Writers Chat 22: Andrew Farkas on “Sunsphere” (BlazeVOX [books]: New York, 2019)

Andrew, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your latest publication, a linked short story collection Sunsphere  (BlazeVOX [books]: New York, 2019). A previous collection of fictions, Self-Titled Debut, won the Subito Press Prose Contest in 2009 and a novel The Big Red Herring is due in October

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Purchase Sunsphere direct from BlazeVOX [books] 

SG: Let’s start with the cover image, which, I think captures much of what Sunsphere is about: people orbiting each other, people trapped with each other, people seemingly identical but inside so very individual. It strikes me that this book also speaks to the politics of our times –whereby we are part of this increasingly homogenised society and culture and yet we often fail to identify on a national level.

AF: It seems to me that people are constantly looking for that one thing they can use to define themselves, and they want this definition to be both inclusive (so they can have someone in their corner) and exclusive (so they can point at the people who don’t belong). The problem is, we either pick ideas we’re unsuited for (like Herbert in “White Dwarf Blues” who very obviously doesn’t mesh with the drug addicts he’s hanging out with), or we’re unwilling to move on when the old ideas don’t work anymore (Trevor and Kat refusing to breakup in “Do Kids in California Dream of North Carolina?” for instance). In both cases, we cling desperately to whatever it is that defines us, even once it becomes the nightmare version of itself. I think that’s what you’re talking about with the increasingly homogenized society. We want to be able to say, “This is what it means to be an American,” when really any country is just an arbitrary set of borders on landmasses composed of people who likely ended up there by chance. When we’re willing to move on, we can tap into our individuality, but that can be as dangerous as stagnation. Yang Wie-Te in “The City of the Sunsphere,” for instance, goes off on his own, but that almost kills him. Why? Because when you remove yourself from all of the accepted groups, even the smaller groups in society, you risk being ignored by everyone. So, we’re forever on our irregular, ellipsoid orbits, but we tell everyone they’re actually perfect circles. And they agree because their irregular, ellipsoid orbits are perfect circles too.

SG: Yes, I think that we do, as you put it, “cling desperately to whatever it is that defines us” especially in these polarised times. At the core of much of your work is, as stated on the back cover blurb, “a search for humanity”. Could you talk a little about this search in relation to your writing process for Much of the collection was published in journals including “Everything Under The Sunsphere” which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and I’m wondering about the order in which each story is placed and how that evolved.

AF: Honestly, the search for humanity wasn’t the conscious part of the book. Instead, I’d say Sunsphere is an argument for how humanistic science, including quantum physics, is. After all, my goal was to write a collection of stories focused on the concept of energy because that was the theme of the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville (the Sunsphere being the symbol of that fair). I also wanted to focus on entropy in the stories because World’s Fair Park was in shambles when I lived in Tennessee, and I thought it was interesting that the exposition based on energy had reached its entropic state. And so the collection came together via different forms of energy or concepts connected to energy (“The Physics of the Bottomless Pit” being kinetic energy, “Do Kids in California” being potential energy, “Everything Under the Sunsphere” being heat energy, “I Don’t Know Why” being entropy, etc.). It wasn’t until I was done writing the stories that I realized the material had taken me on a search for humanity, I think because science is our way to help us understand the universe which includes ourselves.

As for the order the stories appear in, it’s changed over the years (since the book wasn’t published until about decade after I thought of it as done). But “Do Kids in California” was always first because it’s the potential energy story and because it introduces us to the Sunsphere. That was also the only story I didn’t have the idea for prior to beginning the book. I had this big poster with all of the titles lined up next to the type of energy the story represented, except for potential energy… Much as “California” was always first, “I Don’t Know Why” was always the penultimate story, since the first narrator in the piece references the fact that it’s second to last in the collection. “You Are Where I Am Not” doesn’t have the Sunsphere in it because I wrote it after I thought I was done with the Sunsphere stories, but then realized it’d make a good final stasis piece. The other stories were organized for rhythm, keeping “Bottomless Pit” for the center, instead of putting such a long piece at the beginning.

SG: Hmm that’s an interesting intention – to explore how humanistic science is. Again I think it brings us back to polarisation – the arts/feelings and sciences/logic, them and us, the othering of everything. At the same time place – and the concreteness of it – is central to this book – the city, the land and, at the heart, structures that symbolise achievements, and celebrate understanding of the larger questions of life and our world. As the narrator says in Everything Under The Sunsphere:

“There is sun-poisoning. Heat sickness. Heat delirium. The inflamed, demented, diseased city runs wild. Careens down streets whose names change so often they have no names at all.”

There’s an interesting thread here – if I have picked up on it correctly – that speaks about the deep divide in American history the remains revealed in stereotyping, place and food names, and in a place where everyone has air conditioning except for the narrator. At the end of this story, the narrator realises that he – and everyone – is “able to look past the city of Knoxville…look past all of it…to see the place where the roads run logically and the streets’ names never change.” Could you speak a little about the connection between place and history?

AF: I don’t know if it’s there anymore, but when I lived in Knoxville in the early 2000s, there was this giant advertisement for Philco televisions on a brick wall downtown. To my knowledge, Philco televisions went bust in the ’60s or ’70s. Since I was born in 1978, I don’t know that I ever watched a Philco TV. And yet here’s this huge sign asking you to buy something you couldn’t buy with all the money in the world. Oh, sure, you could pick one up at a junk store or an antique store, but the ad didn’t say, “Buy a beat to hell television,” or, “Get yourself some old timey technology.” No, the sign was talking about new TVs. Seeing history imbedded in place like this connects us to the past, but also forces us to deal with change (since this too shall pass). Because I was willing to confront history, being confused by a TV brand I’d never heard of before, I researched Philco and learned about the Predicta, which I later used in The Big Red Herring. In other words, by paying attention to the history found in place, I discovered something new to think about (even though it was actually something old). More often than not, though, people will look through the Philco sign, or ignore it because it doesn’t immediately make sense (either because they don’t know what it is, or because they know its time has come and gone). Gene is like this in “Everything Under the Sunsphere.” So, the old Sunsphere is falling apart, while the brand new Sterchi building, which has air conditioning, is his respite from the Southern heat. But Gene wants everything to make sense, so he’d like Knoxville to be completely rebuilt, to be completely stripped of difficult history. It’s no surprise, then, that the arsonists use names they stole from a 19th century graveyard, since they represent the chaos that scares the hell out of Gene. And it’s no surprise that Gene imagines a rebuilt Knoxville “where the roads run logically, and the streets’ names never change.” He certainly thinks of that city as perfect because it remains the same forever. A pretty dream, but it’s impossible, and shows an abject terror of the difficult knowledge of the past and the change inherent in the future. But won’t the change in the future eliminate every vestige of the past? Obviously not, since in 2002 there was still an advertisement for brand new Philco TVs right in downtown Knoxville.

SG: Oh that’s an interesting interpretation of place and history. I was actually thinking of civil war politics, race, and gender but you make link how things are placed around us to how we identify in time and history through objects, what we own and how we project those identities to the world. Following on from this, your characters often speak at each other rather than to each other in a world that is so fast moving that, it appears, we don’t notice when we grow or change, and don’t often realise when the landscape around us has become eroded. In the very amusing “The Physics of the Bottomless Pit” rumours, conspiracy theories, stories and tales abound including advice on “what to do in case”. The story also has a section which calls out for you, the author, exclaiming “If anyone can hear me, please let him know….”. Can you comment on how this collection speaks to the busyness and depersonalisation of our society?

AF: “The Physics of the Bottomless Pit” and “I Don’t Know Why” are perhaps the two stories that speak to the busyness and depersonalization in our society the most. In both stories, the characters really never stop to think about what’s going on. Instead, they either ignore what’s going on so they can grind through their endless, inconsequential tasks, or they produce great amounts of irrelevant material on either the bottomless pit (that “what to do in case” you referenced, for instance) or the KnoxVillain threat, respectively. Occasionally, characters figure out what they need to do is less, not more, but nobody is willing to interrupt their busy schedules to listen to them. In the meantime, there are characters who break down and try to reach out, but since their questions don’t make sense, or are scary because they don’t have easily prescribed answers, no one really listens. I portray this in “Bottomless Pit” by using disembodied conversations between characters who never quite understand each other. “I Don’t Know Why,” on the other hand, has stereo speakers spread throughout the entire city of Knoxville that constantly broadcast static so no one can hear what anyone else is saying. The white noise doesn’t stop anyone from talking, though; it just ensures no communication will take place. Only simple commands can be comprehended, but with no context the simple commands end up leading to absurd ends.

SG: For me you’ve touched on our shrinking attention span here, there’s so much communication – and so many ways in which to communicate – that we often end up saying nothing. Reading this collection more than once I thought of literary critics and writers such as Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan … and of course you quote Samuel Beckett at the start of “I Don’t Know Why.” Does this collection play as much with form and content as the role of reader and writer?

AF: When Ilana Masad interviewed me for The Other Stories podcast, she was really surprised that Sunsphere is a mixed collection, meaning it has stories of various genres and styles. So, I’m absolutely playing with form and content. But how do I play with form and content? I rarely sit down and say something like, “I want to write a science fiction story.” Instead, I have an idea or ideas, say that people erupt into destructive shock waves when they die and the Sunsphere, inexplicably, was turned into a miniature pulsar. I then ask what kind of story should I write using these ideas. After I asked that question, I began imagining the pulsar slowed way down, almost like a rotating spotlight that briefly illuminates different parts of Knoxville. In film, perhaps you’d use slow motion. In print, I decided extremely detailed descriptions of each part of the city would be best. That then reminded me of the way Alain Robbe-Grillet describes the banana plantation in Jealousy (1957) and the grounds of the resort in Last Year at Marienbad (1961), so reserved and meticulous.

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An image from the film Last Year at Marienbad (provided by Andrew Farkas)

Consequently, I ended up with a Robbe-Grillet inspired science fiction story. On the other hand, “White Dwarf Blues” turned out to be a parody of what I call drug noir stories because I imagined the super deadpan, super depressing works by Hubert Selby, Jr. or Bret Easton Ellis and wondered what it’d be like if a character was really, really happy to be in one of those stories. Herbert, the happy character, keeps trying to act all burned out, but he can’t do it because he’s so excited. Now, in the collection as a whole, I did require that all (except one) of the stories had to have some version of the Sunsphere and that all of the stories had to use concepts connected to energy, but otherwise the form came from the content of each piece. Meaning the stories in Sunsphere have thematic connections, but no stylistic or generic restrictions. That’s how I ended up with a mixed collection.

SG: So, does your work as a professor in a university speak to your work as a writer? And do you believe that all writing is creative (academic and otherwise).

