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

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Writers Chat 11: Jane Clarke on “The River” (Bloodaxe Books: Hexham, June 2015) and “When the Tree Falls” (forthcoming, Bloodaxe Books: Hexham, 2019)

I’m delighted that the eleventh post in my “Writers Chat” series is with Jane Clarke where we re-visit an old chat about her debut poetry collection The River and talk a little about her forthcoming second collection, When the Tree Falls

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SG: Jane, since the publication of The River in June 2015, you’ve been kept busy with one foot in the camp of creating new material and the other in continuing to give public readings, appearances and workshops.

You have also won various awards such as the Listowel Writers’ Week Poem of the Year Award (2016), Hennessy Literary Award for poetry (2016). And, of course The River was shortlisted for the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Literary Award. Many congratulations!

How have you found this process of managing the private creation of new writing and the public promotion of ‘old’ writing?

JC: Thanks very much, Shauna, for republishing my previous interview. It has indeed been a very busy time but well worth it to have so many opportunities to read my work, to meet readers and to perform with other poets and also musicians. The River has taken me to all kinds of interesting places and I’ve been honoured and delighted with the response to the poems. The private work of the poet entails getting new poems going and then working to get each one as good as it can possibly be. You definitely need plenty of quiet, reflective time for this. But when the poems are ready, I believe it’s really important to get them out into the world; readings, prizes, social media, youtube are all ways of doing that. I once heard Don Patterson say that poetry is a public art and I agree. Poetry, like music, needs the interaction of writer and reader/listener through live events.

I never expected such a warm response to The River. It’s a privilege to touch other people’s lives in this way. There’s nothing better than someone telling me they have The River beside their bed, or that the copy on the kitchen table is dog-eared or that they’ve given it to a friend who’s ill or that someone borrowed their copy and never gave it back or that their mother loves it. I’ve learned that when you publish your poems, you give them away and these intense little objects gain meaning and resonsance for others that has nothing to do with me personally.

SG: Yes, for a writer it is heart-warming to receive responses like that from readers. There’s a magic to how published work gains a life and meaning of its own, a beautiful exchange of a gift between the writer/writing, and the reader/reading.

Can you tell us a little about what you’re working on now and how your second collection is coming along?

JC: Yes, I’m working on my second full-length collection, When the Tree Falls. It’s due for publication with Bloodaxe Books in the autumn of 2019, which I have to say is both daunting and exciting. I feel very fortunate to have the support and imprimatur of my editor, Neil Astley and all in Bloodaxe Books. The experience of accompanying my very close friend, poet Shirley McClure, and my father in their final illnesses has deeply influenced this collection.

I know there’ll be poets reading this interview who miss Shirley very much. She was warm, generous and beautiful, a gifted creative writing tutor and a smashing poet. Her many fans will be glad to know that her publisher, Arlen House, plan to bring out a Collected Shirley McClure over the next year or so.

I’m also working with the Mary Evans Picture Library in London on a sequence of poems in response to a World War I family archive of letters and photographs. I’ve never worked on a project like this before and I’ve learnt a lot about the First World War and also the wealth of other artistic responses to the war, including poetry. It’s quite a challenge to find fresh ways of writing about the experience. I’m conscious of the dangers of over-statement and worn-out imagery and have sought an allusive, “tell it slant” approach.

One other piece of work is co-editing, with Nessa O’Mahony, the special Irish issue of the much-loved UK poetry magazine, The North. It‘ll be published late this year with a big launch in Poetry Ireland. We hope it will showcase lots of wonderful work by Irish poets and reflect the incredibly vibrant poetry scene here. I’d like to acknowledge Peter and Ann Sansom’s generosity and vision in giving us this opportunity to present and promote Irish poetry.  It is particularly valuable and resonant in the midst of the anxiety and sadness about Brexit.

SG: Jane, it sounds like you are in a powerful creative space, right now.

I love the title of your next collection, When the Tree Falls. And what a wonderful tribute to your dear friend Shirley, and your father, that the privilege, heartbreak and grief around their passing has been so carefully and lovingly tended to in poetry.

It is heartening to hear that Arlen House will bring out Collected Shirley McClure.  

The world war poems sound fascinating, I’m already intrigued by the process. Thank you for sharing that.

I really look forward to The North, and congratulations on what sounds like a brilliant project.

Now I’d love to hear about any readings or events you have coming up over the next while.

