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!
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.
Once in a blue moon, I am asked to do an interview with an academic journal. It’s a treat for a writer, particularly someone like me who’s writing in a minor key, to have her work given close attention by someone in the serious business of reading. Beyond a spurt of reviews on publication – if you’re lucky – there are few outlets in mainstream journalism for thoughtful consideration of creative work. Which is where the academic journal comes in. Sadly, though, most academic journals have tiny readerships which means that intelligent and accessible writing on creative work often languishes unseen.
Dr Loredana Salis of the University of Sassari interviewed me last year when I was visiting Sardinia on an EFACIS (European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies) reading tour of Italy. Dr Salis is a passionate Irish Studies scholar and a most perceptive reader of my work. (The headline above is hers – revealing a canny internal sub-editor trying to get out.) Her questions made me think and made me question how and why I write.
The following is an edited version of that interview which appeared in Studi Irlandesi earlier this year. The full text can be accessed here: http://www.fupress.com/bsfm-sijis
L: Let us begin from the end, and from your most recent literary effort – a collection of short stories entitled Prosperity Drive – that is where I came across that wonderful line, “on the brink of the absolutely forbidden”, which seems to be a perfect description of where your writing and your characters are.
M: Yes, I’d agree that the territory I’m exploring in Prosperity Drive is close to the transgressive, particularly the sexually transgressive. The characters to whom this line refers – a teenage couple overcome by lust – draw back from the forbidden but many of the characters in these stories go into the area of taboo.
L: Indeed, your characters often and deliberately challenge and break taboos. It has to do with curiosity and courage, and with being true to one’s self too. I wonder whether this also applies to you as a creative writer?
M: I don’t know about that big word, courage. I think the rather downbeat nature of a lot of my fiction is being true to my view of the world, although off the page I’m more cheery. When I look back over my work I see a curiosity about form, about playing with form. The linked short stories in Prosperity Drive are about seeing how you can push the boundaries of the short story form while the novels, inspired by real people and events, play with fictional biography or biographical fiction.
L: The line – “on the brink of the absolutely forbidden” – is taken from a short story entitled “Diaspora”. Would you say something about the genesis of your collection?
M: Well, the stories started as separate, discrete entities and then as I waswriting them, several of the characters reappeared and so I thought I’d make a short story cycle out of them i.e. a collection where all the stories could stand on their own but that when read together, they would have a cumulative effect. The stories spring from a fictional suburban street in Dublin but,of course, it’s impossible to write about Ireland without coming up against the theme of emigration. And some of the stories are set during the Celtic Tiger,so you have the experience of immigration as well, mostly from Eastern Europe. Not exactly a new phenomenon – in my childhood in the 60s therewere refugees from Hungary, followed by the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s – though people tend to forget that now. So the ‘diaspora’ theme is built into the content, and also reflects the form of the stories which is like a scattering from a fixed point.
L: That is a delicate issue, especially now, across the European continent.And yes, we seem to have forgotten what it used to be like in the past. History repeats itself, but… what strikes me in your description of the new stories is that somehow the architecture of the narrative has changed: in The Rising of Bella Casey the form of the story is cyclical – it ends where it begins. Now the stories ‘scatter’ from the centre. How does this reflect your own experience with writing?
M: After writing three novels, returning to the short story was a great relief. There is the relatively instant gratification of working the short form,though the main difference between the stories in A Lazy Eye and Prosperity Drive is that my stories have got much longer. Also I, suppose with a short story cycle I was trying to stretch the form, see how elastic it could be, how it might mimic the characteristics of the novel in some respects.
L: And the result was?
M: Well, my editor at Jonathan Cape called the result an “exploded novel” – I quite like that. It implies the shattering of both forms.
L: The idea of giving women visibility lies at the heart of your reconstruction of Bella’s life in The Rising of Bella Casey. Your writing about her seems to be an act of just retribution: you rescue her from the murderous hands of her brother Séan, and yet your insight into O’Casey’s troubled conscience makes him, in the eyes of the reader, a disturbing but also a captivating presence in the novel.
M: Sean O’Casey wrote harshly about his sister Bella in his autobiography and then killed her off ten years before her time. This literary sororicide was what prompted me to write The Rising of Bella Casey. I felt his was a failure of the imagination; he couldn’t understand what had prompted her downfall and he hadn’t the capacity to see beyond appearances. That disappointed me but in the writing of the novel I realised that O’Casey was also writing out of disappointment – the disappointment of his very elevated and unrealistic expectations of his bright, clever sister. He’d placed her on a pedestal and couldn’t bear to witness her fall, so he opted for silence.
