Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Fiction (page 1 of 3)

Things to do on a Wet Afternoon…

Deserted warehouse by Chris Miller on Flicker reproduced under Creative Commons some rights reserved

Not the warehouse I was filming in but one that would probably make a good location for a true crime documentary. This one photographed by Chris Miller from Flickr reproduced under Creative Commons some rights reserved.

It’s always a deserted warehouse. Over the years I must have visited more of them than your average movie gangster. Sometimes they are the elephant’s graveyard of boomtime optimism, other times the faded corners of old Dublin. Today’s was a relic of 19th century industry, all small basement rooms, crumbling masonry and pigeon droppings. The perfect place to discuss a murder – that’s why movie gangsters spend so much time hanging out in them. That’s why I was there on a rainy Monday afternoon in a Dublin summer.

There always seems to be someone making a true crime show for Irish television. It seems the public has an insatiable appetite for death and disaster. That’s nothing new of course. Thomas de Quincey turned a satirical eye on the aesthetic appeal of murder in 1827, although he was quite seriously disturbed by the public’s fascination with the crime. George Orwell wrote with more affection on The Decline in the English Murder in 1946. Why should the 21st Century be any different? So around this time of year – ready for scheduling when the nights start drawing in and the time for stories round the fire comes round again, the filming starts. For all our social networked world we haven’t changed so very much. I’ve written on so many cases over the years that I often get the call. If the murder came before the courts between 2007 and 2010 I was probably there and there’s a good chance I’ve written about it here and elsewhere. My words have become part of the record, that first draft of history that journalism provides.

That might sound a little pompous but I certainly don’t mean it that way. That “first draft of history” phrase is one that often runs through my mind as I research 19th century newspapers and I’m so conscious of the fact that the court reports I read there were written by people like me. Just as in modern Ireland it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get hold of a transcript of a trial if you’re simply an observer or wish to tell the story of the case, so the official documentation of so many 19th century trials has been lost. Just as now what I have written and my journalistic colleagues continue to write, fills in the gaps in appeal judgements and provides the colour that gets lost as the public recollection fades, so the 19th century reports breath life into long forgotten cases that would have been forgotten decades ago.

Of course, the cases that generate the most newsprint are the ones that really capture the public imagination. The ones that get talked about in coffee breaks with co-workers, in the pub with friends, on doorsteps with neighbours. There comes a point when they blend into folk memory, become part of social history, inform a generation. Between 2006 and 2008 there seemed to be a mania for murder but that was simply the number of cases appearing before the court. After the press bonanza that was Joe O’Reilly the editors were always looking for the next big case and every month or so there seemed to be a new contender. It’s these cases that are the ones often revisited in warehouses on summer afternoons. Because if you’re going to talk about murder it should be in a suitable desolate setting. Odd perhaps, since the cases we remember are the ones that usually happen in comfortable suburbia with fitted carpets and mod cons. But it’s usually a warehouse, lit atmospherically even if the sun is shining. Perhaps we need that desolate setting to tell these tales. Would a comfortable setting, a living room or kitchen like so many actual murder scenes, be too real, too close.

We can only enjoy murder if it is at that remove. We don’t want to be confronted by the actual death of a person. We want to be told a story, a grim story perhaps, but one that has been told huddled around the fire since lions still had sabre teeth and deer were much, much bigger. If conflict is at the heart of any good story then murder is the perfect story if only we can come to terms with the blood of it, remove the smell of death. I’ve noticed that when I say I’ve written true crime, in some company, the reaction is dismissive, but if I mention historical true crime, or historical fiction the reception is far warmer. I’ve researched the cases as thoroughly, the details of the story might be echoes of each other but one subject has distance and the other doesn’t and that distance is increased as soon as I’m making it up. Because obviously it’s far healthier to be able to imagine the details of a perfect murder rather than simply recount someone else’s actions…

So that’s why I spent this afternoon in a disused warehouse. I was talking murder – just as I’ve often done in the past. It’s a bit of a culture shift talking about recent cases again but I’m sure some day when I’m talking about my 19th century murders I’ll end up doing it in another disused warehouse. It’s the obligatory setting. The expected scene. It wouldn’t be quite the same any other way. As for this afternoon’s effort I’ll give more detail when I have it.

The Power of a Good Story

Typewriter image by fiddleoak on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Typewriter image by fiddleoak on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

When Michael Dobbs wrote the novel House of Cards he had a definite ending in mind for the wonderfully Machiavellian Frances Urquhart. When the BBC adaptation came along, mindful of building on it’s success with a sequel, that ending had changed quite dramatically. Dobbs found himself writing two more books around his villain but always said that he insisted he should find his just desserts at the end of the trilogy. For the audience as much as a writer there are only so many ways a character like Urquhart can end up. With someone that gleefully amoral we want to see them finally meet their match, no matter how much we love their machinations. It’s like finding the right note at the end of a peace of music. Get it wrong and it’ll sound horrible.