JC: I’m looking forward to going to the Lake District to run a “Writing & Dry-Stone Walling” workshop with James Rebanks, the author of The Shepherd’s Life. Both our books were shortilisted for the Ondaatje Award and we’ve kept in touch since. The workshop is part of the Rural Writer’s Institute and I’m looking forward to meeting lots of other rural/nature writers there. http://www.kathrynaalto.com/writing/rural-writing-institute/

The poet, Eileen Casey, has edited a new anthology of poems responding to the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh. As he’s one of my favourite poets, I’m honoured to have a poem included, responding to a gorgeous short poem of his, “Consider the Grass Growing.” The anthology, The Lea-Green Down, will be launched in the Irish Writers Centre on the 18th July at 6.30pm. I also have a new poem in the Arlen House/Hodges Figgis Anthology, Reading the Future. I’ll be reading at one of the series of launches planned over the coming months.

At the end of August I’ll be going on the road with the wonderful traditional and classical musicians, Eamon Sweeney and Cormac Breathnach, for a series of concerts as part of Heritage Week, 2018.  I’m giving a talk about the First World War poets and reading from my own sequence in Richmond Barracks as part of the Festival of History in October. And on the horizon, there’s another trip to the US for a number of readings.

SG: It really sounds like you have a wonderful few months ahead of you, Jane. I wish you the very best of luck and I’m sure both you and your audiences will enjoy the events very much.

Thanks, once again, for stopping by and I’d love to have back to talk more deeply about your second collection.

Below is our Q&A originally published in October 2015.

 

Q&A with Jane Clarke originally published in October 2015. 

First of all congratulations, Jane Clarke, on the publication in June 2015, by Bloodaxe, of your debut collection The River. It is beautifully produced with a front cover image that somehow reflects the depth of the emotions and narratives within. I’m delighted to feature you on my blog and chat about The River.

SG: I’d like to learn more about the process of ‘producing’ The River. How did you select the 50 poems that made it to the final collection and how easily or difficult did the title come to you? And finally, did you have any input to the design?

JC: I began writing poetry ten years ago and about four years later I started to think about drawing together a collection. It took another four years before I had it ready to send out to publishers. Over that period I did an MPhil in Writing in the University of South Wales where I was given invaluable help with my growing collection, including the crucial advice not to rush it and to take more time. It was relatively easy to select the poems because I was adamant that only the very best of what I had written could go in. There were a few I wasn’t sure about which got moved in and out a number of times. The collection was accepted for publication in late July 2014 but I was still editing newer poems for it right up to the day I sent the final manuscript in March 2015. The hardest part of  “making” the collection was the sequencing, which I changed many times. In ways it was like writing a poem; doing a draft, reading it, redrafting, putting it away for a while and then coming back to it and drafting again. In shaping the collection I was looking for a thread through the collection as a whole as well as variety and movement and also resonances between and among poems. My friends and colleagues, Shirley McClure, Geraldine Mitchell, Grace Wells and Yvonne O’Connor all helped me with this along the way. Meantime my workshop group was helping me with individual poems.

One of my first ideas for the title was Where the river deepens so the river was there from the start. Somewhere along the way I realized I wanted it to be The River, to reflect what I saw as the strongest poem in the collection and also to reflect the themes of change and loss and what nature offers us.

I had very little input into the design and I was more than happy to leave that to Neil Astley.  When he wrote to confirm that he would be publishing my collection, he suggested the image of the heron, inspired by a line in one of my poems, “River at Dawn”.

………………………………………… A Heron flies up

from the callows, leads river and rowers

into the day, lean in, catch, pull back, release.

 

I love the cover and the lay-out and I have no doubt that the beauty of the production has brought quite a few readers to the book.

SG: As a fiction writer, I am always fascinated by and in awe at how poets often seamlessly feature place so strongly in their work. In this collection we move through fields, farmyards, rivers, lighthouses – some place-specific – and cities. Parallel to place, notions of ownership and belonging seep through as themes. Was there a conscious sense of themes corresponding to places in your life as you pieced the collection together in the order that it is in, or was this something that appeared organically?

