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

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. 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 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

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How to be a Child? – a Carmel Benson Exhibition @ The Mermaid (Bray)


Carmel Numbered


“How to be a Child?” is the title of Carmel Benson’s latest exhibition. Themes familiar from the artist’s earlier work recur but in newly explicit forms: here, the solitary, watching figure is that of a young girl who faces the viewer through or from under a veil. Foetuses (sometimes numbered) seem to fall from the sky, or else they dangle from placentas, accompanied by the chilling words Mea Culpa. Words from Catholic prayers and from the Catechism overlie the figures or emerge from the background.

In a programme note, Ciaran Benson observes that ‘the ‘Catechism’ was probably the most important book in the lives of Catholic children’ when the artist was growing up. He also observes that this show marks a shift in her work: for the first time, history and autobiography are apparent. In addition, it seems to me that a critical awareness and challenge are apparent in these paintings, where earlier work was more allusive.


Carmel Mantra


Some of the more striking images include: a representation of a child’s dress in a hopeful shade of innocent blue, marred by the muddy handprints of an adult and overwritten by the words of the ‘Hail Mary’; the miserable face of a young girl, veiled, behind a rain of foetuses; and a triptych of the artist’s grandmother (‘Matriarch’), where a strong, unsmiling female figure is associated with a serpent/rosary beads/missal, a newborn baby, and a newly-killed chicken in turn. Each of the Matriarch paintings is inscribed with the Latin phrase ‘Introibo ad Altare Dei/I will go onto the altar of God’, as if the Matriarch delivers the child into the hands of an institution whose texts will demean, disempower and despise her.

Matriarch (Detail)

Matriarch (Detail)

Themes of sexuality and birth are threaded through the work, along with the oppressive phraseology of Catholic classrooms, dogma and ritual: ‘Through my fault’; ‘Our passions incline us to evil’; ‘Why did God make the world? For his own glory and man’s use and benefit’ – this last chillingly inscribed on blocks of darkening blues that overwhelm two small girls in Communion dresses at the centre of the painting.


Carmel for his own glory

for his own glory

The exhibition is timely, but the work has been in the making since long before the most recent spate of scandals about the religious orders and their treatment of women and children emerged. The juxtaposition of Catholic dogma with images of loneliness, confusion, foetuses and placentas makes a clear statement about the disturbing and distorting effect of such dogma on the psyche of children … Some older images are included in the show, demonstrating a continuity in Carmel Benson’s focus to date but also drawing our attention to the shifting ground and  breaking point at which we’ve arrived.  “How to be a Child?” raises exciting possibilities. What will this artist do next?

The images (reproduced here with permission) can be seen at – but for full impact, go to the exhibition. It runs for another two weeks – until 7th September – in The Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray

(NB: for some reason, the exhibition is not listed on the Mermaid’s home page, but you’ll find it under Exhibitions/Current Exhibition)

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Two poetry competitions from The Moth

This just came in from Claire Mulligan @ The Moth Magazine (

Details of this year’s Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize:
* One overall prize of €10,000 for a single poem
* Three runner-up prizes of €1,000.
The prize is open to everyone, as long as the work is original and previously unpublished. Details are attached.
They are also running an inaugural Caterpillar Poetry Prize:
* €1,000 will be awarded to the best poem written by an adult for children by way of celebrating the first year of The Caterpillar, the junior version of The Moth.
You can read about the Ballymaloe Poetry Prize online here.
You can read about the Caterpillar Poetry Prize online here.
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What’s a copy-editor? What do they do? Why do we need them?

This is an interview with Robert Doran, copy-editor extraordinaire and all-round good bloke.  You’ll find him at Robert Edits.roberteditspic11-copy

Robert, if you were profiling a copy-editor, what characteristics would they have?

A degree of humility is essential. You must be able to keep your ego in check and remember that this is not your book. Any changes you make or suggest should chime with the author’s voice and be true to the message they are trying to communicate. Otherwise you’re writing, and that’s not your job.

You need to have an eye for detail, obviously, and you have to be able to think in a critical manner. By that I mean you should be able to put your taste aside and evaluate the writing on its own merits, considering where it sits within its genre or category and whether it’s doing the job the author wants it to.

You must have an interest in the nitty-gritty of language, too. If you couldn’t care less about the difference between a hyphen and an en-rule, editing might not be the career for you!

Is it what you always wanted to do and be? 

When I was a kid I wanted to design cars. I’d spend weeks drawing whole ranges and compiling them into “brochures” made out of stapled A4 pages. They had price lists and spec sheets and everything! Funnily enough, BMW never discovered me and I ended up studying languages at college, fully expecting to become a teacher or a translator, although I can’t remember ever feeling driven to do either.

How did you get into it?bookshelf 1

I got a job in Fred Hanna’s bookshop (now sadly defunct) when I was at college and I fell in love with the book trade. Bookshop experience is invaluable for anybody who wants to work in publishing – you learn so much, not just about books but about what makes them sell. What a lot of aspiring editors don’t get is that they need to understand the market, and a bookshop really is the perfect place to develop a sense of what works and what doesn’t. After that, I worked in sales and marketing for publishers in Ireland and in London, and then I moved into editorial because I wanted a new challenge.

How do you train?

The Publishing Training Centre has some great courses that are well recognised by the industry, and there are master’s degrees in Galway, Stirling and Oxford Brookes, all of which cover editing to a greater or lesser extent. Really, though, most editors do their training on the job and spend their evenings learning and honing their skills. You have to be driven to seek out the information that will help you to view a project at both a macro and a micro level. There’s a lot of hard work in the beginning but if it’s something that interests you, you’ll enjoy the process.

What’s sexy about editing?

Seriously? I wish I could give you something here but I can’t!

What’s a typical working day like for you?

I usually spend between one and two hours on e-mails, phone calls and admin and about seven hours editing, writing cover copy or checking proofs. Meetings probably take up three or four days a month. Within that there’s a lot of variation. I might start work at 7 a.m or 11 a.m. It just depends on the day. The freedom is great but you have to make sure you hit your deadlines and that you keep your clients happy. That means there are long hours and late nights sometimes. I often work weekends too, but it’s swings and roundabouts, and working from home makes it manageable.

What’s the biggest professional disaster you’ve had?

I’m lucky in that I’ve never done (or failed to do) something that resulted in a print run having to be pulped, but I shouldn’t boast about that, because it happens to the best editors. The most embarrassing oversight I can remember is allowing “faithful” to go through for “fateful”. I’m still mortified about that. (The author never noticed, so let’s keep that just between us!)

What’s the most rewarding thing you’ve done?

Rewriting a book from scratch, which is a lot more than an editor is usually called upon to do, and it’s a last resort, really. You’d never do it for fiction, but there are occasions when non-fiction books need a lot of intensive work. It was the first time I felt I could make a book happen even if the material was very challenging. For various reasons, publishers often commit to projects before they know exactly what they’re going to get from the author, and it helps if you’re prepared to do whatever it takes to make a book work for the reader.

Are there perks/hidden benefits? What are they?

I get to do a job I love doing. I frequently meet talented, creative people and I work with them to make something great. It’s a real buzz to hold in your hands a book that you helped to produce. Another big one for me, as a freelancer, is not having to commute and being able to choose my own hours. Also, you can work in your pyjamas if you like, but I would never do that. Never.

Can you break your approach to a manuscript into simple steps?  Is there a pattern to follow?

It depends on whether I’m doing a structural edit, copy-edit or proofread. With a copy-edit, I’ll usually skim through for gist and to get a sense of the structure or story arc. Then I’ll do the serious stuff: rephrasing, correcting errors, applying consistency, checking facts, eliminating repetition, making sure a character doesn’t have blue eyes in chapter 1 and brown eyes in chapter 6. I raise queries where necessary and comment on structural issues if they arise. After that I run a few macros and clean up the file before it goes back to the author. When the author has reviewed all the corrections and changes and answered my queries, I edit in any new material, do another tidy-up and code the file for the typesetter.

Have you ever refused to take on a manuscript? Why?

I turn down anything that doesn’t fit with my skills and experience. Also, I’m often approached by authors who have just completed the first draft of a book and want me to give it a quick polish before they send it off into the world to become a best seller. It rarely works like that, unfortunately. Most books go through several drafts before they’re even ready for a structural edit.

Does it ever make you wish you were writing things of your own, or is that the rudest, most intrusively personal question you’ve ever been asked?

I do write, but nothing that I’d let anyone see yet. Writing and editing are different skills, and one doesn’t necessarily support the other. There’s a degree of conflict involved. I’m continually impressed by the commitment and resilience of my clients. But yes, I do hope to write something really good some day.

You can contact Robert via his website, Robert Edits.

He is also Editorial Director at Kazoo Independent Publishing Services.

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Nothing’s Simple: making the case for an ebook

Nothing Simple New CoverSeveral months ago, I decided to publish my second novel, Nothing Simple, as an ebook. Why? The first and most obvious reason was that the novel was out of print and the rights had reverted to me.

There was a stronger reason. When I wrote the novel (2002-2005), Ireland was booming. We had net inward migration, people were speaking out of the sides of their mouths about furriners coming in looking for Irish jobs. Some of these furriners were economic migrants. Shock! Horror! This all left me scratching my head. When I was growing up, every family in the country had someone living and working abroad, legally or otherwise. I’d done it myself: lived in London for two years and in America for ten. Was the nation in the grip of collective amnesia?

Writing Nothing Simple was fun. I played with inverting some of the things that were being said in Ireland at the time, directing them at a fictional Irish couple who emigrate to America in the early 80s. My family and I had lived that experience, so I knew what I was writing about – although I hasten to add that the novel is fiction. The places and the atmosphere are real, but the characters and what they get up to are another matter.

The novel was shortlisted for the Novel of the Year award, but it went out of print. In time the rights reverted to me. And along came the next wave of emigration, making it relevant all over again, to a new generation.

So: why NOT make it an ebook and give it a second chance?

Here are some of the reservations I had:

  • A kind of internal snobbery about self-publication
  • A fear that if I went back to the novel I would want to change everything – it’s 9 years since it was published: what would I do: ignore any flaws I came across and just put it out as it was? Try to fix minor flaws as I came across them? Rewrite the whole damn thing? (what would you do?)
  • What if, having been back in Ireland too long, I edited the tones and atmosphere of Texas (where most of the novel is set) out of it?
  • Certain unflattering reviews niggled – what if they were right?
  • The title. This has always been an issue. It’s not a good title, no one can ever remember it. But if I changed it, would that give the misleading impression that it’s a new novel? I didn’t want to cheat anyone.

This is how I settled them:

  • Because the novel was published in the traditional way first time around, it has already been curated. I can live with that.
  • When I looked at it I saw small errors and tics that I couldn’t live with now, but they were on a level that didn’t change the structure or the mood or anything that happens. Cosmetic, I suppose – so I decided to do some copy-editing of my own and then to ask a professional copyeditor to come on board. (I was lucky to find Robert – the genius – Doran. I’ll be posting an interview with him very soon)
  • There are other vast areas of expertise I lack, but I live in a place where I’m surrounded by lovely talented professionals who are more than able to help, such as typesetting (Clodagh Moynan), developing social media skills (Elizabeth Rose Murray)
  • I opted for fully professional cover design from Chris Hamilton-Emery at The Cover Factory
  • I went to Texas (any excuse ….)  and brought the novel with me, did my preliminary edits there, within earshot of that very particular humour-inflected drawl. Then I handed it over to Robert for copy-editing. I swear, you think a manuscript is perfect  …

There are other ways to do it.  You can hand over your file to a professional outfit who will steer it through the entire process.  This can be an expensive option, though, so shop around. OR:

  • CRH coverYou can do everything yourself if you follow the advice of helpful books like: Self Printed by Catherine Ryan Howard: definitely go to her website and read her posts on self-publishing
  • I’d strenuously advise everyone to find a copy-editor you trust and enjoy working with. And before you go to them, develop some editing skills for yourself. I’d recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print by Renni Browne & Dave King – Actually, I’d recommend that book for all writers, my copy is never far from my keyboard.
  • When the novel was ready, I went to the ebookpartnership

The eBook Partnership handle admin for you: money, distribution and so on. They can take you through the entire process – or just the bits you want help with. They were very helpful, and they’ll talk to you on the phone if, like me, you’re a bit of a wreck when it comes to technicalities. See their website for services, prices etc.

There are other books to consult, other websites, other companies to use, this just happens to be the route I took. It took longer than I expected and turned out to be more complicated this way – but hey, I was busy doing other things (launching Fallen, for instance)…

To buy the ebook: (iTunes) or (Kindle)

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Flash Fiction or Prose Poem?

lightning imageThis is what’s exercising my sluggish, rain-soaked brain at the minute: what is the difference between flash fiction and a prose poem? Narrative, you might suggest – as Nessa O’Mahony did, very helpfully, when I posted the question on Twitter (Thanks, Nessa). You might think this is stating the obvious, but in fact I’ve seen many instances of flash that could be described otherwise: as vivid impressions, or wordplay, or even a single arresting image sustained for the length of the (very short) story. And I’ve read prose poems that use brilliant language to carry a narrative thread through a closely held idea to a conclusion. I can think of many poems that answer that description – but the difference between a poem and a prose poem seems clearer, at least to me: A prose poem doesn’t use line breaks.

Surely a form that prides itself on brevity, like flash, should be easy to define. Well, okay, a very short short story: how’s that? But I want more. I think the most helpful working definition I found was by Nuala Ní Chonchúir. In her guest editor’s slot at the Stinging Fly (Issue 27 Volume 2) she says ‘A flash can be a sparkling slice of the surreal, or a language-driven poem/story hybrid, or an eccentric Cutleresque riff on something banal that turns out to be truly insightful and often funny.’
double room journal imageTripping around the internet, as you do, I stumbled on this website: The Double Room Journal, ‘a literary and arts publication founded in 2002 to explore the intersection of poetry and fiction.’ Here’s Tony Leuzi, talking about his approach to writing both: with flash fiction, he’s conscious of the traditional ‘ingredients’ that make up a story, but with a prose poem ‘I am able to violate the creative laws in any way I see fit and accept the unexpected results’

Jonathan Carr goes further: ‘Flash fiction is a compact distilled piece of writing that follows all of the dictates (or lack thereof) that one would place on a work of fiction. It is an act of distillation. Of sparseness. Minimal strokes. A prose poem is often the very opposite. Where Flash fiction is a working down of a form prose poetry is an exploding up of a form, a release from structure, a star erupting, a channel run straight from the brain stem to the pen.’

I think I’ll hang out on this website for a while – it’s a delight, and there are nine whole issues to look through.

Posted in Commentary, Fiction, On Writing, Poetry | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments