As promised, I have returned with news of upcoming Spring/Summer events (and somewhat randomly, a clump of wild Rathlin fuchsia - because you’re worth it).
On Tuesday 23rd April I’ll be reading at Waterstone’s, Fountain Street, Belfast along with author Tony Macaulay (Paperboy and Breadboy) to celebrate World Book Night. Proceedings kick off at 6.30pm and wind up about 8.30pm. You’re very welcome to join us there. I’m told that there will be giveaways, refreshments and a quiz! Further details from: Waterstones, 44-46 Fountain St. Belfast, BT1 5EE. Telephone: 028 90 240159; E-mail: email@example.com.
As part of a project funded by the Garfield Weston Trust and the University of Ulster with additional support from Causeway Coast Arts, I’ll be leading a number of workshops and readings in the Causeway area in April and May. ‘The workshops will focus on how to approach the blank page. Using practical exercises and writing techniques to help generate creative ideas, participants will be guided to write something from scratch and will learn something about the approaches they can use to develop their own writing.’ So if you’ve always fancied giving writing a go, this could be the time to try it, and if you already give it a go on a regular basis, come and give it a go some more. (The workshops are open to anyone over 16. Under 18s must be accompanied by an adult.) Details of venues and times as follows.
On Saturday 27th April the first Writing from Scratch workshop takes place at Sheskburn House, 7 Mary Street, Ballycastle (10am-12.30pm), followed by a reading and Q&A at 1pm. If you’d like to book a place on the workshop and stay for the reading, you’re advised to bring a packed lunch. To book (workshop fee is £5; admission to the reading is free) contact Sheskburn House, Ballycastle – Tel: (028) 2076 3300. To download full details of this and other events from Moyle District Council go here and search for Creative Causeway.
On Saturday 4th May there’ll be a second Writing from Scratch workshop, this time at Roe Valley Arts & Cultural Centre, Limavady from 10am-1pm, again followed by a reading and Q&A from 1.30pm (so bring a sandwich). To book contact 028777 60650 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The fee for the workshop is £5; admission to the reading is free. For full event timetable for Limavady 400 go here.
The third Writing from Scratch workshop takes place on Tuesday 7th May, 7pm-9.30pm, at Ballymoney Town Hall, cost £5 and the reading (admission free) is on Tuesday 14th May, 7pm – 9.30pm, also at Ballymoney Town Hall. This final evening will also include readings from some of the creative writers who take part in the Ballymoney workshop. For further information and to book a place please contact Ballymoney Town Hall – Tel: 028 2766 0230.
Thursday 9th May is the launch date for my new short story collection, Sleepwalkers & Other Stories, published by Whittrick Press and launched during the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. You’re very welcome to join us at the Belfast Barge, 1 Lanyon Quay, Belfast at 7pm (admission free), to smash a bottle of champers against its side and send it on its way. Full details here. For great events throughout May 2013, including comedy, music, theatre, visual arts, sound and vision and words and ideas see the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival brochure.
And since we’re plugging arts festivals, The John Hewitt Spring Festival takes place this year at the Londonderry Arms Hotel in Carnlough, Co. Antrim on Friday 10th and Saturday 11th May. It includes workshops by poet Cherry Smyth, the Great Northern Novel Debate (always a good set-to) with Kim Lenaghan, Anita Robinson and Kenneth Irvine, and talks and readings from the likes of Sarfraz Manzoor, Louise Doughty and Ronan Bennett. Cherry Smyth will read on the Saturday with local poets Heather Newcombe, Elaine Gaston and Michael McKimm. This is a great festival that supports local writers as well as attracting international names. You can attend individual events, book in for a half or a full day, or for the whole weekend. The hospitality is fantastic, the food is delicious and the craic is mighty so support it if you can. (I always come away with my brain worn out from thinking.) The novels under discussion this year for the ‘Great Northern Novel’ accolade are: Bernard McLaverty’s Grace Notes, David Park’s The Light of Amsterdam and Maggie OFarrell’s The Hand that First Held Mine. I am, of course, keeping an open mind until the debate is aired, but I LOVE Maggie O’Farrell's writing, plus we share a publisher and an editor so I may be just a little bit biased. Full programme details here.
