Thank You!

Ivan O’Brien talking at the recent O’Brien Press 40th Anniversary party. Michael O’Brien, Frank McGuinness, Alice Taylor and Robert Dunbar also spoke.

We would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to everyone for all of the messages of support we have received since the news broke about O’Brien Press being singled out for a dramatic 84% cut in our Arts Council funding for 2015. We have been inundated with emails and letters from the writing community, both here and abroad. We greatly appreciate your offers of support and were especially heartened by two Letters to the Editor published in the Irish Times and the Irish Examiner in the last week.

Arts Council funding has been crucial in our ability to build and grow our children’s publishing programme and, more recently, our acclaimed general fiction list. The impact of that support being withdrawn would have devastating consequences for Irish writers and writing. The O’Brien Press has always sought to develop new writing talent, and we are delighted to have published the first novels of authors such as Eoin Colfer, Marita Conlon-McKenna and Frank McGuinness, and hundreds of other talents. Commercial success is, however, far from guaranteed, which is why Arts Council funding is so important for both our children’s fiction and Brandon Fiction programmes: without it, we cannot imagine the long-term impact on Irish writers. In particular, Irish children’s literature is being blatantly downgraded, while other areas of literature are not. The entire sector is jeopardized by this funding cut, and it is far too important for us to stand by and let that happen.

We’ll keep you updated on our campaign to have our funding restored to an annual category. Words of support from the writing community have been a huge help.

If you’d like to add your voice, you can contact both Arts Council Director, Orlaith McBride, and Chair, Sheila Pratschke, at bernie.oleary@artscouncil.ie, and you can find email addresses for your TDs here, and Ministers here. It would also be useful to get in touch with any contacts you may have in local or national media.

We greatly appreciate your support.

#Supportirishwriting

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Quality Time

SurgeA story by Madeleine D’Arcy, taken from Surge: New Writing from Ireland

If only one of those idiot nurses would turn his television on. All he had to contemplate was the ceiling above him. That dreadful ceiling, with its banal magnolia paint. Supreme blandness, but for a daub in a slightly darker shade right above his bed. An oddly shaped imperfection – the result, he was convinced, of something more sinister – blood from an exploding vein, a leaping spurt of pus, an ejaculation? The reason for the overlay of paint obsessed him daily since he’d found himself stretched out on this hospital bed, helpless and utterly immobile.

The multiple ignominies of the past week made him seethe with impotent fury, but at least the lackeys had not overlooked his Laya GoldPlus health insurance, so he had a private room. His field of vision was limited to the upper part of the door on his left and of the window on the right, that dratted ceiling, the helpless emergency cord dangling like a neglected toy barely visible in the corner of his eye and, thankfully, the television, hanging on its metal limb high up on the far wall.

On duty today was the one he called Nurse Wretched. If only he could speak, he’d have a thing or two to say to that bitch. He detested all the nurses, in fact, except for little Nursie Tinybones, with her soft plump hands and incongruous scent of bubblegum and flowers. And Patchett, the physio, was not a bad sort – at least she provided the only smidgen of bodily ease he’d experienced since that blasted stroke.

If only bloody Nurse Wretched would switch the dratted TV on. The careless cow had also left his door ajar. He could hear the enervating clatter of the underlings outside and smell some disastrous boiled vegetableness floating in the disinfectant air. Even more excruciating was Wretched’s fake-sincere chatter with some female in the corridor outside.

‘So, here he is, and won’t he be delighted to see you, the poor poppet!’ Nurse Wretched squealed as she swung round the door and into the room, hovering over him, showing him off as if he were Exhibit A.
‘Now, look who’s come all the way from London to see her dear old dad!’ she cooed.
If only Wretched would drop dead.

‘Thank you, nurse.’ The other woman’s voice seemed unaccountably familiar, despite the slight English accent.

‘He can’t turn his head, dear.  You’ll have to get in close so he’ll see you.’

A middle-aged woman leaned over him. There was something distinctly recognisable about her.

‘So … this is a Diving Bell and Butterfly scenario, is it?’ asked the woman in her Englishy accent.

‘What?’

‘Am I correct to assume that he knows what’s going on even though he can’t move or speak or … well, do anything?’

‘He can move his eyes, dear, but that’s all. That’s how we know he likes to watch the telly.’

The Englishwoman looked at him, and he rolled both his eyes at her.

There, he thought. See what you make of that, girlie. See what you make of that.

‘And all these tubes?’

‘Well, pet, he can’t breathe properly without them.  We have to feed him intravenously as well.’ Nurse Wretched lowered her voice. ‘He has to wear an incontinence pad down below, of course.’

‘And you don’t know how long this condition will last?’

‘No, dear … well, I’m not allowed to say.  You’ll have to talk to the Consultant.’

‘I understand. Thank you, nurse.’

‘Right, then. I’ll leave you to it.’

Exit Nurse Wretched. The door clunked shut behind her.

The Englishwoman leaned over, so that he could see her face again.

‘Well, well, Dad,’ she said. ‘Long time, no see. It’s me, Trisha.’

