How will Colin Barrett keep his feet on the ground after praise like this?

Colin Barrett at the Guardian First Book Award 2014

You’ll be on your way up!
You’ll be seeing great sights!
You’ll join the high fliers
who soar to high heights.

- Dr Seuss.

Those lines could easily be applied to Colin Barrett, the winner of the Guardian First Book Award for his collection of short stories, Young Skins, set in a fictional (typical) town in the west of Ireland.

The ceremony took place on the 31st floor of Centre Point, high above London’s Tottenham Court Road Tube station. Barrett admitted his ears popped in the lift on the way up and he had been a bit dizzy all evening, and that sense of giddiness will be ever more profound if he tunes in to a long feature on the latest Guardian Books Podcast.

Host Richard Lea caught up with several of those in attendance at the awards ceremony, in which Barrett followed fellow rural Irish chronicler Donal Ryan to win the Guardian prize.

Josh Cohen, psychoanalyst, literary theorist and Guardian First Book Award judge:

A very worthy winner. His prose is incredibly polished, it feels very fully formed. He knows how to draw you into a story, there’s a narrative intensity. There’s something about the gap between these very kind of dirty realist settings and the articulacy and sharpness of vision, of the narrative voice, that is a very difficult tightrope to walk. It could come across as condescending but instead it actually elevates the vision of the characters and gives them a multi-dimensionality, a complexity.

He is, sentence by sentence, an astonishing writer. One of the most natural writers I’ve come across in the last few years. It feels almost unfeasible that this is a first collection.

Stuart Broom, Waterstones, former Guardian First Book Award judge, on the commercial appeal of short story collections such as Young Skins:

The thing that the Guardian First Book Award really encourages is for readers to really open their minds. Craftsmanship can seem a bit of a pedestrian criteria [but] when you look at something that is very well made, very well structured, that comes across. This is a writer who is very adept at creating all of the old-fashioned virtues, tension, plot, character, wonderful dialogue, great figures of speech that you’ve never read before.

So once you have all of those, all of your preconceptions about a maybe less commercial format [short story collections] tend to fall away under that brilliant technical virtue.

Declan Meade, The Stinging Fly journal and The Stinging Fly Press, publisher of Young Skins:

Very quickly with Colin [after his first story was published] we said we would do a collection with him. We were building up a collection very slowly. It only got to seven stories, fair enough, but there is one long spectacular story within that, and it felt like a complete world had been made during that process.

There’s an excitement within the story-telling itself. He’s relishing the act of telling you a story, and there is a bravery to it, [as if he’s saying] ‘I’m going to tell you a story and I’m going to tell it this way, and I’m going to throw all kinds of things in there in terms of linguistic flourishes that perhaps I’m not supposed to do. But that is what I’m going to do.’

Alex Bowler, editorial director, Jonathan Cape, UK publisher of Young Skins:

I first came across Colin’s work in the pages of The Stinging Fly about three, four years ago. It was instantly combustible. The first paragraph of The Clancy Kid had me. The word choice. Within the first two sentences there is a surprise. The right word, the unique word. And then you’re hooked and the eye doesn’t wander.

You enter this world, you enter this environment, and you’re with characters who compel you. And in each story there is this moment of combustion. He’s got power and control and energy in every sentence on the micro level, but also on the wider view as well. It’s extraordinary stuff.

The Laureate for Irish Fiction just gets better and better…

Anne Enright, one of 34 authors on the longlist for the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction (Image: The Guardian)

A longlist of 34 authors for the inaugural Laureate for Irish Fiction was announced this week.

Among the various (necessarily imprecise) criteria for the award are that the author has:

  • an internationally recognised body of work, and
  • demonstrated commitment to engaging with the public, the media and the literary sector

There are 21 men and 13 women on the list, including former Booker Prize winners John Banville, Anne Enright and Roddy Doyle and also William Trevor, who has made the shortlist for the Booker five times but has never won.

Other Irish literary veterans (if that’s not too harsh) are Sebastian Barry, Patrick McCabe, Dermot Bolger and Edna O’Brien, while among the relative newcomers on the list are Eimear McBride, whose debut novel A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing won the Baileys Prize earlier this year, and Jaki McCarrick, who published her debut collection of stories, The Scattering, in 2013.

There is no more notable omission than Colm Tóibín, although there may be valid reasons for this – certainly, Tóibín was pictured at the launch of the laureateship last December, so his absence from the list of 34 writers below must have a basis in something we aren’t being told about in the publicity material.

