Irish Writers on Secrets and Borders

All over the world, borders are in the news. For politicians, the argument centres on the physical movement of people and objects. But there are other, intangible, aspects to such barriers.

The idea of border country can be attractive to writers. It’s a mysterious, in-between place; a romantic, shifting landscape where normal rules don’t apply.

Such romanticism is fine in fiction, but more problematic in reality, as a recent event at the London Irish Centre explored. With the Irish border again making headlines, ‘Writing Ireland: Borderlands and Brexit’, saw novelists Neil Hegarty (no relation) Andrea Carter and Anthony Quinn discuss how to make sense of something that defined their early lives, and is threatening to return.

Hegarty, author of Inch Levels and the forthcoming Distemper, was ‘uncomplicatedly pleased’ to have been born north of the border, in Derry. ‘It’s a precise place, has a precise sense of itself,’ he said. Events he witnessed in the Troubles, and stories that he later heard, have influenced his work. He read a passage from Inch Levels in which terrified pedestrians are sheltering from a sniper. The horror and fear were palpable.

Andrea Carter grew up in the Irish Midlands and moved north to the Inishowen peninsula, the setting for her Inishowen Mysteries crime novels, to be adapted for TV next summer. Among Irish female crime writers who grew up in the 1980s, she thought, there is anger, and mixed feelings. She also felt that still, especially in rural communities, the border’s legacy had not been dealt with. ‘Old secrets are not being told,’ she said. One of the reasons was ‘a sense of loyalty’.

The writer’s responsibility for respecting a shared history that’s still alive, even if unspoken, was a key aspect of the discussion. Crime writer Anthony Quinn, whose work has been described as ‘the noirest of noir’, now lives back where he grew up, near the border. He felt ‘blessed and cursed to have lived during those times’. The barrier now exists only in terms of folklore, he said. But this is ‘rich fictional territory for a writer’. In his work, he tries to be fair to both sides, and to honour the past. He has found that people bring him stories – they want their voices to be heard; to be able to move on. ‘It’s only by letting light and air in that you can begin to heal.’

What is it about Irish people, asked a questioner, that they’re so good at keeping secrets? The audience responded with an affirmative laugh. Colonisation means you have to keep your cards close to your chest, said Hegarty. ‘Everyone is playing their part.’ One of the problems with Northern Ireland, he added, is that ‘the stories aren’t allowed to be aired, dealt with, set aside gently’.

Working on his latest book, Hegarty had to add information about the border for non-Irish readers. Twenty years ago, it was a physical, manned presence; today you can’t tell where the north ends and the south begins. ‘It’s terrifying that that would change,’ said Carter. ‘It frightens me.’

The evening was a good-humoured and witty discussion. As writers, the participants recognized that their experience, despite its traumas, had benefited their art; and was safely in the past. But there was no disguising the tension of the subject, and the fear that the chaos of current politics – despite the glib assurances of politicians – could bring a very different future.

Permission to Stop

A few weeks ago I finished a big project: the ‘final’ draft of my novel-in-progress. I sent it to trusted readers, and waited… Their comments came winging back: lots of great suggestions for strengthening the plot, improving the pace and deepening character motivation. Plenty for me to work on.

I sat down at the p.c, ready to hit the keys.

I got up again. Made some tea. Did the washing. Got out the vacuum cleaner. I went back to my desk and stared at the screen.

I created a new document and typed in headings. I deleted those headings and typed in new ones. Hour after hour I fiddled about, going nowhere. Outside, the temperature rose. Inside, the temperature rose. It felt like the whole world was on holiday.

After a week or so I was still moving headings around and writing Plans, and fighting a rising sense of panic. Sitting at my desk was a chore. I had nothing left to give.

Eventually I realised – I’d lost touch with why I was writing in the first place. Why not do what I encourage my writing students to do, and have fun? Take some time out to be playful, to read, and learn from other authors. Then turn up at the page and see what happens.

I covered pages in freewriting. I tried memoir; produced some (terrible) poetry. Picture prompts were great. There were seeds of stories in strange combinations of words, and half-sentences that promised a whole world.

Moaning to a writing friend was therapeutic. She’d felt the same. Just sharing the thought with her was liberating – it gave me permission to take my foot off the pedal. I remembered a story I wrote years ago that I’d always loved. I went back to it and found a detail that made me want to know more. I wrote more; moved paragraphs around. I began to feel the pull of the story – and the fun of writing again.

Sure, taking writing seriously means treating it like a job. But the pressure to stick to a daily routine isn’t always conducive to creativity. Anyway, writing’s a weird job: a mixture of lonely toil, flinging work out into the void, and scanning ‘Results’ lists in nerve-shredding hope. Learning to expect rejection – but believing in yourself enough to keep going. Recognising, in saner moments, that each of us is different; that we all write in our own unique way, and that we all take different routes. Clinging to the hope that hard work and persistence will get us there in the end.

It will. But in the meantime, it’s a great idea to take a holiday. See you in September!

An Evening with Lionel Shriver

What to expect from an evening with Lionel Shriver? Spikiness? Controversy? It’s not going to be dull. ‘I don’t set out to offend people,’ she told interviewer Cathy Galvin, with a smile.

Shriver fans and fellow-writers had gathered at Waterstones in London’s Piccadilly for the Word Factory event. ‘So the short story doesn’t sell?’ was the Shriver-ish title for the evening, during which we discovered that her latest collection, ‘Property’, went for ‘a six-figure sum’ – the kind of number only dreamed about by short-story writers in the audience.

Shriver read from her story ‘Vermin’, part of the collection, about a couple in a rented house in Brooklyn. On discovering that someone wanted to buy the house because the street was ‘good for a family’, they decided to buy it themselves. They became home-owners, and that’s when the trouble started…

Although she prefers reading novels to short stories – or was that just a provocation? – Shriver writes stories in between her books because ‘it’s satisfying to have something complete’. She admitted that her novels suffer from being pushed aside to make way for work that has an imminent deadline, such as journalism. She’s ‘more loyal to something with a due date’.

Her early novels were critical, but not commercial, successes. She was ‘fortunate to be rescued by [We Need to Talk About] Kevin before I quit’. She admitted that ‘bad reviews still irk me’. She used to think that ‘writers who didn’t read their reviews were cowardly or lying’ – but wished now she could do the same. But ‘I don’t have the discipline’. She was scathing on the ‘capricious and faddish and arbitrary’ literary world. What does your success mean to you, she was asked. It ‘should make me take the whole farce less seriously’, she replied. One suspects it matters too much.

Writers hoping to learn about Shriver’s own process would have been disappointed, although there were some nuggets: she has no second readers – ‘never, ever’. She knows what’s wrong with her work. ‘Why would I ask someone else?’

It was a shame there was so little insight into the process of selling and marketing short stories – and why Shriver believes they sell. Writers who had come to hear insider tips, or how to get their collections out there, must have left disappointed. People would always rather read novels, she thought.

For fans of the short story, not much insight. She was surprisingly ambivalent.

For fans of Lionel Shriver, it was right on the money.


Writing Props

I’d never call myself superstitious. I walk under ladders. I sit in row 13 on the plane. I’m secretly pleased when a black cat crosses my path, but I don’t salute magpies. I can work (or stare out of the window) anywhere; I don’t have a special pen, or special paper.

Watching a documentary on Philip Pullman recently, I was fascinated to hear him say that for each novel he writes, he colours the top right-hand corner of his notebook pages with a coloured pencil. A new colour for each novel; the same colour for each notebook page. He can only write on paper with two holes per sheet, but buys paper with four holes (so he covers the other two up). Not exactly superstitious, but a sort of writing ritual.

I don’t do things like that. Or do I?

For some time now, I’ve been working in a hamster nest. I’m surrounded by a creeping tide of Stuff, gradually covering any clear space with a kind of impossible-to-categorise driftwood. Things came to a head recently when my pc died, spectacularly, of chronic Update failure. Installing a new one meant moving the layer of protective skin that had grown around me on my desk.

Taking out the old machine was bad enough. But making space for the new one meant moving a handmade plaster pot, crumbling at the edges, made by someone years ago at junior school, full of what I think are called ‘Treasury tags’ – bits of string with metal either end, to keep papers together – all unused; five cards from friends, with inspirational quotes; four photographs – one of Jean Rhys; a seaside painting; a pot of clips and pins; two tubes of hand cream; a clock; a small wooden box that once held wooden bricks and now has drawing pins; cuttings that will be useful one day; four piles of books; a crystal paperweight; a pot of pens and pencils; a desk diary and three years’ worth of notebooks. Then the actual books and draft I’m working on, plus my current notebook.

