. . . then we take Berlin

Berlin_for_free_Titel_01

I have come to a sense of place in my writing very slowly.  When I started to write – back in the 1970s – I was intent on removing all traces of the “local” from my work.  I was afraid of being parochial and I was out of sympathy with the brand of Irish fiction that maundered on about the landscape, the bogs and the mountains.  I had grown up in a Dublin suburb and felt there was nothing specifically “Irish” about it – as far as I was concerned, it was like any other suburb in the Western world; a place of quiet desperation where nothing happened.

My debut collection of stories, A Lazy Eye, was shorn of place-names, or where there were names, they were neutralized, generic-sounding. The real names of Irish places didn’t seem “real” to me then; they seemed inauthentic, too Oirishy.  Perhaps that was some kind of post-colonial cultural cringe on my behalf.  Who knows?

Mother of Pearl, my first novel, continued the trend.  Based on a real-life kidnapping in Dublin in the 1950s, I set the action in a made-up city divided by a sectarian conflict – I envisaged the north of the city being Belfast and the south being Dublin.  Because the story had a mythic quality I didn’t want it to be grounded too closely in political realities; hence the disguise.

But, I discovered, historical fiction is merciless in its demands about place. With my second novel, The Pretender, set during the First World War and based on the story of Anna Anderson who claimed, falsely, to be Grand Duchess Anastasia, daughter of the last Tsar of Russia, the chickens came home to roost, if I can mix my metaphors.  Now I was duty-bound to real places – Berlin, Posnan, Charlottesville, Virginia – albeit not home territory, and places altered by time and war.  But real places, nonetheless, and demanding faithful re-creation.

Now I’ve come full circle. The Rising of Bella Casey – just published − which dramatizes the life of the sister of playwright Sean O’Casey, placed me firmly back on home turf.  My own city, Dublin, immortalized by the city’s stage laureate O’Casey in the early 20th century during one of the most turbulent periods in Ireland’s history. There could be no reaching for disguise this time. The novel is littered with place names – Dorset Street, Dominick Street, Mary Street, East Wall, Mountjoy Square, Fitzgibbon Street, Rutland Place and many more locations with strong O’Casey associations. These names no longer sound fake to me – have I changed, or have they?

I will be reading from The Rising of Bella Casey and discussing a sense of place in fiction as part of the Dublin Books Festival during a Reader’s Day event with Alison Jameson and Jennifer Johnston at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin, on Saturday, November 16, at 10 a.m. See http://www.dublinbookfestival.com

Readers’ Day

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With Alison Jameson on the day.

Saturday, November  16, Smock Alley Theatre: 10 a.m.

I’ll be taking part in this event sponsored by Dublin City Public Libraries during the Dublin Books Festival (November 14 – 17). It’s a morning of book talk, hosted by journalist and author Dave Kenny. Emma Walsh of the Bord Gáis Energy Book Club, Bob Johnston, owner of the Gutter Bookshop and Mary Burnham of Dubray Books will advise on how to choose the best book club reads as well as talking about their personal favourite literary choices.

I’ll be reading from The Rising of Bella Casey, along with fellow writers Jennifer Johnston and Alison Jameson. We’ll also be discussing a sense of place in fiction.

For information on all events, go to www.dublinbookfestival.com

Subtext and ghastly vicars

jenni murray

Last Thursday I was interviewed by an enthusiastic  Jenni Murray (above)  on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour about The Rising of Bella Casey. “We loved this novel,” she said more than once.  One of the things she picked up on was the subliminal references to O’Casey’s plays in the novel.  You don’t have to know O’Casey’s work to enjoy this novel – but it does add another layer to the narrative for the alert reader.  Using the plays as a subtext also supports the speculative thread of the novel i.e. how much Bella’s life might have leaked into O’Casey’s drama. After all, every family has its shared lore.  When there’s a writer in the family that can get mined as material. We also talked about the ethics of writing about real people – even if they’re dead – and the “ghastliness” – Jenni Murray’s description – of the Reverend Leeper, the only wholly fictional character in the book. Here’s the link to the podcast:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007qlvb/episodes/player    

The class photo

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Here are the faculty and students on the new MA in Creative Writing at UCC braving the drizzle on the first day of term.  This is the inaugural year of the creative writing MA in Cork and it boasts an A team of writers and academics – poets Leanne  O’Sullivan and Matthew Sweeney, memoir author and academic Dr Eibhear Walshe, award-winning RTE radio documentary maker and performance artist, Dr Jools Gilson, novelist and journalist, Alannah Hopkin, food historian Regina Sexton. . . Not to mention the students, whom we’re sure, have great things to come. . .

The Rising of Bella Casey

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Here is the cover of my latest novel due out with O’Brien Press under the Brandon imprint in September.  The wonderful photograph, by Mark Douet, is from the Abbey Theatre Dublin’s most recent production of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock and features Sinead Cusack.  The novel, set in the years before the Easter Rising, is based on the life of O’Casey’s sister, Bella. See http://www.obrien.ie

Ireland Focused Issue

The Chattahoochee Review‘s Fall/Winter 2012 has a special focus: Ireland. Editor Anna Schachner introduces the issue by saying that, “It was through John Fairleigh of the Stewart Parker Trust that we were able to highlight contemporary Irish drama, for he found us quite a few excellent plays, leaving us to choose the two whose powerful, raw language most pulled us in as readers. Meanwhile, The Stinging Fly, an Irish journal after our own literary heart, graciously helped spread the word . . . The Munster Literature Centre and the Irish Writers’ Centre referred us to writers and rallied our efforts . . . Such collaboration was, and is, a beautiful thing–I like to think in keeping with this issue.”The issue includes work from Fióna Bolger, Cróna Gallagher, Nancy Harris, Kevin Higgins, Gavin Lavelle, Ed Madden, Orla McAliden, John McManus, David Mohan, Mary Morrissy, Gregory Kirk Murray, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Annemarie Ní Churreáin, Val Nolan, Márie T. Robinson, Anakana Schofield, Andrew Stephens, Matthew Sweeney, Patrick Toland, Eoghan Walls, Barrett Warner, and Jesse Weaver.