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)

Posted in Events, On Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

PIECES OF MIND at Farmleigh House

This time last year, as writer-in-residence at Farmleigh (thanks to the Office of Public Works) I worked on a project called Pieces of Mind.

The idea came from Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. In the course of one weekend in October 1974, Perec set himself up in a series of local cafés and recorded what he saw. His writing tries to keep up with the passage of time and everything he sees over three days in one city square.

I wondered if I could do something similar, preserve a verbal snapshot of a Farmleigh moment. During my time there I often sat in the Boathouse Café and watched people, wondering what was going on inside their heads and in their lives. We’re all consumed by our own reality, but multiple realities co-exist. Where do they diverge and where do they overlap? If I see someone drink a latte or feed the ducks – what am I missing?

So I asked people to talk to me about whatever was on their minds on two specified days in May, 2016. I assembled a narrative mosaic from what 35 people told me, as a kind of textual time capsule to be stored as a document in the Iveagh library.

Here are some of the things people spoke about:

  • politics and the formation of the new Government – (10 weeks on from last year’s General Election)
  • Water charges
  • anxiety about the future, concerns about children, particularly adult children
  • There was a lot about writing, reading and the arts
  • There was talk of bereavement and talk of joy and quite a lot about the centenary commemorations.
  • Of all the memorable conversations I had, the one that still haunts me is the woman who told me that she and her husband, both in their seventies, are the sole carers for a physically disabled son in his thirties: ‘What will become of him when we die?’ she asked. ‘Despite making extensive enquiries and efforts to have his future welfare catered for we have absolutely no idea. No one can give us an answer. No one knows.’

One woman spoke about feeling that we are being manipulated, not just in what we think but in being directed towards what we think about.

This unsettling comment is very much in my mind when I read the papers or listen to the news today. The ‘news’ seems strangely static.  Read a story online; the next day you’ll read it in print, hear the same quotes on the radio and on TV:  same story, little fresh information, few dissenting voices.

I wondered, if I was to work on Pieces of Mind now, what would people talk about? So I asked them. Politically, the focus is narrower, but with strong echoes of last year’s issues reinforcing a sense of the involution of news: the fragmentation of old certainties, Brexit and the border, Trump. No-one mentioned the Fine Gael leadership contest (which, in fairness was only announced that day) but there’s anger about the Catholics-first policy in our schools and the ownership of the proposed new Maternity Hospital.

People are still focused on mortality, bereavement, the luck of being alive and the pain of serious illness. There are the same concerns about spiralling housing costs & the future of adult children. They’re thinking about weddings, about music, dance, poetry. One person sent me a sequence of poems;  another sent a description of hares in a field.

I’m thinking how lucky I am in the work I do and the people I do it with.

*

Printed versions of Pieces of Mind will be available for people to read in the Boathouse Café (Farmleigh) during the month of June. The book is not for sale.

This piece was broadcast as a radio essay on ARENA (RTÉ Radio One) on 19th May, 2017

(Photos by Simon Robinson, used with permission)

 

Posted in Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Found in Translation (Workshops)

Two weeks ago, I co-facilitated a residential writing weekend with Catherine Dunne at the fabulous Brewery Lane Theatre in Carrick on Suir, organised by the tireless Margaret O’Brien who also runs The Story House, based on the Arvon model of residential writing courses, with Nollaig Brennan (see our interview, below November 22nd).

The group that came together for the three days of the Brewery Lane Writers’ Weekend was open to the adventure, receptive to ideas and willing to take risks. These are essential elements of any good workshop – what you get is in direct proportion to what you bring. What you bring is up to you.

*

For anyone who wonders what a writing workshop is: there’s no great mystery. A workshop is a space where writers come together to focus on their craft. They are usually – as the name suggests – practical, grounded and effective. I’ve taken part in more than I can count, either as a participant or as a facilitator and yes, I’m still learning. Aren’t we all?

