All kinds of everything from TEDx to theatre

Geneva Graduate Institute in March 2022

One of the challenges of working as a freelance writer is that you constantly have to renew and redirect your career. It does not happen by itself. At the beginning of this year, I set myself the goal of writing more journalism because 2021 had been a bit of a fallow year for journalism after taking a detour into science writing and communications for a while.

I also wanted to write another book in 2022, and I put together a proposal for a Swiss true crime book. In hindsight, I’m glad that project didn’t work out because the crimes were gruesome and I think writing about them would have taken its toll.

If I do manage to produce the bones of a book this year – and time is running out – it’s more likely to be fiction, as I have something percolating in the back of my mind and I’m waiting for news on a related funding application, coming next month. Fingers crossed!

One really positive development was that I completed my first literary translation, a long-standing goal. I had the pleasure of translating a play by Joëlle Richard from French to English. I have translated non-fiction books in the past but this was a different kind of challenge. Very rewarding.

The play Mångata (a Swedish word for the road-like reflection of the moon on the water) tells the story of a Venetian woman who falls in love with a mermaid. It’s a bittersweet contemporary fairy tale about love, lockdown, isolation, self-hatred, gender fluidity, tolerance, female desire and empowerment. It packs a punch, and will be performed in Fribourg in the original French in September.

Opinion writing

On the journalism front, I have become a regular contributor to The Local Switzerland and I’d like to share some of my opinion pieces here in case you might be interested. If you’re based in Switzerland, it would be worth subscribing to the website which produces extensive coverage of Swiss news plus a lot of material that’s helpful to Swiss residents.

It’s also possible to read a couple of articles to get a taste without hitting the paywall. Some recent articles of mine include pieces about the climate crisis, food security, abortion, the European Union and Ukraine. The picture below is the river I mention in the climate story.

I was also thrilled to be able to write about Voting Day in the Irish Times around the time of publication. I find it interesting and disappointing that although Irish women had the vote 50 years before Swiss women, it hardly did them any good. Cold climate for Swiss and Irish women with or without the vote – The Irish Times

TEDx

An expected opportunity came along in March, when I was invited to give a TEDx talk by students at the Geneva Graduate Institute. My topic was the lack of voting rights for foreigners and TED chose to feature the talk on their website, which meant it was only released online two weeks ago. Check it out! (If the embed doesn’t work, you can click on the hyperlink in the previous sentence.)

To round off this writing news update, a reminder that Le Livre sur les Quais festival is taking place next month in Morges. I’ll be interviewing four writers in two events this year. The guest country of honour this year is Iceland so it’s a wonderful opportunity to discover Icelandic writers. The English programme is not up on the website yet; will keep you posted.

Enjoy the rest of the summer, preferably in the shade!

The River Gérine in Marly

Making a better world, fuelled by friendship

They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes but I can assure you that you are safe with Ece Temelkuran. When I heard the celebrated Turkish writer was coming to speak in my back yard – not literally, the event was about ninety minutes’ drive away – I knew I had to be there.

Temelkuran took part in the Bibliotopia festival on May 15, hosted by the Jan Michalski Foundation in the beautiful setting of Montricher in the foothills of the Jura mountains. The Bibliotopia programme is in French and English with simultaneous translation. It’s a great place to discover international voices.

Temelkuran played a prominent role in public life as a critic of the Erdogan regime until it was no longer safe for her to stay in Turkey. In her 2019 book How to Lose a Country: The Seven Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship, she passes on her hard-earned wisdom as a dissident who experienced first-hand the slide towards right-wing authoritarianism. I found the book fascinating and reviewed it for the Dublin Review of Books.

Having listened to the author yesterday speaking about her new book, I have high expectations for my newly-purchased copy. Entitled Together: A Manifesto Against the Heartless World, the book offers a roadmap to a better present and future. She gives us 10 guiding principles and each one is a choice, such as ‘choose dignity over pride’ and ‘choose strength over power’.

I was very interested in what Temelkuran had to say about friendship, which she considers the best medium to redefine our political connections. “Citizenship is not working, political party membership is not working, comradeship is not really working – it sounds so retro now. So how about we become friends?”

There is a chapter in Together about the unique role that friendship, with its lack of hierarchy, obligation, duty or power dynamic could play. It is the only type of relationship where, as Temelkuran says, absolute justice can be found.

“When friendship has a solid foundation that allows it to mature, friends and conversations with friends eventually become the gravitational force in one’s life. Friendship is the most profound confirmation of the individual as a human being. It is the confirmation that you are able to see the beauty in humankind and the ultimate recognition of the fact that you are, as well, human.”

