Sunday, 29 December 2013


I met these lads in Amsterdam before Christmas. There's a story in here somewhere, I'm sure of it... I hadn't been in the Rijksmuseum before, so can't compare its pre-make-over with its current incarnation, except to say that it is fabulous. There's a huge, bright concourse at the centre, with a cafe and museum shop, then four floors, with annexes, of art.

I only managed the ground and second floors. I'll save the 18th century for another trip. My favourite piece might be the Ten Weepers, but I was also thrilled to see, first-hand, several of the works so evocatively described by Zbigniew Herbert in Still Life With A Bridle.

Unfortunately our flight home was cancelled and we spent several hours in limbo in Schipol before eventually being bussed to an Ibis. Too bad we didn't know about the airport library. Now that's civilised!

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Review of Iosi Havilio's Paradises

I reviewed Iosi Havilio's Paradises for the stylish

Gorse is a new 'twice-yearly print journal...featuring longform narrative essays, original fiction and interviews. Issue one will be available January 2014. gorse is an exploration of the art of words...interested in the potential of literature, in literature where lines between fiction, memoir and history blur, in the unconventional and the under recognised.'

And you can't argue with that! 

Thursday, 12 December 2013

We Have Tested And Tasted Too Much

I freely admit I'm a 'carols without context' sort of person. Context is fine, but not so easy on the nerves when the company includes two nearly five year olds. On Monday, we attended the college's ecumenical carol service in Trinity College Chapel, an area of the college I didn't darken often in my undergrad days, and even if it was an hour and a half long, it was gorgeous. The Trinity Choir sang carols from Silent Night to lesser-known Benjamin Britten's, and it was truly uplifting. And the 'context' -- readings and lessons — was thought-provoking, not least when Kavanagh was invoked. It's never too soon to read Advent again. Enjoy.
We have tested and tasted too much, lover-
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
Of penance will charm back the luxury
Of a child's soul, we'll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.

And the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill
Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
Of an old fool will awake for us and bring
You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.

O after Christmas we'll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning-
We'll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
And we'll hear it among decent men too
Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.
Won't we be rich, my love and I, and
God we shall not ask for reason's payment,
The why of heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges
Nor analyse God's breath in common statement.
We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages
Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour-
And Christ comes with a January flower.

Monday, 9 December 2013

One Image: One Hundred Voices

'One Image: One Hundred Voices 2013 is a global community literature project whose vision has been to bring together a cross section of voices from around the world based on one image.' The challenge was to respond to the image above in 100-250 words. There are non-fiction, fiction, and poetry pieces up on the site, with an intriguing world map showing the locations of the contributors. I'm delighted to fly the flag for the whole of north-western Europe with my offering, You Weren't Here

Friday, 6 December 2013

Red Boats

Clontarf viewed from Bull Island Boat House Dec 2013

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a great read, but as close as I'll come to actually running. I settle for a walk, most days along the Bull Wall, sometimes on Dollymount Strand. Once I've got those thousand words down I head out, and tease out the words that seemed to make so much sense in the uncritical first draft flow. I remember that it was morning at the start of a scene, but evening by the time she's finished her tea, or that there's already a character called Deano, so Danno has to go. 
Mostly though, I just walk. The variety in weather and wildlife is extraordinary. I snapped the shot above because it looked Mediterranean a couple of days ago; yesterday was wild and grey; today's just grey. Most days I see a rat or two, brown and fat, scurrying about, minding their own business. I'm training my peripheral vision to pretend they're little birds, then scurry on myself, wondering why two-legged feathery creatures are so much more acceptable than, well, rodents. [Note the absence of cuddly rat image here...]
The other day, I saw a goldfinch.  I heard it first, a glorious bright trilling sound which you can hear here. Apparently they're common, but I hadn't seen one before. Naturally it inspired me to put Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch on my Christmas Reads list. Hopefully I'll write about it here in due course. 

When I've had my dose of negative ions, or whatever it's called, I'm usually energised enough to face into that review that's waiting to be written, or those exercises waiting to be marked.

Ok. Look away now if you're squeamish. Deep fear-facing breath and... insert rat image. Actually, he's not so bad, is he? Maybe cute rat pics are the new cat pics?

Monday, 2 December 2013

Resurrected Beginnings

These innocuous scraps represent one of my 'early' periods. It's a poem, published in Icarus, a very long time ago (with one of Eavan Boland's on the reverse!). I rediscovered it while sorting through the last of the packing boxes from our 2010 move, but already lost in piles of folders for many years before that. Also rediscovered was a folder full of notes from a course I took in the Irish Writers' Centre with Eilis Ni Dhuibhne a mere eleven years ago. There were even a couple of decent stories in there which I had forgotten writing.

