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.

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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.

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Writers Chat 12: Catherine McNamara on “The Cartography of Others” (Unbound: London, 2018)

Catherine, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your second collection of short stories, The Cartography of Others (Unbound: London, 2018) ,which transported me into other worlds, as good stories do!

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SG: First and foremost, tell me a little about how you went about assembling the collection. There are many award winning stories here and your stories cover a wide span of geography in terms of where they are placed yet we often feel we are in familiar territory. How important was setting for you in compiling the collection and selecting the order?

CMN: Great question! It was very complex for me to select the story order, and I had story titles on bits of paper flying everywhere. Because around half of the stories are set in West Africa, and the others mostly in Europe and Australasia, we had to keep the locations apart. It was also important to separate common themes or elements, and more titillating stories from slower, quiet ones. Rhythm was so important. Some of the stories are heavy and require breathing space, others race on and are more light-hearted. Another factor to consider in selecting story order was the gender of the protagonist – and not have the ‘female’ or ‘male’ stories bunched together – and we also needed a good distribution of first, second or third person pieces.

The main factor however was setting, as the reader needed to be gently tugged from one place to the next. My hope was that these faraway environments would feel vivid and tangible amongst more familiar settings such as London and Paris.

SG: Yes, that’s actually an element that I enjoyed – not knowing where I’d be transported to next! Some of the stories have fantastic first lines. For example, the opening of one of my favourites, “Magaly Park” begins: “There is a murderer in the new apartment block on the Point in the garage downstairs, it’s all cordoned off.”

This really sets the scene and captures the atmosphere of the whole story. The narrator, Grant, is somehow disconnected from his surroundings and yet incredibly embedded in them. He sees but does not always feel everything. Tell me how important are beginnings for you?

CMN: I cannot start writing a story unless I am curious about where the first sentence will take me. Beginnings are essential for me, and once I can ‘hear’ a first sentence I will rarely change it or the first paragraph. Like the first notes of a piece of music, the first notes must set the tone for the rest of the story, and elicit a precise response from the reader. It is the voice and the echo chamber of the work.

SG: Yes, tone is so vital to the short story in particular. Now, many of the couples in The Cartography of Others have trouble communicating what they really want to say. Some resort to silence, others let their bodies speak. It got me thinking about the power of silence and the potency of voice. I’m thinking about “Adieu, Mon Doux Rivage” and “Three Days in Hong Kong” in which the narrator Philomena M manages to be humorous in her overt sensuality. And in “Return from Salt Pond” – “even her suffering silence was dialogue, insinuating itself along the cords of his brain, snaking with his thoughts, coaxing words from him that were unwilling and unclotted.” Can you talk a little about silence and voice?

CMN: This is a really interesting point.

The dynamic of the couple can be endlessly fascinating, with the alternation between spoken and unspoken, physicality and detachment, and the search for balance and equality – rarely attained. So much of the stories of our lives take place in our heads: we are almost always viewing, measuring, recollecting, and the short story is a wonderful avenue for exploring these alleyways, and the porous skin between thought and speech.

I do like humour. And the dry, slightly-tortured-dialogue-with-self in “Three Days in Hong Kong” was a lot of fun to write, with Philomena M’s sensuality a distinct character within the piece. Flaunted at the hotel window, her body changes from a sensual device to the channel she will use to recover her sense of self. Other stories like “Return to Salt Pond” chart the plunging of a rapport into miscommunication and hardening thoughts, while events and context hover around the protagonists.

SG: You also have a great eye for detail. At times I felt I was reading lines from notebooks, where maybe you had sat in a café people watching…(It’s something that I love to do!). For example, this wonderful description of Russian girls in Moscow “The Ukrainian Girl”: “the statuesque silken women who would one day decompress into their pillowy mothers with pincushion faces and arms.” Can you tell us a little about your methods for recording the physical aspects of your characters.

CMN: Thank you, Shauna. I hate to say that I am hopeless with notetaking. I’ve tried recording details and scenes in notebooks – as I imagined a real writer should do – but I rarely look at them again! I know there are a few mostly empty Moleskins around the house.

When I have an idea for a story I become immersed in its fabric and I really enjoy creating characters from scratch. Recalling locations or perhaps people I’ve observed, and really sewing these new beings into the piece. I love the act of writing and I try to switch on as much of my brain as I can – tuning in with the subconscious where a type of magic occurs and images are thrown up, and the language takes on a pace and shape as the story progresses. I am always observing and listening to people. I’ll talk to anyone and if I’m not assessing them my subconscious probably is, storing up vital images, scents, energy.

SG: Oh how wonderful to be able to store images, scents and energy like that. I love the idea of storing an energy for a story. In this last question we return to place, and specifically, landscape. In many of the stories, the sea has a wonderful healing power and the land is stifling. In “The Bamboo Furnace”, the siblings return to “their sorrowful Eden”, literally battered and bruised by places they have lived in, and in “Astragàl” the emotions at Luna’s disappearance echoed by the view out the window (reminiscent of Hitchcock, I thought) –  “He looked up in a rage at the first folds of the peak and the summit in a crust of white pleats”. Can you tell us a little about the importance of the landscape in your stories?

CMN: For me landscape is a vital part of the story, often a character itself. In the opening story, “Adieu, Mon Doux Rivage”, the sea is a balm that unblocks the wounded voice of a Japanese soprano, while soothing the pain of the narrator whose partnership may be tapering to a close. The two mountain stories – “Astragàl” and “The Kingdom of Fassa” – were written to express our belittlement before the cruel alpine environment. In a world where many of our emotions and thoughts are responses to what we read online, it is almost refreshing to feel the plain power of nature, the dramatic simplicity of an accident, or the course of the seasons and the futility of man’s efforts to tame these forces. Like everyone, I am gravely concerned by global warming and the changes I already see locally (I live in the Veneto countryside, close to the Dolomites), so these stories are an attempt to record and value these places.

Having moved around a lot, I am fascinated by the harrowing effect context and environment can have upon a person. Displacement is one of my major themes, and several of the stories explore the discomforts of being an isolated foreigner. These can span from basic communication issues to the need to accept a different climate and culture, sometimes leading to a remodelling of self within the new circumstances. Some characters adapt and survive. Others, like Santo, a Ghanaian migrant in northern Italy in “The Healing of Santo Yeboah”, do not. In the final story, “The Cliffs of Bandiagara”, the magical highland of Mali and its celestial firmament bring enlightenment and harmony to an embattled couple.

 Finally, five fun questions, Catherine:

  1. Dogs or Cats?

Dogs! I live in the countryside and have a German Shepherd called Astrid.

  1. Paperbacks or Hardbacks?

Paperbacks from good bookshops.

  1. Mountains or Sea?

The sea – I’m a swimmer. But I live near the Dolomites and also ski and hike.

  1. What’s next on your ‘to read’ pile?

I’ve just started My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, and next up will read Watermark, a story collection by Australian Joanna Atherfold Finn.

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Thanks again, Catherine, for stopping by and chatting.

Keep up to date with Catherine here: Facebook – Catherine McNamara, Twitter/Instagram – @catinitaly, Unbound – The Cartography of Others

The Cartography of Others is available at all good bookshops or online at Hive, Amazon UK

Writers Chat 10: Justine Delaney Wilson on “Listen for the Weather” (Hachette: Ireland and Australia, 2018)

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Justine, You are very welcome to WRITERS CHAT. Congratulations on your second novel Listen for the Weather which was launched in May at the wonderful Gutter bookshop in Dublin.

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SG: Reading Listen for the Weather I found the voice of the narrator Beth combined with the short scenes really moved the story along and I just kept turning those pages! It was very much pitch and pace perfect. Can you tell us a little about how you picked the voice and the structure through which to tell the story of Beth and Steve’s marriage?

 JDW: Thanks Shauna. That’s really lovely to hear. My writing style tends to be sparse and precise, and my scenes and paragraphs always on the short and punchy side. Sometimes, I’ll make a conscious effort to let a scene breathe a bit more, to really give it some room or extra time, but it will jar with me immediately when I read it back, and I’ll end up putting a red line through everything that I added in the misguided interests of  fleshing things out.

I like to read fiction that doesn’t give me a mountain of background and isn’t heavy on set-up detail; I want to get straight into the heart of things. I appreciate writers who plate-spin throughout the text, allowing me to pick up the observations as I go. I rather fill my cup with the characters’ joy or pain, and with the truth of things. Not with a lot of front-loading about smells or the colour of the curtains.

I enjoy reading short stories for this reason – the writer’s time and space is precious, so everything superfluous has been cut away, and I find the writing is powerful as a result. I don’t know if I’m actually more of a natural editor than a writer really, in that I always want every single word to justify itself. My background is in research and writing for television, and journalism, so perhaps it comes from a learned need to keep things lean and concise for broadcast or for the allotted space.

In terms of writing in Beth’s voice, at this stage I know her character so well that I can second-guess her thoughts and actions in most situations. I understand what motivates her so I find writing in her voice feels natural.

SG: That’s the wonderful advantage of being with a character for so long, isn’t it. You really know their nuances, like a dear friend. Listen for the Weather is set mainly in New Zealand but there are scenes in Ireland. How important is place to love? Tell me about the split setting, one which you have experienced in your own life.

JDW: This book opens in New Zealand, a couple of years after the Rogers family moved there. My previous novel The Difference, which came out this month two years ago, was almost entirely set in Ireland, with the family’s move to New Zealand coming toward the end. Listen for the Weather is a mirror-image of it, in a way. Beth and Steve have moved to the other side of the world to outrun damage to their relationship and to escape the containment of their old lives. But of course, no amount of running, no matter where, will save any of us from ourselves.

Place is important, in that it informs and shapes our identity. And yet, it also isn’t; when faced with a threat to our family and the loss of everyone we love, we see that it is people who are our home.

I left Ireland early in the Autumn of 2016 to go to New Zealand, and I came back in the Spring of last year. I wrote most of this book while I was away, and then I returned home to a familiar place, and to similar weather as when I’d left – But everything just felt off.  It reminded me of the ‘Crowded House’ line; Walking ‘round the room singing stormy weather. I remember hearing Neil Finn interviewed about that song, Weather with You. He talked about how we create our own weather, how we are always making our own situations. I definitely think my feelings of dislocation and of having to make my own environment in New Zealand – a new life, new securities for my children on the other side of the world – informed my writing of this story and my depiction of the characters.

SG: Having lived away from Ireland for many years myself, I can totally understand that strangeness of being in your ‘home’ country and feeling totally out of kilter. I love what you say that it is people who are our home.

Now tell me about the role of the video calls Beth makes to her mother back in Ireland. What a great device to bring us out of Beth’s head, reminding the reader that another world, another past and indeed another present exist. It’s also a reminder that no matter how difficult the circumstances or experience you are going through, the normality of life is always continuing elsewhere. And yet, the normality often hides other depths, as we learn later in the book.

JDW: Through video calls we catch moments of what we’ve left behind, or what has left us. But, like photographs, these calls only show what’s in frame at the time. Sometimes what’s in frame can relieve and sate us, but sometimes it can also mislead.

Beth’s mother, Johanna, has been tethered to her own desperation for much of her adult life and so has only ever been available to Beth in a very limited way. That said, her familiar mannerisms and expressions during these calls do provide her daughter with some comfort when she desperately needs it. Small hints of Johanna’s hard-won insight into the reality of love, which comes much later in the book, are suggested earlier in some of her seemingly throw-away comments over Skype.

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SG: I have to admit my opinion on Johanna changed as the story unfolded, for the very reasons you cite above. Having said that, my favourite character in Listen for the Weather was that of Mae, and how, many times, she is the only one of the family who is grounded in who she is and how she is – she is the solid comforter. For example in the scene when they are driving to the zoo, it’s Mae who asks for Beth’s hand right when Beth needs to be comforted. And in Ireland, it’s Mae who is the touchstone for Beth and her granddad. Really, she is herself, and not trying to fit into a role that society or family has created for her.

 JDW: I’m drawn to write about emotional turbulence – the power-plays in families; the betrayals within relationships; the sense of being at odds with your place in your own domestic world – these ordinary, but difficult, human things. Against this backdrop of adults feeling their way along their own jagged paths stands the character of 7 year-old Mae.

Mae wields a clear and positive power in this book. She manages to love more, but care less. She’s full of empathy – she is the emotional barometer in the house – and yet is nobody’s fool. I think she brings her entire family to life in a way that otherwise might never have happened for them. Mae’s disability allowed me to explore new jealousies in this novel – the uncomfortable envy a mother feels toward a ‘perfect’ child, a little girl who doesn’t have special needs.

Through the innate honesty of her daughter, Beth comes to see and cut through the artifice around her. And it’s from following Mae’s lead that she manages to get her head around what it is she needs to do.

SG: Throughout Beth’s journey, she gives us some beautifully poetic insights into her experience of what love is, or can be – a few of them:

“the heart has a blind spot….isn’t that the human condition? To desire what is not certain.”

 “love chooses not to see, chooses to ignore what doesn’t suit it.”

“The affair is a “tear in the fabric of life.”

“Most of love’s power is how badly it hurts.”

“Love with our eyes open. With the dark colours, as well as the bright.”

Was this a theme that you were always going to write about or did it emerge in the writing of the novel?

JDW:  From the get go, I wanted to look at love in this book. I think everything comes down to love, really. Having it, being denied it, growing up without it, learning to hold onto it, messing it up, confusing it with something else, confusing something else for it, cherishing it.

I’m intrigued by the accepted idea that love is kind, because it isn’t always. The “You are perfect as you are. You complete me” sort of thing doesn’t interest me at all. There’s a laziness in that idea of completion, of having reached some idyll. It’s not the sort of love I want to write about, or even read about. Love is active; it bowls you over, for better and worse. And it keeps pushing you back on yourself, on your own resources, into a space where you think and grow. Beth comes to realise that life is possible for her without Steve, which is the place I needed her to arrive at. Whatever way she goes after that is then a real, eyes-open decision, and not just one based on blind panic or lack of courage.

SG: Yes, I enjoyed being on that journey with Beth, as hard as it was in places, a realisation and a choice based on strength. As you say, a real decision.

