Category Archives: Musings

Stuff that occurs to me, in no particular order

Author Events, Audiobooks, Awful Catastrophes*, and Bath

If you follow me on my social media accounts (and if you don’t, sign up to check me out on Twitter here and Instagram right over here) you’ll have spotted that, last week, I was part of an Author Dream Team touring around Dublin leaving signed copies of books all over the place. It was so much fun.

Vashti Hardy (author of Brightstorm and Wildspark (with more wonders to come from her magical pen), James Nicol (author of The Apprentice Witch series, and with more work on the way), Lorraine Gregory (author of Mold and the Poison Plot and The Maker of Monsters) and Pádraig Kenny (author of TIN and Pog and, hopefully, loads more stuff in the future) and me spent the day going from bookshop to bookshop, meeting booksellers and readers and unsuspecting members of the general public (who probably wondered who on earth had let us loose on the bookshop stock with a packet of Sharpies), and we all had a thoroughly wonderful day. It’s wonderful to meet and talk to other authors, people who really love books and stories as much as you do, and I know I gained so much from listening to the others talk about their work, their upcoming projects, their methods and secrets – and, of course, gaining lots of insider knowledge and sneak peeks, which is (seriously) the BEST part about writing books for a living.

Here’s a brilliant photo of all of us, with added Mary Brigid (Hodges Figgis’s amazing children’s bookseller):

I’m also pretty chuffed to be able to announce that Oakhill Publishing have acquired the rights to release an audiobook of my first novel, The Eye of the North, which is AMAZING news. I’m so delighted! There’s something really special about being able to listen to a book – it’s like someone telling you a story. I know the folks at Oakhill will do a wonderful job, and I’m delighted to think of my book reaching new readers. Thank you to my agent, Polly Nolan, and my brilliant publisher, Stripes Books, for doing the deal on my behalf.

And, while I’m here, did you know I’m appearing at this year’s Bath Festival of Children’s Literature? Yes, really! Catherine Doyle (author of The Storm Keeper’s Island and The Lost Tide Warriors) and I will be in discussion about myths, monsters and making stories on September 29th at 12 noon. You can get tickets over here, if you fancy coming to see us.

And now for the not-so-good stuff (I should have begun with this, really…)

I’m working on a new story at the moment (all very hush-hush just now, sorry about that) and it had been going well. I’d reached the 45,000 word mark, I had a detailed synopsis in place, I knew exactly where the story was supposed to go, but for some reason I just – stopped. I hit a wall that I couldn’t break through. For weeks I laboured over one particular (not very significant) plot point that simply wouldn’t come right, no matter how many words I threw at it, and finally, after spending at least 20,000 words trying to make it work, I had to do something drastic.

I gave up.

(*This is the Awful Catastrophe, by the way.)

However, like most Awful Catastrophes, it actually turned out to be the best thing, in the end. I’ve learned by now (though, of course, sometimes I forget) that when I reach a complete block in a story, and when absolutely nothing I try helps me to get through it, it doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m simply being lazy/unoriginal/untalented/ridiculous/insert adjective here. What it sometimes means is that the problem I’m trying to solve is better off left unravelled. In this case, what it meant was that despite the fact that I’d already done so much work (almost five months of drafting), and that I had a synopsis which had passed muster with people much more knowledgeable than me, what I’d actually done was start the story in entirely the wrong place. (I didn’t work this out on my own: I have to thank Vashti Hardy for her brilliant suggestion that I try to find a different place to enter my story from. She’s brilliant. Go read her books.)

As soon as this realisation dropped, I knew I’d have to junk the work I’d already done – but that actually made me feel happy, and relieved, because I knew I’d written the story wrongly in the first place and this was my chance to tell it the right way round. Yes, it’s more work; yes, it’s hard to say goodbye to all the effort I’d previously made. But oh – the joy of knowing I’m finally on the right path, and the draft I’m aiming to complete now will be the story I should have been telling all along.

What I’m saying is: I gave up, but I didn’t really. I just wrote my story upside down in order to find out how to write it rightside up, and sometimes that’s the best (if not the most time-efficient) way to do things.

