Writers Chat 23: James Claffey on “The Heart Crossways” (Thrice Publishing: USA, 2018)

James, You’re very welcome back to my Writers Chat series. The last time we chatted, in 2012, we focused on Blood a Cold Blue a collection of short fiction. This time we’re chatting about your wonderful debut novel The Heart Crossways where you bring us into an Ireland that’s hardly recognisable today.Print

So, let’s start with language. As a tool it is very much part of the narrative of the The Heart Crossways. Take the wonderful opening section:

“On rainy days the time passes slowly. Trance-like, I tongue my bedroom window and lick the condensation from the glass. My nose smushes against the cold pane. The seagulls glower below, on the roof of the coal shed…”

How much of these wonderful verbs came to you on the first few drafts or was it when you edited the novel that they emerged? I am thinking of what Sheenagh Pugh once said – that great writing is in the editing.

JC: So, interestingly enough, Thrice Fiction Magazine published three short pieces in their March, 2012 issue, and one of those pieces was “Dublin On a Wet Day,” which was remarkably close to the opening beat of the novel. Over multiple drafts the frame of the book shifted considerably, and in several drafts the opening pages were completely different and set at a far different time in Patrick’s life. The image came to me in a memory of my childhood in Rathgar, and how on rainy days my brothers and I would stand at the windows, noses pressed against the glass, cursing the weather that forced us indoors. I went over and over different variations of that opening, changing tense, point of view, at least three to four times, and ended up with a first person narrator that finally seemed to work.

SG: It really is an arresting opening. I love that throughout the novel the power of books comes through. From the old blue ledger the Old Man uses to record transgressions and the books (from Mark Twain to Tennyson) our hero, Patrick, reads to escape. Was this one of those hidden symbols that emerged when you’d finished writing the book?

JC: Yes, I think the books as symbolism emerged through the drafting process, and the ledger idea came to me from an actual ledger from my father’s business, filled with the incoming and outgoing monies for quite a few years, in fact. In several places in the ledger are crude drawings we did of dinosaurs and lions when we were probably bored on rainy days! Further, I wanted to seed Patrick’s world in the literature and drama of the time, the importance that books played in young children’s lives, long before iPhones and Fortnite. I grew up in a house filled with books, drama, literature, and as kids my brothers and I would sprawl in front of the coal fire reading comics, books, and newspaper cartoons, composting that love of books and all things literary.

SG: What beautiful memories, James. The Heart Crossways is set in an era (mid-seventies) when appearances – that you are perceived as good in the eyes of the neighbours and the church – still count for everything. As the Mam says, “All you have in this life is your good name.” Patrick – not unlike Stephen in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a young man – negotiates appearances and tracks his way through his father’s alcoholism, his mother’s worries and lusting after both Cathy and Mrs Prendergast by using humour. “Seducing Mrs. Prendergast is the mission I have accepted and in silence I try to plan how this will happen. Maybe she will wear a velvet cloak and come running to me like Maria in The Sound of Music?” Patrick is both teenage and reflective in his self-analysis. Can you talk about the development of Patrick’s character?

JC: Patrick began in those early stories as a lonely boy with time on his hands and parents too consumed with keeping hearth and home together to pay him much attention. I suppose there’s a part of him that’s living in his own head, thinking and overthinking life, and there’s a part of him that’s a small boy, desperate for his parents’, particularly his father’s attention. As the book unfolds, he moves from a more simplistic worldview, to one more complex, where he gains some understanding of the complicated nature of life in a Catholic and repressed Ireland. His use of humor as a compass to guide him through the fog of his life is, in my opinion, particularly Irish, in that we use humor to decode, to defuse, and to deflect the missiles life fires at us. And the sex. As a child of the seventies, Patrick is mired in the repression of the time, cosseted by his parents, stifled by the overshadowing Catholic hierarchy that divided the schools into same sex institutions where sex was what Kavanagh called the “wink-and-elbow language of delight.”

SG: A great phrase from Kavanagh! Yes, it is a particularly Irish trait, the use of humour. Continuing with this –  there are many laugh-out-loud incidents, for example, when De Valera (the aptly named three-legged greyhound that serves as a pet) chews on the Old Man’s false teeth, or when Patrick gets a bowl cut when the Old Man thinks the barber didn’t take enough off – are any of these taken from real life situations?

JC: Well, we never had a three-legged dog, but some years ago I was in Solvang, near Santa Barbara, for breakfast and there was a American Greyhound Society event taking place in the town. One of the greyhounds was three-legged, and that stuck with me as something that might become part of a story one day. As for haircuts, most of us growing up in Dublin have had our run-ins with the local barber, and mine was with Mr. Roche, whose son was in my class in primary school. We’d tramp up to Terenure Village and enter the barber shop with its red-and-white striped pole, wait for “Skinner” Roche to cut us to shreds, and appear at school the next day to bear the brunt of the insults. Eventually, my mother started taking us to the Peter Mark Salon, a more contemporary place to get one’s “hair did,” than at the “Skinner’s.” My dad always threatened us with the scissors and bowl if we didn’t behave, and my oldest brother grew a ponytail and drew the ire of our Old Man on many occasions.

