Svetlana Alexievich @ ILF Dublin

Svetlana Alexievich was in conversation with Conor O’Cleirigh in the Edmund Burke Theatre, Trinity College Dublin. The interpreter was Alexander Kan. What follows is an attempt to summarise what was said during an enthralling event. 

images Alexievich was here to publicise her new book Secondhand Time, an oral history of post-Soviet Russia, which has won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  She was born and grew up in a family of rural village teachers. She told us that the early post-war (WWII) years were difficult in Russia, where every 4th man had been killed.

‘Women’s conversations formed me.  Our home was full of books but the streets were always more interesting to me because of the stories the women told.’

So when she graduated from Minsk University School of Journalism, she didn’t have to look far for her subject. Starting to write, she understood that both life and literature were changing really fast. She needed a new form to express what she wanted to say. ‘We didn’t have the luxury that Tolstoy & Joyce had, writing their novels over years.’

Her first book was about the war – a subject that was impossible to deny.

‘Women never talk about war as a heroic act, women talked about acts of murder. They never talked about the enemy but about the destruction of human life … I made the decision to write the book when a woman sniper talked about how hard it was for her to kill someone the first time… They call it hunting … she described looking through the optic and seeing a German officer. She knew her job was to kill him but she couldn’t do it, all she could see was a young, handsome man.’

She told another story about two freight trains in a station, one with people in it one with horses … when German planes came and bombed the station, everyone rushed to save the horses, not the people. Why? 1. Horses are not guilty of anything, and 2. their screams are more horrible and frightening. ‘That was the war that I was most interested in. Since childhood I’d been curious: How do people hold onto their sanity when they have to kill each other? Three books later I still don’t know the answer.’


Being in conflict with authority is a tradition for the Russian writer, going back 1000s of years. ‘Lots of things happened to me as a journalist – I was fired, I was taken to court – that’s not newsworthy, it’s to be expected. What is harder to take is that the times we live in now mean that we are in conflict, not with the authorities, but with our own people. When I wrote in support of Ukraine, I lost friends in Russia.’


‘We were naïve in the 90s when we believed that freedom could come overnight. People who live in a camp all their life can’t just step out through a gate and be instantly free – they need preparation, education.’


Russian culture and literature are all permeated by a reverential attitude to the Russian people – but we didn’t really know our people. I realised that we worshipped the idea rather than the actual people around us. We were building bridges over rivers but the rivers went another way.’

‘I want to understand why the people I live with and love are so divided, why they are prepared to return to the position of slaves.’

Important questions:

Why does our suffering not convert to freedom?

Why can people living under a dictatorship not come together?

Why did we seem to gain freedom in the 90s and let it go so easily?

‘Looking for those answers is more important to me than wondering why people reacted to my award the way they did.’ (She has been accused of being a traitor)

‘Being accused of being a traitor is unsurprising, it’s a return to old rhetoric.’



‘I first went to Chernobyl two weeks after the disaster. Few people understood the scope of what had happened. There was a crimson glow over the reactor. People came to look, they even brought their children, to see how beautiful it was. But I was also struck by the number of military – people with guns, helicopters. ‘Who are you going to shoot?’ I asked them. Their first instinct was to treat it as a military incident. Talking to the military … they were thinking about Hiroshima, Nagasaki. But this was supposed to be a peaceful site – they/we couldn’t understand this as being the same. We didn’t understand why fresh food had to be dumped. There were surreal scenes – soldiers washing rooftops or wood for burning – like scenes from a sci fi movie.’

‘It would be quite easy to write a book about how people were deceived and misinformed but at first no one understood what had happened and believed it was nothing too serious, you’d be okay if you only drank red wine … I wanted to look deeper into the essence of what happened. I remember feeling that I – a person of culture – didn’t know how to begin to find answers. Overnight, our culture became a chest of (useless) old manuscripts. (…) People looked for answers in Tolstoy but couldn’t find any. We had no previous experience to help us understand the nature of what happened. We couldn’t see, smell or touch it – this was a different perspective, a different reality. We had no instruments to perceive it. So people turned to religion. The churches filled.’

‘Writing that book was a most challenging experience. War is as old as history; the Soviet Union was not the first empire to collapse; but this was new, unprecedented.


COC: There was a tremendous sense of excitement towards the end of the Soviet Union, everyone excited by the promise of reform Can you talk about the sense of disillusionment in your book?

‘The 1990s was a beautiful time. Hope – there was a sense of being on the brink of a new, bright future. Now, looking back, we understand we were not prepared for democracy. It turned out there was no real free people. Everyone wanted a tsar to come and bring democracy to us.’

