Foremothers: Women and Freedom

Bee Rowlatt, Lucy Caldwell and Namita Gokhale in conversation with Vayu Naidu at JLF Belfast 2019

The second event I attended at the Jaipur Literature Festival in Belfast back in June as official festival blogger involved an all-female group discussion about strong women – those foremothers who had inspired the assembled writers and also, the importance of remembering women, who are all too easily erased from history.

Foremothers

Facilitated by Vayu Naidu, she posed this initial question: “Foremothers appear in the domestic and the political. But what is this thing called a ‘foremother’?”

Namita Gokhale, who hails from the Himalayan Mountains, said she had recently been handed a matriarchal family tree going back nine generations, which is unusual, as patriarchal family trees are more common. She said that this had given her a distinct feeling of where her inner strength as a woman came from. She added later in the discussion that she had always been part of a family of four living generations and that being part of that had also helped hone her identity as a strong woman.

“We’re told Indian women are shy,” she said. “We’re not… I’m very religious and I always identified with the bad-tempered Indian goddess.” She added that she liked the mantra, ‘fear nothing’.

For Northern Irish writer, Lucy Caldwell, highlighting foremothers, particularly in the writing world, is incredibly important. Having been involved with two all-Irish female author anthologies in recent years – The Long Gaze Back and The Glass Shore – she said that she considered those part of her history. She added that her mum had always taken her to the library as a child and was another influential woman in her life. Becoming a mother herself had further helped to shape her writing.

“The thing that changed my writing life was having children,” she said. “It gave me a new fearlessness. I didn’t care what anyone thought about my writing anymore.”

For Bee Rowlatt, Mary Wollstonecraft – described as ‘the first celebrity feminist’ – has been an incredibly influential foremother and she spoke passionately about her during the discussion. Discovering Wollstonecraft’s story as a literature student, Rowlatt subsequently travelled the world with her baby son, mirroring Wollstonecraft’s own voyage back in the day and writing about the experience in her travel book, In Search of Mary.

“Mary Wollstonecraft went on a voyage – a treasure hunt – with her 11-month-old baby,” she said. “She wrote a bestseller along the way. I decided I would try this too…

“Everywhere I look in history it’s the women’s voices, the women who are vectors of information. They know what’s going on and you ignore that at your peril.”

The event closed with a Q&A from the audience, which saw some further discussion on the importance of recording women in history.

Gokhale had earlier urged everyone to “reach out to the older people in your lives and record.” She added: “It’s the lack of records in women’s lives which makes it more important to research them.”

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Patrick Gale and David Park

A few of my blogs from this year’s inaugural Jaipur Literature Festival in Belfast and Bellagy have now been published on the JLF website (see my previous blog post here for more details on this), but there’s a few from the Saturday which haven’t appeared, so I’ve decided to post them on my own blog in the meantime, starting with the first event I attended below. 🙂

Places Called Home

Patrick Gale and David Park in conversation with Elaine CanningDaviv Park1

Family is at the heart of the most recent novels by British writer, Patrick Gale (Take Nothing with You) and Belfast author, David Park (Travelling in a Strange Land). It was subsequently very much at the core of this event, facilitated by Elaine Canning at the Lyric Theatre.

With both writers brought up in very religious households, they agreed that this was something which had seeped into their work.

Park, whose upbringing was in the Baptist faith, said the first stories he ever heard were from the Bible. “The language of the Bible became cloaked around my brain,” he said.

Gale also had a “very religious upbringing.” Indeed, his father was the son and grandson of a priest and may have become one himself, said Gale, had he not married Patrick’s mother…

The event was interspersed with readings from both authors, including both their non-fiction and fiction.

David Park Me

With David Park

“When you write about yourself and your family, as Patrick has revealed, there are pain moments,” said Park. One of those ‘pain moments’ for Park was in writing about an instance at Primary School, when he told the class his father was a bread server, as he felt shame in saying ‘labourer’.

Both Park’s and Gale’s novels ultimately focus on the dynamics of family relationships and belonging. “What you’re doing is writing about interesting failures,” said Gale.

In Gale’s novel, his protagonist, Eustace, reflects on his youth while receiving treatment in hospital. His parents are going through a rocky patch and Eustace, who is dealing with the business of growing up and discovering who he is, subsequently finds solace in music. “It brings him into contact with people who become substitute family,” said Gale.

A cellist himself, Gale added that the discipline of learning to play music has helped him as a writer. Park agreed that music was a big part of his own life. “Music, for me, is a constant all day long,” he said. “It calms and motivates me.”

As Canning pointed out, place also plays a huge role in both Park and Gale’s novels and not just place, but enclosed spaces. Indeed, Park’s story plays out in a car while Gale’s sees Eustace reflecting in a confined room during his treatment.

“There’s no such thing as the perfect family,” said Park. “My book is from the father’s perspective and about how to be a father, which is a difficult thing to know. It’s about a journey from Belfast to Sunderland.”

P Gale me

With Patrick Gale

“Both books illustrate the way we carry our families in our heads,” added Gale.

The novels also explore the idea of self-love and self-protection, said Canning, who also touched upon the function of music in both narratives. The cello and classical music is integral to Eustace, said Gale, while for Park’s story, pop music takes precedence.

The event itself finished on a musical note, with Gale reading an extract about music from his novel, followed by an audience Q&A. During this, Gale was asked what book of his own he would recommend a young person to read with regards to understanding their sexuality, as he speaks a lot in schools and is often asked the same. He said Friendly Fire was what he would advise and added that it was loosely based on his own upbringing.

The final word of the day went to Park, who was asked if things had to happen in real life to be able to write about them, or of imagination was enough.Patrick Gale book

“Everything you need is in the world of the imagination,” he said. “It’s the richest gift humans have.”

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Summery artistic delights

Max Porter and Sarah Moss

Max Porter

With Max Porter

In my last blog, I chatted about a recent visit to the Seamus Heaney Homeplace in Bellaghy for JLF Belfast, which took place at the end of June. Just a couple of weeks later, I returned for another great event, this time an evening of conversation and readings with the authors Max Porter and Sarah Moss, interviewed by Sinéad Gleeson. I went along to this with friend and fellow writer, Kelly Creighton, and we both very much enjoyed listening to all the bookish chat, as well as meeting the authors afterwards.

Both Max and Sarah were very friendly and I was given a wee look at Max’s notes and doodlings in his copy of Lanny as he signed my copies of both this and Grief is the Thing with Feathers and chatted about the writing process. He told us during the discussion how Sarah often deletes entire manuscripts as well as other bits and pieces she’s written, if she’s not happy with them, while he (like myself!!) prefers to hold onto his work in case it later proves useful. Sarah added, however, that she’s a very fast writer, so it doesn’t worry her to get rid of work as she’s going along.

Sarah Moss

With Sarah Moss

Both Lanny and Ghost Wall, Sarah’s latest novel, hold a mirror up to today’s society, as Sinead Gleeson pointed out during the event. Both deliver tension in different ways but are reflective of what the world has become/is becoming and look at how (and perhaps why) people are the way they are. Def worth reading if you haven’t!

All in all, it was a really enjoyable evening and I look forward to reading The Tidal Zone, which is the book I bought by Sarah Moss at the event. I’d already read Ghost Wall from the library and have read both of Max’s books, so I await his next one!

Art in the Garden

Dali

Lady Godiva with Butterflies: Dali

Another great event I got along to at the end of June was Art in the Garden, which took place at the Culloden Estate and Spa in Belfast. (Click the highlighted text above for more info.) I just got along to it the day before it ended and was very glad I did, as there was a wealth of wonderful artwork on display both inside and out, including pieces from Salvador Dali – flown in from Switzerland – as well as Andy Warhol, Banksy, Picasso, Freud and many more.

I’m not in any way an art expert, but even I recognised most of the artists on display and I discovered lots of others too, including Northern Ireland’s Eamonn Higgins, who had a beautiful ghostly horse sculpture in the gardens outside, and Sicilian sculptor Giacinto Bosco, whose lunar sculptures were also amongst my favourites of the day.

Eamon Higgins

Legend of the Lough: Eamonn Higgins

It being Northern Ireland, the rain was pelting down as we arrived but we toured the interior exhibitions first, had a coffee and then walked around the garden exhibits in lovely sunshine! It was a great exhibition and I for one would love to do it all again.

I have so many fabulous photos from the visit, but just have room to share a couple here!

Giant’s Causeway Book Club

The last Thursday in June also saw our monthly GC Book Club meet-up, where we discussed our very short play – Peter and Alice by John Logan – which was our main book of the month, along with Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? We scored them 7/10 and 8/10 respectively, and I was pleased to hear how well the play had gone down, considering most of us there never really read plays. (Must rectify that!)

Giant's Causeway Book Club_one year birthdayIt was also our first birthday, so as well as tray bakes and tea/coffee, we had to have some chocs and cookies too. 🙂

Our book for July is Maggie O’Farrell’s Instructions for a Heatwave, so we’ll see how that is received on July 25!

Writing snippets…

As for my own writing, it is ongoing! I’m almost finished the first draft of my next novel… I had planned to get that tied up by the end of, erm, May, but my self-imposed deadline drifted away into June and now July. It’s simply because I just haven’t put the time in to complete it, as I’ve been distracting myself with editing a short story I’d written a while ago (which I’ve since submitted to a journal, having not sent anything off for absolutely ages), and have also written a new short story. I haven’t written short stories for a wee while, but I had something I suddenly felt compelled to write, so it’s being edited now and we’ll see what will be done with that once it’s done!

lunar

Altalena: Giacinto Bosco

(I’m still reading copiously, of course.)

Anyway, more as I have it. 🙂

 

 

 

 

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At JLFBelfast 2019

JLF image

Described as Simon Schama as “the most fabulous literary love-fest on the planet,” the Jaipur Literature Festival is a global phenomenon which came to Northern Ireland for the very first time this month. In the festival organisers’ own words, JLF ‘brings together a diverse mix of the world’s greatest thinkers, humanitarians, politicians, business leaders, sports people and entertainers on one stage to champion the freedom to express and engage in thoughtful debate and dialogue.’

notebookYou can imagine, then, how delighted I was to be involved with the festival as an official blogger for the weekend, after entering their recent blogging competition. Although I was unable to attend the opening night celebrations due to other work engagements, I did get along to several events which took place at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast and the Seamus Heaney Homeplace in Bellaghy on Saturday, June 22 and Sunday, June 23. I managed to cover three events on Saturday and two on Sunday and my blogs for those will be published on the JLF website in due course. This blog, however, is all about my experience of the festival and what it was like taking part as official blogger…

JLF at the Lyric TheatreLyric stairs

As soon as I entered the Lyric Theatre on Saturday, I was greeted by the friendly welcome team, who promptly tied a little colourful bracelet with bells on around my wrist. At the time, I thought it was just a lovely gift – which it was – but I later found out that it was also a much nicer equivalent of a festival wristband. Even better, as everyone was wearing one, the air was filled not only with excited chatter, but also the gentle undertone of tinkling bells, which only added to the overall atmosphere. When speakers were applauded during events, the bells also added a further layer of appreciation and were a constant reminder, to me anyway, that we were all taking part in something extremely special.

giftsThe welcome desk, I should say, also had JLF bookmarks, bindis and sparkly elephant keyrings for guests and of course, further on inside, Belfast’s best independent bookstore, No Alibis, had tables groaning under the weight of all the wonderful books the authors in attendance had written (ready to be bought and signed!).

The JLF team had also bedecked the space with beautiful gossamer fabrics, dream catchers, bells and other colourful decorations, bringing a real flavour of India to the venue.lyric ceiling

My key contact as JLF blogger was Vidushi Khera (and also, our own Belfast author, Paul McVeigh), who quickly gave me a tour of all I needed to see. After travelling down from Bushmills I was a little peckish, so I made the most of the spread of snacks on offer, grabbing a coffee and muffin from the authors’ area upstairs before heading to my first event of the day. This was a discussion between authors David Park (from Belfast) and Patrick Gale (from the Isle of Wight), facilitated by Elaine Canning (author and executive officer of Swansea University’s International Dylan Thomas Prize).

with David Park

With David Park.

After the event, I then dashed upstairs to write my blog in the authors’ lounge (being very anti-social I’m sure, tapping away on my laptop!), so I didn’t do my usual ‘buy the book and get it signed’ afterwards. However, once I’d finished writing, I popped into the dining area and lo and behold, there was David Park sitting with a variety of other speakers, finishing his lunch. I had about 10 minutes to grab a bite and of course, didn’t want to disturb him, but as he was leaving he caught my eye and recognised me as the JLF blogger (which did surprise me!) and was quite happy to have a few words and pose for a photograph. (Readers, it had to be done. I do like a photo with my favourite authors and I love David Park’s writing, so I always ask! 🙂 )

I’m not a food blogger, so I won’t go into detail about the culinary delights on offer, but suffice it to say, the Lyric had put on a lovely selection of delicious muffins, scones and whatnot, along with tea and coffee in the authors’ upstairs retreat. The lunch was also lovely – I had some sort of vegetarian dish with rice and the staff were very friendly and helpful in encouraging me to tuck in!Lyric flowers

My next event was just an hour after the first (my first, that is – there were a couple of morning events that I sadly missed) and this was a panel discussion on the subject of foremothers. (Again, these blogs will be put onto the JLF Belfast website, so I won’t share my thoughts here). After that, I had an hour-and-a-half to go over my first blog and write the second (I’m a bit of a perfectionist so I do like to check things meticulously!), so I had a bit more time before my last event of the day. I’m not a multitasker when I write, so I wasn’t partaking in the background chatter in the room, but with a busy programme, most of the speakers were just enjoying some downtime and gathering their thoughts for the next event, so it was all very relaxed.

Jan

Jan Carson (R)

The third and final event that I attended and blogged about was a ‘myth and memory’ themed discussion and one of the writers involved with that was East Belfast author, Jan Carson (who recently won the EU Prize for Literature in Ireland with her novel, The Fire Starters). I’d bumped into Jan earlier in the day and also ran into one or two other familiar faces, including events organiser Hilary Copeland (recently appointed as acting director of the Irish Writers’ Centre) and of course, David Torrans from No Alibis Bookstore. As I was literally attending an event, then going upstairs to write about it, I didn’t mingle as much as I would have if I’d been attending as a regular audience member. However, I like to be busy, so I enjoyed having something proactive to do in-between times and liked seeing behind the scenes. As a journalist, I’m used to covering events but normally, I’d write everything up the next day, so that was one thing that was a bit different for me – writing immediately after the event ended. It made for a slight bit of stress, but who doesn’t enjoy a bit of adrenaline?!

JLF at Seamus Heaney HomeplaceHomeplace outside

Sunday, for me, was a more relaxed day as festival blogger as I was to cover two events back-to-back and then write them up at home and send to the team later. So for one thing, I didn’t have a laptop in tow, and for a second, I wasn’t dashing off between events to blog.

With colourful bunting outside and more decorations once again inside, SH Homeplace was a hub of activity when I arrived at lunchtime. After checking in with Vidushi I found myself having lunch beside Patrick Gale, award-winning poet and conservationist Ruth Padel and a short while later, was joined by Jan Carson, Bee Rowlatt (journalist, writer and broadcaster) and Salil Tripathi (author and chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee). Definitely one of the perks of helping out at a festival is getting to mingle up close and personal with the speakers.

Tara Gandhi

Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee (centre)

My first event on Sunday was a discussion with Gandhi’s granddaughter, Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee (as inspirational and interesting as it sounds!), followed by a discussion on Yeats and Tagore. In between these, I picked up a couple of books from No Alibis and, upon discovering that Patrick Gale was sitting behind me in the events, happily got him to sign his latest novel for me afterwards.

Colouring the air with words

All in all, my experience of JLF Belfast 2019 was one of fascinating discussions, impromptu author meetings, great food and a wonderful atmosphere. What stood out for me was the fact that everyone seemed so full of energy and genuinely delighted to be there. The speakers all spoke passionately on their subjects, the audience members were fully engaged and the programme was packed with variety across the weekend.

with Patrick Gale

With Patrick Gale.

There was a real sense of shared passions and of people discovering new-found interests, as well as a general celebration of literature and an overarching sense of fun. (We had Glenn Patterson singing in the hallways of the Lyric Theatre and unplanned musical performances in some of the events, which only added to the richness of what was being delivered.)

I think the programme (NB JLF Belfast was curated by Teamwork Arts, who produce the ZEE Jaipure Literature Festival) really succeeded in bringing a flavour of what Jaipur Literature Festival is all about to Belfast and Bellaghy – vibrant, inspirational and fun – and I for one, look forward to the next time!

homeplace decor

 

 

 

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Bookish wrap-up and review

This month I have an addition of a short book review, so I’ll try to keep the rest of the blog short!

