Listen: Arena Review of Patti Smith’s ‘M Train’

Listen: Arena Review of Patti Smith’s ‘M Train’

Patti Smith

Poet, musician, author, artist, trailblazer: Patti Smith is all these things but labels alone cannot do justice to the ambition and breath of her creative work. M Train, her latest book, is a memoir but it is a different beast than Smith’s much-loved Just Kids (2010), which focused on her early career and relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. In M Train Smith is struggling to write, wading through the ghosts of times past, telling killer anecdotes and drinking a lot of coffee. For anyone interested in creativity, in writing or in just hanging out with one of the most interesting artists at work today, M Train is a book to savour.

You can listen to my review of it for RTÉ Radio One’s Arena by clicking here.

Culture Night 2014

culture night 2014

‘A nation’s culture resides in the hearts and minds of its people’ – Mahatma Gandhi

Everyone could do with a little bit more culture in their lives. Alas, between the hectic practicalities of living and the sense that many people (unfortunately) have that a) creativity is something they relinquished in childhood and b) cultural spaces and practices are often ‘elitist’ or ‘out there’ somehow, our culture becomes something we underrate or overlook. This is a real shame, given that Irish culture -from the language to the literature to the digital arts – is as vibrant and as vital as it has ever been. If you’ve been meaning to recharge your cultural batteries, Culture Night on Friday September 19th is the perfect opportunity. Since 2006, this fantastic annual event throws open the doors to Ireland’s cultural treasure chest, inviting citizens to experience and enjoy the best culture this country has to offer. There’s so much to see and do across the length and breath of the country – including your own locality – that it makes http://www.culturenight.ie a must-see site. If you’re a literature fan and Galway-based, I’ll be taking part in an Over the Edge reading at Kenny’s Bookshop and Gallery as part of the festivities. More details of that  here and be sure to sample the delights nearest you.

Over the Edge Reading, Galway, August 28th

August 2014 Over The Edge Open Reading

 

Roll up, roll up, ye lovers of literature!  On August 28th, I’ll be one of the featured readers at Galway’s Over The Edge open reading in the city library, which I’m thrilled about. Over The Edge is a huge support to writers of all kinds and I’m very grateful to Susan and Kevin for the opportunity. On the night, I’ll be reading with Majella Kelly and Jane Williams. As always, there’ll be an open mic afterwards if you’re brave enough (and you are) plus this year’s Over The Edge new writer competition long list will be revealed. If you entered, you may be on it, so good luck. For more details about the night and the great work Over The Edge do, click here.

Crannóg 34 Launch

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Creative writing is a curious thing. Locking yourself away, squinting at a page or a screen, scribbling down sentences that are ninety percent awful, seven percent passable and three percent vaguely satisfying, is hardly the foundation for a healthy social life or any type of functional life, full stop. It’s hard and lonely and if people think you’re a little bit mad because you feel you simply have to write, then hell’s bells, they are probably correct. 

Having written non-fiction for the bulk of my life and having it come relatively easily to me did not prepare me for the realities of fiction writing. Creating opinions as opposed to creating entire worlds are two very different crafts. Last week, for the first time ever, I read something I had written to a room of almost complete strangers ( a group of friends came along from my MA course to surprise me, which they did. They also made me very happy, bless ’em.) Now, I’ve been on stage, radio, TV etc. and reading things to an audience is generally not a problem for me. That is, of course, because the ‘thing’ is at a quite a nice remove. A script, a running order, notes – all written by someone else you see or by me in a professional capacity, all concerning topics I can talk about but still remain, on a personal level, a safe distance from.

There is no hiding place when it comes to reading your fiction in public. If people hate it, you’ll see it in their faces, you’ll feel it in the air. No wonder so many writers eschew reading their work for audiences altogether. Even if the story is entirely fictional, it is still you, on a page, laid bare for people to draw all kinds of conclusions from, not safely tucked away at home where you can’t see them but right there, in front of your eyes, as you quiver on stage.

But I did it and it wasn’t bad. I survived, without gagging, crying or making a hasty beeline for the loo mid-performance. The generosity of the other writers was what really blew me away though. As a novice, I will never, ever forget it. People don’t have to be nice or kind or encouraging, especially those far more established than you, but when they are, what a gift it is. The piece I read is called Two Eyes, Watching from the latest edition of Galway’s brilliant (if I do say so myself) Crannóg magazine, issue 34, whose launch we were celebrating. The cover is by local artist Harriet Leander. As you can see from above, it is just gorgeous. Thanks to team Crannóg for having me and to all the authors and poets who lit up the Crane Bar last Friday night. You can pick up Crannóg here or from (the best bookshop in Ireland, folks!) the always outstanding Charlie Byrnes in Galway City.

P.S. Here’s a nice collection via Flavorwire.com of brilliant author’s reading their work in public. Hope it inspires you.  Truman Capote is probably my favourite out of the lot. To Tiffany’s!

Book Review: ‘The Shining Girls’, plus a ‘thank you’ to Penguin Ireland & the RTÉ Guide

rte-guide-penguin

Last Friday (September 13th, but far from unlucky) I was delighted to be able to attend a writing workshop by Penguin Ireland and the RTÉ Guide in Pearse Street Library for the winner and runners up of their annual short story competition. I was shortlisted for this year’s award – hooray! – but getting invited along to meet other writers and hearing from the best in the business was an extra special treat. 

So did we all walk away with a handful of magic beans to liberally sprinkle over our scribbles, turning them into surefire best sellers? Not exactly. If there is one thing to keep in mind when it comes to writing, it is that there are no short cuts. You write to rewrite and then rewrite again. A first draft is just that, a first draft, not a finished book. Faith O’Grady from the Lisa Richards Agency stressed the importance of language, plot and character. Writers can get so absorbed by one or two of these, they can forget to balance all three. And publishers always like hearing about ‘books with hooks’.

So, you’ve submitted your story or manuscript and lo, it’s been over three months and you haven’t heard anything. Is it okay to check in with the editor you submitted to? Yes, provided you’re polite and not overbearing, as Penguin’s Patricia Deevy pointed out. No one likes feeling harassed or dealing with difficult people.

The writers panel of Sinead Moriarty, Mary Grehan and Niamh Boyce was excellent; honest, funny and full of  insight to the highs, lows and sheer hard work that goes into writing. One thing that I’ll always keep with me is Sinead’s approach to being an author. In the face of all the slaving and the rejection, she pointed out the importance of writing because you love it as opposed to writing to get published. One is about passion, the other is a business plan. One will sustain you, the other will probably always stand you up.

Thank you Penguin Ireland and the RTÉ Guide for a fantastic day out. The sandwiches were delicious and the company was lovely.

the-shining-girls-book-cover-211

I’m a big crime/thriller fan but every so often even I have to take a break from devouring Slaughter and Nesbo. Why? Well,  I’m so used to the conventions and the pacing of crime fiction that sometimes I get bored, which is probably my own fault for overdoing it. Reviewing The Shining Girls by South Africa’s Lauren Beukes was refreshing because although it fits neatly into the  crime / thriller genre, it takes one of the usual tropes – serial killer on the rampage – and gives it a terrifying new edge: the ability to time travel.

How do you catch a killer who can bounce through time? Beuke’s Harper Curtis is a despicable creation. He bleeds evil. His obsession with finding and brutally murdering ‘shining’ girls (that is, girls on the cusp of doing great things with their lives) continues unchecked from the 1930s until the 1990s, when he picks on the wrong shining girl, Kirby, a brilliantly sparky, tough heroine. Kirby survives, setting out to find her attacker but Harper will not be easily defeated.

If you’re looking for a new twist on crime fiction, The Shining Girls will not disappoint. Like almost every crime / thriller this year, it has been compared to Gone Girl but it is a very different beast. You can listen to my review for RTÉ Radio One’s Arena below:

On Being Present

Blackberry Photograph

‘I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair

That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.

Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not. ‘

Excerpt from Seamus Heaney’s ‘Blackberry-Picking’.

On a recent holiday, my iPhone died an abrupt death. While other phones chirped and squeaked into life as we waited at the baggage carousel, mine refused to turn on. When it finally did  flicker to life, I had few precious minutes to check my emails before it faded to unresponsive black. Staring at the now piece-of-junk in my hands, my thoughts turned from ‘what’s wrong with my phone!’ to ‘what’s wrong with me?’ There I was, on a sun-soaked balcony in a little Spanish town crying out to be explored, the beauty of its Old Town laid out before me like feast but instead of looking out or up, I was tethered to a fancy plastic box.

My predicament isn’t unique. It’s the subject of countless editorials, articles, probably even a Ted Talk.  Anybody given to the slightest bit of introspection has probably found themselves wondering about our fascination with and addiction to technology. Because it is an addiction, this compulsion to be plugged in at all times, to converse or ‘connect’ with people we wouldn’t recognize in the street,  the creeping suspicion that our lives don’t matter unless we are sharing them at all times in 140 characters or less.

After about twenty-four hours, I forgot about my phone and everything that goes with it. Time slowed down. My brain rewired itself. I recorded things the old fashioned way, with words and photos I would actually get developed. Sometimes, the only recording I did was in my mind. It was enough.

The passing of Seamus Heaney was a gut-punch. His poetry illuminated the sublime in the so-called ‘everyday’. By being present to notice the little things, Heaney created work that brought and will forever bring joy and hope to so many. As Kurt Vonnegut beautifully put it, ‘enjoy the little things in life for one day you’ll look back and realise they were the big things.’

 There is magic in the simple act of paying attention.

In the mad dash to digitize our lives as we live them, are we actually enjoying them? Are we noticing what really matters? Or are we locking ourselves into a cycle of perpetual distraction, half-living, always vaguely anxious, too busy recording our memories to live them fully?

We’re not going to stop having this discussion anytime soon but if you’d like some food for thought on the matter, We Live In Public is a fascinating documentary on Internet pioneer Josh Harris, who was convinced the way forward for the Internet was mass sharing and recording of our lives. Good call, Josh. Zan McQuade’s essay ‘Has the job of remembering been outsourced to the Internet?’ raises interesting questions about collective memory and how we store our personal histories.

One last thing…

When you write (with the phone and Internet off, naturally) you indulge in some pretty antisocial habits: daydreaming, weird timekeeping, drinking alarming amounts of tea or wine, depending on the day or the deadline. So, it is really nice to get a little recognition in the real world for your endeavors. On that note, I’m delighted to be on a shortlist of ten writers for the Penguin/RTÉ Guide Short Story Competition 2013 and also, I’m delighted to be on the long list for the 2013 Over The Edge New Writer Award. Scribble, scribble, scribble. When the writing force is strong within you, that’s all a gal can do.

Book Reviews: Alison Jameson’s ‘Little Beauty’ & Lisa Jewell’s ‘The House We Grew Up In’

Little Beauty

When not casting a long eye over the internets for work, I’ve been reading for Arena, RTÉ Radio One’s flagship arts programme, so if you’re heading for the sun (we had it here in Ireland, once) and are wondering what to read as you chill, these might help.

Lisa Jewell’s The House We Grew Up In has a very pretty cover but the actual story – an interweaving tale of a family with a hoarder matriarch and a host of dark secrets – was much more than the cover image suggested. Fans of Jewell (and she has many, this is her 11th novel, a sure-fire bestseller like the rest) will find a lot to love between these pages. Click below to listen.

I read Alison Jameson’s debut This Man and Me many moons ago and it really stayed with me so I was thrilled to be asked to read her latest, the gorgeous and heartbreaking Little Beauty, which tells the tale of Laura Quinn, an eccentric native of the  Atlantic-bruised Whale Island. Laura’s struggles with love, motherhood and small-minded society are beautifully evoked by Jameson,  making for a great read and leaky eyes. You can listen to my full review with the lovely Seán Rocks below:

If you are a fiction fan and like your short stories, the kind folk at Dublin online literary journal The Bohemyth published a story of mine ( Pandora453 ) recently, which you can read here. While you’re there be sure to check out the rest of the site. Lots of great writing and photography, all for free, so what’s not to love, am I right? I’m also very happy to have a story featured in the latest edition of Wordlegs, which should be out soon.

As the man says, it’s good to be back.

Book Review: Maggie O’Farrell’s ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’

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Apparently the summer is fast approaching although you wouldn’t know it on the Western seaboard of the Emerald  Isle – plus ca change and all that. As I type the sky is a moody grey, threatening rain or worse. I know there are downsides to a heatwave but right now a dash of one would be most welcome, which brings us to Ms. O’Farrell’s rather wonderful book.