L: He was also very disappointed at himself, though. I am thinking at that wonderful scene at the end of chapter 10 where he gets very frustrated with his work, but then he starts all over again. Writing must have been extenuating for him, painstaking even, almost as much as being Bella’s brother.
M: The way I depict O’Casey’s writing process is pure fiction. I think, in reality, he probably found writing a great release of pent-up feeling and conviction. Certainly the autobiographies – all six volumes of them – appear on the page as an unstoppable outpouring of exuberant language. The point I was making in the novel was that contrary to the rest of his work, writing about Bella might have been a real difficulty for him.
L: The Rising of Bella Casey is a contemporary historical novel set between fact and fiction. How do you combine the two, what inspires the encounter of real and imaginary worlds?
M: I think of The Rising of Bella Casey – and my other novels, Mother of Pearl and The Pretender – as inhabiting the grey area between biography and fiction. So though I write about real people, there are inevitably gaps in the narrative, and in those gaps, the fiction happens. I often think I must be very unimaginative because in my novel-writing I’m generally working with ready-made plots and a laid-down story. The ‘real’ story is a blueprint from which I depart when one of these gaps in the narrative appears. The trouble with a lot of historical characters – like Bella Casey or Anna Anderson, the fraudulent Anastasia Romanov whom I wrote about in my second novel The Pretender– is that they often appear unknowable. We have external evidence of them, of course, but sometimes it’s hard to imagine their interior lives.
The key word here is imagine. I see that as what I do, imagining myself beyond the official record, and into the interior of these characters’ lives.
With historical figures, particularly those pre-20th century, that requires two willed acts – an imaginative leap into a pre-modern world and a creative kind of forgetting – forgetting about Freud and Jung etc., whose psychology has become part of the mainstream, part of everyday thinking.
On a practical level and to aid that imaginative process, I generally write the story first and then do the research so that the research doesn’t swamp the imaginative process. Also I’m lazy about research; I only do as much as I need to. I’m not one of those authors who gets distracted by the minutiae of history. A lot of the time research is a chore; something in service to the narrative, the story, which is primary for me.
L: I find this particular aspect interesting, Mary. You use gaps – spaces in between, empty areas – creatively. Beaver [Bella Casey’s husband], for instance. His GPI (Joyce again?)causes him a fatal loss of memory and he eventually is “lost, somewhere, in the folds of time”. That line is absolutely marvellous, powerful in its capacity to define Bella’s condition too, before you “rise” her and rescue her from oblivion.
M: One of the things about writing about real people is that I feel I owe it to them to be true to the facts of their lives, as they are known. So, in real life, Bella’s husband, Nicholas Beaver, contracted syphilis and died of GPI,so all of this is true, rather than a novelistic trope. Of course, the novelist can invest emotional and symbolic resonance in the facts. People lost in the folds in time; yes that’s a good description of my creative territory – women caught in the shadow of history.
L: The shadow of History, a place where untold and forgotten stories are found. And The Rising is also about stories located “in the underneath of History”, to use Nancy Cunard’s words. The private and the public intertwine in your novel. “The Easter Rising”, for instance, is seen from the perspective of ordinary Dubliners, and of women belonging to the Protestant minority whose children went fighting in the Great War abroad. Is that past an open wound, too painful to be remembered? And is this part of the reason why it is so prominent in the novel?
M: For many years, this was, not so much a wound as a silence. At the time, Irish soldiers who survived the Great War and came home were often treated as traitors and outcasts in nationalist communities because they were seen as having supported an Empire that was oppressing their countrymen. (It’s important to note, however, that thousands of Irishmen from both sides of the divide – nationalist and unionist, Catholic and Protestant – fought and died together in the trenches). In the past decade there has been huge healing around the Irish contribution to the Great War. In 2011, for example, Queen Elizabeth made an official visit to Ireland – itself an historic occasion – and visited the National War Monument in Islandbridge in Dublin (which for many years, tellingly, was left abandoned and derelict) which commemorates the Irish fallen in the First World War. On the same visit she also paid her respects at the Garden of Remembrance which honours the Republican men and women who fought to end British rule in Ireland.
This was one of the most important public gestures of recent times that recognized the wound of divided loyalties that has lain at the heart of historical Irish identity. So I suppose all of this was in the ether as I was writing the novel.
The depiction of the Rising in the novel from the view of Bella and her family – Protestant, working class, loyal to the Crown – who don’t support the revolution and don’t understand it, is unusual, and deliberate. The Rising was a glorious failure, mismanaged and favoured by only a small minority of the population; what turned it into a success was the fact that the leaders were executed by the British – and it was this act that turned popular opinion. But even at that stage, it’s unlikely that Bella Casey would have changed her loyalties.