So. I hope you’ve all been having a wonderful summer. It’s almost my favourite time of year, and I’m working on a book that excites me, and it’s almost been TWO WHOLE YEARS since The Eye of the North was published in the US and Canada (which makes me itch to do some sort of giveaway – watch this space), and I’ve also had a little bit of good news about my US edition of The Starspun Web (coming in November, and no I can’t tell you what the good news is), so all in all, I’m feeling pretty professional around here.

I hope you’ve all been reading and writing with your usual gusto and aplomb, dear people, and until the next time I have a chance to update this sadly neglected blog, I bid you all farewell!

My Dream Library…

To be honest, my dream library is just any library, as they’re all doorways to infinity. I love libraries, and I love people who love libraries, and more than anything else I love a good school library. When I was at school the library was simply the big room in the middle of the building where people were sent when they were in detention, or missing a class for whatever reason. It had very few books in it, and no librarian (not that I recall, at least). I spent no time whatsoever in it as a youngster, as I was far too good (read ‘boring’) to ever have detention, and I never missed class. Sadly, I never went in to find a good book, either, as there weren’t any.

So, when a friend of mine – who works as a secondary school (High School) teacher here in Ireland asked for some advice as to what books to buy to stock her brand-new school library, I was elated. I thought about our gigantic, empty library in my old secondary school, and how I’d love to have the resources to fill it with brilliant books, and I had a long hard think.

And here’s what I came up with.

The lists below are divided into YA-level books and MG-level books (so, broadly, books for Senior Cycle first, and then books for Junior Cycle), but I’m very much a proponent of letting kids choose the books they want to read, so I wouldn’t worry too much about age limits. The list is made out this way simply because that’s how I sent it to my friend. I hope you find some ideas for your next amazing read in here!

Image credit: S.J. O’Hart

YA/Slightly Older BooksClick Here to Download the List

MG/Slightly Younger Books (Books for Everyone) – Click Here to Download the List

These lists are not alphabetised – they’re written exactly as they came out of my head – but I hope they give you some help if, like my friend, you’re lucky enough to be building a school library or perhaps buying a present for someone in your life. (Or yourself, of course!) They’re also not comprehensive – I’m sure I’ve forgotten so many brilliant books that I meant to include, so I’ll try to revisit them in a week or two and update any omissions – and they are largely focused on books published recently. Of course, they also reflect my own personal taste, which may not suit you, but please do get in touch if you want to ask about personalised recommendations.

Happy reading!


Owning It

Recently, I have had a few opportunities to tell some interested people – real life, clever, mostly bookish people – about the fact that my debut novel is being published next month in the U.S. and Canada, and in the UK and Ireland next February. These have included a friendly bookseller, who spotted a fellow children’s lit enthusiast at ten paces, and some truly lovely folk at a birthday party who couldn’t have been more enthusiastic to know everything about the world of publishing.

But something very odd has been happening to me, every time I get a chance to publicly mention my book, my writing career, and my publication dates. I get stumble-locked.

eye-front-cover

Cover image for THE EYE OF THE NORTH (Knopf BFYR, 2017), artist Jeff Nentrup.

My tongue becomes like the paddle of an oar in my mouth. I cannot word. I forget, on the spot, what my book’s about, what my name is, how polite conversation works. I find myself saying things like ‘Oh well I know it sounds so terribly up-my-own-fundement but… yes, I’m an author,’ or apologising for the fact that I’ve got an agent and book deals either side of the Atlantic or for the fact that I dare to live and breathe at all.

I really don’t know why I do this. Is it because I’m Irish? But I know many fine Irish writers who aren’t bumbling clods when it comes to their profession. Perhaps because I’m a woman? But then, similarly, many of the writers I know are also women and can own their space with confidence. Maybe it’s just because I am me, and I’m not yet published, and it all seems so nebulous, and – frankly – the reality of this whole thing is a little terrifying, and I’ve never really been good at talking about myself unless I’m making fun of my own existence anyway.

But I come away from each encounter feeling defeated, like I have insulted the other person’s interest in me by basically saying ‘Oh, haha, why would you be bothered with me? Not at all, there are other people who are loads better and it’s not that much of an achievement, what I’ve done, blah-di-blah…’

But that’s a bit silly, isn’t it? Yes. Yes, it is.

I’ve always been better with the written word. Me and speaking can turn into somewhat of a mess, unless I am (for whatever reason) feeling totally in charge of my material.