Thanks for popping over to participate in my Writers Chat Series and for your generous answers, Justine. To finish off, I’ve five fun questions for you:

Mountains or Sea? The sea, most definitely. The sounds, the constant movement, the tidal changes, the sense of possibility. I had the privilege of living at the ocean in New Zealand and I must say that having half an hour in the evening to walk or sit at the water’s edge is something I’d highly recommend. Mountains are all very well but they don’t hold anything like the same fascination for me. After five minutes, I could probably give or take a mountain, to be honest. I like to be amongst things, amongst possibilities and activity, and I associate mountains with distance and seclusion. A city with a coastline would be my ideal. 

Coffee or tea? Tea. I’m a very committed tea drinker. The kettle in my house is always either on or still warm from the previous cup. I don’t like coffee, which is probably just as well because I’m not the best at things in moderation, and tea seems like the lesser of two charming evils.

Kindle or Paperback? Oh, paperback! I don’t own a kindle and I hope nobody ever buys me one. I like to feel the pages, to turn them, to flick back if I need to, and occasionally I’ll write on them. I love the physicality of books – the cover, the smell. And as décor, there’s surely nothing better than shelving full of well-read books, their spines lined up together. The fact that books don’t need charging is also glorious.

What are you writing now? In the latter stages of every manuscript, I swear that I’ll NEVER do this to myself again. But then the finished book comes out, and I see it in someone’s hands being read, and I quickly forget the pain of its birth. The faucet for the next novel is dripping away in the background here already. It’s called An Open Door and is set in present-day Dublin and 1990s New York.

What’s next on your ‘to read’ pile? My TBR pile was so high recently that I had to split it into a Pile A and a lesser Pile B. I was starting to feel some anxiety at the height of the tower glaring down at me. So on the top of pile A is The Long-Winded Lady, which I’ve already started. It’s a collection of Maeve Brennan’s columns for The New Yorker between 1954 and 1981, recently published by ‘The Stinging Fly’. Below Maeve, and currently in the following order to be read, are; White Houses by Amy Bloom, Problems by Jade Sharma, Norah Hoult’s Cocktail Bar and the just-added Calypso by David Sedaris. I’m dying to read Kudos by Rachel Cusk. She is among my favourite authors and this is the final book in her recent trilogy. I’m waiting for my copy to arrive, and it will rudely jump to the top of Pile A when it does.

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Connect with Justine on Twitter @justinedelw and her publishers @hachette

Look out for Justine in the media – articles and interviews coming up in The Irish Times, Daily Mail, Sunday Independent and The Gloss.

Writers Chat 9: Margaret Hickey on “Ireland’s Green Larder” (Unbound: London, 2018)

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Margaret, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on the publication of the beautifully produced Ireland’s Green Larder. Darina Allen has rightly called it “an authoritative resource as well as an entertaining and enlightening read.”

Tell me about how Ireland’s Larder was conceived. It’s such an original book both in terms of content and structure – a real coffee table book but also practical and one which I found myself returning to again and again.

Margaret: I have always been interested in history – my first book, Irish Days, was a collection of oral histories, in which I reproduced conversations I’d had with a cross section of Irish people over the age of eighty. And then I left my very hectic life in London to come and live in an abandoned house in Co Galway, beside the Shannon,  plunging myself into a different world.

One of the things that had attracted me to the house was its fireplace – big enough for a giant to cook in – with the crane still inset into the wall. It was a piece of living history inside my own house. I was also struck by how different the whole food scene was from what I knew. I’d come from a cosmopolitan city and my job had involved eating out a good deal, so differences were only to be expected there. However, I’d been raised among poor people near Manchester and I knew all about that Lancashire food culture. Here I was in Ireland and there were no pies! In the north of England people were reared on pork pies and potato pies. As a child I went to Stockport market every week and wandered round the stalls that sold Cheshire cheeses of different strengths and colours, the butchers selling haslett and brawn. Like poor people everywhere, we ate offal. In fact there were, when I was a child, a chain of restaurants devoted to serving tripe. (Yes, it sounds surreal now, but it’s true. The UCP.)

I’d lived in France for a number of years and I saw what alchemy can be wrought with simple ingredients. But here in this rural part of Ireland,  fewer things were available. I looked at how foodstuffs were preserved and there was precious little smoking or drying – it was almost all salting. No savoury pies. First class beef and lamb. In my local greengrocers (a dying breed in England) there were discussions about which variety of potato was good that week. And a slice of home made brown bread with some country butter was heaven.

It struck me that a food culture actually reveals the whole history of a nation and that’s what set me on the path of tracing that history right from the very earliest times. Going to visit the Ceide Fields and learning that the field system there is the oldest known in the world – a thousand years older than the Pyramids – was so impressive! And I travelled from there right up to the present day, although I structured the chapters of the book in order of the importance of the foodstuff. So the potato comes in very late in the day.

SG: How fascinating to learn that the geneses of the book came from an old fireplace and the crane insert in the wall…and the connection of fields to food. I’m also very interested in social history, and particularly, how past trauma often carries on through subsequent generations. I was fascinated by the section in Panorama where you state that “The story of food is always political, and in Ireland’s case intensely so” and that in Ireland “it may take generations to erase the old race memory of hunger”. Can you tell us a little about the research that you undertook to write this book?

Margaret: As I  mentioned above, I was struck by the courage and tenacity of those early people who marked out fields in that cold, windy spot beside the sea up in Mayo, and as I researched widely, reading law tracts, diaries, ballads, lives of the saints, letters, memoirs, poems and accounts from folklore, I saw a pattern repeated down the centuries. Poor people struggled to survive under many different dispensations. The Normans actually made life a little better, as they introduced the rabbit, the idea of a columbarium or dovecote, plus they created fishponds and brought in legumes such as peas which could be dried and provide food in the lean winter months. But there were famines down the centuries and accounts of animals dying, too. Swift’s famous satire A Modest Proposal was written in 1729 and he was reacting to the suffering of the time by suggesting that a superfluous child could be a helpful addition to the larder, as a plump infant would serve well, boiled, stewed or fried! There was no redress against the harsh rule of the landlords and it was really egregiously cruel and unforgivable that the subjects of Queen Victoria, who ruled over a mighty empire, should be allowed to starve to death as late as the mid-nineteenth century.

I remember talking to an old man whose grandparents had lived through the Famine and people were trying to eat green slime skimmed off stagnant ponds and hoping to catch frogs and rats, although most of them had already been caught and eaten. I believe that the terrible indignities of that time and the desperation of eating half-rotten food left a deep horror of any strange foodstuffs and an ingrained suspicion of odd textures and tastes. Younger people and city people are much more adventurous now, but among an older generation of country people that suspicion and fastidiousness remains.

SG: Oh yes, I recall reading and analyzing A Modest Proposal in university.  Chilling! And of course, as you say, so very much set in its time.

Margaret, I thoroughly enjoyed the accessible way in which you tell the history of food – through hearsay, conversations overheard, interviews, poetry, song and, of course, recipes. In Chapter Four ‘On The Hoof’, you reveal how very important beef is in the Irish diet (particularly when it comes to quality) and we learn how Bacon and Cabbage comes in as the runner for a national dish with a wonderfully simple recipe for it as well as one for Dublin Coddle. How difficult was it to decide on something akin to a national dish taking into account the rural/urban divide? 

