This summer I’m trying something new – reading (almost) entirely on Kindle. Yes, as a lover of first editions, beautiful hardbacks and the feel of books, I can’t quite believe it!
Travelling light is part of this decision, as is the newly found ability to highlight and email the highlights to myself! I’m sure this function has been around since Kindle came out but it’s new to me, and suddenly makes the experience of electronic reading a little nearer to the real thing.
I’ve just finished reading An American Marriage on the Kindle and in no way did it impact on my experience of the novel. On the other hand I also finished a gorgeous hardback edition of the most wonderful Consellations by Sinéad Gleeson and Arnold T Fanning’s moving and memorable Mind on Fire. In all cases, the method of reading did not impact on the power of the writing or the stories.
And so, here is my summer reading – a mix of actual paper books and e-books – some on writing, some about writing, some about being human (as the best writing is). Travelling light and travelling far with a great selection of books to hand. Happy reading to you all!
Andrew, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your latest publication, a linked short story collection Sunsphere (BlazeVOX [books]: New York, 2019). A previous collection of fictions, Self-Titled Debut, won the Subito Press Prose Contest in 2009 and a novel The Big Red Herring is due in October.
SG: Let’s start with the cover image, which, I think captures much of what Sunsphere is about: people orbiting each other, people trapped with each other, people seemingly identical but inside so very individual. It strikes me that this book also speaks to the politics of our times –whereby we are part of this increasingly homogenised society and culture and yet we often fail to identify on a national level.
AF: It seems to me that people are constantly looking for that one thing they can use to define themselves, and they want this definition to be both inclusive (so they can have someone in their corner) and exclusive (so they can point at the people who don’t belong). The problem is, we either pick ideas we’re unsuited for (like Herbert in “White Dwarf Blues” who very obviously doesn’t mesh with the drug addicts he’s hanging out with), or we’re unwilling to move on when the old ideas don’t work anymore (Trevor and Kat refusing to breakup in “Do Kids in California Dream of North Carolina?” for instance). In both cases, we cling desperately to whatever it is that defines us, even once it becomes the nightmare version of itself. I think that’s what you’re talking about with the increasingly homogenized society. We want to be able to say, “This is what it means to be an American,” when really any country is just an arbitrary set of borders on landmasses composed of people who likely ended up there by chance. When we’re willing to move on, we can tap into our individuality, but that can be as dangerous as stagnation. Yang Wie-Te in “The City of the Sunsphere,” for instance, goes off on his own, but that almost kills him. Why? Because when you remove yourself from all of the accepted groups, even the smaller groups in society, you risk being ignored by everyone. So, we’re forever on our irregular, ellipsoid orbits, but we tell everyone they’re actually perfect circles. And they agree because their irregular, ellipsoid orbits are perfect circles too.
SG: Yes, I think that we do, as you put it, “cling desperately to whatever it is that defines us” especially in these polarised times. At the core of much of your work is, as stated on the back cover blurb, “a search for humanity”. Could you talk a little about this search in relation to your writing process for Much of the collection was published in journals including “Everything Under The Sunsphere” which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and I’m wondering about the order in which each story is placed and how that evolved.
AF: Honestly, the search for humanity wasn’t the conscious part of the book. Instead, I’d say Sunsphere is an argument for how humanistic science, including quantum physics, is. After all, my goal was to write a collection of stories focused on the concept of energy because that was the theme of the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville (the Sunsphere being the symbol of that fair). I also wanted to focus on entropy in the stories because World’s Fair Park was in shambles when I lived in Tennessee, and I thought it was interesting that the exposition based on energy had reached its entropic state. And so the collection came together via different forms of energy or concepts connected to energy (“The Physics of the Bottomless Pit” being kinetic energy, “Do Kids in California” being potential energy, “Everything Under the Sunsphere” being heat energy, “I Don’t Know Why” being entropy, etc.). It wasn’t until I was done writing the stories that I realized the material had taken me on a search for humanity, I think because science is our way to help us understand the universe which includes ourselves.
As for the order the stories appear in, it’s changed over the years (since the book wasn’t published until about decade after I thought of it as done). But “Do Kids in California” was always first because it’s the potential energy story and because it introduces us to the Sunsphere. That was also the only story I didn’t have the idea for prior to beginning the book. I had this big poster with all of the titles lined up next to the type of energy the story represented, except for potential energy… Much as “California” was always first, “I Don’t Know Why” was always the penultimate story, since the first narrator in the piece references the fact that it’s second to last in the collection. “You Are Where I Am Not” doesn’t have the Sunsphere in it because I wrote it after I thought I was done with the Sunsphere stories, but then realized it’d make a good final stasis piece. The other stories were organized for rhythm, keeping “Bottomless Pit” for the center, instead of putting such a long piece at the beginning.
SG: Hmm that’s an interesting intention – to explore how humanistic science is. Again I think it brings us back to polarisation – the arts/feelings and sciences/logic, them and us, the othering of everything. At the same time place – and the concreteness of it – is central to this book – the city, the land and, at the heart, structures that symbolise achievements, and celebrate understanding of the larger questions of life and our world. As the narrator says in Everything Under The Sunsphere:
“There is sun-poisoning. Heat sickness. Heat delirium. The inflamed, demented, diseased city runs wild. Careens down streets whose names change so often they have no names at all.”
There’s an interesting thread here – if I have picked up on it correctly – that speaks about the deep divide in American history the remains revealed in stereotyping, place and food names, and in a place where everyone has air conditioning except for the narrator. At the end of this story, the narrator realises that he – and everyone – is “able to look past the city of Knoxville…look past all of it…to see the place where the roads run logically and the streets’ names never change.” Could you speak a little about the connection between place and history?