So here’s the thing.

Thanks so much to everyone I’ve spoken to over the last few days who cared enough to ask about the book.

Yes, it’s a children’s book. But you know what? They’re harder to get right than almost any other kind of book.

It sure is cool that I got a pair of two-book deals, my friend. Yes, it sure is.

And of course it doesn’t sound pretentious to talk about having agents, editors and publishers. Nobody else gets in a muddle talking about their managers, do they? Well, then.

Now. That’s sorted. If you see me in the flesh and I babble at you in a self-effacing way, I apologise in advance and direct you back to this blog post. Meanwhile I will do my best to ‘own it’ (girlfriend, werq, hip-popping and all), and stop being such a nincompoop. Success, as ever, is far from guaranteed.

 

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today…

Last night on Twitter, someone posted a wonderful question. It was this:

Twenty years ago (for that, horrifyingly, is how long ago 1997 is), I was about to leave school. I wasn’t the happiest of people, despite hindsight telling me, now, that I had far more going for me than I realised at the time. I was facing huge stress, and I was rather unhappy, and I had no real or proper idea what my life was going to be like, or how I was going to manage any of it.

In short, I was just like every other person in my school year. Each one of us faced exactly the same challenges and choices, looking down the same corridors of possibility and frozen in the terror of not knowing which was the right choice.

Now, of course, I know there is no right choice. There are just choices. Each of them bring you somewhere new, and every new place has its challenges. But if a person of the age I am now had attempted to tell school-leaving me this nugget of wisdom, I would have rolled my teenage eyes and completely ignored it, because of course I would.

The question on Twitter, however, really made me think. There are approximately ten million things I’d love to tell the ‘me’ of late April/early May 1997, not least of which is ‘you’ll get your heart broken in a few years, so badly that you think you’ll die – but you won’t,’ and ‘doing English at university is most definitely not a waste of time, no matter what anyone says.’ I plumped in the end for telling myself not to worry so much, which is a perennial piece of advice, but now I’m wondering if I’d be better off saying: ‘In twenty years, you’ll have achieved every single thing you wanted, and that’s great. But – and here’s the kicker – none of it will be as you expected.

None of it will be as you expected.

I wonder if I’d left school with the conviction that I wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or a sea-captain, how things would be different. Instead, I left school with a nebulous headful of dreams, ideas of an artist’s life without any proper plan to make any of it real, and I settled into a series of unsatisfactory jobs – not that there was anything wrong with the jobs, as such; it was me who was at fault. I struggled for so many years to find out the things which made me real, which gave me purpose, and then I struggled for many years more to find the courage to follow the plans I finally made.

I wish, twenty years ago, someone I trusted had told me: trust yourself. Those things you feel awkward about, or which you’ve been made to feel are wrong, or which you’ve been encouraged to ignore? They’re all okay. They’re more than okay – they’re you. And one day, they’ll lead to you do a doctorate in a subject you adore, and a few years after that they’ll see you get an email with the subject line ‘You WILL be a published author!!’

(Not that I’d have really known what an email was in 1997, but let’s just go with it.)

That’s not to say that life is exactly as I want it, even now. I suppose that’s humanity, isn’t it? Stasis is death, or whatever. Yes, I have achieved everything I wanted to do, and if I were to turn around right now and meet the Reaper standing behind me, at least I could fall beneath his scythe and feel like I’d done something meaningful with the time I’d been given.

But there’s always more to be done. There are always more mountains to conquer. There is always going to be that little itch around your soul, the one which makes you wonder: ‘is this it? Could there be more?’

And so, me of 1997, this is what I want you to know: there is always more. Everything you do is a step in the right direction. You will never stop trying. There are no wrong choices. And, sometimes, dreams – even when they come true – aren’t what you expected, so you’ve got to keep dreaming them anew. Striving for your own happiness is not a mortal sin. (Also, music will never be better than it is right now.)

And that heartbreak really doesn’t kill you. Trust me on that one.

 

 

I Am Lucky

I am lucky to have been born when I was born.

I am lucky that my parents were married to one another.

I am lucky that my mother survived my birth.

I am lucky that my father was not sick, or unemployed, or addicted to anything.

I am lucky that I was raised with love and stability.

I am lucky. Simply that.

