And now for something completely different …

Chateau de Chillon

Chateau de Chillon

This is a writing blog but today I am breaking the mould by posting a selection of photos of a beautiful place. It’s been a busy few weeks with visitors, and my novel is in the capable hands of a small group of trusted readers, which means I am holding my breath and can’t write much.

After a wet and unseasonably cold week, the sun came out today just in time for the Easter egg hunt and afterwards we went off on a day trip to Chateau de Chillon on Lake Geneva.

Room with a view

Room with a view

I don’t know if you can make out the Alps there in the background. The view from most rooms was spectacular.

I love a nice medieval courtyard!

Stone glamour

Stone glamour

Window crest

Window crest

This stained glass crest is dated 1714 but parts of the castle are about 500 years older. The castle was hosting a special exhibition by French photographer and cinematographer Richard Unglick who has staged and photographed many classic paintings using Playmobil characters. Here’s one example:

Richard Unglick Playmobil

Richard Unglick Playmobil

And another:

Richard Unglick

Richard Unglick

Before I leave you with one last image, I’d like to thank and pay tribute to my fellow bloggers (in alphabetical order) who have recently nominated me for a Liebster Award:

Arran Bhansal

http://arranbhansal.com/

Anne Goodwin

http://annegoodwin.weebly.com/annecdotal.html

David J Delaney

http://davidjdelaney.wordpress.com/

Niall McArdle

http://ragingfluff.wordpress.com/

And here is the Easter tree in the chateau. Happy Easter!

Can you see the decorations?

Can you see the decorations?

10 good things about not being published

Take a seat (© Clare O'Dea)

Take a seat (© Clare O’Dea)

Writing is a very private and personal affair; publishing is anything but. I seem to be hearing a lot lately about published writers living not so happily-ever-after once their first book is out there. They have to deal with changes they were pressured into making, a title or cover they don’t like, poor sales or reviews, stressful book promotion and the pressure to get the next book written or accepted.

On some level I must be taking this in and yet it has about the same effect as hearing about someone else’s unhappy marriage, when you and your chosen one are still love-struck and kissing on a park bench.

So just to celebrate the journey, here are ten great things about writing while it’s all about passion:

1. Just the Two of Us: You spend a lot of time together and you’ve been through a lot. The characters have become real people whose unfolding stories keep you from ever feeling bored. After that long process of building a relationship sentence by sentence, you are protective of your manuscript. Nobody who isn’t hand-picked by you will get to comment on your work. You’re slightly unhinged about the book but who cares, it’s mine, all mine!

2. Dream a Little Dream: If you haven’t tried to get published yet, you haven’t tasted failure and this is the time when you can still dream big. On your first query letter, the agent will instantly get back to you asking for more and it will be love at first sight for him or her. This will be followed by a bidding war, a fabulous launch party, the big reaction, the prizes, translations, interviews. Who will play your lead character in the hit movie?

3. Sitting on the Dock of the Bay: There has to be a certain self-imposed pressure or you would never have got as far as finishing the book, but it is self-imposed and therefore adapted to your reality and routine, and, well, if you keep extending your deadline, no one minds but you.

4. Wild World: This may not apply if you have started submitting your novel but before that phase, you are delightfully naïve about the whole publishing business. That innocence is something you’ll probably miss someday.

5. All By Myself: You know the argument, partly because successful self-published authors are very vocal about it. Agents are the gatekeepers to a moribund publishing industry that excludes good books from reaching the audience they deserve. You can spend your life crying over your forty rejection slips or take matters into your own hands and bring out your own book. Better still, don’t even bother submitting to agents and publishers, put your energy into self-publishing and reap the rewards.
When you are still writing you can ignore this whole debate, as it’s only academic – for now.

6. It Had to Be You: Somewhere out there is someone who will like your work, believe in what you do and put their heart and soul into getting your book off the ground. You haven’t met them yet, but when you do find the one, it will all have been worthwhile. In the meantime, you can dream about getting the call.

7. You’re So Vain: If you haven’t had the good fortune of having your book chosen by an agent or a publisher then you won’t have experienced the begrudgery backlash that inevitably comes with success. Even writing buddies you laboured uphill with may not be immune from thinking sour thoughts about you.