Yes, it was his daughter, Trisha. He recognised those bitter little eyes, the bone structure of her face, the still-beautiful hair. She must be almost forty now, he supposed.  Well preserved, all the same. The lovely smooth blonde hair – a shame she wore it shorter now – what was the name of that style? A bob? The outfit was pitiful, somewhat like the clothes that Wifey used to wear. A blue denim jacket over a white blouse. Did they still call them blouses? Cheap dangly earrings. No class. How could she? Wifey had no class either. In the end, he had despised Wifey. Though not as much as she despised him, he supposed. He blinked. I’m still here girlie. See what you make of that.

Trisha looked almost afraid, but she recovered within moments. ‘You’re in there all right, aren’t you? You’re still there, Dad. Not that you deserve to be.’

The colour of his daughter’s hair was darker than he recalled. Ash blonde, was it? In his memory, she was a fairytale child with long golden tresses. From this rancid bedtrap he could still imagine – almost feel – the smooth ripeness of her hair.

‘Trust you to have great health insurance. Just as well, I suppose.  You’re going to be here for a long time.’ She walked around the bed, and from the other side she leaned over again to peer into his face.

‘Can you hear me?’ she asked, loudly. She looked into his eyes. ‘You’re in there all right, you bastard.  Yes, it’s me, your daughter. Let’s spend some quality time together, shall we?’ She straightened up and walked back around the bed. She sat down in the chair. He could barely see her now, but he could smell a faint lemony perfume.

‘Hilarious that you can’t talk,’ she said, in a hard voice. ‘You used to have plenty to say, didn’t you? Hardly ever stopped ranting at Mum and upsetting her.  When you were in the house, the only time we had peace was when you read to me. But the books you chose – I couldn’t understand half of them. Remember Don Quixote? Tilting at windmills. I had no idea what it was all about. I was probably only four then. I just listened. I’d do anything to keep you in a good mood.’

He remembered, quite suddenly and clearly, the cover of that book: a daft old man on a horse, wearing yellow armour, and little Sancho Panza, his underling, bound to obey a lunatic who was out of control. The tale had amused him once.

‘I remember the way you brushed my hair and counted. Forty slow brushstrokes on each section, and then you’d … oh God …’ She put her head in her hands.

He thought she might be crying.  What the heck was she fussing about?

‘I wish Mum could see you now – the state of you – but she can’t. She’s dead. She died two years ago. Did you know that? I didn’t bother letting you know. If only she had had your medical insurance – but the NHS wasn’t too bad.’ She wiped her eyes.

He heard the door open. Nurse Minnie Mouse squeaked in, all pert and businessy as usual.

‘Just got to do his bloods,’ she chirped.

How he hated them all.

At his side he felt, rather than saw, Trisha rising from the chair.

‘No need to move,’ Nurse Minnie Mouse said. ‘You can stay if you like. So long as you’re not squeamish.’

‘No, I’m not a bit squeamish. Thank you, nurse.’

He felt her sit down again, a small flow of air and that lemon fragrance, with a hint of flowers, perhaps lilies.

‘You’re the daughter, aren’t you? Call me Barbara,’ Mousey said cheerfully, as she jabbed a needle most painfully into the flesh of his upper arm. How he longed to roar at that despicable woman. All her persnickety tidiness and yet she was clueless about the most basic of tasks. That small rodent face of hers was asking to be hit.

‘I hear you only just arrived from London,’ said Mousey to his daughter. ‘You must be exhausted. I could bring you a cup of tea, if you like?’

‘That’s very kind of you, but I’m fine, thanks.’

‘So, whereabouts in London do you live?’

He wished Mousey would quit sticking her nosy little nose in. He hated her even more than Nurse Wretched now.

‘Muswell Hill.’

‘That’s North London, isn’t it? I used to live in Clapham once upon a time.’

‘I lived there too, for a while, when I was ten. Then my mother met my stepfather, so we moved to North London when I was twelve.’

From his stodgy static bed he felt intensely vexed. So Wifey had met someone else, the bitch? Surely it couldn’t have lasted.

‘And do you come back to Ireland very often?’

‘Not really,’ said Trisha.

‘Well, at least you’re here now, that’s the main thing, isn’t it?’ Nurse Minnie Mouse squeaked.
He could not see what the nurse was doing, but he could hear her fannying about beside him, probably fixing adhesive labels on the vials of his still-warm blood.

‘Yes,’ said his daughter, absently.

The nurse fumbled at the bottom of the bed. She wrote on a chart with a blue biro before returning the pen to her breast pocket and replacing the chart.

‘All done for now,’ she said. ‘I’ll leave you in peace.’ Exit Nurse Minnie Mouse with a see-through envelope containing his blood.

As soon as the door closed, Trisha spoke again. ‘She’s left us in peace, Dad,’ she said. ‘Pity you never left us in peace.’ She stood up and began to pace. ‘Mum was never right afterwards, you know. She tried. God help her, she tried. But she always went for the wrong men.’

Wifey was an idiot. That had become obvious over time. He could not conceive now of any possible reason why he had ever married Wifey, but it was hardly his fault she was an idiot.

‘Mum was so naive,’ his daugher continued. ‘Of course, people didn’t talk about things in those days.’ There she was again, at the side of the bed. She leaned over and stared into his eyes. ‘Can you hear me? Yes, you can, can’t you? So, let’s see, how many years is it since we had some quality time together? Thirty, maybe? Can you cast your mind back?’

