Disneyland with Books

Welcome to Kells

WELCOME TO KELLS. (Picture courtesy of the Hay Festival, Kells.)

Last year I volunteered at the Hay Festival in Kells and was lucky enough to be assigned to St Columba’s Church for the weekend.  How do I describe the church to you? Think old country churchyard. Now age it a couple more centuries. Add the remnants of four eleventh century Celtic crosses and a round tower from the same period. Now, you’ve got it.

It’s Ireland in less than an acre.

Kells, County Meath

Kells, County Meath

Into this serene scene streamed our guests: the speakers and the listeners.

Some of the visitors hadn’t planned to attend whatever event happened to be on at the time, but the location drew them in. Come for the tower, stay for the books. Could you blame them? The discussions on offer were fabulous. This is a small place, peaceful, so we didn’t have the rock star writers like Joe O’Connor. They were at the bigger venues, like the Headfort Arms. Instead, we had the poets and the historians, as befits so ancient and elegiac a site.

Being a volunteer, I sat at the back, keeping an ear out for people wanting information or looking to buy tickets, and all the while I listened to the experts talking about the difficulties of writing poetry in a minority language, or Ireland’s part in the First World War, or researching the historical background to Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. Each was a revelation and a joy.

There was a family from Kent who were on holiday in Dublin and drove up to Kells for the day. They enjoyed themselves so much they stayed for the whole weekend. Oh the scenery is spectacular, and the books are magnificent, but it’s the people. You know?

I do.

Everywhere you went there were happy volunteers in bright blue tee-shirts giving directions, suggesting events or places to eat, or just sharing the joy of the occasion. You couldn’t walk down the street without hearing laughter or a book being quoted. (That’s my definition of Paradise, right there.)

A man wandered around the worn old tombstones in the churchyard and stopped to ask what event was up next. A discussion about the JFK assassination? Sounds interesting. So he stayed for that and for the lecture that followed too. Later, as a soft evening fell, he shook my hand and thanked me. Like I’d done it all myself: the tower and the sunshine and the books. “It’s been a day,” he said. He had that peaceful look of a man who’s just enjoyed a long massage. “This is some event. I’ll be back next year.” Then as he stepped down the path he turned and said, “It’s like Disneyland with books.”

The Hay Festival returns to Kells on June 25th to 28th.  You can get the full programme and tickets from www.hayfestival.com/kells . Tickets are also available in Kells from the Kells Chamber Office (Carrick Street) – 046 924 0055 – open from 9.30am to 5pm from Monday to Friday, and from Antonia’s Bookstore in Trim, County Meath on 046 943 7532.

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Don’t Hide the Madness

DegasOver the past several months I have attended a number of arts’ events. There were a couple of poetry readings, some painting exhibitions, that sort of thing. The one thing all these events had in common was the type of artist they attracted. I suppose you would call them enthusiastic amateurs. The poetry comprised of the, “I saw a butterfly. It reminded me of mother. I cried,” sort of thing. The visual arts tended to be mostly pretty pictures of bucolic scenes copied from photographs. The word ‘charming’ comes to mind.

Charming. Perhaps. But is that art?

Yes, that’s a tricky question and one we have been toying with since, I suspect, people decorated the walls of their caves.

One of the things these poets and artists had in common was a desire to ‘express themselves.’ I don’t doubt their sincerity, but I do question the artistic merit of some of their results. There was something so ephemeral about these offerings. The poems and paintings, many of them, were positively wispy. Surely one of the key components of art is its ability to resonate? To endure?

The work the true artist produces isn’t easy. Sometimes it’s dark, challenging, and even disturbing. Very rarely is it charming.

For the artist, the work is all. Crafting the perfect line or expressing an idea on canvas is what matters. The artist knows that a lot of people won’t get what they’re trying to do. The work is what matters, though, not the acclaim.

This was what I found most unsettling in the events I mentioned. The majority of people were present to be acclaimed, to be told how talented they were. That was what mattered; not the actual work. Or, at least, that’s how it seemed to me.

At one of these events, I had been invited to read my own work. For a variety of reasons, that didn’t happen. My friend who accompanied me was outraged, but to be honest I was relieved. The opening scene of my work in progress, a tale of madness and violence, would have had no place in a charming garden full of charming people reading their charming poems.

My friend Carrie, a painter, spends months on her pictures. She takes me painting with her sometimes and we wrestle with nature. Well, I wrestle. Carrie is a true artist and she thinks nothing of spending three hours just getting the lines of one tree right. There’s no sense of it being an effort for her. Sure, it may take a long time to reach the sort of perfection she craves, but the process is what she loves. I’m much more slapdash with my paints, which probably explains why I’m a writer and not an artist. I take those sort of pains with words and with as much pleasure.

There’s nothing wrong with being a talented amateur. Every professional was one once. Nor is there anything wrong in expecting other people to admire the things one produces. However, I do think there’s a danger in assuming every quick and easy idea that drops from one’s pen or brush is art. With work, it may become so, but it will take time, effort, study, and diligence.

Art can be unsettling. It is provocative. It isn’t safe. That’s what makes it fun.

Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.

–Allen Ginsberg.

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The New MX Anthology Goes Gothic

I think most of you know by now that my favourite Sherlock Holmes stories are those ones with a whiff of the eerie. The blood-eyed Hound with his dripping jaw, the Devil’s Foot, and so on, have always captured my imagination. Blame the Hammer Horror films I grew up on. Anyway, with this being my sort of fare, you can imagine how excited I was when I was invited to submit a story for the newest MX Anthology.

Eliminate the Impossible is, astonishingly, numbers VII and VIII in this remarkable collections of Holmes short stories. It features tales from the best Holmes writers around, plus forewords by such acclaimed authors as Roger Johnson, Michael Cox, Rand Lee, and Lee Child.

As with previous anthologies, all the authors are donating their royalties to projects at Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s former home, Undershaw. The building was in a terrible state of disrepair and was saved from destruction by the Undershaw Preservation Trust (patron Mark Gatiss). Today the building is the new home of Stepping Stones (a school for children with learning difficulties) and has being lovingly restored to its former glory.

Royalties will go to Stepping Stones for specific projects such as the new literary program.

The authors contributing to the 2-part anthology are as follows:

Volume VII – Eliminate the Impossible: 1880-1891 features contributions by: Mark Mower, Jan Edwards, Daniel D. Victor, James Lovegrove, Gayle Lange Puhl, Thomas Fortenberry, Mike Hogan, Thomas A. Turley, Adrian Middleton, James Moffett, Hugh Ashton, Geri Schear, S. Subramanian, John Hall, Jayantika Ganguly, S.F. Bennett, Steven Philip Jones, Jim French, John Linwood Grant, Mike Chinn, Robert V. Stapleton, Charles Veley and Anna Elliott, and Shane Simmons, with a poem by Jacquelynn Morris, and forewords by David Marcum, Lee Child, Rand Lee, Michael Cox, and Melissa Farnham.

Part VIII – Eliminate the Impossible: 1892-1905 features contributions by: Deana Baran, Tim Symonds, Sandor Jay Sonnen, Ben Cardall, Andrew Lane, Michael Mallory, Wendy C. Fries, Aaron Smith, Arthur Hall, Robert Perret, Nick Cardillo, Paul D. Gilbert, Cindy Dye, Tracy Revels, Derrick Belanger, William Meikle, Marcia Wilson, David Friend, Roger Riccard, Craig Janacek, Jeremy Branton Holstein, Will Murray, David Ruffle, Daniel McGachey, and David Marcum, with a poem by Christopher James, and forewords by David Marcum, Lee Child, Rand Lee, Michael Cox, and Melissa Farnham.

My personal contribution sees Holmes encounter the ghost of the assassinated American President, Abraham Lincoln. I hope my readers will love it as much as I did writing it.

If you love the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes, or any of the contributing authors, check out the Kickstarter campaign here

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Mind the Squirrels and Other Public Reading Lessons

Many years ago when I worked in the theatre, I was intrigued when famous playwrights came during a performance of one of their plays and stood at the back observing the audience. One, the late Dr Hugh Leonard, often wrote notes when a line fell short. A few performances later, I’d find that same line changed. Sometimes it went through a few rewrites before it worked.

Seeing how people respond to your work is a lot harder when you’re a novelist. Besides, for most of us, the chance to read a chapter to an audience doesn’t tend to happen until a book is already published. It’s a bit late then to discover that your favourite funny bits don’t bring the yuks. That said, public reading, though often terrifying, offers a unique insight into how your work is received by your intended audience.

In the list of common phobias, public speaking ranks number one. I don’t know why, but apparently it ranks even higher than death in the scare-ometer.  Image result for fear of public speaking quotesIt’s worth trying to overcome that particular phobia, though, because reading one’s work in public is something most writers face from time to time. Some of us enjoy it while others would rather drink molten lava.