Two false starts, more than a decade between them. With the first, I wanted to be a poet, and my influences were (alarmingly) Charles Bukowski, and the Beats. It was never going to end well. With the second, I had a six month old and a three year old, which explains the amnesia which surrounds the entire course; at that critical, neophyte stage of becoming a writer, I was a tad distracted. [...though I did write my first bad novel at this stage, about a distracted mother of two young children.]

As someone who is never going to grace the pages of 30 Under 30, or 40 under 40, or, let's face it, if these editors don't bite soon... Well, let's not go there... I have come to realise that becoming a writer is a lot to do with being at the right stage of life and having the right conditions, and when these two don't come along, and unless you're a single, trust-fund kid, they won't, it's about having the chutzpah and the tenacity to ignore both and just go for it. And more importantly, to keep going for it. If I'd kept going all those years ago just think, I could be right in the middle of my mid-career novelist crisis by now.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Autumn at UCD

Autumn leaves at UCD. The mild weather led to more sugar being produced, hence the fab leaf colour, apparently!
The semester's teaching ended this week. [As a p/t MFA student, teaching was my only commitment, apart from writing, writing, writing, of course.]We looked for ways to trigger creative responses, and at elements of the craft such as creating characters, writing openings, using the senses, and writing dialogue. We read stories from Gish Jen, Kevin Barry, Alice Munro, Lydia Davis, Deborah Levy, James Joyce and Donal Ryan, and tried to figure out how and why these stories worked, and which attributes we could steal and apply to our own stories. Later, we read stories from the students themselves and even had a go at workshopping, which was both fun and productive. I look forward to receiving the portfolios in due course.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Follow This Blog

Hi Blog Followers,
Thanks for reading my offerings thus far. I've had some problems with people trying to follow - apparently google friends connect has been gone for some time - and I hope I've remedied this. Would you be so kind as to go to the site and click on the small 'Follow this blog' bloglovin button. Much obliged!

Monday, 11 November 2013

Necessary Reading at Necessary Fiction

 A teacher once told me that we all want/need our offspring to be brighter, faster, and better looking than we are ourselves. It hadn't occurred to me to want any of these - I was content to make it to sleeping-through-the-night and staying healthy. But in an evolutionary light, he is, of course, right. 

In the same way, I believe it is important for writers to continuously stimulate and challenge ourselves as readers. Because we all want to get better, don't we; we want the next book to be better than the last. Stagnation does no good for the writer or her readers, or the literature project in general.

Necessary Fiction is a webjournal which, along with one story each Wednesday, research and translation notes, and a writer in residence, publishes book reviews. At NF, they're 'interested in reviewing fiction from independent publishers, with a moderate emphasis on short story collections, novellas and translations.' I'm lucky enough to occasionally contribute to the latter, and one of the perks is receiving the kind of wonderful stuff I might not be able to pick up in my local bookshops. Bess, a chapbook by Daphne Gottlieb, was one such read, and my review is up today.

But the best bit is the five other reviews - commissioned by review editor Michelle Bailat Jones, a woman who knows where to get the good stuff - among which I'm likely to find my next outside-the-mainstream read. 

After that, nothing remains but to BE one of those reviewed books (or at the very least, a Wednesday story...)

Friday, 1 November 2013

Suddenly A Knock On The Door

When reading a collection of short stories I tend to put the book down when each story ends. This is to give me time to reflect on it, but also, like drawings on an Etch-A-Sketch, to clear away one story before preparing to imagine another. In complete contradiction to this habit, I picked this up yesterday and haven't put it down since. It's a breath of fresh air. The stories are quirky, funny, and incredibly original. It's not that they don't merit reflection — they do — but it's the kind of collection that, without being a linked collection, is more than the sum of its parts. I suspect its impact will continue long after I finish reading — the best litmus test (especially if I ever happen to visit Tel Aviv again, where most (all?) of the stories are set, and which, if Keret's stories are in any way representative, is a truly strange and wonderful place).

Monday, 28 October 2013


Automatic writing is well and good if the muse has flown, but I find it a bit of a waste of valuable writing time if I'm in the thick of a project and not sure where I'm going next. Today my character was running away from her Irish midlands home, to London. But I don't know London, at least, not what it's like to live there. And the Ladies' Changing Area did nothing to solve that problem. But walking there down the Bull Wall, and hanging out on the steps wondering if I'd ever get brave enough to actually change, and swim there, did clear the head. And I think my character will live in a squat which she'll reach via concrete steps smelling strongly of urine...