Other babies, born just as I was in Ireland, the country I call home, were not so lucky.

They were born to women young enough to be called children themselves.

They were born of rape, or incest, or simple love relationships not ‘sanctified’ by marriage.

They were born to women who could not care for them.

They were born into families where too many children existed already.

They were born to women who were committed to institutions against their will.

They were born to women who fought for them, who begged for them, and who were told ‘no’.

They were born to women who never knew that they’d been sold to good, decent families abroad.

They were born to women who never knew they’d died, unloved, and were buried in unconsecrated ground.

They were born to women who loved them desperately, but who were torn from them before an ‘attachment’ could form.

None of this was their fault, just as nothing about my birth had anything to do with me.

 

It’s the tiny cruelties which break me open the most – the fact that these children were stigmatised by being called ‘illegitimate’, sent to school at different times to the ‘ordinary’ children so that friendships couldn’t grow between them – for fear, the horror, the very idea that an illegimate child from a Mother and Baby Home could be friends with a legitimate child of a married couple. The fact that information about families was kept from the members of those families – names, birthdates, addresses – meaning that parents couldn’t trace their children, children couldn’t trace their parents, inquiries were met with stony silence.

Hush it up. Brush it off. Ignore them. They’ll go away.

Ireland did this – my country, which I love. Members of my church, the Catholic church, were intricately involved with this decades-long conspiracy of silence.

Let us be silent no more, and let the names of the lost children shame us all. Let the memories of the lost women remind we who are lucky enough never to have seen the inside of a Laundry or a Home exactly how lucky we are.

And let every single one of them be counted, claimed and told – too late – you belong.

 

 

 

 

To Live Without My Music…

…would, as the song says, be impossible to do.

Besides writing and reading, the one thing I love to do most in the world is listen to music – and create some of my own, at times, when I feel like dusting off my old guitar and tuning up the vocal cords – and, some time ago, I sat down to make a list of songs I love, and why I love them.

I never got around to sharing it on the blog, for one reason or another (*ahem baby*) but I thought this might be an opportune time to give you all some listening pleasure, as well as an insight into my life – for what better way is there to crowbar open someone’s mind than to have a look at the music which has shaped them? (Well. You could look at the books which have shaped them, but you’re sick of reading about my favourite books, so…)

The Song I Listen to When I Miss Home

Helpless – Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young. This version is a live one, performed by Neil Young and the Band, the night of the Last Waltz. I can’t explain why – as I’m not from Ontario, nor anywhere near it – but this song screams ‘home’ to me. It has, like all of my beloved music, a lot to do with my dad.

The Song Which Means the Most to Me

I hesitate to say ‘favourite song’, because I love so many that I can never truly have a favourite. This one is up there with many others, including Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale, and it will always occupy a central spot in my heart. It’s Who Knows Where the Time Goes? by the irreplaceable, unmistakable Sandy Denny.

The Song Which Sings Freedom

Years ago I worked in a job I didn’t like much. Every day at 1 pm, I would be released for lunch and I had Nick Drake’s album Five Leaves Left in my CD walkman (oh, how cool I was!) This track, Time Has Told Me, was the first one, and I can’t hear its opening notes, even now, without thinking of freedom and a weight lifting off my shoulders.

The Song I Have Listened to Most Often

In my final year in university, one album got me through a very tough time. I lost a lot of friends, I faced tough exams, and I struggled with a lot of personal issues, and I had Jeff Buckley’s Grace on almost permanent repeat. So, any of the songs on that album would do as my ‘most listened’… but the title track, Grace, is the one I like the most. So, here you go.

The Song Which Makes me Yearn to  Sing

I learned to ‘sing’, if you can call it that, by listening to music as a kid. Nicolette Larson, Linda Ronstadt, Crystal Gayle and most of all, the monumental Joni Mitchell shaped my dreams of what being a singer meant. My voice comes nowhere close, but a gal can dream.

The Song Which Reminds me of my baby

I’m never not thinking about my baby, of course. But, even years from now, this song will bring me back to our earliest days and months together, and it’s one I still sing every bedtime. Thank you, Mama Cass, for your voice. You’ve given my baby and me some very beautiful memories.

