When we were small and the likes of Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy were to be found on our TV screen, bouncing off the ropes of a wrestling ring and slamming heads off the canvas, there was a question that could be heard repeated over and over in our house and that question was: ‘Do you submit?’ This was generally delivered by the brother who at the time had your head in an arm lock or who was sitting on your back. And maybe because you couldn’t hear so well (what with your ears being squished flat against your head, or because your nose was down the back of the sofa and your concentration was elsewhere) or maybe because we were big into wrestling and not so big into diction, to my ears the question usually sounded more like ‘D’yousummit?’ to which the answer, if you genuinely couldn’t take any more pain was ‘Isummit’ or if you were thran (definition and pronunciation here, for non-Ulster-Scots-influenced speakers) and thought you still had a chance of throwing your opponent off, then the accepted reply was, ‘Idon'summit’. I was fairly thran, I still am, but being the youngest, and not that big into pain, I submitted quite a bit.
In these days of writing deadlines the question of submission has a whole new meaning, but it strikes me that there’s a reason why that particular word is used. When you release your writing into the world, you submit it to the opinion of someone who didn’t write it, whether that be to a friend or to a relative, to your writing group members, to an editor, to an agent, to a competition judge, or even, to the trial of all trials, online book reviewers. And the question on your mind is: ‘Will the writing stand up to it? Is it strong enough to withstand the pressure of someone else’s scrutiny?’ I’m close to submitting another draft of the current book to my agent. I think this may be the tenth draft I’ve written (I haven’t submitted all ten – I’m not completely mad) and I’m stalling, because if this one doesn’t make the cut, then I have to make that decision again – to get back up and rework or to throw in the towel? Submission in the new sense can mean summission in the old. There’s such a thing as a book that can beat you.
I did play truant in between some of those drafts and wrote a short story that is included in a new anthology of Irish women writers, The Long Gaze Back. It is published by New Island Books and edited by Sinéad Gleeson and is officially launched on Wednesday 23rd September 2015 in the Liquor Rooms, Wellington Quay, Dublin. The anthology consists of thirty short stories by Irish women writers, living and dead, including Elizabeth Bowen, Maeve Brennan, Maria Edgeworth, Mary Lavin, Kate O’Brien, Charlotte Riddell and Somerville & Ross. A number of these writers were on my study list at University so it’s a real honour and a privilege to have a story of mine included alongside theirs and alongside the many brilliant contemporary women writers that are included. Reviews to date include Alison Walsh in The Sunday Independent, Martina Evans in The Irish Times, Ruth Gilligan in The Irish Independent and book blogs By the Book Reviews and We Love This Book. I’ll be reading from the anthologised story alongside fellow anthologees (a word I may have made up), Lucy Caldwell, Anne Devlin and Roisín O’Donnell at the Linen Hall Library on Thursday 22nd October 2015 at 6.30pm as part of the Ulster Bank Belfast International Arts Festival. The reading will be followed by a discussion on the short story. You can find full details of all Festival events, and download the programme here.
It is my very great pleasure to help to launch a new collection, The Faerie Thorn and Other Stories, published by Blackstaff Press and written by Jane Talbot on Friday 25th September 2015 at 6pm at the North Down Museum, Bangor, part of the Aspects Festival of Irish Literature. This is a beautifully-written collection that contains fresh and clever re-workings of sometimes-familiar stories that are grounded in the County Antrim places from which they sprouted: the Bush river, Gortanuey Bridge, Breen Wood, Murlough Bay. Jane Talbot’s joy in the written and the spoken word is evident in every line. These are never condescending, never didactic, never simple moral tales but complex, surprising, beguiling stories for grown women and men, the pleasure of which carries far off the page and will stay with you long after you’ve read them. Highly recommended reading.
Further down the line, I’ll be leading a one-day participative writing workshop at Roe Valley Arts & Cultural Centre, Limavady on Saturday 31st October 2015 from 10am to 4pm on the theme of ‘Between the Lights’. Full details and booking information here.
Back to the manuscript and the question of submission now. More news anon.