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Publication in Eclectica

I'm thrilled to have my story, Yehudit, appearing in Eclectica today, and in such fantastic company. Have a read of The Testimony of Jayce B and I've Always Thought Marjorie Was Ok if you visit.

'One of the longest surviving ezines. Eclectica Magazine has been online since 1996, and we have had more notable and top ten stories recognized by the storySouth Million Writers Award than any other publication. We pride ourselves on giving everyone (high schoolers, convicts, movie executives, etc.) an equal shot at publication, based solely on the quality of their work.'

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Reviewing 'Bess' by Daphne Gottlieb for Necessary Fiction

It's been a while since I could be accused of doing anything 'edgy', but...
Reviewing Bess by Daphne Gottlieb for Necessary Fiction's 'short fiction' reviews special is proving exciting right from the moment of the envelope hitting the hall floor —as you can see. I look forward to the challenge.

Friday, 27 September 2013

Here Lie Dragons: On Blogging

At the risk of repeating what many a blogger has mused before me, it's a year since I started ViewReview and muse I must.

There's quite a resistance among a certain generation to 'putting themselves out there' on the internet. The internet is where dragons lie, after all. We're more used to privacy. If we went to see a film, usually it ended when the credits rolled, not on Facebook and Twitter the next day. What I'm saying is, it was a Giant Step to decide to start blogging (and tweeting).

I started because there was a certain amount of pressure from other writers, online and in the flesh, to 'put myself out there', to 'get a profile'. And because one of the publishers I wanted to send my novel to said it was important. And because I felt guilty about skulking around other people's blogs anonymously. Mostly, it's been a good idea.

I've had over 7,000 page views thus far. Some of them were dodgy, from places that I'm certain are not interested in my writer-dipping-a-toe posts, places where English isn't generally spoken. But increasingly the views come from real readers only (you!), even garnering responses on occasion, and that's gratifying. What does a writer want, after all, if not readers?

There are days when I realise I haven't blogged in weeks because I've had nothing to say, but felt I had to say something anyway (sorry about that). There have been hours put into posts, instead of into my work-in-progress, or housework or something, which I'm fairly sure no one read. But at those times I think of something @LiamH2009 said about blogging (and I paraphrase from memory with apologies in advance), that he blogs for the same reason Irish navvies used to dig on a Sunday to keep their muscles from seizing up. It's all practice.

Even the tweets. Twitter is often distracting, often pointless, often a total waste of time. But it has also pointed me to great books I might not otherwise have heard of, and events, and I've met some great folks there, some of whom I've subsequently met in the flesh.

The verdict: I like blogging, I like Twitter. And as long as I like them, I'll keep writing on them. Thanks for reading so far.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Printed Word Is On Borrowed Time: Cork International Short Story Festival

'Being solitary is a sick way to behave,'  was Patrick McCabe's opening when asked by Kevin Barry about his move towards writing for stage. 

McCabe went on to express concern about who he was doing all the work for. Where was the audience gone? 'Grand Theft Auto,' replied Julian Gough. And we were off. 

The occasion: Cork International Short Story Festival. The event: Julian Gough & Patrick McCabe in conversation with Kevin Barry. 

The printed word is on borrowed time, said Julian Gough, clarifying that he meant the book, not the word. The novel is not obsolete, it's just shape-shifting. Nowadays, writers can write for Breaking Bad. Like the 70's, Patrick McCabe agreed, when people didn't know how to write for tv so they experimented. He worried that the novel might become a strictly academic pursuit, a bourgeois activity. 

To Gough, 'computer games' can be anything. You can code any text, combine sound/image/etc. 'It's completely up for grabs.' In this context, he says, the novel is a limited game adventure with no choices. His point was that there are lots of ways of telling stories.

Patrick McCabe pointed out that these did not replace the experience of reading a Banville or a Nabokov, or Yeats' The Second Coming, or any great stylist. But, Gough replied, it's coming to the point where it's inorganic to write a Lolita now, that it's almost retro. 'What about poetry?' McCabe asked. 'It's outside the market,' was Gough's reply. 

McCabe opined that the 'cult of prize-giving' was an unfortunate development, wondering what it said about the people who didn't win. Gough agreed. Prizes were meant to draw attention to the novels winning them, but they became an excuse not to pay attention to anything outside the competition, making it difficult to make a living from writing. Kevin Barry said that he says no to absolutely nothing. All three agreed that there was no golden age when things were different, that writing has always been a vow of poverty. 

