Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Books (page 2 of 4)

A More Fictional Kind of Murder

Today I realised one of my characters has to die.  It’s a surprising realisation to come to, so late in the editing process but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense.  It’s a sad conclusion to come to though, as this character is one of the few who’s survived since the earliest incarnation of this story.  There’s even a picture of him, drawn by a family friend, an illustrator, on the back of the earliest draft of the germ of an idea back when I was only 11 or so.

All the characters feel as real as distant friends.  I know their likes and dislikes, their moods, their faults.  In the early days of planning I would pick out their favourite music, favourite books, favourite films.  It was the same process as new friends or lovers go through…except that I was providing both answer and question.  It sounds nuts, certifiable maybe, but I don’t know any other way of getting to know a character as if they are real.  When it works then, once the story starts rolling, it can feel as if the characters take control and guide what direction a scene takes.  Those are the days when the writing really flows.

But the axe has to be swung.  It works for the plot, gives other characters more passion and is generally a good idea.  I’ll miss this one but the time has come so now I’m going to have to play at murder.

The problem with the day job is that murder is something I’m rather familiar with.  I’ve sat next to quite a few people who’ve killed, over the past couple of years, even spoken to a couple.  As I prepare for my fictional murder a wealth of details present themselves.  Do I use blunt object trauma? Strangulation? A weapon – knife, axe, slash hook?

It sounds callous, ghoulish even, but when you spend a lot of time listening to evidence in murder trials it can be difficult not to sift through the details like a connoisseur looking for the juiciest chunks.  You become desensitised to the horror of forensic details.  As a journalist you look at evidence in terms of the hook that will snare your reader down past the first paragraph.  As a writer you look at the details, the relics of someone’s life and death as components to be filed away for future reference.

So now I’m planning my own murder from the pick n’ mix of details, real and fictional.  It’s impossible to think of a knife attack without memories of dozens of post mortem accounts, the length of the blade, the angle of thrust, the difference in slicing or stabbing gestures.

If poisoning is the option do I go with historical methods – take inspiration from the Borgias perhaps – or do I tread a more familiar path – look into the poisons mentioned in the emails between the Devil in the Red Dress herself, Sharon Collins, and her Internet “hitman” Essam Eid?

I’m fond of this particular character.  It’s a long and interesting association.  I want the death to be a fitting one…the sacrifice will make a better book.  I’ll plan the murder carefully so that it satisfies both the journalist in me and the storyteller.  And then I’ll raise a glass to the fallen character and get on with the rest of the book.

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A Cuckoo In the Nest

Common Cuckoo
Image via Wikipedia

Writing a book is hard work.  When it goes from being a hobby, something you can take as long as you like over because the only deadlines you have are your own easily breakable ones, to something that might just might have a future, things change.

I’ve written most of my life.  When I was a child I wrote stories about my toys.  As an adult I became a journalist so that I could earn my living through words.  I’ve written books because I had a story to tell and a dream to follow and I’ve written one as a seemingly impossible feat as publication loomed mere weeks after my story was over.  Each stage has been different and each stage has taught me new things about writing.

Over the last couple of years that learning curve has been particularly steep as the words became more than something I did and became part of how I paid my rent.  I’ve learnt that I can hit a deadline with a book just as I can with an article.  I’ve learnt that when the whistle sounds writers block is a luxury there just isn’t time for.

I’ve also learnt that several of the things I had indulged in when I only dreamed of being a writer are actually necessary to getting the whole ball rolling.  I’ve read interviews with authors over the years who talk about their obsessions with a certain kind of ink or a certain kind of paper and thought, nice work if you can get it.  Those of us who hack away for a living can’t afford the luxury of being picky.  Any pen and any paper will do as long as the moment isn’t missed.

Now I realise that some touchstones, some rituals are actually part and parcel of the job in hand.  Writing a book isn’t like writing an article.  There’s a lot more of it for a start.  You have to sustain the pace and the concentration to get to the end.  That’s a lot of concentration.

When I obsess about working at my desk or drinking the same kind of tea or coffee for the duration of the project in hand it’s not because I’m being pretentious, it’s because it’s one less thing to worry about.

For the past six weeks all the order, all the usual, comfortable things were displaced and I learnt another thing about writing.  Writing, at least to deadline, makes you antisocial.  House guests should be accepted with caution.  House guests who intend to stay for six weeks and who expect life to revolve around them should be avoided at all costs.