Stories are part of who we are. They’re in our bones, in the air we breath. We know their rhythm and are pulled along to the conclusion as if we are caught in a river’s flow. We can only follow the route that’s laid down for us. Writing fiction again I’m conscious that I’m digging out the river bed in a way I don’t normally do. With true crime it’s a question of waiting until a case comes up that will happily run along a pre-existing river. That fits with our innate idea of story. It’s the same finding a news story. It has to be something that chimes with narrative points that are embedded so deeply in us that anything else sounds discordant. Sometimes that discord can work on it’s own but the story that’s pinned to our expectations has to be there as well. Killers have to have an extra degree of sadism to make them into the Big Bad Wolf. Victims have to take on a mantle of purity to sit comfortably in the the Victorian melodrama role that’s still common currency. Bankers and rogue solicitors must enjoy the lavish lifestyle of a despotic Roman emperor to make their betrayal complete. If real life is a little messier, a little blander, a little realer than the stories we expect then we don’t want to know. They don’t merit the ink, even if they are the norm.

I knew the story that underpins this novel was one I could work with precisely because it ticks the right journalistic boxes. Stretching it into fiction I’m struck by the places I can go with the story and even more so by the places I can’t. Technically I can take the story anywhere I want where the history’s lacking but there’s still that narrative river keeping me on a certain course. There’s a real sense of what’s right for the characters, the plot points that just fall into place as if they were always there. Even though what I’m writing is my own invention I’m playing with the historical facts and all the stories that have come before. It’s all about finding the harmonies, creating something that sounds real, that sounds right.

This narrative current tugs at us even when we’re not actually being told a story. How often have you felt, after a run of bad luck, that you deserve a break? You know the way your own story should go and it feels wrong, discordant, when life refuses to comply. We are immersed in stories from birth. How can we possibly hope to swim against that current? The good get rewarded, the bad get punished. Those simple truths are at the bottom of every fairytale, every major religion, every book, every film, every TV show, newspaper story, even advertisements. We no longer question what’s constantly repeated.  How can it not be true? We conveniently ignore the fact that life very often doesn’t work that way. Or perhaps we see it as anathema and feel bitter outrage rising in our throats. That narrative current is a very strong pull indeed.

As a writer I’m governed by these rules. I can riff on them, syncopate them maybe but I can’t throw them out the window or ignore their very existence any more than you can ignore the basic rules of physics. What has always fascinated me though is how the narrative current pulls at us as we go about our daily lives. It’s there in the presumptions we make about strangers on the street, making a whole soap opera out of a snapshot of someone’s existence. We all do it, judging what kind of person they are on such arbitrary evidence. The trick is usually not allowing these initial broad strokes to cloud any more fact-based analysis of each other, but that one can be a little trickier. I’ve commented before that when the time comes to write up verdict copy in a trial, usually alternate forms for each possible verdict, one version will always be easier to write. Of course that’s the version that the evidence backs but it’s more than that. There’s always one version that flows, where the elements of the story fit together comfortably. It works as a story. That’s usually the version the jury goes with. Usually.

Most of the time we bob along quite happily on the narrative river. It’s comforting to have a time honoured route to navigate and usually we don’t question. Why would we? It’s only when you find yourself unexpectedly beached. Where the river feels like it’s spat you out and all the harmony of fitting in with the story that’s always being told disappears. We’re stranded, discordant. It shouldn’t be like this. The love story that would have worked out in a movie, the glittering career that never really took off but that should have followed the path we can still see fading in the evening sun like an airplane trail. There are certain things that, when they don’t work out it hurts more, because in the story of our lives, they should have followed the long established rules. We all tend to cast ourselves in comedies but not every story has a happy ending. It just has to stick to the rules we expect.

We are all immersed in stories. Whether you get your stories from religion or more secular mythologies it has surrounded you for all of your life. We can’t just step away from the narrative river, we are of it and we ride it from beginning to end. These stories can give us the satisfaction of finding a good story or they can be the root of our discontent but they are as important as the air we breath. Personally I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Gateways into Other Lives

Image reproduced thanks to the New York Public Library on Flickr

Image reproduced thanks to the New York Public Library on Flickr

Every time I start a new book, once the idea’s solid and the characters are more than half formed, I work out the music that will accompany the writing. It’s one of my favourite parts of these beginnings, like buying new notebooks and a pencil case before the start of a new school year, a little ritual that makes all the work ahead a little less daunting. It’s my favourite tip about writing and one I tend to give at the drop of the hat, because I don’t know a better way to find the beating heart of a new book when you’re still at the tentative feeling around stage and the book hasn’t really started taking shape. While my characters are still getting themselves settled in having their own playlist seems to speed the process.

