Writers Chat 15: Karen Lee Street on “Edgar Allan Poe and The Jewel of Peru” (Oneworld: London, 2018)

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Karen, you’re very welcome to my Writers Chat. We last chatted in September 2016 upon the publication of the first in the Edgar Allan Poe trilogy Edgar Allan Poe and The London Monster. (I have re-published this chat below).

Edgar Allan Poe and The Jewel of Peru, the second in the trilogy was published in late August 2018 to critical acclaim and rave reviews including a starred review in Publishers Weekly, Shots Magazine calling it “a cleverly penned work of intrigue and enigma”, and the Historical Novel Review recommending it “for lovers of Poe’s writings, for those who enjoy the Gothic and macabre, and for all historical mystery fans.”

You are currently working on  the third novel in the trilogy:  Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead, set in Paris 1849. Point Blank Books (Oneworld Publications) is the UK publisher; Pegasus Books, USA; AST in Russia; Vulkan in Serbia; and Paris Yayincik in Turkey. Previous publications include Writing & Selling Crime Film Screenplays and Tattoos and Motorcycles (a collection of interconnected short stories), articles on screenwriting and cross-arts collaboration, along with  a number of commissioned screenplays.

KLS: Thanks very much for chatting with me about the books, Shauna. Your insightful questions really got me thinking in a useful way as I try to finish book III: Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead.

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Edgar Allan Poe’s House (Philadelphia) – Image  by Karen Lee Street

SG: That’s so difficult, isn’t it – promoting one book whilst writing the next. Well, I have to say I devoured Edgar Allan Poe and The Jewel of Peru in almost one sitting but what struck me the most was that as well as serving as a sequel to Edgar Allan Poe and The London Monster, it is also a stand alone novel. Can you talk a little bit about how the three books in the trilogy are connected yet – it seems to me – written so that they can be read independently.

KLS: I’m glad you felt the first two books in the trilogy work as stand-alone novels as that was the intention and it’s normally essential when writing a crime or mystery series. For example, I’m a real fan of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels, but have been reading them completely out of order, which hasn’t bothered me at all, despite the inevitable jumping around in the development of his personal life and, more subtly, his character.

My trilogy is connected by its sleuthing duo: the writer Edgar Allan Poe and his character ur-detective C. Auguste Dupin. They are presented as old friends with similar interests but rather different approaches to life, Poe being more creative and emotional and Dupin strives to be very rational. Each novel sets up a mystery that must be solved, the ‘A’ story if you like. Other story strands are introduced that are further explored in subsequent novels. For example, Helena Loddiges is mentioned in Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster as she has hired Poe to edit an ornithology book. In Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru, she brings Poe a mystery to solve. C. Auguste Dupin’s nemesis is introduced in book I, but he eludes Dupin until Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead in which their attempt to apprehend him is the main story.  The duo have very personal connections to the mysteries they must solve in each book and their adventures influence subtle changes in their characters.

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Magic Lantern Slide – The Raven. Painted by Joseph Boggs Beale (Philadelphia, 1841 – 1926) Image provided by Karen Lee Street

 

SG: I enjoyed that personal/social/political thread running through the books. Once again you provide readers with a wonderfully intriguing opening (if not a little macabre!) inviting us into possibly the most striking element of the book – how you evoke birds, their worlds (both real and symbolic) through some wonderful sensual writing. Can you tell us a little about your research? I am sure it must have been fascinating.

KLS: I suppose the notion to write about birds was inspired by a favourite childhood book that belonged to my grandfather:  Birds of America, edited by T. Gilbert Pearson of the National Association of Audubon Societies, with colour illustrations by Louis Agassiz Fuertes. Looking at those images as a child, prompted an interest in birds, as did Brief Bird Biographies, written and illustrated by a great-Uncle, J. Fletcher Street, who was an artist and amateur ornithologist. My father included birds frequently in his paintings, which was another inspiration.

The notion to write a story featuring ornithology and ornithomancy came from living in London Fields, Hackney, which I was surprised to learn had been the site of Loddiges plant nursery, the largest exotic plant nursery in Europe in the 19th century.  I discovered that owner George Loddiges was a keen bird collector, which was a popular Victorian hobby. His famous hummingbird cabinet is held by the British Museum. This in part inspired the idea for the trilogy as Poe had gone to school in Stoke Newington, Hackney as a child and it’s quite possible he might have visited Loddiges nursery which was a tourist destination during that time. I also learned that George Loddiges hired Andrew Mathews to collect birds and plants for him in Peru, and that Mathews also did collecting for Bartram’s plant nursery in Philadelphia before he died in Peru, 1843. This connection proved a useful plot point in Jewel of Peru.

As I continued my research, odd links between Poe, Hackney and Philadelphia suggested a bird motif. Poe’s most famous poem is probably “The Raven”, allegedly inspired by Charles Dickens’s novel Barnaby Rudge, which features Dickens’ pet raven Grip. Further, Dickens had Grip stuffed when he died and he now lives in the rare books room at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Additionally, in the mid-nineteenth century, Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences had the largest and taxonomically most complete ornithological collection in the world, so certainly Poe would have been well-acquainted with the Victorian obsession for bird collecting. The sad sight of ‘collected’ birds displayed in the British Museum made me keen to include a subtle subplot regarding endangered birds. For example, when Poe lived in Philadelphia, there were still huge flocks of passenger pigeons that would literally darken the sky as they passed through the area.  Now they are extinct due to the reckless hunting of them.

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Loddiges Green House (Hackney, London) Image from Karen Lee Street

SG: Isn’t it wonderful that you have, in a way, brought the birds back to life and fascinating to hear how and where the trail of research led you to the heart of the story. I enjoyed the power play and games that each of the characters bring to the narrative. In particular, Miss Helena Loddiges and Rowena Fontaine (in disguise). Given that Poe and Dupin are the main players, you manage to incorporate some incredibly strong female characters. Was this deliberate or did the story evolve this way?  

