History in brief

all over ireland coverThe historical short story is something I’ve not attempted before.  But for All Over Ireland, Faber’s latest annual collection of Irish short stories, I found myself, untypically, looking to the past.  I’ve always seen the short story as an escape from history, a great and welcome dip into familiar contemporaneity, an attempt to write and be in the here and now, as opposed to the terrain of my novels which is historical.

However, my contribution to All Over Ireland, is a story set during the Second World War in Ireland.  It’s titled Emergency, as the war was euphemistically called here because, as a neutral country, we were not technically at war.

It’s about a mother and daughter who are literally landed with a German parachutist and what they do with him.  It was sparked by a chance remark on the TV show Antiques Roadshow – I know, don’t ask –  from a woman who brought along a piece of a German parachute as her prized item.  But as I wrote it, I remembered a brilliant and hilarious short story by Aidan Mathews  – The Story Of The German Parachutist Who Landed 42 Years Later from his collection, Adventures in a Bathyscope.(1988). As with a lot of Aidan’s work, there was a delicious surrealism in his tale of a suburban Dublin family’s life disturbed by an alien visitor from history.

For my story, I played it straight; I couldn’t match Aidan’s quicksilvery wit. But though it is set in the past, I hope Emergency has the immediacy and urgency of the short story form, and that it feels to the reader  – as it should for the characters – as if it’s happening right now.

All Over Ireland is about to hit the shelves.  The tradition of publishing an anthology of what’s going on in the short story, started with the late, great David Marcus, to whom Irish writing, and particularly the short story, is  hugely indebted; since David’s death, each new volume is guest edited. This year it’s novelist Deirdre Madden and it’s a great collection, if I may say so. (As a participant, that may sound big-headed, but I’m delighted to be featured with these writers – Colm Toibin, Frank McGuinness, Eoin McNamee, Belinda McKeon, Ita Daly and Andrew Fox, among others.)

All Over Ireland will be published on May 21.

A novel that might never have been

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Last Monday was a red-letter day for my novel, The Rising of Bella Casey, published under the Brandon imprint of O’Brien Press. It was one of five Irish novels nominated by libraries for the lucrative International Impac Dublin Literary Award 2015 – and I mean lucrative, €100,000! –  along with Donal Ryan’s The Thing about December, The Guts, Roddy Doyle, Transatlantic by Colum McCann and The Herbalist by Niamh Boyce.

Apart from being in such good company – 142 Irish and international writers – the long-listing is also a vindication of O’Brien Press’s sturdy individualism as a small independent Irish publisher. The Rising of Bella Casey was roundly and generally rejected by many prestigious publishing houses, both in the UK and the US, before Michael O’Brien took a gamble and published it.

What made the Impac announcement a bitter-sweet occasion, however, was that O’Brien Press, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, has just had its publishing grant slashed by the Irish Arts Council – from €63,000 last year to €10,000 for 2015. This despite O’Brien’s unchallenged contribution to Irish children’s publishing for several decades, and its re-establishment of the Brandon imprint, which is committed to publishing serious Irish literary fiction.

The Rising of Bella Casey and Frank McGuinness’s Arimathea were the debut novels published by Brandon last year. If either of these two novels were to be submitted to Brandon in 2015, there’s a good chance that neither of them would see the light of day.  The Impac long-listing means that there’s a world stage for a courageous Irish publisher being starved of funding at home. For me, it means vindication for The Rising of Bella Casey, a novel that without O’Brien Press, might never have been.

Writing on fire

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The cover of Surge is fiery looking, as befits an anthology of new writing.  The volume from Brandon Press is a celebration of the old and the new; its publication marks the 40th anniversary year of O’Brien Press and is named after a Dublin literary magazine of the 1930s/40s established by Thomas O’Brien, among others. (Thomas founded O’Brien Press  in 1974.)  The name may be old but the content is all new. It contains work hot off the keyboards of a dozen or so student writers from all over Ireland.

If you want to know what’s happening in creative writing at UCD,Trinity, Queens Belfast, UCC and NUIG, then this volume is a showcase of new names in the fiction firmament.  But there’s more. The anthology represents, more than any dry university curriculum listing could, the ethos of creative writing scholarship – about which there is often skepticism. (Can writing be taught etc etc. . . ) For along with the newbies, there are also fresh stories from established writers who tutor and mentor on these courses such as Frank McGuinness, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, Mike McCormack  – and yours truly. (For obvious reasons, I’m particularly proud of the students who represent UCC’s inaugural MA in Creative Writing – Madeleine d’Arcy and Bridget Sprouls.)

The idea of the fiction workshop is to mimic the medieval craft guild, in which tyro writers get together with old hands to learn the trade.  What this volume represents is a composite picture of that process.  If you want to see who’s learning from whom, don’t look to the index at the back before reading the stories and maybe you’ll be surprised to find you often can’t tell the master from the apprentice. Rather like looking in on a fiction workshop, where it’s often not clear who’s in charge. And all the better for it.

Surge will be launched at the Dublin Book Festival on November 15

What O’Casey wrote out

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The Rising of Bella Casey, my latest novel, with the re-vitalized Brandon imprint – from O’Brien Press – will be published on September 16.  The book will be launched two days later along with playwright Frank McGuinness’s first novel, Arimathea.  It’ll be a great occasion, not just for Frank and me, but also to see the Brandon name on the bookshelves again with new Irish literary fiction. The Rising of Bella Casey is a novel about Sean O’Casey’s sister, Bella.  Dublin playwright O’Casey (above) wrote six volumes of autobiographies in later life, but chose to kill off his sister 10 years before her time in his memoirs.

This literary slaying piqued my interest in her and the relationship between her and her famous brother. Bella lived well beyond 1910/11 when she disappears from O’Casey’s account; in fact, she witnessed the 1913 Lockout, the outbreak of World War 1 and the Easter Rising, before succumbing at the age of 52 in 1918 at the start of the Spanish ‘flu epidemic.  In my novel, those lost years are fictionally restored to her. O’Casey (1880-1964) is best known for his Dublin trilogy of plays – Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars.