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.

TWOH UK Cover

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

Author Ethel Rohan Los Res dpi 300

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).

The Chicken Soup Murder border

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.

Bertie headshot
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. 

Maria TCSM launch
Maria Donovan at the launch of The Chicken Soup Murder

 

 

 

 

 

Writers Chat 13: Nuala O’Connor on “Becoming Belle” (Piatkus: UK, 2018)

READERS! To be in with a chance to win a free signed copy of Becoming Belle, just add your name and a comment below and say why you’d love to read Becoming Belle! All the names will be put into a draw and the winner announced on Friday 14th September at 19.00hr (Irish time)

Welcome, Nuala. When we last had a chat in February of this year, you told me that your Da said he ‘fell in love’ with Belle. What better review could you get? Having now read Becoming Belle, I also felt myself falling for her, hoping that the men around her would become as strong and feisty as Belle herself.

And hearing you read from Becoming Belle in August at the wonderful Victorian Afternoon Tea (at No. 1 Pery Square in Limerick) and at your launch at the Gutter Bookshop in Dublin on 5th September (launched beautifully by Mia Gallagher) – well these readings really brought the era to life.

Becoming Belle UK cover

SG: Tell me firstly about the structure of the novel. We know the end point – Belle is the Countess of Clancarty in 1891 – and the novel brings us into Belle’s life in the four years prior to this point through dated sections and short chapters with wonderful titles such as “A Promise”, “A Performance”, “A Ceremony”, “An Outpouring” and so on. Did you have fun playing with the structure or did the story come to you formed as such?

NOC: Well, the novel I submitted as complete is very different to the novel that’s published today. It’s 40k words longer for one thing. I had started Belle’s story much later – at the point where she is already a successful actress and is changing her name from Isabel to Belle – but my editors urged me to go back to her childhood and tell the story chronologically rather than in flashbacks. There were three re-writes which was rather challenging.

I love using chapter titles, it’s my homage to E.M. Forster who did it so prettily and wittily.

SG: Well, the challenge was worth it – I really loved getting to know Belle as a young woman, away from her destiny yet yearning for it!

One of the relationships which I really enjoyed was that between Belle and Flo. They work and perform together (as the Bilton Sisters) but also have an incredibly deep understanding of each other. “They were as familiar as a cradle song with each other’s foibles and frailties.”

You show their support of each other through their singing warm-ups, and their dress, with wonderful historical detail. I was really taken with the milliner Madame Gilbert who, we are told, “had a generous ear and a snug, discreet mouth”. What a great description, and of course, most important for sisters who are famous. Did historical records help in this respect or is the heart-warming relationship in Becoming Belle that of your imagination?

NOC: There really are very few historical records about Belle and Flo. There’s the court case coverage and a few theatre reviews. All of that bellowing of life into long dead lungs is where the imagination comes into play. I have sisters myself so it’s not hard to imagine the sisterly honesty and shorthand in speech, I know it first-hand. My research involved a lot of poring over photographs and reading of social history to try to put together a picture of what life was like for the feisty Victorian woman, as opposed to the ‘ideal’ woman of that age. Belle and Flo were bohemians and their lives and personalities had to reflect that.

SG: It sounds like very enjoyable research, Nuala.

Much of Becoming Belle is concerned with the prickly thorns and muddy waters of motherhood that come through as the story progresses and also the mother/daughter relationship that Belle and Flo have with their mother which we see in the first part of the novel. This is a theme that you enjoy exploring in much of your work. She really was a strong and inspirational woman, so sure of what she wanted, a feminist centuries ahead of her time, if you will, something in her which her mother sees early on. As you did your research and wrote the novel did you discover anything about Belle that surprised you?

NOC: I suppose, in a sense, her personality is my invention. In press photographs of Belle, she often looks deeply melancholic but the events of her life show that she must have had deep courage and daring to act as she did (baby out of wedlock, elopement with a viscount etc.) So I wanted to paint a picture of a woman who, initially, was ambivalent about motherhood, who wanted to get on and who pushed herself forwards by every means she knew. It takes ages for me to understand my characters and round them out so that they are nicely flawed but still somewhat likeable or, at least, compelling. I suppose I didn’t fully know Belle until I’d written the whole story because, by the end, she realises what she has wanted all along.

SG: Following on from this, the Bilton Sisters manage to live life how they wish to in terms of earning a living, being true to themselves, and having fun all within the confines of the expectations of family, society and gender. This, despite the fact, as Belle says to Flo early on – “life is different for ladies; we don’t possess the freedoms afforded to men”.

However, the Clancarty family are more concerned about material wealth and appearances and threaten to destroy all that Belle has worked for. Without spoiling the plot, how unusual were the freedom of the Bilton Sisters in Victorian London? How different were they to their peers?

NOC: They were different to their working and upper class sisters but not to the others who worked in the milieu they were operating in. Theatre people had a different lifestyle to everyone – they worked and played by night. Because of that they mixed with the rich, who could afford to socialise often, and that’s how attachments were formed. Belle was one of the early commoner-to-countess women from the theatre world.

SG: Another strand that runs through Becoming Belle is that of friendship. I was particularly taken with the character of Wertheimer and his deep affection and friendship with Belle. He really is her saviour in many ways, and she his (in your novel), and yet she sticks fast to William, even when, at times, it seems he is not the one. From the notes at the back, Isidor Wertheimer ended up living a rather tragic life after Belle left London. How drawn were you to his character?

NOC: Friendship really interests me; I have loads of acquaintances but, because I’m an introvert, very few deep friendships. I crave more of those.

I adore Wertheimer, he’s the solid, sweet best friend we all dream of: classy, fun, a great listener and very helpful. Love is fickle: Belle appears not to have loved Wertheimer the way he loved her and, though William is a bit of an un-catch, in many ways, she seems to have genuinely loved him.

SG: Yes, at many points throughout the novel, I was wishing she’d change, and go to Wertheimer!

Names and identity are crucial to the characters in Becoming Belle, as the title suggests. From the first page we see Isabel Bilton playing around with versions of her name and, as she meets the various people of London, they are all defined by their name – class, religion, wealth – and this extends, somewhat sadly, to her own child who changes from Isidor to Dory, again, to suit his circumstances. Our names are so important and even more so if we are in the public eye, as Belle, Flo, and the Clancarty clan were.  

NOC: I’m obsessed with names, it’s one of the joyous parts of writing for me. Obviously 99% of my characters for this novel already had their names, but I was thrilled when I discovered, through research, the real names of characters like Jacob Baltimore and Godley Robinson. Such brilliant, evocative names. The fact that Belle named her first child after Wertheimer is significant and later, she gave her daughter his mother’s name, Franziska, as her second name. Unearthing details like that always gives me an excavational thrill.

SG: When I reached the last page of Becoming Belle, I really wanted to read on, to stay with Belle in Galway, see how she handled that new life. Is there any chance of a sequel?

NOC: Oh janey, I doubt it. I’m waaaaay into the writing of novel #5 now and I’ve so many other projects I want to tackle, including a contemporary novel that’s been nagging at me for years. But, never say never, maybe Belle will call me back some day.

Lastly, Nuala, some fun questions:

  • Canaries or Budgies (there’s a thread from the novel in there too!)? We had dozens of budgies as kids but as a canary owner now, I have to say canaries.
  • Sand or grass? Oh, that’s hard. I’ll say grass as I grew up in the Liffey Valley, surrounded by it.
  • Coffee or tea? Tea. I can only drink milky, sugary coffee so I just don’t bother.
  • What was the last history book you read? I’m currently reading Jan Morris’s sublime Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, which is social history/travelogue. She is amazingly clever, her sentences are delicious.
  • What are you reading now? As usual I have about ten books on the go including The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock, which is a fabulous Georgian-era novel: great language, very funny. Also Meg Pokrass’s latest flash fiction collection, Alligators at Night (odd, quirky, funny); I’ll be reviewing Lorrie Moore’s fantastic book of essays, reviews and articles, See What Can Be Done. What a generous, flexible-minded writer she is. I just love her. I’m also reading scads of biographies and histories for my novel-in-progress, an Edwardian era, Europe-set story. Loving it.

A fantastic collection of books on the go! Lots of recommendations there, thanks. Tell us about readings and events relating to Becoming Belle happening in the next few months.

  • Galway launch of Becoming Belle, Ballinasloe Library, 11th September, 6pm. Launch by Mary O’Rourke.
  • Shorelines Arts Festival, Portumna 15th September, 3pm. Portumna Library.
  • Clifden Arts Week – 18th September with Alan McMonagle. 4.30pm, Station House
  • Wexford launch of Becoming Belle, Gorey Visitor Centre, 21st September, 6pm. Launch by Caroline Busher.
  • Red Line Festival, 9th October – Victorian Mavericks with Bernie McGill & Caroline Busher, 7.30pm, Pearse Museum, Dublin

  • DLR Voices, 23rd October – The Pavilion, Dun Laoghaire – reading and interview with Sarah Maria Griffin. Time tbc.

READERS! To be in with a chance to win a free signed copy of Becoming Belle, just add your name and a comment below and say why you’d love to read Becoming Belle! All the names will be put into a draw and the winner announced on Friday 14th September at 19.00hr (Irish time)

And don’t forget to follow this blog for more featured Writers Chats!

Nuala O'Connor photo by Úna O'ConnorPhoto of Nuala by Úna O’Connor. 

Keep up to date with Nuala on her website.

Writers Chat 12: Catherine McNamara on “The Cartography of Others” (Unbound: London, 2018)

Catherine, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your second collection of short stories, The Cartography of Others (Unbound: London, 2018) ,which transported me into other worlds, as good stories do!

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SG: First and foremost, tell me a little about how you went about assembling the collection. There are many award winning stories here and your stories cover a wide span of geography in terms of where they are placed yet we often feel we are in familiar territory. How important was setting for you in compiling the collection and selecting the order?

CMN: Great question! It was very complex for me to select the story order, and I had story titles on bits of paper flying everywhere. Because around half of the stories are set in West Africa, and the others mostly in Europe and Australasia, we had to keep the locations apart. It was also important to separate common themes or elements, and more titillating stories from slower, quiet ones. Rhythm was so important. Some of the stories are heavy and require breathing space, others race on and are more light-hearted. Another factor to consider in selecting story order was the gender of the protagonist – and not have the ‘female’ or ‘male’ stories bunched together – and we also needed a good distribution of first, second or third person pieces.

The main factor however was setting, as the reader needed to be gently tugged from one place to the next. My hope was that these faraway environments would feel vivid and tangible amongst more familiar settings such as London and Paris.

SG: Yes, that’s actually an element that I enjoyed – not knowing where I’d be transported to next! Some of the stories have fantastic first lines. For example, the opening of one of my favourites, “Magaly Park” begins: “There is a murderer in the new apartment block on the Point in the garage downstairs, it’s all cordoned off.”

This really sets the scene and captures the atmosphere of the whole story. The narrator, Grant, is somehow disconnected from his surroundings and yet incredibly embedded in them. He sees but does not always feel everything. Tell me how important are beginnings for you?

CMN: I cannot start writing a story unless I am curious about where the first sentence will take me. Beginnings are essential for me, and once I can ‘hear’ a first sentence I will rarely change it or the first paragraph. Like the first notes of a piece of music, the first notes must set the tone for the rest of the story, and elicit a precise response from the reader. It is the voice and the echo chamber of the work.

SG: Yes, tone is so vital to the short story in particular. Now, many of the couples in The Cartography of Others have trouble communicating what they really want to say. Some resort to silence, others let their bodies speak. It got me thinking about the power of silence and the potency of voice. I’m thinking about “Adieu, Mon Doux Rivage” and “Three Days in Hong Kong” in which the narrator Philomena M manages to be humorous in her overt sensuality. And in “Return from Salt Pond” – “even her suffering silence was dialogue, insinuating itself along the cords of his brain, snaking with his thoughts, coaxing words from him that were unwilling and unclotted.” Can you talk a little about silence and voice?

CMN: This is a really interesting point.

The dynamic of the couple can be endlessly fascinating, with the alternation between spoken and unspoken, physicality and detachment, and the search for balance and equality – rarely attained. So much of the stories of our lives take place in our heads: we are almost always viewing, measuring, recollecting, and the short story is a wonderful avenue for exploring these alleyways, and the porous skin between thought and speech.

I do like humour. And the dry, slightly-tortured-dialogue-with-self in “Three Days in Hong Kong” was a lot of fun to write, with Philomena M’s sensuality a distinct character within the piece. Flaunted at the hotel window, her body changes from a sensual device to the channel she will use to recover her sense of self. Other stories like “Return to Salt Pond” chart the plunging of a rapport into miscommunication and hardening thoughts, while events and context hover around the protagonists.

SG: You also have a great eye for detail. At times I felt I was reading lines from notebooks, where maybe you had sat in a café people watching…(It’s something that I love to do!). For example, this wonderful description of Russian girls in Moscow “The Ukrainian Girl”: “the statuesque silken women who would one day decompress into their pillowy mothers with pincushion faces and arms.” Can you tell us a little about your methods for recording the physical aspects of your characters.

CMN: Thank you, Shauna. I hate to say that I am hopeless with notetaking. I’ve tried recording details and scenes in notebooks – as I imagined a real writer should do – but I rarely look at them again! I know there are a few mostly empty Moleskins around the house.

When I have an idea for a story I become immersed in its fabric and I really enjoy creating characters from scratch. Recalling locations or perhaps people I’ve observed, and really sewing these new beings into the piece. I love the act of writing and I try to switch on as much of my brain as I can – tuning in with the subconscious where a type of magic occurs and images are thrown up, and the language takes on a pace and shape as the story progresses. I am always observing and listening to people. I’ll talk to anyone and if I’m not assessing them my subconscious probably is, storing up vital images, scents, energy.

SG: Oh how wonderful to be able to store images, scents and energy like that. I love the idea of storing an energy for a story. In this last question we return to place, and specifically, landscape. In many of the stories, the sea has a wonderful healing power and the land is stifling. In “The Bamboo Furnace”, the siblings return to “their sorrowful Eden”, literally battered and bruised by places they have lived in, and in “Astragàl” the emotions at Luna’s disappearance echoed by the view out the window (reminiscent of Hitchcock, I thought) –  “He looked up in a rage at the first folds of the peak and the summit in a crust of white pleats”. Can you tell us a little about the importance of the landscape in your stories?

CMN: For me landscape is a vital part of the story, often a character itself. In the opening story, “Adieu, Mon Doux Rivage”, the sea is a balm that unblocks the wounded voice of a Japanese soprano, while soothing the pain of the narrator whose partnership may be tapering to a close. The two mountain stories – “Astragàl” and “The Kingdom of Fassa” – were written to express our belittlement before the cruel alpine environment. In a world where many of our emotions and thoughts are responses to what we read online, it is almost refreshing to feel the plain power of nature, the dramatic simplicity of an accident, or the course of the seasons and the futility of man’s efforts to tame these forces. Like everyone, I am gravely concerned by global warming and the changes I already see locally (I live in the Veneto countryside, close to the Dolomites), so these stories are an attempt to record and value these places.

Having moved around a lot, I am fascinated by the harrowing effect context and environment can have upon a person. Displacement is one of my major themes, and several of the stories explore the discomforts of being an isolated foreigner. These can span from basic communication issues to the need to accept a different climate and culture, sometimes leading to a remodelling of self within the new circumstances. Some characters adapt and survive. Others, like Santo, a Ghanaian migrant in northern Italy in “The Healing of Santo Yeboah”, do not. In the final story, “The Cliffs of Bandiagara”, the magical highland of Mali and its celestial firmament bring enlightenment and harmony to an embattled couple.

 Finally, five fun questions, Catherine:

  1. Dogs or Cats?

Dogs! I live in the countryside and have a German Shepherd called Astrid.

  1. Paperbacks or Hardbacks?

Paperbacks from good bookshops.

  1. Mountains or Sea?

The sea – I’m a swimmer. But I live near the Dolomites and also ski and hike.

  1. What’s next on your ‘to read’ pile?

I’ve just started My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, and next up will read Watermark, a story collection by Australian Joanna Atherfold Finn.

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Thanks again, Catherine, for stopping by and chatting.

Keep up to date with Catherine here: Facebook – Catherine McNamara, Twitter/Instagram – @catinitaly, Unbound – The Cartography of Others

The Cartography of Others is available at all good bookshops or online at Hive, Amazon UK

Writers Chat 10: Justine Delaney Wilson on “Listen for the Weather” (Hachette: Ireland and Australia, 2018)

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Justine, You are very welcome to WRITERS CHAT. Congratulations on your second novel Listen for the Weather which was launched in May at the wonderful Gutter bookshop in Dublin.

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SG: Reading Listen for the Weather I found the voice of the narrator Beth combined with the short scenes really moved the story along and I just kept turning those pages! It was very much pitch and pace perfect. Can you tell us a little about how you picked the voice and the structure through which to tell the story of Beth and Steve’s marriage?

 JDW: Thanks Shauna. That’s really lovely to hear. My writing style tends to be sparse and precise, and my scenes and paragraphs always on the short and punchy side. Sometimes, I’ll make a conscious effort to let a scene breathe a bit more, to really give it some room or extra time, but it will jar with me immediately when I read it back, and I’ll end up putting a red line through everything that I added in the misguided interests of  fleshing things out.

I like to read fiction that doesn’t give me a mountain of background and isn’t heavy on set-up detail; I want to get straight into the heart of things. I appreciate writers who plate-spin throughout the text, allowing me to pick up the observations as I go. I rather fill my cup with the characters’ joy or pain, and with the truth of things. Not with a lot of front-loading about smells or the colour of the curtains.

I enjoy reading short stories for this reason – the writer’s time and space is precious, so everything superfluous has been cut away, and I find the writing is powerful as a result. I don’t know if I’m actually more of a natural editor than a writer really, in that I always want every single word to justify itself. My background is in research and writing for television, and journalism, so perhaps it comes from a learned need to keep things lean and concise for broadcast or for the allotted space.

