Sunday, December 21, 2014

Christmas books you can never forget.

Coming close to Christmas books I read long ago fondly spring to mind. Everyone has their own list. For the sake of brevity I will name only one here, one that is high on my list. 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn'  Admittedly, there was a lot more to that book than the Christmas season; overpoweringly hot dusty summers featured strongly and the effect they had upon the families living closely together in the overcrowded neighbourhood, the heat aggravating the hardship of their sparse living quarter, provoking quarrels between neighbours when enduring the hardship of water shortages in the unbearable heat. Ever present was the hardy tree and its ability to survive the summer drought or the artic winters.  But ask anyone what they remember best about Betty Smith's classic and almost immediately they will say, 'The Christmas tree, of course.'  going on to speak indignantly of the sadistic tree vendor who at the close of Christmas Eve enjoyed his little game with the trees he didn't sell and had no more use for. He would hurl the tree with all his might at the hapless hopeful who was stoically bracing himself to catch it and if he managed to keep it from hitting the ground, the vendor magnanimously allowed him to keep it free of charge. When it came to our little heroine and her brother he allowed them to catch it between them. I know that I willed  them with all my heart to succeed and silently cheered them when, against all odds, they did; at first wildly rocking and then bravely standing firm as the huge tree came crashing down at them out of the sky. To this day I cannot buy a Christmas tree without envisaging that poignant scene followed by the children's weary walk home triumphantly dragging their prize between them.

Writing and selling the monumental lie.

When someone once asked the writer Barbara Taylor Bradford what a novel is she replied:  'It's a monumental lie that has to have the absolute ring of truth if it is to succeed.'  The year was 1988 and she had already written eight bestselling novels so knew what she was talking about.

It was an interesting definition of fiction. So many would-be  writers eagerly say of the book they have written, 'It's all true, it all really happened just as I wrote it,' as though that in itself is some kind of guarantee of success. True, some life experiences translate into stirring stuff on the page and yet the depiction of characters created by writers Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte have stood the test of time for such authors observed and portrayed their chosen characters, who were often dull and prosaic and living ordinary lives,  in a manner that was quite out of the ordinary. Therein lies their genius.

So maybe it can be said it is not the subject that has to be riveting so much as the manner in which you as a writer treat it that will give it the vital ring of truth necessary to grip hold of your readers and succeed in winning them over, the same ring of truth Bradford Taylor wrote of in her feature article aimed at writers ambitious to hit the jackpot, aptly titled, 'So You Want to Write a Bestseller?'  This came from one of the world's top writers of fiction, who herself had successfully repeated, over and over, that  'monumental' lie she had spoken of.earlier.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Writers can recoup their losses.

Years ago when my washing machine broke down there was a great guy who would come and fix it. He was kindly and chatty and when I worried about the cost of buying a new machine he would advise me to divide the purchase price by the months/years of service it gave me.On looking back it was a therapeutic way of looking at the problem.  Especially when you thought of the number of washes over time this indispensable machine gave a household of six. Even more so today when everyone is so conscious of hygiene and have got into the habit of changing practically every item every day and throwing it into the washing machine. One son of mine as a student used to wash his jeans every  single night because of the smell of smoke clinging to them,  and he didn't smoke himself. Anyway to return to the subject of the washing machine, not the original one but a newer model when it broke down, a new service man called to the house and strangely after his visit something else went wrong with the machine and he had to come again, maybe the on/off switch was no longer working, and then it was a non-functioning  programmer. Each time I had to call him out to put it right and the cost was mounting.. He was not from Ireland and he spoke rather pessimistically about my seven year old machine gloomily  forecasting that the drum was likely to give trouble next and was an expensive item to replace; he suggested if it did he could get me a reconditioned one at a very reasonable price.  Next the machine sprang a leak, flooding the kitchen floor, but this time a different serviceman arrived and to my  relief the trouble turned out to be merely a sock stuck in the hose. Simple and inexpensive to put right.

This new serviceman was friendly and chatty like my old friend in the early days and I was moved to tell him of his predecessor who seemed to have jinxed my machine with his woeful predictions. Lo and behold, it turned out the man was a conman and the company had traps set for him, using brand new washing machines, and before long caught him in the act. But not before he had been able to buy himself a new house and a new car , it was a very lucrative business he had found himself in

 Having left the experience fermenting in the haybox of my mind for some years I eventually wrote a story called Menomadness entering it for the Image/Oil of Ulay Short Story Competition and the prize money more than compensated for what I had been cheated out of. Indeed, I could have bought a couple of new washing machines with it. As they say it's not the experience itself but what you learn from it that counts and by putting my facility with words to good use, I more than recouped my losses.

Friday, December 19, 2014

When do writers best ideas come?

Writers differ about what they are doing at the time their best ideas come.Some need to be walking along a country road with a stick in their hand before their minds unclench and  inspiration comes.  Others need a stimulant - coffee or alcohol - and others still to be under pressure before they can produce the necessary words. I have found that lane swimming gets me going and I have often worked out plots and found endings for stories as I battle up and down the pool. Admittedly it works best when the pool is  fairly  empty and there is no danger of collision. So easy to forget where you are once you get really going.. Once I practically 'wrote' a one-act play during my three sessions that week in the pool but that is the exception rather than the rule.  Some time ago on Facebook a writer spoke of walking on the tread mill and working on  her novel at the same time. She had somehow rigged up a bracket to hold her laptop but that I feel is taking it to extremes. Too mechanical to my mind. Although undoubtedly there is a connection between getting the blood flowing and the mind producing and if the treadmill, the exercise bike or lane swimming does it for you well and good.  Anything that empowers the muse is worth trying.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Life imitating art and vice versa

More usually I would have said that art imitated life whether on the canvas or through the lens of a camera, but in some instances the opposite is true. Years ago I wrote a story about an old lady sitting in her hat and coat in the front hall of the old people's home on Christmas Day  waiting for her son to call, and beginning to worry that he wasn't coming when it grew late.  It gets to the point when everyone  is going in to Christmas lunch and she dejectedly rises and follows them to sit at the table with all the other old ladies wearing paper crowns, and begin dismally eating the turkey and ham dinner put before her. .At this point the son arrives full of apologies and Christmas spirit (the kind that comes out of the bottle) and bears her away to his home.  By this she is worn out from lack of sleep from excitement the previous night and sorrowing emotion that morning as she is forced to sit there for all to see, beginning to suspect all kinds of treachery on the part of her daughter-in-law, believing maybe she is taking revenge on her for some imagined insult or maybe the humiliation and ingratitude she has undergone is the fault of her own son in having so easily forgotten all about her, his own mother, on this special day and all she has ever done for him. The story was called The Usual Arrangement the title coming from the arrangement her dutiful son had made to pick her up every second Sunday,  feast days and her birthday too, of course. This story is from my collection The Straw Hat.

It must have been three of four years later that the scene was re-enacted one Christmas Day in every particular when my husband was late in picking up my elderly mother from the old ladies home and found her already sitting at the dining-table eating her Christmas dinner in her hat and coat and wearing a paper crown. It was almost surreal. He was full of apologies as he helped her out to the car and it was she, like my poor fictional old lady, whose turbanned head nodded forward on her chest and she slept,.worn out from her emotions and her suspicions.  Case in point.  In this instance life imitated art, wouldn't you say? . .

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

'A great bedside companion - review by Stephen

Delighted to get a good review from America of my short story collection - The Straw Hat. In it are three Christmas  stories. How seasonal is that!

At Home for Christmas about a pilot stuck on reserve and on his way out to New York when he needs to turn around and head back for home!

The Usual Arrangement about an old lady waiting for her son to take her to join the family on Christmas Day . Alas, he is very late arriving. This one was broadcast  by the BBC a few years ago on Christmas Day.

Lambs is another Christmas story broadcast by  BBC under the title Sister Enda's Lamb.  About Maria whose good-behaviour  lamb is one step faway from the crib when her  favourite  nun becomes ill and her unsympathetic replacement takes over with unhappy consequences for Maria.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Themes that haunt writers.

I suppose unless you are haunted by a theme, especially one dealing with strong issues like tragedy, social injustice and basic human rights, you might well be guilty of putting it on the back boiler and forgetting all about it. Some years ago my brother urged me to visit him in Malaysia. He was a brilliant doctor and had a thriving private practice in Seremban, and my visit was long overdue.  Every year he used come back to Ireland and stay with us for a few weeks, he was godfather to my youngest son who was named after him  We had always been close and over the years we grew closer still. When I visited him his friends and colleagues showed me wonderful hospitality and one eminent medical man, in particular, invited us to his home for a sumptuous feast prepared by his wife and servants. Afterwards my brother spoke of him warmly,  remarking in passing that he was a Tamil. His tone expressed admiration and respect tinged with awe, the latter alerting me to something unusual about him. Of course, it was the fact that he was a Tamil but, unfamiliar as I was with Tamil history at that time, it was only later the significance struck me.  For sadly, not too many Tamils ever got to university  to study medicine let alone qualify with such distinction.and become a professor in his chosen field. .At any rate I have never forgotten this unusual and erudite man.

Over the years I have read a fair bit about  the Tamil situation in Sri Lanka. Since the Tamils left India in colonial times to make their home in Ceylon and work in the tea plantations, their story has been one of discrimination and injustice, denied their basic human rights, refused entry to university.and employed in only the most menial underpaid jobs. Consequently, their names are not on any plaque or Honours list.  Only when they began to fight back for their liberty and independence in the Sixties and Seventies.with the formation of the  LTTE  - Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - did the world come to take notice and become acquainted with their plight. Over the years the civil war escalated and it was considered unsafe to visit that beautiful country, especially Jaffna at the northern topmost part of the island, where the Tamil Tigers had their stronghold and there was continual conflict with the military, ambushes, bombings, kidnap and interment of civilians . Thankfully, since 2009 all that is over now but not the trauma still suffered by these  unfortunate people whose lives and homes were torn apart by the cruel, senseless ethnic war.                

Inspired by the Tamil history I am working on a novel  about a young Tamil  man, Ranjan Shanti, adopted by an Irish family and educated in Ireland who goes back to his homeland to be reunited with his people. There he meets up again with Harinath Prasad, leader of the Tamil freedom fighters, whom he had looked upon as a brother in his childhood, and he joins up with him to fight for an independent Tamil State. .But Ranjan  finds their ruthless methods, the senseless bombings of innocent civilians and the use of children as human shields conflicts with his beliefs and his conscience. The situation is compounded by the fact he has fallen in love with Ginu, a young freedom fighters who has past history with Prasad. When Ranjan makes the disillusioning discovery that his one-time-friend is trying to kill him he realises his life is in danger but cannot bring  himself to leave Sri Lanka without the woman he loves.

Recently, by happy chance, I discovered the novels by Roma Tearne who is the daughter of a Tamil father and Sinhalese mother. She left Sri Lanka with her parents when she was ten years old to make a new life in England, and is now renowned as an artist and writer. She writes eloquently and movingly, her novels are about love and suffering, about the civil war in her homeland, the disintegration of family life, the sadness, turmoil and danger  faced by  those caught in the cross-fire, depicting with an artist's touch the glorious changing colours of the skies over the Indian Ocean, the fishermen out in their boats, the peaceful atmosphere and golden beaches all too soon to be spoiled by the military's barbed wire and landmines, the curfews and the danger always lurking from spies and informers and the cruel consequence to the innocent caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. .Like nothing else her novels have given me a great and valuable sense of this beautiful,  tragic country.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

When your new novel is read for the first time.

If it is true that a play only comes alive when the actors speak your lines when does your novel begin to live? Is it the first time other eyes than your own start reading and absorbing the story?  Hard to say. Writers will tell you it has been living in their minds for so long, months, perhaps even years,and now it is out in the public for all to see. But most will agree there is nothing quite like that first time when others assess it  and it is no longer just your book anymore - but .now belongs to others. I remember giving an advance reading in June of my second book due to be published in the autumn. It was a strange, almost heady feeling, speaking aloud the words that up until then no one had seen or heard but myself. If I could have somehow been outside of myself at that moment with the ability to become a looker on/listener in, it would surely have given me some idea of how it appeared to my listeners.  I had been close to it for a number of years, maybe too close  to be able to judge it impartially and I had to rely on the opinions of that first audience.. Their comments were important and I listened nervously, not so much wanting an honest opinion as a favourable one. When following the titillating foretaste I had given them one of my friends said it was just the kind of book she would like to curl up in bed with and, true or not, it was just what I needed  to hear just  then.

So how come, as writers, we are so bold on paper and yet timid in person when it comes to our work, more inclined to apologise for it than accept compliments with pride. Once at a book launch Clare Boylan commented on this when I was guilty of over-explaining myself and she quoted her friend and fellow-writer, Molly Keane, who had advised her early on in their relationship 'One thing you must never do is apologise for your work.'  It was good advice but when young and untried writers are inclined to be uneasy about claiming credit or even gracefully accepting it. On that subject the poet, Eavan Boland, spoke at a workshop I attended some years ago, stating in her eyes the biggest sin was for writers to meekly admit to 'doing a bit of writing'.instead of coming out boldly with the words 'I am a writer.'  But then we are all a bit superstitious about claiming before time to be something we aspire to be, as if by admitting it too early we will put a hex on it.

Writers! Trust your instincts when it comes to your novel.

How much attention should writers pay to criticism, how much to their own instinct.  Too much attention and the baby may get thrown out with the bath water, not enough and they risk remaining unpublished. On looking back I remember certain comments made by publisher's readers. On my first novel one took exception to the heroine wearing fluffy pink mules but it was the 'Sixties and I'm sure many reading this would smile and own to a similar  frivilous taste in slippers when young and flighty.. The reader said she knew very early on which man in the story the heroine would  end up with. Valid point I suppose if it were a detective novel and the heroine was the murderer. Still I made a note of it but decided to leave the fluffy mules alone and make the man in question a trifle obnoxious and seemingly unappreciative of the heroine's undoubted attractions. I must admit I learned a lot from Jane Austen's 'Emma' and Mr Knightley's annoying, sometimes prissy, attitude towards that beautiful capricious lady..

On my second book another publisher's reader was scathing  about the heroine (sexually abused by her best friend's father when she was 13 year old) because now grown up she had the nerve to disapprove of  her rival's promiscuous behaviour and her pretense at pregnancy seeking to entrap the guy into marrying her. 'Who does she think she is?' protested the reader. 'She's no one to speak after all her carry-on.' As if  any of it had been her fault. And when the hero (aged twelve at the time) had drowned kittens in the canal at his mother's request, she asked in outrage. 'Surely the author doesn't expect us to accept him as a hero.'  Well,  I did but only by the time he had matured a bit and proved himself to be a decent guy and more worthy of the heroine's love.  So I removed the drowned kittens incident and showed how time and the years in between  had made him a better person. In truth, that was only a very small part of a big novel, hardly enough to rule it out. But, alas, on so small a thing can hang the fate of your otherwise good sound book.

So much for publisher's readers. I used sometimes tell myself in the early novel writing days to be more tolerant - these readers were having a bad hair day or something and so kept faith with myself and my writing ability.  Moving on to agents. My first agent was very encouraging about my first novel and his comment, 'They could love it' meaning the reading public, went a long way to keeping me hopeful while it was being considered by different publishers. Then bingo! It was on the shelves. My second novel was very long and the agent advised me to take off 30,000 words, telling me to achieve this I could either cut whole scenes or merely enough words to reduce the length. When I did as he said and he submitted it to an English publisher the verdict was - it was a bit too melodramatic to their taste. The agent did not agree telling me to keep the drama, that it was very well written and very commercial. But before giving it out again he wanted me to take more words off it. Going by my instincts,  I  refused saying I had no guarantee that if I took any more off the length it would be any more pleasing to a publisher, and bearing in mind my mentor's advice some years before, 'Always give them enough so they will have something to cut.'. Sound advice and interesting to note when this novel was accepted the publisher had no problem with the length and on publication  ended up Original paperback 455 pages!

My maxim now is to regard any feedback as the treasure it is, read criticisms and suggestions carefully and whatever your gut feeling tells you is not constructive or appropriate, disregard, and whatever strikes you as containing en element of truth, however unpalatable, go back and work on those areas in the interests of making it a better book.Just don't be in too much of a rush, the main thing is not to slavishly accept it all as gospel and end up throwing out the very stuff that makes your book unique, exceptional, and maybe even great.  Remember it is a matter of taste and not everyone is going to like your style or your handling of the subject.  As one agent told me, 'It's all very subjective. You could very well get another agent who is wholly enthusiastic and get you a super deal?' And when you look at the history of publishing and the amount of writers whose work was rejected before becoming an acclaimed best seller, there really is is a lot of truth in what he is saying. .

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

If you are too busy to blog then you really are too busy!

If you are too busy to blog then you are too busy. Having said that I love to blog and I have honestly been busy. Actually, I find it relaxing putting down my thoughts, particularly on writing, and seeing where it goes.  So what have I been doing that has kept me from this oh, so enjoyable blogging?.
     No prizes for guessing. Writing, writing, writing. Some  years ago, quite a few actually, I started writing a follow up book to my first airline novel 'Up Up and Away' which was all about the loves and lives of pilots and air hostesses in an Irish airline, Celtic Airways. When it was finished it was quite a big  book and the two sub-plots turned out to be books in their own right.  But I didn't realise straightaway what I should do.
     Instead I tried rewriting the book and cutting it drastically. Fortunately, I had first copied the original so nothing was lost as I worked on the copy. I still remember the day it struck me this was not the answer. Instead what I needed to do was to take out the two sub-plots, completely remove them..
      I was on a car journey at the time and for three hours I barely opened my mouth, my brain teeming with ideas, selecting and rejecting, agonising over what seemed like a terrible murdering waste, before I realised that I didn't have to lose them, I could actually use them. At this point, I accepted that what I had was one big novel, dramatic enough to stand on its own without the inclusion of the two sub-plots. Besides which, I had the potential for another two  novels and once I  saw where I was going it became an exciting challenge.
     After much thought I set about extracting the two smaller books from the main story. The mechanics of it were simple enough - first make three copies of the original and then remove anything from each book that  wasn't necessary to the story.  After that I edited the main book which I called 'Holding Pattern'.  In places, it took a bit of jigging and realignment of characters, the heroine's best friend needed to play a slightly less dramatic role in the revised version. I saved her earlier story for the second book 'Out of Airspace' putting the heroine of this book,  another air hostess, in the wrong place at the wrong time. On her her last flight before her wedding she obliges her flatmate by swapping on to the Cork/Paris  flight which tragically crashes into the sea soon after take-off with few survivors, of which she is one, badly injured and confined to a wheelchair. .
      I'm happy to say the first two books are finished in so far as a  book is finished when the author hands it over to  be read by an agent. The third book is on the computer and is next on the agenda..So not a lot of time for blogging, eh?  Between now and Christmas I want to make up for that. So here's hoping. . Anyway, it's nice to be back!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Remembering Tuskar Rock and the St. Phelim.

Our first child was two days old and I was watching television in Mount Carmel Nursing Home when the tragic news of the crash of the Aer Lingus Viscount St Phelim flashed on the screen.  How well I remembered that aircraft. I must have flown on it a good number of times. Indees, my very first  flight out of hostess training was on a Viscount - a gruelling duty known as a London/Shannon, with four legs of a journey, forty minute turnarounds and no time to eat in all that  long day. 

For ten months before marriage I had flown the Atlantic with two trips each week to New York and a four day trip to Chicago every so often. But the tragic plane crash off Tuskar Rock brought it home to me how easily I could have been one of that ill-fated crew had the timing been different and I still flying European routes.  Deeply emotional, I remember thinking I knew every mile of that route. In air miles I had walked  the cabin many times over and it gave me a certain affinity with the stricken crew. 

Today as I flew on an Aer Lingus Airbus 320 to Malaga I was very conscious of the significance of today's date. I know I wasn't the only one who would have been marking this forty-sixth anniversary. So many other flight crew would have been aware too, remembering with varying degrees of affection and regret those former colleagues, not to mention the grieving families and friends of passengers and crew. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Forget housework and keep writing!

We've heard of kitchen-sink writers and I have to say when I first started writing many years ago I used write short stories, first of all in my head and then on the kitchen counter top, while stirring the lunchtime soup.With the children home for the long school holidays each summer and my brothers visiting from abroad not much writing got done during those months..  There were benefits, however, from the enforced time away from the computer, come September when the schools opened again I soon got back in the swing and wrote my quota of words each day; and what's more with a new zest.

In those days I was writing regularly for the BBC and, with two broadcasts a year, was pleased to find that  I had plenty of fresh ideas for stories. I took advantage of a few hours each morning when the house was empty, or as good as, with maybe a baby napping upstairs, to make the most of my free time before heading off to collect the older children from school or kindergarten.  Of course there was still the housework to get through, meals to be prepared, but stories went on writing themselves in my head as I tackled the beds and there was no one about to remark on  'mad mothers' or 'ditzy daughters'  when mouthing sentences aloud or experimenting with dialogue - not that such a word as 'ditzy' was in vogue in those years.

In more recent years chairing an Irish PEN literary evening in the United Arts Club.Anne Enright was the guest author and I listened with interest to her views on housework but it was her entranced  expression as she spoke that made even more impression upon me than her words as she told her audience. 'The car or the kitchen floor will require washing soon again but when you write a story you have it for life.'

Great argument I thought for getting on with your novel or play.  May we all be so clear-sighted!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Are writers the best judge of their own works?

As writers we all like to think this book we are writing now will be our greatest - our major opus!  But at the end of our writing life which book or artistic creation I wonder will we  wish to be remembered by.

 In the 19th century Thomas Hardy wrote sensitive, deeply moving and memorable books on love, infidelity and betrayal, as well as the anguish and frustration suffered by labouring men with bright enquiring minds but without the financial independence to pursue the academic lives they craved.  Hardy's novels were ahead of his time, offending Victorian sensibilities and showing up the bigotry and hypocrisy of the age he lived in.  To my mind his novels were his best work and the world is far richer for such outstanding works of literature. But poetry was Hardy's first love - he was a poet by choice; a novelist by necessity - and it was for his verse that he wished to be revered and remembered.

Michael Farrell's masterpiece 'Thy Tears Might Cease' was published after his death only because in his lifetime he held on to it fearing it was not good enough for publication.  There is A.J. Cronin's best-selling  'Hatter's Castle' which the novelist's wife rescued from the bonfire and sent off to a publishing house on his behalf. But sadly not so fortunate was  John Kennedy Toole whose fine book 'Confederacy of Dunces' gained fame and recognition too late for its despairing author.

The acclaimed singer, Count John McCormack, set great store on his operatic arias and very little on his Irish ballads and yet it was those simple ballads so beautifully sung that were the most popular and best loved of all his works, not only in his lifetime but standing the test of time to the present day.

Does this mean that writers and artists are not the best judge of their own work or can it be in our continual quest for perfection we do not see or value what is already there?.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Good Ebook reviews from South Carolina

On checking out my Ebooks on #Kindle I  was really pleased to see good reviews from America for my collection of rural short stories The Straw Hat and Other Stories  Happily these stories are finding favour with Irish Americans abroad and bringing a glow to the hearts of those from the 'old country' and making them feel closer to home for the first time in years. These  are 21 short stories about life and love in Irish provincial towns; some of the stories depict an age that has long since gone.

When my father was growing up in the country there was a boxbed in the kitchen - an old wooden bed with a sliding door - and my great grandfather used sleep in it; sometimes to my great grandmother's annoyance he would smoke his clay pipe in there with the partition closed.  What my father told me of these years inspired me to write the story called The Boxbed - about a little boy and his grandfather, of the great affection between them and all the stories the old man used tell the child about the Red Branch Knights and Cuchulann and Oisin. But after the grandfather dies a man comes to the farm to demolish the bed and Paschal realises that his beloved grandfather is never coming back.

In The Straw Hat an old woman decides that this is her last year dressing the itinerant brides and the pick of her bridal collection, donated by the village people, is a beautiful straw hat surrounded by tiny red roses. When a young itinerant girl comes to the door looking for milk for her sister's baby she sees the hat and falls in love with it. Mammy Donovan urges her to try it on and it suits her so well that she lets her keep it, reminded of her own teens when she had set her heart on a straw hat that arrived in a parcel from America but was given to an older sister.

Many people in the Fifties used look forward with delight to the 'parcel' from America and I know my family was no exception.  Sometimes there would be a frilly party dress - maybe not quite the style we were used to in Ireland but very pretty all the same.  I got my first pair of shorts when I was eight years old and felt very self-conscious wearing them out to play. I can still remember imagining everyone was staring at me as I sauntered down the road but they were probably  not thinking of me at all.  No one wants to draw attention to themselves at that age nor to be seen wearing something so different to what other children were wearing - despite the influence of Hollywood and what we saw on  the movies.

Style versus voice.

Much is said to aspiring writers about finding their voice, as well as advice about not falling into the trap of imitating their favourite authors. But of course nearly everyone cuts their teeth in this way and soon moves on. Experimentation is not a bad thing if it leads you to finding not only your voice but yourself.  To me voice would seem to be more a reflection of the writer's personality - witty, wry, pedantic - and not to be confused with style, which is a more polished form of expression.

 At the  age of ten or eleven Enid Blyton's school stories held a certain fascination for me.  I was one of a big family and had never been to a boarding school and these stories depicted a delightful, other world of perpetual midnight feasts and high jinks in the dorm. I amused myself and my classmates by writing an Irish version of The Upper Fourth  at Mallory Towers. Imitation I agree but  it served as an introduction to fiction-writing at an early age. Another writer, even more satisfying and exciting, was E. Nesbit who wrote Five Children and It and The Railway Children- the most famous of her well-written, well-loved stories . She created a magical atmosphere, introduced intriguing, sometimes strangely-spoken, characters like  Mouldiwarp and an ancient sand-fairy called Sammy who lived in the gravel pit, as well as the Ugly-Wuglies,  a jumble of innocent-looking umbrellas hanging on the hallstand who metamorphed in The Enchanted Castle into a bunch of pursuing Nasties  intent on harming their fleeing victims. Enthralling page-turners from an author who had undoubtedly found not only her voice but her distinctive style too.

There are numerous styles all proclaimed as high art and, as the word suggests, they are literary and containing a certain elegance.  The real stylist is born not made but thankfully good style can be acquired.  Much of it can be learned by studying the works of famous authors. Style is a unique way of expressing what you wish to say, often it is beautifully written prose as in the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald or John Updike.  Gabriel Garcia Marquez uses humour that is often black, bizarre or sheer fantasy,  his imaginative vision, his mystical and poetic descriptive passages that could never be mistaken for the work of any other writer are  wonderfully evocative, and his endings often pure joy as in Love in the time of Cholera.  .

Friday, February 28, 2014

On joining an airline..

Every time in my teens that I took the bus along the airport road towards Santry I looked forward with anticipation to the moment when I would come upon the eye-catching cardboard cut-out of the smiling air hostess in the green Aer Lingus  uniform, her shapely legs sheerly clad in Mannequin  nylons, her smile and her eyes beckoning me to become part of that exciting life constantly flying to far-off, exotic places.

 When I eventually realised my dream and, training almost over, we were sent to the clothing stores to select a uniform, my belief in having a designer uniform individually created for me withered when confronted by row upon row of green uniforms and learned that, despite the slim skirt sizing, some of the boxy jackets would have comfortably housed a Jayne Mansfield or Marylyn Monroe..

It seemed we were to select  a jacket and skirt to our approximate measurements and take them to the airline's tailors for altering. To think I had fancied myself looking just like the elegantly uniformed air hostess in the Aer Lingus advert. When I repeated this to the tough little woman manning the counter I was disconcerted by her roars of laughter.'Her! God help your innocence. That wan's a pro.  Never saw anyone with legs like hers lasting the pace around here'. Another myth dispelled. But notwithstanding any of that it made a great first novel and happily  'Up Up and Away' is now  available on Kindle.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The art of the short story.

The art of the storyteller might  be compared to a diverting and enjoyable ramble along a leafy lane, the craft of short story writing more resembles the inner workings, the movement and precision of a beautiful Swiss watch..  Each artist has the gift of words but from the storyteller you expect entertainment, from the short story writer eloquence of form. The first, as his name suggests, tells or explains, he is the showman and knows how to get his story across with dramatic language and graphic images; the author, on the other hand, unobtrusively depicts (according to that great master of the short story, Frank O'Connor), mesmerically  suggests and allows the revolving light of each character to reveal the others.

