View From a Debut…

Debut author Maureen White talks about what inspired her to write The Butterfly Shell.

My first novel The Butterfly Shell was recently published by The O’Brien Press and the first time I held the actual book was an exciting and strange experience.

Exciting – because it was actually finished and existed outside of me.

And strange – because I felt like I was holding in my hands a kind of transformation. An idea somewhere had taken hold and that idea evolved into a story and then along the way other people become involved and here it was. And, of course, the beautiful cover by artist Emma Byrne heightened the feeling that this was bigger than just my story.

The experience of writing a novel was a new one for me. Theatre is my background. Theatre I understand. I have written plays, but that always feels like a communal act. The play changes once the actors get a hold of it, then there follows intense, collaborative rehearsals leading up to Opening Night and a real, live audience.

Books are different.

With books the intense writing period is followed by collaboration with the editor and publisher leading up to – Publication Day! But the difference here is the audience is invisible. Writing is an act of faith and while you are writing you make an invisible pact with the future reader – you will give them your all and, in turn, this as-yet-only-imagined reader, will give their all in reading. But you will never know if that is the case or, indeed, if there will be any readers.

I didn’t set out to write a book for young audiences, though right from the start I was interested in telling a young girl’s story. Armed with a germ of a story and a memory of being 12, I started. I have worked for years as a Dramaturg, helping playwrights develop new plays. Whenever I am asked, ‘What do you look for in a script?’ I have one answer – one that makes me want to turn the page.

And so I tried to remember that and write something that might make someone want to turn the page. As it turned out with The Butterfly Shell, that someone was a young reader, probably someone who could relate to Marie’s age, if not her experiences. People have asked me where the idea for The Butterfly Shell came from – was it based on my experiences? Was it about my daughter? ‘No’ to the last two questions and to the first all I can say is, ‘I don’t know where ideas come from or what gives them their pull.’ Perhaps the stories we hear as children stay with us. Or maybe unexpected gifts are the key. A few years ago my sister gave me a gift for no reason at all (definitely the best kind of present). It was a butterfly made of abalone and I was fascinated- by the shell, by the shape, by the gift. And when I started writing I was confident that it would find its way in some form into the story.

I am delighted that what I was writing turned out to be for young readers. Kids’ books matter. I thought that long before I wrote one. And it is important we feed our kids a varied diet – adventurous, comic, serious, worthy, not so worthy, long, short and the whole range of books that defy definition. The young reader (and indeed the adult reader as well) needs to be exposed to a variety of experiences and imaginations because literature helps us make sense of the world around us.

As I approach the launch date for The Butterfly Shell I realise I have learned a lot about this book business on the way.

Patience was the biggest lesson – It is so easy to be intimidated by the sheer number of books out there (why on earth did I start this book??) and very intimidating to read articles about how someone or other wrote their debut novel on a bus in one month while she baked bread and raised 9 children and held down 2 jobs. (My advice is if you are a writer never ever read inspirational articles on very successful writers).

The Butterfly Shell took a very long time to write. Many walks on the beach which of course in retrospect I say were a necessary part of the process but in fact probably had more to do with procrastination. Many times I put it away -probably because I didn’t know where it was going but again, in retrospect is no bad thing to do every now and then- you sometimes come back to it with fresh eyes and energy which is all you need to keep going. Once I left it for a year as my house was flooded and we had to move and family events made writing very low on my agenda. I think each story takes whatever time it takes to write. I had to be patient that mine was taking this long but its timing also meant I ran into the right people on the way. People who would make a difference.

I am still amazed at the difference an editor can make. The collaboration with Liz Hudson and its energetic examination of details resulted in the kind of shifts I couldn’t have imagined on my own. And so the book transformed and I am convinced a kind of alchemy oversees the entire process so when I look at The Butterfly Shell I see more than just my story. I see the imprint of everyone who helped and the possibility of everyone who might read.

A debut is exciting. By very definition it can only happen once. But it is that excitement that fuels you on to the next book. I look forward to the lessons I will learn with that one …

Maureen White is a playwright, teacher at the Gaiety School of Acting and dramaturg for Rough Magic Theatre Company. This is her first novel for young adults.

SOS Lusitania: How it got put into words

Author Kevin Kiely talks about his inspirations for SOS Lusitania on the eve of the centenary of the ship’s tragic sinking.

Lest We ForgetIn school I knew the bare facts about the Lusitania based on our history book that had a poster from that era ‘Lest We Forget. The poster was explained in class and we learned that the Lusitania had been torpedoed and sunk. It was an effective stirring colour poster showing the ship about to keel over. The liner was engulfed in fire and smoke and the passengers were falling. Some were in the water waving their hands. Others sat shivering in lifeboats. There were Americans among the passengers. Many of them drowned and because of this President Wilson in America declared war on Germany and the Kaiser. There were photographs of Wilson in an open-top limousine and the Kaiser in a uniform wearing a helmet with a spike on it. This was basic history with the facts as mere headlines.

Of course, in school I heard the teacher tell and retell the Titanic legend. I began to read a novel entitled A Night to Remember with its minute-by-minute depiction of the tragedy and vivid accounts of survivors who calculated how and when to leap from the sinking ship in order to have a change of saving themselves. I particularly remember the cook or kitchen porter who drank a bottle of liquor and scrambled along the flagpole wearing his life-jacket as the Titanic collapsed below him and sank under the waves. The book was on a shelf beside others such as The Longest Day documenting the D-Day Landings on the Normandy beaches.

***

The real history of the Lusitania never entered my consciousness fully until the summer of 2006. I had been in Cill Rialaig, the Famine village, and visited a childhood haunt, Ballinskelligs. My adventures took me out to the Big Skellig one day using the cheap-fare boat. But I was restless in Kerry and one Sunday morning travelled east. I have relatives outside Cork city and although we have lost contact, it seemed an idea to take that route. I reached Cobh in a sort of minor torpor and nostalgic mood. I decided to break the journey, and found a B&B high up in the town near Park Terrace. I wandered around. To anyone who does not know Cobh it is full of rising and falling pathways, and footpaths giving different views of the giant harbour. It is a labyrinthine meandering harbour with lakes and islands linking Cork to Cobh and the Celtic sea. At sunset, I saw different aspects of the harbour with sailing vessels and one giant cruise liner.

I sat in a pub along Westbourne Place. The spirit of the Lusitania haunts Cobh. Its story emerged as if some being had transfixed my attention and taken me hostage until the bare outline of the plot was written down: Finbar Kennedy runs away from home. His father is staff captain on the Lusitania. Finbar arrives in New York having escaped with his life. Like many others, he boards the ship on its return voyage into disaster amidst spies, gun-runners, world history and romance. He miraculously survives against so many dangers. In every way the story was implicitly true. It was the real-life story of the survivors.

***

In 2009, I was lecturing at the University of Idaho, and had abandoned my original excitement and enthusiasm for the Lusitania. I was absorbed by poetry, and an academic text demanded a treasury of research. It seemed that my tale of a runaway would remain as a manuscript. One night, towards the close of the year, I was invited to a faculty dinner. Across from me was Richard Spence, a history professor and author of books on international espionage. His wife led us in a triangular discussion to which he vaguely contributed. I, out of politeness added about as much as he. I wanted the subject to return to literature and away from history. However, when the name Aleister Crowley came up, I agreed that I had heard of him and made a few comments to keep the conversation going. Professor Spence, according to his wife, had just published a book on Crowley, entitled Secret Agent 666 where it mentions the plot to sink the Lusitania. Our discussion opened out about the inquests into the disaster, and how Captain Turner in command of the Lusitania seemed frightened to speak about it during his lifetime. Professor Spence had read international intelligence documents to inform his book. I mentioned that I had begun a story but remained uncertain as to how it could ever get finished. Professor Spence promised to have a copy of his book sent to Brink Hall at the university where I worked in the English Department.

Secret Agent 666 led me back to the Lusitania as the story came alive filled with real characters and real history. Crowley is a common Cork name, and was perfect as a real passenger which slightly altered his actual role in 1915. I kept my plot line deliberately vague in places where history has no actual documentation. However, the actual events required little detective work based on the full research. Back in Ireland, I went to Cobh on a day trip to walk the town and its hilly streets. I was enacting my young hero’s return home. What you write about actually happens in part to yourself, which is true of SOS Lusitania for me. Soon, I had a very emotional and historically accurate narrative, hammering it all together into a clear prose style.

At the editorial stage, Íde ní Laoghaire literally came on board, and creatively suggested the Historical Note. The fact that The O’Brien Press considered publishing political history and conspiracy wrapped up in fiction is in keeping with their tough-edged principles. Already they had published A Horse Called El Dorado where the central character escapes from Colombian drug dealers and endures a series of dangerous journeys arriving in Ireland. Life in Ireland proves difficult for the hero who, through the Travellers, finds a vocational career in horse racing. The novel won a Bisto Merit Award in 2006.

I am currently re-visiting SOS Lusitania in order to bring the story into 1916 using additional real-life characters from real history. The story has suggested a trilogy to lay bare this crucial historical period. The sinking of the Lusitania unleashed events which still resonate into the twenty-first century.

Kevin Kiely has had several collections of poetry published, plays broadcast on RTE and is engaged in literary journalism and editing. He has received Literature Bursary Awards from the Irish Arts Council, and is Honorary Fellow in Writing with the University of Iowa. SOS Lusitania is his first book for young readers.

No-Knead to Panic. Fantastic Irish Bread Recipies Spelt Out!

No knead speltThis month’s blog is by food writer and cook Valerie O’Connor, author of Irish Bread Baking for Today, the handy paperback based on bestselling and hugely praised cookbook Bread on the Table. Why not try out one on of her fantastic recipes for Easy No-Knead Spelt Bread?

I bake this bread constantly at home and in my baking classes – it’s so easy when you don’t have to do any kneading. This is a great introduction to yeast breads as you get all the benefit of a good rise with none of the effort. This bread freezes really well, so if you’d like to make two loaves and freeze one, simply double everything.

Ingredients:
500ml/18floz tepid water
1 tsp honey
1½ tsp fast-action yeast
500g/18oz wholemeal spelt flour
Approx 50g/2oz porridge oats
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp mixed seeds
Preheat the oven to 200C/390F/Gas 6
Prepare a 2lb loaf tin
1. In a jug measure 200ml/7floz hot water, dissolve the honey, then top up to 500ml/16floz with cold water, add the yeast and leave it to ‘sponge’ (froth up) for 10 minutes.
2. In a large bowl mix the spelt flour with the oats and salt, pour in the yeasty water and mix well to combine. The mixture will be wet and puffy, a bit like a thick porridge.
3. Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin, sprinkle the mixed seeds over the top, cover with a tea towel and leave aside for 40 mins to 1 hour until it has risen to just below the top of the tin. Any warm, draught-free place is good for this. Have the oven preheating for 30 minutes before the loaf is due to
go in.
4. Put the tin into the oven and bake at 200C/400F/Gas 6 for 10 minutes, then turn the temperature down to 180C/350F/Gas 4 and bake for a further 50 mins.
5. When the loaf is baked, remove from the oven and leave to cool in the tin for about 20 minutes. Run a knife around the inside of the tin, tip out the loaf and return it to the cooling oven to crisp up the crust.

Val O'Connor plantsValerie 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.

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.

 

The 2015 CBI Design-a-Cover Competition Winners

Congratulations to the 2015 Children’s Books Ireland Design-a-Cover Competition Winners!

Back in October 2014 we teamed up with CBI for the annual Design-a-Cover Competition. The book chosen was The Lost Fairy by Marian Broderick – it’s a story about a very vain Christmas tree fairy who falls off her perch!

We asked school children across Ireland to send us their designs for a new cover and wow, the caliber of the entries was amazing! It was tough, but we chose a Winner, 2nd place and 4 Runners Up.

In first place is Shelagh Jessica Gilbourne from Cork, whose artwork will appear on the cover of the book!

TheLostFairyCBI

In second place is Jasmine Carroll from Ardee, Co. Louth whose work will appear on the back cover.

JasmineCarroll

Runners up, Kayla Brady, Saibh Scorr, Orla Fitzpatrick and Sarah O’Beirne will see their artwork used on the inner back cover page of the new edition of The Lost Fairy!

KaylaBrady SaibhScorr OrlaFitzpatrick SaraOBrien

Well done to everyone and thank you for entering!

The new edition of The Lost Fairy will be out in April.

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.

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.

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.