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Yes, folks, in the ceaseless quest for verbal serendipity, entertainment and enlightenment I have read through an entire dictionary [well, I must have because this is pretty well on the last page, innit?] to bring you a word that, when you get its meaning, you will wonder how you ever managed without. That sentence may be ungrammatical, but you get my drift?
Zugzwang is a German word, a chess term, but I see no reason why it should be confined to chess. Let it break free into the universe!
Imagine you have been invited to someone’s house for tea. You don’t find them congenial; your heart sinks, but you tell yourself, as we do, that it might be good to go because…. because they sound so genuinely pleased to have you in their tea-drinking clutches; you hope it might strategically be useful – maybe they could babysit, or lend you a decent book to read, or give you a salary boost…. but alas, none of these things happen. You sit glumly, trying not to sneak looks at your watch [am I the only person that still wears a watch especially so I can do this without fiddling with my phone?] wondering how soon and how gracefully you could extricate yourself from this person’s life…
Finally, you do it. You wave goodbye. You hope your paths need never cross socially again. But aarrgggh, a few days later, doesn’t the person phone you and say how lovely it was to meet up, and how great it would be if you were in today, as they will be dropping by around teatime? and a grey cloud comes over your consciousness as you realise there is no alternative for you. You must invite them – they could be your boss or an in-law, anyway, you cannot, much as you’d like to, delete them from your own, all too horribly real, network of acquaintances.
Furthermore, you know that this is just the beginning of a series of unprofitable encounters from which you can never hope to derive pleasure, gain or profit.
That, my friend, is your zugzwang.
Your obligation to make a move that will bring you no advantage at all, yet which you cannot avoid.

I can’t promise that this is one of a series of fab new words, because that’s not how I operate. Next time I am leafing through a dictionary in search of entertainment, I’ll have a look at the letter A. That is as much as I can offer. I have spent my life avoiding zugzwangs.

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Blog Hop: What Do I Write And Why?

June 2014

Kristin Gleeson has invited me to join her blog hop. I’m now a link in a chain of great minds, connected by our passion for writing  – and, even more important, reading.

Kristin is a writer of intensely felt, meticulously researched, wonderfully evoked historical literary fiction novels, spanning her own territories of Ireland, North America and Canada. I recommend Selkie Dreams  She’s also the world expert on the Canadian First Nation woman Anahareo, wrote the first biography of this extraordinary and troubled woman, Anahareo – a Wilderness Spirit, and this summer will be a keynote speaker at a conference on herself and her husband, known to thousands as ‘Grey Owl’, in fact an Englishman from Sussex called Archie.

We first met on an advanced novel writing course at the West Cork Literary Festival, run by the amazing Carlo Gébler, and we have remained friends ever since, beta-reading each other’s unpublished work, mutually being encouraging, and cheering on our publishing successes.  As well as writing, Kristin is also a gifted musician, singer and painter; if you are lucky enough to attend one of her book launches, you may see her playing the Irish harp.


What Do I write?

I write plays and novels. Drama is in my blood, on both sides of the family – my Dad was the best theatre carpenter in the business, my mother acted straight out of RADA with Laurence  Olivier – she was one of his daughters in ‘Oedipus’,. My father’s parents and grandparents ran ‘fit-up’ travelling companies; musical theatre was my grandmother’s field and she was one of the original ‘Tiller Girls’. So writing plays started early [I was five when my brother and I performed 'Clever Fox', a two hander, to an audience of kind parents and neighbours].

I write plays for children, mostly in Ireland, but have written puppet shows and TV dramas in the UK as well. Adult novels are where I let my shadow side out to play. Children deserve optimism and hope, but my novels pull no punches. I write with passion and from a perspective of people in our society many would rather not know about, about events and feelings we’d like to pretend don’t exist. My latest novel, Dollywagglers, published by Tenebrisbooks,is a dystopia set in England, after a flu pandemic has decimated the world’s population. I love reading dystopias, from ’1984′  and ‘The Road’ to ‘The Hunger Games’, but I didn’t want an atmosphere of despair and gloom, so I made my central character a puppeteer with a wonky sense of humour.

My first novel, Micka, published by Picador in 2010, was a sad and brutal story, told in the voices of two ten year old boys. Neither of these books pleased a mass audience, but I feel joyful and privileged to be speaking to adults and children in a way that, I hope and trust, enters their heads and hearts in a truly reflective and gripping way.

What am I writing now?
I’m at work now on the sequel to ‘Dollywagglers’, a story with utopian threads mixed in with the darkness. Quite a challenge to write with the same black humour and not be too predictably liberal and socially aware as I construct a new society from the remnants of the old.

