Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Publicity (page 1 of 2)

A Question of Taste

I’ve spent a large proportion of my time over the past fortnight talking about the dead.  This is nothing unusual, I’ve worked in the courts for over four years now and tend to be seen as the oracle on all that’s gory for family and friends.  You would not believe the number of people who want to hear about what poisons cause heart failure or the finer details of any of a dozen high profile murders. 

There’s a fascination in this country for the macabre.  We’re fascinated by death, the more violent or tragic the better.  That doesn’t make us a nation of ghouls though, just one with an interest in our fellow man.  It’s normal to be interested in your neighbours – who doesn’t take the opportunity to look into a curtainless window as you walk down the street?  In a  country where the rituals of birth and death still hold such a social resonance we all know that it’s at those moments you see people at their most unguarded – there’s a light on as well as the curtains being open.

For the past fortnight though I haven’t been talking about death in general, it’s been one death in particular.  Not the death of someone I ever met in the flesh, or one that left a hole in my own life but one that I know the tiniest details of nonetheless.

That’s what happens when you cover a murder trial, you get the details – all the details.  That’s why people have always and will always be fascinated in them.  You watch a trial like that and you will find out details that you might not know about your spouse.  The post mortem will tell you each mole and childhood scar, you might not know what that person was like to go for a pint with, say, but you will have more idea of a personality that you could have had in several casual meetings.

It’s a clinical kind of knowledge though, removed, academic.  You will even go away knowing that most private moment that comes to us all, the moment, the ultimate instance of death, the last breath.  A moment that loved ones might have missed will be examined in minute detail in front of strangers.  That’s the reality of the trial process and that’s part of the attraction of this kind of trial.

Of course not all trials attract the same kind of scrutiny and people like me don’t end up writing books about them.  I spent several years working for Ireland International News Agency. It was my job, and is still the job for those who still work there, to provide agency copy for the print and broadcast media on every murder and manslaughter trial before the courts.  Starting off you don’t cover the big trials. 

For every trial that sets editor’s pulses racing there will be a dozen that don’t. Those are the trials that the media don’t bother about, that appear as a side bar on page 11 or 12 of a paper.  The acts of random violence, the young men from disadvantaged backgrounds who settle a disagreement a knife.  The drunken rows, the senseless attacks, the depressing monotony of lives that were blighted before they were properly begun.  These aren’t the trials you gossip about at the water cooler, these are the depressing meat of the criminal justice system, the ones that pass unnoticed.

The public don’t bother going to those trials, the papers don’t bother to cover them.  Life after life is lost in obscurity, amounting to nothing but a violent sordid death.  If the agency reporter doesn’t sit quietly for every day of the trial, filing copy that no one will use unless it’s a really quiet news day, no one will hear the details of that life and death except those directly involved and the lawyers.

No one cares about those trials happening in public. They are a depressing reminder of how cheap life can be and a side of humanity no one wants to hold a mirror before.  But with the big trials it’s different.  There’s something about the story that’s being told that raises it above the ordinary, a whiff of celebrity, a kink of weirdness, a view into a life in some way surprising.

The media cover these trials because the public want to know about them.  It’s these stories I get asked about by friends, family and neighbours.  The one’s that in some way rise up out of the norm and become the stuff of thrillers instead of a grim reminder of the briefness of existence.  The protagonists are often rich, or if not rich at least possessed of some quality that separates them from the hot headed boys who get tanked up and stab their mates.  It’s that factor that provides a distance so we can look at the sordid details as a story, a plot, rather than another human being meeting death before their time.

In recent years the refrain has been that these unusual trials are cropping up too frequently, that the public interest is being pumped by the hungry media and they are being led astray.  I know a lot of people would think that I am also guilty of fanning that particular forest fire with this book, throwing my cap in the ring and exploiting the grief of the bereaved.