There’s no doubt that the judging panel in phenomenally strong, chaired by poet Paul Muldoon and including his fellow Irish poet Paula Meehan, author Blake Morrison, this year’s IMPAC Dublin Literary Award winner Juan Gabriel Vasquez and Deborah Triesman, the New Yorker‘s fiction editor and producer of the New Yorker short story podcast, one of the best shows you could ever hope to listen to.

The Laureate for Irish Fiction will have a three year term (initially 2015-18), carries a €150,000 bursary and will see the laureate teach creative writing at UCD and New York University.

The first Laureate for Irish Fiction will be announced in January, and more info can be found on the Arts Council website here.

The full longlist for the Irish Laureate for Fiction:

  • John Banville
  • Sebastian Barry
  • Dermot Bolger
  • John Boyne
  • Michael Coady
  • Evelyn Conlon
  • Peter Cunningham
  • Emma Donoghue
  • Roddy Doyle
  • Catherine Dunne
  • Christine Dwyer Hickey
  • Anne Enright
  • Hugo Hamilton
  • Anne Haverty
  • Jennifer Johnston
  • Claire Keegan
  • Tom Kilroy
  • Ré O Laighleis
  • Eimear McBride
  • Patrick McCabe
  • Colum McCann
  • Jaki McCarrick
  • Liam Mac Cóil
  • John MacKenna
  • Belinda McKeon
  • Bernard MacLaverty
  • Eoin McNamee
  • Paul Murray
  • Nuala Ní Chonchuir
  • Edna O’Brien
  • Joseph O’Connor
  • Donal Ryan
  • William Trevor
  • Niall Williams

A beautiful new paperback edition of Dubliners

The release date on BookDepository says August 2014, but I’m just seeing this now – a beautiful new paperback centennial edition of James Joyce’s Dubliners by Penguin Classics.

Introduced by Colum McCann, the book also includes (via product description) “the stunning cover art and sumptuous packaging that are the hallmarks of the Penguin Classics Graphic Deluxe series”.

The beauty of the cover art (below) is obvious, but sumptuous packaging? I want to know more about that – has anyone received any of the Penguin Classics Graphic Deluxe series? What is this sumptuousness they speak of?

It has been a decent centenary for Dubliners, with startup Irish publisher Tramp Press also producing a beautiful new collection of short stories with Irish writers such as Paul Murray, Peter Murphy, Patrick McCabe, Eimear McBride, John Kelly and Elske Rahill reimagining the Joyce stories 100 years on. Find more about Dubliners 100 here.

(Images below via 1901 over on Tumblr)

Samuel Beckett’s description of his ailing mother is poignant, beautiful and original

Beckett … characteristically original

Death and love are the twin towers of all literature, so when someone comes up with an original way of describing one or the other, you have to sit up and take note.

A new collection of letters and postcards written by Beckett between 1947 and ’58, and sent to his friends, the artists Henri and Josette Hayden, have been placed on exhibition by Trinity College Dublin, which purchased them at auction for €180,000 earlier this year.

Included in the lot is a postcard written while his mother was dying in 1950:

My mother is still declining. It’s like one of those decrescendos made by the trains at Ussy which I used to listen to at night, interminable, suddenly resuming just when everything seemed finished and the silence final.

I think she will die in hospital in a week or so.

Not being musical, I never even knew the word “decrescendo”. Quite beautiful.

Read the full story at The Irish Examiner

Kavanagh on Kavanagh: When PJ met Paddy

Poet PJ Kavanagh
Poet PJ Kavanagh

English poet PJ Kavanagh was interviewed on RTE Radio 1’s Arts Tonight recently, and he told a sort-of-fond anecdote about his namesake and fellow poet Patrick Kavanagh.

Kavanagh (PJ)’s father, Ted Kavanagh, was a New Zealand-born, UK-resident, BBC-employed scriptwriter whose family came from Co Carlow.

While he has never lived in Ireland he has always felt a foreigner in England – “I was good at rugby in school because I was Irish; I was funny because my father was funny and I was Irish” – but it was his recollection of meeting his namesake that was among the most illuminating moments of a fine interview.

I met him twice. The first time, it was before he was really known in England. I was about 20 I suppose. I was a great admirer of his poem ‘The Great Hunger’.

And I was introduced to him. Patrick, said a man, come and meet Paddy Kavanagh. He had just had a throat operation and I went up humbly to congratulate him but he drew away and said to me, ‘Why don’t you change your fuckin’ name?’

That’s the only thing he ever said to me, really. But that’s why as a writer I call myself PJ Kavanagh, in a somewhat vain attempt to distinguish myself from him.

