Colm Tóibín works his magic in Zurich

Marriage is great fodder for fiction. Colm Tóibín’s latest novel, The Magician, tells the story of the life of Thomas Mann. In a sweeping narrative, it takes in German culture and politics of the first half of the twentieth century, Mann’s creative life, as well as his family and erotic life. But most of all, according to the author, it’s the story of a marriage.

Tóibín came to Zurich this week, and I jumped at the chance to hear him talk. He was interviewed on stage in a gorgeous venue, the 100-year-old Kaufleuten, a legendary nightclub, pub-restaurant and cultural space. It’s the kind of place Mann might have frequented when he lived in Zurich. James Joyce once had a play staged there.

The character of Mann craves a lot of things – stability, routine, recognition, young men’s bodies. He was one of many homosexual men of his time who married for convenience or safety. Yet his marriage to Katia Pringsheim, a student of physics and mathematics from one of the wealthiest families in Germany, was no less interesting for that.

“The marriage was intense, and the loyalty between them was intense, and the love was intense. It was in many ways a great relationship,” Tóibín said.

I agree, at least in how Tóibín depicts the relationship. But Katia remains a bit of a mystery. Once in the book, there is a scene where she is pressed to justify why she married Mann and she says it’s personal. All she reveals is that her father was a philanderer and she knew she would never have that trouble with Mann (who obviously fancied her beautiful twin brother). Marriage to Mann gave Katie a certain freedom. Coming from a rich, cultured, high-achieving family, he was a prize for her too.

Katia Mann is shown tolerating her husband’s roving eye and infatuations for boys and young men. More than that, she is quite magnanimous about it. Mann’s sexual life was mainly lived in his head and he rarely dared to follow up on these feelings. She seems to have understood that. Now I’m making the same mistake as the moderator on Wednesday night, treating the book as if it were a biography, and Tóibín the biographer.

A rich tapestry

Mann’s life is so interesting – a gay man, literary genius, dissident, exile, father of six extraordinary children, the most famous German voice in the United States during the war – it’s easy to get sucked into only thinking about him.

So, more about the writing. It’s a linear narrative from childhood in Lübeck to the end of his life in Switzerland, divided into chapters entitled the year and place. Overall, a rich tapestry. After lingering in Lübeck, the story skips along through Mann’s career and home life. We enjoy dinner party conversations with a great number of clever and unconventional people, there are terribly poignant scenes of Mann receiving tragic news, his imaginings and travels, moments and settings where he got his ideas – the Davos sanitorium, the famous Lido in Venice – and regular interactions with (mostly negative) political events.

We see the marriage in action, in their conversations and habits, getting to the point as readers where we know what is unsaid between Thomas and Katia. But Tóibín never shows us any physical intimacy between the pair. I wish I’d had a chance to ask why he shied away from the marital bed but there were no questions from the audience.

I managed to scribble down a few notes in the dark. “There’s a difference always between what we think we feel, what we feel and what we say. A novel can show that gap,” Tóibín said.

The German question

The Irish writer had plenty of research material at his disposal to fill that gap. The lives of the Manns have been exhaustively documented in diaries, contemporary accounts and biographies. We even heard Thomas Mann’s voice in the Kauflauten theatre from a 1942 broadcast in English, one of several speeches he made railing against the Nazis. A nice touch.

Mann’s brother Heinrich and three of Thomas Mann’s children were also writers, so we also have their body of work to add to Mann’s oeuvre. Many of the Mann circle were the subjects of biographies themselves. Tóibín credits 35 works in the back of his book. It must have been quite a struggle to stop researching and start writing.

Interestingly, all of the titles Tóibín mentions are in English and I wonder how Germans feel about an Irish writer (researching in English) speaking for Mann who is after all a national treasure. But Tóibín didn’t want to be drawn on this. The interviewer Blas Ulibarri tried to ask about the German reception to the book but Tóibín just said, “the Germans are very nice” and pointedly put his microphone back down on the table. Because he came straight from a book tour in Germany, we would all like to have heard more.

Anyway, I loved the book. A lot happens, there are many scene changes, just as there were in Mann’s life – from his staid home city of Lübeck to Munich, Lugano, South of France, Princeton, Los Angeles and back to Switzerland.

The Nazis’ rise to power is the dramatic engine of the middle part of the book, not just because it forces the Manns into exile but because of the delay before Mann publicly denounced Hitler. His timidity almost cost him the love of some family members. But Tóibín makes this conflict between Mann’s private views and his public position an understandable failing.

