Guerrillas in the Mist

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

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

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Internment, anyone?

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

The UK election is tomorrow.

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

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

“What Are We Still Doing in Guantanamo?”

and think again.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Elizabeth Strout at ILFD 2017 (with Sinéad Gleeson)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yes, of course.’

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

 

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Ann Patchett at dlr LexIcon

(Interviewed by Edel Coffey)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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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.

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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)

 

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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.

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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.

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Read this post in Italian here

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

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