Finding inspiration for 2017

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I have decided this will be the year of doing the good things. Switzerland is home to many world class galleries and museums which I almost never visit. Good intentions are not the problem; I have no shortage of good intentions. Time is not really the problem; these exhibitions run for months. But nine times out of ten I can’t seem to get myself to that location for a day trip. What is stopping me? It could be because I feel I should be doing ‘useful’ things all the time, so it’s hard to sacrifice a day for inspiration.

Until now. A few months ago, I picked up a brochure at the train station for an exhibition in the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, two hours away. For the first time in 30 years, Switzerland was hosting a large-scale exhibition of one of the most fascinating chapters of modern art – Der Blaue Reiter artistic movement, which kicked off in 1911. I didn’t know anything about this movement but I do now, and it was a wonderful discovery. Beautiful works by Kandinksy, Marc and Macke, among others, are now familiar to me, as are the stories of the artists. (There’s a lovely slideshow and info in German here).

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Landscape with rain, 1913, Wassily Kandinsky

The exhibition runs until January 22 and I got there in the first week of the year. So, I’m hoping this will be the beginning of seeing through some of the other wishes I have for 2017. Not all my dreams and plans for the next 12 months are writing related but as this is a writing blog, I’ll stick to those:

First, I hope to get my new children’s novel shipshape and start submitting it as soon as possible, hopefully in time for the Meet the Agent event I am attending in Geneva next month, organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group.

I have an idea for a novel set in Switzerland, and I’d like to start getting this story down on paper this year. This will be a departure as I have yet to write any fiction set in Switzerland. After 13 years living here, it’s probably time.

Along with a partner, I plan to launch an online writing-related business. The preparation work for that has already started and I’m hoping it will be a way to combine my love of writing with a new source of income.

My nonfiction book about Switzerland, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths, will be coming out in French and German in the autumn. I’m expecting to do more promotion work this year and to create more opportunities to give author talks. Next talk is coming up in Basel on January 26th in Das Narrenschiff bookstore.

As always, I hope to write more and write better this year. That will involve attending some talks and workshops if possible, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for events. And if I can pull it off, I would love to have a short writing break in Ireland.

To go back to the Blaue Reiter artists, the story ended tragically after the outbreak of the First World War smashed their innocence and optimism. August Macke was killed in the second month of the war in France, and Franz Marc was killed in the Battle of Verdun in 1916. As an enemy alien, Russian-born Wassily Kandinsky had to leave Germany.

A month after Macke’s death, Marc wrote to Kandsinky, “I have the sad feeling that this war is flowing between us like a great flood that separates us; each of us can hardly see the other on the far shore.”

I don’t want to end on such a sad note. We hardly need reminding of the devastating cost of war. Here is another quote by Kandinsky and Marc about art, an expression of life and love that remains one of the great antidotes to war and death.

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Happy New Year!

In praise of coworking (and other news)

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An early adopter is a person who starts using a new technology or product as soon as it becomes available. I am more of a chronically-late adopter, but that doesn’t stop me from being enthusiastic about the new thing when I eventually discover it for myself.

When I wrote a few months ago about how much I was enjoying my new self-employed lifestyle, the only drawback I mentioned was that it had been difficult, based at home, to keep working time fenced off from family and house duties. The other thing I didn’t mention was the isolation that goes with working solo. Social media makes up for this to some extent but it doesn’t beat having a little catch-up over coffee with real human beings.

I first heard of coworking through a video journalist colleague at swissinfo.ch who was working one day per week in a shared office space to pursue film and animation projects outside his regular four-day per week job. I thought it sounded great but I wasn’t looking for something like that at the time. Besides, I thought, that’s the kind of thing you only find in big cities.

And then one day this summer, when things were a bit hectic at home, I did an impulsive google search for ‘coworking Fribourg,’ and immediately struck gold with Colab Fribourg. It turned out that there was an ideal co-working space just five minutes’ away from where I live.

Colab Fribourg is an initiative of local entrepreneur Philippe Lang of attik.ch. It has the special attraction of being located in an atmospheric old building in the old industrial part of Fribourg. Not only that, the large, bright office space is directly above the Villars chocolate shop and café. People come from miles around to buy chocolate there.

It is a quiet working environment (with kitchen, meeting room etc.) but Philippe is currently converting a second room with a built-in phone cabin to cater for people who need to talk more and make phone calls.

I have met people from lots of different countries and professional backgrounds in Colab. Many are working on interesting projects. Some of these – like distributing solar panels in Africa, or coaching small businesses – are easy to understand. Others are at the innovative (and more obscure) end of new technology. I hate the word synergies but it is possible I could link up with some of these fellow Colab workers in future.

Apart from pooling resources, the advantage of self-employed people sharing an office space is that you can have as much or as little contact with each other as desired. In that sense, it is different to a regular working space where it’s more difficult to have a quiet day not talking much to colleagues.

In other news, I am getting very good feedback about The Naked Swiss, most recently this five-star review from nudge-book.com, in which the reviewer says she enjoyed the book so much she read it in one sitting. Check out this quote:

“Clare O’Dea’s writing is informative without being too dry, and her clear, well-structured style means that this is a fascinating read, occasionally funny, but never boring. It is an excellent social and historical portrayal of the Swiss nation.”

Last week I went to Basel to the home of Bergli Books’ parent company Schwabe Publishing. A good crowd turned out in Schwabe’s book shop Das Narrenschiff for an author talk and book signing. We ended up having a long question and answer session afterwards where I heard from people of several different nationalities. I’m really glad the book is also appealing to readers outside the English-speaking community. Fellow Irish author Padraig Rooney came along to the Narrenschiff event. I am currently reading his book The Gilded Chalet, a highly enjoyable crash course in literary Switzerland.

This week saw an interview about The Naked Swiss by Zurich-based freelance journalist Jennifer Lisle, published in newinzurich.com. It’s great to be getting the word out about the book. I hope I can come to Zurich soon for an event – just have to find the right co-host and venue.

Finally, the big news is that Bergli has reached an agreement with another Swiss publisher Helvetiq to bring out the French and German translations of the book next year. I’m delighted the book will reach a much wider audience in Switzerland. If you find any mistakes, now is the time to tell me!

Countdown to the launch of The Naked Swiss

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In a few short days, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths will be on the shelves in Swiss bookshops. The official Swiss launch date is October 11th but the book is already available to buy on Amazon and on the Bergli Books website.

This is the point where the book will no longer belong to me. It will be read and handled by (hopefully) many people. Drops of tea and coffee will be splashed on it, and it will be carried around from place to place, in backpacks and handbags.  Most importantly, it will (again hopefully) entertain and inform readers and give them something to think, or argue, about.

So, what am I doing in these final days before the book comes out? One thing keeping me busy is writing articles about the book, like this one published today on the online Swiss magazine, newlyswissed.com – 10 things people (wrongly) assume about the Swiss.

I am also helping to organise the launch party in Bern and one in Dublin, and figuring out what I will say (and wear!) on the night. Last Sunday I spent an enjoyable day at the Expat Expo in Geneva and had a chance to meet readers and tell people about the book.

The interesting part for me is coming up. Finally, I will get to see how people react to The Naked Swiss, and all the hours of thinking, researching, writing, rewriting and more rewriting will be transformed into something meaningful.

If you are one of the early readers of the book, it would be incredibly helpful if you could rate or review it on Amazon or Goodreads to get the ball rolling.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Dostoyevsky, an excerpt from a letter he wrote to a good friend in 1868 while living near Geneva. There is an amazing online archive of Dostoyevsky’s correspondence which is worth browsing through if you like that kind of thing. I include this quote in The Naked Swiss because I think it is amusing and because I’ve heard people say similar things almost 150 years later. I myself do not agree with the Russian genius.

Oh if only you knew, what a stupid, dull, insignificant, savage people they are! It is not enough to travel through as a tourist. No, try to live there for some time! But I cannot describe to you even briefly my impressions: I have accumulated too many. Bourgeois life in this vile republic has reached the ne plus ultra.

 

Book heaven on Lake Geneva

Book heaven on Lake Geneva

Walking into the crowded authors’ tent at Le livre sur les quais (The book on the quays) literary festival in Morges on Saturday, my first thought was that I had entered a cattle market of books and authors. The festival now boasts a roll call of more than 300 authors. Could this be too much of a good thing?

Le livre sur les quais is only in its seventh year but has achieved significant national and international recognition, attracting big names and 40,000 visitors. Although mainly a festival of French-language literature, the festival has an excellent English programme and star-studded guest list (Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train).

