Writers Chat 24: Helen O’Leary on “The Heart Stone”.

Helen, You are very welcome to my WRITERS CHAT series. Many congratulations on the publication of your first novel The Heart Stone (Millbrook Press: Kildare, 2019). You write both short and long fiction and have won a number of prizes for your work, the most recent being the Michael Mullan Short Story prize –  many congratulations!

The Heart Stone Photograph

Let’s first start with the geneses of The Heart Stone – your dual identity as writer and counsellor. Could you speak a little about how these professions fed off each other as you wrote the novel?

The Heart Stone grew not out of my desire to write a novel but out of my need to tell a story.  Over the years, in my work as a teacher and therapist, I have met many children like Danielle and her classmates.  I have long been concerned about the quiet child in the classroom; the child who may have suffered trauma or loss; the child who is anxious or sad but who is unnoticed because there may be other needy children in the room more actively seeking attention, and the child, who, like Danielle, slips by until her feelings become unbearable.  I hope this book will be of help to teachers in understanding the process of therapy with grieving children, to therapists in understanding the dynamics of a busy classroom, and most importantly to children and teenagers in learning that they are not alone.

I think your need to tell a story about a quiet child is a wonderful way into writing The Heart Stone and it is a novel which is accessible for adults and younger readers. You’ve also given a beautiful, moving story a fitting title. Did the title come during writing the novel, before or after? And if there were other possible titles, what were they?

The title The Heart Stone came to me as I was writing the book.  Many children who find it difficult to verbalise their feelings can work very well with art materials, therapeutic stories, play therapy, drama and music.  Putting myself in Mollie’s shoes, I asked what materials I as a therapist would offer her and what would she be likely to choose.  Some children like working with clay, shaping it to see what emerges rather than setting out to make something in particular (a bit like the writing process!).  It seemed natural and maybe expected, that for Danielle a heart would emerge, but her feelings are more complex than that, so she goes on to use the heart to express what she needs to express.  It also tied in nicely with a happy memory she had shared with her Daddy, so it seemed a fitting title.

The split structure of The Heart Stone enables the narrative to be revealed in short chapters. Did you find that your experience in short story writing fed into writing your novel or is it the other way around?

Yes, it certainly was my experience in short story writing that fed into the novel.  The Heart Stone grew out of a short story about a child’s experience of grief – not actually a story about Danielle, but about her classmate Dylan, a much more out- there, attention seeking character.  This led to me thinking about grief in the silent child in the classroom and how that might be explored.  As I began to write, the novel came to me scene by scene, in no particular order.  It was almost completely character driven.  As I got to know Danielle, I began to explore how she might react in different situations so gradually a narrative thread emerged.

Danielle is a feisty, strong and yet very vulnerable young girl with whom readers can identify with on an emotional and nurturing level. Can you tell us a little bit about how her character is the driver behind some of the difficult themes – such as depression and suicide – that you skillfully tackle in The Heart Stone?

Danielle is vulnerable, but she is also strong.  She lives in a world where depression, drug taking, jail sentences, poverty and disadvantage are the norm.  Young though she is, she may have already encountered suicide in her community.  She and her friends are tough because they have to be.  In some ways Ms. Phillips, Mr. Power and Mollie are part of another world – softer and less harsh, because that has been their lived experience.  Yet Danielle and her friends survive, kept going by the love of the adults in their world but also by each other, as each child, at some level, recognises the struggle in the other.  She is feisty and strong, and it may be necessary for her to become even more so.  Although the book has a happy ending, the story must remain real.  And in the real world, Danielle and Lisa and the others will inevitably face many more challenges.  Resilience is a buzz word at the moment, but I have to say I admire children and adults like these because they are resilient without even knowing the term.  They don’t have to be taught it – they embody it.

You are so right, Helen, I love how you express Danielle’s strength – that she doesn’t have to be taught resilience, she embodies it. While The Heart Stone is about grief and truth on one level it is also filled with humour and is, I feel, really about what it means to be human and perhaps delivers an important message about being kind. Did these sentiments emerge for you as you were writing or after you’d written the novel?

What I would like to say about this, is that it has been a privilege for me to work with children like Danielle, her classmates, her parents and her teachers – people often dealing with the most unimaginable circumstances.  For some, like Danielle’s Daddy, it all becomes too much and they just can’t cope.  But for the most part, they just get on with it, and fun and humour, and joy and laughter are a huge part of it.  I enjoyed imagining what they might say or do in certain situations.  The character of Nicola becomes an important one in lightening the mood, as does Dylan with his classroom antics.  It was important for me too, that Danielle’s mam Lisa, not only survives but thrives, as transformation following adversity is possible too.  As teachers and therapists, we are often told that one kind person or perhaps an act of kindness remembered, can make a difference to a child’s later life and I know that in schools up and down the country there are many people; teachers, principals, classroom assistants and other members of the school community who strive on a daily basis to be that one person who makes the difference.

I think you’ve touched on something very important here – how kindness can be the greatest gift and difference. Can you speak a little about your experience of the publishing process – from idea to draft to manuscript to editing and finally to launching and selling The Heart Stone?