KLS: Very deliberate. Poe adored his wife Virginia and his mother-in-law ‘Muddy’ and I wanted to show that happy aspect of his life. Not much is written about Virginia’s character in the biographical material concerning Poe — she’s described as beautiful but that’s about it. I wanted to portray her as an intelligent woman Poe could have an intellectual conversation with, a woman who was very loyal to her friends and loved ones and therefore would insist on being involved in the investigation. Rowena Fontaine appears first in London Monster and uses her skills in unethical ways, but when she achieves her dream of being on stage, due to her undeniable talent, she becomes much more gracious and tries to end the vendetta between her husband and Poe. Muddy is very strong also, but in a highly practical sense; without her, Virginia and Poe would struggle to exist at all. Helena Loddiges is quite eccentric, but is an expert in her fields (ornithology and taxidermy). She has the strength of character to defy her father and leave the safety of home alone to seek justice for someone she loves.

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Owls Image courtesy of the Audubon Society, provided by Karen Lee Street       

SG: You also stay true to the politics of the day without taking the reader out of the spell of the mystery. I know part of the action is based on real riots in Philadelphia in 1844. Was it strange writing about historical riots (about immigrants) at a time when the US Government was talking about building walls to keep illegal immigrants out of America?

KLS: I decided to set Jewel of Peru in Philadelphia when I first thought of developing the Poe/ Dupin sleuthing duo into a trilogy, so that was well before the current US administration. When I started reading about the Nativist riots of 1844, I was shocked that we had never studied that part of Philadelphia history in school. (I was born in Philly and went to school in Pennsylvania.) It was strange after researching the 1844 riots when the term ‘nativist’ was suddenly (or so it seemed to me) being used in connection with current events and talk about building the wall. It was also odd for me to read feedback from a reader who felt I was referencing contemporary events too overtly in the riot scenes when actually I was writing about true events.

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Nativist riots in Philadelphia —  July 1844, Image provided by Karen Lee Street

SG: Yes, us writers don’t always plan everything. There’s often some strange synchronicity when writing about one era and finding that the themes and even events suddenly appear in your present day. Very unnerving!

I have to confess that while I have enjoyed some of Poe’s writing, I wouldn’t be familiar with much of his works. One of the other layers to your trilogy are the subtle and clever references and nods to Poe’s own writing. How important was this part of the book for you, and would you like to comment on the intricate nature of threading references through the narrative?

The references to Poe’s works within the books, particularly Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster, are really just meant to be fun for those who know some of Poe’s work—an extension of Poe appearing in a story with one of his own characters. It’s not necessary at all to know Poe’s stories or poems to follow the plot. It would be wonderful, though, if someone new to Poe read the book and became interested in reading some of Poe’s work.

There are other allusions and connections explored in the trilogy that I think spring from the basic nature of writing historical fiction and creating an alternative biography/ history. In researching Poe, I read about some of the events that influenced his stories—for example, the true murder that inspired his tale “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”. Allusions to Poe’s stories play with the idea of what might trigger a writer’s imagination and inspire a creative work. When considering the idea of alternative history, odd connections I found when doing historical research provoked story ideas. Had Poe ever been taken to visit the renowned glasshouses of the Loddiges plant nursery in Hackney when he lived in Stoke Newington? Or did he ever visit the famous Bartram Gardens when he lived in Philadelphia? These ‘every day’ events might never be recorded in a biography, but might have inspired Poe in some way.

And finally, when one creates a story or a character that becomes part of the memory of its readers, it seems to take on its own life. This is relevant to Poe the reader, who was well-versed in the classics, but as an editor and a critic, also read enormous amounts of contemporary literature. In book III in particular, I explore the way characters and stories he admired might influence him, particularly in knowing that characters and narratives that live on after the writer. As Poe said:

“Ye who read are still among the living, but I who write shall have long since gone my way into the region of shadows (…) and yet a few will find much to ponder upon in the characters here graven with a stylus of iron.”

What a wonderful quotation, Karen! Now, some fun questions:

  • Surf or Turf? ‘Surf’ for food; ‘turf’ as an environment. (Too many sharks in Australia.)
  • What’s your favourite unappreciated novel? Anything by Marilynne Robinson— she can’t be appreciated enough. Also, Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm.
  • Oh I’m a big fan of Robinson too. Now what writer – living or dead – would you invite to high tea? Perhaps Gabriel García Márquez as his books were formative reading and were so exciting and fresh when I first devoured them. (I would invite myself to high tea at Edward Gorey’s to see his amazing house and cats and to hopefully find his life matched his stories.)
  • What’s on your to-read pile now? It’s a never-diminishing pile; at it’s top are two film scripts and Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame, which I really need to re-read while completing the editing of Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead. 
  • What is the last book you read? I just finished Alice Munro’s short story collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage bought at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris while on a research trip.  Munro creates such memorable characters and her descriptions are effortlessly visual and original. I’ve also been re-reading Eugène Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris — again, essential research.

Karen, Thanks, once again for being so generous with your answers. I wish you much continued success with the sleuthing duo of Poe and Dupin. 

Readers, keep up to date with Karen and check out her website www.KarenLeeStreet.com, visit/like the Poe/ Dupin trilogy Facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com/edgarallanpoecaugustedupin/  and follow her on twitter: @karenleestreet and instagram: karenleestreet

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WRITERS CHAT, SEPTEMBER 2016

I’m delighted to welcome Karen Lee Street to my blog where she discusses her debut novel Edgar Allan Poe and The London Monster  (Point Blank, (Oneworld Publications)) and answers questions sent in from a Dublin Crime Book Group.

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Karen, this is the first of a trilogy which focuses on re-imagined or imagined adventures of the American author Edgar Allan Poe. Let’s start with that curiosity. Are the adventures re-imagined or imagined?

Both! The adventures of Edgar Allan Poe in London are primarily imagined; Poe did live in London as a child and I reference places and people he knew then, but Poe did not return to Europe as an adult, despite some wild tales he fabricated regarding exploits in Greece and St. Petersburg. Poe’s imagined adventures in the book are provoked by a collection of letters allegedly written by his grandparents that implicate them as the London Monster who slashed the skirts and derrières of over fifty women from 1788 – 1790; the victims, dates, and the locations of the crimes noted in the letters are based on fact, but the circumstances are heavily re-imagined. In my novel, C. Auguste Dupin, the great ‘ratiocinator’, is released from the confines of Poe’s three detective tales to investigate the letters Poe has inherited. I imagined a backstory for Dupin, extrapolating from the few details offered about his personal circumstances in Poe’s stories; this backstory sets up his own adventures in London and supports the key themes of the novel.