I’m also working on the second draft of a memoir, I suppose, it’s about fifty percent true and fifty percent made up, about a nine year old girl at boarding school in the 1950s. It’s far from being Hogwarts; it’s a place that tries to break her spirit and crush her imagination.

Two children’s plays I wrote last year had a great run in Ireland. Feast of Bones is set in 1918 Dublin, and loosely follows the fairy story of Henny Penny going to see the King. The sky fell on many heads during that war; it makes a powerful metaphor, and in some ways you can only tell the tales of war in metaphor, unless you were actually there.

The second play, which ran for three months earlier this year, was about an old man, alone with his radio and his memories, talking to an audience of 6 year olds and up. My challenge was to make his life, so removed from their experiences, into a story that they could connect with. A spider and a jackdaw helped, plus his tragic love of Gretel, a circus bareback rider. Mr. Foley – Radio Operator played all over Ireland this year., and will be at the Babaró Children’s Festival in Galway this September.

Why Do I Write?
It’s an addiction. If I don’t have a piece of work on the go, the sparkle goes out of my world. Three years studying English Literature at university dried up the flow of ink, partly because I was constantly deconstructing great writers and literature, and partly because that critical approach helped sharpen the teeth of my inner critic, so that I was too intimidated to create anything for about three years after I left. Maybe you share that experience? Sometimes, our formal education can be a serious handicap. Happily, the flow of thoughts came back and has never dried up since. I live an extremely eventful life, high with joy, elation and adrenalin, and low with massive bereavement at a young age, lack of money, and near despair at the awful start in life some children have. I worked on projects in Newcastle and Scotland with kids whom society forgot, and their resilience and cheerfulness was an inspiration to me when I started writing plays for them.

Tagging the next three:
Here are three more writers.  You can follow the chain onward or backward to see all the other writers in this blog hop. Happy Hopping!

Nichola Hunter,  blogging at http://nicholahunter.blogspot.ie

Nichola’s evocative novella, ‘Ramadan Sky’ about an Australian tourist having an uneasy, passionate romance with an Indonesian man, was one of the very first books to be talent-spotted and published on Kindle by Harper Collins after their editors  read her work uploaded to their ‘Authonomy’ site. Find herbook on Amazon UK at: Ramadan Sky

Anyone who writes is welcome to join ‘Authonomy’, and if your novel gets voted to the top five by the reading community, it will be professionally read, and may lead to publication. You also have the benefit of other writers’ good critiques of your work, which, in my case, led to beneficial rewrites.

Neil Randall, blogging at http://narandall.blogspot.ie is a writer of dark and disturbing fiction, often with a Russian flavour. His most recently published work is The Holy Drinker; another novel set in Stalinist times is satirical, compelling and highly recommended by me; find it at: Amazon uk ‘The Butterfly and the Wheel’  – it will be published later this year.

Third in my list, but the most celebrated and consistently selling of all of us here, is Cathi Unsworth, the Queen of London Noir, as she was recently described by David Peace. Her novels expose the seedy underbelly of human desires and vices. Check out her website: http://www.cathiunsworth.co.uk and find her most recent book on Amazon UK at : Weirdo

Hope you’ve enjoyed my section of this hop. I welcome any comments! Thanks for reading.

 

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The UK Government is consulting you and other citizens on its plan to make fracking under your house a right for private companies. to which you can no longer object. This process continues until August 15th.

I would urge any of you who are UK residents to write in response to a sad mindset that cannot conceive of any values other than material and financial, one that is willing to use an act of parliament to abolish our natural rights over our land and homes. It is as pernicious, as greedy and as unjust as the Enclosure laws.

Here’s the link: https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/underground-drilling-access

And here is the substance of my reply –  hope it inspires you to write with wit and sincerity.

3 What is your organisation?

I am an individual who works at home.

4 Should the Government legislate to provide underground access to gas, oil and geothermal developers below 300 meters?

No

Please elaborate on your answer above. :

No financial compensation or promise of material reward can influence me to change my mind; this is an unwanted invasion of my privacy and my right to enjoy my property and to bequeath it unspoiled to the next generation. Not everything has a market price. My peace of mind, my domestic security and serenity, my ability to enjoy my house and my land in the knowledge that nothing except acts of God or natural subsidence will change the place I have chosen to make my home, far outweighs any money you or anyone can offer me to forget the blessings I am being asked to relinquish. This is a deeply unpleasant attack on the rights of homeowners and any government should be ashamed even to contemplate it. Our feelings about our homes are more important than the business plans of any private company wanting to make profits. Wherever there is a profit motive, the safety and happiness of human beings is always placed second. I do not and will never agree to this ordering of priorities.