The daffodils have come and gone another year and still work continues on the current novel manuscript. I recently read an interview by Vincent Scarpa with US writer Laura van den Berg entitled A Novel Wants Your Life in Tin House magazine. She’s a very wise woman and says many wise things about how writing a novel differs from writing short stories. She talks, in the interview, about the sense of an ending that is present when writing short stories, and how you have to let that go when you’re writing a novel because that feeling is ‘illusory, a mirage in the desert’. She says: ‘If you’re working on a novel, whatever you do, don’t say, “I am almost finished with my novel.” ’ That's good advice. It's come a little too late for me – over a year too late, actually (see blog post dated 20th February 2014 and ironically entitled ‘Nearly There’) but it's still good advice.
On a personal level, this is one of the best interviews I’ve read on the writing process. It feels like Laura van den Berg has peeked inside my head. ‘The hard part,’ she says, ‘was mainly psychological: how to keep the faith, how to not let doubt erode the project, how to ask the right questions, how to see with greater depth and clarity.’ She talks about how, with short stories, it’s sometimes possible to fit the writing in and around other things you’re doing. (In her case, this could mean writing a scene ‘while holed up in the bathroom of a raging party’; in mine it’s more likely to be in between loading a dark wash and a light.) The novel, on the other hand, ‘wants your life’. I think that’s very true. The novel is jealous of time spent doing other things. It expects a much greater act of concentration, of stamina, of willpower than does the short story. It doesn’t want to be sidelined, ever, and since it’s impossible not to sideline it when you have other work to do, and a family and caring responsibilities, in other words, that thing called a life, then you can find yourself, as she puts it, ‘repainting a house that needed to be set on fire and bulldozed.’ One of the hardest things for me is that ‘constant state of suspension’ that she describes. To be engaged in the sustained act of ‘not finishing’ something is exhausting. (The phrase 'tantric writing' springs suddenly to mind...) While I was writing The Butterfly Cabinet, I’d sneak off every now and then like a truant schoolgirl and write a short story. It was my respite from the onslaught of ‘not finishing’ the novel. At the end of it, I had a finished novel and the makings of a short story collection, Sleepwalkers. I thought that this time around, I'd be a model student, concentrate wholly on the novel and that way, I’d finish it much sooner, but that hasn’t really worked out. It feels to me that that interplay between the two forms that van den Berg describes is a very healthy one. ‘The story-novel rhythm is a good one for me,’ she says. For me too, Laura, me too. Again, the advice is a little late but never mind. As they say in these parts, I’ll know for again. Every day I inch a little closer to an ending, but I won’t be saying again that I’m almost finished. I won’t be saying anything until I am finished and by then I’ll be so incoherent with relief and fatigue (and quite possibly, gin) that I’m unlikely to be saying much of anything at all.
In the meantime, here are some of the things I’ll be doing over the next few weeks (while I’m not finishing the novel) and that may be of interest to fellow writing combatants.
On Thursday 23rd April 2015 I’ll be facilitating an Introduction to writing short stories workshop at Larne Library from 6pm - 8pm, in association with the John Hewitt Society and Libraries NI. It’s suitable for writers of all ages and levels of experience. This is a FREE workshop but places are limited. To secure a place, please email Hilary@johnhewittsociety.org. And for the poets among you, Elaine Gaston will facilitate a FREE Introduction to writing poetry workshop at Ballymena Library on Saturday 18th April 2015 from 11am – 1pm. Again, email Hilary to secure a place. You'll find details of both workshops here. Elaine will also be reading in Randall’s Bar, Cushendun on Saturday 2nd May 2015 at 4pm, part of the Cushendun Big Arts Weekend. Look out for Randall’s goat at the harbour – the highlight of many a visit to Cushendun.
The Larne workshop comes just ahead of the John Hewitt Spring School in Carnlough which this year is on Saturday 25th April 2015 and features talks and readings by Martina Devlin, Ciaran Carson, Stephen Sexton, Peter Osborne, Nisha Tandon and Vincent Creelan. There’s a FREE return coach from Belfast City Centre to Carnlough for Day Ticket Holders (£25 for entry to all events including lunch and refreshments and if you’re lucky, some of the famous Londonderry Arms wheaten bread). Full details of contributors and how to book here.
On Saturday 9th May 2015 I’ll be taking a One Day Writing Workshop at Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre, Limavady that uses John Steinbeck’s own writing and his links with the Limavady area as inspiration for new creative work. Open to beginners as well as to more experienced writers, the workshop runs from 10am-4pm with a short break for lunch. Cost £15. (Lunch not included.) To book Tel. 028 7776 0650 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. (Maximum 12 places.)
On Wednesday 13th May 2015 Ballycastle Writers hosts the first Writers’ Exchange, of the new Causeway Coast and Glens Council area and Flowerfield Writers’ Group will be there to join them. The event is at 7.30pm in Sheskburn House, Ballycastle. Admission is FREE. Participants are invited to read from their own work (short stories, poems, memoir, extracts from novels in progress). For more information contact the Arts Officer on 028 207 62225.
On Thursday 14th May 2015 I’ll be at the Linen Hall Library, Belfast along with writers Jan Carson and Kelly Creighton at an event hosted by the National Collection of Northern Ireland Publications (NIPR), part of the Writers on Writers Festival. ‘Success Stories: How to get your short stories published’ runs from 3pm-5.30pm. Kelly will be there in her role as editor of The Incubator, to talk about what journal editors are looking for. I will be giving advice about putting a collection together, and Jan will be talking about submitting work. This is a FREE event but advance booking is recommended. To book click on the Add to Basket button on the Success Stories link above or contact the Linen Hall on (0)28 9032 1707; email email@example.com. The Writers on Writers Festival runs from 13th – 16th May and features Glenn Patterson along with previous winners of the Michael McLaverty Short Story Award, Bernard MacLaverty & David Park in conversation, a writing workshop by Jo Egan, Anne Devlin talking about Elizabeth Bowen and Sophia Hillen sharing her writing experiences.
That’s it for now. More anon. Happy writing, reading, listening, editing, drafting, redrafting, sleeping, drafting some more…
I’ve been gone from here for a while. It seems sort of appropriate to return on the shortest day, at the natural turn of the year. We’ve had a tough few weeks. My mother passed away on the 15th of October past. She dreaded the long dark nights. It was always a relief to be able to say on the 21st that the light was on its way back. In tribute to her, I’d like to repost this story from Sleepwalkers which was written for her and for my first daughter. She and I sat in her kitchen the day it was first broadcast on the radio, listening together. The story had been pre-recorded in Belfast. I was more nervous about that reading than I’ve ever been about a reading before or since. She was a very private person. I wasn’t sure how she would react to the telling. In the event, it was fine. It was more than fine. I think she was really very proud to have it told.
Here’s to the return of the light. Wishing us all brighter days ahead.
This is how you lay, little one, the whole night long in my mother’s house, with me on my back and you on my chest and your left cheek on mine. I remember I lifted you and laid you in your travel cot, but you were not for travelling. Once the cold of the sheet touched your face, you twisted, opened your eyes, screwed up your fists and cried: cries fit to waken my mother and her mother, and her mother’s mother before. I lifted you once, twice, three, four times, lifted you until you taught me what I would not learn: that the only place you wanted to be was next to me, heartbeat to heartbeat, cheek to cheek.
In the morning, my mother looked into my bleary eyes, into eight months of lifting and laying and lifting again. She put her little finger into your small mouth and felt an eruption, the shock of a chip of ivory that had broken the surface: your first tooth. It made sense of everything. She told me once that after the birth of her ninth child, her doctor had told her to stop birthing children, for the sake of her health. But she didn’t stop. She bore another boy, and then me. ‘Where would you have been if I’d stopped?’ she said to me, and she took your hand, ‘And where would this one be?’ I don’t know the answer to that. Later, she told me she was annoyed that she had found the tooth, upset at having the glory moment when it was me that had lost sleep over it. Would I not have wished to have found it myself, she said? But who better to have found it, her last baby’s first baby’s first tooth? Who better but your mother’s mother; your own mother, once removed, and not removed at all. We make ourselves over and over again. Your teeth are my teeth, and my bones are hers and her skin is her mother’s, and her mother’s blood is the blood of hers. Who better to have found your tooth? ‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m not annoyed. You know the rule – the tooth-finder is the cobbler. Now you’ll have to buy the first shoes.’
Seven years on and the tooth is jutting straight out of your mouth, dangerously loose, hanging on. It’s been like that for weeks. It seems reluctant to go. You won’t let me near it, and I’m afraid to touch it. What if it doesn’t come free at the first pull? What if something stronger is holding it there? I’m tempted to take you down to see your grandmother – down to the place of the getting of it – and ask her to put her finger once more into your mouth, take a hold again, give the tooth one good tug. I’ve a good mind to ask her to finish what she started.