And they tell us backstories aren’t important! Point Blank have given you a wonderful cover and the title. Were you lucky enough to have a say in either or both?

My working title for the original stand-alone novel was C. Auguste Dupin and the London Monster, but when I pitched it as a trilogy of mysteries, my agent pointed out that it would be better to mention Edgar Allan Poe in the three titles. The sequel titles (at this stage) are Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru and Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead.  I was forwarded the proposed dust jacket during the proofreading process and, happily, liked it very much as did friends I showed it to. I am the sort of bookshop browser who will pick up a book because I find the cover intriguing, so this was an enormous relief.

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Yes. It touches on all the themes – the crime, the Gothic, the mystery and I love the black and white with the hint of gold. Now, you’ve previously spoken about your early introduction to Poe – what part do you think early reading plays in an author’s later writing or reading?

This is such an interesting question — I hadn’t realised how much my earliest reading material influenced this trilogy until contemplating it. I lived at my grandparents’ house for about a year and half, aged eight to nine, and spent an enormous amount of time reading my mother’s old books: the Nancy Drew mysteries, Grimm’s Fairytales, The Mother West Wind “Why” Stories, and The Book of Marvels, a collection of stories by adventurer Richard Halliburton which not only made me desperate to travel, but also inspired a subplot in Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru. (I’ve kept my grandparents’ copy of the book.) I also devoured all the biographies and magical adventure books in the school library. There’s a bit of all of that in the trilogy. Reading Poe himself came a couple of years later, when I enjoyed giving myself nightmares.

How curious! Enjoying giving yourself nightmares. It’s that push/pull thing, isn’t it. You’re scared but just also love it. I think it’s like loving Bertha in the attic in Jane Eyre but also being scared by her. And what a reading selection you’ve given me!

Letters have often been used as a device to tell alternative stories to the ‘main’ – I’m thinking here of Pamela – and the letters of Poe’s grandparents are used to great effect in this novel. In fact they are used, really, to tell the ‘real’ story and also provide commentary on relationships, gender, and sexuality. Can you comment on this?

Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos is an epistolary novel I admire for its depiction of the social mores of a particular time, place, and social group, but also for how a rather cruel game has emotional repercussions for its instigators. I wanted to do a similar thing with the letters exchanged by Poe’s grandparents; they reveal a secret history, but also chart the changes in their relationship and how actions driven by passion, jealousy, pride, and fear lead to a back-against-the-wall kind of choice that changes someone forever. Further, the characters’ choices are limited by their social class, financial position, and — in the case of Poe’s grandmother— gender. Indeed, many of her problems stem from the limited options she has due to being a woman and yet she proves herself to be a clever survivor who defies social conventions and twice puts love and personal independence before financial security.

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A Dublin Crime Book group have read this book and loved it. They have a few questions for you:

How did you come to link the real crimes of the London Monster to Poe?

Oddly, I can’t actually remember a ‘eureka moment’ of coming to the idea of linking Edgar Allan Poe to the London Monster; I think it was a case of stored up potential story ideas coalescing into something.  When I first read about the London Monster, I was fascinated by the story and felt it could be the basis of a great film with the right framework. It seemed likely to me that the person sent to prison for the crimes had been falsely accused (for the reward offered), so who was the true culprit? I first read about the Monster in John Ashton’s Old Times, A Picture of Social Life at the End of the Eighteenth Century: Collected and Illustrated from the Satirical and Other Sketches of the Day. (John C. Nimmo, 1885). Ashton’s recounts the Monster attacks in quite a jocular way, reflecting the sardonic tone of late 18th century cartoons featuring the Monster by James Gillray and Isaac Cruikshank. Jan Bondeson adopts the same tone in his book The London Monster, a Sanguinary Tale.  I think these lighthearted approaches to the Monster’s odd crimes reminded me of some of Poe’s hoaxes and humorous works, which probably initially triggered the idea to connect the father of the detective story with the ‘cold case’ of the London Monster. Further, I remembered from a biographical preface to a collection of Poe’s works that his grandparents were actors on the London stage when the Monster was at large and there were theories at the time that an actor or actors with a facility for disguise were the true culprits behind the Monster’s crimes.

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Tell us about the real timing and the fictitious story of Poe’s grandparents.

Reports of a ‘Monster’ attacking women on the streets of London began in 1788 and escalated after the Queen’s birthday celebrations late January 1790. John Julius Angerstein offered a reward for the villain’s capture and conviction in May 1790 and soon after one of the Monster’s victims accused a man of being her attacker. He was convicted after two farcical trials and served six years in  prison. Coincidentally, Poe’s grandfather disappears from records in 1790, at roughly the time the accused was imprisoned, and his grandmother and mother set sail for Boston in November 1795, arriving 3 January 1796, just when the accused was released from prison. This timing fit nicely with the idea that Poe’s grandparents might be the true culprits behind the Monster’s crimes and that his grandmother feared repercussions from the person who took the rap.

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The ping-pong of Poe and Dupin as a double act – both fact and fiction – works particularly well in the novel. Can you talk about how this evolved as you were writing the various drafts?

Of course I revisited Poe’s three Dupin tales to reacquaint myself with his character, voice, mannerisms, to try to lift him from the page and put him in new situations. I suggested that the unknown narrator in the Dupin stories is Poe himself, that he met Dupin in Paris as the narrator did in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. I also read a number of Poe’s letters as found on the www.EAPOE.org site, again to get a sense of his personal voice. As Dupin is the ultimate ratiocinator, highly intellectual, dispassionate, and uncannily good at deduction, I wanted to focus on Poe’s use of imagination along with logic when trying to solve a mystery, but being tripped up by his emotions and the entire issue of family. As Dupin is depicted as a genius of ratiocination, I needed a personal obstacle — something in his character — that would undermine his efforts at solving Poe’s mystery, and I settled on a desire for revenge, a key theme in the novel. When Dupin begins to crumble due to his suppressed emotions regarding his own family, Poe has to pull himself together and utilise his ratiocination skills in conjunction with his imagination.

