Bret Easton Ellis, Skippy Dies and the reach of a tweet

I didn’t get to any of the multitude of talks at the Dublin Book Festival recently (compliments of an actual, real-life, non-books-related job) but one of the events that did catch my eye was the one which saw established writers Siobhan Parkinson, Dermot Bolger and John Boyne and recent debutants Donal Ryan, Colm Keegan and Deirdre Sullivan talk about the importance (or, presumably, otherwise) of blurb endorsements.

That came to mind again this morning when I noticed another gushing tweet from Bret Easton Ellis, the controversial controversialist, in praise of Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies.

Easton Ellis has been reading the Dubliner’s story about the life (and, in the obvious case of the title character, death) of Dublin secondary school students Skippy and Ruprecht. And he’s been very impressed.

I wondered what the impact of something like this might be, and how to go about quantifying it.

Easton Ellis has 360,000 Twitter followers. Finding out how many people might have seen his uniformly positive words about Skippy Dies is far from scientific (Twitter, as yet, does not provide anything like the same level of analytical data as Facebook’s Insights) but there are a couple of tools out there that can provide an estimate.

Some people with a greater supply of time and imagination than me have put in some work and as a ball-park figure it can be estimated that around one-third of an average Twitter account’s followers are active on Twitter themselves (“active” in this case being defined as having tweeted within the past 24 hours).

Not all of that key one-third figure are certain to have seen a specific tweet, however.

Instead, with many Twitter users following an excessive number of accounts (I follow a little over 800 on my own personal account, and I would guess that I see less than half of those tweets on any given day) it means that one specific tweet will often get caught up in the general Twitter noise, irrespective of how active people might be.

So, estimating that perhaps half of your active followers in turn follow a manageable number of accounts, then that equates to about one-sixth of your followers being likely to see each of your tweets.

Still with me? I’m very grateful. All of that brings me to Skippy Dies and Bret Easton Ellis.

Easton Ellis’s tweets, which were retweeted by another heavy-hitting books Twitter account in @tw_top_books (285,000 followers) had a nominal “reach” of around 660,000 according to the website TweetReach, which calculates the total number of followers of all the accounts which tweeted/retweeted a certain tweet.

Applying the one-sixth logic, it means we can estimate that around 110,000 Twitter users saw Easton Ellis’s high praise (and an explicit call to action – “Buy this book this weekend”, he said) for Murray’s Skippy Dies over the past 24 hours or so.

It might not compare to primetime TV advertising, but it isn’t half-bad, and it should at least ensure a spike in sales for this particular Irish novel over the next few days.

And if that old staple word of mouth takes hold after that, then this could be well on its way to being a sleeper hit on a global scale.

As the guys behind Funky Christmas Jumpers would agree – Fabio Molle gave a presentation at’s Social Newsmaker conference on Thursday, in which he admitted the company trawls Twitter for celebrities seeking Christmas jumpers – never, ever underestimate the power of celebrity endorsement.

Three years on from Julian Gough’s rant, has Irish writing (and Irish publishing) changed for the better?

Julian Gough Irish writing

Julian Gough (©

While flicking through the web on my weekdaily evening meander northwards through County Meath yesterday evening, I came across Julian Gough’s brilliant rant from a couple of years back on the state of Irish writing.

His answer to a question concerning the current state of Irish literature might have started with (I paraphrase) “I haven’t the faintest idea as I’ve been living in Berlin and I don’t read any Irish writers”, but he went on to comb the literary scene here with a scathing eye.

If I were a published young Irish writer in the two or three years preceding February 2010, I might not be so generous, but these were some my favourite lines:

If there is a movement in Ireland, it is backwards. Novel after novel set in the nineteen seventies, sixties, fifties. Reading award-winning Irish literary  fiction, you wouldn’t know television had been invented. Indeed, they seem apologetic about acknowledging electricity (or “the new Mechanikal Galvinism” as they like to call it.)