Anyone who thinks that is of course entitled to their opinion but it’s one I will take exception to if it’s put to me.  I don’t consider what I do to be voyeuristic and I don’t consider my colleagues to be doing anything other than satisfying a public demand, which is the way newspapers have always worked and always will.  When I write about a trial I’m not doing it to be ghoulish I’m doing it because it’s what I do. 

I’ve always felt that it’s important that trials are written about, that in some way I’m helping with the whole constitutional imperative that justice be done in public, disseminating what goes on in the courtroom, bringing an informed reading to proceedings couched in arcane methodology and convoluted terminology and giving a voice in a way to those that can’t speak for themselves.  I think that the media have a place within the courts and one that should be recognised and respected without accusing us of voyeurism and bad taste.

When I write about a trial I will try to show respect for everyone involved.  For the dead who cannot speak and also those on trial, for the families of both and the witnesses who have to relive the traumatic past.  Everyone I work with does the same.  We might have a feel for a story that sells but that’s part of the business and part of our jobs and it’s not incompatible with respect and compassion.

Of course sometimes, when push comes to shove that balance gets skewed.  There are times when the media scrum seethes forward and shoves us all into an unflattering spotlight.  There are times when the excitement about a story gets out of control and enthusiasm for the job can seem like callousness and poor taste.  It’s hard to explain news sense to someone who’s never had to find a story but it’s ingrained in most journos and can sometimes make us lose the head a bit but does not make us bad human beings.

Even in the heel of the hunt we don’t forget that we are dealing with death, that there are grieving family members and traumatised witnesses.  It’s just that our job is not to wrap them in cotton wool – it’s to tell the story as it unfolds.  All I can do when I talk about the deaths I’ve seen dissected is to talk about them with compassion, it’s got nothing to do with taste. 

A Matter of Convention

I’m still whizzing round on the publicity merry-go-round for the new book this week.  Today started off with back to back interviews and a reminder that even when you’ve a few interviews under your belt at a time like this you can still get that curve ball thrown at you when you least expect it.

My second interview of the morning was with Declan Meade on the Morning Show on East Coast FM.  I’d been in to talk to Declan when Devil came out so it was nice to be back.  at the end of the interview he asked me a question that had honestly never occurred to me before (an achievement since I’ve been eating, breathing and sleeping this book since the trial in January). Why, he asked me, had I referred in the book to Celine Cawley as “Celine” while referring to Eamonn Lillis as “Lillis”.

When you write a true crime book there are a lot of things to take into consideration.  Quite apart from the fact you have to make sure you get the legal end of things absolutely right and double, and triple check all the factual details there are other, more subtle considerations.  The language you use must be evocative but you’re not writing a work of fiction, it’s a record of an event, a tragic event that has traumatised all those touched by it and that has to be taken into account.

One of the most basic things that you have to decide on are what to refer to the principal characters as.  In a court report of an ongoing trial there are conventions that you tend to stick to.  Witnesses, the deceased and the accused are all referred to by their surname with the appropriate title before hand.  Sometimes, to avoid confusion, say if numerous members of the same family are giving evidence you might resort to first names for clarity but for the most part its the formal title followed by surname.

When you’re writing a book or even a more fluid kind of article this form of address doesn’t always work.  It can sound clunky and artificial.  So you’re left with a choice.  Do you use first names or surnames.  Forenames can sound overly familiar but can feel like a natural choice when you’re talking about the victim, someone to be viewed with sympathy and compassion whose place in the story is to have a tragic ending.

For the convicted however it’s the flip side.  Once they’re marked a killer by the decision of a jury they often lose their title, to be referred to ever after by their surname only.  Referring to them by their first name just wouldn’t sound right, so they become the surname with an extra dose of ignominy.

It’s not a hard and fast rule of course.  It can depend on the house style of the publisher or publication you’re writing for, sometimes everyone gets the surname approach although it’s generally not the other way around.

When I was asked the question I wondered briefly was I actually calling Celine Cawley by her first name because she was a woman. I know that when I was writing Devil and when I’ve written about both cases on this blog it’s been first names all the way.  I don’t think it’s as simple as that though.  I frequently refer to people who’ve played principal parts in the trials I’ve covered by their first names, mainly because I write in a more informal style here and it just sounds better.

