Writer and Author

Category: Writing (Page 2 of 12)

Extracting the Michael

I’ve had a lot of fairly random jobs over the years. I’ve done the bar work, the secretarial, worked on market stalls and, of course, have plied my trade as a freelance journalist. Most of these jobs were the kind you do for the money, rather than in any hope of a lasting, fulfilling career. In my younger days I firmly subscribed to the philosophy that a job was something to pay the rent but it would never take the place of what I saw as a vocation – the pursuit of art. This pursuit, I told myself should be kept pure, unsullied by pecuniary concerns (I must have been pretty insufferable in my teens and twenties).

Back then – this would have been in the days before tiger economies, back when most people probably thought that prosecco was some kind of weird fungus – my friends and I would joke about the wage slaves we saw droning away around us. We were living la belle vie bohemiene. To take a job that would tie you to an office for the next forty years was anathema. When someone started talking about sitting the civil service exam we would shake our heads sadly. It could only ever be selling out.

One by one we grew up. The guys cut their hair, the girls started to wear high heels and skirt suits. A few did sit that exam. Some were accepted. The rest of us discovered that a vocation really needs to earn its way in the real world. We made compromises, discovered that coffee could be served many different ways and that prosecco was cheap enough to celebrate life’s smaller victories. Those of us who never sat those exams grumbled about not getting time off when we needed it, the cost of work clothes and pensions, how being on your feet all day was ruinously hard on shoes. At one stage or another we lost jobs suddenly, without warning, or had to hold down two or three different gigs to see all the bills paid. We lamented toothless or nonexistent unions. Looked on mortgages as an impossible dream.

Back in my temping days I worked in both the public and the private sector. I’ve seen how it works in banks and stockbrokers and I’ve seen how it works in government committees, semi states and hospitals. It was very illuminating. It was common knowledge that if you wanted the cushy life you held out for a public sector job. It was worth it for the holidays and the allowances alone. As the years went by I stopped looking at those who’d sat the exams as sell outs but as cute hoors who’d jumped onto the gravy train before the door was slammed.

Over the past week or so there’s been a lot of talk about public service allowances. When Brendan Howlin, the minister with responsibility for public service reform, announced that he had been unable to make the necessary cuts in these allowances people started looking at exactly what was being talked about. If you’re interested the full list is here. I’ve worked in private companies that have won awards for how they treat their staff but none of them offered to buy me lingerie. There might have been massages laid on on a Friday (at €5 for 15 minutes) but you didn’t get paid any extra for answering the phone. In fact, reception gigs were ones I used to pass on since the hourly rate was usually less than I’d earn standing in for a PA. I’ve spent days binding, photocopying and filing and no one upped my wages – it was what I was being paid for in the first place.

Whenever there’s a discussion about the Croke Park agreement or public sector pay, someone will wave the flag of the poor put-upon gardai, or teachers or nurses. This means there’s never a proper discussion about the culture of entitlement that exists across the board in the public service. I had the dubious fortune of starting to work in a hospital while the private clerical staff were on a go-slow over some problem with benchmarking. It was hard to tell they were on a go slow though because there were so many of us temps covering lengthy holidays that things were stuck at a pretty slow pace anyway. But every coffee break  there would be talk of unions and hard line tactics if the government didn’t play ball. I pointed out one day that the pay we were on was above anything I’d got working at a similar level in the corporate world. I got looked at with blank incomprehension and was told to shut up.

I get that the workplace benefits in a lot of these public sector jobs are the result of lengthy wrangling from the unions and those victories were keenly felt and seen as totally justifiable but that’s the view from inside the bubble. The cold hard fact is that those of us in the private sector might dream of those kind of workplace perks but we’d be laughed out of it if we suggested anything similar to bosses. The sad fact is that private sector workers, where the jobs are less certain and the wages are lower, do not even have the protection of strong unions to fight their corner. The unions are strong in the public sector. Hence the wonderful hard-won allowances.

I’m simplifying things a little. There are hard, badly paid public sector jobs and there are very comfortable, well paid private sector ones but there’s a reason why we used to be told to get a public service job if we could. It’s a job for life with damned good perks and that’s what it’s always been about. The workplace might be scruffier and the computers might be older but for time off, work life balance, a job for life that’ll make getting a mortgage a hell of a lot easier than any freelance proposition, the gravy train is still chugging on. I’ll concede that some of those contentious allowances date from a time long before benchmarking when every penny needed to be fought for just as hard as we are familiar with in the private sector but those dark days have come again and it’s time to be realistic.

We still view the world here in Ireland through the tinted lenses of the long dead tiger. Too many people still think that having to get their fizz from Lidl rather than Fallon & Byrnes is the bottom line. The standard of living is still pretty good. If you’re old, enough think back to the 80s or even the early 90s. It was all a lot more seat of the pants. There’s a hell of a lot further we could fall if the going gets tough enough. Many people have already found that out. It simply isn’t fair if one section of society is enjoying a security that no one else can hope for. It’s even worse that they take it so much for granted that they deny it’s the case at all. It’s going to have to change and when it does it won’t be an attack on the poor beleaguered public servants, it’ll be yet another of these horrible cuts we’ve seen so many of. It’ll be a sad thing that future generations won’t have the chance of an exam that can give a lifetime of security even if the job might not be the most fascinating. It’ll be one of those things that get consigned to history and mourned. One of the casualties of this modern messed up world. But denying there needs to be a change, and hanging on for grim death is taking the rest of us for idiots and it’s going to have to stop.

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.

It Really Isn’t the End of the World

It’s that time of year again. Tomorrow the Leaving Cert results will be out and the media attention will turn to the horrors of teenage drinking. It’ll be a great day for some, for those who get confirmation that all that hard work was worth it, who can properly start looking forward to starting college. Some of them will even get their pictures in the paper, brandishing the results that will get them where they want to go. Well done them – but they’re not the ones I’ve been thinking of today, and who I’ll be thinking of tomorrow.

If study comes easy to you congratulations! If school was somewhere you enjoyed, I’m happy for you. If life goes smoothly for you for each step along the way, then you live a blessed life indeed. But for those who look at their results tomorrow and don’t see the grades they hoped for, hang in there. It really, truly isn’t the end of the world.

I remember the day my Leaving results came out vividly. I was working on a genealogy project in Sligo that summer. It was a FAS course run out of the local museum. There were three of us due to get our results that day. None of us particularly wanted to get them. We were given a half day and at lunchtime we all set off together, splitting up to walk down to our own schools. This was in the days before Internet so there was no soft landing. I remember going and picking up that ominous brown envelope and not opening it. All my school friends were in little huddles, jumping up and down and shrieking, passing the printout with the results around and screaming their delight.

I had a slightly more than sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t going to see the letters that would get me into my first choice of college course. I had hated school and hadn’t yet learnt how to block out all that extraneous shit that tends to clutter up a teenage life to focus on the task in hand. I blamed myself for getting flustered, blamed myself for forgetting details I’d repeated until they lost all meaning. I blamed myself for not having a life I could sail through peacefully, that wouldn’t get in the way. I knew that, by my standards I’d let myself down, my family, the hopes my father would have had for me when he was alive. I knew that I’d messed up and I didn’t know how to deal with it. There had never really been anything to mess up before.

All that ran through my mind before I even opened my results. When I found somewhere quiet and actually opened the envelope the results weren’t actually as bad as I’d feared, but there was no escaping the truth. What I had got was unlikely to get me into any of the courses I’d applied to. It was back to the drawing board. I’d always been brought up to think that college was the natural next step after secondary school. I hadn’t had a Plan B.

Over the next days and weeks I tried to ignore the situation. When the CAO offers came out, what I already knew was confirmed. I didn’t have the points to go anywhere I had applied. I had always assumed I was a bright kid. I had never imagined being in this situation.

It put rather a crimp on the rest of the summer. Most of my class were moving away to go to college around the country. I was going to be left behind. Thank god for that FAS course! Most of the others on the course were a few years past Leaving Cert. They helped me find the perspective that life would eventually settle down to continue just as it had before. That this devastating news was not the end of the world. In those days I used to hitch to and from work (yes, it was a different world back in the early 90s). There was one guy who used to give me a lift on a regular basis who really talked sense. He was from Manchester and ran his own haulage company. He told me how he’d left school at 16 and had never looked back. I had no wish to start a haulage company, I couldn’t even drive, but again here was someone showing me that exams aren’t the be all and end all that we are told they are at school.

All I had ever wanted was to be a writer. I assumed that the only way I could do that was by doing a degree in English literature, or my first choice – joint honours in theatre studies and the classics in Trinity (my choices hadn’t been madly practical). Over the next month or so after a hell of a lot of repetition it finally began to sink in. There are other ways to go about things.

Eventually I realised that I still had control over my own future. I moved to Dublin and looked for an alternative way in. My first flat was above Brogan’s pub on Dame Street. I could see Trinity College if I leaned out of my bedroom window far enough. It still felt like a rebuke.  No one else in the building was in college. A lot of them were either drop outs or had been in the same situation as me. We used to laugh at the students – but I always envied them more than a bit.

