Writers Chat 20: Ethel Rohan on the writing life after her debut novel “The Weight of Him” (St. Martin’s Press (US) and Atlantic Books (UK), 2017)

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 was an 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.

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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

  1. 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’s Constellations.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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

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I am delighted to welcome Ethel Rohan for a Q&A session on her debut novel The Weight of Him. Thanks, Ethel for agreeing to be featured on my blog and many congratulations on the wonderful reviews and accolades that your novel has been getting.

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. 

Connect with Ethel here: Twitter, @ethelrohan; Facebook, @EthelRohanAuthor; Instagram, @ethelrohan. Website, http://ethelrohan.com.

Order The Weight of Him  on Amazon or your local bookshop!

If you have been affected by issues raised in this post please contact the Samaritans in confidence on 116 123

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AND THE WINNER…of Ethel’s Rohan’s debut novel The Weight of Him…is Shauna!

Congratulations and thank you for reading and commenting.  I will contact you to get details of where to send the novel.

Thanks once again to my son for doing the honours of closing his eyes and pulling out a name!

And thank you to all those who have read and/or commented and most of all to Ethel Rohan for such generous answers.

Happy reading, folks!

 

 

Writers Chat 19: Maria Donovan on “The Chicken Soup Murder” (Seren Books: Bridgend,Wales, 2017)

Maria, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your debut novel, The Chicken Soup Murder (Seren, 2017), a finalist for the Dundee International Book Prize and shortlisted for the Rubery Book Award. This publication follows on from your short story collection Pumping Up Napoleon and Other Stories (Seren, 2007) and your flash fiction Tea for Mr Dead (Leaf, 2006).

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SG: I thoroughly enjoyed The Chicken Soup Murder and agree with the description which says it’s “part crime fiction and murder mystery, part meditation on grieving, friendship and family”. Essentially, it is a great story, I think, which defies genre, and sits outside all those boxes that the book industry want novels to sit in. Can we talk a little bit about this – did you set out to break with genre or did you set out to write a good story, filled with complex and lovable characters? What was your intention when you started writing?

MD: I tried not to think in terms of barriers and boxes while I was writing. A novel has to be written before it is anything at all and the only way I could see of getting there was to be true to myself, to the characters and the story. Of the story strands only one is the crime, the others have to do with the meaning of family and of ways in which different characters respond to their experiences of bereavement. Having said that, I should not be surprised that it is most often sub-categorised as ‘crime and mystery’. It’s just that it’s also humorous general literary or contemporary fiction, which could be described as ‘coming of age’ since the narrator is an eleven-year-old boy who goes through many changes.

The novel evolved, beginning with an incident in which my husband nearly killed me while I was making chicken soup. My reaction, after a bit, was to laugh, as Irma does: both of us laughing in the face of our fear of death. I teased my husband that I would one day write a story called ‘The Chicken Soup Murder’ and I filed it away under ‘Crime’. Yes, I did think that a puzzle and a mystery would give the reader something strong to follow but whatever the story was going to be I wanted it to also have emotional significance. I had no idea how that would work, or who the characters in it would be or what the story was or that it would even be a novel, until much time had passed and my life drastically changed. I didn’t begin work on it until I was already two years a widow. I did my best with what I had and was concerned with making something that did my themes justice and made an enjoyable, if sometimes troubling read.

But then comes the business of communicating with agents and publishers and the reading public. You have to succinctly describe what it is you’re offering. It is certainly much easier for publicity and marketing, for libraries, literary festivals, reviewers and reading sites, if you can do that in a few words and have a strong identity. You start noticing the industry use of the word ‘brand’.

It’s logical that booksellers and libraries need to know where you’re supposed to go on the shelf: from there stems an entire system of categorisation. Would it be a neat marketing idea to have a novel on several shelves in a bookshop at once? Or would that just be confusing? Would it seem as if the novel had much to offer or would it be seen a weakness? Anyway a first-time novelist must be glad of being given any space at all.