Firstly, I must confess that Instructions for a Heatwave is – to my shame – the first Maggie O’Farrell book I have ever read. I say ‘shame’ because O’Farrell is one helluva novelist. If you love Anne Tyler – and really, how could you not? – you must check out O’Farrell’s work post haste. Her writing is spare but perfectly stitched together, the portraits she paints of individuals, families and places are flawless. They live and breath on the page. Did I mention how gifted she is?

We meet in the Riordan family in July 1976, as a tremendous heatwave grips London. Recent retiree Robert leaves the family home to ‘get the paper’ but when he doesn’t return matriarch Gretta rallies her children, drawing her fractured family together:  Monica the eldest, an unhappy divorcee, Michael Francis the middle child, a frustrated history teacher, and Aoife, the youngest and the wild child. What follows is a masterful exploration of family dynamics and the consequences of secrets that are on the verge of boiling point.

If commercial fiction leaves you underwhelmed Instructions for a  Heatwave  matches fine writing with an equally finely woven story, making perfect beach reading material. Now, all we need is some sun. Any ideas? For your listening pleasure, here I am reviewing Instructions for a Heatwave with Sean Rocks on RTÉ Radio One’s Arena:

The Dark Side of Chick Lit: Why It’s Time to Break Out of the Pink Ghetto

A truly terrifying re-imagining of  Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale via David Beresford / Huffington Post.

 

The greatest disservice the ‘chick lit’ moniker ever did was to suggest that all books shoehorned into the genre were of the same dismal standard. From Marian Keyes to Bridget Jones, from Jane Austen to The Time Traveller’s Wife there are countless of examples of fine authors and stories that have been lumped into the bracket partly because it is convenient for marketing departments and partly because women writing about romance is still seen as something that must be doused in pink ribbons, fairy dust and diamonds, a fact as vomitous as it is depressing.

Now before anyone blows a gasket yes, there are plenty of ‘chick lit’ books that aren’t worth the frothy mind-numbingness they’re written with but by the same measure there’s generally no shortage of crap in any genre you care to pick, including – dare I say it – the lofty heights of literature.

In university I had one professor whose open disdain for Jane Austen was bordering on venomous. ‘Parties and weddings, that’s all she wrote about!’ he liked to say, astonished that anyone could give a toss about such things. What he missed spectacularly, as Austen critics often do, is that people read Austen not just for the parties and the weddings but because love and the pursuit of love preoccupies everyone – men and women – at some point in their lives. That and because Jane Austen happened to be one the greatest storytellers ever, whose work I have no doubt will certainly outlive the misguided verbal farting of a crabbit English professor.

Publishers often don’t do women writers any favours either. Even books with little in them to merit the title of ‘chick lit’ are often marketed as such because hey, that’s what works folks! I remember the first book I read by Jojo Moyes*, absolutely loving it and getting quite defensive about the fact that it was pegged in a genre that to my mind downplayed its brilliance. It’s simply not fair that talented women writers with great stories to tell and important things to say get stuck in the pink ghetto of ‘chick lit’, while male authors have the freedom to write about anything they damn well please, including romance, without anyone feeling the need to treat them as a special interest group.

Perhaps the most annoying thing about the ‘chick lit’ genre is what the name implies; that the work of the women writing within its parameters is disposable, silly, undeserving of proper attention and criticism. While this may be true for some, it is certainly not true for all. As ‘chick lit’ is the one genre where women have a (dubious) head start in terms of getting published, ignoring it means we ignore the voices of already marginalized women writers and that’s unacceptable.

Sometimes the idea of taking ‘chick lit’ by its perky ponytail, combining it with its cinematic equivalent ‘the rom-com’ and burying them in a nuclear bunker somewhere so they can be adorkable together for all eternity without bothering anyone else is very pleasing to me. In the meantime, it would be nice if publishers tried to get a bit more creative about how they position and market female writers. The talent is there, the stories are there so why not try new things? Go a bit mad. And park the pink for a while. You might just be pleasantly surprised. I know a great many women readers and writers  who definitely will be.

*This article started out as a review of Jojo Moyes’ The Girl You Left Behind. Alas, the article drifted but if you’re looking for a great read on the beach this summer I’d heartily recommend The Girl You Left Behind and another of Jojo’s entitled Me After You. Both are best sellers for a reason: they’re very, very good. 

This article originally appeared on Fanny.ie  The image used is a terrifying re-imagining of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic The Handmaid’s Tale via Derek Beresford / Huffington Post