AF: I don’t know if it’s there anymore, but when I lived in Knoxville in the early 2000s, there was this giant advertisement for Philco televisions on a brick wall downtown. To my knowledge, Philco televisions went bust in the ’60s or ’70s. Since I was born in 1978, I don’t know that I ever watched a Philco TV. And yet here’s this huge sign asking you to buy something you couldn’t buy with all the money in the world. Oh, sure, you could pick one up at a junk store or an antique store, but the ad didn’t say, “Buy a beat to hell television,” or, “Get yourself some old timey technology.” No, the sign was talking about new TVs. Seeing history imbedded in place like this connects us to the past, but also forces us to deal with change (since this too shall pass). Because I was willing to confront history, being confused by a TV brand I’d never heard of before, I researched Philco and learned about the Predicta, which I later used in The Big Red Herring. In other words, by paying attention to the history found in place, I discovered something new to think about (even though it was actually something old). More often than not, though, people will look through the Philco sign, or ignore it because it doesn’t immediately make sense (either because they don’t know what it is, or because they know its time has come and gone). Gene is like this in “Everything Under the Sunsphere.” So, the old Sunsphere is falling apart, while the brand new Sterchi building, which has air conditioning, is his respite from the Southern heat. But Gene wants everything to make sense, so he’d like Knoxville to be completely rebuilt, to be completely stripped of difficult history. It’s no surprise, then, that the arsonists use names they stole from a 19th century graveyard, since they represent the chaos that scares the hell out of Gene. And it’s no surprise that Gene imagines a rebuilt Knoxville “where the roads run logically, and the streets’ names never change.” He certainly thinks of that city as perfect because it remains the same forever. A pretty dream, but it’s impossible, and shows an abject terror of the difficult knowledge of the past and the change inherent in the future. But won’t the change in the future eliminate every vestige of the past? Obviously not, since in 2002 there was still an advertisement for brand new Philco TVs right in downtown Knoxville.
SG: Oh that’s an interesting interpretation of place and history. I was actually thinking of civil war politics, race, and gender but you make link how things are placed around us to how we identify in time and history through objects, what we own and how we project those identities to the world. Following on from this, your characters often speak at each other rather than to each other in a world that is so fast moving that, it appears, we don’t notice when we grow or change, and don’t often realise when the landscape around us has become eroded. In the very amusing “The Physics of the Bottomless Pit” rumours, conspiracy theories, stories and tales abound including advice on “what to do in case”. The story also has a section which calls out for you, the author, exclaiming “If anyone can hear me, please let him know….”. Can you comment on how this collection speaks to the busyness and depersonalisation of our society?
AF: “The Physics of the Bottomless Pit” and “I Don’t Know Why” are perhaps the two stories that speak to the busyness and depersonalization in our society the most. In both stories, the characters really never stop to think about what’s going on. Instead, they either ignore what’s going on so they can grind through their endless, inconsequential tasks, or they produce great amounts of irrelevant material on either the bottomless pit (that “what to do in case” you referenced, for instance) or the KnoxVillain threat, respectively. Occasionally, characters figure out what they need to do is less, not more, but nobody is willing to interrupt their busy schedules to listen to them. In the meantime, there are characters who break down and try to reach out, but since their questions don’t make sense, or are scary because they don’t have easily prescribed answers, no one really listens. I portray this in “Bottomless Pit” by using disembodied conversations between characters who never quite understand each other. “I Don’t Know Why,” on the other hand, has stereo speakers spread throughout the entire city of Knoxville that constantly broadcast static so no one can hear what anyone else is saying. The white noise doesn’t stop anyone from talking, though; it just ensures no communication will take place. Only simple commands can be comprehended, but with no context the simple commands end up leading to absurd ends.
SG: For me you’ve touched on our shrinking attention span here, there’s so much communication – and so many ways in which to communicate – that we often end up saying nothing. Reading this collection more than once I thought of literary critics and writers such as Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan … and of course you quote Samuel Beckett at the start of “I Don’t Know Why.” Does this collection play as much with form and content as the role of reader and writer?
AF: When Ilana Masad interviewed me for The Other Stories podcast, she was really surprised that Sunsphere is a mixed collection, meaning it has stories of various genres and styles. So, I’m absolutely playing with form and content. But how do I play with form and content? I rarely sit down and say something like, “I want to write a science fiction story.” Instead, I have an idea or ideas, say that people erupt into destructive shock waves when they die and the Sunsphere, inexplicably, was turned into a miniature pulsar. I then ask what kind of story should I write using these ideas. After I asked that question, I began imagining the pulsar slowed way down, almost like a rotating spotlight that briefly illuminates different parts of Knoxville. In film, perhaps you’d use slow motion. In print, I decided extremely detailed descriptions of each part of the city would be best. That then reminded me of the way Alain Robbe-Grillet describes the banana plantation in Jealousy (1957) and the grounds of the resort in Last Year at Marienbad (1961), so reserved and meticulous.
Consequently, I ended up with a Robbe-Grillet inspired science fiction story. On the other hand, “White Dwarf Blues” turned out to be a parody of what I call drug noir stories because I imagined the super deadpan, super depressing works by Hubert Selby, Jr. or Bret Easton Ellis and wondered what it’d be like if a character was really, really happy to be in one of those stories. Herbert, the happy character, keeps trying to act all burned out, but he can’t do it because he’s so excited. Now, in the collection as a whole, I did require that all (except one) of the stories had to have some version of the Sunsphere and that all of the stories had to use concepts connected to energy, but otherwise the form came from the content of each piece. Meaning the stories in Sunsphere have thematic connections, but no stylistic or generic restrictions. That’s how I ended up with a mixed collection.
SG: So, does your work as a professor in a university speak to your work as a writer? And do you believe that all writing is creative (academic and otherwise).
Much as I write metafiction, I would say I’m a meta-teacher, meaning I not only ask my students discussion questions, I then tell them why I’m asking those questions. It always drove me nuts when I was a student and a prof would take a particular position, but wouldn’t say why they were taking that position. Furthermore, I’m lucky enough to run creative writing workshops (which have always been my favourite classes). These workshops keep me asking what is this piece doing, how is it doing it, why is it doing it, and how well does it work, so I then ask myself those questions when I’m editing my own writing. Not to mention the fact that my students keep me updated (either purposely or otherwise) on what is going on in the world. For instance, I’ve taught classes where a great many students were all writing, say, fantasy, and so I end up getting familiar with what is going on in fantasy now through their writing and influences, and then by the research I do in order to help them.