How sarcastic she was, the little bitch.

‘Of course, Mum should have faced up to things, but she didn’t.  You got off scot-free.  You probably went on doing the same kind of thing all your life. Men like you, they don’t stop, do they?’
A phone rang out, a cheerful cha cha cha tone.

‘Hang on.’ She reached down, and he could hear a zip being unzipped, some fumbling sounds. She stood up and plonked her handbag on the bed. ‘Yes, that’s fine. I’ll be there,’ she said, into one of those new-fangled phones, before replacing it in the bag. She took out a handkerchief and blew her nose, before continuing. ‘Poor Mum. I blamed her for a long time, you know. She was so naive. In spite of those enormous blue eyes she couldn’t see what was going on under her nose.’

She got up again and began to pace up and down. ‘I wanted to tell her for so long, but you wouldn’t let me.  You said I could never tell.  You used to stroke my hair. Remember? You washed my hair too. That was one of your jobs. Then you’d plait it.’

Ah, yes, he had loved every hair on her little urchin head. He used to brush it for hours and smooth it into two beautiful princess-like ponytails or plait it in various delightful ways. He could almost feel the sap rising now. How delicious it was when her little friends began to ask him to arrange their hair too, to fix it in pretty plaits like hers. Perhaps he should have been a hairdresser. In his day, only women did that job. It was a sissy job, though, and he was certainly never a sissy.
‘My friends all wanted plaits like mine. Mary Kate came to our house, one day, to play.  You came home early from work, remember? Mum said, “Great, you’re back early. I’ll just pop out to the butcher’s.” You plaited Mary Kate’s hair, and then she went home, and then you took down my hair and brushed it straight, and you said my hair was the prettiest and that you loved me more than you loved anyone and that we had to be nice to each other.  You said it was our secret.  You’d have to cut my beautiful hair off if I told, and I’d have no hair left, and I’d be ugly, and I’d look like a boy, and that would be horrible.’

She sounded almost out of breath as she paced around the room. He couldn’t see much of her, but he could feel a minuscule flow of air as she moved back and forth somewhere near the foot of his bed. Maybe she was waving her arms. A windmill daughter. Or maybe a Don Quixote daughter, tilting uselessly at windmills. Once upon a time, she had sat on his knee while he read that book aloud. She was too young to understand the story, but he read it to her anyway.

‘The shock of it. I can’t describe it. Seeing my friend, Mary Kate, with her hair shorn. Stubby little haircut, like a boy’s. The look on her face. “I’m never going to your house again,” she said. “I can’t be your friend any more.” I knew it was your fault, but I said nothing.  You cut my hair off anyway, in the end.’

He remembered that little spoilsport, Mary Kate, who had told her mother about the fun they’d had. The little brat. She had had the most delicious chestnut hair. She told her story once, but she refused to tell it again, because he’d warned her, you see. Hair first, neck next, he’d whispered in her tiny ear. Ah, the overwhelming pleasure of that thick rope of hair shifting in his hand. Oh, the sheer joy of the blades working through the sheaf of chestnut brown. No choice but to do it once again, with his own, the blonde.

‘What did you do to her? What other awful things did you do?’ She leaned over him and stared right into his eyes. ‘How could you live with yourself? I can hardly live with myself, and I did nothing wrong.  You bastard.’

She moved out of his view again and paced while she spoke. ‘You know what, I was jealous. Can you believe it? You always said you loved me the most, and then I found out you were doing the same things with Mary Kate. Crazy, isn’t it? But that’s the way it was.’

She stopped and faced the window. Her smooth blonde hair touched the collar of her blue denim jacket. Shame it was so short now. ‘We were lucky.  We got help in London,’ she told the window. ‘A great charity. I still donate. Only for that place we’d have been on the streets. The thing is, I’ve had therapy since then – loads of therapy – but I can’t get over it.’ She paused and took a deep breath. ‘I still feel guilty,’ she continued. ‘We just ran away.  We left you there to do as you pleased. That didn’t solve anything. For men like you, there’s only one solution.’

He heard her unzip her bag again. There was a metallic swishing sound. ‘See what I have?’ she said, towering over him now with a large chrome scissors in her hand. ‘Chop chop.’ She snipped the scissors open, closed, open, closed, right in front of his face.

‘How do you like this?’ she said. ‘All these tubes. I could snip them all.’

Finally, he was afraid. It would be a painful death. Such hatred in her eyes. As usual, no Wretched Nursie, no Minnie Mousey Nursie, no little Nursie Tinybones. Like buses, there was not a single bloody nursie around when you needed one.

He felt cold air on his lower body. She had raised the bedclothes. He could only imagine the pathetic sight: his bare old legs, the hospital nightdress, the bulge of his hospital diapers underneath. His warm urine flowed along a catheter, and there was an itch somewhere on his left foot that he would never be able to scratch.

‘I think I’ll take your nappy off and give you a snip,’ she said. ‘I could do a right job on you, couldn’t I? I could snip, snip, snip your dirty great thing right off.’

He felt the bedclothes being replaced carefully.

‘Hmm,’ she said and leaned over. She snipped the scissors several times, efficiently, in front of his face. Then she stopped and looked straight into his eyes. ‘Not today,’ she sighed. ‘I can’t be bothered today. Snip snip. I’ll take my time about it. See you tomorrow.’

