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.
I was asked to write this blog for a US-based website a little while ago, but as far as I can tell, it has never appeared. So waste not, want not. I get quite a few queries on this very subject so here’s my attempt to answer the question, 'How did you get your agent?'
In 2005/06, I was working on a collection of short stories, with the help of a SIAP award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. I had also been offered a place on a mentoring scheme run by the Creative Writers’ Network (sadly, no longer in existence) and was working with writer Damian Gorman as my mentor. I’d read an historical article in a local parish magazine about the story of Annie Montagu - how she tied up her three-year-old child in a wardrobe room at Cromore House in Portstewart in 1892 and returned to find the child strangled. Cromore House is about a mile from where I live. My idea was to start with this story, the keystone of the collection, and to work my way through ten or so connected stories, in decades to the present day. As it happens, I never got away from the first.
After a few meetings, Damian asked if I was sure I wasn’t writing a novel? The thought terrified me. I’d had some short stories published in individual magazines and anthologies, a collection seemed manageable, but I had no idea how to set about structuring a longer piece. He encouraged me to set out the sequence of events as I knew them and, gradually, bit by bit, a longer story began to weave its way. I reached the end of the mentoring programme, and of the Arts Council award period. I had satisfied all the funding terms and conditions. I had written about 30,000 words. I resumed work as an arts fundraiser and writing facilitator. I was working on a theatre piece for production by Cahoots NI and life was busy. At that stage, my children were around six and nine years old. I realised with a bit of a shock that no one was going to come after me if I never finished this thing I’d started. I needed an incentive to keep going. So I developed a strategy. I’d keep writing, and start looking for an agent, and if I got through all the relevant listings in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and still didn’t have one, I’d work my way through all the publishers that would accept unsolicited submissions. And if I got to the end of that list, I told myself, I’d consider self-publishing. I was really hoping that wouldn’t be necessary. At that stage, digital publishing was a twinkle in the eye of Amazon and I’d never even heard of print-on-demand. I had no desire to deal with distribution and marketing, but I knew that the prospect of non-publication wasn’t going to get me to finish writing it, so I agreed that if all else failed, self-publishing it would be. I needed a glimmer of light.
I’d heard that agents would want to see a completed manuscript, but I reckoned that by the time I got to speak to one, I’d be near enough finished. Early in 2007, I chose five agents for the first round of submissions, all representing writers I admired, from a mix of London and Ireland-based agencies. I tailored every submission to their individual criteria. I wrote a letter based on the advice contained in articles in the Yearbook itself. I received a few muted responses: one agency wasn’t accepting submissions; one said they weren’t unanimous about liking it. Then one day, I got a call on my mobile. A few days before this, a motorist had driven into the back of my car at a roundabout. The company dealing with the incident was arranging a courtesy car while mine was in the garage. They’d been dragging their heels a bit. I’d been getting impatient. The name of the woman from the insurance company was Clare. When my mobile rang, I was in the back of my sister’s car, she and my Mum in front, and I was directing them around the one-way system in Coleraine. (If you’ve ever been in Coleraine, you will know that you can lose a day of your life in the one-way system. Missing your turn-off is not an option.) I was urging my sister to take a left, across two lanes of traffic. I answered the phone, heard the name Clare, assumed it was more mind-numbing insurance information, and distracted, carried on waving at my sister. It took me a few seconds to realise it wasn’t Clare from the insurance company, but Clare Alexander of Aitken Alexander Associates. Their client list includes Pat Barker, Sebastian Faulks, Germaine Greer. She was saying she’d liked what she’d read, that she’d like to read more. When did I think I’d have a final manuscript? This was around March. ‘By the end of the summer,’ I said. She’d look forward to reading it.