And, yes, I do believe that all writing is creative. I wish we saw it that way more. Instead, we tend to approach critical papers like math problems and try to grade them accordingly. Much as there are many theorems in geometry, we try to load the students down with as many rules of writing as possible (including heaps of rules that aren’t actually rules of writing at all, but more like pet peeves a particular teacher might have). Consequently, when the students roll into my classroom, they’re terrified to write because they’re positive whatever they say will be wrong (grammar mistakes often being the greatest fear my students have). It’s then my job to get them to accept that good writing doesn’t come about in one draft. Hell, the first draft, you shouldn’t think about any rules at all, you should just get ideas down on paper. And, yes, as you move forward, there are more guidelines to follow, but they get easier to follow once you know what you’re going to say, how you’re going to structure it, and on and on. Although it often takes a while for them to believe me, they do usually come to understand that writing is easier when you’re not trying to write a perfect draft in one go. I feel like creative writers understand that. And so, I bring as much as I can from creative writing into composition in the hopes it’ll help allay those fears that only end up destroying writing (often before it even actually starts).
SG: Oh I love that you think that all writing is creative. I also think that and find, like you, that teaching is wonderful engagement with writing and reading in ways that feed into my own practice. Speaking of practice, what, if any, is your writing ritual?
AF: Although I have written in the day, I prefer to write at night. Not only am I an Indoorsman, I am also a night person. I do my best thinking and writing after the sun goes down. While writing, I can’t listen to music for some reason, but I do need noise. So, I usually have a floor fan buzzing monotonously or one of those background noise generators going. Especially when I’m working on the early stages of any piece, I pace a lot. The most difficult thing for me is to look at a blank page. If I sat there and stared at the screen, I’d never write anything at all. So, I walk back and forth, talking to myself about what I’m trying to do. Once it starts to sound good, then I sit down and type a little, then pace more, type a little, pace more, sometimes imagine other things (I’m fond of pretending that I’m a knuckleball pitcher for a baseball team), and then back to typing. Once I have pages filled up with writing, normally well-structured but poorly written, then I’m happiest because all I have to do is focus on making the sentences sound the way I want them to sound. I also take tons of notes, which is another way to generate lots of writing so I’m not dealing with an awful blank page. But, yeah, at night, fan buzzing, pacing, note-taking, occasionally typing, and as the typing increases, the pacing decreases.
SG: Here’s where we differ! I’m not a pacer – more of a procrastinator, making tea kind of person – and I’m more of a morning or late night but not into the night person. I love how we all find our own spaces and paces.
Lastly, Andrew, some fun questions:
Sea or Lake? Lake. Preferably the great ones next to Cleveland or Chicago.
Dogs or cats? Neither. Although a friend of mine had to take care of a robot dog for a while at the University of Alabama, and I thought that was pretty awesome.
A robot dog! Fabulous. Beer or wine? I never drink … wine. So definitely beer.
High Street or Mall? When I was a kid, my dad worked at the power plant for Chapel Hill Mall in Akron, Ohio. So, anytime I go into a mall, I remember going to Chapel Hill when I was a kid (although now it’s almost a dead mall). The strange thing is, I’m not especially fond of shopping in malls. I just like walking around in them sometimes for that nostalgia rush.
Inner city or suburbs? Definitely the city. I lived in Chicago for five years in the city itself. And I very briefly lived in NYC in the city itself. If I could live anywhere, I’d absolutely live in a city, not outside of the city, and certainly not way outside of the city.
What are you reading right now? Since I’m currently teaching a class on the alternate history genre, I’m reading Karen Hellekson’s The Alternate History, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Sur,” Maureen F. McHugh’s “The Lincoln Train,” William Sanders’ “The Undiscovered,” Poul Anderson’s “Delenda Est,” Larry Niven’s “All the Myriad Ways,” Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner’s “Mozart in Mirrorshades,” and Lawrence Watt-Evans’ “Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers.”
Wow, what a list! So, what’s your next writing project? I’m currently working on a collection of essays called The Great Indoorsman. The title is the title of the book and of an essay in the book that’s already appeared in Heavy Feather Review. The other essays are specifically about me exploring various indoors spaces (since I’m not much a fan of the out-of-doors). Most recently I had an essay in The Iowa Review called “Filk” that’s about filk music and old video rental stores. Also, The Big Red Herring, my novel, comes out October 28, 2019.
SG: Thanks, Andrew, for engaging so thoroughly with this Writers Chat. I wish you all the very best with your many publications and I will look out for your novel The Big Red Herring later this year.
About Andrew: Andrew Farkas is the author of two short fiction collections: Sunsphere (BlazeVOX Books) and Self-Titled Debut (Subito Press), and a novel: The Big Red Herring (KERNPUNKT Press). His work has appeared in The Iowa Review, North American Review, The Cincinnati Review, The Florida Review, Western Humanities Review, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. He has been thrice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, including one Special Mention in Pushcart Prize XXXV and one Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2013. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Chicago, an M.F.A. from the University of Alabama, an M.A. from the University of Tennessee, and a B.A. from Kent State University. He is a fiction editor for The Collagist and an Assistant Professor of English at Washburn University. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.
Niamh, You are very welcome back to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your second novel, Her Kind (Penguin: Dublin, 2019) already shortlisted for the EU Prize for Literature. This follows on from your poetry collection Inside the Wolf and your debut novel The Herbalist (Penguin, 2013) which we talked about at our last Writers Chat (republished at the end of this chat!).