Music acts like a shorthand for the mood of whatever I’m writing. My desk is under the stairs in the middle of the house, equidistant from the front door and the kitchen. Even when I’m on my own in the house it’s not the quietest place to work. But once the music is playing I’m there. I start to feel a little of what my character must feel in the scene. It’s far easier to find that elusive zone where the words flow easily and it almost feels like you’re describing events unfolding before you. So far I’ve found that nonfiction works best with a single playlist for the whole book but for fiction character playlists are the only way to go.

The book I’m working on at the moment is broken up into several parts. Each part focuses on one central character and it’s their playlists I’ve been working on. Because this book is set in the 19th Century I’ve been listening to a lot more instrumental pieces than I would normally. While I’m trying to keep the choice of music historically accurate I’m more interested in how each piece makes me feel and whether that emotional response suits the character I’m writing. So for my first chapters, set largely in the 1830s I ended up listening to a lot of Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, including a particular favourite below.

Now that the story has moved on a pace and I’m in a place with a lot more drawing rooms. The music for this section is heavily piano based. I’ve been listening to some Bach, a little Chopin and a lot of John Field, like this nocturne.

As the story moves on the action will be travelling to America so I’ve a feeling I’ll be listening to a lot more Aaron Copeland even though once again the period’s off, although as always I’ll be open to suggestions.

By the time I’ve finished this book this music will have become the soundtrack, inexorably linked. When I get stuck and need to go for a walk to clear my head I can take the playlists with me and listen to them while I walk. Away from the page the music sometimes works its magic and cuts through a knot that has been confounding me all day. The only time the music isn’t useful is when I’m editing. I need to edit in silence, or with something familiar but incongruous playing in the background. Without the familiar soundtrack I can better tell if the emotion in a scene is real or hasn’t translated.

At the end of a book the playlists get relegated and I move onto the next thing and the next soundtrack. Finding them again is a little like finding a photograph of an old lover. Sitting in the music folder of my computer is the playlist named for the hero of my first book, the one that’s sitting in the filing cabinet in the next room and will almost certainly never see the light of day. Every now and then I revisit his playlist and toy with the idea of resurrecting him. I haven’t deleted the playlist after all these years so perhaps one day I will.

So if you’re reading this as a writer do you have any tricks that help you get into your characters’ heads? Any touchstones that you need to help you get into the writing zone? Feel free to leave a comment and let me know.

We Need to Talk

Any regular readers of this blog might have notice there’s not been much to read lately. It’s been well over a year since I’ve blogged a trial and I’ve not really been writing much about general court matters either. I think the time has come to actually set down why this has been the case and why I’m not likely to be writing on either of those subjects any time soon.

I started this blog nearly five years ago, about three months or so before my first book came out. I started writing about the trials I was covering in the day job, since the book had come directly out of that work it seemed the natural thing to do. By the time the Lillis trial came up in 2010 things seemed to hit a critical mass. I was blogging the trial at the end of every day’s evidence, as well as live tweeting from court as things happened. I was also writing things up for the Sunday Independent. A book about the case seemed an obvious next step so that’s what I did. The media circus was one of the things that interested me most. There have been certain cases in the past decade that have been newspaper catnip. Editors like nothing better than a good looking corpse. You only have to look at the front pages of certain newspapers today, the ones that have shown the bikini clad image of Reeva Steenkamp, the law graduate, campaigner on behalf of rape campaigners and former model that Olympian Oscar Pistorius is accused of killing. In the case of Celine Crawley the majority of the pieces written about the case carried a picture of her as she was more than twenty years ago, when she was a model who had once had a small part in a Bond film. The woman she had grown into, the successful businesswoman, was often only trotted out when using the “mouse that roared” version of events, that of a henpecked husband who had finally snapped. The Lillis trial was the pinnacle of a trend that had been all too obvious in media coverage of the courts for several years.

Trials that don’t fit into very narrow criteria tend to get ignored. There are plenty of stories that deserve to get covered but won’t be because they concern ordinary people, or people who aren’t Irish, or don’t live in a nice house. And we just accept this because that’s the way it is. So we end up with a skewed version of what’s really out there, the freak shows, the shock values. We stick to this narrow view of life that feeds the net curtain-twitching gossips but the stories that are sordid, or tragic, or depressing just don’t cut it. We want stories we can giggle at over coffee, to ooh and ah at in the pub. The stories that might actually tell us something about the world we live in, a world where life can sometime be depressingly cheap, are ignored.

It’s something that’s been bugging me increasingly for a number of years. The little details that stick with you mount up; foxes gnawing bones, fishes nibbling on flesh, lives snuffed out for no good reason. All the lives ruined, the pointless violence, the sheer stupidity and petulance of too many murderers.  Since my mum died this feeling has grown and stretched until it’s become impassable. There’s just been too much death.

So I’ve made a decision. After almost twenty years I’m getting out of journalism. Years ago, when I was planning on following in my parents’ footsteps and becoming an actor, I eventually decided against it because I knew the pitfalls all too well. There was no idealistic cushion against the hard times I knew damn well would come. I’ve reached that stage with journalism. I’ve always been a news journalist but I’ve been letting my objectivity slip for a while now. I don’t think there’s any getting it back. I thought I’d be a hack till the day I died but not anymore. I find myself dreaming of a job outside the media, away from newsrooms, away from filing copy. I just don’t love it any more and that’s probably the point to say goodbye.

So the long and the short of it is that I won’t be writing about any more trials. I had considered taking down the ones up till now and starting afresh but I’m not going to do that. I’ll also be avoiding commenting on murders that are in the news. I’ll still be blogging, in fact I’ll probably be blogging a lot more from now on, but the focus will shift. I’ll still be working on my latest book as well. Even though I came to the subject through a murder trial the story has most definitely become about the living not the dead. Besides, I’ve no intention of stopping writing – I don’t think I could if I tried. I want to take time to consider what’s next.  I’ve been court reporting for almost seven years, it’ll take time to shift gears. So bear with me and hopefully this’ll be the start of something new.

In Memoriam

 

Blog-grave-image-2

One hundred and sixty years ago today a woman called Maria Louisa Kirwan died on an island. She died at the hands of the man she feared, who she had thought had tried to kill her in the past, the man she was planning to leave. She was 28.

Maria is nothing to me. We share no DNA. In the years since I started this blog I’ve written of many abused, frightened women like her, who like her, met their death by the one who they should be able to trust the most. Her story’s no different from any of theirs, no greater tragedy. But for me this one’s different. It’s personal.

Every morning when I sit down at my desk she’s one of the muses staring back at me, those three photographs from the Kirwan collection I wrote about a week or so ago. When I’m stuck for a word I look up and she meets my glance, the calm gaze of an infatuated 16 year old watching the man she loves sketch her. Twelve years later, give or take, he will kill her. I stare at that hopeful young face each day as I write her, mapping out her brief future. She grows into adulthood in that horrible marriage, makes do because there’s no way out, asks for help but is ultimately ignored. As I write her story I’m with her every step of the way but I’ll also be with him, when the time comes, choking the life out of her. That’s what’s different with this story. I’m not just telling what I see, this time I’m the puppet master. I’ll make her into a real girl but I’ll also kill her.

When you’re writing nonfiction there’s always a line you can’t cross, like a pane of glass through which you can see a life you write about but you can’t touch it. With fiction there’s no pane of glass. You can get right in there and have have a root around. You have to know your characters before you write them, but that always tends to make me feel rather protective.

So on September 6th I remember her, and by proxy all my other characters who lived but aren’t attached to such a conveniently fixed point in time. I might put flowers on her grave, this year I’m planning something a little further afield. It might sound morbid or a bit obsessive but it’s a way of keeping that concrete link with the past. I know that when she died Maria didn’t have much support. Her only brother was over seas, her father dead and her mother and many of her friends jumped to support her husband. She doesn’t even have a gravestone.

So this year, Maria gets the spotlight. A couple of days ago I wrote an Irishwoman’s Diary for the Irish Times about the time Maria met her husband’s mistress. Today there’s a post
on the National Library of Ireland blog about that picture of Maria that sits over my desk (along with the rest of the William Bourke Kirwan paintings in their collection). You might have to wait a while to read my book though as Maria’s story is part of a far longer tale and it’s still being written. But if you’re so inclined today, spare a thought for Maria Kirwan who was killed by her husband on Ireland’s Eye one hundred and sixty years ago today.

A Rustle of Petticoats

Image reproduced thanks to the New York Public Library on Flickr

Image reproduced thanks to the New York Public Library on Flickr

One of the glorious things about writing fiction is that I’m not manacled to the facts. Even though many of the people I’m writing about lived and most of the events that I’m writing about happened I’m free to delve into the spaces between and make them my own. As I wrote in my previous post, the current book, while based on a real case, is most definitely a novel. I might have spent most of the past two years in libraries and archives but the details I’ve found there form a framework on which to hang my own story, my own characters.

