Nicole Krauss in dlr LexIcon with Nadine O’Regan (28.08.2017)

Nicole Krauss was in Dun Laoghaire this week to promote her new novel, Forest Dark. 

Nadine O’Regan (NOR) opened the conversation by remarking on how young Nicole Krauss (NK) was when she began to publish fiction and how quickly success came to her. NK said that she had started out wanting to write poems. She started when she was around 15 and wrote poetry for ten years. ‘Then I found myself trapped in my poems. Great poets can get infinity into a poem. Even short ones have that. Mine were getting tighter … so I thought I’d try a novel, they are so much bigger and looser … and discovered that I loved the form.’

NOR asked about the received wisdom that writers are somehow outside society.

NK: ‘Society now is all about reduction, simplification … in a novel you complicate things …. everything now is about ease and convenience. I ask readers to sit for a while in a position of relative uncertainty (Keats’ Negative Capability). If we stay in that place of uncertainty long enough we can arrive at something we didn’t know before. (Information) is almost a religion with us now:  facts,  Google etc.,  but beneath it all there’s an anxiety: what about the unknown? What about wonder? It’s as necessary to us as hard knowledge.’

She went on to suggest that a novel makes sense of things that are not necessarily coherent to start with. Chaos, she said, is the truth that narrative must betray. She said that we’re all fiction writers in the sense that we’re constantly telling ourselves stories about our lives, creating ourselves through narrative.

NOR said that the characters in Forest Dark reach a point in their lives where they create new selves, throw their old selves away. NK disagreed. That’s not what they’re doing, exactly. ‘Change seems like that  but …  at some point in our lives the narrative we’re in no longer fits; this brings us to a moment where we ask, How do I change?  Do I give up the forms I’ve inhabited all my life? – I’m not just interested in the chaos of things but in staying in it long enough to figure out what it is, how it changes.’

They had an interesting chat about the title. NK originally wanted Gilgul, a Hebrew word suggesting a mystical idea of transformation. She was talked out of it by people who said the term was too obscure, although she pointed out that everyone knows what a golem is since Isaac Bashevis Singer published his story. Since the novel came out, she’s heard the word Gilgul used in different contexts; it’s a word that wants to get into the language. But she’s happy with the title Forest Dark, a reference to Dante’s Inferno.  The forest is a mystical place, she saysIn Shakespeare the forest is where characters go to find their magic. It’s a place of danger & possibility.

NOR asked about Nicole the character, who has obvious similarities with Nicole the writer – was that inhibiting? NK said that she’s used to that already, any writer is. People think things about other people all the time; this happens to all of us – you’re aware of those ‘public realities’. There are other versions of you out there in the world, different to what you think is your reality.

She said that freedom and authority are important to her. ‘As a woman you have to fight for authority. You don’t easily come to writing in your own voice. Writing anger, violence   etc. is easier in a male character.’ But if you don’t use your own voice,  you risk losing empathy and ’empathy is critical in literature. It  allows us to enter another character, to become them. My authority is my own now; I didn’t need to make myself an old man or set a story a century ago, which is what many writers do.’

‘A lot begins with one’s emotional origins  I had four grandparents, all deeply affected by the Holocaust  … I grew up hearing those stories. I went with my grandfather to a small village in Hungary where nothing he remembered was left. This nothing is where x was;  this nothing is where y was …  I knew that a reality can be cancelled.  Europe, the United States, Israel, are always changing  There is no commitment to any one geography. So, what is home?

NOR asked what it’s like to live in Trump’s America.

NK: ‘Obama is so recent, yet he seems like a distant dream of grace – intelligent and wise … so much has changed so quickly.’

NOR asked if it’s fair to compare America now with the rise of the Third Reich in 1940s Germany?

NK: The world has changed.  We live in a different moment. The US as a global power is in decline and there’s a backlash against that. There’s an over-simplification of the language of politics.’ In urgent situations, she said, something breaks. She spoke about the psychology of dictators and how because of social media, the psychology of Trump is so available, accessible to everyone, it’s in the palm of our hands in this intimate way, on our phones, all the time. She talked about the importance of being precise in how we use language, not to incite a violent response. We need to turn ourselves around, to say: hang on, we need to consider more, we need to think more, take more responsibility.