SG: I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in 14th Century Kilkennie. Anna Carey in her review in The Irish Times rightly said that ’14th century Kilkenny is so evocative and atmospheric the reader can almost taste the honeycombs in Petronelle’s carefully tended hives and feel the heavy animal pelts that line Alice’s secret chamber…’
Her Kind is set in Kilkenny over the course of seven months and I loved the details you included at the start of each chapter, for example, in September we get a line from The Triads of Ireland, ninth century: “Three darknesses into which women should not go: the darkness of mist, the darkness of night, the darkness of a wood.”
In yourIrish Times interview with Rosita Boland, you spoke about how Her Kind aims to reach out to women like Petronelle. Can you tell us a little about your research – how you came to evoke –what feels so accurately to me – the land, the society, the politics, the divisions, the lives of the women and girls in this place, at this time?
NB: Thanks Shauna, I am really glad you enjoyed the epigraphs at the start of each chapter, I love that ancient triad, it’s very telling, the mist, woods, and night are such liminal spaces. The quotations that start each chapter, are there to indicate the era without hitting the reader over the head with history. I wanted the unfolding story of the sorcery trial to feel immediate and vivid – so research wise, I was seeking out the micro-history – the textures, taste and atmosphere of that time, as much as the politics. The research took a few years – I took a bee keeping course, studied effigies from the 14th century, reading archaeological reports, researched food, wolves, Brehon law, common law, the ancient custom rolls, translations of ancient manuscripts and spent a lot of time in Kilkenny itself. I came across so many fascinating books, highlights included works by John Bradley and John Prim, Cosman’s Medieval Word Book, Coulter’s Medieval Panorama, Maeve Brigid Callan’s The Templars, The Witch and the Wild Irish by Four Courts Press, and Witches Spies and Stockholm Syndrome by Finbar Dwyer, The Sorcery Trial of Alice Kyteler;A contemporary narrative by Pegasus Press and the Liber Primus Kilkennius.
SG: Such solid research, Niamh. And what you found in these publications you seamlessly wove into your fictional narrative. Following on from this, the city of Kilkenny and its surrounds are drawn out beautifully in Her Kind.
Just like Hightown and Irishtown, the cathedral itself was behind walls. Kilkennie, it seemed, was a riddle of walls, a stone honeycomb. We climbed steps to yet another archway and entered the grounds. Before us, stood the highest, narrowest bell tower I’d ever seen. Its door was set off the ground, with no stairs or ladder to reach it. The cathedral huddled behind it, like a giant child. I walked towards the church, taking in the coloured-glass windows and enormous oak door. Heads were carved above it, watchful monkish faces, peering down.
You also help place the reader right in-situ through snappy dialogue. This is a long quote but I just love how we really feel we’re there with the women:
The shambles was rowdy with pigs, sheep and chickens, penned or tethered. A pup lapped a pool of blood. Shit spilt from the haunches of frightened beasts. The air was full of flies and feathers. Meat hung on hooks from the butcher’s house front. He was a winky smiler.
Helene elbowed me and grinned. ‘I’d marry him on the spot only for the sound of those knives sharpening.’
We came then to a wide road where houses stood shoulder to shoulder. Shutters were propped like tables beneath each window, laden with bolts of cloth, medicines and bright spices. ‘Paprika. Ginger. Cinnamon …’ Helene chanted, waving her finger, mimicking Dame Alice’s habit of listing her treasures.
Traders shouted their wares, boys pushed barrows of offal, swine ran riot.
It strikes me that you might have enjoyed re-visiting Kilkenny and perhaps took many a stroll through the city to help you?
NB: That’s true! I spent a lot of time in Kilkenny, especially during the first three years of writing the book. I walked the city, following in the footsteps of my characters as I wrote their scenes. The medieval Mile Museum hadn’t been finished then – it’s a must see for anyone visiting Kilkenny – but I spent time examining the effigies on the site. I visited St Canice’s Cathedral itself – where the effigy of Bishop Ledrede is still in place. It was he who instigated the trial against Alice for Sorcery. It’s eerie to stand beside his stone likeness. His remains are no longer inside the tomb, it’s said that Cromwell’s soldiers tossed them on the dung heap when they invaded. The cathedral was also where I came across the anchoress’s grave. An anchorite or anchoress is a hermit who gives up ordinary life for a solitary life of prayer – they are often sealed in between the walls of a church, with only small ‘squints’ or windows to receive food through. The figure of a nun is carved onto the anchoress’s grave stone. Her hands are held in old style prayer position, palm facing outwards rather than palms together. When I placed my palms over her stone ones, I felt a strange sensation, close to the one that Petronelle describes in Her Kind, that of an old truth pushing back – that day the character of Agnes the anchoress came to life.
SG: Oh how wonderfully eerie. The picture of your palms over her stone ones made the hair on my arms stand on edge! I was particularly taken by the portrayal of the inequality based on gender, language, looks, and, of course, wealth. The theme of economic and bodily power runs strong through Her Kind and, as we all know, is not so different to today’s society. Petronelle’s daughter Basila – a teenager in today’s terms – is very aware of this. She states: “Most of the musicians were Gaels, and it wasn’t just their long hair that made me know this – there was something about their faces. I wondered about mine and my mother’s. Did our faces tell on us, too?”
That her true identity will be discovered is a constant worry for Petronelle, yet, without spoiling anything for those who have yet to read the novel, Basilia’s muteness is what proves to empower. (What a last line!) Can you talk a little about this mother-daughter relationship coupled with the power of speech – what people say, or do not say, and the role of the act of naming and re-naming in Her Kind.
NB: The gaps between ‘Motherhood’ as a construct versus motherhood the reality interests me greatly. I enjoyed writing the soothsayer Lithgen most of all, probably because she predates contemporary assumptions about motherhood. She does not follow her daughter Petronelle when she is driven from Flemingstown. She does not even consider doing so. In today’s society she would be considered a ‘bad mother’ – self-sacrifice has become so central to the concept of motherhood. Lithgen however, is herself, first and foremost. It is she who recognises that Basilia uses silence as a weapon. Basilia who becomes mute after a trauma, soon realises she might not even want to start speaking again. It becomes a way of punishing her mother. She has very little leverage, so withholding her voice becomes a sort of power.
