Guest Blog: James Lawless

Thanks for inviting me to your blog. As regards tips for writing, all I can say for sure is that the best tip is the act of writing itself, writing in a disciplined manner and regularly. What spurs me to write is the why of things. I believe life is not what you make it but what you make of it. I used to work with the Simon community years ago and I met a homeless man on a snowy street once who quoted Shakespeare to me. He looked in my eyes and said, ‘To thine own self be true.’ I never forgot that moment. I try to apply that philosophy to my writing and to my life as well. Otherwise it is all sophistry.

What instigated my writing was my mother reading to me as a child, initially from comics like the Topper with the hard bits about Rob Roy at the back and my father buying me my first diary at twelve— a beautiful page-a-day Letts edition.

We lived for my first six years in the Liberties of Dublin where there was a strong community spirit and then we moved to the suburbs. The Liberties and the suburbs feature in my early novels, Peeling Oranges and The Avenue.

I went a bit academic after that and did an MA in communications and wrote a thesis on poetry as communication which later, by modifying and adding to, became a rather highly regarded Clearing the Tangled Wood: Poetry As a Way of Seeing the World

The Celtic tiger obsessed me for a while after that which led to For Love of Anna, a tragic love story caught anarchically in a corrupt and capitalist web.

My recent work Knowing Women  is about a vulnerable bachelor who is blackmailed sexually and Finding Penelope which is on a special offer at the moment on amazon.co.uk/Finding-Penelope-

Apart from casting a wry glance at the role of patriarchy in a family, Finding Penelope is essentially a love story marking a growth in self-realisation in the protagonist Penelope Eames. It delves into the drugs culture and its associated criminality in Spain (where a lot of Celtic Tiger money wound up laundered), Ireland and the UK. The prompt for the novel was from Cervantes and a motif may be interpreted as a sort of modern day parallel of Don Quixote’s attack on the proliferation of romance novels of that time. As seventy per cent of fiction readers are now female, I wanted to understand more of the female mindset. So I picked the brains of women of my acquaintance, including two adult daughters and I researched contemporary women writers and books like Everywoman and I reread with new female (or at least androgynous) eyes, my well-thumbed de Beauvoir, Anna Karenina and Portrait of a Lady. Simultaneously, I was studying the crime culture on the Costa. The result was the character Penelope Eames, a thirty three year old romance novelist who moves to Spain to avoid her oppressive father and drug-addicted brother, Dermot. When she meets Ramón, a young Spanish school teacher, she is immediately attracted to him and feels the happiness that eluded her all her life may at last be hers. However, she receives a distress call from Dermot saying he is at the mercy of Charlie Eliot, a pimp and drug dealer on the Costa. Ramón, whose mother was killed by a drug addict, tells her to have nothing to do with Charlie Eliot. Penelope must decide: is she prepared to compromise herself with Charlie Eliot and jeopardise her chance of happiness with Ramón for the sake of her drug addicted brother?

Extract from Finding Penelope

Chapter One

She hears the voice on the sand, gravelly and authoritative like that of her father’s. Press the button and reject, that’s me, she thinks, Penelope Eames, that’s how I feel, or rather how I’ve been made to feel over the years, by him. Oh yes, the former esteemed professor of Histology and Morbid Anatomy with textbooks and learned articles to his name, who couldn’t teach compassion or filial love. The early Spanish sun is lulling her, making her mull over things, things that she had decided belonged to the past now, to another country. The top of her left breast is burning slightly, the new red bikini being skimpier than her usual black swimsuit (she should have thought of that), and then the skin is more sensitive there after submitting to the knife. It was Sheila Flaherty, her agent, ironically who had suggested she go in and get the implants  –  her breasts were an average size. ‘Good for your image,’ Sheila had said.

She was reluctant at first, considering it a vanity to don the anaesthetic mask to undergo an inessential butchering of oneself (she never even put a tint in her hair, for God’s sake). Sheila had had the job done a year ago, transforming her into the well-upholstered blonde that she now is. And for what?

For men.

Yes.

It was then they discovered the lump in her left breast. Quite young for that, the nurse had said, and Sheila tried to make a joke of it   –  ‘you’re the lump out and I’m the lump in,’ and the nurse taught her breast awareness.

