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 …

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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.

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Sara Baume & Claire-Louise Bennett at Temple Bar Gallery & Studios

The excellent Susan Tomaselli (ST), editor of Gorse, introduced the two writers as part of what she describes as TBG&S’s ‘unique and exploratory’ programme supporting different kinds of writing. TBG&S’s own blurb for the event says that their New Writing Commission aims to expand ideas around writing about art.   Sara Baume (SB) was their first writer-in-residence (2015). Claire-Louise Bennett (CLB) is the second, current, writer-in-residence.

ST started proceedings by remarking on how both writers chose to convey solitude in their novels.

SB said that her entire novel (Spill Simmer Falter Wither) is written as a monologue addressed to a dog. Partly, she said, because she’s bad at dialogue; she decided to use her weakness – and, when you talk to yourself, you’re unself-conscious; when you talk to someone else, you’re self-conscious; but if you talk to an animal or a thing that can’t respond, that becomes something else again.

CLB talked about an editor’s negative response to the manuscript of her book (Pond) – he wanted a book that had more things happening in it plus characters that those events could happen to. In other words, she said, he wanted plot and characters and a story. But her book is about being alone and not knowing what to do. It might not be about very much (she said), but sometimes life is like that. It’s still lived. It’s still life. ( I can’t help wondering how that editor feels now that her book has been such a runaway success).

ST’s next question was about how both novels represent houses, what houses come to mean in each. CLB referred to Bachillard’s The Poetics of Space.  She made the interesting point that if you live alone, you come to ask what all these different rooms are for, they are based on a model of domesticity. Animals build nests that are discarded when the young have moved on. She talked about rented houses and the sense of other people moving through the space.

SB also has a thing about rented rooms, that sense of other people there before you. You always worry, she says, about who has the keys. As a child, she used to worry about who might have died there. In SSFW the house is very much a character; it takes on a sinister aspect. She referred to Gregor Shcneider’s Totes Haus u r.

ST invited them to talk about objects in both novels: One of the jobs of literature being to defamiliarise the familiar and open up the possibility of new meanings. She referred to Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (which happens to be a particular interest of mine at the minute, as contributors to the Farmleigh/Pieces of Mind project will know) and asked if that’s what the writers were trying to achieve?

CLB said, No. She likes to introduce poetic language to enhance the reading experience but her aim is not to make the world strange but to make the self strange in the world. She talked about how we vanish inside our heads and things around us recede but e.g. when we travel, nothing is automatic. When you’re on your own things acquire significance, it gives the world an opportunity to reassert itself.

SB said the dog (in SSFW) was a way to get the reader and the character in the novel to look at objects differently; while writing, she herself looked at things  as if she didn’t know them. When everyone is gone, she suggested, we sometimes transfer our affections to a worthy object. The character in her novel has only objects at first but when the dog arrives, they recede; he sees them differently.

CLB said you want people to orient you and when they’re not there, things come to the fore. Moving furniture, she said – in the kind of segue you learn to adapt to when listening to her speak – is a lovely thing to do.

Both writers read. SB read from SSFW and from one of her TBG&S essays. One that freaked her out at first, she said (#4 “Stoneymollan Trail”). She worked so hard to get that one, it ended up being her favourite. She said her essays for TBG&S were stories of her experience of the exhibitions. Because they were read on Arena, she had to describe them for people who didn’t see them. CLB read from two TBG&S pieces – the second is a response to the current exhibition My Brilliant Friend (featuring work by Michelle Brown, Avril Corroon, Ella de Búrca, Lisamarie Johnson, Laugh a Defiance. (CLB’s essay is entitled “How We Spend Our Days”). Tantalisingly, she read on – past the end of the printed version, which refers sagely to Annie Dillard’s maxim: ‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.’

ST asked if the commissions had changed their writing or their approach to writing.