On Saturday 1st June at 7.30pm, we'll be hosting our annual Say the Word event at Flowerfield Arts Centre, Portstewart. Say the Word is a reading extravaganza to which the Flowerfield Writers’ Group invites writers from groups from across the country to join us for an evening of readings, music and song. We will be joined this year by students from Belfast Metropolitan College who are attending a writing residential at Flowerfield for the weekend, but we would like, as ever, to extend the invitation to anyone of a writing disposition who’d care to join us. We ask that you come prepared to read something of your own (up to three pages of poetry or five hundred words of prose) and to listen to the other writers. We also ask for a small donation to cover the cost of light refreshments. Our in-house band will be back in residence (one ukelele, one guitar – additional instruments welcomed). To secure a reading slot, get in touch at email@example.com.
That's your lot. Come out and let your brain dance and in the meantime, enjoy the fuchsia.
I’m back! Did you miss me? Don’t answer that. If you’re wondering where I’ve been, I’ve been at Libraries NI, blogging away like a crazy woman. If you don’t believe me, you can read what I’ve been up to here. See? Told you I’ve been busy.
I’ve just been named a Versatile Blogger – not once, if you don’t mind, but twice, so I must be extremely versatile indeed. (You would believe this if you saw me reach in to the back of the cupboard for the last remnant of the Easter egg which I hid from myself, but not all that well.) The Versatile Blogger is a kind of virtual tag-game in which you name seven interesting things about yourself, and then tag someone else. ‘Sure thing,’ I said to fellow-blogger Lesley Richardson when she mentioned it, ‘count me in,’ and then had a panic attack about the seven interesting things I was supposed to come up with, so didn’t do a thing about it. Then another blogger-friend, Ashley McCook invited me too and I reckon that’s the kind of serendipity you can’t ignore so here are seven interesting(ish) things about me. (It started off innocently enough, then took something of a romantic turn – Spring in the air?)
• I have seven brothers. This would be a more interesting fact if the seventh of them had seven sons. He does not.
• I love mushrooms. I once had a boyfriend who brought me a bouquet of mushrooms as a present. Both my daughters hate mushrooms with a passion. (I didn’t marry the mushroom man.)
• I love avocado too. The first time I bought one, I didn’t know what to do with it. I thought, because it was called an avocado pear, that it was something you made into a dessert. I was cooking for my then boyfriend for the first time and I ended up using it as a table decoration. I burnt the mouth off him with a peppercorn sauce but he still married me anyway. (He does quite a lot of the cooking.)
• As a student in Italy, I spent one memorable night, along with my friend Rachael, four floors up on the balcony of a hotel in Rome with the shutter between us and the Italian police who were searching the bedroom on the other side of the window. They weren’t looking for us, but had it occurred to them to raise the shutter, we’d have had quite a bit of explaining to do. This is a very long story involving shopping trolleys, car number plates, passports (or rather, the lack thereof) architects (doesn’t it always) and the inhospitality of nuns. (The man whose bedroom it was, is the man I later burnt the mouth off with the peppercorn sauce, in an unrelated incident.)
• Not long after we got married, my husband and I were staying with my Mum and Dad. When I got up in the morning, my husband’s wedding ring was on my finger, over my own wedding ring. I can’t work out how that happened. It’s not an easy thing to put a ring on a person’s finger, even with their full cooperation, never mind when both parties are asleep. I still don’t know what it means. (He says he was trying to make his escape, but he’s still here, eighteen years later.)
• My pet hate? When my husband leaves the floor sweepings in the corner of the kitchen beside the dustpan and brush. I mean, how much more effort does it take to actually sweep the freaking sweepings up and into the bin? (Should have married the mushroom man.)
• I like the words ‘escutcheon’, ‘architrave’ and ‘fenestration’. They’re all good words, I think, and they’re all words my husband uses. He speaks a whole other language. (A mention of this may mean he will forgive me, for the sweepings outburst.)
At this point, I’m supposed to tag a few other people, but to be honest with you, I’m all tagged out so I’m just going to send you back to Lesley’s and to Ashley’s excellent blogs which are well worth a look. I’ll be back again soon with some interesting(ish) upcoming events but here’s a little taster until then. See ya!
On Saturday 13th April I’ll be facilitating a day-long Short Story Writing Workshop at An Creagán (between Cookstown and Omagh) in a gorgeous room with a wall of glass that overlooks a miniature lake. We’ll be there from 10am till 6pm, writing like mad things, after which there’ll be a group reading by the fireside. Doesn’t that sound like a great way to spend a day? It looks like the workshop is all booked up but if you fancy joining us for the reading, it kicks off at 6pm. There are more details here.
