Sunday, 30 November 2014

The Anti-Room at the Dublin Book Festival

I'm slow off the mark writing about it, but the Dublin Book Festival outdid itself this year. Smock Alley was decked out to the nines, and with the lovely Peabody pop-up coffee shop and the handily placed beanbags, not to mention gallons of wine, the punter's every need was catered for. Not least was the line up of panels and launches, which made it very hard to decide what to go to and what to have to ruefully miss.

One I wasn't able to pass on was the Anti-room panel, headed up by Sinéad Gleeson and Anna Carey, with Léan Cullinan, Mary Costello, and Anna McPartlin. Of the three, I have only read Mary Costello's work (and loved it, as do many others, as evinced in her Bord Gais Book Award), but I was eager to hear about the issues surrounding women's writing in 2014. 

In the mid-nineties, I wrote a master's thesis on Edna O'Brien. I'll spare you details (mostly because I can't find the thesis), but the thrust was that reviewers were more interested in her eyes and hair and porcelain skin than in her books. A few weeks ago, I was disconcerted to read this Irish Examiner description of Mary Costello: 'Author of quite brilliant collection of short stories published two years ago, in her late 40s, Mary is attractive with her long blond hair, and luminescent eyes, but there’s a separateness about her...'. So it was no surprise that the discussion was depressingly familiar. Women might be the biggest book buyers, and read books written by both sexes, but men prefer to read men; reviewers tend to be men; these men prefer to review the books of other men; journals publish more men; etcetera. Same old, same old.

These gorgeous bookmarks are available from; proceeds will go towards sustaining the #ReadWomen campaign beyond 2014. 
But the picture is not completely bleak. We should take heart from the very fact of this panel's existence in the Dublin Book Festival, and from the size of the crowd who attended the event. The panelists spoke about how inspired campaigns like #ReadWomen affect women writers, and how they feel about women-only prizes, such as the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction (no need for them, in an ideal world, but in the meantime...).

At another event the same morning in the National Gallery, it was small comfort to hear about the shiny, pink cover, featuring a 'Kylie Minogue lookalike' dancing around her Hoover, that was presented to Roddy Doyle for his grimly themed Paula Spencer. Fortunately for him, he was in a position to decline.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Three Colours: Books

The first is a collection of critical essays on David Mitchell. It's for a niche market, admittedly, and I'm it. As an author on the perpetual brink of 'emerging', it took a while to get past the fact that here was a writer still in his forties who'd already had a conference dedicated to his books, and now a collection of critical essays. [In his very modest Foreword, he wonders if 'all these bright people (would) feel hoodwinked if they found out that Derrida did (his)head in'.] The essays in question - there are ten - concentrate on Ghostwritten, number9dream, and Cloud Atlas, and I immersed myself fully and geekily in them. In her Introduction, editor Sarah Dillon extols the benefits to be gained by 'engagements between contemporary writers and readers', and looks forward to more in the future - as do I. This collection is good to dip in to, or to read cover to cover. I also found it useful for links to further reading. I highly recommend it for anyone who loves David Mitchell's books.


I've read snatches of The Pleasures of the Text over the years but never had my own copy. It took forever to find this one, but it was worth the wait. I love the language: 'The text you write must prove to me that it desires me', and I love his ideas about language: 'I am interested in language because it wounds or seduces me'. And I love the yellow cover. 

I wasn't quite sure how to take a present entitled Being Wrong, so I read bits, interesting bits, but then it somehow got shelved. But I was wrong not to read it cover to cover, because I could have saved myself so much being wrong-related angst between then and now. Schulz draws on psychology, philosophy, science, religion -- whatever it takes -- and synthesises the lot into a readable, fascinating whole which attempts to explain why we are so often wrong, why we deal with it so badly, and why we should embrace our inner wrongness. I can't recommend it enough to anyone who has ever been wrong.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Two Publications

It's been a good week. My contributor's copies of Surge (Brandon/O'Brien) arrived, a collection of stories from the Creative Writing schools of UCD, UCC, NUIG, Queens, and TCD. It's beautifully done -- thank you to all at O'Brien Press -- and so far (I'm working my way through at the moment) the stories are terrific. Publication date is the 13th, and it'll be launched at the Dublin Book Festival, and in Charlie Byrne's, Galway, and in Belfast's Crescent Arts Centre.

And yesterday was the launch of Emerging Perspectives Postgraduate Journal in English Studies, which includes my paper, "No One's from Chicago: Finding a Balance Between Theory and Practice". Thank you to the English Graduate Society, and to David and Michael in particular. This publication is particularly exciting because it represents, both in the abstract and concretely, a bringing together of my writing with my English Lit background - a circle completed, or something.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Bone Clocks

I promised @hmckervey some feedback on my current reading. I expect this is what being in a book club is like (I've never been invited to join one, and/or I'm afraid to commit to other people's book choices).