For her, the Rising would still have been an illegal challenge to what she would have considered legitimate British rule. (Unlike Sean O’Casey, her brother, who absolutely supported the break with Britain so you could say the Casey family is a microcosm for all the political divisions of the country at that time).
L: You teach Creative Writing to MA students at UCC: are those young writers also prompted to play with and engage with the ‘what ifs’? Does your academic experience somehow contribute to the workings of your imagination? In other words, would you say that your work lies between fact, fiction and the artifice of writing?
M: Teaching creative writing keeps you in touch with what’s happening now in writing. You get to learn what enthuses young writers and you see new styles and genres opening up. You see students bursting with ideas and some of that energy brushes off on the teacher. As to where my own stories lie – maybe that’s for others to decide. For me they’re a mix of truth and lies. Emotionally true, factually suspect. Isn’t that the alchemy of writing? Unlike my novels, my short fiction often starts with something very small – an image, something witnessed, even a first line. In that sense the short story is much closer to the poem in conception. Then it’s a process of following your nose, so to speak. Seeing where the narrative takes you. In that sense it’s a lot freer as a process than the novels, where the trajectory of the narrative is often laid out. For the most part, my stories are contemporary, rather than historical, although I have been tinkering of late with some historical short stories. But even those concern fictional characters, not real people. I want to maintain that freedom to be absolutely fictional in the short form.
L: Since you mention “what is happening now in writing”, I’ d like to know your view on how Irish literature has changed in recent years from when you started writing fiction.
M: There are many more women writing and being published – exciting and ground-breaking new voices like Eimear McBride, Belinda McKeon, Sara Baume, Danielle McLaughlin. Daring, thoughtful, savage and unashamedly female. The breaking open of this female voice is very exciting to witness as when I started out, you were often singled out as being a ‘woman writer’ as if it was a special category apart from the mainstream. (I’m of the generation of Irish women writers who were famously excluded from the Field Day Anthology in the 1990s, only to be afterwards included in the extra ‘women’s’volume published in 2003). And for women themselves, there was a lot of hand-wringing about what it meant to be a ‘woman writer’ as if it bore special responsibilities because we were so few. So by sheer numbers, those gender distinctions and that identity anxiety has been swept away.
Having had a book published (Prosperity Drive)in the last couple of months I’m at the end of a writing cycle – the come-down, the post-partum anti-climax, the post-post production; call it what you will. You spend several years writing the damn thing, followed by a short burst of attention when the book is reviewed, and then. . .? As Peggy Lee sang – is that all there is?
Not that I’m complaining. No siree!
I’ve been through two publishing droughts in my writing career (though I don’t like to use that word because I don’t consider writing as a “career”. Banking is a career); one at the beginning when I was trying to get into print, and another, after three books, when I found myself once again in the publishing wilderness.
I was reminded of that time (and, of course, there’s no guarantee that this won’t happen again) at an event, The Lightening Bug, in Cork last Sunday, when someone asked a question about the effects of rejection.
For a period of 13 years (2000 – 2013), I didn’t have a book published. I found myself shut out, first from the publishing world, when my editor rejected not just the next novel I produced, but the next one after that. Then there was a parting of the ways with my agent of 15 years. Suddenly, I found myself right back at the beginning again.
And it’s worse second time around. Because at the beginning you have hope; you have the dream of being published to sustain you. You haven’t “come out” as a writer. When you have been through the grinder once, your hope is not as robust. Also there’s a kind of suspicion of the writer who’s been published and then dumped – are they damaged goods? Not up to it, in some way.
It wasn’t that in this 13 years I wasn’t writing; no, I just wasn’t published, though these days there often isn’t a distinction made between the two. In that period I wrote two novels and a collection of short stories. But if your work can’t be seen, it equates to not existing. And if you’re a writer, it calls into question your existence. Are you a writer if you’re not published?
Now that’s a question everyone asks before they’re published. But it wasn’t a question I expected to be asking, having already published three books. I had made the mistake of believing that once you broke through the publishing barrier that you were set, if not for sudden overnight success then, at least, for a steady arc of progress. I thought I would write and I would be paid a a little bit more for each successive novel, maybe win some big prize as the icing on the cake. I wasn’t asking for much.
(As it is, the financial rewards for writers who do get published, have been seriously diminished. The advance for my current book of short stories is a third of what I was paid for my second novel in 1999.)
I don’t mean for this to turn into a self-pity fest. This has happened to lots of writers – good writers. Mike McCormack whose most recent novel, Solar Bones, is – deservedly – getting rave reviews at the moment, described a similar publishing hiatus and its effects on morale.
