Writer and Author

Tag: Writing (Page 2 of 11)

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.

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.

Which Box Do You Tick?

So France is doing away with the mademoiselle, officially at least. It begs the question should we in the English speaking world follow suit. Of course, for the French there’s no middle ground. They don’t have that truncated, rather weighted alternative “Ms”. Women who do not warrant a Dr or similarly specific honorific are stuck with describing themselves by which side of the matrimonial fence they happen to occupy.  It’s not a position men ever have to clarify – even historically, when there may have been a world of difference between the Masters, Misters and Esquires in the room, you wouldn’t have been able to tell by whether there was a doting wife waiting for them at home simply by a formal introduction. It’s funny how some things linger.

Of course, back then, it all came down to worth, how much respect the person you were addressing was due. A man who was addressed as Esquire, for example, was generally a man of means, landed but not titled. By the same logic, since a woman gained a firmer footing in society once she had been passed from her father to her husband, it made sense to distinguish between those who’d hooked their ticket out and those still waiting on the shelf. The omission of that identifying middle letter was a radical step – assuming a woman’s worth was not simply dependent on her husbands. It took a while to catch on.

I’ve always assumed that “Ms” was a construct of the feminist movement in the 60s or 70s and certainly it wasn’t until then that those radical little letters got some traction. I’m neither a philologist nor a linguist so I’m not getting into etymology here but it seems logical that “Ms” was a compromise that occurred to several forward thinking minds over the years, certainly this New York Times article from 2009 places it as far back as 1901. Given the meaning of the word, it’s hardly surprising it’s gathered a bit of baggage knocking around for over a century.

I was very small when I first heard the word Ms and even then I knew it was quite a powerful little word, certainly a lot more combustible than “Mr”. It was a word you didn’t call someone unless invited and when a woman described herself using it then you knew she was doing it for a reason. I formed the idea that a Ms was a independent, strong, glamorous creature in a whole different league to the fluffy Misses and frumpy Mrses. Now I was making these assumptions in London in the 70s and 80s, and the women I was making them about were all actresses or journalists or writers so my views could have been a little slanted. But early assumptions tend to stick and it never occurred to me, once I reached form-filling age, to use any other honorific but “Ms”. I also might have been a little influenced in my career choice.

Even when I got married I didn’t drop the Ms. I didn’t change my name either but that’s a whole different post. It just never seemed relevant.  I love my husband but he doesn’t define me. I don’t consider my worth any different because he’s around. I’m me and that’s all there is to it. I’m always surprised when anyone suggests the word has negative connotations – I just assume we’ve moved past all that. Of course the very fact that I’m writing this post and asking this question goes to prove that we haven’t but what can I say? I’m an optimist. I’m also happy to describe myself as a feminist and don’t qualify my use of the term by specifying whether the first letter is upper or lower case. But I know there are plenty who disagree.

I’ve been corrected on several occasions when I’ve automatically used Ms when naming a witness in a trial. In each case they would have preferred “Mrs” and have tended to be of an older generation but when I could I’ve always made the change. I use “Ms” when I’m writing to be neutral, but ultimately it’s up to each of us how we choose to be addressed.

So what does “Ms” conjure up for for you? Do you picture boiler-suited man haters or dour killjoys? Does it matter? Is officialdom so out of touch anyway that it doesn’t matter a damn what bleeding box you tick? Do you revel in “Miss” or “Mrs”? Do you care?

The Dark Side of Love

Maybe it’s because I spend a large chunk of my working life writing about disastrous relationships but I’ve never been one for sugary romance. In fairness I was of a fairly cynical bent before I ever set foot in a courtroom but the last six years have not helped! The avalanche of cherubs, roses and all shades of pink that erupts so soon after Christmas these days just puts me in mind of the dentist. I listen to Jacques Brel singing Ne Me Quitte Pas and I think of barring orders and don’t get me started on the kind of stalking popularised by blokes of  a vampire persuasion (see Twilight or Buffy  for copious examples).

Perhaps this is why I’ve always liked films that look at the twisted side of love.  Last night I was watching the unusual Hammer thriller Straight on Till Morning.

Straight on Till Morning

Hammer’s Straight on Till Morning

Staring Rita Tushingham and Shane Briant it’s as dysfunctional a love story as you can get.  Brenda, who writes children’s stories in her spare time, leaves her home in Liverpool to go and get knocked up. Unfortunately the first bloke who gives this “ugly duckling” a second glance in swinging London happens to be a serial killer with a Peter Pan complex. He likes her coz she’s not that attractive. She likes him because he’s got a pulse. It’s not going to end well. Made in 1972, it was probably cashing in on previous successes in this very specific genre, but it’s an interesting film nonetheless, though rather stuck in its time. This isn’t Hammer’s usual fare. It really is a love story, although a twisted one and the frequent referencing of  J.M. Barrie’s book gives a literate shorthand to some psychological complexity.

