different way. I plot first, write a synopsis,  then a chapter-by-chapter breakdown, then fill in the gaps . . .and then all of the plotting and chaptering changes as I write. Others start with character, and let the character drive the plot. There are no hard rules. But you won’t know what’s going to work for you until you try.

Learn from professional writers all about the publishing industry and how it works. Read as much as you can, watch as many movies as you can, learn from television, film, journalism, theatre, keep learning from other literary forms about how story-telling works. And then write the story. Write it down. Keep on writing. Write some more. Write the story that you want to tell.

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Juliet is teaching a six-week course packed with fantastic tips on how professional writers write novels and get them published. The course, which runs from 1st May to 5th June is workshop-based providing a chance to share work with others and enjoy their feedback. If you’ve just started a novel, or if you’re just at the dreaming and plotting stage of novel-writing, this is the course for you. Classes will focus on character development, motivation, writing from the imagination, plot development, structure, style, genre and tips for approaching the publishing industry.

 

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, creative writing course, Fiction, How to Write A Novel, Irish Writers Centre, IWC, Juliet Bressan, literature, new writing

Writing The City To Right

by Sean O’Reilly

The other week, scanning the bookshelves in one of those charity shops, in Dublin city centre, I had the uncanny experience of realising that a number of the books used to be mine. I’d moved house a few months earlier, shed a few boxes of books and here they were back again, resurfaced, broken spines, dead barcodes, some of the titles still hot and resonant of another time. I slid one out: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. It was scalded by the evidence of my past in a note I’d made in a margin and I saw myself years back, an older younger self, still silently walking the streets of Dublin in the first days after arriving here, trying to memorise the street names, that book in my pocket.

I loitered around in the shop for as long as I could, checking out the ties, the DVDs, a red bucket full of watches, waiting to see if some punter might be tempted by one of my old books, that man with the blackthorn cane, that woman taking sly photos with her phone, and whether I would give in to the desire to follow them, the desire to end up somewhere new, out of my depth, stripped bare, ecstatic, to create a new path through a suddenly mysterious city. But nobody was interested in the fiction shelves that afternoon.

Outside on the streets I watched some men putting up posters for One City/One Book 2012 above the anti-household charge placards. This year it’s Joyce’s Dubliners. He fought the printers for the right to name names, to use the real names for real places. Johnny Rush’s, cab and car rental in The Sisters, The Shelbourne Hotel in Two GallantsThe Herald in A Painful Case, Brown Thomas’s in A Mother. This type of scrupulous realism was unheard of here and so was the guilt-laden psychological realism Joyce had learned from Ibsen.

It got me wondering about the contemporary city, and how in the writing groups I’m involved with, the question of naming always seems to come up, whether a writer should use the actual names of recognisable places. Funnily enough, it’s a question that only arises in writing about the city. A story set down the country, so to speak, is rarely as nervous about naming as an urban story. The rural story can rely on a sense of place, nostalgic perhaps, and usually created by vaguely animistic descriptive passages about landscape and weather that the city story turns away from, preferring instead to indulge in the naming of iconic sights in the city like the Spire, Connolly Station, The Grand Canal. It’s a small detail but symptomatic, I think, of a desperate straining to find a city we all share, a city we have in common, a visible city.

Maybe naming the names is not enough any more. Maybe there are so many eyes these days it has led to even more doubt about what is being seen. So many screens and portals nobody knows who is really doing the looking, the watching, or who is really browsing who? I’ve read that new writers are less interested in place than verbal pyrotechnics or that the crime thriller is the last hope for the realist novel now that the city is big enough to have a dark underbelly! Maybe, unlike Joyce, writers are wary of dealing with anything topical, having bought into the idea that literature and politics are a bad mix. Or does it just seem impossible now to capture the cultural complexity of the city, the extremes of wealth and poverty, the hybrid sexualities, the trafficking of languages.

One City is a PR touch-screen phantasy. We all have our own secret city, our private monuments and parks, graveyards and houses of pleasure, burning unnamed ley lines twisting from Clondalkin to Skerries.Maybe in our dreams it all joins up, like Calvino’s description of Zobeide, the city of desire. Founded when men from many nations came together and discovered they all had had the same dream: a naked woman running through the streets of an unknown city, each of them in pursuit, each of them losing her. These men decided to build a city just like the one in the dream but at those points where they had lost her, those intersections where she had escaped, they would make some changes, alterations, a wall here, no wall there, to prevent the woman escaping again. In time more and more men arrived and each of them made their own corrections. No one in the city of Zobeide has ever seen the woman again. Even the chase has been forgotten now.

Sean O’Reilly runs the Stinging Fly’s New Way to Fly Novel Workshop, which is now accepting applications for 2012-13. His published work includes Curfew and Other Stories, the novels Love and Sleep, The Swing of Things and Watermark  (The Stinging Fly Press). He has been writer in residence with Dublin City Council, Fingal Country Council and IADT Dun Laoghaire and has led writing workshops at Listowel and Cuirt. Between April 24 and June 12, Sean will also be running a short story course, Tales of the City: Short Fiction at the Irish Writers’ Centre. The course will focus on the challenges of writing short fiction about - and set in - modern urban environments. There are still places on this course – ring 01-8721302 to book a place. Thanks to The Stinging Fly for this interview.

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, creative writing course, Fiction, Irish Writers Centre, IWC, new writing, short fiction

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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