Bit by bit I found alternative ways in. I did volunteered in community radio stations, wrote for strange short lived magazines, talked about what I was going to do an awful lot. For a long time it seemed like nothing was going anywhere and I was stuck with the consequences of a mistake I hadn’t fully understood I was making. But eventually another opportunity did arise. I won a place on an NVQ in Journalism in the Belfast of Further and Higher Education. That NVQ eventually got me onto a degree course in Journalism at the DIT. I graduated in 2000. Ten years after those disappointing Leaving Cert results.

It might have taken a long time, there were plenty of times when it seemed like an impossible task but in the end I’m glad things happened the way they did. Those lost years between my stints in education taught me so much. I learned not to give up. I learned to look for a way round. I learned that sometimes you have to do whatever it takes to get where you want. I get frustrated sometimes about the late start but I also know that I wouldn’t be the writer I am now without those experiences. Over the years I’ve got to know many people who had an interrupted education. There was a good reason in every case and in every case it wasn’t the end of the world. Two of them are now studying for PhDs, others have successful businesses, happy families. A couple of us have written books.

So if you get your Leaving results tomorrow and they aren’t what you hoped, or if you know someone who’s in that situation, IT’S NOT THE END OF THE WORLD. Take time to let the dust settle, take a deep breath and look for the other way round. It’ll be there somewhere.

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.

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.

 

Pages of Dreams

I remember getting my first copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook back in the mid 90s. At that stage I hadn’t completed a book. I’d started several, in notebooks after notebook. Writing was something I’d always done. I was by this stage, in my own estimation, pretty damn good at beginnings and was definitely getting the hang of middles.  The endings would follow when they were ready. So one day, in an optimistic frame of mind, I went into Hodges & Figgis next time I was in town and got a copy of the Yearbook.

I read it from cover to cover. All the articles, all the addresses, lapping up all the nuggets of proper professional advice that used to be harder to come by in those pre-web days. Then I put it on the shelf and got back to not finishing my book.

Since then I’ve learnt how to write endings. But I still have the Writers’ and Artists’ on the shelf. Actually the collection has grown somewhat. Over the last couple of years I’ve started to collect old copies as I’ve found them. They don’t turn up very often these volumes of obsolete information, but I’ve managed to find four.

 

Writers and Artists Yearbook

My collection of Writers and Artists Yearbooks

The first one I found was an American Writers’ Market from 1969. It was sitting under a pile of books in the St Vincent de Paul charity shop in Phibsboro. On the inside of the cover, censored by one of the volunteers wielding a black marker pen, it says “To Lauren, from Uncle Charlie”. Marking a page of poetry publishers is a book mark advertising the Valley Symphony in Los Angeles, season of 1980 into ‘81. I’ve always liked to think that Lauren made it as a writer and this book ended up in a charity shop after a long and happy life, ending in a contented retirement in Ireland. Opposite the inscription, Lauren has made notes in pencil. Page references to how to lay out a manuscript, an article on book length and, on page 483 her chosen publisher The American West Publishing Company. This seems to be the only publisher she was aiming for. She’s also marked the magazines that take submissions on animals and history and those with more general subject matter. She was obviously young, her other interest is the magazine’s aimed at teens.

Or take the rather tatty copy of the W & A from 1964 I found most recently. It’s not in the photo as it didn’t come with a dust jacket and it’s certainly well thumbed. There’s no name on this one but I have a feeling it’s owner was male. He’s been through it with a biro, marking his targets with enthusiastic strokes. There is a particularly bold line, appropriately enough, by Blackfriars magazine, the publication for the English Dominican order. The listing says they pay 2 and six for articles that would fit into “a critical review, surveying the field of theology, philosophy, sociology and the arts, from a standpoint of Christian principles and their application to the problems of the modern world. Length 2000 –3000 words.” He’s also marked The Dubliner, Encounter, a London based magazine that paid £8 per 1000 words of reportage, stories or poems, and Poetry Review. Casting his net wider he’s also expressed his interest in Clubs magazine which looked at “all aspects of the work and development of youth clubs” and Service Station, the monthly trade magazine of the service station industry.

