What I wish I’d said …

To the woman sitting in the front row at the ISLA festival yesterday, who’s writing a chronicle of grief and asked how to write her pain – I wish I’d got the chance to speak to you after the session, but since I didn’t:

Writing something big like that – it doesn’t happen all at once. Like the illness and treatment, it’s so enormous it threatens to drown you, but you don’t have to deal with the whole enormous weight and heft of it at once. Try breaking it into manageable bits. In my case: the big thing (operation) is not happening now, today. This is just a scan, I can do that, I’ve had scans before. All I have to do now is go down the stairs; all I have to do now is wait in the x-ray department; now let them give me this injection – and I’m so used to those; now lie down on this machine and let my mind drift while it whirrs and clicks around me …

Try writing it in small, manageable increments like that. One word at a time. Think of Hemingway’s question: What’s the truest thing you know, right now? Write that.

When I wrote the notebooks that grew into In Your Face, it began as letting everything stream out onto the page uncensored. But writers can’t keep that sort of thing up for long. Next thing you’re looking for better ways to say it, how to capture this nuance, this precise shade of feeling; how to shape an image, a phrase, a sentence. When I was ill and in danger this way of writing felt like the most urgent task that faced me. It was the only thing I could do to help myself in a hospital/emergency situation. I had to find my way inside the experience and claim it. The only tool I had was language.

When I found the right words to express whatever nightmare was riding me at that time, I felt the balance of power shift in my favour. For example, when I understood that My mouth is eating me I was less afraid. I was in charge of this at least, the order and meaning of words in that sentence.

I hope that makes sense to you. I hope it helps.


And to lovely David, who asked about the title of In Your Face (and thank you for your questions), what I should have said is this:

One day when I was home again but still a bit of a mess after surgery etc, I slipped out to the bins with my head down, hoping no one would be about on the street to see me. This is the kind of thing you must never allow to creep into your fiction, but I swear it’s true: the sun came out and touched my head, my neck, my shoulder – and yes, my face. It was a cold winter’s day but light and warmth came out to find me. And I thought – you idiot. You’ve been given a second chance, what are you going to do with it, hide behind the curtains for however long you’ve got? Take it with both hands and a whole heart and go out and face the world. The title, In Your Face, was a kind of inner standing up and saying, yeah my face is wrecked, so what?


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Margaret Atwood at the Royal Marine Hotel Dun Laoghaire (DLR Library Voices series)

AtwoodMargaret Atwood was in Dun Laoghaire on Wednesday (30th September) to talk to Paula Shields about her new novel The Heart Goes Last.

Introducing The Heart Goes Last, Paula Shields said that the characters don’t know they’re living in a Margaret Atwood novel. On a second reading, she said, she began to think that we’re all living in a Margaret Atwood novel.


The Heart Goes Last: Stan and Charmaine are a couple who have been reduced to living in their car by the economic crash. When they see an advertisement looking for people to take part in a social experiment that will guarantee them work and a place to live, they think they have it made. But the Positron Project is an alternating prison system cycle: live at home one month, go to prison the next.

Things go wrong. Obsessions develop, secrets ensue.

Heart Goes Last

Asked about the novel’s starting point, MA said that she’d been half-in and half-out of the idea for a while, thinking and reading about prisons (since Alias Grace): what were they invented for? When? How have people thought about them at different times? Quite differently, it turns out.

PS said that when she googled Prisons, the first returns were ‘for Profit’, which surprised her. She was relieved that an Irish search referred to services.

MA said that the US Constitution prohibits forced unpaid labour (slavery) but that law doesn’t apply to convicted criminals. It’s easy to see that there is potential for a sizeable profit margin there. The worry is: if people are making money from something, they’ll need a constant supply of young people to keep it going, people in their prime.

PS: Why is it set in the US and not Canada?

MA used to think those kinds of dystopian scenarios wouldn’t happen in Canada. She’s not so sure about that any more.

She directed us to the epigraphs at the front of the book, they offer a kind of key signature for the novel. The first is a quote from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (“Pygmalion and Galatea”); the second is an extract from Adam Frucci’s blog Gizmodo: “I Had Sex With Furniture”; and the last is from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

This is where things began to get alarming and entertaining in roughly equal measure. MA told us that a robot with a convincing skin has been launched in Taiwan; this robot comes with instructions not to have sex with her. She (MA) talked about new trends in furniture, with sex apps.  I mean, she said, would you have that in your living room? Everyone roared laughing but a few of the faces around me showed definite signs of unease.