I do read the odd new, young writer, and it’s usually intensely disappointing … Irish literary writers have become a priestly caste, scribbling by candlelight, cut off from the electric current of the culture. We’ve abolished the Catholic clergy, and replaced them with novelists. They wear black, they preach, they are concerned for our souls. Feck off.

(The whole thing is available over here)

Reading it now, at a remove of almost three years, it prompted the question: have things improved at all?

Is RTE, post-Love/Hate (which I admit I’ve missed entirely – I missed the first few episodes of Series 1 and I never manage to get into any Irish-produced drama series retrospectively), a more nurturing environment for talented Irish screenwriters?

Do blazingly talented younger Irish writers exist?

If they do, are publishers here courageous enough to take a chance on them, or must they still, as Gough bitterly points out, traverse the Irish Sea to find a willing ear?

Some of this year’s most well received books by Irish writers have come from UK houses. I’m thinking specifically of Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child (Granta) and Kevin Barry’s Dark Lies the Island (Jonathan Cape).

Of course, City of Bohane (Vintage) had already brought Barry within the Random House group, but I wonder whether any Irish publisher spurned the chance with that one beforehand?

And are there any editors out there who passed up an opportunity on Hawthorn and Child?

Honest answer: I don’t know.

But Gough’s piece from 2010 – Graham Linehan is a genius, but he’s been working out of London, with UK broadcasters, since his early 20s, so he has no reason to address Ireland. We had other geniuses, a decade or two back, but we didn’t want them either – left no-one in any doubt of his opinion that Irish writers of any note have to quit the country to progress.

I wonder whether the three years since then have seen any positive change in Irish writing, Irish publishing, or both.

Not one, but two Cork poetry asides

Sometimes things happen in twos, and the Cork literary scene rose before my consciousness twice in the space of a few short minutes today.

Firstly, as I was pondering getting back into the swing of things with a first blog of the week by flicking through the latest Hennessy Irish Writing Today magazine, which came bundled with the Irish Independent a week or two back, my attention was caught by a photo of two people sitting on a corner couch of a pub with a couple of glasses before them.

Well, it appears to be a pub. Perhaps it’s their sitting room. But it looks like a pub, and I sort of prefer the idea of two world-wise publishers, a husband and wife, convening in a local establishment in rural Cork to discuss poetry.

John and Hilary Wakeman, an English couple who moved to Ireland 16 years ago, are the team behind THE SHOp, a three-times-a-year poetry publication based out of West Cork.

The Wakemans sent Issue 39 abroad earlier this year and Issue 40 should be available before the end of the month if they continue the March-July-November publication pattern which has served them well over the past 13 years.

John and Hilary receive 6000 submissions each year, and around 1% of those go into each issue of THE SHOp. The Summer 2012 edition included a tribute of sorts to the poet Bernard O’Donoghue, including an essay on his poetry by Barney Norris, a new poem by O’Donoghue and a poem for him, written by former Keats-Shelley Prize winner DH Maitreyabandhu, entitled “The Irish Muse”.

If you’d like to become a subscriber to THE SHOp, which is named after the rag-and-bone spot in Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”, you can do so by clicking on the “Contacts” link on the website – you can purchase a subscription online through PayPal.

Secondly, and continuing the Cork theme, my @irishwriting Twitter account received a tweet from Bradshaw Books this afternoon pointing me to an announcement of the winner of the Cork Literary Review Poetry Manuscript Competition.

Similarly to the Wakemans, the winner is also latterly a Cork resident, although the 22 years Annette Skade has lived there should surely be enough to make her an honorary native by now.

Annette Skade’s poetry has appeared in THE SHOp in the past, and she is also a former winner of the Poets meets Painters competition, but this should be a notable milestone given that the prize is the publication of a first collection of poetry by Bradshaw Books in 2013.

Skade’s work, and that of runners-up Jaki McCarrick and Maurice Devitt, will also appear in the next issue of Cork Literary Review in the New Year.