The discussion returned to the future of the novel, if it had one. We, the audience, worried. We wanted to know.

The technology (for printing 250-300 page books) is over, Gough declared in response to an audience question on the length of novels such as The Testament of Mary and Chesil Beach. The novel's time is past, and now it will disintegrate. But at least it liberated writers to be able to write exactly the length they want.

The heckler in the back of the room could take no more morbidity. Declan Meade, from the coal face that is The Stinging Fly, argued that the situation was not as bleak as Gough painted it, that in Ireland the situation was currently very healthy. 

McCabe warned that we should not forget the notion of the artist, that we don't write just to sell books but to make sense of the world. For McCabe, writing is 'like breathing. I couldn't negotiate the world without it.' 

The three writers were grouped together in the festival for their shared dark humour (I presume), and the readings from McCabe and Gough, from their stories in Town And Country, were very, very funny. Barry traced his literary lineage back through McCabe and Flann O'Brien to Laurence Sterne. 

McCabe talked about how Free State Ireland was prized, above all, for 'the long, grave face'. 'Then along came Borstal Boy.' He told an anecdote about Brendan Behan stealing a Procession to Mary placard from the Blue Army of Our Lady and shouting 'Up Hell! Down with Heaven!' For McCabe, the appearance of Borstal Boy and The Gingerman in that climate were 'like grenades going off.' He told us that, having already written 'the long, grave face' novels' where characters said things like: 'I'm home to bury the brother,' it was time to try something else. 'Time to get a tab of acid,' someone quipped.

It was wonderful to be there, in a roomful of people who truly, deeply care about writing, and many thanks to the panel, and to all the panels in the Festival, and to Jennifer Matthews and all those who organised it. 

Barry tried to wrap up 'so we can go home to our tea', but in the end, we had to be thrown out.

P.S. The Butcher Boy disturbed me in ways that I'm still counting, and as we left the beautiful Triskel Christchurch I was delighted to have the opportunity to tell Patrick McCabe just how much. I think he was pleased...

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Penguin Ireland / RTE Guide Publishing And Marketing Day

As promised, some nuggets gleaned from a very full and very enjoyable day...

  • The market is not what it used to be, editors are buying fewer new books. 
  • On the other hand, it's a really good time for short story collections, both in mainstream publishers and in 'boutique' outfits. (Submissions should consist of 3 or more stories.)
  • Faith O'Grady (agent) take on very few novelists. She judges a manuscript quickly, usually in the first 20 pages,  get a sense almost immediately, in the first paragraph. But it's about personal tastes, so if you're rejected, keep going.
  • The importance of the pitch was emphasised by several speakers on the day, though Faith added that despite its importance we shouldn't spend the rest of our lives working on it!
  • What is unique about your book? Go to the bookshop and figure out where yours fits.
  • Your novel should have international appeal (but then, fiction should be universal).
  • The story is the most important thing. If you're writing literary fiction, language is really important.
  • Hooks - again emphasised by several speakers.
  • Writing takes inner confidence, discipline and talent, and it takes time to get all these right. 
  • Writers' groups can be very useful.
  • Having an online presence unanimously accepted as a good idea. Advice on blogging: blog about your dog (or cat, if you must). So, here's Tess one more time... Or something you're interested in. 'Buy My Book'- style pushy social media is no longer enough/tolerated by soc media consumers. 
  • The public needs to hear about something 4 times before it sinks in.
  • Manage your expectations; there's a lot of competition out there.
There was much, much more, positive and cautionary, but I'll save it for another post.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Blog About Your Dog

"Tess" courtesy of @sing2heart (Thanks Keili!)
Those of us used to entering writing competitions are also used to having our entry met with complete silence, finding out that we didn't win (again) only by accident or deduction. Not so the Penguin Ireland/RTE Guide short story competition which, in an altruistic gesture towards The Literature Project, offered a writing and publishing day for all those who made the longlist. [You can read the great winning story, Soft Rain, by Trisha McKinney here]

I was lucky enough to be there, and it was a jam-packed day, with talks from Jane Alger of Dublin UNESCO City of Literature, Patricia Deevy of Penguin Ireland, three Penguin authors (Sinead Moriarty, Niamh Boyce and Mary Grehan), Faith O'Grady (agent), Rachel Pierce (editor), Cliona Lewis (Penguin Publicity Director) and Donal O'Donoghue from the RTE Guide and Stephen Boylan, Easons Book Buyer. I took pages of notes, and I hope to plunder them in due course and share the gems with readers of this blog.