She talked about the trickery at the heart of MND that creates a love scramble, where people fall in love with people/beings disguised as other people/beings. This is hilarious for Oberon and Puck, who set the whole thing up, but a nightmare for the characters who enact it.  She reminded us that these things are not as fantastical as we’d like to think. Look at Comic Con, for example, where people dress up as people/creatures who don’t exist and go off to meet other people dressed up as different people/creatures who don’t exist. She was at a book fair in Leipzig recently where very tall Germans walked around wearing antlers and blue wings. It’s not just me, she said. Look at Las Vegas – you can get married there by a clerk dressed up as Elvis. You don’t even have to get out of your car. There’s no need to make anything up – it’s all already out there.

She talked about surveillance, and how there is general laughter at conferences when anyone tries to give a talk about internet security. It’s such a touchingly naive concept, online security. PS asked, have we given too many rights away?

MA: We haven’t given them away. They’ve been subtracted from us.

She said the first time she saw a mobile phone as pivotal in a movie was in The Da Vinci Code. The second was in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, when Rooney Mara/Lisbeth takes out her sim and crushes it to powder so she can’t be tracked.  She pointed out how much we learn from novels that aren’t considered high art. How things have changed. She asked if anyone remembers Dial M for Murder (I do – vividly), where the entire plot turns on a telephone ringing on a desk. It wouldn’t work now.

Asked what advice she would give to her younger writer self, she said: Learn to touch-type, you idiot. You should have taken those secretarial courses.


Up next in the DLR Library Voices Series (curated by Bert Wright and Marian Keyes): Edna O’Brien talks to Sinéad Gleeson on Tuesday 27th October at 8:00pm

Here’s a nice crossover image:

Sinéad Gleeson & Margaret Atwood hold each other's most recent books (via Sinéad Gleeson)

Sinéad Gleeson & Margaret Atwood hold each other’s most recent books (via Sinéad Gleeson)

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About Sisterland: An Interview with Martina Devlin

Lake PictureSisterland is a 22nd century world run by women, as imagined by Martina Devlin. After a cataclysmic war in which the male population was decimated, women took over.  Men in Sisterland are controlled through the administration of testosterone-reducing drugs ‘for their own good, otherwise they were inclined to be disruptive.’ They carry out boring, menial tasks and are segregated from women, except in carefully controlled circumstances and for the purpose of conception.

Emotions (‘moes’) are rationed. They have to be restricted because they hold women back. Natural moes are obsolete – women have no need of fear in a world without violence.

The world of Sisterland is relentlessly and artificially nice – right down to chemical sprays used on outdoor flower displays because flowers have lost their natural fragrance. Because of extreme pollution, women have to wear artificial skins outdoors. The effects of humidity are so extreme that clothes have to be frequently ‘vac’ed to prevent ruin by mould. Women live according to a sickly, clichéd code of behaviour handed down by Sisterland’s founder.  But a Resistance movement emerges to question the dominant value system and recognise the importance of emotion and thinking – and acting – for yourself.


In a video interview, Martina Devlin says she’s always been interested in extremism. ‘Extremism grows up in the cracks where people are kept apart, whether it’s men and women, religious groupings, political groupings. (…) I suppose what I’m saying (in About Sisterland) is that there’s an innate human ability to feel compassion for others and to overcome taught ideas about who they should love and how they should live.’  This novel asks questions that go straight to the heart of the prejudices and self-interest of any society, even as it turns gender roles and stereotypes onto their various limited, useless and hopelessly outdated heads.

LM: Where did About Sisterland come from?About Sisterland final cover

MD: It has its origins in my formative years, growing up in the north of Ireland, where I saw two communities co-exist while leading unconnected lives. There wasn’t hostility in Omagh towards ‘the other side’ but any friendliness was guarded. People lived in separate communities and their children went to segregated schools. There’s little to choose between the two peoples but it was as if they came from different planets. I suppose the groups I’m referring to are generally defined as Catholics and Protestants but the difference isn’t religious – it’s tribal. I noticed how keeping people apart allowed myths about the other side to take hold, unchallenged. And that’s when extremism has an opportunity to put down roots. I could have written about religious, political, racial or class differences to explore my extremism theme but I decided on gender. Same principle, however.

LM: The novel suggests that any extreme form of social control becomes a tyranny and is essentially corrupt in the end – by definition, some person or group does the controlling while another group is controlled.  There’s a sickly, terminal niceness about the world of Sisterland, which takes stereotypes of femininity to extremes.  Can you talk about that?

