What is it about children that has so much creepy potential? Last week, I was in a bit of a sweat trying to come up with a scary story for an event on Friday evening. At first, no ideas would come. Then, a few came, but they all involved children. As a mother, I felt resistance to writing about children in creepy situations. I tried to come up with something that did not involve children… to no avail. I finally gave in.
Here it is, my Halloween story for 2018.
Shadows still remain
“I’ve heard stories about this place,” said my mother.
The house had a wooden staircase that creaked. I stepped up and down, up and down, listening to the creaks and eavesdropping as my mother and the estate agent talked in the hall below.
“That’s just what they are – stories,” said the estate agent. “After the woman died, the DA had forensics come in, search the whole house. There’s nothing here.”
They moved into the kitchen, out of earshot. I headed up the stairs and wandered aimlessly from one empty room to another. After months of house-hunting, I was bored rigid. Every place in our price range had the same crap: yellowed newspapers, stained carpets, shoeboxes of receipts. Once, I got lucky and found a one-legged doll. The estate agent said I could keep it. Back at the motel, Mom threw it in the trash.
I went into one of the bedrooms and stood by the window, overlooking the back yard. Mom and the estate agent were down there, gesturing and talking. The yard was just as sparse as the rest of the place: bare, uneven concrete with weeds poking up between cracks. Rain started to fall, spattering the concrete with grey. The adults moved inside, out of sight.
Then I saw something. The grey blotches being formed by the rain weren’t all random. Some of them, close to the perimeter wall, were roughly rectangular in shape, all of similar size. I counted six of them, three by the side wall, three by the back wall.
I heard voices downstairs. I went to the landing and looked down. The estate agent was gathering up her keys. Mom looked up at me, wearily.
“Come on, Tricia,” she said. “Bus’ll be leaving in a minute. Put your hood up.”
I snuggled up to Mom as we sat side by side on the bus. She looked down at me in surprise.
“You all right, Trish?” she said. Dark was falling outside now, trees and buildings trundling past in shadows.
“Don’t rent that house, Mom,” I said.
I felt the rise and fall of her body as she sighed deeply.
“I won’t, sugar. Something there not right, no matter what that estate agent says.”
I nodded into her sleeve, shutting my eyes tight.
(c) Orla Shanaghy 2018
It’s been a busy month on lots of fronts, including literary events in Waterford. The biggie in October is of course Imagine Arts Festival, which has just finished. I read a new piece of mine at the ‘Modwords at the Parlour’ event, held in the Parlour Vintage Tea Rooms and organised by Anna Jordan, which was part of Waterford Writers’ Weekend, which in turn is part of the Imagine festival (keep up).
I couldn’t believe I had never been inside the Parlour Vintage tea rooms before. It feels like my spiritual home: quirky, arty, casual, and serves WINE AND CAKE. I plan to move in soon.
I read a new short Halloween piece, which will be published here tomorrow!
Earlier in the month, I was asked to participate in Spokes, a new(ish) monthly reading event organised by well-known writer and journalist Colette Colfer. This was super-exciting because the guest reader was none other than Kerrie Hardie, one of Ireland’s most celebrated poets. Kerrie read several of her poems, which were a joy to listen to. I got to speak to her but was so star-struck I forgot to get a photo! She admired my trousers! (And my work, in the dedication she kindly wrote in the book I bought.)
Mark Roper, another poet of national renown, was in attendance, though with his customary modesty he didn’t read, even though he has a new book out.
And at the start of the month we had Culture Night, an annual event, organised by the unstoppable Anna Jordan, Waterford’s arts queen at the moment. I read at an event in The Fat Angel, Waterford’s newest wine bar.
Reading at events is lovely. I plan to do as much of it as possible from now on. Preparing for reading at events is miserable… it’s a tsunami of all the usual writer neuroses and emotions… self-doubt, procrastination, resolving to pull out of the event, shame at the thought of letting people down if you pull out, more self-doubt, self-blame at committing to the event… But it all comes good in the end.