Gaels were not welcome in Hightown, which was also known as Englishtown. So, when Dame Alice takes the mother and daughter in, she renames them Petronelle and Basilia. It’s the price they pay when they cross her threshold. Esme the cook calls it being named and tamed. They may have been named, but they are not tamed. When Petronelle says – I am not myself. Basilia wonders where her mother’s real self is…’had my mother and her soul become parted in the woods – could it still be there, caught in high branches, dark from the distance like a crow’s nest?’
SG: Yes, I love how nature reminds the women of who they really are, and their true power, throughout the novel. I really loved Basilia’s narrative voice. You captured her youth, her naivety, but also her powerful observations and ability to survive. This line, for me, so wonderfully summarized her character: “If only it was as easy to stop dreaming as it was to stop speaking.” How did her character to come to you, in contrast to the characters such as Alice Kytler, or Basilia’s mother, Petronelle de Midia who are based on real women.
NB: Basilia is less well known, but is on record as being Petronelle’s daughter. I’ve spent so long with her as a character, it’s not easy to remember a time before she existed, to recall how her character first arrived. I looked back on early drafts of the book to see what the first sentence of Basilia’s was, and found – Dame Alice gave us new names, safer than our old ones. I think her character grew from that line, and as one sentence led to another, she became more real. I free write the first draft by hand, and just let it flow. Initially the character of Basilia was born out of her relationship with Alice, her acceptance of the new name, her delight in Alice’s house, which she saw as like being in court, or what she imagined a court might be. I had the suspicion early on that she would not speak, and I always knew what that last line would be, so her characters arc was available to me (as a very faint line) as I wrote.
SG: I like how you describe her character line as faint – so it was there but you could not quite see it and it became clearer as you wrote her narrative. Your language is very poetic – not surprising given your talents as a poet – take, for example, this description of the daily task of washing that turns from one thing and brings us to another place, entirely:
After some time and an aching back, we lifted out the cloth, dumped it in cool water and wrung it out. When I unravelled the folds, I saw the embroidered nightingales had come up darker than the silk itself. ‘Give it another dunk. Use the stick. No need to soak your hands like that – look at your skin!’ My hands were tinted darkest at the cuticles, next to which my nail crescents gleamed grey. Later, in the kitchen, I tried to scrub my hands clean but my skin kept the blue tinge. I turned up my palms: my life, love and heart lines looked as if they were drawn with a quill. They seemed strange, as if they belonged to someone else. I thought of the lady, her dead baby and her desperate pleas.
Was this use of close, sensory detail that came to you in the first drafts or something that evolved as you went through the redrafting process?
NB: That image in particular, and a lot of the sensory detail came early in the first stage of freewriting, I think of it as an anti-logical phase and just follow the images. I catch them, and record them without trying to fix them into a narrative. I love Jane Hirshfield’s book – ‘Nine Gates, entering the mind of poetry’. She talks about how images hold the shapeshifting wisdom of a dream. The dye on Petronelle’s skin, the way the woad darkened the lines on her hand – was an early image, one of the first that came as I wrote. I recorded it, without knowing where it came in the narrative, or why it was significant. There’s a strong element of trusting the process, and just collecting images.
SG: And that’s something that takes strength to do, I think. To trust the process and follow – often blindly – one image to the next, one word to the next. Lastly, Niamh, some fun questions:
Kilkenny city or county? (A hard one, I know!) County, then I get to keep both.
Sun or snow? Snow.
Tea or coffee? Tea.
What are you writing now? A novel.
What are you reading now? Womankind Magazine.
Thanks so much for your generous answers, Niamh. I look forward to your next novel and wish you much continued success with Her Kind.
Keep in touch with Niamh on her blog and on twitter @NiamhBoyce
Awarded Hennessy XO New Irish Writer of The Year in 2012, Niamh’s debut novel THE HERBALIST, was critically acclaimed, won Debut of the Year at the Irish Book Awards and was nominated for an IMPAC Award. Inside the Wolf, her poetry collection was released in 2018. Her fiction and poetry have been broadcast, adapted for stage and anthologised, most recently in ‘The Long Gaze Back,’ ‘The Hennessy Anthology’ and ‘Hallelujah for 50 Foot Women.’ Her second novel, HER KIND (Penguin Random House) is based on the Kilkenny Witchcraft Trial of Alice Kytler. Nominated for the EU Prize for literature, the judges called Her Kind, ‘as searing a critique of our own times as is Arthur Millar’s The Crucible’.
WRITERS CHAT – NIAMH BOYCE – THE HERBALIST
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED JULY 2013
Niamh, many congratulations on your debut novel The Herbalist which is receiving rave reviews and climbing up the top ten charts! And welcome to my blog!
Now that The Herbalist has been launched, is in bookshops around the country, you’re giving public readings from it. Tell me how you choose which section to read? Do you have a favourite character or scene which you find yourself returning to again and again? I’m thinking, of course, particularly about the female characters which are so strongly envisaged in your novel.
Thanks Shauna, yes, I’m delighted with the reviews so far. As for readings, I try to read from the early sections in the book so as not to give too much away, usually from Emily’s point of view. She’s the girl who falls first and hardest for The Herbalist, and she can be quite funny. Lately though I’ve been drawn more and more to Aggie’s voice, despite the fact that she has less to say in the book, she packs a whack when she says it!
Which character or characters from The Herbalist surprised you the most – in terms of how you had imagined them and how their role in the story transpired?
Emily surprised me. I thought she would lay down, I thought she would be the sacrifice. The other characters thought that too. How wrong we were. And Carmel shocked me to the core, but I can’t say much more without revealing the plot!