MD: We’re drawn to what’s lovely, glamorous and harmonious, and assume they represent positive characteristics in every case. This isn’t so. Occasionally, if you peel away the distractingly beautiful layer of skin, it’s clear there’s something harmful beneath the surface. Serenity, for example, is desirable. But not in all circumstances – what if it make a person so placid that they become incapable of seeing any wrong? So I began by painting a picture of Sisterland’s scenic attractions, but then I tried to show how its unrelieved beauty was cloying; how it became a form of tyranny because good taste was insisted on, and dissenting voices were silenced. For example, Sisterlanders celebrated colour – but it had to be tasteful colour, so neons were phased out.

LM: Men are only necessary for hard physical labour and for procreation, in strictly controlled circumstances. Behind the scenes, there is a secret project to develop a mechanism for parthenogenesis (virgin birth).  How influenced were you by Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novel Herland (which you quote in the epigraph)?

MD: She was the catalyst for writing the book in the form it took, and that’s why I quoted her at the outset. Except when I set to work on my novel, I adopted a polar opposite position to hers. In Herland the all-female society is utopian but in About Sisterland a good idea in principle goes woefully wrong in practice. Women forget to forgive men for keeping them in the domestic sphere against their will in previous generations. And – crucially – they don’t realise the oppressed has become the oppressor. Perhaps my novel is Herland after the passage of time, when those in power become corrupted.

LM: Was your thinking about the issues in the novel influenced by other writers (Margaret Atwood, Ursula Le Guin, Lois Lowry)? Do you find it enabling or inhibiting to have such strong models?

MD: I found those strong models a wee bit inhibiting but I felt the fear and did it anyway. I concluded it would be counter-productive to be overawed to the point of silence. I didn’t think they’d want that, however inept my contribution to an ongoing discussion. It’s difficult to know how influenced we are by other writers – influences come from a variety of sources – but one of the lessons I learned from Atwood was that it was possible to set a book in the future without flying cars and lots of Space Age appendages: that the future didn’t have to be hi-tech necessarily. Here’s an example of another influence: I’ve never forgotten the ending to the film Planet of the Apes which shows the protagonist (played by Charlton Heston) realise that this strange land he finds himself in is the US. His home. For me, my novel is about the here and now, in Ireland and the rest of the world – although I call it the 22nd century and Sisterland.

LM: Can you talk about language in Sisterland? There’s a lot of euphemism, eg people don’t die, they discontinue. Conception and pregnancy are known as ‘babyfusion’.

MD: In a sanitised world, euphemisms would rule supreme. So that was my thinking for terms such as silkenspeak for propaganda, and unmapping for taking away someone’s memory. But pregnancy is hard to achieve in Sisterland because of falling birth rates, so I thought babyfusion suggested something noteworthy. Language constantly changes, and I felt I needed to reflect that in the novel by using new combinations of words to produce different meanings. Co-Equals is a ruling body but that’s a tongue in cheek name – I’m questioning equality even under the revised system. With MUM (a scary place where memories are deleted), I was thinking of the antithesis to motherhood and hoped the juxtaposition would make it more chilling. On the same principle, I called all the department heads ‘mothers’ because motherhood generally is regarded as sacred, and mothers are held to have their children’s best interests at heart. But what if they don’t? Himtime is the mating encounter and not that positive for everyone in my interpretation. However, a reader told me recently he’s started using it to demand space to himself in a predominantly female household: “I want some Himtime!” See how slippery language is?

LM: This may be an extension of the previous question: the characters have names that reflect approved personal qualities:  Constance, Fidelity, Modesty and so on, with the addition of an identifying number instead of a surname. But the men are Harper and Leaf … what was the thinking behind that?

MD: In Sisterland women have virtue names but men are regarded as incapable of virtue. But I didn’t want to give them vice names – it seemed over-the-top (says the writer who segregates the sexes, puts all-covering hoods on men and has baby boys taken away from their mothers at birth to prevent bonds forming). So I decided to give them outdoors names linked to their place of work. Harper’s name reflects the way he moves Constance, like a storyteller or musician, with his stories of a world beyond the city.

LM: Men must wear hoods and be covered up when they move around Sisterland. This seems to be a comment on veiled women. Is it?

MD: Outed! Indeed, I do resent women being forced to wear a veil – and sometimes conditioned to believe it’s what they want. Obliging them to cover their faces in public concerns me even more. As a woman says in the film Timbuktu (about life under sharia law): “If you don’t like what you see – don’t look.”