My most recent read is Bone Clocks. It's publication was eagerly awaited, it arrived to much fanfare from Sceptre, and I was eager to hand over my €25 for a gorgeous hard-backed, signed copy, having gobbled up Cloud Atlas, and thoroughly enjoyed The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

You can hear the 'but' from here, can't you?

David Mitchell knows how to hook and reel his reader in, and once there, he will entertain. Guaranteed. Bone Clocks did exactly this, through the first novella, and the second, and the third. But — there it is — by the time I got to the fifth novella, the fantastical stuff, my enthusiasm waned and then fizzled out.

My son grew up with Harry Potter and I read the books along with him. And enjoyed them, to a point. Fantasy fiction has at its disposal all the tricks it needs to resolve all the problems it creates, which feels like a cheat to me. I had to remind myself that my disappointment with them was unfair; they were, after all, children's books.

It used to be the case that loosely grouped, ill defined 'genre' fiction was disparaged for being light weight, low brow pulp. Though it's no longer p.c. to describe it in this way, in truth, while I enjoyed my granny's Mills & Boons and Agatha Christie's when I was growing up, they felt a little bit shabby when contrasted with Austen and Shakespeare (school), and Rushdie and Joyce (pre-Uni summer). Like comparing fast food to your Mammy's cooking, both provide calories but one is (in my opintion) far superior to the other. The genre stuff no longer satisfied because it was not nourishing.

Cloud Atlas combined novellas of different genres into a magic mix where the whole was more than the parts, but as I near the end of Bone Clocks I've enjoyed the ride, but I'm just not feeling nourished.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

John Boyne and David Mitchell at Mountains to Sea

Friday night's Mountains to Sea event in the Pavillion Theatre in Dun Laoghaire with John Boyne and David Mitchell entertained a full house, with good banter between the two writers and Edel Coffey, the interviewer. They read from their respective books, and riffed on whatever topic
Edel hit them with: Kate Bush, Boyzone... the usual literary stuff.

Boyne talked about his reasons for naming his old school in his book and was
unrepentant about it, having suffered beatings at the hands of priests there in his schooldays. His new book, A History of Loneliness, sounds well worth a read.

Mitchell read a letter from Bone Clocks, which was doubly intriguing because I'm halfway through the book (and enjoying it). He denied being so Irish now that he felt he'd had to write a novel about Ireland, but admitted that he was able to do 'expat living in Ireland' or second generation Irish. Maybe he just needs a few more years...

The highlight, though, had to be when Mitchell, responding to an audience question, said he'd see the young lady (whose question it was) later, and would introduce her to "excalibur"... You had to be there!

Monday, 8 September 2014

Hidden City

Or, to give Karl Whitney's book it's full title: Hidden City: Adventures and Explorations in Dublin by Foot, Bike, Bus, Train and Tram; In the Sewers and Underground Rivers; Along the Edges and Behind the Hoardings...  As promised to @hmckervey, this is the first of a few short reviews of books I've been reading lately. (It should probably be in Goodreads, not here, but somehow I've never managed to make the time to figure out how or why to use that site. Should I find time? Is it worth it?)

The concept itself is what first recommends the book to me, closely followed by 'dammit, why didn't I think of that'. Whitney moves around Dublin by foot, bike... well, you know the rest, and describes what he sees in clear, unprejudiced prose. Yet, because this is psychogeographical writing at its best -- yes, I stole this term from the flyleaf, and later, from Whitney's book when he references the Situationists, an avant-garde group set in 1950's Paris (where else) -- there is a very personal layer to the essays. Thus, when Whitney explores the fringes of West Dublin, he describes his own family's move there, and the effect the moves had on him. And because his is highly structured and intelligent writing, this move is echoed by the later chapter on Joyce and his family's many moves. You can follow Whitney down Dublin's drains in an excerpt from book, printed in last Saturday's Irish Times. You too might find it completely compelling.

PS For the sequel, I'd recommend taking along that smartphone, and a nutritious packed lunch. It's the Mammy in me -- we worry!

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Am Reading

The #amwriting never appealed to me, though I do like the sound of the book by the same name. When I'm writing I'm not chipper enough to be on twitter #-ing.

But, it's September, and I'm not going back to school (Ph D next year, all going well), and suddenly I find myself in a post-college, between novels hiatus. It's not that I don't have a project — I've a new novel started — but with the last one just gone out into the world, there isn't any sense of urgency. I'm good with deadlines...