Even after so long there are still fragments of research that still need doing but now, at last, I’m down to the novelist’s kind of research, the less tangible things, the abstract. This is where I can cast the net wide to capture the fabric of the world my characters move in.

I’ve been through a similar process with both my previous books, visiting locations to find the details you don’t know until you see them, the things that are the difference between a flat description of anywhere and a living, breathing place but for a novel it’s different, there’s a lot more to see and feel.  If my characters experience something that’s alien to me then I’ll try to close the gap in my knowledge. I admit it, I’m a bit method when it comes to getting into my characters’ heads.

It was in the spirit of this less tangible kind of research that I headed to the Merrion Square Open Day at the weekend. I was in search of a location. William Kirwan and his wife Maria lived close to Merrion Square for most of their married life. Unfortunately, both the house they moved into when they first started to climb the social ladder and the grander premises they were leasing at the time of the murder are long gone. The upstairs drawing room where Maria was struck by her husband in one of their many rows – gone. The coach house through which William tried to make his escape the day the police came to call – gone. The bedroom where one of William’s children lay dying, watched over by Theresa his faithful mistress in the days between that fateful day on Ireland’s Eye and the end of their domestic idyll – all gone. Where the grander house once stood Government Buildings now stands with a different scandalous history all of its own but that doesn’t help my preoccupation at all.

I found my approximation in the wonderful building belonging to the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. Meticulously restored and bursting with architectural detail it was the closest I could get to having a nose around the Kirwans’ house. William and Maria’s house wasn’t as grand perhaps and it certainly didn’t have photocopiers and computers but it was easy to picture it as a bustling home. In the downstairs reception room, now the home to the Society’s impressive library, I could hear the clink of glasses as William sealed a deal with a client. In the corresponding upstairs room, in a lull in the chatter from the constant stream of visitors, there seemed to be a stirring of the dust as if wide skirts had brushed by. Standing in the little yard outside the kitchen looking up at the colourful garden it was easy to imagine yourself with the servants as the master rushed past above, something definitely afoot. Even though it wasn’t these rooms they’d walked through and the faithful hound buried at the bottom of the garden (see the picture at the top of this piece) belonged to somebody else, it felt like stepping into their lives for a moment.

One of the most frustrating things I’m finding about this historical subject matter is the time machine you need to move around the city they knew. I’ve the maps and the plans and the contemporary accounts but over the past few years I’ve been lamenting the loss of their city. I’ve always been aware that Dublin’s past hasn’t always been sensitively tended (Wood Quay anyone?) but researching this book has given me a fresh insight. I’m not a historian or an archaeologist but I love the places where you can feel all of Dublin’s centuries around you, the markets round Smithfield say or the area around Christchurch with its warren of medieval streets. Most of the streets where my characters lived and worked have been obliterated but I’ll always try to get as close as I can. I’ve lived in Dublin for over twenty years, had flats in Georgian terraces, gone to carols in the cathedral, lived and worked in the bustling, ancient-modern mishmash of a city that is Dublin today but this feeling is new. It’s looking to the past beneath the shopping centres where my characters live and breath, like finding Boudicca’s layer in London soil. Frustrating it might be trying to find those traces but it’s one of the most rewarding things about working on this book and a feeling I hope never fades away.

The Siren’s Song

Image by Michael Stamp all rights reserved

Pinned above my desk are the pictures of three women. One is a young bride staring into the face of the man she has just married. One is a little girl marking her place in her book as she pauses to indulge the most important man in her life. The last is the resigned lover, waiting patiently to put her clothes back on whenever he has finished that less than Titanic-romantic life sketch. They are all reacting to the same man. The man who would go on to wreck each of their lives.

I first made their acquaintance almost two years ago and it felt like kismet. I have notes of that first encounter, bristling with excited exclamation marks. The first time I saw their faces I felt a thrill of recognition as I picked out each one. I was familiar with their story but hadn’t yet listened to their voices.  Now they won’t shut up!

Two years ago I had no plans to write a novel. I’d just finished my second book Death on the Hill  and I was looking for another subject. I went into the National Library to look through old cases searching for material, casting the net wide. I searched the library catalogue, putting in random searches and seeing what came up but I knew as soon as I saw it that I’d found something special. If you approached an editor today with a murder case involving a philandering artist who’d bumped off the missus to spend more time with the mistress they’d explode with delight. It’s a story that’s so embedded in the history of Dublin that even for me, a blow-in, there was a flicker of recognition. It’s one of those cases that never stays forgotten for long. It’s been fodder for numerous true crime authors, been turned into a play and was  prominently featured in a rather legendary RTE series back in the 1990s.

