Plastic forks and breadcrumbs in non-fiction

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The biggest challenge when writing non-fiction on a serious subject is to keep the reader engaged. You have mountains of information but how to package it? My approach is to give the reader enough entertaining breadcrumbs to follow so that they don’t get bogged down in the statistics and analysis.

While researching the book I was constantly on the look-out for these breadcrumbs/nuggets. This quote, for example, from the Archbishop of Dublin talking about his diocese: “there are more members of the current cabinet under the age of 45 than there are priests of that age in the diocese.”

Apart from killer quotes, I also used photographs, anecdotes, memoir, reportage and, in one chapter of The Naked Irish, a piece of micro fiction. I also tried to keep a conversational style to avoid straying into textbook territory.

Another way the reader keeps his or her sense of direction is from the structure of the book. If it is strong enough, the reader should never wonder what a particular passage is doing there. It should always make sense.

When I was writing the chapter about whether the Irish want a united Ireland, I wanted to come up with a suitable allegory for the three-way relationship between Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. It was no easy task.

At first I was leaning towards the broken home comparison, which works up to a point. The UK is the somewhat reluctant father who has custody of the troublesome child, and Ireland is the mother who lost custody but has been trying for years to get her baby back.

There was also the option of bringing romance into it. Ireland is the rejected suitor who is still holding a candle for the North, an incurable optimist who cannot and will not move on. Meanwhile the North is smitten with the dashing prince next door who is staring at the ceiling, wishing he was somewhere else instead. A double dose of unrequited love.

For an unreconstructed Irish nationalist interpretation, you cannot beat Tommy Makem’s best-known folk song, Four Green Fields, written in 1967. Ireland is the field-owning old woman lamenting that one of her four ‘jewels’ is ‘in bondage in stranger’s hands’, despite her sons’ best efforts.

‘But my sons had sons, as brave as were their fathers

My fourth green field will bloom once again said she.’

This old lady wouldn’t be into any new-fangled ideas such as agreed solutions, or the principle of consent or respecting different identities. A battle is what she is envisaging, one she expects her sons to win.

What none of these set pieces takes into account is that Northern Ireland is not a single entity that can be represented by a single role.

In the end I imagined something that combined economics and identity: Northern Ireland as a company. This is an excerpt from the opening of the chapter:

Imagine a small company that makes plastic forks. It has always lost money but has survived because it belongs to a big company that produces stainless steel forks. The big company has said more than once that it has no strategic or economic interest in holding onto the plastic fork company.

A few miles away, a medium-sized company that makes plastic knives is keeping a close eye. This company is looking to grow and believes a merger with the plastic fork company would be the best way forward. It hires a plane to fly over the plastic fork company pulling a banner that reads, ‘YOU COMPLETE ME’.

But the staff and management of the plastic fork company are split. A narrow majority of the board are firm believers in the fork business. Their fathers and grandfathers made forks and were part of a great fork tradition best represented by the big fork company. They don’t like change and they don’t trust knife-makers. The rest of the board, well disposed towards plastic knives, argue in vain for a brighter future of plastic forks and knives together under one roof. We’re all plastic at the end of the day, they say. No surrender, say the forkmen.

The plastic knife company settles down for a long wait.

The Naked Irish is two months old today! As good a time as any to give an update on the book and other work I’ve been doing.

There have been several highlights since I last wrote about the book. The first is the review that was published by the Irish Independent newspaper on November 16. I had no idea who had been commissioned to read the book or what they would make of it so of course I imagined the worst. But the review, by Darragh McManus, was very favourable, and fair in my opinion. Here’s a taste:

O’Dea is ideally placed to cast an eye – not cold, as per Yeats, but with the necessary coolness of the investigative journalist and/or social scientist – over our foibles and delusions. She brings the perspective of an outsider, leavened with a genuine grá [love] for, and understanding of, her homeland: a potent mix.

Another big day was October 28 when I went into the Radio Centre in RTE to be interviewed by Ella McSweeney on the Tubridy Show. The podcast of the 20-minute interview is available here.

Back in Switzerland, I was invited to Lausanne-based Books Books Books to have an author event at the shop. It became a sort of Swiss launch and there was a great atmosphere on the day. This was the first time my children got to see me in my public role as an author. Makes a nice change from seeing me hunched over the laptop, scowling at the screen.

On the journalism side, I’ve had two articles published on swissinfo.ch recently that might be of interest. One is about a group of tenants in Zurich who are being evicted from their apartments – owned by Credit Suisse Pension Fund. This is a story with lots of layers which reveals the tension between tenants’ needs and the investor’s prerogative, which is to make money.