I had the scary dream again last night – the one where the public reading goes badly wrong. It’s a version of the dream I used to have years ago when I worked as administrator for Big Telly Theatre Company. A night or two before the show was due to go up, I would dream that some injury had befallen a cast member and I would have to go on in their stead. The worst was the one in which something calamitous had happened to the entire cast and I was told I would have to perform The Colleen Bawn single-handedly. I left shortly afterwards.
Last night’s dream was particularly vicious. It was a late night reading in an unspecified (but intimate) venue somewhere in Belfast. There were several readers scattered on the sofas around the room. I was waiting to be called. The night wore on. Eventually, at around a quarter to one in the morning, my turn came. Most people had gone home. I’d forgotten my glasses. The book from which I was reading had inexplicably transmuted into a sort of slippery spring-loaded cabbage. I prised open the leaves to find my place and peered, in the dim light, to try and make out what I’d written but each time I looked up to deliver a line, the cabbage snapped shut and sprung out of my hands and I had to scrabble about on the floor to find it. The remaining few punters wandered off. The staff came in to say they were shutting up. There was that dispiriting moment when the cosy, atmospheric space you're in is suddenly flood lit by fluorescent lighting and you can see all the stains on the carpet. I left. It was raining. I’d missed the last train. I had no way of getting home.
There are a couple of possible explanations for why the dream has returned now. There are some readings coming up in September (details below) – I may already be getting the jitters about those. Or it may be because I’ve asked a few writing friends to give me some feedback on the current work-in-progress and, before I even hand it over, I’ve been spending a lot of time making up excuses for why it’s not better than it is. Either way, I don’t suppose the dream is going anywhere. The fear of humiliation and rejection, whether that be in a room full of friends or in front of a sofa of strangers, seems to be part of the writer’s lot. Parting with your writing is all part of the process of owning it. (Nice oxymoron for you there – you’re welcome.)
On Thursday 11th September, I’ll be reading from Sleepwalkers at Omagh Library at 8pm and on Saturday 13th September I’ll be facilitating a writing workshop at Strule Arts Centre, Omagh at 3.30pm. Both events are part of the Benedict Kiely Literary Festival that includes readings by Bernard MacLaverty, Pat McCabe, Claire Keegan, Mary Costello and Billy Ramsell and discussion with Eamonn Hughes, Sinéad Gleeson, David Hayden and Declan Meade (of The Stinging Fly) as well as poetry and film screenings. For more information and to book, contact Strule Arts Centre on 028 8224 7831 or Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The full programme is available to view on the Benedict Kiely Festival website.
On Friday 19th September, I’ll be reading along with writers Lucy Caldwell and Paul McVeigh at a Word Factory event at the Cork International Short Story Festival (scroll down – Cork Central Library, Grand Parade, 4pm!) The Festival runs throughout the week and includes readings, seminars and workshops by a host of international writers as well as the presentation of the Seán Ó Faoláin Prize and the Frank O’Connor Award (the latter to Colin Barrett for his excellent collection Young Skins) and the launch of the Davy Byrnes Short Story Award Anthology. If you’re a short story aficionado, it’s the place to be. Full programme available here.
And finally, on Thursday 25th September, I’ll be at Aspects Festival in Bangor reading at Bangor Museum at 1pm. The full programme is downloadable here and includes readings and events featuring local writers Tara West, Tony Macauley, Pauline Burgess, Sheena Wilkinson, Alf McCreary, Rebecca Reid, Jan Carson, Damian Smyth, Nathaniel McAuley, Michael Smiley and David Park, as well as journalists Martin Bell, Fergal Keane and Paolo Hewitt, columnist Virginia Ironside, war veteran Simon Weston, and as if that wasn't enough, cooking from (my favourite radio chef) Paula McIntyre. No harm to the rest of you but that last event sounds like the highlight for me. I’m thinking of going along with a mystery ingredient challenge – ways to cook a spring-loaded cabbage (and exorcise your writing demons in the process).
A little while ago, I was asked by writer friend Lesley Richardson to take part in a blog hop. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘so long as it’s not happening any time soon.’ (‘That was my reaction too,’ said Lesley, ‘you can do it any time you like.’) So here we are, five short months later, finally getting around to it. The idea is to answer four questions on your writing process, and then nominate up to three other writers to do the same, so here goes.
What are you working on?