SG: Oh I remember Peter Mark Salon – still going – it was the height of sophistication! One of the themes I picked up on was that of emigration, and with it, the importance of place – of leaving and returning – creating and re-creating new identities with each new ‘start’. Although the Old Man is a difficult character in every sense of the word, and plays the role of too-little-too-late father (or, as Patrick puts it “a one-man wrecking ball”), I can’t help but think that working on the oil rigs (if that is where he goes to – there is a sense, connected to his drinking, that he frequently disappears) can’t have been easy for him. This must do with economics; the Brogan’s aren’t well-off but they have food on the table and go on holidays. Can you comment on this theme and what it might mean to you, an emigrant yourself?

JC: The Old Man spends three weeks away working the oil rigs in the North Sea at a time, and the work is gruelling and tremendously hard on his body. Patrick’s dad, of course, isn’t used to graft and his body shuts down over time, leading to physical issues that emerge in the latter stages of the novel. Everything the Brogans experience in their lives, scrimping and saving, getting groceries on credit at the local store, are moments from my own childhood. We didn’t have much in terms of financial wherewithal, but we had food, shelter, clothing and warmth, those critical components of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Money for the Brogans is tight, and Patrick’s mother is adept at stretching the pounds, shillings, and pence to make their home as comfortable as possible. For me, as both an immigrant and a child who grew up with not enough money to go around, the theme of economics rings loud, knowing how in my early years in America, I worked a bunch of retail jobs, barely getting by, and only really found my feet financially when I graduated from university and became a high school teacher. Even now, decades later, my greatest fear is running out of money, and I go into a panic mode if our bank account ever gets too close to the bone. I feel my parents’ desperation in those moments and return to those fraught childhood days, until I remind myself I am not my parents and I can make different decisions than they may have.

SG: While religion snakes through the story I found that the sense of loss overtook it. While Patrick imagines “God as a bitter, angry one who takes delight as he metes out punishment to ordinary sinners” he also prays for his own sorrow and torments to end- his relationship with his father. Not wanting to give any of the plot away, the ending of The Heart Crossways was fitting and poignant.

JC: The Church looms large in the story, and the strict Catholic childhood I grew up in shaped me in many ways. I walked away from the whole Mass on Sunday world and found my own way of navigating faith and belief over the years. Today, I identify as a Unitarian Universalist, cleaving to the ideas of Jefferson, Emerson and the Transcendentalists. There’s a freedom, a breath of relief when I’m at a service, with no sense of guilt or shame. As for loss, it defines my life. My father lived his life grieving for the business he lost in the 1960s, never letting it go. He reached his dying day filled with regret, loss and anger towards those he perceived did wrong by him. Being Irish, for me at least, means embracing loss, finding comfort in that feeling, knowing that one cannot be happy every day of one’s life, and that loss is as big a part of life as love, or happiness. Emotions are our weather patterns and there’s a beauty to all seasons, even those that bring devastation to our door. I know this too well, having lived through recent wildfires and debris flows in the area I’ve settled in Southern California.

SG: That’s very poetic – embracing loss. Finally, James, a little on the character of the mother and the Bird. There’s something familiar in both of these and it was lovely to return to them after meeting them briefly in your short stories. Could you talk a little about how characters can re-appear in our writing in different guises, under different circumstances and across genre?

JC: The Bird is a character I brought to life from early flash fictions I wrote about growing up in Ireland. He was a real person, a customer in my father’s pub in Moate, Co. Westmeath. The reappearance of the Bird is timely, after a project I did with Matt Potter of “Pure Slush,”—A Year in Stories. I wrote twelve stories revolving around the Bird, and one of my favorite ones appeared in Causeway/Cabhsair a few years back. In January I returned to the rich vein of material the Bird springs from, and am working on a project where I write a page a day about his life. He never was my mother’s beau, but I remember her commiserating with my father one morning as he read the obituaries in the “Irish Independent,” and announced, “The Bird is dead. The poor auld hoor.” I love how characters ebb and flow in our work, receding for years at a time, only for a re-emergence years later as the tidal patterns of our creativity shift.

SG: I think you’ve just captured the real essence of creativity – the flow and ebb of characters in tandem with our own tidal patterns of creativity. So, to finish up, James, let’s have some fun questions: 

  • Kindle or paperback? Paperback
  • Novel or short story? Novel
  • Short story or flash? Flash
  • What’s the last sentence you read? “An aliveness that lit up the world,” Michelle Elvy’s The Everrumble.
  • Great sentence! What’s the last sentence you wrote? “Oh, poor man. The center of his universe hollowed out and collapsed.”
  • Another great sentence! The best jam in the world? Our family’s business is Red Hen Cannery, and we make the most delicious Boysenberry Jam.

Thanks, James for an engaging chat. The Heart Crossways can be purchased direct from the publisher or on amazon.  Connect with James on his website

Below is our chat from January 2012. 

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WRITERS CHAT – JANUARY 2012 – ON “BLOOD A COLD BLUE”

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Welcome to James Claffey, originally from County Westmeath but now living in Carpinteria, CA, USA with his wife, writer and artist Maureen Foley. James is a prolific writer and his most recent full-length publication is Blood a Cold Blue, a collection of short fiction.