Only the experience of reading the novel will tell you if you like it but that can be said of many a book. Take it off the bookshelf and read the first paragraph. Online, you can ‘Look inside’. But here we come full circle. In some way you have, in the first place, to give people the notion that this is the sort of book they would like to read.

For the future: while I have learned more about this kind of categorisation, and respect the reasons for it and keep it in mind, I wouldn’t want to feel this put a brake on writing the kind of story or novel I want to write because then I might not do it at all and there’d be nothing to discuss.

SG: That’s quite amazing, Maria, that the idea involving chicken soup came from your own life, and then how you wove this personal incident into a whole fictional world. And then, in relation to how the novel is presented to the reading public, well, I love the idea of a novel appearing across genres – – and on many shelves! 

Writer Francesca Rhydderch has described this novel as ‘a lovely, warm-hearted novel about love and grief.’ What makes this exploration of grief so powerful was how it is firstly told through the eyes of Michael, an eleven-year-old who understands life through its patterns and habits. In a way, it’s what we all do – an attempt to control life – but seeing Michael struggle at Irma’s sudden death (which he is convinced is a murder) really brings the vulnerability of being human home to the reader. As Michael reflects:

Sometimes I wanted to cry about it: sometimes I wanted to shout or run to break the tight feeling – but everyone else was being normal so I had to be normal too.

And then later, on a rare trip to the beach “I keep thinking: Luxury. The luxury of being alive.”

This is something that we should all remind ourselves. Did you find that using a child narrator at this key age of transition helped you be more authentic in the exploration of life and death and coming of age? 

MD: It certainly helped me that I was filtering everything through Michael’s consciousness. His sensibilities about death and bereavement and how he sees other people cope or not cope were all things I wanted to show in an emotionally realistic way. Remembering what it was like to be that age and having been a child who thought about death quite a bit, I felt I could help him tell his story. Another thing: his observations of the adults around him are all we have and though it is important that his understanding of them as well as himself can grow and change, being Michael saved me, in this novel, from falling down the well of my own grief. If I had been too close to Janey’s mother or to Nan there would have been a danger of that. Though I tried once to change the novel to third person, it felt wrong and I couldn’t do it. It was Michael’s story and, given that I had so many other things going on, I was glad that I kept it in his voice.

SG: Yes, it is such a strong voice that really, I think the story couldn’t be told in any other. Sickness, loss, and the stories we tell ourselves to make things better also run through The Chicken Soup Murder. Janey’s family have lost their father, Michael has been deprived of his father and, without spoiling the plot, both of these subplots grow and change as the book progresses. You do this with a three act structure (the three parts to the novel) rather than using traditional chapters. Was this something that came organically to you as you wrote it or did you impose the structure when you’d finished?

MD: It was my plan to write a novel in three parts because I knew it would give the book a strong dramatic structure and as I have a tendency to incorporate ideas on the fly, it felt good to have reminders that we were supposed to be going somewhere. But the structure also felt organic to the novel. Each part represents a new phase in Michael’s understanding. If it hadn’t been right I suppose I would have done something different. I wanted a flow to it within these three big sections so just settled for white space to show changes in time, place or subject rather than clearly defined chapters. My dad said that this was fine but he didn’t know when to stop reading. Perhaps that could be seen as an advantage!

SG: My favourite character was that of Nan. She’s witty and she’s wise and she is a very complex character – she feels very real to me. When everyone around her is struggling, she manages to surmise the situation with humour and grace. She says to Janey when she’s worried that everyone has forgotten about her father because Irma has died “Ah, the league tables of grief. But it’s not a competition, Janey. Nobody wins.” Tell me about how you developed Nan.

MD: Nan is like an old friend now, one I loved from the start though I had to get to know her with all the experiences of her years. I felt I could rely on her to be herself and do and say what came naturally in any given situation. It is important that I knew her well because she has been the biggest influence on Michael’s life and character. Their relationship is key. I wanted her to be funny, forthright and fearless though for a long time her presence is muted by her need to keep a big secret.

