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 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.

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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.