She goes on to talk about enlarging this kind of “warm regard” to the scale of humanity. Just to give you a little bit more …

“What stands at the core of such wide-scale friendship is not sentimental love but a moral stance; a commitment to acquire and maintain a certain perspective on life and humankind.”

Living in a time where the word friend has been stripped of much of its meaning by social media, I find this exploration of the theme of friendship really important and encouraging. I will read more and report back. Or you could start reading Temelkuran yourselves.

Temelkuran spoke about a lot of other things, ably interviewed by Patrick Vallélian of Sept Info. She said that representative democracy had failed in its fundamental promise which was equality. This has left it hollowed out and vulnerable to right-wing populism. When there is no social justice, it is easy for a ruthless leader to come along and exploit the system, manipulating people into making choices against their own interests.

When asked to describe Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she used the words tragic, absurd, incomprehensible and frightening. However, she cautioned against demonising the Russian people, who, she says, should not be equated with Putin.

Temelkuran wrote Together because, “I wanted to heal my politics and my faith in people.” Here’s hoping that her message of faith and courage will travel far.  

Green shoots for Voting Day: news and events

Spring is in the air and I’m ready for more colour and connection. I think everybody feels the same. At the moment, I’m gearing up for the UK & Ireland launch of Voting Day with Fairlight Books on April 1st. The book will also be available in the United States which is very exciting (links to order below).

When Voting Day came out in Switzerland, this time last year, book shops were closed and the maximum number of people who were allowed to gather was five. It makes me all the more grateful for the opportunities coming up this year – especially an invitation to the legendary Listowel Writers’ Week!

Here are some dates for your diary if you live in Switzerland or Ireland:

March 8 BERN International Women’s Day event in Stauffacher Book Shop, Neuengasse in Bern. Stauffacher was founded in the 1950s and my book is set in Bern in the 1950s. Serendipity! My characters could have shopped there. I’m pretty sure Beatrice would have been a regular.

Doors open for the FRAUEN IM FOKUS event at 8pm. There’ll be music from pop duo Cruise Ship Misery and I’ll be in conversation with the German translator of Voting Day, Barbara Traber.  Come along, bring your friends, and let’s celebrate books, women’s rights, music and other positive things. Tickets (CHF 15.00) and more info here. The event is in German.

April 6 ZURICH at the Swiss National Museum (Landesmuseum).  As part of the current exhibition Amazingly ambivalent (Wunderbar widersprüchlich), I’ll be giving a short tour and talk on the topic of contradictions in Switzerland. The tour, in German again, starts at 6pm. You can reserve a place at this link.

April 21 DUBLIN for the launch of Voting Day (Fairlight Books) in Hodges Figgis Book Shop, Dawson Street. After two years of cancellations and missed opportunities, I’m not missing the chance to celebrate the new edition of Voting Day. The book will be launched by the lovely Anne Griffin, author of Listening Still. The launch starts at 6pm and everyone is welcome. The more the merrier!

June 1 – 5 LISTOWEL WRITERS’ WEEK in Co. Kerry. One of Ireland’s longest-running book festivals, Listowel Writers’ Week is a famously friendly and stimulating occasion. Lots of great writers have been part of the festival over the years and I’m truly honoured to be asked to present Voting Day in this beautiful part of the world. Date of the event to be confirmed.  

For all my books I’ve worked with small publishers and no agent. It’s been a bit of a rocky road but somehow, good things keep happening – just in the nick of time – that make it all worthwhile. I hope I get to meet some of this blog’s readers in person over the next couple of months.

Here are those links I promised to buy Voting Day in different places:

Barnes and Noble (US), Waterstones (UK) and Stauffacher (Orell Füssli). I also have an order form for the four Swiss editions (English, German, French & Italian) on this website, if you want to order directly from me to a Swiss address. Available from O’Mahony’s in Ireland.

And you might enjoy this review I wrote for the Dublin Review of Books of Rosita Sweetman’s wonderful memoir Feminism Backwards. One last link in this link-fest – I really enjoyed writing this essay for the booksbywomen.org website about time travellers and book research. Have you spoken to any time travellers recently?

Colm Tóibín works his magic in Zurich

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

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

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

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

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

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

A rich tapestry

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

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

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

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

The German question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other gems

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

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

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

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

Book club questions for Voting Day

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

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

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

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

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

Book club questions

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

Book news

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

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

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

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

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

A fairy-tale ending for my first novel

Schloss Heidegg (image from heidegg.ch)

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

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

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

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

UK publisher

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

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

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

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

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

Voting Day, ‘truly touching and enlightening’

Visiting the German edition of Voting Day in Kanisiusbuchhandlung Lüthy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviews

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

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

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

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

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

Film festival

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

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

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

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

Was writing The Naked Irish a way of letting go?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s another year? Shifting goalposts in 2019

20190919_140323

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!