That’s great, Niamh, I love how you describe how Emily shocked both you – as the author – and the other characters! It’s really about letting the writing lead. Now I know the genesis for The Herbalist is taken from a real life character. But tell me how important is the role of place for you when writing about an historical Ireland?
Place was hugely important, the town, the market, the lanes, the courthouse but most of all the river. As I wrote by the river I was very aware of the river that ran through the town decades ago; it was the same river, but of course also, not the same river. The pull of what the older river held was very strong, Aggie in some ways gives voice to this. I had the sense as I wrote that we in the present are a mere shadow of what has gone before, of the dead. That we are the ghosts, and not the other way around. So The Herbalist didn’t feel like a ‘historical’ novel when I wrote it- it felt more like a ghost story. Of course, I’m stating this in retrospect, at the time I avoided thinking in terms of genre. Maybe I was afraid of the term historical, especially Irish historical – there are so many connotations to the term that don’t apply at all to my book.
It’s interesting to consider how the publishing industry – or, indeed, the public – can put labels on creative work especially in relation to how the author ‘feels’ the work when writing it and then names it once the story has been told.
Writer Vanessa Gebbie asked me this question in relation to my novel and I think it’s a wonderful thing to ask: if you could have a painting of one scene from the novel which would you pick and why? And who would you have create it?
It’s a wonderful question! It has to be an image that puzzled me in the early days of writing the novel; one of a girl by the river. It took me almost 80,000 words to find out who she was, and why she was important. So my painting would be of that girl in her pale blue dress walking the river path, carrying a child’s suitcase. In the novel she believes that she is walking towards love. Those minutes of her life are so perfect, so full of hope, that it almost doesn’t matter what happens next. And I would have Chagall work his magic for this one.
How beautiful! I can just imagine the blue hues that Chagall would paint. So, tell me, Niamh, what’s next for The Herbalist and what’s next for you?
Well, The Herbalist will be released in the UK in the autumn, so fingers crossed! As for me, I’m working on another novel, and tidying up my short story collection – and I would love to write lots of poetry this year too.
That sounds like a busy but very exciting year for you.Thanks for the wonderful answers, Niamh.
Thanks for such interesting questions Shauna, I’ve really enjoyed answering them.
You’re more than welcome. I wish you continued success with The Herbalist and I look forward to your next publication!
Natalie Goldberg has written a lot about the concept of composting (in publications such as Wild Mind, and Writing Down The Bones) and creative practice.
So it’s about letting ideas filter, allowing characters to grow, permitting narratives to form at their own pace.
Psychologists (such as Sternberg and Lubart) have analysed the role of creativity in society and businesses.
But there is something so simple about moving from the mind to the body in the act of baking…..and you get rewarded for it too. Yes, let those ideas compost, get that body moving, free up your mind, leave those ingredients do their thing and, if you can, get out into the air; let those feet do the thinking.
Later you can enjoy that apple slice and experimental something with the left over pastry and apple. And when you’ve had the coffee and slice, it’s time to return to the work. You will probably have a few lines to get out of your head.
Mel Ulm’s blog about books, literature and writers The Reading Life, rightly declares itself “a multicultural book blog, committed to Literary Globalism”. It often provides insight into short fiction from around the world. In one of his recent blog posts he reviews my short story “Sybil’s Dress”, published this Spring in The Cabinet of Heed (Issue 19). Mel kindly describes it as “a marvelous story”, one which prompted him to find out about the real Sybil Connolly.
I’m currently reading the enthralling Her Kind by Niamh Boyce (Penguin: London, 2019) and looking forward to welcoming Niamh to my Writers’ Chat series shortly.
Meanwhile I received wonderful book post this week:
James Baldwin If Beale Street Could Talk
Hiro Arikawa The Travelling Cat
Mario Levrero Empty Words
Sinéad Gleeson Constellations
The hardest task will be which book to dive into first – – the choice of creative non-fiction essays (ones which beg to be savoured), the mind of a cat (the pull of life, there), urban scape (and that wonderful way Baldwin has with words), handwriting & notebooks (rather close to the bone). And I think, then, about the privilege of choice and wonder if I should write for a while.
For my 20th WRITERS CHAT, I’m delighted to welcome back Ethel Rohan.
Since we last chatted in August 2017, Ethel, your debut novel The Weight of Him wasan Amazon, Bustle, KOBO, and San Francisco Chronicle Best Book, and winner of a Plumeri Fellowship, Silver Nautilus Award, and the Northern California Publishers and Authors’ Award. Congratulations, and thanks for returning to Writer’s Chat.
SG: Can you tell us a little about the reception of The Weight of Him, and if, and how, it affected your writing? I always find that it is so difficult for writers to keep those two hats on – one in the midst of finding the way into a new creative project, and the other out and about meeting people and talking about the already published project.
ER: From my publishers’ perspective ( St. Martin’s Press and Atlantic Books), my debut novel wasn’t received well i.e. its sales were disappointing. As much as I tried to prepare myself for the challenges this book would have reaching readers (it centers on difficult subject matter, suicide, and a marginalized protagonist, 400lb Billy Brennan) I was hopeful it would succeed and was crushed when it didn’t fare better. The blow knocked my confidence and two years later I’ve only just recovered. From my own perspective, I still continue to receive a wealth of emails, messages through social media, letters (yes, handwritten letters!), and IRL responses that speak to how deeply the reader was affected by the book. This generous, heartfelt feedback has greatly buoyed me. I persist, and losing myself in writing new work has been my greatest salve.
SG: Well, if you consider why we write, alongside one of the roles of literature in society, I think it is to affect those who engage with it and to shine a mirror on society. Isn’t that the real measure of success?
In your new work, do you find yourself returning to the themes of The Weight of Him? They are themes not easily released from our psyche, I find.
ER: I never enter a story with any theme in mind, but invariably the same patterns and obsessions emerge. I think that’s true of all artists. I’ve even tried to fight it: This story will not be about food, hunger, guilt, shame, loneliness, friendship, missing parts, another “bad” parent, or one more dysfunctional marriage etc. but sure enough… I’ve made peace with my psyche at this point. My only objective is to tell the best, the most interesting and urgent, stories I can. Thus I allow whatever best serves the story to surface in freewrites and survive in revision.
SG: What a noble aim – to tell the best, the most interesting and the most urgent stories. And, of course, holding on to that belief that the work (the writing) will prevail. Tell me, Ethel, what are you working on now?
ER: Christ, I write so much, it’s finishing that’s the challenge. I’m good at plotting stories (which is interesting because I always enter a story blind, never knowing what’s going to unfold) but beyond the beginning, middle, and end where I have to work hard is with character, giving them interiority and complexity, and allowing the reader to deeply connect with each of them and the protagonist in particular. I currently have two draft novel mss completed, and am handwriting a third. The two complete draft mss need further full revisions that focus on theme and character, and I’ll return to them when I’ve finished this handwritten novel draft.
SG: That’s a fantastic outpouring and I completely get that – I’m the same, constantly moving and working on multiple projects. What’s next for publication?
ER: Aside from hopefully publishing some short stories I’ve been working on, and returning to personal essays, I hope to next publish one of the three novel mss mentioned above, and ultimately to publish all three. I’ll lead with whichever “finished” ms I believe to be the strongest and see what happens. What’s daunting, and frankly frightening, is that the low book sales for The Weight of Him will make publishers less likely to take another chance on me and I know I’ve got to write a story powerful enough (or in their own words “big” enough) to sway them. What I won’t do, though, is pander to any trend or market need. I’m staying true to the stories that I most need to tell, those that arrive unbidden and insistent, like surprise, pressing gifts.
SG: I think that’s the most difficult part of the writing life – that industry push against the creative urge. I’ll say it again… the work will prevail!
Lastly, Ethel, some fun questions
What’s next on your to-be-read-pile and and what’s last on the (same) pile? I have shelves of unread books, and a tower on my desk, and another by my bedside. From that former looming tower, I’m eager to next read Devi Laskar’s The Atlas of Reds and Blues and at the bottom of that pile (simply because I’m so behind in my consumption) is Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent. My first read when I return to Ireland in July with be Sinéad Gleeson’sConstellations.
I have Constellations on my pile now, nearing the top and at the moment I’m reading Niamh Boyce’s wonderful Her Kind. Tell me, Ethel, where did you take your last holiday? Aside from a couple of nights recently in Portland, Oregon, the answer is Ireland (although I’m not sure it can be considered a holiday in that it’s never restful!). Since I emigrated in 1992, I’ve returned 30+ times. My husband’s also Irish and all our family members are there, so the pull is huge.
And when you’re on holiday, do you bring Kindle or paperback with you? Never Kindle. Mostly paperback, sometimes hardback. And I leave every holiday with more books than I brought.
Tea or coffee when writing? Barry’s tea (and way too much Cadbury’s or See’s chocolate). Always. Praise be for the several import shops here in San Francisco where we can get all our Irish favourites (albeit at a premium).
Dogs or cats? Both, with a definite preference for dogs.
Thanks, once again, Ethel, for joining me in a Writers Chat session. I wish you the very best of creativity and luck with your current and new writing projects. Below is the ORIGINAL Q&A WRITERS CHAT, PUBLISHED AUGUST 2017
READERS: See below for the chance to win a copy of The Weight of Him!
Shauna: Let’s start right away with the title and your starting point for the story. In the Dublin launch in Hodges Figgis in June, you mentioned that the idea began with an image of a snow globe in a window. I remember thinking that was a powerful image – there’s layers there – and when I read that scene where Billy looks in the shop window, I knew exactly what you meant.
‘Billy wanted to shake the globe and bring it to life…His hand pressed the side of his head, as though trying to keep the egg of himself together.’
Can you expand a little more on this initial characterisation of Billy, in particular his emotional nub.
Ethel: Thank you, Shauna, for hosting me and for your tremendous support of writers and books.
The initial spark for my novel was a conversation I overheard in a Dublin pub about an obese woman in mourning. “The grief might just kill her before her weight does.” That statement stuck in my imagination and I wondered what if this woman’s grief and weight don’t kill her, but propel her to do something extraordinary?
That’s the question that drove me to the blank page. As soon as I started writing, Big Billy Brennan appeared in the white space. The first scene I wrote was, as you mentioned, Billy standing in front of a shop window, his attention fixed on a snow globe. As you’ve quoted, he’s filled with the urge to shake the globe and bring it to life. I knew in that moment I’d hit on Billy’s emotional nub and his impossible burning desire to bring his loved one back from the dead.
I don’t plan my stories, so the novel’s first draft(s) was really just me continuing to answer questions on the page as they arose. It was a risky novel to write and to publish (thank you, St. Martin’s Press and Atlantic Books). I met many hurdles in the telling, largely fueled by self-doubt. Mostly, I struggled with whether or not I had the authority to write about a 30 stone man. I worried whether or not I could make the unlikely marriage of the difficult topics of obesity and suicide work. I felt an enormous responsibility to handle both topics with sensitivity, compassion and honesty.
Shauna: While the narrative is told from the perspective of Billy, I found we got some close insights into his wife Tricia’s point of view. Can you tell us about their relationship and how much of it is viewed through the lens of grief, loss and unanswered questions?
Ethel: Point-of-view was another major challenge. I knew I was taking yet another risk in keeping the story wholly in Billy’s perspective—he’s the camera through which everything is filtered. But after multiple drafts, I became convinced that close third point-of-view was the right choice for this story. That sense of limit and containment mirrors how trapped Billy feels in his body and his grief, and also underscores how trapped Michael felt, and to a lesser extent, Tricia. The close third point-of-view also felt true to life. We can’t get inside others’ heads in reality—we know others only by their story and what they say and do—and that’s the way I kept it on the page. Limiting, yes, but sin a bhfuil.
With the close third point of view, it’s a bigger challenge to render the other characters as fully as possible, and in particular the main secondary character, Tricia. I only had the use of backstory, Billy’s perspective, and what Tricia does and says in scene. I learn who my characters are by both interviewing them off stage and putting them in scenes, to see what they say and do and how they interact with others.
In discovering who my characters were, I learned that Billy and Tricia’s marriage was troubled long before Michael’s death and that they were merely coasting along in a largely humdrum existence. Tricia felt betrayed by Billy because early in the marriage he lost the agency and sense of empowerment he’d exhibited in their courtship—his brief sense of bravado and buoyancy was fueled by the first glow of their love. When Michael dies, their relationship inevitably unravels further and they each grieve, and try to go on, in startlingly different ways.
Leaving some questions unanswered in the novel might seem like another risk, but again I tried to best reflect life and truth. Reality can’t be wrapped up and tied with a permanent, pleasing bow and neither should story. Suicides leave behind more questions than answers and our relationships with food and our bodies is ever-evolving. There is never resolution in all things in the world, so how can there ever be complete resolution in story?
Shauna: Oh I agree. Much of life is spent searching for resolutions, and often through stories, so leaving some questions unanswered was one of the powerful elements of The Weight of Him and one that served the portrayal of Billy and Tricia’s relationship well.
Now without giving away the plot, one of the elements of the story that stayed with me long after I’d finished the book was the emotional weight that is evoked through the work Billy puts into building his ‘other world’ made up of the imperfect miniature figures from the factory where he works. It is only in this world that he can save Michael, the son he lost to suicide, and it is only in this world he can be the ‘right son’ and the best father. Can you talk to us about the psychology of this powerful subplot.
Ethel: Thanks, Shauna, it took restraint in final revisions to keep concise and not get too caught up with the subplot of Billy’s alternate world, a wonderland that fired up my imagination.
In that first draft, I was deep in the writing, answering the question of where Billy worked, and the toy factory came to life on the page, and then the damaged toys appeared. When Billy secretly pocketed the first damaged toy, a soldier that represented Michael in his mind, the subplot developed from that pivotal moment. It was one of those rewarding, exhilarating gifts in the writing when what a character does surprises you and you know you’ve opened a rich vein.
Many of the scenes in this miniature ‘other world’ didn’t end up in the final manuscript but they did allow me to fully understand Billy’s psychology with relation to the damaged toys and the idyllic tiny village he creates for them—a perfect world where Michael is returned and the Brennan family is whole again. Of course, perfect doesn’t exist, not even in Billy’s pretend world. That was another of the lessons Billy had to learn and more of the suffering he had to withstand in this story.
Shauna: I walked for Pieta House this year as part of their world wide appeal Darkness into Light and was really moved by the sense of community and hope. Billy walks for suicide and uses the media as a way to come to terms with his loss and also give hope to others.
In a scene where his mother takes ill, the nurse in the hospital turns to him:
Her eyes stayed on him. “You’re the father from the newspapers, aren’t you, the one doing the suicide prevention fund-raiser? I heard you on the radio too. Well done, you’re an absolute inspiration.”
Ethel, not only did you donate the net earnings from your Dublin launch to Pieta House, but much of the novel focuses on the difficulty in getting people to talk about suicide and suicide prevention, and the roles (positive and sometimes negative) the media can play in this – in other words, how do we talk about something that is so painful when often the very thing to prevent, or help heal that grief, is to talk?
Ethel: Thanks for walking, Shauna. I did too, here in San Francisco. Suicide is preventable and one of the key ways to prevent it is to talk about it. For those suffering suicidal thoughts, it is never too early or too late to seek help and talk about your illness. For those, like me, who have overcome suicidal ideation, is it important to share our stories so others know that they are not alone and that there is great hope.
As a culture we need to educate ourselves on suicide and mental illness and lift the last of the stigma. At my most ill, I became convinced that no one would understand or care. We need to send a clear message as a culture that we do understand and we do care. Like every person suffering an illness, the suicidal should be accorded compassion, dignity, and the best of treatment.
Silence has its value, but not when it’s silence locked up by secrecy, shame and fear. That kind of silence causes enormous damage, and can be killing. So, please, just talk out the thing. I’ve found whatever it is we least want to talk about, that thing that we most want to keep in, that’s exactly what we should talk about and let out.
Shauna: Yes. And literature – storytelling – can be a way in which we can speak of these things and also the means by which conversations can be started. In The Weight of Him, despite the initial subject matter- that of an obese man who has just lost his eldest son to suicide – there is much beauty and hope.
“He roared. Roared till the scorch inside his throat and chest made the sting of his bloodied knuckles feel like nothing. Roared till he’d nothing left. Breathless, spent, he struggled back to standing, his feet slipping about in the muck and the pain pulsing in the sides of his knees. He pushed himself to the farthest edge of the cliff and lowered the flashlight to the ground. In life, Michael would not have been able to stand here next to him on the cliff’s edge. It would be nice to think the boy’s spirit was standing alongside him now.”
I found it to be a very human story touching on identity, relationships and discovering – through Billy – that we are all, in our various ways, striving to fully embrace who we are. And that wonderful line that Billy’s younger son Ivor says: “We get reminders about dying, so we don’t forget to make the most of living.”
Ethel: Thanks for such a close and generous read, Shauna, and for these excellent questions and observations. I think all my writing is ultimately my characters and me trying to find the beauty and hope in damage and loss. It’s how we can best go on.
Shauna: And isn’t that, yet again, much of life? Finding the beauty in the cracks, the cracks that are in themselves, beautiful. Thanks again, Ethel for such wonderful, honest answers. I wish you further success with The Weight of Him and I look forward to your next novel.
And now for the opportunity to win a signed copy of The Weight of Him – Irish and UK readers only! Simply add a comment below along with your name (first name will do) and an email address so we can contact you if you win. The winner will be picked out of a hat on Monday 28th August at 8pm.