LM: In your last novel, The House Where it Happened, there was a subtext concerning sexual politics and class:  Ellen is in a clandestine relationship with her ‘Master’. She thinks she loves him but in fact she has little choice, he has all the power.  In About Sisterland, you reverse the dynamics of power in the relationship between Constance and Harper.  Were you deliberately playing with questions of choice and consent?

MD: Yes, it’s deliberate. There is an unequal master-servant relationship in The House Where it Happened and another unequal relationship in reverse between Constance and Harper in About Sisterland. And it reflects well on neither Ellen’s master nor on Constance. But Constance recognises it, whereas Master Haltridge never does. I see the current novel as a natural follow-on from The House Where it Happened in ways such as that, even though there are four centuries between the two stories. The past is as unknowable, fundamentally, as the future.

LM: You raise the terrifying prospect of manipulation of memory.  There are memory-keepers who are revered and seen as necessary.  But memories are dangerous – not only because they pose a threat to the status quo but because they are linked to emotion.  Memory can be altered or erased. In extreme cases a person can be ‘unmapped’, resulting in a devastating loss of self.  This reminded me of the cruelties of dementia – can you talk about that?

MD: I fear dementia. I don’t feel that way about wrinkles, job loss, loneliness, ill health or death. But dementia is a living death. One’s sense of self and place in the world are taken away. The incremental process, when realisation of what’s going on rears its head, must be terrifying. That’s why I make memory unmapping, or total memory deletion, the ultimate penalty in Sisterland. Partial memory deletion also exists as a lesser punishment. Harper – a forester who feels truly alive only through interaction with nature – has his memory of trees taken away from him to bring him to heel.

What would it hurt you most to lose? The sound of your father’s voice? The feel of your mother’s cheek against yours? The memory of your wedding day? The birth of your child?

LM: Thoughts in Sisterland are ‘crafted’ and ‘shaped’.  They can also be read, in a process of mindmapping. These are actual career paths, to be a thought hatcher or a thought shaper.  And you do this through nothing more extreme or overt than anything a skilled PR consultant or spin doctor would do today.  Can you talk about that?

MD: I intended it as a commentary on the way information is shaped, tweaked, withheld, deflected, used selectively and above all spun in today’s society. A PR professional at the top of their game can be extremely influential – it’s power without responsibility, except to the paymaster. Political parties, business conglomerates, celebrities and others pay top dollar for their skills. I don’t suggest that all PRs are unethical or guns for hire. But watching some of them in action is deeply unsettling.

LM: Do you have a favourite character in the novel, other than Constance?

MD: I like the Shaper Mother because she kept me guessing about how she’d turn out, and whose side she’d come down on ultimately. She’s more complex than Constance. If I was to write the book again, I might tell the story from her perspective. Except, of course, she’d be an unreliable narrator.

LM: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

MD: Back to history, this time the 1500s. Although sometimes I fall to wondering about what happens next for Constance…


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TimbuktuTimbuktu is a desert city in Mali (West Africa). In its day it has been, variously: a city with an aura of mystery, a prosperous trading centre known for its book trade and learning and: dismissed in western stereotype as the middle-of-nowhere or about-as-far-away-as-you-can-get. The Irish equivalent would be Bally-go-backwards. Timbuktu is also the title of a film by Abderrahmane Sissako, in which the city (in the film it has the appearance and atmosphere of a village) is controlled by mujahideen according to sharia law.

This is the most visually striking, beautiful film I have seen in a long time, if ever (Cinematography is by Sofian El Fani). There is one scene in particular – where a Tuareg herdsman walks away from the body of a fisherman across a golden, limpid stretch of river under a setting sun – that will stay with me. Despite the chilling level of control exerted by the mujahideen, their murderous power, Sissako’s film manages to portray the people of Timbuktu as warm, affectionate, courageous even as their spirit is overwhelmed and suppressed. There are scenes of violent cruelty all the more powerful for being understated. There are moments of heartstopping beauty, as when a group of boys play an imaginary game of football, swooping, moving and chasing an imaginary ball as though it’s real. Football is banned, although the mujahideen, in private and amongst themselves, have as animated an argument about Messi and Zidane as would happen in any western bar.

Music is banned too. On night patrol, an Islamic police officer follows a sound to its source and calls his leader to say, ‘They are singing praise to Allah. Shall I arrest them?’ An aching, silent dance where a man enacts the gestures of a flightless bird longing for the freedom of the sky is just one more unforgettable moment.