I didn’t have it finished by the end of that summer, or indeed, by the end of the summer after. I came up with what I considered to be a passable draft in February 2009. I had just won first prize for a short story in the Zoetrope:All-Story Short Fiction Contest in the US, a magazine founded by Francis Ford Coppola. Included in the prize was a direct-route submission to ten leading New York literary agents. Three of them got in touch. Did I have a longer piece of work they could look at? I did, but I thought of Clare. At no point over the previous months of writing did I consider not finishing the book, and that was because she had said she liked it. Her words had kept me going. I sent her an email explaining the US development.
‘We’re looking at opening an office in New York,’ she said. ‘Will you send me the manuscript?’
‘It’s not finished,’ I said.
‘Send it anyway.’
So I did, and she still liked it, and we signed a contract and a couple of months later, Mary-Anne Harrington from Headline Review said she liked it as well. Headline Review publish two of my favourite writers: Maggie O’Farrell and Andrea Levy. I was thrilled to bits. There was still plenty of work to be done and with the help of Mary-Anne, I was delighted to do it. The Butterfly Cabinet came out in hardback in August 2010, and was released the following year in paperback in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and Ireland, and as an ebook. It has been published in translation in Italy and the Netherlands, and is now published in hardback and paperback in the US and Canada by Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. I realise now how incredibly lucky I was that the book caught Clare’s eye.
Publishing has moved on a long way in the last few years. The rise in digital publishing has made self-publishing a much more attractive option. But if you’re interested in going down the traditional route, this would be my advice. Think about what kind of writer you are and what kind of reader your work will appeal to. What writers do you like to read? Who are their agents? Who publishes them? In what section of a bookshop would your book appear? Who is your profile reader? No one likes to be pigeon-holed; we all baulk a little at the idea of being categorised as a particular kind of writer; we like to think we have wide appeal. But in order to help agents and publishers to place our writing we have to consider who our potential readership may be. Years ago at a reading I attended the writer confessed, under pressure, to regarding his target reader as a slightly younger, somewhat sexier, marginally more intelligent version of himself. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. I think that, secretly, we may all consider our readers to be idealised versions of ourselves. Those readers are out there, waiting. We just need to know where to find them. And finding an agent is, potentially, one of the first links in the chain.
If you’re a writer or a reader (or, for that matter, a listener) and you’re in or around Northern Ireland in the next few weeks, you’re in for a bit of a treat. A veritable cornucopia of literary riches awaits you. Let me tell you about some of it.
First up, the Flowerfield Say the Word extravaganza is taking place at Flowerfield Arts Centre, Portstewart on Thursday 7th June. This is an (almost) annual gathering of up-and-coming local writers who assemble to share their work with writers from groups across the country. Everyone’s welcome. Kick-off at 7.30pm. Admission is free. If you can contribute something to cover the cost of refreshments (there’ll be a glass or two of wine, possibly a bowl of pistachios...) that would be great. If our weekly Flowerfield Writers meetings are anything to go by (and they are), prepare to laugh out loud, to choke back a tear, to cheer, to stare dolefully into the distance or to effect a look of general bewilderment. Let me know if you’d like to come along to read, sing, play an instrument, impersonate a clown, do an interpretive dance…? Musical accompaniment on the evening will be provided by our in-house band. So far, we have a ukulele and a guitar, maybe a harmonica, at least two tentative offers to play the spoons. None of us have heard them play. We don’t know quite what to expect. It’s going to be electric!
And as if that wasn’t enough to get you going, I am personally very excited about the number of excellent short story writers who are visiting The North in June and July of this year. Claire Keegan and Kevin Barry will read from their work at the John Hewitt International Summer School in the Market Place Theatre and Arts Centre in Armagh on 26th July. They are joined in the programme for the week (starting Monday 23rd July) by novelists Belinda McKeon, John Banville, Bernard MacLaverty, Aifric Campbell and Glenn Patterson and by poets Roger McGough, Frieda Hughes, Gillian Clarke, Adam O’Riordan, John F Deane, Catherine Phil MacCarthy, Thomas McCarthy and Leanne O’Sullivan. There are writing workshops, talks and performances and Stephen Rea returns with his reading from Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. (An event worth experiencing. I wrote a short piece on his performance at the Black Box in Belfast in January of this year. You can read it here.) The full programme for the John Hewitt International Summer School is here, including details of how to apply for a bursary to cover accommodation, some meals and all events for the week. Sure what’s stopping you?