It’s important to acknowledge successes as well as failures in writing. (There are enough of the latter, after all.) So I’m very happy to report that an extract from a piece of mine was broadcast last Saturday on ‘The Book Show’ on RTÉ radio, Ireland’s national broadcaster.
Over the past few months, The Book Show ran a contest in which they invited listeners to write a letter to a character from a novel. Ireland’s Fiction Laureate, Anne Enright, picked a winner from the shortlist.
The entry that I submitted was a letter to Mrs Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. The show’s producer tells me that they received a huge number of letters to Pride and Prejudice characters so I am extra-pleased that mine was selected for reading. (See the end of this post to read my entry in full.)
A special episode of The Book Show was recorded in front of a live audience in Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre on October 21st, and the recording was aired on October 28th. At this event – at which presenter Sinéad Gleeson also chatted to Anne Enright and fellow authors Lisa McInerney and Paul Howard – the shortlisted and winning entries were read by professional actors Derbhle Crotty and Dermot Magennis.
The winning letter was written by Aoife Kavanagh, who wrote a letter to Holden Caulfield from JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Congratulations to her!
You can listen to the show here. My piece begins at 0:23:20 and the winning entry begins at 0:49:34 – but I urge you to listen to the whole show, there is some great work and super-interesting writerly discussion in there.
Lastly, here’s my written piece in full. Hope you enjoy it.
A letter to Mrs Bennet in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Dear Mrs Bennet
I see you standing at the breakfast room window. Your hand shades your eyes against the morning sunlight. A group of young women with cloaks billowing walk down the drive on their way into Meryton town. Their laughter reaches you across the crisp Hertfordshire air. Wrought-iron gates creak and your daughters disappear down the stony road.
Mrs Bennet, your husband’s surname is the only name we know you by.
You were once a slender-waisted Miss Gardiner, daughter of the town’s lawyer and celebrated beauty. You fell in love with a soldier. In your mind’s eye, you still see his red coat and brass buttons.
The redcoat left for the Napoleonic wars and you found love again. Mr Bennet was handsome, with a country estate could be inherited by sons only. Your mother’s satisfied nod on your engagement day assured you that those sons would come.
What your mother’s look did not say was that they might not stay.
The first pains came after a few months of marriage. You lay on your side in your bed, knees drawn up with cramps. Your maidservant, a girl of seventeen, wrung her hands in the doorway. You screamed and she ran for the housekeeper. Later, the maid carried away bundled-up sheets, the fabric pale against your scarlet blood.
It happened again, and again. You started to recognise the stabs in your abdomen. You had the housekeeper arrange a bedroom in the farthest corner of the house. More scarlet sheets.
When you reappeared downstairs after these absences, you could not bear the pain in your husband’s face. You began avoiding each other’s eye.
You grew nervous, agitated. What had they looked like, those ghost babies? Desperate, you bullied your maidservant into revealing that the sheets – too badly stained to wash – and what they contained were taken to a corner of the farm’s remotest field and burned. Thoughts crossed your mind of sneaking down there. But what would you look for?
You taught yourself not to think about the corner of the field.
The living children you finally bore brought you both joy, even though they were girls. In one way, the curse seemed to be broken. The wet-nurse looked askance as you took the babies from her, wanting to feed them yourself. You came to life again.
But you learned to dread the look on the midwife’s face. You would let your head fall back onto the pillows, willing her to say the word that would secure your family’s future prosperity. It never came.
By silent, mutual agreement, your husband stopped visiting your bedroom. Every night you passed by the dark panelled oak of his door, dulled with the passing of time. You hated the sound of the sharp click as it closed behind him.
I see you, Mrs Bennet. I wish I knew your first name.
Last night, I attended a reading and Q&A with Irish author Claire Keegan. This event was part of the Well Festival of Arts and Wellbeing, which is in its fifth year here in Waterford city and county.
Claire is the author of two books of short stories and a novella called ‘Foster’. All her books have received prestigious awards, too numerous to mention, and ‘Foster’ is on the syllabus for Leaving Certificate English.