In terms of writing in Beth’s voice, at this stage I know her character so well that I can second-guess her thoughts and actions in most situations. I understand what motivates her so I find writing in her voice feels natural.

SG: That’s the wonderful advantage of being with a character for so long, isn’t it. You really know their nuances, like a dear friend. Listen for the Weather is set mainly in New Zealand but there are scenes in Ireland. How important is place to love? Tell me about the split setting, one which you have experienced in your own life.

JDW: This book opens in New Zealand, a couple of years after the Rogers family moved there. My previous novel The Difference, which came out this month two years ago, was almost entirely set in Ireland, with the family’s move to New Zealand coming toward the end. Listen for the Weather is a mirror-image of it, in a way. Beth and Steve have moved to the other side of the world to outrun damage to their relationship and to escape the containment of their old lives. But of course, no amount of running, no matter where, will save any of us from ourselves.

Place is important, in that it informs and shapes our identity. And yet, it also isn’t; when faced with a threat to our family and the loss of everyone we love, we see that it is people who are our home.

I left Ireland early in the Autumn of 2016 to go to New Zealand, and I came back in the Spring of last year. I wrote most of this book while I was away, and then I returned home to a familiar place, and to similar weather as when I’d left – But everything just felt off.  It reminded me of the ‘Crowded House’ line; Walking ‘round the room singing stormy weather. I remember hearing Neil Finn interviewed about that song, Weather with You. He talked about how we create our own weather, how we are always making our own situations. I definitely think my feelings of dislocation and of having to make my own environment in New Zealand – a new life, new securities for my children on the other side of the world – informed my writing of this story and my depiction of the characters.

SG: Having lived away from Ireland for many years myself, I can totally understand that strangeness of being in your ‘home’ country and feeling totally out of kilter. I love what you say that it is people who are our home.

Now tell me about the role of the video calls Beth makes to her mother back in Ireland. What a great device to bring us out of Beth’s head, reminding the reader that another world, another past and indeed another present exist. It’s also a reminder that no matter how difficult the circumstances or experience you are going through, the normality of life is always continuing elsewhere. And yet, the normality often hides other depths, as we learn later in the book.

JDW: Through video calls we catch moments of what we’ve left behind, or what has left us. But, like photographs, these calls only show what’s in frame at the time. Sometimes what’s in frame can relieve and sate us, but sometimes it can also mislead.

Beth’s mother, Johanna, has been tethered to her own desperation for much of her adult life and so has only ever been available to Beth in a very limited way. That said, her familiar mannerisms and expressions during these calls do provide her daughter with some comfort when she desperately needs it. Small hints of Johanna’s hard-won insight into the reality of love, which comes much later in the book, are suggested earlier in some of her seemingly throw-away comments over Skype.

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SG: I have to admit my opinion on Johanna changed as the story unfolded, for the very reasons you cite above. Having said that, my favourite character in Listen for the Weather was that of Mae, and how, many times, she is the only one of the family who is grounded in who she is and how she is – she is the solid comforter. For example in the scene when they are driving to the zoo, it’s Mae who asks for Beth’s hand right when Beth needs to be comforted. And in Ireland, it’s Mae who is the touchstone for Beth and her granddad. Really, she is herself, and not trying to fit into a role that society or family has created for her.

 JDW: I’m drawn to write about emotional turbulence – the power-plays in families; the betrayals within relationships; the sense of being at odds with your place in your own domestic world – these ordinary, but difficult, human things. Against this backdrop of adults feeling their way along their own jagged paths stands the character of 7 year-old Mae.

Mae wields a clear and positive power in this book. She manages to love more, but care less. She’s full of empathy – she is the emotional barometer in the house – and yet is nobody’s fool. I think she brings her entire family to life in a way that otherwise might never have happened for them. Mae’s disability allowed me to explore new jealousies in this novel – the uncomfortable envy a mother feels toward a ‘perfect’ child, a little girl who doesn’t have special needs.

Through the innate honesty of her daughter, Beth comes to see and cut through the artifice around her. And it’s from following Mae’s lead that she manages to get her head around what it is she needs to do.

SG: Throughout Beth’s journey, she gives us some beautifully poetic insights into her experience of what love is, or can be – a few of them:

“the heart has a blind spot….isn’t that the human condition? To desire what is not certain.”

 “love chooses not to see, chooses to ignore what doesn’t suit it.”

“The affair is a “tear in the fabric of life.”

“Most of love’s power is how badly it hurts.”

“Love with our eyes open. With the dark colours, as well as the bright.”

Was this a theme that you were always going to write about or did it emerge in the writing of the novel?

JDW:  From the get go, I wanted to look at love in this book. I think everything comes down to love, really. Having it, being denied it, growing up without it, learning to hold onto it, messing it up, confusing it with something else, confusing something else for it, cherishing it.

I’m intrigued by the accepted idea that love is kind, because it isn’t always. The “You are perfect as you are. You complete me” sort of thing doesn’t interest me at all. There’s a laziness in that idea of completion, of having reached some idyll. It’s not the sort of love I want to write about, or even read about. Love is active; it bowls you over, for better and worse. And it keeps pushing you back on yourself, on your own resources, into a space where you think and grow. Beth comes to realise that life is possible for her without Steve, which is the place I needed her to arrive at. Whatever way she goes after that is then a real, eyes-open decision, and not just one based on blind panic or lack of courage.

SG: Yes, I enjoyed being on that journey with Beth, as hard as it was in places, a realisation and a choice based on strength. As you say, a real decision.

Thanks for popping over to participate in my Writers Chat Series and for your generous answers, Justine. To finish off, I’ve five fun questions for you:

Mountains or Sea? The sea, most definitely. The sounds, the constant movement, the tidal changes, the sense of possibility. I had the privilege of living at the ocean in New Zealand and I must say that having half an hour in the evening to walk or sit at the water’s edge is something I’d highly recommend. Mountains are all very well but they don’t hold anything like the same fascination for me. After five minutes, I could probably give or take a mountain, to be honest. I like to be amongst things, amongst possibilities and activity, and I associate mountains with distance and seclusion. A city with a coastline would be my ideal. 