Morges is a pretty little town on Lake Geneva, a short commute from the city of Lausanne. On the five-minute walk down from the train station to the lake shore, you glimpse large courtyards to the left and right, surrounded by low-rise apartment blocks. This is urban living at its best. There is an attractive old centre, and when you cross the main street, Grande rue, any of the side streets lead down to the lake shore and stunning views of the water and the French Alps to the south.  

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The authors’ tent is right on the water’s edge, an impossibly long marquee with the sides left open on the lake side in the hopes of a breeze. Continuous lines of tables run along the ‘walls’ on each side of the tent, facing several inner rectangular ‘islands’ of tables. It was a hot day on Saturday and the temperature in the tent was sweltering.

The authors sit behind these tables, each with a pile of books on display. The presence of so many authors in one place, selling their books (not that they handle money, you take the books from the table and pay at a till) creates a feeling that they are vying for attention.

Maybe I was projecting, the way I do with cows too, but some of the authors looked a little forlorn and overwhelmed. According to the programme there were 348 guests attending the festival, authors, poets, translators.

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For the visitors, the wonderful thing about the set-up was that you could walk up to an author you admire and strike up a conversation. This accessibility is one of the great attractions of the festival. I went straight to the island of English-speaking authors island. The authors come and go participating or attending various talks in venues around the town or on pleasure boats!

I was delighted to meet Alison Anderson, author of The Summer Guest, which I had been reading on the train journey to Morges (big disadvantage of ebooks – you can’t get them signed!). The novel is a fictionalised account of a real summer spent by Chekhov and his family in an idyllic country setting in Sumy in Eastern Ukraine. The story is told partly through the diary of a blind woman who became close to the great writer, made poignant by the knowledge that she is dying, and partly from the perspective of the present day translator of the diary.  Anderson gives a fascinating account of her research trip to Sumy here.

It was a day of discoveries and striking up connections with people. One talk I attended was a panel discussion about historical fiction with Rosie Thomas, Petina Gappah (amazing speaker from Zimbabwe), John Boyne and Anne Korkeakivi. John Boyne, best known as the author of Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, talked about the nit-pickers who come to him with minor factual corrections. He also confessed he checked one-star Amazon reviews to see what people did not like about his books.

“There are no mistakes in fiction. Once you put a made-up character into a historical setting, it’s corrupted. The story you’re telling comes first.” I am really looking forward to reading my new copy of Boyne’s latest novel, A History of Loneliness, his first novel with an Irish setting.

My visit to Le Livre sur les quais was a very enriching day for me, but one where I was glad to be the observer and not the observed. But soon it will be my turn to sit at a table and talk about my book. After a career of asking questions, I’m not sure how easy it will be to have the roles reversed. This month I will be giving my first interviews about my book, and two talks at the Geneva Expo on October 2 (more info here).  

One more thing for any of you who are on Goodreads. The Naked Swiss  is now listed there and you can mark it as ‘want to read’ if you like, and/or follow my author page.

Have you attended any literary festivals this year? What do you think is the best formula? I know a huge amount of work goes into these events and I think they are fantastic for readers. I hope authors feel the same. Not only did I come away with these great books, but I was able to meet or listen to four out of the five authors. 

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The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths

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My Swiss book has a title – and a cover! It has an author’s note, an afterword, and ten action-packed chapters in between. Now that the book has start to pop up on book retailers’ websites, I wanted to share the news here.

I am at the stage of dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, and by the end of the week my work on the manuscript itself will finally be done. What a year it’s been. This time last year I had just arrived in Ireland by ferry for my annual summer holiday. I had the task of reworking the concept for the book I had pitched to Bergli Books two months beforehand, plus a new sample chapter to write.

The starting point for me was that I felt the Swiss were poorly served by the clichés – some flattering, many negative – that had crystallised around them. Their true nature was obscured by false assumptions and fixed ideas. To paint an accurate picture, I wanted to go through the dirty laundry and great achievements, and get close to the Swiss at their best and at their worst.

Did the Swiss really help the Nazis? Are Swiss women stuck in the past? Are the Swiss xenophobic? Is there even such as thing as a real Swiss person? How did these people get so rich? And what’s going on with the banks?

This book introduces an engaging cast of Swiss characters – refugees from Stalin’s Soviet Union, one of the country’s last surviving suffragettes, a street-sweeper philosopher, a pragmatic private banker and a president with no regrets, to name but a few. It also provides all the context you need to make your mind up about this complex and dynamic land.