She hears the voice on the sand, the smoker’s huskiness reeking of pseudo-wisdom; he thinks he is the cat’s miaow. ‘Not at all, my dears,’ the voice (clearly English) is saying; ‘on the contrary, chewing your nails is good for you; rich in protein you know. If I could reach my toenails, I…’ Men, stupid old men, but maybe there is a humour there  –  who can account for taste? She looks up coyly from under her straw hat to locate the provenance of the voice: that elderly guy a few yards away with the silver ponytail sitting under a huge parasol in the canvas chair. He is holding forth with a bevy of young sycophantic beauties  –  just like him. Trying as he is to be youthful looking like a born-again hippie or something out-of-date, just like him, the slate blue eyes, her father to a T.

Except of course for the ponytail.

The fine fawn-coloured sand she slides freely between her fingers, letting go, easing her life. She is delaying. The sun has made her lazy. She should be gone back to the quiet of her apartment to work on that recalcitrant second novel, before the sun reaches its zenith. She knows that, and to avoid the sunburn. There is a sound of laughter. She can just make out through the rising waves of heat: grinning young males (is the broad bronzed chap one of the lifeguards? She thought she saw him earlier on his perch) and two females among them playing volleyball as she gazes up into the sun from under the awning of her hand (for she has removed her sunhat which was chafing her forehead). She hadn’t noticed the net before. There are shouts in Spanish of ‘Anda’ and ‘Ole’ subsuming the elderly guy’s utterances. The young men, in a veil of light and heat, are laughing at a monokini-clad girl who has just missed the ball. The putdown. What always emanated from her father. She wanted him to be proud of her as he was of Dermot, her younger brother, when he started on his science degree. Oh, such voluble praise. A scientist in the family. Mixing chemicals and potions in Quinlan’s Laboratories. How right, how prophetic he was. And earlier her first book which she stuck at, she was sure he’d be proud of; she was hoping  –  her first novel to be published  –  but all he did was wonder if anything could be done about it, her writing that is, as if it were one of his studied pathologies.

 

I had better not give any more away except to say that I hope I caught Penelope’s voice and character authentically and I would love to hear from readers what they thought. I can be contacted through my website or by email jamelawless23@hotmail.com.

I also had a poetry collection, Rus in Urbe published by Doghouse Books in 2012. All my books can be located on my author page on Amazon.

What I’m working on at the moment:

I’m looking for a literary agent for my new novel American Doll just completed, 82,000 words set in Ireland and USA about how 9/11 opened a Pandora’s  box on an Irish American Family. It is a sort of Irish Roots and should appeal to Irish and Irish Americans in particular and to people universally in the impact of 9/11.

When Laura Calane of New York comes to Ireland to further her studies and to live in what her father  considers a safer environment after 9/11, she discovers that the land of her ancestors is not the haven she had believed it to be. When she meets social worker Danny Faraday, she is torn between her attraction towards him and the emotional blackmail of her uncle Thady who is domiciled in Ireland and who never lets her forget that he saved her father’s life in a terrorist attack in New York in 1993.

The story is about loss, losing someone as Con the firefighter did with his wife in 9/11; it’s also about hope, never giving up  and knowing when to give up and let go, and how the process is in danger of repeating itself in the new generation with Laura his daughter going missing in Ireland, and Danny’s parents who were also lost at sea. It’s also about coming into maturity as in the case of Danny with the help of Laura suffering the grief, and Laura, growing out of her family-engendered chimeras.

Thanks and best wishes,

James.

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Guest Blog: David Braziel

In his poem ‘Heredity’ Tony Harrison answers someone who questions how he became a poet with the wonderful line:

“I say I had two uncles, Joe and Harry
– one was a stammerer,  the other dumb.”

It’s one of those poetic lines that I somehow instinctively feel is deep and full of truth but I probably couldn’t easily explain why.  For me it says that poetry is about a struggle to communicate.

When I mentioned in one of my own readings that I had to see a speech therapist as a child I was surprised at how many other poets said that they had similar experiences and that they knew of other  poets who had suffered from speech defects as children. I shouldn’t have been surprised, I know some excellent poets now who have a stammer and other speech problems and I know many poets, me included, who are naturally taciturn and often struggle to communicate in normal social situations.

Is it the difficulty in speaking that makes us poets or being poets that makes us struggle to speak? Perhaps a speech defect makes us all the more conscious of the importance of words, their weight and power or maybe knowing their importance makes us uncomfortable with using them lightly.

I love word-play, my favourite jokes are often puns or ridiculous uses of language. I love rhyme and rhythm, the careful ordering of words to give them power. I have written whole poems just to hold a single line that has popped into my head and feels too good to abandon. In some ways the rest of these poems are just an excuse to say that single line. Two examples spring to mind:

“The thick black blanket of night came up to cover your eyes.”

and

“A beautiful boiled sweet to sit at the cusp of a neck that must be kissed.”