Now people feel deceived, robbed. Everything has been taken away from them.

‘7% of the population now own what everyone used to own. Everyone else is very poor. There are two outcomes from this. People either idealise the past, or a new fascism rises, called ‘new patriotism’.’


‘We shouldn’t demonise Putin; there is a collective Putin.’

‘People now read memoirs of Germany in 1930s or Russia before the revolution, looking for parallels, answers to what’s happening today.’

‘The only thing to do is to work for the future and not give in to despair.’




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People always want to know what writers have influenced you. Who’s your favourite author? they ask. What’s your favourite novel?

I find these questions impossible to answer, for reasons that might well bear discussion some other time. Last week, at the Hot Press Write Here Write Now awards, I offered a list of practical books on writing-as-craft as an alternative to my faulty favourite/influence response. But I got distracted and went off on a tangent instead. So here’s a short list of titles I’ve found helpful when I run aground, or in the later stages of rewriting and editing:

art of war image James Scott Bell The Art of War for Writers: fiction writing strategies, tactics, and exercises

The principles of Chinese general Sun Tzu adapted for writers. This (little, red) book offers aphoristic advice. The chapter headings alone amount to a rough guide to writing: ‘To survive over any length of time, you must turn any criticism into a strength.’ ‘An army travels on its stomach, so spear some fish.’ ‘Turn envy into energy and more words …’

Lawrence Block: Telling Lies for Fun and Profit 


The title is a clue: this is a no-nonsense, fun and practical guide to matters such as: ‘He Said She Said’; ‘Never Apologize, Never Explain’; ‘Burning The Raft At Both Ends’; ‘Writing With Your Eyes Closed’.


editingRenni Browne and Dave King: Self-Editing for Fiction Writers



Anne Lamott: Bird by Bird: Some Notes on Writing and Lifebird-by-bird

Wise, comforting, practical and funny. This is especially good if you’re in the early stages of your writing life – or for all shades of black moments later. Take a break and go for coffee with Annie, it’ll restore your understanding of (and affection for) the weirdness that writers, of necessity, inhabit. At the very least, she’ll make you laugh at yourself. You’re only human.

Sol Stein: Stein on Writing

Sol Stein’s best advice (imo) is that writing, like sex, should be good for both parties. But it doesn’t stop there. His approach to understanding conflict and making trouble for your characters alone make this a guide worth keeping. Use it when your imagination gets sluggish.

 Lynn Truss Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

Because these things matter – but they can be fun as well.

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PIECES OF MIND (Two Days in May 2016 at Farmleigh House): AN INVITATION

What’s on your mind, as we move on from the centenary month of April?

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May is my last month as writer-in-residence at Farmleigh.  I’m asking people to come out to the Boathouse café and give me a piece of their mind. Talk to me about whatever you’re thinking about, planning, dreading or wishing, right now. It can be as trivial or as challenging, as personal or as general, as confidential or as wildly indiscreet as you want (no names will be given in my final written account).  You can give me subject headings or be specific and detailed.  Talk about Farmleigh and how you use it, if you like – or about books and writing, or about what you’re reading. Rant about whatever bugs you. The idea is to compile an account of what’s on people’s minds on two specific days:

Saturday 14th May & Tuesday 17th May

I’ll compile an impression of these conversations (with no identifying details). I’ll blend these impressions with my own train of thought and a summary of some current events in a no-names-given account of Two Days in Farmleigh in May 2016, a written time-capsule to be kept in the famous Iveagh Library.

If you’d like to take part but can’t come to Farmleigh on those dates, you can send your thoughts via email to on or before 17th May.

Emails will be opened and read – but can’t be responded to – on 14th & 17th May.

All contributions will be anonymous, but if you would like to be acknowledged as a participant in a general list of thanks, please let me know (see below).

Come and talk to me for five, ten, fifteen minutes – or slip me a note. I’ll be in and around the Boathouse café, Farmleigh on these dates and at these times:

Saturday 14th May:  11:00 – 1:30  & 2:00 – 4:00

Tuesday 17th May:  11:00 – 1:30  & 2:00 – 4:00


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*Acknowledgements will read something like this: Thanks are due to all participants including (your name here) and (someone else’s name here) … and others, who wish to remain anonymous.

Directions to Farmleigh HERE

Farmleigh map

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Dublin: Belfast: Two Cities One Book

2C1B blueApril was an extraordinary month for me and for Fallen, as the 2016 selection for the Dublin: One City One Book festival – except that this year, for the first time, it was Dublin-Belfast: Two Cities One Book. Two programmes, more than 100 events. From beginning to end it was a thrill and a revelation.