Meantime, as many of the speakers touched on social media and the effective use of same, I thought I'd follow up on one tip right away and blog a picture my dog!

Thursday, 29 August 2013

(Not) Just Another Back-To-School Post

At the risk of this sounding like just another desperate end-of-August blog post from another desperate writing parent who hasn't written much more than a cheque in weeks, as the parent of twins who are starting 'Big School' on Monday this end of August is more than just another end of summer holidays; it means we survived.

In the true spirit of September prep I bought the new schoolbags and lunchboxes, the tracksuits and pencils, but because it's a special 'Big School' September, I also made Big Resolutions: this morning I opened a new Scrivener project, Novel format, which I've called WIP-Sept-13.

Currently, I have one novel under submission and a new novel-in-stories at first draft stage which I don't plan on revisiting too soon. So what to do - a question complicated by the fact that my next MFA tutor/peer input won't take place until January?

Unbidden a few weeks ago the mysterious creativity genie threw me a character, the world(s) she inhabits, and the thing she wants. I tried to ignore it - as you do; these ideas-which-might-be-novels are a lot of hard work - but it hasn't gone away. It might fizzle into nothing like a firecracker, but it also might be the beginnings of a novel. I figure it's at least worthy of space on my computer. WIP Sept 13, as of Monday, here I come.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

From Hanumanasana To The Penguin/RTE Guide Longlist

The last time I was in this beautiful building on Pearse Street I was teaching a yoga class.

I'm excited to be visiting again in September, this time as a long-list-ee in the Penguin / RTE Guide / City of Literature short story competition. I'll be in the illustrious company of Patricia Deevy (Penguin), Faith O'Grady (Literary Agent), Niamh Boyce (The Herbalist), and others, not least the other longlistees, who happen to include my sister who'll be coming all the way from France. There will be talks on literature and publishing, a workshop, the prize-giving, and a free lunch - all good!

I'm especially pleased that the story I entered, Box of Rain, was taken from the novel-in-stories I've been working on, the first draft of which I've just finished. It's encouraging at what is, as any writer will attest, a delicate stage...

And for your delectation, lest you think this blog peddles only in fiction, here's a pic from that other life...

Monday, 19 August 2013

The Forty Foot And The Writer

My relationship with swimming is a somewhat chequered one. In the past, I've been fished out of the River Barrow by my friend's older brother, fished out of a public pool (ignominiously, by something resembling a giant tadpole net minus the net), laughed at for being very white (in Italy), and for running screaming from a lake in the Tirol (what? it was full of water snakes). This is why swimming in the Forty Foot, above, found me facing my fears, most of which were focused on what the name implies, i.e. the forty watery feet which would be below me.

But, as a wise woman once said, feel the fear and do it anyway. So, with dry mouth and stomach full of butterflies, I descended the concrete steps, fingers white-gripping the stainless steel rail, and entered the cool waters of the Irish Sea. "Can you still feel the bottom?" I asked my companion anxiously at five-second intervals - with all the unconcern of the wetsuited that he, un-be-wetsuited, could probably not feel his legs.

Reader, I did it. Doggy-paddled in the forty foot, never more than a few meters from the steps, and probably only a few inches out of my depth.

But what lessons for the writer?

1. When you have come to the end of your first draft of a novel (or a novel-in-stories, as the case may be), and have set it aside, and during that set-aside period instead of painting the house or cleaning the house or feeding the children you get an idea for another novel, there may be nothing for it but to dive in. Otherwise you could find yourself engaged in daft personal challenges egged on by daft eighties self-help books.

2. Bad idea getting into the sea right beside the James Joyce Martello Tower which can't fail conjure the idea of wading into a sea of green snot.

3. Find better ways to describe the physical manifestations of fear. 'Dry mouth'? 'Stomach full of butterflies'? I mean, really.

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Novelist Or Short Story-ist: Which One Are You (And Does It Matter)?

Ben Goldstein/Studio D (Esquire)
It's a question I've been asking myself lately.

I'm mid-way through my MFA at UCD now, and last semester I was privileged to be able to audit Eilis Ni Dhuibhne's Library of the Imagination short story course. We examined the history of the form through some of its best practitioners: Chekhov, Joyce, Carver, through post-modernism, Alice Munro, Kevin Barry, Claire Keegan, to name a few. But while there was some theory, there was more reading and still more practice, and always much discussion. It was a productive semester for me, and an opportunity to try out different styles and ideas.

