Why writing is always best as a solitary pursuit

I have always been a bit confused by the idea of co-authoring. I can never get my head around what the writing process must be like on things like, say, hit big-budget boxset-style TV series.

Several – perhaps dozens – of writers routinely appear in the end credits, leading me to a quizzical expression and the question – what, exactly, do they all do? Do they convene in a large room and sit in a semi-circle in front of their laptops? Does one writer concentrate on one setpiece, a second on another, with an overall Wizard of Oz type – Aaron Sorkin, for example – pulling all the strings as he looks over their shoulders?

The short answer is I don’t know. I would guess that every show is unique, with different modes of work that rise from the earth during the “writing process”.

Maybe this is one thing that large writing teams have in common with their more conventional cousins, whose primary collective attribute could be boiled down to the word “solitary”: that the act of writing – putting words down in order to tell a story, and getting that story completed in a manner that gives meaning to one reader, or enjoyment to another, or baffling wonderment to someone else – is never anything less than chaotic. It may be a bit like childbirth. You get from one side to the other, where the world is changed utterly, but the bit in the middle, the action, is something anguished and unexplainable.

TV writing is one thing, but co-authoring books is quite another. It can work fine in non-fiction – Levitt and Dubner have nailed teamwork for their Freakonomic series, the Christmas bestsellers’ list every year is filled with ghost-written books, and children’s books would be a whole lot poorer without a top of the range writer-illustrator alignment.

But it’s altogether more problematic in the sphere of so-called “creative” writing. How can you co-write a novel, or a collection of poems, or a play? The relationship between writer and editor can be strained enough with adding another name to the book jacket or the poster.


All that came to mind today when I read of the High Court settlement between Roddy Doyle, and a number of other parties from the world of Irish theatre on the one side, and Bisi Adigun on the other.

Doyle and Adigun teamed up to co-write a modern retelling of JM Synge’s century-old classic “The Playboy of the Western Word”, which attracted plenty of press when it was given a world premiere at The Abbey Theatre. All was seemingly fine and well for a while, until a second run at the same venue a year or two later contained a host of changes which had not, it seems, been okayed by both writers.

Cue legal action, culminating in the transfer of all associated rights seemingly solely to Adigun in a settlement on Wednesday.

It’s all a bit unseemly, and not an environment that writers would usually be familiar with.

I’m sure Doyle will be happy to have put the episode behind him so that he can concentrate on something that will undoubtedly garner him much more positive media attention when The Guts, his quarter-of-a-century-later sequel to The Commitments, is published later this year.

I’m thinking of starting an Irish-themed book club. Anyone interested?

book-clubThis blog has been going just three months or so now, and the growth in visitor numbers has been slight but steady (the discerning or the grumpy might suggest my posts could be similarly summed up).

Over the past week or so I’ve had some small but not-to-be-sniffed-at traffic spikes as a result of Twitter pointers from the likes of writer and broadcaster Sean Moncrieff, columnist and author (not to mention lots of other stuff) Martina Devlin and quality independent publisher Salt Publishing in the UK.

So in a bid to strike while the iron is lukewarm, I’m thinking of adding a layer of interactivity to the whole thing.

A large part of my reasons for starting this blog was that I was interested in reading Irish books – for the purposes of these pages I’ve stuck for the most part to so-called “literary” fiction, short stories and the odd slice of poetry, and events, publications and periodicals concerning those areas. (I have the height of respect for all those ploughing a furrow in theatre, film or non-fiction, but reading time is finite and I just don’t get read or experience enough of those to warrant their inclusion in this blog.)

I figure there are many others out there similarly disposed, who might be willing to try out an online book club to get stuck into a particular Irish book (from past or present), and chat about it once a month.

The plan, as far as it goes (and it goes about as far as this blog post), is:

–          to choose books (novels, short story collections, poetry) that are either written by an Irish author or authors, or published by an Irish publisher

–          to make selections that should not be too difficult for people to find in their local bookstore, if they’re lucky enough still to have a local bookstore. If needs must, you could purchase on A***** or download to K*****, but as a conservationist of the dying species of bookstores I won’t be condoning that sort of thing 🙂

–          to select books in rotation by bookclub member, and two months in advance wherever possible, in order to allow for time to find a copy of a particular book, busy schedules, postage delivery times or slow readers. (If you’re like me, a combination of several of the above…)

–          to have a sort of quota system of approximately 6-8 novels, 3-4 short story collections and 1-2 poetry collections per year, although this by its very nature this will no doubt be fluid and open to lively discussion. I wouldn’t have it any other way

–          to set aside two hours a month (I suggest the last Monday of each month) to chat about it

–          to have the discussion via Google+ Hangout. If you’ve managed Skype, a Hangout should be fine. Indeed, Google’s virtual meeting tool might be just about the perfect environment for online bookclubs

–          and finally, if things were to go really well we could organise a social meetup once a year. Or possibly every six months if there’s an appetite for it. There would be a wine or a beer, or two or more of each, if I’ve anything to do with it.

So that’s the vision. If you’d like to take part, and I hope you do, leave a comment below or send me an email at shane.breslin@gmail.com.

In the language of old-style Irish committeeeeees, we’ll need a quorum to get started. Three is possibly enough to get us going and hopefully it will build from there. If things go really well we might hit the Google+ Hangout limit of 10, but we won’t worry about that just yet…

Feel free also, if you’re dropping me a line, to make an initial suggestion for Book Number 1. So what are my chances of getting things up and running for February?

I’d be overjoyed if you could spread the word, and I look forward to hearing from you.


Faber adapts Peter Murphy novel cover for river-themed social event

The people behind Faber Events, the publisher’s social arm, have adapted the cover of the recently published (and already quite acclaimed) Shall We Gather at the River, by Irish novelist Peter Murphy, for a forthcoming event in London.

Faber and arts-culture-angling-birdwatching-and-all-points-in-between site Caught By The River have joined forces for the event at The Social on Little Portland St, London W1 on Monday week (February 4th).

It will showcase a reading by Murphy from his alternative-Wexford-set novel, as well as other readings which seem connected by a watery theme, including former Booker-shortlisted Mick Jackson, Olivia Laing, Tom Bolton and Charles Rangeley-Wilson.

Perhaps most striking of all, the poster for the event (below) is based on the attention-grabbing cover of Shall We Gather at the River.

For more details, or to purchase a ticket (just £5 for pre-payers), visit the Faber events section. Shall We Gather at the River is available from all good bookstores, while you can check out Caught By The River for more ethereal stuff.


Colum McCann was clearly a standout speaker at Hay Festival Cartagena

Colum_McCannOne of the most eagerly awaited literary launches of 2013 will surround Colum McCann. His eighth novel, Transatlantic, is expected to arrive on the bookshelves, literary and virtual, sometime around June.

It’s his first book since Let the Great World Spin won plaudits all over the globe in 2009, its garlands including the Irish Book of the Year, International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award … and, if I recall correctly, the Liveline with Joe Duffy panel selection.

McCann’s name started whizzing around Twitter on Thursday night during a talk he was giving at the Columbian offshoot of the Hay Festival – Hay Cartagena.

Below is a sample of what he was talking about. (If you’d like to hear more from Colum McCann, he reads his own story “Transatlantic” over at the New Yorker podcast from last year. The Amazon description, which references Alcock and Brown, would suggest that the new book is a novel-length version of the story.)

Love that last one. Sure it’s not true, but the sentiment is unmistakable…

Lyric’s two-part life of Lafcadio Hearn is surely a must-not-miss

lafcadio_hearnI admit, somewhat joyously* it must be said, that this is a new one on me – Lafcadio Hearn, a Greek-Irish author who spent most of his career in the United States and became a renowned expert on Japanese culture, so much so that he is also known in some parts as Koizumi Yakumo.

Hearn, who was born in Greece in 1850 and spent his formative years in Ireland, is the subject of a two-part series on RTE Lyric FM over the next eight days.

The Wikipedia page dedicated to him includes some incredibly brilliant one-line anecdotes, including:

Writing with creative freedom in one of Cincinnati’s largest circulating newspapers, he became known for his lurid accounts of local murders [which became so well known that] the Library of America selected one of these, ‘Gibbeted’, for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American True Crime, published in 2008.

At the age of 24, while living in Cincinnati, Hearn and the artist Henry Farny wrote, illustrated, and published a weekly journal of art, literature and satire called “Ye Giglampz”, while he later lost his job with the local paper for the then crime of marrying an African-American woman.

He moved to New Orleans and through his writings about the Creole people and Louisiana’s distinctive cuisine, culture, and voodoo beliefs he is credited with inventing the modern reputation of that city.

Hearn moved on to the West Indies and eventually Japan, where he spent the last 14 years of his life (he died at the age of 54), the last eight of which under the name Koizumi Yakumo following his naturalisation.

It promises to be an incredible story, told over two hour-long features on Lyric FM starting this Friday at 7pm.

* I knew nothing about Lafcadio Hearn yesterday. Every day in this life can bring great discoveries, and if that isn’t something to be joyous about then I don’t know what is.

Irish writers in esteemed company on Sunday Times short story prize long-list


Belinda McKeon (image via imagineireland.ie)

Two Irish writers are rubbing shoulders with some mighty big names on the long-list for the world’s richest short story prize.

The Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award carries a prize fund of £30,000, and Philomena Kearney Byrne and Belinda McKeon are among the 16 names announced this morning.

Kearney Byrne is a psychotherapist from Carrick-on-Shannon, Co Leitrim while McKeon hails from from Longford.

While McKeon boasts a decent profile for her work – her debut novel Solace won the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book of the Year and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and she was also named Sunday Independent Best Newcomer last year – it’s probably fair to say Kearney Byrne is a relative newcomer to a stage like this.

As far as I can make out, her only published book so far is Earthworks, about the artist Derval Symes, although she did win the Francis McManus Short Story Award last year.

Kearney Byrne and McKeon share a long-list which includes some of the biggest names in world literature, including Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time author Mark Haddon, Booker Prize winner Graham Swift and Ali Smith, a former Whitbread Prize winner.

Both ladies will learn whether they’re £30,000 richer when the winner is announced at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival in March. Not incidentally, they will be bidding to keep the gong in Ireland following the victory of Kevin Barry for the dazzling “Beer Trip to Llandudno” last year.

Best of luck to both.

Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award long-list

Caroline Adderson – “Erection Man”
Junot Diaz – “Miss Lora”
Helen Dunmore – “Spotted Dick”
Adam Foulds – “Tunnelling”
Mark Haddon – “The Gun”
Sarah Hall – “Evie”
Cynan Jones – “The Dig”
Philomena Kearney Byrne – “Honda fifty”
Toby Litt – “Call it ‘The Bug’ Because I Have No Time to Think of a Better Title”
Belinda McKeon – “Eyes on Me, Eyes on You”
Mark McNay – “Ten Years Too Late”
C D Rose – “Arkady Who Couldn’t See and Artem Who Couldn’t Hear”
Ali Smith – “The Beholder”
Graham Swift – “I Live Alone”
Claire Vaye Watkins – “Rondine al Nido”
Samuel Wright – “Best Friend”

The strange place where Sean Moncrieff writes his novels

Sean Moncrieff picI must say I was surprised by the unusual surroundings in which Sean Moncrieff finds the inspiration to write his fiction.

The popular broadcaster and newspaper columnist is making waves as a novelist with his recently published The Angel of the Streetlamps, a third novel following Dublin (2001) and The History of Things (2007).

Leaving aside any reservations I might have about those with a public profile from a different sphere moonlighting as novelists – Michael Clifford, Gene Kerrigan and Josh Ritter, among others, in this part of the world – I was most struck by Moncrieff’s description of the writing process.

I’ve always been fascinated by the subject of how and where writers write: long ago I read of Brendan O’Carroll’s decision to write between midnight and 4am, when his family was in bed and the house was quiet, a nocturnal habit that is paying high dividends now.

Given Moncrieff’s broadcasting commitments with a five-day-a-week show on Newstalk, regular newspaper columns in the Irish Examiner and a smattering of voiceover gigs thrown in for good measure, Edel Coffey’s question on RTE Radio 1’s arts show Arena the other night – just where does he get the time – was a valid one.

And his answer certainly took me by surprise.

I do it on the DART. I live in Howth, I get the DART [into Dublin city] every day.

Writing on the train has become so ingrained in me that usually I reach a point when it’s time to rewrite or go through the proofs and I might take a few days off work, get on the DART in Howth and go back and forth between Howth and Bray all day long.

I see the same people, who think I’m somewhat deranged sitting in the same spot. But for some reason it calms me.

Brendan O’Carroll burning the midnight oil, Mary Lavin sitting up in bed until lunchtime with a writing-board on her lap and a pot of tea on the bedside locker, and Sean Moncrieff spending hour after hour on public transport, the writing practices of the writer always intrigue me.

Have you heard of any other unusual places where writers write?

William Trevor, the New Yorker and dismissive critics

William Trevor

William Trevor (© Guardian)

So it’s fair to say that the reaction to William Trevor’s latest New Yorker short story has been a bit mixed.

Firstly, and most importantly, I have yet to read “The Women”, which is published in the New Yorker‘s latest edition.

I aspire to having either a subscription to the hard-copy of the magazine, or even better a digital sub to the iPad version which comes with access to its entire 90-year back catalogue.

I’m not there yet. Stuff like food and heating oil, unfortunately, have been taking precedent in the weekly outgoings over the past while.

(And point of fact, before buying an iPad subscription, I will need an iPad.)

Still, I keep an eye on the latest news coming out of NY HQ, and its long love affair with Irish writers continued this week with the inclusion of a William Trevor story in its fiction section.

It concerns a girl who is sent to boarding school, where she encounters two mysterious older women. (Full story behind a paywall over here.)

It’s fair to say that the reaction has been less than overwhelmingly positive.