The Song Which Raises My Neck Hairs

I don’t know if it’s the intro, or the opening vocal, or just… everything, but this song makes something in me thrill. I never tire of listening to it, and I will never stop missing David Bowie. Here’s his Sound and Vision.

And, there you have it. There are ten thousand other songs I could have picked, for ten thousand other reasons, but this selection will do for now. Happy listening…

 

Filthy Lucre?

There’s been some talk recently in writing circles about money and its role in an artistic life, fuelled (at least in part) by Donal Ryan‘s recent interview in which he admitted he has had to resume work as a civil servant in order to pay his bills, despite being an award-winning, successful novelist. It’s something that every person who writes and makes money from it has to think about and deal with, and something that very few of us talk about.

money

Money money money money… Mo-ney! Photo credit: SJ O’Hart

Well. Very few people talk about money at the best of times. But writers and artists, somehow, talk about it even less; as though money somehow taints the integrity of artistic work, or we like people to think we can subsist on good wishes and sunbeams. (Note: we can’t. Pay us, please!)

So, I thought I might address the issue as it pertains to my own life, at least a little.

Firstly, the issue of money is not straightforward. The idea of ‘making a living’ is not monolithic. Different people have different needs, different outgoings, different commitments, and these vary depending on: your housing situation, whether or not you have children, whether or not you need a car, whether you are in ill health or need ongoing medical support, and a host of other things. It also depends on what ‘enough’ means to you. Some people aren’t comfortable without a substantial cushion in the bank account, while others are happy if they have a month’s rent/mortgage and bills banked in case of a rainy day.

I have a simple life. My husband and I don’t smoke, we rarely drink, we don’t go out much and we haven’t had a holiday since our honeymoon. Despite this we manage to have plenty of fun, but we don’t need to spend a lot of money to have the lifestyle we want. Our main expenditure is books and the baby – and, since we use cloth nappies for the latter, that’s not even a huge source of spending any more – so we can get by on one salary, by and large. I am privileged, and I admit as much, to be married to a person with a job, which pays him a reasonable if not huge salary, and that this person is (and has been) willing to help me financially as much as possible. I’m also privileged insofar as I am in full health, at least as far as I am currently aware, and I don’t have any long-term or recurring medical expenses.

Having said that, I worked all my life from the age of fifteen, in a variety of jobs both full- and part-time, and when in 2012 I took a chance and left a job to give writing a go, I supported my end of our household for almost three years out of the money I had saved. I was nearing the bottom of my financial barrel, admittedly, when I signed my book deal – and that was the saving grace for us. By Irish standards, it was generous; it certainly gave me, and our family (by then, of three) a bit of breathing room.

However, it was news to me, until recently, that advances to writers in Ireland can be so low, and I find it wrong, simply put, that sometimes book deals are signed where the author receives no advance at all. I’m not suggesting that the country ‘owes artists a living’ – but art is important, particularly during turbulent times, and it should be recognised that it is also a job, which deserves payment, recognition and respect. I also understand that writers often need to work at other things to make ends meet, and when the time comes for me, I will do so, too. My advance won’t last forever and I may never earn royalties on a word I write, so I’ve made backup plans. For the moment my time is amply spent trying to fulfil my publishing contract and parent my child, and when things change, so will I. Again, this is a privilege I am happy to acknowledge.

Very few writers will earn enough to live on; without my husband’s income I freely and gratefully admit I wouldn’t be where I am. However, those of us who do write or create things which are consumed, used and enjoyed by society in general deserve to be paid for that work. Writers should always receive advances from their publishers. Society should provide grants and bursaries for visual artists, and these should be ringfenced – not slashed – in times of crisis. People from disadvantaged backgrounds should be given even greater access to the communal pot of funding. Should, should, should – and I realise I have no power to bring any of this into being, or ensure it happens consistently, and I also realise that most people don’t create art for financial gain – but it boils down to this: we need to value artists, in all the ways it’s possible to value a person and their work. Without art and culture, everyone suffers.

It’s in everyone’s interest to ensure that people can create, that they’re given the space and time to make art, that they’re respected and supported and paid appropriately, depending on the situation. Even if I weren’t in the position of earning a ‘living’, such as it is, from writing, I’d believe this to be true. How about you?

Do you have any thoughts on the thorny issue of paying artists for their work, and how best to manage it? I’d love to know your opinions.