They talked a lot about Kafka. NK said a great thing, about how Kafka leads us out on a sentence and next thing we’re on a precipice, but there’s a view of infinity. That’s why we go to art, she said, for a view towards the infinite. It’s more important than ever in a time like ours.

Writing  is hard, she said,  but also – what a gift it is to be captain of your own mind and free to think your own thoughts.


The first question from the audience was bizarrely insistent on knowing what hotels NK may have stayed in in Tel Aviv, what synagogue she might attend. It took a while to disentangle ourselves from that one, but the next questioner asked if NK ever becomes overwhelmed with her ideas.

Which is a really good question

Usually before she starts to write, was the answer. They become urgent and then writing is a way of dealing with them.’You have to press this very abstract thing into language. Sense comes in sentences.’

Writing, for Nicole Krauss, is a way to find serenity.



Nicole Krauss was in Dun Laoghaire as part of the dlr Library Voices series curated by Bert Wright. Forest Dark is published by Bloomsbury.

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Vividity (yes, that is a word) 


In 1919 a town in Northern France donated a statue of the Sacred Heart to the Catholic Parish of Kingstown (now Dun Laoghaire) in memory of the Irishmen who fought and died in Flanders during World War 1.  Because of the politics of the time, the parish priest declined the gift. The Dominican nuns took it instead. They built a small oratory to house the statue, which is remarkable not only for its provenance but for its colour:  statues of the Sacred Heart are usually clothed in strong shades of red, but the fleshy tones of this statue’s garments make the figure more human, the exposed heart more significant.

The statue, however, is absolutely overpowered by its stunning setting.  This tiny oratory was lovingly, painstakingly, beautifully painted over a period of 16 years (1920-1936) by a Dominican nun, Mother Concepta Lynch. She worked four hours a day – after a full working day as a teacher (music and art) in a girls’ school – in a tiny chapel lit by (donated) oil lamps using (donated) hardware paint mixed to a special formula.

Mother Concepta was born Lily Lynch in 1874, the daughter of Thomas and Mary Lynch. Lily’s father was an illuminator, with a particular interest in Celtic symbolism and early Christian art, at the time of the Revival. He had a successful studio in Dublin. Lily never had formal training in art, but must have learned the old fashioned way, living in a studio and directly immersed in the thinking and work of practitioners. When she was six, her mother died. When her father died Lily left school – she was 16 – and took over the business, which she seems to have run successfully until 1896. She was 22 when fire destroyed the Lynch premises and she entered the Dominican order, taking the name Mother Concepta.

When the oratory was built to house the Sacred Heart, Mother Concepta was asked to decorate the wall behind the memorial statue. The effect was so powerful she was asked to keep going, so she did, until every inch of wall was covered with vivid, exuberant Celtic figures and patterns, all drawn from memory. She used her father’s formula for mixing colours, sending directions to a local hardware shop via some of her pupils. She cut up old window blinds to make stencils.  The windows came from Clarke’s studio in North Frederick Street, some of them made entirely by Harry Clarke himself.

We visited the Oratory as part of Heritage Month in Dun Laoghaire. Our (terrific) guide asked us to be quiet for the first few minutes and simply absorb our surroundings. Entering the Oratory, she said, is like walking into the Book of Kells. She’s right, but it also reminded me of the effect of emerging from a gloomy stairwell into the Sainte Chappelle in Paris on a bright day, where colour becomes an element to immerse yourself in.

This was an extraordinary experience. I remember the fuss about saving the Oratory when the Bloomfield Shopping Centre was being built and the diggers were halted within inches of the tiny building while conservationists fought to save it (Michael D Higgins was one of those people). To think this exquisite festival of colour and Celtic form could have been lost.

I grew up in and around Dun Laoghaire but I had never been inside the oratory before. It has to be protected from the elements and from exposure to too many visitors, too much light. The walls haven’t been touched since 1936 when Mother Concepta was taken ill, the ceiling still unfinished. She was working as Michelangelo did, lying on her back on planks supported by step ladders. Four hours a day. Sixteen years. Cramped conditions; full-time teaching work; no formal education or training.

Well, I repeat myself.