Mann’s routine is dull and unchanging, working every morning in his study wherever he lives, taking meals and having conversations with his wife and children, receiving visitors. This lack of action presented a challenge, Tóibín said, but he clearly overcame the challenge. There is ample external drama in between the quiet days: complications with Mann’s mother and siblings, the horror of the Second World War and the unruly behaviour of his children.

Three out of six younger Manns were gay, two of them openly and joyously so, in the years before Hitler choked all the joy out of German life. The same three – Klaus, Erika and Golo Mann – were also prolific writers. All the Mann children were damaged by the experience of losing their homeland, however much they were protected by their parents’ great wealth.

Other gems

Tóibín’s The Magician (Penguin) is the third great work of biofiction I’ve read this year, all by Irish writers. If you want more after finishing The Magician, I highly recommend Nora (New Island) by Nuala O’Connor, a banquet of a novel written in the voice of James Joyce’s wife Nora Barnacle. Covering the same era, it’s another story of fame, genius, an unconventional marriage, the peripatetic life and difficulties with grown children.

A Quiet Tide by Marianne Lee is the third title, a masterful debut, also published by New Island Books. It tells the story of the great Irish botanist Ellen Hutchins, a solitary and tragic figure. A fascinating and moving novel that depicts the complexity of early nineteenth century Ireland in exquisite detail.

That should be enough reading to keep you occupied when the clocks go back. I have no decent photos from the Kaufleuten venue so I opted for this street view of the famous Bahnhofstrasse nearby. It was fun travelling to another city for a night of culture and meeting writing friends, especially with Thomas Mann’s story so fresh in my mind.

Have you been to a reading recently? If you’re in the mood, the Dublin Book Festival is running until November 12with a fantastic online programme. Have a great weekend!

Book club questions for Voting Day

Do book clubs have a natural shelf life? I’ve been a member of the same book club for about ten years. We started out as work colleagues and now more than half the group work in different places so the club has become a way to keep in touch. The most far-flung member of the group lives in Joshua Tree.

But, I must admit, we are beginning to lose our book club mojo. The number of no-shows and did-not-finish-on-time readers is growing and the gaps between meetings are getting longer. During Covid we had a few video sessions and they went very well. Maybe that’s the way forward.

At the invitation of a friend, I visited a very lively book club last week, a group of mostly Americans living in and around Bern. What made the evening special – apart from the amazing snacks and hospitality – was that the book they were discussing was Voting Day.

I’ve done quite a few author talks recently but mostly to an audience of potential readers, such as the image above with the Zurich International Women’s Association. This was different. The book club members had read my book and seemingly enjoyed it very much. They were brimming with enthusiasm and questions and I was impressed to see how many aspects of the story resonated with different readers on an individual level. It sparked a discussion about Swiss life, women’s role in families and society today, what has and hasn’t changed.

I left the group with a promise that I would put together a list of questions for book clubs, something they said they always looked for online. So here it is, my list of book club questions for Voting Day. I hope you find them useful and if you have any more suggestions, let me know in the comments.

Book club questions

  1. In Voting Day, what is the most important difference between the characters – generation, class or personality?
  2. How well do you think Vreni knows Margrit and vice versa?
  3. Is Peter a good husband to Vreni?
  4. Who is the strongest character?
  5. We see different types of marriages and views of marriage in the story. To what extent do the four characters’ understanding of marriage overlap or differ?
  6. What are the blind spots of the four protagonists?
  7. Which character appealed to you the most?
  8. How does motherhood impact the lives of Vreni and Esther?
  9. How important is family to each of the main characters?
  10. What do we learn about the place of foreigners or minorities in Swiss society at the time?
  11. If there is a message to the book, what would you say it is?
  12.  Switzerland was an outlier with regard to women’s suffrage, with women remaining disenfranchised until 1971. Do you think the situation of the four main characters is therefore very different to the situation of women in your country in the 1950s?
  13. What is the most significant change in women’s lives between then and now, as depicted in the book? Is there anything that hasn’t changed?
  14. What does the boy Ruedi symbolise or represent in the novel?
  15. What scene in the story did you find the most moving?

Book news

The last month has been busy on the book front. I put in an application for a grant to support the writing of my next novel next year. Will keep you posted on that. Even if nothing comes of it, I was still motivated to start writing again and I welcome that very much!

At the end of August, I met the Swiss Ambassador to Ireland José-Louis Touron to plan an event in Dublin in November. Also part of the meeting was Abigail Seran, a Swiss writer whose latest book D’ici et d’ailleurs is partly set in Ireland.

In the first weekend of September, I had a wonderful opportunity to take part in Le livre sur les quais festival in Morges. I spent the whole of Sunday in the authors tent meeting readers and signing books. And I got to meet some amazing writers, including the Flemish author Stefan Hertmans who is a genius as far as I am concerned. Caroline Bishop (author of The Other Daughter) and I shared a stage for our event, Stories of Women’s Suffrage in Switzerland.  It was all over too soon!

Also this month, Fairlight Books revealed the cover of their edition of Voting Day, to be published next April. I think it’s beautiful (see below). There was even an article about Voting Day in The Bookseller. And finally, the Swiss book blog, Mint & Malve, ran a glowing review of the German translation of Voting Day, Der Tag an dem die Männer Nein sagten.  

A reminder that Voting Day (distributed by Zytglogge Verlag) and the three other language versions are available to buy or order in all Swiss book shops or here on my website (Switzerland only). Happy reading this autumn!

A fairy-tale ending for my first novel

Schloss Heidegg (image from heidegg.ch)

Actually, it’s more of a beginning than an ending – I hope! This Sunday I have my first in-person book event since Voting Day was published. The event is taking place in a fairy-tale setting, Schloss Heidegg in Canton Lucerne.

The castle, overlooking Lake Baldegg, dates back to the Middle Ages. It has a rose garden and a park and a museum. I would go there gladly anyway. But to be invited by the Seetaler Poesiesommer festival to talk about my book is amazing.

I’ll be there along with Barbara Traber, the German translator of Voting Day (Der Tag, an dem die Männer Nein sagten), who also wrote the foreword of the book. Barbara was a translating match made in heaven. Not only is she a Swiss-German author who has written and translated dozens of books, she also remembers the vote in 1959 when she was a teenager. She has given me wonderful encouragement and guidance since we met exactly a year ago.

The event in German begins at 11am and you can find more details on the castle website here. It’s organised by Ulrich Sutter and there is an Irish theme with music from Irish composers and readings from the poetry of Franz Felix Lehni who lived in Ireland.

UK publisher

Last month on social media I shared the news that I’ve signed a publishing deal for Voting Day in the UK. Fairlight Books came back to me with a yes at the beginning of this year and they will publish their own edition of the book in the UK and Ireland under their Fairlight Moderns novella series next April. If you like your literary fiction on the short side, check out their titles.

It just happens that next year is the centenary of Irish women gaining full and equal voting rights, and I think a book written about the Swiss experience should be of interest to everyone. Women have faced the same problems to a different degree in all patriarchal societies over time. A culture that gives men a disproportionate share of authority, ownership and power breaks the natural partnership between the sexes. We are stuck fighting the same fight over and over – for our safety and dignity, and against economic disadvantage. And I’m not sure we ever will find the lost Eden of true partnership and equality again. But I digress!

There is one more piece of book news relevant for Swiss readers. Up to the end of June, the distribution of Voting Day and the three other language versions was handled by Bergli Books in Basel. From now on, this role will pass to Zytglogge Verlag. Booksellers should still be able to find the book easily in their system and order it for you. Or, if you are a Swiss resident, you can order directly from this website anytime.

I wish all followers of this blog a great summer, hopefully without Covid clouds on the horizon. If, like me, you’re feeling guilty about being fully vaccinated while most of the world is still vulnerable, it might help to donate to this Unicef vaccination campaign.

Please feel free to contact me if you’d like to request a review copy of the book or to talk about possible book events or publicity. Email on contact page. 

Voting Day, ‘truly touching and enlightening’

Visiting the German edition of Voting Day in Kanisiusbuchhandlung Lüthy

This day last month, the Irish Embassy in Bern hosted the launch of my debut novel Voting Day, published in four languages. Set on the day of a failed vote on women’s suffrage in Switzerland in 1959, it tells the story of four women whose lives are connected by a foster child.

The launch evening was incredibly special, hosted by the Irish Ambassador Eamon Hickey and attended by the three translators of the book – Barbara Traber, Corinne Verdan-Moser and Anna Rusconi. You can still view the event at this link (passcode 70N?6Rq@).

I’d like to share some of the news and reviews of my novel from the past month. At the time of the launch, book shops were closed but I’m delighted to say that shops have opened in Switzerland today and I paid a visit to my local shop to see the book on the shelves – as you can see!

Voting Day is partly set in Fribourg, where I live, and on publication day, the local newspaper Freiburger Nachrichten ran a full-page interview about the book written by Nadja Sutter which you can read here (in German). Sie hat den Roman zum Jubiläum des Frauenstimmrechts geschrieben – Freiburger Nachrichten (freiburger-nachrichten.ch)

On the Saturday beforehand, the French-language newspapers 24 Heures and Tribune de Genève ran an interview by Caroline Rieder: Roman d’une expatriée – «Les Suissesses ont dû demander le droit de vote gentiment» | 24 heures

In English, there have been two videos I’d like to mention. This report by Julie Hunt on swissinfo.ch featured Voting Day along with another new novel set in Switzerland called The Other Daughter by Caroline Bishop. The report is full of wonderful archive footage.

The second video is a really enjoyable interview I did with Matthew Wake of Books Books Books in Lausanne.

When the 50th anniversary of the women’s vote came around on February 7th, I wrote this piece for Global Geneva Magazine explaining why it took so long for Swiss men to do the decent thing.

Reviews

As for reviews, they have been positive but small in number so far. The magazine for the Swiss abroad, Swiss Review, published a favourable review of the German edition of the book by Ruth von Gunten that was translated into French, English and Spanish. Another reviewer, Antonella Amodio, wrote a review of the Italian edition of the book for the Italian edition of the magazine.

It’s a wonderful review so I will quote, courtesy of online translation:

“A story that speaks of female solidarity, dignity, kindness, the search for independence and social redemption … I thank the author Clare O’Dea and the translator of the Italian version Anna Rusconi because it was a truly touching and enlightening read.”

A review of the French edition in the newspaper Journal du Pays d’Enhaut was also lovely. The reviewer, M.Z., describes some of the plot and then adds: “I won’t say any more because this novel is very moving and you have to appreciate its originality to the last page.”

If you enjoyed Voting Day and would like other people to discover it, I’d be very glad to increase the number of reader reviews on Goodreads (EN), Lesejury.de (DE) or Lovelybooks.de (DE, FR, EN, IT). Another way to help the book fly is to ask for it in your local Swiss bookshop.

Film festival

One last thing … here’s a date for the diary if you happen to have the evening free on International Women’s Day next Monday the 8th.

The Women in Film Festival, What If? will present four short films and a Q&A with the filmmakers. Voting Day will get a mention thanks to the swissinfo.ch video. The curators have chosen narratives of courage, determination and strength and I am delighted to be associated with the event. Sign up for the free 1.5-hour event here.

For Swiss readers of the blog, enjoy the freedom to browse for books again from today and stay safe out there! Congratulations to everyone who has received a vaccine. It makes me so happy to hear all the vaccination stories. We’re on the right path now.

Order online from Bergli Books: ​Voting Day, Der Tag, an dem die Männer Nein sagten, Le jour où les hommes on dit non, Il giorno in cui gli uomini dissero No 

New novel Voting Day goes on sale with Bergli Books

For the past year I have been working on writing my debut novel and getting it translated and published. It’s been an intense and rewarding experience. Voting Day tells the story of four Swiss women on 1 February 1959, the day male voters said no to granting women the vote.

The four characters of my book – Vreni, Margrit, Esther and Beatrice – could be you, your mother, your grandmother. The setting of the book is distinctly Swiss but the women’s challenges and their fighting spirit are universal.

I’m delighted to announce that Bergli Books in Basel, the leading publisher of Swiss-interest books in English, is handling the sale of Voting Day. You can now order the book through their website in English, French, German or Italian.

I’d like to thank the three translators of the book – Barbara Traber, Corinne Verdan-Moser and Anna Rusconi – who have been so dedicated and encouraging since our first contact. I think they’ve all done an excellent job and I’m so pleased that Swiss readers will be able to read my book in their own languages.

Unfortunately, bookshops in Switzerland are closed until the end of February. But most are operating a click and collect service. If you’d like to support your local bookshop, why not place your order for the book with them? I recommend Books Books Books in Lausanne who do postal deliveries as well as click and collect.