Coffee or tea? Tea. I’m a very committed tea drinker. The kettle in my house is always either on or still warm from the previous cup. I don’t like coffee, which is probably just as well because I’m not the best at things in moderation, and tea seems like the lesser of two charming evils.

Kindle or Paperback? Oh, paperback! I don’t own a kindle and I hope nobody ever buys me one. I like to feel the pages, to turn them, to flick back if I need to, and occasionally I’ll write on them. I love the physicality of books – the cover, the smell. And as décor, there’s surely nothing better than shelving full of well-read books, their spines lined up together. The fact that books don’t need charging is also glorious.

What are you writing now? In the latter stages of every manuscript, I swear that I’ll NEVER do this to myself again. But then the finished book comes out, and I see it in someone’s hands being read, and I quickly forget the pain of its birth. The faucet for the next novel is dripping away in the background here already. It’s called An Open Door and is set in present-day Dublin and 1990s New York.

What’s next on your ‘to read’ pile? My TBR pile was so high recently that I had to split it into a Pile A and a lesser Pile B. I was starting to feel some anxiety at the height of the tower glaring down at me. So on the top of pile A is The Long-Winded Lady, which I’ve already started. It’s a collection of Maeve Brennan’s columns for The New Yorker between 1954 and 1981, recently published by ‘The Stinging Fly’. Below Maeve, and currently in the following order to be read, are; White Houses by Amy Bloom, Problems by Jade Sharma, Norah Hoult’s Cocktail Bar and the just-added Calypso by David Sedaris. I’m dying to read Kudos by Rachel Cusk. She is among my favourite authors and this is the final book in her recent trilogy. I’m waiting for my copy to arrive, and it will rudely jump to the top of Pile A when it does.

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Connect with Justine on Twitter @justinedelw and her publishers @hachette

Look out for Justine in the media – articles and interviews coming up in The Irish Times, Daily Mail, Sunday Independent and The Gloss.

Writers Chat 9: Margaret Hickey on “Ireland’s Green Larder” (Unbound: London, 2018)

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Margaret, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on the publication of the beautifully produced Ireland’s Green Larder. Darina Allen has rightly called it “an authoritative resource as well as an entertaining and enlightening read.”

Tell me about how Ireland’s Larder was conceived. It’s such an original book both in terms of content and structure – a real coffee table book but also practical and one which I found myself returning to again and again.

Margaret: I have always been interested in history – my first book, Irish Days, was a collection of oral histories, in which I reproduced conversations I’d had with a cross section of Irish people over the age of eighty. And then I left my very hectic life in London to come and live in an abandoned house in Co Galway, beside the Shannon,  plunging myself into a different world.

One of the things that had attracted me to the house was its fireplace – big enough for a giant to cook in – with the crane still inset into the wall. It was a piece of living history inside my own house. I was also struck by how different the whole food scene was from what I knew. I’d come from a cosmopolitan city and my job had involved eating out a good deal, so differences were only to be expected there. However, I’d been raised among poor people near Manchester and I knew all about that Lancashire food culture. Here I was in Ireland and there were no pies! In the north of England people were reared on pork pies and potato pies. As a child I went to Stockport market every week and wandered round the stalls that sold Cheshire cheeses of different strengths and colours, the butchers selling haslett and brawn. Like poor people everywhere, we ate offal. In fact there were, when I was a child, a chain of restaurants devoted to serving tripe. (Yes, it sounds surreal now, but it’s true. The UCP.)

I’d lived in France for a number of years and I saw what alchemy can be wrought with simple ingredients. But here in this rural part of Ireland,  fewer things were available. I looked at how foodstuffs were preserved and there was precious little smoking or drying – it was almost all salting. No savoury pies. First class beef and lamb. In my local greengrocers (a dying breed in England) there were discussions about which variety of potato was good that week. And a slice of home made brown bread with some country butter was heaven.

It struck me that a food culture actually reveals the whole history of a nation and that’s what set me on the path of tracing that history right from the very earliest times. Going to visit the Ceide Fields and learning that the field system there is the oldest known in the world – a thousand years older than the Pyramids – was so impressive! And I travelled from there right up to the present day, although I structured the chapters of the book in order of the importance of the foodstuff. So the potato comes in very late in the day.

SG: How fascinating to learn that the geneses of the book came from an old fireplace and the crane insert in the wall…and the connection of fields to food. I’m also very interested in social history, and particularly, how past trauma often carries on through subsequent generations. I was fascinated by the section in Panorama where you state that “The story of food is always political, and in Ireland’s case intensely so” and that in Ireland “it may take generations to erase the old race memory of hunger”. Can you tell us a little about the research that you undertook to write this book?

Margaret: As I  mentioned above, I was struck by the courage and tenacity of those early people who marked out fields in that cold, windy spot beside the sea up in Mayo, and as I researched widely, reading law tracts, diaries, ballads, lives of the saints, letters, memoirs, poems and accounts from folklore, I saw a pattern repeated down the centuries. Poor people struggled to survive under many different dispensations. The Normans actually made life a little better, as they introduced the rabbit, the idea of a columbarium or dovecote, plus they created fishponds and brought in legumes such as peas which could be dried and provide food in the lean winter months. But there were famines down the centuries and accounts of animals dying, too. Swift’s famous satire A Modest Proposal was written in 1729 and he was reacting to the suffering of the time by suggesting that a superfluous child could be a helpful addition to the larder, as a plump infant would serve well, boiled, stewed or fried! There was no redress against the harsh rule of the landlords and it was really egregiously cruel and unforgivable that the subjects of Queen Victoria, who ruled over a mighty empire, should be allowed to starve to death as late as the mid-nineteenth century.

I remember talking to an old man whose grandparents had lived through the Famine and people were trying to eat green slime skimmed off stagnant ponds and hoping to catch frogs and rats, although most of them had already been caught and eaten. I believe that the terrible indignities of that time and the desperation of eating half-rotten food left a deep horror of any strange foodstuffs and an ingrained suspicion of odd textures and tastes. Younger people and city people are much more adventurous now, but among an older generation of country people that suspicion and fastidiousness remains.