Much as I write metafiction, I would say I’m a meta-teacher, meaning I not only ask my students discussion questions, I then tell them why I’m asking those questions. It always drove me nuts when I was a student and a prof would take a particular position, but wouldn’t say why they were taking that position. Furthermore, I’m lucky enough to run creative writing workshops (which have always been my favourite classes). These workshops keep me asking what is this piece doing, how is it doing it, why is it doing it, and how well does it work, so I then ask myself those questions when I’m editing my own writing. Not to mention the fact that my students keep me updated (either purposely or otherwise) on what is going on in the world. For instance, I’ve taught classes where a great many students were all writing, say, fantasy, and so I end up getting familiar with what is going on in fantasy now through their writing and influences, and then by the research I do in order to help them.

And, yes, I do believe that all writing is creative. I wish we saw it that way more. Instead, we tend to approach critical papers like math problems and try to grade them accordingly. Much as there are many theorems in geometry, we try to load the students down with as many rules of writing as possible (including heaps of rules that aren’t actually rules of writing at all, but more like pet peeves a particular teacher might have). Consequently, when the students roll into my classroom, they’re terrified to write because they’re positive whatever they say will be wrong (grammar mistakes often being the greatest fear my students have). It’s then my job to get them to accept that good writing doesn’t come about in one draft. Hell, the first draft, you shouldn’t think about any rules at all, you should just get ideas down on paper. And, yes, as you move forward, there are more guidelines to follow, but they get easier to follow once you know what you’re going to say, how you’re going to structure it, and on and on. Although it often takes a while for them to believe me, they do usually come to understand that writing is easier when you’re not trying to write a perfect draft in one go. I feel like creative writers understand that. And so, I bring as much as I can from creative writing into composition in the hopes it’ll help allay those fears that only end up destroying writing (often before it even actually starts).

SG: Oh I love that you think that all writing is creative. I also think that and find, like you, that teaching is wonderful engagement with writing and reading in ways that feed into my own practice. Speaking of practice, what, if any, is your writing ritual?

AF: Although I have written in the day, I prefer to write at night. Not only am I an Indoorsman, I am also a night person. I do my best thinking and writing after the sun goes down. While writing, I can’t listen to music for some reason, but I do need noise. So, I usually have a floor fan buzzing monotonously or one of those background noise generators going. Especially when I’m working on the early stages of any piece, I pace a lot. The most difficult thing for me is to look at a blank page. If I sat there and stared at the screen, I’d never write anything at all. So, I walk back and forth, talking to myself about what I’m trying to do. Once it starts to sound good, then I sit down and type a little, then pace more, type a little, pace more, sometimes imagine other things (I’m fond of pretending that I’m a knuckleball pitcher for a baseball team), and then back to typing. Once I have pages filled up with writing, normally well-structured but poorly written, then I’m happiest because all I have to do is focus on making the sentences sound the way I want them to sound. I also take tons of notes, which is another way to generate lots of writing so I’m not dealing with an awful blank page. But, yeah, at night, fan buzzing, pacing, note-taking, occasionally typing, and as the typing increases, the pacing decreases.

SG: Here’s where we differ! I’m not a pacer – more of a procrastinator, making tea kind of person – and I’m more of a morning or late night but not into the night person. I love how we all find our own spaces and paces.

Lastly, Andrew, some fun questions:

  1. Sea or Lake? Lake. Preferably the great ones next to Cleveland or Chicago.
  2. Dogs or cats? Neither. Although a friend of mine had to take care of a robot dog for a while at the University of Alabama, and I thought that was pretty awesome.
  3. A robot dog! Fabulous. Beer or wine? I never drink … wine. So definitely beer.
  4. High Street or Mall? When I was a kid, my dad worked at the power plant for Chapel Hill Mall in Akron, Ohio. So, anytime I go into a mall, I remember going to Chapel Hill when I was a kid (although now it’s almost a dead mall). The strange thing is, I’m not especially fond of shopping in malls. I just like walking around in them sometimes for that nostalgia rush.
  5. Inner city or suburbs? Definitely the city. I lived in Chicago for five years in the city itself. And I very briefly lived in NYC in the city itself. If I could live anywhere, I’d absolutely live in a city, not outside of the city, and certainly not way outside of the city.
  6. What are you reading right now? Since I’m currently teaching a class on the alternate history genre, I’m reading Karen Hellekson’s The Alternate History, Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Sur,” Maureen F. McHugh’s “The Lincoln Train,” William Sanders’ “The Undiscovered,” Poul Anderson’s “Delenda Est,” Larry Niven’s “All the Myriad Ways,” Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner’s “Mozart in Mirrorshades,” and Lawrence Watt-Evans’ “Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers.”
  7. Wow, what a list! So, what’s your next writing project? I’m currently working on a collection of essays called The Great Indoorsman. The title is the title of the book and of an essay in the book that’s already appeared in Heavy Feather Review. The other essays are specifically about me exploring various indoors spaces (since I’m not much a fan of the out-of-doors). Most recently I had an essay in The Iowa Review called “Filk” that’s about filk music and old video rental stores. Also, The Big Red Herring, my novel, comes out October 28, 2019.

SG: Thanks, Andrew, for engaging so thoroughly with this Writers Chat. I wish you all the very best with your many publications and I will look out for your novel The Big Red Herring later this year.

Purchase Sunsphere direct from BlazeVOX [books]

READINGS:

AndyFarkas

About Andrew: Andrew Farkas is the author of two short fiction collections: Sunsphere (BlazeVOX Books) and Self-Titled Debut (Subito Press), and a novel: The Big Red Herring (KERNPUNKT Press). His work has appeared in The Iowa Review, North American Review, The Cincinnati Review, The Florida Review, Western Humanities Review, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. He has been thrice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, including one Special Mention in Pushcart Prize XXXV and one Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2013. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Chicago, an M.F.A. from the University of Alabama, an M.A. from the University of Tennessee, and a B.A. from Kent State University. He is a fiction editor for The Collagist and an Assistant Professor of English at Washburn University. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.

 

Writers Chat 21: Niamh Boyce on “Her Kind” (Penguin: Dublin, 2019)

Niamh, You are very welcome back to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your second novel, Her Kind (Penguin: Dublin, 2019) already shortlisted for the EU Prize for Literature. This follows on from your poetry collection Inside the Wolf and your debut novel The Herbalist (Penguin, 2013) which we talked about at our last Writers Chat (republished at the end of this chat!).

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SG: I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in 14th Century Kilkennie. Anna Carey in her review in The Irish Times rightly said that ’14th century Kilkenny is so evocative and atmospheric the reader can almost taste the honeycombs in Petronelle’s carefully tended hives and feel the heavy animal pelts that line Alice’s secret chamber…’ 

Her Kind is set in Kilkenny over the course of seven months and I loved the details you included at the start of each chapter, for example, in September we get a line from The Triads of Ireland, ninth century: “Three darknesses into which women should not go: the darkness of mist, the darkness of night, the darkness of a wood.”

In your Irish Times interview with Rosita Boland, you spoke about how Her Kind aims to reach out to women like Petronelle. Can you tell us a little about your research – how you came to evoke –what feels so accurately to me – the land, the society, the politics, the divisions, the lives of the women and girls in this place, at this time?

NB: Thanks Shauna, I am really glad you enjoyed the epigraphs at the start of each chapter, I love that ancient triad, it’s very telling, the mist, woods, and night are such liminal spaces. The quotations that start each chapter, are there to indicate the era without hitting the reader over the head with history. I wanted the unfolding story of the sorcery trial to feel immediate and vivid – so research wise, I was seeking out the micro-history – the textures, taste and atmosphere of that time, as much as the politics. The research took a few years – I took a bee keeping course, studied effigies from the 14th century, reading archaeological reports, researched food, wolves, Brehon law, common law, the ancient custom rolls, translations of ancient manuscripts and spent a lot of time in Kilkenny itself. I came across so many fascinating books, highlights included works by John Bradley and John Prim, Cosman’s Medieval Word Book, Coulter’s Medieval Panorama, Maeve Brigid Callan’s The Templars, The Witch and the Wild Irish by Four Courts Press, and Witches Spies and Stockholm Syndrome by Finbar Dwyer, The Sorcery Trial of Alice Kyteler; A contemporary narrative by Pegasus Press and the Liber Primus Kilkennius.

SG: Such solid research, Niamh. And what you found in these publications you seamlessly wove into your fictional narrative. Following on from this, the city of Kilkenny and its surrounds are drawn out beautifully in Her Kind.

Just like Hightown and Irishtown, the cathedral itself was behind walls. Kilkennie, it seemed, was a riddle of walls, a stone honeycomb. We climbed steps to yet another archway and entered the grounds. Before us, stood the highest, narrowest bell tower I’d ever seen. Its door was set off the ground, with no stairs or ladder to reach it. The cathedral huddled behind it, like a giant child. I walked towards the church, taking in the coloured-glass windows and enormous oak door. Heads were carved above it, watchful monkish faces, peering down.

You also help place the reader right in-situ through snappy dialogue. This is a long quote but I just love how we really feel we’re there with the women:

The shambles was rowdy with pigs, sheep and chickens, penned or tethered. A pup lapped a pool of blood. Shit spilt from the haunches of frightened beasts. The air was full of flies and feathers. Meat hung on hooks from the butcher’s house front. He was a winky smiler.

Helene elbowed me and grinned. ‘I’d marry him on the spot only for the sound of those knives sharpening.’

We came then to a wide road where houses stood shoulder to shoulder. Shutters were propped like tables beneath each window, laden with bolts of cloth, medicines and bright spices. ‘Paprika. Ginger. Cinnamon …’ Helene chanted, waving her finger, mimicking Dame Alice’s habit of listing her treasures.

Traders shouted their wares, boys pushed barrows of offal, swine ran riot.

It strikes me that you might have enjoyed re-visiting Kilkenny and perhaps took many a stroll through the city to help you?

NB: That’s true! I spent a lot of time in Kilkenny, especially during the first three years of writing the book. I walked the city, following in the footsteps of my characters as I wrote their scenes. The medieval Mile Museum hadn’t been finished then – it’s a must see for anyone visiting Kilkenny – but I spent time examining the effigies on the site. I visited St Canice’s Cathedral itself – where the effigy of Bishop Ledrede is still in place. It was he who instigated the trial against Alice for Sorcery. It’s eerie to stand beside his stone likeness. His remains are no longer inside the tomb, it’s said that Cromwell’s soldiers tossed them on the dung heap when they invaded. The cathedral was also where I came across the anchoress’s grave. An anchorite or anchoress is a hermit who gives up ordinary life for a solitary life of prayer – they are often sealed in between the walls of a church, with only small ‘squints’ or windows to receive food through. The figure of a nun is carved onto the anchoress’s grave stone.  Her hands are held in old style prayer position, palm facing outwards rather than palms together. When I placed my palms over her stone ones, I felt a strange sensation, close to the one that Petronelle describes in Her Kind, that of an old truth pushing back – that day the character of Agnes the anchoress came to life.

SG: Oh how wonderfully eerie. The picture of your palms over her stone ones made the hair on my arms stand on edge! I was particularly taken by the portrayal of the inequality based on gender, language, looks, and, of course, wealth. The theme of economic and bodily power runs strong through Her Kind and, as we all know, is not so different to today’s society. Petronelle’s daughter Basila – a teenager in today’s terms – is very aware of this. She states: “Most of the musicians were Gaels, and it wasn’t just their long hair that made me know this – there was something about their faces. I wondered about mine and my mother’s. Did our faces tell on us, too?”

That her true identity will be discovered is a constant worry for Petronelle, yet, without spoiling anything for those who have yet to read the novel, Basilia’s muteness is what proves to empower. (What a last line!) Can you talk a little about this mother-daughter relationship coupled with the power of speech – what people say, or do not say, and the role of the act of naming and re-naming in Her Kind.

NB: The gaps between ‘Motherhood’ as a construct versus motherhood the reality interests me greatly. I enjoyed writing the soothsayer Lithgen most of all, probably because she predates contemporary assumptions about motherhood. She does not follow her daughter Petronelle when she is driven from Flemingstown. She does not even consider doing so. In today’s society she would be considered a ‘bad mother’ – self-sacrifice has become so central to the concept of motherhood. Lithgen however, is herself, first and foremost. It is she who recognises that Basilia uses silence as a weapon. Basilia who becomes mute after a trauma, soon realises she might not even want to start speaking again. It becomes a way of punishing her mother. She has very little leverage, so withholding her voice becomes a sort of power.

Gaels were not welcome in Hightown, which was also known as Englishtown. So, when Dame Alice takes the mother and daughter in, she renames them Petronelle and Basilia. It’s the price they pay when they cross her threshold. Esme the cook calls it being named and tamed. They may have been named, but they are not tamed. When Petronelle says – I am not myself.  Basilia wonders where her mother’s real self is…’had my mother and her soul become parted in the woods – could it still be there, caught in high branches, dark from the distance like a crow’s nest?’

SG: Yes, I love how nature reminds the women of who they really are, and their true power, throughout the novel. I really loved Basilia’s narrative voice. You captured her youth, her naivety, but also her powerful observations and ability to survive. This line, for me, so wonderfully summarized her character: “If only it was as easy to stop dreaming as it was to stop speaking.” How did her character to come to you, in contrast to the characters such as Alice Kytler, or Basilia’s mother, Petronelle de Midia who are based on real women.

NB: Basilia is less well known, but is on record as being Petronelle’s daughter. I’ve spent so long with her as a character, it’s not easy to remember a time before she existed, to recall how her character first arrived. I looked back on early drafts of the book to see what the first sentence of Basilia’s was, and found – Dame Alice gave us new names, safer than our old ones. I think her character grew from that line, and as one sentence led to another, she became more real. I free write the first draft by hand, and just let it flow. Initially the character of Basilia was born out of her relationship with Alice, her acceptance of the new name, her delight in Alice’s house, which she saw as like being in court, or what she imagined a court might be. I had the suspicion early on that she would not speak, and I always knew what that last line would be, so her characters arc was available to me (as a very faint line) as I wrote.

SG: I like how you describe her character line as faint – so it was there but you could not quite see it and it became clearer as you wrote her narrative. Your language is very poetic – not surprising given your talents as a poet – take, for example, this description of the daily task of washing that turns from one thing and brings us to another place, entirely:

After some time and an aching back, we lifted out the cloth, dumped it in cool water and wrung it out. When I unravelled the folds, I saw the embroidered nightingales had come up darker than the silk itself. ‘Give it another dunk. Use the stick. No need to soak your hands like that – look at your skin!’ My hands were tinted darkest at the cuticles, next to which my nail crescents gleamed grey. Later, in the kitchen, I tried to scrub my hands clean but my skin kept the blue tinge. I turned up my palms: my life, love and heart lines looked as if they were drawn with a quill. They seemed strange, as if they belonged to someone else. I thought of the lady, her dead baby and her desperate pleas.

Was this use of close, sensory detail that came to you in the first drafts or something that evolved as you went through the redrafting process?

NB: That image in particular, and a lot of the sensory detail came early in the first stage of freewriting, I think of it as an anti-logical phase and just follow the images. I catch them, and record them without trying to fix them into a narrative. I love Jane Hirshfield’s book – ‘Nine Gates, entering the mind of poetry’. She talks about how images hold the shapeshifting wisdom of a dream. The dye on Petronelle’s skin, the way the woad darkened the lines on her hand – was an early image, one of the first that came as I wrote. I recorded it, without knowing where it came in the narrative, or why it was significant. There’s a strong element of trusting the process, and just collecting images.

SG: And that’s something that takes strength to do, I think. To trust the process and follow – often blindly – one image to the next, one word to the next. Lastly, Niamh, some fun questions:

  • Kilkenny city or county? (A hard one, I know!) County, then I get to keep both.
  • Sun or snow? Snow.
  • Tea or coffee? Tea.
  • What are you writing now? A novel.
  • What are you reading now? Womankind Magazine.

Thanks so much for your generous answers, Niamh. I look forward to your next novel and wish you much continued success with Her Kind. 

Keep in touch with Niamh on her blog and on twitter @NiamhBoyce

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Awarded Hennessy XO New Irish Writer of The Year in 2012, Niamh’s debut novel THE HERBALIST, was critically acclaimed, won Debut of the Year at the Irish Book Awards and was nominated for an IMPAC Award. Inside the Wolf, her poetry collection was released in 2018. Her fiction and poetry have been broadcast, adapted for stage and anthologised, most recently in ‘The Long Gaze Back,’ ‘The Hennessy Anthology’ and ‘Hallelujah for 50 Foot Women.’ Her second novel, HER KIND (Penguin Random House) is based on the Kilkenny Witchcraft Trial of Alice Kytler. Nominated for the EU Prize for literature, the judges called Her Kind, ‘as searing a critique of our own times as is Arthur Millar’s The Crucible’.

 

WRITERS CHAT –  NIAMH BOYCE – THE HERBALIST

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED JULY 2013

Niamh, many congratulations on your debut novel The Herbalist which is receiving rave reviews and climbing up the top ten charts! And welcome to my blog!

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 Now that The Herbalist has been launched, is in bookshops around the country, you’re giving public readings from it. Tell me how you choose which section to read? Do you have a favourite character or scene which you find yourself returning to again and again? I’m thinking, of course, particularly about the female characters which are so strongly envisaged in your novel.

Thanks Shauna, yes, I’m delighted with the reviews so far. As for readings, I try to read from the early sections in the book so as not to give too much away, usually from Emily’s point of view. She’s the girl who falls first and hardest for The Herbalist, and she can be quite funny. Lately though I’ve been drawn more and more to Aggie’s voice, despite the fact that she has less to say in the book, she packs a whack when she says it!

 Which character or characters from The Herbalist surprised you the most – in terms of how you had imagined them and how their role in the story transpired?

Emily surprised me. I thought she would lay down, I thought she would be the sacrifice. The other characters thought that too. How wrong we were. And Carmel shocked me to the core, but I can’t say much more without revealing the plot!

That’s great, Niamh, I love how you describe how Emily shocked both you – as the author – and the other characters! It’s really about letting the writing lead. Now I know the genesis for The Herbalist is taken from a real life character. But tell me how important is the role of place for you when writing about an historical Ireland?

Place was hugely important, the town, the market, the lanes, the courthouse but most of all the river. As I wrote by the river I was very aware of the river that ran through the town decades ago;  it was the same river, but of course also, not the same river. The pull of what the older river held was very strong, Aggie in some ways gives voice to this. I had the sense as I wrote that we in the present are a mere shadow of what has gone before, of the dead. That we are the ghosts, and not the other way around. So The Herbalist didn’t feel like a ‘historical’ novel when I wrote it- it felt more like a ghost story. Of course, I’m stating this in retrospect, at the time I avoided thinking in terms of genre. Maybe I was afraid of the term historical, especially Irish historical – there are so many connotations to the term that don’t apply at all to my book.

It’s interesting to consider how the publishing industry – or, indeed, the public – can put labels on creative work especially in relation to how the author ‘feels’ the work when writing it and then names it once the story has been told.

Writer Vanessa Gebbie asked me this question in relation to my novel and I think it’s a wonderful thing to ask: if you could have a painting of one scene from the novel which would you pick and why? And who would you have create it?  

It’s a wonderful question! It has to be an image that puzzled me in the early days of writing the novel; one of a girl by the river. It took me almost 80,000 words to find out who she was, and why she was important. So my painting would be of that girl in her pale blue dress walking the river path, carrying a child’s suitcase. In the novel she believes that she is walking towards love. Those minutes of her life are so perfect, so full of hope, that it almost doesn’t matter what happens next. And I would have Chagall work his magic for this one.

How beautiful! I can just imagine the blue hues that Chagall would paint. So, tell me, Niamh, what’s next for The Herbalist and what’s next for you?

Well, The Herbalist will be released in the UK in the autumn, so fingers crossed! As for me, I’m working on another novel, and tidying up my short story collection – and I would love to write lots of poetry this year too.

That sounds like a busy but very exciting year for you.Thanks for the wonderful answers, Niamh.

Thanks for such interesting questions Shauna, I’ve really enjoyed answering them.

You’re more than welcome. I wish you continued success with The Herbalist and I look forward to your next publication!

 

 

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

For my 20th WRITERS CHAT, I’m delighted to welcome back Ethel Rohan. 

Since we last chatted in August 2017, Ethel, your debut novel The Weight of Him was an Amazon, Bustle, KOBO, and San Francisco Chronicle Best Book, and winner of a Plumeri Fellowship, Silver Nautilus Award, and the Northern California Publishers and Authors’ Award. Congratulations, and thanks for returning to Writer’s Chat.

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SG: Can you tell us a little about the reception of The Weight of Him, and if, and how, it affected your writing? I always find that it is so difficult for writers to keep those two hats on – one in the midst of finding the way into a new creative project, and the other out and about meeting people and talking about the already published project.

ER: From my publishers’ perspective ( St. Martin’s Press and Atlantic Books), my debut novel wasn’t received well i.e. its sales were disappointing. As much as I tried to prepare myself for the challenges this book would have reaching readers (it centers on difficult subject matter, suicide, and a marginalized protagonist, 400lb Billy Brennan) I was hopeful it would succeed and was crushed when it didn’t fare better. The blow knocked my confidence and two years later I’ve only just recovered. From my own perspective, I still continue to receive a wealth of emails, messages through social media, letters (yes, handwritten letters!), and IRL responses that speak to how deeply the reader was affected by the book. This generous, heartfelt feedback has greatly buoyed me. I persist, and losing myself in writing new work has been my greatest salve.

SG: Well, if you consider why we write, alongside one of the roles of literature in society, I think it is to affect those who engage with it and to shine a mirror on society. Isn’t that the real measure of success?

In your new work, do you find yourself returning to the themes of The Weight of Him? They are themes not easily released from our psyche, I find.

