An empire going up in smoke

tsar and anastasia

A father and daughter joshing for the camera, the father giving the daughter a “go” of his pipe. Not the sort of thing we would celebrate in the politically correct 21st century.  But this is a 20th century image, probably taken around 1913 and the father in the photograph is Tsar Nicholas 11, known as bloody Nicholas for his inept handling of the Russian empire, pictured with his daughter,the then 12-year-old Grand Duchess Anastasia.

(Anastasia was the subject of my novel, The Pretender, which has just been reissued as an e-book by Jonathan Cape.)

The Romanov family were inveterate photograph-takers – Nicholas himself was an amateur snapper – and this image belongs to a time just before the outbreak of the First World War when the Tsar’s hold on power began to unravel. (As the above photo demonstrates, Nicholas was a devoted family man, though a weak, deluded and vacillating ruler.)

The experience of war for Russians was catastrophic. Millions of men were removed to the front, farms began to fail and what food there was, was being used to fuel the army. Prices rose, and there was famine in the winter of 1916/17.

The military handling of the war led to huge Russian defeats at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes and matters took a turn for the worse when in late 1915, Nicholas insisted on taking personal charge of the army, leaving government affairs in the hands of his wife, the Tsarina Alexandra.  (The Tsar had reluctantly agreed to the setting-up of an elected legislative body, the Duma, in 1906.)  The religious Tsarina, however, was completely under the sway of the disreputable, self-proclaimed monk, Rasputin, whom she fervently believed could save their son, Tsarevich Alexei, who suffered from haemophilia. This concatination of the personal and political was ruinous.

In March 1917, workers in St Petersburg went on strike protesting against the war and the prevailing conditions.  The marches turned into full-scale riots in which over 1,000 people were killed.  At first troops fired on the crowds, but after several days they mutinied and joined the rioters.   The Duma, under Alexander Kerensky, took power into their own hands and set up a ‘provisional government’.

The Tsar, hoping to wrest back control, left the front for St Petersburg but his train was stopped en route by members of the Duma who forced him to abdicate in March 1917.

Despite the abolition of the monarchy, the provisional government came under pressure almost immediately because of its decision to carry on with the war.  In April, the exiled Bolshevik leader Lenin returned to Russia and promised the people ‘Peace, Bread and Land’; by September the Bolsheviks could claim two million members and the stage was set for revolution.

Meanwhile, the Romanovs had been detained at the Alexander Palace, their summer residence at Tsarskoe Selo on the outskirts of St Petersburg.   Their life in captivity was a far cry from their previous gilded existence as an imperial family.  Under armed guard, they spent their time, according to family sources, in religious activities and walks in the grounds of the palace.

Some photos from this time are believed to have been taken by Pierre Gilliard, the royal children’s tutor, and are accompanied by a narrative that describes the Romanovs’ daily life from March to August 1917 at Tsarskoe Selo.

“On the 13th day of May,” Pierre Gilliard wrote, “the family decided to change the lawn, near the residence, into a kitchen garden. All were enthusiastic and everybody, family retinue, servants, and even several soldiers of the guard joined the work. . . . In June, the results of their labour were clearly shown, for all kinds of vegetables had grown, including 500 cabbages.”

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In captivity at Tsarskoe Selo – the Grand Duchesses Tatiana, Anastasia and Marie and the Tsarevich Alexei.

However, their existence in the Alexander Palace – built for Catherine the Great, in 1796, and considered one of the finest neo-classical buildings in Russia – if constrained and more pared back than what they had been used to, was a great deal more comfortable than what was to come and they still had the benefit of a large household staff and a certain civility from their captors.

As law and order began to break down outside the palace walls, however, and the provisional government faltered, it was decided to move the Romanovs out of St Petersburg because, as Kerensky informed the Tsar, he could no longer guarantee the family’s safety.