Of course, it’s not all beauty. There is the threat of amputation, there are stonings and executions. The vulnerability of women and girls drives a beat of tension throughout the film from beginning to end. This is a world where girls are stolen and ‘married’ against their will and against the will of their families. Even the local Imam, a voice of reason, is powerless against the mujahideen.

TimbuktuThis is a film about cynical predators and the quiet courage of individuals who preserve something precious about the human spirit against overwhelming odds. The final scenes offer no hope of rescue or reprieve as various figures run for their lives across endless expanses of sand: a girl, a boy, a man, a gazelle. Men with guns are in pursuit.

As for a western audience emerging from all that golden beauty into grey, rain-soaked streets: Timbuktu is nothing like as far away as we once thought it was.


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Interview with Nuala O’Connor (Miss Emily)

Nuala, congratulations, Miss Emily is a powerfully absorbing novel. You create a compelling, vivid impression of 19th century Amherst, the Dickinson household and the interior world of Ada, their Irish servant. And just when a reader thinks they know where the story is going, it veers off in a different direction. I don’t want to give too much away but as a reader I appreciated the extra layer of credibility and depth this gave to the novel. I love the writing, as in: your writing, but also how you express Emily’s sense of herself in writing. And I love that Ada has her own area of skill, one she shares with Emily on equal terms, in baking.


Nuala Miss Emily blog

Can you talk about your research?

I love research – there is such joy in it; I tend to do it as I write, rather than before. At the last count I have around thirty books about and by Emily Dickinson: her letters, biographies, poetry, critical essays. (I have continued to buy books long after the novel is done with because she still intrigues me). Naturally, I wanted to stick to certain facts about Emily’s life (her withdrawal, her humour, her clothing, family situation etc.) but I also needed to create a fictional world where Ada would fit in seamlessly. So I chose the year 1866, when the Dickinsons didn’t have a maid, and built my created world around that year.

Once I had a first draft of the novel written, I went to Emily’s hometown of Amherst in Massachusetts and visited her house, the local libraries and her grave, to touch base with the physical landscape. I also went to Harvard University where certain Dickinson artefacts her held – her original desk, for example. So I do a combination of reading, writing and on-the-spot colour-gathering. Concrete, unusual details appeal to my love of minutiae.

How do you feel about changing your name from Ní Chonchúir to O’Connor for an international audience?

O’Connor is the name I was born with, I became Ní Chonchúir at the age of four when I entered a Gaelscoil in Dublin. Few people can spell, say or remember Ní Chonchúir, unfortunately (in Ireland or elsewhere) so there was no point in using it in a worldwide market. If O’Connor sells more books, then I’m happy with that.

There was a recent row in Irish media about the status of book reviewing in Ireland – do you have anything to add?

I gave my tuppence worth in the article. To add to that, there have been some nasty reviews from established writers of new writers and I think that displays arrogance. As a reviewer you need to remember that every book is flawed but every book also has beauties. I am always impressed by something in every book I read, if not by the whole. If you – as reviewer – genuinely can’t find anything good to say about a book, don’t review it.

A couple of weeks ago an early letter from Elena Ferrante was posted online, where she states her clear determination not to engage with book promotion.  You are the uncrowned queen of writerly blogging in Ireland – what do you think about Ferrante’s position?

Well, I think Ferrante is lucky to have such forgiving publishers and, also, to have scored hits with her books. How lovely not to have to do things you don’t want to do! I am naturally a quiet person: introverted, shy, a loner. Crowds do my head in and I hate being the centre of attention. That’s why writing suits me and also blogging – I get to write and talk about the writing world where I am most comfortable: home, alone, at my keyboard. I find the travelling enjoyable in small doses but when I have two or three gigs a week, I get stressed out. I’m not sure there’s a solution to this – I love meeting readers and other writers but I’m not always up to the hoopla, at the same time. But I get on with it because, unlike Ferrante in her unique position, I have to.

We’re all dying to know what difference there are in editorial style between editors in Ireland, the UK and the US – can you talk about that?

In my experience, editing in Ireland and the UK has been light – a few suggestions, a good copy edit. Penguin USA and Penguin Canada bought Miss Emily together, so my New York and my Toronto editor consulted with each other before sending me suggestions (lots of them!). We then had a long conference call to discuss them, before I launched into implementing (or not) what they had brought up. They were extremely thorough, very engaged with the book. They were also efficient re. deadlines, which suited me. When I had edited the book to their satisfaction it was passed to a copyeditor who gave it another nitty-gritty go-through – she was amazing and questioned all sorts of inaccuracies in language and facts. I felt great care was taken to make it the best book it could be and it was a very satisfying experience.