The oratory is now itself housed in a building which serves as a protective shell, beside the children’s playground on Library Road (Dun Laoghaire).  Access is limited. It is open at restricted times during the summer.

More info here.

Tours will continue until 3rd September, details here

More images here 

(With apologies for the quality of my own, which do nothing like justice to the original. Go and see it for yourself.)


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Guerrillas in the Mist

The recent Farmleigh House based project Pieces of Mind was inspired by Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. 

Following a conversation about this, fabulous Belfast poet Maria McManus sent me a link to her own exciting work in response to Perec. Do yourself a favour on this rainy Sunday and read her account of correspondence, observation, literary activism and non-violence here.

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Internment, anyone?

This blog is usually about the arts but artists are citizens too.

The UK election is tomorrow.

In Ireland we worry about the Border, no matter how officialdom tries to placate us. Now there’s something else to worry us: Today’s Guardian online quotes Theresa May as saying she’ll ‘rip up human rights laws that impede new terror legislation’.

If you are thinking desperate situations … Please read this highly intelligent and thought-provoking piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books by our own Molly McCloskey:

“What Are We Still Doing in Guantanamo?”

and think again.


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Sally Rooney at ILFD 2017 (With Rick O’Shea  in Belvedere House)

Sally Rooney is a phenomenon. She’s very young (26) but we can’t hold that against her. She has talent, energy, a strong sense of the world her generation inhabit and a direct way of talking (and writing) that is instantly appealing. She has a sharp mind and seems reluctant to engage in bullshit of any kind.  She speaks very quickly, in a hurry to frame and express all she wants to say in response to a question and move on.

Unlike Elizabeth Strout (see previous entry), Rooney’s path to publication has been short. A 2015 essay in the Dublin Review (“Even if you beat me”) caught the eye of an agent who contacted her to ask if anyone represented her, because if not … Two years later her first novel Conversations With Friends – which was the subject of a seven-way bidding war – has arrived on our shelves courtesy of Faber. Her second novel is already underway.

When she’s asked about all of this, Rooney is devastatingly direct about what it means to her.  She has made a straightforward economic bargain that allows her to write full-time. ‘Money legitimises what you’re doing,’ she says.  But she’s keenly aware of the silences this situation masks, the exclusions that happen for would-be writers less fortunate than herself. It’s an issue we should all think about. ‘How do we make it possible for people to write full time? If we want to live in a society that values books and reading, we need to address this … (badly paid) internships etc mean that only people who can afford to live on no or very little money work in the arts world. That means we have creative individuals who only reflect that (economic position). What do we want our literary culture to look like?’  It’s a topic she returns to often, as when she points out that although there is an ongoing, healthy conversation about gender and exclusion in literature, that conversation has barely begun when it comes to class and ethnicity.

Her influences are broad; they include film, TV, music. When Rick O’Shea asked about her interest in jazz, Rooney said, disarmingly, ‘I’m not a jazz intellectual. I like songs with lyrics: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Julie London … otherwise it’s too cerebral.’  She admitted to loving Miles Davis but ‘he’s too smart for me’. No-one in the room believed this, not even for a nanosecond.

JD Salinger’s Franny and Zooey made a big impression on her in her late teens and is still a favourite book. (The protagonist of Conversations With Friends is called Frances.) She reckons the  influence of Salinger is  probably evident in her novel. Another element of her novel, she says, is joy. Writing it was a happy time for her.

Rick O’Shea asked if her experience with debating (the subject of that Dublin Review essay) has fed into her ease with events like this one. She said, ‘it helps with an  ability to speak in front of crowds but not with … I was going to say ‘fluency’ but it took so long to find the word, it would have been ironic.’  You have to admire this young woman. She’s quick, smart, honest and absolutely of her generation. She spoke about her frustration with novels, TV and films that labour plot points that could be settled instantly by a (mobile) phone call or google. They laughed about the number of times characters find themselves ‘out of coverage’ at vital moments.  We need to find new ways to write technology into our stories, they agreed – and to recognise that evolving forms of communication are changing the nature of human relationships.

We were in a room in Belvedere House (in Joyce’s Alma Mater) that enshrines the past, with its perfect Georgian proportions and delicate plasterwork by stuccodore Michael Stapleton. Listening to this animated conversation between two people who are acutely tuned in to contemporary culture, I had a sense of the future quietly entering the room and taking its place among us.