It both fed into and distracted me from my work in progress, also my MFA thesis, which began life as a short story Auslanders; the plan was a short story collection. But ever since seeing Short Cuts, the Robert Altman movie based on Raymond Carver's stories, I loved the idea of linked short stories, so Auslanders extended into a linked short story collection. I have tried this before, but my characters blended into each others' lives and became my novel, Michaelangelos; the links were just too tempting. As with Michaelangelos, my linked stories have morphed into what is now a novel-in-stories.

It's this morph-point that interests me most. For me, it happened when the story I was working on went over the 10,000 word mark. It was self-contained, and something happened to someone, yet it didn't feel like a short story (or a novella); it was begging me to explore further some of the characters and ideas outside of the story itself, yet the story itself could not have merited novel-length.

It's not a complete coincidence that my reading this year includes the Booker short-listed The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan, which tells its relatively slight plot through more than twenty points of view —  poly-morphic novel, or novel-in-stories? — and A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. In both these books the individual stories, or some of them, at least, are self-contained, but in both there is a broader story — a novel. I changed nothing except my idea of what the work-in-progress is, yet everything about the writing changed, I think (hope) for the better. I felt freed up to write into the past, into the future, and in settings from Mexico to Canada, even though Chicago is at the centre of the book.

What are the differences for the writer in writing short stories and writing novels? Any thoughts, especially on the point where the two cross over, are welcome!

Monday, 29 July 2013

The Language Of The Body: Italian Ways 3/3

Tim Parks
I've met Tim Parks (at a Chekhov workshop). He looks English. To me, at least. It's his colouring, his posture, the way he walks. Or am I relying on racial/cultural stereotyping to come to this conclusion? Would I have known he was English if I didn't already know who he was, if I had just passed him in the street?

What makes a person look English, or Japanese, or Irish? [No prizes for guessing the nationality of this boy!]

This question seems to be a bit of a bone of contention with Parks in his book Italian Ways. In the course of his train travels through Italy, he is constantly irked when Italians speak to him in English before he's even opened his mouth. He doesn't understand how they know he's not Italian.

Where I sometimes go to write, in the library in Trinity College, I see tour groups through the window of all nationalities queuing up to see the Book of Kells. My guesses as to where they're from are usually right. It comes down to what they are wearing, what they use to carry their belongings, whether the men have beards and/or sideburns, how they wear their hair, what accessories, how they walk, how their facial muscles move when they talk, how they respond when the group leader is speaking, how they interact with each other… The list goes on. It's not foolproof, but the clues are usually there, in the language of the body. Parks understands this language too:

The nose is the dominant feature, long, thrust forward, slim, very slightly hooked. The eyes are large and very carefully defined with make-up, the eyebrows plucked in high arches. The forehead slopes back at quite a marked angle, accentuating the nose, and the thick raven hair, which is firmly gathered and swept back, is held tense and tight by a headband and three long wooden skewers, poking up and out at spiky angles…

His wonderfully observed description of a typical southern Italian woman's face is that of a fully tuned-in writer. Perhaps, just as it's easier to solve someone else's problems than one's own, easier to spot other people's faults, it's also easier to detect characteristics, and sometimes national characteristics, in others than to define them in ourselves. It's forgivable that he can't define his own Englishness as succinctly.

What I don't understand is why it should bother him — what's wrong with being taken for what he is, an Englishman who lives in Italy?

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Not A Book About Trains (Or Food): Italian Ways 2/3

I admit, as much as I love Italy, the idea of 260 pages about Italian train timetables and ticketing systems was less than inviting. But I like Tim Parks' writing, and I got Italian Ways courtesy of Harvill Secker via Twitter, so I got stuck in.
And what you get is, indeed,  lots about timetables and lots about Trenitalia's labyrinthine ticketing system.

But. And it's a big But, probably the same But Parks used to convince his editors that this was a book that had to be written: 'This is not a travel book. And it's not a book about trains as such…' The narrator Parks attempts to explain to his hosts in Sicily how the train system manifests itself in anything the people of that culture do. 

'Like this routine Sunday dinner of yours, every week, the same friends on the warm terrace, the things you prepare, the way it's served, the things you talk about, even the way you invite and tolerate a foreign professore like me. All Italy could be teased out from this if we examined it carefully, the clothes you are wearing, the way you've laid the table, the pleasure taken cooking, the wine glasses.'

'The way people drive,' one of his dinner companions adds, as a car roars past.