A book - a novel to be precise. Don’t ask me for the title – I have a list the length of my arm, each of them suggesting a slightly different sort of book and the chances are that none of them will stick. I don’t know what it’s called because I don’t know what it is yet. As for what it’s about – it’s set on Rathlin Island, County Antrim, around the time of the wireless telegraphy experiments there in 1898. At least part of it is set then, and part of it is set in the present day, although that’s giving me lots of problems so that could all change. (You’re sorry you asked now, aren’t you?) I don’t really like talking (or writing) about it. It feels like a private thing while it’s happening. I would like to create the impression that it appears on the shelf fully-formed, jacketed and lovely, every word where it should be. I don’t really want you to know what an ugly malformed thing it is right now. I have to have faith that it will all work out in the end but dwelling on it in its present form with all its workings on show like a disengorged clock is not helping me.
How does your work differ from others of its genre?
I’m really beginning to regret that I agreed to do this now. What genre do I write in? Literary or historical fiction seems to be the agreed category, although, interestingly, none of my short stories have an historical setting, unless you consider the nineteen eighties to be historical, which I suppose you could argue they are. Where were we? Ah, yes, ‘others of its genre’. Well, I suppose the most obvious thing is that my characters tend to be from Northern Ireland since that’s where I spend most of my time, the royalties not having yet stretched to the purchase of the little flat in Florence. There are lots of writers I admire and whose writing skill I would like to emulate – some female, some male, some Irish, some not. Some of them write short stories, some write literary or historical fiction, some don’t do any of that. I don’t know how my writing differs from theirs except to say that most of them manage to produce more of it than I do.
Why do you write what you do?
I don’t think I have any choice. It’s certainly not a conscious thing. I don’t wake up in the morning and think: ‘Today I shall write like Alice Munro.’ If only it did work like that, if only you could take on another writer’s skin. (I’m always amazed when writers in workshops say they’re afraid to read too much in case they get influenced by other writers. As Patsy Horton of Blackstaff Press said at the recent LitNetNI Literature Development Day – ‘If you’re not reading, what are you doing?’) You can develop and improve your writing through reading and workshopping but I don’t think you can ever shoehorn it into a place where it won’t fit. You just have to try and do what you do better than you did it the last time you tried and the more of it you do, the stronger your voice becomes.
How does your writing process work?
Mostly, it doesn’t. It’s a very flawed and frustrating process but since it’s the only one I have I’m going to have to try and use it to finish this book at least. It involves writing lots of scraps of things in Scrivener and then moving them all around until they make a kind of sense. Then I print it all off in neat, double-spaced, typed drafts that are subsequently read and written over, through and under in biro with comments such as ‘check this’; ‘delete’; ‘rewrite’; ‘develop?’ and ‘What do you mean by this, you idiot?’, all of which are then incorporated into a new typed draft so that the process can begin again. There’s something slightly subversive about it. I like to deface the page. I find Scrivener really helpful but as for the rest of it, I wouldn’t recommend it. When this book’s finished, I’m going to shop around and find myself a new process, one that gets a book written in fewer than five years. (The picture at the top of this blog is of Altachuile Bay on Rathlin. It’s my chosen background when I’m writing in Scrivener. It gets me down the page.)
That’s it. And now for my nominated blog hop writer. Debbie (DJ) McCune is the author of the Young Adult trilogy Death & Co, published internationally by Hot Key Books. Death & Co. and The Mortal Knife are the first books in the series; the third book will be published in January 2015. Debbie 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. She read Theology at Trinity College, Cambridge but mostly just read lots of books. 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.
I’m delighted to say that Sleepwalkers has been shortlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize along with collections by Jaki McCarrick, David Rose, Rachel Trezise and John Burnside. The winning collection will be announced on Thursday 3rd July at the Free Word Centre in London where I will be quaffing something fizzy, regardless of the result.
I have returned, belatedly, to say that Sleepwalkers didn't win the shiny prize. It was won by John Burnside for his collection Something Like Happy; the Readers' Prize went to Rachel Trezise for her collection Cosmic Latte. Congratulations to both of them. We had a lovely evening, the Whittricks and I. There were chocolate-coated strawberries and the smallest Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte I have ever seen, so no complaints here.