I am reminded of  the film 'Some Like It Hot' when Curtis and Lemmon,  in an effort to escape from the  mob, dress themselves up as women and join up with an all girls' band of musicians. Although resembling classy broads in their feminine apparel, their shaven legs and tottering heels, they are aware their appearance and performance falls short of believable. But when it comes to Marilyn Monroe they reverently acknowledge that she is the real thing; she moves like 'jello on springs'  Lemmon says in awe, there is no doubting she is all woman|! When a short story is successful with all the elements that make it an emphatically personal exposition, balanced, unique and true, it is  like 'Jello on springs'  there is no mistaking the imitation for the real thing!

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

When a broken ankle proved a blessing in disguise.

In every disadvantage there are the seeds of a greater advantage. Where have you heard that before?  Well, strangely enough it can be true, it was for me. . When in a fit of abstraction - bemused by a piece of prose by  Polly Devlin and, in particular, the irresistible sentence 'The loch was leached of light'  I walked off the stairs in a cafe ending up with a broken ankle, there wasn't a lot I could do but sit about until it healed.  With others doing the housework and helping out with the cooking I was free to concentrate, without guilt, on what I loved best. Writing! In those days I was composing short stories and, in that period of enforced inactivity, I wrote seven new stories.  Amazing how without the pressure of housework or other commitments the words flowed, my muse was never so strong..

Having all day to write was blissful and more than made up for the pain and discomfort I was experiencing from what had turned out to be three breaks in my left ankle, injuries sustained on other instances, once by walking off the bottom step of the stairs, another time when  stepping into a declivity in a roadway under repair.  With all out at work, school or college I left my desk only to hop along the hall on crutches to the downstairs loo, then on into the  kitchen for a snack, and on my return to my computer, I became adept at  nudging with my crutch a litre bottle of water before me along the hallway, enough to keep me hydrated during the day..

It was a six week period of my life when I was totally happy and fulfilled.  The stories proved to be good and publishable so my time and effort had not been wasted. Even better two of them turned out to be prize-winners when eventually submitted to a short story competition and for a time I was filled with the heady certainty if I were only ruthless enough to abandon my family and turn my back on my obligations I would become a best-selling author. Maybe I would, and maybe not.  Happily I didn't put it to the test just kept on serving my apprenticeship, improving my technique and perfecting my style. A lifetime work.with no guarantees of success but then I have learned it's the journey that counts and anything worth the winning is never achieved easily..          

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A good title is just as important as a good cover.

What you call your book is every bit as important as your cover. A catchy title that maybe suggests two meanings like 'Gone Girl' is clever and thought-provoking.  For my first novel about life in an Irish airline, conscious of how quickly air hostesses become engaged I played around  for a bit with the title 'Wings and Rings.'   But it wasn't a good title for my book which was not just a light romance but an airline novel written from the viewpoint of the pilots on the flight deck as well as the glamorous hostesses in the cabin, and in particular my heroine irresistibly in love with a married pilot.  The next title I hit upon was 'Standby for Takeoff!' with an alternate title 'Up Up and Away'.  Bingo!  That second choice the publisher went for!.

For my next book, which was the dramatic story of an Irish family, of passion, tragedy and love, I chose 'A Family Affair'  A bit ordinary, even predictable? Well, I suppose so but undeniably  it was about a family and about the affairs of that family, as well as an issue of sexual abuse within the family resulting in a double tragedy deeply concerning them all.  Once more the publisher favoured my second choice which was  'Like One Of The Family'.  Of the two, it was the better title summing up the dilemma of thirteen year old Claire when drawn into the warmth of the McArdles' family circle, sharing in their  hopes and dreams and included in all of their family outings. Sadly though, Claire is  abused by her best friend's father with long term consequences. So does this mean the first title submitted is the 'safe' one while you can afford to relax a little for the alternate -  after all it's only your second choice - and who knows it might prove to be the right one after all!  So it turned out to be in my experience anyway.

So now it's that time again and the name I came up with, some  years into writing this latest novel, was 'Holding Pattern'    This time I have no alternate title to offer and maybe I don't need one.Let's  hope so anyway.. Only time will tell.                                                                                          

Monday, February 24, 2014

Country Banking moved slowly in the Sixties.

When I joined the bank and went to work in the country I found it very different to life in the city, it moved at a slower pace, there was an unhurried way of doing business.  The porter, an invaluable member of the staff, was the particular friend of the lady bank official, obligingly bringing her jackets to the cleaners or calling to the flat to deliver groceries or  unblock drains. In icy weather when the pipes froze and it was necessary to take a bath in the bank house before the annual bank dance, he would stagger up three flights of stairs carrying steaming buckets of water to the antiquated bathroom, emptying them into the iron bath on its metal legs and reappearing somewhat breathlessly minutes later clutching the bath towel given to him by the bank manager's wife, with eyes modestly averted, handing it over before starting back downstairs again. In some of the smaller branches in outlying areas  'things were a bit slow' but it wasn't until the cashier went out to the front hall  for  the post at half-past eleven that he realised why - the porter had forgotten to open the bank door that morning. .  There were quite a few discreet guffaws over that one.

My years in the country gave me much material for the short stories I began writing some years later. In one town I joined the dramatic society and took part in O'Casey's 'Plough and the Stars'. My transfer came in before I got a chance to 'trod the boards' but the manager appealed to Head Office and I was given a stay of execution so I could make my debut as Rosie Redmond.  Sadly, I never got to tour the towns and so missed all the fun. That story was entitled 'The Drama Group'  The first story I ever wrote was about a pretty young bank official arriving into a country town on the evening train and causing a stir of interest amongst the townspeople and speculation as to who she was and what her business might be. 'A Certain Status' made a good BBC radio story with a twist in the tail and was read by Harold Goldblatt, the Shakespearian actor. What a great thrill that was!