Miss Emily UK cover

Can you tell us where the idea came from?  Were you nervous about tackling the subject? (I love how ambitious it is).

Yes, it felt audacious to take on an American icon and I danced around the topic for a bit, writing a poem about Emily’s love of baking for example, before committing properly to the novel. It was a collision, really, of poetry, baking and my interest in the Irish immigrant story. I’m also very interested in cross-generational friendships; a lot of my own friends are much older than me and they are very enriching relationships.

You suggest that the character of Susan held an erotic attraction for Emily.  Can you talk about that?

I’m not sure that that was the case – I think they had one of those ardent Victorian female friendships: fulsome declarations of love, bed-sharing etc. Emily expressed a wish to be buried with Sue also. (She wasn’t). Emily was quite intense with her friends, very devoted and a little demanding. Sue was her dearest friend, she was cultured and Emily appreciated her as an editor/guide with her poetry, as much as a companion and sister-in-law.

Do you think that Miss Emily will change your writing?

It depends what you’re getting at. If you mean whether I will write more historical fiction then, yes. I have the first draft of another 19th C novel completed, set mostly in London and in Ballinasloe, where I live. If you mean will it change my writing world then, also, yes. I’ve become a much busier person since Penguin bought Miss Emily in late January 2014.

Did you read much of Emily Dickinson’s poetry while writing the novel and if you did, how did that affect the story?

I read her poetry obsessively – a poem a night while I wrote the book. Apart from her letters, it’s the best way to access her mind, passions and obsessions. I used words from the poems that people who know the poetry will find – they are little markers. Mostly, though, I wrote a new language for Emily, based on hers.

Could you separate yourself from Emily?  I found it intriguing that each of the two main characters shares a fundamental quality with you: being Irish (Ada) and being a poet/writer (Emily) – do you still see yourself as a poet/still write poetry?  Did writing this novel make you want to return to poetry or bring you further down the road of fiction? Can you talk about the differences/similarities between them?  Sorry, that’s a load of questions all at once!

I still find the word ‘poet’ with reference to myself and, sometimes, others a bit ghastly. (Mind you ‘poetess’ is even worse.) I prefer ‘writer’. Even ‘author’ smacks of things ard-nósach. I write the odd poem but it’s difficult when you are immersed in a long project like a novel to have time for other creative things. I have lost my poetry mojo a bit (pojo?) and would love to get it back but, at the same time, am I willing, in my working day, to give up fiction hours for poetry hours? I’m not sure. I am a fiction writer, first and foremost. But I also love language, as both reader and writer, and it’s important to me that all writing has a poetic quality to it.

I didn’t ‘become’ Emily as I wrote – there is always that distance between yourself as writer and the character you are manipulating. But when I wrote about writing (in her voice) I was using both my own experience and what we know of hers. Time is the only thing for the writer – we crave more of it, no matter how much we have.

What’s next?

When the Miss Emily PR round quietens, I plan to go back to the first draft of that 19th C novel I mentioned earlier and attempt to get it into a good enough shape to show my agent and cross fingers that she likes it.

Thanks for taking the time to answere these questions, Nuala, and very best of luck with the novel.

Nuala O’Connor was born in Dublin, Ireland, she lives in East Galway. Already well-known under the name Nuala Ní Chonchúir, she has published four short story collections, the most recent Mother America appeared from New Island in 2012. Her third poetry collection The Juno Charm was published by Salmon Poetry in 2011 and Nuala’s critically acclaimed second novel The Closet of Savage Mementos appeared April 2014, also from New Island; it was shortlisted for the Kerry Irish Novel of the Year Award 2015. In summer 2015, Penguin USA, Penguin Canada and Sandstone (UK) published Nuala’s third novel, Miss Emily, about the poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid. www.nualanoconnor.com


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Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment

Today felt like a turning point – or maybe that moment when you realise the turn started a long time (32 years?) ago. By the time you see it, it’s following its own unstoppable momentum.  Enda Kenny take note.

11041259_952660041485797_5006071537131547071_nThis morning, the Artists’ Campaign to Repeal the Eighth Amendment was launched in Buswells Hotel in Dublin, by Cecily Brennan, Alice Maher, Eithne Jordan and Paula Meehan.  For those of you who don’t quite remember what the Eighth Amendment – also known as Article 40.3.3 – says, here it is:

“The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.”