Margaret: I don’t believe there are many people in Ireland who have absolutely no roots in the countryside. There were, of course, always some purely urban families in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Belfast. But precious few that didn’t have country cousins. I believe that chicken korma is Britain’s favourite meal today (several exclamation marks) but whereas more sophisticated city dwellers nowadays  might turn up their noses at the crude dish of bacon and cabbage, those two items have a long and noble history and  helped to build growing families. Many an exile would give a great deal for a plate of the very same right now. And if the bacon comes from a pig reared outdoors and allowed to rootle around, and if the cabbage is one of the native varieties grown in soil that knows no chemicals, and if that cabbage is well drained and dressed with a lump of country butter and the bacon and cabbage served with some fine spuds cooked in their jackets, I don’t think you’d turn your nose up at it, whatever class of a gourmet you might be!

SG: Yes, you’re right. Good quality ingredients are pretty hard to beat when it comes to potatoes, bacon and cabbage. Now as a nation island we have a complicated relationship with fish. However, I was interested to learn that it may be down to pure economics – not wanting to squander fat to fry it and so boiling the fish and rendering it tasteless – rather  than the famine as part of the reason why fish isn’t our ‘go to’ food. Having said that, I have plans to try out your recipe “Trout with Sorrel and Hazelnuts”. Could you comment a little on this?

Margaret: It is a mystery to me exactly why fish and shellfish have never been taken to the nation’s heart. When you think of the intense love of fish they have in Spain and Portugal and in Japan, you must wonder why the Irish, long before the Famine, prized other foods more. I’ve often heard the lack of enthusiasm for  fish ascribed to the Fish on Fridays argument. But no one was ever forced to eat fish on Fridays – it was a day of fasting and abstinence, that’s all. The problem was that the fish served was so seldom palatable. Take a piece of white fish, boil it or steam it and then serve it with no accompanying sauce or relish and you’ll be less keen on fish yourself! Peter Somerville-Large, from one of the Big Houses, remembers ‘huge bland pollock, which always tasted of tissue paper and pins.’

Added to the dull method of cooking, you might be dealing with fish that was less than fresh. Before the days of the engine, fish and shellfish had to be carted inland, so if you lived in Athlone you were likely to be offered fish that was fairly high!

I’m not denying that fish and shellfish – and, indeed, seaweed – weren’t eaten in earlier times. We have evidence from shells found in middens and from the importance of both the salmon and the trout in Irish mythology and legend. I love the wonderful coins that were issued when Ireland became an independent state and the leaping salmon on the old florin is such a gorgeous image.

Things are improving. Stephane Griesbach of Gannet’s fishmongers is a Frenchman who is bringing marvellously fresh fish to towns in Galway, Irish oysters are rightly prized. But we are still exporting huge numbers of fish and I have a small rant in the book about crabmeat. You’ll have to read it to find out what riles me!

SG: I’ll leave that to your new readers, Margaret! Now following on from this, I found the chapter on Vegetables, Herbs, Fruit and Nuts fascinating – particularly in relation to class divide. It put in mind the expensive delis and organic shops that have appeared in certain urban areas and how, if you look around carefully, you can find herbs and delights such as wild garlic growing wild….

Margaret: As I write this, there’s wild garlic running rampant by the side of the lane to my house and the chives in my garden are almost like a weed, they grow so vigorously and with no encouragement. Sorrel grows easily, too, as does curly parsley. Even if you’re living in the city, a window box or two will provide you with some herbs. But the recipes we follow often demand more exotic herbs and vegetables, so we tend to overlook what is native. I remember Lucy Madden telling me that in her opinion the finest omelette of all is the sorrel omelette and I tend to agree. All praise to people for being adventurous in their cooking and their exploration of other cuisines. I don’t want to be thought insular. But let’s not forget the really wonderful plants we have at home. And let’s, above all, try to eat herbs, vegetables and fruit that have been grown without harmful pesticides or irradiation. We are what we eat, and it’s surely in our own interests to buy high quality food that, where possible, is grown locally, thus diminishing the food miles.

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SG: For me one of the strongest threads running through Ireland’s Larder was the relationship between the female and the importance of milk and milk-based products such as butter. Was this something that you were cognisant of prior to writing the book or did it come out in the research?

Margaret: The woman is right at the heart of the story of Ireland’s food, as you would well imagine. And her contribution to the domestic economy of the household was vital. She it was who fed the animals around the house – the pigs and the chickens, for example – and apart from the cooking, she was the one who made the butter. Butter was incalculably important, because it was traded for money and that money was needed to pay the rent. During the hardest times, women would be churning butter but unable to give even a knob of it to their families, because all must be secured in a wooden firkin and used to pay the landlord. Failure to pay led to eviction, regardless of the state of the family or the time of year. Evictions could happen before Christmas, even. But when times were less hard, everyone basked in the warm yellow glow of butter, which would be dolloped onto the potato or spread thickly on soda bread.

I made the curious discovery that long ago the Irish had a preference for milk that was soured. There were many degrees of milk and ‘sweet’ fresh milk was considered fit for children and invalids, whilst healthy adults had a taste for ripened milk.

SG: Yes, good old buttermilk! I found the final chapter in the book to be most curious. You cover so much from folklore to traditions to the merging of pagan and Christian practices. Can you tell us how our tradition of story telling and creating life narratives is so closely related to the production and preparation of food?

Margaret: I mentioned above that dairy products are at the heart of  Ireland’s food culture, and many customs and pishogues attend milking and churning. It was considered good luck for any visitor to a house to take a turn at the churn when butter was being made, whereas if butter refused to ‘break’, that was because a witch or envious neighbour had put the evil eye on the cow. Wednesday was thought to be the most fortunate day of the week for churning, and an elderly neighbour of mine told me that he remembered an old woman who would never go out to the dairy but that she’d take the tongs and and she’d bring a little coal out of the fire and she’d put it under the churn ‘for fear anyone would bring the butter. A small little bit- just put it one side of the churn there. To protect it.’

What struck me very forcefully was that even in the depths of misery, people in Ireland found themselves able to rise above it and sing a song, play a tune, dance around the kitchen. A deeply spiritual people, they were, and I admire them so much for their lack of self pity and their love of learning and imagination.

Lastly, 3 fun questions, Margaret:

Cats or Dogs? My dog Meg is gently snoring by the window as I write this. I can see why people love cats – I had a Manx cat when I was a child – they’re very rare, as they have no tails. But my heart belongs to dogs.  I don’t think any sight makes me happier than seeing Meg chasing along with her best friend, Rocky, a black Labrador who’s half her age.

What’s your favourite comfort meal? There’s enough Irish blood in me to think straight away of the spud! Some lovely mashed potato. And ideally it would be the topping of a creamy fish pie.

What’s the most exotic ingredient you’ve ever cooked with? I’ve travelled a lot, and when I lived in France I had an education in food and drink that still stands to me today. I would happily prepare and cook brains and I’m well able to prepare squid. I adore India and the various Indian cuisines – there’s a marvellous book called 50 Great Curries of India by Camellia Panjabi-  so I’ve had a go at making dishes using curry leaves and     fenugreek. These days, though, I am attracted to very simple cooking with the best ingredients I can get my hands on. I’m partial to oysters, but it’s so wonderful when someone else does all the hard work, so I mostly eat out for  anything difficult.

Thank you so much, Margaret for taking part in WRITERS CHAT with me – it’s been a real pleasure and such a great learning experience for me! I wish you much well-deserved success with Ireland’s Green Larder. 