Big Telly Theatre project

First up, May saw the first professional read-through of my story for Big Telly Theatre (see previous couple of posts for more details on that). Essentially, this means that some local actors gathered together with myself, the Big Telly team and the other writers involved with the project to read through our work ahead of the audio recordings which will follow later on this year. It was great to hear the other stories for the first time, as well as listening to people reading my own work aloud.

We brainstormed feedback on each piece of writing and discussed some other things relating to the overall project too. I’m really looking forward to seeing how everything comes together in the end, so more details as I have them!

Riverside Readings at Ulster UniversityMD

One of the writers involved with the Big Telly project is poet Moyra Donaldson, and she’s also just launched her latest poetry collection, Carnivorous, performing readings across NI with fellow Doire Press poet, Glen Wilson.

While Moyra was unable to make the reading at Ulster University in May, we were still able to enjoy hearing her poetry, which was kindly read by poets Stephanie Conn and Kathleen McCracken. We also heard Glen reading work from his debut collection, An Experience on the Tongue.GlenW

It’s always great getting out to meet and hear from other writers and especially good when it’s so close to home, so this was a lovely afternoon.

Giant’s Causeway Book Club

Our book clubbers met last night to discuss our May read, which was The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland. This medieval thriller scored a fairly respectable 6/10 – I think most of the group felt that it was missing ‘something’ but our discussion revolved around lots of things we liked about it, so I think it went down better than the scoring reflects! Personally, I found it a page-turner and I enjoyed the story and the multiple narratives, which allowed the reader to see from various viewpoints and gave an insight into each of the main characters.June FB cover

Our June reads are the play, Peter and Alice, by John Logan (performed in 2013 by Dame Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw), along with Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Everyone was keen to read this after our April book choice of Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit so we decided to read this as well. They’re short books, so will be easily read in a month!

Pan’s Labyrinth book review* (*contains spoilers)Pan

And so, to the book review! I’m a big fan of the film, Pan’s Labyrinth, by Guillermo del Toro so when I discovered there was a novel of this due out in the summer, I just had to ask for an ARC. Thankfully, the lovely publicity people at Bloomsbury Publishing sent me out a review copy and I subsequently devoured it over a couple of days…

First up, the book is being published on July 2 and you can pre-order a copy at the link below if you so wish (or click if you just want to find out more about it): https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/pans-labyrinth-9781526609557/

And so, to the review.

For those who, like myself, enjoyed the Pan’s Labyrinth film, no introduction is needed as to what the story is about. However, if you haven’t seen the film then, essentially, it’s a deliciously dark fairy tale (for adults) set in Spain after the civil war. The year is 1944 and the Resistance has fled to the forests. Our main character, a young girl called Ofelia, moves to an old mill beside one such forest, as her widowed mother has married an army captain who wants her with him when she gives birth to their son (and no, not because he loves her…) When they arrive, Ofelia quickly discovers there’s more to the place than meets the eye, including fairies, a faun and a whole hidden world to which she’s told she belongs and can return to – an underground kingdom where she’s a princess…

There’s more, but we’ll discuss that as we go. I really like the story and on the whole, I enjoyed the novel, which is written by both Guillermo del Toro and children’s author, Cornelia Funke (of Inkheart fame). Each section is preceded by a myth which weaves in the story of the underground princess, Moana, along with other tales which tie in with what’s happening with Ofelia in the present-day. The fairies lead her to a faun who explains that she must complete three tasks to prove she is truly Princess Moana and so return to the underground realm. This involves facing a giant toad who lives in the roots of a huge tree, as well as the terrifying child-eater, or Pale Man, and finally, sacrificing an innocent.

The myths fill in the background to these tasks, explaining their significance to the reader and I think they work well in the book. There are also beautiful illustrations at the beginning of each section, which are always nice to have!

Although I haven’t watched the film for a few years, I could easily picture the scenes from that as I read the book and to my mind, I didn’t come across any material which was truly ‘new’. I had understood that the book would contain a more fleshed-out narrative but in my opinion, it was all as expected. This is completely fine, of course, except that the promo says the book has ‘expansive original material’. On reflection, this may simply refer to the fact that as a novel and not a script, the material is freshly written, but for some reason I thought there might be added layers to the story which I just didn’t find.Pan2

I haven’t read many books by multiple authors and I think that on this occasion, it may have affected the flow of the writing. Personally (and of course, this entire review is made up of my own personal opinions, so make of them as you wish), I found the overuse of the words ‘for sure’ fairly irritating and in every instance (my inner editor says), they could have been cut. I found that they disrupted the flow of the writing and it may seem a minor thing, but for this reader, it irked.

That being said, there was lots of the writing that I liked, for example:

‘Her mother said fairy tales didn’t have anything to do with the world, but Ofelia knew better. They had taught her everything about it.’

I thing fairy tales help us to understand the world and our place in it and I like how fantasy is used here to reflect the world back at us and Ofelia.

‘But men don’t hear what the trees say. They have forgotten how to listen to the wild things…’

On occasion, there are pieces of writing which I felt could have been reworked to keep in with the old ‘show, don’t tell’ aspect of writing. For example, when Capitan Vidal is listening to playful music, do we need to be told in black and white that ‘It gave away that cruelty and death were a dance for him.’ ?? To me, it’s unnecessary, as the simple juxtaposition of the cruel Vidal shaving himself while listening to the light-hearted music shows us this without the need to spell it out. Sometimes, subtlety is lacking.