8. Learning to Fly: Writing your first novel is special because it’s an intense learning process, and that makes it very interesting. You can do the learning in advance or learn as you go about point-of-view, antagonists, show-don’t-tell, foreshadowing, revising. Either way it’s a pleasure.

9. With a Little Help from My Friends: Since I started writing two years ago I have met many wonderful people – some in person and some through social media – who have been bitten by the same bug. Some I now count as friends, whose support and understanding light the way on this sometimes lonely journey.

10. When I Wish Upon a Star: Before you write a book, there has usually been a long period of carrying around that wish and doubting your ability ever to achieve it. That fantastic feeling of satisfaction when you get to the last page is for keeps, and it is independent of the publishing outcome.

Did I miss anything folks?

I never liked you anyway

Don’t you just love confrontation in fiction? Those flashpoints of drama, whether it’s a blazing stand-up row or a subtle exchange of fire unnoticed by the rest of the crowd, when the characters are pushed to extremes and the reader has the best seats in the house. Of course most of the time the conflict is underlying, like the thrum of an engine on a ship. That’s what makes it so satisfying when the tension surfaces.

I’m just coming to the end of Alice Munro’s short story collection Hateship, friendship, courtship, loveship, marriage and marvelling at her mastery of every aspect of the craft of writing. In scenes of confrontation she has an amazing ability to convey the build-up of tension between characters, through facial expressions, dialogue, the character’s own commentary and the things that are left unsaid.

Take one brief scene in the short story Family Furnishings. Two women meet for the first time at a funeral. One of them, the narrator, whose father has just died, is a writer who once wrote a story based on a personal experience in the life of an older cousin called Alfrida. It turns out that the other woman who approaches her is Alfrida’s daughter, given up for adoption when she was a baby.

Munro describes the moment after the woman (only ever referred to as ‘the woman’) breaks the news of her identity.

“There was some sense of triumph about her, which wasn’t hard to understand. If you have something to tell that will stagger someone, and you’ve told it, and it has done so, there has to be a balmy moment of power. In this case it was so complete that she felt she needed to apologise.”

From there the conversation becomes more edgy as they reminisce about an old family story, involving the narrator’s father and his first cousin Alfrida, and it transpires that their versions of events do not match.

“… that feeling of apology or friendliness, the harmlessness that I had felt in this woman a little while before, was not there now.
I said, “Things get changed around.”
“That’s right,” the woman said. “People change things around. You want to know what Alfrida said about you?”
Now. I knew it was coming now.
“What?”
“She said you were smart, but you weren’t ever quite as smart as you thought you were.”
I made myself keep looking into the dark face against the light. Smart, too smart, not smart enough.
I said, “Is that all?”
“She said you were kind of a cold fish. That’s her talking, not me. I haven’t got anything against you.”

It’s such a perfect depiction of something we are all familiar with. The gap between our true feelings towards others and what is actually revealed (in some cases even to ourselves). People may go through life harbouring ill-will towards people close to them without ever giving an outward hint of their animosity. If those true feelings are ever expressed the effect is dramatic. And when I say people, more often than not it is family. Like this exchange between another set of fictional Munro cousins, Polly (single and left behind with an extended family to care for) and Lorna (married with children and comfortably off) in the story Post and Beam.

Fresh tears came welling up in her eyes. She was a mound of misery, one solid accusation.
“What is it?” Lorna said. She feigned surprise, she feigned compassion.
“You don’t want me.”
Her eyes were on Lorna all the time, brimming not just with her tears, her bitterness and accusation of betrayal, but with her outrageous demand, to be folded in, rocked, comforted.
Lorna would sooner have hit her. What gives you the right, she wanted to say. What are you leeching onto me for? What gives you the right?
Family. Family gives Polly the right. She has saved her money and planned her escape, with the idea that Lorna should take her in. Is that true – has she dreamed of staying here and never having to go back? Becoming part of Lorna’s good fortune, Lorna’s transformed world?
“What do you think I can do?” said Lorna quite viciously and to her own surprise.

I think with conflict the real challenge for a writer is to stay on the right side of the line between drama and melodrama. I’m still working on that, and trying to eliminate clichés is part of the challenge. In my novel, Counting the Days, the main character, Laura, cannot accept how unemotional her sister Kate is about their brother’s disappearance five years before. They’ve just spend a day and night together, the first time they’ve been under the same roof overnight since Kate left home for college. For most of the visit they manage to steer clear of expressing the resentment and misunderstanding that lies between them, until a few minutes before Kate has to leave when they finally get to talk about their brother, falling back on the same old arguments until there’s nothing more to say.

“It must be time for you to go.”
We stand in silence, indifferent now to the gentle glory of early summer gathering around us.
Moving closer, Kate puts her hand on my shoulder.
“I’m sorry. You did a good job with the campaign. No one can say you didn’t try your hardest.”
Pushing off her touch, I glare at Kate. “If you could just once show that you cared, that you still felt something. Where is the love for God’s sake?”
Kate shakes her head slowly and looks at me, her bewildered eyes full of reproach.
“You’re too much for me,” she says and walks back to the house.
A short time later, the sound of car doors closing cuts through my cloud of resentment and I hurry back towards the yard, almost tripping in the tangle of undergrowth in my sudden desperation to make amends. Kate opens the passenger window of the car for a final word. “Can I say something? You’re not going to like it.”
“Go ahead.”
“I saw your diary.”
A sudden fury passes through me like a spasm. The lack of respect, I am not imagining it.

First and last time I put my writing on the same page as Alice Munro’s! Some of the participants in the writing course I attended in Dublin last year have got together to meet fortnightly as a writers’ group and I am really pleased to be taking part by Skype. It’s difficult to know when a novel is finally ready and then to let it go. I’m hoping that this routine will give me the motivation and discipline to get the novel polished for submission.

In other news, I have a new writing buddy – Lucky. Isn’t he lovely?

Good boy!

The smart thing to do

Goodbye Swiss winter, roll on the spring!

Goodbye Swiss winter, roll on the spring!

Is it generally the same type of person who thrives in society, regardless of the social or economic climate? Or are different qualities useful in different systems? I suspect you need to sell a little of your soul to get by anywhere.

I was listening to an ABC documentary recently about the history of adoption in Australia and it made me think (with a shudder) about the winners and the losers in a conservative society with zero tolerance of pregnancy outside marriage.

It was a time of limited opportunities for women when being a married at least guaranteed respect and opened the door to a celebrated occupation – married motherhood. So if you were smart you conformed.

A bit like joining the Communist Party in the Soviet Union.

John McGahern’s memoir of growing up in mid-twentieth century Ireland, apart from being a wonderful book, is an excellent piece of social history. In it he illustrates some of the routes to respectability and a decent living, which required people to cling like limpets to the apparatus of the Church and State.

“The year was 1953. In the 1950s a half-a-million people emigrated from this small country, nearly all of them to Britain, far more than in any other decade in the entire century. These emigrants were young and poorly educated, for the most part, and ill prepared. … The men sold their physical strength, the women their willingness to work long hours.”

And the winners? As McGahern puts it, the State had become a theocracy in all but name.
“The Church controlled nearly all of education, the hospitals, the orphanages, the juvenile prison systems, the parish halls. Church and State worked hand in hand.”

McGahern was offered a place at St Patrick’s teacher training college, full board and tuition paid with guaranteed employment at the end. Needless to say, he accepted it at once. His books were later banned in Ireland and he was dismissed from his teaching job but at this early stage in his life, McGahern had to conform and take what was available.

During the economic boom, those hard old days seemed as real and relevant as a dated movie. Post 2008, the Celtic Tiger is looking pretty dated and unreal too. What was normal then seems unbelievable now.

But even the boom had its losers at the time, lest we forget. There were many who just plodded along looking bewildered during those years. Priced out of the areas they grew up in, paying exorbitant rents to live in flatland, they were there. And something was holding them back.

They were unwilling or unable to follow the new rules. Rule 1: Get on the property ladder. Rule 2: Enjoy your disposable income. If you were smart, you conformed.