There might be an element as well of the fact that when I’m writing about a case in depth it’s very hard not to develop a distance from the subject as you chisel the words into shape.  I know when I’ve written true crime I think about the people and situations I’m describing in much the same way I would think about characters and plots when I write fiction.  I’m aware that I’m talking about real events but to shape them into book form I need to treat them in the same way I would the raw material for any other kind of book.

It was a question that really got me thinking – always great when that happens.  I’d love to hear what you think on the subject, weigh in with your own thoughts please – I’m perhaps too close to the subject by now and can’t see the wood from the trees.

In the Spotlight

Death on the Hill hit the shops this week.  To coincide with this I’ve been hitting the publicity trail.  The last week has passed in a blur of corridors and studios and next week promises to be no different.  It’s a necessary part of bringing out a book but it’s one of the more surreal parts of the job.

As a journalist I’ve been in a fair few studios over the years.  I started out working in radio and it’s great to get the chance to be sitting in front of a mic again albeit on the other side of the desk.  It’s strange to be answering questions rather than asking them and being an item on the running order, a part of the story.

It’s very different from the daily business of court reporting.  Taking notes, checking facts, always on watch to catch the smallest detail that will make the picture that you paint at the end of the day all the more vivid.  It’s quite a passive line of work, an observer not a contributor.  Definitely not a position that tends to land in the spotlight.

Of course when you write a book it’s a different matter entirely.  You’re no longer simply a story in the paper, waiting for tomorrow’s chips.  You’ve pinned your colours to the mast and embarked on a project that involves, of necessity, some hard sell.  Suddenly you’re flashing a smile and plugging away and getting ever more removed from the violent facts that you’re recounting.

Covering murder is an odd business.  When you do the job for any length of time you develop armour so that the gory details slide off you like drops off an umbrella.  You become flippant when faced with brutality, treating each tragedy lightly because it’ll only be followed by another.  That’s not that you don’t have compassion, just that it get’s rationed, metered in the face of relentless details that bleed into one another as trial follows trial follows trial.

The details of each successive trial settle on each other until your brain is clogged by the fallen details of dozens of deaths, dozens of post mortems.  You learn to leave the job at the end of the day and put aside the details and the pain of the victims and their families but your sense of humour gets a blackened edge and gallows laugh.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my job – well love is probably the wrong term, but it’s what I do and the work suits me. But when you’re selling a book it tends to come home that while you are happy to have a book with your name on it you’re also constantly retelling somebody else’s personal tragedy with each bright and breezy interview.  It’s more than a little surreal.

All you can do is try to keep the balance.  A balance between the book I’ve written, telling a story as a writer and a journalist, and the dark, tragic truth at the centre of it.  It’s the nature of this kind of book.  Most of the time I don’t navel gaze but when I find myself sitting in another corridor waiting to go on air to do another interview it can get a little introspective.  Tomorrow starts with two such corridors.  You have been warned.

Good Days and Bad Days

There will always be days when the sun shines, the writing flows and the opportunities arrive in packs but there will also be days when the wind howls and the world seems topplingly precarious and nothing will work.

Yesterday was one of the second kind of days.  Nothing went right or felt right and everything seemed impossible.  Today on the other hand the sun was splitting the sky (especially welcome after so much snow and sludge) and the possibilities seemed endless.

I pitched a story successfully, got some editing done on the novel and heard from two old friends.  All is good.

That of course is the nature of this business.  It’s particularly easy to have the down days at the moment.  The Mean Reds are tempted into view with every news report and further news of cuts throughout the global publishing industry (like today’s news of sweeping cuts in Harper Collins) makes it hard to be optimistic as a first time author.

But even when the world isn’t in the throws of a massive recession writing, even freelance journalism, isn’t the steadiest of jobs.  I knew that when I got into it and most of the time it doesn’t really bother me.  I’m used to days of feast and famine.