James, tell me about the title and cover of your collection Blood a Cold Blue. Was the title one you had in mind or one that emerged once you had the collection completed and formed? Tell me also about the photograph on the collection, I know you had trouble tracking down the photographer for permissions but was that image of a bird in snow with a crumb an image that you had in mind?

Yes, I submitted the collection to several places and it was always titled Blood a Cold Blue. I chose the title from a line in one of the stories that also bore the same name (I’ve got this habit of titling my stories with fragments from the text). As for the photograph, the publisher, Press 53, sent a couple of early cover suggestions that I didn’t like at all, and then they sent the bird photograph and I loved it straight away. It turned out to have been taken by an Icelandic photographer and he was unresponsive to the publisher’s attempts to contact him. We waited a week or two and there was no word so Kevin at Press 53 said we might want to look at other options including a new title completely, so I went on the hunt for the photographer. All the usual social media avenues were fruitless and on the verge of giving in, I did a last Google search and found an old LiveJournal blog he’d had years ago. It had an Icelandic email address and I sent a message asking him to contact Press 53 about the image and the next day he got in touch with Kevin and agreed to let us use the photograph.

Great to hear it all worked out! You’ve stated that “Skull of a Sheep” is your favourite story in the collection. Can you expand on the idea of having a favourite story?

“Skull of a Sheep” is a fictionalized version of a family vacation in Mayo when I was a kid, and the unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness mirrors the breathlessness of the drive down the country and back again, I found the story stirred my sense of hiraeth, that Welsh word that suggests nostalgia for home, but with some sense of longing for those departed. My father passed away in 2000 and the piece was written right before my mentor and friend, Jeanne Leiby, died in a car crash in Louisiana, so there’s a sense of this story having more weight because of these events. Also, the piece ran in the New Orleans Review, and that is a publication that means a great deal to me, having spent three years in the South, learning the ropes of what being a writer means.

There’s a great sense of compassion, compression and a long breath of emotion in that piece. You capture so much in it – all that lies beneath the landscape and landmarks.

I’d like to hear about how you get into character. Do you have a favourite character in the collection? If not, why not, if so, whom?

I do. The Bird, a character in a couple of stories I’ve written, is close to home for me. My father, if I recall correctly, who used to run a pub/grocery in the Midlands, had a customer who was called by the same name, The Bird, so I found myself putting myself in this man’s head and imagining what it would have been like to wander the streets and fields of my old hometown. I’m currently working on a year of stories for Pure Slush, an Australian publication edited by Matt Potter, with this same character. I find great latitude in taking on the task of creating a life from so few details.

That’s interesting to hear, James, as The Bird is one of the characters that stood out for me. Now tell me about settings. You have some wonderful ones that seep through via the use of names, the turn of phrase (for example “Fragments of the Bird”), from the absurd to the very real and named (for example “Fryday, June 17th, in the year 1681” or “Hurried Departure”). Do the settings come first, or come to you as you write? Or are they sometimes somewhat peripheral?

Thank you. Place is incredibly important to me, and I tend to write with almost reverence about certain locations—New Mexico, Ireland, Louisiana, California. “Fryday, June 17th…” came out of an old print of an Elephant’s skeleton and the story of its death, and I reimagined the actual events of the disaster, which actually took place in Dublin back in the 15th Century. As for “Hurried Departure,” it’s almost a fantastical world slightly based on the area surrounding our house in the avocado trees. Detail, even as liminal as the light over a stand of trees, is terrifically important to give a piece of writing an anchor in the world and as I’ve gotten less naïve as a writer, I find myself noticing the small details of objects and places much more than before.

I think, for me, anyhow, that’s what is so great about this collection. The myriad of different experiences in different settings that you (re)imagine/capture.

On writing, if you’re willing to reveal, what are you working on now?

Well, the year in stories project at Pure Slush, for one. Also, I’m working on an untitled novel with Thrice Publishing, and that’s about a small boy growing up in Dublin with a father who works away on the oil rigs in the North Sea and a mother who struggles at home to raise her son and deal with her own aging mother who lives with them. I’ve also got a novella project I’m collaborating on with another wonderful writer, and I’m very excited about that opportunity. On top of all that I’ve returned to teaching high school English, so I’m having to really be creative in terms of finding time to write, what with my wife and two kids to devote time to, and a dog that needs walking!

That’s a pretty full and creative life!  Finally, James, what three books are on your bedside table and what three books are on your ‘to read’ list.

Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis, Bound in Blue, by Meg Tuite, and Gears by Alex Pruteanu, are on my bedside table, and to read are The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, Transatlantic by Colm Toibin, and A Place to Stand by Jimmy Santiago Baca (a re-read).

Thanks, James, for such insightful and fascinating answers.You can find out more about James and his writing on his website and blog: www.jamesclaffey.com

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SG: What a most wonderful description of your research! 

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

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

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

Lastly, 3 fun questions, Stephanie:

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

Join Stephanie on a Cross-Border Reading Tour: 

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Keep up to date with Stephanie on her website

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