SG: Oh yes, I recall reading and analyzing A Modest Proposal in university.  Chilling! And of course, as you say, so very much set in its time.

Margaret, I thoroughly enjoyed the accessible way in which you tell the history of food – through hearsay, conversations overheard, interviews, poetry, song and, of course, recipes. In Chapter Four ‘On The Hoof’, you reveal how very important beef is in the Irish diet (particularly when it comes to quality) and we learn how Bacon and Cabbage comes in as the runner for a national dish with a wonderfully simple recipe for it as well as one for Dublin Coddle. How difficult was it to decide on something akin to a national dish taking into account the rural/urban divide? 

Margaret: I don’t believe there are many people in Ireland who have absolutely no roots in the countryside. There were, of course, always some purely urban families in Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway, Belfast. But precious few that didn’t have country cousins. I believe that chicken korma is Britain’s favourite meal today (several exclamation marks) but whereas more sophisticated city dwellers nowadays  might turn up their noses at the crude dish of bacon and cabbage, those two items have a long and noble history and  helped to build growing families. Many an exile would give a great deal for a plate of the very same right now. And if the bacon comes from a pig reared outdoors and allowed to rootle around, and if the cabbage is one of the native varieties grown in soil that knows no chemicals, and if that cabbage is well drained and dressed with a lump of country butter and the bacon and cabbage served with some fine spuds cooked in their jackets, I don’t think you’d turn your nose up at it, whatever class of a gourmet you might be!

SG: Yes, you’re right. Good quality ingredients are pretty hard to beat when it comes to potatoes, bacon and cabbage. Now as a nation island we have a complicated relationship with fish. However, I was interested to learn that it may be down to pure economics – not wanting to squander fat to fry it and so boiling the fish and rendering it tasteless – rather  than the famine as part of the reason why fish isn’t our ‘go to’ food. Having said that, I have plans to try out your recipe “Trout with Sorrel and Hazelnuts”. Could you comment a little on this?

Margaret: It is a mystery to me exactly why fish and shellfish have never been taken to the nation’s heart. When you think of the intense love of fish they have in Spain and Portugal and in Japan, you must wonder why the Irish, long before the Famine, prized other foods more. I’ve often heard the lack of enthusiasm for  fish ascribed to the Fish on Fridays argument. But no one was ever forced to eat fish on Fridays – it was a day of fasting and abstinence, that’s all. The problem was that the fish served was so seldom palatable. Take a piece of white fish, boil it or steam it and then serve it with no accompanying sauce or relish and you’ll be less keen on fish yourself! Peter Somerville-Large, from one of the Big Houses, remembers ‘huge bland pollock, which always tasted of tissue paper and pins.’

Added to the dull method of cooking, you might be dealing with fish that was less than fresh. Before the days of the engine, fish and shellfish had to be carted inland, so if you lived in Athlone you were likely to be offered fish that was fairly high!

I’m not denying that fish and shellfish – and, indeed, seaweed – weren’t eaten in earlier times. We have evidence from shells found in middens and from the importance of both the salmon and the trout in Irish mythology and legend. I love the wonderful coins that were issued when Ireland became an independent state and the leaping salmon on the old florin is such a gorgeous image.

Things are improving. Stephane Griesbach of Gannet’s fishmongers is a Frenchman who is bringing marvellously fresh fish to towns in Galway, Irish oysters are rightly prized. But we are still exporting huge numbers of fish and I have a small rant in the book about crabmeat. You’ll have to read it to find out what riles me!

SG: I’ll leave that to your new readers, Margaret! Now following on from this, I found the chapter on Vegetables, Herbs, Fruit and Nuts fascinating – particularly in relation to class divide. It put in mind the expensive delis and organic shops that have appeared in certain urban areas and how, if you look around carefully, you can find herbs and delights such as wild garlic growing wild….

Margaret: As I write this, there’s wild garlic running rampant by the side of the lane to my house and the chives in my garden are almost like a weed, they grow so vigorously and with no encouragement. Sorrel grows easily, too, as does curly parsley. Even if you’re living in the city, a window box or two will provide you with some herbs. But the recipes we follow often demand more exotic herbs and vegetables, so we tend to overlook what is native. I remember Lucy Madden telling me that in her opinion the finest omelette of all is the sorrel omelette and I tend to agree. All praise to people for being adventurous in their cooking and their exploration of other cuisines. I don’t want to be thought insular. But let’s not forget the really wonderful plants we have at home. And let’s, above all, try to eat herbs, vegetables and fruit that have been grown without harmful pesticides or irradiation. We are what we eat, and it’s surely in our own interests to buy high quality food that, where possible, is grown locally, thus diminishing the food miles.

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SG: For me one of the strongest threads running through Ireland’s Larder was the relationship between the female and the importance of milk and milk-based products such as butter. Was this something that you were cognisant of prior to writing the book or did it come out in the research?

Margaret: The woman is right at the heart of the story of Ireland’s food, as you would well imagine. And her contribution to the domestic economy of the household was vital. She it was who fed the animals around the house – the pigs and the chickens, for example – and apart from the cooking, she was the one who made the butter. Butter was incalculably important, because it was traded for money and that money was needed to pay the rent. During the hardest times, women would be churning butter but unable to give even a knob of it to their families, because all must be secured in a wooden firkin and used to pay the landlord. Failure to pay led to eviction, regardless of the state of the family or the time of year. Evictions could happen before Christmas, even. But when times were less hard, everyone basked in the warm yellow glow of butter, which would be dolloped onto the potato or spread thickly on soda bread.

I made the curious discovery that long ago the Irish had a preference for milk that was soured. There were many degrees of milk and ‘sweet’ fresh milk was considered fit for children and invalids, whilst healthy adults had a taste for ripened milk.

SG: Yes, good old buttermilk! I found the final chapter in the book to be most curious. You cover so much from folklore to traditions to the merging of pagan and Christian practices. Can you tell us how our tradition of story telling and creating life narratives is so closely related to the production and preparation of food?

