Writers Chat 4: Nuala O’Connor on “Miss Emily” (Penguin: USA and Canada, 2015) and PREVIEW chat about “Becoming Belle” (Forthcoming from Penguin)

Latest “Writers Chat” – preview chat about Nuala O’Connor’s “Becoming Belle” and re-post of our Q&A about “Miss Emily”

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The fourth post in my “Writers Chat” series is mix of old and new chats: a re-post of a chat with Nuala O’Connor from August 2015 on her third novel Miss Emily and a new preview chat about Becoming Belle which Sebastian Barry has declared to be “luminous”. Becoming Belle will be published in August 2018. 

BB USA cover

What a beautiful cover, Nuala. So tell me about this stage in the publishing process – after the writing, editing, and proofs… and before the publication date (August 2018).

NUALA: This is the easy part because all the difficult work is done. Now it’s time for gentle pre-publicity (sending out advance copies to key people: journalists and literary types of all hue) before the real PR push starts. I’m taking a week out in May to write articles, essays etc. about the book for promo purposes; I’m hoping by devoting a week to it, that I’ll get a lot done. It’s a time consuming business. I won’t be able to write much on my novel-in-progress during the promotional months for Becoming Belle. That’s maybe the only downside as the act of writing keeps me balanced in myself. And sane…

The story of Belle sounds utterly fascinating. Tell us how you came to write about her and her links to Ballinasloe.
NUALA: Like a lot of things, I tried her out first in a poem (a pretty crappy vilanelle). Then I wrote a flash about her. When I keep returning to a subject, it’s begging for more. I moved to Ballinasloe 13 years ago and researched the history of the town and soon came across this music hall girl who had married the local Viscount amid some scandal. She was a beauty and much loved in Ballinasloe; I was interested in knowing more about this maverick English woman who ended up in rural Ireland as the Countess Clancarty, despite being a dancer and not being from gentry.
When can we get our hands on Becoming Belle
NUALA:  It is published here, there and all over in August 2018. I really can’t wait for people to read about Belle – she is feminist, feisty and fresh. I gave my parents an advance copy of the book and my Da said he ‘fell in love’ with Belle. What better review could you get?
Wow, that is surely the best review any writer could get – that your reader falls in love with your heroine. I can’t wait to read it in August 2018!
Nuala OConnor 4
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Q&A (originally published in August 2015) with Nuala about Miss Emily 

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I start this blog post with a confession. I have always considered my tastes to reside in the modern. Miss Emily, set in the late nineteenth century however, is written in O’Connor’s beautiful lyrical prose with feminist leanings. The novel not only brings us into the world of the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, but also Ada Concannon, a feisty Dubliner who follows in the footsteps of her aunt and uncle in the hope of better prospects in Amherst, Massachusetts.

I raise my hands, humbly, and declare that I was hooked from the first page with the complex characters of Emily and Ada, the lush imagery and bountiful senses, and a story that, from the start, gets you asking questions, and reading on. As a fan of Dickinson’s poetry, Miss Emily gave me a unique glimpse into her sense of self as a writer. Many of Emily’s sections are poetic in themselves, beautiful prose. Consider these musings, for example:

“I write by night now, when nothing thrums but my lamp…The house sleeps; Amherst sleeps. Only I endure. And when my pencil tires of flicking word arrows onto the page, there is the moon to admire, full-faced and lovely, a bright coin…”

Miss Emily, however, could also be enjoyed and relished by readers not familiar with – or even interested in – Dickinson as a writer. Here’s quite an accomplishment: O’Connor manages to hook you into this well-paced story while also providing convincing and fascinating glimpses into the life – imagined – of such a known poet.

MissEmily_On-Beach

 

Thank you, Nuala, for a wonderful read – on a northern Spanish beach (as per above photo!). I’m delighted to be part of Miss Emily Blog Tour!

There is a wonderful sense of place in Miss Emily from the Dublin Liffey and life as a maid downstairs to the workings of the kitchen, the stables, and herb garden in the Dickinson household in Amherst.

“The goddess Pomona has been around the orchard scattering her goodness: everything is floral and abundant, while the apple maggots and cabbage worm do their best to undo it all.”

The sense of place – and the atmosphere throughout the novel – seems to me to be as connected to the characters – Ada and Miss Emily – as it is to their respective countries – Ireland and America. In some way, Ada echoes Emily’s attachment to the indoors, how rushes of homesickness hit her at times. It strikes me that Miss Emily is not just about Emily Dickinson.