A hundred years ago this month, they began their fateful journey eastwards. On August 14, at 6.10 in the morning, they set out for Tobolsk in Siberia.   It took two trains to accommodate the retinue (53 in all), their baggage, the government representatives, the jailers and soldiers. The trip took five days –  by rail to Tiumen, and then by river steamer to Tobolsk.

Ironically, on August 18, the boat passed Pokrovskoie, the birthplace of Rasputin, where they could see clearly the humble house where the so-called holy man had been raised. Rasputin was, by this stage, dead. He had been murdered in December 1916 by distant relations of the Tsar’s, but years previously he had warned the Tsarina – “My death will be your death”  –  words that must have haunted this most superstitious of women standing on the boat deck.

The next day, August 19, 1917, they arrived in Tobolsk.  They would be held there in the Governor’s Mansion behind a stockade, until March 1918, when they were moved for the last time – to the site of their execution.

Beating the raw chicken blues

elvis - gettyimages
Elvis Presley. . . . . chicken á la King.  Photograph: Getty Images

 

When people ask me what I was doing when Elvis Presley died  – 40 years ago on August 16 , I can remember precisely.  I was cooking – or failing to cook  – my first chicken.  I had just moved into a tiny bedsit in Tralee, where I was working as a cub reporter,  and was trying out the dwarf oven in the place.  After several hours, I was ready to tuck in when the news came on the radio.  The King was dead.  So was my chicken, but only barely.  When I cut into it, it resisted.  I picked up the half-raw carcass and dumped it in the bin. (Luckily, I hadn’t inflicted my culinary experiment on guests.)

I decided I needed to learn how to cook.  I had moved out of home about two months previously, a home where I’d never learned to boil an egg, despite, or perhaps because, my mother was an accomplished cook.  I had enjoyed a brief interest in baking in my teens and produced industrial amounts of ginger cake but I couldn’t live my life by the Marie Antoinette maxim, now could I?

That’s when I found The ‘I Hate to Cook’ Book by Peg Bracken.  Published originally by Harcourt Brace in 1960, my edition is a Corgi reprint dating from 1977.  In a recent house move I rediscovered it, dog-eared, grease-stained, the pages turning to mottled yellow.  (Corgi Books used very cheap paper.) Despite that, it had the look of a cherished item.

peg bracken

My copy fell open naturally to page 17 – Skid Row Stroganoff –  a recipe I’d clearly returned to many times.  “Brown the garlic, onion and beef in the oil,” Peg instructs me.  “Add the flour, salt, paprika, mushrooms, stir, and let it cook for five minutes while you light a cigarette and stare sullenly at the sink.”

For her Hootenholler Whisky Cake, the first instruction is this: “Take the whisky out of the cupboard and have a small noggin for medicinal purposes.”  Later on, when the cake is sitting in the fridge, where she said it would keep forever, you could buck it up by “stabbing it with an ice pick and injecting a little more whisky into it with an eye-dropper”.

Ah yes, that’s why I loved this book – not just for the recipes but for the writing.

The book was aimed at the woman who considered cooking a chore not an art, the housewife who had to dish up meals every day of the week on demand. “Never compute the number of meals you have to cook and set before the shining little faces of your loved ones in the course of a lifetime,” she advised.  “This only staggers the imagination and raises the blood pressure.  The way to face the future is to take it as Alcoholics Anonymous does; one day at a time.”

Drink is a constant motif.

Bracken acknowledged the social pressures attached to being the hostess with the mostest. “When the sun has set and the party starts to bounce, you want to be in there bouncing too, not stuck all by yourself out in the kitchen, deep-fat frying small objects or wrapping oysters in bacon strips.”

She had little time for canapés: “. . . though I don’t like to pick on something so much smaller than I am, it is hard to say a kind word about the Canapé.  If canapés are good, they are usually fattening; and they are also expensive, not only in themselves, but in the way they can skyrocket your liquor bill.”

She had an allergy to “big fat cookbooks” full of what she called “terrible explicitness”.