Conversations With Friends is reviewed by Sarah Gilmartin in today’s Irish Times & by Ian Maleney, in the same paper, with an interview.


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Elizabeth Strout at ILFD 2017 (with Sinéad Gleeson)

No one could accuse Elizabeth Strout of being an overnight success.  Encouraged by her mother, she started writing as a child. That, she says, got her thinking about sentences. She started sending stories out when she was 16 but her first novel (Amy and Isabelle) wasn’t published until she was 43. And all that time she was writing. Reading and writing and wondering what was wrong with her sentences. If it’s not working for you, she told us, it’s probably about honesty.

Realising that people laugh at standup comedians because they say the unsayable, she signed up for a class and found herself onstage performing a routine that ‘made fun of myself for being a New England white woman. Until then I didn’t know that’s who I was.’ Until then, she had been avoiding writing about small town New England, which is, she says now, part of her DNA. Amy and Isabelle, set in Maine, was a best-seller but it took two years for her to get an agent. No one was interested until she contacted an editor at the New Yorker who had been rejecting her stories for years but ‘with increasing kindness.’ He looked at her manuscript and ‘the next day, I had invitations to lunch from five different agents.’

She made us laugh. Often. Her timing is perfect. She is droll and likeable and she draws her audience into her delivery, makes us feel part of the conversation. Which is pretty much her approach to readers too.  She feels responsible to and for them, thinks about her ideal reader while writing. If she can make up characters, why not make up an ideal reader: neither male nor female, no particular age, ‘they need the book but they don’t know they need it.’

She wanted My Name is Lucy Barton to be porous, so that every reader can bring their own experience to it. ‘How do you do that?’ someone asked from the audience during the Q & A. ‘By leaving things out.’  If you write too much, she said, you come between the reader and the text.

Like Olive Kitteridge, the massive international best-seller that won the Pulitzer Prize, Strout’s latest book, Anything is Possible, is a novel in interconnected stories. It tells the stories of various characters who are connected to Lucy Barton;  many of them were written while she was writing that novel. ‘These people interested me so much. For example Lucy’s mother says that Kathie Nicely came to a bad end and I thought, oh yeah? Why?’

Patty Nicely is a character in Anything is Possible. She has a story of her own and features in others. When Patty reads Lucy Barton’s memoir she experiences a profound inner shock of transformative recognition. ‘Lucy Barton had her own shame; oh boy did she have her own shame. And she had risen right straight out of it.’ More importantly, ‘Lucy Barton’s book had understood her.’ During the Q & A a woman stood up to thank Elizabeth Strout for that line. This connection between Strout and her readers is as strong as Strout’s connection to her characters, who are real to her.  They come to her and show her things. ‘I don’t judge them,’ she says. ‘I just record them.’

Sinéad Gleeson was an ideal interviewer for this closing event of ILFD 2017. She knows the books well; her questions were not only well-informed but insightful. At least twice she surprised Strout with her observations. She remarked on the different forms of shame that male and female characters experience in Anything is Possible, as though shame is gendered.  She asked how the characters would have voted in the most recent election.  Strout said that the book was written before ‘that event’ – getting a laugh from the audience.  Some of them would have voted for Trump, she said, but not Patty.

Sinéad Gleeson asked if it had been a conscious decision to include more men in these stories than in her previous work.  Strout said no, there are very few conscious decisions. She asks herself what the reader needs, that part is conscious, it’s like  a dance with the reader, but mostly it’s not conscious at all.

There is a line in My Name is Lucy Barton about writing:  ‘If you find yourself protecting someone you’re not doing it right’. Sinéad Gleeson asked about this, if Strout ever finds herself protecting people.  Strout said yes, and then she has to go back to it. ‘Write about life,’ she says. ‘If there’s someone you want to protect take that emotion they make you feel and transpose it to another character.’ (See above, about honesty)

She said her main interest is in class in America. ‘Every rural town has a family who are so poor they’re ostracised (like Lucy Barton’s family). Lucy crosses class lines; she stays behind in school; gets a scholarship, goes to college, gets out …’  Lucy goes to New York, as Strout did.