NUALA: Ada, the young maid, is the active character in the story, given Emily’s reclusiveness, which is beginning to be her preferred state by 1866, when the novel is set. The novel is about cross-generational friendship, the maid-mistress relationship, emigration and loyalty. It’s also about what it means to be a female maverick in the nineteenth century and what the consequences of that can be. And, yes, it’s about place – setting is important to me in fiction. For my own sake I need to inhabit the places I write about and really feel the setting loom large around me. The research for that – flora, fauna, architecture – is part of the thrill of writing for me.

I was enthralled by the day-to-day detail of living, and working – of course reflected in the beautiful covers of the US and UK editions, and in the novel from the instructional gift Ada receives from Mrs Dickinson (The Frugal Housewife by Mrs Child) and all the advice it gives, to the vision of Emily Dickinson lowering a basket full of delicious gingerbread for the children. Did you have fun researching and playing around with historical details such as these?

 NUALA: The research was a joy. I research as I write, mostly, and unearthing new and interesting details about domestic life in the nineteenth century was always a pleasure. I baked Emily’s recipes, I bought myself an old glass churn and made butter, I (squeamishly) watched YouTube videos on how to skin hares. I studied The Frugal Housewife and made it, as Mrs Dickinson suggested, Ada’s second Bible. I read close on thirty books by or about Emily in the course of the research – about her relationships, her poetry, her life in general. I wanted to get things right, to be loyal to her; I fell deeply for her warmth and wit while writing the book.

That joy really comes through in the novel, Nuala. Now tell me about the baking. I just adored the scenes with Emily and Ada in the kitchen, the dynamics between them and how each of their personalities seem to shine, and their friendship bloom, as they bake.

“I take dried pears from their jar; they were as pink as plums when picked, with crinoline hips and the flesh of candies. Now they curl – silenced yellow tongues – in my hand. I glance at Ada, and she is smiling roundly, forgetting now her Daniel and his saving of her from the lion. She uses her hands to mix together raisins and citron rind; the smell is glorious.”

In fact, I wished there were recipes at the back of the book – perhaps there will be on your website? 

NUALA: I love to cook and bake, and that was what drew me back to Emily later in life, having studied her poetry at school. Some of the articles I have written, for Reader’s Digest in Canada for example, featured recipes, as does the Penguin Book Club Guide to the book. Some of Emily’s recipes (tweaked by me) can also be found at my cooking blog, The Hungry Veggie Her Coconut Cake is a sweet, buttery, easy cake – I make it all the time now for visitors. My cousin Clodagh and I are going to bake some of Emily’s cakes for the launch (details below).

How wonderful – I’ll try those recipes out and look forward to samples at your launch! I relished the way the themes of gender and equality are peppered through the book, and with Ada as our perceptive observer, some of the expectations of women can be seen – tenderly – in the relationship between Emily and Susan, her sister-in-law, and how, through her poetry and solitude, Emily manages to escape some of these expectations.

“I simply do not feel comfortable in a throng; my head gets addled, and I long for peace. And Sue may not comprehend either the writer’s absolute need for quiet and retreat, the solace of it…I put my lips to her cheek and tell the curl of ear, ‘I prefer to have you alone. That way you are all mine.’”

NUALA: Women were expected to marry in nineteenth century Amherst, so Emily and her sister Vinnie were an unusual pair of spinsters. But they were well-to-do – their father was a lawyer and when he died their lawyer brother looked after them. So, in a sense, they had the luxury of being rebels. The Dickinson family were eccentric, they were clever and good leaders, important in the town, but they did things in their own way. Emily loved her sister-in-law Sue fervently – Sue was editor, friend and confidante to her.

I really enjoyed the way their relationship developed so tenderly over the course of the book. Yet there are also strong, and complex, male characters in Miss Emily: Emily’s brother Austin is an interesting character who, I can say, without revealing the plot, grows and changes through the novel; Patrick seems to be the antithesis to Daniel yet both are believable characters who provide yet another kind of insight into the Dickinsons, and, interestingly, reveal certain views of the Irish and class.

NUALA: I made Austin Dickinson quite anti-Irish in the novel – he may not have been as racist as I portrayed him. Ada and Emily are both such sweet, decent creatures, I needed the contrast of the fiery Austin, blowing in and out with his mad red hair, negative opinions and grumpy face. He and Emily were very close as children but once he became a responsible citizen and husband, Austin became more serious.

Patrick and Daniel are two sides of the Irish emigrant: the drunken layabout and the hard-working, go-ahead type.

And a question more than a comment, will we discover, in the future, what became of Ada and Daniel?

NUALA: I was asked this question a lot on my American book tour – I think it’s a good sign because it means people like the characters, and care enough about them, to hope for a good future for them. I have no plans to return to Ada and Daniel but I feel that life went well for them in the end: deep love, happiness – the whole shebang!

Sounds great! Nuala, I’d love to hear you read from Miss Emily. I know you have already given some readings (for example at the West Cork Literary Festival), where might we next find you with Miss Emily in hand?

NUALA: I will read a little from the book at my launch in The Gutter Book Shop, Dublin, Friday 28th August, 6.30pm. (All welcome!)

Other confirmed appearances:

  • Thursday 3rd September: Shorelines Arts Festival, Portumna, Co. Galway
  • Saturday 19th September: Spirit of Folk Festival, Co. Meath
  • Sunday 18th October: Kildare Reader’s Festival, Riverside Arts Centre, Newbridge, Co. Kildare
  • Thursday 29th October: Blackbird Books, Navan, Co. Meath
  • Wednesday 25th November: Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast

I’ll be there on Friday 28th! And of course, we can keep up to date with your blog and website. Thanks again, Nuala, and I wish you continued and further success with the wonderful Miss Emily.

MissECover

MissE_UScover

THE DRAW FOR A SIGNED COPY OF MISS EMILY TOOK PLACE ON AUGUST 28th ….and the winner was Shirley McClure.

 

Writers Chat 3: Alan McMonagle on “Ithaca” (Picador: London, 2017) and “Psychotic Episodes” (Arlen House: Galway, 2013)

The third post in my “Writers Chat” series is mix of old and new chats: a re-post of a chat with Alan McMonagle about his second short story collection Pyschotic Episodes and a new chat about his highly acclaimed debut novel Ithaca…

Alans novel

Alan since our last “Writers Chat” five years ago, your writing has gone from strength to strength, most recently with the astounding and well-deserved success of your debut novel Ithaca (Picador, 2017).

The Irish Times described it as a “fierce and funny modern odyssey” and while I do not disagree, I wonder if what they have described is what essentially makes up all stories – that of the hero’s journey. Did you set out to write Jason’s story as an odyssey (I’m thinking of the title here, of course, and the reference to Greek mythology) or did the story start with character and then evolve into an odyssey as you, the writer, journeyed with Jason?

When it comes down to it there are two stories to tell: a person goes in search of something and a stranger comes to town. This remark has been attributed to many writers, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Jason’s ‘search’ arrived fully formed from the get-go, a journey of sorts slowly began to present itself as the basis of a narrative arc. Jason’s story, however, started out as a voice. A youthful voice, playful and unreliable, that evolved into a character and to whom I bequeathed a hinterland, a stomping ground along with its motley population with whom Jason was going to interact in varying degrees. This mix of voice and character, of setting and encounters, I suppose, offered a tension that helped sustain a narrative thrust. However, from the outset I always felt there was a gaping hole in Jason’s psyche. And the further the narrative progressed the stronger this feeling took hold. Writing is an act of faith, and so I pursued my wayward narrative in the hope that what this gaping hole was would eventually present itself. As a writer I spent a lot of time looking outside of Jason. To his nearest and dearest. To his enemies. To pretty much everyone with whom he was interacting. I was constantly looking to the hinterland, to the claustrophobic horizons of Jason’s stomping ground. I was three quarters way through a solid draft when I realized I was looking in the wrong places. I shouldn’t be looking outside of Jason – I should be looking inside. This guy literally wouldn’t harm a fly, I said to myself. The only person he is a danger to is himself. And then it came to me – he is a self-harmer. He is a self-harmer because he is in need of a hero – a parental figure – he can look to. And so I went back to the beginning. And in this manner the narrative of Ithaca takes on that classical trope of the hero’s journey – but I think it is very much an inner journey, in addition to the more obvious outward journey as Jason strikes out beyond the confines of his stomping ground. So really the evolution voice into character provides the basis for the quest my narrator sets himself.

What a fascinating insight into your process, Alan. Lots to ponder here about character formation and narrative voice. Now the town, in Ithaca like in much of your short fiction, is another character. Tell me about the divisions of the town – the Swamp, McMorrows, Rich Hill – and how they might echo the divisions and gaps in Jason’s own life.