She picked up her handbag and held it high, so he could see her place the scissors carefully inside. ‘Toodle-pip and toodle-oo,’ she called, as she left the room.

Damn it, he thought, his heart racing. He had once accused Wifey of having a fancy man. He’d even tried to slap the truth out of her. He’d been certain the child was not his own. Now, he realised he had been wrong. This girl was flesh of his flesh, blood of his blood. The same feisty spirit. That zest for danger. The delicious tension. The tantalising feeling that a nurse could walk in on them at any moment.  What a cunning little vixen. He was almost looking forward to her next visit.

But now the television was blank. That blasted Nurse Wretched. He wished she’d hurry up and turn it on.

Madeleine D’Arcy worked as a criminal legal-aid solicitor and as a legal editor in London before returning to Cork in 1999 with her husband and son. She began to write short stories in 2005. In 2010, she received a Hennessy X.O. Literary Award for First Fiction as well as the overall Hennessy X.O. Literary Award for New Irish Writer. Madeleine’s story ‘Dog Pound’ has been made into a short film, starring Frank Kelly. Her short-story collection, Waiting for the Bullet, was published by Doire Press in April 2014. She is a student on the inaugural master’s degree in creative writing at UCC.

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Watch out for Erika McGann!

We catch up with the award-winning children’s author on all her latest projects.

This autumn sees the publication of the third book in your supernatural series, The Watching Wood. This time Grace and the girls get caught up in the Witch Trials. Tell us a bit about their adventure.

In the new book the girls get sucked into a magical world full of witches, faeries and creepy ghost children. Grace and her friends are forced to take part in the Witch Trials, a kind of supernatural Community Games, and unwittingly make enemies of a rival team. They soon discover that there are more dangerous things in this new world then a spiteful team of witch apprentices – the woods nearby are filled with faeries, magical creatures of all shapes and sizes, banished by witches and hell-bent on revenge. With the little magic they’ve learned so far, the girls must survive the Witch Trials, navigate through the faery-filled woods and pay the mysterious Ferryman’s price to make it back home.

Your next book after The Watching Wood will be a mini-adventure with Grace and her friends, The Fairytale Trap, a 2015 World Book Day Book (you can pick it up for FREE with a WBD voucher). What were the challenges you had in writing this adventure, compared to writing The Demon Notebook, or your other full-length novels?

This was a fun one to write – a little magical mishap to drop into the girls’ school year – but keeping it short was a bit of a struggle. You’re always tempted to elaborate, build up the atmosphere slowly and add a few subplots, but this was a novella, not a novel, so it had to be quick and to the point. I enjoyed that though, there was no lull in the pace. The girls leap from one scene to the next without stopping. It kept me on my toes!

So what’s next for Grace and the girls? Are there more magical adventures to come?

Yes, there’s a fourth novel in the series due out in autumn next year. I haven’t really started on the text yet (I need to get a move on!), but it’ll centre on an old-style carnival that arrives unexpectedly in Dunbridge. I love the idea of a carnival – it’s fun and exciting, with just a little bit of creepy.

Have you any other plans for books outside the magical series you’ve created?

I’d love to have a go at a few other things if I could find the time! At the moment, the Dunbridge books are keeping me busy, but maybe in a year or two …

You do lots of events up and down the country – what’s your favourite part of these readings and visits?

The Q&A that comes at the end of each session (or in the middle of the session if I’ve got a chatty group!). I like talking about books and writing and how I got started, but it’s really the conversation with the kids that’s the fun part. I’m happy to talk at a group, but talking with them is much more enjoyable.

This summer you travelled to the UK to pick up the Waverton Good Read Children’s Award 2014. How did it feel to win the award? And what did you get up to while there?

It was a wonderful couple of days in a beautiful part of England. The organisers were lovely and made sure I saw plenty of the country while I was there. I got to watch the vote for the Waverton Award for adults, which was really interesting (plenty of rivalry between the advocates of each shortlisted title!), and I did a short talk with them. I met some of the kids, of course, and they were a fantastic bunch; full of chat and enthusiasm and a real love of reading. It was a great trip and I was so delighted to win the award.

You are pretty active on Twitter and Facebook – it seems like social media is a part of a modern-day writer’s life. Is it a part of ‘the job’ you enjoy?

It’s a part of ‘the job’ I still have to master. I try to keep up-to-date as much as possible on both, but I should be posting more often. It is definitely compulsory for the modern-day writer – social media is the quickest and easiest way to reach people, and being good at it can make all the difference to your writing career. I vow to become more proficient this year!

The Demon Notebook was recently published in the USA and it is to be translated into Spanish for the Mexican market. What was it like to see the USA version of the book? Would you be worried how the book will change when it is translated?

I adore the USA edition, it’s absolutely gorgeous. And I had great fun during the edit, learning what Irish phrases mean absolutely nothing outside of Ireland and why I had to change them. I actually wrote a piece for gobblefunked.com recently about that and what happens when your work is translated (this was before the Mexican deal was signed). I considered that a translator is like a co-author you never get to meet – someone who rewrites and arranges your text for a brand new audience. I’ll never get to appreciate how the book reads in Spanish, but I still can’t wait to see it.

What advice would you give to emerging authors who’d love to write a book for children?

