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Niamh Boyce’s Blog Tour, all aboard!

niamhboyce

Photograph: Alan Betson © The Irish Times

Three months after the Irish Writers’ Centre inaugural Novel Fair in 2012 Niamh Boyce signed with Penguin and was on the speckled road to becoming a novelist in realtime. Today, as the book hits the shop shelves the author and the story are ‘trending’ on Twitter. The genesis dates back to May 1942 (though the story is set a few years earlier), a report in a local paper of a ‘coloured man’ arrested for serious offences against girls. Irish Times journalist Sineád Gleeson, who interviewed Niamh for the paper earlier this week, says the book is loosely based on a real court case and is all the more intriguing because it’s a work of fiction based on one small abandoned fact.

‘It concerns an exotic potion and tincture seller, who arrives in a midlands town and sets up a market stall. Before long the townsfolk, particularly the women, are beguiled by him. A strong cast – a prostitute, an ageing wife desperate for a child, two young girls who suffer similar fates – dominate a story that is sharply rendered, and full of dark humour,’ writes Gleeson. ‘Boyce perfectly captures the hysteria in the town’s see-sawing obsession with the herbalist. “The market in the real case was in my home town so I could really visualise him,” she says. “I also thought about [Arthur Miller’s play] The Crucible . . . about mob mentality and how a town can scapegoat someone”.

The novel is completely fictionalised, because she was fearful of “trespassing on people’s real lives”. The story is set in 1939, and examines the class structures of Irish life, and the sense of predestination that comes with being born into a specific background.

“That structure was still there when I went to school in the 1980s,” says Boyce in her Irish Times interview. “We were all still divided into groups according to whether our parents were farmers or shopkeepers. Emily [a young girl who becomes obsessed with the book’s title character] has no standing and is a nobody. When you live in a small town, before you’re born you’re ‘one of the Kellys’. The day you start school is a new experience, in a new place – but not to the nuns who teach there and know exactly who you are. The herbalist character represents what an outsider can do – he sees Emily in a different way.”

Emily has competition for the herbalist’s attentions. The women of the town – the women from the big houses and their maids, the shopkeepers and their serving girls, those of easy virtue and their pious sisters – all seem mesmerised by this visitor who, they say, can perform miracles. But when Emily discovers the dark side of the man who has infatuated her all summer, once again her world turns upside down. And while we can’t give away too many of the book’s Gordian knots, we can say that it is a magical tale with an ability to capture Ireland at a certain point in time without any caricature or causticity.

What began as a ‘few sentences’ penned in a creative writing workshop with John MacKenna, finished up as a 2,000 word a day bid-to-combat until the story was done. “My children were young and I didn’t have much time to write,” she explains, “But I found the time, often into the early hours of the morning and soon enough I had a first draft completed. When I heard about The Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair I decided to enter The Herbalist. I was lucky enough to win a place at the Fair with twenty other writers. I can’t say enough good things about the Irish Writers Centre’s staff and the way they organised the day of the fair, they were wonderful!”

The Sunday Times has called it ’an elegant morality tale about the inescapable strictures of women’s lives’ and Dermot Bolger has commented that the book is ’richly layered and finely realised … compelling’, while reviews elsewhere (Image magazine, RTE Guide and elsewhere) are glowing.

Niamh Boyce’s fictional debut – about a 1930s potion seller whose real business is a dark secret – captures small-town Ireland of both then and now…

The herbalistWhat we can say is that we are ridiculously proud of Niamh’s acheivement and are delighted to take part in her Blog Tour to celebrate the launch of this unique and beautifully written book. Here are three questions we put to Niamh about sustaining the writing life, living with your characters and ways to stay sane in the process:

Which character in the book consumed you more than others? In the beginning it felt like I was taking dictation from a quarrelling Greek chorus. I wasn’t sure which of the women was speaking or who exactly they were, let alone if they were telling the truth! So it immediately felt like there was mystery to solve, threads to unravel and I liked that.  But as I worked on, Emily’s voice became strong and she became the central storyteller, so if there was any consuming she did it!