And I think that’s what makes your book so special: how the imagination and the rational are so well entwined. Finally, Karen, after bombarding you with detailed questions, can you please whet our appetite about the next two books in the trilogy?

Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru is set in Philadelphia, 1844, where Poe wrote some of his best known tales. Poe’s benefactress, Helena Loddiges, a bird taxidermist from the famous Loddiges plant nursery in Hackney, East London enlists Poe to solve the murder of her father’s bird collector in Peru. Poe and Dupin are drawn into a mystery involving archaeological looting, ornithomancy, a kidnapping, and treasure books, against the backdrop of Philadelphia’s Nativist riots.

Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead will be set in 1849, after Dupin invites Poe to help him vanquish his nemesis, the man who ruined the Dupin family during the French Revolution and during the Reign of Terror. The duo are soon embroiled in a battle of wits fought within Paris’s famous necropolis, a strange underground city full of unexpected riches and secrets, assisted by Dupin’s band of  ‘Apaches’, criminals who live in the catacombs and answer to their own laws.

Thank you, Karen, for putting such thought into the myriad of questions and for making me want to re-read the book again! I am so looking forward to the next two books.

Keep up to date with Karen on her website and visit/like the Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster Facebook page  

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Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster Point Blank, (Oneworld Publications):

7 April 2016 (hardback/ kindle),

5 January 2017 (paperback)

Pegasus Books (USA): 11 October 2016 (hardback/ kindle)

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The book creates meaning, the meaning creates life….My Pile of Reading

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The book creates meaning, the meaning creates life

(Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text)

It is often difficult for me to get to events and launches so reading and chatting is how I try to stay connected to the literary scene. I’ve recently chatted to Nessa O’Mahony about her debut novel The Branchman and Nuala O’Connor on her feminist Becoming Belle.

I’ve just finished Sally Rooney’s Normal People which was long-listed for the Booker. Now I’m deep into John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky, enjoying recognizing streets in Berlin, Rome, Madrid. Next up is Milkman by Anna Burns (not pictured as it’s on my Kindle!) followed by the wonderful new collection from Doireann Ní Ghríofa Lies which launched yesterday (alongside Jessica Traynor’s The Quick – which I will shortly add to my pile). And then the moving memoir Twelve Thousand Days by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne.

What a choice. In these leafy Autumn days instead of writing days, it’s reading days. I may even light a fire.

Writers Chat 14: Nessa O’Mahony on “The Branchman” (Arlen House: Galway, 2018)

Nessa, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your debut novel, The Branchman, which follows on from four previously published books (three critically acclaimed poetry collections plus a novel in verse).

READERS: To win a signed copy of THE BRANCHMAN, simply comment on this blog saying why you’d like a copy and what you enjoyed about our chat. Winner will be drawn on Monday 29th October!

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Although in previous poetry collections you have explored some of your family history, and, in particular, that of your grandfather, for your latest publication, The Branchman, you explore a fictionalised version of his early time in An Garda Síochána using the genre of a thriller and the form of a novel. How did you decide the novel was the right form for the story?

NOM: Thanks so much for having me, Shauna! And you’re absolutely right, I’ve previously used poetry to explore family history – it was a consistent theme in each of the four previous volumes, but I think there was also always a strong narrative thread in the poems I included. The verse novel, which was a PhD project, deliberately explored the overlaps between poetry and narrative; it was straining at the bit to be a novel, to be honest, so I think it was only a matter of time before I committed myself to a full-length prose narrative. But it was researching my grandfather Michael McCann’s life that finally convinced me the time was right to try my hand as novel-writing.

I’d been researching his time spent in the new Garda Síochána and made contact with the Garda Archives to see what I could find out about his time spent there. All I got back was an A4 page with information about his date of enlistment, and retirement, and the fact that he’d given ‘exemplary service’. I knew from reading newspapers of the period that there was considerably more to meet the eye than that and that he must have seen some remarkable events; Ireland during the period immediately after the Civil War was still a lawless place, and I imagined there’d be any number of alarming incidents to recount. Somebody was going to write a good piece of civil war noir fiction, and I decided I wanted that to be me.

SG: You’ve really captured that adage that rather than write what you know, writers write from what they know into what they don’t know. You wrote from the knowledge of “exemplary service” and allowed your writerly self to re-imagine and invent the story of what could be behind “exemplary” and “service”.

Now, although the pace and tone are most definitely that of a thriller/crime novel, much of the writing in The Branchman is wonderfully poetic – a lot of sensory detail, descriptions, the writing at times visceral and at times contemplative. For example in a scene where a body is found, we start with this beautiful description:

“The field behind St Brigid’s Hospital was more boy than pasture – there were no signs of any recent grazing and here and there tufts of grass and bog asphodel peppered the ground.”

Do you think this is your poet-self showing through or is it a style of writing that was more deliberate – used to reflect the external and internal world of The Branchman, Michael Mackey? And on from this, I used one of your chapters – which covered a scene or two and were deliciously short, staccato and page turning – with my novel writing group in Maynooth University and we had a discussion about your possible process. We were curious about the length – did you set out to write short, sharp chapters (given the genre and story) or was it to do with time (one can write a scene in a short space of time) or your poetic sentiment?

NOM: Well first of all, thanks so much for saying that about my style. I’d been concerned that I’d eradicated all my poetic instincts in a desire for pacy prose, so I’m delighted that you found some of it lyrical. I think I do always think like a poet when wanting to describe the world of my story and it felt natural to make use of imagery and sensual description to try to bring that world alive. I wanted the reader to see what Mackey saw, in as much sensual detail as possible. I’m not sure that he has the soul of a poet, but he certainly is an observant man with a good eye for detail.

As for those short chapters, it started off accidental but became deliberate as I grew aware of the advantage of being able to switch scenes mid-way through the action. It’s very possible that my poetic instinct to distill things to their essence influenced the shape of the chapters in the first instance – that I was seeing them much as I see stanzas and ensuring that they contained only the essential information. But then I realised that one could generate suspense by switching to a new character or a new site of action so that each chapter became a little teaser of sorts. And I enjoyed writing that way. Some chapters are longer, of course – the ones that contain necessary backstory, for example – but most aren’t much more than a couple of pages long. I tell people that the book looks far longer to read (at 360 pages) that it actually takes and those short chapters seem to suck people in, somewhat.