Every workshop is different. Their effectiveness depends largely on the dynamic that develops among the group – facilitators as well as students.  During our time together we reflect, discuss and argue about the more mysterious aspects of what we do but, as the name suggests, our focus is practical. We learn primarily through reading and through developing and practising a vocabulary that articulates basic principles, so that we can go back to our desks refreshed and motivated and put those principles into practice. One of the joys of a good workshop, hard to quantify, is the exhilaration of discovering that such a language exists, that we can speak it, that there are other people who are willing and eager to speak it with us. It’s like discovering that we have a tribe; it’s a kind of homecoming.

This summer, Catherine and I will work together again – in collaboration with the Istituto Italiano di Cultura on Fitzwilliam Square in Dublin and Italish.eu – when we co-facilitate a week of creative writing workshops in English: “Found in Translation”. The idea of this course is to give participants the time and space to explore the possibilities of writing in English, when English is not their first language.  This may sound head-wreckingly difficult but in fact, as both Catherine and I have written in different contexts, all writing is, in effect, an act of translation.  For some of us, working in a foreign language might even prove key to accessing material or a style that we haven’t worked with before.

The course was suggested by Massimiliano Roveri and Federica Sgaggio, who are the administrators.  We don’t know what new ideas might come out of this collaboration, but we’re excited by its possibilities and open to whatever it offers.  The course will run from July 31st – August 4th. With a limited number of  participants, it aims to give writers an opportunity to work with language in a creative way and to develop technical skills at the same time. There will be a mix of workshops and writing time, with one evening event where participants will meet an Irish audience and talk about aspects of Italian culture.

*

Read this post in Italian here

Booking and information (in Italian) here or at info@italish.eu

Posted in Teaching, Workshops | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Rugby as Theatre (Arena essay)

The lovely people at Arena (RTÉ Radio One) asked me back. Here’s the first radio essay I’ve written in a long time:

*

My artsy friends are puzzled by my love of rugby but to me, rugby is pure theatre. Spectacle. Drama – even before kick-off. The crowds, with colours, flags and drums take their places in stands reminiscent of Roman amphitheatres, all dressed-up, expecting a show.

The task here is deceptively simple: to carry an oddly-shaped ball over a line, or to send it flying between the posts, to accumulate scores and prevent another team from doing the same.

But that’s sport, you complain. Not the same as theatre at all.

Really? Like drama, rugby is all about conflict. It’s a test of character. Each player has a role, rehearsed many times. Matches may enact the same structure, but the story plays out differently every time – players improvise. That’s the magic of it. Each game has its own cast of characters, their (literal) goals, specific stakes, a ticking clock. We get effort, setbacks, gains and losses. There are structured phases of play, rules, a kind of choreography. There’s no shortage of incident. We get innovation and flair, moments of unscripted excitement and chance. One awkward bounce of that wilful ball can bring triumph – or disaster.

Off-pitch dramas heighten onstage tensions. This arena has its stars, temperaments, rivalries; not just among the players, but coaches and referees too. There are histories between the teams: old scores to settle, losses to avenge, pride to be restored. Ambition crowds the bench – understudies strain for their chance to perform, to outshine the big names. Young talent snaps at the heels of experience.

In the 6 Nations tournament, memories of past campaigns raise the tension. Nothing less than national pride is at stake. Witness the recent match between England and Italy – the Italians, underdogs of the tournament, deconstructed the script entirely and in the general confusion, carried the first half against all our expectations. Look at our own opening game against Scotland – at the outset, our players’ timing was off. Crucial lines were forgotten, lost. Nothing flowed. After the interval, our players brought us to the very edge of victory – and lost.

Both matches revealed the dangers of Hubris.

Think about what it takes to turn up, time after time, when you’re bottom of the pool but must play every move with absolute conviction – Like playing to poor houses after an excoriating review?

The crowd is a Chorus. They have a moral force, catharsis their reward. There aren’t many outlets for such uninhibited expression of approval or disapproval, joy or outrage, to cheer or to condemn. When a player falls badly, 50 thousand people go very quiet, very fast. Aristotle’s pity and fear are here in spades.

There are life lessons, too: Leave mistakes behind. Move on. It’s not over ‘til it’s over – but be warned, the clock is ticking. And while that clock is winding down these players don’t roll over. They play their hearts out. They keep trying. The never-say-die of it – that’s what I love.