With only three books, she has become a giant in the world of literature in English, and deservedly so.
I last saw Claire at a seminar in Cork city in 2010. That was an event I have remembered ever since. She spoke then for hours, almost without a break, weaving a spell with her words, both spoken and read. I couldn’t help but take lots of notes as everything she said rang so true with me. I refer back to those notes to this day.
Last night, we were treated to a reading from ‘Foster’ – an extract in which the central character, a child, describes her first day with her new, ‘foster’ parents. The author’s musical voice and expressive face enhanced the reading. I didn’t want her to stop.
Then for the audience Q&A. Unmoderated Q&A sessions can veer dangerously into time-wasting territory. By that I mean both the other audience members’ and the author’s time. Claire handled questions on all stages of the spectrum with grace and calm. She is (in?)famous for not taking any shit and it is a deserved reputation. For this we, the audience, have to thank her because an author who can deal respectfully with time-wasters and move on quickly is creating time for useful discussion, which benefits us all.
Remarks by Claire that have stuck with me are as follows (this is based on memory – if there are inaccuracies or omissions, please post a comment below):
- Claire writes slowly, going back to the start of the previous day’s work, dredging out extraneous material until she has a work she is happy with.
- Characters are defined by how they spend their time. Claire reminded us that we have limited, precious time on earth. What each of us does with that time says everything about who we are.
- “A good middle” is the hardest and most crucial part of a work. Once you have a good middle, your ending will emerge.
- Desire is another key driving force behind each character. What does he or she desire? Find out.
- Echoing Tolstoy’s remark that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”, Claire pointed out that happiness does not usually make for great fiction (this is my interpretation – Claire did not use this quote). She highlighted loss as a driving force in fiction.
The event ran to just over an hour, which gave the audience a short and very sweet distillation of Claire’s writing wisdom and a beautiful reading.
My thanks go to the organisers of the Well Festival of Arts and Wellbeing, and the staff of Tramore Library for the welcoming, professional manner in which they hosted the event.
Some weeks just get off to a good start, don’t they?
I was going to bed last night and decided to check my email (bad habit – on this occasion, yielding good results). There was a message telling me that ‘Mental’ has been shortlisted for the Carousel Aware Prize (CAP) 2017!
See the end of this post for the full shortlist.
The judges for the category in which ‘Mental’ is shortlisted (Best Anthology) were Tanya Farrelly and David Butler. I recently discovered Tanya Farrelly’s work after hearing her read at the Cork International Short Story Festival 2017 (see my previous post about that festival). Her reading and comments were hugely enjoyable and interesting, so I’m pretty chuffed that my book was one of those chosen by her, along with David Butler. He is a writer I’m not familiar with – I’ll have to check out his work.
Congratulations to all the other shortlisted authors! The only one I’m familiar with is Lorna Sixsmith, who is shortlisted for her book ‘An Ideal Farm Husband’. Her previous books about life as the wife of an Irish farmer have done really well. I’m looking forward to
hunting down seeking out (!) the other authors and getting to know them on social media – and who knows, maybe in real life too.
The CAP award is run in association with Aware, a non-profit organisation that provides education, support and information on mental health, particularly depression, bipolar disorder, and positive mental health. All proceeds from the competition go to Aware.
The CAP website describes the awards thus: “The [CAP] Awards are committed to acknowledging and promoting excellence in Irish independent book publishing.” The awards are the brainchild of indie author Carolann Copland. Big kudos are due to her, her team of volunteers, and the judges – all of whom who give their time to the awards free of charge.
Full list of shortlistees and judges for the CAP Award 2017
Best Junior Book
Judge: Benji Bennett
- Alma Jordan & Martin Beckett: Tales from Riverside Farm
- Emma-Jane Leeson & Kim Shaw: The Adventures of Johnny Magory
- Kevin Doyle: The Worms That Saved The World
- Helen C Burke: Billy’s Search for the Healing Well
- Alan Murphy: Psychosilly
- Dolores Keaveney & the Keaveney & Lennon children: Dilly the Camper & The Magic Fairy Garden
Best Young Adult Book
Judge: Claire Hennessy
- Jaq Hazell: My Life As A Bench
- J.S. Comiskey: Solstice… The Goddess Awakens
Judges: Tanya Farrelly and David Butler
- Orla Shanaghy: Mental
- Adrienne Vaughan: Fur Coat & No Knickers
- Kathryn Crowley: Room for One More
- Compiled by Helen Mc Mahon: Selfies and Portraits
- Compiled by Eileen Casey: Circle & Square
Best Non Fiction
Judge: Tony Canavan
- Linda Allen: See You in Two Minutes, Ma
- John Kenny & Dolores Keaveny Kenny: The Hills Speak; History & Mystery
- Lorna Sixsmith: An Ideal Farm Husband
- Elizabeth Egan: Notes from Higher Grounds
- Breifne Early: Pedal the Planet
Judge: Louise Phillips
- Simon Bourke: And The Birds Kept on Singing
- Caroline E Farrell: Lady Beth
- Catherine Kullmann: The Murmur of Masks
- Caimh McDonnell: A Man With One of Those Faces
Ooh and I’ll be posting more about this on a future date but for now: please remember independent authors when you do your Christmas book-buying!
I love my blockbusters and big-name authors as much as anyone (I’m currently in the middle of Marian Keyes’ latest). Those authors have the spending power and marketing departments of big publishers behind them – and good luck to them. Independent authors have none of that; we rely on ourselves, our friends and families, and the kindness of strangers, to get our works out there.
I was in Cork city at the weekend for this year’s Cork International Short Story Festival. This festival started out as the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Festival has been running for 17 years.
One of the events that I attended was a panel discussion on ‘The short story – the state of the art’. Tania Hershmann chaired (standing in for Eimear Ryan) and the panel consisted of Nuala O’Connor, Danielle McLaughlin, Tom Morris and Rob Doyle.
I was very keen to hear this discussion as I chaired a panel – that also included Nuala and Tom – on the same topic for Waterford Writers’ Weekend in 2014.
As you would expect from a panel of this calibre, the discussion was hugely insightful and interesting. Tania Hershmann did an excellent job of chairing and making sure that the discussion was well balanced between positive and negative points. Highlights for me were as follows (note that these are my impressions, not a comprehensive account of the event):
Nuala pointed out that we are lucky in Ireland to have a thriving culture of both literary journals and small presses, both of which are good news for emerging and ‘non-mainstream’ writers. She also made that point that it is a positive that our literary critics are interested in the short story and give it column inches.
One thought-provoking observation by Nuala was how regrettable it is that women’s magazines no longer publish short stories. These magazines used to be an important outlet for short fiction. It is also a pity for the form that when short stories are published in mainstream magazines such as the RTÉ Guide (Ireland’s most popular TV publication, which reaches 80% of Irish homes), they tend to be written by authors who are not specialists in the form, such as novelists who have been asked to write a short story. The outcome can be that the short stories that reach a mainstream readership through these magazines are not necessarily of the best quality, not the best examples that the form has to offer.
Tom made some interesting points about the tone of discussions about the short story at writing festivals. The approach, he said, is often disappointingly basic, with questions like “What is a short story?” and “How long should the short story be?” The short story is sometimes spoken of as if it were the post-colonial ‘other’ to the novel, which tends to objectify and restrict the form.
One thing that particularly caught my attention was Tom’s point that short story collections can ‘lock up’ our work. In other words, once a story is published in a collection, it can be stuck there, with no other route to reach audiences. Tom cited his own initiatives of “Out of office stories” (where interested parties send an email to a special address that Tom has set up and in return they receive an out of office reply with a story attached) and “A small, good thing” (where subscribers receive a short story selected by Tom). He also mentioned Twitter as a medium that writers can use in a variety of ways to reach wider audiences.
Danielle McLaughlin is a writer that I was not familiar with, though I had heard of her book Dinosaurs on other planets, which has been making waves recently. Danielle founded and runs a monthly writers’ event in Cork city called ‘Fiction at the friary’. She made the point that the practice of reading fiction aloud in embryonic forms – first drafts, second drafts and so on – can be refreshing and inspirational for both writers and listeners. Danielle also touched on the subject of the tone of discussions about the short story. As an example, she quoted the phrase “The traditional Irish short story”. Whose tradition, she asked, is being referred to here? She emphasised the importance of challenging clichés about the form.
Rob Doyle took up the point about ‘iconic’ short stories and their influence on writers. While he admires Chekovian examples of the form, he said, he finds inspiration in more experimental short fiction. He cited Jorge Luis Borges, David Foster Wallace, Jhumpa Lahiri and June Caldwell (whom I spotted outside having a cigarette; her new book Room little darker (see picture at the end) is getting brilliant reviews). The name George Saunders came up – I think Nuala mentioned him – as a popular writer whose work is more in the experimental vein, as did Lucia Berlin, a short story writer who has been called “one of America’s best-kept secrets”, and Arlene Heyman, who has a new book out about sexuality among older people called Scary old sex.
There was also an interesting question from the audience about the fact that short stories are read and studied in Irish schools. People who went through the Irish education system in the 1970s and 80s will remember the textbooks Exploring English and Soundings, which contained gems of short stories like ‘My First Confession’ by Frank O’Connor and ‘The Widow’s Son’ by Mary Lavin. Some panelists agreed that their love of the form was influenced by their exposure to stories like these in school, although as I said above, Rob expressed a preference for more experimental examples of the form.
I always try at festivals to get to know the work of (to me) new writers. Rob Doyle chaired a reading and discussion with two writers whose work I was unfamiliar with: Tanya Farrelly and Sean O’Reilly. Tanya is the author of two books: When the Black Dogs Sing and The Girl Behind the Lens. Her reading was really entertaining and a pleasure to listen to.
She read at a good, slow pace and did justice to the large amount of dialogue in the extract. I am always struck at readings by how important it is to emerging writers to be good public speakers. We don’t write our work for it to be read aloud, but we are often called upon to do exactly that. Like any skill, some are more gifted with it than others. Sean was also entertaining to listen to, but he read too quickly. This, combined with the seemingly large number of different characters in his extract, made his reading hard to follow.
Despite this, my interest in his work was piqued. His most recent book, Levitation, is published by Stinging Fly.
I came out of these two events feeling really pleased that I had attended. And what brilliant value for money at €5 per event! Kudos to the festival organizers, the Munster Literature Centre (represented at both events above by its administrator, Jennifer Matthews).
My post-event happiness was tempered only by the discovery that I had only €35 with me and so I had to restrict my purchases at the sales table in the foyer to only three of the many books on offer: Joyride to Jupiter by Nuala O’Connor (which she signed for me), the Summer 2017 issue of The Stinging Fly and Room Little Darker by June Caldwell (I looked for her to sign it but she had gone).
‘Mental’ has been out for over a month now. So far, the reception has been very positive and sales have been good. I even got my first royalties! (Miniscule, but still.)
Here’s where you can buy the book online:
- ‘Mental’ on The Book Centre website – paperback
- ‘Mental’ on Book Depository – paperback
- ‘Mental’ on Amazon – ebook and paperback
As for bricks and mortar, the book is currently on sale in the following places:
- The Book Centre, John Roberts Square, Waterford
- Ardkeen Quality Food Store, Dunmore Road, Waterford
- The Book Centre, 5 South Main Street, Wexford
- The Book Centre, 10 High Street, Kilkenny
- Barker and Jones, 2 Poplar Square, Naas, County Kildare
If you have read the book and enjoyed it, I would be delighted if you would post a review of it on Amazon. Your review can be as short as you like – one sentence is perfectly acceptable.
There are already some lovely reviews, like this one:
Have a look at the full list of reviews so far and do consider writing one yourself. The book needs to reach ten reviews in order to qualify for inclusion in Amazon’s “Also bought” listings, as well as the “You might like” recommendations. Being included in these promotions gains the book more exposure and, hopefully, more sales.
Positive Amazon reviews are valuable to writers also because they help the book move higher up in Amazon’s rankings. And this creates – yes you guessed it – more exposure and more sales.
Relief is the main feeling I’m experiencing at the moment!
I’m delighted to report that the launch of my book Mental went really well. It took place in The Book Centre, Waterford, in the evening of Friday March 24th. All books sold out!
Not only that but there was standing room only by the time the event kicked off. I couldn’t ask for a more encouraging result.
Thank you to everyone who attended and bought the book (and those who were left empty-handed after it sold out!), Maeve Cooke and The Book Centre staff for having us, and Mark Roper for giving a lovely, thoughtful speech to launch the book.
You can buy the book as an ebook or paperback now from The Book Depository (free delivery worldwide) and Amazon. As of next week, it will be back in stock in The Book Centre bricks-and-mortar store and on their website.
Back in the heady days of early 2017, when March 24th was months away, I had no nerves at all about my launch day. I was breezily looking forward to a nice relaxed evening, chatting to friends and family, in a place that I love.
Now that launch day is the day after tomorrow, all breeziness is gone and I am a bundle of fears and self-doubt. The following thoughts are on an ever-repeating reel in my head:
- What if only a handful of people turn up? (Cue images of tumbleweed rolling through and the sound of crickets in the background.)
- What if a reasonable number of people turn up but hardly anyone buys the book? (Cue image of stacks of unsold books on the floor of my bedroom forever more.)
- What if lots of people buy the book but hate it and demand their money back? (Image: me crying while handing back bank notes to an angry mob.)
- What if online trolls get wind of the book and flame me on Twitter to the degree that I have to quit social media and become a hermit?
I’ll stop there before the fantasies get even more ludicrous. I’m sure Twitter trolls have better things to be doing with their time than picking on a virtually unknown self-published author. Right?!
To switch back to positive mode, a window display for ‘Mental’ and a poster advertising the launch are currently in situ in the window of The Book Centre, Waterford, where the launch takes place on Friday evening.
To my surprise, I had to set up the display myself. My surprise was not that a self-published author would do their own window display (who else would do it?), but that The Book Centre were willing to let me loose on their window. I have zero experience of doing displays of any kind. Here is the result of my attempt:
Lesson learned: window dressing is a lot more difficult than it looks. Kind friends have assured me that it looks ‘minimalist’ and fitting to the theme of the book (rather than ‘bare’ and ‘bland’ as I (still) suspect).
My next post will be a report on the launch itself. Fingers crossed for no tumbleweed or crickets.
I seem to be in a constant state of excitement these days.
The latest reason is that I have confirmed the person who will launch my book. It is none other than Mark Roper. Mark is a nationally renowned poet and creative writing educator with a lengthy list of publications, credits and accolades to his name. (For details of these see Mark’s website.) I had the pleasure of having a piece of mine included alongside one of his in The Sunday Miscellany Anthology in 2011.
Even more significantly for me on a personal level, Mark was a writing mentor of mine back in 2003 and 2004 when I returned home to Ireland from my travels abroad. He encouraged and supported my writing as part of his Writer in Residency year at Waterford Regional Hospital (now University Waterford Hospital) and kindly included a piece of mine in an anthology of writing from people in the hospital. He has continued to provide support and encouragement ever since.
Mark’s kind and gentle manner is famous among those who know him. That temperament was in evidence when I attended his workshops in the hospital with a small, sometimes noisy baby in tow. He did not bat an eyelid at the presence of my daughter and made us feel nothing but welcome. It is seemingly little things like these that are true indicators of a person’s character.
The launch itself takes place in The Book Centre, Waterford on March 24th. There will be details in my next post; in the meantime, check out the event page on Facebook.