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Margaret Hickey

Listen to Margaret chat to Sean O’Rourke on RTE about Ireland’s Green Larder

Find out more about Margaret and Ireland’s Green Larder here. 

Writers Chat 8: Stephanie Conn on “Island” (Doire Press: Galway, 2018)

Stephanie, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your third collection of poetry Island.

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SG: Firstly, tell me about how Island was conceived as a series of narratives and how you went about structuring the collection, in particular your own personal links to the place and stories.

Stephanie: Many thanks, Shauna. It’s lovely to join you and talk a little about Island. The starting point for the collection was my ancestral connection to Copeland Island.

The Copeland Islands lie to the north-east of Donaghadee, Northern Ireland and are separated from the mainland by a channel a mile wide at its narrowest point. The archipelago comprises of Mew Island, Lighthouse Island and the largest of the three, Copeland Island, where my family lived. My great-great grandparents, Richard Clegg and Esther Emerson, were both born and raised on Copeland Island and lived their whole lives there. They married in 1845 and had nine children. They are buried in the tiny graveyard at the island’s edge.

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The island is now uninhabited. The last three elderly residents left for the mainland in 1947. However, at the time Esther and Richard were bringing up their family, they were part of a small but bustling community. I was keen to find out more about them and their way of life and provide some sort of record before it was forgotten.

I was lucky enough to secure a Career Enhancement Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in 2013 to research and write the Copeland poems. Some of these poems were published in the pamphlet Copeland’s Daughter as a result of winning the Poetry Business Poetry Competition in 2016. However, it was clear from quite early on, that this work would result in a full collection. Island moves beyond Copeland Island to the Northern Ireland coastline and includes other islands such as Coney Island, Skellig Michael and Ischia.

SG: What a rich and wonderful family history you have to draw on, Stephanie. I loved how the imagery in many of the poems is so specific that it is universal. I’m thinking here of lines from Part 1 such as ‘smile-filled skin’ in “On Finding an old photograph in a drawer” and “What Mum Knew” and, in Part 11, “Copeland’s Daughter” and the moving “Wedding Night” which has the sense of being about your family?

Stephanie: Poems such as Copeland’s Daughter, Wedding Night, Her Precious Cargo and Esther refer to my great-great grandmother. She married on the 25th August 1845, and strangely, I married on the same date 160 years later!

I felt strongly that I had to write about the lives of my island ancestors, but I did wonder how the poems would be received – given the very specific place and time and people. I would have been happy to keep this as a family project of sorts, but as the individual poems were accepted for publications and began to win prizes, it became obvious they were connecting with others. I was reading some of the poems at Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage and there were knowing nods from the audience. As you say, the themes of displacement, of belonging or not belonging, are universal.

SG: I love the serendipity of your wedding taking place on the same day as that of your great-great-grandmother. The next question has two parts. Firstly, you manage to paint the beauty of nature while evoking the harshness of the land and life. In “As was the custom” and “Winter” the reader is taken in, almost by the whisper of the sea, and then shocked into the reality at the end of the poem.

Secondly, it’s not only nature that tricks the ships into false security. It’s the games people play – for example in “The Clipper’s Captain”, “The Islander’s New Clothes”, “An Excise Man comes calling” and “Biding Time.” Tell us a little about the stories behind these poems.

Stephanie: It is easy to see how people are drawn to island life and why they romanticise the notion, but my research showed time and time again, just how demanding the reality was. The islanders could be cut off from the mainland for weeks on end and spent their lives at the mercy of the elements. Searching newspaper archives for mention of the Copeland Islands, around this time, a similar series of events is reported again and again. Despite the lighthouse and the foghorn, ship after ship struck the rocks in bad weather.

I completed most of my research over the autumn and winter months and when I finally got over to visit Copeland Island what I found was unexpected – tiny bones littering the fields, torn limbs lying close to rabbit holes. I write about the experience in ‘Visiting the Island of my Ancestors’.

Poems such as The Clipper’s Captain, Her Precious Cargo, The Islander’s New Clothes deal with a specific shipwreck. On the morning of the 7th January 1854, the islanders witnessed the American clipper ship, The Mermaid, driven on to the south-west side of the Copeland Island in gale force winds. The ship was reported as one of the finest vessels of her time and was only nine months old when she was wrecked. Her twenty-nine crew and three passengers were rescued by the islanders and spent the night in Richard Clegg’s barn before sailing to the mainland and onwards to England. The ship’s cargo of silk, satin, muslin, linen and carpet, went down with the ship and for weeks floated along the sound and gathered in bales on the nearby shores. It was reported that the islanders did not let this go to waste.

 SG: We’re all, in a way, products of where we come from and this is another theme throughout the collection but what is most interesting is the sense you show of what it is when you don’t belong. For example, in “Molly and the Islanders”, “Esther” and “A Sea View” there is a disconnectedness between the people and the land and sea.

Stephanie: Molly was a real person. She was a young bride who had honeymooned on Copeland Island and was determined to move there and live happily ever after. She didn’t last six months before moving back to the mainland.

I suppose I was echoing some of my own feelings in these poems as well as reflecting on the experiences of the women I write about. For example, I had an historical connection to this place and yet was removed from it. The Cleggs are family on my father’s side, but growing up, it was my mother who told us stories about both sides of our family. My mother died when she was just 46 years old. When she died, a lot of family history went with her and I wished I’d paid more attention to those stories she told us growing up and had tapped into this precious archive in her mind before it was too late.

SG: Water is constant in Island and I enjoyed how it both weighs and emotionally weighs. In “Weak as Water” we’re reminded how the character

had forgotten the weight of water – /how it erodes rock, how the sea advances/and recedes, even with neap tides, even as/the sun and moon oppose each other.

There’s something around the cycle of life and death, the continuation despite death.

I had planned to call the collection ‘The Weight of Water’ until a poet friend pointed out the fairly recent novel of the same name. I was certainly conscious of the cycle of life and death when writing these poems and I’ve touched a little on this above. Without living grandparents or my mother to help me discover my links to the island, I determined to do so myself. Within my family, I felt it was important that this history be passed onto my own children but, beyond the family ties, I didn’t want this bustling chapter of the island’s history to be forgotten.

The fact too, that this was one period within the island’s history. There is a before and after – monks retreating from Bangor Abbey to a tiny island in the sea, a specialist Bird Observatory.

SG: Yes, the weight of water is fitting but then again the final title, Island manages to contain that notion too. I’m interested in the overlap of history and stories and I loved how you combined the stories of history and the sensory memories in “Electricity”, “August 25th”, “The Sweetest Thing” and “The Science of Tears”. Can you tell us a little about the research you had to do for these poems?

When I was carrying out my research, it was quite difficult to move beyond the facts and figures of census materials and birth, death and marriage registers to get closer to the human experience. I had to use my imagination but in doing so it felt important to make the poems as authentic as possible when it came to details of the physical island and the flora and fauna.

As well as statistical records, I browsed newspaper archives, read geographical reports, interviewed members of local historical societies and met people with links to the islands. I visited the island to explore, make notes and take photographs. The few small cottages that remain on the island are now privately owned and used for occasional summer visits, so you cannot stay on Copeland Island. Armed with my research, I spent a week writing on Rathlin Island, listening to the sea and the seals in the harbour. At the start of the week, the rain lashed, and the wind howled but by the end of the week there was glorious sunshine and stunning sunsets. It was bliss.