Like many writers I find the misuse of language painful. I shudder to hear words such as ‘literally’ misused or to see ‘fewer’ and ‘less’ swapped around or when I hear my own children mangle a sentence the way children always will. Of course this sort of pedantry makes me an absolute joy to live with. I know it is pointless and fuddy-duddy and a kind of snobbishness that is deeply unpleasant. It’s just that words, for me, are important. Language is important and communication is difficult and it should be respected for that reason.

In my performance piece ‘I am not a poet’ I end by saying:

I play with words the way a toddler might,
stacking them, sorting them,
sticking them in the wrong holes,
chewing them up and spitting them out
onto a page to say :  ‘Look!’

I carry words like
worn worry blankets
everywhere I go
so no.

I am not a poet.

I have struggled for a long time with the idea of calling myself a poet but given my speech defects and my silences I suppose I’m going to have to admit that maybe that’s all I can be and just keep struggling to make myself heard and understood.

David writes and performs poetry at local open mic nights and slams and was a runner up in the Ulster heat of the All Ireland Slam poetry competition. His poems have been published in the FourxFour online poetry journal and in other local anthologies.
David is co-facilitator and one of the founding members of Lough Neagh Writers, a creative writing group featuring poets, short story writers, singer-songwriters and playwrights from the Craigavon area. David is currently editing and producing a set of short films with the group exploring life in and around Lurgan and Portadown.
David was born in England, grew up in Staffordshire and has been living in Portadown for over twenty years. He is on twitter.

Guest Blog: Sean Preston

The joy of editing a literary magazine is, and should always be, finding something great. But there’s no point in pretending that pouring through submissions is always a joy in itself.

The problem with writing is that we’re told: write about what we know. But that becomes a problem, at least for me, the editor, when writers take it far too literally. It means that writers write about themselves, writing, and being writers. Please don’t write about being a writer. Write about why you hate clowns. I don’t care if your protagonist is a struggling writer; I’ve heard that story. So have you. I said recently in an interview that I’d much rather read about the nicotine-dependent laid-off Christmas reindeer than another story about the Orwellian author down on his luck. If you really need to write that story, if it burns within you and you feel you’ve got something new to say, something relevant to add; an earthy truth as of yet uncovered then sure, go for it. Some have, and will continue to create works of genius in a field done to death. It’s not like love and tragedy was laid to rest when Shakespeare shuffled off this mortal coil. I accept that much. But if you want to make an impact with the submissions team, if you want to stand out from the crowd, hit them with originality. You know you’ve got it in you. You’ve had that idea that was as interesting as it was vague to you, and you didn’t write it because you didn’t see yourself as that sort of writer, or more to the point, didn’t want to.

Taking this step, writing about the bizarre, the illogical, needn’t be a departure from writing what you know. Place yourself in the reality of your story. Let’s revisit the reindeer idea.  Whilst I can’t relate to being a reindeer, I can relate to nicotine addiction, right? I can relate to life as a disgruntled employee, we were all young once. I can put myself into any scenario and write about what I know, within it.

That’s what the creative process calls for a lot of the time. You have to be daring with your writing, at least as an aspiring writer. Experiment with your writing whilst you still can.

Running a literary magazine has been a better learning experience for me in my own fiction writing than actually writing. I thought I would learn so much about what to do in writing, but actually, I’ve learnt most in seeing what not to do. I can see why that would appear quite cynical, but honestly, the moment that you understand that your writing is no good (OK, not no good, but flawed) is the moment you can improve as a writer of fiction. All the best writers have learnt what not to write. They’ve scorched the excess fat of their writing and allowed a unique voice to break through the narrative without having to write, “Mr. Shakespeare was a fed up writer one day…”

Sean Preston is the editor of Open Pen Magazine, an ‘open literature’ magazine that has been called “unpretentious, edgy, and utterly readable,” by author and broadcaster N Quentin Woolf.

Sean lives by the river in London, England, where he battles bravely against doing things, and now and again writes.

Guest Blog: Eve-Marie Power

WRITING GOALS

 The infamous interview question: “Where do you see yourself in five years?”   Usually, it brings out a lot of waffle about ‘maturing in a professional capacity’ and ‘pursuing exciting opportunities’, a lot of nodding around ‘increased levels of responsibility’.  But, what if we ask this question of our own writing goals: Where do you see your writer-self in five years?  Is the answer more waffle and shying away, or is it an answer well-rehearsed and immovable in your life plan?

