What are you reading?


I love asking people that question, don’t you? The answer can sometimes give you a glimpse into someone’s inner world. Other times, it’s a glimpse into their everyday life. 

This week, I’m reading three books: Roald Dahl’s Collected Short Stories Vol. 2, Mia Gallagher’s Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland (see my previous post) and Lucy Caldwell’s short story collection Multitudes


I would love to be able to claim that this shows what a wide, eclectic and voracious reader I am. Sadly, what it really means is that I have trouble focusing!

On the positive side, all three books are truly wonderful. I’ll be posting more about them in the near future.

Last week, I finished Distress Signals by Catherine Ryan Howard, a thriller that held my attention from start to finish. 


I’ll post a review of that soon, too. 

Am I over-committing myself again?

Roald Dahl: one hundred years


Today, it is exactly one hundred years since the birth of Roald Dahl. I have written previously about how much Dahl has meant to me over many years, and why. This year, I was lucky enough to fulfil a childhood dream: to visit Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, and see for myself where the great man lived and worked.

Great Missenden is a place-name that had become mythical in my mind since the day in 1985 when I received this letter from Dahl, in response to one that I had sent him:

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Letter I received from Roald Dahl, 1985

First stop on my visit to Great Missenden was the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre. The exhibition there is a delight for the Dahl fan: hundreds of objects large and small have been carefully preserved and put on display in an easy-to-follow and engaging way: household objects, childhood items, books, book paraphernalia and, of course, handwritten letters (some of the nicest are those written by the young Dahl at boarding school to his mother). Murals, signs and multimedia installations greatly enhance the visitor experience.

A specific part of my childhood dream was to see the hut in the garden of his house where Dahl did his writing. This couldn’t be fulfilled to the letter (after all, Dahl’s wife still lives in their house), but I came as close as it is possible to get: the interior of the hut – chair and all – has been re-located to the museum and re-installed exactly as it was. I spent a long time staring through the protective glass (much to the annoyance of other visitors, I’m sure) at the treasures within.

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The interior of Dahl’s writing hut in the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre, Great Missenden

In the photo above, on the table on the left, you can see several artefacts from Dahl’s life, including his hip bone, which had been surgically removed in a hip replacement operation. This is a lovely hint at the macabre in Dahl’s imagination.

The museum shop is likewise a treasure trove. I bought a print from The Twits, to hang over my and my husband’s bed (it seems apt!).

My favourite Dahl book for many years was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I was thrilled to see on display this first edition from 1964:

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First edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Quentin Blake’s illustrations have become synonymous with Dahl’s work for children, so it was interesting to see how another artist (in this case, Joseph Schindelman) interpreted the story.

Lastly, I wandered up Main Street and visited Dahl’s final resting place. My daughter, also an avid fan, came with me. We were both very happy to spend a short time with him there and think about all the happiness he has given to children and adults the world over. I personally sent him thanks for the letter that made a young girl very happy.

As the old Irish saying goes, Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann (his like will never be seen again).

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Dahl’s grave

Mia Gallagher interview, Imagine Arts Festival, October 2016


I’m thrilled to have been asked to interview Mia Gallagher for this year’s Imagine Arts Festival. The event takes place on October 24, 2016, 7:00 PM in St. Patrick’s Gateway Centre, Waterford city. Admission is free but seating is limited so come early.

Author Mia Gallagher

Author Mia Gallagher

Mia has a new novel called Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland. The Irish Times recently published a review of the book. The reviewer, Sara Baume (herself a ‘new’ Irish author with the amazing Spill Simmer Falter Wither under her belt) describes it as “rich in colour and broad in scope”. I’m just a few pages in but that description is being borne out already.

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Mia’s new novel

Mia Gallagher published her first, hugely well received, book, Hellfire, twelve years ago. She says this of her new book: “I didn’t finish my first proper draft until six years after I started, and it’s taken a further five-and-a-half to reach the bookshelves.” (There’s comfort there for many an author fearing that their work may never see the light of day.)

Aside from her writing, I can’t wait to meet Mia herself, based on the friendly tone of her emails and the author photos of her that I’ve seen. Many author photos feature a serious-looking person against a serious background. Mia’s photos are colourful, and show her smiling, laughing and goofing about. She looks like fun.

How to edit a short story


This writing business is very much ‘in the head’. Watch a writer working furiously, and you will see him or her sitting at the desk, not moving very much at all – not much change in facial expression, even – and staring intently at screen or page. There will be occasional bursts of work on the keyboard or with the pen. That’s it.

So I take every chance I get to move my work more into the physical world. I got the chance recently when I started to edit a story that I am preparing for publication (more on that soon). Editing on-screen produced a lot of head-scratching but not much else. I somehow couldn’t get my head around where everything fitted together in the story.

Enter our old friend, paper. I printed out the story and got to work with my pen and scissors. I literally cut out the bits I didn’t want and wrote in new material by hand, old school style. Then I stapled the pages together in one long scroll to create the new draft of the story.

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Short story editing, the old-fashioned way.

The process of editing in this way was a tangible one. It felt good to work with physical objects.

Of course, once I had done all the work I could with pen, scissors and stapler, it was back to the computer to make the changes in electronic form, too.

How to write a short story, part 1


Back in 2011, I wrote a series of blog posts about how to write a short story. These posts are still some of the most popular on this blog. I’ve decided to revise and re-run them. Note that these posts describe how I went about writing one particular short story; they are not intended as a definitive guide or as the final word. As always, I’d love to hear your comments below.

Days 1 & 2

Physical environment – house sketch

After mulling over various possibilities for the story for a while, I develop a picture of the family at the centre of the story. The family – mother, father, and three or four children – lives in a big, chaotic house in a medium-sized town. The family’s life revolves around their shop. The small grocery shop is integrated into the house in the converted front downstairs room.

Part of the dynamics of the story is that the mother in the family runs several mini-businesses from within the home. The house is always being extended and modified to make room for each new business venture. So the house is always noisy and busy.

I realise that movement and the physical environment – all the family members moving around this big, chaotic, disorganised, confusing house – are key to the story. So I decide to sketch out a plan of the house. I want to be completely familiar with the layout of the house in my own mind, so that the characters’ movements around the house are consistent and flow smoothly.

This is my initial sketch:

Timeline

At this stage, the characters are still in their infancy in terms of development. Later, I will create detailed character sketches. Before that, I need to create a timeline for the family in the story. This is to ensure that all aspects of time in the story are correct and consistent. For example, to specify the age of each character, I need to know when they were born, and all the family members’ dates of birth have to be consistent with each other.

This is the initial timeline that I drew up:

Practise paragraphs

By this stage (the end of day 2), I have also written a few disconnected paragraphs of the actual story. These are really sketches themselves, rough “practise” drafts to help me get an idea of how the story might look and sound.

What’s next?

The next steps are: fill out the timeline, create detailed character profiles, and identify key scenes. I’ll be moving forward with these tomorrow.

Radio: Oliver Sacks, Ronan O’Gara and the perfect cuppa


Yesterday I was a guest on WLR FM with radio veteran Billy McCarthy. Here’s the audio.

We discussed Oliver Sacks’ wonderful New York Times article on his diagnosis with terminal cancer, Irish rugby star Ronan O’Gara’s recent Late Late Show gaffe, and how to make the perfect cup of tea (according to the British Standards Institute, and they should know, right?).

A young Frank Sinatra (left) does an interview for one of the many programs produced by the Armed Forces Radio Service for broadcast to the troops overseas during World War II with Alida Valli, an Italian actress. Unidentified date, presumably 1941 - 1945. Unidentified place.

A young Frank Sinatra (left) does an interview for one of the many programs produced by the Armed Forces Radio Service for broadcast to the troops overseas during World War II with Alida Valli, an Italian actress. Unidentified date, presumably 1941 – 1945. Unidentified place.

Live radio has a magic you don’t get in other media. I had a great time chatting with Billy and my co-panellist Esther Doyle.

Hennessy Nominees Announced & New Home For New Irish Writing


The nominees for this year’s Hennessy Literary Awards have been announced: Hennessy Nominees Announced & New Home For New Irish Writing. Hearty congratulations to all nominees!

The winners will be announced on February 24th.

The article also reveals exciting news about New Irish Writing: the hugely influential and popular writing page has moved to The Irish Times.

Two: a birthday greeting


“Bundle of joy” is a hackneyed phrase. Although you are two now, Lochlann, and much too big for baby phrases, I can’t think of any term that suits you better.