ER: I never enter a story with any theme in mind, but invariably the same patterns and obsessions emerge. I think that’s true of all artists. I’ve even tried to fight it: This story will not be about food, hunger, guilt, shame, loneliness, friendship, missing parts, another “bad” parent, or one more dysfunctional marriage etc. but sure enough… I’ve made peace with my psyche at this point. My only objective is to tell the best, the most interesting and urgent, stories I can. Thus I allow whatever best serves the story to surface in freewrites and survive in revision.

SG: What a noble aim  – to tell the best, the most interesting and the most urgent stories. And, of course, holding on to that belief that the work (the writing) will prevail. Tell me, Ethel, what are you working on now?

ER: Christ, I write so much, it’s finishing that’s the challenge. I’m good at plotting stories (which is interesting because I always enter a story blind, never knowing what’s going to unfold) but beyond the beginning, middle, and end where I have to work hard is with character, giving them interiority and complexity, and allowing the reader to deeply connect with each of them and the protagonist in particular. I currently have two draft novel mss completed, and am handwriting a third. The two complete draft mss need further full revisions that focus on theme and character, and I’ll return to them when I’ve finished this handwritten novel draft.

SG: That’s a fantastic outpouring and I completely get that – I’m the same, constantly moving and working on multiple projects. What’s next for publication?

ER: Aside from hopefully publishing some short stories I’ve been working on, and returning to personal essays, I hope to next publish one of the three novel mss mentioned above, and ultimately to publish all three. I’ll lead with whichever “finished” ms I believe to be the strongest and see what happens. What’s daunting, and frankly frightening, is that the low book sales for The Weight of Him will make publishers less likely to take another chance on me and I know I’ve got to write a story powerful enough (or in their own words “big” enough) to sway them. What I won’t do, though, is pander to any trend or market need. I’m staying true to the stories that I most need to tell, those that arrive unbidden and insistent, like surprise, pressing gifts.

SG: I think that’s the most difficult part of the writing life – that industry push against the creative urge. I’ll say it again… the work will prevail!

Lastly, Ethel, some fun questions

  1. What’s next on your to-be-read-pile and and what’s last on the (same) pile? I have shelves of unread books, and a tower on my desk, and another by my bedside. From that former looming tower, I’m eager to next read Devi Laskar’s The Atlas of Reds and Blues and at the bottom of that pile (simply because I’m so behind in my consumption) is Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent. My first read when I return to Ireland in July with be Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations.
  2. I have Constellations on my pile now, nearing the top and at the moment I’m reading Niamh Boyce’s wonderful Her Kind. Tell me, Ethel, where did you take your last holiday? Aside from a couple of nights recently in Portland, Oregon, the answer is Ireland (although I’m not sure it can be considered a holiday in that it’s never restful!). Since I emigrated in 1992, I’ve returned 30+ times. My husband’s also Irish and all our family members are there, so the pull is huge.
  3. And when you’re on holiday, do you bring Kindle or paperback with you? Never Kindle. Mostly paperback, sometimes hardback. And I leave every holiday with more books than I brought.
  4. Tea or coffee when writing? Barry’s tea (and way too much Cadbury’s or See’s chocolate). Always. Praise be for the several import shops here in San Francisco where we can get all our Irish favourites (albeit at a premium).
  5. Dogs or cats? Both, with a definite preference for dogs.

Thanks, once again, Ethel, for joining me in a Writers Chat session. I wish you the very best of creativity and luck with your current and new writing projects. Below is the ORIGINAL Q&A WRITERS CHAT, PUBLISHED AUGUST 2017

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

READERS: See below for the chance to win a copy of The Weight of Him!

Shauna: Let’s start right away with the title and your starting point for the story. In the Dublin launch in Hodges Figgis in June, you mentioned that the idea began with an image of a snow globe in a window. I remember thinking that was a powerful image – there’s layers there – and when I read that scene where Billy looks in the shop window, I knew exactly what you meant.

‘Billy wanted to shake the globe and bring it to life…His hand pressed the side of his head, as though trying to keep the egg of himself together.’

Can you expand a little more on this initial characterisation of Billy, in particular his emotional nub.

Ethel: Thank you, Shauna, for hosting me and for your tremendous support of writers and books.

The initial spark for my novel was a conversation I overheard in a Dublin pub about an obese woman in mourning. “The grief might just kill her before her weight does.” That statement stuck in my imagination and I wondered what if this woman’s grief and weight don’t kill her, but propel her to do something extraordinary?

That’s the question that drove me to the blank page. As soon as I started writing, Big Billy Brennan appeared in the white space. The first scene I wrote was, as you mentioned, Billy standing in front of a shop window, his attention fixed on a snow globe. As you’ve quoted, he’s filled with the urge to shake the globe and bring it to life. I knew in that moment I’d hit on Billy’s emotional nub and his impossible burning desire to bring his loved one back from the dead.

I don’t plan my stories, so the novel’s first draft(s) was really just me continuing to answer questions on the page as they arose. It was a risky novel to write and to publish (thank you, St. Martin’s Press and Atlantic Books). I met many hurdles in the telling, largely fueled by self-doubt. Mostly, I struggled with whether or not I had the authority to write about a 30 stone man. I worried whether or not I could make the unlikely marriage of the difficult topics of obesity and suicide work. I felt an enormous responsibility to handle both topics with sensitivity, compassion and honesty.

Shauna: While the narrative is told from the perspective of Billy, I found we got some close insights into his wife Tricia’s point of view. Can you tell us about their relationship and how much of it is viewed through the lens of grief, loss and unanswered questions?

Ethel: Point-of-view was another major challenge. I knew I was taking yet another risk in keeping the story wholly in Billy’s perspective—he’s the camera through which everything is filtered. But after multiple drafts, I became convinced that close third point-of-view was the right choice for this story. That sense of limit and containment mirrors how trapped Billy feels in his body and his grief, and also underscores how trapped Michael felt, and to a lesser extent, Tricia. The close third point-of-view also felt true to life. We can’t get inside others’ heads in reality—we know others only by their story and what they say and do—and that’s the way I kept it on the page. Limiting, yes, but sin a bhfuil.

With the close third point of view, it’s a bigger challenge to render the other characters as fully as possible, and in particular the main secondary character, Tricia. I only had the use of backstory, Billy’s perspective, and what Tricia does and says in scene. I learn who my characters are by both interviewing them off stage and putting them in scenes, to see what they say and do and how they interact with others.

In discovering who my characters were, I learned that Billy and Tricia’s marriage was troubled long before Michael’s death and that they were merely coasting along in a largely humdrum existence. Tricia felt betrayed by Billy because early in the marriage he lost the agency and sense of empowerment he’d exhibited in their courtship—his brief sense of bravado and buoyancy was fueled by the first glow of their love. When Michael dies, their relationship inevitably unravels further and they each grieve, and try to go on, in startlingly different ways.

Leaving some questions unanswered in the novel might seem like another risk, but again I tried to best reflect life and truth. Reality can’t be wrapped up and tied with a permanent, pleasing bow and neither should story. Suicides leave behind more questions than answers and our relationships with food and our bodies is ever-evolving. There is never resolution in all things in the world, so how can there ever be complete resolution in story?

Shauna: Oh I agree. Much of life is spent searching for resolutions, and often through stories, so leaving some questions unanswered was one of the powerful elements of The Weight of Him and one that served the portrayal of Billy and Tricia’s relationship well. 

Now without giving away the plot, one of the elements of the story that stayed with me long after I’d finished the book was the emotional weight that is evoked through the work Billy puts into building his ‘other world’ made up of the imperfect miniature figures from the factory where he works. It is only in this world that he can save Michael, the son he lost to suicide, and it is only in this world he can be the ‘right son’ and the best father. Can you talk to us about the psychology of this powerful subplot.

Ethel: Thanks, Shauna, it took restraint in final revisions to keep concise and not get too caught up with the subplot of Billy’s alternate world, a wonderland that fired up my imagination.

In that first draft, I was deep in the writing, answering the question of where Billy worked, and the toy factory came to life on the page, and then the damaged toys appeared. When Billy secretly pocketed the first damaged toy, a soldier that represented Michael in his mind, the subplot developed from that pivotal moment. It was one of those rewarding, exhilarating gifts in the writing when what a character does surprises you and you know you’ve opened a rich vein.

Many of the scenes in this miniature ‘other world’ didn’t end up in the final manuscript but they did allow me to fully understand Billy’s psychology with relation to the damaged toys and the idyllic tiny village he creates for them—a perfect world where Michael is returned and the Brennan family is whole again. Of course, perfect doesn’t exist, not even in Billy’s pretend world. That was another of the lessons Billy had to learn and more of the suffering he had to withstand in this story.

 Shauna: I walked for Pieta House this year as part of their world wide appeal Darkness into Light and was really moved by the sense of community and hope. Billy walks for suicide and uses the media as a way to come to terms with his loss and also give hope to others.

In a scene where his mother takes ill, the nurse in the hospital turns to him:

Her eyes stayed on him. “You’re the father from the newspapers, aren’t you, the one doing the suicide prevention fund-raiser? I heard you on the radio too. Well done, you’re an absolute inspiration.”

Ethel, not only did you donate the net earnings from your Dublin launch to Pieta House, but much of the novel focuses on the difficulty in getting people to talk about suicide and suicide prevention, and the roles (positive and sometimes negative) the media can play in this – in other words, how do we talk about something that is so painful when often the very thing to prevent, or help heal that grief, is to talk?

Ethel: Thanks for walking, Shauna. I did too, here in San Francisco.  Suicide is preventable and one of the key ways to prevent it is to talk about it. For those suffering suicidal thoughts, it is never too early or too late to seek help and talk about your illness. For those, like me, who have overcome suicidal ideation, is it important to share our stories so others know that they are not alone and that there is great hope.

As a culture we need to educate ourselves on suicide and mental illness and lift the last of the stigma. At my most ill, I became convinced that no one would understand or care. We need to send a clear message as a culture that we do understand and we do care. Like every person suffering an illness, the suicidal should be accorded compassion, dignity, and the best of treatment.

Silence has its value, but not when it’s silence locked up by secrecy, shame and fear. That kind of silence causes enormous damage, and can be killing. So, please, just talk out the thing. I’ve found whatever it is we least want to talk about, that thing that we most want to keep in, that’s exactly what we should talk about and let out.

Shauna: Yes. And literature – storytelling – can be a way in which we can speak of these things and also the means by which conversations can be started. In The Weight of Him, despite the initial subject matter- that of an obese man who has just lost his eldest son to suicide – there is much beauty and hope.

 “He roared. Roared till the scorch inside his throat and chest made the sting of his bloodied knuckles feel like nothing. Roared till he’d nothing left. Breathless, spent, he struggled back to standing, his feet slipping about in the muck and the pain pulsing in the sides of his knees. He pushed himself to the farthest edge of the cliff and lowered the flashlight to the ground. In life, Michael would not have been able to stand here next to him on the cliff’s edge. It would be nice to think the boy’s spirit was standing alongside him now.”

I found it to be a very human story touching on identity, relationships and discovering – through Billy – that we are all, in our various ways, striving to fully embrace who we are. And that wonderful line that Billy’s younger son Ivor says: “We get reminders about dying, so we don’t forget to make the most of living.”