You can listen to the show here.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Story House: Residential Workshops in Ireland

Six weeks ago I took a leave of unspecified duration from this blog – but weeks before that I began an interview with Margaret O’Brien and Nollaig Brennan of The Story House, now completed – So here it is.

NB: read to the end for news of the first Story House Residency (May 2017)

storyhouse_ireland

Lia: What is The Story House and how did it come about?

Margaret and Nollaig: The Story House is unique in that it provides taught residential writing courses here in Ireland, open to anyone who wishes to write. At The Story House we believe that writing matters and that writers need support at all stages but maybe particularly so at the beginning. It has seemed obvious to both of us for a number of years that there was a significant gap in the way writers were supported here in Ireland. There were of course lots of writing workshops around the country but beyond that there was little to bring the novice writer to the next level. Although there are residencies available, the focus is often on solitary writing and not everyone is ready to work without guidance, nor do they have the required body of work behind them in order to gain admittance. There are also wonderful day courses that are offered by the various literature festivals and writers centres, for example, but by definition these are not residential and it is the lack of this immersive, taught experience which we want to address with the introduction of The Story House.

 Lia: Can you explain its links to the Arvon Foundation?

M & N: The Arvon Foundation is the inspiration for the model we use at The Story House. For those unfamiliar with the organisation, Arvon has been running taught residential courses in the UK for almost half a century, and it has been shown that their deceptively simple approach works. We have received some moral support from them, and are delighted to have been approached by past tutors at Arvon about the opportunity to teach with us, but otherwise there is no direct link with Arvon.

It might be helpful if we could jump back a few years here. It was Margaret’s experiences of Arvon courses in Devon and Scotland, and her meeting with its founder John Moat at Totleigh Barton, that started the thought processes that ultimately led to the founding of The Story House. Margaret realised while there that there was no equivalent structure here in Ireland, and the subsequent big questions, ‘Why? Why not?’, refused to go away. Then in 2014, some weeks after we first met, we arranged a meeting in London with Ruth Borthwick, CEO of the Arvon Foundation. She was very generous with her time that day, and supportive of the project, but warned that it might take over our lives!

Lia: Who is behind it? How is it funded?

margaret-and-nollaig-book-tent-festival-of-writing-and-ideasM & N: It’s just the two of us, and please note that we laughed at the mention of funding! TSH has received no funding to date, none. We both work on this in a voluntary capacity, in addition to our day jobs. We think very highly of the writers who teach on our courses, and they are paid an appropriate professional fee, but the two of us do pretty much everything else, from planning and publicising the courses to devising the menus (and the meals at TSH are becoming legendary!). At the moment we rely on local Arts Officers to offer bursaries to writers to help with course fees and so far several counties have offered repeat bursaries. Right now we are more concerned that people can access our courses, that finance should not be a barrier – the whole thrust of TSH is that writing be regarded as an acceptable thing to do and we would hope ultimately that TSH would be in a position to offer at least some partial bursaries.

 

Lia: Can you tell us how the courses work?

M & N: The overriding atmosphere at The Story House is one of respect and mutual support. Spending the week together, supported by professional writers and by each other, creates an environment of trust and it is in this safe space that people really begin to gain confidence in themselves as writers and become free to take creative risks. Strong friendships often form and this helps each participant to become part of a growing community of writers. We encourage past participants to keep in touch and we’ve held follow up gatherings after each course for what is usually a very convivial debriefing.

For someone considering a course at The Story House an outline of the shape of the week might be useful. Each course runs from Monday afternoon through to Saturday morning. On the first evening we come together for a meal and a relaxed few hours of introductions and chat. There are workshops every morning until lunchtime and the afternoons are for one to one tutorials and free time to write, take a walk, nap or do whatever is needed. From Tuesday through to Friday the evening meals are prepared by a different team of three participants. We suspect that much of the transformative power of the week happens informally, over communal meals, casual conversations and the sharing of writing fears, hopes and experiences. After dinner each evening the schedule is very social. On Tuesdays, the tutors give readings from and talk about their own work. A Guest Writer joins the group for the evening meal on the Wednesday and later reads from their work, followed by a discussion. On Thursday evening everyone reads or shares from some of their own favourite writers. On the Friday night, which seems to come much too soon, we all celebrate each other’s writing and enjoy the sense of achievement. On that evening there is a sense of giddy disbelief at all that has been accomplished. Then on Saturday morning breakfast and farewells bring the week to a close.

Lia: Can anyone take the courses? Is there a screening or selection process?

M & N: Yes, anyone can take the courses. The Story House has no screening or selection process, it’s enough that you wish to write. However, some local authorities do run competitions for bursaries which does impose a certain level of screening. But there is no screening by The Story House, it would go against our core beliefs, and it’s top of our wish list to have funding to provide at least partial bursaries for participants.

Lia: Why do courses have to be residential?

M & N: When a course is residential it allows participants a perhaps rare opportunity to fully immerse themselves in their writing. They become part of a writing community for the week and, crucially, their creativity is supported by the way the week is structured. The late John Moat, one of the founders of Arvon, believed in the value of the apprenticeship model and that living with professional writers for a week and being guided by them would deepen the novice writer’s understanding of what it means to be a writer.

nollaig-and-margaret-cork-airport-en-route-to-arvon-hq

Lia: Do the courses move around the country?

M & N: As we’ve mentioned above The Story House has no financial backing, so therefore no permanent home as yet. For now we lease a suitable property for the week, which becomes the home for everyone for the duration of the course. We do see the potential for The Story House to become at some point in the future the National Residential Writing Centre for Ireland. However at the moment we are more interested in demonstrating the benefits of the model and making it as accessible as possible.

Lia: Margaret, what caused you to write an Open Letter to President Higgins?

M: My Open Letter to President Higgins was written out of a sense of frustration and not a little anger on my part. I had been putting forward the need for such a centre for some years without any meaningful response. I could see the benefits of creative writing from my own past experience of teaching adult literacy educators in Waterford Institute of Technology, my involvement with Pat Schneider’s organisation, Amherst Writers and Artists, and my own workshops, Writing Changes Lives. It seemed totally obvious to me that something like the model of Arvon, a residential centre with an emphasis on the process of writing, was needed here. Over the years I had continued to be in correspondence with John Moat, since our first meeting at Arvon’s Totleigh Barton centre, and he had always been supportive of my ‘campaign’ to start something in Ireland that followed the Arvon model. When Michael D. Higgins was elected President, John commented in an email to me that if I didn’t succeed now that we had a poet-President it might never happen. I used the occasion of President Higgins’ state visit to the UK to write the Open Letter, outlining what I saw as the need for this and also the benefits that would flow from it, and suggested that he include a visit to an Arvon centre as part of his visit. But unfortunately that wasn’t on his schedule.

Lia: Did you get a response?

M: Yes, I got a reply from Áras an Uachtaráin but it turned out not to be the most important response! I had shared the letter through social media and it was brought to Nollaig’s attention by Susie (Maguire) a mutual friend and author. Nollaig got in touch with me, we met up for lunch in Waterford the following day and that was the real beginning of The Story House. So you could say that I wrote to President Higgins but it was Nollaig Brennan’s response that brought The Story House into being. Since then we’ve been thrilled that Sabina Coyne Higgins accepted our invitation to join Jack Harte as Patron of The Story House. We feel that it’s a great endorsement of our work to have two such strong arts activists as patrons.

Lia: Nollaig, I’m very curious about your response to that Open Letter. Would you like to explain a little about that?

N: “It’s about writing, but it’s always about more than writing…” this was the line in Margaret’s letter which grabbed me. There was something about that line which resonated with me on such a personal level – being able to write is very important to my overall wellbeing. I felt that Margaret was someone I needed to meet and within moments of doing so, I understood that here was someone who had the same conviction as me of the importance of making the arts, especially the process of writing, more widely available and who shared my discomfort at the somewhat elitist nature of literature in Ireland. Would you believe that we later had a meeting with a very senior arts administrator who ACTUALLY ROLLED HER EYES at the idea that everyone should be given the opportunity to be creative? This sort of nonsense really needs to stop. This attitude does not a better society make.

I also felt that I had certain skills which might be useful in progressing a project such as TSH. Margaret and I bring very different things to the table and it’s a really good partnership.

Lia: What future do you see for The Story House?

M & N: We are busy right now promoting our next course, ‘Writing for Young People’, with the fabulous team of Sheena Wilkinson, E.R. Murray and midweek guest Patricia Forde. This will take place at Lisnavagh House, Co. Carlow from Monday, 20th to Saturday, 25th February 2017. [Now wouldn’t that be a super Christmas gift in someone’s stocking?]

We have also recently announced the first Story House Residency, a very generous gift to TSH by a past participant. This will offer one week in May 2017, at a lovely cottage in the west of Ireland, to a writer who has attended a course at TSH – giving them a wonderful opportunity to focus on a writing project. This will be an annual award and details of how to apply for this can be read on our website here.

With regard to the more long-term future, the effect of The Story House on its past participants has convinced us of what we already knew – that this model is filling a gap in the writing landscape of the country. Now that we have a proven track record in delivering quality courses, we hope to be able to run our courses more frequently and be in a stronger position to attract some outside funding. We want The Story House to continue to break down the barriers of literary elitism and to bring the benefits of the process of writing to a wider and more diverse population. We know how important it is that the appropriate supports are put in place and we want there to be less and less socio-economic or socio-cultural restrictions preventing people benefitting from the transformative power of writing. We are taking the long view with this.

 

 

 

Posted in Teaching, Workshops | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Away …

Starting work on a new novel is a lot like going away for a very, very long time on a one-way ticket. I’ve no idea when/if I’ll be back. But feel free to look through the archive if you’re interested …

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

THE GLASS SHORE: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland (Launches)

glass-shore-coverThe Glass Shore: Short Stories by Women Writers from the North of Ireland has been thoroughly launched – first in Belfast, then in Dublin (take a bow, New Island).

The Belfast launch was held in a packed and buzzing Ulster Museum on Monday 3rd October. Dan Bolger gave the speediest introduction ever and left the stage open to, in turn, Sinéad Gleeson, Lucy Caldwell, Patricia Craig (who wrote the Introduction) and then contributors Anne Devlin, Jan Carson and Bernie McGill. Music from the brilliant Hannah McPhillimy wrapped up the proceedings and after that there was chat and swapping of contact details and lines of people waiting to have their book signed by as many authors as were present.

Sinéad Gleeson said that The Glass Shore is one wave in a sea of brilliant voices – and this theme recurred throughout both launches. In Belfast, Lucy Caldwell took issue with Gore Vidal’s infamous line, that ‘every time a friend succeeds I die a little.’ Our friends’ success lifts us all, she said.

The Dublin launch, held in Hodges Figgis last night (5th October) was equally buzzy. This time Martina Devlin spoke, movingly, about the border as a concept. The Glass Shore, she said, dismantles the idea of the North as a place apart. Its Otherness has either been put upon it from outside or taken on as a defence mechanism. Sinéad Gleeson, she said, has done an exceptional service in restoring the three missing sisters – Monaghan, Cavan and Donegal – to the North.

Anne Enright took up where her rousing launch speech for the earlier volume The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers left off. She reminded us that Mo Mowlam brought a group of women into a room and put them sitting between republicans and unionists ‘just to freak them out’. She talked about exclusion, and how it is the principal method and mechanism of bullies, and how bullying creates a desire to say ‘Let me in’. The question is: ‘To what?’ The most interesting thing that can be said, she pointed out, is the thing that hasn’t been said already. A single feminist can be derided, she said, but 600 feminists is another matter.

Evelyn Conlon then read from her story, an exploration of the concept of borders in general and ours in particular.

Sinéad Gleeson has done an extraordinary, necessary and generous thing in producing these anthologies. It’s maybe equally important that, in talking about them, she always refers to her predecessors in the compilation of anthologies of women writers, for example Evelyn Conlon (Splitting the Night in Two) and Ruth Carr (The Female Line). She never claims to be The First, but always places her work in the context of an ongoing fight to assert the existence and strength of writing by women.

Full marks to New Island and to Sinéad Gleeson who has proved herself to be a strong champion of Irish women writers.

Posted in Launches, Publishing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments