Category Archives: Musings

Stuff that occurs to me, in no particular order

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.

Books Within Books

When I was at university, a hundred million years ago, there was a lot of talk about ‘intertextuality’ on my English courses – the idea that, essentially, every text which exists carries within it the influences of a great many other texts, whether deliberately or not, and that the reader also brings their own experiences of other texts to their reading of everything they encounter. It’s a fascinating idea and I whiled away many hours daydreaming – I mean, doing intense research – on the topic.

The Eye of the North, while most definitely being a book which sprang from my head, is no exception to this idea of intertextuality. The seeds which eventually brought it to fruition were sown over many years, and the basic outline of the tale began over fifteen years ago. It’s silly to think that the books I’ve read – of which there have been many – played no part in the shaping of the book I would eventually write; I have long been fascinated, too, by the polar regions and their history. There are a few books, however, which I could point to as having had a direct impact on my writing of The Eye of the North, and here they are.

1. The White Darkness by Geraldine McCaughrean (OUP Children’s, 2005)

I love a great many books, and there are few I love more than this one. The spine of my copy is creased like an old boot, such are the rigours I have put it to over the years. I read it in my twenties, long after I had first come up with the basics of The Eye of the North, but the reading of this book has definitely helped to flesh out my own mental idea of what the polar regions might be like – despite the fact, of course, that The White Darkness is about Antarctica, and not the Arctic. It tells the story of Sym, a girl who is taken on a trip to the South Pole by her strange uncle, a man who has definite nefarious intentions, and her struggle to survive there when things go pear-shaped – but what I love about this book more than anything is Sym’s unwavering devotion to Captain Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates, who was one of the brave men on Scott’s expedition to the South Pole in 1912. It is he who uttered the fateful words ‘I am just going outside; I may be some time’, as he sacrificed his own life in an ultimately fruitless attempt to save those of his comrades, and it is he who accompanies Sym, inside her mind, as she navigates her daily life. The book begins with her declaring her love for Captain Oates, despite the fact that he has been dead for over ninety years, and I am never left unmoved by the very real relationship between them, even though Sym knows, on some level, that the Captain Oates in her head is merely her own imagination and not the real man himself.

But then, how does he tell her things she wouldn’t have known any other way?

This book is a wonder. I heartily recommend it, as I do most things that Geraldine McCaughrean has written.

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Cover of ‘The White Darkness’, OUP Children’s Books, 2005

2. The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule by Joanna Kavenna (Viking Books, 2005)

This is a travelogue, of sorts, as well as an exploration of myth and legend surrounding the North of the world, most particularly the idea of ‘Thule’, long thought to be the most northerly outpost in existence. Mentioned in texts going back centuries, it nevertheless proved impossible to pin down exactly where Thule was; some thought it was the Orkneys or the Shetland Islands; others Iceland; others Greenland, or Estonia, or a variety of places dotted around the northern regions of our planet. Some thought it was entirely made up. Kavenna, in her book, takes us through the whole Arctic region, exploring not only the landscape around her but also her own mind and heart as she searches for the mystical lost land. It’s a love letter to the Arctic, which deepened my own passion for it, and it ticked all my boxes: maps, medievalish stuff, myths, legends, ice, and exploration. It’s been years since I revisited The Ice Museum, and it’s high time I went back.

3. The Cruellest Miles, Gay and Laney Salisbury (Bloomsbury, 2004)

Years ago, I worked in a bookshop, and when things were quiet I used to while away my time by cleaning and sorting the stock. In our World History section, a slim volume with a navy spine kept catching my eye. One payday, I walked straight over to it and bought it, and I read it in one sitting, gripped by the story it told. It’s the story of Nome, an isolated town in Alaska, which was ravaged by a diphtheria outbreak in 1925, when supplies of antitoxin serum had run dangerously low. Children were dying, and unless more antitoxin serum could be brought in, an epidemic would begin to rage. Nome, at that time, was more or less unreachable for months on end, and the only way to get the serum to the town was to use a chain of dogsled teams, who battled heroically through the worst conditions imaginable to rescue the children and people of Nome. I named a character in The Eye of the North after Balto, one of the dogs who was part of the lifesaving effort, and I have been passionately interested in dogsledding ever since reading this book. It made me cry on a packed train, though. I warn you, in case you want to read it yourself – prepare to have your emotions put through the wringer.

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Cover of The Cruellest Miles (Gay Salisbury and Laney Salisbury, Bloomsbury, 2004)

4. The Arctic, ed. Elizabeth Kolbert, Volume I of The Ends of the Earth: An Anthology of the Finest Writing on the Arctic and the Antarctic, eds. Elizabeth Kolbert and Francis Spufford, (Granta Books, 2007)

I will admit I haven’t read all of this, as it’s an anthology of writing designed to be dipped into, but its introduction is a great statement on climate change and the danger of global warming, particularly the damage it’s doing to the polar regions. The pieces in this anthology are varied both in style and emphasis, and it’s a great wide-ranging look at the idea of the Arctic as a place, as a challenge, and as an idea.

So, there you have it. Every book I’ve read has, no doubt, left its traces on my mind and imagination and I’m sure there are many more books than these which I could point to as being part of the culture that went into the creation of The Eye of the North. It’s interesting to trace the journeys that the books you love take you on, though, both internal and external; certainly, without my love of books – and the fact that I was encouraged to read from an early age – I wouldn’t have cultivated the mindset to write one of my own. It’s great to feel that my own small contribution might sit among these books one day, and might even spur someone else on in their love of the yawning ice-fields of the far north – so long as you beware what you might find living deep in the ancient glacier…

 

 

 

Crossing Places

A few days ago, while playing among our books, The Toddler pulled out a slim volume which caught my eye. It was a book – or, more truly, a notebook – which I hadn’t seen in a very long time.

A very long time.

winnie-the-pooh-notebook

Photo credit: SJ O’Hart.

This notebook was a gift from my schoolfriends to me on my 17th birthday. In it, they had each written a little note wishing me a happy birthday and how much they were looking forward to celebrating with me; some wished me a bright future, and others shared funny stories (some of the details of which, sadly, have blurred with time). Many put their first names and their surnames, just in case I lost the notebook and didn’t find it again for so long that I’d have forgotten who they were. One spent four pages insulting me in the most colourfully hilarious language imaginable and didn’t bother signing his name because he knew (rightly) that we’d be friends forever and I’d never get around to forgetting him – and his message still made me laugh out loud.

I read it with a huge grin and, if I’m being honest, a few tears too – and not just because my 17th birthday is so long ago now that you’d need a telescope to see it.

This notebook’s reappearance in my life made me think a lot about intersections and choices, the random algorithms that bring people into your life and take them out of it again. I’m delighted that most of the people who wrote in my book are still my friends; a few I haven’t seen in a couple of years, and one I haven’t seen, sadly, since we left school. But I remembered them all, even without the surnames. Each of them was important to me, and many still are – and there’s not one among them I wouldn’t be glad to see again, right now. They’re all (as far as I know) still alive and well, and though most of them still live in Ireland there are a couple who left – one for America, one for the UK – and very few of them still live at home, where we all grew up. We all entered one another’s lives through the simple coincidence of being born at around the same time and either growing up in, or moving to, the same place in time to attend secondary school together. Besides that, we are as disparate a group of people as you could find.

And yet, we are bound to one another forever.

I was thinking, recently, about the ‘quantum’ versions of myself – by which I mean, fancifully, the versions of me which exist in every other imaginable universe. Would I be doing the same things I’m doing here, in this space? Would I be the same person? Would I live in the same place, with the same people? Who’s to know. Every life has its ‘crossing places’, points at which the choices you make determine the path you take. My life has had several of those, some of which I would dearly love to relive. If it were possible, would I take different paths? Would I make different choices? I have some regrets; people I have lost whom I miss, people I loved who never knew it, things I wish I’d had the bravery to do when I had the chance.

And yet, the choices I made have led me here, to this room, in which I’m typing. My child is a few feet away, playing. John Grant is on my stereo. The proof of my first book is sitting on the table beside me. Things are not perfect: the world is far from good. I, like many, have found the last few days very hard, for many reasons. But as lives go, I can’t complain about mine. It has been circuitous and challenging, and I look back on so much of it with a nostalgia bordering on pain, but – in one manner or another – everything I have ever wanted or worked for has come to pass.

But as my child grows, these are the lessons I will impart:

  1. If you love a person, tell them. Even if they don’t love you, and you know it; even if you fear rejection. Tell them, without expectation, because regret is a far heavier burden than embarrassment, and it grows heavier with time.
  2. If you have an opportunity to travel, take it.
  3. Ditto with studying.
  4. In fact, if you have an opportunity to travel and study, take it. With both hands. And don’t worry about how you’ll work things out – you will.
  5. If offered a job you don’t think you can do, try it anyway.
  6. If you want to go on an adventure, do it.
  7. Always treasure your friends.
  8. And never stop working for what you want, fighting for what you believe in, and doing everything you can to help others, as far as you can.

Every life has its crossing places, but hopefully my child’s will have fewer than mine – and, with any luck, friends and friendship will be a big part of it, as they have been for me.

Thank you to my friends, all of them, past and present and future. I’m lucky to have, and to have had, such love.