I freely admit that I’m territorial.  Who doesn’t care about their home?  I grew up as an only child and like my space.  Writing hasn’t caused this territoriality but it has definitely exacerbated it.  But hold on a minute.  When it’s my space anyway, why should I worry about getting cranky when it’s invaded?  When I have a big task ahead and am at a stage where I’m a step closer to the goals I’ve had for as long as I can remember, why shouldn’t I resent someone who disregards that, who should know better.

The common cuckoo, cuculus canorus, has a rather unattractive trait.  It’s a bad mother, a dirty stop out who doesn’t see the point of raising the offspring once the egg has been laid. So it finds someone else to do the job for them.  The poor unsuspecting foster mother raises the cuckoo chick as her own, unaware that her own chicks have been booted out of the nest leaving a hungry, demanding monster in their place.  That’s what the last six weeks have been like.  Paying court to someone who took advantage of hospitality and patience while my own chicks, the book, the husband (I make no apologies other than this one for that order – there’s no deadlines with the husband!) have been pushed very firmly out of the nest.

It should have been a no brainer but this was one writing lesson I obviously still needed to learn.  For that matter it was also a life lesson that had passed me by.  It’s not a mistake that will be repeated.

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What I Do On My Summer Holidays…or How to Avoid the Silly Season

August is always a quiet month.  Even if you’re in  a newsroom this is the month when the “silly season” hits.  The courts and politicians are all on holiday and so the news that’s there to be covered can be rather thin on the ground.  In terms of general news the silly season hasn’t fully hit…one of the few plus points of a rather nasty recession.  If, like me, you work in the courts, however, the shop is well and truly shut from the very start of August until the beginning of October.

Some of the courts still sit – the High Court and the Children’s Court still process cases from time to time as needed.  The District court too has a constant stream of miscreants, but I don’t work in any of those courts.  My bread and butter is the Central Criminal Court so August and September are extremely quiet as there’s simply nothing doing.  People may get murdered, other people may get charged, but the actual murder trials are on hold until term starts in October.

So every summer I have a choice.  Either sit at home and twiddle my thumbs for two months or try and find something productive to do.  Two years ago I was making trips down to the Mahon Tribunal to take down our former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s testimony.  Last year I wrote Devil in the Red Dress.  This year it’s an altogether different project.

I’m writing a novel – well to be more exact, I’ve already written the novel but it still needs further editing before it’s in a state I’m happy to send out to publishers.  I’ve mentioned it on numerous occasions on this blog but now I’m several weeks into the editing process it’s become more of an obsession and less casual material for this blog.

Editing is far more of a slog than the free flowing drafting that initially creates the story.  This is the time when you are chipping away at the raw material and trying to make it into something that’s actually readable.  When I’m drafting the words might flow and the plot might spring into place organically (if I’m very, very lucky) but editing is down to the minutiae, the technical nitty, gritty of the writing process.

This is the time when you realise how often you’ve used certain words and phrases and get over your initial blushes to fix the problem.  This is when you take out the irrelevant words; the ands, thens, or whiches that can safely be chopped to make a cleaner more fluid sentence.

Because no matter how fluid your writing may feel when you’re drafting, it will always benefit from a strict vetting with a red pen.  When you’re in the middle of it it can seem counter intuitive that this sometimes tortuous process can be the thing that frees up a page but that’s how it works.  I always liked the analogy of editing being like a sculptor chipping away at his marble until something beautiful emerges.

Of course, you edit with journalism and non fiction as well but it’s a far more perfunctory affair than with fiction.  With journalism you are writing in a much more rigid structure so while it can be cleaned up or streamlined, the kind of in depth surgery that a larger piece requires just isn’t necessary.

So I’ve been spending large chunks of every day sitting at my laptop.  I left behind the red pen some time ago and now we’re down to the actual physical changing of the words in the manuscript.  When it gets to this stage it really becomes an obsession.  The manuscript becomes a god, a drug.  Every moment you are away from it there is an ache that simply will not stop.

I’ve been working for the past few weeks on a little table in front of my bedroom window.  It’s not a perfect setting.  I’m used to working at my desk with all my touchstones and paraphernalia that I like to think make me a better writer, or that help the inspiration to flow.  Much as I love my desk, it’s in a rather busy place, fine when I’m on my home in the house but not really workable when there are other people in the house and this summer we have a prolonged guest.

