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My Watchmaker’s Time by Joe Clarke

Watchmakers Time A5 CoverHR

Joe Clarke’s first novel, Mirrors Don’t Tell Lies, was almost 6 years in the making having undergone a series of rewrites in the process. His latest publication, My Watchmaker’s Time, followed along in a similar vein although taking a year or so less to complete. This week I had a quick chat with Joe about his new novel from Selfpublishbooks.ie.

“Once finished I had no real ambition to publish either works but subsequently gave in to family promptings,” Joe said, “I felt, at the time, that something as beautiful as the written word, especially in book form, was a fitting legacy and I am very proud of what I have achieved thus far.”

Following on and prior to his early retirement Joe also dabbled with poetry, writing scores of poems along the way.
“I love the simplicity of telling complexed stories in just a few rhyming verses,” Joe admits, “Occasionally I target the humour of topically funny stories via my email inbox or headline banners and make them real. I believe that poetry is as complicated or as simple as the writer cares to make it. I have written poems about life, death, love and hate with more than a sprinkling of adventure thrown in. When I eventually reach the milestone of having written 250 poems I will then seriously consider publishing them in their entirety. Prose versus Poetry is such a tight call for me simply because both play such a huge part in my life. I’d say the one starting with the letter ‘P’ wins hands down.”

 

What was it in this second novel that kept him engaged? “I really enjoyed writing My Watchmaker’s Time as it gave me the opportunity to think outside the box, steering away from the conventional,” he maintains, “The novel is made up of a series of short stories spanning centuries. It revolves around the life of Bryan Barnett, a pretty regular type of guy, who must seek his redemption through a series of tasks set up by a Higher Power. My favourite chapter tells the tale of Abe and Lucy, a pair of young ambitious hopefuls, during the great ‘Californian Gold Rush’ of 1849. Their original naivety in searching for gold saw them swiftly change direction when they accidentally struck rich. Setting up a series of hardware stores throughout the States brought more wealth than they at first had imagined. It’s a gripping story of rags to riches that more than just pulls at the heart strings. Really one to enjoy!”

 

How does My Watchmaker’s Time compare to Mirrors Don’t Tell Lies? Joe pauses on this. “To stand back and compare both books is very difficult to do, given their diversity. Aesthetically, both compare equally well although I will always have a special fondness for my first book, which is understandable, I suppose. I would like to once again thank Selfpublishbooks.ie for making my words come to life in the form of an exquisite book. Special thanks go to Shelley O’Reilly for the fantastic work done in producing such a stunning cover. Huge thanks also to my wife Terry for her support throughout. Without all of your help it would be but just a dream.”

 

So what’s next for Joe? “I am currently working on my third novel, The Case of the Missing Letter, a detective story with many twists and turns. It’s shaping very good at the moment but is still someway from completion. When inspiration isn’t there, you know, it just isn’t there and right now I am in that place, time for golf? I have no doubt that a few weeks away from the computer and on the golf course will do the trick, yet again. Funny old game this writing!”
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Literary Mixtape: What’s Happening This Week

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What do we make of Marcel (Proust)?

#9

More children are using libraries

#8

Self-Publishing 2013 with Catherine Ryan Howard

#7

The Book Thief film adaptation

#6

Sylvia Plath: Reflections on her legacy

#5

The National Emerging Writer Programme

#4

A new look into Jane Austen

#3

On Richard III being found in a Leicester car park.

#2

How much should you budget to self-publish your book?

#1

Get a free copy of Poetry Magazine!

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Don’t judge The Bell Jar by its cover

Faber’s new cover for The Bell Jar may be garish, but if it finds a new audience for Sylvia Plath’s novel then who cares?


This post is reblogged in full from The Guardian website and is written by Sam Jordison.

It may have first come out 50 years ago, but The Bell Jar still causes controversy. The anniversary has seen all the old arguments and enmities boiling over again, but this book strikes such a nerve that even a new cover can start a row.

Writing on the LRB blog, Fatema Ahmed pours scorn on Faber’s “silly” 50th anniversary edition, calling it a woefully inappropriate attempt to rebrand the book as chick lit. She quotes the always reliable Twitter feed from Melville House asking: “How is this cover anything but a ‘fuck you’ to women everywhere?” and Andy Pressman, a graphic designer, who derided the new cover as “awesomelycomicallyhistorically inapprop” and said: “And by ‘historically’ I mean ‘incorrect on a scale of which we have few historical precedents’, not ‘That typeface didn’t exist in that era’.”

There is a strong argument against the new design. Ahmed says:

 

“The anniversary edition fits into the depressing trend for treating fiction by women as a genre, which no man could be expected to read and which women will only know is meant for them if they can see a woman on the cover.”

 

I can see where she’s coming from. That is indeed a depressing trend. And the cover does indeed look a bit like those other garish covers that supposedly only appeal to women. While I’m notching up the negatives, there’s also the simple fact that the original cover by Shirley Tucker is a thing of great beauty: a timeless classic that is to the new cover as a single-malt is to tar water.

But, here’s the thing. This latest edition has sold truckloads. The official figures aren’t out yet, but Faber have assured me it’s doing the business. There’s no evidence that this cover has ostracised a potential part of its audience, but there is already some that it has helped the book reach a new generation of readers.

Okay, this is an inexact science, and perhaps those sales should be attributed as much to the 50th anniversary publicity and renewed interest in the author as they are to that garish red cover. But the fact remains that the book is selling – and quite possibly reaching a new audience, as Faber claim is their exact intention. Hannah Griffiths, publisher of paperbacks at Faber, says they were aiming for a more “welcoming package” in the belief that “there is a reader for this novel who could enjoy its brilliance without knowing anything about the poetry, or the broader context of Plath’s work”.

Of course, as soon as anyone picks it up, breaks the spine and reads that first sentence they’ll know they’re in for something different. “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” Hardly Sophie Kinsella, is it? I even quite like the idea of someone mistaking the book for a sexy summer beach read and falling headlong into Esther Greenwood’s cruel world.

What’s more, those actually reading the novel – rather than judging the cover – may even see something in that blood red, in the queasy glamour of the 50s model checking her makeup, in the serious face in the mirror. It certainly conjures up a time and place, a sense of nausea and introspection. The novel’s Esther Greenwood would probably mock the new design mercilessly, but that too seems appropriate. Perhaps it’s right that she is at odds with the world in which she finds herself and the way she is presented? Perhaps this new cover isn’t quite so silly after all?

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Abe according to Steve

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This post is reblogged in full from the Times Literary Supplement article, here.

 

Abraham Lincoln is America’s most familiar president, as well as the most mysterious. His likeness is, literally, common as a penny – or a $5 bill – while his character continues to confound and elude us even now, nearly a century and a half after his assassination. There are so many Lincolns: the marmoreal figure in whose presence Richard Nixon met with anti-war protesters in May 1970, just a few days after National Guardsmen had shot four unarmed students at Kent State University in Ohio; the railroad lawyer and tool of Northern finance capital who had ruthlessly destroyed our Southern way of life – a view held by many in the Virginia Tidewater where I was born and by a strand of Marxist historians in the universities; the “father Abraham” of spiritual and legend, martyred Moses of African Americans. In recent years there has even been a lively debate about the sixteenth President’s sexuality.

Yet the persistently nagging, eventually unshakeable conviction, as I watched Daniel Day-Lewis’s impersonation, that I had met this man somewhere before, didn’t trace back to any of that. His Lincoln, like the real one, is over-fond of quoting Shakespeare, appears half-asleep when alertness is most required, is driven to distraction by his wife’s increasingly feeble hold on her sanity, and tormented by visions of the slaughter and ruin wrought on his order. This mounting sense of déjà vu didn’t mar my enjoyment of the film, but it was a distraction – almost as much as the tears I couldn’t seem to stop. Those who think of history as a dry business where facts and figures keep emotions firmly in check will find Lincoln distinctly unsatisfying – except, perhaps, as an invitation to pedantry.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is not, in fact, a PhD. thesis, and though Tony Kushner, who wrote the screenplay, may have as deep a grasp of the complexities and conflicts in American history as anyone now writing for a mass audience, his first obligation is to the drama, not the details. Yet as the flurry of fact-checking articles which greeted Lincoln’s American debut attest, it is apparently possible to spend the film’s entire 150 minutes with pad in hand noting down anachronisms and historical elisions.