Have a look at the Bergli Books catalogue for autumn 2016 (The Naked Swiss is on page 6) for the full list of chapters. If you are a long-term planner, you can pre-order the book here. So far it’s only available to pre-order on German-language websites (although the book is in English) but I’ll let you know as soon as the English-language Bergli website has the book for sale.

If you are interested in keeping up to date on The Naked Swiss, I’ve just started a Facebook page which will be a good source of book news and related events over the next three months ahead of publication in October. Now that we’re on the subject of non-fiction, what is your favourite non-fiction book?

 

The Gustav Sonata gets Switzerland right, beautifully

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When I heard Rose Tremain’s new book, The Gustav Sonata, was set in Switzerland, I could not wait to get my hands on it. Knowing she had a particular gift for evoking time and place, I had to see what she would do with the challenging setting of Switzerland during the Second World War.

From the first page, I was struck by how exquisite this novel is. Tremain delivers on all three fronts – story, characters and writing. The first of three parts is written from the point of view of the protagonist, Gustav, as a boy. I wanted to rush in and rescue this darling child. The middle part shows us how his ill-fated parents met each other and drifted towards their ruin. The third ‘movement’ brings us close to the present day, where we meet Gustav again in late middle age, the proprietor of a hotel and lonely heart.

Tremain fits so much human frailty and so many wrong turnings in these pages, inspiring compassion for every character, even those with awful failings. At the same time, she captures the atmosphere of small-town Swiss society and has an amazing touch for the environment and cadence of language, so much so that you feel you could be reading a Swiss work in translation. No chisel marks are visible on her sentences – they seem to have come into existence ready-made and perfect.

There are so many stories in one here, set against one of the biggest stories of all, the persecution and genocide of the Jews in the Nazi Germany. The character of Gustav’s father, an assistant police chief, is inspired by a real Swiss police chief, Paul Grüniger who risked his career by falsifying documents to admit 3,000 Jewish refugees into Switzerland illegally. Like Gustav’s father, Erich Perle, Grüniger was dismissed from his position and disgraced for this crime.

The Gustav Sonata is a story of a man who, by being true to his own humanity, will lose everything he holds dear. It is also a story of a lovely boy and his troubled mother who cannot see the treasure she has in him, and the story of a mismatched couple who fail at the first test. Through it all runs the special relationship and lifelong friendship between two sensitive boys, Gustav from a poor and loveless home and the much more privileged Anton.

One chapter in my non-fiction book examines the role of Switzerland during the Second World War, which has been severely criticised over the years. Switzerland’s record in taking in Jewish refugees during the war is mixed. Although it was one of the main routes out of Nazi territory for several years and thousands of Jews were able to transit through Switzerland or find refuge there, the border was closed against Jews in their greatest hour of need. Worst of all, in 1938 the Swiss asked the Germans to stamp the passports of Jewish citizens with a red letter J so that they could identify and turn back likely refugees without having to resort to imposing a visa requirement on all Germans.  The chief of the aliens police Heinrich Rothmund welcomed the move, maintaining that he did not want Switzerland to be “swamped” by people unable to assimilate to the Swiss way of life. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

Swiss President Kaspar Villiger issued a public apology for the treatment of Jewish refugees in 1995: “There is no doubt in my mind that our policy has brought guilt upon us. By introducing the so-called Jewish stamp, Germany was complying with a request made by Switzerland. At that time in an excessively narrow interpretation of our country’s interest, we made a wrong decision. The Federal Council deeply regrets this, and apologises for it, in the full knowledge that such a failure is ultimately inexcusable.”

It has to be remembered that most other European countries and the United States either imposed strict quotas on Jewish refugees or tried to restrict any Jewish immigration before and during the first half of the war. There was a change of heart but it came too late to save most European Jews.

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Most Swiss villages have a shooting range where men do annual target practice as part of their military service, a legacy of the war years #ordinaryswitzerland

 

To get back to The Gustav Sonata, and an interesting note about how novelists get their ideas. While I was reading, I was struck by how familiar the circumstances of the Perle family seemed. And then I read the acknowledgments where Tremain mentions the debt she owes to Mitya New’s 1997 book, Switzerland Unwrapped: Exposing the Myths. I came across this book during my research for my book on Switzerland. It was written by New after some years working as a Reuters journalist in Zurich. The book is a series of interviews with key Swiss individuals whose views and experiences shed light on Swiss society, narrated in the first person if I remember rightly. It is a great selection. One of the New’s subjects is Ruth Rhoduner, the daughter of Police Chief Grüniger. There is also an interview with a leading banker and a woman from a Swiss Yenish (gypsy) family who was forcible taken into care. And, another theme that feeds into the novel, a description of a day out at a Schwingen festival, a traditional Swiss wrestling sport.

Tremain’s novel is set in the fictional town of Mazlingen. I’d love to know how much time she spent in Switzerland researching this book. Did she stay in an earnest little hotel like Gustav Perle’s and go for walks through sleepy valleys dotted with cherry trees? Considering that the last novel I read by Tremain was set in New Zealand during the gold rush of the 1860s, it is possible she was able to rely purely on good research and her gift for recreating a distant place and time.

I really enjoyed how Tremain portrayed the ordinariness of Switzerland – the everyday food and drink, modest homes, plain streets and dull jobs that are hardly ever seen by tourists. Recently, I’ve been having some fun on Twitter, inviting people to post pictures using the hashtag #ordinaryswitzerland, just to remind ourselves and others that we don’t live in a spectacular film set. We tend to automatically post pretty views of our surroundings on social media. It’s been refreshing keeping an eye out for the less lovely views and watching others do the same.

Looking forward to hearing your reaction to The Gustav Sonata (or Tremain’s other novels) or any of the other themes I’ve touched on today. Have a great start to the summer!

Strawberries for the self-employed

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A year has gone by since I walked away from a permanent job that ticked almost all the boxes for me. It was part-time, an easy commute, I liked my boss, the money was fine and the people were great. But something was missing.

That something was freedom. The Pocahontas in me wanted the freedom to discover new professional territory, and the freedom to say no sometimes.

I have no illusions about work. No matter what your job, you have to spend most of the time digging and planting in order to have days (or brief moments) when you can eat sun-kissed strawberries. The same rule applies whether you are working for yourself or for someone else. But in my case, I have found that being self-employed gives me a better digging to strawberry-eating ratio. And home-grown strawberries also taste better.

Looking back over the last 12 months, I’m pleased with the range of work I’ve found. One thing I’ve learned about being self-employed is that it is very much about relationships. I’m lucky to have made connections with good people. I’ve worked on a mix of writing and translation projects for corporate, scientific and media clients. I registered my own company (easy) and sorted out the paperwork for national insurance (not easy). After going to hell and back with my old laptop, I finally bought a new one which has been very obedient so far.

The challenging part of working from home has been keeping my work time fenced off from family duties. Swiss school hours don’t make this any easier. But I’ve got so used to working with interruptions now, I probably couldn’t work uninterrupted anymore!

The most unexpected and exciting project to come from my new freelance life is the book about Switzerland I am very close to completing. When I left the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation last year, one of the things on my list was to submit a proposal for a non-fiction book to Bergli Books in Basel. That proposal was ultimately developed into the book that will be published in October. I’m looking forward to announcing the title and cover as soon as the publisher’s catalogue is ready.

I saw in a recent report that 28% of Swiss citizens work at least one half day per week at home, and one in four are self-employed. Of the remaining 75%, one third would like to go freelance in the next yearIt’s not always a smooth transition. On my previous two attempts at working freelance I struggled to find enough work. But that was at an earlier stage in my career in a different economic climate. It helps too to have a broader base of activities. What is your perspective on working from home or working for yourself? Anyone thinking of taking the plunge?

Magpie at the Geneva Writers’ Conference

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I’ve just returned from an exhilarating weekend at the Geneva Writers Conference and I know I’ll be sifting through all those impressions and key pieces of information and advice for months to come. For now, I’d like to post this magpie-style round-up of some of the inspiring ideas and people from the workshops and panel discussions I attended.

The wonderful English novelist and short story writer Tessa Hadley gave a workshop on Beginnings. One of my favourite short story collections is Married Love by Hadley so I was particularly keen to hear her speak. I can only describe her teaching style as joyful. The students in her creative writing class at Bath Spa University College are very lucky.

On the subject of beginnings, Hadley said: “There’s probably no rule for beginning a book except one: it should begin with force.”

I was paying particularly close attention because I am currently working on the opening of my book about Switzerland. The challenge is to make the opening lines “intelligent, odd or interesting”, Hadley said, so that the reader will want to spend time with you and see how the puzzle unfolds.

With revising, Hadley said we have to be able to approach the text with fresh eyes, as if reading it for the first time. “One of the most important skills of being a writer is to learn to be your own reader.”

The non-fiction author Andrea Stuart made some observations that really struck a chord with me. She spoke about the sense of loss that comes with the end of a project when you realise it is not going to be the dream masterpiece that you imagined. This is what makes letting go difficult.

“We have to accept the limitations of what we can do gracefully,” she said. And learn from it, go on to do better.

“We all have passion and uncertainty we’re trying to work through, and we resent it but it is essential,” Stuart said.

The Barbadian-British writer described the confidence that she has drawn from her writing, which includes a biography of Josephine Bonaparte (The Rose of Martinique) and Showgirls, a collective biography of female performers throughout history to the present day. Her 2012 book Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire gave her a great sense of pride. “It bolstered me, made me feel I could intercede in debates about British life.”

Hearing directly from two inspirational writers in one weekend would have been amazing enough but there were many other excellent speakers. Publishing consultant Jane Friedman patiently and skilfully explained what authors need to know about their online presence. Her website provides a wealth of information on navigating the industry and making smart decisions in the digital age.

The final inspiring speaker I’d like to mention is JJ Marsh, a Zurich-based crime writer who co-founded a writers’ collective called Triskele Books. The five Triskele writers are based in three different countries but they pool their skills and energy to publish their books independently.

Among the challenges authors face, Marsh said, is the fact that writing is a solitary occupation. But there is great support to be found, even if you need to start a writers’ group yourself. Marsh mentioned various associations and groups and said it’s a question of figuring out where you belong. Her full talk on community, networking and resources, with lots of helpful links, is here.

There was an amazing friendly atmosphere at the conference, probably because everyone was so delighted to be let out to play at last. A big thank you to the organisers from the Geneva Writers’ Group whose hard work gave us all such a positive experience. Now for that forceful beginning …

(photo credit: cowboy54 @ freedigitalphotos.net)

 

 

 

The Favour, a short story

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Naming is claiming. This was the parting idea for my short story, The Favour, which was published in The Irish Times on Saturday as part of the Hennessy New Irish Writing competition. I was interested in the statement of freedom and ownership first expressed by parents when they choose a name for their child.

It is the first decision an outsider (and everyone is an outsider to new parents) may object to, though usually not openly. Many more life-shaping decisions will follow. But what if the parentage of the child was unconventional? How much more complex and fraught the situation could be if someone else was involved in bringing the child into the world.

Please be my guest and read the story here before I reveal too much.

In this story Maeve does a large favour for her sister that turns out to have unexpected dimensions. Maeve came to me as a fully-formed character. She sees herself as strong and free-spirited, capable of great things. And yet she finds her life slipping by with no sign of the great things. When the opportunity comes along to do something noble and momentous, she grabs it. Her grand gesture is a means of securing life tenure of the good sister role. But can she impress her emotionally unavailable mother?

It’s important to say that my story is just an imagined set of circumstances, which are not meant to make a definitive statement about the reality of surrogacy. However, if you are interested in the subject, this fascinating radio documentary, first broadcast in July 2015 on Irish public radio is worth a listen. Seven Years and Nine Months is an unvarnished account of a couple’s quest to have the family of their dreams through surrogacy.

I wrote The Favour a year ago and the story spent many months languishing on various submission piles. I hope this will encourage other writers who believe they are on the right track to keep polishing their work and searching for the right home.

While on the subject of the short story, I have to recommend a wonderful new anthology of Irish women writers. The Long Gaze Back, edited by Sinéad Gleeson and published by New Island, is a collection of 30 stories spanning four centuries, that showcases all the amazing possibilities of the form (review to follow on the blog).

Finally, a word of thanks to Niall McArdle (fellow Hennessy New Irish Writing finalist) and Cathy Brown for suggesting I include this blogpost in their annual celebration of Irish culture, The Begorrathon.

(Image courtesy of tuelekza at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

 

 

 

 

Clueless in Paris, London or New York

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I am eighteen years old and living alone in Paris. It is my first time away from home. The cash I brought with me covered one month’s rent but only a fortnight of living expenses. Pay day is two weeks away and my first credit card is eight years in the future.

For now, the Irish pub that promised to hire me full time is only able to give me three shifts per week – working from 5pm to 2am. My French is not good enough to look for another job. No, that’s just an excuse. I could work as a chambermaid but I am not brave enough to go knocking on hotel doors. Next year I will have the courage, but I don’t know that yet.

There is an older man who comes to the bar every night and has taken a rather unsettling interest in me. He wears a loose-fitting white linen shirt and his beard is patchy. One afternoon, walking through Les Halles on my way to work, he appears from nowhere, hands me a poem written on white card, and scurries away. The handwritten poem mentions swans and breasts. I am mortified but I sense that he is harmless. In this instance my judgment is right.

The bar manager gives me money for a taxi at the end of each shift. Grubby and tired, I walk out of the side street and turn right towards the rue de Rivoli. Later I will adopt the habit of stopping for a blackcurrant sorbet in one of the late-night cafes, but for now I need the money for proper food. So I walk home through the streets of Paris in the small hours, still amazed at the fact that it can be warm at night.

This flash memoir is inspired by Áine Greaney, a transatlantic Irish author living on Boston’s North Shore. Last week I came across an extract from Greaney’s compelling memoir, where she describes her experience as a young emigrant leaving Ireland for the United States in the 1980s. That’s what got me thinking about my first shaky steps towards (short-lived) independence in a foreign land. Greaney’s account, published in the online journal Numéro Cinq and taken from her book What Brought You Here?, takes us to Dublin in 1986 on the day when the young Mayo woman is on her way to the American embassy for her visa interview. After thirty years in the United States, the homepage image on the author’s website is an airport departure lounge.

Pass the lawnmower

I have read numerous articles about helicopter parenting, but I was surprised to discover that there is a new mutation of this syndrome – lawnmower parenting. These are the parents who clear all obstacles from their children’s path, the ones who drive university admissions teams to drink.

It’s easy to laugh but the more I think about it, the more I understand how difficult it must be let young people stand on their own two feet. When you could save them so much trouble! I was singularly unprepared for my stay in Paris and I can’t imagine ever letting a daughter of mine take off like that into the unknown.

When I was young it was normal for our generation to conceal our private lives from our parents, fill out our own forms and make our own plans. We neither expected nor wanted them to be involved in everything we did, let alone make decisions for us. The time for being close could come later. This independence meant facing risks and problems, and it was how we learned resourcefulness.

But in the new family, bound together by open communication and the sharing of feelings, we now have parents who cultivate a close and equal relationship with their kids. This has to be a good thing, until it becomes too much of a good thing. Like good servants, parents anticipate their children’s needs, helping them to negotiate their way through puberty (now celebrated, when it used to be dreaded), providing practical support and advice when the youngsters become sexually active (as opposed to never EVER mentioning the word sex), and taking on the project of finding the best studies and career path. There is no divide between your world and their world; everyone is on the same team. But where in this osmosis-type relationship is there an opportunity to cut the apron strings?

I’ve interviewed people who were sent away from their family home, or children’s institution, at the age of twelve to work. This was not uncommon in Switzerland and Ireland in the bad old days, when fostering, especially in rural communities, was based on paying your way with hard work.

Young Swiss people between 16 and 18 years of age are now likely to be sent away on all-expenses-paid language-learning trips, staying with host families. From the moment they set foot on foreign soil they are in the care of parents just like their own.

I was talking to a cousin of mine about this recently. After completing a one-year secretarial course in Dublin (we’re back in the 1980s), she moved to London with a friend to start her working life at the age of 18. She told her parents she had somewhere to stay but the two girls had no fixed plans and just enough money to pay for a few weeks of cheap accommodation. Proper preparation would have meant more time saving and making arrangements but they were young and impatient for a new life to begin. Luckily they found jobs quickly, overcame the challenges of the new city, and their parents were never the wiser about what a precarious start they’d had. The whole adventure would never have happened if the parents hadn’t trusted in the girls’ abilities in the first place.

I’m off to see Brooklyn tomorrow. I enjoyed the book, although I found it a little quiet. Academy Street, another story of Irish female emigration in the 1950s, had a much more powerful current to it. So many novels, for both children and adults, deal with the arrival of a young person in a new place. I don’t think that story ever gets old. When was the first time you had to manage alone away from home? Was it ultimately a positive experience? I hope so.