It’s mostly known as the Ireland’s Eye murder. It took place 160 years ago this year on the famous island just off the coast of Howth here in Dublin. One evening in September a young woman, 28-year-old Maria Louisa Kirwan, was found dead on the island. The only other person there was her husband, the wealthy artist William Bourke Kirwan. It didn’t take long for suspicion to fall on him, despite Kirwan’s insistence that he had spent the time his wife was dying sketching the sunset. There was a thorough police investigation and a sensational trial. But Kirwan’s conviction didn’t stop the debate and there was so much media and political pressure that his death sentence was reduced to transportation for life.

I’ve covered a fair number of trials of men who’ve killed their partners. I’ve written about many of them on this blog. Men like Joe O’Reilly, Brian Kearney, David Bourke, Anton Mulder, and yes, Eamonn Lillis as well. I’ve heard the excuses, watched the guilty wriggle in the stand. I’ve seen juries struggle to come to a verdict when the weight of taking away another’s liberty hangs heavy on them. I’ve watched the victim become nothing more than a disparate collection of evidence, watched their families try to redress the balance, trying to resuscitate a loved one scattered over a jumble of specimen jars. The first time I read Kirwan’s defence my gut told me he was guilty. The more I read the more he seemed just another spoilt, angry man trying to defend the indefensible and the more the women in his shadow fascinated me.

It soon became clear that to tell their stories I wouldn’t be able to write the book as straight nonfiction. Their history lies in the gaps in the documentary record. They appear as brides, little else. Despite the wealth of information that exists because this was such a very famous case in it’s day I found myself staring at a very narrow view. They were defined according to their relationship to a single event. There was no sense, as there was with all the men involved, that there was a life outside the crime, a full existence off-camera. These were women who lived in a time when to be female meant, for most, a life in the shadows of history, waiting at the corner of the scene, mute until they have to fight for their survival.The suffragettes were a generation away and Mary Wollstonecraft was within living memory. If I wanted to tell the story of the strong, lively, intelligent women staring out from these pictures I’d have to look into those shadows and step right to the edges of the scene.  So I embraced the gaps and started to write a novel.

I’ve written fiction before but after two factual books it’s a joy to take the breaks off. There’s still a lot of research to do, more now that I can look beyond the independently verifiable actually but  now that research is a framework I can hang from like a kid on a climbing frame.

William Bourke Kirwan put down his profession as an “anatomical draughtsman”. In other words he earned a living drawing anatomical illustrations for the medical profession. It was a lucrative profession but he also fancied himself as a miniaturist and portrait artist. He wasn’t actually very good. I know this because the three pictures pinned above my desk are actually his work. They belong to the collection of his work that’s in the National Library collection. It’s a rather odd collection of scraps and half finished doodles along with some rather unconvincing skeletal legs. If this book was nonfiction I’d be able to make educated guesses about what, if anything, was the significance of some of the pictures.

But this book isn’t nonfiction, it’s a novel. I can look at them and put myself in Kirwan’s head, decide what he was thinking when he painted each one, why he painted each one. I look at the faces and I see my characters. It’s their stories I want to tell.

A Womb with a View

 

L'Origine du Monde

Viewing L’Origine du Monde by Gustave Courbet at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris

Last week the Telegraph printed a piece by novelist Amanda Craig pondering whether a woman’s ability to produce offspring was, in fact, the font of perfect understanding of the human condition. The fact that the hook used to sell this rather daft premise was the childlessness of recently deceased author Maeve Binchy took the thing to rather spectacular levels of tactlessness but the argument itself is one that makes me want to bang my head off the keyboard. While I’m not for one moment suggesting that Amanda Craig is representative of all maternal thinking, her argument is one that’s depressingly familiar, and as a woman who’s hit 40 without child-shaped appendages it’s one I’ve heard in various incarnation way too often and every time I hear it it seriously pisses me off.

It’s a big subject but the first and foremost thing is that, as a writer, I don’t see myself particularly as male or female. The writer is a puppet master, inhabiting the head of every character. It doesn’t matter if they’re barren or fertile, male or female, sweet or rotten to the core. It’s my job to understand each one of them, what makes them tick, why they do what they do. Walking in their  shoes, seeing through their eyes is in the job description. Some of the characters will have jobs I’ve done, go to places I’ve been, feel emotions I’ve felt, but everything else is extrapolation. I try to have experienced as much of my characters’ lives as possible but there’s a limit. I’ll never be a man. I’ll never kill someone (I presume). I can think of dozens of things my characters will do that I simply won’t be able to. But that doesn’t mean I won’t know how they feel when they do those things. If I can’t imagine it, then I’ll find someone who’s done it. That’s my job.