“Pour mixture into 2½ qt saucepan,” they’ll say, she complained.  “Well, when you hate to cook, you’ve no idea what size your saucepans are, except big, middle-sized and little.  Indeed, the less attention called to your cooking equipment the better. You buy the minimum, grudgingly, and you use it till it falls apart.”

Bracken tried half-a-dozen editors, all men, before the book was accepted by a female editor at Harcourt Brace.  It sold 3 million copies in its time and Bracken went on to write 11 more books including I Try to Behave Myself on etiquette and A Window Over the Sink, a memoir.

The ‘I Hate to Cook’ Book was reissued in 2010, 50 years after its original publication, but to more modest success.  The reason is simple. The 180-odd recipes depended on their quickness and easiness on a lot of “shop-bought stuff”  –  predominantly canned and processed ingredients.

Half the recipes featured tinned, condensed or creamed soups  – mushroom, onion, shrimp, chicken, tomato, celery.  There was usually one canned vegetable or more involved – mushrooms again, baked beans and peas and oodles of processed cheese.  For desserts, evaporated milk and whipped cream featured as well as a high dependency on cake mixtures, rather than baking from scratch.

“We don’t get our creative kicks from adding an egg, we get them from painting pictures or bathrooms, or potting geraniums or babies. . .” Bracken wrote.

Starting out as an advertising copywriter,  a sort of Peggy Olson of her time, Bracken belonged to a generation of post-war American female writers – the I Love Lucys of journalism – who were essentially humourists who happened to write about women and the home.  A contemporary of hers, was Erma Bombeck whose column was syndicated world-wide, including in Dublin’s Evening Press, and whom I read and admired as a teenager.

Both revelled in the domestic sphere.  They were queens of the sassy bon mot, inheritors of the wisecracking Dorothy Parker mantle.

Housework, Bombeck declared, will kill you, if you do it right.  If the item doesn’t multiply, smell, catch fire or block the refrigerator door, let it be, she suggested. My idea of housework, she told her readers, is to sweep the room with a glance.

Bombeck came late to fame.  “I decided that it wasn’t fulfilling to clean chrome faucets with a toothbrush.  At 37, I decided it was time to strike out. ” When the last of her three children started school in 1964, she began to write.  She was, she said, “too old for a paper route, too young for social security, too tired for an affair”.

Even at the pinnacle of her success – earning up to a $1million a year –  she still did her own grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning. “If I didn’t do my own housework,” she said, “then I have no business writing about it.  I spend 90% of my time living scripts and 10% writing them.”

Neither Bracken nor Bombeck could be described as proto-feminists.  Bracken, especially, was subversive only in the way she usurped the assumption that all women actually liked cooking.  She wasn’t advocating that they walk away from it; she was merely suggesting ways of faking it.  But in their writing, if not their personal politics, both writers paved the way for sharply comic successors like Nora Ephron and Carrie Fisher who had that easy, breezy comic talent that scored highly with their female readers.

As Erma Bombeck remarked: “My type of humour is almost pure identification.  A housewife reads my column and says, But that’s happened to me!  I know just what she’s talking about!’ ”

Peg Bracken had the same quality, a way of including her reader, making her part of the club. “This book,” she declared in the introduction to The ‘I Hate To Cook’ Book, “is for those of us who want to fold our big dishwater hands around a dry Martini instead of a wet flounder, come the end of a long day.”

She also extended the genre, making it not simply a compilation of recipes but a  witty exploration of the zeitgeist.

That said,  I’m off to make Stayabed Stew ( p15) – “for those days when you’re en negligé, en bed, with a murder story and a box of chocolates”.

 

The eyes have it

hearn_portrait

Is having bad eyesight a pre-requisite for being a celebrated Irish writer?  Certainly James Joyce had his troubles often having to resort to wearing a patch to spare his eyes.  Throughout his life, he suffered from a catalogue of eye-related conditions –  iritis, conjunctivitis, glaucoma and cataracts. Some suggest his eye troubles were a by-product of syphilis, though this has never been confirmed.