Sinéad Gleeson said that during this festival, Will Self said that most contemporary writers stay away from class.’ Strout’s answer was that ‘Amy & Isabelle is very much about class – It’s always been about class for me.  I’m interested in the most ordinary people who just do their work … it’s not about education or income but the level of power they think they have in their situation. What is their internal life as opposed to their external life?’

She loves William Trevor. He is, she said, the master of the art of the glimpse. ‘He could flip a line so gently, turn it over on its back. He has gentle lines and yet he zeroes in. ‘There’s real darkness in them,’ Sinéad Gleeson said.

‘Yes, of course.’

There’s real darkness in her own work too – but always, as she says herself, moments of grace. Like Patty, realising that Lucy Barton’s book understood her, that she is not alone in her shame. Strout’s rare gift is that she can deliver darkness with a light touch, as though she knows how much it hurts.


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Ann Patchett at dlr LexIcon

(Interviewed by Edel Coffey)

Ann Patchett was good fun at the LexIcon last night.  She love-bombed her audience from the beginning and it has to be said, the audience was primed and more than happy to love her back.  It was the kind of evening when Dun Laoghaire comes into its own – the sea a living thing, defying description, and walkers sensible enough to be out taking full advantage. If you missed it – that was summer, right there. Who knows how long it will last?

So there was the sun, beating on the glass and those of us who didn’t have sunglasses had to close our eyes while listening to Ann Patchett. She said she knew we weren’t asleep but it was very weird to look out at an audience who kept their eyes shut while listening, like a group meditation.

We could have been concentrating.  She was worth concentrating on.  Although she is funny and personable and knows how to keep an interview flowing, the things she said were worth listening to.  She startled us by saying that Commonwealth ( her latest novel and the reason for this book tour) and Bel Canto are essentially the same.  ‘I always write the same book,’ she said.  That got our attention – well, it got mine.  How could Bel Canto  – a multiple prize-winning novel wherein a private concert by a renowned opera singer in a South American vice-presidential palace is hijacked by a group of terrorists – be the same as Commonwealth – which tells the story of the effect of divorce and re-location on a group of step-siblings in a contemporary American family?

She said she never knows this about her novels until she gets to the end and sees it:  two groups of people are thrown together in strange circumstances and move on from there. Commonwealth is her most autobiographical-ish (her word) novel yet. She said she decided that, if the reason for her novels following this pattern is some deep psychological issue of which she’s unaware, then maybe she could get past it by writing more directly.  But it doesn’t bother her at all, this sameness – after all, we only have two stories: a stranger comes to town and the hero’s journey.  She’s always worried about things being too close to the truth so she sets her fictional situations somewhere else (eg Peru) and gives the characters different lives (opera singers and terrorists).  Commonwealth is the story without the costumes and the sets.

Autobiographical elements in the book include the fact that when she was 6 she was uprooted and moved to California to live with a step-family. Her father was a policeman, like Fix Keating  in the novel.  The character of Leo Posen, the writer who takes Franny’s story and turns it into a novel, is her, she said – but so is Franny. That was Patchett’s way of working out the ethics and ramifications of writing about a real situation while she wrote it.

Edel Coffey asked about ethical issues and about fiction versus non-fiction.  Referring to the title essay in her collection This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Patchett said she had resisted writing about some things because she thought it would hurt certain people and then she realised that was just a way of avoiding doing the hard work.  She decided to go ahead and write the ‘absolute truth’ of it (well, from her perspective),  wait a while, then approach the principals and ask if they had a problem with it.  And in that case her family – everyone has divorced someone – read it and asked, Did you think we didn’t know we were divorced? Did you think it was a secret?

You could feel the little current of electricity released by this sane advice.  Friends exchanged significant looks right and left. Books were spawning, right there in the room.

Another great piece of advice came from her saying that the writing she did for magazines at the beginning of her career was good training because of the discipline of having to cut and cut to fit space requirements and still have the same piece.  She goes through her work again and again, she says. It’s not just about cutting scenes or paragraphs, she goes through every sentence, looks at every word. It’s like combing for lice, she said. You think you’ve got them all and then you go back and there are more.


(Commonwealth is published by Bloomsbury.  The dlr Library Voices series is curated by Bert Wright)

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