For reasons I cannot explain, I have no problem reading my work before an audience. It’s weird because I hate being in crowds and don’t enjoy parties. Perhaps it’s because I see that sort of immediate feedback as a gift. Seeing how people respond to my jokes or my sad bits reveals what works and what does not and helps me improve my writing.

Public reading can increase your audience, give you new insight into how your writing is received, and build your confidence. Next time you’re asked to deliver a reading, don’t panic. Take a deep breath, select your favourite excerpt, and follow these tips. You’ll be glad you did.*

1 Keep it short. Most experts say ten minutes is the longest you should read. Anything beyond that risks losing the audience’s attention span. That said, if you can arrange to be interviewed and answer questions in between readings, you’ll be able to offer your audience 2-3 passages.

2 Choose your passage well. If you’re reading a novel, you should probably read from the opening chapter. After all, this is the prose you wrote to draw people into buying the book, so it’s probably engaging. If it isn’t, well, you have far bigger problems than nerves before an audience.

3 Practice. If possible, practice in front of family or friends, but even if you’re alone, at least practice the reading so the words flow smoothly.

4 Slow down! Read at a comfortable rate of speed. Comfortable for your listeners to follow, that is. Record one of your practice sessions and play it back a few hours later. See if you can understand yourself. See if others can understand you.

5 Don’t mumble. We need to be able to understand what you’re saying.

6 Mind the squirrels. If your passage includes foreign phrases or words you don’t say very often, then make sure you are saying them correctly. You want to be remembered as an erudite, entertaining speaker, not as a dope who couldn’t get her tongue around endoscopic-retrograde-cholangeo-pancreatography (most of us cheat and just say ERCP!) As a side note, I recently learned that the English word ‘squirrel’ is very difficult for non-native English speakers to pronounce. So much so that it was used as a shibboleth by the English to detect Germans during World War II. Then again, ‘eichhörnchen,’ the German word for squirrel, was used as a shibboleth to detect non-Germans. Poor squirrels.

7 Watch your mouth! Sip room-temperature water, or lemon water to keep your mouth and vocal chords lubricated.

8 Focus on the writing and don’t worry about the audience. That’s not to say you should forget about them, but it’s important to remember they are there to hear you.

9 Who are you? If the event is informal, try to begin with a little information about yourself or an anecdote before you start reading. It’s a good way to connect with the audience and they’ll be far more receptive to your reading as a result.

10 Keep it to yourself: Don’t harp on about how nervous you are and how you never do this sort of thing. Your audience wants to hear your prose, not your gripes.

11 Leave the artificial stimulants untouched. Seriously.

12 Finally… Make sure you finish speaking before your audience has finished listening.

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Seven Ways to Adjust Your Sails

As I told you last week, I got my ego bruised by someone who was unimpressed by my literary achievements. For some people, if you haven’t been profiled in The Times, draw thousands to your readings, and appear on TV at least once a month you just can’t be that good.

About an hour after I posted last week’s blog, I had a call from someone I’d met a few months ago. She had read my first two books and was crazy about them. “Please tell me there are more,” she implored. She’s now bought book number three and I hope she’s enjoying it. “I’ll read anything you write,” she said. Her comment reminded me that she is my target audience, and as long as I keep her, and people like her, happy then I’m doing my job.

Adjust the Sails

It goes to show, doesn’t it, that we cannot change people’s perceptions of us or of our work, but we can change our own attitude.

So how do you do that? I mean, it sounds very wise: “Adjust your attitude,” but actually doing it is a lot harder. I’ve been mulling about this over the past week  and I’ve come up with a seven-step plan.

1. Focus on the work

That’s the bottom line always when you are an artist. Too many other things are beyond your control. The weather, interruptions, the stock market, the tastes of the reading public. Depending on how high your need for control is, those things will irk you a little or a lot, but you might as well get over yourself because you are never going to be able to do anything about them.

The work, though, you can control that. You can write the best prose possible. You can write bravely and honestly. Not everyone will love it, but that’s their problem. There is satisfaction in producing a story or a novel that you believe in, whether other people get it or not.

2. Decide who you want to be

Decide who you want to be and be that. If you want to write mystery stories, then go for it. If you’re drawn to literary short stories that take you years to write, then that’s what you should be doing. There are no right or wrong choices here, only what’s right or wrong for you. Embrace who you are and forget what other people think.

3. Don’t be complacent

Try not to get caught in a rut. Artists do not thrive in stagnant environments. We shrivel with too much status quo. Embrace your discontent. It will spur you on to ever-greater achievements. And even if you fail, so what? If you’ve learned something from the experience it’s not a waste.

4. Have a goal

Know what you want to achieve. Be specific. “Make a sale” is not specific. “Make a sale of a literary short story in a prestigious journal with a readership of at least 50,000” is. Goals should be realistic. If you’ve never published before, expecting your first sale to go to the New Yorker may be a stretch. Start with achievable goals. They’ll encourage you to set harder ones when you’re ready.

5. Do your research

You wouldn’t go on a trip without planning your flights and hotels. By the same token, if you want to sell a short story or a novel you should know who is most likely to accept your type of tale. Read widely in your genre. Make a list of twenty or even fifty journals who are publishing work like yours. A site like Duotrope will help you find a market that is most likely to meet your target. Look at things like statistics. What are the odds of success in each of those markets? I made my first sale 45 years ago, and I’m still researching markets. The more time you invest on research, the less time you need to spend re-submitting pieces.

6. Be realistic

Don’t decide you have to write 10,000 words a day of your novel so you can meet some arbitrary deadline. (It’s another matter if you have a contract to fulfill. Even then, try to not over-commit yourself.) Look at how much time you can spend on your task and break it down into manageable pieces. I have to admit, I tend to over-extend myself. I’ll work on six projects all at once and get frustrated that I’m not able to meet my self-imposed targets. I’ve learned that it’s better to set small, achievable daily goals and feel good about my accomplishments, rather than huge impossible goals that will dishearten me. I say I’ve learned, but the truth is I still have to remind myself from time to time.

7. Make a plan

Once you know what you want to achieve, look at ways to get there. My focus is on my new book so that’s what I have to work on each day. Other things like short stories and my play have to take second place, at least for now. What’s your plan?

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Demon-Slaying for Writers

Recently, an organiser of a literary event invited me to participate in an series of readings given by a group of ‘wannabes.’ The individual is well acquainted with me and knows about my publishing history, so I was taken aback to realise that she sees me as an amateur.

So why am I pouting? Well, it’s not the bloody gash across my ego, at least, not exclusively. It’s that the well-meaning invite unleashed all those self-doubt demons who torment every artist from time to time. I’ve been battling these devils for so long, I must qualify as some sort of geriatric Buffy the Vampire Slayer (minus the sexy walking undead).


Despite having achieved a fair amount of success–awards won, novels and stories published, etc.–I can’t shake off the reminder of all the things I haven’t accomplished. It’s like this at every stage of a writing career, no matter who you are. Go ahead. Ask Stephen King. You think that man doesn’t know from demons?

When you are unpublished, you see the first sale as a the holy grail, and it is. Then you make it and you are Magnificent. Capital M. For about a day. Then the gloss starts to fade and you are already jonesing for the next Big Victory, the bigger publication, the novel, the prize, the recognition. Whatever it is that will make those wretched demons shut up. Only they never shut up. With every achievement, they present six failures to taunt you with your worthlessness.  Don’t worry, though. You are a mighty warrior in the battle against this sort of evil, you just need the right equipment.

So, what’s in the demon-slayer’s war chest?

Clarity: You have to be able to see those demons for what they are: Pint-sized imps who hate to see you happy. They don’t deserve your attention. That said, if you ignore them, they’ll disguise themselves as depression, addiction, or self-harming behaviour. Know who they are, but for pity sake, don’t feed them. You’ve seen Little Shop of Horrors, right?

Love: I was going to call this ‘self-love’, but I know what you’re like. What I mean is being kind to yourself. OK, so you still have things to achieve. That’s a good thing. Who wants to live without goals to reach and windmills to fight? Practice affirmations–“I will be grateful for what I have accomplished so far. I will recognise my failures, forgive them, and refuse to let them define me. I will do better…”

Reinforcements: Talk to your writing friends about how you’re feeling. I promise, they’ve been there, too. There’s nothing like solidarity in the battle against demons.

Work: This is what it comes down to. Those demons don’t want you to write. They’ll nibble at your brain, release toxins into your soul, all to keep you from your mission, which is making art. Lock those little devils in a box and focus on the job at hand. You can do this.

See you on the battlefield.

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Tales from the Stranger’s Room #3

Five years ago Sherlock Holmes author and editor David Ruffle put together a collection of new Holmes stories called Tales From The Stranger’s Room, with royalties from all the authors going to The Beacon Society (an organization supporting and recognizing exemplary educational experiences that introduce young people to the Sherlock Holmes stories). The collection was a great success and Tales From The Stranger’s Room 2 came out shortly after.

Now five years later we have volume three and this time David Ruffle is joined by Danielle Gastineau, Soham Bagchi, David Marcum, Robert Perret, Mark Mower, Margaret Walsh, Anna Lord, Arthur Hall, Geri Schear, Jennifer Met, S F Bennett, and Craig Janacek with all the royalties going to Stepping Stones School at Undershaw, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s former home and where he wrote many of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

“Don’t expect to read this collection straight through, non stop. Savor each, imagine Holmes and Watson in each work. Sit back and let each author introduce you to his particular image and fantasy. It’s elementary, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable collection.” Biblophile

Now on Kickstarter


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Sebastian Barry at the Hinterland Festival

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Sebastian Barry

There are very few Irish authors who have achieved the acclaim of Sebastian Barry.

He was a poet before he became a successful playwright, but these days he is most acclaimed as a multi-award winning novelist. His novels include The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998), The Secret Scripture (2008) and On Canaan’s Side (2011), and many others.

On June 20th Sebastian Barry arrived in all his splendour to the Eirgrid Stage in Kells, a guest of the Hinterland Festival. He was in fine spirit and even finer voice, starting the event with an Appalachian song. He followed with a reading from his most recent novel, and his mother, actress Joan O’Hara, would be delighted with his beguiling style of delivery.

Interviewer Myles Dungan did a fine job asking questions, although, like Patricia Scanlan before him, Barry hardly seemed to need the prompts. He’s an author who seems to love talking about his books and his family. Indeed, there hardly seems a hair’s worth of  difference between the two, as his fiction is inspired by various family members.

Mere slivers of family lore send his imagination aloft, filling in the blanks. Asked how much factual information he had before he started writing his recent novel, he said, “Only half a sentence. The story is lost… A gift to a writer. You only need two sticks to make a fire.”

One stick, in this case, was his grandfather’s comment that a distant family member Thomas McNulty had “served in the Indian wars.” That was all he needed. Barry wove the story that became Days Without End (2016). As much as the novel is a tribute to an obscure relative, it is an homage to Barry’s son Toby who, at the age of 16, came out to his family as gay. (The author’s response to Toby’s pronouncement was a relieved, “Thank God. You won’t have to go through this mess of heterosexuality!”)

Through his son, Barry learned something of gay relationships and felt uplifted by the romance between Toby and his boyfriend. Subsequently, when he came to write Days Without End, he created in Thomas McNulty, a soldier, a man accustomed to violence, a man who loves another man John Cole, (“John Cole, my beau,” he says.)

Having the initial idea for the story wasn’t enough to get started. He needed the voice of his character. This is what Barry calls the “pre-writing stage, when the book is still in the air.” After seven months, Thomas McNulty suddenly spoke to him and said,

“The methods for laying out a corpse in Missouri sure did take the cake.” 

The difficulty of finding a character’s voice is a familiar one to most fiction writers. It makes the difference between success and failure. In the case of Days Without End, Barry had to decide how Irish the character would sound. Would he speak a kind of pidgin English? “What is this English we speak?” he asked the audience (a packed house, by the way, with enthralled being its unequivocal state.)

Thomas wouldn’t talk about the famine, Barry decided, for all he had arrived in America, along with so many Irishmen, to escape that fate.  He was utterly individual, wearing dresses–this before the word ‘gay’ meant anything other than happy–until an 1863 edict declared, “men must not dress as women.”

For all the violence in the novel, it contains exquisite language whose lyrical beauty binds to one’s DNA. For instance, of Thomas’s partner John Cole, Barry says, “The moonlight not able to flatter him because he was already beautiful.” And yet the violence is there, too. Thomas is a soldier and a good one. Violence is part of who he is.

Asked by a member of the audience how his family feels about the way he uses his own kin as fodder for fiction, Barry replied, “A writer can be a very inconvenient person to have in a family. You don’t know how much you can hurt a person in what you write. You are a deeply disgraceful human being.”

May Mr Barry continue to be a disgrace for many years to come.



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