In developing Nan it helped things along quite a bit to think of her as a person with more to her than her identity as Michael’s grandmother, though it is important to her to do a good job in that role. She’s a young grandmother though it might not always seem like that to Michael. She and I share certain cultural references and I wanted to show glimmers of her as the woman called Zena, who back in the day had been a rebellious teenager listening to Wreckless Eric. For a time, to remind myself that she has never quite lost her attitude, I kept a postcard of ‘Xena, Warrior Princess’ in view, in which the heroine is scowling, alongside the caption, ‘The way to a man’s heart is through his ribcage’. Nan takes no prisoners but deep down she’s kind and if you can make her laugh you’re halfway to disarming her. Nan has had some adventures in her life but now she’s dedicated to looking after her grandson and that is her strength and purpose. But she’s still her own person. I wanted her to use her sense of humour as a shield and to be willing to follow her own judgement. I made her wary of commitment, because she can’t bear to do half a job. If she takes on a responsibility she takes it seriously and does her very best. I also allowed her to speak her mind, which is useful, since what Michael tells us about what she says and does is all we can know about her. She is unabashed about giving what she thinks is good advice, such as the quote you mention. I’m grateful to her because if it weren’t for Nan that observation would have stayed in my mind, instead of which I could write it down and let the words come out of her mouth. And if Janey rolled her eyes when Nan said that, we don’t know, because Michael was in the back seat of the car.

SG: I love how real Nan has become to you, and you’re so right; perspective is everything in a novel. The first line of The Chicken Soup Murder is a great one – “The day before the murder George Bull tried to poison me with a cheese sandwich”. It captures the tone of the novel – serious topics told with humour and tenderness. Was it the first line you wrote or did it come to you when you’d finished the novel?

MD: As I recall I had that first line from the start – or very early on. I liked the idea of introducing my hero and identifying his enemy in one go, of Michael making a joke, half at his own expense, while establishing the important fact of the murder on which the novel depends. I liked the idea of him having not one big fatal flaw but a series of small ones, like lactose intolerance. It also helps to know that the big event is coming soon. Before we get to it Michael tells us about his paradise lost. Life has already changed because of the coming of the bully and the falling apart of his ‘family’ after Janey’s dad dies from cancer.

The only real difference is that the character also known as Bully started out with a different first name associated with yet another theme. When I’d nearly finished I had to deal with the fact that the name, which Michael uses most mockingly and cruelly in that draft, was also the name of a boy I knew. I struggled with this and though his mother gave me the go-head to use his name, in the end I decided that the whole theme, which was about child abduction and abuse, was pulling so hard that it was going to move the story away from where I wanted it to be. It was the right thing to do to remove that storyline. Changing the name to George gave me a name with a similar sound and a new set of associations that fitted fine with the novel as it was meant to be.

SG: It’s fascinating to hear about these big changes which are invisible to the reader but so present, even in their absence to the writer. 

West Bay October 2017
Maria at West Bay – featured in The Chicken Soup Murder

Lastly, Maria, some fun questions:

Mountains or sea? Sea. I’m scared of heights. But looking at mountains is fine too. I’m also fond of the Dutch mountains.

Ha! I love it. Brown bread or white bread? I nearly always buy brown but sometimes look longingly at white as if that is the greater treat.

Cats or dogs? Both have been wonderful friends to me but now I have neither and am mostly interested in the doings of the birds and insects in my garden and anywhere I go. Creatures that have the power of flight amaze me, as does the idea that birds still manage to live amongst us – just about. Blue tits built their nest in the garden last year and raised six young. That felt like an achievement.

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Maria’s dog Bertie, sadly deceased a few years ago.

What writing project are you working on now? I am aiming to finish another novel called The Miller’s Wife. It’s set in a dystopian near future in the southernmost part of the Netherlands and mostly concerns the miller’s agony of uncertainty as he tries to find out what has happened to his wife. There’s also an odd but possible romance with his new neighbour, an immigrant woman, who has been in the country for many years and who sets up her own investigation out of mistrust of the miller’s version of the story. Like Michael and Nan in The Chicken Soup Murder, these two will need each other’s help to solve the mystery. As you can see, I’ll need to work on that fifteen-word description.