You just have to trust that days like today will come along and make the whole thing worthwhile.  I’m aware though that in a blog like this one, under my own name and readable by anyone who comes across it online, that pouring forth anytime things seem a bit black probably isn’t the best idea.

I want to be honest in this blog and give a fair idea of what life is like writing for a living at the bottom end of the scale but now I’ve got to this stage it’s all got a bit more complicated.

It was one thing sounding off in the days when I had a nice anonymous blog but when people come here to find out about trials I’ve covered, or the book or even, on occasion, me, ranting about issues I may have with the business side of things is perhaps not quite the thing.

While I want to give a warts and all impression because I know that somehow, when Devil was published I magically became an author rather than one of the ranks of the unpublished.  That doesn’t mean I’ll never again see the inside of a slush pile but it certainly seems to be a step in the right direction.

Before I had any dealings with publishers I would trawl the net to find out everything I could about that closed shop.  I’ve linked to a couple of the best publishing blogs in my blogroll but over time I will be expanding that list.  I always intended that when I was finally published I would keep up a very honest blog to help the people who looked like I did (and still do to be honest – things are changing so much out there daily reading is essential).

The problem is that I know have a book to sell.  That means that all the things I’ve discovered that would serve as salutary tales for those dreaming of getting into print suddenly become a pr minefield when you know that among those dropping into read are colleagues and the competition.

While I want to be honest I also want to sell the book so the stuff that happens on the bad days isn’t necessarily the stuff that will find it’s way here – in the short term at least.

There will always be good days and bad days but until I’m a little more established on the writing end of things the bad days will have to stay in the diary and this will have to be a good day blog (most of the time anyway).

A little bit of housekeeping…

I’ll post properly later on but I wanted to post the interview I did for Devil in the Red Dress on John Cooke’s show on Clare FM back at the beginning of December that I was ranting about yesterday.  I was totally befuddled with a cold at the time and then got overtaken by the festive mayhem and since New Years I’ve been confounded at every turn by gaps in my knowledge of all things Internet.

I’ve been trying to upload it for days now, ever since we had the post festive clear out, and yesterday it had me driven to distraction but finally everything is talking to everything else and we’re cooking with gas.

For the record the combination that worked the charm was Total Recorder for the encoding (I bought it ages ago for recording streamed radio interviews but stupidly didn’t realise it’s also quite a nifty MP3 encoder) then a fair amount of fumbling with WordPress 2.7’s new interface and working out which plug ins were messing the whole this up (never did work out exactly which I will post when I find out).

I also used Cool Edit Pro to top and tail it.  I’m not going to link to that since it’s a really old programme I’ve had ever since I used to work in radio many years ago and it’s not even supposed to work with XP.  The programme was bought by Adobe and now costs lots.  I like it though.  It works for me and I;m familiar with the interface and can use it to top and tail and normalize with no hassle.

Anyway back to the interview. It’s not a great recording, the husband thoughfully did it for me from home but I had all the sound recording software with me on my laptop so a rather precarious network of Y cables linking the computer to my Zoom,  not the most elegant set up but it’s audible.

I sound rather like a cross between a frog and Marlene Dietrich due to the cold but I’ll leave you to decide for yourselves.

Enough procrastinating… here it is…

 


 

Fame at Last!

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery…well I’m not sure what they say about pastiches.  The current issue of The Phoenix (Ireland’s satirical magazine) has used a mock up of the cover of Devil in the Red Dress to poke fun of the Irish Times.

The Paper in the Red Mess - The Phoenix sends up Devil

The Paper in the Red Mess – The Phoenix sends up Devil

OK a direct plug would have been nicer but hell, any publicity no matter how oblique has to be a good thing.  I’m glad the title was suitably twistable!

Speaking of publicity, I’ve now got a full cast for my book trailer and I’m aiming to have it online before next week.  Thanks to my incredibly talented friends Natascha and Mercedes who worked wonders with a needle and thread and created costumes that look better than I had ever dreamed.

Anyone who has followed my Twitter feed will know I’ve been on the look out for smoking monkeys (of the ceramic kind, no animal welfare issues here) and I am pleased to report that I now have two of the little beauties the purpose of which will become clear once I post the finished trailer.

On a totally unrelated topic I was very sad to read yesterday that Oliver Postgate, the man behind such children’s TV classics as Bagpuss and the Clangers (classic if you grew up in the UK in the 70s as I did) has died.

I think at this stage most of the children we know have been given the DVDs of these wonderful shows.  They were magical programmes and have stood up to the test of time as well as any.

I’d like to finish this post with the final episode of the Clangers (a show I never really got as a kid and couldn’t understand why my mum loved it so much, I get it now.)  I think this is one of the most beautiful pieces of animation for children I have ever seen and it’s a fitting tribute to the man who told so many stories that touched so many children.

Back From the West…

I got back from Ennis yesterday.  It was a pretty quick turn around just long enough for another round of signings and an interview with John Cooke on Clare FM.  I’ll post the interview when I get the chance.

I stayed the night with the sister of an old friend, who’s now a new friend and her lovely daughter Rachel.  It was a great night, just good food, nice wine and interesting conversation.  8-year-old Rachel paid me a massive compliment, using the presence of a real life author in the house (by which she meant me) as an excuse to stay up late.

It really made me think, talking to her about writing.  She writes stories herself and I was telling her how I had done the same when I was her age, in fact I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer.  I may have been a journalist for a decade but it’s only now I can really call myself a writer as well.

I’ve spent so long, over the years of being an aspiring writer, reading interviews with published authors talking about how they were always writing stories as children and knowing I had done the same gave me hope.  Seeing the same hope on Rachel’s face was a weird feeling, knowing that somehow over the last couple of months I’ve gone from aspiring to actual writer.

Now granted, Devil in the Red Dress is not a novel.  It might tell a fantastic story but it is one hundred per cent true.  But a story like that is easy to tell and I’ve tried to make the book the lively read it should be.  It’ll be a while yet before I turn to fiction although it’s something I have been interested in for a while.

My apologies if this post is completely all over the place.  I’ve had a raging cold for the last few days and my brain is still in a bit of a heap.  Hopefully normal service will be resumed in the next couple of days.  I’m getting a bit fed up with coughing and sniffling my way around and anyway, there’s work to be done!

Christmas Windows and Travel Plans…

I’m off to Ennis tomorrow as part of the Devil in the Red Dress push…more book signing and interviews in a quick round trip.  Last time I was there I was researching the book, this time it’s published and on the shelves.

There’s less pressure this time round but it’s still a busy enough schedule…why the train trip needs two changes I will never understand!  Plenty of people want to go to Ennis, why do they make it so awkward to get there?

Still I’m looking forward to it.  It’s a pretty little town, not to mention the fact it’s the setting for my action…I’m also taking the opportunity to catch up with some friends so it’ll be fun.

In between interviews this week I’ve been trying to make some headway into the whole Christmas palaver.  The Christmas windows have been up for the last couple of weeks and as usual they’re light years away from the fairytale visions that used to make a trip in to go Christmas shopping so much fun years ago.  It’s something that bugs me every year.

Back then you could go and look at the windows for Brown Thomas, Clerys or the Daddy of them all, Switzers and see moving puppets telling a Christmas story.  These days it’s all about making a stylish buck.  The shop owners won’t give the hard sell a rest for a couple of weeks during a season when people will always go shopping regardless.

It all changed several years ago when Switzers closed down and Brown Thomas took over.  The Switzers window used to be famous.  It would be unveiled without much pomp at around the same time as the Christmas lights went up on Grafton Street.

First look would always be at night.  I can remember stopping on my way home from a night out when I was in my twenties and the window was there in all it’s glory.  There were a few of us there and we all stopped and listened to the Christmas tunes belting out across the icy street and walked slowly along the length of the shop watching the animated story unfold in each successive window.