How people interact with the rules that surround them is great fodder for fiction. When I sat down to write my novel, it was set at just this time in Ireland’s recent past. And the people I feature and favour in the novel are mainly those who did not naturally flourish in the new climate of prosperity.

Do you ever think about what rules operate in society? And if so, have you played by them to get to where you are today?

Regrets, I’ve had a few

One of the highlights of English class in secondary school for me was being introduced to short stories. One that I remember vividly is Brendan Behan’s The Confirmation Suit, a story about regret that beautifully illustrates the dilemma of being caught in a social bind. When reading this story, most of us were fresh from doing our own Confirmation (a coming-of-age ritual in the Catholic Church in which a lot of importance was placed on the new outfit bought for the occasion). Behan couldn’t have found a more receptive audience (albeit posthumously) for this iconic Irish story.

The boy in Brendan Behan’s story was obliged to accept a kindly neighbour’s offer to make a suit for him for the big day. An elderly seamstress who normally made funeral habits, Miss McCann was not blessed with a great sense of fashion and the writer gets great comic mileage out of the child’s embarrassment and his father’s amusement at his predicament. This must be why the unexpected sad turn of events produces such a memorable punch.

This description comes half-way through the story:

When I made my first Communion, my grandmother dug deep under the mattress, and myself and Aunt Jack were sent round expensive shops, I came back with a rig that would take the sight of your eye. This time however, Miss McCann said there wasn’t much stirring in the habit line on account of the mild winter, and she would be delighted to make the suit if Aunt Jack would get the material. I nearly wept, for terror of what the old women would have me got up in, but I had to let on to be delighted, Miss McCann was so set on it. She asked Aunt Jack did she remember father’s Confirmation suit. He did. He said he would never forget it. They sent him out in a velvet suit, of plum colour, with a lace collar. My blood ran cold when he told me.

The stuff they got for my suit was blue serge, and that was not so bad. They got as far as the pants, and that passed off very civil. You can’t do much to a boy’s pants, one pair is like the next, though I had to ask them not to trouble themselves putting three little buttons on either side of the legs. The waistcoat was all right, and anyway the coat would cover it. The coat itself, that was where Aughrim was lost.

I’ve just finished reading Big Brother by Lionel Shriver and it wasn’t until I finished the book that I realised how personal the story was to the writer. She wrote the novel after her older brother died of obesity-related illness. Shortly before he died, when it seemed he might recover, Shriver considered taking him. She enquired about bariatric surgery at the hospital where he was being treated and even imagined bringing him home to recover in her house in New York. In the end her goodwill was never tested because her brother took a turn for the worse and died.

But Shriver went on to write a story about a woman who gives up her home and marriage to move in with her morbidly obese older brother to help him lose weight. The book is steeped in regret and raises that difficult question that often arises after the death of loved one: could I have done more?

In the story I have written, the main character has always had strong motherly feelings towards her younger brother and she feels enduring grief at his disappearance, for which she partly blames herself. In that sense it is about regret but later it explores the problem of how far it is possible to save another person bent on self-destruction.

I’ll leave you with the image of Behan’s boy standing in the rain wearing that silly suit. It encapsulates what is tragic about the end of childhood – the loss of innocence, the feeling of being misunderstood, the first taste of regret.

I needn’t have worried about the suit lasting forever. Miss McCann didn’t. The next winter was not so mild, and she was whipped before the year was out. At her wake people said how she was in a habit of her own making, and my father said she would look queer in anything else, seeing as she supplied the dead of the whole quarter for forty years, without one complaint from a customer.

At the funeral, I left my topcoat in the carriage and got out and walked in the spills of rain after her coffin. People said I would get my end, but I went on till we reached the graveside, and I stood in my Confirmation suit drenched to the skin. I thought this was the least I could do.

Switzerland and the foreigner thing

After last Sunday’s vote in Switzerland to curb immigration from the European Union, I feel compelled to write about what a discouraging signal this sends to foreigners in this country. Having lived here for a decade and contributed the fruits of my labour to this country for that time – my work output, my taxes, my social security contributions, a thousand supermarket trolleys full of produce, not to mention three new Swiss citizens, I can safely say that Switzerland has enjoyed a substantial net gain from me.

And I’m no exception. The most recent OECD report on migration in Europe showed that the foreign population as a whole are net contributors to the rosy economy in Switzerland. Foreign women have bigger families, filling schools that would otherwise be half empty, with the future workers, footballers and leaders of Switzerland.

And then this campaign begins, peddling the idea that all the problems of the country, literally anything that is bothering the long-suffering natives in their daily lives, is down to this “uncontrolled” influx of people from the EU. Your train carriage is crowded? It’s because of them. You have to wait at the doctor’s? It’s their fault. Your rent has gone up? Obviously those pesky EU workers again. Urban sprawl offending your eyes? You know we wouldn’t have that without these outsiders.

The level of scapegoating would be laughable if it wasn’t hurting people. The debate has got to the point where there is no problem, present or future, that cannot be pinned on bloody foreigners.

And they lapped it up, or at least 50.3% of those who voted on February 9th did. The people have spoken, as is their right, but do they realise what they have said? Did they act to fix a real problem or was this just a way to score a cruel point, to hurt their neighbours?

To understand the result you have to know a little bit of background on how the vote came about. What you are seeing at work here is ‘direct democracy’, the purest form of democracy known to mankind, as I am now tired of hearing.

The Swiss political system has a very special role for popular petitions. Under the initiative system, any citizen may call for a vote on any issue or challenge a parliamentary decision providing they collect at least 100,000 signatures in support of their cause.

Well we all have our pet peeves so that’s great. Of course your average citizen doesn’t have the resources to gather 100,000 signatures but sometimes groups of citizens who are passionate about something get together and pull it off. More often this tool is used by well-organised and well-funded lobby groups and political parties. The gold medal in this category goes to the rightwing Swiss People’s Party.

This particular vote, dubbed “Stop mass immigration”, was brought to us by the Swiss People’s Party. With about a quarter of the popular vote, it is a fairly easy task for the party to gather so many signatures. What they do with this power is to focus on the social blight of foreigners.

For the past twelve years, EU citizens have been free to live and work in Switzerland, without any red tape, just as Swiss citizens have enjoyed the freedom to work and settle anywhere in the European Union. Known as the ‘free movement of people’, this agreement is one of the core principles of the EU and puts Switzerland on a par with EU member states.

It makes it easy for workers to follow work, Swiss retirees (for example) to move to Tuscany or Provence, and people living near borders to have access to the hinterland around them. You could see this as a win-win situation, or you could see it as an affront to your national sovereignty.

As a result of Sunday’s vote, the Swiss government now has to pull out of this agreement with the EU and return to a quota system of work permits, last used in 2002. Never mind that Switzerland has had a pretty good ride since then, helped in no small part by the easy working and living arrangements with its biggest market, i.e. every country surrounding it for as far as the eye can see.

Of course life will go on. Employers will find a way to hire the people they need and the people who are looking for work and prepared to uproot their lives to another country will still come to where the work is.

But the bitter taste will remain. Painted as the problem-makers, come here to rip the country off and make life difficult, we will continue to keep our heads down and work hard but the affection that was growing in our hearts for this nation is flickering and may be snuffed out. And that is the greatest loss of all to Switzerland.

Breaking every rule in the book

“Never let a manuscript hit the ground. Keep them in flight – working for you.” That was the advice I heard from Mike McCormack at a seminar organised by the Irish Writers’ Centre in November. This is a man who tried forty publishers before he got a deal for his first book. At the moment I have two little birds in flight but I’d like to do better than that and declare February a submissions month.

The timing is right because the novel, now that the rewrite is done (let’s call it the second draft), is going to be banished to a drawer again, almost a year after its first banishment, which in retrospect was too short.

Looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t prepare a little better before embarking on this writing marathon. Along the way I have broken every rule in the book.

It started with too many sub plots. A novel, like a good meal, needs the right ingredients and a little bit of planning. You are unlikely to delight your guests if you throw everything you have in the cupboard into the pot. When I removed the extraneous bits and pieces from the book, the debris resembled the collection of things you might see extracted from a dead shark’s stomach (just to stretch the digestion metaphor ever so slightly).

There were also too many goddamn people in the book. It got so bad they were bumping into each other and there was nowhere to sit down. I’ve done my best here but things still a tad crowded.

Not only that but I fell into the trap of dumping back story in the opening chapters like it was going out of fashion. For every one step forwards, my main character was taking thirteen steps backwards, way back into her memory and the more distant past, reflecting on her childhood, relationships, current life situation – anything rather than get on with the story.

Did I mention that I changed the point-of-view of the novel too? Somewhere around the end of November I had a crisis of faith (another one!) and came to the conclusion that the book would work better if it was told in the first person. I tried out a reworked chapter on the members of my writing course, got their blessing and the big conversion began.

There was also the small matter of multiple breaches of the show don’t tell rule, which I dealt with in a previous post.

Also on the subject of showing, I made the classic mistake of showing too soon. Under the illusion that the novel was ‘finished’, I asked for feedback before I had a clear idea of where I was going with the story – and before I had weeded out the indigestible matter.

Which brings me to the final point, the only piece of advice I feel qualified to give to anyone wanting to write their first novel. Do not put finger to keyboard until you have a clear sense of direction for the story. Something like this perhaps:

Girl in tribal Pakistan wants to be a doctor, makes a bargain with local warlord to sacrifice her honour for her dream. He pays her way through medical school but will she ever really escape the clutches of the evil Khalid?

Of course it will evolve as you write but so much better to have the roadmap there.

You might wonder whether I have managed to rescue a coherent piece of fiction from this muddle. I’d like to think I have, or at least that I am well on the way there. But we’ll see when the manuscript comes back from the cooler.

Another speaker at that seminar in Dublin, Dave Lordan, said he had always found it essential to take time away from everything to work on a manuscript. “That time and concentration will lift the manuscript. It won’t happen if you do two hours here and there.”

It would be nice to make a date with the manuscript after its return from exile, a mini-break away from all the other demands and distractions of life, just the two of us. Here’s hoping. Has anyone else managed to steal time away to write? Sounds like heaven to me.

Ps. This blog is one year old today!

pink-cupcake-candle-illustration-19566495

Screen time, live to fight another day

stephenbyrne86 Irish Independent

stephenbyrne86 Irish Independent

Yesterday I spent about ten hours in front of a screen – eight in the office, one on my laptop at home and one watching television. More if you count the hypnotic hour of windscreen time I spent on the motorway. If this is the world we live in, why am I engaged in such an exhausting and long-running battle to keep my kids away from screens?

It’s almost as if (weird music) I’m trying to replicate the conditions my own childhood. The difference is that back then there was no such thing as games consoles, mobile phones, DVDs, internet, ipads, children’s channels and the rest. How easy it must have been for parents to limit screen time when the only thing on offer was a two-channel television.

In this house another Christmas has come and gone with Santa ignoring all the requests for screen devices that dominated my children’s lists. There is no television allowed during the school week and the children sometimes complain bitterly about the screen desert they are forced to live in. I’m starting to wonder if this puritanical approach will backfire one day. What if they spend the rest of their childhood seeking out contraband screen time? What if they become air traffic controllers?

I’ve tut tutted with other likeminded parents about kids staring at ipads in restaurants or watching films on car journeys. The prospect of a generation of people growing up unable to entertain themselves or practice the art of conversation is not very appealing. But I wonder if my resistance to the norm is becoming a little self-righteous? Not to mention a little hypocritical, considering that blogging and writing involve a fair amount of screen time.

So, while I will continue to worry about how much fruit and veg they are eating, whether they are dressed warmly enough and looking properly before they cross the road, I think the time has come to ease up a little on the screen restrictions.

By the way, if you can’t read what’s in the speech bubble in the cartoon above, the mother is saying: ‘Isn’t it great to have some quality time with the family’. I came across this back in the Irish Independent last September and it now lives on our fridge.

What do you think? Am I throwing in the towel too easily? Anyone else managing to keep the screens at bay?

‘The Impositions of the Body’

A paper cut, a sore throat, a sprained ankle – these are the little reminders that the body is fortress that is all too easily breached. I’ve just thrown away my crutches after a minor foot injury and I’m so relieved to be back to normal, defence walls mended – until the next time.

A while back I wrote of review of Still Alice by Lisa Genova, a beautiful portrayal of a woman going through the onset of Alzheimer’s – a wonderful novel which has won a place in my top ten forever. In the same blog post I mentioned So Much for That by Lionel Shriver, which also has illness as one of its main subjects. In this story Glynis, the rather unsympathetic wife of the main character Shephard, is going through aggressive and debilitating treatments for cancer. There is a passage in the book where we get an insight into what Glynis has learned from her difficult experience. I find it bleak but fascinating.

“Before Glynis had become something of a mystery to After Glynis. … This Before Glynis was a woman, she gathered, who had enjoyed the luxury of vast tracts of time unfettered not only by the need to make money, as Shephard was forever harping on about, but – all that really matters, it turned out – by the impositions of the body. This was a woman who was “well”. (Perhaps more than any other quality, this theoretical state eluded the After-Glynis grasp. But only as an experience. As a concept, she understood being “well” better than anyone else on the planet.) For After Glynis had discovered a terrible secret: There is only the body. There was never anything but the body. “Wellness” is the illusion of not having one. Wellness is escape from the body. But there is no escape. So wellness is delay. What had Before Glynis – Well Glynis, Pre-Inorexably-Going-To-Be-Sick-Any-Minute-Now Glynis, done with her free ride, her gift of the soon-to-be-revoked illusion that she was not, after all, a body – a body and only a body?”

Another passage about illness that made a big impression on me comes from The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby. This unforgettable memoir was dictated by Bauby who suffered a massive stroke and was left paralysed and unable to speak with Locked-In Syndrome. It must be the only book which was dictated by blinking one eyelid (he describes the technique in the book).

“In fact it is in my respiratory passages that I can hope for improvement. In the long term, I can hope to eat more normally: that is without the help of a gastric tube. Eventually, perhaps I could breathe naturally, without a respirator, and muster enough breath to make my vocal chords vibrate.

But for now, I would be the happiest of men if I could just swallow the overflow of saliva endlessly flooding my mouth.”

Although Bauby laments all that he has lost, the book is not an exercise in self-pity but a record of what is beautiful and precious in life.

Has anyone else come across interesting books that deal with the subject of illness? Or is it something you have written about yourself?

Act II, Scene 1: Return to Switzerland

Home away from home

Home away from home

When there is a scene change in a play, the lights go down, the stage hands scurry in and skilfully whisk away the furniture and props, replacing them with whatever is needed for the new scene. The backdrop changes. The audience waits expectantly. A moment before, the actors were in a sunny garden having a tea party; now we find them on a battlefield, in a kitchen, a schoolroom. And the action continues.

The scene has changed for me again and the action continues. Yesterday I drove to work in the pre-dawn light and returned home at dusk. It was all so familiar, driving along the Swiss motorway, the Alps, crowned with pink-tinged clouds, providing a beautiful, distracting backdrop, the news headlines in German and me concentrating on the words, the road, the scenery.

When you move countries there is no such thing as a gradual change. You emerge from the plane and that is it. The dreamlike state of travelling is over and you have left the other behind, utterly. I’m amazed at how quickly I have adjusted and fallen back into this new/old life. The big goodbyes of last week seem a million miles away, or 1,200 kilometres to be precise.

Having had the luxury of spending so much time with Irish friends and family, it is frustrating to have to revert to long-distance communication again and to think in terms of future visits. The main consolation is that I now have the luxury of spending time with Swiss friends and family and making the most of this wonderful place.

Belated season’s greetings to everyone who follows this blog, as well as to new visitors. You may be pleased to hear that I will have less to say from now on about me the emigrant (you’ve been very patient!) and more to say about me the writer. Assuming I can keep up the momentum, in 2014 I will be blogging more about my novel and other writing themes. Thank you all for your presence and positive comments throughout the year.

Athbhliain faoi mhaise daoibh go léir.

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