Then I met him later with the distinguished John Jordan, who was a great friend of his. And again he wouldn’t speak to me. And John Jordan got very angry. He said, Paddy, this is a friend of mine, he’s a good man, you must talk to him.

I turned to John and said, ‘What should I do?’ He said ‘Buy him a brandy’. So I bought him a brandy, but he remained standing with his back to me, but with his hand cupped out behind him for the brandy!

Patrick Kavanagh
The other one. Poet Patrick Kavanagh. (Image: Eadaoin Lynch’s blog)

The full interview, with the excellent interviewer Vincent Woods, can be listened to here (probably for a limited time, unfortunately). It’s just short of 60 minutes long, but for anyone interested in poetry, Ireland, Irish poetry, the Ireland of the ‘50s, Seamus Heaney, Louis MacNeice, Father Ted, John Berryman and everything in between, it’s 60 minutes well spent.

Anecdotes follow Kavanagh (the deceased, Monaghan one) around, of course, and one of the most cherished is the story of his time playing as goalkeeper for his local GAA club. During one game, with play concentrated at the other end of the field, Kavanagh is reputed to have headed off to the pub, leaving the goals disastrously unattended.

However, that may well be an urban myth; certainly, local histories would suggest that Kavanagh was a much more responsible member of the club, having come close to senior championship honours with Inniskeen as well as serving as Treasurer.

But the legends are always most fondly recalled. Never let the truth get in the way of a good story, etc. etc.




Bloomsbury to bring “Dublin’s Trainspotting” to the masses

here are the young menDebut novelist Rob Doyle is the latest young Irish writer to have made the independent-to-major-publishing-house route to success, with Bloomsbury securing rights for his Dublin-set Here Are The Young Men.

Originally published by Lilliput Press, Here Are The Young Men will now be given a Bloomsbury release in the UK and Ireland this September, followed by the US next year.

Alexa von Hirschberg, Commissioning Editor at Bloomsbury, says, “Here Are the Young Men is a fierce, shocking, blackly comic wild ride of a novel – a powerful literary statement about the lives of disaffected and disillusioned young people.

“Rob Doyle does for Dublin what Irvine Welsh did for Edinburgh in Trainspotting. Brave, insightful, philosophical and heartbreaking, it introduces a talented writer at the beginning of what will be a long career.”

Seriously high praise, and fantastic news for Rob, who has written for journals including The Dublin Review, The Stinging Fly and Gorse.

Describing his book in an interview in Gorse, Doyle says it is

…a novel set in Dublin in 2003 […] about a bunch of hard-drinking, drug-abusing, fairly disturbed youngsters, who have finished school, have finished their Leaving Cert, and fall under the malign sway of their psychopathic friend Joseph Kearney, who urges them on to begin committing transgressive acts, which become more extreme and more disturbing as their first summer of freedom goes on. And everything goes to hell, more or less.

Read the full Gorse interview here

Doyle joins Eimear McBride (Galley Beggar Press to Faber), Donal Ryan (Lilliput Press to Doubleday) and Colin Barrett (Stinging Fly Press to Jonathan Cape) as Irish writers treading a path from independent publisher to major powerhouse.

Those three predecessors saw their books claim several awards, and if von Hirschberg’s praise is anything to go by Doyle could be following in their footsteps in that regard too when the 2014 prize-giving season kicks off in earnest in the autumn.


Paris, a new Irish publisher and a crowdfunded opening offering

The illustration for "Eveline" by Stephen Crowe
The illustration for “Eveline” by Stephen Crowe

Well, this is exciting. Three of the world’s most beautiful things – books, crowdfunding and Paris – have come together with the launch of a brand new Irish publishing house based in the French capital.

de Selby Press has been co-founded by Linda Fallon (who I’m delighted to know actually exists – she’s Irish, has been based in Paris for seven years or so and is the head book-buyer of enduringly iconic Paris bookshop Shakespeare & Company) and Terry Craven (a Yorkshire man, a writer and also a bookseller in the same store).

The de Selby Press describes itself as a small Irish press based in Paris, with the remit to publish “any impractical incarnation of Franco-Hibernian wordiness that appeals to us”.

It’s starting out with a crowdfunded new 100th anniversary illustrated edition of James Joyce’s Dubliners, and the good news is that Linda, Terry (and team?) are already more than halfway towards their €10,000 funding target.

The new book will be illustrated by Stephen Crowe (his latest piece, to accompany “Eveline”, is above) while funders can benefit from a range of rewards, including copies of the first edition, a recording of “The Lass of Aughrim” recorded exclusively for the project by the wonderful Lisa Hannigan and a print of one of Crowe’s illustrations. (Not to mention the ebook download, which is as always, thankfully, the poor relation in the list of book-related treasures.)