JC: When I began writing I had no idea that place would feature so strongly in my work. But the poems kept coming out of the landscape and physical surroundings of various times in my life; growing up on a farm in Roscommon, my fifteen years studying and working in Dublin, living in Wicklow since then and other places that have mattered to me along the way. I can see now that the physical details of place both carry and express the emotions in my poems. The containment of place gives me a way of exploring relationships, ambivalent emotions and themes of belonging and identity. But I did not set out intentionally to do that. I have learned from drawing together my collection that if you let it, poetry will inevitably reflect and engage with your questions and concerns at the time you are writing. Some of these are questions you will repeatedly return to and others are of a particular time. I have been amazed to find how much of the process of writing poetry is an unconscious process. That is not to say that it doesn’t involve conscious dedication and craft but there is a well of unconscious associations influencing the work that sometimes seems magical. For example I only realised that “Among the Cows” was inspired by my grandmother’s life when I put it next to another poem about her in my collection.

SG: That’s fascinating, Jane, how the themes grew organically. It’s true that place in The River also extends to the place of our hearts – and memories. I’m thinking of the first poem in the collection: ‘Honey’ or ‘Rhode Island Reds’, poems which begin in one emotional, almost sentimental place, and end, shockingly and yet movingly, in an entirely different place. Or, in contrast, the brilliantly titled, heart wrenching ‘Every life’ which grounds us in the bodily place of possibility and impossibility.

JC: Thanks Shauna, I appreciate how you express your response to my poems. For me, part of the power of poetry is how it can allow the poet to write out of and into loss, either their own or the imagined loss of others. I have these lines from Macbeth on a yellow post-it above my desk, Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break. To do this without sentimentality or self-pity, you need to be available to a depth of emotion as well as being able to stand at a distance from it. The restrictions of the poetic form can contain grief that feels uncontainable. Poems can’t give resolution or consolation but I have found that they can say what seems unsayable, evoke what has been unknown and that they can accompany, comfort and sometimes sustain others. Robert Frost says it for me: “A poem begins with a lump in the throat; a homesickness or a love sickness. It is a reaching-out toward expression; an effort to find fulfillment. A complete poem is one where an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.”

SG: That last line by Frost could apply to any form of creative writing, actually. Now while many of the poems are solid, and grounded in the specific, there are a few that have an undercurrent of the unconscious world of dreams, where danger is at the edges waiting to be acknowledged. The magical first stanza of ‘On the boat’:

“On the boat we were mostly virgins,/We talked about who we were going to be – /waitresses, seamstresses, nurses,/we didn’t talk about why we had to leave.”

Could you tell us a little bit more about this poem, for example the use of ‘mostly’ and the sense of journey and hope.

JC: I am always a little wary of talking about what a poem means for me because I don’t want to influence the reader’ response. But I know myself how interesting it is to hear a poet write about the background to a poem. “On the Boat” was inspired by Julia Otsuka’s novel, The Buddha in the Attic, about Japanese women migrating to the US in search of husbands. It set me thinking about all the Irish women who had migrated to the States in search of a better life.  A visit to the Tenement Museum in New York’s Lower East Side also influenced the poem. The first line is the first line in Otsuka’s novel and what I liked about it was the question in “mostly” that let us imagine all the many reasons women left their home places apart from poverty or a sense of adventure, including rape, sexual abuse and pregnancy outside of marriage. I think it is what is not said as well as the strong rhythm, rhyme and repetition of the pantoum form that conveys a sense of mystery and at times menace as well as hope. There is also the intimation that regardless of getting the opportunity to start all over again, there are memories both wanted and unwanted that we carry with us.

SG: Of course, it’s a bit of a tricky question – almost like asking about inspiration! And now to my last question. Kent Haruf, one of my go-to writers who sadly passed away last year said in his last interview “The obvious thing is to read, read, read, read, read. Then write, write, write. There is no way around it.” As a poet, can you relate to this? When you are not writing, what are you reading? And what are you reading right now?

JC: I loved Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, Shauna. I hadn’t read his advice before but I totally agree with it. I find that reading both prose and poetry feeds my work. Reading sets off thoughts, memories and emotional responses. It can be a place, a time, a person that is evoked or sometimes just one word or a mood or tone sets something alight. When I haven’t been writing or when I want to get something started but can’t find a way in, it helps to take out a poetry anthology or a collection from a poet that interests me, read through it at random and just see what is sparked off.  I always have a novel on the go; at the moment is Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie whose writing is just getting better and better. I’m reading Caitriona O’Reilly’s latest, Geis and also Philip Larkin these days as well as dipping into Richard Mabey’s Weeds. I’m also reading Colm Tóbín’s  very personal study of  Elizabeth Bishop, who is one of my favourite poets. I remember when I first read her advice  to a younger poet, “read a lot of poetry – all the time… anything at all almost that’s any good, from the past – until you find out what you really like, by yourself”. Only then should one proceed to “the great poets of our own century… and not just two or three poems of each… read ALL of somebody. Then read his or her life, and letters, and so on… Then see what happens.”