People ask what the highlight was. Some events and opportunities stand out because they never would have happened without this festival. Some stand out because of the energy the audience brought, or because of the chance to work with and in other art forms and with practitioners I’d never met before as well as with old friends. The cross-border dimension was a thrill, and that will be the general legacy of this centenary year: bookclubs in Dublin have been twinned with bookclubs in Belfast. The first book they read together will be Fallen but their connection will continue into the future.

The other standout experience has been the people. I want to thank absolutely everyone – readers, supporters, interviewers, presenters, the people behind the festival in Libraries Northern Ireland and in Dublin City Libraries, the 1916 Centenary Committee and people who came along on bus tours for the ride but stayed to chat and show an interest in the book. The Lord Mayor of Dublin, Ardmhéara  Críona Ní Dhálaigh, has been a particularly generous host and supporter. A very real, whole-hearted thank you to every single one of you, it’s been amazing.

The 2016 festival is over and now it’s the turn of some other lucky writer and some other lucky book. Whoever you are, I hope you have as rewarding and enriching an experience as I did and I envy you your production and support team.  I’m going to miss them. And guess what I have to face instead?

A blank page.

Proper order.

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Public Art Walking Tours, St. Stephen’s Green (Two Cities One Book)

Today we braved showery skies and went on the Public Art Walking Tour of St. Stephen’s Green listed in the Two Cities One Book programme.  An intrepid, engaging and well-informed guide called Orla led us around various statues, introducing us to the characters they represented and to the artists and their methods of representation.  The rain held off and we spent an enjoyable hour talking about soldiers, poets, artists and patriots and modelling versus carving.

Yeats by Moore

Yeats by Henry Moore


Personal favourites include Yeats by Moore (not George Moore, who famously compared poor Yeats to an umbrella abandoned by its owner after a party, but Henry) and Robert Emmet, as portrayed by Jerome Connor.  I always forget how young Emmet was when he was executed – barely 25.

Here he is, a dapper young man in the sunshine of the Green, surrounded by spring flowers and optimism, wearing the loveliest pair of sculpted shoes you’re likely to see in this town:


Robert Emmet by Jerome Connor



Constance Markievicz is there too, as is Tom Kettle – in keeping with the 1916 link of the tour.

You could do a lot worse than fall in with one of these tours, but please note that booking is essential. It will be repeated every Sunday in April at 3 p.m. Cost: Adults €6, Concessions €3 and under-18s free. More information here

Lord Ardilaun

Lord Ardilaun, who bought rights to the Green from private householders and gave them to the people of Dublin.




Other tours in the Two Cities One Book programme include a walking tour of Beggars Bush Barracks on Saturday 16th April @ 3 p.m..  Admission is free but booking is essential:  Tel: 01 660 3770

The full Dublin-Belfast Two Cities One Book Programmes are available online here:


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Interview with CATHERINE DUNNE


Catherine Dunne


Catherine Dunne is the author of ten novels and one work of non-fiction: An Unconsidered People, a social history of Irish immigrants in London. Her first novel was published in 1997. Her ninth, The Things We Know Now, won the 700th anniversary Giovanni Boccaccio International Prize for Fiction in 2013. It was also shortlisted for the Novel of the Year at the Irish Book Awards. Her work has been translated into several languages. She was recently long-listed for the first Laureate for Irish Fiction Award. THE YEARS THAT FOLLOWED has just been published by Macmillan.



You’ve spoken about your interest in Greek mythology. The Years That Followed is one of a trilogy, can you tell us about the others and how/whether they fit together?

Mythology has always fascinated me. All those ancient Greek, Roman and Irish tales, the Arabian Nights – they exercised a real pull on my imagination when I was a child. The interesting thing was going back to read them again as an adult. Suddenly, they became something completely different from what I had remembered. It might be as much as twenty years ago that I found myself drawn back to Greek myths once more, and discovered their richness – the sort of richness that can’t be excavated by a child, because the child has not had enough life experience.

Greek myths have a Jungian core – all those universal truths clothed in stories of parents and children, of war and betrayal, of lust and love, of sibling rivalry and intimate friendships: it’s all there, all of our human psychological complexity.

What I can tell you at this point about the second book in the trilogy is that I can’t tell you anything at all. Writing is a bit like magic, a bit like fairy-dust: if you look away for too long, or if you try to deconstruct what you’re doing, it all disappears. I’ve seen people talk themselves out of their stories.

Talking about a story when it’s a work in progress makes it lose its urgency, its freshness, its white-knuckle grip on the imagination. What I can tell you is that I’m currently on the foothills of the second book, and enjoying the experience which is the by now familiar mix of exhilaration and frustration.

