What’s another year? Shifting goalposts in 2019

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I didn’t write a round-up of 2018. Looking back, this was probably because not much went according to plan. It was a year of near misses professionally. The only big project I managed to salvage was the book that became The Naked Irish. I signed with Mentor Books / Red Stag in November 2018 and the book was published in September 2019.

Other plans that went by the wayside last year after a lot of work and anticipation included a book translation project, an application to do a Master’s, a possible job in Basel, submission of a middle grade novel and a memoir writing business. But just when I was beginning to think everything I touched turned to ashes, I got that much-needed yes from Mentor Books.

So there was a point in time when all I wanted was for a publisher to accept the book about Ireland and publish it. But as soon as that became a reality, the goalposts shifted. It wasn’t enough just for the book to be published any more, I wanted it to be a critical success. I wanted reviews to confirm that I had done a good job.

From my point of view, the book has been a critical success, with positive reviews appearing in the Irish Independent, the Business Post and The Irish Times. It is on sale all over Ireland and was hopefully under many Christmas trees this year.

Now, I notice that my greedy writer goalposts have shifted again. Suddenly, Ireland is not enough. I want the book to be a commercial success and that means looking beyond the small Irish market. After all, The Irish Times review said the book would appeal to readers outside Ireland who have reasons for peering in. People like Irish Americans. They should obviously read The Naked Irish too, ideally in great numbers. God, it’s exhausting.

No, instead of obsessing about US publishers, I would like to savour the moment. That’s what Christmas is all about, isn’t it? I want to be thankful for everything I’ve achieved so far and all the good things that have happened in 2019. I already have more than I could have hoped for a year ago. It is enough, as these photos remind me.

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In January, I went to Ireland on a short research trip for the book. I had so much work ahead of me but this was the best part, the last bit of real-life research. I had meetings set up in Belfast and Ballyjamesduff and I interviewed the veteran women’s rights campaigner, Ailbhe Smyth, in Dublin. I also recorded two radio essays for RTE’s Sunday Miscellany, and enjoyed time with family and friends.

This is a photo from the drive to Co. Cavan. I chose Ballyjamesduff as a case-study because it perfectly represents the two sides of the Irish emigration story. On the one hand, the town is associated with emigration thanks to Percy French’s 1912 song, Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff. On the other hand, it has the fourth highest immigrant population of all Irish towns with 30 per cent non-national residents. I got a warm welcome at the local school, St Clare’s College. My mother came with me as co-driver and she visited the local emigration museum (coincidence!) while I was at the school. We had a lovely lunch on the way back in this village, Virginia, and plenty of time to chat on the journey.

In March, I finally got to visit James Joyce’s grave in Zurich at the instigation of my cousin Jennifer, who was visiting from Ireland. We spent a wonderful day together in the city with time to talk and had a memorable conversation about life and death at the graveyard. There were murmurings this year about moving Joyce’s body back to Dublin. Such nonsense, he’s fine where he is, really.

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Also in March, I had a writing weekend away in Wilderswil in the Berner Oberland. It’s the second time I’ve gone away with this small group of writers. The village is quiet off-season and we stay in a nice little hotel and meet for meals in between writing sessions. The perfect mix of solitude and good company. This was the view from my room.

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The big event in June was the Women’s Strike in Switzerland. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets all over Switzerland on the 14th. I went along to my local demonstration in Fribourg with two friends. We wanted to draw attention to all the unresolved equality issues in Switzerland and elsewhere. The energy and feeling of unity in the crowd was amazing. As the white sign here says: ‘If you’re here it means you get it’. I don’t always feel like I’m fully connected to Swiss society. This was one of the good days.

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In July, one day that stands out is when I took a hike with my daughter and the dog. She had a few days home alone while the other two were at camps. It was a very hot day and we took the train to the neighbouring town of Düdingen to walk back home. I know the area well but I’d never walked it so it was a journey of discovery and we had a lovely relaxing, fun time together.

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We had a family version of this adventure when we took the train to Grenchen with our bikes one day in the summer and cycled along the Aare river to Solothurn. A week spent in Portugal with the extended family was another delightful escape from normal life.

September brought the launch of The Naked Irish in Dublin, a very happy occasion. Both my godparents were there, three generations of my family, my husband, friends from school, college, writing and work. It was a reunion really, a great reason to get together and celebrate. I had the pleasure of seeing my book on Irish shelves at last (photo by Ger Holland).

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A Swiss launch of The Naked Irish followed in November in Book Books Books in Lausanne, and, in December, I was asked to moderate a panel discussion on Brexit in the University of St. Gallen, organised by swissinfo.ch. It was my third time moderating this year – the first two were literary events: the Bibliotopia festival in May and Le Livre sur les quais in September. This is something I definitely want to do more of.

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It seems like most of my highlights this year involved spending time connecting with people and doing interesting work. There were plenty of humdrum days too but the year was also made richer by the books I read. Thanks to Goodreads, I know I read 50 books this year. You can view the list on that link, including some reviews. My favourite novels were Olive Again by Elizabeth Strout, The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey, The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman, and Hidden Latitudes by Alison Anderson.

I really enjoyed answering questions about my favourite non-fiction books for the website Smartthinkingbooks. You can read the interview here. Actually, I think a separate blog post is needed to talk about the books of 2019.

I hope you are fortunate enough, like me, to have a few more quiet days of freedom left before returning to the normal routine. If you scroll back through your photos of the year, may you find many good times to recall with a smile. Wishing everyone good health, harmony and goodwill in 2020.

The Naked Swiss translations are here!

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Today I am celebrating the good news that the French and German translations of The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths are out in the world. My copies arrived this week and I am delighted with the look and feel of the new books.

The publication of the translations coincides with the publication of the second edition of the original version, which has an extra chapter on the Swiss relationship with the European Union. For more about the second edition, check out this interview. The books are available online from the publishers Bergli Books and Helvetiq (German, French), from the usual online booksellers and in all good book shops in Switzerland.

The German title is Die Wahre Schweiz, which means the true or the real Switzerland, and the French is La Suisse mise à nu, which means Switzerland laid bare. The subtitles of both are the same: ‘A people and their 10 myths’. It has been a fascinating process working the with the translators to produce a text that was faithful to the original, as well as being crystal clear to readers from other cultures.

Also today, Swiss author Hans Durrer published a glowing review of The Naked Swiss, in which he praised the book as “highly informative”, “profoundly balanced” and “good storytelling”.

And the final bit of good news is the launch of this book trailer, created by Bergli Books. Enjoy!

How does author platform work?

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How much do you know about your favourite authors? Do you know what they are currently working on, their likes and dislikes, how they spend their free time? If I think of my favourite living writers, I have only the vaguest idea of biographical details or personality. When did we stop thinking this was normal?

The current wisdom on author platform suggests that the author inspires people to buy the book. What this means is that authors are under pressure to hook readers using their online presence. This is supposed to be a liberating development but the danger is it can enslave authors to the idea that they should Always Be Closing.

I once heard indie publishing guru Jane Friedman give a talk about platform where she said that people need to hear about a book an estimated eight times before they buy it. Does this mean authors have to make a lot of noise for their books to get noticed? It seems the lower down you are on the success chain, the less likely it is anyone else will make the noise for you, so yes.

As a reader, I don’t feel much curiosity about the person behind the book. I don’t feel the need to get to know them. If they are good I just want to keep reading their work. But most of my favourite authors have a high profile. Would I forget about them if their names didn’t keep popping up in the media?

In fact, I do forget about them for long stretches of time until I hear a radio interview, or see a festival programme, a tweet, a review. So these reminders are important, even for established writers. The author website is important too. We need to make it easy for our work to be discovered. After that it’s a question of narrowing down the best tools from a host of possibilities, including Facebook, Twitter, blogging, interviews, Goodreads, blog tours, giveaways, Youtube videos, podcasts, not to mention giving talks in person. But it’s impossible to do everything. It’s better to focus on the activities you are most comfortable with.

To approach the idea of platform from the other direction, a few days ago, I was asked for some book recommendations by a friend who has moved to a remote location. Two of the three books I recommended – The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and The Return by Hisham Matar were written by authors I had met at Le Livre sur les Quais festival at Morges last month. A literary festival or is a great source of inspiration but they don’t come along that often.

The other place I get ideas from is bookshops, and I am always glad to see my own book so well displayed in Swiss book shops. The other day I bought the new John le Carré at Dublin airport, which would not be a typical choice for me. And I’m enjoying it so far. Another book I’d like to recommend is Petina Gappah’s collection of short stories set in Zimbabwe, An Elegy for Easterly.

Book blogs, like A Life in Books , are also a great source of reviews and ideas. Friends also recommend books and I receive books as presents, most recently Roddy Doyle’s new novel Smile. Apart from that, media coverage plays a big role in the search for new titles, but that’s usually when it’s an author whose work I already know and like. Because I have no access to newspapers in English, the main places I come across reviews or book talk are Facebook and Twitter, so that kind of link sharing also comes into play.

It’s been one year since my book, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths, was published, I haven’t figured out all the mysteries of the author platform yet. But thinking about it certainly helps.  What do you, as a reader or an author, find most useful or appealing in authors’ online activity? Do you have any dos and don’ts to share?

Irish literary greats come to Lake Geneva

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Ireland is the guest country of honour at Le Livre sur les Quais literary festival in Morges this weekend, which means appearances by Anne Enright, Donal Ryan, Sara Baume, Kevin Barry, John Boyne, Paul McVeigh, and the winner of the 2017 Irish novel of the year award, Kit de Waal.

From what I know of other festival programmes, this gathering of Irish literary talent is unprecedented. The festival, which hosts 280 international writers, mainly from the French-speaking world, is free and open to the general public. It is one of the prettiest towns on Lake Geneva. Don’t let the rain keep you away.

Apart from being thrilled at the golden opportunity to meet some of my literary heroes and to hear them speak, the other reason I am harping on about Le livre sur les quais is that it is the first literary festival I will be taking part in as an author.

I’ll be joining Diccon Bewes and Padraig Rooney to discuss ‘Switzerland, Brexit and the new European reality’ at 4.30pm on Sunday in the Cave du Couvaloup. The debate will be hosted by Ed Girardet.

Bern-based Diccon Bewes, a household name in Switzerland, is British and a best-selling author of books about Switzerland. Padraig Rooney, author of The Gilded Chalet, is from the border region of Northern Ireland and has lived in Basel for many years. An interesting mix of perspectives on Europe!

Morges is known for its giant author tent on the lake shore, where writers sign their books and meet readers. More than one hundred and fifty events including panel discussions, conversations, talks, readings and films are taking place in various venues around the town as well as on board cruise ships.

Below is the full English programme. Hope to see you in Morges!

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Friday, 1st September

18.00-19.00 – What Next in Irish Fiction? /Ou va la literature irlandaise? With Paul McVeigh, Donal Ryan, Anne Enright . Moderated by Matthew Wake – In English with the translation into French by Lesley Viet- Jacobsen. Venue: St Jeanne.   English/French

Saturday, 2nd September

11h – 12h15 – Exile, Memory and Refugee Experience with Jason Donald, Hisham Matar, Melissa Fleming.  Moderated by Ed Girardet. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

13h – 14h45 – Dystopias, Utopias and Places of Escape with Rachel Joyce, Claire Vaye Watkins and Emmanuel Bergmann.  Moderated by Michelle Bailat Jones. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

15h – 16h15- Irish Encounters: turbulent families with Anne Enright, Sara Baume, Donal Ryan.  Moderated by Helen Stubbs Pugin. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

15h – 16h15 – After Arab Revolutions/Apres la revolution arabe:  Hisham Matar in conversation with Thierry Meyer – with translation into French by Lesley Viet-Jacobsen. Venue: Sainte-Jeanne.  English/French

16.30-18.00Writing History with John Boyne and Emmanuel Bergmann.  Moderated by Helen Stubbs Pugin. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

16.30 – Thriller sans Frontiers : Denise Mina et Bernard Minier en conversation – Moderation: Nine Simon et la traduction Lesley Viet-Jacobsen. Venue Sainte Jeanne.          English/French

17.00-18.00 – Claire Vaye Watkins – lecture bilingue – Moderated by Michelle Bailat Jones. Venue: Nouvelle Couronne Cave.                                                               English/French

Also a fiction writing workshop:

15.30-17.30 – Fiction Writing Workshop: Perfectly flawed characters – Teacher: Jason Donald (in partnership with Geneva Writers’ Group), venue: Grenier Bernois, Bibliothèque Adulte. With prior registrations to gwg.workshops@gmail.com

Sunday, 3rd September

11-12.15 – Irish Encounters:  Place and Landscape in Irish fiction with Kevin Barry, Kit de Waal, Sara Baume.  Moderated by Matthew Wake. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

12.30-13.40 – GWG cruise – Debut Novelists on Writing and Publishing with Paul McVeigh and Kit de Waal.  Moderated by Elizabeth Coleman – tickets to buy online or from the ticket office. Boat – Le Lausanne, boarding on the quay.

13.30-14.45 – Writing Crime with Denise Mina, Ruth Ware, Sophie Hannah. Moderated by Ed Girardet. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

15.00-16.15– Writing on the Borders with Rachel Joyce, Ruth Ware, Kevin Barry.  Moderated by Michelle Bailat-Jones. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

15.00 – 16.15 – Fictive ou reele – heros pour toujours:  Sophie Hannah, Vivianne Perret – Anime par Elise Lepine et traduit par Lesley Viet-Jacobsen. Venue : Sainte Jeanne.                                                                                                                                       English/French

16h30 – 17h45 – Switzerland, Brexit and the New European reality with Clare O’Dea, Padraig Rooney, Diccon Bewes.  Moderated by Ed Girardet. Venue: Cave de Couvaloup.

Cruise:

12.30-13.40 – GWG cruise – Debut Novelists on Writing and Publishing  with Paul Mc Veigh and Kit de Waal.  Moderated by Elizabeth Coleman – boat: Le Lausanne. Tickets to book online or from the ticket office.

GWG Creative Writing Workshops –Grenier Bernois – bibliotheque adulte. To pre-register at gwg.workshops@gmail.com

10.30-12.00 – Fiction Writing Workshop: Showing not telling – Teacher: Susan Jane Gilman (in partnership with Geneva Writers’ Group)

15.30-17.00 – Non-fiction Writing Workshop: Writing effective memoir – Teacher: Susan Jane Gilman (in partnership with Geneva Writers’ Group)

The cheapest way to travel

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Reading is by far the cheapest way to travel. And it often beats the real thing. This summer I spent a lot of time in the United States, including an action-packed week in New York and pleasant stays in Southern California, Connecticut and Virginia. I enjoyed several days in a nineteenth century resort on the North Sea, and also travelled to a made-up Portuguese province called Barba.

I read two tragic memoirs, abandoned one novel in exasperation and finished two that I really didn’t enjoy. But overall, it’s been a happy journey with most books ending up on the ‘liked’ and ‘loved’ shelves. Maybe you’ll find something here for your autumn reading list.

Starting with the best: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara is a phenomenal piece of work. This book was apparently the sensation of 2015. Not sure how I missed that. Two central drivers make the story totally gripping – one is the resolution that the reader craves for the main character, our wish for him to find inner peace; the other is the wait for the full revelation of what terrible thing(s) happened to him to cause so much misery. The latter is dragged out to the nth degree but it didn’t matter because the writing was so good. Besides, I just wanted to stay in that world.

I don’t know how a book about a man in extreme physical pain and emotional torment is so enchanting but, trust me, it is. The novel supposedly follows the friendship between four young men who meet in university and form a bond for life, but there is only one star in this show and that’s the ever-suffering Jude. Many other intellectually and artistically brilliant characters (all of whom adore Jude) allow us to vicariously enjoy all the possible ways one can live life to the full. There is a fair amount of repetition in the book along with lavish descriptions of luxury lifestyles. But it was fine. Even the bottomless goodness of the good characters versus the bottomless evil of the bad characters was acceptable in this operatic book.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett is a good old-fashioned American family drama told over several decades. Two marriages in Southern California break up when the father of one family starts an affair with the mother of the other family at her baby’s christening party. The opening party scene is brilliant. We are left to follow the destinies of the six children of these two couples who become step siblings. The children’s anger and confusion fuels anarchic behaviour which ultimately leads to them being bound together for life by tragedy.