Did you ever have any premonitions about being/becoming a writer? Never! I wanted to be an artist for as long as I can remember.  I still do! I loved reading, and read constantly but it never occurred to me that I could or would write a book myself. I don’t know why. I started ‘writing’ in 2008, when I fell in love with short stories, but saying that my old notebooks are full of poems and half poems going back to when I was a teenager. I just didn’t consider them as poems back then, not in a real sense.  So no premonition!

What are the most important attributes to remaining sane as a writer? The ability to retain perspective is important, so that you don’t fall into the very real temptation to use writing as form of a semi permanent escape. There’s a life to be lived, people to be loved, worlds to be seen. (And you’ll need the material!)
It also helps if you love the process, if you love the very act of writing and the way stories reveal themselves; the way characters surprise you, and the very simple and wonderful fact that something exists that didn’t exist before.

Niamh Boyce is the 2012 Hennessy XO New Irish Writer of the Year and she has been shortlisted for the Francis McManus Short Story competition 2011, the Hennessy Literary Awards 2010, the Molly Keane Award 2010 and the WOW Award 2010. Originally from Athy, Co Kildare Niamh now lives with her family in Ballylinan, Co Laois.

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, Bestsellers, Creative Writing, Fiction, Novel Fair, The Herbalist

Janet E. Cameron on bagel-hating ghosts, novel writing and cinnamon toast

Writers are often said to have something ‘missing’ from the sane storehouse of life, but paradoxically have also something ‘added’ in terms of perception – the ability to scrutinise human behaviour and the connections between people and events. Where are you on the scale? What persuaded you to write? It’s true that a lot of writers have something socially weird about them, and I’m no exception. I was extremely shy as a teenager – still find other people a bit mystifying. As for what persuaded me to write…well, from the time I could read I thought stories were the best thing on earth, and the idea that they actually came out of a person’s head seemed like a miracle. So I’d find myself trying to imitate my favourite authors, with mixed results. 

What makes your heart fly? The cliff walk at Howth, and the woods on the North Mountain in Nova Scotia. I’m happy when the writing’s going well, grouchy when it isn’t.

A book that made you cry? After I read Skippy Dies I walked around feeling like I’d been punched in the chest for about a week. Also the scene in The Brothers Karamazov where Alyosha has a dream about Zossima in heaven. That always gets me for some reason.

Your working day, bring us through it? If I don’t have to teach, I’ll get up around seven or eight, spend some time getting coherent, and then go to my desk in the study/laundry room and work for three or four hours. The afternoon’s mostly a write-off because my brain’s fried by then, so I’ll do errands and housework, and then I’ll fall asleep for an hour around four or five o’clock. Then if it’s not my turn to cook, I’ll get in a few more hours before supper and a few hours after. I’m the most boring person on earth, in other words. And I get very antsy if anyone messes with that nap.

Strange avoidance strategies that pull you away from writing? For a while it was baking: bread, pies, cakes, muffins, bagels, pizza dough, pasta, gingerbread…when I finally got serious about the writing I lost a lot of weight.

Originally you wrote plays, how did you make the switch to fiction? The switch actually happened because I couldn’t find any night classes in writing drama after I moved to Dublin, and at that point I was still dependent on taking courses for motivation. So I decided to try stories like everyone else, and I found it was a lot less constraining. Sometimes I still write in dialogue and stage directions when I’m taking down ideas quickly, and I think the bits that work best in Cinnamon Toast were first written almost as play scenes and then I filled in the blanks with descriptive loveliness.

Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World is your first novel which will be published by Hachette Ireland, what is it about? It’s about a bright, restless kid named Stephen who lives in a small town in rural Nova Scotia in 1987 and is counting down the last three months of high school so he can escape. But he realises he can’t leave until he’s dealt with certain problems – the most serious being that he’s secretly in love with his best friend Mark. For a lot of the book he deals with this by not dealing with it, but events keep pushing him towards the climax anyway. Sort of like Hamlet but with more 80′s song references.