Well, the daffs are out and still no sign of that book being finished. I have been working on it – honest, I have. (Just ask the staff at the library in Coleraine – Debbie (DJ) McCune and I are like two Occupy protesters, camping out there with our laptops practically every day.) Here’s the thing. I went to Oxford, to the Bodleian, to the Special Collections no less and there I found some very interesting things in the Marconi Collection. (Thank you again, The Society of Authors and The Authors' Foundation.) I didn’t really expect to find anything new. I thought I was going to do a bit of fact-checking, just to make sure there wasn’t anything I’d missed in relation to the Rathlin experiments. But, oh, was I wrong. It’s a treasure trove in there. What is it about libraries and archives that gets me so excited? Just give me a dusty old box and a foam book support (not forgetting a swipeable plastic card) and I’m in my element. So I found out more things and now there’s more to write. That’s just the way it is.
In the meantime, there are some readings to talk about. On the afternoon of Saturday 3rd May, I’ll be in Randal’s Bar in Cushendun, Co. Antrim (3.00pm) reading from and conversing about Sleepwalkers and The Butterfly Cabinet as part of the Cushendun Big Arts Weekend (free event). I’m not sure you know how exciting this is. I spent some time in Cushendun in November of last year writing with friends. The high point of the visit may have been a sighting of the goat, tethered outside Randal’s, in his high-visibility jacket. (I know I’ve mentioned this before but it’s not a sight you see every day.) By May I reckon he’ll be in his spring/summerwear. I’m very much looking forward to getting reacquainted. If you fancy a bit of craft, picnicking, sand-sculpting or even Percy French it's most definitely the place to be. There's a 'Share a Poem' session in Randal's at 1.30pm on the 3rd May, just before the reading. Full details at www.cushendunbpt.org.
Then on Wednesday 21st May at 1pm, I’ll be reading (from Sleepwalkers) along with the fabulous Sheila Llewellyn at a Literary Lunchtime event in the Ulster Hall in Belfast. Sheila is a student of the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen’s University, Belfast. Her short stories have been shortlisted for the Seán Ó Faoláin Short Story Prize, the Bridport Prize and the Costa Short Story Award in both 2013 and 2014. Her radio play won the RTÉ P.J. O'Connor Radio Drama Award in 2011 and the New York International Radio Festival Silver Award for best scheduled drama broadcast in 2012. Tickets (£4) are available from the Ulster Hall Box Office or tel. 028 90 334455.
But (STOP PRESS!) before any of that, I'll be reading from Sleepwalkers at the Verbal Arts Centre in Derry on World Book Night (Wednesday 23rd April) at 7pm. (See? I do, occasionally, come out at night.) I'm told the programme includes Jennifer Johnston, Brian McGilloway, Kenneth Gregory and Carlo Gebler - so there's four more good reasons to come. This is a free event. The VAC will be giving away free books and offering a book swap shop on the night. How many more reasons do you need? For more details contact the VAC on 028 71 266946.
And now it's back to the writing again for a little while before I'm let out to play. More news anon.
These are the sturdy daffodil bulbs that have sprouted, unaided by us, in the wasteland that is the cleared garden of our new house. I’ve been keeping an eye on them, using them as a measuring gauge. I have a week left before I need to deliver a draft of the Rathlin book to my agent. I think a flowering before then would be a good sign.
The book still needs a shed load of work but it’s getting closer and closer to what I want it to be. Because I’ve been working on it like billy-o over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about my writing methods and all the problems that I create for myself. About a year ago, I started using Scrivener, a software package that allows you to import your sources (images, page references, weblinks etc.) into one virtual space and to navigate easily within a large body of writing, something that suits my working method very well. I’ll be working on a passage that’s currently placed about two-thirds of the way through the book and realize that if this is what’s happening now (and it looks like it is), then I’m going to have to rewrite that section on the third page and if I do that, I’ll have to move (or delete) the scene that follows directly after it and actually, now I think about it, maybe I should move that section that’s currently on page 84 so it comes much later in the book… You get the picture. I have never been able to write a story chronologically. I have always written in fragments, in scenes, laid them down on the page more or less in the order in which they’ve been written, on the understanding that I’ll be able to move them around at a later date. In many ways, it seems counterintuitive to me to use words to tell a story. (Bear with me.) By its very nature, reading is an orderly process, letters follow one after another on the page or the screen, black type on white background, top left-hand corner to bottom right (at least they do if you’re reading in the western world). But that’s in no way representative of what the writing’s trying to do – to evoke a life in all its messy, multi-textural, multi-dimensional, multi-sensory, technicolour glory. There are days when the challenge of achieving that with marks on a page seems like asking for the impossible.