I’m going to be missing from here for a while. From around the end of February, I’ll be doing a bit of moonlight blogging over at Libraries NI (come on over and say hello). This is because during Creativity Month in March 2013, I’m going to be the Writer in Residence there. (Yeehaa!) This is just about the best job I can think of doing. I get to hang out in libraries, do a bit of writing, and talk writing to other people who want to talk about writing. I can’t actually think of anything I’d rather do. I may invest in a kaftan, I don’t know. Too much? A cape, maybe? Anyway, I’ll be out and about leading workshops, giving talks, the odd reading, and facilitating one-to-one writing clinics (that’s writing clinics – don’t be bringing me your bunions or your boils please, unless they’re of a literary nature) and generally having a time of it. The full programme will be available soon from Libraries NI, but in the meantime, here are the details of where I’ll be and when I’ll be there and what I’ll be doing while I’m there. All the events are free but numbers are limited so to book a place, please contact the individual libraries directly. And please note: you need to secure a place for the writing clinic(s) before submitting your work. Here goes.
Saturday 2nd March 2pm-4pm at Bangor Carnegie Library
e: firstname.lastname@example.org; t: 028 9127 0591
A creative writing seminar on The Butterfly Cabinet: a short talk on the novel and a discussion on different approaches to writing and structuring longer fiction.
Tuesday 5th March 6pm-8pm at Banbridge Library
e: email@example.com; t: 028 4062 3973
Creative writing workshop: a practical writing session for those getting started as well as for those who have been writing for a while. Bring pen and paper and prepare to get writing!
Thursday 7th March 3pm-7pm at Belfast Central Library
e: Belfastlending@librariesni.org.uk; t: 028 9050 9162
Creative writing clinic providing one-to-one advice and feedback. Participants should in the first instance book a place and then submit up to 2000 words of their work (short story or novel extract) by Thursday 21st February to firstname.lastname@example.org. Meetings will be arranged for Thursday 7th March between the times indicated in 30 minute slots.
Sunday 10th March 1.30pm-4.30pm at Coleraine Library
e: email@example.com; t: 028 7034 2561
Creative writing clinic : providing one-to-one advice and feedback. Participants should in the first instance book a place and then submit up to 2000 words of their work (short story or novel extract) by Thursday 21st February to firstname.lastname@example.org. Meetings will be arranged for Sunday 10th March between the times indicated in 30 minute slots.
Monday 11th March 7pm-9pm at Derry Central Library
e: email@example.com; t: 028 7127 2310
Seminar: How to get Published. A short talk on the publication process for The Butterfly Cabinet and an invitation to participants to share their own experiences of traditional, digital and self-publishing.
Tuesday 12th March 6pm-8pm at Omagh Library
e: firstname.lastname@example.org; t: 028 8224 4821
A creative writing workshop: a practical writing session for those getting started as well as for those who have been writing for a while. Bring pen and paper and prepare to get writing!
Thursday 14th March 1.15pm at Belfast Central Library
e: Belfastlending@librariesni.org.uk t: 028 9050 9162
I’ll be giving a lunchtime reading followed by a question and answer session.
Tuesday 26th March 6pm-8pm at Newry City Library
e: email@example.com; t: 028 3026 4683
Creative Writing Workshop: Writing Short Stories. A practical writing session focussing on short story writing which looks at the form and how to get started. Hopefully participants will leave with, at the very least, an idea for a story and a sense of how to develop it.
Thursday 28th March 6pm-8pm at Ballyhackamore Library
e: firstname.lastname@example.org; t: 028 9050 9204
Creative writing workshop: a practical writing session for those getting started as well as for those who have been writing for a while. Bring pen and paper and (yes, you guessed it) prepare to get writing!
I’m taking part in a blog hop. (A what?) A blog hop. It’s a sort of benign pyramid scheme for blogging writers. (How did that happen?) Well, Alrene Hughes kindly invited me to take part and tagged me in her blog on 16th January, along with a number of other writers. Alrene is author of Martha’s Girls, a family saga set in Belfast in World War II. This is her debut novel, it is published by Matador and is available as a paperback and an ebook.
(What now?) I answer the ten blog hop questions, and recruit a number of other writers (below) to do the same. Eventually, there will be no writers left to tag, since everyone will have done it and then it will stop. But until then, here we go…
What are you working on at the moment?
A short story collection, title to be decided.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
Well, I wrote some stories and I read some of them in public and some people said, ‘Why don’t you publish a collection?’
What genre does your book fall under?
Tricky, but I’d say ‘Short Stories’ sums it up best.
Which actors would you choose to play in a film rendition of your book?
Oh, nice question. Let me see. A student at a talk I gave recently at Belfast Metropolitan College said she thought Tilda Swinton would make a great Harriet in The Butterfly Cabinet and I love that idea, but I don’t think she’d be right for any of the stories in this collection so sorry, Tilda, no through-casting. Anne-Marie Duff could play Kate in ‘Sleepwalkers’ and I think I’d have Brenda Blethyn for Rhonda in the story I’m working on at the moment. Oh, and the father in ‘No Angel’ could be played by Martin Sheen. I’m sure none of them would have any bother with a Northern Irish accent. Okay, I’ve lost the run of myself. Next question.
What is the one sentence synopsis for your book?
I hate this question because it’s really hard work to answer it, but if I’m pushed, what the stories have in common is a concern with language, with legacy, with memory and with identity, with what’s said and what’s not said: they’re about survivors and they’re about ghosts. (That was originally two sentences but I cheated with a colon.)
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It will be published in May/June 2013 by Whittrick Press, a new digital publisher based in Northern Ireland. (They’ll be accepting submissions very soon. Go like their Facebook page.)
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
The stories have been written over the last five or six years and a number of them have already appeared in print. Some of them were written over a matter of weeks, some of them over the period of a year or more. Many of them were begun in writing workshops and were left to ‘ferment’ for months before I went back to them. I quite like to work like that, to always have a piece of writing to return to. (Which may be the reason that the second novel is taking so long…)
What other books would you compare this to within this genre?
That’s difficult to say. When I look at the Amazon placings for The Butterfly Cabinet, I see that ‘Customers who bought this item have also bought’ books by Zadie Smith, Iain Pears, Rose Tremain, Kate Morton, Agatha Christie, Alice Hoffman, Rachel Hore. I’m very happy to be on that shelf, thank you very much, but I’m not sure what shelf the short stories sit on. It’s possible that they’re not on a shelf. They might be under a table somewhere, at the back of the shop.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
Different things. Some of the stories begin with a very specific place I’ve visited, ‘Sleepwalkers’, ‘Home’ and ‘The Language Thing’ are set in Spain, France and Italy respectively. Some of them, or parts of some of them, were prompted by writing exercises in workshops (‘The Recipe’ and ‘The Bells are Ringing Out’). Some of them are prompted by hearing people speak on that public confessional, the radio. (There’s something very evocative and intimate about a disembodied voice.) Some of them borrow from personal experience. Many of them come from thoughts that occur in the shower, water on the head being a great creative stimulant. Often it’s a voice that starts to speak, that has a story to tell. Over time, lots of other elements feed in as well and in the end, because you work it and work it and work it some more, hopefully it becomes impossible to see where one piece of the jigsaw begins and another ends. I’ve just read this, by Flannery O’Connor, one of my favourite short story writers: ‘I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.’ Never a truer word was spoken.
What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
Every copy comes with a free bar of chocolate. (That’s a lie.) Let me see. There’s one award-winning story in here, and a few that were short-listed for awards as well as a couple of stories that are previously unpublished. I don’t have any written endorsements for the short stories, but here’s what author Eugene McCabe said about The Butterfly Cabinet: ‘Bernie McGill’s rare, hypnotic gift for writing fills every page. [It] contains no end of apparently throwaway sentences you want to remember.' Nice! And Tom Paulin liked it too and Julian Fellowes and some other people said some other good things here (you’ll need to scroll down a bit). So, you know, you might like the writing, even without the chocolate.
Is that it? Hurrah! Homework done. Okay, fun bit. Here are the next round of blog-hopping writers who will be posting their Next Big Thing on Wednesday 30th January. They all live on the island of Ireland, and they write fiction, song lyrics, Young Adult books, poetry, as well as for film, theatre and screen. I’m delighted to be handing on the baton to Lesley Richardson, Deirdre Cartmill, Debbie (DJ) McCune, Elizabeth Rose Murray, Briana Corrigan and Anthony Toner who will all post on 30th January. Go and have a jook.
Lesley Richardson is a writer from Bangor, Co. Down, who is currently writing her second novel, The Possibilities of Elizabeth. Her first novel, Biddy Weirdo, is yet to be published, but Lesley and her agent, Susan Feldstein, are hopeful that that will soon change. Represented by the Feldstein Agency, Lesley has received a grant from The Arts Council of Northern Ireland and a writing bursary from North Down Borough Council. She launched her blog, Standing Naked at a Bus Stop last year and she tweets.
Deirdre Cartmill is a poet, writer and creative writing tutor. Her debut poetry collection Midnight Solo is published by Lagan Press and her second collection The Return of the Buffalo will be published in 2013. She has written for film, television and radio as Deirdre Alexander and her short film Two Little Boys was produced in 2012. She won the Claddagh Films Script Award and the BBC Writersroom Undercover competition and has been shortlisted for several awards including the Hennessy Literary Award, the Scottish International Poetry Competition and the Red Planet Prize.
Debbie (DJ) McCune is the author of Young Adult novel Death & Co soon to be published by Hot Key Books. She was born in Belfast and grew up in Carrickfergus, a seaside town just north of the city. As a child she liked making up stories and even wrote some down, including a thriller about a stolen wallaby. At school she hated doing homework, except writing stories for English - which were long enough to make her teachers weep. Debbie read Theology at Trinity College, Cambridge but mostly just read lots of books. She has enjoyed a varied career, but she is currently Head of Religious Studies in an Integrated Secondary School. She lives in Northern Ireland with her husband, daughter and two cats - with seven legs between them. Debbie’s on Twitter and her Author Facebook Page is here.
Elizabeth Rose Murray lives in rural West Cork. Represented by Sallyanne Sweeney, she writes mainly for children/YA, but has adult poetry and fiction published in journals across the UK/Ireland. In 2012, Elizabeth performed in Ciudades Paralelas: Station at the Cork Midsummer Festival. Elizabeth also provides social media training for writers/artists and blogs professionally for major literary festivals including Listowel Writers’ Week, Cork International Short Story Festival and Dublin Writers Festival. Read her poem Book of Us in Southword Journal, visit her Green Fingered Writer blog or chat to her on Twitter. For inspiration, try her Wordspark writing prompts and Pinterest boards.
Briana Corrigan is a singer, songwriter, poet and playwright. Before turning her hand to writing she enjoyed success with the band ‘The Beautiful South’. Last year her first play, The Scarlet Web-Martha’s Story toured Ireland and Scotland. Irish Theatre magazine described her writing as 'skillful' and 'an achievement'. She has also written and released two self-penned solo albums, When My Arms Wrap You Round which reached no 48 in the UK album charts, and in 2012 Redbird, for which Hotpress magazine described her as a 'songwriter of wit, elegance and style'. Briana holds an MA with Distinction in Creative Writing from Queens University, Belfast. You can catch her on Facebook and on Twitter.
Belfast-based singer songwriter Anthony Toner is poised to release his new album, Sing Under the Bridges, in mid-February, before embarking on a series of live concerts throughout Northern Ireland. The collection, his fifth, follows a string of radio successes - his composition ‘Sailortown’ has become one of Northern Ireland radio’s most requested songs. Other recent radio hits have included ‘Marion, That’s All Right’, ‘The Duke of Oklahoma’, ‘Walking Down the Line’ and ‘Well Well Well’, which was featured on Ulster Television’s weather bulletins, sponsored by Progressive Building Society, for an extended period last year. He has played shows in Nashville on many occasions, and has shared the stage with Nanci Griffith and Guy Clark, as well as showcasing at Austin’s South by South West festival. He’s also developing a following in Canada and recently performed live at Grand Central Station in New York City as part of a Northern Ireland showcase event organized by Tourism Ireland. Always a popular and accomplished live performer, Anthony’s shows include superb guitar playing, background information on the inspiration behind the material, and some entertaining stories from the road. In addition to his musical work, Anthony was a journalist for seventeen years and has also had short stories published in The Black Mountain Review and Breaking the Skin: New Irish Writing anthology. He maintains a popular blog on his own website, which also contains videos, songs and details of his various activities.
I’m a bit slow off the mark with the New Year greetings, what with the wise men having been and gone and all but what the heck, Happy New Year to you. It’s going to be a good one. New Year’s resolutions? Well, I thought about giving up caffeine and I thought about giving up alcohol and I thought about giving up chocolate and I thought about giving up bread (that was absolutely the shortest thought) and then I thought, why would I do that? So instead of giving up I’m giving in (again): to writing and to reading and to listening and to talking and to walking and to sitting and to being fully immersed in a creative life. There are a number of exciting projects coming up this year but I’ll tell you about those later. (Settle yourself, it’s only January, too much excitement early on could wear you out entirely.) But here’s a thing or two to keep you going over the next couple of weeks.
The 8th Annual Out to Lunch Arts Festival is now well underway in Belfast with music, talks, readings, comedy, performances and exhibitions continuing until January 27th. I am thrilled to get the chance to hear poets Paul Durcan and Tom Paulin read at lunchtime events in The Black Box in the next few days. A lunchtime reading is one of my absolute favourite things to do. You get to sit in the dark with a bunch of strangers in the middle of the day with a fork in one hand and a glass in the other, all of you pointed in the same direction, at a voice that wants to move you or tickle you or provoke you or soothe you, and no-one stabs anyone else with a prong or complains that their bowl is smaller than their neighbour’s. And afterwards, you can go outside feeling thoroughly decadent because it’s still light (or grey, at least) and you can be home in time for your tea and lie in front of the telly all evening if you want, having fully discharged your cultural duty for the day. It may in fact be one of the foremost activities of the civilised world. If you have a free lunchtime and you’re in Belfast I’d urge you to come along to something. Tickets are reasonably priced and often include food. (Athough I do feel it behoves me to point out here that, controversially, some of the events don’t even happen at lunchtime at all...) If we didn’t have the Out to Lunch Festival we’d be moaning about how this city doesn’t have something like an Out to Lunch Festival. Support it if you can.
I have made one resolution. I’m conducting a little internet experiment. For the most part, I’ve switched off the Comments facility on this blog. There’s a good reason for this. Actually, there’s about two hundred and fifty reasons for this a day and they’re all called (what’s the polite word?) ‘spam’. I’ve been trawling through them daily, bombarded with exhortations to look at this replica Prada, to love these Louis Vuitton handbags, to not take another breath until I get my hands on a cheap North Face jacket, and those are the most savoury of them. And oh, how I’ve learnt. In the beginning my heart would beat a little faster when my eye fell on, ‘Wow, I really love your blog!’ Now those are the first to go in the junk pile since every single last one of them is trying to sell me something.
There are of course a few genuine comments from time to time and I’m very, very grateful for those. What I have found, is that those tend to appear within a day or two of the blog first being posted so I’m leaving a little comment window open for a few days and then, if the spam begins to build up again (and I reckon it will, unless I’ve somehow cunningly managed to slip under the radar by switching it off intermittently) I’m gonna slam that window shut! You can of course get in touch quietly via the Contact form here if you wish. The message will come straight to me and it won’t be made public. And of course, you have the right to remain silent. Most of the time, that’s what I like to do too. The world needs listeners as well as talkers. Happy 2013 to you one and all.
Sunday was a good day. We were getting ready to go out for a walk and while we waited for our girls to extract themselves from their pyjamas (a lengthy task), I clicked on Facebook to see what was happening. The poet Jean Bleakney had sent me a link to the Guardian’s Books of the Year 2012 in which a number of published writers had named their recommendations. ‘Ah,’ I thought, ‘this is interesting, potential Christmas pressie ideas.’ I scrolled down through the books taking note of John Banville’s favourites, Ali Smith’s, Wendy Cope’s and then I reached Downton writer Julian Fellowes’ picks, at which point I very nearly fell off my swivel chair. He’d only gone and named The Butterfly Cabinet as his novel of the year (which is why, I realised belatedly, Jean had sent me the link in the first place). I think I may, momentarily, have stopped breathing. I grabbed the laptop and ran down the stairs. ‘Come here, come here!’ I shouted at the family who couldn’t tell from my face if the news was good or bad. ‘Downton,’ I gasped. My husband nodded. ‘Julian Fellowes,’ I said. He nodded again. He must have thought my obsession had reached epic proportions. No plot twist could merit this kind of reaction. Finally, I pointed. ‘Read!’ I said. So he did, and he grinned, and the girls did, and then everyone shouted and there were hugs all round and then the girls got out of their pyjamas and we went for our walk.
Anyone who knows me knows I am a big fan of Downton Abbey. As soon as I heard that the writer of Gosford Park had written a series I was there. Gosford Park is one of my favourite movies. When I was writing The Butterfly Cabinet and reading the first-hand accounts of Victorian servants, I kept seeing those scenes from the film where the kitchen operates like a massive engine room, keeping the ship of the big house afloat. I am a member of an informal online writing group with a number of other friends and while a large part of our time is spent supporting and encouraging each other, when Downton is showing, Monday is given over to post-show discussion. ‘O’Brien, how could you?’ and ‘Mmmm, Branson,’ and ‘Hurrah for the Dowager!’ and ‘No! Mr Bates!’ are the flavour of the day. (I will confess, there is one of our number who is not a fan. She’s a Hobbit kind of girl. She says the second a hairy dwarf appears in Downton she’s in there, but not before. Plot idea, Lord Fellowes?) So needless to say, I’m chuffed. "'What is a weekend?'" Dowager, let me tell you. It's a quiet spell before the week ahead, when an unexpected piece of good news will have you smiling idiotically at your computer screen for a good few days to come. Now if only I could get on with writing the next one (in which, at the moment, there isn’t a single decent frock to be seen).
Along with a few other writing friends, I’m tackling NaNoWriMo – the ‘fifty thousand words of a novel in November’ challenge - except not really. We all have individually-tailored goals: to finish a novel, to write a new short story, to complete the first ten thousand words of a new book. In my case, the goal is slightly different: to stop deleting. I seem to be writing a see-saw book. This is how it goes: I write a thousand words then I delete a thousand. Not the same thousand I just wrote, but a thousand I wrote earlier. I don’t seem to be able to get past 36000 words. I’ve written half a book and I keep on rewriting it. It’s not a novella, there’s still plenty I haven’t written, but every time I try and write the next part, it voids something that went before. And I’m trying to be honest about it. I can’t keep words there just to buoy up my spirits and make the word count look good. If they no longer belong, they’ve got to go. Whole chunks of it are disappearing down the plughole. At this rate, I’ll easily have deleted fifty thousand words by December (NaNoDeMo?) and I don’t seem to be able to stop. My book is on some kind of self-destruct mission and I’m no James Bond, equipped to intervene. I’m not even M, or Q, or any other capital letter you care to mention. I’m strictly lower case. I’m beginning to wonder if the book has a virus. You know when you accidentally switch on ‘delete as you type’ mode and you don’t know how you did it and you can’t remember how to switch it off and it drives you doolally? Well, that, except the failure is not electronic or mechanical, it’s just me. I don’t know how to switch off my delete mode. I was thinking that maybe if I blogged about it, that might help. So we’ll see. There are around three hundred and fifty words here (obsessive word counting, you say?). Will they still all be here tomorrow? Will the curse have lifted?
I’ve spent the last three days eating my way through twelve counties. I’ve had bacon butties in Belfast, sandwiches in Dublin, scones in Waterford and a wheelbarrow’s worth of chocolate-covered raisins in between. That’s the trouble with travelling by rail: your hands are free. But I haven’t just been stuffing my face with carbs, I’ve been listening and writing and reading and chatting, catching up with old friends, meeting new. I’ve been to the Storytelling Southeast Festival in Dungarvan, Co. Waterford, where the weather’s been very kind and the hospitality even better. Grace Wells and Lani O’Hanlon were very gracious to let me gatecrash their creative writing workshops on Friday morning (I can’t resist a bit of communal writing – I seek it out wherever I go) and who did I bump into there only old friend Lynda Gough, star of stage and screen, who, last time I saw her, was wearing a fishtail and was up to her neck in water in Big Telly’s production of The Little Mermaid. We had a great chat about myth and story, about clambering over rocks looking for petrified angels, about shapes and shadows, and then we all went off to eat a bit more. I had a reading in Dungarvan Library on the Saturday afternoon. (‘How’d it go?’ texted my daughter. ‘Okay, I think,’ I replied, ‘No-one threw anything.’ ‘They should really practice their aim,’ came the return.) And then off to meet my good friend and former job share partner at Big Telly, Úna Kealy for, yes, you guessed it, more food and banter. Úna now teaches at Waterford Institute of Technology and we were later joined for talk of books and plays, the workings of chemical toilets and the benefits of fresh air by her colleagues Richard Hayes and Catherine Lowry-O’Neill, along with soon-to-be-published author Mary Grehan. (Úna said they’d all love a mention on my blog. I’m pretty sure she wasn’t being sarcastic. I feel a bit like one of those society columnists of the 1950’s – but without any of the perks.) So I’m full to the neck now with good food and good chat and should probably enter a monastery for a while, although that’s unlikely to happen. This is my Artist’s badge from the Festival. I might hang it up on the wall beside my desk for all the quiet days ahead, the days when the rain’s beating against the window, and writing won’t come, when you feel like a complete charlatan, when there’s no-one around to talk books with, and a chocolate-covered raisin is a thing of fantasy.
September’s upon us and I, for one, am delighted to see it. We spent the first half of the summer looking out at the rain, and the second half clearing cupboards and packing boxes (looking up occasionally as Usain Bolt flew past) in preparation for our house move. But we’re settled now, the girls are back at school and I am relieved to be back in front of the computer screen. It could be partly as a result of years of acclimatisation to the academic timetable, but Autumn always feels to me like the real start of the year. You can keep grey, damp January: give me the crispness and colours of September and October any day. Last time we read together, the poet Olive Broderick talked about how the Celtic year began with the arrival of the darkness at Samhain, on the 31st October. That feeling of beginning at the onset of winter seems to make perfect sense to me. I think we should appreciate the dark and the quiet months of the year. We spend at least half our time in them. We might as well find a way to savour it.
I’ve got a couple of events coming up to kick off the ‘New Year’. The first is the Giant Book Club which takes place at the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast on Saturday 22nd September at 2pm. It’s by invitation only so if you’re not a member of one of the community reading groups taking part, then you can’t come - but I’ll tell you about it anyway. This is an initiative of Belfast Book Festival funded by Belfast City Council’s Peace III Programme. Each month reading group members are given FREE copies of the chosen book to read and discuss and then every few months, all the groups come together at the Crescent for a big mad chat. I’m thrilled that the organisers have chosen The Butterfly Cabinet to kickstart this brilliant new project. I spent the first reading years of my life poring through books I’d borrowed from the school and the mobile libraries. I’m a huge supporter of any project that puts books into people’s hands. I’ll be giving a talk on the writing of The Butterfly Cabinet, followed by a Q&A led by poet and Book Club facilitator Ruth Carr.
Then on Friday 28th September, I’ll be 290 miles south of here (not quite Malin to Mizen, but not far off) in Dungarvan, Co. Waterford taking part in the Storytelling Southeast Festival. I’m reading at Dungarvan Library at 5pm on the 28th. The full programme is here and includes readings by Eoin McNamee (Hurrah!), children’s authors Judi Curtin, Maura Byrne, Sarah Webb, and Annabel Pitcher, poets Pat Boran, Grace Wells, John Ennis, Mark Roper and (from Newfoundland) Mary Dalton, as well as music, talks, guided walks and the whole shebang. It looks like a fantastic festival and many of the events are FREE so if you know anyone there or thereabouts, tell them to come along.
Finally, just a quick thank you to my friend and (soon to be published) YA author Debbie McCune for the loan of her internet to post this blog. It would seem that while it is possible to move the entire contents of a house in one day (a house that has eighteen years and two children of gathering in it) it can take up to two weeks to move the internet a mile up the road. There’s something distinctly untwentyfirst century about that. See you around. And remember: the year's just beginning.
I’ve spent a little time in Italy. I was there for a full academic year when I was a student, and I can remember fellow students saying that when you begin to dream in the language of the country you’re in, you know it’s really begun to take hold. I think the same may be true when you’re writing a book. These nights, I go to sleep with characters in my head and I wake up with them still talking. Wheels are turning as I sleep. It's taken me a while to get here. I’m not entirely sure what happens during the night. I don’t think I dream about them, or dream as them, but I can’t be sure. I don’t remember much about it. What I do know is that these days, I wake up with a new thought in my head about what might happen, a new ‘What if?’ to take the story forward. There's still a long, puddled road ahead, but it feels like I could have company on the way.