Great question. The Swamp, McMorrow’s, Rich Hill are key locations for Jason as he sets about locating his elusive ‘Da’.  The Swamp is where he first meets the Girl. She is in the water, and thinking the worst, he fishes her out and so begins one of the story’s two central relationships. A relationship that provides Jason with a means to reveal a side of himself he will most likely otherwise conceal. Another location, Rich Hill, provides Jason with a taster of how the other half lives, the ‘haves’ as opposed to the ‘have-nots’. Rich Hill in general and Fat Grehan’s unfinished mansion in particular serve to highlight Jason’s ‘wrong side of the tracks’ origins. It’s also the part of town where he gives himself permission to lash out at his circumstances and terms of existence. It’s where he is most likely to get in trouble, fall foul of the law and so forth. A third key locale, McMorrow’s (‘dimly lit pub’), is where he goes to seek out Flukey, the initial candidate Jason posits as his Da. And so, yes, the pub is representative of another crucial gap in Jason’s existence, and as far as Jason is concerned, probably the gap that matters most. At the end of his famous play Life Of Galileo, Brecht has Galileo’s friend say, Unlucky the man that has no heroes. And Galileo says, Lucky the man that needs no heroes. Well, for better or worse, my little guy needs a hero, and in his case it involves a journey that is a mix of humour and pain and chaos and desperation. A journey that involves a search for someone or something that may remain out of reach, elusive. And ultimately what I think the narrative of Ithaca is trying to do is convey the measures Jason is prepared to take as his search becomes more desperate and he finally begins to realize that who or what he is looking for may be a lot to closer to home than he is ready to believe when we first meet him. The locales you mention in your question, along with one or two others, all have a part to play.

Yes, I love how everything in Ithaca fits together. There are no wasted characters in this landscape. 

Read on for the Writers Chat Alan and I had in 2013 about his short story collection Psychotic Episodes.

psy episodes cover

I’ve just finished Psychotic Episodes, one of the few story collections I have read in one sitting. It seemed to me that what brought all the stories together was that thread of the absurd coupled side by side with a sense of dread and caustic humour. Tell me, did you have a plan or a vision for this collection or did it evolve into itself?

A plan – definitely not. In fact I am fairly certain that each of the stories has their own story to tell as to how they came into existence. One or two arrived unannounced from the farthest recesses of my imagination and insisted on writing themselves with little or no input from myself. One or two literally fell out of larger pieces that were paying absolutely no heed to anything I was telling them to do. Others were not so keen until they looked a certain way and so needed a little finessing. Others said to hell with the rules, let’s just go for it. The upshot of all of this is that I am, at various times, an instinctive, reluctant, plodding, spontaneous writer. It was only when I started looking over what had accumulated that the common ground began apparent – the absurdity and chaos you refer to, that teetering on the brink. The stories are in a big way influenced by my own reading and, of course, by my own latent sensibilities, how I perceive and receive the world.

I’m interested, also, in the sequencing of the stories. You start with the moving ‘Looking after Little Patrick’ – I love the child’s name here and though there is something shocking about the cocktail making at the start, by the mid to end of the story I was laughing out loud and feeling they were all having a lovely time until, of course, your killer ending, which wiped the smile off my face and left me feeling guilty for laughing!

Your question, as well as being so well thought out, is also the ideal compliment you can give this particular story, Shauna. My good writing friend and all round purveyor of lightning wisdom, Ger Mills, says my stories snuggle up to you and then take a bite. I like this description and think it can be applied to the story you speak of. The story is essentially a psycho-drama – with the comedy thrown in. At the time I was re-reading Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and sitting up late watching Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton go at it in the film version. Also, at the time, my neighbours’ little baby seemed intent on establishing a new world record for crying. Also, at the time, my girlfriend and myself were given our little nephew for the day. Somehow the disparate yet timely elements coalesced. Instinctively, I placed this story as the opening story for the tone it quickly sets, for the early flavour it provides of the skewed sensibilities in the stories. It was also the first story I finished after my first collection.

That’s really interesting, such an insight into the creation of the story, and indeed, the collection. I’d like to hear about how you get into character. You’re fond of first person voice and move well between a child’s voice (‘The Story Teller and the Thief’ and ‘Runaways’) and a female voice (‘Psychotic Episodes’).

I am an aural learner (as opposed to the more common visual learning). And so, in any piece of writing, I need to ‘hear’ everything – narration, reflection, observation – in addition to dialogue. In my own reading there are writers I return to time and time again precisely for this purpose. William Saroyan (his wonderful take on childhood). Flannery  O’Connor (for the darkness). Sergei Dovlatov (for the chaos). Grace Paley and Amy Hempel (great female voices). These (among others), if you like, are my tuning forks. I’ve read about the so-called advantages of the third person narrator, its flexibility and omniscience. However, I feel if you have a strong enough ‘voice’ then a first person narrative becomes an essential part of story.

I must look Hempel up I don’t know her work. Now, tell me about endings. You have some wonderful ones – ‘Gutted’ and the wonderfully titled ‘Elizabeth Taylor and the Tour de France Cyclist’. Are you ever surprised by the endings that come to you as you write or do you plan the ending?