Most of these are, admittedly, pretty small beer: the Bavarian-born John Nikolay, one of Lincoln’s two secretaries – and later his biographer – probably sounded more like Arnold Schwarzenegger (who actually voiced him in a television documentary) than Jeremy Strong. Nor would the Vermont native Thaddeus Stevens recognize much of himself in the indelibly Texan tones of Tommy Lee Jones. Amusing though it is to watch the film’s scenes of congressional raillery, members of the House of Representatives, though occasionally fighting duels outside the chamber, did not address one another directly from the floor. And it is highly unlikely that W. N. Bilbo, the Tennessee political operator hired to procure the votes Lincoln needed to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, thus ending slavery, would utter the particular expletive Kushner gives him when the President decides to pay a surprise visit.

The historian does not go to the cinema seeking enlightenment, and those who attend Lincoln looking for something to complain about will not come away empty-handed. The shooting may have stopped in the American Civil War in May 1865 (or June if you were unlucky enough to be aboard one of the ten whalers captured off the Aleutian Islands by the Confederate warship Shenandoah before her captain learned the war was over), but arguments over the war’s precise causes – particularly over the role of slavery – and its legacy continue to rage. Some of the more serious historical criticism of Lincoln has taken issue with Spielberg’s decision to focus on the events of January 1865, when the newly re-elected President, having freed the slaves in the rebel states by the Emancipation Proclamation two years previously, risked his political capital by pushing forward a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery altogether. This frame doesn’t exactly deny slaves that agency in their liberation that the work of historians like Barbara Fields, one of the stars of the Burns brothers’ documentary series on the Civil War, has done so much to illuminate – but apart from a brief encounter with a pair of black soldiers in the beginning, and a couple of stagey, improbable conversations between the President and Elizabeth Keckley, the former slave who served as his wife’s seamstress and confidante, it is left mostly off-screen.

Yet to complain about such matters, however historically well-intentioned, is to miss a point that should have been obvious from the film’s choice of title. Lincoln is not about the Civil War or the evils of slavery. It isn’t even about the whole of Abraham Lincoln’s life, though it is worth noting that, despite the film’s compressed focus, Day-Lewis takes us far deeper inside the President’s character than such earlier, and iconic, incarnations as Henry Fonda in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln or Raymond Massey’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois – both of which stopped well short of the White House.

That is because whatever else he was – railsplitter, country lawyer, teller of tall stories – Lincoln was above all else a politician. Lincoln is a film about politics – the most intelligent, least deluded film about American politics since Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men (1949). And while that film, an adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s novel inspired by the career of the Louisiana politician Huey Long, is both an anatomy of corruption and a renunciation of politics, Lincoln attempts something far more difficult: to show, as Thaddeus Stevens put it (repeated, slightly out of context, by Tommy Lee Jones), how “the greatest measure of the nineteenth century was passed by corruption, aided and abetted by the purest man in America”.

By January 1865 Lincoln had finally found, in Ulysses S. Grant, a commanding general who could actually fight. He’d also ditched the “team of rivals” that made up his first cabinet in favour of an election cabinet that pledged loyalty not only to the President himself but, in the event of an electoral defeat that most thought likely, to Lincoln’s plan to secure victory in the war before the inauguration of his Democratic rival, the feckless (but popular) General George McClellan. And as the film shows, he’d also undergone a kind of revolution in his own attitudes. Though Lincoln always hated slavery, when he’d written, early in his presidency, that “if I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it” he’d meant it. He also long favoured colonization – shipping freed slaves to Africa, or Central America – as a solution to the problems posed by emancipation. William Seward, the former governor of New York who began as first among the rivals in Lincoln’s cabinet, but by 1865 had become a ferociously loyal Secretary of State, warns him he can either have a speedily negotiated end to the war or the Thirteenth Amendment. But Lincoln wants both.

David Strathairn’s Seward initially baulks at the political machinations needed to keep the fractious Republican Party in line and to persuade a sufficient number of lame- duck Democrats to back the amendment. In a way, Lincoln is really a “caper” film, with votes being merely so much loot. As Seward assembles his gang, and Bilbo and his crew use threats, cajolery, the offer of patronage posts and, when all else fails, outright bribes to round up the votes, Spielberg heightens the suspense by cutting to scenes of Lincoln’s home life, his spirits crushed between a wife, Mary (played with remarkable restraint by Sally Fields), driven mad with grief by the death of one son from typhoid, and an older son desperate to enlist in the army before the war’s end deprives him of his chance.

Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is a President whose seeming indolence masks a watchful, preternaturally determined manipulator of men and events, easily credible as the strategist who snookered the South into firing first at Fort Sumter. With his high, reedy voice, paternal indulgence towards his youngest son Tad (whose cleft palate seems to have been cinematically corrected) and incontinent fondness for barnyard humour, this Lincoln also comes as close to what we know of the character of the man as we have any right to expect.

This Lincoln also comes as close to what we know of the character of the man as we have any right to expect

There is an extra element of suspense in all Spielberg’s historical epics: will he, we wonder, resist the sentimentality that has brought him so much success in Hollywood? By now it should be clear that Spielberg can do whatever he wants with his medium. In Munich, his last collaboration with Kushner, he even managed to withhold a happy ending. In Lincoln he doesn’t hold out quite so long; viewers who miss the last ten minutes will see a better film.

Yet it was during that final swerve for edification that I finally remembered where I’d met this particular Lincoln before: in the pages of Gore Vidal’s novel. Not literally, of course – the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment is barely mentioned in that book’s 700-odd pages (a Derridean might call this an “absent presence”). But the sense that here, finally, walked a man of flesh and blood and passion and intellect. Historians, naturally, hated Vidal’s Lincoln. But I suspect it will be read long after Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, now enjoying a spike in sales thanks to its credit as Kushner’s inspiration, is forgotten. And for those who want more, there will be this splendid film. As the credits rolled, the audience in Brattleboro, Vermont burst into applause. The only state in the union where slavery was never legal, Vermont sent a tenth of its citizenry to fight in the Civil War. It was the Second Vermonters who broke Pickett’s charge, turning the tide at Gettysburg. I don’t know if any of their descendants were in the theatre; but as the lights came up, there were few people left unmoved.

D. D. Guttenplan, London correspondent for the Nation, is the author of American Radical: The life and times of I. F. Stone, 2011, and the producer of Edward Said: The last interview, 2004.

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Samuel Beckett’s funny turns

This post is reblogged in full from the Times Literary Supplement article by Kate Womersley

 

Winnie (Natasha Parry) in Happy Days, London, 1997

The winter of 1925 in Dublin was a rather cheerless one. At least that is the picture the papers give: workers’ strikes, a general depression in trade and widespread unemployment. The Irish Times forecast a particularly cold Christmas, adding the small consolation that “if all goes according to plan, England and Scotland will be swept by Polar winds with an icy chill in them”. The “Public Amusements” page suggested some distractions for gloomy Dubliners. Humpty Dumpty: The Pantomime was doing a run at the Gaiety Theatre, “the famous Dixie Minstrels” were in town, and La Scala was showing Charlie Chaplin in The Pawnshop.

Meanwhile, a music hall revue called Happy Days was on at the Olympia. Scant information survives about the show, where it came from or where it went. The listing appeared from December 21 until Christmas Eve, leaving a few tantalizing clues about what the spectacle might have been like. A revue, the descendant of music hall proper and cousin to American vaudeville, tended to have a loose plot but still remained loyal to the traditional format of a series of showpiece fragments and cameo turns.

In 1925 Samuel Beckett was reading modern languages at Trinity College. Is this Happy Days a lost source for his own play of the same title? It has always been assumed that Beckett named his 1960 drama after the hit song of 1929, “Happy Days are Here Again”. But the dates and location lend weight to the earlier entertainment as well. Might Winnie in her faltering performance of optimism be a grim reworking of those “happy-go-lucky girls”? After all, one of Beckett’s abortive titles for his Happy Days was “A Low Comedy”.

But what is the likelihood that Beckett joined the Olympia’s boisterous audience, or even saw the listing in the Times? When James Joyce said in 1903 that “the music hall, not Poetry, [is] a criticism of life”, Dublin was awash with musical farces and other variety entertainments. Twenty-odd years later, music hall was a dying art. Deirdre Bair, Beckett’s first biographer, nevertheless writes that he made a habit of frequenting the Olympia and the Gaiety, as well as the more genteel Theatre Royal, a taste he did not outgrow when living in Paris after he had graduated from Trinity. He discovered the French strain of music hall, which derived from café concert, at the Bobino, attending “frequently, even in the afternoons, and nearly always by himself”.