The secret, Parks tells us, is in the details, a point worth remembering for any writer. In the details of the train system of Italy Parks is writing about all of Italy. This is not, as he warns, a travel book; it's joining the party by climbing over the fence instead of coming in through the front door. And it's a compelling read. Any detailed discussion of the trains of Italy include by default the geography, the history, the politics, the culture of the country. Instead of a litany of galleries and beauty spots, Parks' Italy feel real. For me, it provides a glimpse into what living in Italy as opposed to visiting, the affair as opposed to the marriage, might have entailed — for better and for worse.

I hesitate to use the word reservations after reading Italian Ways, with all its connotations of confusing supplements, carriages classes, and category of train — but I have a couple. Often, Parks mentions the photos he's taking, of graffiti, of stations, of scenery, of people, and as well as he paints pictures with his words, I'd have liked to see a few in the book, even black and white. Not to include any seems rather out of step with the times, where we only need to half-form a thought to be able to see it online. I found myself supplementing Parks' descriptions with Google: that church in Lecce, that fence dividing Trenitalia from its competitor, Italo.

And while I accept this is neither travel book nor cook book, I wanted more about the food. (To compensate, I'm including this random pizza pic.) Perhaps he was just holding back from us, but I got the impression that one of Italy's most wonderful gifts, its food, was somewhat wasted on Parks ('the things you prepare, the way it's served') — and I don't eat meat either, so that's no excuse! 

Monday, 22 July 2013

Italian Ways 1/3

I recently had the dubious honour of winning a punning comp via twitter, but what's pride when the prize is Tim Parks' Italian Ways, On And Off The Rails From Milan To Palermo ('Nearly had something witty but I lost my train of thought'. Knew you'd want to know). Just leafing through the first few pages was enough to send me on tangents of Italian ways and days of my own.

Like Parks, my first introduction was courtesy of an Interrail card, which took me from Venice to Florence to Rome in about three days flat. My photos from the time include one where I've just bought a Wham-style bat-wing soft leather jacket from a stall and I am very pleased with myself. My favourite memory is of sitting on the Spanish Steps, with Babbington's Tea Rooms to my right, and the room where Keats died to my left. I pined (in my way, lapping a pistachio gelato, my first pistachio, my first gelato) for the young, dying poet. I was a bit jealous, to be honest. I suspected then, and it has indeed come to pass, that I would not be mourned for my dead young genius.

I'm a bit of an expert in gelato now, and I can order uno cappuccio with the best of them. I've made several trips to Bologna, with its famous red roofs, university, and novelist, Umberto Eco. I agreed to travel by scooter with a handsome boy to an all-night disco in the hills on the half-promised that he would introduce me to Eco (he didn't). Mostly, though, I wandered around the streets under the porticos imagining that I could live there, that I was as entitled to the ochres and the umbers and the endless sunshine as the next person.

A much later trip, a family holiday, found me in Umbria, in a perfect Italian village with winding, cobbled streets. Many years later, San Donato would provide the inspiration for my novel, Michaelangelos, in which my elderly protagonist Selina struggles with the immigrant plight of being both Irish and Italian, living in Dublin but missing Italy. It turns out that most of Ireland's Italian 'chipper' community hails from a nearby village, Cassalatico. I knew none of this then, as we wrestled with 40 degree temperatures and apartments without air conditioning. In the end we cut the holiday short by a week — a sacrilege. My favourite memory is of my father ordering coffee. Espresso was fine, he insisted. We warned that it was very strong, and that he might prefer a cappuccino. When it arrived he decided it needed a drop of hot water. The cafe owner brought some in a jug. Then a drop of milk. The owner brought steamed milk. The coffee was just right.

My last trip was too long ago, about seven years. I went with my sister to view Trulli For Sale. These are curious, conical-roofed little houses that look like they house elves. I liked the circular rooms and their isolated locations. We would live on olives and grapes and the walnuts the locals (us!) gathered in fine nets on the ground around the trees. Maybe this trip coincided with a certain stage of life…

It rained that trip. Torrents of rain streamed down the windscreen as we tried to navigate our way into the town of Lecce in our rented car in the dark, only to discover, eventually, that the centre is car-free, and we were restricted to park in the perimeter only. Cue dragging suitcases through puddles and soggy map-reading. But the hotel was lovely, right in the centre, and the dinner and wine incomparable.