Almost every time – surprised. Which is why I think writing is an act of faith – at some point in the future you are depending upon something presenting itself (an ending, for example) that doesn’t yet exist. Endings, as well as beginnings, are delicate, require soft hands. It is what takes you from beginning to end that involves cement and mortar and blood and tears. I think it was Philip Larkin, of all people, who said a good story should have a beginning, a muddle and an end. All too often I find myself muddling…And then, from nowhere it seems, a way out – an ending – offers itself. The two stories you refer to here are good examples.

What a wonderful quote, I love the idea of muddling. But I have to ask you if you cycle – I like the way cycling and bikes feature in the collection, almost little creatures in themselves.

Bicycles as little creatures – what a lovely observation…I take a push bike around the narrow Galway streets. On my way in to town, there is a certain road I always use because it slopes downhill and so gets me where I have to be quickly and without huge effort. However, there is a certain hour in the day – early to mid-afternoon – whereupon if you find yourself on this road and on a bicycle you really are running the gauntlet. I also take my bike out on the backroads near where I live. I am restless by nature, need to be in motion, and it amazes me some of the ideas that arrive while pedalling through the desolation and dignity of Old Clybaun.

I  think the collection holds some of that desolation and dignity. But I was also tickled by nostalgia with all the references to 99s, flakes, Tayto crisps and I laughed out loud at the ‘Bloomsday Bus Driver’ which seems quintessentially Irish to me with the ice-creams, the desperation to catch every last ray of sun, the need, generally to get and keep something good while it’s still going. Any reflections on this?           

My grandfather used to work on the buses out of Sligo. Occasionally I would tag along, the five-mile trip from Sligo town to Rosses Point being a particular favourite. ‘Bus Driver’ (in many ways) is a slender story, but I like its simplicity, its purity, which I feel is in keeping with the time it is attempting to reflect. A couple of people whose judgement I respect have said to me that it rings so true. I was even given a wonderful anecdote by a Galway poet about his long-ago experience on slow-moving trains. It is very satisfying to hear that this story is speaking to a generation from a time I myself barely experienced.

Finally, if you’re willing to reveal, what are you working on now?

There are poems to coerce, new stories to plámás into life. Someone has asked me to write a one-act play, the one constraint being that it has to be set in a bar – which, for an Irish writer, surely has to be the most liberating constraint conceivable! And now I’ve put the hex on myself and no doubt I’ll soon be muddling again…

Wow, a play in a bar. Interesting indeed. And poems. Good luck with that. I look forward to reading what comes of the muddling!

Aoife Casby’s wonderful artwork graces the front and back cover. Find out about Aoife here: http://www.aoifecasby.net/

Writers Chat 2: Gabriel Fitzmaurice on “Will You Be My Friend?” (Liberties Press: Dublin, 2016)

As the second in my “Writers Chat” series, I’m delighted to re-visit my interview with poet Gabriel Fitzmaurice which first took place in June 2016.

download_GFGabriel Fitzmaurice ‘The Irish A.A. Milne’ (Declan Kiberd)

SG: Congratulations on the launch of Will You Be My Friend? at the 2016 Listowel Writers’ Week. Will You Be My Friend strikes me as a poetry collection that will be picked up again and again – not unlike Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. Tell me, Gabriel, how did you manage the selection process of poems from your previous collections. Did you involve readers, or family, or did you select your own favourites?

I chose my own favourites from my children’s books in the English language. (I have written a couple of books for children as Gaeilge too). In choosing, I took into account the poems that go down well when I read them to children in schools, libraries, bookshops etc. I also had adults, Moms and Dads, Nanas and Grandads etc as well as the general reading public in mind as, to quote the writer and journalist Billy Keane, “these poems cross over to adults as well”. And, as you say, adults “secretly enjoy them” – particularly the naughty ones!

SG: I think that’s the key, Gabriel! I have to say, many of the poems are deceptively clever. I’m thinking here of ‘What’s a Tourist’ which works on so many levels. Do these type poems come easily to you or are they about drafting and editing?

You say that the poems are “deceptively clever”. A lot of people feel that way about my poems, my poems for adults too. I try to make my poems readable, enjoyable and accessible. I believe that poetry should give pleasure as well as making one think. Sometimes the poems can be read on a number of levels which is OK too: some words have multiple meanings, for instance. The first draft of a poem comes easily to me. I am inspired to write, thank God – I don’t say “I must sit down and write a poem now”. A phrase, a line, a verse possess me and I simply have to get it down – be that when I’m driving my car (I pull over and write) or in my bed (I’ll get up in the middle of the night if it comes to me in a dream). Then the hard work begins. I edit, change, edit to make my meaning as clear as I can make it. This can take a long time until I’m finally satisfied. Sometimes I’m lucky – the poem comes clean onto the page at the first draft. “What’s a Tourist?” is one such poem. I was in class one day and the cigire (the inspector) was questioning my class about Geography. He was boring them silly. When he asked them “What’s a tourist” one young boy had enough and said “a man with a camera taking photos of a cow”. Just like that. I just wrote down what he said!