Blogger and writer Clifford Garstang wrote:

If you are the one person on the planet who has not read a story or seen a movie or television program about an unwed mother who has given her child up for adoption and then later sought out the grown child, you might find this story by the great William Trevor appealing. Otherwise, I’d be very surprised if you do … William Trevor is one of our greatest short story writers, but this one seems to have been written in his sleep.

Praised and slammed in one short sentence, although I would guess damnation like that is what most writers aspire to.

A blog dedicated to critiquing New Yorker stories (which must surely be a candidate for “The Internet as Mass of Niches, Exhibit A”) was also unimpressed:

Long digressions into Cotell’s and Keble’s perspectives prove unnecessary and often confusing, cluttered with details intended to provide motivation and backstory that only end up bleeding the main story arc of tension.

(Incidentally, a five-year-old blog post entitled “The Ten Best Living Short Story Writers” includes the following throwaway dismissal of Trevor, which may to some be equally pertinent today:

I think I’ll never be able to like William Trevor as much as the editors at The New Yorker do


Contrast all that with the reaction from The Mookse and the Gripes:

It was a beautiful thing to find a new William Trevor story in this week’s issue of The New Yorker. To my knowledge William Trevor has not published anything anywhere in the last four years. I assumed that, at age 84, he was done, as much as I hoped this day would arrive. I was not disappointed in the slightest.

The one thing that everyone seems to agree upon is that Trevor’s status as the world’s greatest living short story writer is challenged only by Alice Munro.

All of which is completely arbitrary, anyway. When the label “greatest living” is applied to anyone, in any field, it’s generally to someone with the weight of years and experience and productivity behind them.

But how is it possible to rank Trevor as better or worse than Munro, or Denis Johnson, or Yiyun Li, or anyone else you might like to mention. It’s all subjective, right? And when it comes to great writing, does the “living” bit really matter?

Happy New Year, and holidays in Broken Harbour

broken-harbour-tana-frenchOkay, so I’m just about a week late with this, but it’s the best way I could think of, during the course of another too-rushed lunchtime, to ease my way into a first post of 2013.

I enjoyed an extended Christmas holiday, which was great, although that didn’t exactly translate into additional time spent blogging. Sitting in front of a PC screen is not, I find, really conducive to looking after two children under the age of four, including a three-and-a-half-year-old who spent a few days laid up sick on the couch and a 15-month old who plods around leisurely but is liable to cause the damage of your average hurricane in any given five-minute spell.

So for most of the break, sitting on the PC was out. Reading, on the other hand, was in. Yes, my attention is just as diverted, but I tell myself that concerted exposure to their Dad sitting (or slouching, or even lying down – it was Christmas, after all) reading a book is sure to exert a positive influence.

I got through three books over the holidays: the sports fix was sated for a while by Soccernomics, by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski, which was very interesting to a point (I’m nerdy about sports books); I thoroughly enjoyed Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell’s engrossing investigation of success and its roots; and most pertinently to a blog about Irish writing, Tana French’s Broken Harbour.

I was led to Broken Harbour by a breathless review by Declan Burke on The Last Word with Matt Cooper before Christmas. I occasionally go through phases of reading crime fiction (I’ve got through several by Iain Rankin, one by Benjamin “Banville” Black, some John Connolly and one or two dreadful ones by Harlan Coben in the past), but it’s been a few years since I picked up a new one. I find the vast majority of genre fiction pleasantly diverting and almost instantly forgettable, which is not really what I’m looking for in a book.

Whether I’ll remember a huge amount about Broken Harbour in a year or two, I’m not sure, but it did seem to poke its head well above the better end of the crime fiction genre. There were certainly several passages that felt much more profound than anything I’d read in, say, Rebus. As usual with crime novels, a fine-tooth comb by a top real-world investigator might reveal a plot-hole or two, but on the whole it was hugely enjoyable, fizzing along page by page as events revealed themselves to its convincing first-person narrator, Detective Garda Michael Kennedy.

It also succeeded in painting a grim picture of boom-and-bust Ireland, all ghost-estate grimness and post-designer label humiliation. As an illustration of the woes facing Ireland’s silent majority, the put-upon middle class, it was much better than anything I’ve read, including Claire Kilroy’s quite acclaimed The Devil I Know. (Note: I’ve yet to get my hands on Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart, which has been held up by some respected observers as the stand-on novel about the Irish financial crisis.)

More pertinently, though, its depiction of a fraying mind was a frightening reminder of our slim hold on our sanity. Leaving aside the mental associations brought to me by the Coben cover quote, Broken Harbour is highly recommended. I just wonder how long Tana French will spend in this part of the world.  Her market, like the thousands of young families who in an alternative, utopian future might have been making a vibrant community of her fictional remote north Dublin coastal enclave of Brianstown, is elsewhere.