SG: Well fifteen or fifty-word description, The Miller’s Wife sounds fascinating… I look forward to it!

I have in the background the novel I stopped writing when my husband died, and a few short stories I would like to complete to put together another collection.

For that short term finishing and publishing hit, I sometimes write very short fiction, poetry (of a sort) and songs. There are blog posts over at www.mariadonovan.com. There I experiment with ideas about truth and time, and question various assumptions. I am also trying to write a little more about the background to The Chicken Soup Murder so I thank you for your kind comments and your questions and the chance to go back and think about it all again. It has been educational.

SG: Oh, Maria, it has been wonderful to chat to you and it has been educational for me, too. Thanks once again and I’d encourage everyone to read The Chicken Soup Murder and check out your website. 

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Maria Donovan at the launch of The Chicken Soup Murder

 

 

 

 

 

“Sybil’s Dress” New Fiction in The Cabinet Of Heed Literary Journal

I’m delighted to have one of my new short fiction pieces appear in Issue Nineteen of The Cabinet of Heed Literary Journal curated by Simon Webster.

“Sybil’s Dress” is inspired by a Sybil Connolly dress that I saw on exhibition at Collins Barracks a few years ago. You can read the story here. 

While you’re going through the drawers in the cabinet, have a read of the other wonderful pieces at The Cabinet of Heed from writers including Nigel Jarrett, Mari Maxwell, Neil Campbell.

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Writers Chat 18: Wade Stevenson on “Songs of the Sun Amor” (BlazeVox: New York, 2019)

Wade, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your latest publication, a poetry collection Songs of the Sun Amor (Blaze Vox Books: New York, 2019). Songs of the Sun Amor can be purchased directly from BlazeVox. 

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The stunning cover image of Songs of the Sun Amor shows a picture of the author’s daughter balancing upside down on the beach at sunset.

SG: Your work has previously been described by critics as ‘emotionally satisfying’ and ‘profound’. 

I found myself very moved by a number of the poems, perhaps, I feel, the most personal in the collection, and, at the same time, the most universal.

In ‘About My Mother’ and ‘The Map of Elsewhere’, the early loss of your mother is explored and in ‘Black Sheep’, and ‘Sun, No Son’, the difficult relationship with your father. Could you talk about the placement of these poems in Songs of Sun Amor. They sit, almost as beacons, in between tones of humour and angst.

WS: You are right: my poems are meant to be complete in themselves and to have an immediate emotional impact. The reader may experience them as I wrote them: with the shock of recognition. There is a certain sadness of course, a lingering melancholy, but there is also the humour and the joy. My editor had suggested that my book be organized thematically. He said he found three main themes: the mother/father/child relationship, the lover/partner/wife relationship, and the relationship of the search for a going beyond or transcendence. However, I thought it would be more interesting for the reader to experience My Sun Amor poems as a progression, with certain poems as you say acting as beacons and lighting the way forward. One of the poems you refer to ends with the line: “Real Amor was on the map of elsewhere.” That marks the separation from the mother and father and the beginning of the poetic journey to find that “Real Amor.” Ultimately it leads to the conclusion or illumination if you like, of the last lines of the book, the conscious coupling with the “Sun Amor immensity.”

SG: Much of Songs of Sun Amor is concerned with the search for and hope of finding the self, and, at times, escaping this self. In “The Map of Elsewhere” we learn that ‘I discovered love in strange places/Real Amor was on the map of elsewhere’ and in “Bio Poem” the past is linked to the future

‘with a simple ampersand/Ghost floating through the hourglass of your life/Longing to break the glass, rise in the air, free’.

Can you tell us about these themes – did they emerge as the collection formed or had you those themes in mind?

WS: Let me share a secret with you: I didn’t write my “Sun Amor” book. It wrote itself. The themes emerged by themselves in an organic way. One of my first memories as a child was that of being trapped not only in my own family but in my own body. I didn’t want to be a prisoner of myself or of the accident of my birth. To do that I had to recreate myself, “to find the promise of a life reborn.” How to escape the limitations of the self, of the language that defines you? I did it from an early age by a process of carefully organized revolt. I did it through literature and poetry, I did it through travels and encounters, I did it through learning and assimilating other languages and cultures that were not my own. I made my own “elsewhere.” My Sun Amor book is the result of that search. The reader can explore that geography and find some really interesting things that will help them in their own relationships.

SG: I think that journey of escaping through immersion elsewhere really comes through in the collection. I’m also interested in the title of the collection, as on reading it for the second and third time, I found myself wanting to read many of the poems aloud and it occurred to me that they were almost hymn-like, particularly with the sparing use of punctuation. I’m thinking here, for example, of “Mirror Man”, after the great line ‘I’m the tossed back of my father’, the poem comes at the reader with each line, almost like listing off the anger points. I’m also thinking of “Amor Belief” and “The Language of Sunflowers.” And, of course, the striking “A Question of Pain”. Can you talk a little bit about this?

WS: All my books are about pain and loss and recovery and the quest for transcendence, for finding a way to heal and go beyond. As I wrote in one poem, “The good doctor Amor will repair all the broken/ With threads of solar gold.” It’s true that the collection could have been titled “Hymns to the Sun Amor.” It’s also true that the lines are constructed in such a way that they almost cry out to be read aloud. When I write them, or rather work on them, it’s as if I had another deeper voice in my head reciting them. Poetry from the beginning was an oral tradition. And it’s regained some popularity today due to the performance poetry readings. One of my favourite poems is “My Amor Belief.” In these dark times, when there are so many forms of hatred and intolerance, it would be amazing if we all could just “learn how to breathe and to be/ Relieved of belief, of religion free.”

SG: Yes, it is a beautiful line, Wade, and I wonder how we can do that, learn to breathe and be relieved of belief and religion. But God, nature, landscape and beauty also feature in Songs of the Sun Amor. They seem, to me, to be intertwined, as if a dialogue between them is running concurrently with the narrator’s life, and, at the same time, with the continuum of time – the back and forth between past, present and future. Could you tell us a little bit about your use of time in the collection? I’m thinking, specifically, of “Big blue beautiful you”, “The Language of Sunflowers” – ‘Seize the special moment that comes/Between the breathing in and the breathing out’ and ‘Spend an hour lying in the summer grass/Listening to what the yellow flowers say.’ This speaks to me of recapturing childhood. Irish writer Desmond Hogan once said that writing is about ‘keeping childhood alive’.

WS: I’ve made many trips to Japan, spending some time in a “ryokan” in Kyoto, and I feel a great affinity with the deep spiritual essence of Japanese culture. They have an obsession with nature and an obsessions with perfection in even the simplest things, like a bowl or a shadow or a cherry blossom. The Shinto religion is based on a reverence for nature. It’s interesting that in a Shinto shrine, there is no decoration, none at all. There is only an image of the sun. The sun is considered to be female, a goddess and the supreme deity (Amaterasu). And I think today, perhaps more than ever, we are all looking and thirsting for some illumination in our lives, for “the flash that stuns/ Awake from the sun god’s gun.”

SG: That is fascinating. I hadn’t connected your work to the deity. I shall have to have another read, with new eyes! After I had read the collection I found myself thinking about the stories within the poems and I wonder if you would ever return to the form of fiction again?

WS: Each poem in My Sun Amor book tells a story, and that story, like those Russian dolls, is imbricated in and part of a larger story, and it all leads back to Amor. And I have written fictions and a memoir, all about Amor with a small A by the way, in my books “One Tine in Paris” and “The Electric Affinities.” And there may be one more to come.

SG: That is lovely to hear that there may be another novel to come. Lastly, Wade, some fun questions:

  • City or countryside?  I was born in the Big Apple but I would to live in the countryside with wild horses and apple trees.
  • America or Europe? When I am in Europe I miss America. And viceversa.
  • Coffee or tea? Japanese green tea.
  • What writing project are you working on now? A book of poems entitled “Going Head to Head.” It’s about my head and your head and how we can escape from our heads and move into some other dimension.

SG: Well, Wade, thank you so much for participating in my Writers Chat series. It has been wonderful chatting with you and I wish you well with this collection and your forthcoming one Going Head to Head.

Wade Photo
Wade Stevenson in Rome on a balcony in front of the studio where Keats died.

Songs of The Sun Amor can be purchased directly from BlazeVox. 

 

 

 

Writers Chat 17: Neil Donnelly on his documentary about Aidan Higgins “Where Would You Like The Bullet?”

Neil, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. 

Congratulations on the screening in the IFI (3rd March) of Where Would You Like The Bullet?, your documentary about Irish writer Aidan Higgins (1927 – 2015), edited by Seamus Callaghy.

SG: You’ve described his work as ‘beautiful prose’ and his work is admired by writers such as Annie Proulx, John Banville, and in the past, by Beckett. Can you talk a little about how and when you first came across the writing of Aidan Higgins?

ND: It was ‘Langrishe, Go Down’ which I had read in London, possibly 1970, when living there. Full of atmosphere, bad weather but extraordinary prose. Tortured, but a different suffering to that of McGahern. Both of whom spent days crafting singular sentences attempting a sort of aria, which is ironic in Aidan’s case as he had no ear for music. Then when ‘Balcony of Europe’ was published in ’71, I bought it and was again, dazzled; the opening chapter on the father is a magnificent set piece, but also frustrated by the lack of a coherent narrative. I suppose we’re all bred on plot, of forward momentum, formed by Shakespeare on the Leaving Cert curriculum. Aidan is about stasis, the present moment, Eckhart Tolle before even he had discovered the value of sitting still. But sitting still for Aidan also meant looking back, for his mantra was, “The memories of things, are they better than the things themselves?”.  I found Aidan’s phone number in the London Telephone Directory and rang a few times but he was never in. It was cheeky to attempt to offer editing advice to such a brilliant writer but that’s the innocent impetuosity of youthful ignorance. Years later in Kinsale, when Neil Murphy was re-structuring ‘Balcony’ for  the 2010 Dalkey Archive reissue, I outlined my idea to Aidan that the  book should be confined to the Nerja sections only and to drop all the Sligo stuff and all the boring letters. He fixed me with that hawk like stare and stayed silent. I assume that any suggestions I would have made to him in London in 1971 would have been met with the same hawk like stare and silence.

What an intricate relationship you have had with Aidan’s work and the man himself. You’re right about the breeding, as you put it, we’re taught to expect and accept coherence and structure and to be constantly in motion, moving on to the next….instead of sitting still. Even more so now, I fear.  I must also pause our chat to thank you for introducing me to more of Aidan’s work, and for the opportunity to discuss his prose with some fellow Kildare writers in the documentary.

Still from Where Would You Like The Bullet?
Still from Where Would You Like The Bullet?

SG: When you discussed the documentary initially with Higgins, you told him ‘if you don’t like it you can shoot me’ and he, now famously, responded, ‘where would you like the bullet?’ The title of the documentary comes from this conversation. Can you describe the process in finding scholars, academics, writers and artists who admired and were familiar with the work of Higgins? Admirably, the documentary covers a broad range of opinions and features artists, writers, actors and academics from across the globe.

ND: I had spent years working on a Theatre Play as a follow up to “The Duty           Master” only for that play, due to a multitude of reasons, not getting a Production, so as Paul Simon puts it “if an empty train in a railroad station calls its final destination, can you choose another track?” I had to find  another track in which I could apply some other skills and I realised that Aidan would be 80 years of age in 2007 so with some help from the Kildare Arts Service I produced the “Aidan Higgins at 80” Festival at Celbridge Abbey and the possibility of a documentary followed on. Initially, I tried to encourage stablished film makers, Alan Gilsenan, Donald Taylor-Black, Eamon Little, etc, who all expressed admiration for Aidan but none were willing to go where this fool eventually tip-toed.  I said to Aidan that reluctantly I would go ahead and do it and-in-a-throwaway added, “and if you don’t like it, you can shoot me” then quick as a light switch he said:- “Where would you like the bullet”.