In other short story news, Belfast Book Festival (11th-18th June) this year features readings from Richard Beard and Keith Ridgeway (Wednesday 13th June, 8.30pm, Crescent Arts Centre), Christine Dwyer Hickey and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne (Sunday 17th June, 4.30pm, Crescent Arts Centre) as well as readings from Colm Toíbín, Gerald Dawe, Brian McGilloway and Malachi O’Doherty. There are events for children and young adults with Liz Weir, Derek Kielty, Garrett Carr, Niamh Sharkey and Sheena Wilkinson as well as workshops, poetry, book talks and spectacle. The excellent LitNet NI are running a ‘Write to be published’ Masterclass with Nicola Morgan on Wednesday 13th June (7pm, the Crescent Arts Centre) and introducing three first-time writers Donal McLaughlin, Lynne Edgar and Darran McCann at First Writes on Thursday 14th June, 6.30pm, also at the Crescent. There’s a free Writers’ Day at the Linen Hall Library on Saturday 16th June, hosted by Publishing NI, Literature Forum for Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland Publications Resource with a host of information on getting published. I am delighted to be doing a lunchtime reading with Moyra Donaldson at the Crescent Arts Centre on Thursday 14th June at 1pm. We’re billed in the At a Glance section as McGill and Donaldson. We’re not, as this might suggest, a firm of solicitors (or undertakers) but a poetry/fiction mash-up. It’s madness, I know. We’re not even in the same genre for goodness’ sake. But hey, it works. Full programme available here. It's all good. Come out to something. Or I’ll send round the evil ukulele-toting clown to get you.
A little while ago, a friend of mine passed a copy of The Butterfly Cabinet to Tom Paulin. Tom Paulin is one of my favourite writers and critics. I was lucky enough to meet him years ago as a student at the John Hewitt Summer School which was then held at Garron Tower in County Antrim. I hazily recall a surreal moment when he was distracted by a squirrel running across the green outside and he stopped what he was saying and went off on a different topic entirely. I used to sit up to watch The Late Review on a Friday night just to hear him. The dream team in those days, as far as I was concerned, was any three of Tom, Germaine Greer, Tony Parsons and Allison Pearson. You could always be sure of a good set-to. They hardly ever agreed and if it looked like consensus was in the offing, you could rely on Tom to put the cat among the pigeons. He famously ‘lost the bap’ with Germaine Greer in 2002 when reviewing two feature films based on the Bloody Sunday shootings when the host Kirsty Wark failed to mediate, but one of my favourite moments is the night he described something (and to my shame I can’t remember if it was a book or a play or a film he was reviewing) as ‘a bag of boke’! His fellow critics stared at him uncomprehending, while every Irish viewer must have been rolling around their sofas laughing at his choice of the vernacular. Classic!
Anyway, Tom read The Butterfly Cabinet and wrote a comment on the flyleaf and gave it back to my friend and she returned it to me and since then, it’s been the copy that I use at every public reading because it’s become my good luck charm. I told my publishers about it and they tried to track Tom down before the paperback release in the UK to ask if they could quote him on the cover, but we couldn’t get a hold of him in time. Then a few days ago, my friend rang to say that she’d met him again and she’d mentioned it to him and he’d said, ‘Absolutely, quote away,’ so here it is. The Butterfly Cabinet is released today in paperback in the US and I’m relieved to say that, according to Tom Paulin, it’s not a bag of boke. Here’s what he wrote: ‘This is a remarkable novel – lively, beautifully written, with a host of powerful, eloquent characters. It is steeped in Irish history, folklore and landscape. It has great humanity and enduring authority. I wish Bernie McGill every success.’ Thank you, Tom, thank you, thank you, thank you!