The last time I went to Kerry it was for a week-long diving course. I took the train and bus from Dublin to a tiny place on the coast but the diving school/hostel had lost my booking and given their only instructor the week off. The hostel owner phoned around and found me a place in a school two hours’ drive away in Baltimore. He then drove me all the way to Bantry in Co. Cork where I was handed over to my newly hired teacher to complete the journey. So I’ve had unfinished business with Kerry for the past twenty years and now the universe has paid me back handsomely with a different kind of exhilarating Kerry experience – Listowel Writers’ Week.
This legendary festival has been running since 1971 and it was back in person after a three-year hiatus. The whole town was in high spirits. The fact that the Listowel Races June Bank Holiday Meeting overlapped with the literary festival added to the excitement – and the fashion on display.
A lot of the action was centred around the 18th century Listowel Arms Hotel, which overlooks the Town Square and the racecourse. Throw in a few First Communions on the Saturday and I’ve never seen so much finery in one place. All we were missing was a wedding.
Floating serenely through all this activity was the organising team of the Writers’ Week, giving directions, selling tickets, rounding up writers and herding audiences, while manning (mainly wo-manning) and managing the 50+ events on the programme.
There was something happening every minute of the day – workshops, walking tours, author interviews, plays, poetry readings, art exhibitions, and a prize-giving for the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year to kick things off on the first evening. The award went to Claire Keegan for her exquisite novel Small Things Like These.
Irish novel of the year
I was lucky enough to see Claire Keegan being interviewed by Rick O’Shea on the Thursday evening. Claire has quite a regal presence and strong ideas; frivolous would be the last word to describe her. We all listened with rapt attention to her carefully chosen words.
She said many things I agreed with – on the importance of structure and how she doesn’t like cryptic books, for example. ‘I want to be moved by the book and I can’t be moved if I don’t understand.’ Hear, hear! She’s also inclined to quiet prose rather than drama and, she says, the subject material never matters. ‘A good book can be about anything.’
Last quote from Claire Keegan: ‘Beautiful sentences make me tired. What I love is a good paragraph.’ Basically, she believes that sentences shouldn’t be competing with each other to display their individual brilliance but should work together to create a pleasing whole (to paraphrase with less perfect words). I like it.
The 12-week challenge
I caught Donal Ryan and Louise Kennedy at a joint event in town’s old dance hall which is now called the Plaza Centre. One thing Donal said that fascinated me is that it takes 12 weeks to get a novel written, at least the first draft. Apparently, a lot of writers feel 12 weeks is a magic amount of time, if you’re writing in an applied way. When I think about it, the first draft of Voting Day took me 14 weeks to write, so not far off.
Both Donal Ryan and Claire Keegan teach creative writing (oh to be in those classes!) and they both mentioned that they can’t really write while teaching. This seems like such a big sacrifice but they still manage to produce great work so maybe it’s a good balance overall. By the way, Louise Kennedy worked as a chef for 30 years before she wrote anything. She was dragged along to a creative writing class by a friend and never looked back.
In between events, there were lovely places to discover in the town – the River Feale walk, Listowel Castle, St. John’s Church, John B. Keane’s pub. Team O’Dea included my mother and two sisters and we enjoyed exploring together.
I had a great chat with Margaret in the Castle. It was the perfect weekend for striking up conversations with anyone and everyone (hello Audrey!). And if you’re looking out for someone in Listowel, you will definitely bump into them (hello Denis!). You can also be brave and introduce yourself to people you admire (hello Martina Devlin and Patrick Gale!).
By the time my event came around on Friday afternoon, I felt totally at home. Sophie Grenham did a brilliant job directing the discussion with John Boyne and myself. We certainly had plenty to talk about but I need someone else to tell me what I said! One thing I do remember is our comments on how to approach writing a character who is quite different to you. In my case, all of them! But as much as there are differences between me and a disenfranchised and uneducated 1950s Swiss farmer’s wife or a young mother from a Yenish background, I believe there are enough things we share that can help me understand and express their frustration, joy and despair. If as writers we can’t tap into that shared humanity, we might as well all pack up and go home.
Slán go fóil
I did eventually have to tear myself away from Listowel and I took the scenic route back – well, there are many – by getting the ferry across the Shannon estuary from nearby Tarbert to Killimer in Co. Clare. It was a happy ending to a joyful festival.
I hope you enjoy my photos of Listowel. I have nothing worth sharing from the events because my phone snaps didn’t come out well. But the hardest working person at the festival was the photographer Ger Holland and you can find all her fantastic pics on the social media accounts at the end of the Writers’ Week page.
And if you still haven’t read Voting Day, it’s available to order in bookshops pretty much anywhere, or through the usual online retailers. For online orders in Ireland, I recommend Kennys.