The earliest book I have is the 1953 UK edition of the Writer’s Market. It’s the blue one in the picture. A neat, blue inked signature inside the cover proclaims the book the property of M.C. Watson. Miss Watson (and I’ll explain how I know it’s Miss in a minute) was not one for drawing on her books. Even the blank pages the publishers have thoughtfully left for notes are pristine. However nestled inside the pages is a letter from Chambers’s Journal thanking Miss Watson (there you go) for her story A Power of Mushrooms. “We were glad to see this story from you, but on the whole it did not seem quite so suitable for our purpose as usual.” Actually, as rejection letters go it’s rather a sweet one but I can’t help but wonder about it’s place between the pages and the pristine state of the rest of the book. I know it’s being sentimental but it was the rejection letter that made me buy the book, thus creating a collection of two. Miss Watson’s writing was obviously rather more than aspirational. If by some fluke anyone’s reading this who knows, knew her. I’d love to find out what became of her. I know from the letter she was from Bray in County Wicklow in 1954 if that helps to job anyone’s memory.

The fourth book is the 1955 Writers’ & Artists’ sitting on the top in the picture. This is the only one that doesn’t really give a clue about it’s previous owner. There’s a tightness about the binding that suggests it’s never really been opened and the front and back of the dust jacket still have the slight nap they would have had when new, unlike the edges of the spine, which have developed a shine from being sandwiched between more popular books. There’s something rather melancholy about a book like this that appears never to have been opened. A dream that never really got off the ground. I bought it principally from the ads. Free-lance Report is inside the front cover “published entirely in the interests of free-lances” Among the glowing testimonies is one from “a vicar in the north” “I am writing in haste…but I desire to say how much I have gained from the F-L R. It has put many pounds in my pocket.” I’d love to know what he was rushing off to but the F-L R does not divulge. It’s fascinating looking at publishing in days gone by. The familiar names, the legendary ones and those lost to history like Browne & Nolan ltd, the academic publishers on Nassau Street in Dublin. There’s a whole other post in then and now but that can wait.

As with most of the things I collect (including fountain pens and housewife manuals) I’m interested most in the story behind the object. Who owned them before. What were their hopes, dreams and fears? With the writer’s manuals these dreams are laid bare and are at once unique and familiar. I’ll keep collecting as long as I keep finding them. And I’ll always wonder about how they came to be given away.

The Flow of the Narrative

I was watching The Last Seduction with the Husband last night. It’s one of my favourite films.  Afterwards we were jokingly wondering if this might have been the film that gave Sharon Collins the idea for her ill-judged bit of online retail.  It’s doubtful. The similarities between fact and fiction are slim, to say the least, but it’s a joke we always make. After all, if Sharon had simply been one of my characters then she probably would have been influenced by one of my favourite films, I could have made her influenced by anything I wanted.

It might seem like an obvious distinction between fiction and non-fiction but it’s one that it’s all too easy to blur in the writing. Writing a book is completely different from writing a piece for a newspaper or a post for this blog about the trial while it’s going on. It’s an opportunity to stand back and look at how the story flows, to find the rhythm at it’s heart. It doesn’t feel any different telling a true story or making one up once I get down to writing. The research and planning stages might be different but once the story starts to pick up speed it’s always a question of following the narrative flow. It’s the same with characters. Whether I’m replaying in memory words and actions I know happened, that have been proved in front of a court of law, or allowing the characters to block out their own movements in the theatre of my imagination, it all comes out much the same.

I’ve remarked here before about how strange it feels seeing “characters” in the flesh when a case comes back to court. Something happens when you’ve spent weeks in front of the screen with a subject. In a way it becomes part of you, as do the dramatis personae.  You can get rather possessive. With recent cases the problem’s academic. They’re live stories that will continue to develop outside the scope of my book. But today I’m more concerned with the flow of the story itself.

Why does it seem amusing that Sharon Collins might have been influenced by The Last Seduction? Because it works with the story. It underlines her mixed attempts to be a real life femme fatale by contrasting with a great fictional example.  When I was writing Devil in the Red Dress I used to listen to the Last Seduction soundtrack (a great noirish jazz affair) and my movie viewing tended to revolve around Bogart and Bacall or the Coen Brothers. While I couldn’t do anything with the facts of the case or the words of the witnesses, the underlying beat to that one was most definitely Hollywood Noir with a rather comic edge.

I’m not one of those writers who has to work in silence. I’ve been a journalist for too long for surrounding babble to worry me that much but given the choice I’d rather have my choice of music than Sky News and radio bulletins. So far each book has had it’s own mp3 playlist on my laptop. Devil was smoky jazz, Death on the Hill was written to an accompaniment of mainly French pop and this new one appears to be insisting on passionate instrumentals of Irish or Russian origin. When I was working on my novel I had a different playlist for each character – it helped to keep them solid while I was still working them out.  Whatever it’s content though the playlists all serve the same purpose. They’re a shortcut to the narrative flow. A way of getting to where I need to go.

At the moment, because I’m at an early stage of writing, I’m still feeling for that rhythm but I know it’s there. I think that narrative flows through life like an underground stream. We all instinctively know what works and what doesn’t, based on the facts before us and our knowledge of our fellow man. It’s that same knowledge that can lead a jury to a verdict or make a novel feel like it isn’t working. It’s that gut feeling that creates archetypes and truisms.  There’s a rhythm that undercuts everything and any story has to fall into step or at least be damn good at syncopation.  I’m not talking about the simple stuff that we’d always like to be true – boy gets girl, good always triumphs and evil gets it’s just deserts. It’s just real life. They’re basic rules that always affect the story no matter what you write – true crime or crime fiction, chick lit or fantasy.

At the moment I’m working on something where hearing that rhythm feels more important than ever. I don’t have the benefit of observing my characters and I can’t make them up. If I get them wrong I’m doing a disservice to a story that has, after all, already unfolded.  It’s rather different from anything I’ve ever done.  But I think I’ve found the melody at last, enough for me to follow until the narrative flow catches me and the story takes hold.

Getting Back into the Swing

I haven’t posted here for several months – in fact I haven’t written anything anywhere much since November. There’s a reason for that. In mid-November I got word that my mother was terminally ill. By the end of the month she was dead.

I’ve wandered through the past two months in a bit of a daze. When a parent dies suddenly it blows everything sky high. Every day for the past month and a half I’ve feeling around on the floor for the shattered pieces and trying to put everything back as it was. It’s not done yet, still the same bomb site, but at least now things are ordered enough to start to write them down.

As long as I can remember I’ve dealt with the world by turning it into words on a page. I’ve kept diaries, written stories, blogged about the way I see the world. When something hurts, even when something shatters, I’ll start thinking of ways to turn it into words. This happens with the good things two but I mainly write about pretty dark subjects so it’s the dark stuff that tends to get used first. The problem is that when it’s not dark, when it’s just red raw and seeping pain, then the words won’t come.  That’s the way it’s been. That’s finally the way it’s not any more.

My mother was a complicated woman.  Don’t get me wrong, I loved her deeply, but she could be a hard woman to live up to. She was an actress.  The kind of woman who could light up a room with her entrance. She was larger than life, funny, fiercely loyal and ever so slightly crazy. Talking to family over Christmas there were stories of late night dinners, dramatic flourishes and lots of laughter. Looking over old photos I see a vibrant woman, demonstrative and striking, commanding the centre of every photograph.

I remember her singing Summertime to me at bedtime, or reading me The Hobbit and having me in stitches doing Bilbo with a cold being invited to parties – “Thangk you very buch!”  I remember the dolls house she made me out of a cardboard box with the double bed in the master bedroom made out of a moulded piece of polystyrene packing with a lilac Kleenex valance. I remember her sticking up for me when I was being bullied at school.

If my mother had a defining fault it was probably that she loved too fiercely.  It was her love that made me the person I am today but I think in a way it also broke her.  When my dad died suddenly when I was a baby it hit her so deeply I don’t think she ever really recovered. Every year in mid December, around the anniversary of that dreadful day when she opened the door to two policemen, she would feel all the world’s sharp edges. Even though she had a second marriage, another chance at a love of her life, I don’t think the pain ever really went away.

In the days and months after that awful day. When life slowly got back to normal and the family home was emptier than it should have been, she did what she could to numb the pain. But over time the crutch fused and became an extra limb.

My mum was an actress of a certain generation. Gregarious socialising goes with the territory.  It’s much the same with journalism and writing too for that matter.  But alcohol can be a treacherous friend and will all too easily lead you into trouble.  If you start to trust it it will trip you up. And my poor mother fell.

I wouldn’t wish liver failure on anyone. It’s a brutal way to go. But that’s what happened to the beautiful, warm, daft, clever, woman I remember so well. The last time I saw her, just before the end, I could see that dear nutcase in her still luminous brown eyes. By that stage she was hearing Welsh in a Leitrim hospital ward, and seeing the mountains of her North Wales childhood out of the window but as she squeezed my hand she knew me and lamented the fact we didn’t share books the way we used to.

So that’s why I haven’t been writing much recently. But slowly it’s coming back. Life continues and the world keeps turning and there are stories still to be told.

 

Tani Bentis

My mother Tani Bentis

Tani Bentis RIP  1941 – 2011

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