Good things come in twos

My idea of heaven

My idea of heaven

I did say I wouldn’t post again until the novel was finished and I meant it. It’s been a long summer of some discontent, a lot of hard work, and a gradual brightening of the light at the end of the tunnel.

And now I’m here, out the other side. Still reluctant to use the word ‘finished’ in the same sentence as my novel, what I can say is that I have completed the most difficult draft so far. Thanks to wonderful challenging feedback from kind and generous readers, I hope I’ve managed to fix some of the weaknesses that were bogging down this manuscript.

The other good thing I discovered first thing this morning is that my blog has been shortlisted for the Irish Blog Awards, Diaspora category. I’m thrilled to be included in this list and look forward to reading through the other blogs as soon as I finish work today. Thanks again to fellow exile Niall McArdle for nominating me and to the judges for overlooking the fact that I was on a break.

Without the distraction of blogging for the past two months, I have been able to write every day and have harnessed the power of that rhythm.

A three-week holiday in Ireland also helped with the daily time-stealing challenge and the inspiration, as my book is set in Ireland. Anyone who was lucky enough to be in Ireland this summer will tell you that the weather was superb. I wanted the country to be at its best so that my Swiss family would experience the magic of an Irish summer. In fact I wanted them to be enchanted and to develop some of the feelings about Ireland that I have. For once the Irish weather turned up trumps.

The novel is back in the hands of two readers and I’m hoping that only small changes will be required from now on and that I will be able to declare September the month of submitting.

I’ll be posting soon again, about a fascinating meeting in Bern with award-winning Swiss-German writer Pedro Lenz and his Glaswegian translator Donal McLaughlin. Not only is McLaughlin from Glasgow (via Northern Ireland), he also writes in Glaswegian dialect. Can’t wait to review the result of this unique collaboration: Naw Much of a Talker.

Looking forward to connecting with everyone again and catching up with your summer stories.

It’s good to be back.

So, have you finished the novel yet?

This question kills me, even though I know it’s the obvious one to ask. The short answer is no. More than once I thought I had finished but it turned out I had only reached milestones along the way. The first draft took almost twelve months to the day. I have now been writing my first novel for two years, five months and forever.

My heart sank today when I heard it took veteran BBC journalist Kirsty Wark ten years to write her novel The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle. Ten years! She gave a talk at the Dalkey Book Festival in Dublin yesterday and I sent my spies along to find out what she had to say.

I’m curious to read her book, despite reading this bad review a few weeks ago, which was breathtakingly spiteful. The Irish Times reviewer actually said: ‘don’t give up the day job’.

http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/a-nice-fantasy-but-don-t-give-up-the-day-job-1.1777733

Wark started ten years ago but had to put the book to one side because of family commitments until her youngest started university. My youngest hasn’t started school yet. How long before I can find time?

Maeve Binchy addressed this issue in the first page of her book on writing, The Writers’ Club.

“Time doesn’t appear from nowhere. You have to make it, and that means giving up something else. Regularly. Like sleep, for example, or drinking or playing poker, or watching television, or window-shopping or just lounging about with your family.”

As it is I do regularly give things up for writing. But what if I’ve been giving up the wrong things?

The time has come to question where the writing blog fits in here. Would Maeve Binchy ever have finished Light a Penny Candle if she’d been blogging about it? I’ve published more than 70 posts over eighteen months, an average of 500 words per post. That’s a lot of words, half a novel in fact.

Without further ado, I hereby declare this blog temporarily suspended – normal service to be resumed when my novel is finished. I hope to connect again with fellow bloggers and followers of the site when the time is right.

Have a great summer folks!

ps. here is a link to Ashra’ Wish, a story I wrote for children which has just been published on a new children’s stories website.

http://www.shortkidstories.com/story/ashras-wish/

I'll be back.

I’ll be back.

The oldest profession in the world

Farmer-Kneeling-Picking-Dandelions

Just sharing my most hated cliché, narrowing as it does women’s myriad innovative roles over the millennia in hundreds of civilisations to the least interesting and freely-chosen job on the list. To prove my point, I’ve written a little scene set in the city-state of Zabala in the Sumer Civilisation in 3,500 BC. Call it anti-cliché fiction.

“I like the dress,” Namini said, reaching to feel a corner of the red and gold cloth, before embracing her friend with the Sumer evening greeting of three kisses.

“Thanks, I got it from a neighbour. She sells her own stuff and it’s not expensive,” Sulah answered, sitting down on a mat by the window.

“Not Fatiza?” Namini called from behind the bar where she was loading her tray with fresh drinks.

“Yes, that’s her name. Her mother and sister are weavers too.”

“I know the family. Lovely people. What can I get you?”

“Just a tea thanks, I’m exhausted. I’ve been transcribing a massive contract all day. Look at the blisters on my hands.”

Namini came over with the tea and inspected Sulah’s hands gently.

“They are working you too hard there. I don’t know how you put up with it.”

Sulah shrugged. “They pay well and I can live at home. It’s hard to find a job like that. You know my cousin Lamila, plays the lyre? She has to stay at the temple seven days a week. The ceremonies are endless, she says.”

“I know. Who’d be a musician? The only job to have in a temple is priestess. People waiting on you day and night, listening to your every word, I wouldn’t mind that.”

A group of customers came in and Namini’s smile brightened artificially as she sailed over to them. While she was getting their drinks, more people began to arrive, in pairs. The busy part of the day was beginning for Namini, just as Sulah could go home and relax.

Sulah saw a young girl with elaborately-braided hair come in and sit alone, her dress draped low over one shoulder. When Sulah looked again the girl had pulled her dress up over the knee to reveal strong brown thighs, the legs of a country girl. A man from the first group crossed the small room to join her, placing a coin in front of the girl before he sat down.

Trying not to stare, Sulah gathered up her things to leave. She slipped into the back room where Namini was filling bowls of dates and olives.

“Namini, is it possible there’s a woman selling her body in your tavern? I just saw a man offer money before he sat down with her.”

“Don’t worry Sulah, I know her. It’s a new thing some women are doing. You know it’s been a bad year for farmers in the west. She needs the money, has some debts to pay off for her parents. Better here than down by the city walls.”

Sulah frowned. “As long as you know what you’re doing. I’m off. See you soon.”

“See you pet.” Namini paused to unwind and repin her hair. “And by the way, you should speak to Mazana the midwife about your hands. She has a good selection of creams as well.”

“Where is she based?”

“Well, she moves around a lot, from baby to baby. Ask one of the women selling spices at the market, they’ll know where she is.”

“Thanks Namini. Have a good night … .”

On her way out Sulah cast one more glance at the girl with the braided hair who, realising she was being noticed, turned her head to the side, resting her elegant fingers under her chin in the classic pose of Tanta, the Goddess of Courage, but also, as every child in Zabala knew, the Goddess of Fear.

It was while I was researching an article recently for swissinfo.ch about prostitution and human trafficking in Switzerland that I realised how often this offensive cliché is still being used by fellow journalists. Can we move on please?

“Too much statement and not enough suggestion”

Photo_6AEE6DB4-F527-CC2A-DF23-B7EF820BC320

This is what many writers are getting wrong, according to Irish short story writer Claire Keegan who passed through Bern this week. Keegan, a woman of strong convictions and deep thoughts, gave a talk and read from her award-winning story Foster.

I couldn’t believe my luck to hear that such a well-respected author was in town and that I could manage at the last minute to go along and listen to her. For Keegan, it is clear that writing is not something to be taken lightly. She spoke passionately about life, love and literature.

Foster is a story, about a poor young girl sent to live with more prosperous relatives for the summer. Written from the child’s point of view in the present tense, the story manages to convey that gulf that exists between children and adults and the disadvantage that children have in their inability to understand what’s going on in the adult world around them. It’s all the more poignant in Foster because the girl comes from a neglectful home and she is being looked after in a loving way for the first time.

As Keegan pointed out: “Love can come from anywhere, it doesn’t matter where.” The author sees herself as a critic of her society. Foster, set in 1970s rural Ireland, is in part a commentary on the plight of families forced, because of religious dictates on contraception, to have more children than they could love.

As I writer I was naturally curious to hear what Keegan, who has lectured in creative writing, had to say about the craft of writing.

The first thing that surprised me was that she goes through about thirty (!) drafts before she considers her stories finished. More proof that writing is rewriting!

During this process, Keegan does not give her work to anyone else for feedback, although she did admit she would like to have someone who would look at her manuscripts as closely as she does but from another perspective.

She explained that having spent decades reading attentively and developing her own taste, she trusts her own taste. A good place to be.

On the subject of what new writers are getting wrong, Keegan was very precise. In her view there isn’t enough priority given to the story, to the point that the story can be completely buried by the writing or even missing altogether.

Keegan is quite a purist when it comes to storytelling and confessed that she mostly preferred reading “dead authors”. For it to be a story something has to happen in a defined space of time, something irreversible that the character would take back if they could, she said.

Nowadays there is “too much statement and not enough suggestion”. Readers have to endure pages of analysis about the character before they even have a chance to go through something with them. In other words the analysis has not been earned.

Keegan is a great believer in “turning down the sound” and observing what people do with their hands and feet and eyes. That’s where the truth is, she said, and that is what she writes about. She won’t tell us someone is miserable and proceed to tell us why over many pages. She will show that misery and the context and let the reader reach their own conclusions.

Finally I liked what Keegan had to say about the elegance and efficiency going hand in hand in good writing. Not something that can be achieved in every blog post, but a good standard to aspire to in fiction.

The event was held under the auspices of the Swiss-British Society, Bern and SATE (the Swiss Association of Teachers of English).

The importance of being Swiss

The boat is full

The boat is full

My husband picks his way through the crowded hall. It’s late and many people are sleeping but I am keeping watch over the children, waiting for his return. He kneels beside me and shows me a cereal bar in the inside pocket of his jacket. The little ones will have something to eat in the morning.

We huddle together, sharing the blanket. After a while I turn and search his face for information. His eyes do not meet mine. I wait for him to share his news. Here we have all time in the world.

“I heard something,” he finally whispers. “There’s going to be another resettlement contingent. Brazil has offered to take a small number of Swiss. There are 18 places on the boat tomorrow.”

I can hardly hear the last words he speaks but I know what this means. It is the news we have been waiting for, the news I have prayed for and dreaded every minute since we arrived in this godforsaken place.

“Did you put the names down?” He covers his face.

“Tell me you put your names down.” He nods.

He cannot speak so I say the lines for him. “You have to take this chance. There is no other way. As soon as I can I will follow you, find you. We have to think of the children.”

That night I dream of our old home in Switzerland, forever out of reach now in the contaminated zone. We are sitting around the table, talking and laughing. I can see the delicious fresh food and the happy healthy faces of my children and I feel blessed. I reach out to touch the cheek of my youngest but where there should be soft, warm skin there is nothing, only air. Trying to control my panic, I feel for the dishes and glasses, sweeping my hands up and down the table. Nothing. What terrifies me the most as I claw the air where my loved ones should be is that I cannot tell if I am the ghost at the table or if I am the only one left.

***

A piece of flash fiction there for the weekend, inspired by an important step I took today. After almost 11 years in Switzerland I have finally applied for citizenship. I could have done it any time since 2008 but I’ve waited until now. The question I’ve been asking myself is – why?

One thing is I’m not alone. Only a tiny percentage of the foreigners living in Switzerland (including second and third generation immigrants) who would be eligible to apply for naturalisation actually do so. The reasons for that reluctance are complex, like everything in this country, but to some extent it’s a standoff.

The non-Swiss are eyeing the Swiss as if to say: “I may be here but I’m not one of them.” Meanwhile the Swiss are holding up a sign in the four national languages: “You may be here but you are not one of us.”

There is some serious bridge-building needed in Switzerland right now and a terrible shortage of engineers. I would suggest bringing in some EU workers but I’m not sure that would go down well.

Yes Switzerland is multi-cultural, but it’s a place where identity matters. Identity matters to me too. Up to now I’ve always thought of myself more as an emigrant rather than an immigrant, as a way of holding on to the person who left Ireland in 2003.

I don’t mean I haven’t integrated; I’m as integrated as a piece of bread dropped in a fondue pot. What I mean is I was afraid I would lose something important by becoming Swiss. Now I feel differently. The long stay in Ireland last year helped. It reminded me that Ireland will always be there and I will always be Irish.

But my life is here now and I want to participate more in Swiss society and, most particularly, I want to vote. Don’t take the story too seriously, I am not applying for citizenship in case I become a refugee at a future date following a nuclear meltdown (there is a nuclear power plant nearby by the way, we get sent iodine tablets in the post every few years, just in case).

No, it’s just that after years of being a very welcome outsider, I am ready to take my place now among the Swiss on equal terms.

Freddie had to go

There was a time when he was important. It was because of his charming deceitful ways that the whole story began. He made life unbearable for my main character, gave her the push she needed to run away and try to change things.

But when it became apparent that there was too much back story and too many love interests in this novel, Freddie had to go. Like any intense relationship, it was hard to make the break but bit by bit I have managed to delete all trace of him.

I had to ask myself the question: ‘Can I live without him?’ And painful as it was, the answer was yes. It’s a well-known mistake to cram too much into your first novel, one that you usually discover after the fact. I fell into this trap on a grand scale and it’s a difficult one to get out of. Difficult but not impossible.

So goodbye Freddie and everything that came with you:
The convoluted back story about the festival he was organising and embezzling money from – out.
The flirting scene in the pub – out.
The scene when they first get physical – out.
His jealous girlfriend’s reaction – out.
The successful launch of the festival – out.
Police raiding the offices – out.
Freddie going awol – out.
Police interviews – out.
The scene in the solicitor’s office – out.
Freddie featuring in other people’s conversations – out.
References to the court case – out.
The visit to Freddie in prison – out.

And finally, today, after my sly attempt to keep Freddie in the background of the story, even though no new reader could figure out what he was doing there, I have removed any last trace of Freddie’s character.

Amazingly it turned out that Freddie and the hefty subplot that went with him were not essential to this novel. In fact this overload of storylines was taking away from the true heart of the novel, which is about family. He may appear in another guise in another story, but for now the mischievous, restless Freddie is out of the picture.

I’m definitely not the first person to have to cut a character from a novel in progress. Sometimes two characters can be rolled into one if they are serving the same purpose or a peripheral character can disappear over the horizon without being missed. Has anyone else had the experience of cutting a major character? Am I right in thinking (and hoping) you never regret what you cut?

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/

David J Delaney

http://davidjdelaney.wordpress.com/

Anne Goodwin

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

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?

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