Kim Hood on writing Plain Jane

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Kim Hood

This month the wonderful Kim Hood shares her experience of writing her most recent Young Adult novel Plain Jane and describes what it means to be an author.

Authors are a strange breed of people. Most of the time you might not notice how strange we are. We learn how to adapt; how to hide what we do.

What we do is spend most of our lives cataloguing observations into a vast storehouse of senses and feelings. We are always noticing and noting: a smell that defines a place, that snippet of conversation that sums up a relationship, the fleeting look of pain on an otherwise happy face. Anything at all. Authors are never bored. We are happy to sit in a corner and soak up every mundane detail.

Then there is this other part of our brain that is always asking questions. I wonder why? What if? What does it all mean?

At some point mixed up bits of stored observation and something we wonder about collide – and the seed of a story is born. In my case, the catalyst of this birth is almost always character.

So it was with Plain Jane.

Years ago, I had one glorious year of university when I didn’t have to work at the same time. With time to spare I decided to volunteer on the children’s ward of a hospital, doing arts and crafts with kids one afternoon each week. This particular hospital was the hub of treating childhood cancer for towns and villages in a huge radius.

I got to know a lot of the kids, many of whom were there for weeks and months at a time, and some of whom were very ill. They were amazing kids, who almost always took their illness in their strides, dragging IV poles behind them. The nurses and doctors doted on them and volunteers like me came in to make their days more joyful. A weary parent was by their side day and night.

While it was very sad when some of these kids died, and while I did store up details of what a hospital setting is like, it wasn’t the kids in hospital that interested me. Not in an ‘I-must-write-a-story-about-this’ sort of way, in any case.

It was the kids in the corner that had me wondering. What about the brothers and sisters of these terribly ill children? Many families travelled from towns and villages miles away to access treatment. What was it like for the siblings who didn’t see their mum or their dad most of the time? At a time when you are searching for who you are, and want to be, what is it like to be in the shadow of a sibling who – by necessity – takes a whole family’s focus?

That wondering stayed with me for a very long time. I needed the right character to answer the questions I had, though. I’m learning that, for me, starting to write before I have a character to guide me, will just not work. I can wonder all I want, but until I have someone in my head to have a dialogue with, my questions will remain vague and hard to pin down.

Eventually, the right character did come along. Jane. One day she appeared in my head, sat down and wouldn’t leave me. That was when the work of writing her story started. Perhaps I would not have started had I known just how hard it would be.

With a sister being treated for cancer over many years, Jane was the right person, but that didn’t mean she was going to answer my questions easily. I have to say that she was the most uncooperative character I have imagined yet. I spent many months in front of a computer screen with very little coming from her – until finally her story poured out in torrents over a few weeks. Thank god, as I was writing to a deadline.

Still, when I got to the end of her story I had to forgive her for being so difficult. There was much more to her than I first saw. (Stuff I can’t tell you about without giving away spoilers!) We have been through a lot, Jane and I, and I am really fond of her at this point. I hope you will be too!

Kim Hood, June 2016

Both of Kim Hood’s books, Plain Jane and Finding a Voice are available here and in all good bookshops!

A Publishing Fairytale

This month we catch up with Nicola Colton. She tells the story behind the creation of her critically acclaimed picture book, A Dublin Fairytale:

A Dublin Fairytale began as a daydream on the bus; I imagined archetypal fairytale characters inhabiting famous landmarks and places in Dublin. The idea’s first application came in the form of a ‘promotional pack’ comprised of five postcards featuring characters like a troll at the ‘Ha’penny Bridge’ and a dragon at the ‘Spire’. I also created an illustrated map of the city, featuring famous landmarks like Trinity College, which became ‘Trinity College of Sorcery’ and different characters like mermaids inhabiting the River Liffey. I sent the promotional pack off to prospective clients and Emma, the art director from The O’Brien Press, saw potential in the idea as a picture book.

I began to look at bringing the characters together to form a story. I wanted the narrative to follow a fairytale-type structure and also allow the reader to explore Dublin. I worked out a route for Fiona, the main character, to take and began the story from there. Helen, my editor, was very helpful and encouraging during this process. I was really excited to feature Dublin in a picture book and to illustrate places that were familiar to me and to bring them to life in a magical way. I didn’t grow up in Dublin, but I lived there for eleven years and it’s a second home to me. I always found it to be a very vibrant city and no matter how long I’d lived there, there was always something new to discover. I wanted that sense of discovery and enchantment that I felt about Dublin to come through in the book.

Shortly after I signed the contract to write and illustrate the book I moved to Bristol. I began work on the book in a new city; which was strange at first. In hindsight I think it was a good thing as I was really missing Dublin and I put a lot of extra love into the illustrations as it was a way for me to revisit the city. Being away from Dublin meant it now held a sense of nostalgia for me and I reflected this in the muted and dreamy colour tones I used throughout the artwork in A Dublin Fairytale.

I’ve always loved fairytales and Red Riding Hood was a particular favourite as my granny

gave me a storytelling doll based on it when I was six. My granny died shortly after; so reading fairytales always made me feel close to her. It was nice to feature a Red Riding Hood-type character in the book – the main character Fiona, who sets off on the fourth page in her favourite red raincoat. As Fiona is on a journey through the city to her granny’s house via the Witches’ Market on Moore Street. it was also a way for me to visit my granny again through the story. Creating this book was an opportunity to combine my love of fairytales with a city that I love.

Picture 1I felt a responsibility to reflect Dublin and its beautiful buildings and landmarks to the best of my ability so I wanted the artwork in the book to be very detailed and carefully executed. I spent a long time working on the ‘Trinity College’ spread, in particular, as it such an impressive and iconic building and I wanted to get the details right. I enjoyed adding my own fairytale tweaks like turning the statues of Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith into a wizard and witch to reflect the sorcery theme. I also liked adding lots of things happening in the background like a ‘spell cloud’ billowing from one of the chimneys and some sorcery students chatting in the background.

Picture 2I spent a long time on the Witches’ Market spread as well as I wanted to add lots of little details for children to pore over. I loved Halloween as a kid (I still do!) and one of my favourite things around that time was to draw witches with lots of potions and bottles of curious things in the background. My dad used to collect old apothecary glass bottles and they always held a fascination for me and looked like something a practitioner of magic would use. I really enjoyed designing bottles and coming up with silly ingredients and labels for the spread. As Moore Street is full of colourful characters and is Dublin’s oldest food market it seemed like the perfect setting for a Witches’ Market.

Picture 3The spread where Fiona is walking through St Stephen’s Green Forest and mistakes the giant’s legs for trees is based on the perspective I had as a three- to five-year-old. I was very shy back then and remember hiding behind my dad’s legs any time I was introduced to a grown up I didn’t know. I remember thinking they were like trees and feeling very small, but safe behind them.

Adobe Photoshop PDFIt’s been really exciting and surreal to see the book published and out on the shelves in bookshops. When I received my first copies in the post I was very impressed with the printing; the uncoated offset paper really works with the soft colour palette and textures I chose.

I was also excited that it’s a hardback book, which makes it that little bit extra special.

The O’Brien Press team did a fantastic job on the production and design. The book launch in Dubray Books was fantastic and little touches like cookies featuring characters from the book (baked by The Cake Café) really made the event. Geraldine and Ruth in the Marketing Department did an amazing job organizing the launch.

Picture 5Another highlight was being asked to paint a scene from the book in Dublin’s iconic Hodges Figgis bookshop window. It was a wonderful experience and also afforded me the opportunity to meet people who bought the book and to hear their feedback. I was pleasantly surprised that about half the people buying the book that day were tourists. It really made me happy that people from outside of Dublin and Ireland are interested in the book too.

Picture 6The most important thing for me, though, has been the response from children. I’m really thrilled when parents tell me that the book is now part of their bedtime routine and when I hear about children’s favourite characters or parts of the book. I created the book with young children in mind so it’s wonderful to hear when it resonates with them.

Picture 7Nicola Colton is an illustrator based in Dublin. Her style is playful and colourful and very much influenced by folktales/folk art, scenes in nature and children’s picture books.

Her website is www.nicolacolton.com.

The Root of Inspiration

Author and award-winning illustrator Matt Griffin talks about the inspiration behind his debut novel, A Cage of Roots.

The process of writing A Cage of Roots began with a walk. This is something I do whenever I’m faced with a big illustration project or anything that requires a high degree of creativity. I need the air, the motion, the colours, and most of all I need to start the walk with a blank slate. For the first kilometre or so, I probably resemble an extra from The Walking Dead. So effective is my ability to turn off any distractions, such as thinking, that I am often in danger of forgetting that thinking is the reason I went for a walk in the first place. And so it was that I shuffled zombie-like along the paths of Lees Road Park in Ennis with a mission to create my own dark version of ancient Ireland.

As ever, when I pick up the pace, my brain follows suit and the cogs grind into action. I start to see things. Not like a movie, as such – more like the visions you have when you’re reading a book and you forget that you are actually reading. Random scenes flash before my eyes, and as I walk, they coalesce into a narrative. It may sound cheesy, but the story presents itself to me and I just watch. Then I rewind and replay, not just to refine it but to make sure I don’t forget. It’s probably quite a frightening sight for my fellow walkers. I’m sure joggers go off-piste into the undergrowth to avoid me. But in those moments I am completely and utterly lost in the story, and nothing less than a nuclear explosion would distract me. It is a happy time.

Emma Byrne, the brilliant Art Director at The O’Brien Press, was the first person to suggest that I might try writing a story of my own. She could tell from my illustration work at the time that I had a penchant for both Irish myth and the darker side of fairy tales. I had written in a journalistic capacity in my twenties, but I hadn’t written fiction since school. I did, however, keep stacks of notebooks filled with concepts for stories. I never had a shortage of ideas – but this was a real chance to show that I could bring a book from concept to finish. It was a challenge I gratefully accepted, suffered panic at the hands of, and eventually relished in. I went for my walk, dreamt up the bones of the story, and got to work.

It needed some refining.