When we met our estate agent the next day, in a restaurant as he had suggested, we began our acquaintance in a most civilised manner, with glasses of pinot grigio which arrived with  condensation dripping off the ice-cold glasses. It was a good start. After a leisurely chat, and some olives may have been consumed, he drove us all around Puglia to view trullis. Some were pristine to the last stone, but most were fixer-uppers, abandoned and falling down in the corner of a rocky field, for all the world like the famine cottages in the West of Ireland. There was something poignant about them. As we poked about in their ruins, imagining how families lived in the small rooms, I realised I would never buy one of these houses, and that I most likely would never live in Italy. I didn't know the people whose graves it felt like I was walking on, I didn't know their language beyond a few lessons, and the small foray I'd made into the house sale process showed me that I didn't understand the bureaucracy, the system, and most likely never would. Italy was for visiting, for having an affair with, not for marrying.

Tim Parks, however, decided to commit, and has lived there for some thirty years now. More on this in the next post.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Sun, Sea… And Kids Home From School

It's that time of year. Sun, sea, and kids home from school all day long.

I was at an event recently featuring two male writers and one female, and I wondered how long the female writer would be able to hold her tongue while one of the male writers explained how he filled his daily eight hours' writing time. She looked as if she was trying not to bite it off! As sun, sea and kids threaten to completely engulf my writing time, I wonder how many female writers have ever struggled with the problem of filling eight hours' writing time…

But let's not stoop to bitterness. It's an easily surmountable problem if, like me, you planned your family carefully (ahem…). For forty-five minutes each the two older kids occupy the twin four-year-olds and I have one and a half hours to write. It's not eight. But reader, here's the thing: the tighter my time, the more productive I become. In three of the above sessions (plus a bit of less precious, much-interrupted time) I outlined a story and put down 7000 words. If there's a moral to be had, I suppose it's not to make excuses. And maybe to trust in the revision process… that will wait for September.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Meeting Brendan Kennelly

Yesterday, I bumped into the poet, Brendan Kennelly, who was also one of my old college teachers; a little bit of synchronicity since only the day before I was remembering (ably assisted by google. Is there a hybrid word for that kind of remembering?) one of his poems, I See You Dancing Father.

Over latter years I've passed him often in my to-ings and fro-ings through Trinity College and he never fails to greet me with his famous smile, even though I am one of thousands of his past students. I was lucky enough to participate in one of his creative writing classes - rare as hen's teeth in those days - but, alas, they were completely wasted on me. As much as I wanted it, whatever 'it' was, the penny hadn't yet dropped. I had nothing to say, or I was trying to write poetry when I should have been trying to write prose, or... something.

But all was not lost because, unbeknownst to me at the time, it was in his Irish Poetry lectures that I learned to tune my ear to the music of language. Through the recitations which I remember as making up a good part of the lectures, I began to understand the importance of sound, the rhythm and balance of sentences. What I did know then was that I could have listened to Brendan reading his poems with his Kerry accent forever. Have a listen and hear for yourself.

I'm not sure why I didn't tell him any of this when we met. Maybe I only figured it out after we parted. Instead we talked about my novel. Now, as anyone out there who writes knows, though folks may ask about your work-in-progress, may believe themselves to be genuinely interested, as soon as you begin to explain their minds begin to drift. You can see it in their eyes, a sort of deadening. Not so Brendan Kennelly. His listening was as lively as his talk, and he made spot on observations and comments.

He had plenty to say himself too. We talked about operations and childbirth and surgeons made of rain, missing letters and reviews, 'Seamus' (Heaney), early collections, early rising. A recitation especially for me, an audience of one. When I asked what he was working on he said he was 'scribbling away'.

It was an honour and a privilege to sit and chat with him, and it made my day.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Launch of The Herbalist by Niamh Boyce

I was in my home town of Athy, Co. Kildare on Tuesday night, and spent a very enjoyable hour or so at the launch of Niamh Boyce's The Herbalist, which happens to take place in a fictional town very like Athy. Set in the 'thirties, it tells the story of a stranger to the town who sets out his market stall, trading in herbs and creams, and darker arts. The novel is based on a newspaper clipping Niamh came across about a man who was charged in court with 'an offence against a girl.'

The library was packed, the wine flowing, and the woman of the moment, well... busy, trying to keep up with the long queue of folks wanting their book signed, the lucky ones who managed to buy their book before it sold out. Patricia Deevy, of Penguin Ireland, and writer, John McKenna, gave rave introductions to both author and book. Deservedly. I started reading the next day, and neglected home and children (and writing...) until I finished it this morning. It's a wonderful read; there's a beautifully light touch to the prose, a steadily growing darkness in the plot, and characters who I suspect will remain with me long after reading.

Before we left, the evening took on a slightly surreal quality when a local grocer and publican, now I believe in his nineties, leaned over and told my mother and me (of the herbalist) 'I remember him well.'