SG: What a most wonderful description of your research! 

I shared “Winter” with one of my adult creative writing classes and we had a lovely discussion about the rhythm, your use of a ‘chorus’ and how this begged for the poem to be read aloud, echoing the movement of the tides. The group have a few questions for you:

  • Did you start writing the poem as an ode to the last verse or did the last verse come as a shock to you too? That’s a really interesting question. The last verse did come as a shock to me. I was drawn in by the rhythm while I was writing the poem and was surprised by what emerged. That’s one of the things I love about writing poetry – even if you start out with a particular intention the poem goes off in its own direction.
  • Is the island of “Winter” a lighthouse island? Copeland Island, the island of ‘Winter’, is the biggest of the three islands. Over the years there has been a lighthouse on each of the other islands – first on Lighthouse Island, as the name suggests, and now on Mew Island. The lighthouse, or at least the beam of light, would have been a part of the islanders’ daily lives.
  • There’s a practice off the coast of England that involved misleading ships so that they would crash and the loot could be taken. Are these lines a reference to this practice: ‘we run to the shore to save all we can’. The reference here is to the lives they might save – as mentioned above, ships running into difficulty off the islands was common at this time. There was no suggestion of this practice in any of my research. The island was so close to the mainland that people in Donaghadee could see the ships at the mercy of the currents or when they were hitting the rocks. However, during my week on Rathlin, a local guide told me about this practice and the reports of the Clipper’s captain waving a gun at the islanders as they tried to help save the crew and passengers from the sinking ship suddenly made more sense. Perhaps he was worried they were planning to steal the cargo.

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Thank you so much for such open and generous answers. Island is a collection I’ll return to again and again. 

Lastly, 3 fun questions, Stephanie:

  • Boat or Plane? I’m not a huge fan of either – I am a terrible traveller and suffer with motion sickness. I’ll opt for ‘plane’ as the destinations can be well worth feeling a bit rough on the journey.
  • What was your favourite childhood poem? In my final year at primary school, our class had to learn and recite Tennyson’s ‘The Eagle’ and it stuck. I loved the sounds in my mouth, the pace and emphasis the teacher taught us and that wonderful notion of the ‘azure world’.
  • What are you reading now? I have just finished Liz Nugent’s new novel ‘Skin Deep’ which had me hooked and kept me reading late into the night. I tend to have quite a few poetry collections on the go at any one time. I’m currently reading Kathleen McCracken’s ‘Tattoo Land’, Polly Atkin’s ‘Basic Nest Architecture’ and Pascale Petit’s ‘Mama Amazonica’.

Join Stephanie on a Cross-Border Reading Tour: 

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Keep up to date with Stephanie on her website

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Writers Chat 7: Aoibheann McCann on “Marina” (WordsOnTheStreet: Galway, 2018)

Aoibheann, Welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series and thanks for participating so fully.

Congratulations on your debut novel Marina which Mike McCormack has described (and I’d thoroughly agree!) as a “singular enchantment” and which also has a really stunning cover:

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Cover of Marina Purchase Direct from Publishers http://www.wordsonthestreet.com/

SG: First and foremost, tell me a little about Marina’s love of the sea.

The story seems to be about a circular journey from childhood to adulthood, and from Ireland to England, yet at another level, Marina seems to be a contemplation on how disconnected we all are from the land – dry and wet ground – that we live on and in.

You’re from Donegal and now living in Galway. Did you use your own knowledge of the sea and its landscape, and also that sense of being away from home (as Marina is in London) in writing this beautiful sensory novel?

AMC: Marina’s love of the sea is a theme throughout the novel, and it has a very strong pull for her. Throughout the novel, she associates the sea with escape, be it by boat or by swimming. Though when she eventually does escape across the Irish Sea, it does not work out so well for her. I think we are all very disconnected from the earth these days and that causes us a lot of problems.

I grew up beside the sea and was brought out on boats from a very young age. My family were mariners for generations so I have a deep generational connection with the sea. Luckily I still live near the sea in Galway and can see it out of my bedroom window. The further I get from the sea the more trapped I feel, but it also utterly scares me, as a lot of my relatives died at sea.

I lived in London for a number of years, my daughter was actually born there, and I although I loved the freedom of it, I always missed the sea and had a strong urge to return to Ireland. Especially when I was pregnant for some reason. I think I actually saw a mirage on a particularly hot day just before she was born!

The sea helped me to write the book too. I was inspired to write Marina in the aquarium in Salthill in Galway. I was looking at a fish in a seawater tank, it looked miserable, and this is where Marina sprang from.

SG: What an amazing image – you by the sea gazing at fish trapped in a tank, both surrounded by seawater…But then there’s all that history and inner knowledge you have about the sea that seeps through the novel. 

I loved the writing throughout In particular, I loved the poetic writing which grabs you right from the start:

“Belonging like they did when I saw them, floating in the sea, the green fronds of seaweed caressing their pale skin. They are nibbled gently, caressed by tiny fish who, bit by bit, ingest them, return them, welcome them.”

It also extends into the stuff of life – we’re told 

“The piano was truly the instrument of fate” 

and, when Jamie is born, he’s

“red and squashed, as if he’d come out of a shell.”

AMC: Thank you! I started off as a poet, in fact the first piece of writing I got published was a poem. Though I rarely write poetry these days, it is still there in my writing. I think the prologue and the intervals are the most poetic parts of the book, where Marina describes the world as she sees it in her very disjointed way. I was inspired to write these parts in my garden and walking by the sea. I think especially at these points I could see ordinary things from Marina’s perspective, and as she seems to be able to zone so completely into things and is so removed from social concerns, she is able to describe things more precisely or more poetically. I think poetry is about seeing things from a very different perspective.

SG: Yes! And now that you say it, that’s really what I loved about Marina – that sense of the word view being turned somewhat. 

I read Marina in one sitting and gasped when I came to the end – without revealing anything – it was like I was in the sea, coming up for air, or that a wave of a life of emotions had just washed over me. For me, this is a great reading experience, when you’re taken somewhere else entirely and then when the book finishes, you’re back to the grey skies (not unlike those of Marina’s life!) and reality. How important a role do you think atmosphere plays in this story – in keeping the reader embedded in the parallel clarity and murkiness of the waters of Marina’s thoughts, compared to Jamie’s thoughts which are shown as been numbed with medication?

AMC: Again, thank you, that’s great feedback for a writer! The first draft of the story didn’t feature the parallel story of Marina in the present, which I think provides the context of her version of the ultimately tragic events and her justification for what happened. It also adds to the atmosphere, as it is clear that her thoughts are murky from the start. Dr. O’Hara provides the clear voice of reason, but can be very harsh. I often think we put labels on people so we can rationalise their actions and there isn’t always a rational explanation for why people behave as they do. We like to think we can explain people’s behaviour by looking at their childhood but I don’t think we can. Of course, Jamie never really gets a voice, so we only have Marina’s (unreliable) version of the events, so we have to take her word for it. So overall I tried to make the atmosphere like the deep water that Marina inhabits in her mind.

SG: Yes. It saddens me how labels often seek answers yet in doing so can move further from those very answers. 

