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

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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

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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.

Step away from the Princess

carrie-fisher

Am I the only Carrie Fisher fan who’ll remember her, not for her role as Princess Leia in Star Wars – a film I’ve never seen – but for her writing?

Particularly her fiction.

I haven’t read her most recent memoir, The Princess Diarist, which charts her sudden leap into the limelight at the age of 19 as the eponymous princess with the earphones hair-do.

The inspiration for The Princess Diarist was, apparently a stack of forgotten diaries she kept during the filming of Star Wars which she found under the floorboards – doesn’t that sound like a PR wheeze? Fisher may have been a confused, emotionally immature 19-year-old in the diaries, but she had enough self-knowledge to write that she would be “posthumously embarrassed” if anyone read them. But as a 59-year-old she didn’t seem to feel the same way and the diaries are quoted extensively in the new memoir.

The “posthumously embarrassed” line takes on a whole new meaning after Fisher’s untimely demise on December 27 last.

Anyone new to Carrie Fisher’s writing should not start with her memoirs. (Her first memoir, Wishful Drinking, 2008, explores her bipolar diagnosis, Shockaholic, 2011, describes her experiences of electric shock therapy – “There’s no room for demons when you’re self-possessed.” )

My advice is to step away from the princess persona, whether of the Star Wars or celebrity confessional variety. No, if it’s light-handed, acerbic writing you’re looking for, go to her fiction. “I’m nicer to people in fiction than I would be in fact,” Fisher said in a 1994 interview perhaps explaining the difference in her approach to the genres of autobiography and fiction.

postcards

Postcards from the Edge is Fisher’s first autobiographical novel. She also wrote the script for the film of the same name, starring Meryl Streep as “Suzanne Vale” ( a great performance even though Streep was really too old for the part) a 30-year-old actress on the skids, and Shirley McClaine as “Doris Mann”, her aging film star mother. It’s the best of her fiction, full of Fisher’s trademark writing style and witty aphorisms.

Doris: You feel sorry half the time for having a monster of a mother like me. Everything about you says ‘look what you’ve done to me’.

Suzanne: [innocently] I never said you were a monster!

Doris: You don’t say it, but you feel it. Somehow, you lay the entire blame for your drug-taking on me.

Suzanne: [annoyed] I do not! I DO not, mother. I took the drugs, nobody made me.

Doris: [darkly] Go ahead and say it: you think I’m an alcoholic.

Suzanne: Okay…I think you’re an alcoholic.

Doris: Well, maybe I was an alcoholic when you were a teenager. But I had a nervous breakdown when my marriage failed and I lost all my money.

Suzanne: That’s when I started taking drugs.

Doris: Well, I got over it! And now I just drink like an Irish person.

Postcards was one of a trio of autobiographical novels Fisher wrote in the 80s and 90s, which mined her celebrity life and sent it, and herself, up in the process. There was a lot to mine.

She was the daughter of Debbie Reynolds, singing star of various MGM musicals – including, famously, Singing in the Rain – and Eddie Fisher, a crooner, who left Reynolds when Carrie was two, to marry Elizabeth Taylor. Being the child of stars made Fisher a victim of what she called “by-product fame. Fame as the salad to some other, slightly more filling main dish”.

Perhaps Princess Leia was the main dish although she continued to be famous by association with her short-lived marriage to singer-songwriter Paul Simon after a long on again-off again relationship. (Several of Simon’s songs reference this relationship – Hearts and Bones, Graceland, She Moves On. “If you can get Paul Simon to write a song about you, do it,” she wrote generously in her first volume of memoir, Wishful Drinking. “Because he is so brilliant at it.”) She in turn wrote about her marriage to him in Surrender the Pink, the second of her 90s autobiographical novels.

All sorts of strange and unexpected tropes show up in Fisher’s fiction. The paintings of Italian still-life artist Giorgio Morandi (1890 – 1964) form a recurring imagistic pattern throughout Surrender the Pink to dramatise the main character, screenwriter Dinah Kaufman’s feelings of social isolation. Although she has a successful career, Dinah is a failure in her relationships with men. Then she meets – or thinks she does – the man of her dreams. Okay, so these are First World problems but in between the jokey tone and the clever one-liners, there is an existential debate going on.morandi07

“Sometimes she’d just walk around the city alone. Watch the people, smell the food, the bus exhaust, the smoke coming up through the grating. She’d feel protected somehow, found a sense of belonging in the hectic sprawl. And the next minute she’d feel like the one who couldn’t break the code, hit the right stride, catch the wave. Potholes and traffic and bums, oh my. With all the honking and the hum of movement, the living, breathing blur of noise gently pressing in on her, the great purr of the Metropolitan Cat turning into a dull roar. She’d feel so silent on the inside, her head as quiet as a stretch of sand, a cathedral silently worshipping the life that was all around her, storing it up for later when she needed some ‘too much’ to draw upon.”

Postcards, Pink and Delusions of Grandma, the third of the novels (about Cora Sharpe, a Hollywood screenwriter who is eight-and-a-half months pregnant and  contains letters to the unborn child signed “Your Motel” and “Mom Sequitur”) are confections with ambition. They’re instant gratification fiction. (“Instant gratification takes too long,” Suzanne Vale complains in Postcards from the Edge). The plotting is sometimes wayward – perhaps because they’re drawn from real life which doesn’t always have pleasing narrative arcs – but the writing bounces along, zinging with energy, and provides a social history of the decades the books were written in (the AIDS epidemic, drug addiction), albeit in a narrow social set – the Hollywood rich and famous. The novels are thinking girl’s chick-lit, comedies of manners with some good to painful puns, and a witty way with language.

Whatever galaxy Carrie Fisher now finds herself on, she should have no posthumous embarrassment about her fictional legacy.

(Extract from Postcards from the Edge courtesy of http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0100395/quote)

 

 

The final remembering

rememberingtherising

As the 1916 centenary year draws to a close, I’ll be discussing my novel The Rising of Bella Casey as part of a panel discussion entitled “Remembering the Rising” at the Source Library and Arts Centre in Thurles, Co Tipperary,  this Thursday evening (November 24) at 7pm. The event is free and open to the public.

The discussion will consider 1916 both as it is remembered and how it is re-imagined, and will feature novelist Marita Conlon McKenna, author of Rebel Sisters – based on the lives of the Gifford sisters – and Queen’s University historian Dr Fearghal McGarry, whose The Rising, Ireland Easter 1916 appeared earlier this year.

The events of Easter Week 1916 appear in the opening of The Rising of Bella Casey although they are more backdrop than central to the plot of the novel which foregrounds the life of Bella Casey, the sister of playwright Sean O’Casey.  O’Casey, of course, did much to establish the revolutionary period of Irish history in the dramatic imagination with his Dublin trilogy, Shadow of a Gunman,  Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars, which have become part of the national canon.