However, we always dwell on the negatives, don’t we, and while there are a few things which snagged me while reading, I did read the book very quickly (always a good sign!) and enjoyed doing so. It’s always difficult reading a book after having seen the film and in this rather unusual case, the film preceded the writing of the book. However, if you enjoyed the film then you’ll most certainly enjoy the novel and as I was reading a proof copy, who knows, perhaps those pesky ‘for sure’s will have vanished by the time of publication… 🙂

All in all, Pan’s Labyrinth: The Labyrinth of the Faun does exactly what you would hope it to do, delivering a dark fairy tale which is packed full of myth, magic and murderous men… NB I definitely found it easier to read about the Capitan’s violence than I did watching these more gory aspects of the story on film (but that’s just me!) and I would point out, for those unfamiliar with the story, that this is not a book for kids.

If I was to give it a star rating out of five then I think for me, it’s a solid four. It has all the ingredients of a great fairy tale and is a compelling story which is always moving swiftly onwards, with everything from magical creatures to rebel fighters and of course, a young girl trying to find her way home.

 

 

 

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Balancing the books…

Being a bookworm and a writer goes hand-in-hand. Reading improves writing and exposes you to all sorts of wonderful wordplay, language styles and ideas. It makes you more empathetic and widens your vocabulary and, as a self-confessed bookworm myself, I have to say, it’s my favourite hobby.

However, as a writer, it can’t just be all about the reading – one needs to actually write, too, and over the past few months I’ve found myself consumed more with the former than the latter. I read on average 8-10 books a month but have also managed to write half a novel since the New Year, so it’s not that I’m not writing, it’s just that I think I need to balance my books a little bit better – i.e. spend as much time writing my own book as I’m investing in reading other peoples’.

If my day job wasn’t also being a professional copywriter/journalist then I think this would be much easier to do. I’ve reflected on here before about how the mind often just needs a rest from writing when you’ve been doing it all day long. My novel-writing and whatnot happens in the in-between times, like most writers – squeezed in before bedtime, or on a lunch break; perhaps on a Sunday afternoon or in a snatched hour between other work/chores etc. As with reading, writing comes from making the time to do it. I don’t ‘find’ time and I certainly don’t have oodles more of it than anyone else – we all have busy lives – but if I want to keep being a writer, then I prioritise it above other things.

David Mitchell at Heaney HomeplaceDavid Mitchell

Of course, sometimes we just need a kick up the backside when we feel complacent in our work, and being around other writers helps with that. Indeed, one of my favourite authors – who is a superb writer – said the same himself on Saturday, when I saw him in conversation at the Seamus Heaney Homeplace in Bellaghy. David Mitchell had just taken the Homeplace tour, which documents Seamus Heaney’s life and work, and said he felt humbled by the sheer volume of work Heaney had produced, as well as its excellence. He joked that it made him want to run home and get some work done, adding that being around other writers and attending events etc. are good motivators for getting your own writing done.

It’s easy to forget that even very talented and accomplished authors like Mitchell still need that inspiration/motivation and that, just like any writer, they fret about the quality of their work and how it will be received. Poised to send his latest manuscript (which is about music and takes place in the late Sixties) to his publishers, Mitchell told us that he was nervous about what they would think of it, particularly as he always tries to make each book markedly different from the last. To give readers the same thing over and over again would be, he said, unfair to them, so he constantly challenges himself to reinvent his writing with every book (rather like Queen, if we stick with the music theme! They have a distinctive sound but always sought to create something totally different with each album, sidestepping the formulaic). DM books

I think this reinvention is certainly evident in Mitchell’s books and is something which I, as a reader, enjoy, along with his writing style, which can be very poetic and always conjures up vibrant imagery and ideas. I always tend to describe his stories as ‘sprawling’ (in a good way), as they weave together so many different threads to create writing which is rich and intense and very exciting to read.

As someone who’s always working on various copywriting and other creative writing projects, I like the variety in my work and, by the time I finish writing a manuscript or even a short story, I’m generally looking ahead to the next project. So, it was reassuring to hear that Mitchell, too (and other writers I know) have the same compulsion. He jokingly likened it to being “in the final throes of a decaying marriage” – or something to that effect. Make of that what you will! In all seriousness, however, once a longer-form piece of work is finished, you’ve already spent so much time working on it that it’s only natural to relish the thought of getting stuck into something new. Variety, after all, is what keeps us sane. 🙂

The skill of any good writer is, of course, to make their work appear effortless and Mitchell’s readings at Saturday’s event demonstrated this perfectly as he shared some very lyrical lines with us. The final polished piece shows no sign of the word-whittling and tweaking; of the deletions and additions and the rewritings and rewritings and rewritings …

All in all, it was a great event and one which I had been particularly looking forward to for a while. It was lovely to get all my books signed afterwards too, and to have a chat with the man himself. Homeplace always has a great programme of events (all-year-round), so if you’re in NI and a bookworm, do check it out!

Giant’s Causeway Book Cluboranges

Last week also saw our latest meet-up of the Giant’s Causeway Book Club, where we discussed Jeanette Winterson’s novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. We scored the book 7/10 and enjoyed it so much that we now all want to read her actual autobiography, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal, which we will do very soon!

I would describe Oranges as ‘faction’ – a blend of fact with fiction – and I found it very quick to read and very enjoyable. Indeed, I intend to reread it, as it gives you a lot to think about, despite it being rather a short book, and has a wide range of themes, symbols and whatnot woven throughout which I’d like to ponder a bit more.