Ethel: Thanks for such a close and generous read, Shauna, and for these excellent questions and observations. I think all my writing is ultimately my characters and me trying to find the beauty and hope in damage and loss. It’s how we can best go on.

Shauna: And isn’t that, yet again, much of life? Finding the beauty in the cracks, the cracks that are in themselves, beautiful. Thanks again, Ethel for such wonderful, honest answers. I wish you further success with The Weight of Him and I look forward to your next novel.

And now for the opportunity to win a signed copy of The Weight of Him – Irish and UK readers only!  Simply add a comment below along with your name (first name will do) and an email address so we can contact you if you win.  The winner will be picked out of a hat on Monday 28th August at 8pm. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy reading, folks!

 

 

Writers Chat 16: Tanya Farrelly on “When Your Eyes Close” (Killer Reads/Harper Collins: London, 2018)

Tanya, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your second novel, When Your Eyes Close, which follows on from your short story collection When Black Dogs Sing (which won the Kate O’Brien Award in 2017) and The Girl Behind The Lens, another literary thriller published by Killer Reads. 

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Sam Blake, author of The Cathy Connolly Series has said that When Your Eyes Close is ‘A superbly twisty tale’ and that describes so well my reading experience of it. The first question has two parts:

It’s a fast-paced page-turner and I loved how you used multiple narrators. Can you talk a little about that, please? Did the story come to you through the characters – Nick, Michelle and Caitlin – or did you have the plot worked out and then decided to tell the story through the viewpoints of three characters?

Tell us about the title. It’s such a perfect title for the story and captures all the complex themes. Did it come before you finished the book or after?

Hi Shauna and thanks for inviting me to participate.

I knew from the beginning that the story would be told from three perspectives, the primary story being Nick’s. I was driving down the motorway one night on my way home when the concept came to me: a man is diagnosed with liver failure, he undergoes hypnosis in order to try to stop drinking, but while he is under hypnosis he is accidentally regressed to a previous life where he sees himself commit a terrible crime. I guess I had plenty to work with once I had that concept. I figured it would be interesting if Nick had died before he’d even reached middle age in his previous life, that way his daughter Caitlin would be just a little older than him in the present.

I’m not someone who plans and plots, I prefer the characters to take me on their journey, and the plot unfolds as a result of their decisions and actions. Caitlin’s story was more difficult to execute – I knew that her husband was missing, but for a long time I had no idea where he’d gone – then I came up with two options, hopefully I chose the right one! With regard to Michelle, I wanted her to play a very active role in the story, there would have been no point in giving her a voice if she’d simply been Nick’s girlfriend.

You’ve asked me about the title – titles are something I struggle with, I can write full stories with little difficulty and then I labour over titles, which sounds absurd! It was the marketing team who came up with “When Your Eyes Close”. My original title was “Out of Time” which I felt brought together the two aspects of the story – Nick’s regression and the fact that he was running out of time for his transplant. The publisher didn’t like that – so they sent me an alternative title, which I really hated – then they send on some more, and I have to admit, I love this one!

SG: Titles are hard, alright, so it’s great to have a team behind you who can help with that. Interesting about the different options you had for Caitlin’s husband – well, the one you picked definitely works! 

You explore some very topical themes in When Your Eyes Close – especially homelessness and what it means to belong (to a family, a home, or even an identity). A fitness instructor by day, at night Michelle volunteers on soup runs with the Simon Community in Dublin city centre. In one of the early chapters, Nick knows of a homeless man who literally crosses his path that “only if he were lucky would he find a shelter for the night.” It’s a very human story – as Michelle muses thinking about one of the men she helps, that he only liked tuna and cheese sandwiches: “That was the thing about volunteering, you got to know the people, their likes and dislikes.”

Can you tell us about research you did to bring this into the novel?

TF: I’d like to say that I got out on the street to research this aspect of the novel, but I didn’t. The most important skill for any writer is to be able to imagine yourself into any situation. It wasn’t difficult to think about what life must be like on the streets. This is a social problem which has been allowed to escalate unchecked until it has grown to epic proportions. The government should have seen the need for more social housing long before it resulted in families living hotels, which ironically costs the government more money. The other social issue which I’ve talked about is the shortcomings in the heath system: this is something that I have experienced first-hand. In 2010 my mother was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a Cancer of the blood inside the bone marrow. The Cancer had damaged her kidneys, so she began a very intensive period of having chemotherapy and kidney dialysis, which meant having to take her to the hospital four days per week. During that time we suffered the frustrations of late prescriptions, an unavailability of doctors to see her – being batted back and forth between two hospital departments, and worst of all the consultant’s failure to either recognise or act upon the fact that the cancer had returned after she had been in remission for two years. After being fobbed off with my concerns that my mother was seriously ill, I finally had to go on the Internet to find her consultant’s email address and contact her directly. My mother died two weeks after admittance, in 2015, from septicemia. I didn’t expect my story to become Michelle’s, but it did. Traumatic and life-changing events will generally find a way into our writing, often it is unplanned.

SG: Yes, the shortcomings of the health system is very clearly explored, and I am so sorry to hear that it is based on what sounds like a traumatic experience for your mother and for you. My deepest sympathies. 

On another note, I was fascinated about what happens to Nick when he undergoes hypnosis. It raises a lot of questions about identity and ways of being in the world. How can we really – if ever – get away from our past, and past generations? How much do we carry with us? Or does it mean, as Nick says “that death was not the end.”? This is at the heart of the novel, really, isn’t it? How did you come to write about confabulation?

TF: A number of years ago I read a fascinating book entitled “Many Lives, Many Masters.” It is the true story of an American psychiatrist, Dr Brian Weiss and of how he went from being a sceptic to believing in reincarnation. Weiss was working with a patient who had been referred to him because she had a number of phobias – she was afraid of water, she had difficulty in swallowing pills etc. Weiss had been working with her for some time, they’d discussed and identified several possible reasons for her phobias and he felt that she should have been better at this stage. Thinking that perhaps there was another reason, some childhood memory that she had blocked, he decided to try hypnosis. Whilst under hypnosis, Weiss’s patient described herself in another time and place, not believing in past lives, Weiss felt there had to be some logical explanation, that perhaps his patient had interest in history, but every time he hypnotised her the same thing happened. Spookily, the patient began speaking to him in different voices- voices of the “masters” – she told Weiss things about his own life, which were confidential, things that his colleagues in the hospital were unaware of, for example the fact that he’d had a baby that died at only a few weeks old due a hole in its heart. He began to wonder if there was some truth to what the woman was describing in her sessions. Whether or not you believe in such things as reincarnation, and I’m not saying I do, but it’s a truly compelling idea. The “masters” tell Weiss through his patient that we are sent here to learn a lesson and if that lesson is not learned, we are sent back again, we have many things to learn before we reach the final stages of evolution. The book also talks about how people are reborn into the same circle, that your teacher in one life may have been your father in another and so on. I had really wanted to explore this idea in relation to Michelle and her relationship with Nick, but my editor felt that it was a step too far – she wanted the story to be based 90% in reality and only 10% about regression, so I had to pull right on the regression theme in order not to alienate readers.

SG: Oh that is so fascinating! I’d have loved more about regression as it struck me as such an unusual element in a thriller. I must look up Many Lives, Many Masters. 

You paint a very moving and at times upsetting picture of Dublin as a city, almost a character, and the novel also explores how it does – or does not – care for those who live there. Yet there is solace to be found – in the bars where live music is played (where Caitlin plays with her band), in the restaurants, and in the quietness of the night.

TF: When we create characters we have to think of them as real people – real people have likes, dislikes, hobbies, idiosyncrasies etc. I tend to enjoy writing artistic characters; after writing my second love is music, I sing, play guitar and am part of a ukulele session that meet in the Harbour Bar in Bray on a Tuesday night. One of my closest friends used to run a music night in the Ormond Wine Bar on Ormond Quay – now sadly gone – and I used to enjoy the music there on a Wednesday night. I always like to include different things that friends will recognise and be amused by, as well using these things to enrich characters and make them all the more believable.

Regarding landscape, I think it’s also an important part of a novel. Dublin is my native city and so both of my novels are set here. I wouldn’t feel comfortable setting a novel in a city or country where I hadn’t lived – there are too many potential pitfalls. Here I know the geography, I know how people speak. Interestingly, I had to change a couple of Dublin expressions I’d used in dialogue as my London editor had no idea what I meant – “you know yourself….”! 😊

SG: Oh yes, I have had experience of that myself. Hiberno English is always like another language to those outside of Ireland.

I always find that despite myself in novels with multiple narrators, I always end up favouring one narrator. In this case it was Michelle, probably because of her earnestness and wonderful curious and questioning mind. She’s great at reading people and I liked how she used all types of information in trying to figure out what happened to Nick in his past and David before he disappeared. She takes all her information, from psychics to research and uses it, believing what she sees and trusting her instinct. Was Michelle one of the first or last character to come to you? Dare I ask if you have a favourite in the cast of When Your Eyes Close?

TF: Michelle has a lot in common with me – far more so than the other two characters. Like I said before, I wanted to ensure that she was an active character – not simply Nick’s girlfriend. I experienced a painful breakup in the early stages of writing When Your Eyes Close and I used that experience in both Michelle’s bafflement at Nick’s disappearing act in the beginning of the novel, and also in Caitlin’s confoundment at David’s disappearance. Being dumped without any explanation is a horrible thing, you could drive yourself mad trying to figure out why it happened and silence is the worst kind of punishment – I’m a communicator, if something’s wrong, I like to talk it through, evasion is simply a cowardly non-action. But experiences never go to waste, not when you’re a writer!! I don’t know if I have a favourite character among the cast, they are all different -they all have their strengths and their flaws. I often enjoy writing characters that are completely dissimilar to me – in The Girl Behind the Lens, Oliver Molloy is a total cad, I had great fun writing him – I even felt sorry for him at times. Like I say, being able to inhabit another person’s mind is one of the most important things about being a writer. If you couldn’t do that, everything would be autobiographical and we would soon run out of material!

SG: Yes, I agree. It is one of the fun things of writing – inhabiting others’ lives as it were and enjoying what that feels like.

Lastly, Tanya, some fun questions:

  1. Tea or Coffee? Tea – I love coffee but have problems with an over-acidic stomach!
  2. Mountains or sea? Sea – I’d hate not to live by the coast.
  3. What’s your favourite drink when you’re writing? Hmm – Tea, I guess!
  4. Where can we find you reading from When Your Eyes Close? I’ll be reading brand new material in Books Upstairs along with my other half David Butler, and poet and writer Edward O’ Dwyer on Sunday, 17th February and I’m also at Ballycastle literary festival the weekend of 21-22nd Sept. I’m taking part in Ennis Book Festival on Sunday 3rd March along with US writer Michelle Richmond and I’m reading at “Listeners” Rathfarnham on Monday 25th March.
  5. Wow that’s a great tour around the country! So, what’s your next writing project? I’m currently working on a second short story collection – they are historical stories set in the first half of the twentieth century. These stories are very different from what I’ve done before, more in the vein of magic realism.

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Thanks again, Tanya for participating in my Writers Chat series. It’s been lovely to talk with you.

Writers Chat 15: Karen Lee Street on “Edgar Allan Poe and The Jewel of Peru” (Oneworld: London, 2018)

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Karen, you’re very welcome to my Writers Chat. We last chatted in September 2016 upon the publication of the first in the Edgar Allan Poe trilogy Edgar Allan Poe and The London Monster. (I have re-published this chat below).

Edgar Allan Poe and The Jewel of Peru, the second in the trilogy was published in late August 2018 to critical acclaim and rave reviews including a starred review in Publishers Weekly, Shots Magazine calling it “a cleverly penned work of intrigue and enigma”, and the Historical Novel Review recommending it “for lovers of Poe’s writings, for those who enjoy the Gothic and macabre, and for all historical mystery fans.”

You are currently working on  the third novel in the trilogy:  Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead, set in Paris 1849. Point Blank Books (Oneworld Publications) is the UK publisher; Pegasus Books, USA; AST in Russia; Vulkan in Serbia; and Paris Yayincik in Turkey. Previous publications include Writing & Selling Crime Film Screenplays and Tattoos and Motorcycles (a collection of interconnected short stories), articles on screenwriting and cross-arts collaboration, along with  a number of commissioned screenplays.

KLS: Thanks very much for chatting with me about the books, Shauna. Your insightful questions really got me thinking in a useful way as I try to finish book III: Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead.

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Edgar Allan Poe’s House (Philadelphia) – Image  by Karen Lee Street

SG: That’s so difficult, isn’t it – promoting one book whilst writing the next. Well, I have to say I devoured Edgar Allan Poe and The Jewel of Peru in almost one sitting but what struck me the most was that as well as serving as a sequel to Edgar Allan Poe and The London Monster, it is also a stand alone novel. Can you talk a little bit about how the three books in the trilogy are connected yet – it seems to me – written so that they can be read independently.

KLS: I’m glad you felt the first two books in the trilogy work as stand-alone novels as that was the intention and it’s normally essential when writing a crime or mystery series. For example, I’m a real fan of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels, but have been reading them completely out of order, which hasn’t bothered me at all, despite the inevitable jumping around in the development of his personal life and, more subtly, his character.

My trilogy is connected by its sleuthing duo: the writer Edgar Allan Poe and his character ur-detective C. Auguste Dupin. They are presented as old friends with similar interests but rather different approaches to life, Poe being more creative and emotional and Dupin strives to be very rational. Each novel sets up a mystery that must be solved, the ‘A’ story if you like. Other story strands are introduced that are further explored in subsequent novels. For example, Helena Loddiges is mentioned in Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster as she has hired Poe to edit an ornithology book. In Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru, she brings Poe a mystery to solve. C. Auguste Dupin’s nemesis is introduced in book I, but he eludes Dupin until Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead in which their attempt to apprehend him is the main story.  The duo have very personal connections to the mysteries they must solve in each book and their adventures influence subtle changes in their characters.

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Magic Lantern Slide – The Raven. Painted by Joseph Boggs Beale (Philadelphia, 1841 – 1926) Image provided by Karen Lee Street

 

SG: I enjoyed that personal/social/political thread running through the books. Once again you provide readers with a wonderfully intriguing opening (if not a little macabre!) inviting us into possibly the most striking element of the book – how you evoke birds, their worlds (both real and symbolic) through some wonderful sensual writing. Can you tell us a little about your research? I am sure it must have been fascinating.

KLS: I suppose the notion to write about birds was inspired by a favourite childhood book that belonged to my grandfather:  Birds of America, edited by T. Gilbert Pearson of the National Association of Audubon Societies, with colour illustrations by Louis Agassiz Fuertes. Looking at those images as a child, prompted an interest in birds, as did Brief Bird Biographies, written and illustrated by a great-Uncle, J. Fletcher Street, who was an artist and amateur ornithologist. My father included birds frequently in his paintings, which was another inspiration.

The notion to write a story featuring ornithology and ornithomancy came from living in London Fields, Hackney, which I was surprised to learn had been the site of Loddiges plant nursery, the largest exotic plant nursery in Europe in the 19th century.  I discovered that owner George Loddiges was a keen bird collector, which was a popular Victorian hobby. His famous hummingbird cabinet is held by the British Museum. This in part inspired the idea for the trilogy as Poe had gone to school in Stoke Newington, Hackney as a child and it’s quite possible he might have visited Loddiges nursery which was a tourist destination during that time. I also learned that George Loddiges hired Andrew Mathews to collect birds and plants for him in Peru, and that Mathews also did collecting for Bartram’s plant nursery in Philadelphia before he died in Peru, 1843. This connection proved a useful plot point in Jewel of Peru.

As I continued my research, odd links between Poe, Hackney and Philadelphia suggested a bird motif. Poe’s most famous poem is probably “The Raven”, allegedly inspired by Charles Dickens’s novel Barnaby Rudge, which features Dickens’ pet raven Grip. Further, Dickens had Grip stuffed when he died and he now lives in the rare books room at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Additionally, in the mid-nineteenth century, Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences had the largest and taxonomically most complete ornithological collection in the world, so certainly Poe would have been well-acquainted with the Victorian obsession for bird collecting. The sad sight of ‘collected’ birds displayed in the British Museum made me keen to include a subtle subplot regarding endangered birds. For example, when Poe lived in Philadelphia, there were still huge flocks of passenger pigeons that would literally darken the sky as they passed through the area.  Now they are extinct due to the reckless hunting of them.

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Loddiges Green House (Hackney, London) Image from Karen Lee Street

SG: Isn’t it wonderful that you have, in a way, brought the birds back to life and fascinating to hear how and where the trail of research led you to the heart of the story. I enjoyed the power play and games that each of the characters bring to the narrative. In particular, Miss Helena Loddiges and Rowena Fontaine (in disguise). Given that Poe and Dupin are the main players, you manage to incorporate some incredibly strong female characters. Was this deliberate or did the story evolve this way?  

KLS: Very deliberate. Poe adored his wife Virginia and his mother-in-law ‘Muddy’ and I wanted to show that happy aspect of his life. Not much is written about Virginia’s character in the biographical material concerning Poe — she’s described as beautiful but that’s about it. I wanted to portray her as an intelligent woman Poe could have an intellectual conversation with, a woman who was very loyal to her friends and loved ones and therefore would insist on being involved in the investigation. Rowena Fontaine appears first in London Monster and uses her skills in unethical ways, but when she achieves her dream of being on stage, due to her undeniable talent, she becomes much more gracious and tries to end the vendetta between her husband and Poe. Muddy is very strong also, but in a highly practical sense; without her, Virginia and Poe would struggle to exist at all. Helena Loddiges is quite eccentric, but is an expert in her fields (ornithology and taxidermy). She has the strength of character to defy her father and leave the safety of home alone to seek justice for someone she loves.

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Owls Image courtesy of the Audubon Society, provided by Karen Lee Street       

SG: You also stay true to the politics of the day without taking the reader out of the spell of the mystery. I know part of the action is based on real riots in Philadelphia in 1844. Was it strange writing about historical riots (about immigrants) at a time when the US Government was talking about building walls to keep illegal immigrants out of America?

KLS: I decided to set Jewel of Peru in Philadelphia when I first thought of developing the Poe/ Dupin sleuthing duo into a trilogy, so that was well before the current US administration. When I started reading about the Nativist riots of 1844, I was shocked that we had never studied that part of Philadelphia history in school. (I was born in Philly and went to school in Pennsylvania.) It was strange after researching the 1844 riots when the term ‘nativist’ was suddenly (or so it seemed to me) being used in connection with current events and talk about building the wall. It was also odd for me to read feedback from a reader who felt I was referencing contemporary events too overtly in the riot scenes when actually I was writing about true events.

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Nativist riots in Philadelphia —  July 1844, Image provided by Karen Lee Street

SG: Yes, us writers don’t always plan everything. There’s often some strange synchronicity when writing about one era and finding that the themes and even events suddenly appear in your present day. Very unnerving!

I have to confess that while I have enjoyed some of Poe’s writing, I wouldn’t be familiar with much of his works. One of the other layers to your trilogy are the subtle and clever references and nods to Poe’s own writing. How important was this part of the book for you, and would you like to comment on the intricate nature of threading references through the narrative?

The references to Poe’s works within the books, particularly Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster, are really just meant to be fun for those who know some of Poe’s work—an extension of Poe appearing in a story with one of his own characters. It’s not necessary at all to know Poe’s stories or poems to follow the plot. It would be wonderful, though, if someone new to Poe read the book and became interested in reading some of Poe’s work.

There are other allusions and connections explored in the trilogy that I think spring from the basic nature of writing historical fiction and creating an alternative biography/ history. In researching Poe, I read about some of the events that influenced his stories—for example, the true murder that inspired his tale “The Mystery of Marie Rogêt”. Allusions to Poe’s stories play with the idea of what might trigger a writer’s imagination and inspire a creative work. When considering the idea of alternative history, odd connections I found when doing historical research provoked story ideas. Had Poe ever been taken to visit the renowned glasshouses of the Loddiges plant nursery in Hackney when he lived in Stoke Newington? Or did he ever visit the famous Bartram Gardens when he lived in Philadelphia? These ‘every day’ events might never be recorded in a biography, but might have inspired Poe in some way.

And finally, when one creates a story or a character that becomes part of the memory of its readers, it seems to take on its own life. This is relevant to Poe the reader, who was well-versed in the classics, but as an editor and a critic, also read enormous amounts of contemporary literature. In book III in particular, I explore the way characters and stories he admired might influence him, particularly in knowing that characters and narratives that live on after the writer. As Poe said:

“Ye who read are still among the living, but I who write shall have long since gone my way into the region of shadows (…) and yet a few will find much to ponder upon in the characters here graven with a stylus of iron.”

What a wonderful quotation, Karen! Now, some fun questions:

  • Surf or Turf? ‘Surf’ for food; ‘turf’ as an environment. (Too many sharks in Australia.)
  • What’s your favourite unappreciated novel? Anything by Marilynne Robinson— she can’t be appreciated enough. Also, Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm.
  • Oh I’m a big fan of Robinson too. Now what writer – living or dead – would you invite to high tea? Perhaps Gabriel García Márquez as his books were formative reading and were so exciting and fresh when I first devoured them. (I would invite myself to high tea at Edward Gorey’s to see his amazing house and cats and to hopefully find his life matched his stories.)
  • What’s on your to-read pile now? It’s a never-diminishing pile; at it’s top are two film scripts and Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame, which I really need to re-read while completing the editing of Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead. 
  • What is the last book you read? I just finished Alice Munro’s short story collection Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage bought at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris while on a research trip.  Munro creates such memorable characters and her descriptions are effortlessly visual and original. I’ve also been re-reading Eugène Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris — again, essential research.