SB said that she started as a visual artist. She did a very influential internship at the Douglas Hyde Gallery and started to write reviews for Circa magazine and elsewhere but the art world is small and it became problematic to try to make and show art and write about it at the same time so she began to write fiction.

CLB spoke about being at a disadvantage because visual art is not her area of expertise – but writing is her way of coping with not knowing what’s going on (I think this is what she said – it made absolute sense to me, at any rate, so I’ll leave this stand – I’m open to correction by anyone else who was there.) Her essays/stories as current TBG&S writer-in-residence work with her experience of having neither the language, the skills or a background in visual art. She’s sure she’s representative of many people who come into a gallery, wondering What’s this? What’s happening here? She pays attention, and attempts to abolish her state of ignorance without knowing what’s going on around her – like life, she supposes.

CLB’s Essay #2 is available to read here

Sara Baume can be heard reading her essay here

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Who owns your work? (Thought for the Day)

Here’s something I’ve wondered about in an idle sort of way, suddenly made real; it’s seriously scary stuff:
Who controls our online content and where/how it’s stored? Look what happened to Dennis Cooper, who had 14 years’ worth of blogs and email deleted without warning, according to the Guardian today.
Read the small print, people.  (I include myself in that warning. I know I should know better … )
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Honorary Degree from Dublin University/Mouth Cancer Awareness

Thanks to everyone who’s written to me about the honorary doctorate conferred by Trinity last week. I don’t usually write about the Mouth Cancer awareness campaign on this blog but I’ll make an exception now.

The doctorate was awarded in recognition of work I’ve done with others in raising public awareness about the signs, symptoms and effects of mouth, head and neck cancers in Ireland. The key phrase there is ‘with others’. I felt many hands on that scroll when I accepted it. I’ve been privileged to work with many people who, like me, have been diagnosed with and treated for those diseases and have had to adapt to startling and often difficult after-effects. Some of us are lucky enough to be still here. Others are not. Every one of us has played a part in raising awareness.

The campaign began in the Dublin Dental Hospital (DDUH), which is part of Dublin University (i.e.Trinity College), but it soon extended to include Cork University Dental Hospital (CUDH), the Irish Dental Association, the Dental Health Foundation and the Irish Cancer Society. All of the people from those organizations who have worked on the campaign had a hand on the scroll too.



In 2013 we published Word of Mouth, a guide to surviving and coping with oral cancers written by people who have been through treatment and the professionals involved in their care. The book is available free to download here

Since the first national Mouth Cancer Awareness Day (MCAD) in 2010, thousands of people have been checked for signs of cancer and many cancers have been detected, along with many more pre-cancerous conditions which, once recognised, can be monitored.

This year, MCAD will be Wednesday, 21st September.

Check the Dental Hospital, ICS, DHF and IDA websites for information closer to the date.

The IDA has a MCAD facebook page.

More information here





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Thought for the week: Indie Magazines

The latest issue of Mslexia features a thought-provoking article “Who Killed The Alarmist? Life and Death Among Literary Magazines.” In it, Debbie Taylor points out that while thousands of writers submit work to literary magazines every year, only a fraction of that number actually buy (let alone subscribe) to them.  It’s an impossible situation for lit mags to survive let alone thrive in.

Don’t you find that interesting?  Is it true of you?  Do you try to support the mags and journals you want your work to feature in?  And if not, why not?

Who DO you subscribe to, and why?

Last question: do you read the magazines and journals you subscribe to?


BTW: the latest issue of the Stinging Fly will be launched in BOOKS UPSTAIRS (Dublin) on 28th June.


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Quote for today

Festival season is here. I was trawling through notes and wishing I could be more organised when I came across this quote from George Orwell, so brilliant I had to post it:

‘Ready-made phrases are the prefabricated strips of words that come crowding in when you do not want to take the trouble to think through what you are saying. They will construct your sentences for you– even think your thoughts for you – and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.’

George Orwell

It’s an entire workshop in a single paragraph.

Thanks, Mr Orwell.

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