I was surprised that it actually focused more on Jeanette’s (the protagonist is also called Jeanette) general life growing up with Pentecostal parents as opposed to her later coming out, which is of course featured, but doesn’t dominate the novel as much as I thought it would. With Jeanette trying to make sense of her life as she grows up by writing fairy tales and myths, the book is punctuated with these stories of hers – something which, when you understand what she’s doing, really adds to the overall story (for me, anyway. I know this element jarred with a few people). The writing is beautiful and I’m definitely going to get onto her backlist of books!owl

Our May book choice is a historical fiction novel called The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland. We have five weeks until our next meet-up (and a Bank Holiday within that!), so I thought a chunky story like this would be ideal. I’ve only ever read Maitland’s first novel, which I loved, so am expecting this to be another page-turner.

The whole point of the GC Book Club is to read beyond what’s being published at the moment and delve into the many books which already exist, as well as exploring a range of genres. It’s very easy to be consumed by reading only what’s on the current bestseller lists and to forget about the wealth of great writing not being promoted in the Top 10, so that’s why our book choices are quite varied. That being said, we do also read recent books – the idea is to cover all options.

Anyway, that’s all for now… Still also working on my Big Telly Theatre story, with a feedback session on that due soon, so … more as I have it. 🙂

 

 

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Bookish snippets…

The past couple of months have been filled with all sorts of bookish projects and shenanigans, hence the little blogging break… So, without further ado, here’s what’s been happening!

Big Telly Theatre project

Back in January I was one of various Northern Irish writers approached by Big Telly Theatre Company to submit a proposal for an exciting new project called Sea Gods, Shipwrecks and Sidhe Folk – Treasures of the Causeway. Fast-forward to February and I was delighted to hear that I’d been chosen as one of four NI writers to contribute to the project, those writers being myself, Jane Talbot, Moyra Donaldson and Dominic Montague.

Big telly

(L-R) Dominic, me, Jane, Zoe, Moyra, Linda and Wes

Essentially, we’ll be writing original stories about eight different sites along the Causeway Coast, using the archaeology and mythology of each for inspiration. The narratives will then be recorded by local actors, with an audio installation placed at the locations for visitors to enjoy. I’m working on a story linked to the Lissanduff earthworks/raths in Portballintrae, which is close to my home and a location I’m very familiar with. I’m looking forward to seeing all the stories come together soon!

Giant’s Causeway Book Club

Since my last blog we’ve enjoyed two further GC Book Club meetings. January saw us chatting about our December/January reads – The Explorer by Katherine Rundell and Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde by RL Stevenson. We scored the former 8.6/10 and the latter 6.9/10 (being very specific now by including the decimals!) We thought The Explorer was very well written, with strong, interesting characters and an original narrative, while Jekyll & Hyde was atmospheric and interesting, despite everyone obviously knowing the ending already.

For February, our selected book was a modern fantasy classic – Little, Big by John Crowley. Not everyone had finished this one as it’s very long, at over 500 pages, with very small font, but we went ahead and scored it anyway and it got a respectable 6/10. Personally, I loved this book and scored it 10/10 as I think the writing is rich and beautiful, the story infused with magic throughout and the narrative interesting and full of many threads which all kept me hooked. Anyway, for more on these books just click onto my Instagram account (linked to the right).

McGilloway

With Brian McGilloway

Our March read is a crime fiction novel by New York Times best-selling author, Brian McGilloway, who hails from Derry in Northern Ireland – Little Girl Lost. Details in the next few weeks on what we thought of it!

NOIReland Crime Fiction Festival

In keeping with our crime-themed book club read for March, myself and fellow book-clubber Julie went along to the launch event of the NOIReland Crime Fiction Festival at the Europa Hotel in Belfast at the beginning of March. I haven’t really read much crime since I was a teenager, but I’ve interviewed a fair few crime authors from NI over the years and I know lots of local writers, so we had a great time looking for (and photographing) authors at the launch.noireland

We were also gifted a free book (there were a few left over at the end, so we nabbed a second!) and the weekend itself seemed to have gone very well. On the way out, we bumped into none other than Brian McGilloway himself, so we had to get a wee snap with him too. 🙂

Phantom Phantasia at the Causeway Visitors’ Centre

On the day of the NOIReland launch, I also delivered a few boxes of my second middle grade novel Phantom Phantasia, to the Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre, along with several more boxes of book one (Magical Masquerade).

It’s great that both books are now stocked in the shop, so if you’re visiting and want to pick up a copy of either, please do!Causeway shop

World Book Day dress-up!

Keeping with the books… I was delighted when a young local reader decided to dress up for World Book Day as the main character in MM and PP (Felicity Stone). I haven’t included her pic here but it’s over on my author FB page if you want to take a look. 🙂

Coffee shop writing…

Aside from all of that, I’ve also been writing odds and ends of poetry recently and also working on my next middle grade novel. In fact, I even decided to try a spot of writing in a local coffee shop back in February (not normally what I do at all, as it’s too noisy – and it was), and I discovered it had become fully dog-friendly. Ergo, my next few visits to Koko Coffee Shop in Portrush were with my pup and no more coffee shop writing was done!reuben

Coleraine library reopened

Unfortunately, lots of libraries are being forced to close or operate with reduced opening hours in the UK these days, but fortunately for us on the North Coast, Coleraine Library just recently reopened after what I believe was a £2.5m refurb. I haven’t used the library in years, as I do like to keep my books, but I’ve already been along twice now to borrow books and it’s been great! I’m very glad to see our local library being looked after.

Anyway, more as I have it. 🙂

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Writing reflections…

At this time of year, most people like to take stock of where they’ve been and where they intend to go in the next 12 months. I think it’s good practice to reflect on what you’ve achieved in the past year as, generally, it’s a heck of a lot more than what you thought.