Margaret: I mentioned above that dairy products are at the heart of  Ireland’s food culture, and many customs and pishogues attend milking and churning. It was considered good luck for any visitor to a house to take a turn at the churn when butter was being made, whereas if butter refused to ‘break’, that was because a witch or envious neighbour had put the evil eye on the cow. Wednesday was thought to be the most fortunate day of the week for churning, and an elderly neighbour of mine told me that he remembered an old woman who would never go out to the dairy but that she’d take the tongs and and she’d bring a little coal out of the fire and she’d put it under the churn ‘for fear anyone would bring the butter. A small little bit- just put it one side of the churn there. To protect it.’

What struck me very forcefully was that even in the depths of misery, people in Ireland found themselves able to rise above it and sing a song, play a tune, dance around the kitchen. A deeply spiritual people, they were, and I admire them so much for their lack of self pity and their love of learning and imagination.

Lastly, 3 fun questions, Margaret:

Cats or Dogs? My dog Meg is gently snoring by the window as I write this. I can see why people love cats – I had a Manx cat when I was a child – they’re very rare, as they have no tails. But my heart belongs to dogs.  I don’t think any sight makes me happier than seeing Meg chasing along with her best friend, Rocky, a black Labrador who’s half her age.

What’s your favourite comfort meal? There’s enough Irish blood in me to think straight away of the spud! Some lovely mashed potato. And ideally it would be the topping of a creamy fish pie.

What’s the most exotic ingredient you’ve ever cooked with? I’ve travelled a lot, and when I lived in France I had an education in food and drink that still stands to me today. I would happily prepare and cook brains and I’m well able to prepare squid. I adore India and the various Indian cuisines – there’s a marvellous book called 50 Great Curries of India by Camellia Panjabi-  so I’ve had a go at making dishes using curry leaves and     fenugreek. These days, though, I am attracted to very simple cooking with the best ingredients I can get my hands on. I’m partial to oysters, but it’s so wonderful when someone else does all the hard work, so I mostly eat out for  anything difficult.

Thank you so much, Margaret for taking part in WRITERS CHAT with me – it’s been a real pleasure and such a great learning experience for me! I wish you much well-deserved success with Ireland’s Green Larder. 

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Margaret Hickey

Listen to Margaret chat to Sean O’Rourke on RTE about Ireland’s Green Larder

Find out more about Margaret and Ireland’s Green Larder here. 

Writers Chat 8: Stephanie Conn on “Island” (Doire Press: Galway, 2018)

Stephanie, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your third collection of poetry Island.

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SG: Firstly, tell me about how Island was conceived as a series of narratives and how you went about structuring the collection, in particular your own personal links to the place and stories.

Stephanie: Many thanks, Shauna. It’s lovely to join you and talk a little about Island. The starting point for the collection was my ancestral connection to Copeland Island.

The Copeland Islands lie to the north-east of Donaghadee, Northern Ireland and are separated from the mainland by a channel a mile wide at its narrowest point. The archipelago comprises of Mew Island, Lighthouse Island and the largest of the three, Copeland Island, where my family lived. My great-great grandparents, Richard Clegg and Esther Emerson, were both born and raised on Copeland Island and lived their whole lives there. They married in 1845 and had nine children. They are buried in the tiny graveyard at the island’s edge.

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The island is now uninhabited. The last three elderly residents left for the mainland in 1947. However, at the time Esther and Richard were bringing up their family, they were part of a small but bustling community. I was keen to find out more about them and their way of life and provide some sort of record before it was forgotten.

I was lucky enough to secure a Career Enhancement Award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in 2013 to research and write the Copeland poems. Some of these poems were published in the pamphlet Copeland’s Daughter as a result of winning the Poetry Business Poetry Competition in 2016. However, it was clear from quite early on, that this work would result in a full collection. Island moves beyond Copeland Island to the Northern Ireland coastline and includes other islands such as Coney Island, Skellig Michael and Ischia.

SG: What a rich and wonderful family history you have to draw on, Stephanie. I loved how the imagery in many of the poems is so specific that it is universal. I’m thinking here of lines from Part 1 such as ‘smile-filled skin’ in “On Finding an old photograph in a drawer” and “What Mum Knew” and, in Part 11, “Copeland’s Daughter” and the moving “Wedding Night” which has the sense of being about your family?

Stephanie: Poems such as Copeland’s Daughter, Wedding Night, Her Precious Cargo and Esther refer to my great-great grandmother. She married on the 25th August 1845, and strangely, I married on the same date 160 years later!

I felt strongly that I had to write about the lives of my island ancestors, but I did wonder how the poems would be received – given the very specific place and time and people. I would have been happy to keep this as a family project of sorts, but as the individual poems were accepted for publications and began to win prizes, it became obvious they were connecting with others. I was reading some of the poems at Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage and there were knowing nods from the audience. As you say, the themes of displacement, of belonging or not belonging, are universal.

SG: I love the serendipity of your wedding taking place on the same day as that of your great-great-grandmother. The next question has two parts. Firstly, you manage to paint the beauty of nature while evoking the harshness of the land and life. In “As was the custom” and “Winter” the reader is taken in, almost by the whisper of the sea, and then shocked into the reality at the end of the poem.

Secondly, it’s not only nature that tricks the ships into false security. It’s the games people play – for example in “The Clipper’s Captain”, “The Islander’s New Clothes”, “An Excise Man comes calling” and “Biding Time.” Tell us a little about the stories behind these poems.

Stephanie: It is easy to see how people are drawn to island life and why they romanticise the notion, but my research showed time and time again, just how demanding the reality was. The islanders could be cut off from the mainland for weeks on end and spent their lives at the mercy of the elements. Searching newspaper archives for mention of the Copeland Islands, around this time, a similar series of events is reported again and again. Despite the lighthouse and the foghorn, ship after ship struck the rocks in bad weather.

I completed most of my research over the autumn and winter months and when I finally got over to visit Copeland Island what I found was unexpected – tiny bones littering the fields, torn limbs lying close to rabbit holes. I write about the experience in ‘Visiting the Island of my Ancestors’.

