Dates for your Diary

1. A new play – Down in History, by Jack Harte – gets a rehearsed reading  in the New Theatre, 43 East Essex Street, Dublin, on

Thursday, 6th November at 7.30 pm.

A two-hander, presented by actors Gerard Lee and Lesley Conroy, it takes a humorous look at the nature of history. Feedback from the audience is invited.

DBF-Banner-2014-300x300-square2. The Dublin Book Festival 13–16 Nov 2014

has plenty to offer: walking tours, readings, exhibitions, discussion. Check out the programme at http://www.dublinbookfestival.com/

I’m on a Historical Fiction panel with Martina Devlin & Patricia O’Reilly, chaired by Evelyn O’Rourke, in the Boys’ School, Smock Alley (in association with the Irish Writers Centre) on

Friday 14th November 1:05-2:00 pm.

TULCA3.  NEUTRAL, a festival of visual arts curated by Aisling Prior, launches its programme at the TULCA Festival Gallery, Market Street, Galway

Friday, 7th November at 7.30 pm.

It will be officially opened by writer and documentary film-maker Manchán Magan. For more details go to www.tulcafestival.com

 4. Don’t forget the whole month of November is National Novel Writing Month in the UK.  Go to  http://nanowrimo.org/ for more information.

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Is there a book that changed your life?

On Saturday, I was at a ‘Literary Lunch’ in the Royal St George Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire (http://bit.ly/1tEfICz). This was an event organized by Vanessa O’Loughlin from writing.ie and Sarah Webb, in association with Dubray Books. Several other writers were there, along with many readers, bookclubs, and a bookstall run by the great people at Dubray. The star-turn of the day was Martina Devlin’s interview with Jennifer Johnston, which everyone enjoyed.  I might blog that interview later, but for now I want to think about something else.

We’d been briefed to think and talk about a book that changed our lives. I think the idea was that we would discuss these at our various tables over lunch. It didn’t happen that way, but the question got me thinking.

WWAW cover

There are many books that have influenced me deeply; on any given day I might make a completely different choice. But the book I went searching for yesterday is a battered green Penguin from 1989: Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, edited by George Plimpton and introduced by Margaret Atwood. It leaped into my hands from a shelf in WordsWorth Books in Boston soon after it was published in 1989. I was doing a distance learning/second chance degree course at Lesley College and this was my first semester. My brain was fizzing.

Many people have heard me say that I always wanted to write, but that I didn’t know a writer was something you could be – especially not if you were someone like me. It didn’t stop me writing, but I was going nowhere sickeningly fast. This collection of interviews with women writers showed me many valuable things, not least of them being that writing is something you choose to do, that it is work, and that it doesn’t just happen. Reading it, I loved the sense of sitting in on cracking conversations with these alert and varied minds as they talked about their ordinary/extraordinary lives. I was used to the weird effect of reading as it transports us to other worlds, but here was a book that left the door to my own life ajar: I could pass between them as freely and as often as I chose.  I carried the book everywhere I went, hence its battered and dog-eared appearance.

 

The book also alerted me to the fact that the work of women writers deserved study, so I suppose it started me down the track of recovering work by forgotten writers that was my area of research over the next ten years. You could say I was led astray, but in fact I loved that work while I was doing it.

 

anthology_vol1_mediumAnd of course the book also led me to the rest of the Paris Review Interviews series, which were eventually collected in four volumes edited by Philip Gourevitch, a life-giving resource for writers and an all-round fascinating read for anyone who loves books and refuses to believe that they are dead.

 

(I hesitate to say that there is a brilliant website as well: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews )

 

 

Is there a book that changed your life?

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Nessa O’Mahony on Historical Material & Irish Writing (An Interview)

Nessa O'M imageLM: Can you describe your experience of working with historical material?  

NOM: I first began exploring history through the lens of family history. I’d studied history at university – my degree was English and History – and absolutely loved it, particularly the period leading up to independence and the early years of the new Free State. I had some amazing teachers – Ronan Fanning, Michael Laffan and Donal McCartney – and they really brought along the deep ambivalence of the period; how, when independence was nearly won, the whole thing came crashing down because different people had different priorities and visions. I wasn’t very aware at that point of the role my grandparents played in the War of Independence and Civil War, but thought that from a narrative point of view, all those conflicting agendas were fascinating. And I hadn’t even begun to think of myself as a writer then.

My first poems were largely reflexive – the musings of a single white female in her late 20s wondering about life – but as time went on they became increasingly narrative-based and I began to turn to some of the family history my mother had told me throughout my childhood. Her father had fought in the War of Independence, and during the Civil War was stationed as a Commandant in Castlebar on the Free State army side. My grandmother, meanwhile, was in Kiltimagh, daughter of a family with more Republican sympathies, and she was friendly with a prominent member of the anti-treaty side. The story my mother told me was that Granny was due to meet this man (his name was Martin Lavin – he later became a prominent Irish-American lawyer) one night and he stood her up because he’d been involved in a shoot-out at another bar, in which a leading Free State supporter was shot dead, and Martin had had to go on the run. My grandfather was sent to interrogate my grandmother – he refused to search her house – and four years later they were married. What writer could turn up their nose at such a great romance, so in my second collection of poems, Trapping a Ghost, I included a sequence that imagined my grandmother had left behind a writing slope full of journal entries and letters that told that story. In fact she had left behind a writing slope, which I still have in my possession, but it was totally empty, which is probably just as well as it gave me free reign to imagine anything I liked.t_insightofhome

That gave me the taste for further historical research as a way of fuelling poetic narrative – in fact my Creative Writing PhD (in Bangor, North Wales) became a creative and critical study of the verse novel, with a historic subject at its heart. A friend who works in the National Library, Colette O’Flaherty, had come across an archive of letters from a Kilkenny woman who emigrated to Australia in the 1850s with her nine brothers and sisters. Margaret Butler spent the next 50 years writing home to relatives in the Kilkenny/Waterford area, and even though the archive consisted only of her letters, and a few other fragments, they suggested a very rich narrative indeed. That became the basis of my verse novel, In Sight of Home. This time I did have actual letters to use as a framework, but I gave myself the permission to adapt, modify and invent where it felt necessary to the plot that I was inventing. There were so many lengthy hiatuses – for example about 15 years between one letter announcing her father’s death and another announcing a brother’s marriage – so I needed to fill the gaps somehow.

And then I returned to family history for my latest collection, Her Father’s Daughter, which contains poems that focus on my maternal grandfather again, and make use of information I had recently uncovered from family research I’d carried out.

LM: What drew you to the subjects of In Sight of Home & Her Father’s Daughter?

t_insightofhome

NOM: I think the writer always needs to find some resonance in source material, otherwise why would you bother? In Sight of Home was written at a time when I myself was living away from home, admittedly only 66 nautical miles from Dublin, but still in another country (Wales) and another culture. It was the first time I’d lived abroad, so although it was a very different experience of emigration to the one Margaret Butler must have experienced in 19th Century Australia, I somehow felt connected with her. And of course because I was in creative control of the source material, I could emphasise elements that chimed with my own artistic preoccupations. For example, in one letter, Margaret describes the animals she is keeping on her new ranch in New South Wales. Because I was getting increasingly interested in wildlife and in particular the extraordinary birds of prey they have in North Wales, I decided that Margaret (and Lizzie, another character I created) would become equally fascinated by birdlife of a very different kind. But although the periods of history were different, the preoccupation with home and cultural identity is a fairly universal one, so the reach wasn’t that extended.

t_herfathersdaughter_cover

In Her Father’s Daughter, I wanted to do justice to two men: my own father, who had died in 2010, and my grandfather, who had died in 1970 and of whom I have only distant memories. My father was a wonderful man, but he lived in peaceful times; my grandfather was of an extraordinary generation. Those who lived through the first quarter of the 20th century saw no fewer than three armed conflicts in quick succession and my grandfather had direct experience of all three. He actually enlisted in the First World War and fought with the Royal Munster Fusiliers, before being invalided out in 1917 and promptly joining up with the IRA in the North of England, where he proceeded to fight against the very King he’d been fighting for in France. He was captured during a raid for munitions in 1920 and sent to Parkhurst but was released with the general amnesty that followed the Treaty in 1921. He then joined the Free State Army, and was active during the Civil War in Counties Mayo and Sligo. He was injured in an ambush just outside Kiltimagh and was involved in many other skirmishes. But the remarkable thing is that he, like many of his generation, refused to speak about those experiences afterwards. The stories that came down to me from my mother had been told to her by her mother; Granddad never expressed any of the anguish, trauma or disappointment that must surely have been his lot as a survivor of so many bloody conflicts. So part of my intention was to recover those lost stories, and to make sure that our generation, and those that follow us, don’t forget about the extraordinary courage of the men and women who founded our State.

