Saturday, 27 March 2010


Many hours spent learning how to play this could have been spent writing...

Wednesday, 24 March 2010


A little interview for you today. I caught up with Nuala to ask her about her forthcoming novel, You.

Hello, Nuala. Welcome.

Hi, Tom.

You write poetry and short stories - why a novel?

The novel grew out of short story. I was enjoying the voice of the narrator and wanted to continue writing from her POV. As the plot occurred to me it also occurred to me that I was writing a novel. I’m a big novel reader, though short story collections have taken over my reading passions in the last ten years or so. I do love to get lost in a novel from time to time.

How long did it take to write, from first word to final edit?

It took a year. And then five years to find a publisher...

Are you a great planner or do you see where the story takes you?

I never plan. I write as if I am telling a story to myself. I think about whatever I am currently writing a lot (mulling, musing) but I don’t make charts and/or plot diagrams. Plot scares the life out of me really. I recently realised that my writing life is the one area of my existence where I am not a control freak. It pleased me to realise that!

Regular hours or as the inspiration grabs you?

Regular hours used to be it with me. But I have a ten-month-old baby now as well as two bigger kids, so routine is out the window since baby arrived. I grab writing time when the baby is sleeping or in the car when my fiancé is driving. Or late at night in bed.

What’s the greatest asset a writer can have?

An untamed imagination coupled with empathy. (Is that two things?!)

Do you consciously avoid fiction similar to your own when writing?

No. I’d freak out if I wasn’t reading. I read five books or so at the same time. I’m pretty obsessed with reading and I don’t worry about ‘stealing’. Other writers’ fantastic work is there to be learnt from.

Can you tell us any more about the title / story?

The novel is set in Dublin in 1980 and is told in the second person by a ten-year-old girl. She is sensitive, and critical of the adults in her life who all seem to let her down. She turns to the river by her house for comfort and to try to figure things out. When tragedy strikes, the girl takes action. It’s a funny book with sad moments, I guess. I hope people like it, is all.

Sounds intriguing. How about three pieces of advice for someone about to take the plunge…

Write every day – it all adds up eventually.

Keep all your research bits in one big box for ease of access. I have a box for You with a CD of hit music from 1980, books, lists of big events from that year, location pics etc. etc.

Believe in yourself and your book – it took seven years from first word to publication for mine. I had wobbles on the way but I always believed that my book was good so I kept working on its behalf. Be determined!

Indeed. Thanks for your time, Nuala, and good luck with the book.

Thanks very much for having me here, Tom, and for your interesting questions.

Born Dublin 1970, award-winning fiction writer and poet Nuala Ní Chonchúir lives in County Galway. Her third short fiction collection Nude was published by Salt in September 2009. The Irish Times called it ‘a memorable achievement’. She is one of four winners of the 2009 Templar Poetry Pamphlet competition. Her pamphlet Portrait of the Artist with a Red Car was published November 2009; a full collection The Juno Charm is due November 2010. Nuala’s novel You will be published by New Island in 2010. She received an Arts Council Bursary in 2009 and is fiction editor of Horizon Review. You can follow Nuala’s blog here.

Saturday, 20 March 2010


I’m off to the Charles Dickens Museum in London next month for the launch of this literary journal. Fourteen stories, which make up the shortlist for the Willesden competition, the winner of which will be announced on the night, receiving the prestigious mug (and three hundred English pounds). I have to say I’m in rather talented company, and have therefore not made any plans on how to spend the money:

'Emily Strabnow's Freckles' - Willie Davis
'Falling' - Henrietta Rose-Innes
'In the Land of Flies' - Julia Goubert
'Letters' - Nuala Ní Chonchúir
'Love and Longing in the Marvellous City' - Jonathan Attrill
'Monkey Hat' - Kevin Spaide
'Precious' - Carys Davies
'The Architects' - Wena Poon
'Veronika and Roger-Roger' - Toby Litt
'Busy. Come. Wait.' - Tom Vowler

I think we all get a few copies each at the launch, so I’ll try to get everyone to sign their story and perhaps give one away here.

Meanwhile, a treat lined up for next week – an interview with a lovely Irish writer (see if you can spot her in the list above), whose debut novel is published next month. I’ve asked her a little about how she works, as you’re probably fed up hearing how I do.

Right, off to collate ingredients for tonight’s hangover-busting green curry.

Monday, 15 March 2010


I have a friend who knows how to interrupt me. He’ll pop up in my inbox, laying down some sort of enumeration challenge: ‘Ten books you’d save in a fire; five songs played at your funeral; films that changed (but that didn’t really) your life.’ He knows whatever I’m in the middle of, I’ll take the bait, and we’ll argue the toss about the flaws in each other’s list, the oversights, the absence of originality. Distracting, pointless, compulsive.

And so, before you leave and return to something with a purpose, I want your top five. Of anything you like, literary or otherwise.

From here I can see my shelves of short story collections, so I’ll kick off with those (stories, that is, not collections).

1. 'The Lottery' – Shirley Jackson
2. 'Last Night' – James Salter
3. 'The Dressmaker’s Child' – William Trevor
4. 'The Dream' – Julian Barnes
5. 'What We Talk about When We Talk about Love' – Raymond Carver

Utterly meaningless and will be different next week.