SG: It often takes a child to say it as it is, I think! You touch on bodily functions in poems like ‘Diarrhorea’, ‘Shampoo’, ‘Bursting Pimples’ and ‘Pooh’. Children of a certain age love, and adults squirm but secretly laugh at them. Yet they deal with situations that we’ve all found ourselves in or witnessed happen to another person. How do you find these poems go down when you read them to a crowd?

I write about things that matter to real people, be they children, adults or myself. I remember the rhymes we had in the schoolyard when I was growing up in the 1950s and early ‘60s. They were real poetry, ours alone and some of them were VERY rude. We loved them all the more as they were our secret, not to be shared with adults. That’s what I try to do with my naughty rhymes. Children LOVE them. I visit a lot of schools, and learning support teachers constantly tell me that when reluctant readers give up on reading they still take great pleasure in my really rotten rhymes!

SG: It’s great to see children react to your poems – and, as you say, it’s often the rhymes and the rhythms that reluctant readers connect with. Sometimes these same children might even try extending your verses or writing their own. ‘Imagination’ is wonderfully inspirational. Was encouraging the creation of poetry one of your aims when you were gathering poems for this collection?

The poems are child-friendly and children love them. When I’m asked about writing for children vis-a-vis writing for adults I reply: “when I write for children I enter a child’s mind; when I write for adults, I get to know my own”. I hope that my poems will help children to cope with their own emotions – happiness, sadness, loss, death etc etc. When I give workshops, the children react to them and write their own poems under their influence.

SG: I think my children would love to attend one of your workshops! You cover a range of human emotions from the tragic death in ‘A little girl visits her brother’s grave’ to the amusing ‘School tour’ song that will be so familiar to readers, and the ‘A young child learns to writer’, again, so familiar, and the ‘Lonely Day’. Do you think that poetry mirrors life and that perhaps it could be a source of solace, or even company to young, and old?

Yes it does – if it’s any good. Seamus Heaney once said that poetry should be strong enough to help. I have been asked to write poems for funerals, mortuary cards, wedding anniversaries, people going into exile, exiles returning home, birthdays, football victories etc. Poems can help us deal with all sorts of occasions.

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SG: I like that idea, that it cannot be ‘just’ a poem, that it has to be ‘strong enough to help’. Finally, Gabriel, tell me about the beautiful illustrations by artist Karen Vaughan. I was particularly taken with her interpretation of ‘Messing around.’

Karen Vaughan designed my covers for Liberties Press and I was delighted when they asked her to illustrate “Will You Be My Friend?” I LOVE her illustrations as I’m sure the children (and adults) will too. My only problem is that there are not enough of them, they are so good.

Yes, hopefully we will see more of her illustrations alongside more of your work soon – though you have said this might be your last collection but time will tell.

Thanks, Gabriel for such honest answers and readers can purchase Will You be My Friend? from Liberties Press here.

 

Telling, and re-telling our stories

I’ve been musing yet again about the importance of story telling. Something I did extensively during and after my post as Writer-In-Residence with the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre in 2016/7. 

Annemarie Ní Churreáin has an excellent article in The Journal where she links the importance of story telling and power and the silence when stories are not allowed to be retold. In particular, she writes about Joanne Hayes and The Kerry Baby Case and reminds us how

It’s a very human thing to seek answers through the making of marks on a page or the creation of a sound.

I would urge you to read Ní Churreáin’s collection Bloodroot (Doire Press, 2017) where you’ll find her powerful poem ‘The Kerry Foot’ at Cahir Saidhbhín which, she says she wrote “with the greatest respect for Joanne Hayes, and out of a sense of personal sadness for us all.”

It is, I now think, the re-telling of stories as much as the stories themselves that stay with us. As Elias Canette says in The Voices of Marrakesh: A Record of a Visit. 

The largest crowds are drawn by the storytellers. It is around them that the people throng most densely and stay longest…their words come from farther off and hang longer in the air than those of ordinary people.

 

Writers Chat 1: Brian Kirk on “After The Fall” (Salmon Poetry: Galway, 2017)

As the first to feature in my “Writers Chat” Series, I’m delighted to welcome Brian Kirk to my blog. We chat about his debut poetry collection After The Fall (Salmon, November 2017).

Be in with a chance to win a signed copy of After The Fall! Simply comment on this blog post and your name will be entered into the draw on January 20th.

afterthefall

I’m always interested in process. Having published a novel The Rising Son in 2015 and a poetry collection which you say was ten years in the making, in 2017, have you found any similarities, if I may suggest, between constructing a collection of poetry and structuring a novel?