Write what you love and what got you excited about reading as a kid. I think when you write for children you regress a bit and experience it as you would have back then. And that’s when it works best – when you read your own text and know you would have gobbled it up when you were young.

Erika McGann was the winner of the Waverton Good Read Children’s Prize 2014 for The Demon Notebook, the first in her magical series about Grace and her four friends.

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Love in a Time of War

WhiteFeathersDebut novelist Susan Lanigan talks about the inspirations behind White Feathers.

In my diary dated 22nd February 2009, I have a list of short story ideas. One appears at the top, for the first time: “World War I – White Feathers”. Unknown to myself, I had found the story that I would start writing in October 2010 and that would consume me for the next three and a half years. The one that felt different from all the others. The one that would lead me on a tour of the battlefields of France, and would then have me schlepping around war museums in London and Paris. The one that would bring me to: the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair, the attention of an agent and a publisher, and a finished book – whose devastatingly simple cover of a red poppy and background of rough sacking is so redolent of much of the devastated front of World War I.

This cover was designed by the wonderfully talented Emma Byrne, along with input from the marketing folk at O’Brien Press. My involvement at that stage was peripheral; author gets input but not a veto, that’s what my agreement said. But I did have one stipulation which I conveyed to Emma:

White Feathers is about an act of betrayal – a girl gives the man she loves a white feather, effectively publicly stigmatising him. That’s an act of such emotional violence I think it needs to be hinted at on the cover. This I think is important whether the cover be abstract or concrete.

Emotional Violence

I had long been fascinated by the First World War custom of a woman’s giving a man out of uniform a white feather to condemn him as a coward and coerce him to enlist. This government-backed movement carried enormous social pressure along with it. One man, a Mr Brookes who worked at the train station, received a letter from some thundering harridan which is on display in the Imperial War Museum, London: Since you cannot be a man not to [sic] join the army, we offer you an invitation to join our Girl Scouts Membership as a washer-up. Yours sincerely, Bath Girls Scoutmistress.

I wanted to capture what it would be like, this relentless pressure, the cruelty of it. And in the context of the novel, to have a family pushing you to give that abominable thing to someone you truly love. The seething consequences of undeclared sex warfare. As I said to Emma, the emotional violence of it. That is the internal conflict which Eva, our young protagonist, has to deal with when she is catapulted into making a choice “between Scylla and Charybdis”.

Because I learned recently that violence is not just a bayonet in the stomach or a shrapnel injury. There is a second kind, structural, which I only learned about relatively recently and which opened my eyes. This is the kind of violence that can be read in the note to Mr Brookes above, and this is the kind of violence with which White Feathers concerns itself.

When women are treated as subjects, not citizens, that is violence. When the mentally ill are cast in newspapers and books as weak, worthless, second-class folk, because they break down under intolerable pressure and cannot go on – that is violence. When the old and comfortable condemn the young to struggle with old men’s battles, as they sit by a roaring fire with the finest amontillado – that is violence of generations. When powerful interests work with gloved hands, silencing the truth, muzzling its witnesses, so that the fine feelings of the power élite are not affronted – that is entrenched violence.

Lives are destroyed at the issuing of a letter, a whimsical command, the widening of a yawn of deep inertia, the first scornful giggle. Lives are destroyed, and not a drop of blood is shed.

Such things happened through the course of World War I. Such things continue to happen today. And the white feather, itself a traduced symbol of peace, pinned to a man out of uniform in all its fey, false innocence, damning him as a coward – that is the most violent act of all.

But White Feathers is also a love story. Two people who build a slow intimacy and fall in love, fighting to keep the flame alight even under such unbearable pressure. It’s a story older than Shakespeare, but constantly renewed – why? Because, incredibly, love will continue to fight the powers that be. Even in a hostile, belligerent world that cleaves to nothing but blind greed and unearned privilege, that creates nothing but eats its young, almost an entire generation lost in its jaws, love will still fight.

On that finished cover, I see the violence, and the anger – but I also see the love, written on the poppy’s blood-red petals. And there is the heart of the story. Emma could not have fulfilled her brief more effectively.

Susan Lanigan

*

In 2003, Susan Lanigan graduated from a Masters in Creative Writing in NUI Galway. Since then, she has had short stories published in The Stinging Fly, Southword, The Sunday Tribune, the Irish Independent, Nature, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Mayo News. She has been thrice shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award and longlisted and shortlisted for the Fish Short Story Contest, the Bristol Prize, the Raymond Carver Short Story Award and other competitions.

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Finding a Voice in Fiction

FindingAVoiceDebut author Kim Hood talks about her journey to writing Finding a Voice

Finding a Voice wasn’t the book I set out to write. When I arrived in Doolin, County Clare one January morning, with my backpack, my bicycle and my laptop, in search of a cottage to hole up in for the winter, I had an entirely different novel in mind. It was time to change direction—step away from my work with kids with complex disabilities. I was going to write a ‘literary novel’ – all character and profound things and well … no story at all.

It didn’t go well.

I blamed my lack of progress on life getting in the way. Doolin, until the Celtic Tiger took a swipe at it, had a way of making time disappear in days spent wandering along sea and rock, and nights in a whirlwind of music and madness. And then there was the REAL truth of why I’d returned to Clare ten years after first stepping foot in the county: missing the west of Ireland with a physical ache, and perhaps a little bit of missing a certain previous love I’d never gotten over (don’t tell him that though).