Straight on Till Morning though, pales in comparison with earlier explorations of this kind of theme. Another of my favourites is the 1965 adaptation of John Fowles’ The Collector.

The Collector Poster

 

I read the book when I first moved away from home and it’s story of a lepidopterist stalker left me paranoid for weeks afterwards. The film, starring Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar, is a damn good literary adaptation. I still think its one of the most unsettling accounts of obsession. Freddie Clegg has watched art student Miranda Grey for half her life and becomes convinced that if he could only get her attention she could fall in love with him.  When he comes into a large sum of money he decides to take action.

But to my mind the best of the bunch is the brilliant and unsettling Peeping Tom, directed by Michael Powell of Powell and Pressburger fame,

Peeping Tom

 

Made in 1960 this was the film that arguable brought Powell’s career to an end.  The story of quiet, monumentally screwed up cameraman Mark, played by Carl Boehm with Anna Massey as his lodger Helen, was too dark for critics and audiences alike. It is a brutal story, though relatively tame by modern standards, but it’s also a brilliant examination of the cinematographer’s gaze and the distance both filmmakers and cinema audiences have from the subject.  Once again, the central relationship at the heart of the film is a dark reflection of romantic love.

But it’s worth remembering that all three of these films are disturbing echoes of a reality that is all too common. I’ve seen way to many trials of men who killed their partner because she threatened to leave.  In reality I always struggle to understand the mind of someone who would want to possess another human being to that extent. In many ways obsession is far scarier than any monster or psychopath. But there seems to be a fine line between desirable romantic passion and the time to change your phone numbers and notify the gardai.  But then at this time of year I’m always the one pointing out that anonymous Valentines cards are really quite a creepy idea. But then, I don’t do sugary romance…

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

What’s in a Name?

So Ireland has a new president.  Last Thursday the public hit the polling booths and resoundingly voted for Labour candidate Michael D. Higgins.  When the news broke journalists and bloggers alike tried to find a nice handy soundbite to stick our president elect into.  “Veteran politician”, “humanitarian”, “short”, “elderly”, many labels were bandied about.  The one that seems to have raised most eyebrows however is “poet”.

Now for those not familiar with President Michael D’s literary back catalogue, he’s well known in the west of Ireland, where he’s from, as something of a poet.  He’s not one of Ireland’s Nobel Literature Prize winners and he’s unarguably kept the day job as an academic and politician, but he has also published several collections of poetry with a couple of different publishers.  No one is making anything up when they say the guy is a poet. He’s even done poetry readings.

A couple of days ago The Guardian published an opinion piece by British poet Carol Rumens.  In the piece titled “Michael D. Higgins is No Poet” she dissects a poem of his the Guardian had printed as being apt on the day the result of the vote was announced.  It’s quite a hatchet job and it’s been doing the rounds on Twitter, as you might expect.  A couple of people have asked me what I think of the soon to be presidential verse.  And that’s the thing, the one thing that’s probably most extraordinary about the Guardian piece.

I could understand it if the man had been elected poet laureate or had won some big literary prize but he hasn’t.  His presidency will be memorable or damp squib depending on his political skills rather than his skills with a pen.  Even if he was the poetic peer of the kind of little old lady who rings up a certain kind of radio show to share a certain type of topical doggerel it wouldn’t really affect whether or not he’s any good at the job he’s just been elected to.  The question of whether or not Winston Churchill was a good journalist or writer or whether Ronald Reagan could actually act is only ever going to be of mild academic interest.  Their reputations will rest on something different.

But it’s not just whether or not he’s a good poet.  The headline of the article suggests that because his metaphors are clumsy and his lines don’t flow he is not worthy of the word poet at all.  And that’s not fair.  I’m not writing this to bang the Michael D. drum, it goes beyond whether we’ve elected a bard or a bullshitter.  That phrase sticks in my head because it moves the goal posts. It taps into something that I have a sneaking suspicion goes beyond what convenient soundbite can be applied to a certain politician.

Titles matter.  There are some you win, some you’re appointed, and others you earn after a long grind.  The title of poet falls into this last category, like writer or artist or author or even, perhaps pushing it a bit, journalist.  It’s the kind of title that you only feel comfortable calling yourself when you’ve got to a certain stage. It could be getting that first paid gig as a journalist, a first book for an author, an independent exhibition for an artist.  Everyone has their own level but the bar tends to settle at a fairly average height. To use myself as an example.  I’ve written stories as long as I can remember, even used to make little miniature books as a kid to bind them, but I would never call myself a writer.  I would say I liked writing, or I wanted to be a writer.  When I started work as a journalist I still hesitated to call myself a writer.  Apart from anything else I was working in radio.

Despite the fact that in my weekends and at night I was working on a novel, I would only describe myself as a journalist.  I’m even happy to call myself a hack – I’ve worked to pay the bills rather than serve the art – but, despite the fact the novel was eventually finished and I’d even started on a sequel, the title of writer and especially author just didn’t seem to fit.

These days I’ll call myself a writer and even author, quite happily.  I’ve written two books that were published and sold in bookshops all over the country and all over the web.  I know that whatever I do now I’ve passed that point.  The title is earned. 

There’s a lot of debate these days with the explosion of “independently” published books – covering everything self published down and including what would once have been firmly termed vanity publishing.  It’s so easy for anyone who chooses to publish their work and sell it through Amazon onto Kindles across the planet. A bit more work and expense can produce an actual book that can be ordered online or even stocked in real bricks and mortar bookshops.  The industry is changing and so a lot more people are probably entitled to call themselves author or writer. 

I wonder if this is where the viciousness of the Guardian article comes from.  A poet feeling encroached by any Tom, Dick or Harry hanging their hats on her hatstand and claiming a muse because they wrote a haiku once and published it on their blog.  If that’s the case I’d like to send sympathetic thoughts to Carol Rumens. The market has recently got a lot more crowded and it’s harder than ever to get your voice heard.  Even if you take the route of traditional publishing with it’s long apprenticeship in furtive adolescent notebooks, building the confident to submit to publishers, the eventual dizzying acceptance, even if you take that well travelled route, these days it’s damned crowded when you get there.

That’s why titles matter.  We hit the milestones and want the rewards.  When I was growing up the child of actors I was told that you couldn’t call yourself a pro unless someone not related to you was willing to pay.  If you could get paid for your art you had passed the most important milestone. A certain level of ability and experience was assumed because otherwise you wouldn’t get the gig.  By the time I had hit my 20s I’d worked out that talent and experience weren’t necessarily the only things that could get you paid for acting but that’s another post entirely!  The long and the short of it was that amateurs just aspired to it.  They weren’t willing to put everything on the line to earn a living at it.  Only when you took that step could you earn the title of fully fledged artist…usually with the realisation that the living would be extremely hard won.

Of course it’s not always so black and white.  Over the years there have been plenty of writers who’ve kept the day job.  Chekhov was a doctor, Flann O’Brien a civil servant, the list goes on and on and on.  Of course Michael D. was and is a politician.  It’s easy to be churlish about those who have clung onto the security of a day job don’t have the temperament to be an artist.  We all need to eat. The old milestones are still there.  The bar you have to touch to win the right to call yourself the title.  The president elect published his first collection of poems in 1970.  He’s not part of the internet chatter where everyone you meet online seems to be working on a book.  

It’s easy to assume that this is a new phenomenon brought about by the ubiquity of schemes like NaNoWriMo.  But I’m not convinced in the sudden explosion of wannabe literary activity. In my teens and 20s in Dublin it seemed like everyone I met was writing a book. That might just be an Irish thing but I doubt it somehow.  The only thing that’s changed now is all those people hunched over their bedroom notebooks can see all the other people and wave and talk about their hope and plans for world domination. The thing is that regardless of how someone takes those first few steps to that first and most important milestone, it’s not really changed.  It might be easier than ever before to publish your words and more people might call themselves writers and poets than have necessarily earned the right, but the bar is in the same place.  Whether it’s the self published author who’s sold enough ebooks on Kindle to give up the day job, or the literary effete who’s built a solid reputation through publication in a respected small press and enthusiastic readings there’s still a certain line to cross. We all instinctively know where it is.  It’s not the size of the cheque, it’s the respect it’s given with.

All this has nothing to do ability.  It’s more about a solid commitment to your craft (at the risk of sounding hopelessly pretentious).  I don’t know Michael D. Higgins as a poet. I do remember him as a Minister for the Arts.  Back then he showed his commitment to the arts and was damn good at his job.  I’m delighted that, for once, the person we’ve elected President is going to champion Ireland’s artistic heritage.  For that alone I wouldn’t fling pot shots at his own literary endeavours. I’m sure the debate about whether or not Michael D. is a good or bad poet will continue for years to come. I hope though that no one else will be silly enough to question whether he’s a poet at all.  That’s a goalpost that doesn’t need to be moved.

« Older posts Newer posts »

© 2021 Abigail Rieley

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