LM: Can you explain the appeal of history/historical material?  For a writer AND for a reader. (Do you think it’s different, in each case?)

NOM: I suppose it depends on which historical period one is writing about. I think that the fascination of recent Irish history is that it tells us a lot about the forces that formed us as a people; it might show us how far we’ve progressed beyond, or drifted from, the original ideals of our grandparents’ generation. We might recognise ourselves in these earlier stories, or else be fascinated by the difference or strangeness of it all. It very much lies in the eye of the beholder, I think. But the great appeal lies in the nature of the narrative itself – story is powerful, whether it’s a 2,000 year old story of warring Roman generals or a 100 year old story of rival brothers. As writers, we’re obsessed with telling stories, and as readers, we want to consume as many as possible. And as Arnold Toynbee may or may not have said, ‘history is just one damn thing after another’ which means there’s no shortage of incident to use in story-telling.

 

LM: What about that old accusation that Irish writers are too preoccupied with the past – do you think it’s fair? Relevant? Did it influence you at all?    

I don’t think it is a fair statement. Indeed it does strike me that there’s not that much actual fiction written about the first quarter of the 20th century in Ireland at all ; it’s almost as if the previous generation had to skirt over it because there were still so many unspoken traumas they didn’t want to disturb. So writers of that generation might have written about their own childhoods in the 30s and 40s onwards, but didn’t investigate what their own parents might have been experiencing. So it’s only now, with a space of 100 years between us and many of these events, that we have the space and objectivity to reassess things through the fictive lens.

(You can find Nessa at: http://nessaomahony.wordpress.com)

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On historical fiction

Last Tuesday in the Central Library in the Ilac Centre, I took part in a very enjoyable Dublin Festival of History event – “Of guns and drums and wounds” – with Audrey Magee (The Undertaking). Tara Doyle talked to us about historical fiction in general and our own novels in particular.

One question that set me thinking was about historical fiction’s appeal for readers. I’m more used to being asked about where the idea for my own novel (Fallen) came from, rather than why a reader might be drawn to it, but now that the novel is out and about under its own steam it’s safe to think about this intriguing question. Here are some of the (fairly haphazard) ideas that came to me, in no particular order:

  • Being ‘historical’ adds weight to the setting of a story in a particular time and place. So far so obvious, but in fact every novel is set in a time and a place that is other than the time and place in which it’s read, so that distinction is an illusion. When you think about it.
  • Being ‘historical’ might also add a layer of authenticity to the story, but that’s our old friend illusion at work again. That’s not a criticism, by the way. After all, the business of fiction is creating an illusory world and making the reader feel it as real (John Gardner’s ‘vivid, continuous dream’).
  • Thinking about historical fiction in this way ushers setting into the foreground, because a historical story’s setting is about time as much as place. Or, looked at another way, time becomes the equivalent of place – and why not? Is the past not a place in our imaginations? L P Hartley had it right when he said the past is a foreign country, and yes, they do things very differently there.
  • Does moving back through time add to a reader’s sensation of being transported to another world?
  • If we already know something about the period or events in question, reading a novel set there is the literary equivalent of going back to a loved and familiar place on our holidays. We speak the language. We know where to get the best coffee, where they have wifi, how far the water rises at high tide, how to get home in the dark.
  • If we don’t know something about the period, we rely on historical fiction to give us the real low-down. The official brochures can be useful, but they don’t tell you everything.
  • Which leads me to: was it Hilary Mantel who said that history is all the things they try to hide from you? The job of historical fiction is to root around in out of the way places and shine some light into dark corners.
  • Readers (and writers) love stories that bring characters into extreme situations to see how they might act. In fiction about war – which Tara asked us about specifically – the stakes are as high as its possible for stakes to get. It’s about trying to understand the choices humans make. As Audrey Magee said, we all like to think we’d be a Schindler, but there aren’t actually that many Schindlers among us.
  • War stories are still – horribly – all too relevant.
  • Sometimes we’re just plain curious about the past, about where and what we’ve come from and what our ancestors might have been like.

Watch this space:  Soon I’ll be talking to the poet Nessa O’Mahony about history and poetry, and her two most recent collections, the verse novel In Sight of Home and her new collection Her Father’s Daughter.

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Events and Submissions

Apologies for the long silence – I was overtaken by events of my own, as it happens.  Here’s a quick posting of some upcoming events & openings for submissions.  I’ll be back soon with some thoughts on historical fiction in a discussion with the poet Nessa O’Mahony, whose latest collection Her Father’s Daughter was launched this week by Salmon Press.

From Glimmer Train:

  • Maximum word count: 3,000. Reading fee is $15 per story; please, no more than three submissions per category.Writing Guidelines.

When in doubt, which is where you’ll be living your life as a writer of all your work, short or long, write something simple and follow it out past knowing…listen.—Ron Carlson

  • Second- and 3rd-place winners receive $500/$300, respectively, or, if accepted for publication, $700.
  • The results of the Very Short Fiction Award contest will be officially announced in the January 10th bulletin, and finalists will be contacted directly by 12/23.

***

From Umbrella Theatre Company:

THREE NEW PLAYS at the Maureen O’Hara studio in the Mill Theatre, Dundrum will open on Tuesday 7th October. Each play will be enacted with script in hand, assisted by video animation and scene setting.

The three plays, on successive Tuesdays and Wednesdays,  cover a broad and interesting range of themes from :

  • a comedy set in 1950’s Ireland to
  • a very topical play on issues affecting the lives of Irish women from the 1960’s to the present day.
  • a stimulating perspective on the impact James Joyce’s literary pursuits may have had on his two children, Giorgio and Lucia.

The High Priest of Hackballscross by Michael Casey

- Tues 7 & Wed 8 Oct 2014, at 8pm.

Safe by Celia de Fréine
– Tues 14 & Wed 15 Oct 2014, at 8pm.

Joyce’s Wake by Michael Casey
– Tues 21 Oct & Wed 22 Oct 2014, at 8pm.

Tickets: €7

 

Booking: Mill Theatre 01 -296 9340   or online at www.milltheatre.ie

 

***

From The Progressive Film Club:

(This screening will be devoted to environmental issues)

Where :  The New Theatre, 43 East Essex St., Temple Bar, Dublin 2.
When  :  Sat. 25th October 2014
Time   :  15.00hrs

(A) 3pm – The Last Ice Merchant – 15mins

Ecuador is small in size yet rich in geographic diversity. The land ranges from the towering, snow-capped Andes to the lush, coastal lowlands, the Amazon jungle and the Galapagos Islands. Chimborazo, with an elevation of 20,700 feet above sea level, is the tallest mountain in Ecuador and the closest point on Earth to the sun due to its proximity to the equator. The summit is covered with snow-capped glaciers.
Twice a week for over half a century, Baltazar Ushca has hiked up the slopes of Mount Chimborazo, the tallest mountain in Ecuador, to harvest glacial ice that covers the highest altitudes of this dormant volcano. In the past, up to forty ice merchants made the journey up the mountain to mine the ice; today, however, Baltazar works alone. Even his brothers, Gregorio and Juan, both raised as ice merchants, have retired from the mountain to find more steady work.
The Last Ice Merchant tells a story of cultural change and indigenous lifestyle through the perspectives of three brothers who have dealt with change in different ways.

(B) 3.30pm – The Wisdom to Survive – 60mins

Climate Change, Capitalism & Community

THE WISDOM TO SURVIVE accepts the consensus of scientists that climate change has already arrived, and asks, what is keeping us from action? The film explores how unlimited growth and greed are destroying the life support system of the planet, the social fabric of the society, and the lives of billions of people.
The film examines the challenges that climate change poses and discusses meaningful action that can be taken by individuals and communities.
Will we have the wisdom to survive? The film features leaders and activists in the realms of science, economics and spirituality discussing how we can evolve and take action in the face of climate disruption.
Directed by John Ankele & Anne Macksoud
Videography: Michael Sacca
Music: Eugene Friesen – Cello
A film by Old Dog Documentaries
http://www.progressivefilmclub.ie/

 

 

 

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Interview with MARTINA DEVLIN

Martina pic

Martina Devlin’s latest book is The House Where It Happened, a ghost story inspired by Ireland’s only mass witchcraft trial. Other books range from the number one bestseller Banksters, a co-authored account of the Irish banking collapse, to Ship of Dreams, a novel about the Titanic. She has won a Hennessy Literary Award, the VS Pritchett short story prize from the Royal Society of Literature in London, and was shortlisted twice for the Irish Book of the Year awards.

She also writes a weekly current affairs column for the Irish Independent and has won a number of journalism awards including the National Newspapers of Ireland’s columnist of the year. She has been writer-in-residence at the Princess Grace Irish Library in Monaco. Her website is www.martinadevlin.com

The House Where It Happened (Ward River Press) is out tomorrow (Monday 1st September 2014).  Martina will be a guest on the Sean O Rourke Show on RTE Radio One.  http://www.rte.ie/radio1/ Tune in to listen 10.00-12.00

Congratulations, Martina, there’s a great buzz about this novel already!  I’ll just ask a few questions, starting with the obvious:

Why are you a writer? I have the storyteller gene. I grew up in the oral tradition, listening to both of my parents spin stories – particularly ghost stories. We took a lot of long car journeys when I was a child, travelling between my home in Omagh, Co. Tyrone and my mother’s home in Oola, Co. Limerick. My parents used storytelling to keep their seven children from whining. It works, you know.

How do you balance the demands of journalism, your weekly columns and fiction? It’s called earning a living! Most writers are obliged to balance various commitments. As regards journalism versus fiction, I think of everything I do as communicating with people. The tone is different, of course, depending on the platform. Through the journalism, I try to make sense of the world around me. I also try to reach out and connect with people: I drop my rocks over the parapet and listen for an echo. The best part of having a newspaper column is being able to highlight subjects which might not otherwise attract attention.

You’re a regular contributor to Sunday Miscellany – can you talk about that?The intimacy of radio appeals to me. I respond to the human voice without the distraction of visuals. And I like radio’s versatility – the way listeners can multi-task while tuning in. Sunday Miscellany is a quirky programme in a world where quirkiness isn’t necessarily valued. It offers a range of accents and experiences, and has an egalitarian core – contributions are aired by people at various stages of their writing careers. I enjoy taking part in the public broadcasts, when RTÉ goes on the road to literary festivals and so on, because it means direct contact with the audience.

martina cover

Where did The House Where it Happened come from?  What drew you to the story? I read a snippet in a newspaper in one of those ‘it happened today’ columns which said that on this day in 1711 eight women were convicted of witchcraft in Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim. I was astounded to learn there had been a mass witchcraft trial in Ireland. I started researching it, and the more I discovered, the more engrossed I became. I decided I had to tell this story. It simply lodged in my brain. Mainly because of the eight women who were found guilty – the finger pointed at them by another woman. All were Ulster Scots, and Presbyterians, accuser and accused alike.

 

Can you talk about your research?  One of the most striking things for me about this novel is the level of authentic detail that makes the world feel real and multi-dimensional: how did you achieve that? The total immersion method: I read everything I could about the subject over several years. There are court documents and eye witness accounts, which were useful. I visited Islandmagee and Carrickfergus, where the book is set, and spoke to locals – 300 years didn’t appear to be such a distant era when I met them. Speech patterns are the same, people look the same, the topography is the same, names are the same. Books on other subjects published in the early 18th century gave me a feel for the nuances of the period. Elsewhere, the rational movement was growing, sceptical of traditional beliefs, but fear of witchcraft remained strong among the Ulster Scots. It helped that I grew up in the North, so I was familiar with the Ulster Scots community, although I don’t come from that tradition. Old newspapers informed me not just about international affairs and politics, but about social history. Their advertisements are a porthole into our ancestors’ lives – for example what people paid for the hire of a servant girl or the purchase of a horse, and what they wore and ate.

 

The novel is hard to categorise, it’s a historical/ghost-story/witch story.  Do you see that as an issue when it comes to selling a book – to a publisher, or in the bookshops?  Why did you write it that way? That just seemed to be the best way to tell the story. I always think about the story first. Obviously, I’m keen for my work to be published, I don’t want my manuscript to languish in a drawer. But my primary responsibility is to the story rather than to fashion a tidy fit for a category. There are drawbacks with this approach. Some publishers were deterred by the Ulster-Scots dialect, others worried that a story about witches would deter male readers, while others felt the Antrim setting lacked broad appeal. There was interest in publishing it under a very well-known horror imprint, but I took a deep breath and said no, even though I didn’t have any other offers. I see The House Where It Happened as a ghost story in the long Irish tradition. I always wanted to write one – I grew up steeped in the genre. Anyhow, my agent Lucy Luck believed in it, and it found a home with Ward River Press, where I’m in good company.

 

Many people dismiss historical fiction, but it seems to be staging a comeback in popularity.  Would you like to say anything about that? For some of us, it never went away. Since childhood, I’ve always read it (Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables). At its core, historical fiction is nothing more and nothing less than a compelling story – it’s not the setting which matters so much as the plot, the characters, the dilemmas. However, an interesting setting can add an extra dimension. The trick with historical fiction is to bring the past to life in the present: Hilary Mantel did that convincingly in Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. The antiquated language (‘verily, my liege’) used by some novels can form a blockage during the reading process. So can an excess of research plonked on the page in a wodge of information. It’s a high-wire act – but all fiction walks a tightrope.

 

Yet your next novel is set in the future. What was it like to make the switch from past to future? Again, it just seemed to be the best way to tell the story. I never intended to write a book set in the future – at the risk of sounding like a hapless channel for words materialising from the ether, here’s what happened. A character came to me, and a dilemma, and it made no sense to set it either in the present or the past. Stories need to obey their own rules of logic. I don’t regard this book as sci-fi (there are no flying cars), although I suppose you could call it speculative fiction. It was quicker to write than either of my historical novels because I had the freedom to invent more about the environment and how people interacted within it. Historical fiction has a responsibility to get the period right, or a reader’s trust is squandered and the bond loosened. Nobody can accuse me of accidentally leaving radiators in Queen Anne drawing rooms in the next book because it’s my imaginary universe.

 

Who are your favourite writers? Charlotte Bronte because she did something radical – she had Jane Eyre step out from between the pages of a book and speak directly to us: “Reader, I married him.” In those four words, Bronte dismantled one of the barriers between writer and reader. I visited Haworth Parsonage in Yorkshire, where she lived, and had to be dragged away by the others in my party, who wanted to do perfectly natural things like find somewhere to eat. I stood in the dining room where Bronte wrote, and imagined her pacing the table’s circumference at night, reading her own words aloud to herself (as we’re told she did). And missing her siblings, how she must have missed them – but carrying on. Until she married, when it all went dreadfully wrong.

 

You are in the process of making your memoir The Hollow Heart available as an ebook: can you talk about that? The book still seems to sell reasonably well on the Internet, judging from the emails I receive, but it’s no longer readily available in shops, so I thought I might as well put it out there myself. I don’t know how that will work out – this is an experiment. I don’t feel a burning urge to post up my entire backlist as ebooks, but The Hollow Heart is different because it’s personal. What I really like is the idea of my books in audio format so that people can listen to them in the car or on a bus. I’m taken by the idea of a stranger, and my words, setting off on a journey together. That happens when someone opens a print edition or ebook, but an audio book represents a journey in both senses of the word.

 

Best of luck with it – and well done, again, for writing such an engrossing novel as The House Where it Happened.

 

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NEW WRITING AWARD @ New Welsh Review

NWRThe lovely people at New Welsh Review http://www.newwelshreview.com have launched a brand new writing competition, open to residents of Ireland & the UK and anyone educated in Wales:

WWF Cymru Prize for Writing on Nature & the Environment

(8,000-30,000 words of Non Fiction writing on nature & the environment)

1st prize: £1000, an epublishing deal and a weekend at Gladstone’s Library, Flintshire

2nd prize: a week-long course and accommodation at Ty Newydd Writer’s Centre, Gwynedd.

Closing date: 1st November

https://newwelshwritingawards.com/

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