In 2018, I managed to get book two out into the world, finishing the writing and editing of it earlier in the year and then launching it in October with a lovely book launch party at the Portrush Coastal Zone. img_2762

With regards to other bookish things, I was delighted to get Magical Masquerade stocked (and restocked a few times!) at the Giant’s Causeway Visitors’ Centre, after being accepted as a supplier by their buyers back in December 2017. I also took part in a Meet the Makers day at the centre in October. Meanwhile, MM was also stocked in Belfast bookshop, Books Paper Scissors.

Staying with the National Trust, I was very happy to be asked to host the new Giant’s Causeway Book Club around this time last year, which launched in June 2018 and is still going strong. (Our next meeting is Thursday, January 31st if you’re local and interested in coming along!). I also started my own BookTube channel, though this fell by the wayside a bit later in the year due to technical glitches… I’m not sure if I want to pour too much energy into this going forward, but with a new phone finally on its way to me (!) I might give it another go in the near future and see how it pans out. Watch this space. 🙂GC BOOK CLUB 2

Speaking of BookTube, I took part in an online magical realism writing workshop with the very talented Jen Campbell.  She’s a very skilled writer and editor and I do write a lot of magical realism, so it was great to get her feedback and advice on a new short story which I wrote for this. I don’t always make solid goals to achieve in the year but perhaps one that I would like to jot down for 2019 is to reinvest more in my writing over the next 12 months and do more things like this. I found this particular workshop well suited to me as feedback was provided over Skype and via email so there was no travel involved and it was more flexible. I took part in a group workshop so I also benefitted from seeing the feedback given to the other writers too. I fully believe, of course, that it’s important to get out to events and whatnot in person, but a mix of digital and in-person is good, I think!

I myself was invited to run a creative writing workshop in Crumlin for eight weeks, which I enjoyed doing during October/November last year. I also did some writing exercises with two classes of a local primary school as part of an author visit, which is always fun!

Alongside all of this I also took part in events at Waterstones in Coleraine, the Belfast Book Festival and Eastside Arts Festival, and became an Irish Writers’ Centre member and writing mentor. I received the final instalment of my Arts Council National Lottery grant towards the end of the year and I also saw my poem, written for a collection (Be Not Afraid) in memory of Seamus Heaney and accepted for publication back in about 2014/15, finally published in book form by Lapwing Publications. The project took a few years to get off the ground, but it was great to see everyone’s poems in the collection at last – and well worth the wait!Claire Savage, Bernie McGill and Margot McCuaig at Waterstones.

2018 ended with a nice surprise when MM was included on a KS2 map of middle-grade books across the UK, and the only NI-based book on the map. (See a few blogs back for that). And PP was also included in Books Ireland’s First Flush section of newly published Irish books.

So, all in all it was a good writing/bookish year (I also read 92 books and that doesn’t include my many rereads of Phantom Phantasia during the editing process!!). I won’t go into work-related achievements in terms of my copywriting business, as I think this post is quite long enough, but reading all this back I realise I achieved a lot more than I thought. Indeed, the intention of this post was to reflect on my author-related achievements last year as a means of realising that yes, I did actually achieve things (!) and also, with a view to thinking about what I’d like to achieve this year.

At Christmas, I decided in the end to take a break from writing and simply indulged in a lot more reading… e.g. I finally read the complete Harry Potter series (I only read the first few books over 20 years ago so it was long overdue that I read all seven!). heaney anthology

Although I wasn’t sure what I wanted to focus on writing-wise this year, I did have an idea for a story back in October/November, and had made some notes re that. However, nothing progressed with it until a couple of weeks ago, when I just took out my notebook one night and started scribbling. (This was around 11pm of course, and I ended up writing on into the night a bit… Always the night owl!)

I do still want to look at writing some short stories and poetry again this year, but for the meantime, this story is now underway and yes, it is novel-shaped. 🙂 Whether or not anything becomes of it is another thing – I like the story that I’m writing so that’s really all I need to write it. However, despite having enjoyed the independent publishing process with MM and PP, if I decide I want to pursue publication, this time around I may look into pursuing the traditional route. We shall see. Early stages…

Other than that, last year I started another bookish project which unfortunately I can’t tell you about, but which is still being worked on as we speak, so my hope is that at some point in the near future I can share details about that… It’s quite a beast of a project, so again, we shall see, but if all goes well, it promises to be very exciting.

I think that’s all for now. Nothing like a bit of an essay to start off the blogging for 2019… More as I have it. 🙂

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Festive writing wrap-up …

Christmas is drawing ever closer and for me, that means one thing (in terms of my writing life) – time to get stuck into the scribbling of stories… But first, a catch-up, as I realise I haven’t blogged since just after the launch of Phantom Phantasia back in October!Port PS 1

Portstewart PS visit

As I think I mentioned previously, I was invited along to Portstewart Primary School on November 8, when I spent time with the two P6 classes, reading from my books and doing writing exercises with the pupils.

We created characters and wrote stories and I was impressed with what they came up with – and just how much they read. Port PS 2
The school also has its own lovely library, as well as its very own radio station, so the pupils also get experience in interviewing guests and being mini journalists, which I think is just great!

Crumlin creative writers Crumlin

November 20, meanwhile, saw the final creative writing workshop with the writers in Crumlin, who also produced some good writing over the eight weeks of the course.

They very kindly showered me with gifts at the end, and I gave my own parting presents – a book each (from the local second-hand book shop) – to inspire them in their reading and future writing.

Giant’s Causeway Book ClubExplorer

The last Thursday of November saw our final meeting of the Giant’s Causeway Book Club until after Christmas and we ended on a high, as our November read managed to score highest out of all the books we’ve read since June.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge is a great book – and one I think everyone should pick up – so I’m glad it went down so well and that it ranked highest out of our book choices this year.Jekyll

For December/January we’re reading the multi-award-winning middle-grade novel, The Explorer, by Katherine Rundell as well as The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by RL Stevenson (which we picked from a ‘hat’ out of various classics). Jekyll and Hyde is a very short read, but that’s maybe a good thing, with two books to discuss at our January meeting!