Noting Beckett’s enthusiasm for these entertainments is not new; neither is spotting how they colour his work. Comedy collides with sobriety again and again in his drama. In a notebook for Human Wishes (1936), an early play, later abandoned, about the life of Dr Johnson, Beckett jotted down a line from a letter Mrs Thrale sent to a friend in 1750. Here she asks, “Did not Dr J say once that MacBeth wd make a good pantomime?”. If Johnson is right, why shouldn’t pantomime and its kind be fair game for good tragedy? Given how Beckett went on to develop these early ideas and influences, we should hear curiosity as well as caution in his remark that “If we can’t keep our genres more or less distinct . . . we might as well go home and lie down”.

A question repeatedly hangs in the air: “What do we do now?”

The contrasts of pace and modulations of tone in Beckett’s drama can indeed be dizzying, and are integral to its interest. Two popular performers from the 1920s, the Swanson Sisters, were lauded by the Irish Times as “almost a complete variety programme in themselves”, and the same could be said of Waiting for Godot’s double act. Whether they are swapping hats (in tribute to the Marx Brothers) or swapping insults, Vladimir and Estragon draw on a long stage tradition of clowning, minstrelsy and knockabout. Lucky and Pozzo could also be plausible extras on a comic bill. Each crescendo of action subsides with the rise of a niggling anxiety about endings and beginnings. A question repeatedly hangs in the air: “What do we do now?”.

Happy Days owes even greater debts to the illegitimate theatre. Winnie, with her capacious bag and garrulous tongue, recalls the halls’ grande dame, Marie Lloyd (immortalized in a famous essay by T. S. Eliot), and the later parleuse, Joyce Grenfell. Another of Beckett’s jettisoned titles for his play was “Female Solo”, which at once points up Winnie’s near-solitariness, her chattering monologue, and climactic swansong at the end of Act Two. Like Marie Lloyd, Winnie makes a routine out of routine: the morning rigmarole of readying herself for the day (saying her prayers, brushing her teeth, rouging her lips) is undertaken in the vein of a skit. And just in case the audience needs a further nudge, Beckett prescribes a “Very pompier trompe-l’oeil backcloth” to suggest “the kind of tawdriness you get in 3rd rate musical or pantomime, that quality of . . . laughably earnest bad imitation”.

This travesty of staginess and Winnie’s “desirable fleshiness” (low bodice and heaving bosom at Beckett’s request) are not there just for a cheap laugh. While critics have concentrated on important affinities in content, little has been said about the formal influence that music hall had on Beckett’s play. Indeed, the twice-nightly bill of turns in the 1925 Happy Days is a fruitful way to think about Winnie’s two acts with their repeating patter and increasingly restrictive routines.

There are more subtle divisions too. Instead of scenes, entrances and exits, Beckett uses the unit of a “turn” to organize stage space and partition stage time. Like turns on the bill, the play feels bitty to watch. When trying to map the “action”, “that bit with the postcard”, “that bit when the umbrella catches fire”, “that bit with the music box” are useful landmarks.

The discontinuity of the “bits” is reinforced through movement. They often begin and end with the physical action of turning away or turning around. Stage directions which prompt a turn are the most frequent after “pause” and “silence” in Happy Days (indeed in Beckett’s entire oeuvre). The mutual reliance of dramatic structure and bodily gesture is particularly prominent when watching Winnie, trapped as she is from the waist down in a mound of earth for the duration of the play. Every few minutes she twists and bends to look at Willie behind her (obscured to the audience except for his boater, which is just visible). Writing in 1961 to Alan Schneider, the first director of Happy Days, Beckett was at pains to emphasize that “all this leaning and turning and motion of arms and bust in Act I should be as ample and graceful (memorable) as possible, in order that its absence in Act II may have maximum effect”. By the second act, of course, Winnie is buried up to her neck, capable of turning only her head.