Playwright Sean O’Casey was similarly afflicted, though it’s unlikely he had syphilis.  From the age of five he had continuous crippling bouts of conjunctivitis which in latter years developed into trachoma. In a letter to the American critic Brooks Atkinson in 1964, the year of his death, he wrote heartbreakingly of the plight of a writer going blind:

“I could read an illuminated sign out­doors,” he replied. “But not ordinary newsprint or the letter text in a book. All the hundreds of books around me are dumb. I can write a little, largely by sense of touch. But I cannot read back what I have put down.”

But perhaps the blindest of all was Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850 – 1904) – an Irish writer who is all but forgotten here now but who was a household name in Japan where he wrote a dozen or so books between 1891 and his death in 1904.

I discovered Hearn during an extended stay in Tokyo in 2010 where to be Irish meant you were automatically connected to the fame of Lafcadio Hearn. We visited Matsue, a city in the western Shimani region – a 16-hour journey by train from Tokyo where Hearn is the cornerstone of the city’s cultural tourism, although he only stayed there a little over a year.  There’s a Hearn memorial museum and his home is open to the public.  The city quarter where he lived in Matsue now bears his name and his stylised logo appears on the street lamps in the cobbled streets.  In souvenir shops you can even buy Lafcadio Hearn tea.

Hearn is considered a laureate in Japan, the single greatest foreign interpreter of the country at a time when the old Japanese ways and traditions were being abandoned.

But 20 years before he made his name in Japan, Hearn was a newly arrived emigrant in America, penniless and down on his luck.  From this lowly start he embarked on a career as a pioneering journalist in Cincinnati and New Orleans, specializing in closely observed depictions of the underbelly of society – grotesque murders, hangings, slaughter houses, dissection rooms, city dumps, and the lives lived in the poor black quarters of the city.  This despite the fact that he was blind in one eye, and the sight in the other was severely compromised as a result of an accident during a tug of war competition when he was a schoolboy.

Hearn was born on the Greek island of Lefkas in 1850.  His mother, Rosa Kassimati, was a native of the island; his father, an Irish surgeon stationed on Lefkas with the British Army. They called their first child after the island, hence Hearn’s exotic-sounding second name.  When he was two, his mother, Rosa, brought him to Dublin to live with the extended Hearn family, while his father was posted abroad.  But after a short period, Rosa, homesick and pregnant with a second child, decided to return to Lefkas, leaving Hearn in the care of his great-aunt, Sarah Brenane, in a house in Rathmines. (There is a plaque commemorating his time in this house on Prince Edward Terrace.) The little boy was never to see either parent again – they divorced when he was six.

Hearn’s education at a boarding school in England was brought to an abrupt end when his great-aunt Sarah’s finances crashed and at the age of 16 he had to start making his own way in the world.  It was the beginning of a peripatetic and picaresque existence that took him first to London, then Ohio, where he emerged aged 24 as a crime reporter and scandal chaser on the Cincinnati Enquirer and Commercial.

Hearn was one of the earliest exponents of the New Journalism, that is the original new journalism – the muck-rakers who dominated the American journalism scene in the late 1890s. (The term was resurrected again for the revolutionary immersive journalism of the 1960s).  Like his successors, Hearn used fictional techniques  – dialogue, literary description and placing himself as a character in the story –  that later exemplified the work of Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, and Hunter S Thompson.

‘Gibbetted’, his eyewitness account of the botched hanging of an Irish youth was included in True Crime: An American Anthology (2008), a collection by the Library of America of the best American crime stories of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Hearn’s report contains some eye-watering details (forgive the pun) that must have been more imagined and felt then actually seen given the state of his eyesight. In the New Journalism style Hearn steeps himself in the story. He explores the background of the prisoner, visits the young man before the execution and examines the gallows as they are being constructed. He even gets to feel the pulse of the prisoner when the first hanging fails.