But why listen to just me? Here’s Linda and Terry talking about the project:

If you would like to support the project, from as little as €5, click here for the de Selby Press Dubliners page on Ulule.


Seven of the best pieces about new Baileys Prize winner Eimear McBride

Eimear McBride accepting the Baileys Prize
Eimear McBride accepting the Baileys Prize (Picture: The Guardian)

Eimear McBride achieved worldwide fame (who knows, hopefully fortune may soon follow…) after last week’s Baileys Prize ceremony, earning column inches in the New York Times, the Telegraph, a couple of pieces in the Guardian (one on the influence of Joyce, another on the novel’s unique style), the Sydney Morning Herald… and just about everywhere else. Here are seven excellent reads, most of them written before McBride’s red-letter day. Continue reading

The trouble with genre

During my morning feedly scan I stumbled across a couple of interesting comments about genre from two recently published Irish (or at least, Irish-based) writers, Rebecca Reid and Janet Cameron.

Discussing the initial reaction to her recently published Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World (Hachette), Cameron, a Canadian, Dublin-resident English language tutor, struggled with the process of pigeon-holing her own work (

‘Is this really general fiction?’ people would ask me. ‘Isn’t it YA?’

‘No way!’ I’d answer, and my reasons for this were fairly simple.

YA (Young Adult) is an umbrella term for any book written for a teenage audience, and I didn’t write the book for teenagers. I didn’t write it for anybody; I never thought it would be published. So with no audience in mind besides myself and my writing buddy Brendan (both of us post-40 oldsters), I made no adjustments to vocabulary, length or subject matter beyond what I thought would work. The first time someone asked me about genre, I just shrugged. ‘It’s a story,’ I said. ‘Does it really need a genre?’

thickets-woodNorthern Irish writer Rebecca Reid had a similar experience as she grappled with early responses to her debut novel, The Coop, which has been given the sequel treatment in the recentThickets Wood.

Asked what had first attracted to her to writing a psychological thriller, she replied (Liberties Press blog):

I suppose I was never consciously ‘attracted’ to writing any particular genre. It just happened. I sat down and wrote whatever felt right, and for me, those stories are never terribly lighthearted.

So what’s the point of genre, anyway?

It strikes me that it’s often no more than a device to keep publishers and booksellers (and yes, many readers and writers too) in their comfort zone.

The trouble is that when a book is tagged with a specific genre, a reader is burdened with a long list of detailed criteria which (subconsciously or otherwise) they expect the book to meet before they even start on page 1.

As some well-educated editors of Wikipedia put it rather well in relation to crime fiction:

When trying to pigeon-hole fiction, it is extraordinarily difficult to tell where crime fiction starts and where it ends. This is largely attributed to the fact that love, danger and death are central motifs in fiction. A less obvious reason is that the classification of a work may very well be related to the author’s reputation.

For example, William Somerset Maugham’s (1874–1966) novella Up at the Villa (1941) could very well be classified as crime fiction. This short novel revolves around a woman having a one-night stand with a total stranger who suddenly and unexpectedly commits suicide in her bedroom, and the woman’s attempts at disposing of the body so as not to cause a scandal about herself or be suspected of killing the man. As Maugham is not usually rated as a writer of crime novels, Up at the Villa is hardly ever considered to be a crime novel and accordingly can be found in bookshops among his other, “mainstream” novels.

A more recent example is Bret Easton Ellis’s (born 1964) seminal novel American Psycho (1991) about the double life of Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street yuppie and serial killer in New York City in the 1980s. Even though in American Psycho the most heinous crimes are depicted in minute detail, the novel has never been labelled a “crime novel”, maybe because it is never explicitly mentioned whether Bateman actually commits the crimes or rather just fantasizes about them.

In many cases that’s fine, but when a book challenges those criteria – is John Green The Fault in Our Stars a book that everyone should read, or a book that should be read primarily by teens? – then is it possible that the idea of genre becomes constraining or even misleading, and is in danger of limiting its audience instead of specifying it?

Books at their best broaden the mind. Whether that book sits under the bookshelf label “Crime fiction”, “YA” or (the worst one of all) “Literary fiction” is irrelevant.

But that’s just me, and perhaps my world view is unrealistic – books, after all, might be no different than anything else, from politics to science, in requiring labels and categorisation so that we can make sense of it all.

What about you? Do you recommend different books to different people depending on (a) the subject matter and (b) the reader?

Or do you recommend your favourite books to everyone, knowing that a good book is for everyone?