5 If you do not believe the Government should legislate for underground access, do you have a preferred alternative solution?

Yes

Please elaborate on your answer above. :

I would like us to look not at unlocking more sources of finite energy but at becoming more careful and thoughtful about our energy use. Fines and penalties for over-consumption of natural resources, a sense of public responsibility for the future of this land and our planet, could bring about the kind of change in consciousness that citizens had during WW2. It is you, the government, which must give the lead to a different way of using our resources. Shale oil and gas must be left in the ground. It is directly opposed to the Kyoto protocols on climate change. Until you take this seriously, you cannot expect your voters to re elect you.

6 Should a payment and notification for access be administered through the voluntary scheme proposed by industry?

No

Please elaborate on your answer above. :

I do not accept this premise. You are prisoners of outdated thinking. Money has nothing to do with the things I care about. Until you understand that, you are still living in the Victorian expansionist world. That world is doomed and unsustainable.

 

Have fun!

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This article was first published last month in the online literary magazine THE VIEW FROM HERE.

If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, then why do we read it? So that it shall make us happy? Good God, we should also be happy if we had no books….. A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen within us.’  [Kafka, aged 20]

I identify with Kafka’s passionate viewpoint, and, as a writer, it has set me an almost impossible task. My new novel is a dystopia – it flowed from my pen with refreshing cataracts of anger and bitter humour against the brutal, chaotic, society I created; dystopia is a perfect metaphor, and a safe one, behind whose barriers we can snipe at what we know and hate.

Dystopia is also a seductive literary form for writers and readers; one of my favourites is YevgenyZamyatin’s tragic 1921 novel ‘We’ . Zamyatin, writing in a post-revolutionary Soviet state, began his work after the failed uprising of 1905, but even four years after the revolution, his political masters took an obsessive interest in novels dealing with dysfunctional fictional societies, and Zamyatin was forced to flee to exile in France, where he died in poverty. ‘We’ is an undeservedly neglected work these days – he was said to have influenced Orwell’s ’1984′ and Ayn Rand’s ‘Anthem’, amongst others – where individuals are  ‘numbers’ and live in glass apartments where their every action can be observed, except for the allocated nights of sexual activity, when curtains may be drawn. The gradual evolution of the  character D503, the narrator, a mathematician, begins with logical, conforming beliefs:  ‘One thing has always seemed to me most improbable: how could a government, even a primitive government, permit people to live without anything like our Tables—without compulsory walks, without precise regulation of the time to eat, for instance? They would get up and go to bed whenever they liked. ‘ and finally to a state of terrified rebellion, caused in part by political anger, but more by his frantic lust for the mysterious Number I-330: ‘I am like a motor set in motion at a speed of too many revolutions per second; the bearings have become too hot, and in one more minute the molten metal will begin to drip and everything will go to the devil. Cold water! Quick! Some logic!..  L=f (D), love is the function of death. ‘

Utopian literature is a different species from dystopia; the plot plods along and the main characters are often ciphers with bland personalities,  like the dinner guests in More’s  ‘Utopia’.  As  H.G.Wells says, There must always be a certain effect of hardness and thinness about Utopian speculations… That which is the blood and warmth and reality of life is largely absent; there are no individualities, but only generalised people. In almost every Utopia–except, perhaps , Morris’s “News from Nowhere”–one sees handsome but characterless buildings, symmetrical and perfect cultivations, and a multitude of people, healthy, happy, beautifully dressed, but without any personal distinction whatever.’

The utopian writer’s passion is generally not so much for story as for social or political theory; the structure of a utopian society must be laboriously exposited, and the most usual device to ensure the presence of a stranger who needs to be educated, is to have the protagonist accidentally fall into or stumble across Shangri La, or Erewhon — thus the society described is not one we can live in – it is a tale told at a safe remove by returned visitors.

Referring to the study of literature, Kierkegaard wrote that ‘there are two ways. One is to suffer; the other is to become a professor of the fact that another suffers’. The same, I believe applies to writers. If we do not write our utopias and dystopias with passion (the Latin word whose very root means ‘suffering’ ) we set ourselves apart from, or even above, our fellow human beings who share the real dystopia in which we live.

And this is my dilemma as I begin the sequel to ‘Dollywagglers’; to create a credible, unexpected, struggling society with some utopian elements, that is not devoid of emotion or predictably liberal, and in which minimal exposition takes third place, after story and character.  I am reading books on energy and economics, and studying real utopian communities, none of which I had to do before I wrote ‘Dollywagglers’.

We actually live in dystopias, we experience their inhuman regimes with their protagonists, we identify with Catniss or Winston as they take the first step away from safety towards risk, exposing themselves to the danger of being seen as individuals with subversive tendencies. Visitors, even if profoundly affected by their encounter with utopia, return to the security of their homeland, unless, like the brainless young Bertie Woosterish  hero of ‘A Crystal Age’ he becomes so enamoured of that society he forgets his past as he attempts to dress like the citizens, to learn their culture, and to commit himself to a loving relationship with one of its mysterious residents.           Of all the utopias I have read, ‘A Crystal Age’ by W.H.Hudson stands out as unique. . I wonder if J.G.Ballard was influenced by this book when he wrote ‘The Crystal World’, where a bizarre phenomenon occurs in the jungle of South America – plants, trees and animals are becoming crystallised. The metaphor  is of slow and inexorable death, but purity and perfection are part of the equation too. A  similar perfection is worshipped in Hudson’s book, along with that figure of sacred reverence, The Mother.

Marx wrote ‘I believe there is no compulsion for the writer to put into the reader’s hands the future historical resolution of the social conflicts he is depicting.’;  which I interpret as the freedom, when creating a society with utopian strands, not to cross every t or dot every i. And as to the social evolution of my flawed utopia, as long as the story is absorbing and the characters engaging,  its future development can safely be left to the reader’s imagination.

Utopian stories give us emotionally cool theoretical or metaphorical frameworks; but to make them vivid, to breathe life into those long dead conceits, we must become the passionate bridge to link their ideas to our present situation; beyond the general or universal, we need to create immediate and specific connections with our lineage of utopian literature, while shocking the reader with insights into undercurrents and dissatisfactions of the’ now’ we live in. As Kierkegaard says, ‘It is not worthwhile remembering that past which cannot become a present.’

 

Agree or disagree? Please let me know what you think.

‘Dollywagglers’  was published by Tenebris books on April 28th.

 

 

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How some directors treat living playwrights

I’ve been a director, an actor, and a playwright. Sometimes, all three at once.

I’m happy to say I have never had this experience. I was shocked to read in this blog that some theatre directors think it’s okay to cut and paste the work of a living playwright without consultation or permission.

I love working collaboratively, love being in rehearsals and seeing how a great director can find things in my text that illuminate, develop and intensify the piece I have written.

I’m always open to hear from actors if they have a different, more authentic, or just plain better way of saying a line.

But for a director to take a play by a living playwright and carve it up – that is not acceptable.

What do you think?

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Why hell? Because no one wants to subscribe to the limitations they believe having political views would impose on their artistic freedom. But the truth is, politics, the word, is rooted in people. Politics is about how people behave, act, betray and rule each other.

The best theatre I have ever seen was uncomfortable to watch from a complacent, detached, ethereal viewpoint.

Theatre needs to get its hands dirty – as dirty as politics does, so greedily.

Two recent events illustrate how married politics and theatre are, whatever artists may say. A recent Irish government commission reported on the performance of Ireland’s national theatre, the Abbey, and found the majority of the productions it put on were of a poor, unsatisfactory and unprofessional standard. This, in a country that is crowded with passionate and brilliant playwrights and performers, some of whom cannot earn a living, and with a studio theatre, the Peacock, dark for some of the year.

Here is a thoughtful article by a previous Artistic Director, Gerry Hynes:

http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/fixing-the-abbey-where-next-for-the-national-theatre-1.1664388?page=3

The second item that is worth your attention is the stand taken by playwright Margaretta D’Arcy on the rendition flights through Shannon Airport – a situation the Irish government would like to pretend does not exist. When they asked her to shut up and stop annoying them, she refused. She is now in Limerick Prison. You can sign a petition to free her to the Irish Minister for Justice, Alan Shatter, here:

https://secure.avaaz.org/en/petition/Irish_minister_for_Justice_Alan_Shatter_Free_Margaretta_DArcy/sign/?aVzadab

https://secure.avaaz.org/en/petition/Irish_minister_for_Justice_Alan_Shatter_Free_Margaretta_DArcy/?pv=0

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writers earn money? I don’t think so.

I’ve had two books published in the past two years, both digital. I have no idea what the sales figures are.

All I know, is that for two years of work, I haven’t been paid a penny, a dime, a euro, a cent.

I won’t be writing in this genre [romance] again. And I knew what I was doing when I agreed to a ‘royalties only’ contract. However, I did think that after two years, I might have got some royalties.

I also work as a playwright, to commission, and for this I am heartily grateful. Writers need to eat, even if only crumbs from the rich man’s table.

Thanks for this blog, Sara Sheridan, I read it with empathy.

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