So, I'm in the happy position of being able to Enjoy Reading for a few weeks. My pile is high and demands attention but I'm going to cheat on it. Come 2nd September, this is what I'll be reading (actually, I don't know which version we're getting in these parts. I like the one on the right, if anyone wants my opinion).

And on September 4th, I'm looking forward to Ben Lerner's 10:04. His Leaving the Atocha Station, which I recommended for Necessary Fiction's Summer Reviews was riveting and infuriating, but mostly riveting, and 10:04 sounds even more so.

And before both of these, I'm hoping to get my hands on Karl Whitney's Hidden City.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

BKS Iyengar

I was working in the Upstart Crow, a book and coffee shop in Long Beach, California when I happened upon BKS Iyengar's book, Light on Yoga. This was 1990 or thereabouts, and I'd never encountered yoga before, at least, not up close. It was practically unheard of back at home. But something about the simple silver cover and the black and white photographs attracted me, so with my 30% staff discount I bought it and brought it home to have a go. I opened a page randomly, to prasarita padottanasana. Legs wide, bend forward, how hard could that be...? There was a ripping sound, hamstring maybe...

WhenI bothered to read the introductory essay it became apparent — if it wasn't already — that yoga is not for the faint hearted or the fickle. It requires attention and discipline, and ideally, a teacher. I've been to quite a few classes since, and have been teaching classes myself since the mid-90s. Although I never went to Puna to attend his classes in person, many of my colleagues did. Mr. Iyengar was an exemplary practitioner of yoga and an exemplary teacher, and by all accounts, an exemplary human being.

May he rest in peace.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Irish Women Artists 1870-1970

This exhibition is on in Adam's showrooms on Stephen's Green (free), and it's well worth a look. There are familiar names - but often these are of the famous male relatives of the women artists (Yeats, Henry, Beckett, McDonagh etc.).

Mainie Jellett's cubist paintings are wonderful, though A.E. Russell, apparently, did not agree, describing them as 'subhuman' and a type of 'malaria'. I loved the illustrations of Nationalist, Grace Gifford, and the gorgeous portraits by Estella Frances Solomons. But Camille Souter's impressionistic landscapes are my favourites (you can download the brochure). [In one of those weird synchronicities, she also happens to appear in a story-thing I've been working on; I'll take it as a sign not to abandon it. Yet.]

We followed our visit up with take-out coffees and a shady spot in Stephen's Green - perfect!

Monday, 21 July 2014


I'm just back from the 13th International Conference on the Short Story in English in Vienna. There were parallel sessions running each day, along with up to five different readings to choose from, so sadly I had to miss lots of great-sounding events. But there were lots of highlights to compensate:

  • an all-round great panel, The Writer's Perspective and Influence on Form, featuring Pat Jourdan's wonderful story-paper "Various Exits" on 11 stages of closure in the short story, Louise Ells' inspirational "What can we learn from Alice Munro?", and the very different approach of Lisa Smithies on how human behavioural biology influences the creative writer (and congrats to Lisa on winning the overall conference short story competition). 
  • meeting Robert Luscher, whose theories on short story sequences saved me oodles of time during my own sequence writing crisis.
  • meeting Elke D'hoker, whose work on short story cycles I've encountered and admired.
  • the warm and lively response to my reading, in no small way thanks to the lovely Rebekah Clarkson and my high-energy co-reader, Ida Cerne.
  • the relief of finishing my talk "When is the story no longer a short story?" and the pleasure of listening to, and meeting, my fellow panellists, Paul Mitchell and Neta Gordon, and of course our kind and humourous co-panelist and moderator, Allan Weiss.
  • the must-read list I came away with, including...

Friday, 11 July 2014

The End Of The MFA (my MFA...)

Nearly two years ago, at the start of my MFA in UCD I wrote this post.
Today I handed in my thesis, a novel-in-stories called No One's From Chicago. It's wonderful to have had the opportunity to spend time with like-minded, same-stage writers, working under the supervision of experienced (kind, patient) professionals. I can honestly say the MFA was two of the most enjoyable, and profitable (artistically!) years I've spent.

And in breaking news, UCD MA alumnus Colin Barrett has just won the Frank O'Connor award for his Young Skins. Well done, Colin!

Monday, 23 June 2014

Skellig Michael

For the sake of my neglected blog, let's call it 'research', or an artist's 1-day retreat. Skellig Michael has been the single item on my bucket list for about 20 years, and I finally got there.

As you can see, those monks had the right idea.

And probably very pert bottoms.

Like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof they'd one long stairway just going up and one even longer coming down and one more leading nowhere... Or, a 600-step stone stairs leading from each of the three landing places on the island.

Now to figure out how to persuade those nice OPW people to let me have a sleepover, with these cuddly guys for company.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Nuala Ní Chonchúir and Mike McCormack at the DWF

Nuala Ní Chonchúir and Mike McCormack took to the stage on Thursday lunchtime for the Art of the Short Story event, ably facilitated by Thomas Morris of the Stinging Fly. He began by introducing the two authors: Nuala, he said, writes 'truths that are rarely spoken' (evoking Robert Olen Butler), while Mike writes black humour and arresting dialogue, deepening into core sadness.

As both authors write short stories as well as novels, he asked about the differences between the two (an area dear to this blogger's heart, as I am currently working on a paper exploring genre, and genre slippage, as in the novel-in-stories).

Nuala approached the question first as a reader, saying that the pleasures are different, that there is resistance to short stories from readers, and that the novel is perceived as the highest form. For her, there is a different 'hit' or feeling, and it is not just about time. The short story, she reminded us, is designed to be read in one sitting. She felt that the reader needed to be trained in the art of reading short stories, and that perhaps this could be achieved by making them more available, for example, as Kindle singles.

As a writer, she says the novel is something you can come back to every day, and that is a great comfort, whereas with short stories, you're constantly starting anew. There is always the fear that you will never write another.

For Mike, the short story holds out the promise that you might possibly get it right, whereas the novelist is condemned to getting it wrong. But, if the novel is created in a quarry, with a lump hammer, the short story is keyhole surgery. It is a much more exacting guest. There is more pressure. It demands your attentiveness. The novel is expansive, generous, openhearted: we are people among people, whereas with the short story, 'you're only codding yourself; we're on our own.'

What if you're not getting it right, Morris wondered. Are there stories you've given up on?
Mike admitted to chiselling away and polishing a story for 18 months, and that sometimes he just doesn't know if he's getting it right. Nuala said that if a story is rejected she will work on it until it finds a home, and that some are constantly rejected until they end up in a book.

On openings: Mike tries to sound a note that will reverberate. He added that a story might survive a bad opening, but it won't survive a bad ending. He admitted that he sees journals and competitions as 'part of the drafting process; the real arguments are when you're putting a book together.'

On endings: Nuala says she has no need for resolution, but that endings are crucial in the short story. She quoted Elizabeth Gilbert who said that the ending 'should bend over backwards and kiss the beginning.' The reader should be 'holding their breath from start to end.' She remarked that with short shorts, or flash, she likes crisp, arresting openings, and decisive endings which make sense.

Neither author plots. Morris wanted to know if it is difficult to trust that. For Nuala, it's the joy and excitement of writing; she might not write it if she knew where it was going; she might bore herself.
Mike starts with an image, a man and a place, for example, and dialogue gathers around it. 'It serves me well.'

Advice to writers?
Nuala: 'Just write. And do years of that. And read.'

On the question of reading one's peers, Morris asked if there was a lack of variety. Mike feels that 'our reputation is bloated,' that we use the nineteenth century Joyce/Chekhov template — linear, single-voiced, past tense, gathering towards epiphany —and we have not developed it, as borne out by the two big collections, Granta and Oxford. He says we have one true genius of the short story since Joyce, rarely acknowledged, and that is Beckett. 'The Irish short story is skewed and misrepresented by his absence.' He wonders why this happened. Before Joyce and Moore, we had the Goths, 'pale, worried Protestants, going to Trinity College,' writing about ghosts and vampires. Beckett, he claims, is a 'reconstituted Goth.'

Nuala notes that there are people pushing against the nineteenth century model, and she mentions Ryan O' Neill, Cathy Sweeney, Dave Lordan, and June Caldwell.

Much food for thought, but too short, as dictated by its lunchtime slot.

Lia Mills and John Kelly: Writers On Top Of Their Game

I've been neglecting my blog. I have many excuses, not least that I've been posting on the Dublin Writers Festival blog.

The Festival kicked off on Saturday with the Lia Mills / John Kelly event.

Which I blogged.
Which was 'pending'.
Which has disappeared into internet ether.

Sob! It was good!

What follows is a poor reproduction:

Mick Heaney described Mills and Kelly as writers 'on top of their game'. Kelly is a madly imaginative and entertaining author; Mills has the gift of a keen eye, and the beautifully rendered sentence. [I've had first hand experience of Lia's keen eye as she is supervising my MFA thesis/novel-in-stories — always kindly, always meticulously.]

Where did the impulse for the novel come from?

Kelly, knew he couldn't write another pastoral novel about Ireland, he couldn't write the farm novel, so 'white-knuckled' he wrote 'something they're not going to like' (From out of the city). He wanted 'to discombobulate himself, and the reader. [He succeeds. It's a great read, it shows what is possible, it pushes the reader out of their comfort zone.]

Mills, whose mother lived 'over the shop' in Parnell Street during the 1916 Rising, wanted to explore what it is like when your own city blows up around you. Fallen was an act of restitution.

It's been a while for both writers since their last novel. Heaney asked if it was difficult to get back up on the horse.
Mills' was a long process. Books get written 'a word at a time' (and then there are the interventions; Heaney drew attention to the Acknowledgements in Fallen, where Anne Enright is credited for saving Fallen from the shredder, not once, but twice!) 'I'm slow,' she admitted.
Kelly talked about how extraordinarily hard it is to write a novel. Stamina is needed, especially when one is 'writing with little hope of getting published. Writing into a black hole of nothingness, wondering why.'
You don't sleep either, both writers agreed.

On writing memoir:
Kelly referred to his as 'think pieces', written when he was in his early twenties. Mills said it was easier (than writing fiction) because you didn't have to make anything up. Memoir is all about editing, 'taking out the 'poor me' and libellous things.' She added that you have to be careful about not writing other people's lives.

On being a writer: Richard Ford's 'don't have children' mantra was evoked, echoing Cyril Connolly's infamous 'pram in the hall'. Kelly observed that artists can tend to leave a 'trail of casualties'. Mills agreed, saying that 'you are torn all the time.' She mused that it can't be easy living with a writer.

On their previous books:
Kelly felt his were not as good as they could have been, and said that with From out of the city he 'started all over again.'
Everything you write teaches you something, Mills said, that it is the classic dilemma of the artist 'it is never quite what I thought it was going to be.'

An audience member asked if they had any advice for would-be authors, and they agreed that one should read. Read stuff one wouldn't usually read. Read Paris Review author interviews. Heaney concluded that a good place to start would be to read Lia's and John's books.

Next up for me in the Dublin Writers Festival, hot on the heels of Mills/Kelly, barely giving me time to buy my books and say a few hellos in The Gutter Bookshop, came Writing for Games.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Writing for Games at the DWF

'As games become more sophisticated, the skills a writer brings to the project are more important than ever, but what exactly does a games writer do? Is it about dialogue, or level design, or both? And what happens when the player is in control of the story?' Intrigued by the Dublin Writers Festival programme blurb, I booked myself in.


This was the first clue that I might be out of my depth here. It's how you write & (ampersand) in html, apparently; digital media was originally designed to do maths, so sometimes extra characters are  needed to get something linguistic, Rob Morgan, writer and narrative designer, explained, before going on to deliver his cogent and accessible presentation on writing for games.

Useful Game Writer concepts included:
  • Control: games are different from film and literature because they require player choices. The writer must consider how she can make the player feel part of the story. Morgan illustrated how this can be done by giving more choices to the player, but equally, by taking choices away as a means of making a point.


          Morgan also found out, when adapting from Harry Potter (his Develop Award-winning Wonderbook: Book             of Spells and its sequelBook of Potions, both produced in collaboration with JK Rowling) that dramatic
         irony can be a problem in games; because the player is in control, the tension doesn't work.
  • Identity: how to create characters the writer doesn't control; how to create characters the player identifies with.
  • Set up players' expectations: play around with them; create surprises.
As far as getting started, he suggested using software Story Nexus, or Inklewriter, or Twine.

Antony Johnston took the podium next, and he focused on the differences between writing for games, and writing in other media. There was a perception, he said, that games writing was closest to writing for an action movie (and that this perception was sometimes used as an excuse for games to cheesy, with a terrible narrative). Too often, he said, the words 'three act structure' are quoted. The problem with the analogy, according to Johnston, is in both length and structure, a movie lasting at most for three hours which, for action games, is very short. He counted what he termed 'playable scenes' in well-known action movies and came up with 12. Therefore, modelling games after movie narrative structure is a 'terrible idea.'

Novels didn't fare much better. In a 500 page novel, Johnston found 11 playable scenes. But games need more things to happen.

Comics (and tv), he felt, were much closer to games. They share visual abstractions, such as speech balloons, but they also share an episodic structure, one which can fit into a larger, over-arching structure; the episodes can make sense separately and together.

One of the audience questions was mine when I booked this event: What if you have a story that would suit a game? And the answer, alas: It almost never happens (and if it does, it's most likely to happen in the indie sector. One solution was to make the game yourself, and to buy in coding and art; the other: write the novel and make a successful movie first!