Growing up in Nova Scotia sounds positively exotic! Living in a cabin in Nova Scotia, moving to Vancouver, working as a teacher in Montreal, etc. Tell us more! Bwa-ha-ha-ha! Exotic! The town where I went to high school had less than a thousand people. Until I was fifteen there were only two TV channels and most of us ordered our clothes off the same pages of the Sears catalogue. The cabin was a geodesic dome built by draft dodgers in the late sixties, no electricity or running water. My best friend and I were going through a back-to-the-land hippy phase around 1991, so we just had to try living there. I’d wake up every morning, chop wood, make a fire in the stove to heat up some coffee, and walk in the woods for hours. We spent the fall there, September to December, and then the next year I went back on my own. After that I moved around a lot. The teaching degree in ESL made that possible. Seven cities in fifteen years. I just couldn’t seem to stay put. Maybe it was because I wasn’t doing what I really wanted to do.

You were chosen as one of the 20 ‘winners’ of last year’s Novel Fair (this year there will only be ten!), what was the process like, what was the day itself like? I was very impressed with the organisation and planning that went into the day. All the writers had tables where we stayed with our sample chapters and every fifteen minutes someone new would sit opposite and chat, a good mix of publishers and agents. I’d expected it to be nerve-wracking, but to my surprise I found I loved it. Going back to real life afterwards was such a let-down!

How long afterwards did it take to get a book deal? The Fair was in March and I was contacted by Hachette in May with a request to see the rest of the novel. The offer for the book came through a couple of months later. But it didn’t feel like a done deal until August.

What are you writing now? I’m working on a second novel and have a very, very rough draft finished. It’s about a family dealing with the aftermath of a suicide, based on a play I wrote in 1996, and set in the same town as Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World.

Have you ever talked to a ghost? In college in Montreal someone brought out a Ouija board at a party, and we contacted a spirit named Zola who had nine kids. Nobody could think of any decent questions about the afterlife – so we asked him if he liked bagels. Zola told us it was a stupid question, which I still find difficult to dispute.

What do you hate most in life? Currently I’m a bit sickened by this whole culture of self-promotion: collecting people on Twitter so you can bribe them into being mouthpieces for your product, making yourself into a ‘brand’, building an ‘author platform’…barf. But, that said, I’m having fun messing around with my website lately.

If not writing, what else would you do/be? It’s taken me most of my life to commit to writing, so…no. This is it. It might be nice to be Robert Smith or somebody, but only for a few days.

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Janet E. Cameron was one of the winners of the Irish Writers’ Centre inaugural Novel Fair in 2012 which gave writers the opportunity to meet with and present their work to publishers and agents. Her forthcoming book Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World is set in a small town in rural Nova Scotia, Canada during the spring of 1987. The protagonist, Stephen Shulevitz, is a socially awkward seventeen-year-old who has less than three months before he leaves for college. As Stephen prepares for the rest of his life, he finds himself in falling in love with the wrong person and, just like that, everything changes. It is a quirky, subtly humorous exploration of burgeoning sexuality, growing up in the confines of a small town community in the 80s while trying to come to terms with who you are. Born in Nova Scotia, Janet moved to Ireland in 2002 after she met her husband, an Irish journalist, while travelling in Japan. In November 2011, she completed a Master’s of Philosophy in Creative Writing from Trinity College Dublin. She has been short-listed for the Fish Short Story Prize (2008) and the Fish Short Memoir Prize (2012) and has published an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for younger ESL learners (2010, Black Cat Publishing, Genoa).  She now teaches part-time at Dublin Business School and is working on her second novel.

 

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, Bestsellers, Creative Writing, Irish Writers Centre, Novel Fair, writing

Kevin Curran’s Book Deal!