As regards the second part of Haruf’s advice, “write, write, write”, it is good to be reminded of it. The more I write, the more I need to write. There can be so much fear asscoiated with writing; fear of exposure, of failure, of coming across as ridiculous and yet we have to risk it, we have to put ourselves into words if we want to move closer to the writer we want to become. The advice I would add to that of Haruf and Bishop is to join a writing group and to set up a poetry reading group, on the lines of a book club.

SG: Thank you to Jane for such informative, and open answers. You can listen to a wonderful interview and reading with Jane on RTE Arena here and keep up with Jane’s readings and poetry on her website.

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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 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 6: Lisa Harding on “Harvesting” (New Island: Dublin, 2017)

Writers Chat with Lisa Harding, shortlisted for Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award…

Lisa, Welcome to “Writers Chat” and congratulations on the much-deserved accolades Harvesting (New Island, 2017) has been receiving, including being awarded The Kate O’Brien Award (2018), short listed in the Newcomer section for Irish Book of the Year in 2017 and now shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award (winners announced on May 30th in Listowel)

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SG: Firstly, Lisa, let’s talk about the many stories behind Harvesting and what drove you to take on such a harrowing and emotional journey with your two strong female narrators Sammy and Nico.

LH: The book came about because of my involvement in a campaign called Stop Sex Trafficking of Children and Young People run by the children’s Rights Alliance and the Body Shop. At the launch of that campaign in 2012, I was invited in my capacity as an actress to read first-hand accounts of some of the girls who had been trafficked to Ireland. What shocked me was how prevalent the trade is, how young some of the girls are and also that some of the girls that fall into the rings are Irish. Up until that day I had no idea this trade was happening on our shores.

It took me three years before I allowed myself to start to write about the topic. I struggled with legitimacy around telling these stories: who am I to give voice to these girls’ experiences? I am not an expert, nor a survivor, but something had burrowed inside me and I genuinely felt haunted by the testimonies I read that day. I found myself unable and unwilling to forget, and so set out to give voice to these hidden victims of this dark, flourishing world.

Sammy and Nico, although purely fictitious character, are composites of some of the personal accounts I was furnished with.

SG: I think that is why both women come across as such authentic characters. Now tell me about your process – in getting into the psyches of these women, in being able to so aptly explore their inner and outer worlds. Did you find that your experience in play writing and acting helped? I’m thinking of scenes, for example, where Sammy says “I empty out inside and allow myself to go floppy” (p.209) or Nico when she reminds herself before she takes the man’s stray hairs: “If I don’t breathe I’m not really there, not really.” (p.213)

LH: I adopt an improvisational approach to any creative process, which is greatly informed by my training as an actress.  I always start with a voice, and if I feel I can channel that voice, step inside the character’s skin, fully embody it, the writing will flow naturally from there.  Initially I didn’t know Harvesting would be a novel, the form was mutable as I was allowing different voices space inside my head. It could have been a play, or a series of interconnected short stories, but over time two voices start to clamour for more attention and space on the page. The consciousness of Sammy and Nico felt more alive and embodied than any of the other characters. The novel is in essence a series of alternating monologues told from the perspective of an Irish girl and a Moldovan girl.

As Harvesting is written in the first person present tense, everything that happens to these girls is being experienced and written about in the moment. The process of writing in this way is rather like channelling, where you bypass the conscious mind, or the intellect as much as possible and give yourself over to your instinct.

SG: Oh how wonderful that you felt free enough to let the narrative evolve and become the form it needed to become to tell the story. Lisa, let’s consider the role of place in Sammy’s Dublin is both her anchor and the city which fails to save her, while Nico’s Moldova fades as Dublin – what she is exposed to as ‘Dub’ – engulfs her. It seems Sammy and Nico both loose who they are and where they’re from simultaneously.

LH: That’s a really interesting observation, and not one I was consciously aware of at the time of writing. For Nico, the natural world was her home, growing up in a rural Moldovan village where her favourite activities were climbing trees and swimming in the rivers. Suddenly she is wrenched from this environment, the only world she ever knew, and is transported in cars, boats and planes from Moldova to Italy to London to Belfast, then finally Dublin. She is disoriented and dislocated early on. She regularly reverts to her favourite childhood spots in the moment of trauma where she dissociates from herself and her actual environment. I imagined her focus was slightly blurred in a bid to protect herself and so Dublin is experienced as a characterless place that could be anywhere. She only sees the inside of the holding house and the inside of a car and the inside of bedrooms. She yearns for nature yet has no direct contact; all she sees through fogged up windows is grey skies and rain.

Sammy is a suburban Dublin girl, so her environment is less alien, but her experience is. They are both brought to a ghost estate and their life of entrapment is played out against the backdrop of private parties, convention centres, bars, hotels. I felt if I was looking out on their world in their particular emotional state it would be heightened, bizarre, terrifying. Even those environments that were previously familiar take on an outlandish, almost ghoulish quality.

SG: Without revealing anything, Sammy and Nico start off and end in very different places. Between their beginnings and endings in their relationship we encounter moving tenderness, humorous quips while they each try to protect and provide some sort of comfort – and even love – each other.

LH: My two main motivators for writing this book were: (1) How can this happen? And (2) how do the girls survive and assimilate this sustained level of abuse? This second question feeds into your observation about their relationship, which is intense, at times verging on the hysterical. They are teenage girls who form a fierce bond under siege. I fell in love with the two girls as they navigated an unlikely friendship that becomes their everything. In each other they find humanity in a brutal, uncaring world. I was surprised how both girls use humour to deflect, protect and ultimately bond. But then, I realised they are so young and so impressionable and they need that ferocious love and loyalty to survive.

SG: I love how, at times, your writing is stark – factual almost – and then, also beautifully poetic. Nico describes the pain of two sisters as “palpable – it beats in the air like injured birds, trapped” (p236) and in another scene “I squint and blur my vision, but cannot see a rescuing knight no matter how hard I try.” (p281)

Sammy, locked inside on a day that seems particularly long tries

“not to listen to the bird-song, which I can hear over the wind and thrum of the tumble dryer. She’s so loud and insistent for such a tiny thing. I know, I know, I get it, birdie, but shut the fuck up, will ya?” (p242)

Do you think using different styles and language to convey changes in emotional tempo shows us that in the most awful of circumstances there is often – though unfortunately, not always – a glimmer of hope?

LH: That’s a really lovely compliment, thank you! Again, an unconscious lucky accident,  although I imagine my history in theatre fed into that melding of styles. Writers like Tennessee Williams, and in a completely contrasting way Sarah Kane, bring poetry, lyricism and a heightened sensibility to experiences of brutality. The lives Sammy and Nico are living are so far removed from the norms of the everyday that I felt colloquial language couldn’t always express their complex interior lives. They are so outside themselves and unable to process what is happening to them in the moment that I did struggle at times to find words to express this turmoil. Music could perhaps better express this turbulent inner landscape of trauma. I guess in some ways, heightened theatrical or poetic language can offer a kind of transformation, or transmutation, so perhaps unconsciously this was what I was playing with.

Yes, hope. I felt the fact of them being alive and capable of loving each other meant there was always hope.

SG: You participated and read from Harvesting as part of a symposium on modern slavery in Armagh on March 8th. How powerful do you think writing can be in today’s world where brevity is king?

LH: That was an extraordinary event. It was humbling to realise the importance of the role of the arts in raising awareness. The organiser of the symposium had come across Harvesting some time ago and was moved to organise an entire event on modern slavery because of his experience reading the book. So, I guess we cannot underestimate the effect of writing, even in such a time-poor, social-media saturated climate where Netflix is king. I imagine a visual medium might have even more impact, but then we lose the intimacy and interiority that only the novel allows.

SG: I think the key is that the novel form encourages or even demands self-reflection from the reader after it’s been read – in a way that other forms don’t.

Lastly, Lisa, some fun questions:

What are you reading now? Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante.

I read that over Christmas – in one sitting – and really loved it. Both disturbing and beautiful.

What’s your go-to dinner? Stir-fry with veggies. I’m a terrible cook!

Well stir-fry sounds delicious!

What writing are you working on? A new novel about the generational impact of alcoholism and the limitations of recovery.

Oh, the limitations of recovery. I’m intrigued.

What’s next for you? The above novel, and then…hopefully others. I’m a newbie in love with the form.

Sounds like you’re on a roll, Lisa. Keep on going!

Launch pic

Thanks again for popping over for the sixth “Writers Chat”. I look forward to reading more of your work over time and wish you more of the very best with Harvesting which can be ordered here. 

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/