I think of the two things, writing poems and writing novels/stories, as two very different disciplines. Generally as a writer I am very structured about how I shape stories and poems, but how the poems work together is very different to how the extended narrative of a novel works. Having said that, I’ve always been able to move between the two over the years. I’m lucky that I can revert to poetry when the novel isn’t going well and vice versa. The sustained effort of editing and finishing a novel can be very demanding, however. With The Rising Son I had a very clear picture in my mind of the characters and the structure of the novel from the start and wrote the first draft in six months or so. During that time, back in 2013, the poetry was on the back burner for a while. Ten years seems like a long time to take to produce a collection but in the context of other works being undertaken during that period – stories, novels, plays – perhaps not that long.

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That’s interesting to hear that you can switch between the two. I do the same with short and long fiction. Sticking to form and process for a moment, if you don’t mind, many of the poems in After The Fall tell a story, or stories, and I note from the extensive array of publications and awards on your blog, the short story is another form in which you excel.

The poems I am thinking of here are ones such as “Two Foxes”, “Chameleon”, and “Persephone”. Is there any particular way you find the form when you have the story in your head? In other words, have there been occasions when something begins life as a poem and morphs into a story or the other way around?

I do have a love of narrative in poetry, although there are more imagistic poems in the collection also. The poems you mention and others run on narrative lines, and very often the narrative is lifted from life, mainly from memory. The poet, George Szirtes, talks about poetry being an amalgam of memory and imagination and a lot of the poems in After The Fall reflect that. It has happened on occasion that I’ve had an idea for a story and it ends up being a poem or vice versa, but in the main poems come as poems and stories as stories. I use quite a bit of formal structuring in the collection and have always found it helps me when writing poems to have that structure in place at the outset even if it doesn’t always remain there in the end. Formal structure doesn’t always pay off, but when it does the demands of the form can add so much more to the poem I think.

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Fascinating that the poems arrive as poems and stories as stories. I found, in both dipping into the collection, and reading it right through, a real sense of identity forming, and a need to look back in order to look forward – in, for example, “The Flowering of Age”, “To Youth” and “When We Were Small”. How does this theme relate to both the title of the collection, and the title poem “After The Fall” where we’re reminded that we have both “lack and appetite”?

The main themes I suppose are around family and relationships, with love, religion and politics in the mix also. When I was writing and sending out poems at first I was simply writing individual poems without much thought of overall themes. But a few years back when I started to think in terms of a collection I was able to discern a strain of recurring concerns in some of the poems. The title of the collection appears in three of the poems and has obvious biblical connotations as well as a nod towards the season. In terms of the religious reference to the creation story in the Judeo-Christian tradition, I like to think of The Fall as not just being a negative thing, but having a positive aspect also; the original transgressive act that opens up the world of the senses to mankind. I also see the bible as a trove of poetical language and images and probably my first introduction to the notion of poetry. Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience are a source of inspiration also. The poems you refer to above hanker after youth but also find some satisfactions in age.

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I particularly enjoyed the snapshots of generations in the collection. I found myself nodding at my own memories reading “Ouija”, smiling at the picture painted in “Young People”, and again nodding at the familiar feelings you portray in “In My Day”.

Particularly the last line where the narrator is “not old enough to make free with the future/the way I have with the past.” You had me thinking of the timelessness of being – despite the specifics of growing up in a particular era.

It’s funny but when I was reading the proofs of the collection and getting ready for publication I began to see more threads in the collection than I had identified previously. One of these is the theme of ageing – which I shouldn’t be surprised by really – but which took me by surprise a little. There is a sense that we are all on a journey regardless of age. Many of the poems consider my parents and their generation but also my children’s generation and their concerns. There is definitely a sense of continuity – collective and individual memory playing out.

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Many of your poems look at what it means to be human – that it is both a curse and gift. In “Repetition”, there is both “nothing in this world as beautiful as repetition” and also “nothing in this world as terrible as repetition”.

Yet what holds everything together, a sort of binding, if you will, are the simple illustrations of love. Poems such as the Forward-Prize nominated “Orienteering”, “Birthday” and “A Memory” although different in their contexts, really moved me. Was this a theme that emerged through choosing the poems for the collection or was it more of a conscious choice?

One of the earliest recurring themes that emerged when I was compiling the collection was that of map making. I was very much taken with Eavan Boland’s poem That the Science of Cartography is Limited, which knits the individual specific experience so well into the public, political and historical. Poems like Orienteering, Home, The Man, The Boy And The Map, and A Map reflect failed attempts to site specific experience in exact physical locations. It’s hard to know where this desire springs from, but as a kid I always enjoyed looking at maps and reading books that had maps on the inside pages to help guide the reader. The broader theme of the imperfection and beauty of life, encapsulated in the idea of The Fall, swallowed up that lesser theme along the way. I love the image of love being the glue that holds all these disparate elements together!