More than 240 writers, artists, film-makers, performers, musicians – artists across the disciplines, in other words – have signed a statement that says:

“The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Ireland, Article 40.3.3, inserted in 1983, has prevented our doctors and our legislators from providing proper care to women in Ireland.

The Eighth Amendment undermines the status of the Irish Constitution. It is a key source of Ireland’s failure to reach international human rights standards and of the state’s failure to meet its obligations to vindicate women’s human rights.

We, the undersigned artists, call for the repeal of the Eighth Amendment of the Irish Constitution and for action by our elected legislators to provide women in Ireland with modern reproductive health services in line with best medical practice and international human rights norms.”

If you are a practising artist and would like to sign the statement go to the campaign’s website.  Or if you just want to see who’s already signed, that’s where to go. Then sign it.

There’s a Facebook page and a Twitter handle: @artistsrepeal8

Henry McDonald wrote a big online feature in The Guardian here

And Elaine Edwards’ Irish Times account of the launch is here

Please read and share widely. It really will make a difference.

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Interview: David Butler (City of Dis)

It may have taken David Butler almost a decade to finish writing his most recent two novels (The Judas Kiss 2012; City of Dis 2014) – but since then the publications, productions and awards have come flooding in: a poetry collection (Via Crucis, Doghouse, 2011), a short story collection (No Greater Love Ward Wood, 2013), the Fish short story prize in 2014, and three prize-winning one-act plays. ‘Twas the Night Before Xmas won the SCDA ‘Play on Words’ in Scotland in 2013 (& is published by Spotlight); Blue Love won the Cork Arts Theatre Writers’ Award in 2015, and Sweet Little Lies is one of three finalists for the SCDA ‘Play on Words’ in 2015 (winner tba in November). City of Dis was shortlisted for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year award (2015).


In City of Dis, Willy Regan roams the streets of Dublin in search of company and experience, following the death of a mother whose care overshadowed/stole most of his adolescence and young adulthood. The characters he encounters are as eccentric and needy as he is: the mysterious Yelena who resists commitment, suicidal Chester Mather; the aptly named Danger Danaher. One by one each of these draws Willy further into murky, unpredictable worlds en route to the inevitable tragic outcome. Along the way, Willy observes ‘Every trouble in this world is caused by a man’s inability to stay quietly at home.’ But the novel is all about moving through the city, recording impressions and responding to chance encounters. Even though he knows that nothing good waits for him on the streets, Willy is as irresistibly drawn to them as he is to the elusive Yelena. Despite his better judgement, he is compelled to follow trails, hide evidence and generally throw himself deeper and deeper into trouble. Dublin is as much a character as any other in this dark, bitterly comic, clever novel.


DIS 001 (1)Where did the idea for City of Dis come from?

Like almost everything I write, City of Dis began as a voice rather than an idea. It was the voice of an ‘innocent’ who’d reached middle-age without any significant relationship beyond his mother’s tyranny; an anachronistic, bookish voice undermined by self-deprecation and dry wit. From this, the mother’s irascible voice was born, then the voices of Yelena, Danger, Chester, Ciaran Crowe et al. I was delighted when Kirkus Review recently summed up the novel as: ‘A dark romp featuring delightfully crackling dialogue and the mental gymnastics of a protagonist so on edge he tries to silence a yowling cat with poison.’

You’ve said that both The Judas Kiss and City of Dis could be termed ‘Dublin noir “first-person narratives inhabiting the borderlands of illicit desire and violence” What did you mean?

Both novels are gravitationally bound to a violent crime and, in attempting to understand that crime, each explores our darker passions and obsessions. That said, to my mind, a contentious term such as noir is best thought of in terms of tone rather than content per se. Noir has a narrative toughness that often borders on self-parody, a black humour that acts as a check on its own urbanity. Dublin humour seems to me to lend itself to that, as does the dialect and accent of such centres of the Irish diaspora as Liverpool and Glasgow… It’s not for nothing that in American slang, a Private Investigator is dubbed a ‘Shamus’!

You’ve also said that you find it useful to be working on more than one project/text at a time – can you say more about that?  Most of us find it hard enough to keep track of one!