It all lead to a job, and a house, and a dog, and a baby (not necessarily in that order). But no book. No finished book.

It was eating me though. I’d upturned my life to finally write, and I wasn’t doing that. Oh sure, a few pages here, a bunch of rewrites there—but not a finished book. And while I kept trying to find a way through The Literary Novel I’d started, what was creeping into my head instead was a line: ‘One, two, three, four. I started counting the steps as soon as my feet left the drive’, and a girl named Jo who was keeping such control, but needed to let go. I wanted to tell her story.

I dabbled. Over about a year I wrote a few chapters.

Another character started talking to me—a boy who happened to have a disability. Having spent a large part of my life working with people with various challenges, that was hardly surprising, yet I had always shied away from writing characters with any disability. There are far too many people who don’t know someone with a disability thinking ‘Ah, the poor craters’, without me unwittingly contributing to that. But from the moment he came to me, I knew that if I could just get him right, nobody would mistake Chris for a ‘poor crater’. He was strong, and I knew he was going to be the one to show Jo what she needed to be happy.

A story was beginning to form.

It sounds silly now, but it wasn’t until I let go and allowed myself write a story—no big message, no profound observations, just story—that I rediscovered what I had always loved about writing. I loved getting lost in characters and writing from my heart—not my head.

Suddenly it wasn’t so hard to write.

So I decided I’d put The Literary Novel aside and commit one month to finishing this story. I mapped it out. 15,000 words a week. I’d work on it from 7pm to 1am every work night and six hours on Sundays. We’d eat instant noodles for the month, bedtime stories would be the shortest I could find, all housecleaning and laundry would be on hold for the month.

One month turned into three. Some weeks flew in a whirl of words; some weeks I paced the floor trying to figure out a plot problem I couldn’t seem to get past, and wrote nothing.   It was hard. But I didn’t want to stop. Not even when I was falling down exhausted, not even when I had a huge row with my significant other (‘But you said it would be one month!’ he said from the midst of a pile of dirty laundry, holding the four year old who no longer recognised her mother), not even when I thought it would never be finished. I was obsessed.

There was no turning back.

I was learning to write a novel. I was doing what I had wanted to do all of my life and never really believed I could. And I loved, loved, loved the story. Not all of the time, mind you, but lots of the time.

Those months before I wrote ‘The End’ for the first time seem so long ago now. I didn’t know then that The End was only The Beginning. I have been so incredibly fortunate to have found a wonderful agent and a warm, supportive publishing house. There are so many people who have helped make this book.

And guess what? It turns out there were some themes lurking ; nothing earthshattering, but thoughts that I hope may help even a few kids navigate their way through the murkiness of being a teen. Those themes just needed a story to grow from!

KimHoodKIM HOOD grew up in British Columbia, Canada. After earning degrees in psychology, history and education, she wandered through a few countries before making the west coast of Ireland home. Her eclectic work experience in education, therapy and community services has presented endless opportunity to observe a world of interesting characters. She has always had a passion for trying to understand life from the perspective of those on the fringes of society.

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Our visitors from the East!

Russian visitors

Our visitors from Khabarovsk with author Nicola Pierce (centre) and Peter Heaney (second from left)

On Monday we had a truly original set of visitors to the office: a school group from the Russian city of Khabarovsk. These students, growing up a stone’s throw from China and about as far east as you can go before hitting the Pacific Ocean, have struck up a remarkable interest in Ireland and all things Irish. One of them is even learning Irish dancing. So how did this happen?

Peter Heaney, a wonderful (former) teacher and great friend to The O’Brien Press, has been working on clever multinational education projects for years: he also set up a collaboration between schools in the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and South Africa to explore Aubrey Flegg‘s book The Cinnamon Tree. This work has all been supported by The Pushkin Trust, which has been promoting all-Ireland collaboration through the arts for children for twenty-five years. The Russian connection was a remote one until the growth of the internet: there are now nine schools from Northern Ireland, eight from Russia and two from the Republic of Ireland involved in regular online collaboration. Modern technology can facilitate so much that would have been a dream previously!

Peter has been working with the Polytechnical Lyceum Khabarovsk for three years now, from his home in Derry. A year ago he called me and told me that the class were particularly interested in Nicola Pierce‘s remarkable novel Spirit of the Titanic – they had even translated chapters into Russian and entered these translations into Russian national competitions! Of course, at that point Peter did not know that our next book with Nicola, City of Fate, was set during the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II (or The Great Patriotic War, as it is known in Russia). The coincidence of their favourite author writing a novel that was set in their own country was simply too much; they had to visit!

CityofFateAnd so today a tour of the office, interspersed with many questions, was followed by a presentation by Nicola about City of Fate; she undertook a huge amount of research when writing the book and now spends a lot of time in schools and libraries showing children the world of Stalingrad that inspired it. We also showed our visitors the wide range of our books that have been translated into other languages. They were impressed, but much more interested in reading books in the original English, a result of their inspirational teacher Olga’s belief that no translation (and particularly not dumbed-down educational adaptations) can capture the spirit of a real book!