As a first-time writer, I needed guidance. I could put nice words in the right order, but building a story, with arcs and strands and consequences, was next-level. It took hard work and the wisdom of people who know better. I had learned a lot from a friend of mine, the director/animator/puppeteer Damian Farrell, with whom I had worked on a feature film concept. But I was still wet behind the ears. Thankfully, once again, The O’Brien Press had faith, and my editor, Susan Houlden, helped me develop from a potential writer to (I hope!) a writer. Without that guidance I couldn’t have done it; it’s that simple.

Being an illustrator first, it was imperative that I have art in my book. These kind of books don’t often have illustrations, it was argued, but my dream from early childhood was to make my own world in words and then to be allowed to show glimpses of it with drawings. (As an impossibly cute young scamp, I obsessed over Tolkien’s artwork in The Hobbit as much as the story.) As it happened, I heaped incredible pressure on myself to produce my best work, and as your best work is always ahead of you (lesson there, folks!), I am already dissatisfied with it. That is my lot as an artist, though – I am never happy with my work for longer than a day.

I was also allowed to design the cover, and I would probably be dissatisfied with that too if it wasn’t for the embossing. That saves it. (Thanks, Emma!)

So now it’s on to the next story in Ayla’s adventure. I’m already knee-deep in it, having walked and dreamt on a clear day halfway up Mullaghmore in the Burren. This time, the drawings will be my best work ever. For a day at least.

Matt Griffin was born in DMattGriffinublin in 1979 and grew up in Kells, Co. Meath. After a brief attempt at third level education he spent eight years in London working in the media, before moving home to Ireland in 2008 to pursue his dream of becoming a fulltime illustrator. Since then he has garnered a reputation as one of the most eclectic graphic artists in contemporary illustration, collecting awards and accolades for his work in publishing, advertising and, in particular, the field of poster art. His passion for visual design was always married to one for writing. He lives in Ennis, Co. Clare, with his wife Orla and daughters Holly & Chloe.

 

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.

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

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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.

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.

A Taste of McGuinness

Writer and O’Brien Press Sales Administrator, Jamie O’Connell, writes about his experiences at University College Dublin under the tutelage of Frank McGuinness and how it impacted his reading of Arimathea.

In late January 2009, I sat in Room 207 of the Newman Building in University College Dublin. It’d been a particularly cold winter, but this cold Monday morning was an exciting one. It was my first class with Frank McGuinness, as part of my MA in Creative Writing.

I’d heard of Frank McGuinness many times before this first meeting. His plays, like Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme and The Factory Girls, have left their mark both within Ireland and internationally. And when Frank did appear, his passion for writing was immediately evident. The books he enjoyed, he examined with zeal.

We studied Albert Camus’s The Fall in great detail. At the time, I remember finding the book a difficult read and the assigned reading each week was put on the long finger by me, generally until 11pm the night before class. However, in the years that have followed, as various events happened in my life, wisdom from that book, words and quotes, have spontaneously come into my thoughts, making life more understandable. It has given me ‘new eyes’ – something that Marcel Proust described as the fundamental role of fiction. I am grateful that Frank challenged my classmates and me to read it.

Last September, I returned to University College Dublin to complete an MFA in Creative Writing. Frank teaches a seminar on this course too; this time we studied the work of Jane Austen, notably Emma. Throughout our seven seminars, Frank’s love of Austen’s prose, her creation of the small town of Highbury with all its intrigues and dangers, has been an eye opener. His examination of the inner lives of Austen’s protagonists and the dangers lurking in this community, has rekindled my love of this eighteenth century novelist. Those who attended Sean Rocks’ interview with Frank at the Dublin Book Festival on 14 November heard him likewise speak passionately about Austen’s writing (the full interview is available on the RTE Player).

Over the last year, I have encountered Frank and his work through a different avenue again: The O’Brien Press’s publication of his debut novel Arimathea. Nominated for Book of the Year at the The Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards 2013, the novel has lived up to anticipation. Reviews in The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement and The Irish Times have all been stellar.

Amongst all this, I’ve read the novel. The two semesters with Frank, studying Emma and The Fall, has given me a view of the novel different than most. In the social snobberies, the secret worlds, the intrigues of the Donegal town in Arimathea, I found myself thinking of Austen’s Highbury, with all its social complexities. Rural life is not as simple as impressions would appear. Both Austen and Frank have clear tight prose that drives the novel forward. One glides over the well-crafted sentences. There is nothing sluggish in either.

However, in Arimathea, elements of The Fall also appear. In each character’s monologue truths appear which don’t always show humanity in a favourable light. Yet, there is a departure from The Fall at this point; in the conclusion of Arimathea, humanity is offered a sort of redemption. An act of kindness occurs and the reason for the choice of ‘Arimathea’ as the title becomes evident.

The Sunday Business Post summed it up well: ‘a beautifully bleak first novel’. Humour mixes with pathos, as The Irish Examiner wrote: ‘deeply funny about the absurdities of human behaviour’. Both as a student of Frank’s and as an avid reader, I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Arimathea is now available at www.obrien.ie and most good bookshops.