One of my favourite quotes on writing is from E.L. Doctorow: ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ Except for me, it might be a little more like stumbling about in circles by torchlight. The pace is much slower and much less assured and could in no way be described as linear. I often begin by writing about a place so when I start, I don’t even know whose eyes it is that are viewing the scene. I don’t know who it is who’s just spoken in that last passage, I don’t know what’s happened to them or what’s about to happen. It’s a very free way to write - I like to surprise myself. I like to do what I never like to do in real life – I like to get a little lost. As a writing method, it would work really well if it didn’t matter that no-one ever read what I wrote but me. The thing is, I do want other people to read what I write and when it comes to the stage of making it readable, it gives me a massive headache to put the whole thing together in a great big eighty-thousand-piece jigsaw.
It's not that I haven’t looked at other methods of working. Over the years we’ve investigated quite a few in the writing groups I work with. Author David Mitchell suggests drawing a kind of herringbone: ‘The spine represents the whole novel, bones coming off the spine represent chapters, and sub-bones represent scenes with sub-sub-bones spiking into foliage of dialogue, lines and ideas which will feature in those scenes. A godawful mess, to be sure, but it makes sense to me.’ I’ve also read about the snowflake method although I have to confess, I’m none the wiser. I recently heard Barbara Taylor Bradford interviewed on the radio, saying that you should approach novel-writing the way an architect approaches building design – with a ‘sketch’ of what you intend to do. I have a friend whose writing method relies heavily on post-its and laminated A4 and A5 sheets. But here’s the thing I’ve discovered about myself – I don’t like being told what to do, even when it’s me that’s doing the telling. Writing (or drawing) a plan for a book feels a little to me like stitching yourself into your own straitjacket. I can’t do it. It seems perverse to try. Instead, I engage in something I’ve described retrospectively as ‘the patchwork quilt method’. I create each ‘patch’ (or scene, or fragment – whatever it is I see in the torchlight) as colourfully and as fully-textured and as completely as I can and while I’m doing that, I begin to think about pattern and how the pieces might all fit together. If I place the blue velvet beside the red plaid and the yellow corduroy below the border between the two will the blue seem paler beside the red, will the red make the yellow pop out? And when I reach the stage of devising the pattern I do it old-school style: I take a big pair of scissors to the printed manuscript, arm myself with a pen and a roll of tape and experiment with colour and texture and position. At the end of it, there will still be gaps, there will be scraps on the cutting-room floor, more patches will be required, but finally, finally, the stitching can begin.
I’m not too far off that stage now. Wish me luck - I’m going to need it. If the fates are in my favour, there’ll be a finished book before the daffodils are gone and before the wild Rathlin fuchsia is in full bloom.
A very Happy New Year to you one and all. I’ve been a lax blogger, I know, but to make up for it, here’s a (slightly coggly) gingerbread house. I can take no credit for its making – it’s entirely the work of my daughters. My one contribution was to attempt a halved chocolate button sombrero for the snowman, a move that resulted in the pinched, somewhat demonic look he’s sporting. I quite like it. He reminds me of Licht in John Banville’s Ghosts: ‘His eyes are brown and his brow is broad, with two smooth dents at the temples, as if whoever moulded him had given his big head a last, loving squeeze there between finger and thumb.’ The literary allusion cut no ice with the daughters, though, I was banned from all further tampering. Domestic goddess I am not (but then look at the trouble that can get you in…)
The truth is, it’s been a very busy few months. We moved out of temporary rented accommodation into our newly built house so for the past number of weeks, we’ve mostly had our heads in boxes saying, ‘I wonder where that would be…?’ At this stage, we’ve found all of the most urgent things but I must admit, after sixteen months without one, I’m very much looking forward to the first unspooling of tissue from a toilet roll holder that is fixed to the wall. That’s the true sign of a family who have no intention of going anywhere. It is, as Epicurus says, in the very small pleasures that we count our happiness.
There has also been some writing. There was a memorable November retreat to a house on a hill overlooking Cushendun Bay with good friends working on writing projects. We did our best to be tranquil and focussed and for the most part we succeeded, but it would be remiss of me not to mention the after-dark rescue of a car from a ditch on a narrow road above the bay, or the threat of night-time terrors and somnambulists, or the stories by the range (lit specially for us) in Johnny Joe’s in Cushendall, or the delights of the caves, or the encounter with a goat, tethered to a post by the hotel in a high-visibility jacket. We each of us came away with our heads a little busier, and with more words to show for it.