So I sit at my little table and look at the trees outside the window.  It’s the kind of place I would have picked to work in the past, before deadlines became an issue and publication of any kind was a simple dream.  The fact that the internet up here is sporadic at best and there’s no direct light and there’s not even space to put a mug of tea would drive me up the wall if I was writing my usual fare, which is generally fueled by caffeine and online research.

But for this job of editing, which I have promised to finish before the courts go back (after way too many years almost there) my little table is an oasis.  A different space that allows me to have the quiet and the concentration to do the chipping away that I must.

Up here, I wouldn’t now a silly season if it beat it’s wings against the window, although I’d probably be momentarily distracted.  It’s another world, far away from deadlines, and column inches and the Four Courts.  In the end it’s all work but I’m feeling very fortunate this year to spend the summer writing in the bedroom and watching the sunshine and the barbecues going on below.

Not in Praise of Bloomsday…

Today, June 16th, was Bloomsday.  If you’re not familiar with the concept, June 16th 1904 is the day when all the action in James Joyce’s opus, Ulysses is set.  Every year on that day the great and good and literary and arty gather in Dublin to retrace the route taken by Leopold Bloom on a Sunday morning at the turn of the last century.

Joyce’s book has been heralded as a classic, a work of English unparalleled in the English language.  That’s why he gets his own day.

Now this is probably the point where I should come clean.  I hate Bloomsday.  I’ve lived in Dublin too long not to get profoundly irritated by the marauding crowds of arty types and tourists that clutter up the thoroughfares with glasses of Guinness and dressed up to the nines in approximations of Edwardian dress.  If you wander through the centre of Dublin on June 16th you will find a selection of middle aged idiots acting like undergraduates and giving the book that is on more peoples “haven’t quite got round to reading” list than most others I can think of, the Rocky Horror treatment.

Bloomsday Photo by Michael Stamp all rights reserved

Let me get this straight.  Bloomsday is not just a bit of harmless playacting, it’s irritating, embarrassing and teeth clenchingly awful!  It’s the one day of the year when you get to see people who really should have more self respect, dressing up like complete idiots and hitting the bars like a back of feckless 20 somethings.

I’m aware that by saying this I sound (a) a total ignoramous and (b) rather unsure about where I fall in the whole cool young thing and old fogey scale.  For starters I have read Ulysses.  I read it years ago when I first moved up to Dublin while I was devouring anything that came from the writers that had helped to make the city famous.  I was fairly voracious in my reading in those days and didn’t always check the postal address of my chosen read.

In those days I read Sean O’Casey, Samuel Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Oscar Wilde, and George Bernard Shaw…I’m not sure why I didn’t get round to Behan…I think I got side tracked by Lewis Carroll.  Anyway, at the time I was working on an antique stall in the George’s Street Arcade.

My boss at the time was working on a book of postcards all sent on June 16th 1904, that corresponded with the various locations in the book.  He’d written a synopsis of the book to go with the images and, knowing that 19-year-old me was keen on writing, he asked me to check it, casually throwing me a copy of Ulysses to make sure he hadn’t left anything out.

So I read Ulysses.  From cover to cover.  I quite liked Leopold Bloom but preferred his wife Molly and couldn’t stand Stephen Dedalus, who I thought and continued to think was a pretentious little git.  In terms of Joyce’s prose, while I get what he was doing from a technical point of view, it just completely leaves me cold.

I will freely admit that this could have to do with the never ending stream of postcards or my bosses synopsis but Ulysses would not appear anywhere on my list of books I would want with me if I was ever marooned on a desert island and I would be quite pissed off if it found it’s way there ahead of me.

I know that Ulysses is held up as a work of genius.  I just don’t like it.  I’m not denigrating Joyce as a writer in any way…The Dead is one of the best shorter pieces of writing I have ever read.  I just don’t like Ulysses.  I don’t like the fact that the men run the plot while the women are either leched over virgins, prostitutes or adulteresses.  I don’t like the fact that the book that is now synonymous with Dublin is arguably the least accessible.  I don’t like the fact that Bloomsday itself tends to be a rather snobby affair with pantomime overtones.

Dublin has produced many fine writers;  Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan, Oscar Wilde, Sean O’Casey, Flann O’Brien, George Bernard Shaw.  Writers who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, writers who deserve to be celebrated each year but who only get a look in for centenaries or on whims.

So I say, let’s give Bloomsday a rest.  Next year let’s have At Swim Two Birds Day to celebrate Flann O’Brien’s lunatic masterpiece.  The day could start in Grogans Pub off Georges Street and there could be cowboys in Ringsend, someone sitting up a tree proclaiming that a “pint of plain’s yer only man”, come to thing of that could the the city’s clarion call.  We could have someone dressed up as the Pooka MacPhellimey and someone or something as Finn Mac Cool.

Instead of having a day where the middle classes dress up in straw boaters and give the day over to cataloguing the eating and drinking in Joyce’s novel, lets have one where the surreal and bizzarre takes over the city. Instead of a daytrip to Sandeymount and Grafton Street, lets see the cattle corralled in Ringsend.

It might actually work.  And it would be a lot less irritating that bloody Bloomsday.

Preparing to Get Back to Work…Again

Tomorrow it’s back to work after a couple of weeks off that gave me a taste of a possible summer to come.  As I’ve already said here I’m planning to finish my first novel over the summer break from the courts and I’m looking forward to the different pace that working on fiction requires.

Tomorrow though it’s back to the Monday List.  The trial I’ll be there for is Thomas Barrett, from Kerry.  He’s accused of killing father and son, Michael and Denis Hanrahan.  60-year-old Mr Hanrahan and 27-year-old Denis were found shot dead at their home in Moyvane, Co Kerry in March last year.

It’s a case I’ve been hearing about since it happened (given my line of work I tend to keep tabs on murder investigations – it doesn’t tend to endear you to people at dinner parties!).  Over the past year, I’ve heard various rumours – working somewhere with a mix of journalists, barristers and gardai you hear all sorts of gossip about things that might concern any of us in the future and during the prolonged periods of waiting that are part of the judicial process gossip has a habit of spreading.

None of it’s more than gossip of course until the day the trial starts and we hear the opening speech from the prosecution where they outline their case.  So tomorrow I’ll find out if the case is going to go ahead as planned and how long it’s going to last, also how big a story it’s likely to be.

So tomorrow is the moment of truth and I’ll find out whether I’m working for a few days, a week or even a fortnight.  Tonight I’m just waiting and changing gear again.  The lazy mornings with the manuscript and a red pen  in the back garden will have to be postponed for the moment.  It’s back to the day job.

Signing on the Dotted Line…

Today I officially signed with an agent.  One of the most exciting things about writing Devil in the Red Dress has been the opportunities it has opened up.  It was impossible to guess when I went into Court 1 in the Four Courts a little over a year ago that the trial I was about to cover would actually change my life.

We knew when Sharon Collins and Essam Eid first came into court that it was going to be an interesting trial.  Not many trials pass through the Four Courts that have quite that combination of sex and scandal.  There was money, there was an internet plot and Eid himself looked like the quintessential mafiosa…he even had a Las Vegas connection.  Even though nobody had died, or maybe because of it, it had all the elements of a first class thriller.  It was hardly surprising that one of the main topics of conversation during those long weeks the trial was running, revolved around who would play what in any eventual movie.

Even the accused chipped in to that one.  Eid was quite happy to offer the suggestion of Al Pacino to play himself. Sharon wasn’t quite so forthcoming – I think she had her sights set on writing the script herself!

As far as I was concerned it was a book waiting to be written.  I had been wanting to write a book for some time and had been looking around for the right plot.  I’ve wanted to be an author since I was little…I used to look at the books on the shelves in the library and dream of my name being on the spine of one of them.  Ever since I can remember I’ve made up stories.  I became a journalist so that I could earn my living from writing and telling stories – even if they weren’t ones I had made up myself.

I might have got waylaid for several years in radio but I’m finally where I set out to be…writing for my living.  Devil was something that was an extension of that living, a true crime book like those written by many of my colleagues.  I’m proud of it and still get a kick out of seeing it in book shops but I didn’t really expect it to lead anywhere beyond that.  A local story for the local market.  Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do and Devil won’t be my last foray into the non fiction market but true crime books written about high profile trials don’t always have a very long shelf life.