Marina is also about relationships. We have the one which is constant – Marina and her relationship to sea, including being at sea for most of the story – and we have the one which we, as readers, see evolving into something that isn’t quite what we would have hoped for Marina: her love for Jules, the young man she falls for at university in London. It’s really a question of like attracting like rather than opposites attract – especially if we consider that the less they verbally communicate, the less they each play their instruments. Can you talk a little about that relationship – in which Marina, at one stage, feels

“smaller than an ant”

 AMC: I think Marina and Jules’ relationship is ultimately very unhealthy and obsessional. It is further exacerbated by Sandra’s influence. I think Marina tries to find a replacement for Jamie in Jules, but also she feels haunted by what she feels is a betrayal of Jamie so I think she justifies Jules’ cruelty because of this.

Jules and his mother are very controlling. I think Marina feels smothered by this but the further away from the sea and her music she gets, the more trapped she becomes, and it takes something drastic for her to return to Ireland.

SG: We’ve talked about the role of the land in Marina, but of course there’s the wider question of the environment and how we are destroying it. Can you talk about how Jules and his involvement with environmental groups adds to that theme, indeed, perhaps this being the one of the first things that Marina learns about him is also what attracts her to him.

AMC: The environmental theme was always a big part of the book, though it isn’t really part of the plot. I thought about evolution a lot when I was writing the first draft: if we are so evolved as a species, why are we destroying the environment that sustains us? If you consider this, it actually explains Marina’s destructive behaviour and why she ultimately feels humanity isn’t all it is cracked up to be. There is a strand of psychology called eco-psychology which believes that mental illnesses are caused by environmental damage; if the earth is being destroyed, then we inevitably will be too. As it suffers, so do we. Also, I thought a lot about the Buddhist Wheel of Life, which shows evolution in the form of reincarnation; the more good deeds we do, the more likely we are to ‘evolve’ into a higher life form. Again, I thought, are we really a higher life form if we are destroying ourselves like this?

As for eco-warriors, I hung around with some at college, and they were always so sure of themselves and what they were doing. Jules’ character and especially those of his friends are inspired by them. My life experience is in no way like Marina’s, but I was asked to stop eating a Kit Kat in my own house by an eco-warrior! I think Marina is so lost and scared, she latches on to Jules as he seems so sure of everything, as do his friends. They see something wrong in the world too, and are better able to articulate this than she is.

Yes – these are all questions that I asked myself as I was reading and, more so, when I’d finished the novel, and, found myself understanding Marina’s behaviour.

Lastly, Five fun questions, Aoibheann:

Dogs or Cats? Dogs. I have two!

  1. Paperbacks or Hardbacks? Paperbacks.
  2. What page are you on of the book you’re reading now? 89 of Echoland by Per Petterson
  3. Describe the story in one word? Childhood
  4. What’s next on your ‘to read’ pile? The Invisible Ones by Steph Penny

Thank you for such insight, Aoibheann and I wish you much success with Marina. 

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 You can keep up to date with Aoibheann (above) on her website.

LAUNCHING MARINA

Little John Nee will launch Marina in the Town Hall Theatre, Galway on 19th April 2018.

Listen to Aoibheann reading from Marina in Athenry Library on 10th May.

 

Writers Chat 5: Patrick Chapman on his debut novel “So Long, Napoleon Solo” (BlazeVOX Books: NY, 2017)

Writer Patrick Chapman talks to me about writing, characterisation, titles, authorial intention and the role of place, era and music in novel writing…

I’m delighted to bring you a fifth WRITERS CHAT where Patrick Chapman talks to me about writing, characterisation, authorial intention and the role of place, era and music in novel writing…

Patrick, you’re very welcome. You’re a much-published and critically acclaimed poet and writer but today we’re going to focus on your debut novel So Long, Napoleon Solo (BlazeVOX Books, 2017). Congratulations on the publication and the fabulous cover which has such a nice texture!

PATRICK: Thank you, Shauna. The cover is meant to evoke pulp novels of the 1950s and 1960s, though this is a modern story. The style is a hint at the spy stories of the protagonist’s childhood.

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       Buy So Long, Napoleon Solo

SHAUNA: Oh yes, I can see that in the cover. A nice touch and a push towards the physical copy rather than the digital. Patrick, having published seven collections of poetry and two books of stories, written for TV, film and audio drama, and worked in advertising – how did you come to turn to the long haul of novel writing? Was So Long, Napoleon Solo always destined to be a novel or did it start life as something else?

PATRICK: So Long, Napoleon Solo was always going to be a novel, but I took a poet’s route to writing it. That’s to say, the book was composed without a plan, and along the way it yielded other pieces as I followed paths that didn’t end up belonging to the story at hand – a novella, Anhedonia, published four years ago, and a few short stories, all came off the flywheel as I whittled the novel down to its core. When BlazeVOX said yes last year, I enjoyed a few months of final editing, which gave the book its finish. So it was a long haul, but I loved the process of it.

SHAUNA: That’s the key with novel writing, isn’t it – you’re in for the long haul, however that ‘long’ is. Well, as writers it is often difficult to express that which cannot be expressed and one of these acts is that of suicide and the grief that follows. Having explored this in novel form myself, I understand how complex and delicate a theme it is. Although the death of Tom, an old childhood friend of our hero Jerome (“a sensible coward”) is pivotal to the whole narrative, So Long, Napoleon Solo isn’t really about suicide – I found it to contain a steady meditative thread on what we understand friendship to be, and how it changes over time and over our lives.

PATRICK: Friendship – its various forms, and how it evolves with time and circumstance – is definitely a theme of the novel. Some friendships calcify, some flower. Some were never how you remember them, or what you expected them to be.

Tom kills himself before the book begins, but the relationship he had with Jerome, is frozen in Jerome’s memory as that which they shared as boys. We only have our hero’s word for what it was actually like.

This novel went through the stages of grief, and came out the other side. In the composition, it seemed important to write fearlessly – not treating the subject of suicide with kid gloves but allowing it space to be what it is: imponderable at first and catastrophic yet human and, to my mind, having been around quite a few of them, eventually understandable and forgivable. Also there are one-liners in the book. I wanted this to be a black comedy, which is how it turned out.

SHAUNA: In the humour – some of which had me laughing aloud (“Humanity was turning into a species of mugwumps in suits”) there are some very poetic portrayals of emotion, such as the description of Tom’s mother Betty at his funeral:

Betty now bawled openly, a Magdalene of sorrow and no one’s feet to wash with her hair.

PATRICK: Humour can be how we cover our inability to face sorrow. Jerome deals with his – unacknowledged at first – using cynical humour; his character strengthens and deepens as the book goes on, and as his life crystallises into something new. Jerome’s armour is stripped away and he finds another way of facing his demons, which I won’t spoil, but he first has to get good at confrontation. This backfires amusingly on him. As for his sorrow – once laughter fades, the darkness in the face of which it sounded, wraps around him like a cloak and he has to find a way to wear it that looks good on him.

SHAUNA: Yes there is that depth of sorrow throughout the novel. But So Long, Napoleon Solo is full of journeys – from childhood to adulthood, regret to acceptance, blame to forgiveness. Jerome constantly balances himself on the tightrope between conforming to society’s expectations and being free.

In Dublin “his other pals had long since drifted away into fatherhood, depression or success”. Clea discouraged him from getting to know other women, as she had “put a lot of work into him.” And at home in the countryside he muses how the people

raced to become exactly the sort of people they were expected to be, then they could stop evolving and have done with it.