It’s the same job for a male writer. The Telegraph piece is only concerned with the female authors who haven’t given birth. The vast body of literature produced by the opposite sex, none of whom have managed to personally drop a sprog, is completely ignored. The piece is written with the assumption that the words written by women exist in a hermetically sealed bubble. That there are men’s books and women’s books and never the ‘twain shall meet. It’s assumed that the fairer sex need their own playing field, that our minds need the same sporting considerations as our bodies. I’ve never fully understood why there always need to be men’s and women’s versions of every sporting event anyway but I’m damn sure that such precautions aren’t necessary when it comes to the intellect. It reminds me of an old theatre anecdote about the old stage actor confronted with a young co-star who favours method acting. The youngster ties himself in knots fully understanding his characters motivation while the old stalwart insists that the only thing necessary is to know your lines and try not to bump into the furniture. It’s acting, not being.

I’ll freely admit to being more than a little method when it comes to understanding my characters but that only goes as far as I need to to understand. I don’t need to live their lives. That way insanity lies.

But apart from underestimating the writer’s skill and insulting the whole of the female sex with the assumption that our words are not equal to men’s Amanda Craig is guilty of the kind of maternal smugness that generally brings me out in a rash. As women we’re told from a very young age that babies are an integral part of the female experience. As little girls we’re given baby dolls to nurture then when we get older we’re told that we will only be a true success when we have found that illusive balance between being a woman and being a mother. In Ireland in particular, with a booming birth rate, there’s little enough debate about women who might not want to have children. We talk ad nauseum about raising a family and there’s huge sympathy with the one in six who will struggle to start the family but you rarely hear from people of either sex who simply prefer to live their lives child free.

In the spirit of full disclosure I didn’t mean to get to this stage in my life without children but that’s the way it’s happened. I do know the pain of not being able to conceive but ultimately felt that I couldn’t face being reduced to a breeding machine in order to have a child. I was scared by baby dolls when I was little. My imagined perfect life never really had a cradle in it. I never really got on with small children. That might have changed and one day I’d like nothing more than to give a home to a child but it never was and never will be the way I define myself. That perfect future that I dreamed up when I was a kid might not have had a cradle but it did have a desk, with a vase of flowers, a steaming mug of coffee and a typewriter. That hasn’t changed.

Back on the Women’s Pages

 

The-Newsroom-poster-HBO

I’ve a definite soft spot for journalism movies. Give me a story about a heroic hack (or a not so heroic one for that matter) and I’ll make the popcorn. The same goes for books and TV and has done since I studied journalism in college. So when it was announced that Aaron Sorkin was writing a new series set in a TV newsroom I got rather excited. I’d devoured the West Wings liberal bed time stories and even loved the short lived Studio 60. The Newsroom was bound to be good.

I should probably point out here that I don’t require my journalism movies to be madly realistic. The more gung ho and idealistic the better – I’m looking for entertainment not realism – but it does need to be recognisable. So I progressed from Lois & Clark to Drop the Dead Donkey via the short-lived Harry, starring Michael Elphick as a washed up Fleet Street hack running a news agency up north.  There was political intrigue in House of Cards,  not to mention Paul Abbott’s genius State of Play and more recently The Hour and that’s just the TV.

In films there’s Mel Gibson before we learned about his unfortunate religious views in The Year of Living Dangerously, All the President’s Men, Good Night and Good Luck, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, Up Close and Personal, His Girl Friday and To Die For to name but a few. And of course Paddy Chayefsky’s utterly brilliant Network. I never cared whether I was watching male or female hacks the hook that always caught me was the drive, the hunger for the story, the determination to get the truth out there. This was something I was sure Aaron Sorkin would provide in bucket loads and so settled down to add The Newsroom to the list.

But there’s a problem.

Several episodes in and I’m still waiting for a female character I can relate to. Actually I’m still waiting for a female character I didn’t want to slap. It’s never really been an issue before. There was never anything in the films and series that I’ve mentioned above that told me as a woman I wasn’t capable of standing shoulder to shoulder with any of the male journalists and chasing that story just the same. In the same way that I wouldn’t assume I was any less capable than any of my male colleagues. There might be differences between the sexes but they don’t tend to extend to news sense and ambition.

So why do I feel when I’m watching the Newsroom that the person talking to me thinks women should be making the tea and writing the women’s pages? It could have something to do with this interview with Sorkin that came out just before The Newsroom launched. But it’s a lot more to do with the character that every female character seems to be a neurotic incompetent who brings her personal life into work and gets distracted by sparkles unless there’s a nice strong dependable bloke to keep her focused.