Books Ireland listingBooks Ireland

Back to my own books… and it was great to see that Books Ireland magazine included Phantom Phantasia in its ‘First Flush’ section of new Irish books published in the November/December issue.

I love the cover of this edition and am very pleased to see PP inside. 🙂

KS2 book map!

As well as this, I was delighted to discover that Magical Masquerade has been included on a KS2 literary location map alongside various other middle-grade titles – including books from a few authors who are just a BIT better known that me…like Philip Pullman, for example!

I’m listed on this currently as being Belfast-based, but the story takes place a little further up the country – on the Causeway Coast. However, the main thing is that MM is on the map, so big thanks to the guys for including it.

KS2 mapThe map has kindly been compiled by Mr A, Mr C and Mr D – three primary school TES-recommended authors who create educational songs and resources for this age-group. If you’d like to download it for free for your classroom/school, then you can access it here: https://bit.ly/2BdJ4yv

Christmas scribbling…

If you’ve read either Magical Masquerade or Phantom Phantasia then it would be lovely if you left a wee review of the book/s over on Amazon. You don’t need to have purchased them online (I know various local readers bought theirs at the book launches) and a few words is more than adequate – you don’t need to write loads (unless you want to!). I just thought I’d mention that, as it all helps! Also, if you want to gift one to a young (or older) reader for Christmas, that’d be great also. 🙂dfw-cs-group-nologo

I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to write after PP came out, but inspiration strikes when you least expect it and a few weeks ago I had a bit of an idea for a new story… So, I’ve been scribbling down some notes and plotting a bit, which I hope to build on over Christmas, with a view to getting some writing done. That’s the plan anyway!

I’ve sort of let my earlier tradition of writing a festive short story at Christmas slide a little the past year or two, but who knows – perhaps the mood will take me to write one this year. We will see.

More as I have it. 🙂

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Writerly reflections…

I think this month I’ll begin with the most recent bookish happenings and work my way back to when I last blogged. We’ll see how that goes, anyway…

Giant’s Causeway Book Club

First up, we enjoyed another Giant’s Causeway Book Club meeting last night at the Causeway Hotel. It was dark, rainy and a little bit windy – with some unexplained noises floating along the hallways – so the perfect place to discuss our October read, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson!

Although, for me and most of the group, I’m afraid Ms Jackson just didn’t spook us quite enough, as we gave this book an overall rating of 6/10 and really would have liked a few more scares. General consensus, bar one, was that it had an interesting premise but didn’t deliver on the frightening front – and a few would have liked a clearer ending with all loose ends tied up. I personally found it very funny and a bit of light relief after reading Josh Malerman’s Bird Box before I turned to this. (PS If you do want a spooky read, then Bird Box is my recommendation).Nov book front

Anyway, our November book choice is a non-fiction title: Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by London-based journalist, Reni Eddo-Lodge. I’ve heard this spoken about a lot on Book Tube and I know many people recommend it, so we’ll see what our book club thinks in a few weeks’ time! We have five weeks until then, however, so we’re also going to have a quick chat about Anna Burns’ Milkman, which just won the Man Booker Prize, as I know a lot of people in Northern Ireland especially are reading this right now and I don’t think we can skip over it. I’m really looking forward to reading both of these books myself. 🙂

Crumlin creative writing course

CW classSince we last spoke, I’ve enjoyed delivering four of my eight creative writing workshops in Crumlin, to a great group of scribblers.

We’ve been looking at various techniques to help improve your writing, and doing all sorts of exercises and whatnot, so it’s going well and will hopefully help them craft those words the way they want them when it comes to writing their stories and novels.

National Trust ‘Meet the Makers’ DayKids pic with MM

I also enjoyed taking part in the National Trust’s ‘Meet the Makers’ Day on October 6. The Giant’s Causeway Visitor Centre invited a variety of local crafters/makers who have their products stocked in the centre to come along and show customers what they do and have a chat with them.

I had a table full of Magical Masquerade and had a great time meeting visitors  (mostly from the US!) and signing books for them. It was lovely to see who was buying the book and to have a conversation with them, as normally, you don’t know who’s picking it up. Hopefully all recipients enjoy the story!

Phantom Phantasia book launch party

IMG_2784

And finally… October began with the launch of book number two, Phantom Phantasia, at the Portrush Coastal Zone and I’m delighted to say that it went swimmingly! There was a wonderful turnout, including lots of younger readers, which was lovely to see, and I think they all enjoyed searching for the little gossamer party bags the fairies had hidden around the centre for them to find…

We enjoyed refreshments in the form of elderflower cordial and other fizzy delights, as well as some homemade star-shaped shortbread and top hats and, of course, a celebratory cake, which was brought out after the bookish chat. For that, Denis McNeill kindly interviewed me and then I gave a short reading before signing lots of books. IMG_2774

It was great to meet everyone who came along, and to chat to the kids about their writing and the books they like to read. It was a bit of a whirlwind really, but a very good evening. (PS I have almost 200 photos of the launch so if you want a nosy then pop on over to my FB page, which is linked to the right of this post!)

The question is – now that it’s all over, just what will I write next..?!

In the meantime, I have a school visit pending after Hallowe’en, which I’m looking forward to, along with the remainder of my creative writing sessions. There’s also another secret bookish project in the pipeline so we’ll see how that progresses in the next few months too!

More as I have it. 🙂

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