Read any writing blog and its sea of articles universally demand the use of goals.  It is no surprise then that we might have subsumed such gems as:

  • You should write at least 500 words a day.
  • Get up an hour earlier.
  • Do Julia Cameroon’s morning pages.
  • Finish a day’s writing mid-sentence, like Hemingway.
  • Writing 1,600 words everyday will net a 50,000 word novel in a month (familiar to any NaNoWriMo participant).

I think that way lies madness.  Writing does not work when expressed as a series of goals, a series of zero sum games of win or lose.  Having a goal intrinsically sets you up for failure.  Writing success works more akin to a series of personal, organic processes – as small as you like – that culminate by their own momentum.  While it might feel admirable to have goals, it’s my experience that they do more harm than good.  Especially regarding the written word.  “I’m going to write 1,000 words every day!” is often the battle-refrain.  But that battle is forever-lost through no fault of our own, on account of life just being, you know, life.  The question to ask of your writing goals is therefore only to rephrase the question: How are you going to process writing over the next five years?

And as for my own writing “goals”?  To make each process so small, manageable and sustained that I don’t trip over them.  Or myself.

Runner-up for The Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award in 2012, Eve-Marie Power went on to win Waterford City Council’s Tyrone Guthrie Residency in 2013 and was named an Emerging Poet at The Cork Poetry Festival 2014.  A graduate of NUI Maynooth’s Certificate in Creative Writing for Publication, she has read at NUIM’s graduation ceremony, Waterford’s Winterval Festival, as well as at various libraries.  She was also short-listed for The James White Award, RTE’s Arena Flash Fiction Award and UCD’s MA in Creative Writing Poetry Competition.

A native of Ferrybank, Eve-Marie lives on the much-disputed Waterford/Kilkenny border. She is a full-time student at NUI Maynooth, where she studies History and Celtic Studies.  She is currently working on her first poetry collection. Eve-Marie is on twitter.

 

Guest Blog: Amos Greig

Skylark of Space – first published 1928

One of my fondest memories as a child was being taken to the Linenhall library by my father, he would meet up with local poets and they would thrash out new poems together while waiting for him to finish I would read books in the library. It was here that I first found the works of E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith. I read the Lensman series as well as the Skylark series and it is the latter I wish to discuss.

The Skylark series began with The Skylark of Space, the first book was actually serialized in 1928. Smith actually wrote the book over several years beginning in 1915 and finishing in 1921 while he was still working on his doctorate. The first part of this series was co-written with Lee Hawkins Garby. In many ways it was a forerunner for interstellar travel stories as well as the earliest example of space opera. The Skylark of Space wasn’t seen in book format until 1946 and E.E. Doc Smith introduced several rewrites during that period.

What struck me about this series was the naivety of the writing the characters’ live in a world of black and white morals, good and evil with no middle ground. The main villains are corrupt mafia run banks and DuQuesne from Earth and nonhuman-looking aliens. On the other hand we have the main character Seaton whose discovery of a new element allows him to travel across space and even time. In his explorations he encounters many races, the more human looking they are the better morally they appeared.

As the series continued I noticed a trend for the inhuman to be the antagonists in the story however I also saw that the general feel of the story began to change, no longer was the writing style in shades of good vs evil but slowly, over time, DuQuesne began to grow as a character and in the final novel in the series Skylark DuQuesne he became an anti hero, sacrificing his life to help Seaton save humanity from an inhuman enemy by destroying their galaxy. The last novel was written in 1963 and has been called “The great success of the stories was surely due to the skill with which Smith mixed elements of the spy thriller and the western story” Smith managed to incorporate many Greek and Imramm Seaton’s voyage across the stars mirrors the supernatural voyage of medieval Irish tales such as the Voyage of Bran.

E.E. Doc Smith passed away shortly after releasing the Skylark DuQuesne, the transformation of his literary work is fascinating to study. I felt that the essence of the story had shifted away from Seaton towards DuQuesne. I would recommend this series and then the Lensman series which in some ways reflects on the role of religion and probably indirectly influenced Star Wars and the Jedi order.

Amos has been involved in arts for many years as well as being on the board of An Crann a cross community peace and reconciliation body.

He has worked with children in working class areas to help develop new murals, he has designed book covers and provided the images for Lapwing Publications and has had some of his poetry published in the Poets Place and also in online poetry ezines. Amos edits A New Ulster.