What’s been remarkable about Devil is that is has opened more doors than I thought it would.  For the last few years I’ve been working on a novel.  It’s very, very different from what I do on a day to day basis but it’s something I love doing and I have always believed in the story.  In case you’re curious it’s a satirical fantasy, not the swords and sandals variety but more rooted in reality, a little like the work of  Jasper Fforde or Malcolm Pryce although it sounds so cheesy to compare myself to two successful authors when I’m only starting out.

Being totally subjective I’m not even sure it’s as funny as either of them or if I’m even making a fair comparison.  I’ve spent so long pitching the book to various agents around the place that pat comparisons like that have a habit of tripping off my tongue whenever I describe the book to anyone – something I’m going to have to work on if (when?) it finds a publisher.  Basically the plot, without going into much detail here and trying not to be overly cryptic, has journalists, a referendum, dodgy politicians and a sociopathic, womanising mythical beast as one of the main characters.  As I said, it’s a little different to the stuff I write on a daily basis…I don’t do the politics beat.

Before Devil came along the novel had been sitting in a yellow folder in the top drawer of the filling cabinet and, to be honest, I was thinking of passing it over and started on something else.  But last summer changed all that and that is how I came to start this post with the sentence “Today I officially signed with an agent”.  She will be handling the novel, and it’s two sequels and, as anyone reading the last couple of days posts will have realised, this summer I will be working on fiction rather than fact (except when I have to pay the bills).

I still feel slightly awkward writing about fiction in anything other than a purely theoretical basis.  I normally write this blog as a journalist and changing key in this way feels like baring a private part of myself that I’m not used to sharing.  But this is getting serious now and with any luck I’ll be writing the blurb by this time next year.  Today was the first step towards that and I’m looking forward to the work ahead.

Rambling About Not Very Much At All

I’ve been sitting here for some time trying to decide what to blog about today.  The courts, as I’ve mentioned before, are on a two week break, so I’m focused on other things.  The problem is that these other things are rather removed from the day job so when I drift back into reality I’m left with not a lot to write about.

I had always meant this to be a blog about writing, but now I’m actually getting down to writing I’m beginning to see a distinct problem with that.

Writing fiction isn’t like following a story.  I’m not necessarily going to have daily updates of proceedings to share.  Or rather, if I did it wouldn’t mean anything much to anyone but me because I’m talking about characters and situations that no one else knows about for the moment.  It’s not a question of writing up snapshots of what’s going on at the end of every day.  The day to day process of editing just doesn’t really translate to daily updates.

So when I sit here my mind drifts in all kinds of directions – and I wouldn’t lumber the net with my distracted musings!  When I’m not in court I’m as likely to ramble on about the state of my (very small) back yard or the vagueries of baking than the latest murder.  When I’m writing intensively then even the garden and the kitchen get ignored so there’s not much left to write about or I get obsessed with something that feeds into what I’m writing in some way.  Last summer when I was writing Devil it was the fabrication methods of various toxins (purely theoretical I hasten to add!), this summer it’ll be the finer points of grammar (I should think).

Anyway, bear with me – it will all make sense eventually. I hope.

Looking Forward to a Change of Tack

With the end of the first really sunny day of the year my thoughts have turned towards the summer break.  Each year the courts have a summer recess that spans the whole of August and September.  It’s lean pickings if your day job depends of trial reporting but I look forward to it every year.  Last year it gave me time to write Devil, this year I have something completely different planned (well, sort of).

I’ve been working on a novel for years now.  Since I started working in the courts it’s been sitting in the filing cabinet gathering dust but I’ve been persuaded to take it out and have another look.

So that’s going to be my summer this year.  Instead of chronicling real life I’ll be living in my head in the company of the characters I made up so long ago.  I’m still rather fond of them so it should be fun.  Fiction writing is an entirely different discipline to journalism or non fiction work so it’ll be great to slip back into that gear.

When I’m working on non fiction getting things right is, obviously, key so I tend to work at my desk away from the distractions of the outside world. I might do initial planning in a cafe or sitting in the garden but when it comes down to the actual drafting I need my notebooks around me and to be as free from distractions as possible.

Fiction’s completely different. When I’m writing that I could be sitting in the middle of a brass band with fireworks going off around me and I wouldn’t notice.  The scenes I’m imagining into being seem far realer at the time than anything around me.  Writing about world’s and characters I’ve created is like flying, a freewheeling dash that’s only stops when it’s run out of steam.