This is, by choice, a self-published book, because I wanted to do the project that felt right for me.  I did not initially set out to publish it but when the project was complete, I strongly felt that if it could help one child, one parent, teacher or therapist then it was worth putting it out there.  I have had very many positive responses including from adults who have themselves lost a parent in childhood, and who found the book of benefit in terms of understanding their own experience of loss and grief.  The editing process was interesting, I had to lose some parts that were dear to my heart, but which didn’t really contribute to the overall project.

The self-publishing process was made surprisingly easy by the staff at Millbrook Press and although a steep learning curve for me, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The launch was of course daunting, but I surrounded myself with family and friends and through the whole publishing process I read and re-read Julia Cameron’s Walking in the World, constantly reminding myself, “A book deadline in not a NASA launch.  A concert date is not a countdown for nuclear testing.”

Lastly, Helen, some fun questions:

    • Mountains or sea? Sea.
    • Tea or coffee? Coffee.
    • What’s on your Santa list? The Faber and Faber Poetry Diary 2020. I use it every year to record what I am currently reading, writing, studying and events I attend which feed my creativity.
    • What are you working on now? After I finished The Heart Stone, I subconsciously distanced myself from Danielle’s world by writing a short memoir of a time I had spent living abroad. Some short stories arose out of that, but I am now back in there and working on a collection of stories featuring some of the more minor characters in the novel.
    • What are you reading right now? Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.

Some lovely suggestions for books and the Faber and Faber diary. Thank you, Helen, for being so open and honest about your motives and experience in writing your novel. It has already found its way into the hearts of many and I wish you much continued success with The Heart Stone

The Heart Stone is available for purchase at:

Summer Time Reading: A consideration

This summer I’m trying something new – reading (almost) entirely on Kindle. Yes, as a lover of first editions, beautiful hardbacks and the feel of books, I can’t quite believe it!

Travelling light is part of this decision, as is the newly found ability to highlight and email the highlights to myself! I’m sure this function has been around since Kindle came out but it’s new to me, and suddenly makes the experience of electronic reading a little nearer to the real thing.

I’ve just finished reading An American Marriage on the Kindle and in no way did it impact on my experience of the novel. On the other hand I also finished a gorgeous hardback edition of the most wonderful Consellations by Sinéad Gleeson and Arnold T Fanning’s moving and memorable Mind on Fire. In all cases, the method of reading did not impact on the power of the writing or the stories.

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Detail from my kindle cover – pretty flowers!

And so, here is my summer reading – a mix of actual paper books and e-books – some on writing, some about writing, some about being human (as the best writing is). Travelling light and travelling far with a great selection of books to hand. Happy reading to you all!

Composting, Baking, Walking: Growing Narratives

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Natalie Goldberg has written a lot about the concept of composting (in publications such as Wild Mind, and Writing Down The Bones) and creative practice.

So it’s about letting ideas filter, allowing characters to grow, permitting narratives to form at their own pace.

Psychologists (such as Sternberg and Lubart) have analysed the role of creativity in society and businesses.

But there is something so simple about moving from the mind to the body in the act of baking…..and you get rewarded for it too. Yes, let those ideas compost, get that body moving, free up your mind, leave those ingredients do their thing and, if you can, get out into the air; let those feet do the thinking.

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Later you can enjoy that apple slice and experimental something with the left over pastry and apple. And when you’ve had the coffee and slice, it’s time to return to the work. You will probably have a few lines to get out of your head.

Happy baking. Happy walking. Happy writing.

 

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

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

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

TWOH UK Cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lastly, Ethel, some fun questions

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

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

Author Ethel Rohan Los Res dpi 300

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy reading, folks!

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://neildonnelly.ie/film/

Festive Reading, Thinking and Doing

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I love reading books recommended by readers and writers which means my to be read pile just keeps growing.

These days I’m reading a lot on the kindle. Having ‘turned’ the last page of Stephen King’s The Outsider last week I’m now almost finished with the truly wonderful Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room. 

After that I’m going to move through the pile above – yes. I will be revisiting books already read, re-reading and analysing, reading fresh stories, typing, baking and cooking.

I will be allowing my mind compost (as Anne Lamott might say), letting my body rest. As much as I can. Intentions are part of the trick, I think. Oh yes and at some stage over Christmas I will write.

And give and receive presents. And be grateful. And make plans to get that new to be read pile down. Joy, I say, the joys of reading. That ‘portable magic’, as Stephen King calls it. In today’s world of inequality, extreme politics, and violence, we need this magic more than ever.

 

 

The book creates meaning, the meaning creates life….My Pile of Reading

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The book creates meaning, the meaning creates life

(Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text)

It is often difficult for me to get to events and launches so reading and chatting is how I try to stay connected to the literary scene. I’ve recently chatted to Nessa O’Mahony about her debut novel The Branchman and Nuala O’Connor on her feminist Becoming Belle.

I’ve just finished Sally Rooney’s Normal People which was long-listed for the Booker. Now I’m deep into John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky, enjoying recognizing streets in Berlin, Rome, Madrid. Next up is Milkman by Anna Burns (not pictured as it’s on my Kindle!) followed by the wonderful new collection from Doireann Ní Ghríofa Lies which launched yesterday (alongside Jessica Traynor’s The Quick – which I will shortly add to my pile). And then the moving memoir Twelve Thousand Days by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne.

What a choice. In these leafy Autumn days instead of writing days, it’s reading days. I may even light a fire.