Poems such as The Clipper’s Captain, Her Precious Cargo, The Islander’s New Clothes deal with a specific shipwreck. On the morning of the 7th January 1854, the islanders witnessed the American clipper ship, The Mermaid, driven on to the south-west side of the Copeland Island in gale force winds. The ship was reported as one of the finest vessels of her time and was only nine months old when she was wrecked. Her twenty-nine crew and three passengers were rescued by the islanders and spent the night in Richard Clegg’s barn before sailing to the mainland and onwards to England. The ship’s cargo of silk, satin, muslin, linen and carpet, went down with the ship and for weeks floated along the sound and gathered in bales on the nearby shores. It was reported that the islanders did not let this go to waste.

 SG: We’re all, in a way, products of where we come from and this is another theme throughout the collection but what is most interesting is the sense you show of what it is when you don’t belong. For example, in “Molly and the Islanders”, “Esther” and “A Sea View” there is a disconnectedness between the people and the land and sea.

Stephanie: Molly was a real person. She was a young bride who had honeymooned on Copeland Island and was determined to move there and live happily ever after. She didn’t last six months before moving back to the mainland.

I suppose I was echoing some of my own feelings in these poems as well as reflecting on the experiences of the women I write about. For example, I had an historical connection to this place and yet was removed from it. The Cleggs are family on my father’s side, but growing up, it was my mother who told us stories about both sides of our family. My mother died when she was just 46 years old. When she died, a lot of family history went with her and I wished I’d paid more attention to those stories she told us growing up and had tapped into this precious archive in her mind before it was too late.

SG: Water is constant in Island and I enjoyed how it both weighs and emotionally weighs. In “Weak as Water” we’re reminded how the character

had forgotten the weight of water – /how it erodes rock, how the sea advances/and recedes, even with neap tides, even as/the sun and moon oppose each other.

There’s something around the cycle of life and death, the continuation despite death.

I had planned to call the collection ‘The Weight of Water’ until a poet friend pointed out the fairly recent novel of the same name. I was certainly conscious of the cycle of life and death when writing these poems and I’ve touched a little on this above. Without living grandparents or my mother to help me discover my links to the island, I determined to do so myself. Within my family, I felt it was important that this history be passed onto my own children but, beyond the family ties, I didn’t want this bustling chapter of the island’s history to be forgotten.

The fact too, that this was one period within the island’s history. There is a before and after – monks retreating from Bangor Abbey to a tiny island in the sea, a specialist Bird Observatory.

SG: Yes, the weight of water is fitting but then again the final title, Island manages to contain that notion too. I’m interested in the overlap of history and stories and I loved how you combined the stories of history and the sensory memories in “Electricity”, “August 25th”, “The Sweetest Thing” and “The Science of Tears”. Can you tell us a little about the research you had to do for these poems?

When I was carrying out my research, it was quite difficult to move beyond the facts and figures of census materials and birth, death and marriage registers to get closer to the human experience. I had to use my imagination but in doing so it felt important to make the poems as authentic as possible when it came to details of the physical island and the flora and fauna.

As well as statistical records, I browsed newspaper archives, read geographical reports, interviewed members of local historical societies and met people with links to the islands. I visited the island to explore, make notes and take photographs. The few small cottages that remain on the island are now privately owned and used for occasional summer visits, so you cannot stay on Copeland Island. Armed with my research, I spent a week writing on Rathlin Island, listening to the sea and the seals in the harbour. At the start of the week, the rain lashed, and the wind howled but by the end of the week there was glorious sunshine and stunning sunsets. It was bliss.

SG: What a most wonderful description of your research! 

I shared “Winter” with one of my adult creative writing classes and we had a lovely discussion about the rhythm, your use of a ‘chorus’ and how this begged for the poem to be read aloud, echoing the movement of the tides. The group have a few questions for you:

  • Did you start writing the poem as an ode to the last verse or did the last verse come as a shock to you too? That’s a really interesting question. The last verse did come as a shock to me. I was drawn in by the rhythm while I was writing the poem and was surprised by what emerged. That’s one of the things I love about writing poetry – even if you start out with a particular intention the poem goes off in its own direction.
  • Is the island of “Winter” a lighthouse island? Copeland Island, the island of ‘Winter’, is the biggest of the three islands. Over the years there has been a lighthouse on each of the other islands – first on Lighthouse Island, as the name suggests, and now on Mew Island. The lighthouse, or at least the beam of light, would have been a part of the islanders’ daily lives.
  • There’s a practice off the coast of England that involved misleading ships so that they would crash and the loot could be taken. Are these lines a reference to this practice: ‘we run to the shore to save all we can’. The reference here is to the lives they might save – as mentioned above, ships running into difficulty off the islands was common at this time. There was no suggestion of this practice in any of my research. The island was so close to the mainland that people in Donaghadee could see the ships at the mercy of the currents or when they were hitting the rocks. However, during my week on Rathlin, a local guide told me about this practice and the reports of the Clipper’s captain waving a gun at the islanders as they tried to help save the crew and passengers from the sinking ship suddenly made more sense. Perhaps he was worried they were planning to steal the cargo.

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Thank you so much for such open and generous answers. Island is a collection I’ll return to again and again. 

Lastly, 3 fun questions, Stephanie:

  • Boat or Plane? I’m not a huge fan of either – I am a terrible traveller and suffer with motion sickness. I’ll opt for ‘plane’ as the destinations can be well worth feeling a bit rough on the journey.
  • What was your favourite childhood poem? In my final year at primary school, our class had to learn and recite Tennyson’s ‘The Eagle’ and it stuck. I loved the sounds in my mouth, the pace and emphasis the teacher taught us and that wonderful notion of the ‘azure world’.
  • What are you reading now? I have just finished Liz Nugent’s new novel ‘Skin Deep’ which had me hooked and kept me reading late into the night. I tend to have quite a few poetry collections on the go at any one time. I’m currently reading Kathleen McCracken’s ‘Tattoo Land’, Polly Atkin’s ‘Basic Nest Architecture’ and Pascale Petit’s ‘Mama Amazonica’.

Join Stephanie on a Cross-Border Reading Tour: 

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Keep up to date with Stephanie on her website

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