Non fiction is different.  It’s a far more cerebral experience, an almost academic excercise to fit seperate events and quotes into a cohesive whole.  It’s just as rewarding, and as absorbing when it’s going well, but very, very different.

I remember talking with a very good friend once about these different gears.  I was saying that I find it much easier to switch between fiction and non fiction when I’m working on different projects in one day than to switch between cases.  Facts can get muddled, the language, the way you write in these two different ways doesn’t.

My friend is a translator and also a trained journalist.  We ended up speculating that perhaps the different styles of writing use the brain in a similar way to switching between languages.  Once you’ve got the knack you can switch back and forth perfectly happily, it’s hard wired into you so the gears don’t tend to slip.  Writing fiction and non fiction are almost like totally different languages, at least as far as your brain is concerned.

Neither of us is a neurologist so I’ve no clue how accurate our theory is but it that’s what it feels like.  And this summer break I will be spending my time (most of it anyway) talking in that other language. I can’t wait!

Devil in the Red Dress Steps Out Into the World

My book, Devil in the Red Dress is now officially available in the UK.  It’s the first time it’s been available outside Ireland and I’m interested to see how the story will translate somewhere that hasn’t been so familiar with the whole Lying Eyes, Tony Luciano affair.

One of the reasons I was attracted to writing the book was the fact that the story reads like a thriller and could have happened anywhere.  Even the barristers made references to the Coen Brothers and film noir.  To be honest you simply don’t get cases like this cropping up in Ireland and it was simply too good a tale to pass by.

I was aware while I was covering the trial and later researching the book over last summer that the story had gone truly global.  I did a lot of research on line (fittingly enough) and every time I searched people involved in the story I got hits from further and further afield.  Even doing a search now you can find accounts from the Telegraph, The Guardian and the Daily Record in the UK and CNN in the States. I’m not surprised particularly, it is a great story.

What did amaze me though was how far the coverage extended, there’s coverage from Spain, Hungary and even Vietnam. Now my Spanish, Hungarian and Vietnamese aren’t great, so I’m not sure what spin they were taking but it’s the first time I’ve covered a story that has become such an international talking point.

When you work in a country the size of Ireland it’s easy to get caught up in the local aspect of news…there’s frequently little else but the odd time, when a story arrives with a truly international dimension, that spans from the west of Ireland to the casinos of Las Vegas with a pitstop in Spain, it’s difficult not to get excited.

A lot of the Irish press focused once again on the local angle, the fact that the scheming femme fatale behind the internet plot to kill her millionaire boyfriend was a County Clare housewife from an old Ennis family.  Certainly this is a case that has gone down in Clare legend and it’ll be a long time before it’s forgotten in Ireland as a whole.

But there is another side to the story.  The so-called hitman Sharon Collins hired to do her dirty work was an Egyptian poker dealer in Las Vegas.  His story and his conquests had travelled through Ohio, Michigan & Illinois.  Much of the plotting took place while Sharon was staying with her partner PJ Howard at his apartment in Feungirola in Malaga.  This was a dimension that lifted things out of the parochial into the international.

I was fascinated by the international dimension and explored the American angle in far more detail the majority of my colleagues.  I’m not saying clever me, simply that this was the bit of the story that interested me.  It’s not often the bright lights of Vegas shine on an Irish court case after all.

It remains to be seen how my account of the whole twisted mess does on it’s first foray abroad but I wish it well.  It’s a story that should reach a wider audience.  But we’ll just have to wait and see.

Is there a future for Irish publishing?

As I’ve written already this week this week saw the second annual Dublin Book Festival at the City Hall.  It’s organised by Cle, the Irish Book Publishers Association and will hopefully become a fixture of the Dublin cultural scene over the next few years.

Yesterday I went to a seminar on the future of Irish publishing.  Obviously, as a writer with a book published by an Irish publisher it’s something I have a vested interest in but, as a reader, it’s something I’ve always had a keen interest in as well.

Ireland is a country where it’s quite hard to avoid bumping into an aspiring writer. I’ve lost count of the times friends and acquaintances and in some cases total strangers within a few minutes of meeting have brought up the subject of the book they’ve either always wanted to write or that has been sitting in a box under the bed for years.

Don’t get me wrong there’s nothing wrong with being an aspiring writer – I’ve been one for years – but I’m not talking about the serious obsessives.  The saying that “everyone has a book in them” has been taken to heart in Ireland and there are a lot of very peculiar people out there.  I’ve read a lot of publishing blogs over the years and I know every agent or editor has their horror stories about slush pile rejects but we do seem to have more per head of population than average.

With this in mind it’s always surprised me how little there is for the aspiring writer in Ireland.  Once you’re published it’s grand, there’s the Artist’s Tax Exemption, Aosdana and the Arts Council for starters, but in terms of places where you can rub shoulders with the publishing elite we’re a bit under stocked.  The Book Festival aims at setting this right.

I’ve already posted here about the Forum on Copyright issues that was held on Friday.  As a journalist I’d always been aware of copyright but it’s such a huge subject and when you can publish your words online in seconds these days it’s a massive issue for anyone who wants to make a living from writing.

There’s been a lot of discussion online about the future of publishing in the current economic climate.  Like any other business it’s been hit hard but there are also plenty of new opportunities as technology changes on an almost daily basis.

Yesterday, the Seamus Brennan Memorial Seminar on Irish Publishing tackled the issue from an Irish perspective.  I’d gone along expecting to find it depressing listening but the four speakers all shared a bullish attitude to the rocky seas.

I tweeted the talk live as much as I could, although using a mobile phone isn’t the most efficient way of using Twitter in Ireland.  Apart from anything else I kept getting distracted by the points being thrown up.  For example, there are around 100 publishers in Ireland at the moment.  For such a small country that’s a massive amount.  A lot of them would be virtual cottage industries dealing with a very niche market but it still represents a bewildering amount of choice for the writer with a manuscript to pitch.

Author and publisher Steve McDonogh of Brandon press spoke passionately in favour of amalgamation which would allow Irish publishers to pool their resources to better confront the international scene.  He also spoke at some length about the challenges introduced by the new technologies.  The fact that digital rights are now such a hot issue is a fascinating subject and it’s one that Irish publishers are just as concerned about as their counterparts elsewhere.

Ireland has it’s own issues to deal with as well though.  Even though the majority of books taken out of the library here might be by Irish authors, the vast majority of books on the shelves of bookshops have been published elsewhere.  Irish publishers can’t compete with the UK houses if they decide to come and throw money at Irish authors.

As a writer myself I don’t think I’d refuse if someone offered me shed loads of money, any opportunity to spend all your time writing without having to worry about how the bills are paid.  But Ireland has such a rich literary heritage it would be a shame if Irish publishing couldn’t withstand the pressures.

The Arts Council came in for a lot of criticism.  Growing up in a theatre household I’m familiar with their work but I had never realised that there was such a major disparity when it came to funding for drama and funding for literature.  Theatre receives a third of the funding…Literature gets a mere 8%.

How is publishing ever supposed to move into the 21st Century if they can’t apply for state support for R&D, not to mention supporting us poor starving writers.  We might not have to pay tax on our earnings but to qualify for that you actually have to earn something.  Writing is not a very well paid profession (unless you are one of the golden few).  Advances don’t come along very often and when they do they arrive piecemeal.  Research takes time and funds and usually isn’t paid for at all.  It’s no wonder so many writers have a day job as well.

All in all though the mood yesterday was upbeat.  Jean Harrington, the MD of my own publishers, Maverick House, told us to “read our way through the recession” and to support Irish publishing by buying Irish.  It’s easy to be drawn to the latest blockbuster release but as the Book Festival showed there is a phenomenal choice of Irish writing out there.

Patsy Horton from Northern Irish imprint Blackstaff Press spoke about the possibilities for niche markets, especially in an environment as small as the one in the North.

Finally Michael O’Brien, the man behind O’Brien Press gave us the A-Z of Irish publishing.  There are a lot of strengths out there but the problems of negotiating the international markets kept rising again and again.

It’s was great to see the crowds of people wandering around the bookshelves arranged around the entrance hall of the City Hall.  Apart from the publishing bods, out in force, there were plenty of writers not to mention a gratifying number of members of the public.

It would be nice to see the festival grow in the years to come.  We do great arts festivals but there is very little in terms of a proper literary festival.  Yes, every so often there are opportunities for successful writers to give readings to their adoring fans but we have very little in terms of the kind of festival that offers master classes and seminars.  The Dublin Book Festival is definitely going in the right direction but it’s getting there and with luck it will only get better.

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