It’s not always immediately obvious to me in what genre an idea or a voice will best develop and come to life. As a modus operandi, having something on the go in different genres has sometimes got me out of jail in terms of writer’s block. My first published novel, The Last European (2005) was written while I was doing a Spanish Literature PhD in Trinity, and whenever that novel got stuck, I worked certain passages into poems which eventually led to the Via Crucis collection. Likewise, a central chunk of my current novel in progress, Under the Sign of the Goat, evolved into a one-act play, Blue Love, which won an award down in Cork earlier in the year. I guess my reading would be just as various, jumping about from poem to play to story…

You use your knowledge of theatre and acting to get inside the skin of your characters – do you go out about your everyday life in character?  Or do you leave your characters somewhere in the vicinity of your desk?

Again it comes back to voice and rhythm. To play a character on stage, you need to inhabit their speech and idiolect. At one level, they’re entirely defined (on the page) by their own discourse. But you also need to inhabit rather than merely play them, if you are to avoid caricature/cliché. I think the same holds true for characterisation in fiction. In writing The Judas Kiss, I set myself the task of understanding how a paedophile can justify himself to himself, (and how other characters make excuses for him.)  One way to approach this was to create a complex of first person narratives so that each character is seen from a variety of perspectives which don’t quite mesh. I can’t say I was ‘method-acting’, bringing each character around with me 24/7, but I had to believe in them (in every sense of the phrase) while they were narrating their respective sections.

Dave B headshot

David Butler

How aware were you of other novels that portray Dublin as a character in its own right? Do you see yourself as part of a tradition there?

I’d say very aware! Gerald Dawe, who co-judged the Novel of the Year in Listowel along with Eileen Battersby, commented on the family likeness of Will Regan to Sebastian Dangerfield. In fact, though I’d read The Ginger Man, I was entirely unconscious of this. Joyce’s Dublin, on the other hand, is as domineering a parent as Moll Regan, particularly insofar as character is defined in Joyce by language and idiom. The Dublin speech-rhythm of Beckett’s magnificent First Love is part of that tradition, the Flann O’Brien of Eamon Morrissey’s The Brother, Behan’s Quare Fellow, also Anthony Cronin’s Dead as Doornails and The Life of Riley.
I’m aware this is an exclusively male canon. Almost all of the many 20th Century Irish female writers and playwrights whom I admire place their heroines in the Big House, or in small-town Ireland, or they are ingenues arriving in the Big City. Specifically, with Will Regan, although the events take place in the run up to the millennium, I was after the rhythm of the inner-city Dublin of my own grandparents, who lived in the house with us as I was growing up.

City of Dis speculates about fate, destiny etc.  Did you come to any conclusions while you were writing it?

Both City of Dis and The Judas Kiss broach the question of whether there is a pattern to our lives, a question that has been posed in literature certainly since Sophocles’ Oedipus. It seems to me that, of all ‘philosophical’ questions, this is the one that most naturally belongs to literature because in creating literature we necessarily impose pattern and order. Despite the best efforts of the avant-garde, fiction and drama can only ever give the illusion of accident or free will. The issue is not itself a religious one, or not merely a religious one. To the extent that there are religious points of view expressed in each novel (Br Martin, Ciaran Crowe), their perspective can’t be said to prevail upon or take precedence over the protagonists’ (Bluebottle; Will Regan). The final lines of both The Judas Kiss and City of Dis foreground this indeterminacy. As to whether I’ve come to any conclusions, Chekhov said the task of the artist is to imaginatively and precisely pose the question, never to answer it.

That’s a great quote, from Chekov! There are several layers of writing in the novel.  Or writing about writing. Chester is writing a play – and the manuscript offers clues to his behaviour; Willy is writing his own account of events. Along the way, he often comments on the progress of his notes, in a way that continually remind us of the constructed nature of the novel. Can you talk about that?

In part, this relates back to the previous question. Any author must needs select and order their material, thereby imposing a logic on the inchoate together with the illusion of causality. More generally, this is what all memory does, being both selective and causal, in the construction of personality. I wanted to have some fun with this idea…

Looking at the summary of your work rate 2012-14, we’re obviously late catching up with you – so what are you up to now? What’s next?

I’ve recently finished a third draft of my current novel in progress, Under the Sign of the Goat. Although the protagonist is again a Dubliner and it once more gravitates about a violent death, the action is set entirely in small-town Ireland and it is, moreover, a third-person narrative. Meanwhile I’m working toward a second poetry collection and second book of short stories, and, just to shake things up, I’m about 20,000 words into a children’s novel! Oh, I’m also currently trying to find an energetic literary agent, all suggestions welcome!

Here’s a link to one of David’s short stories, “Return”:


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