I’m not much of a one for resolutions (although I’m thinking of adopting Woody Guthrie’s ‘Rulins’ recently shared by a Facebook friend.) What I can say with a degree of certainty, is that 2014 will be the year that I finish the second novel. It’s been a difficult one to write (when is it not difficult to write?) but the thing has a shape now, I can see what it might be. Its completion has been made more imminent by some welcome late 2013 news – a letter from the Society of Authors to say I’ve been awarded a research grant. The Authors’ Foundation at the Society awards grants for work-in-progress to writers under commission from a British publisher (or to writers who have had one book published by a British publisher and whose next book is likely to be published in Britain). What this means for me, is that I can take some time out to travel to the Bodleian Library and to the Museum of the History of Science, both in Oxford, to research the Rathlin story. I don’t want to say too much about the book, I’m a little bit superstitious in that way, but I’m excited at the prospect of finishing it. That will be a very big pleasure and in the meantime, a wall-mounted toilet roll holder will do just fine, thank you. Bring on 2014. I'm ready for it.
It’s quiet, isn’t it? If you listen carefully to this picture, you can hear the frost thawing on the leaves. Think of it as the equivalent of the 1970’s BBC test card, but without the scary clown face. There are no broadcasts. There is writing going on. I’ll be back when normal services resume. Thank you for your patience.
At 11.30am on Saturday 31st August 2013, you will find me up Pogue’s Entry (no nonsense out of you Irish speakers) where I will be ensconced in the chimney corner in the birthplace of Alexander Irvine, reading from his much-loved book, My Lady of the Chimney Corner.
The reason for this is that Antrim Borough Council is currently celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of one of its most famous sons. I didn’t know much about Alexander Irvine, but I’ve been reading Alistair J. Smyth’s introduction to the book and I like what I hear about him. Born in Antrim town on 19th January 1863, Alexander was the ninth child of Anna and Jamie Irvine. His father was a shoe-maker, poor and illiterate. His mother had been educated, was destined before her marriage to become a teacher and was a sincere devotee of the Church, but her love for Jamie led her to leave her home in Crumlin and to set up house with him in Antrim to a life of severe poverty and hardship. Despite their difficulties, she is portrayed by Irvine as a beacon of wisdom and hope to her family always and as a profound inspiration to her youngest son.*
As a youngster Alexander worked as a barefoot paperboy and then as stableboy to the local landlord. He laboured as a miner’s mucker in the coalmines of Scotland before joining the Royal Marine Corp where he finally got the education he’d missed out on as a child. After spending some time at Oxford University, he emigrated to the United States where he began his ministry in the New York Bowery slums. In 1903 he took his doctorate in theology from the University of Yale. He was a YMCA padre in the trenches during the First World War; he was invited by Lloyd George to address the miners of Britain who refused to return to work after the General Strike; he was later elected to the National Executive of the American Socialist Party. Wherever he went and whoever he met, he never forgot where he came from. He had an abiding affinity with the working classes and he accredited his philosophy on life to the woman who taught him so well as a child. ‘Sunk in direst poverty all her life,’ he wrote, ‘my mother in her chimney corner was a minister of light. Her sayings came to me with fresh meaning: “There’s only one kind of poverty, and that’s to have no love in the heart.” … In the face of poverty, when food was poor and scanty and our clothes in rags, my mother, in every respect but the material one, was a lady…’ My Lady of the Chimney Corner is a fascinating social history of late nineteenth century Ireland and a heart-warming, often humorous, and moving tribute to the mother who had such a profound influence on the man.
Admission to the reading is free - you’ll find directions to the Irvine cottage here. I’ll be reading a chapter from Alexander Irvine’s book and an extract or two from The Butterfly Cabinet as well. The life that Anna Gilmore Irvine led in reality seems not that far removed from the life that Maddie McGlade’s mother would have lived in fiction. I wish I’d known about her before. The Irvine celebrations include a lecture by Alastair J. Smyth and continue into September of this year so come along if you get the chance. I guarantee that by the end of it, you'll be as transfixed as was Hughie Thornton in Irvine's book, with your blood frozen like the icicles hanging from the thatch and the hair standing on you like the bristles in O'Hara's bog.