At first, Aidan himself as he was then, 83 years of age, was going to be in it, arriving at Springfield House, his birth place in Celbridge, and finally leaving and hitching a lift on the road outside the gate where he would have been picked up by a car driven by the Girl from the Banville Pub in Wexford with the real John Banville in the back seat. But John Banville would consent to an interview only. In that same ‘Banville’ section in “Dog Days” there is a reference to Seamus Heaney and I created scenes with Seamus and sent him the script which he graciously declined but wished me well. Aidan’s ill health        prevented him travelling from Kinsale and Denis Conway deputised. So that very experimental idea was abandoned and a more conventional approach with added surreal moments was settled on. The big problem was having no funding. It was decided that I would do sections with actors, technical staff, academics, writers, etc when they had free days from their career paying jobs. Everyone received something for their time and contribution but nothing remotely similar to what they would have got if we had proper funding and a time limit in which to deliver. The resulting film wasn’t going to be an external enterprise like a lecture, rather it would be as if I were in front of a room of students with the occasional nod to the power point, yet my overall aim was for them to experience Aidan’s conflicting gifts, the visual artist and the prose master, his personal contradictions, his sense of humour, his evolution as a writer from ‘High Art’ to accessibility; a man with too much talent, overlooked by popular trends where mediocrity is lauded.

Well, it is great that you tip-toed and ventured – and got past the hawk-like stare to wonderful conversations. It’s a real shame, though, that ill health prevented Aidan from travelling to star in his own documentary. Having said that, Denis Conway does a wonderful job. The film really captures something that’s hard to pin down, you see it in the writing of others, such as like Desmond Hogan; conflicting gifts and a sense of constant internal battle. It epitomizes the idea that talent can be both a gift and a curse, and, at times, society welcomes and rewards mediocrity.

SG: You’re a writer yourself, Neil. Would you say that you have been influenced by Higgins, at a conscious or unconscious level?

ND: A dramatic person, if not a dramatic writer, that’s Aidan. Though heavily          influenced by Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, of which T.S.Eliot said it would ‘appeal to readers of poetry’ which could equally apply to Aidan. He was also influenced by William Faulkner and those trembling vines on long wall sentences. Marcel Proust has a lot to answer for. Too many writers have collapsed with exhaustion from their attempts to imitate the descriptions of the path and hawthorns in ‘Swann’s Way’. Aidan was very reluctant to edit anything. I think this might come from a fear of not being appreciated.  John Calder, publisher of Samuel Beckett, would spend whole days with Aidan editing sections of ‘Balcony’ only upon Calder’s going home Aidan would return the edited sections to the manuscript. The great  novels of F.Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway were moulded by the brilliant editing skills of Maxwell Perkins. If only Aidan had been so lucky. Less is more, always.

It’s a case of wanting to show the reader your heart and soul that have gone into the writing. The relationship between Carver and Lish also springs to mind, here. Every writer needs a good editor. You’ve answered my question, if I may say so, in a very Higginesque way!

IMG_0022
Aidan Higgins watching a cut from the film where Denis is outside the Banville pub.

SG: Like Higgins, you’re based in Kildare. How important do you think place was for Higgins? Is it important to you in your writing, and why?

ND: I’m from Tullamore, Offaly and live in Kildare. Place was important for Higgins because he never recovered from the wound of his parents loss of Springfield and having to move away. Something was cut short in him, thus his true theme was the search again for love until finding it and sanctuary in Kinsale. Kildare doesn’t deliberately feature in my writing apart from one fictional male character in the play ‘Chalk Farm Blues’ who hails from Kildare, but the County itself is not explored. In my poem, “Girl in Black Leather Coat”, set in London, the mystery Girl in question just happens to be from Kildare town. But nothing could compete with the surge I felt in a London theatre upon first hearing McCann in Act 11 of Harold Pinter’s ‘The Birthday Party’ exclaim, “Tullamore, where are you?”- the character probably calling for a refill  of Tullamore Dew Whisky, rather than calling up a memory of a town he had once stayed in, or passed through.

Our birth places always surface when we’re away. It’s like we’re more connected to them then than when we’re actually there and, you’re right, the loss of Springfield was so huge for Aidan – and all the family really, this comes across in your film, Neil – that he seemed to spend much of his life trying to recover or fill that void.

SG: So which of Higgins’s publications would you recommend to a Higgins novice?

ND: Start with Donkey’s Years then Dog Days then Langrishe, Go Down.

SG: You wouldn’t go with Balcony of Europe? Probably after those three…So, lastly, Neil, some fun questions. 

  • City or countryside? City in Winter, Country in Spring, Summer, Autumn.
  • Novel or short story? Novel = ‘Mysteries’ by Knut Hamsun ….Short Stories = ‘ Dubliners’ by James Joyce.
  • Coffee or tea? Both
  • What creative project are you working on now?  I would love to do another film but only with proper funding. I would never wish it on anyone to have to repeat an odyssey like the one I’ve been on for the last seven years. I’m working with my neighbour, Poet Donald Gardner, on a project to  celebrate his 80th year.

Thank you, Neil, for such generous answers. And I, for one, am glad you took on that odyssey. Such a fitting tribute to an undervalued writer.

Where would you like the bullet? Will be shown on Sunday May 19th @ 2pm at the Hugh Lane Gallery, Parnell Square as part of the Dublin International Literary Festival. Admission Free.

More details on the film Where Would You Like The Bullet can be found here: https://neildonnelly.ie/where-would-you-like-the-bullet/

Follow Neil’s creative projects which include film, poetry, stories, and plays.

https://neildonnelly.ie/film/

Reading, Thinking, Questioning…

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I’m currently reading Songs of the Sun Amor by Wade Stevenson (Blaze Vox: New York, 2019) and looking forward to welcoming Wade to my Writers’ Chat series shortly.

Meanwhile I’m almost done re-reading Anne Enright’s great The Green Road, at the same time I’m torn between not wanting to put To Leave with the Reindeer (by Olivia Rosenthal – &Other Stories: London, 2019) on a bookshelf as I find myself returning to it again and again, and wanting to continue reading David Park’s Travelling in a Strange Land (Bloomsbury: London, 2018). This is the joy and the pull of having wonderful books to hand.

Onwards to the words….

Illuminations – An Inspirational New Exhibition

Every artist knows that to kick-start the creative process there’s nothing better than to spend some time with an art form that is different from the one you practice. The Departments of English and Media Studies at Maynooth University have a wonderful exhibition space in the Iontas building entitled Illuminations and their latest exhibition Form Ever Follows Function opened last week and runs until March 8, 2019.

Form Ever Follows Function cover

Curated by Patrick Chapman, Christodoulos Makris and Dimitra Xidous, it’s a multimedia collaboration between editors of and contributors to the innovative journals Gorse and The Pickled Body.  Form Ever Follows Function – a question so many of us struggle with – is the ‘story’ in the form it needs to breathe? Or should it be a novel? or a poem? Or, for this narrative, do we need to begin with form, a photograph, a poem, a recital….

I am always fascinated by the process of visual artists and the video Etching in Memoriam by Ria Czerniak-LeBov and Fiona Brennan was spectacular. Exploring the act of film making, etching, memory and how information is found, as well as ‘showing’ the viewer some of the techniques and processes involved in etching on copper, the Q&A at the launch only confirmed my multi-layered experience of watching the video. Highly recommended.20190206_185425

I’m always interested in the in-between so the Scottish poet Clare Archibald’s installation Memories of Contort really spoke to me.Sean Hayes & Michael Naghten Shanks’s The Art of Friendship and Imogen Reid’s from text to textile gave lots of pause for thought. Pictured below Patrick Chapman of The Pickled Body and writer Sara Mullen in front of Kimberly Campanello’s poetry audio track which was really moving.

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Below: Red ribbon from The Pickled Body and a selection of their covers. 20190206_175822

For more information see