SG: Yes, you’re right. The heft of the book disguises the page-turner the book is and much of this is down to the short, sharp chapters, the hooks and how you deftly manage the plot and the reveals.

The Branchman was a real page-turner, but I found that the relationships between the characters stayed with me after I’d finished the book, in particular the Daly family. You deftly capture the politics and contradictory nature of war, of nationhood, and of identity through very strong characterisation, and, of course, in your main protagonist, Detective Officer Michael Mackey.

 These themes are explored through Mackey’s relationships through the novel. We’re told that “The Civil War may be over, but there’s no peace, not by a long chalk…” and in another scene, Annie makes one of her many cutting comments to Mackey:

“Detective,” she snorted. “They let anyone into the Guards these days. As long as you were on the winning side, or at least claimed to be.”

 For a man who has fought in many places and many wars to literally keep the peace, he is now the ultimate outsider in his homeland. Danger lurks in every corner – or through the eyes of man perhaps suffering from post-traumatic stress, the possibility of it:

“It all looked innocent enough, but who knew what old animosities were lurking in those green fields?” And as he knows, “you couldn’t talk what you’d gone through or even where you’d been.”

This is a part of our national history that many families (and historians) have struggled to have honest conversations about. Do you think that in writing with such glorious detail many of the issues and contradictions by following the journey of Mackey, The Branchman could open up some new honest public conversations?  

NOM: I’d be delighted if the novel started off some public conversations. Part of the instinct to write this was my awareness of the persistent reticence about this period of our history. My grandparents lived through this time, but rarely spoke about their experiences. Anything my mother told me had been drip-fed to her by her own mother, and her father never spoke about it at all. It’s not surprising, really. How could a community that had come through the trauma of three wars (World War I, the War of Independence and the Civil War, as my grandfather had) be able to talk about things with any detachment. I’m convinced that half the population had undiagnosed PTSD. Add to the mix the change in political allegiances in the newly independent Ireland – all those soldiers coming back from the Somme, unable to speak about where they’d been – and the guilt of the dreadful things done to friends and neighbours during the Civil War and you have a very toxic recipe for dysfunction, which of course the crime-writer thrives upon. I’d never read stories set in this period, and I really feel that creative writing can help us to explore what had previously been unsayable or undiscussable, if that’s a word.

I also think that we’ve shown that we can deal with difficult topics during this first half of the decade of commemoration, but most people admit that public debate will get more and more difficult the closer we get to the anniversaries of the War of Independence and the Civil War, where many facts are still virulently contested. So I think that any creative writing that prompts discussion and an effort to understand the nature of those troubled times should be welcomed.

SG: Yes, there seems to be a burgeoning maturity in our psyche when it comes to assessing our recent history. I hope The Branchman will play a part in these public conversations – art in all its forms is often a way in, and indeed, for historians examining social history, historiography, art is often the key.

You’ve said that Mackey

“bears more than a passing resemblance to my grandfather but, as with many fictional heroes, has his own characteristics, flaws and plot points, which almost certainly never happened in real life, or at least not in the way I tell them here.”

Could you comment on how you found that process – using fact to create fiction and how the two overlapped, intertwined, and possibly changed as you wrote and edited the novel. Indeed, is it that you hold the emotional centre of the truth and work out from there?

NOM: I’ve been playing with the overlap between fact and fiction all my writing life, I suppose, filling the hiatuses and gaps with my own imaginings so that the characters I write about from real life end up being highly fictionalised. Michael Mackey is inspired by my grandfather, but I have little memory of the real man (I was 6 when he died) and drew on my mother’s stories about him for the main inspiration. But as the narrative developed, Mackey’s character had to change as he took on traits needed for the plot. This fictionalisation is especially true of the ‘love interest’ if I can call Annie that. She was originally based much more on my grandmother, but as the plot developed, I needed her to take on a much more dynamic motivation than my grandmother would ever have recognised (indeed she’d have been appalled by her fictional counterpart, I suspect). So yes, I do hope that there is an emotional centre of truth in the novel, but rather than these characters being similar to my own grandparents, they should be believable characters in their own rights, with plausible motivations that ring true.

SG: I think Mackey and Annie, as characters in the novel certainly ring true, I suppose I was curious about the process of transference and filtering. On another note, I loved the sense of place you create in The Branchman. Galway and Mayo feature heavily but we hear about Dublin, America, England too. Many of the characters have returned to Ballinasloe having previously been sent away. In some cases to create safety or for safety, (Mackey, Latham), and for others, such as Annie, Ballinasloe is the place they have found as a safe haven. The notion of return and change – in identity, in politics – is a motif that I enjoyed very much through the novel. Did you set out to explore identity and place, in particular?

NOM: I’m so pleased you enjoyed the sense of place. It was very important that I got that right, particularly in the case of Ballinasloe, which is my mother’s beloved home town and a place I’ve visited with her many times. Indeed, when I began to write the book, I took a trip with her and we walked around many of granddad’s old haunts, even visiting the police station. I took that ‘field-work’ with me in the writing and redrafting of the novel, wanting to be sure that I was accurate about where places were and whether it would be possible to walk from location to another in the time I suggest. My mother’s sense of place is particularly strong – at age 90, she still returns in her memory to a childhood spent exploring Ballinasloe. I was very envious of her growing up, as the pebble-dashed childhood surburb of Churchtown where we lived seemed very pale in comparison. So I guess that fed into my recreation of a fictional Ballinasloe here. Kiltimagh had a similar status – I’d heard almost as many stories about that town as I had about Ballinasloe, and wanted to present that correctly too. But you’re right, and I hadn’t really thought about it until you said it, the book is also about remaking identity and trying to fit in. Practically everyone here is an outsider – if they weren’t one before, the various wars made them so, so people’s identities are shifting all the time – they have to as a matter of survival.

SG: I can’t leave our chat without commenting on the stunning cover image. Arlen House is well known for their use of art, and with The Branchman, the cover shows a detail from a painting by Brian Maguire entitled The World is Full of Murder. Did you have an input into the decision making around the title of your novel and the cover?

NOM: There’s a great story around the cover, actually. We’d orginally been talking about using a Sean Keating painting (one of his Civil War series) as the cover art, but that was becoming too difficult to source and time was running out. Then, by coincidence, I was down in Skibbereen on holiday when the Great Hunger exhibition was being shown at the local arts centre, Uilleann. We wandered around and came across Brian Maguire’s painting, which is a huge and dramatic canvas. Apart from the image’s sheer beauty, the title conveyed everything I wanted to suggest in the novel, and I had to have it for the book. I’d no idea how to contact Brian, but this is Ireland, where everyone knows somebody who knows somebody. I contacted a friend who knew Brian; he passed on Brian’s email address and I’d got permission both from him and from Quinnipiac University, who own the painting, within a day.

As for the title, it was The Branchman, from the outset. I had the title before I had the novel. I’ve no idea where it came from, it was just there. And I googled it to check that there wasn’t another novel with the same title out there. There wasn’t at the time I started, although more recent google searches have revealed there is now another one in the US, though it appears to be horror rather than crime!

SG: Wow. Permission within a day. It was certainly meant to be. I love that you had your title before the novel. Fantastic. 

Some fun questions

  1. What are you reading now? I’ve just started Anna Burns’s Milkman. It’s every bit as great as people say it is.
  2. I’m reading it too! So far, wonderful. City or town? Well, I am a Dubliner, so it has to be city, doesn’t it? I do love my rickety dirty old Dublin.
  3. Mountains or sea? Sea, in a heartbeat. It’s the recurring dream to live by the sea – I was lucky enough to live with a sea-view when I was doing my PhD in Wales – and that was the best time of my life in so many ways.
  4. What’s your favourite drink when you’re writing? Sadly, a nice cup of tea. I’d have loved to have said absinth, honestly.
  5. Ha! That put a smile on my face. I love Earl Grey tea when I’m deep into a book and a strong black coffee when I’m starting off. Nothing ‘cool’ like absinth for me either!

Lastly, where can we find you reading from The Branchman? I’ll be reading from The Branchman at the Speakers’ Corner sessions at the Murder One Festival in Smock Alley on the 3rd November, at 11am. There’ll be a Belfast launch for it at the Crescent Arts Centre on 16th November, and I’ll be reading from it at the Rostrevor Festival in Co. Down on 24th November.

Great to hear that we can catch you in a variety of places, Nessa. The Murder One Festival sounds fantastic. I believe tickets can be obtained hereThanks, again, for engaging so generously in our chat and for providing such insight into the process and hopes of The Branchman. I wish you much continued success. 

Readers, keep up to date with Nessa 

READERS: To win a signed copy of THE BRANCHMAN, simply comment on this blog saying why you’d like a copy and what you enjoyed about our chat. Winner will be drawn on Monday 29th October!

……And the winner is…..

IMAG1184Andrew! Congratulations. I’ll put you in touch with Nessa. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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On Reading: Alone and in Book Groups

This week I welcome Frances Clarke who talks about her experience of reading for pleasure, for academia and for a book group. In particular, she discusses reading the first two books in Karen Lee Street’s Edgar Allan Poe’s trilogy.

SG: Frances, Welcome to Writers Chat which, for this session should really be called Readers Chat!

So, you’re a member of a crime book group in Dublin. Can you start by telling us a little bit about the group – for example, your scope of reading in terms of how the group might define crime, and also how you might go about selecting a book to read – catering for different tastes within the group – and finally, what’s the timeframe around that?

FC: Well, the book group was started in work about 5 or so years ago. A lot of us are keen fans of crime writing, so a colleague suggested we start a book group with a crime fiction focus.

We’ve had a conveniently broad interpretation of this, so to date it’s taken in espionage (John Le Carre has been selected a few times), true crime (In Cold Blood was an early choice), new writers like Jane Harper alongside the 19th Century classics like Poe, Collins and Conan Doyle.

Selecting a book is pretty straight forward – someone pitches for a preference and if we like the look of it and think copies will be easy to locate, we go with it.

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SG: Oh that’s interesting – the fact that the look of a book and if it’s easily found comes into play. So, for writers, distribution is key! And what a great stack of books your book club has read (photo above).

Having studied English at university, I’m sure you’re familiar with the types of reading we do – for pleasure, for analysis, for critique and so on. Would you say reading a book for a book group discussion differs from reading a book on your own? And if so, how does it differ?

FC: Our group is very much about reading for pleasure. I’m a very keen reader and most (but not all) in the group are too. However we don’t take ourselves too seriously, because it’s as much about meeting up with colleagues after work as it is about the reading. So I try to keep the English lit graduate in me at bay. This works best when I’ve enjoyed the book – my enthusiasm won’t be so analytical. If I haven’t liked the book, there’s a temptation to forensically pick it apart.

SG: It’s funny, I think that once you’ve been reading with an analytical eye that type of reading (or skill, if you will) never really leaves you.

So one of the recent reads was the second in the Edgar Allan Poe trilogy by American writer Karen Lee Street – Edgar Allan Poe and The Jewel of Peru. You also read the Edgar Allan Poe and The London Monster, the first in the trilogy. How did you find reading them as part of a continuum and also, perhaps, discussing them as stand alone books?

FC: Our group did read the first two installments in Karen Lee Street’s Poe trilogy – The London Monster and The Jewel of Peru. We looked at them as stand alone works though, purely because we expanded our membership between the release of both novels and not everyone had read The London Monster.

For me, each book really works well as a stand alone piece of fiction anyway. What I liked so much about the first book, The London Monster,  is how you cut between the 18th and 19th centuries (and the tone for each is so spot on) whereas The Jewel of Peru is very much a work of Victorian Gothic.

SG: Yes, though they are both period pieces, and in many ways tick the boxes of Historical Fiction, they are quite different in tone and timeframe. So how did the group classify Edgar Allan Poe and The Jewel of Peru? The group described it as “essential reading for lovers of historical crime writing, Gothic fiction and urban noir” (on the jacket cover).

Did you find having some knowledge of Poe’s writing helped you appreciate the complexities of the characters and plot or does it matter whether readers are familiar with Poe’s works?

FC: Well, we frequently pick historical crime fiction and I think Karen’s book proved so popular with the group in part because of that. It’s a great genre – if you get it right.