The second article is a profile of Irish right-to-die campaigner Tom Curran, who comes to Switzerland often in the course of his work. Tom Curran is well known in Ireland as the partner of Marie Fleming whose 2013 case seeking the right to assisted suicide ended up in the Supreme Court in Ireland.

The last bit of work-related news is that I will be moderating a panel discussion on Brexit and direct democracy on Monday 2 December in St. Gallen University. More information on the event here. It’s free and open to the public but you do have to register.

Just one more thing. If you have read and enjoyed The Naked Irish, don’t forget to rate and review the book online. The book is listed on amazon.co.uk and on Goodreads. The more reviews, the merrier!

 

The Naked Irish, in all good bookshops!

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Even though The Naked Irish is my second book, it feels a bit like a debut because it’s the first book of mine to be published in Ireland. It has been a very happy experience launching the book in Dublin and getting the word out about it.

There was a great turnout for the launch in Hodges Figgis book shop in Dublin, a lovely reminder that I still have an Irish community. I’m very grateful to friends and family who came along and to other supporters who were curious to hear about the book. Ger Holland took some fantastic photos on the night and I can’t resist sharing a few of them here.

One highlight of the launch day was having an extract from the book published in The Irish Times online edition. Also that week I took part in interviews with various local radio stations. This interview with Deirdre Walsh of Radio Kerry will give you an idea of the reaction to the book. In this piece, I explain why I wrote The Naked Irish.

After such a long time spent in solitary concentration it is wonderful to be out in the world with my book and to be able to talk about it. The subjects that are attracting the most interest are drink, Irish writers, religion and the prospect of a united Ireland.

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Before I left Dublin I did an in-depth interview on the Motherfoclóir podcast with Darach ó Séaghdha. An author and Irish language activist, Darach is a relaxed and skilful interviewer and the time flew by as we discussed everything from the dubious origins of our national stereotypes to language learning to Swiss referendum fatigue.

I have a big interview coming up on national radio at the end of month. I’ll reveal more about that as soon as I can.

One of my pet hates is the stereotype of the foolish old Irish Mammy and I touch on this in the chapter about women. I decided to expand on the issue in an article for the Irish Independent Weekend Review and you can read that for free after a straightforward log in. The trope is more popular than ever and I see it as an erasure of the achievements of a generation of women who went through so much to give us a better life.

It’s been pleasure working with the friendly team at Mentor Books / Red Stag. Early Christmas shoppers take note, The Naked Irish: Portrait of a Nation Beyond the Clichés is available directly from their website or from book shops all over Ireland. The book is also available for international delivery from bookdepository.com and amazon.co.uk.

With so many books coming out every week, even in a small market like Ireland, The Naked Irish needs as much support as possible to get some momentum going. Online customer reviews are hugely important. If you do read the book and enjoy it, don’t forget to rate it somewhere and write a review, even if it’s just one line. You’ll find the book listed on these links on Goodreads and Amazon.

I think that’s everything, apart from one more photo from Ger Holland. Have a great weekend and I’ll be back soon with more news and links to some interesting features I’ve been working on about Switzerland.

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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.

 

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?

 

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?

Good news about my Swiss book deal

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I am delighted to announce that I have signed a book deal with Swiss publisher Bergli Books for a non-fiction book about Switzerland. I believe this country is hopelessly misunderstood and a little unloved. Armed only with a cheap laptop, I intend to stress-test the stereotypes, and change the narrative about Switzerland.

People always say you should write the book only you could write. That’s what I’m doing now. I came to Switzerland in 2003 on the love train (actually an Aer Lingus flight to Geneva). Since then I have experienced the country on many levels – as an immigrant, a journalist, a foreign spouse, and mother of three Swiss children.

Churchill famously said that Russia was a riddle, inside a mystery, wrapped in an enigma. At times Switzerland has felt like that to me too. But over the past decade of covering Swiss news for swissinfo.ch, and navigating everyday life, I feel I have stripped away the layers and got closer to understanding the Swiss soul. I’m ready to share the good and the bad about the Swiss.

This book will introduce readers to the real face of Switzerland, from presidents to poets, from bankers to street sweepers. At the same time it will paint a faithful picture of the political, cultural, economic and historic landscape.

Recently I wrote about rejection on this blog because it was becoming my specialized subject. I was getting used to it. In fact I was even getting good at it. After all that I can’t tell you how good it feels to take this long-awaited step towards being an author.

The title of the book has yet to be confirmed. The release date is also still being worked out by teams of experts (well maybe one small team), but I’m expecting it to be sooner rather than later. In the meantime I have a lot of work to do and will keep you posted on progress.

I’ll leave you with one small interesting fact. Bergli Books is an imprint of the Swiss publisher Schwabe, which was established in Basel in 1488, making it the oldest publishing house in the world.