Another bank story was 'The Quality of Management' about a senile bank manager who should have been retired long ago and an accountant, continually passed over for promotion, who is finally afforded the chance to get his own branch but cannot bring himself to betray his manager.  'The Boxbed' was inspired by my father who grew up in County Laois, or 'Leeks' as he used call it, and he spoke of of his grandfather who slept in a boxbed in the kitchen and smoked his pipe behind the closed door, infuriating his grandmother. This story was about a little boy and his grandfather and his great loss when the old man dies and he cannot remember his face...until he climbs into the boxbed and finds his grandfather's clay pipe; then it all comes back to him along with it the heartbreaking realisation that he will never see that beloved face again.  So many stories, so many memories and all of them gathered together in my collection  of rural short stories called  'The Straw Hat and Other Stories.'  available on Kindle.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Life above the clouds..

When I joined Aer Lingus and started training to be an air hostess I had never been in an aircraft of any description before. Our training flight was my first flight and I wasn't the only one, it was first time flying for most of the others too. That day two girls were selected by our training officer to serve the rest of us snack trays, tea/coffee/sandwiches and we all sat back and enjoyed the ride. A quick trip around the Eastcoast of Ireland and then back home again to the airport. It was all great fun .But then that about described life as air hostesses -  or flight attendants - in those days.  The travel, the perks, the glamorous life flying in and out of cities, with stopovers now and then in Paris or Rome, more often in London and Birmingham when we visited the West End or the Bullring. Sometime we were based a whole week in Cork flying to and from London, but wherever our roster sent us from week to week we were always on the move, never on the ground for long - never a dull moment either!

But the most exciting experience for me  came when I trained for the Boeings and made my supernumerary flight to New York just before Christmas.  That drive from Kennedy to Manhattan, sweeping down into the city with the uneven jumble of towering skyscrapers showing up to our right and all lit up against the night sky, was an unforgettable and magical sight. Straightaway I loved America although to begin with it took some getting used to, the faster paced life, the abrasive-tongued assistants in the stores, the jostling New Yorkers on the baking summer streets .

When I wrote my first novel 'Up Up and Away' I really enjoyed revisiting in memory my time on the Atlantic. In fiction my heroine Kay Martin followed in my hesitant, naive footsteps, getting caught halfway across the busy New York street when the  'Walk' sign had already changed to 'Don't Walk', thrown into tongue-tied confusion when challenged by a big, red-faced
Irish cop on  rearing horseback who kindly held up traffic with a majestic hand to allow the embarrassed cailin scuttle shamefacedly on across to the other side. 'Ah, you're over from Ireland I can tell!.' he roared in a broad Kerry accent. 'Ah, Go on let yeh, and remember the  next time.'   Like myself, Kay was fooled by the pilots practical jokes and really believed the Captain, as they sat waiting in the hotel foyer for the arrival of the pickup taxis to take them to the airport, that the huge laundry baskets being carried out of the elevators were full of suicides.  That much at least was autobiographical but all the rest now - the romance with the dark-haired, devastatingly attractive married pilot, Captain Graham Pender...  Ah now,
on that subject my lips are sealed.  Go ahead and read it for yourself and draw  your own conclusions!  
Up Up and Away is available on Kindle

Friday, February 21, 2014

Where does writing inspiration come from.

When I started writing my brother used say, 'Use your experiences, it's all grist to the mill!'  How true, for a writer everything is valuable. If someone passes your gate wearing a yellow hat replace the brown hat your character is wearing with that yellow one.  For the yellow hat is real and believable, haven't you just seen someone wearing it passing your gate? In my childhood my best friend's mother used call us in from play to give us cups of milk.She was kindly and motherly and virtually adopted me in summertime and I would sit down to picnic meals with them all.  They had a lovely house and they always made me very welcome. My friend sometimes gave me the loan of her second best teddy bear and I was delighted to take him home with me for the night, there's even a photo still about somewhere of the pair of us cuddling 'our' toys.

Sometimes we did our homework at the big dining-table in their house, our heads - hers dark, mine fair - bent over our books. Now and then we would quarrel and once I got up in a huff to go home but I was too small to get my coat down from the hook . Her older brother took pity on me, he lifted it down and opened the front door for me  too, the latch was beyond reach of my  small fingers.  When years later my five year old son's friend was visiting, the pair of them had a disagreement and I came upon the little chap in the hall, angry and frustrated,desperately trying to get out the front door. Alas, he wasn't tall enough to reach the catch. With a sense of deja vu I t watched him tearfully running away home, before closing over the door with a sigh. Well, I remembered my own frustration  that evening long ago, my sense of injustice.

Those childhood memories were strongly with me when I wrote 'Like One of the Family, the story of an Irish family, of passion, tragedy and love. My friend's mother was the basis for the character of Dr Jane McArdle, who was always so kindly and careful of Claire, making her welcome in the McArdles' lovely house that was so like the home of my childhood friend, and including her in all their outings and holidays, as though she were truly one of their family.  But there the resemblance ended. In the book Eddie McArdle, who abused Claire and whose culpable actions sparked off the double tragedy that devastated their family, bore no relation at all to my friend's father who was the nicest and kindliest family man you could ever hope to meet.

But the inspiration was there though, right from my early childhood days, and by letting my imagination free to wander I weaved a 'what if' story around the characters and circumstances managing to produce a book that was dramatic, tender and, at times, heart-breaking. 'Like One of the Family' is now available on Kindle.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

House-owning obsession or dream?