Kevin Curran was a shortlisted ‘winner’ in our 2011/12 Novel Fair. Now he has a book deal with Liberties Press have laid claim to Kevin Curran’s novel, Beatsploitation. Here he talks about his experience at last year’s Irish Writers’ Centre Novel FairWhen you sent in your novel initially, what were your hopes/expectations? This was the first time I had sent any part of the manuscript off so I wasn’t sure how it would be received. I had work-shopped it with the Stinging Fly Novel Workshop about six months earlier, but there was still some trepidation.  I always hoped it would get selected, but didn’t hold my breath!

What is your novel about? How long did it take you to write it? The novel is about a teacher who ingratiates himself with a young African student in order to steal something from him. The two main characters, the teacher and the African student are the driving force behind the story. The initial push took a year of intense writing. Once I found the voice for the narrator – the teacher – and then found a voice for the African student, the thing really took off. Also, the main element of the story, its structure was firmly thought through in my head, but the sub-plot was hard work to make come in line with the overall plot. After a year of writing in shorthand and typing up after every chapter, I spent a year – right up until this month – getting the novel in shape. I’ve stood back from it and edited and edited, and then edited some more to try and really get down to what the bones of the story is about. So, all in, the novel took two years to get into shape.

When you got the news that you were shortlisted and invited to the Fair, were you finished the novel at that stage? I had finished the long hand and the typing, but now, a year later after getting the word I was selected, I can safely say I was nowhere near ‘finished’ as ‘finished’ should be. But, I suppose, that was one of the benefits of getting selected for the fair, it made me really work toward it and get my novel in the kind of shape it needed to be in.

Did you get any advice or prepare in any way for the Fair? Do you think it would’ve been helpful to have had some guided advice at this point, in say, how to pitch, etc? I did a lot of preparation for the fair. I was aware that such an opportunity, to get face time with publishers and agents alike, wouldn’t happen again so I made sure I did my research. I think finding interviews on the net that certain agents and publishers did was very helpful. There were certain things that kept on coming up in the pieces I read so I made sure to look at my novel through the terms and try to use the vocabulary that was being used by the publishers and agents. The pitch wasn’t something I had ready beforehand. I wanted to just sit down with the people and get a sense of what they wanted. As far as the synopsis went, the word limit set by the fair was great in that it really made me distil what I wanted to say about the story into one page. I used back page blubs from books I liked and really tried to get my opening synopsis paragraph to have the same impact as they did.

What was the day itself like, what was most memorable? The day itself was great. The people at the Irish Writers’ Centre made us feel very welcome and relaxed. The schedule was intense with the agents and publishers, but that’s what made it so exciting. You barely have time to take a breath after talking books and pitching to one big agent you just know you might never have had a chance to talk to again and then you started all over again with a huge publisher. It was surreal, but thoroughly enjoyable. The day itself was one buzzing blur so any one moment is hard to pinpoint as the most memorable. But I remember pitching to Daniel Bolger from Liberties and thinking he really got what I was talking about. That was exciting, just knowing a publisher was into what I was pitching.

Was it easier to pitch to agents OR publishers? Both were just as terrifying as the other to pitch to as you knew any one of them could make the difference!

What about the aftermath, how long was it before you got an agent or follow-on calls? We had the Novel Fair on Saturday and on Monday I had received a number of full manuscript requests. That week was fairly mad as a number of other requests then came in. The feedback and contact with the agents and publishers was a real opportunity to get out there into the world of publishing. 

What are you expectations now? I’m delighted to have signed my first book deal but am already working on my next book, so I suppose it’s a matter of looking forward and trying to make the next book as good as it can be. I’m just delighted I took a chance on the Novel Fair as I’m sure my manuscript, had I sent it out, would still be sitting on many slush piles today waiting to be read.

Would you do it all over again!? Tips for others entering the Fair? Of course I’d do it again, to get face time with so many influential people from the literary world was a once in a lifetime opportunity. My tips for others would be just go for it, and then if selected work as hard as possible in getting the book in shape for when you meet with the agents and publishers. The initial contact and interaction with the agents and publishers, if not beneficial in the short term, could really be of use down the line!

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Filed under Beginning the Novel, Creative Writing, Liberties Press, literature, Novel Fair, novels

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