My new laptop is fast and efficient: I’m thrilled with it.

I’m even more pleased that all my treasures are back where they should be: in my eyeline, cheering me up when I’m stuck. Familiar things that I like my gaze to fall on. Voices from family and friends, encouraging me; urging me on.

Maybe not superstitions, but definitely writing props. What are yours?


Meeting my writing hero

Some say you should never meet your heroes, in case they turn out to have feet of clay. But nothing was going to stop me going to hear Sebastian Barry at the Oxford Literary Festival. On a cold spring evening, the city’s Sheldonian Theatre was a suitably elegant and historic venue for a conversation between Barry – the author of seven novels, 13 plays and two volumes of poetry – and Chris Patten, an obvious fan.

Although there was a nod to his body of work, much of the discussion centred on Days Without End, Barry’s latest novel, and winner of the 2016 Costa Book of the Year. In breathtakingly poetic prose the book tells the love story of Thomas McNulty and John Cole, two seventeen year-olds who sign up for the US army, to fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War.

The tale is narrated by Thomas, whose voice is a stunning achievement. But it took a while to find, said Barry. ‘It was frustrating.’ He would go to his workroom ‘dutifully’ every morning, feeling ‘stupidus’ – a Latin word meaning ‘thick’, just as it does in Ireland, he joked. He was nine months into the project before ‘the first sentence arrived, like a herald’ and the book was underway.

In the meantime, he read 300 books on American history. He discovered wonderful nuggets, such as the Native American tradition of braves changing into women’s dress when in camp, and back into braves’ dress when they went to war; one of the many facts seamlessly woven into the novel’s portrayal of the young men’s love. Barry was aware of the risks he was taking. ‘I thought, “No you can’t do that,” he said. ‘So I did that.’

He was engaging and honest on the story’s inspiration: a period of anguish in his family, resolved when his sixteen year-old son Toby revealed that he was gay. Because of the book, his son’s story is now well known. Asked how the young man had reacted to the publicity, Barry said that his children never read his work, but his son had read this book. He liked it. That affirmation, said Barry, was ‘the Nobel Prize, right there’.

Family is at the heart of his work, and relationships between generations – particularly fathers and sons. Even the difficult relationships. ‘You’re letting them in. You’re still in love with them.’ The searing historical detail he includes is part of the novelist’s duty to try to understand ‘the history through which they waded’.

He spoke movingly of his maternal grandfather, who told him wonderful stories of family members, although sometimes he only knew ‘half a sentence’. But ‘that’s enough for a novelist,’ said Barry. ‘You can make the rest up’.

The world of his novels, Barry suggested, was the country he had created for himself, where he felt at home. ‘You want to be a citizen of somewhere – sometimes you call your heart your country.’

Is it easier to be comfortable with an Irish identity nowadays, Chris Patten asked. Barry, who lives in a mixed Catholic and Protestant area of Wicklow, replied, ‘How I long to say yes.’ He was generous in his praise for politicians, such as Patten, who try to achieve peaceful change: ‘an act of magic similar to writing a book. Trying to effect something with love and sincerity.’WP_20180322_19_22_12_Pro

Love and sincerity: the hallmarks of a wonderful evening with my writing hero.

In the book signing queue, other fans agreed: we could have listened to him all night.

He was even gracious enough to let me take a selfie…



Reading Allowed

Anyone looking through the window of a first-floor room in Bloomsbury the other night might have been tempted to dial 999. Bodies littered the floor. Listening in, the observer would have noticed a strange noise: humming. Were these people the victims of a mysterious cult? An other-worldly sect? No – just writers. It was Bloomsbury, after all.

As one of the bodies I can explain: we were taking part in a ‘Reading Allowed’ workshop, with Miranda Roszkowski and Judy Marshall, to get ready for the Mechanics’ Institute Review Live reading events. Some of us had read in public before; some had not. The aim was to enable us to read confidently, but above all authentically. As writers we spend time crafting our work. It’s easy to forget that presenting it needs time and practice too.

Lying on the floor and humming was part of the preparation. Next we had to walk round the room, haphazardly, reciting the first line of our stories as we criss-crossed each other’s path like phone-reading commuters. A perfect exercise to practise in the rush hour. Then, Miranda showed us how to stretch and bend from head to toe. Even our faces didn’t escape: ‘Pretend your face is a toffee, being chewed,’ she said, helpfully. We gurned away obediently, like the best end-of-the-pier act.

All this was to loosen us up, to stop us feeling tension and reflecting it in our voices. Judy showed us how to find our pitch: to start high, and take our voices in a swoop, as low as we could go, then come back up again, to a comfortable level.

We were practising to read extracts, not whole stories, which in most cases are a few thousand words long. So what makes a good extract? Keep it simple: not too many characters. Humour is always good. Not too much dialogue. Leave your listeners wanting more. Choose a piece that’s self-contained, but feels like it leads on…

It sounded straightforward. Being writers, we had to make it complicated. What about foreign words? Accents? Only if you really can pull it off, said Miranda. No need to make unfamiliar words too pronounced.

We were aiming to speak for a minute or so: roughly half an A4 page. Everyone speeds up when they read, was the advice, so keep it slow. But vary the pace. And you can breathe half-way through a line, if you want to.

Then it was time to hear our words – in our own voices. ‘Readers love hearing writers read their work,’ said Miranda.

She was right – reading aloud added an extra dimension to the stories. It was also helpful to get colleagues’ feedback: where a sentence was unclear, or an idea too hard to grasp on one hearing.

It was powerful to hear each writer speak to the room. There was something magical about being invited into the world of the story. When I went back to the anthology, I could hear each unique voice.

The next MIR Live is at the Brick Lane Bookshop in London on 17 November, followed by dates in Birmingham and Manchester. Details will be on the MIR website: or check out @Editors_MIR.

Come along and be part of the world of our stories! Just don’t look in the Green Room – there may well be bodies on the floor…


Listening to Ghosts

In early September I found myself walking through an elegant square in London’s Bloomsbury. I watched russet leaves drift along the pavements, thought of all the feet that had walked there before me, and allowed myself to embrace the joy of being part of a world I’d always dreamed of.

I was on my way to the ‘open the box’ event for the 14th issue of the Mechanics’ Institute Review, the annual publication from Birkbeck, University of London. MIR 14 is a beautiful book, showcasing new short stories from a range of voices across the UK. The subjects are topical and relevant, ranging from immigration to social media. There are new pieces from Jenn Ashworth and Alan Beard, and a brilliant foreword on teaching creative writing from Julia Bell. And there is my story, ‘A Thousand Grains of Sand.’

It’s a story I’ve been trying to pin down for a while. ‘A Thousand Grains of Sand’ is set in Beijing, in 1980 – a very different place from the city today. Then, the only cars were the lumbering, Russian-made vehicles used by Party officials. The roads were clogged – but with bicycles, ridden by people wearing identical clothes, in muddy colours. There was not a designer outfit in sight. There were no skyscrapers. There was no metro. There were no glitzy bars; no restaurants serving international cuisine to a jet-setting clientele. Everything closed in the evening, in a sort of unofficial curfew.

That world has gone, but the people who grew up with it have not. Now in their sixties and seventies, they are a kind of ‘lost generation’ in China. They have endured every convulsion of the State, from the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s, when industrial production took precedence over normal life, to the famine that succeeded it when untold millions died. Then came the Cultural Revolution, and the unleashing of the terrifying Red Guards. Education and learning was suspect; teachers were humiliated and persecuted. Many killed themselves to save their families further suffering. Ancient monuments, including Confucius’ birthplace, were smashed. In 1980, the one-child law was passed, with its terrible and far-reaching consequences. When China opened up to the world, many of that generation dared to ‘invest’ their savings in stocks and shares, and lost everything. They have no money for designer clothes and cars. Their homes have been destroyed to make way for the new China. In their old age, they have only one child to look after them. If they have outlived their child, they face a lonely future.

Back in 1980, the world looked different. For people prepared to take a risk, like Liu, the main character in my story, there was a feeling that this might be a chance to grab what we in the West take for granted: the freedom to think and question, the right to improve our lot in life, and to try to make things better for our children. The right to dream.

‘A Thousand Grains of Sand’ is fiction, of course. But if Liu’s ghost were walking with me along that Bloomsbury street, I hope he would feel that something of his story is being told at last.