It's only natural wanting to own your own home, everyone can identify with that. Some people spend their whole lives planning and saving for it but it never happens. Or else, it comes too late for them to be able to enjoy it. Some people search for their dream house until it becomes an obsession but that's another story now.  Growing up, our rented house was a bone of contention between my parents and in later years it was a story I felt compelled to write, giving it, simply enough, the title 'The House'. My mother hated paying rent and she took it as a personal affront that my father went off briskly on the first of each month to pay our landlady. She would have happily left 'the old biddy' to stew a few days longer but my father was a very law-abiding, courteous man and wouldn't have dreamed of making her wait for what was, after all, her money. His punctiliousness was the cause of discord between my parents but the way things turned out my father had the last word and my mother cause to thank him for bringing about a happy ending to what gradually became an obsession with her. An unexpected legacy and a howling gale (which blew out the front windows one night), marked the beginning of mother's campaign to get the landlady to sell us the house.  It was to be a long and weary battle. From month to month the old woman changed her mind as well as her asking price. For a brief period negotiations ceased. She was keeping the house for her son, she said, she might even decide to live in it herself.  My mother wasn't having any. 'We have rights too,' she said darkly, and after a brief lapse into her house-owning blues, she would return more vigorously than ever to the fray.. Looking back I think the fight to get the better of the stubborn old woman was what my mother enjoyed the most and the realisation of her house-owning dream only secondary to this. Of course, the beauty of being a writer you can shape your story any way you want, but I wrote my mother's house-owning obsession the way it was. It is only now so many years later that I see all kinds of different aspects to the affair, not least my mother's own stubbornness and intractability.  But that's the way with life, it's only with time and maturity you begin to see the bigger picture.. The House' is one of 18 stories in my collection 'The Mask and Other Stories' and available on Kindle.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Can life imitate art?.

Can life imitate art is a question that is sometimes posed?  In my experience it sometimes can although I wasn't the one who witnessed it in action. Rather, it was my long-suffering, saintly husband who used to regularly do the 'Monica Run' - as we'd got in the habit of calling it - the drive across the city to collect my mother from the elderly people's home she resided in and bring her back to spend the day with us. As the short story was my first love and I'd already had some success in writing for the BBC it wasn't long before I found myself exploring this theme in 'The Usual Arrangement' (see my story collection 'The Straw Hat and Other Stories' on Kindle). In it an elderly woman, waiting for her son to call on Christmas Day, becomes confused when he's late and begins to wonder if he is coming  at all. Believing he has forgotten all about her or, worse still, her daughter-in-law has turned him against her, she sadly goes into the dining-room to join the other old ladies and eat her Christmas dinner. Some years after this story was broadcast the identical scene was replayed right down to the tiniest detail in real life. There my mother sat at the dining-table on Christmas Day, still in her hat and coat, the paper crown balanced on her head, the cracker in her hand ready to pull with her neighbour as her contrite son-in-law hastened forward to bear her away to join us all around the family dinner table. It wasn't a story of mine that she ever read but she, who in her heyday had always shown such kindly hospitality to the elderly, would most certainly have appreciated it!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Dawn flights and strong black coffee.

My first awareness of Dawn London flights in my teens was the roar of the Viscount passing over our house, on the city northside, as I lay warm and snug in bed.  Sometimes I felt a slight unease though - the engines sounded so loud, the aircraft so low in the sky  - that I feared it would land in the back garden as I had dreamed on more than one occasion. But I was determined to become an air hostess and knew I needed to rid myself of such notions. When the time came and I became one of the 'glamour' girls those Dawn Londons weren't high on my Wish List nor on anyone else's either; everyone wanted Paris/Romes and the chance to stroll by the Trevi Fountain, tossing coins and making wishes. One thing sticks out in my mind past rising in the dark, applying  full makeup and getting to the door before the crew-car driver hit the bell and woke the house, was companionably sharing strong, hot, black coffee in the galley with the other early risers and enjoying a natter before the passengers boarded. It was fun living it, fun writing it. See my book Up Up and Away on Kindle. Ah, those were the days!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Writing about the pain of loss.

People often maintain that it is therapeutic to write or speak about the devastation felt upon the death of someone very close to you. Just as they say better not to suppress your grief, rather you should let it all out, allow yourself to cry, rant and rave, whatever gives you relief; bottling it up only delays the healing process. But the truth of it is the healing process is slow whatever you do and, where you truly love, can never be wholly complete; years may soften the loss but never entirely eradicate it.  Images, memories, a remembered tune catching us unaware can wipe away, as though they had never been, the in-between years. Each of us copes differently with our separate grief, shocked, saddened and bewildered by the feelings evoked. Seamus Heaney describes such loss in his poetry as being caught broadside, nearly blown away by the suddenness and force of it. Emile Zola speaks of the artist in 'His Masterpiece' who at once turns stricken from his dead child's bedside to begin capturing the image on canvas. In this way we are desperately striving to diffuse the pain, to put order on something that in our hearts we are all too aware is beyond our control.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Nesta's website just updated. See Ebooks!

Pleased to report my website www. has just been updated. Now with the addition of the EBook version of my second novel Like One Of The Family' on the EBook page all four titles can be seen with instant linkup to Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble (the Nook) and other suppliers.
Other titles are Up Up and Away my first airline novel. The Straw Hat and Other Stories tales of life, love and conflict  in Provincial Irish towns and The Mask and Other Stories  about sensual, intriguing and feisty  modern Irish women. Check 'em out!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Back to work!

Taking another day before getting down to the business of writing. Need more time to think of my characters, put more flesh on them and discover the small things about them only a friend would know. Important to record their ages so I don't get bogged down later when in full flow. Maeve Binchy used always drew up charts listing names, ages and relationships of her characters. Good advice. But I'll probably just plunge in. Ah well, we all have our own method. Some people end up not using their first chapter. Very few are like Gabriel Garcia Marquez who retained the opening lines to his books, never altering a word. Someone once said  the first and last chapters should be discarded as they are all lies anyway. Most would agree using the last chapter to summarise what the book was all about is a mistake!  The main thing is to stop talking about it and, in the words of Sean O'Casey, "Get on with the bloody play!"