 

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SG: How did Edgar Allan Poe and The Jewel of Peru differ from other books you have read as a group? How was it similar?

That’s interesting. We did read Murder in Rue Morgue some time before we read Karen’s reimagining of Poe’s work. So inevitably when we talked about Karen’s writing we harked back to our reading of Poe and other early crime writers. I think because Karen recreates the tone and mood of Victorian writing so well (which is not down to research alone but a certain literary or visual sensibility) we ended up talking as much about 19th century gothic writing (comparing it with Uncle Silas, The Woman in White etc) as crime fiction. The focus of the discussion went down that route.

But since that we’ve picked books that are wildly different; I think our next choice was The Neon Rain by James Lee Burke. I found that a bit of a macho read, which seemed the opposite of Karen’s vision of Poe.

SG: What a wide range of reading your book club does. I must re-read The Woman in White. 

To end our chat, Frances, some fun questions:

One favourite character in Edgar Allan Poe and The Jewel of Peru

Everyone took to Muddy. It’s a lovely portrait of someone who discreetly keeps everything ticking over.

One favourite scene in Edgar Allan Poe and The Jewel of Peru

We’re a book group of librarians, conservators and archivists so everyone had something to say on the scenes in the library, which are beautifully written. Anything to do with book theft or books of uncertain provenance would have to come up for a mention.

One favourite period detail in Edgar Allan Poe and The Jewel of Peru

It has to be Miss Loddiges’s bird jewellery. No question – we all loved that little detail. It conjures up such a bizarre image – a bit steam punk really.

What’s next on the list for the book group?

Next Up is Claire Fuller’s Bitter Orange. It’s gotten great reviews in both the Guardian and Irish Times so I’m really looking forward to getting into it.

SG: Oh I loved that book. It’s been a while since I finished a book and wanted to start reading it again. Bitter Orange did that for me. I hope you enjoy it! Thanks again for the Readers Chat, Frances. I wish your book group all the best of discussions and words!

 

And the winner of “Becoming Belle”….

is….Brian Sheridan.

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Congratulations, Brian. I’ll put you in direct contact with Nuala so you can arrange the dedication on the book!

Thanks to everyone who entered the draw. Thank you also to all my readers who enjoy Writers Chat (without commenting) and, of course, to my guest Nuala for such engaging answers.

Becoming Belle UK cover

 

Writers Chat 13: Nuala O’Connor on “Becoming Belle” (Piatkus: UK, 2018)

READERS! To be in with a chance to win a free signed copy of Becoming Belle, just add your name and a comment below and say why you’d love to read Becoming Belle! All the names will be put into a draw and the winner announced on Friday 14th September at 19.00hr (Irish time)

Welcome, Nuala. When we last had a chat in February of this year, you told me that your Da said he ‘fell in love’ with Belle. What better review could you get? Having now read Becoming Belle, I also felt myself falling for her, hoping that the men around her would become as strong and feisty as Belle herself.

And hearing you read from Becoming Belle in August at the wonderful Victorian Afternoon Tea (at No. 1 Pery Square in Limerick) and at your launch at the Gutter Bookshop in Dublin on 5th September (launched beautifully by Mia Gallagher) – well these readings really brought the era to life.

Becoming Belle UK cover

SG: Tell me firstly about the structure of the novel. We know the end point – Belle is the Countess of Clancarty in 1891 – and the novel brings us into Belle’s life in the four years prior to this point through dated sections and short chapters with wonderful titles such as “A Promise”, “A Performance”, “A Ceremony”, “An Outpouring” and so on. Did you have fun playing with the structure or did the story come to you formed as such?

NOC: Well, the novel I submitted as complete is very different to the novel that’s published today. It’s 40k words longer for one thing. I had started Belle’s story much later – at the point where she is already a successful actress and is changing her name from Isabel to Belle – but my editors urged me to go back to her childhood and tell the story chronologically rather than in flashbacks. There were three re-writes which was rather challenging.

I love using chapter titles, it’s my homage to E.M. Forster who did it so prettily and wittily.

SG: Well, the challenge was worth it – I really loved getting to know Belle as a young woman, away from her destiny yet yearning for it!

One of the relationships which I really enjoyed was that between Belle and Flo. They work and perform together (as the Bilton Sisters) but also have an incredibly deep understanding of each other. “They were as familiar as a cradle song with each other’s foibles and frailties.”

You show their support of each other through their singing warm-ups, and their dress, with wonderful historical detail. I was really taken with the milliner Madame Gilbert who, we are told, “had a generous ear and a snug, discreet mouth”. What a great description, and of course, most important for sisters who are famous. Did historical records help in this respect or is the heart-warming relationship in Becoming Belle that of your imagination?

NOC: There really are very few historical records about Belle and Flo. There’s the court case coverage and a few theatre reviews. All of that bellowing of life into long dead lungs is where the imagination comes into play. I have sisters myself so it’s not hard to imagine the sisterly honesty and shorthand in speech, I know it first-hand. My research involved a lot of poring over photographs and reading of social history to try to put together a picture of what life was like for the feisty Victorian woman, as opposed to the ‘ideal’ woman of that age. Belle and Flo were bohemians and their lives and personalities had to reflect that.

SG: It sounds like very enjoyable research, Nuala.

Much of Becoming Belle is concerned with the prickly thorns and muddy waters of motherhood that come through as the story progresses and also the mother/daughter relationship that Belle and Flo have with their mother which we see in the first part of the novel. This is a theme that you enjoy exploring in much of your work. She really was a strong and inspirational woman, so sure of what she wanted, a feminist centuries ahead of her time, if you will, something in her which her mother sees early on. As you did your research and wrote the novel did you discover anything about Belle that surprised you?

NOC: I suppose, in a sense, her personality is my invention. In press photographs of Belle, she often looks deeply melancholic but the events of her life show that she must have had deep courage and daring to act as she did (baby out of wedlock, elopement with a viscount etc.) So I wanted to paint a picture of a woman who, initially, was ambivalent about motherhood, who wanted to get on and who pushed herself forwards by every means she knew. It takes ages for me to understand my characters and round them out so that they are nicely flawed but still somewhat likeable or, at least, compelling. I suppose I didn’t fully know Belle until I’d written the whole story because, by the end, she realises what she has wanted all along.

SG: Following on from this, the Bilton Sisters manage to live life how they wish to in terms of earning a living, being true to themselves, and having fun all within the confines of the expectations of family, society and gender. This, despite the fact, as Belle says to Flo early on – “life is different for ladies; we don’t possess the freedoms afforded to men”.

However, the Clancarty family are more concerned about material wealth and appearances and threaten to destroy all that Belle has worked for. Without spoiling the plot, how unusual were the freedom of the Bilton Sisters in Victorian London? How different were they to their peers?

NOC: They were different to their working and upper class sisters but not to the others who worked in the milieu they were operating in. Theatre people had a different lifestyle to everyone – they worked and played by night. Because of that they mixed with the rich, who could afford to socialise often, and that’s how attachments were formed. Belle was one of the early commoner-to-countess women from the theatre world.

SG: Another strand that runs through Becoming Belle is that of friendship. I was particularly taken with the character of Wertheimer and his deep affection and friendship with Belle. He really is her saviour in many ways, and she his (in your novel), and yet she sticks fast to William, even when, at times, it seems he is not the one. From the notes at the back, Isidor Wertheimer ended up living a rather tragic life after Belle left London. How drawn were you to his character?

NOC: Friendship really interests me; I have loads of acquaintances but, because I’m an introvert, very few deep friendships. I crave more of those.

I adore Wertheimer, he’s the solid, sweet best friend we all dream of: classy, fun, a great listener and very helpful. Love is fickle: Belle appears not to have loved Wertheimer the way he loved her and, though William is a bit of an un-catch, in many ways, she seems to have genuinely loved him.

SG: Yes, at many points throughout the novel, I was wishing she’d change, and go to Wertheimer!

Names and identity are crucial to the characters in Becoming Belle, as the title suggests. From the first page we see Isabel Bilton playing around with versions of her name and, as she meets the various people of London, they are all defined by their name – class, religion, wealth – and this extends, somewhat sadly, to her own child who changes from Isidor to Dory, again, to suit his circumstances. Our names are so important and even more so if we are in the public eye, as Belle, Flo, and the Clancarty clan were.  

NOC: I’m obsessed with names, it’s one of the joyous parts of writing for me. Obviously 99% of my characters for this novel already had their names, but I was thrilled when I discovered, through research, the real names of characters like Jacob Baltimore and Godley Robinson. Such brilliant, evocative names. The fact that Belle named her first child after Wertheimer is significant and later, she gave her daughter his mother’s name, Franziska, as her second name. Unearthing details like that always gives me an excavational thrill.

SG: When I reached the last page of Becoming Belle, I really wanted to read on, to stay with Belle in Galway, see how she handled that new life. Is there any chance of a sequel?

NOC: Oh janey, I doubt it. I’m waaaaay into the writing of novel #5 now and I’ve so many other projects I want to tackle, including a contemporary novel that’s been nagging at me for years. But, never say never, maybe Belle will call me back some day.

Lastly, Nuala, some fun questions:

  • Canaries or Budgies (there’s a thread from the novel in there too!)? We had dozens of budgies as kids but as a canary owner now, I have to say canaries.
  • Sand or grass? Oh, that’s hard. I’ll say grass as I grew up in the Liffey Valley, surrounded by it.
  • Coffee or tea? Tea. I can only drink milky, sugary coffee so I just don’t bother.
  • What was the last history book you read? I’m currently reading Jan Morris’s sublime Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, which is social history/travelogue. She is amazingly clever, her sentences are delicious.
  • What are you reading now? As usual I have about ten books on the go including The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, which is a fabulous Georgian-era novel: great language, very funny. Also Meg Pokrass’s latest flash fiction collection, Alligators at Night (odd, quirky, funny); I’ll be reviewing Lorrie Moore’s fantastic book of essays, reviews and articles, See What Can Be Done. What a generous, flexible-minded writer she is. I just love her. I’m also reading scads of biographies and histories for my novel-in-progress, an Edwardian era, Europe-set story. Loving it.

A fantastic collection of books on the go! Lots of recommendations there, thanks. Tell us about readings and events relating to Becoming Belle happening in the next few months.

  • Galway launch of Becoming Belle, Ballinasloe Library, 11th September, 6pm. Launch by Mary O’Rourke.
  • Shorelines Arts Festival, Portumna 15th September, 3pm. Portumna Library.
  • Clifden Arts Week – 18th September with Alan McMonagle. 4.30pm, Station House
  • Wexford launch of Becoming Belle, Gorey Visitor Centre, 21st September, 6pm. Launch by Caroline Busher.
  • Red Line Festival, 9th October – Victorian Mavericks with Bernie McGill & Caroline Busher, 7.30pm, Pearse Museum, Dublin

  • DLR Voices, 23rd October – The Pavilion, Dun Laoghaire – reading and interview with Sarah Maria Griffin. Time tbc.

READERS! To be in with a chance to win a free signed copy of Becoming Belle, just add your name and a comment below and say why you’d love to read Becoming Belle! All the names will be put into a draw and the winner announced on Friday 14th September at 19.00hr (Irish time)

And don’t forget to follow this blog for more featured Writers Chats!

Nuala O'Connor photo by Úna O'ConnorPhoto of Nuala by Úna O’Connor. 

Keep up to date with Nuala on her website.

The Write Time: A Celebration of Creativity & Writing in Fingal

I’m delighted to be taking part in the wonderful Write Time Festival run by Fingal County Council. Join me in Blanchardstown Library (15th September) or in Malahide Library (22nd September).

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In China flash fiction stories are called ‘smoke-long’ stories. They promise
“to let the reader relish the sights and sounds of an entire make-believe
world before he or she has time to finish one delicious cigarette”.
(Shouhua Qi)

This two-hour workshop on flash fiction is for writers at all stages of their
writing career – from beginner to published author. In this workshop, Shauna
Gilligan invites you to examine the craft of flash fiction, or short-short fiction, or
‘smoke-long’ fiction focusing on plotting and planning as a way into the creative
process by firstly reading from examples, and then using these pieces as a
basis for your own writing”.

Many writers and artists are participating in The Write Time the best thing – for library users! – is that the workshops are free. Read the Write Time brochure here and book yourself in!