Clearly all book lovers to their fingertips, these remarkable young people are an example of how children’s books truly can unite people across the world.

Thanks to Peter Heaney, author Nicola Pierce, teacher Olga Ilina and all the students for an amazing day!

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Three no.1 Bestsellers – Thanks Mrs Browne!

O’Brien Press Publisher Michael O’Brien talks about the rise and rise of Mrs Browne!

When Pat Egan, acclaimed entertainment agent, approached me in 1993 with a comic book proposal based on the characters in Brendan O’Carroll’s RTE 2FM radio series Mrs Browne’s Boys, I was hooked. They radio segments were only five minutes long, but the characters were vibrant and funny: we all realised they had all had rich lives that were worth exploring and telling.

Brendan’s career then took a major lift with his first appearance (of many!) on Gay Byrne’s Late Late Show on RTE TV – hugely entertaining and memorable.

Brendan and I pledged together that we would make The Mammy a bestseller and take Agnes Browne to number 1 in the charts: to do this took nerve, belief and a lot of creative thinking! We did everything: a striking 36 copy display for every bookshop in Ireland, posters, radio adverts and a big launch in the Tivoli Theatre.

The Mammy was published on 4 September 1994 – we printed 10,000 copies – it reprinted another 10,000 a month later and another 10,000 in December, hitting the no.1 slot and holding it for 36 weeks.

TheMammyCover1

Angelica Huston loved the books and characters and made her directorial debut with Agnes Browne. The film set was Ringsend Village and I met Angelica there with her three ‘accent advisors’ from Moore Street: the real McCoy! It was really colourful and exciting. In November 1999, we added a film tie-in cover – freaturing Angelica Huston playing Agnes Browne – for an amazing ninth printing: another 10,000 copies. At the star-studded premiere in The Savoy and Angelica insisted on having a photo taken with the book publisher (me!).

TheMammyCover3

We encouraged Brendan to tell more of Agnes’ story: the story continued with The Chisellers (October 1995: 25,000 first printing) and The Granny (October 1996: 25,000 first printing. All three books were no.1 bestsellers.

Brendan recorded audio versions of both The Mammy and The Chisellers. Originally on audio cassettes, they are now available on CD and as audio download.

But that’s not all! Through our attending major book fairs – Frankfurt, London, NY – in tandem with our international rights agents –a we sold the trilogy globally: USA, Australia, Spain, Belgium, Czech, France, Denmark, Poland, China, etc but the crowning glory is Italy, where The Mammy sold over 100,000 copies.

And then, of course, came Mrs Brown’s Boys, a hugely popular, multi-BAFTA Award Winning TV series. One of the most popular series on the BBC, it has brought Agnes and her family across the English-speaking world, leading to the recent Australia and New Zealand publication of the trilogy by to Hardy Grant, who are promoting the trilogy.

Brendan is a huge popular success that the critics love to hate. His play The Course was rejected by the Dublin Theatre Festival, so he produced it himself in the Tivoli: it ran for months. Mrs Brown’s Boys was derided before the public made it clear that they loved it: and who knows what the critics will say about D’Movie, coming to a big screen near you soon? It coincides with the 20th anniversary of the first publication of The Mammy and O’Brien Press’s 40th Anniversary, and we know it will be a massive hit with the public.

Congratulations Brendan, you deserve all your success!

Michael O’Brien

The Mrs. Browne Trilogy

 

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Writing Anyush

Debut author Martine Madden talks about what inspired her to write Anyush.

It was a quiet afternoon in the X-Ray department of Tawam Hospital, a government run facility in the oasis town of Al-Ain, in the emirate of Abu-Dhabi. The staff, a mix of English, Irish, Jordanian, Maltese, Egyptian, Scottish, South African and Lebanese, was gathered in the viewing room when a mouse ran across the floor. Several people ran from the room and others hopped onto the counter tops; only my Lebanese Armenian friend, Houry Belian, remained where she was. Short, thin and with the nickname ‘the milk bottle’ because of the whiteness of her skin and her obsession with staying out of the sun, Houry regarded the mouse with a dispassionate eye before pouncing on it, catching it in both hands and wringing its neck. This incident compounded the enigma of ‘Houry’, a girl who in 1978 had emerged from a Beiruti bomb shelter after fifteen days of heavy artillery fire and described herself as ‘not normal.’

Some time later, I decided to visit pay Houry a visit. The single women’s compound was located within the hospital grounds, covering approximately an acre of dusty terrain bordering the main Al-Ain road. The accommodation consisted of wooden huts, not unlike the sheds found in many suburban back gardens, and had two small bedrooms, a sitting room and a bathroom. Walking through the women’s compound was like passing through a field of beehives with the constant drip and drone of air conditioners. In forty degrees of heat, they made living in a wooden box just about bearable. As I approached Houry’s hut, I became aware of another sound, a shrill, hysterical screaming coming from inside. Her door was open but there was no sign of her in the living room. She was in the bathroom, pressed against the wall and rigid with fear. The look on her face was so pathetically terrified that I thought there had been a break-in or worse. Until she pointed with a trembling finger to the bath.  Near the plughole was a perfect specimen of Blatta Orientalis. I never expected the civil war survivor and mouse killer to have a pathological fear of cockroaches.