Antony Johnston @antonyjohnston
Rob Morgan @AboutThisLater

Monday, 5 May 2014

The Creative Process Blog Tour

Thanks to Darran Anderson for passing the Creative Writing Blog to me, not least because it revives my somewhat neglected blog. I'm wary of committing answers to these kinds of questions because there always seem to be so many possibilities, but here goes anyway. 

what am i working on
  • Marking student portfolios (feeling quite proud, actually). 
  • Editing my MFA thesis, a novel in stories called No one's from Chicago, about the experiences shared by immigrants across diverse borders, circumstances and time periods. 
  • Taking breaks from the above by trying out a short, mixed genre thing, working title 'Selfie', involving a photo of a drawing of a photo, and a story that's half true, half remembered, half made-up. Make that thirds...
  • A paper for the 13th International Short Story Conference in Vienna this July.
  • A memoir-thing, set in and around LA in the early nineties, working title 'Trying to get myself raped and murdered.'
  • And, I have a nearly complete first draft of a new novel I'm looking forward to getting back to when that lot's done, set in 1980s Dublin, about a girl who wants to box.

how does my work differ from others of its genre

The genre question makes me antsy because I'm not sure my work fits into one genre, or what that genre is. I write non-fiction — memoir, reviews, essays — as well as fiction, and not all my fiction feels the same. I hope my work reflects the books and writers I love reading and aspire towards:  big, American novels like Rachel Kushner's The flamethrowers; slender, terse, translated fiction; structurally fun stuff like Cloud atlas and A visit from the goon squad; Anne Enright, Colum McCann, Deborah Levy, Edna O'Brien, David Sedaris, Alesander Hemon, James Wood, Adam Marek... hundreds more. I don't think of my writing as being 'Contemporary Irish' in the way Colin Barret, Mary Costello, or Donal Ryan's is. Maybe it's something to do with place/setting.

why do i write what i do

Often, I write to challenge myself, on form or theme or subject matter. I wrote Michaelangelos (my novel on submission) because I wanted the challenges of writing older characters, of imagining how my character, Selina (70) would react to a terminal prognosis (she steals a pizza delivery van and crashes it on Dollymount strand), of finding out why Italians emigrated to Ireland and why they opened chip shops, and what it felt like to grow up Italian in suburban Dublin. 

No one's from Chicago, my novel-in-stories and MFA thesis, was another exploration of what it means to belong to a place. Its point of view characters all spend time and cross paths in Chicago, but come from elsewhere: Ireland (1950s rural; contemporary urban), Guadalajara, Tokyo, post-war Germany, Italy.

how does my writing process work

My writing process involves coffee, walks, and Scrivener. In the wise words of Colum McCann, quoting Aleksander Hemon, paraphrasing Hemingway, it's all shit until it's not. I've learned to put up with my 'shit' first drafts, to keep plugging away at them until I have enough written down to work with —  usually about four fifths of the story. The last fifth tends to get written as an extension of subsequent drafts, when theme and tone and voice have started to make sense, not to mention plot.

And now, for my efforts, I get to nominate two others: Andrea Carter and Hilary McGrath, you're up.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Apply, Submit... Wait

It's been a busy few months of form filling. I'm applying to do a practice-led Ph D, and for the funding that would make it possible. It's also the season of the Cecil Day Lewis award application, the Dublin City Council application, the new Maeve Binchy Travel Award (for registered UCD Arts and Humanities students), and there may have been a couple of others. My success rate for form filling isn't great, so it can feel like a time-consuming and disheartening occupation, taking from the actual writing. Yet it is a necessary part of being a writer.

I did manage a few submissions too, and now it's time to sit back and wait for the outcomes of all of the above.

Luckily, the wait will be sped along by the ongoing editing for my MFA thesis, and the welcome distraction of the Dublin Writers Festival. The programme of events was launched last Thursday and there's some exciting stuff in there. I have my name down for The Library of Korean Literature, New German Writing, Javier Cercas, and Siri Hustvedt -- because I have a lot to learn about all of the above.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Dublin Writers Festival Flash Fiction

'Dark business' and 'unsettling' are two of the responses to my piece, Insomnia

Dublin Writers Festival has a flash thing going on on its blog/facebook. Prompts are provided by facebook fans, and the challenge is to respond with a 1000 word piece of fiction - so don't blame me; blame the prompt!

Friday, 21 March 2014

Synesthesia, Nabokov, and Me

I finished Langrishe, Go Down recently, published in 1966, and reached for the next long promised read, Tim O' Brien's The Things They Carried. Set during the Vietnam war, it is as much concerned with the art of telling stories as it is with the stories themselves; I came away edified.

On then to the long avoided Speak, Memory, foreword written by Nabokov in 1966. I'm decades behind with my reading, but catching up...

Why avoided? For the simple and superficial reason that the edition we have has an ugly, dense font that's hard to read. But I'm reading it now. It might take a while because, aside from the print, every sentence demands proper attention - sometimes a couple of readings, and definitely no skipping! I'm off to the dictionary regularly (which always annoys me when English is not the writer's first language). More edification, then.

One of the many things I didn't know was that Nabokov was a synesthete ('the production of a sense impression relating to one sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body'), the details of which he admits 'must sound tedious and pretentious to those who are protected from such leakings and drafts by more solid walls than mine are.' Not to me; I have the same 'condition', in that I've always seen the letters of the alphabet as having an associated colour. Learning to read was a synch. I often wondered if it was some primer or alphabet-learning toy that caused the associations, but apparently not. Nabokov realised this long before the scientists did when he was only seven:

'I was using a heap of old alphabet blocks to build a tower. I casually remarked to (mother) that their colors were all wrong.'

It turned out that his mother was also a synesthete; scientists now know that it's genetic. And by the way, the colours in the alphabet blocks above are all wrong!

Friday, 14 March 2014

Langrishe, Go Down

Recommended to me not once but twice in the space of a week, and only a lifetime (mine) since it was first published, how could I not put Langrishe, Go Down to the top of my tbr pile?

I'm a Kildare woman, and I've spent quite a few years studying English literature, but I had never heard of Aidan Higgins. I don't know why; I don't even have any theories. But when I opened it and began to read it felt as if my DNA was resonating along with the Kildare vowels.

—Grand evening, Helen said.
—Tis indade, grand, thanks be to God
—Not a-tall, M'am. Yarra, not a-tall. Sure you have it all to yourself. The gate's open for all them that want to.
—...All you do hear all the year round is the birds and the Shinkeen flowin by.

The old people who lived around us, Miss Hickey and Paddy Loughman and Jimmy Loughman and Leo (Leo who?) came alive on its pages. Even the house had a name almost identical to the one in which I grew up. Given that it's a book about the demise of a house, and a family, it sent a shiver.

The prose is sublime. 'The pure architecture of his sentences takes the breath out of you,' Annie Proulx says on the cover. I wonder again why I never heard of Aidan Higgins, and how Annie Proulx did! I let it go, let the language surround and imbue me, a 3D Word Picture of Kildare.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Spoiled For Choice: Cúirt and DWF

Eleanor Catton, Rachel Kushner, Donal Ryan, Julian Gough, Sebastian Barry, Eimear McBride, Colin Barrett, Emma Donoghue, Anita Shreve... 
There's a fantastic line up of names for Cúirt (Galway) in April, and the Dublin Writers Festival (DWF) in May. Tickets are on sale for both. Time to get scheming.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

TULIPS in Necessary Fiction

My story, Tulips, was inspired by Zbigniew Herbert's fabulous, and fabulously orange, Still Life With A Bridle (see my earlier blogpost here), and by the property crash in Ireland.

There are some who think it's too soon and too clichéd to write about property developers, but I don't think we've even scratched the surface. In our eagerness to pin blame on the banker-developer-regulator trilogy we've developed a collective amnesia about our own collusion. Few of the chattering classes didn't manage to buy an investment property or two, and tedious, self-congratulatory conversations took place in homes up and down the country, homes before been untroubled by the word 'portfolio'. We were all in it, shamelessly, up to our necks. While I agree that it's too easy to satirise now, with hindsight, I don't agree that we shouldn't be writing about it. With every year that passes we're gaining new perspectives, and only when we have a lorry load of these can we sift and select, and discover real insights into what happened. We could think of it as collective raw material, out of which definitive works can emerge.

The story of the black tulip is a well known part of Dutch history. Maybe as a nation we hadn't read it; if we did, we sure didn't learn anything from it. In my story I don't aim for satire though, I actually feel sorry for my developer. Because during those heady years we were all a little bit developer, a little bit developer's wife, a bit tiger cub, living the fantasy.

Hope you enjoy reading, and many thanks to Steve Himmer at Necessary Fiction for publishing it.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Creating Something Novel

@LeeRourke brought this book to my attention on Twitter. It sounds great, about 'a man who begins to delete his novel'. I'll have to order a copy. What? It's a novella, I'll fly through it. What? The TBR pile falling on the dog last night? I reinforced the pile with coffee-table book bookends. Besides, the dog seems to prefer sleeping under the table now.

I'm also waiting for the postman to bring Chimera, by John Barth. Here's Wikipedia: 

Chimera is a 1972 novel by the American writer John Barth, composed of three loosely connected novellas. The novellas are Dunyazadiad, Perseid and Bellerophoniad, whose titles refer eponymously to the mythical characters Dunyazad, Perseus and Bellerophon (slayer of the mythical Chimera). The book exemplifies postmodernism, with several Q&A sessions and three diagrams, all in Bellerophoniad.

There's a bit of a renaissance going on in at the moment in Irish experimentalism, and I'm all for it. Literature needs its pioneers. I have my gorgeous copy of gorse's first issue (limited and numbered, so you'd better get cracking...); The Honest Ulsterman is coming back, online, this year; Colony is new, and accepting submissions of 'innovative and unconventional writing'.

Will I be submitting? I tend to steer away from — to paraphrase The Honest Ulsterman's Darren Anderson — the charade of writing which declares itself experimental (article on William Burroughs) — it hasn't gone well in the past. My plan is to keep reading, to keep asking questions, and to pay attention, because if novelty is to emerge, it will most likely do so organically.

Saturday, 25 January 2014


I was very chuffed to spot my review of Iosi Havilio's Paradises on the author's own blog. Here's the Spanish edition with an exotic cover. I like the & Other Stories cover a lot, though.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Declan Kiberd on Joyce's The Dead

I know Professor Kiberd only from his books, and the two I've read, Ulysses and Us and Inventing Ireland, were reasons enough to go along to his talk at the James Joyce Centre last night, Nollaig na mBan (Women's Christmas). That it was free, and held in the lovely Georgian house that is home to the Centre, were added bonuses. We were an intimate group (and an eccentric one, but that's a story for another post), so I'll try and give some highlights for those who didn't make it. Fortunately, I believe the talk was recorded for YouTube, so my errors and omissions will be correctable in due course.

More technology: the UCD app for The Dead, which can be downloaded for free, was launched yesterday too. Kiberd noted that as a keen user of technology, Joyce would have approved. And one more non-paper version of The Dead, which was recommended several times during the evening, and which I recommend heartily too, is John Huston's 1987 eponymous film, starring Donal McCann and Anjelica Huston.

Kiberd has the sort of eclectic brain and articulate delivery that makes me wish he hadn't left UCD (for Notre Dame). He can shift from The Dead to The Commitments to Gulliver's Travels and back with a virtuosity that would put Lang Lang to shame. So where to start?

Maybe with this: artists can be media for forces more powerful than any one person can be - offered as an explanation for the extraordinary maturity of the stories that make up Dubliners from an artist so young and who, outside his writing, was making a complete hames of his life.

Kiberd regretted that Dubliners is so often viewed as Joyce's apprentice work. Even Yeats, who should have known better, said it 'contained promise of a novelist of a new kind.' Kiberd opined that the short story is a form suited to a society still unmade, whereas the novel contains the layers of a fully made society, but that all of Joyce's so-called novels (Portrait, Ulysses, the Wake) were forms of emergency that were still not novels. [You have to love someone who can confidently use 'emergency' this way.] He felt that generic definitions 'congealed around Joyce' when Joyce's project was the reverse, to effect an escape from the constriction of genre. His desperate characters who want to move but can't, reflect Joyce's dream of expressing freedom as a writer. He wanted to escape the constraints of the short story and novel forms; he wanted to produce something very new.

Dubliners is neither short stories nor a novel. [I hadn't heard before Kiberd's theory that the individual stories in Dubliners and Ulysses are parodies of the great European novels: that The Two Gallants are Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and Mrs Sinico in A Painful Case is Anna Karenina, both struck by a train.] These European novels follow a growth, or developmental model, which was challenged by writers like William Carleton, Maria Edgeworth, Beckett, and Joyce who wrote instead 'shards and patches'. Kiberd felt that Joyce was indebted to Maria Edgeworth, pointing out that both were committed to the same thing - the decline of a community. As Edgeworth does in Castle Rackrent and Joyce in Dubliners, Both show public decline from private examples and, like Dubliners, Castle Rackrent is neither short stories nor novel, but something in the interstices between the two, some form of emergency [there it is again].

We will have a name for the form, Kiberd joked, in about three hundred years time.

'Novel-in-stories', anyone, I didn't dare ask, for fear of congealing Joyce, and who would want that on their conscience?

Kiberd's description of The Dead as 'a series of women punctuating Gabriel's self-esteem', and his prominent references to Maria Edgeworth, Edna O'Brien, Claire Keegan and Eilis Ni Dhuibhne over the course of his talk, offered more than a nod to Nollaig na mBan.