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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Literary Festival, run by the amazing Carlo Gébler, and we have remained friends ever since, beta-reading each other’s unpublished work, mutually being encouraging, and cheering on our publishing successes.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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Why taking play away from children is a bad thing to do

I couldn’t agree more. I grew up in the 1950s, where street games, two ball rhymes, skipping rope songs with endless possibilities  and the rules of ‘Kick the Can’ or ‘Chain He’ were known to us all. Long, complicated role play games took in Davy Crockett, Dragnet, Robin Hood and Peter Pan.

Children need to play without adults watching and controlling. Children need to play, and they aren’t being allowed to.

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Here is a rather long link…

http://www.irishexaminer.com/viewpoints/columnists/guest-columnist/a-portrait-of-the-artist-as-childish-reckless-and-dangerously-subversive-254532.html?fb_action_ids=10152147249239672&fb_action_types=og.recommends&fb_ref=.Us2RRr-dryo.like&fb_source=other_multiline&action_object_map=%5B707021905983589%5D&action_type_map=%5B”og.recommends”%5D&action_ref_map=%5B”.Us2RRr-dryo.like”%5D

The resignation of three members of the creative team working for LIMERICK CITY OF CULTURE has shone an unpleasant spotlight on the chasm between artists and the present government, who is entrusted with millions to pay out to us, lucky and grateful as we are supposed to be for any crumbs that come our way.

This article hits the nail on the head about the present climate in Ireland, a state we who write, compose or make art have known for years is heavily weighted in favour of bureaucrats  - the very fact that ‘the arts’ are lumped in with Sport and Tourism shows government thinking.

Two of the resigned team – Karl Wallace and Jo Mangan –  are friends, and I have certain knowledge of their  outstanding administrative competence, their visionary imaginations, and their passion for the arts. So my view is not balanced.

As the article says, the wonder is that we go on creating at all.

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Writers don’t need to be paid – read what Philip Hensher says about that…

mm, this is a tricky one.

Coming from a theatre background, the number of times I’ve been told by funding bodies that ‘You love acting/directing/playwriting, you’d do it whether you were paid or not’, or ‘Thousands of people want to do what you’re doing – if you ask for payment, then we’ll use others who don’t’, and even, ‘ We find artists work harder if they have to struggle a bit, and that makes their work even better’… I am not surprised that writers are being treated the same way.

Of course, it’s important that we have a real relationship with our readers; I read and comment on other people’s unpublished novels for free – I also do events, especially for children, unpaid…  and yes, of course, I write out of compulsion and excitement, for financial rewards, or none – but if I had a young family and a mortgage to support, I don’t think I could be so lofty and idealistic. Writers need money. Like everyone else.

Do you agree with Philip Hensher?

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I feel deeply, passionately and bitterly sad to hear of the death of Team Educational Theatre Company, announced last month by email and on their Facebook page. After a courageous and painful struggle with strangulation by public neglect, and fatal haemorrhaging of its financial base from cuts from the funding bodies, it can no longer survive in this time of market forces, when the arts, like every other ‘business’, now knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Neither the Arts Council nor the Department of Education, which for years had kicked this company between them like an old football, was willing to champion it. In times of recession, funding for children, and especially theatre for young people, is an easy cut to make. Who cares what children think? Do they have a vote? Are they on any boards? Do they have any money to influence people?

Team Theatre had survived for 33 years, through times of great national poverty, all through the 1980s, a little sibling of the Abbey Theatre, who gave it a home and a rehearsal space in Marlborough Place; no doubt the Abbey also felt relieved that the unspoken national obligation to provide excellent theatre for young people was being minded, leaving them free of the responsibility. And Team embraced this wholeheartedly, perhaps to the detriment of their public face, because on their tight budget they had nothing left for spin, public profile raising, or marketing themselves. In the twenty plus years I have lived in Ireland I have only once seen a full interview with the director of Team in this newspaper. All their time, their best energy, love, and talents were dedicated to their audiences, not just the performances of two brand new plays a year, but the devising of interactive workshops to run with the play, showing kids a participatory way in to drama as education, and the actors listened to what children had to say on issues like suicide, death, poverty, even the excitement of being a hive-dwelling co-operative of bumble bees. How anyone can think this is not important enough to continue beggars belief.

I speak from personal experience; one performance of one play changed my life. I was sixteen when I saw Joan Littlewood’s original Theatre Workshop version of ‘Oh, What A Lovely War’, and it left me stunned, inspired and excited. Theatre could be about things that really happened, theatre could be about and for ordinary people, theatre could come down from its pedestal and talk directly to members of the audience, improvising responses! I knew then that this was the kind of theatre I wanted to spend my life with. I hope that out of all Team’s young audiences over the years, some have gone away with a similar feeling of excitement – not necessarily to be involved with theatre, but to feel they had a voice and something to say, in whatever field they might choose.

Many fine Irish playwrights have written for Team, many young actors cut their teeth on the fresh and challenging responses of their audiences. When I worked for them and Martin Murphy, their director, in the 1990s, any idea I brought to the table had to be road tested by workshops in classes of the target age, so that no ivory tower thinking would be loftily handed down for the kids to admire – these kids gave every idea and its originators an honest and realistic appraisal. Team’s funding from the Education Department in those days depended on a slice for the special inclusion of disadvantaged schools, and the workshops in these were of particular interest to me, coming as I did from a background of working with poor, marginalised, disturbed kids. One workshop I attended was to sound out their reactions to a play set in the Emergency – did they have any family stories about the bombing of the North Strand? They did – but even more exciting than that was the spirit of friendly anarchy that suddenly took over the class as they realised we were not teachers there to keep order – one boy swiftly executed a cock and balls on the blackboard, and even though we’d watched him do it, swore blind ‘it wasn’t me’. The same class responded to the play, ‘Burning Dreams’ avidly, and joined in the workshops after the play with that freshness and enthusiasm that all playwrights and actors long to provoke in their audience.

I write for children not because it’s easier – it isn’t – or because no one else wants to – I am sure there are other playwrights out there who would love to, if there was a decent living to be made out of it – but because I have a lifelong commitment to the arts for young people, and because my best ideas are inspired by children.

The Ark is still here, and Graffiti Theatre in Cork, and Barnstorm. Two dedicated theatre companies and one arts centre to cover the entire republic. This is shameful, and that we have allowed ourselves to elect a government who sees nothing wrong in ignoring the other needs of children, for decent medical care, housing, education and loving attention, reflects the attitudes we have subscribed to, albeit by being mislead by politicians who promised us to carry out a mandate we elected them for, later changing it to another mandate we specifically asked not to have, and explaining this on air as ‘the kind of thing you do when you want to get elected’. Yes, you tell lies.

Theatre for children that does not tell lies – that is the business I am in.

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