“I nearly went fucking crazy. . , ” he told The Irish Times, “for those five years I couldn’t give my work away. It was tough on me and for people around me. But as my wife, Maeve, said to me, it isn’t my job to get published. . . it’s my job to write.”
In the decline of mainstream publishing, this sort of thing is happening to many mid-list authors, whose work is being judged solely on commercial terms. But when you’re going through the experience, it feels like it’s just you.
All sorts of questions run through your head. Was it something you did? Were you ungenerous in your success? Did you deserve the success in the first place? Did you not appreciate the success enough? Did you take it for granted? Has your work suddenly become terrible? Have you lost the capacity to judge your own work? Is there anybody interested in your kind of writing anymore? Is your writing relevant? Is it worth continuing? What good is a writer without readers?
You are taunted by the manifest success of your peers at every hand’s turn. I think it was Gore Vidal who said whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies. I found myself secretly identifying with those words.
There is not much positive to say about this experience except this: – when you write and you don’t get published, it absolutely clarifies the reasons why you’re writing. Thirteen years without a book on the shelves returned me to a purer relationship with the work than I’d ever had. First time round there was all that striving to make it, to get published; now it was writing for the sake of it.
During this period when people asked what I was doing (a loaded question – what they really meant was why haven’t we seen a book of yours out?) I would say I’m writing for my posthumous reputation and that was true. I had given up on the prospect of being published. This was not easy to do; it was a stage I reached after a lot of striving and self-laceration. I considered trying to write a pot-boiler, to tailor my writing to what the market would find acceptable but I didn’t have the heart for it. I went through despair – which, for me, consisted of considering giving up writing altogether. But I’m too old to do anything else.
But I did consider declaring I had stopped writing if only to be shut of those persistent questions. In fact, I think I couldn’t give up writing – it’s the way I negotiate with the world. The world doesn’t make sense to me until I’ve written it down. (Also, I’ve a terrible memory so if I don’t write down experiences, it’s as if they never happened.)
But dealing with not being published meant going back to first principles. I wrote for its own sake, to do it, to have a body of work even if no one wanted to read it. You could say I was writing for myself. It didn’t make going to those literary functions where you met more successful peers any easier; it didn’t make answering those questions about what you were working on or when was your next book due any less painful, but it made it possible for me to go on, to justify to myself the worth of what I was doing.
I changed my attitude to publication in those years, looking on it as a by-product of writing, not the be all and end all. Because once you believe that, you’re at the mercy of all the whims that govern the publishing world – the rule of the men in suits, the insatiable appetite for celebrity publishing, the commercial bottom line.
Here’s what I learned. (Because, of course, you have to learn something from it!) All you can do is your own work, in your own time. If you don’t believe in it, how can you expect anyone else to? This is the hardest thing to hold onto in the face of rejection. And I’ve come to realise that publication doesn’t mean anything but itself. Publication is not transformative. My life is not going to change because of it. What it means is that someone else has seen the value in the work, that it has struck a chord with its first readers and that my voice is being heard again.
I’m on my way to Lisbon – a city I’ve never visited – for the Embassy of Ireland lecture at the University of Lisbon, which takes place on Thursday, May 19.My lecture ,entitled “The Past Is a Foreign Country”, will consider the writing of fiction, with particular reference to historical fiction and to the excavation of a personal past. I’m also going to be reading from Prosperity Drive. It will be a bilingual reading as a short story from the collection, “The Gender of Cars”, has already been translated into Portuguese and featured in the anthology Contar um Conto (eds. Ana Raquel Fernandes and Mário Semião, 2014).
The Embassy of Ireland Lectures were launched by Ambassador James Brennan after his visit to the Faculty of Letters, University of Lisbon, in May 2008, to address students enrolled in the then recently created curricular unit on Irish Literature and Culture.
My niece and I – cue royal plural tone – will be reading together for the first time at an event organised by Poetry Ireland in Dublin on May 17. Julie is a poet, whose first book, I am Where has just come out with Eyewear Publishing, and has been shortlisted for a Saboteur Award. (Not too late to vote, by the way!) We’re reading together as part of The Next Generation, an event jointly organised by the Bealtaine Festival and Poetry Ireland. We’ll be reading with another cross-generation poetic family – Enda Wyley and her nephew, Ciaran O Rourke.(I’ll be outnumbered by poetic types at this gig, reduced to reading mere fiction from my latest collection, Prosperity Drive.) Ciaran featured along with Julie in Poetry Ireland Review Issue 118: The Rising Generation.