You’re a writer yourself: you know the drill.

In person, you’re probably the definition of a model citizen. You do a lot of voluntary and behind-the-scenes work in aid of literacy and in support of other writers and the writing community – for example you did extensive work during your term on the Board of the Irish Writers Centre (sic), including setting up a successful literary exchange programme between Italian and Irish writers, editors and publishers.  Yet in your novels, apparently blameless characters get up to all sorts of shenanigans.  Care to comment?

First of all, I must protest: not just about being called ‘a model citizen’ but most particularly about the recent lack of an apostrophe in ‘Irish Writers’ Centre’.

I can’t bring myself to write the name without it. Its absence offends me every time I see it – get that for a contradiction in terms – almost as much as the inclusion of an apostrophe when one is not required.

However, all of that aside, I enjoyed my term on the Board of the IWC, from 2010 to 2013. It was fun, along with a lot of hard work, helping to bring the Italo-Irish Exchange into being, along with Federica Sgaggio and the Italian writers’ organisation, onoma. Exciting times. The Exchange helped to establish strong links between writers – something that will remain, I think, even as the initiative changes and evolves in the future. Nothing stays the same.

‘Shenanigans’ – I love that word. But yes, taking the core of a Greek myth and bringing it up to date involved lots of shenanigans, and the characters and the things they got up to were exhilarating to write about. It was good to move away from the smaller, more intimate canvas that I’ve tended to work on in the past. I felt the need to flex my writing muscles and write ‘darker’ than I have done before.

The myth of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon provided me with the scaffold of the story – and I thought that that would make the writing of the ‘shenanigans’ more simple, more straightforward.

In that, as in so many other things, I would be proved wrong.

The Years That Followed extends the interest your previous novels show in how women get and hold onto their independence, how they survive, financially and economically.  Can you talk about that?

One of the most significant observations I came across when I was researching ‘The Years That Followed’ was made by Mary Beard, the Oxford Classics professor. She was talking about the way she was attacked on Twitter when she dared to raise her head above the parapet and express an opinion.

Laurie Penny, a UK columnist has written that, for women, it appears that ‘an opinion is the short skirt of the internet’. Both women detailed the abuse they had received for daring to raise their voices and to express a view that was unpopular. Mary Beard went on to explore how the silence, and the silencing, of women is a tradition we have inherited from the ancient world, where public discourse was purely the preserve of men.

I wanted to write an ancient story from the point of view of the women involved: I wanted to hear their voices ring loud and true down through the centuries so that their experiences could be heard and shared and valued in a way that they had not been before.

It was astonishing to come across the parallels with those women’s lives and women’s lives today. The silencing; the inequalities; the supporting role that women are expected to play, often at the expense of their own lives, their own independent ambitions.

Crucial to an independent life is the ability to earn one’s own living, to be able to survive financially, standing on one’s own feet: for both men and women.

It’s a theme I keep returning to: that necessity to be self-sufficient so that survival is always possible, no matter how adverse the circumstances. In life, or in fiction.

 This novel is concerned with, among other things, marital violence.  Can you tell us where that concern comes from?

Finding parallels for the violent treatment of women in both the ancient and the modern world was distressingly easy.

In the myth, Agamemnon snatches Clytemnestra from her father’s home, rapes her, kills her child and forces her to become his wife. We can only imagine what her domestic life must have been like, married to a man who was, by all account, brutal and obsessed by power and the need to control the lives of all of those around him.

The problem is, we don’t have to imagine it. We have an epidemic of domestic violence on our hands in the 21st century. Recently, I came across the work of the American writer, Rebecca Solnit, in which she attempts to unpick the issues that a patriarchal culture doesn’t even see as issues at all. I highly recommend her book, called: ‘Men Explain Things to Me’.

I won’t bombard you with statistics, but there is one that always gives me pause. It is this: one in five women will be raped in her lifetime, or be the victim of gender-based violence. Domestic violence, violence within the home, which is the one place we all hope to be safe, is an enormous problem in all societies, in every country, today.

On one level, the level of bringing a myth up to date for a modern audience in a way that would be credible, I had to deal with the topic of domestic violence in all its nastiness. On another level, I really believe that fiction is a powerful way to deal with difficult issues, to get a conversation going, perhaps to illuminate other ways of living.

And so it has proved, at the events that accompanied the publication of this novel. Speaking out, talking openly about difficult issues is only a start – but it is a start.

The strap line on my (proof) copy is: Revenge is better than Regret. As a principle, this opens unsettling doors in the mind. Did you have fun writing it?

It was certainly exciting – there was never a dull moment. One of the things that interested me was to delve into the character of a woman who was part-villain, part-victim: to mirror, in fact, the woman in the myth who inspired the novel in the first place.

Confucius said that for anyone who is bent on seeking revenge, they should ‘dig two graves’. I was obsessed with exploring what would drive someone to wreak violent revenge on someone they had once loved. Agamemnon certainly gave Clytemnestra enough reason to want to get her own back, and his modern counterpart, Alexandros, similarly gives Calista more than enough reason to seek to do him harm in return.

But yes, it was also ‘unsettling’ – such explorations can lead a writer to pretty dark places, but places, nonetheless, that illuminate what motivates us to do violence to others.

But it also illuminated the wisdom of the Chinese philosopher’s words….

 In your fiction you seem to be moving further and further down a path of crime.  What’s next for you?

I think that, rather than crime, because a couple of dead bodies do not a crime novel make, I’m interested in exploring what makes people behave in ways that previously would have been anathema to them.

Perfectly law-abiding, agreeable, ordinary people who suddenly kick over the traces: what is the moment that forces them to transgress, the moment that breaks them, that brings out their inner demon?

And Greek mythology is full of examples…an embarrassment of riches is there for any novelist!

And while the main character of my work-in-progress is still a work-in-progress, she, too, behaves in a way that astonishes everyone she knows, particularly herself.

 If you had one piece of advice to give your younger self, starting out on a writing career, what would that be?

Remember: writing doesn’t get any easier. The trick is to make it better.

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McKenna’s Fort @ the New Theatre 21st March – 2nd April 2016

gi_image_thumbFeaturing Michael Bates as Roger Casement

Written by Arnold Thomas Fanning

Directed by Paul Kennedy


In the post-show discussion that followed Saturday night’s performance of this new play, Arnold Fanning was asked by co-panellist Martina Devlin why he didn’t include the trial and all that followed. He said that we know all that already and what seemed important to him was to show Casement’s last moments of freedom. The time he spent in McKenna’s Fort waiting to be rescued/captured was his Gethsemane.

The play is powerful. Michael Bates embodies different aspects of Casement’s character – the humanitarian, the patriot and the sexual being – so effectively that you’re aware of a scene change when he makes the shift, simply by how he holds himself or by a shift in tone of voice. Assisted by clever lighting and minimal props, it’s extraordinary to see the performer enter new dimensions of the complex, extraordinary person that Casement undoubtedly was. For people who don’t know much about the man, other than his tragic, controversial trial and execution, this play will be a revelation, bringing other aspects of his fascinating life to the fore, notably his humanitarian work in the Congo and in Peru.

One of the questions from the audience asked Arnold Fanning what his intention was in writing the play the way he did. There was a puzzled moment before Fanning replied that his intention was not to bore the audience, which got an appreciative response from those of us – most of us, actually – who had stayed behind to hear the discussion. But seriously, Fanning said, his aim is to create characters, a goal he has certainly achieved in this play.

Someone in the audience observed that Fanning’s play is proof of the power of art, because fictionalised and imagined scenes are so effective at evoking a sense of the man.

A lovely feature of the post-show discussion was Fanning’s honest account of the writing of the play, how he travelled to Peru after finishing his initial reading (the diaries, Séamus Ó Síocháin’s biography) but found himself stuck, unable to write anything on the first day. Little by little, he began to do things that Casement did while he was there, and slowly points of overlap between himself and his subject began to emerge. He compiled a ‘dense’, novel-like first draft, after which there was a period of intensive workshopping and rehearsal which brought Casement to life.

Michael Bates and Paul Kennedy said that they had a period of unease about working with material from the diaries, but they agreed that they would proceed as though Casement was in the room with them – and this approach worked. There’s nothing sensationalist or prurient about the play, which acknowledges a frankly enjoyable sexual life. The one jarring note of the night came when a woman in the audience was overcome at the mention of a penis and laughed into her companion’s shoulder, loudly and more than once.  Why does this still happen in Irish theatres? It’s a mystery.

Eibhear Walsh remarked that this is the real hidden story, that other than Casement’s diaries, we don’t have many accounts of the intimate sexual development of nineteenth century figures. Someone in the audience commented on how they appreciated the physicality of Bates’s performance and the play’s references to Casement’s illness and debilitation – which makes his extraordinary life even more extraordinary.

Get to see this if you can.


[Panellists:  Mary Moynihan, Martina Devlin, Eibhear Walsh, Arnold Fanning, Michael Bates, Paul Kennedy]

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