Online launch 1.2.2021

It’s full steam ahead for the online launch of Voting Day in four languages next Monday, February 1st, hosted by the Irish Ambassador Eamon Hickey on the occasion of St. Brigid’s Day. During the first part of the evening (18:15 – 19:00) Ambassador Hickey and I will be chatting about the book and the upcoming 50th anniversary of the women’s vote in Switzerland. In part two (19:00 – 19:45) the discussion will continue with Barbara Traber, Corinne Verdan-Moser and Anna Rusconi, each speaking in their own language.

Do join us for an evening of European culture and celebrating women’s voices. Here’s the zoom link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/81666018981?pwd=RVBQQzI3KzFjaXVTRmhna2tvaEhwdz09

None of this would have been possible without the support of The Fundraising Company Fribourg who have accompanied me on every step of the publishing journey. Merci vielmal to Yvar Riedo and Stefanie Schwaller. We also got essential help from the generous crowdfunders, whose copies of the book are on the way this week.

I hope you’re all managing to stay safe and sane under whatever general restrictions and personal challenges you’re facing. The snowdrops and daffodils are not far off. Hang in there!

A Swiss funeral, free of charge and modest

The freshly-dug grave in the communal plot lies ready. A tightly-packed flower arrangement in yellow, orange and red provides the only colour on this grey day on the outskirts of Zurich in Schwamendingen cemetery.

Though Zurich has historically been a stronghold of Protestantism in Switzerland, the proportion of Swiss residents who profess no religion is now greater than the share of Protestants (25 per cent to 24 per cent). Amid changing times, one tradition has endured in this city: plain is preferred over showy. 

The mourners, a group of about twenty, have gathered at the cemetery gate. They are waiting to be told what to do. The burial is scheduled for 11.15 a.m. First the gravedigger comes to the grave carrying the urn in a wicker basket. He lifts the lid, removes the simple wooden urn and leaves it standing beside the freshly-dug hole.

The urn is worth CHF 550.00 but it comes free of charge as part of the basic funeral package offered by the city of Zurich to all residents. There are no private undertakers in Zurich.  

No funeral service

Led by a pastor wearing a beret over her shoulder-length grey hair, the family approaches. The pastor is in conversation with an official from the municipal funeral service, Petra Paul, a kindly woman in her fifties. Her job today is to lower the urn into the grave.

The family have opted to say their farewells at the graveside. There will be no funeral service, religious or otherwise. This is not unusual any more, Petra explains later. In an increasingly secular society, there are no more certainties on how to mark the passing of a loved one.

Four generations are represented today, from the sister of the 92-year-old deceased to her great-grandchildren, two tiny tots who quickly become restless and have to be led away during the 15-minute gathering. 

There is a forest on the hill adjacent to the graveyard. The noticeboard at the entrance carries a warning that deer are eating the flower arrangements and asks for understanding. Foxes and badgers are regular nocturnal visitors to this quiet spot.

The minister talks about the deceased, a warm-hearted woman whose door was always open. She expands on the concept of the ‘life of life’, the divine life that binds us all. After Petra lowers the urn into the grave, some family members step forward to drop a single red rose in after it. Someone has pressed play on an unseen device, so that the instrumental of ‘Time to say goodbye’ plays softly at this moment.

The lowering of the urn is easy, it is encased in a length of netting. But family members are often too nervous or too upset to take on this task. What if they get it wrong? Petra feels it can be an important part of the grieving process. A symbolic separation.

As this is a communal grave for urns, the exact burial spot is not marked. By the following day, the bouquet will be moved to the metal platform nearby, available for the bereaved to leave their tributes. The name of the deceased will be engraved on a metal plaque with the others, along with her dates of birth and death.

As birds caw and whirl in the sky above, we withdraw, leaving the family alone. Schwamendingen is one of 19 graveyards in Zurich. Petra and I return by tram to the city centre. She tells me she likes her job because she can achieve a lot with very little. “People have the resources to deal with death. My job is to foster these resources.”

The right words

Back at the office Petra has some calls to make, searching for next-of-kin of deceased people who died without any known family. She must also be available to advise people who come to notify the authorities of a death in the family.

Her office is the Funeral and Cemetery Service of the City of Zurich, located inside the imposing neo-Gothic City Hall (Stadthaus) on the banks of the Limmat.

The office operates a walk-in service for the official registration of death announcements, an obligatory task. In a small waiting area, the bereaved may peruse the display of 12 different-coloured leaflets, with information on everything from fees for various grave planting arrangements to how to go about scattering ashes. There is also a catalogue of urns and coffins and a list of professionals who provide secular funeral services.

Without too long a wait, visitors will be ushered in to see one of three funeral advisors on duty, with urns on their bookshelves, who will help them make the necessary decisions.

For Petra, this is the most important part of her job. Formerly, she worked as a translator and, she observes, there is one point the two jobs have in common: the importance of the right word. “Finding the right words is so important. The right words mean so much to the bereaved but the wrong word stays wrong forever.”

I wrote this article earlier this year for a magazine but the story was dropped because it was felt that it might be depressing to read about death in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. My feeling is that death is never far away and we should know what to expect. Many thanks to the staff of the Funeral and Cemetery Office of the City of Zurich for making me welcome (especially Petra Paul) and allowing me to share the article here.

Voting Day: Cover reveal and Crowdfunding

Of all the steps in the publishing process, seeing the cover for the first time is the most uplifting because it’s the first time that the dream seems real. I’m delighted to share the cover of my new historical novel Voting Day. Isn’t it lovely? This is the German version and the title translates as, The Day the Men Said No.

The day in question is February 1, 1959 when Swiss men voted no to granting women voting rights, by a two-thirds majority. The novel is set on that day and it tells the story of four very different women whose lives are connected by the fate of a foster child.

Voting Day will be published in four languages, including Italian and French. The plan is to publish on time for the 50th anniversary of the women’s vote in Switzerland (the men finally got the answer right in 1971).

When I realised the only way to make this project work would be to self-publish, I decided to go for it. It’s turned into an exciting and challenging journey. Fortunately, I received some advance funding to help pay for the translations. But to get the project over the finish line, I’m running a 32-day fundraising campaign, beginning today.

All the information about the campaign is given in German and English on the wemakeit website. There’s even a video I made in German – with subtitles. If you’d like to support me, now is the opportunity to put in an advance order for the book in whichever language you prefer. You can go for one of the other rewards or just contribute any amount you feel comfortable with.

Thank you very much for pitching in. It’s pretty scary putting myself out there in this way and I appreciate all your good wishes.

Pints o’clock

ciara_mcconville Lahinch, Co Clare

It’s pints o’clock in #lahinch #beach #ireland #scenery #minibreak #homesweethome #nofilter #atlantic #wildatlanticway

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monopots Gorgeous pic Ciara.

twinmamma44 Stunning!

taramcc Jealous!

mikemonteur Wow

moorhen21 How long are you back for?

ciara_mcconville @moorhen21 Tuesday just a flying visit

meghan_flynn what, you’re here???

ciara_mcconville @meghan_flynn not staying in Dublin, for my Mam’s 70th

meghan_flynn thought that was last year

ciara_mcconville @meghan_flynn using up a voucher

moorhen21 time for coffee or lunch on your way through the big smoke?

lahinchsurfsports Lahinch rocks, ha ha

Conniecawley Lovely pic!

ciara_mcconville @moorhen21 sorry it’s a short trip this time,gotta go, crab claws beckon

meghan_flynn you missed my 40th on Saturday

ciara_mcconville @meghan_flynn sorry meg, having dinner with my folks here, call you later

meghan_flynn I sent the invite in March. Pity you couldn’t have combined the 2

taramcc enjoy your crab claws (hope not fished locally, stocks are low)

ciara_mcconville @taramcc ignore her, she ordered them too!

taramcc ha ha just messing with you

danodonnell Great pic. Me and Sinead are here too!!! How long r u staying? See you in Kenny’s later?

ciara_mcconville Ciara’s Mam here, yis are unbelievable. The girls’ phones are in my bag for the rest of dinner. Congrats on the twins, Maura. Conversation over.

meghan_flynn call me

melonslice Gorgeous pic!

A little piece of Instagram-based flash fiction dedicated to all the Irish abroad who would love to go home but can’t because of you know what.

Introducing my first novel, Voting Day

© Staatsarchiv Basel

One day while walking my dog in the forest, I had an idea to tell the story of four women on a particular day in history. The date I had in mind was February 1st, 1959, and the setting was to be Switzerland. The result is my first novel, Voting Day, which will be published next February in the three official Swiss national languages (German, French and Italian) and English.

The vote in question was a referendum on female suffrage, rejected by male voters on that cold, foggy Sunday. Swiss women eventually gained voting rights 12 years later in 1971 so we’ll be celebrating the 50th anniversary next year.

From early morning until last thing at night, Voting Day tells the story of four very different women whose lives are connected by the fate of a foster child. While the men go out to vote, these women have other things on their minds, mostly.

Vreni is a farmer’s wife and foster mother in her late forties whose life has shrunk to the confines of the farm and village. Her daughter Margrit seems to have found success as an office girl in Bern but her boss has put her in an impossible position.

Esther is a Yenish woman, one of the native travelling people of Switzerland. Taken from her family as a child, she now works as a hospital cleaner. When her own son Ruedi is taken into care, the future looks bleak.

Beatrice has made a good career as the hospital administrator. She dreads the prospect of a no vote after putting her heart and soul into the yes campaign. But could she hold the key to reuniting Esther with Ruedi?

It was clear to me when I started writing Voting Day that it really should reach Swiss readers, but I didn’t know how I could achieve this. How could I find one Swiss publisher willing to arrange the translation of the book, let alone three? What to do with the English version?

Luckily a sponsor came on board who was willing to pay for the translations. That brought my dream much closer to reality. With the help of a local company in Fribourg, I began to put together an ambitious self-publishing project with a simultaneous launch in the four languages planned for next February.

Publishing has become more and more challenging and often loss-making for authors. I want to find a way around that. The German translation is complete and the French and Italian are under way. The publishing costs are adding up but everything is moving in the right direction.

In November I will launch a crowdfunding campaign and continue seeking other kinds of funding. I’ve already received a lot of moral and practical support. My characters – Vreni, Margrit, Esther and Beatrice – are my inspiration.

From now on, I’ll be writing regular updates on the progress of Voting Day, and I hope you’ll enjoy hearing about it. I can already share the first interview (in German) with skippr.ch about the German version, Der Tag, an dem die Männer Nein sagten.

Book bloggers and journalists, please get in touch through my contact page if you would like to receive a review copy in one of the languages.

Was writing The Naked Irish a way of letting go?

When I was researching and writing The Naked Irish in 2018 and 2019, I spent every spare minute feverishly gathering information, reading books and articles, listening to the radio, interviewing people, collecting notes and quotes left, right and centre.

This process came after 15 years of living outside the country. Nobody asked me to do it. Finding a publisher was a nail-biting challenge and I’ll always be grateful to Mentor Books (Red Stag) for saying yes.

Now that the book has been out for a year, I have enough distance to look back and wonder what the quest was all about. Why was it so important for me to write that particular book? It has a lot to do with being an emigrant.

When I left Ireland in 2003 to move to Switzerland, I stopped writing about Ireland but I never stopped caring. But if Ireland is a mother figure, she’s a mother who is indifferent to her absent children. She has enough mouths to feed at home!

And yet, I wanted to reclaim and rediscover Ireland, force her to take notice. I think I managed to do that through The Naked Irish, but in the process, I have become less sentimental about the people and the place. Close up, the hills are a bit muddy.

Before I wrote this book, I used to wonder how different my life might have been if I’d stayed in Ireland. At least The Naked Irish answered one aspect of that question. This is the work I would have covered as a journalist. I finally got my chance to write about the Irish economy, politics, social issues and literature.

I got to hold Ireland close and now I feel it drifting away again. The country is not really mine to keep any more. And that’s OK. It will be partly mine from now on, not fully mine, and that makes my life easier.

My next book is completely different. It’s a historical novel set in Switzerland and it could only be written by a Swiss person, the Swiss me. It has shown me how much this country means to me now. I’ll be sharing more news about this project with lots of razzmatazz very soon.

Before I sign off, I have to give the usual reminder that my non-fiction books The Naked Irish: Portrait of a Nation Beyond the Clichés and The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths are ideal gifts for anyone who wants to understand either of the countries better. You can order them directly from the publishers on those links or make a trip to your local bookshop because they badly need your custom.

Final note: I took the picture above during a visit to the laténium museum and park on Lake Neuchâtel in June (highly recommended!). These reconstructed lake dwellings are based on a 6,000-year-old village that was discovered on the site. Amazing to see.

Final final note: I might as well stick in a picture from the book launch in Dublin last year because it was such a happy day. Credit, Ger Holland (@GHollandPhoto on Twitter), who did a wonderful job.