Years later, in 2006, John and I were settled back home and I hadn’t thought of Houry in a very long time. Because the Middle East was as topical then as it is now, I was writing a piece about our time there and a conversation with Houry came to mind. Knowing that John and I were just married she had asked me about our wedding, and I had innocently mentioned that we’d honeymooned in Turkey. Her reaction was almost comical, her black eyebrows disappearing below the frames of her glasses and her small hands clenching into fists.

‘Are you not knowing about the Armenian Genocide?’

I didn’t know the first thing about it so she told me some of the details and, after uttering some platitudinous expressions of sympathy, I forgot about it. Or thought I had. Sitting at my laptop, I began to wonder what exactly she’d been trying to tell me and decided to Google it. The first website I came across had a photograph of a young German soldier in uniform and wearing an Arabic ghutra and egal on his head. His name was Armin Wegner and he had disobeyed orders to photograph extensively the death marches and massacre of Turkey’s Armenians during the genocide in 1915. I clicked on the link to his photographs and it is no exaggeration to say that those pictures changed everything.

I find it difficult to explain the effect Armin Wegner’s photographs had on me except to say it had much to do with where my own life was at the time. In the first picture there was a woman’s naked, emaciated body lying by the road with the corpses of her two children on either side of her. In 2006, my five children were young and I was at that stage where my world view was governed by their needs and the necessity of keeping them safe.  Wegner’s picture was like a scene from every mother’s worst nightmare, a dystopian vision of hell. And it was only one of many. I went on to research the Armenian Genocide in detail, and from this came my novel, Anyush. I also began to realise that Houry’s family had survived not only the civil war in Lebanon, but a much older conflict.

A card arrived from California just after Christmas in 2012. I opened it and read ; ‘To Martine and John, Happy Christmas, from Houry.’ Eight short words spanning a continent, an ocean and perhaps more than just twenty years.

Martine MaddenMartine Madden was born in Limerick, worked in Dublin and later moved to the United Arab Emirates with her husband John. The stories recounted to her by the Armenian diaspora there prompted her interest in Armenian history and formed the basis of the novel Anyush. Martine returned to Ireland in 1990 and now lives in the Midlands with her husband and five children.

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Children’s Books Ireland Conference 2014

The O’Brien Press is delighted that Sheila Agnew, author of Evie Brooks is Marooned in Manhattan, will be part of the Debut Writers’ Panel at the Children’s Books Ireland Conference 2014. She’ll be joining Sarah Moore Fitzgerald (Back to Blackbrick) and Leslye Walton (The Strange & Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender) to talk about the exciting, and sometimes painful, learning experience of publishing a first novel! This session is at 1.30pm on 24 May and is chaired by Bob Johnson of The Gutter Bookshop. If you’d like to attend, check out the official conference page and booking form here.

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The Best Thing Since…

Guinness treacle & walnut breadThis month’s blog spot is by food writer and cook Valerie O’Connor, author of Bread on the Table. Why not try out one on of her fantastic recipes for Guinness, Treacle and Walnut Bread?

A chef friend, Paul Cosgrove, gave me this recipe; I’d tried many times to get a recipe that highlighted the characteristics of our favourite pint, and this is a great one. Guinness works best in a yeast bread, making the most of the malted flavours and the brewer’s yeast that make up this wonderful stout. The treacle brings out the typical burnt-barley taste of the brew and the walnuts give a lovely sweet little crunch. This bread tastes great with a big slab of mature cheddar and a pint of Guinness, naturally!

Makes one large loaf

Ingredients:

200g/7oz coarse ground wholemeal flour (I like Ballybrado best)

300g/10oz strong white flour

5g/1tsp salt

15g fresh yeast/7g fast-action yeast

2 tbsp treacle

300ml/10floz Guinness – from a can, bottle or draught

50g/2oz walnuts, chopped

Oven 200C/390F/Gas 6

1. Put the flours and salt in a large bowl and either rub in the fresh yeast or sprinkle over the fast-action yeast. Then add the treacle and Guinness and begin to bring all the ingredients together with your hand, or a dough scraper.

2. When you have a craggy dough, tip it out onto an oiled surface and knead it for 10-12 minutes, or do the kneading in a mixer, but finish it by hand so you know the feel of your dough. Sprinkle over the walnuts and keep kneading until they are fully incorporated.

3. Put the dough in a bowl, cover it with clingfilm or a tea towel and allow it to double in size for at least an hour.

4. Knock back the dough by punching it down and folding it over a few times. Shape it into a round and lay it on a floured or oiled baking tray, covered with a cloth. Leave to rise again for 50-60 minutes, meanwhile preheat the oven for 30 minutes before baking.

5. Slice a few long cuts into the loaf with a bread knife or blade. Bake for 20 minutes and then turn the oven down to 180C/350F/Gas 5 for a further 20-30 minutes, checking to see if the loaf is baked by tapping it on its bottom, if it sounds hollow, it’s cooked.

6. This bread has a lovely robustness and is very satisfying to bake.

Val O'Connor plants

Valerie O’Connor is a cook, food writer and photographer; she has cooked in professional kitchens from Brussels to Malaysia. She is a qualified organic horticulturalist and tutors in food growing, cooking and baking. She is widely published in the press and has appeared as a guest critic on Masterchef Ireland.

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