The visual and semantic richness of a turn on the Beckettian stage cannot be dismissed as a mere happy accident. The complexity of the word and its gestural weight is supported through instances of turning in his prose. Arsene, in the novel Watt (1953), recounts an estranging episode. While walking outdoors, “something slipped” and he experiences a “reversed metamorphosis”. The incident is likened to the transformation as told by Ovid, but instead of Apollo turning a woman to foliage, here Arsene says it is rather “the Laurel into Daphne”. This moment is taken up later: “Took a turn in the garden . . . . Made merry with the hardy laurel”. The wordplay showcases various definitions of a turn: rotation as well as transformation; a performance; a “go” in a sequence; a short walk; a spell of confusion or distress; all finished off with a nod to the short sketches of two of Beckett’s favourite performers, Laurel and Hardy.

Once you start looking, turns crop up all over the place. In the short story “Ding-Dong” from More Pricks than Kicks (1934), our anti-hero Belacqua makes a habit of taking numerous short strolls as if he were tracing the path of a “boomerang, out and back”. After “these little acts of motion”, if only “from the ingle to the window”, he always “returned, transfigured and transformed”: “Exempt from destination, [he] had not to shun the unforeseen nor turn aside from the agreeable odds and ends of vaudeville that are liable to crop up”. A charge can be felt between “turn aside” and “vaudeville”, spotlighting the familiar notion that all the world’s a stage. Circular and mundane activities performed in solitude are reframed as a one-man comedy show.

Turns on the stage and on the page meet again in From an Abandoned Work (1954). The nameless narrator imagines a future when “it will not be as now, day after day, out, on, round, back, in, like leaves turning, or torn out and thrown crumpled away, but a long unbroken time without before or after”. Turning leaves put us in mind of the pages of a book or script, spirals of foliage swept up on windy days and perhaps a fleeting momento mori as their greenness fades to brown. Life is cast as a succession of circuits, predictable as clockwork. The tedious imperative to go through the same motions “day after day” has its most famous expression at the end of The Unnameable: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on”. A consummate performer must continue in the face of exhaustion.

The frequency with which these verbal contortions and physical turns occur points towards a principle at the centre of Beckett’s practice: expression within limitation. The “dramaticule”, Come and Go (1965), is its purest distillation, again not quite casting off affinities with music hall. Three women, Flo, Vi and Ru, dressed head-to-toe in block colour and seated in a row, perform a round of permutations. Each takes her turn to rise, rotate and exit, while the remaining pair share a whispered secret (inaudible to the audience). Beckett wanted the trio’s choreographed movements to be “stiff, slow, puppet-like”. The first line of the playlet, “When did we three last meet?”, recalls Macbeth’s weird sisters. This turn seems to be Beckett’s belated answer to Dr Johnson’s challenge, pitched between a funny skit and a tragic window on to a purgatorial existence.

It is intriguing, then, that Beckett should repeatedly describe his own vocation as if he were one of these trapped entertainers. Writing in 1954 to an inmate of a German prison who had staged a production of Godot, Beckett felt indebted to the performers.

“I am no longer the same, and will never again be able to be the same, after what you have done, all of you. In the place where I have always found myself, where I will always find myself, turning round and round, falling over, getting up again, it is no longer wholly dark nor wholly silent.”

This stumbling, disorientated and troublingly comic figure combines the persistence of Sisyphus with the clumsiness of a clown. To see the writer’s condition as a turn is simultaneously showy and modest, suggesting both singularity and sequential reliance. Beckett’s sense of his own art seems to equivocate between an individual moment and a humble episode in a line of artistic and cultural inheritance.

In his final prose work, Stirrings Still, such an awareness of predecessors and aftercomers is especially pronounced: “This outer light then when his own went out became his only light till it in its turn went out . . . . As when others too in their turn before and since. As when others would too in their turn and leave him till he too in his turn”. Another possibility is heard through the repetitions. Being “on the turn”, passing one’s prime, is inevitable. As this “outer light”, the limelight, fades, there is a lingering fear for Beckett that his work might, like the music hall shows of which he was so fond, become a dying form.

Kate Womersley is a Frank Knox Fellow at Harvard University.

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Abandoned Darlings

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Ruth Quinlan, one of the members of NUIG’s Masters in Writing group which produced the collection Abandoned Darlings, caught up with Selfpublishbooks.ie this week and discussed how the book came about, starting with how her interest in writing first began.

“When I was younger,” said Ruth, “I was a real bookworm, staying up all night devouring books until the grey hours of morning. I had always been interested in writing as well, dabbling with a few evening courses but never really making much headway because I was too focused on work. When I moved back from Malaysia in 2009, I really wanted to rediscover that part of myself so I started looking at MA courses and saving every spare cent I could lay my hands on. I didn’t want to do it part-time like I know other people do; I wanted it to be a full year of immersing myself back into the world of books and writing. So, I chucked in the job and became a full-time student again. Yes, several people thought I had lost my senses walking away from a good job in the middle of a recession but I knew that I needed to do it for myself.”

Why NUIG? “The NUIG course really appealed to me because it is such a wide-ranging course – people don’t have to choose a particular area of specialization until the final MA portfolio is being handed in. Instead, they can do anything from poetry to oral history, screenwriting to travel literature.”

Ruth felt this particularly contributed to her enjoyment of the program: “I discovered areas like theater reviewing that I absolutely loved – and would never have considered if they hadn’t been on the available module list. Those free theater tickets for the semester came in very handy – I was there every week for about three months! I adored being a student again and still get a little pang of envy whenever I pass by the college here in Galway.”

So how did Abandoned Darlings come about? “It has become a kind of informal tradition now for each of the MA in Writing courses to release a collection of their writing after the course has finished,” Ruth told me, “We looked at previous year’s examples and we wanted to do the same – especially since this was the tenth anniversary of the MA in Writing course. Professor Adrian Frazier has done an incredible job of gathering together gifted teachers and enthusiastic students and the MA has really blossomed under his skillful stewardship. He had suggested the idea of an anthology to us towards the beginning of our course (back in September 2011) and we ran with it from there. However, the process really started in May 2012 when we started having meetings about it and trying to figure out who was going to be guest editor, how many submissions to have etc. December 2012 when we launched Abandoned Darlings was the culmination of a lot of work by a lot of people who had never done anything like this before.”

What books/which authors particularly inspired you and your MA group? “I remember when I read The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, my fingers literally burned to write like she did,” Ruth said, “I could see what she saw, feel what her characters felt; taste, touch, smell the entire world she created. Since then, I have read everything she wrote but also had the privilege of reading many other wonderful authors. An Irish author that I really admire is Nuala Ni Chonchuir. I find the sensuality and earthy wisdom of her prose and poetry inspiring. Whenever the muse has decided that she’d much rather hang out with a more deserving writer, I pick up one of Nuala’s books – the muse eventually stops sulking after that and deigns to come back  – for a little while at least.”

What did Ruth contribute to the anthology? “I wrote a short story called ‘Moon-kite’ which is my attempt to explore the breakdown of a middle-aged woman’s marriage. It is about her realization that she has lost pieces of herself in the struggle to hold a dying marriage together – and the solace she seeks during her rediscovery of her self. I also wrote a short piece called ‘Crossing the Dunes’, which is about the loss of a loved one. It was heavily influenced by the loss of my own father but is not completely autobiographical.”

Ruth was happy to talk about her publishing history: “I have had my writing published in journals and forums like ThresholdsSINScissors & SpackleEmerge Literary Journal and I’m included in this year’s Irish Independent Hennessy New Irish Writing series. My poetry was published as part of Wayword Tuesdays, which was a poetry collection printed by Selfpublishbooks.ie a little earlier this year. I was just a contributor on that project though as opposed to this one for Abandoned Darlings where I took responsibility for driving it to conclusion.”

What caught their interest in self-publishing? “Self-publishing really opens your eyes to the hard grind that goes into creating, marketing, and selling a book. I will never pick up another book without a heartfelt appreciation of how many decisions were required to bring it into existence. It’s funny actually because when you self-publish, you become completely obsessed with strange things like cover finishes, and paper color and weight. I found myself on several occasions standing in the middle of a bookshop running my hand over a page of particularly smooth, heavyweight paper – or lusting over a nice cover graphic. I definitely got a few odd looks!”

I asked Ruth how she and the group found the self-publishing process – efficient or daunting? Ruth was optimistic about the whole process. “However, once we got int the nitty-gritty like finding a guest editor, assigning an ISBN number, writing bios, fundraising to cover the printing process & advertising costs, etc. we became a little more daunted. However, we were fortunate in the fact that we could turn to some of the people from previous MA years who had gone through the process already. Their advice was invaluable. While this was a steep learning curve for me personally, I am very glad I did it because now, if I ever get to the stage where I want to publish a book of my own, I would have a pretty good idea of how to go about it. The old adage is true – you really do only learn by doing, getting your hands dirty and by making your own mistakes. Then, at the end of the day, when you see your book for the first time in print, the hard work is truly worth it and there is a great feeling of satisfaction in being able to say, ‘I did this, I created this.’ ”

Will the group be writing together in the future or going their separate ways? “Now that the MA year has finished, many of the class have moved back home to the States or Canada so I am not sure if we can all continue to work together as closely as we have until now. However, I think we will all keep in contact and continue to workshop each others writing and I am very sure that some of the group will continue to work together as a writing collective.”

Now the collection is done, I asked Ruth if she’s finished with writing: “Never! I will never have enough of writing. However, now that I am back in full-time employment, the challenge will be to make sure that I retain a balance between work and the writing. I cannot let my writing slip away like I did before so I am determined to keep at it. It would be such a loss otherwise. Competition deadlines are a great way of forcing yourself to write so I’ll be keeping an eye out for those. Even if I don’t get anywhere with them, they are a great incentive to keep producing. Practice makes perfect as they say.”

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Wayword Tuesdays with the Tuesday Knights

Wayword Tuesdays COVER

Over the last three years, novice and experienced poets have been meeting in creative writing classes in Galway under the guidance of poet Kevin Higgins either on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Fridays. Over the years, though classes have had different people come and go, there have been a few who regularly would be there on the Tuesday night, and got to know each other pretty well.

I caught up with Stephen Byrne, one of the contributors to Wayword Tuesdays, who told me that it was one of the aforementioned few regulars who came up with the concept of creating an anthology for the group, and so the Tuesday Knights were founded and consisted of 7 poets.

The Tuesday Knights printed their anthology with Selfpublishbooks.ie earlier this year. I asked Stephen how it all began. “We started it last June,” he says, “We would meet in the House Hotel (which became a regular occurrence) to decide on how we would do it, since none of us had ever had books published before. A lot of work and decisions have to go in to this project such as, to try get published or self–publish? Do we need/want an ISBN number? How many poems each? What would the design be like? Who will design it? What about the cover, art or graphic? We needed to meet regularly and come to agreement on everything, time consuming but fun.”

I asked Stephen what he enjoyed the most about the compliation. “We all contributed 7 poems each. Plus we had a professional photographer take portraits and added these into the book along with a short bio of each writer, was a lovely touch.”

Seven writers, one book had to be a challenge. I asked Stephen what the main obstacles were in putting together Wayword Tuesdays: “As with 7 different poets, the main challenge was to have variety. And luckily enough, since we are 7 completely different writers with different styles and voices, the book is awash with different types of poetry, catering for all tastes.”

This is the Tuesday Knights’ first publication. Why self-publish? Stephen is happy to tell me: “Having full control, of design, cost, timescale. Plus, we had the ability to come together, grow together as a group, each with an influence in its creation and the excitement of having and viewing the final draft before we give the go ahead to print, is daunting yet crazily exhilarating, the power of self-publishing.”

The process of self-publishing itself is sometimes daunting at first glance, but Stephen told me it was quite the opposite for him and the group. “Actually found it quite easy. Working with Frank and his team was gratifying, easy, enjoyable and extremely efficient. The hard and tiring part was getting everything together, working with 7 people, meeting together, agreeing, disagreeing, but the publishing part was a doddle, quick with outstanding results.”

What about the finished product? “It was way better than we imagined, stunning,” Stephen said, “We had outsourced the artwork for our cover with a local artist, so we did not know what way the cover would look until we had the books in our hands. We also chose a creamery paper rather than the white. When the books arrived, I was blown away by how professional they looked. The cover was outstanding and because of the paper we chose, the font looked amazing.”

I asked Stephen if there was an author/group of authors the group took as their inspiration. “Too many to name,” replied, “I myself would be highly influenced by Lorca and Neruda and more recently Nathalie Handal.”

What’s next for the Tuesday Knights?

“I think we will now do a bit of literature festival traveling to promote the book, sell a few copies and have fun with it. Whether we bring out another anthology down the line remains to be seen, but who knows, we now know what were doing and have had a taste of the simplicity of self-publishing.”

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