Tell me about the formation of this complex character that I found myself both loving and despising in equal measure.

PATRICK: Jerome’s character at the beginning of the book, is formed out of an idea of himself that he’s constructed in order to be able to get on with things. His attitude to his past is a way of distancing himself from who he used to be. It’s a protective layer he hasn’t learned to live without. As for his smart mouth, he’s projecting, and compensating for his own sense of isolation. There’s tenderness in his view of his upbringing, but pain too. His hometown is to him the place where his friend killed himself, and where the people who bullied him as a child, now exist in a hell of quiet desperation, at least to his mind. In fact they’re perfectly normal humans. Eventually, Jerome learns that everyone is lost and for some that’s not a problem, as they don’t realise it.

SHAUNA: This next question has two parts. 

Firstly, the novel is primarily set in Dublin and I loved how, through Jerome’s life, we see the streets, bars and cafes grow high, fall, as the Celtic Tiger comes and along with it greed, homelessness, prosperity, all the contradictions of a city that is essentially not quite grown up – like the ever nostalgic Jerome.

On the top floor of a house near Portobello bridge, he had taken his first taste of Red Lebanese, Leonard Cohen and nakedness with a woman, all in the same night. The hash had made him high, the music had made him smile and the woman had made him coffee in the morning.

Do you think So Long, Napoleon Solo is as much about Dublin as it is about its characters?

Secondly, as much as the city, the music guides both the reader and Jerome towards maturity and, as he finally lights a cigarette like a man, he smokes “pulling the future into his head”. I’d have loved a CD to accompany the novel!

PATRICK: The story was written during the boom years, but it’s not a ‘Celtic Tiger’ novel per se. That said, the city in which it’s set is very much the Dublin of that period – a new-money metropolis, a place that thinks it’s cosmopolitan but that will never be New York. It doesn’t wear its worldliness lightly. There’s an incuriousness in some of the background characters, along with a certain herd instinct at large upon the world, a movement towards conformity that Jerome disapproves of. He thinks himself outside all of that but really he doesn’t understand how everyone else seems to know what to do.

As for music, the songs of Jerome’s youth act as a comment on his not being able to reveal his small-town character. They represent his authentic self; he hides these albums from his city friends. When Ro turns up with her ‘anything goes’ attitude, she’s much more relaxed than he is, in music as well as in other areas. She couldn’t care less what he likes or doesn’t like. She has bigger problems. Real life is what’s playing on her Discman (the book is set just pre-iPod).

In lieu of a CD, here’s a Spotify playlist of some of the music and artists featured in So Long, Napoleon Solo

SHAUNA: Oh fabulous! I shall look forward to listening. Now on the topic of characterisation it struck me that the expression of female sexuality seemed often to be as an antidote to male power, in particular, how Clea and Ro are portrayed in relation to Jerome. Of course the narrative of So Long, Napoloen Solo is written from a close third-person perspective so we’re looking at these – at times very strong – female characters through the eyes of Jerome. In a way, I also couldn’t help thinking that Clea and Ro were extensions of different versions of Jerome – almost like you see couples begin to look like their dogs or each other. Did you envisage this interconnectivity for your characters?

PATRICK: Ro is used to taking what she wants sexually, as is Clea. That’s not to say that what either wants is particularly wild, though there’s a scene where Clea does something to Jerome that might raise certain eyebrows today.

In the sense that all characters represent aspects of their author, there is a relationship between these three, and they do reflect each other but they’re individuals. Ro is not a ‘manic pixie dream-girl’, yet she arrives as part of a world of anarchy that opens for Jerome. She’s tougher and more robust than that label, and she is not at all about the guy. There’s a strength to her, a recklessness, as well as frankness and kindness. Though she’s in a mess, she’s on more solid ground than at first it appears. Clea is witty and sophisticated on the surface but having had adventures in her youth, she now tends towards the conventional. She represents a certain kind of accommodation people often make with intolerable domestic situations, out of fear, a desire to fit in, or a sense that there’s no way out.

One thing these two characters have in common is that, although they see Jerome as a human being, neither takes him seriously as any kind of traditional male ideal. That’s liberating for everyone, as he doesn’t see himself that way, either.

SHAUNA: Yes, that’s what I thought – we see more of Jerome through Clea and Ro. Much of our curiosity in life is about finding the answer to This comes through very strongly in your novel, Patrick. Jerome wants desperately to find out why Clea can possibly go back to Harry when he is abusive towards her; both Jerome and Ro spend much of the novel trying to find out why Tom killed himself; and Jerome, like all of us, is a man constantly searching for meaning. In a way, isn’t the act of writing part of this search, part of the why?

PATRICK: Writing is all about ‘why’, as much as it’s about ‘what happens next’. It can be cathartic for the author to write in search of an answer but the journey needs to resonate with a reader – the writing becomes all about telling a good story. In this book, as in life, not every question has a clear answer, which is intentional. I try not to close the circle. For instance, what does the word ‘England’ mean, towards the end of the novel? A whole new world, perhaps.

SHAUNA: Although we never get to meet Tom, we get to know him through flashbacks and memories of those who knew him in life. Innocent play becomes tainted with adult knowledge and reason and in the light of suicide a simple childhood friendship takes on a heavy weight. Life is full of phases and people often pass through one phase, disappear and reappear in another phase. Friendships come and go. I couldn’t help wondering that if Tom hadn’t killed himself would Jerome even remember him?

PATRICK: Every now and then, Jerome would remember Tom as someone he had known long ago, a signifier of a different time, an imaginary friend which, in a way, is what he becomes in our story. Tom is more powerful as a memory. If he had turned up in person, we wouldn’t have this set of events. It’s a twisted memory too – what Tom leaves behind is poisonous and nuts, and the effect it has is transformative. You have to ask if reasonable people would take up the challenge of it the way Ro and Jerome do, but in this situation they’re not entirely reasonable. It’s an emotionally heightened reality for these characters.

SHAUNA: Yes, I felt that much of the pace of the book was driven by the heightened emotion of the characters. Finally, Patrick, let’s move to the title. As a young boy Tom is given a gun by a slightly dodgy uncle and he and Jerome decide to address each other by their secret names – Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin – taken from the characters of the 1960s US TV show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Do you think there are different interpretations of the story depending on the reader’s knowledge of The Man from U.N.C.L.E and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E? (Here I need to confess that though I’ve not seen either programme, my lack of knowledge did not affect my enjoyment of the novel.)

PATRICK: The reader doesn’t need to know these shows (or the recent movie) to enjoy the novel. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is important only in that the two boys played at being those spies, and it’s clear soon enough in the story who Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin were. As for the title, So Long, Napoleon Solo was inspired by my admiration for two other books with ‘So Long’ in the name. So Long, See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell and So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish, by Douglas Adams. As a phrase, it didn’t show up in Google searches until Robert Vaughn died, so it seemed like a good one.

SHAUNA: Thanks so much, Patrick, for being so giving with your responses to my curiosity. I must look up those two books you mention.

I wish you much success with So Long, Napoleon Solo! 

READERS: Check out the track list to the novel and purchase Patrick’s novel here.

You might also be interested in Patrick’s poetry published by Salmon Press and you might like to read an article Patrick wrote for Writing.ie about So Long, Napoleon Solo

 

Chapman