Congratulations to all, including Bradshaw Books for a prize which brings emerging poets into that sweet domain inhabited by “the published”. And feel free to follow in the footsteps of Bradshaw Books by dropping me a line, either here, via email or on the Twitter.

A belated farewell to Meath writer Tommy Murray

Meath writer Tommy Murray

Meath writer Tommy Murray (picture:

I’m sad to say that while I was in the same room as him on a couple of occasions, most recently at the Swift Satire Festival “Battle of the Books” lunch as recently as July, I never met Tommy Murray.

And now, sadly, I never will.

While sitting amongst a group of 40 or 50 people at Navan Library on Wednesday night for Eileen Battersby’s talk on Mary Lavin, I half-expected to see Tommy around the place.

Navan Library was a regular haunt of his – there wasn’t a library events listing in my memory that didn’t include something involving Tommy, whether it was a book launch or a reading or, most commonly, a creative writing class for the young lads and lasses of Meath.

Tommy was 81 when he died last Saturday week (November 3rd), and the fact of his age was almost as much of a surprise as news of his death when it finally reached me, only yesterday, by virtue of a fortnight-old blog post from his friend and old “Battle of the Books” rival Michael Farry.

Because Tommy was as full of life as any of us can hope to be in our 20s or 30s, never mind our 80s. His own blog provided ample evidence of that vitality in his last two posts in the dying days of October.

Firstly he mentioned the launch of the Meath Junior Writers Anthology, a collection of the work of 26 young people from the ages of 9 to 15 who were tutored by Tommy at Navan Library on Saturday mornings. That launch was due to have been held last night (November 15th).

And very poignantly, in his final blog on Wednesday, October 31st, just three days before his death, Tommy’s pride in having a poem selected for publication by Galway poetry group Skylight Poets was tangible. Tommy Murray’s name was no stranger to publication – his 13th book, a collection of poetry entitled “Swimming with Dolphins”, was published by Belfast’s Lapwing Press earlier this year – but his enthusiasm remained intact and he wrote of his hope that he would make it to Galway for the Skylight launch on January 24th next.

This, clearly, was a man not yet ready for death. And yet in talking about it with Mrs Blogger last night, it seemed a perfect way to bow out. Of course, the shock to his family will have been raw, and will remain raw now, just two weeks later. But still, faced with the divergent paths of a degeneration of body and mind, quick or gradual, and living a life of eight decades to the full until the last possible moment… I know which route I’d choose.

A belated farewell, Tommy. Sorry I hardly knew ya.

Update: Here’s a recording of Tommy reading his poem “Hometown” in Castle Arch Hotel in Trim on Thursday, October 25th (via thetarapoetryblog)

A Mary Lavin talk that touched on Turgenev, Welty, Dickens and Donal Ryan

I’ve never met Eileen Battersby, but I was glad to be in attendance at Navan Library on Wednesday night for her talk about Mary Lavin’s status within the Irish and global literary pantheon (Note: I hate using the word ’pantheon’, especially in an opening sentence. But it’s lunchtime. I’m a bit rushed.)

The Literary Correspondent of the Irish Times, Battersby probably reads more books every year than I’ve read in my lifetime. You get the feeling she’d mop up the 154-strong long-list for the IMPAC and still find time to suggest a dozen books that were shamefully overlooked.

She’s both crazily scatty (one Dickens-related tangent during last night’s talk took her off-road for five minutes, and I’m not sure, by the time it ended, whether anyone could remember exactly what point she’d been making beforehand) and dazzlingly confident in her opinions – I loved her brief but cutting putdown of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad earlier this year.

That scattiness and strength of opinion was firmly in evidence on Wednesday night, and I’ll certainly be reaching for Eudora Welty and Turgenev as a result of her comments.

I will also fast-track Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart to the top of the “to-buy” list on foot of her somewhat breathless recommendation. Ryan, a Limerick-based civil servant, has attracted plenty of acclaim for his debut novel, and Battersby compared him very favourably to arguably the leading light among contemporary Irish writers:

You read [Kevin Barry’s] City of Bohane, and it’s a hoot, it’s very funny, but he doesn’t really have anything to say. The Spinning Heart is a little book but it’s really very good.

The Lavin talk, which is part of Meath County Council’s series of events celebrating the centenary of her birth, also brought an explicit exhortation from Battersby for the Council to make a more enduring commemoration of Lavin’s life and work – namely, by following the road tread by the Munster Literature Centre, which established the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in 2005.

Battersby’s unspoken words were that Lavin is at least the equal of O’Connor. She went on to use rugby parlance to talk about how an “Irish XV” of short story writers would stand alongside the Americans as the world superpower. Barring a few notable exceptions, including VS Pritchett, the English haven’t mastered the form, while the French have some wonderful practitioners without an established French short story tradition. (Continuing the thread, a “World XV” would see Lavin and William Trevor vying for a place on the team, she said.)

The Frank O’Connor version goes to a volume of short stories, but I wonder whether there’s an opportunity for a prospective Mary Lavin Short Story Award to recognise a single short story every year? (Note to Meath County Council: I live in Navan, so if you need any help…)

The main talk was preceded by a brief introduction by the wonderfully dignified Diarmuid Peavoy, husband of Lavin’s daughter Elizabeth and brother-in-law of the writer’s youngest daughter Caroline Walsh, the former Irish Times Literary Editor whose life ended in tragic circumstances late last year.

Peavoy offered some brilliant insights into Mary Lavin the person – she always wore black but loved white flowers above all others; she worked from morning until lunchtime sitting up in bed with her tea on the locker and notebooks before her on a wooden stand; and that while she was a fantastic cook she steadfastly refused to be photographed in the kitchen.

Well done to all involved on an excellent evening, and here’s to the inaugural Mary Lavin Short Story Award in 2013…

The IMPAC Prize, cross-border inclusivity and an early Christmas for Patrick McCabe

I’ve spoken about never-ending long-lists here very recently but the Carnegie Prize doesn’t hold a candle to the IMPAC, for which its longest ever long-list was announced on Monday.

The entrants are all nominated by public libraries around the world, with one winner taking home the €100,000 prize when the winner is announced on June 6th next year.

Strangely, perhaps, the official release from IMPAC announced that there were eight Irish novelists on the list, with Belfast’s Jane Gillespie seemingly described as “Northern Irish”. I’m all for a bit of cross-border inclusivity when it comes to literature, so I’ll gladly include Gillespie in the list of Irish nominees.

The nine Irish novelists include Irish-Italian Margaret Mazzantini (nominated by Waterford County Library and Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Roma) and Canada-based Patrick Warner, who was given the nod by The Provincial Resource Library in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

The Irish nominees are:

On Canaan’s Side by Sebastian Barry

City of Bohane by Kevin Barry

The Absolutist by John Boyne

The Dulang Washer by Paul Callan

The Map of Time, by Jane Gillespie

Long Time, No See by Dermot Healy

The Cold Eye of Heaven by Christine Dwyer Hickey

Twice Born by Margaret Mazzantini

Double Talk by Patrick Warner

Last year’s Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes, was the most nominated book having been selected by 15 libraries worldwide, while previous IMPAC winners Andrew Miller and Michel Houellebecq are nominated for Pure and The Map and the Territory respectively.

The judges were also confirmed this week, and Irish writer Patrick McCabe takes his place on an eclectic panel which also includes Salim Bachi, an Algerian novelist based in Paris; Estonian translator, academic and publisher Krista Kaer; London-based Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie, and Clive Sinclair, British author and academic.

McCabe is never less than forthright and interesting to listen to, and he was typically candid in speaking about the role of IMPAC judge:

The reason I agreed to be one of the judges is because I don’t read an awful lot of contemporary fiction, particularly international fiction. So when I was asked if I was interested in reading 154 books that I get for nothing, it was like all my Christmasses came together.

I have the time and the interest, I’m very interested in international thought, and it’s a great opportunity for me as much as anything else.

Reading 154 books does seem like an arduous task but I am an avid reader anyway and always have been. I read them when I feel like it. I read them during the night and in the morning and I read them in transit and I read them stationary. It wouldn’t be fair to the writers if you approached it as a task that had to be completed. There’s a considerable amount of time between now and the shortlist announcement for me to have read and have a pretty clear idea of what I think about the books.

I have always been very interested in originality of tone and style and a view of the world. That would be my particular preference but it’s a democratic process and there’s a number of people involved. Everyone will get a fair shake no matter what my preferences are.

Follow the link for more information on the International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award.

Hear the one about the three Irishmen and the Carnegie Medal?

Three Irish authors have been long-listed for the prestigious Carnegie Medal, presented annually for books written for children or young adults.

And when I say long-list, I mean long-list.

By my quick count there are 67 books included, which prompts the question, tweaked from its regular application to certain low-grade Junior Gaelic football teams over the years: Is it harder to get off the list than get on it?

That might be a bit facetious, and it’s good to see three Irish authors present and correct on the looonnnnnng-list in the shape of John Boyne’s The Terrible Thing That Happened to Barnaby Brocket, Roddy Doyle’s A Greyhound of a Girl and Derek Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant: Death Bringer.

I haven’t dipped into any of these three books yet but I have read (along with everyone else) The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and received a glowing report from Mrs Blogger about Noah Barleywater Runs Away, so Boyne has certainly become one of the most esteemed young adult writers out there.

Landy’s Skulduggery Pleasant series has won staunch admirers in recent years – and Death Bringer is not even his most recent instalment, with the seventh book, Kingdom of the Wicked, having been published in August.

As for Roddy Doyle, there are plenty who would argue that even his books for adults find a natural home among the young – there is certainly something a bit puerile about his latest venture Two Pints, 90-odd pages in which two men sitting in a pub dissect the events of the day.

Sample (via Irish Times extract a week or two back):

– Who’s goin’ to win [the election]?

– Hard to say. They’re all shite.

– I seen Mary Davis’s Sex an’ the City posters.

– There yeh go. An’ Mitchell. He said you can see the house he grew up in – in Inchicore, like – from the window of the Áras. An’ he’s goin’ to look out at it every mornin’.

– An’ shout, Fuck you, Inchicore.

Doyle doesn’t hit the mark as often these days as he managed for a lengthy period of time earlier in his career, but the title story of his collection of short stories, Bullfighting, is an exceptional examination of the lot of the late middle-aged Irishman. (You can listen to “Bullfighting”, read by Dave Eggers, on the New Yorker fiction podcast series.)

There ends that particular tangent.

CILIP (Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals) runs both the Carnegie Medal, which has been presented every year since 1936 and includes names such as Walter De La Mare, C.S. Lewis, Philip Pullman, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman among its former winners, and the Kate Greenaway Medal, which was established in the 1950s and honours outstanding illustration in a book for children. (The full long-lists for both the CILIP Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medals is over here)

Illustrators of children’s books are not my area of special knowledge, so if there are any Irish illustrators listed therein, feel free to let me know in the comments.

Established authors, the next generation and the Dublin Book Festival

The fifth annual Dublin Book Festival begins next Tuesday and there’s a packed programme of events, morning, lunch and evening, over the following five days.

Virtually every event looks worthwhile but one that specifically caught the eye was the not-very-informatively-titled “In Their Own Write: John Boyne, Siobhán Parkinson, Dermot Bolger, Donal Ryan, Colm Keegan and Deirdre Sullivan” in the Main Theatre at Smock Alley on the festival’s final day.

Having never (not yet, at any rate) been privy to discussions in a fiction or poetry publishing house, I can only hazard a guess, but I would suggest that getting an established author to offer up a cover quote is one of the secrets to any novel’s success, particularly one coming from a virtually no-name younger writer.

The man’s name has since left me but Claire Kilroy’s editor at Faber and Faber spoke about this process at the launch of The Devil I Know in The Gutter Bookshop a couple of months back. He sent the book to John Banville with a view to attracting a blurb-able line. Banville replied that he doesn’t do cover quotes, but was subsequently so impressed by the book that he called back a few days later to offer one up.

This talk is about precisely that – the importance of some praise from established authors to those battling to make their way.

In this case Boyne, Parkinson and Bolger favourably reviewed, respectively, Ryan’s debut novel The Spinning Heart, Sullivan’s first novel Prim Improper and Keegan’s debut collection of poetry Don’t Go There.

If they get into the nitty-gritty of it, it promises to be an informative couple of hours on at least part of the publishing process in Ireland today.

All the details on next week’s festival are available from the Dublin Book Festival website.

Colm Tóibín on putting words into the mouth of Mary

You’d wonder where Colm Tóibín gets the time. His middle name could be Ubiquitous; he possibly took Prolific for Confirmation.

Speaking of which (dazzling segues are a personal speciality of mine) it’s religion that prompts his latest novel, The Testament of Mary, which is due out on bookshelves real and virtual on November 13th and has already been the subject of some advanced gossip of the “major prizes” variety.

In between working on novels, short stories, essays, literary critiques, creative writing workshops and a lot more besides, Tóibín pops up with incredible regularity on the airwaves and he checked in with the BBC’s equivalent, The Front Row, the other night.

Here’s what he had to say about finding a tone of voice for history’s most famous mother:

I had to find a language for her. I couldn’t give her a mere domestic language of the ordinary day. I had to find a very heightened and stilted tone for her so that she wouldn’t speak like someone you meet on the street.

Tóibín also suggested that a continent-wide cultural freedom gave him the leeway to approach a subject as potentially controversial as a first-person narrative from the point of view of the Mother of God:

Being Irish, I’m very pro-European. I believe that Europe is not merely an economy as it’s being reduced to at the moment, but it’s a culture, and that one of the absolute tenets of that culture is the freedom of writers to imagine and publish.

I’m not so sure. A European artistic freedom hasn’t exactly been apparent for British Muslim novelists or Danish political cartoonists.

Listen to the full interview on the BBC’s Front Row page.

(P.S. Maybe I’m easily entertained but given all that talk of religions and freedoms I thought it was interesting that spellchecker’s suggested replacement for “Tóibín” is “Taliban”)

When is a Novel of the Year not a Novel of the Year

Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book AwardsThe Irish Book Awards shortlists – all 12 of them – were announced during my long Long Weekend sabbatical, and the Novel of the Year award was the one that first attracted my attention.

That inclination is natural, perhaps. Fiction is the most substantial section of any general-purpose bookshop, and novels are the primary focus of the fiction shelves. Also, from Booker to Costa to Orange and many, many more, novels and awards are the cosiest of bedfellows –  given the proliferation of prizes these days, any novel of literary ambition without some decoration or garland is a sullen child.

So I was interested to see what lay behind the Eason Novel of the Year link. Imagine my surprise, then, when the first title that met my eyes was Astray, the collection of short stories from Emma Donoghue.

If that raised an eyebrow, the next book on the list made me do a double-take to make sure I hadn’t stumbled across a completely different page. Kevin Barry’s Dark Lies the Island is also a collection of short stories. As is Where Have You Been?, Joseph O’Connor’s book, which also makes the shortlist.

So half of the books shortlisted for the Novel of the Year category are not novels at all? While this is a compliment to the quality of short stories published by Irish writers this year, it’s surely an indictment of this particular award, which is effectively the flagship prize at the Irish Book Awards evening at the RDS on November 22nd.

I suppose it shouldn’t be wholly surprising that an award sponsored by Eason should be so manifestly misrepresentative in its categories.  Although maybe Eason’s marketing gang have it all planned: three books each from two separate genres in one award.

It’s set up perfectly for a “3 for 2” one-table promo in the run-in to Christmas.

(For the sake of completion, the final three books on the shortlist for the Eason “Novel” of the Year award are Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway, John Banville’s Ancient Light and The Light of Amsterdam by David Park.)