So, come on then…

Tuesday, 9 March 2010


risk n. a chance or possibility of danger, loss, injury, or other adverse consequences.

As vocations go, sitting down, staring at a screen a lot and tapping some keys appears to offer little in the way of danger. The occasional repetitive strain injury and moderate poverty aside, the life of a writer would appear one of circumspection and safety. And for many, I suppose it is. You study your craft diligently, then reproduce your own story by way of pastiche, or if you’ve an ounce of originality, as derivation. This is all fair enough. It’s what we’re told to do: learn from the best and mimic their techniques and style to achieve the same end.

But will this risk-free approach truly satisfy the artist in you? More importantly, will you stand out from the slush pile? Probably not. It saddens me when I read a story so heavily influenced by a great writer of the past that it becomes indistinguishable (with the exception of being inferior). Of course other people’s work will have shaped your own aesthetic output; the way I know a piece of writing is good, is that I immediately start to wish that I’d written it. I don’t mean this in an arrogant sense, in that I could have written it, just that my admiration for it comes from being a writer first and a reader second. But as someone who reads hundreds of submitted stories, I crave writing that’s brave, that’s taken a risk. I might get a beautifully crafted piece of writing, workshopped to within an inch of its life, boxes all ticked, structurally perfect. But at no time do I forget I’m reading; the writer has taken not one chance, and it likely gets rejected.

So what are these risks I’m talking about? Well, finding your own style for a start, a voice that’s shaped by your own experiences, not one that blithely imitates or produces formulaic prose. Playing with structure and style is important, though I’m not advocating being experimental for its own sake and at the expense of quality. But it’s the substance I’m talking about here. Yes, you’re telling a story, but as a writer, I’d hope you were illuminating a truth about the world and the beautiful, fragile, foolish, remarkable and terrible people in it. And revealing this truth involves taking risks. There’s the risk of looking inside yourself in order to write about something, and not particularly liking what you find. Been there, done that one. There’s the risk of offending people, of producing work you know people close to you won’t enjoy or respect. But (and I’m really only talking about literary fiction here) you’re not in this, I’d hope, to make friends. There’s the risk that you might spend an entire year or two trying to capture the essence of this truth, only to fail.

It’s all a gamble, but you can improve your odds.

As someone once commented here, try to ‘write drunk’, without contrivance or even control. Learn to trust what’s inside and let it spew out, whatever it might be. I mentioned before about writing one page a day with the strict promise that you’ll destroy it before anyone sees it, which can be liberating. Write down what really scares you, those thoughts nobody else knows, and this will echo into the next time you compose some fiction.

Try not to predict what will be selling in a year or two, or what you think agents or publishers want to read. Tell your story. Trust what you have to say, and remember you’re in this for the long haul.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010


My girlfriend is always telling me that people are essentially good. That that’s their default position, and it’s social, economic and political (or in a nutshell, capitalism) antecedents that cause them to behave otherwise. Several instances this week suggest she’s right.

Since moving here, I been amazed at people’s generosity – with their time, with advice and help, with tools I don’t possess (most of them). Nothing is ever too much. Even the GPs here seem blessed with unyielding philanthropy. I remember growing up, when all doctors, as a rule, were gruff old farts, who’d patronise, intimidate and dismiss you, their bedside manner leaving everything to be desired; the three I’ve seen at my local surgery so far have been extraordinary, the antithesis of those priggish, pompous arses. They’ve been human, kind, egalitarian.

And then there’s a friend of a friend, rich with practical skills that baffle me, who’s solved one electrical conundrum, and is already onto the plumbing denouement that’s stumping the rest of us. All for ‘a few beers sometime’.

Neighbours pop in on their way out, asking if something’s needed. Fellow writers have taken the time to offer support and advice on projects past and future, without me even asking. A shopkeeper gave me something for free the other day, merely because the sun was shining.

Cynicism is going to be seriously challenged living here.

Monday, 1 March 2010


One of life’s lovely moments last night. I suppose they’re what we live for: I just felt it kicking; A drink? I’d love to; And the bonus ball is… They don’t happen often, which is the way it should be. I remember Chris (of publisher Salt) giving us a frank yet inspirational talk when he visited our creative writing program some years ago. I, naively, said to myself: Right, I’m gonna write you a collection you can’t ignore. And in a way, I suppose I did, though I worked harder and longer on it than the novel.

The MA gave me my love affair with the short story, as we discovered Carver, Proulx, Trevor and many more. They say people don’t buy collections as much as their longer relative. They also say the short story is having a revival, which is exciting. I’ve been meaning to blog for ages about why some voracious readers of fiction hardly go near collections. Perhaps I will now. For me, they’ve perhaps just not read the best out there – always a good place to begin. This might be a good time to direct you to Salt, then. That is one funky website. Their books (and I’ve said this before last night) are stunning, beautifully presented - the finest new literary fiction out there. Have a look; there’s even a sale on at the moment. Buying a book from Salt, you also get to feel a smug warmness inside that you’re supporting an important venture, a publishing trailblazer amid the morass of mainstream commercial silt that is washed our way. (Come the summer, you’ll be able to buy mine (#removes trumpet from mouth#).)

Right, back to the kitchen; there are plans afoot to have a sink in by the end of today.