“The poor young criminal had fallen on his back, apparently unconscious with the broken rope around his neck, and the black cap veiling his eyes. The reporter knelt beside him and felt his pulse.  It was beating slowly and regularly.  Probably the miserable boy thought then, if he could think at all, that he was really dead – dead in darkness, for his eyes were veiled – dead and blind to this world but about to open his eyes upon another.  The awful hush immediately following his fall might have strengthened this dim idea.  But then came the gasps, and choked sobs from the spectators; the hurrying of feet, and the horrified voice of the Deputy Freeman calling ‘For God’s sake, get me that other rope, quick!!’  Then a pitiful groan came from beneath the black cap.

‘My god.  Oh my god!’

‘I ain’t dead – I ain’t dead!’

The insistent use of other senses in the piece – hearing and touch – speak of a man determined to compensate for his deficient eyesight. And his feel for atmosphere and his human empathy – essential for any journalist writing colour – is unquestionable.  His appetite for colour writing may have sprung from his personal life which was also extremely bohemian, to say the least, but that’s a story for another day.

Lafcadio Hearn was born on this day, June 27, 167 years ago.

 

The ghost of the good priest

the-innocents-1961
A scene from The Innocents, a 1961 adaptation of The Turn of the Screw

Must all clergy automatically be distrusted because of the Catholic church’s abominable record of sexual and physical abuse?  What about the good priest? Don’t honorable nuns exist? That’s the question Conor O’Callaghan implicitly asks in his recently paperbacked novel, Nothing on Earth.  (It’s a very pertinent question given the heated controversy of recent days about the new national maternity hospital and who should own it.)

The first person narrator in Nothing on Earth is a priest – or was one. At first we don’t know who this “I” is. (And perhaps that’s a telling ambiguity.) It is only as we read on that we realise the significance of his position. When we learn that, it forces us to re-evaluate the entire narrative in the light of our new knowledge.

The unnamed narrator is visited by a young distressed girl whose family, residents of the local ghost estate, have all mysteriously disappeared over a long, and untypically hot Irish summer. The night she arrives, the weather suddenly breaks so the pair – middle-aged cleric and runaway child are trapped inside the priest’s house while the rain drums violently outside. He is charged as a responsible adult with looking after her overnight while the authorities try to place her.

The girl is presented as both helpless and strangely powerful, needy and self-contained, childish and sexually precocious, victim and agent. We see the priest struggling with his own sexually ambiguous feelings as he realises the optics of his situation – a middle-aged cleric left alone with a vulnerable charge. He goes through a dark night of the soul during which he is haunted by ghosts.

Is he in the grip of an existential crisis, trying to maintain his position as pastoral carer without compromising his vocation? Or is he working out an internal sexual drama where he draws close to, then withdraws from his own sexual urges? Does the girl really exist or is she a succubus, a phantom of his suppressed sexual desires? Are the events that unfold a symptom of his inner turmoil or the cause of his breakdown? Or is his narrative, told in retrospect, an attempt to reshape the crisis that precipitated his disintegration?

There are obvious comparisons here to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, a chilling novella written late in James’s career and also a ghost story. The narrator is a young woman, a parson’s daughter (an important detail), who is engaged as a governess in a remote English country house.  Isolated and alone, and in a precarious emotional state, she comes to believe that the two children she is caring for are in communication with evil spirits. These come in the shape of two former employees of the house, Quint, a valet, and Miss Jessell, a governess, who have been sacked because their illicit sexual relationship has been discovered by their employers.

We see the events through the governess’s eyes. So as readers, we end up wondering is the governess mad? Are the “ghosts” of Quint and Jessell real presences? If they are, then her struggle is one of good against evil as she attempts to “save” her charges from dark, sexual, and possibly Satanic forces.  If they’re illusions, then we are seeing a disturbing manifestation of her interior state, suggesting a suppressed sexual hysteria. So we, as readers, have to make a judgement call.