In I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice, the writer charts her family’s struggle since her husband was diagnosed with Motor Neuron Disease. A free-spirited Irish couple with young children, they were living a charmed life before the disease knocked everything down. Not quite everything. The pair went on to have twins, choosing to fight death with life. Simon Fitzmaurice wrote and directed a film relying on eye gaze technology to communicate. And Ruth has produced this brave book. There is so much to take from her in extremis perspectives on friendship, motherhood, love and marriage, pain and loss, and of course illness.

Fitzmaurice writes with eloquence and rage. The realities of caring for a loved one with a paralysing illness are familiar to me which made the memoir resonate all the more. I will remember this book for a long time. Ruth Fitzmaurice talks a lot of the joys of swimming in the cold Irish Sea, something I was happy to have the chance to do again this summer (in real life), hence the photo above.

In an effort to broaden my German literature horizons, and inspired by a chapter in Padraig Rooney’s The Gilded Chalet, I decided to take on the challenge of reading the classic doorstopper Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann.

It tells the story of four generations of the wealthy Buddenbrook family. I plodded through the 850 pages (in English, don’t worry) in increasing admiration, especially as the author was so young when he wrote it. A brilliant depiction of a family, a class and a town, written with an enjoyable helping of satire but also compassion.

Mann recreates a century in the life of a community. At times we view group scenes from a distance as a set piece, while at other times the action is painfully intimate. I’m amazed at how many moments rang true for me as a modern reader. What he does with the internal life of the main characters is astounding. Maybe unsurprisingly, the men are the more complex and interesting characters, with the women presented more as simple or enigmatic creatures. But that fits the era, sadly. How Mann so perfectly understood and was able to capture the ennui and awful weight of respectability of generations of the Buddenbrooks is simply amazing.

From 1890s Germany to 1980s Britain, and the debut novel by Kit de Waal, My Name is Leon. A lovely story about a lonely foster child, beautifully and convincingly told. De Waal knows the care system inside out and it shows. But she is also a wonderful writer who has created a sweet and true character in Leon. The sympathetic adult characters are really well observed, the women in particular. Maybe we spend a little too much time at the allotments but that’s OK. I’ll be saving this one for my children’s must-read shelf when they are a little older (thirteen plus would be fine). I’m really looking forward to seeing de Waal at Le Livre Sur Les Quais literary festival next weekend in Morges.

The Children by Ann Leary was a quick, satisfying read, recommended by one of my favourite book blogs, A Life in Books. It provided entertaining family dynamics with a little mystery and menace thrown in. Despite some of the heavy themes, the book manages to remain light and pacy. I would definitely like to read more of Ann Leary.

The other memoir I read was When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, in which the author describes his career as a surgeon, up to and including his terminal cancer diagnosis. An extremely interesting examination of medical matters and ethics, Kalanithi held back so much emotionally that I almost forgot to be moved. The chapter written by his widow at the end made up for that.

If you’re curious, the book I gave up on was The New Republic by Lionel Shriver, the one partly set in a fictional province. I enjoyed the opening in New York but the plot became increasing silly and the writing too forced when we landed in Barba. The satire on terrorism with lots of echoes of the IRA was too clever for its own good. As a die-hard Shriver fan, I was quite taken aback.

Finally, a reminder that I will be appearing at Le Livre Sur Les Quais literary festival in Morges (near Lausanne) on Sunday September 3rd at 4.30 pm. I will be participating in a panel discussion with fellow Swiss-based authors Diccon Bewes and Padraig Rooney on the subject of Switzerland, Brexit and the new European reality. For some of the weekend I’ll be sitting at my table in the writers’ tent signing books and meeting people. The festival runs from Friday to Sunday and features Ireland as guest country of honour this year. There are many fantastic talks, readings and workshops for fans of Irish literature plus a hugely impressive roll call of Irish and international writers to meet (full programme). Hope to see you there!

Writing news and summer days

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Quite a lot has happened over the past few months so I thought I’d share some of my writing news before I lose track. I’m borrowing the Irish calendar summer here, which is May, June and July. In Switzerland, summer officially starts on midsummer’s day, June 21st. This way I get the best of both worlds.