Karen, Thanks, once again for being so generous with your answers. I wish you much continued success with the sleuthing duo of Poe and Dupin. 

Readers, keep up to date with Karen and check out her website www.KarenLeeStreet.com, visit/like the Poe/ Dupin trilogy Facebook page:  https://www.facebook.com/edgarallanpoecaugustedupin/  and follow her on twitter: @karenleestreet and instagram: karenleestreet

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WRITERS CHAT, SEPTEMBER 2016

I’m delighted to welcome Karen Lee Street to my blog where she discusses her debut novel Edgar Allan Poe and The London Monster  (Point Blank, (Oneworld Publications)) and answers questions sent in from a Dublin Crime Book Group.

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Karen, this is the first of a trilogy which focuses on re-imagined or imagined adventures of the American author Edgar Allan Poe. Let’s start with that curiosity. Are the adventures re-imagined or imagined?

Both! The adventures of Edgar Allan Poe in London are primarily imagined; Poe did live in London as a child and I reference places and people he knew then, but Poe did not return to Europe as an adult, despite some wild tales he fabricated regarding exploits in Greece and St. Petersburg. Poe’s imagined adventures in the book are provoked by a collection of letters allegedly written by his grandparents that implicate them as the London Monster who slashed the skirts and derrières of over fifty women from 1788 – 1790; the victims, dates, and the locations of the crimes noted in the letters are based on fact, but the circumstances are heavily re-imagined. In my novel, C. Auguste Dupin, the great ‘ratiocinator’, is released from the confines of Poe’s three detective tales to investigate the letters Poe has inherited. I imagined a backstory for Dupin, extrapolating from the few details offered about his personal circumstances in Poe’s stories; this backstory sets up his own adventures in London and supports the key themes of the novel.

And they tell us backstories aren’t important! Point Blank have given you a wonderful cover and the title. Were you lucky enough to have a say in either or both?

My working title for the original stand-alone novel was C. Auguste Dupin and the London Monster, but when I pitched it as a trilogy of mysteries, my agent pointed out that it would be better to mention Edgar Allan Poe in the three titles. The sequel titles (at this stage) are Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru and Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead.  I was forwarded the proposed dust jacket during the proofreading process and, happily, liked it very much as did friends I showed it to. I am the sort of bookshop browser who will pick up a book because I find the cover intriguing, so this was an enormous relief.

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Yes. It touches on all the themes – the crime, the Gothic, the mystery and I love the black and white with the hint of gold. Now, you’ve previously spoken about your early introduction to Poe – what part do you think early reading plays in an author’s later writing or reading?

This is such an interesting question — I hadn’t realised how much my earliest reading material influenced this trilogy until contemplating it. I lived at my grandparents’ house for about a year and half, aged eight to nine, and spent an enormous amount of time reading my mother’s old books: the Nancy Drew mysteries, Grimm’s Fairytales, The Mother West Wind “Why” Stories, and The Book of Marvels, a collection of stories by adventurer Richard Halliburton which not only made me desperate to travel, but also inspired a subplot in Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru. (I’ve kept my grandparents’ copy of the book.) I also devoured all the biographies and magical adventure books in the school library. There’s a bit of all of that in the trilogy. Reading Poe himself came a couple of years later, when I enjoyed giving myself nightmares.

How curious! Enjoying giving yourself nightmares. It’s that push/pull thing, isn’t it. You’re scared but just also love it. I think it’s like loving Bertha in the attic in Jane Eyre but also being scared by her. And what a reading selection you’ve given me!

Letters have often been used as a device to tell alternative stories to the ‘main’ – I’m thinking here of Pamela – and the letters of Poe’s grandparents are used to great effect in this novel. In fact they are used, really, to tell the ‘real’ story and also provide commentary on relationships, gender, and sexuality. Can you comment on this?

Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos is an epistolary novel I admire for its depiction of the social mores of a particular time, place, and social group, but also for how a rather cruel game has emotional repercussions for its instigators. I wanted to do a similar thing with the letters exchanged by Poe’s grandparents; they reveal a secret history, but also chart the changes in their relationship and how actions driven by passion, jealousy, pride, and fear lead to a back-against-the-wall kind of choice that changes someone forever. Further, the characters’ choices are limited by their social class, financial position, and — in the case of Poe’s grandmother— gender. Indeed, many of her problems stem from the limited options she has due to being a woman and yet she proves herself to be a clever survivor who defies social conventions and twice puts love and personal independence before financial security.

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A Dublin Crime Book group have read this book and loved it. They have a few questions for you:

How did you come to link the real crimes of the London Monster to Poe?

Oddly, I can’t actually remember a ‘eureka moment’ of coming to the idea of linking Edgar Allan Poe to the London Monster; I think it was a case of stored up potential story ideas coalescing into something.  When I first read about the London Monster, I was fascinated by the story and felt it could be the basis of a great film with the right framework. It seemed likely to me that the person sent to prison for the crimes had been falsely accused (for the reward offered), so who was the true culprit? I first read about the Monster in John Ashton’s Old Times, A Picture of Social Life at the End of the Eighteenth Century: Collected and Illustrated from the Satirical and Other Sketches of the Day. (John C. Nimmo, 1885). Ashton’s recounts the Monster attacks in quite a jocular way, reflecting the sardonic tone of late 18th century cartoons featuring the Monster by James Gillray and Isaac Cruikshank. Jan Bondeson adopts the same tone in his book The London Monster, a Sanguinary Tale.  I think these lighthearted approaches to the Monster’s odd crimes reminded me of some of Poe’s hoaxes and humorous works, which probably initially triggered the idea to connect the father of the detective story with the ‘cold case’ of the London Monster. Further, I remembered from a biographical preface to a collection of Poe’s works that his grandparents were actors on the London stage when the Monster was at large and there were theories at the time that an actor or actors with a facility for disguise were the true culprits behind the Monster’s crimes.

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Tell us about the real timing and the fictitious story of Poe’s grandparents.

Reports of a ‘Monster’ attacking women on the streets of London began in 1788 and escalated after the Queen’s birthday celebrations late January 1790. John Julius Angerstein offered a reward for the villain’s capture and conviction in May 1790 and soon after one of the Monster’s victims accused a man of being her attacker. He was convicted after two farcical trials and served six years in  prison. Coincidentally, Poe’s grandfather disappears from records in 1790, at roughly the time the accused was imprisoned, and his grandmother and mother set sail for Boston in November 1795, arriving 3 January 1796, just when the accused was released from prison. This timing fit nicely with the idea that Poe’s grandparents might be the true culprits behind the Monster’s crimes and that his grandmother feared repercussions from the person who took the rap.

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The ping-pong of Poe and Dupin as a double act – both fact and fiction – works particularly well in the novel. Can you talk about how this evolved as you were writing the various drafts?

Of course I revisited Poe’s three Dupin tales to reacquaint myself with his character, voice, mannerisms, to try to lift him from the page and put him in new situations. I suggested that the unknown narrator in the Dupin stories is Poe himself, that he met Dupin in Paris as the narrator did in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”. I also read a number of Poe’s letters as found on the www.EAPOE.org site, again to get a sense of his personal voice. As Dupin is the ultimate ratiocinator, highly intellectual, dispassionate, and uncannily good at deduction, I wanted to focus on Poe’s use of imagination along with logic when trying to solve a mystery, but being tripped up by his emotions and the entire issue of family. As Dupin is depicted as a genius of ratiocination, I needed a personal obstacle — something in his character — that would undermine his efforts at solving Poe’s mystery, and I settled on a desire for revenge, a key theme in the novel. When Dupin begins to crumble due to his suppressed emotions regarding his own family, Poe has to pull himself together and utilise his ratiocination skills in conjunction with his imagination.

And I think that’s what makes your book so special: how the imagination and the rational are so well entwined. Finally, Karen, after bombarding you with detailed questions, can you please whet our appetite about the next two books in the trilogy?

Edgar Allan Poe and the Jewel of Peru is set in Philadelphia, 1844, where Poe wrote some of his best known tales. Poe’s benefactress, Helena Loddiges, a bird taxidermist from the famous Loddiges plant nursery in Hackney, East London enlists Poe to solve the murder of her father’s bird collector in Peru. Poe and Dupin are drawn into a mystery involving archaeological looting, ornithomancy, a kidnapping, and treasure books, against the backdrop of Philadelphia’s Nativist riots.

Edgar Allan Poe and the Empire of the Dead will be set in 1849, after Dupin invites Poe to help him vanquish his nemesis, the man who ruined the Dupin family during the French Revolution and during the Reign of Terror. The duo are soon embroiled in a battle of wits fought within Paris’s famous necropolis, a strange underground city full of unexpected riches and secrets, assisted by Dupin’s band of  ‘Apaches’, criminals who live in the catacombs and answer to their own laws.

Thank you, Karen, for putting such thought into the myriad of questions and for making me want to re-read the book again! I am so looking forward to the next two books.

Keep up to date with Karen on her website and visit/like the Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster Facebook page  

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Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster Point Blank, (Oneworld Publications):

7 April 2016 (hardback/ kindle),

5 January 2017 (paperback)

Pegasus Books (USA): 11 October 2016 (hardback/ kindle)

Writers Chat 14: Nessa O’Mahony on “The Branchman” (Arlen House: Galway, 2018)

Nessa, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Congratulations on your debut novel, The Branchman, which follows on from four previously published books (three critically acclaimed poetry collections plus a novel in verse).

READERS: To win a signed copy of THE BRANCHMAN, simply comment on this blog saying why you’d like a copy and what you enjoyed about our chat. Winner will be drawn on Monday 29th October!

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Although in previous poetry collections you have explored some of your family history, and, in particular, that of your grandfather, for your latest publication, The Branchman, you explore a fictionalised version of his early time in An Garda Síochána using the genre of a thriller and the form of a novel. How did you decide the novel was the right form for the story?

NOM: Thanks so much for having me, Shauna! And you’re absolutely right, I’ve previously used poetry to explore family history – it was a consistent theme in each of the four previous volumes, but I think there was also always a strong narrative thread in the poems I included. The verse novel, which was a PhD project, deliberately explored the overlaps between poetry and narrative; it was straining at the bit to be a novel, to be honest, so I think it was only a matter of time before I committed myself to a full-length prose narrative. But it was researching my grandfather Michael McCann’s life that finally convinced me the time was right to try my hand as novel-writing.

I’d been researching his time spent in the new Garda Síochána and made contact with the Garda Archives to see what I could find out about his time spent there. All I got back was an A4 page with information about his date of enlistment, and retirement, and the fact that he’d given ‘exemplary service’. I knew from reading newspapers of the period that there was considerably more to meet the eye than that and that he must have seen some remarkable events; Ireland during the period immediately after the Civil War was still a lawless place, and I imagined there’d be any number of alarming incidents to recount. Somebody was going to write a good piece of civil war noir fiction, and I decided I wanted that to be me.

SG: You’ve really captured that adage that rather than write what you know, writers write from what they know into what they don’t know. You wrote from the knowledge of “exemplary service” and allowed your writerly self to re-imagine and invent the story of what could be behind “exemplary” and “service”.

Now, although the pace and tone are most definitely that of a thriller/crime novel, much of the writing in The Branchman is wonderfully poetic – a lot of sensory detail, descriptions, the writing at times visceral and at times contemplative. For example in a scene where a body is found, we start with this beautiful description:

“The field behind St Brigid’s Hospital was more boy than pasture – there were no signs of any recent grazing and here and there tufts of grass and bog asphodel peppered the ground.”

Do you think this is your poet-self showing through or is it a style of writing that was more deliberate – used to reflect the external and internal world of The Branchman, Michael Mackey? And on from this, I used one of your chapters – which covered a scene or two and were deliciously short, staccato and page turning – with my novel writing group in Maynooth University and we had a discussion about your possible process. We were curious about the length – did you set out to write short, sharp chapters (given the genre and story) or was it to do with time (one can write a scene in a short space of time) or your poetic sentiment?

NOM: Well first of all, thanks so much for saying that about my style. I’d been concerned that I’d eradicated all my poetic instincts in a desire for pacy prose, so I’m delighted that you found some of it lyrical. I think I do always think like a poet when wanting to describe the world of my story and it felt natural to make use of imagery and sensual description to try to bring that world alive. I wanted the reader to see what Mackey saw, in as much sensual detail as possible. I’m not sure that he has the soul of a poet, but he certainly is an observant man with a good eye for detail.

As for those short chapters, it started off accidental but became deliberate as I grew aware of the advantage of being able to switch scenes mid-way through the action. It’s very possible that my poetic instinct to distill things to their essence influenced the shape of the chapters in the first instance – that I was seeing them much as I see stanzas and ensuring that they contained only the essential information. But then I realised that one could generate suspense by switching to a new character or a new site of action so that each chapter became a little teaser of sorts. And I enjoyed writing that way. Some chapters are longer, of course – the ones that contain necessary backstory, for example – but most aren’t much more than a couple of pages long. I tell people that the book looks far longer to read (at 360 pages) that it actually takes and those short chapters seem to suck people in, somewhat.

SG: Yes, you’re right. The heft of the book disguises the page-turner the book is and much of this is down to the short, sharp chapters, the hooks and how you deftly manage the plot and the reveals.

The Branchman was a real page-turner, but I found that the relationships between the characters stayed with me after I’d finished the book, in particular the Daly family. You deftly capture the politics and contradictory nature of war, of nationhood, and of identity through very strong characterisation, and, of course, in your main protagonist, Detective Officer Michael Mackey.

 These themes are explored through Mackey’s relationships through the novel. We’re told that “The Civil War may be over, but there’s no peace, not by a long chalk…” and in another scene, Annie makes one of her many cutting comments to Mackey:

“Detective,” she snorted. “They let anyone into the Guards these days. As long as you were on the winning side, or at least claimed to be.”

 For a man who has fought in many places and many wars to literally keep the peace, he is now the ultimate outsider in his homeland. Danger lurks in every corner – or through the eyes of man perhaps suffering from post-traumatic stress, the possibility of it:

“It all looked innocent enough, but who knew what old animosities were lurking in those green fields?” And as he knows, “you couldn’t talk what you’d gone through or even where you’d been.”

This is a part of our national history that many families (and historians) have struggled to have honest conversations about. Do you think that in writing with such glorious detail many of the issues and contradictions by following the journey of Mackey, The Branchman could open up some new honest public conversations?  

NOM: I’d be delighted if the novel started off some public conversations. Part of the instinct to write this was my awareness of the persistent reticence about this period of our history. My grandparents lived through this time, but rarely spoke about their experiences. Anything my mother told me had been drip-fed to her by her own mother, and her father never spoke about it at all. It’s not surprising, really. How could a community that had come through the trauma of three wars (World War I, the War of Independence and the Civil War, as my grandfather had) be able to talk about things with any detachment. I’m convinced that half the population had undiagnosed PTSD. Add to the mix the change in political allegiances in the newly independent Ireland – all those soldiers coming back from the Somme, unable to speak about where they’d been – and the guilt of the dreadful things done to friends and neighbours during the Civil War and you have a very toxic recipe for dysfunction, which of course the crime-writer thrives upon. I’d never read stories set in this period, and I really feel that creative writing can help us to explore what had previously been unsayable or undiscussable, if that’s a word.

I also think that we’ve shown that we can deal with difficult topics during this first half of the decade of commemoration, but most people admit that public debate will get more and more difficult the closer we get to the anniversaries of the War of Independence and the Civil War, where many facts are still virulently contested. So I think that any creative writing that prompts discussion and an effort to understand the nature of those troubled times should be welcomed.

SG: Yes, there seems to be a burgeoning maturity in our psyche when it comes to assessing our recent history. I hope The Branchman will play a part in these public conversations – art in all its forms is often a way in, and indeed, for historians examining social history, historiography, art is often the key.

You’ve said that Mackey

“bears more than a passing resemblance to my grandfather but, as with many fictional heroes, has his own characteristics, flaws and plot points, which almost certainly never happened in real life, or at least not in the way I tell them here.”

Could you comment on how you found that process – using fact to create fiction and how the two overlapped, intertwined, and possibly changed as you wrote and edited the novel. Indeed, is it that you hold the emotional centre of the truth and work out from there?

NOM: I’ve been playing with the overlap between fact and fiction all my writing life, I suppose, filling the hiatuses and gaps with my own imaginings so that the characters I write about from real life end up being highly fictionalised. Michael Mackey is inspired by my grandfather, but I have little memory of the real man (I was 6 when he died) and drew on my mother’s stories about him for the main inspiration. But as the narrative developed, Mackey’s character had to change as he took on traits needed for the plot. This fictionalisation is especially true of the ‘love interest’ if I can call Annie that. She was originally based much more on my grandmother, but as the plot developed, I needed her to take on a much more dynamic motivation than my grandmother would ever have recognised (indeed she’d have been appalled by her fictional counterpart, I suspect). So yes, I do hope that there is an emotional centre of truth in the novel, but rather than these characters being similar to my own grandparents, they should be believable characters in their own rights, with plausible motivations that ring true.

SG: I think Mackey and Annie, as characters in the novel certainly ring true, I suppose I was curious about the process of transference and filtering. On another note, I loved the sense of place you create in The Branchman. Galway and Mayo feature heavily but we hear about Dublin, America, England too. Many of the characters have returned to Ballinasloe having previously been sent away. In some cases to create safety or for safety, (Mackey, Latham), and for others, such as Annie, Ballinasloe is the place they have found as a safe haven. The notion of return and change – in identity, in politics – is a motif that I enjoyed very much through the novel. Did you set out to explore identity and place, in particular?

NOM: I’m so pleased you enjoyed the sense of place. It was very important that I got that right, particularly in the case of Ballinasloe, which is my mother’s beloved home town and a place I’ve visited with her many times. Indeed, when I began to write the book, I took a trip with her and we walked around many of granddad’s old haunts, even visiting the police station. I took that ‘field-work’ with me in the writing and redrafting of the novel, wanting to be sure that I was accurate about where places were and whether it would be possible to walk from location to another in the time I suggest. My mother’s sense of place is particularly strong – at age 90, she still returns in her memory to a childhood spent exploring Ballinasloe. I was very envious of her growing up, as the pebble-dashed childhood surburb of Churchtown where we lived seemed very pale in comparison. So I guess that fed into my recreation of a fictional Ballinasloe here. Kiltimagh had a similar status – I’d heard almost as many stories about that town as I had about Ballinasloe, and wanted to present that correctly too. But you’re right, and I hadn’t really thought about it until you said it, the book is also about remaking identity and trying to fit in. Practically everyone here is an outsider – if they weren’t one before, the various wars made them so, so people’s identities are shifting all the time – they have to as a matter of survival.

SG: I can’t leave our chat without commenting on the stunning cover image. Arlen House is well known for their use of art, and with The Branchman, the cover shows a detail from a painting by Brian Maguire entitled The World is Full of Murder. Did you have an input into the decision making around the title of your novel and the cover?

NOM: There’s a great story around the cover, actually. We’d orginally been talking about using a Sean Keating painting (one of his Civil War series) as the cover art, but that was becoming too difficult to source and time was running out. Then, by coincidence, I was down in Skibbereen on holiday when the Great Hunger exhibition was being shown at the local arts centre, Uilleann. We wandered around and came across Brian Maguire’s painting, which is a huge and dramatic canvas. Apart from the image’s sheer beauty, the title conveyed everything I wanted to suggest in the novel, and I had to have it for the book. I’d no idea how to contact Brian, but this is Ireland, where everyone knows somebody who knows somebody. I contacted a friend who knew Brian; he passed on Brian’s email address and I’d got permission both from him and from Quinnipiac University, who own the painting, within a day.

As for the title, it was The Branchman, from the outset. I had the title before I had the novel. I’ve no idea where it came from, it was just there. And I googled it to check that there wasn’t another novel with the same title out there. There wasn’t at the time I started, although more recent google searches have revealed there is now another one in the US, though it appears to be horror rather than crime!

SG: Wow. Permission within a day. It was certainly meant to be. I love that you had your title before the novel. Fantastic. 

Some fun questions

  1. What are you reading now? I’ve just started Anna Burns’s Milkman. It’s every bit as great as people say it is.
  2. I’m reading it too! So far, wonderful. City or town? Well, I am a Dubliner, so it has to be city, doesn’t it? I do love my rickety dirty old Dublin.
  3. Mountains or sea? Sea, in a heartbeat. It’s the recurring dream to live by the sea – I was lucky enough to live with a sea-view when I was doing my PhD in Wales – and that was the best time of my life in so many ways.
  4. What’s your favourite drink when you’re writing? Sadly, a nice cup of tea. I’d have loved to have said absinth, honestly.
  5. Ha! That put a smile on my face. I love Earl Grey tea when I’m deep into a book and a strong black coffee when I’m starting off. Nothing ‘cool’ like absinth for me either!

Lastly, where can we find you reading from The Branchman? I’ll be reading from The Branchman at the Speakers’ Corner sessions at the Murder One Festival in Smock Alley on the 3rd November, at 11am. There’ll be a Belfast launch for it at the Crescent Arts Centre on 16th November, and I’ll be reading from it at the Rostrevor Festival in Co. Down on 24th November.

Great to hear that we can catch you in a variety of places, Nessa. The Murder One Festival sounds fantastic. I believe tickets can be obtained hereThanks, again, for engaging so generously in our chat and for providing such insight into the process and hopes of The Branchman. I wish you much continued success. 

Readers, keep up to date with Nessa 

READERS: To win a signed copy of THE BRANCHMAN, simply comment on this blog saying why you’d like a copy and what you enjoyed about our chat. Winner will be drawn on Monday 29th October!

……And the winner is…..

IMAG1184Andrew! Congratulations. I’ll put you in touch with Nessa. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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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.