In some ways, you are more of a bundle now than ever. The jumbled, cuddly roundness of the word perfectly fits your little, roundy, snuggly body. Much more so than when you were born and you landed on my chest, a squirming, slippery mass of bones and downy skin.

What bliss those first two weeks were: you, your Dad and me. We lived in our bed. Warm, soft and nest-like, it became our habitat. Dad brought coffee, toast and croissants, then hopped in himself. Your little grasping fists and lips sought out my breast without fuss. Exhausted, elated, we slept, ate and breathed each other in.

It was January. Wind and rain bit at your Dad’s ears when he went out to collect the other children from school. You and I needed to have no part of those excursions, Lochlann; we were new, we were exempt.

The fourth child is so blessedly lucky. No books need to be consulted; I waved the public health nurse goodbye with a worldly air. I don’t need your ministrations, the wave said, for I am mother of many.

We did what our hearts and guts told us, Lochlann. You fed at my breast whenever you liked; I carried you around constantly like a gorilla mother; you slept beside me day and night.

And now you are two. A fierce, indignant, roaring, throw-your-head-back-laughing little being whose main challenge in life is to fight off the hail of hugs and kisses that your siblings unleash on you every chance they get. A smile from Lochlann is a treat; a kiss, a triumph.

In the morning, I will go into your room and greet you: wake from your slumber, warrior boy, for today is your birthday.

Lochlann

My writer’s room, revealed (hint: it’s not like Seamus Heaney’s)


Have you come across any of the articles about the spaces in which writers do their writing? They were published as a series in The Guardian a few years ago. I must admit to drooling over some of them. Just look at the room where Seamus Heaney did his writing: with its shelves of books, framed photos, little sculptures and the sloped ceiling, it is every inch a writer’s haven. Or the writing room of Michael Morpurgo, unmistakably writerly in a different way, with its ascetic wooden bed and bare walls.
Now to go from the sublime to the ridiculous. This is the space in which I currently write:

The writer's, erm... "room", complete with fence

The writer’s, erm… “room”, complete with fence

A recent bedroom re-assignment in my house has meant that my “office” (half a room, fenced off from the other half, which is a play room) is no longer “mine” but “ours”. In addition, several years’ worth of hoarded items are now temporarily stored here, as there is no safe (i.e. child-proof) space anywhere else in the house.
The bits of wood that you can just about see on the left of the picture belong to the “fence” – complete with lockable gate – that my husband constructed across the middle of the room, to keep the children away from the computers. Yes, we really have a room with a fence running through it. (There is probably some The Field-like metaphor in there, if only I could think of it.)
I can only pass the buck on some of the hoarding; much of it is mine, years of memorabilia from travels, studies and life events. So the Herculean task awaits of sorting, culling, clearing and storing. Yet another task to take away from writing time.
On the plus side, I get great psychological benefit from de-cluttering. I find the process, once started, to be energising, and the results bring me a great sense of calm and order.
A friend has recommended Gretchen Rubin’s book, The Happiness Project, which my friend says is excellent for motivating oneself to have a life-altering de-clutter. I have the book on my Kindle and plan to get stuck into it tonight.

Have you got a work space in your house that is exclusively yours? How do you go about keeping it clutter-free?

Memoir: my first snowman


Our back garden in the snow. Let’s build a snowman, says my father. The winter light is milky, shot through with a tentative sun.

I am wearing a brown pinafore. Its fabric is thick and scratchy. Do I have gloves? I don’t know. I don’t feel the cold.

The snowman is made before I know it. He is a fine creature, as tall as me. Dad fetches pieces of coal from the coal bunker for his eyes.

We have a grooved metal rubbish bin at our back door. The snowman needs a hat. The bin lid will do the job. It clangs as we lift it.

Years later, my daughters sing songs from the hit Disney film ‘Frozen’. The character of the little snowman who longs for summer brings me back to my own first snowman, his stick arms pointing skywards, his wide-brimmed metal hat shielding his eyes from the sun.

Put up your arms like the snowman, says Dad. Click.

Do I really remember the day itself, or have I retrofitted a memory from the photograph? I am sure I can still hear the metallic ring of the bin lid.

It is 1977. I am just gone three.

orla in snow 1977

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