May was the month of reviews. An Irish academic in Germany, Fergal Lenehan, wrote a long, thoughtful essay about The Naked Swiss for the Dublin Review of Books. It is the best, most comprehensive analysis of the book so far. A great reward in itself. Lenehan is the author of a book about German images of Ireland which is based on a study of news coverage of Ireland in two German weekly publications, Der Spiegel and Die Zeit, over a 60-year period. On average, the two outlets together ran one article about Ireland per month from 1946 to 2010, indicating a surprising level of interest.

At the end of the month, I got an unexpected message from the Swiss correspondent of the Financial Times, Ralph Atkins, to let me know that his review of The Naked Swiss was online. Needless to say, I was delighted, but also taken aback by the tone of the debate in the comments at the end of the article. Who would have thought FT readers were so emotional?

In June, I got the good news that a short story of mine had been placed second in the fiction category of the Geneva Literary Prize. The story hasn’t been published yet but I will let you know as soon as it’s available to read. A member of my tiny writers’ group, Tara McLoughlin Giroud, won the non-fiction prize so it was a double celebration.

Then came the most exciting news of the summer. I received an invitation to take part in Le Livre sur les Quais literary festival in Morges, an event I referred to last year in a blog post as ‘book heaven’ on Lake Geneva. Here’s a photo from the 2016 festival.

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The festival takes place from September 1 to 3, and what makes it really special is that the guest country of honour this year is Ireland. To be appearing under the same roof as some of the most respected names in contemporary Irish literature is almost too good to be true. My panel event is scheduled for Sunday afternoon but the rest of the time I will be hopping from one talk to the next, soaking up the literary atmosphere. As soon as the English programme is published, I’ll share it here. The Irish and international authors on the bill include John Boyne, Kevin Barry, Sara Baume, Paul McVeigh, Donal Ryan, Kit de Waal and Douglas Kennedy.

I’ll leave you with some images of these summer days in Switzerland. The photo at the top is of Limmatquai in Zurich. Highlights so far: Swims in the Aare river (Bern) and the Limmat. A hike along Lake Brienz. A night spent “sleeping on the straw”. Meeting scary cows on an alp. Crossing Lake Geneva at dawn. Sunset at Muntelier.

Wishing you all lots of freedom and fun this summer.

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Axalp in the Bernese Oberland
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Morning in Lausanne

 

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Charmey, Fribourg

 

Swiss-based authors: Alison Anderson

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My interview with American author Alison Anderson is the fourth and final author profile in the swissinfo.ch series on English-language writers living in Switzerland. Of all the authors I interviewed, Alison is the one with the closest ties to Switzerland, having first come to the country as an eight-year-old to attend her sister’s wedding.

She came back to complete her schooling in Switzerland, studied at Lausanne University, and finally settled in the Lake Geneva area in 2008 after a long stay in California, including five years living on a wooden sailboat in San Francisco bay.

Alison’s new novel, The Summer Guest, is a delightful read that dips in and out of 1880s Ukraine and two present day settings the French-Swiss border and London before reintroducing us to present-day Ukraine. Although the storylines are all linked to Chekhov, the three female narrators are in the foreground.

It was a pleasure to share a pot of Irish tea with Alison and find out more about her life and work. Alison is also a leading translator of French literature. Her many translations include Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Ingrid Betancourt’s memoir, and the work of Nobel laureate JMG De Clézio.

Have a look back at the other Swiss-based novelists featured in this series: Jason Donald, author of Dalila, Anne Korkeakivi, author of Shining Sea, and Susan Jane Gilman, author of The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street and three nonfiction titles.

After the summer, swissinfo.ch will publish a literary podcast featuring audio material from these four interviews. With such different styles and publishing journeys represented, it promises to be very interesting!

In case you missed the link, the full interview with Alison Anderson is here.

Swiss-based authors: Jason Donald

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There is a small but thriving English-language literary scene in Switzerland – workshops, retreats, writers’ groups and even an international festival. At the heart of that scene is the community of published and aspiring writers who live in Switzerland.

Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to interview the leading lights of that community, four acclaimed authors with eleven books between them. Over the next few weeks, swissinfo.ch will publish these profiles as a series, beginning today with Scottish-born Jason Donald, author of the “beautifully observed” novel Dalila.

The list of places Jason has lived hints at some intriguing plot twists in the story of his life: Pretoria under apartheid, the deprived Glaswegian district of Govan, and, most recently, the luxury Swiss resort of Gstaad.

I made the trek (three trains and a bus journey) to the Bernese Oberland to meet the self-described nomad and economic migrant. You can read the full story here.

A guide to writing your first nonfiction book

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Since my first book, The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths, was published last October, I’ve met several people who’ve mentioned their wish to write a nonfiction book. These tend to be people who already write as part of their work. They have strong ideas and expertise, but they feel uncertain about making the leap to a book.

Like all challenges, this one can be broken down. The first thing to say is that you don’t need anyone’s permission to write. You could start this weekend. No-one will know, and no-one will stop you.

As an unpublished writer, the first stage of writing is purely between you and the page. It is a process of self-expression. When it comes to the next stage of writing – entering the writing business – things get more complicated. But that should not prevent you from attempting stage one.

Test the idea

It is likely you will have carried the idea for your book around in your head for a while. This is a good thing. It means the idea is incubating, and should hatch at some point. But if you don’t test it, you might never find out if the concept is strong enough to stand up.

In terms of subject matter, the sky is the limit. The important thing is that this is a subject you feel passionate about. You have something to communicate.

The test is to answer this question: What is the book about? Write it down in one line. Here are some examples I made up:

  • A week-by-week guide to cultivating a successful vegetable patch, with blank pages for readers to track their progress.
  • A self-help book for people who want to convert to a vegetarian diet, offering a mix of psychology, politics and recipes.
  • A compilation of ten mini-biographies of leading women scientists – aimed at young girls.
  • This book tells the true story of the Swiss children sent to work as chimney sweeps in Italy in the 20th century.

Get organised

When the concept is clear in your mind, you can expand it to a one-page pitch. If yours is a long-held idea, chances are you will have already done some research, if not in a targeted way. You need to organise that material. How much do you have? Perhaps you already have your own written content that could be fed into the book, such as articles, blogposts, diary entries or essays. What fresh research do you need to do? Come up with a system to collate your material – folders, notebooks, cards, whatever works for you.

This is the point where the structure becomes important. You need to put some thought into how your content can be arranged. In some cases, for example the scientist biographies mentioned above, the chapter divisions will be obvious. In other cases, you will have to carefully work out how to present your ideas or story. Have a look at the content pages of the nonfiction books you like. Reading books similar to one you intend to write is part of the research process, and an indication of your passion.

Every book is written one chapter at a time. When you are ready, sit down and try to write a chapter. It is only by writing a sample chapter that you will bring forth the style of the book. Expect to have to work through many drafts.

If you are planning to self-publish, you carry on from here. If not, this is the moment to pause and research submitting targets.

Submitting

Unlike fiction, where authors approach an agent or publisher with a polished, completed manuscript, nonfiction is usually sold on proposal. Most publishers and agents ask for one sample chapter, and a cover letter explaining the concept, structure and target audience. They want to hear why you are right person to write the book, what platform you have, and they may ask how you would help promote the book. Submission requirements vary, so do make sure to follow them faithfully to show your professionalism. Expect each submission to take as much time as a job application.

As a first-time writer, you can expect go through this process umpteen times without success. You will receive either no response or standard rejections, and be happy if you get a few words of encouragement from one in twenty submissions. Here is a post I wrote about dealing with rejection as an author.

The reality of the market is that the world is not waiting for anyone’s book. There is an oversupply of authors eager to be published. It comes down to finding the right match. If you present the right kind of book to the right person at the right time, you may be lucky.

Make time

If you do get to the point of ploughing ahead with the book, you will need to allocate time to write regularly. Even if you have plenty of free time, it makes sense to set yourself writing hours, as this is a project that requires discipline. If you don’t have much free time, you will need to decide what can be sacrificed from your weekly activities – television, social media, family time, sport. Something has to give.

Ideally, you should have a writing partner or editor to review your work as you go along, as a form of quality control. But whatever happens, no book should be sent out into the world without some form of editing from another party or parties, as well as proofreading.

I hope you found this advice useful. Depending on the reaction to this post, I may make it the first in a series of how-to articles. Don’t forget to share the link with others through the social media buttons below, and feel free to comment if you have any questions.

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!