As critic Brad Leithauser has put it: “The reader in effect becomes a jury of one. He or she must determine the governess’s guilt or innocence,”

Likewise with the priest at the centre of Nothing on Earth, Conor O’Callaghan is asking us – should we believe him?  This priest manifests all our anxieties and suspicions about the Catholic clergy in the light of the sexual abuse scandals. Is he a “good” priest?  Or is he a sexual predator? Is he well-intentioned but misunderstood?  – “I will not be the man they want me to be. I will not wear their scapegoat’s crown of thorns.” – Or is he in such deep denial that he has manufactured an elaborate fictional edifice to hide an unspecified guilt?  “So I wrote what I did see, what I know I heard.”

Should we trust him, O’Callaghan seems to be asking. Should we trust any priest?

Like all great fiction, Nothing on Earth begs the question, but doesn’t answer it. That’s up to the reader.

 

Blowing my own trumpet

masters trumpets
Not my Trumpet has Sounded!

On a recent visit to Amsterdam for a reading event, I had cause to do a search for myself on Google Netherlands. (It was for a purely pragmatic reason – honest! I needed to check the cover price of my latest book, Prosperity Drive, just out in paperback). Imagine my surprise when I discovered that, according to Dutch Google, I had written – and published! – six, rather than five books.

Along with my two collections of short stories, and three novels, this search revealed that I’d also written a novel entitled The Trumpet Has Sounded, published on April 1, 1996. I know, I know, an April Fools Day joke, you say – but no, I did the search on March 16 and checked it several times since, in case I was suffering from writerly delusions or someone was playing a seasonal prank on me!

Apart from the title and publication date, however, there was no other information about my phantom book, and no accompanying cover image.

When I chased the title down on Amazon, I found only one, authored by a John Masters and published in October 2001. Its subject matter is listed as World History, Religion and Spirituality, but there’s no further clue as to what this Trumpet is about. Under Product Details, came the following health warning: “If you dare read this book, you might just consider the path you tread, and find yourself a different destiny!”

But there was no sign on Amazon of “my” Trumpet Has Sounded.

One of the biggest threats for the modern writer is piracy – the widescale reproduction of authors’ work on the web in downloadable form by rogue elements who gain nothing from it, but ride roughshod over copyright law. But here I was facing the exact opposite problem – finding evidence on the web of a novel attributed to me that I’m pretty certain I didn’t write.

The act of writing is often allied with the art of forgetting. Most writers will have had the sensation of discovering fragments of writing from the distant past that they have no recollection of writing. As someone with a terrible memory, I’ve often seen my slavish devotion to list-making as an antidote to forgetting. But recording on paper may not necessarily strengthen your memory.

Montaigne, who admitted to having a terrible memory himself, suggested that a perfect memory was the death of a good story.

“In my country, when they want to say that a man has no sense, they say that he has no memory; and when I complain of the shortcomings of my own, people correct me and refuse to believe me, as if I were accusing myself of being a fool. They can see no difference between memory and intellect,” he  wrote in On Liars.

Plato had a marked distrust of writing, arguing that the written word was the enemy of memory.  It would lead, he warned, to individuals relying on external letters and losing the ability to recollect what was within.

Given that I can’t remember, I have taken to imagining what my phantom novel might be about. The trumpets sounding refers to the  seven trumpets that herald apocalyptic events in the vision of St John of Patmos. They are blown by seven angels when the seventh seal is broken and the events that follow are described in detail in the Book of Revelations, Chapters 8 to 11.

So perhaps my Trumpets is a toga and sandals epic. A kind of Ben Her? Or maybe it’s an apocalyptic science fiction saga? A satire on the American President? Or a Jazz Age novel?

Whatever it’s about, the memory of it has completely escaped me. So here’s my plea – if anyone comes across a copy of The Trumpet Has Sounded by Mary Morrissy, can you buy it on my behalf, and help me to retrieve my forgotten  – by me, that is – mistress-piece!

Red-letter royalties

donal-ryan-2

The day that Donal Ryan, above – winner of the Guardian First Book Prize and the European Union Prize for Literature – announced that he was quitting full-time writing and returning to his job in the civil service was a red-letter day for me. Not because of Donal’s announcement, but because on that day I received my first royalty cheque.

That is first ever, first in over 40 years as a published writer.

There were four figures in this royalty cheque, so not some measly sum, and it came from an Irish publisher – O’Brien Press, who published my last novel – The Rising of Bella Casey – in 2013.

The arrival of a royalty statement – which comes once or twice a year depending on the publisher – is normally nothing to get excited about. It comprises  columns of figures detailing sales and returns, with a total at the end which is usually a minus number. That means that you have not worked off your advance through sales and that you are, technically, in hock to the publisher.

This might suggest that you’ve got a huge advance, but not necessarily so. Advances for authors have been declining seriously in the past decade. They are certainly a far cry from the high-flying days of the 1990s when jackpot figures were being bandied about in bidding wars between publishers for certain books – and certain authors. For the rest of us, it’s a case of dwindling fortunes. (The advance I received for my 2016 book, Prosperity Drive, – a collection of short stories – was a third of what I received for my second novel, The Pretender, in 1999.)

And don’t let the word advance fool you either. Most people think it’s a large sum you get before you ever write the book; but for most writers it’s a modest sum you get when you’ve delivered the book to the publishers but it has not yet been published.

I’ve never expected to make a living out of writing in Ireland.  I’ve always worked at something else – first in journalism, now in teaching, though in the Noughties I did try to go it alone for a while.  But as Donal Ryan remarked, it’s a demanding experience depending on your art to earn your bread, particularly if , like him, you’re the father of two school-going children with 20 years left on the mortgage.

“It’s nearly impossible to make a living as a writer,” he told the Sunday Independent when he announced his decision earlier this month. “You need to have something else on the go. You could take a chance and scrape a living through bursaries and writing books, but I’d get too stressed out. It just isn’t worth it.

“I reckon I get about 40c per book. So I would need to sell a huge amount of books to make a good salary out of that.”

Interviewed by the Irish Times on the same topic, Ruth Hegarty, managing editor at the Royal Irish Academy and president of Publishing Ireland, said: “For most people, it doesn’t seem possible for them to be just a writer and devote themselves entirely to writing – even if that would be the best thing for them.

“In literary fiction, I would say it is more normal for advances to be in the hundreds rather than the thousands of euro. Royalty rates in Ireland are often based on net receipts rather than list price, so if you’re looking at a book that sells for a tenner, the author might expect to get something between 50c and €1.20 for it.

The Irish Times article quoted the most recent survey of Irish authors’ incomes – published by the Irish Copyright Licencing Agency in 2010 – found that in 2008-09 over half the writers consulted (58.7 per cent) earned less than €5,000 from writing-related income. Indeed, the commonest response – given by more than a quarter, or 27.9 per cent of respondents – was that they earned less than €500 a year.

The public perception of a moderately successful writer is a far cry from the penury of €500 a year. Even those who should know better, are disbelievers.

Sixteen years ago I registered as self-employed and used an accountant to do my yearly tax audit. Mr Abacus was not someone I knew personally – first mistake: always get a personal recommendation where accountants are concerned! – and he kept on asking me about my royalties.

What royalties, I kept on saying, I’ve never  earned any royalties (not even the 40 cent per copy Donal Ryan is talking about). Mr Abacus, frankly, did not believe me. He was sure I was salting away profits from my books – though, of course, given the tax breaks on their creative work for writers in Ireland courtesy of Charlie Haughey (with a little help from the recently late Tony Cronin), such hiding away of funds would have been nonsensical.

It was not a matter of personal distrust, I think. Mr Abacus, being a man of the real world, just didn’t believe it was possible to slave away on projects that sold in thousands of units but didn’t earn anything for their creator. I don’t regret my life choices and I would write even if I never got published again. But acclaim  – even modest acclaim – is not the same as income – and any aspiring Irish writer should look to Donal Ryan before deciding that the writing life without any other visible means of support is for her.  It may make you happy but it won’t necessarily make you rich.

The paperback edition of Prosperity Drive is out from Vintage on February 23.