And of course maps makes us think of the maps on our hands – our palms to be specific – and that push/pull between fate and destiny. 

Brian Kirk Author Photo colBrian Kirk

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Lastly, Brian, a few fun questions:

  • What are your five most loved books of 2017?

It’s hard to limit it to five. Of novels I read during the year the best were Jon McGregor’s Reservoir 13, Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life (which reminded me a lot of the late Denis Johnson’s excellent Train Dreams), Carol Shield’s The Stone Diaries and Hans Fallada’s Little Man, What Now? In short stories June Caldwell’s Little Room Darker, and I read some great work in Issues 7 and 8 of the Lonely Crowd which is an excellent journal and also I have to include an ambitiously superb story by Kevin O’Rourke Romance and Revolution in Long Story Short Literary Journal. In poems there were excellent first collections by Annemarie Ní Churreáin (Bloodroot) and Amanda Bell (First the Feathers). I’m currently reading Maeve O’Sullivan’s collection of poetry, haiku and haibun Elsewhere and enjoying its breadth tremendously.

  • Oh yes. Ní Churreáin’s collection and Caldwell’s stories are on my to read pile, and I loved those novels by McGregor, Shield, and Seethaler. Some wonderful recommendations, there. So what will you read in 2018?

I received a copy of John Banville’s Mrs Osmond for my birthday in December and am planning to read The Portrait of a Lady before diving into it. After that I will read another Hans Fallada, probably Alone in Berlin (I’ve been reading his work over the last few years and really enjoying it). In terms of stories I’m looking forward to Valerie Sirr’s collection coming out during the year. In poetry Maurice Devitt’s first collection is one I can’t wait to read and also a new and very interesting collection from John Murphy which should turn a lot of heads.

  • Would you believe it, I’ve just started that very book by Fallada! I’m also  looking forward to Valerie Sirr’s story collection; I love her work. And I’ll watch out for the poetry collections by Devitt and Murphy. So, Brian, to end our chat, what’s next for you in the writing world – Poetry? Stories? Plays? Novels?

I will continue to write poems and hopefully bring After The Fall to more readers around the country, but my main writing focus will be on compiling a collection of short stories and hopefully finding a publisher. I already have new stories forthcoming in 2018 at online journals Fictive Dream and Cold Coffee Stand. I have a novel in progress also which I hope to complete a first draft of very soon. My full length stage play Story was shortlisted at Listowel last year and I would really love to see a staging this year or even a rehearsed reading. So plenty to be getting on with!

Thanks for inviting me to chat, Shauna.

You’re welcome, Brian and thanks for engaging so thoroughly with my questions. I wish you every success with your writing and look forward to reading more of your work, and perhaps even seeing Story on stage.

Readers – be in with a chance to win a signed copy of After The Fall! Simply comment on the blog and your name will be entered into the draw on January 20th.

 

And the winner is….IMAG0069

Congratulations, Karen. Brian will be in touch with you to arrange delivery of After The Fall. 

Creative Writing Workshops in Tallaght County Library

I’m delighted, once again, to be running Creative Writing Workshops in the beautiful public library in Tallaght.

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Starting on Wednesday 24th January 2018, my 7-Week course will give you a chance to explore your creative story-telling in a relaxed and fun environment.
Topics covered include
•       short story writing (structure, character and story, dialogue, setting)
•       non-fiction (researching topics and themes)
•       poetry (inspiration, rhythm and layout)
•       the writing life (tricks of the trade to keep writing, the publishing industry)

It’s a free course, so why not register to join me every Wednesday evening from 6.30pm to 8pm. I’d love to work with you!

With thanks to South Dublin Libraries for facilitating the running of this course.

New Writing and a New Year

If you were to buy one book this year, why not spend your €20 on Reading The Future edited by Alan Hayes (Arlen House) ….

Welcome, dear readers, to my new look website and blog! I am delighted to bring you more chats with writers from around the world and news of my writing from 2018 and beyond.

If you were to buy one book this year, why not spend your €20 on Reading The Future edited by Alan Hayes (Arlen House) and published to celebrate 250 years of Hodges Figgis in Ireland. Hodges Figgis is Ireland’s oldest bookshop. IMAG0038

I am delighted that an extract from my new novel set in Northern Spain in the 1930s “When The October Wind Comes” has been included in the anthology. I am one of 250 writers featured and what a wonderful publication of over 700 pages of writing….

Look out for notices of launches and readings throughout 2018.

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