I’ve been a journalist for more than a decade. I’ve had a lot of female colleagues. I can’t think of one of them that wouldn’t have taken any of the Newsroom drips to one side to tell her to cop the fuck on. It’s a shame because in pretty much every other respect The Newsroom ticks the boxes. It’s nowhere near as sharp as Network, even though I gather Aaron Sorkin is also a fan, but its right-on outrage at the state of journalism is more heartening bedtime story stuff. It’s what he does.

But that’s what makes the Sorkin women so hard to take. Where are the strong female role models, a Martha Gelhorn for every Ed Murrow? Surely in this perfect journalistic world the exceptional women should be standing up with the exceptional men? I would have thought it was a given.

I’ll probably keep watching The Newsroom, for the rest of the first series at least, but it’s not going to be going on my journalist list. I wouldn’t recommend it to any girls or women wanting to follow a career in journalism. They should be told the sky’s the limit, not to wait until a man comes to sort it out. It’s hard enough out there. We don’t need this crap.

After the Apocalypse

Over the weekend I got the chance to see a film that has haunted me for years. I first saw Death Watch, Bertrand Tavernier’s 1980 dystopian look at reality TV, during the Dublin Film Festival in the mid 90s. It’s stuck with me ever since. The story takes place in a world where death has been pushed to the sidelines as medicine cured most of humanity’s ills. This has not led to the utopia one would imagine. There are food shortages, wars, restrictions on travel. A journalist, played by Harvey Keitel has a camera implanted into his brain to bring a personal view of death to a viewing public numbed by modern life. Right down my street – and I hadn’t even started on the current line of work back then.

Seeing the film again after all these years I was struck by how well it fits with the fatalistic sense of an ending that has pervaded the world we live in. It’s not really surprising that Death Watch has been dusted off for a whole new audience. Apocalypses (especially of the zombie variety) are hot right now. The Hunger Games trilogy has spawned a series of films, even a nail polish line, not to mention a whole school of dystopian fiction for teens. The TV schedules are full of Walking Dead and Falling Skies. There’s even an Irish entry to the canon with Conor Horgan’s One Hundred Mornings. The list goes on. I suppose you could even look at the enduring charms of steam punk as tapping into the same obsession – albeit from a rather glamorous and circuitous route.

It’s hardly surprising though. Times of flux suit the dystopian genre. While writers might not need society to break down before they will happily imagine its destruction, dystopias have niche appeal unless things get pretty shitty. I was a child of the 70s. I’ve always got a draw full of candles because I remember getting stuck without them in the brownouts, the depressingly regular power cuts that used to punctuate winter nights. I remember tramping through pitch black streets to friends with a camp stove and surplus night lights. My mum always kept a supply of tins at the back of a cupboard, long after the labels had fallen off and they had become encrusted in mysterious black goo around the rim. She was a war baby and was always prepared.

It’s this boy scout instinct that pricks up it’s ears it hears a dystopian scenario. The bit of us that likes to know that if the worst came to the worst we’d be ok, we’d have that emergency stash, have the resources, the skills to survive. Dystopias answer that fear. They’re reassuring, comforting, and always character driven. We like to see that when the end comes and the dust has settled family will survive, society will rebuild, and we’ll all get to live in idyllic surroundings and grow our own veg.

While dystopias might allow a writer to strip back relationships, to explore their characters in extremis or to look at the logical, if pessimistic end to a current trend or policy, they can offer the reader something considerably more hopeful. At their heart there is always the best of humanity. A spark that refuses to be extinguished. While marauding gangs might terrorise the broken landscape, it will be resourcefulness, compassion and integrity that win out more often than not, a glimmer of hope in the darkest times.

Back when I was a kid, even though the pea green bleakness of the 70s had given way to the florescent brashness of the 80s, there was still terror at every turn. President Reagan was playing Star Wars, women were camping at Greenham Common and there were the nuked white outlines of a family and their dog spray painted on the pavement outside Wimbledon Town Hall. In 1984 a season of nuclear themed television on the BBC scarred a generation with Z for Zachariah and Threads but even here there was still a spark of hope (even if that hope might be in the viewer’s power to prevent the events from ever happening in reality)

I was at a rather impressionable age when I saw that season. When, two years later they showed Raymond Briggs bleakest of bleak love story When the Wind Blows, I was already sleeplessly waiting for death to come in the night.   I don’t think I was the only one. Perhaps that’s why I’ve always had a soft spot for dystopias, and why I’m sure today’s kids will have a similar fondness decades from now.

Tonight’s viewing will be The Quatermass Conclusion but for now I will leave you with the best “You Bastard You’ve Killed Us All” opening sequence of them all.

 

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