There were dozens of people there by the time we got to the last window.  Everyone was smiling and talking and laughing and it was suddenly just that little bit closer to Christmas and a little bit of cynicism had melted away.

Those days are long gone now though.  In these times of economic uncertainty I notice that even the more ornate displays carry price tags (once banished for the festive period).  Arnotts on Henry St has probably made the best effort with a miniature city glowing around the designer clad dummies.

Brown Thomas, where the Switzers windows used to be is this  year just a celebration of consumerism.  Maybe I’m being needlessly nostalgic but I think it’s sad that those windows are consigned to an Ireland long gone.  The Celtic Tiger has died or is at least in serious decline, it would have been nice to see shop owners do something just for the fun of it…something to make the kids happy and make it seem a little more like Christmas.

A gesture like that might even encourage more people into their shops than dangling shiny goods in front of their noses that will just put more strain on the credit card.

Now ok, this Christmas I’d rather people concentrated on buying books (I have a vested interest after all) but I miss the Christmas windows and I’d like to see them back!  Who’s with me?

An Interesting Conversation

I had an interesting conversation last night.  I had been out with friends at the Mont Clare Hotel on Merrion Square in Dublin but had to do a radio interview with Near FM. The folks at reception very kindly allowed me to take the call at the porters desk and everything went off swimmingly.

I was talking for around half an hour…I don’t think I let Pat, the presenter much of a look in, but Devil got a good plug.

It was only afterwards when I got talking to the girl on reception that another trial I have talked about here came up.  No matter what I talk about, the Finn Colclough trial keeps coming back into the frame.

Anyway it turned out that she had known the victim in that trial, Sean Nolan.  Obviously covering a high profile trial where there are a lot of press, there’s not really an opportunity to talk to the people involved…not that they’d want to anyway while the trial is going on.

We were talking about the trial and the eventual manslaughter verdict.  It was interesting to talk to someone with a personal involvement.  It’s easy to be too glib about these things when you cover them as a news story.  If we didn’t have the remove we wouldn’t be able to do our jobs but it does mean you can have too much of a remove sometimes.

I can totally understand how hard it was for the Nolan family to accept the manslaughter verdict.  Even if I might think myself that, given the evidence in the trial it was probably the only verdict the jury were likely to return, for them it’s never going to be any less raw than it was the day they heard the news.

I can’t imagine how any mother could deal with the loss that Charlotte Nolan has had to deal with, the loss of her younger son on the night he finished secondary school.  That’s something you can never forget and that will never get any easier to come to terms with.

It’s always interesting to meet someone who’s been personally touched by a story I’ve written about. Because no matter how much I might empathise, no matter how much compassion I might have the the victim or the accused, I’m always going to be at a remove, standing on the outside of the case observing it as it unfolds.

That’s just the nature of the job, but I can understand that others see the remove as unnatural or perverse in some way.  I might want to understand, to feel something to understand it better, but that will always be from a writer’s point of view and that means being on the outside.

I can see by the number of people who read my coverage of the Colclough trial, how raw a nerve this trial has struck.  It’s understandable, even if I might sometimes wish that more came looking for the book than for Finn Colclough and Sean Nolan.  There was something about that trial that made it different, it’s rare to see such a stark tragedy even amongst the daily litany of tragedies that makes up the day to day business of the Central Criminal Court.

I’m not sure how much I’ll be blogging next week.  I’m off down to Ennis again at the start of the week and I might be out of coverage.  More signings and interviews though…the book needs to be sold!

Just a Quick One Tonight…

I don’t have long to write here this evening so I’ll keep this brief.  I’m due to be on the Book Show on Near FM this evening via a phone link.  It’s nice to be able to do an interview with a community station.

I worked with Anna Livia FM for years while I was in college and it was fantastic experience.  While I was there I had opportunities to interview all kinds of people and cover all kinds of events.  I even got to go to the Eurovision Song Contest the last time it was in Ireland (back in the days…)

Anyway it’s nice covering all the bases.

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