Tag Archives: Irish language

Meeting your Heroes

The husband and I had an interesting chat over the weekend. During this particular conversation we were talking about the wonder that is book signings, where an utterly calm and controlled reader (ahem) gets the chance to meet, shake hands (possibly) and say ‘hello’ to an author whose work they adore. I haven’t had a chance to do this for many a long year, but I do appreciate book signings as one of the high points of modern culture.

‘I met Neil Gaiman at a book signing once,’ mused The Husband, in the course of our discussion. ‘I thought he was creepy.’

Image: twitter.com

Image: twitter.com

‘Creepy?’ I responded, barely keeping the aghast in. ‘How on earth could you think he was creepy?’

‘Well, you know,’ responded my beloved. ‘He wears all that black. And he got up and read out stuff about death, and weirdness like that.’

(I suppose I should say at this point that my husband is more of a book collector than a book reader; he owns a lot of Neil Gaiman books, but I’m not sure he’s read very many. So, perhaps we can forgive him for not really knowing that death and weirdness and dark stuff are, quite possibly, the main building blocks of nearly all Neil Gaiman books.)

‘But,’ I spluttered in reply. ‘Didn’t you perhaps think that all that was an act, you know, like he was performing, in order to get the audience interested in the book?’

‘Maybe,’ sniffed my love. ‘But even so. Creepy.’

And he wouldn’t be convinced otherwise.

I, too, have had the pleasure of meeting Neil Gaiman at a book signing, many years ago. He was promoting the then newly-published ‘Graveyard Book’ at the time, and I – along with several hundred other fans – were crowded into the basement of a large Dublin bookshop, waiting impatiently for our hero to appear. When he did, a massive wave of excited applause greeted him, which he almost seemed embarrassed by.

Image: blogs.slj.com

Image: blogs.slj.com

He stood before us and read, at length, from his work. I had bought the book a few hours before, in preparation for having it signed, and already had it half-digested, so I was already familiar with the section its author chose to read, but that didn’t matter. It was like having an award-winning actor take to the stage – the huge room, filled to the brim with people, was silent as a tomb as Neil Gaiman read, and the book came to life before our eyes. Anyone who has ever been to a public event in Ireland will know how impressive it is to keep a huge crowd of Irish people quiet, by the way: we are the worst audiences in the world, in my humble opinion. I’ve been to hundreds of gigs and other events where the act performing can’t be heard over the clamour of conversation from the gathered crowd. I’ve lost count of the amount of musicians whose live act has been spoiled because some buffoon beside me can’t shut up talking about his weekend out on the tiles or his granny’s infected toe or the ‘eejit’ he has to sit beside at work – and yelling ‘Shut Up!’ just makes it worse. Believe me, I’ve tried it.

So, Mr Gaiman held the audience spellbound on this occasion. When the reading was complete he took questions – some inane, some rather good – and answered them with charm and wit, and not a little self-deprecation. He spoke for hours without any appearance of fatigue. Then, the signing began.

It was a bit like this. Image: blog.gnip.com

It was a bit like this.
Image: blog.gnip.com

Time was taken with every attendee; everyone was asked to write their name on a piece of paper to aid proceedings (always a necessity in Ireland, where people can have names that go on for a week or two, and are full of unlikely-seeming letters), and as I queued I saw people walking away from Neil Gaiman’s desk like they’d just been at a religious service, clutching their freshly signed copies of ‘The Graveyard Book’ to their chests with fervent glee. Gradually, slowly but inexorably, my place in the queue grew closer and closer to the Great Signing Table.

And then – like a dream – it was my turn.

I'm not saying I was *exactly* like this, but I wasn't far off. Image: kurotorro.tumblr.com

I’m not saying I was *exactly* like this, but I wasn’t far off.
Image: kurotorro.tumblr.com

‘Omigod Mr Gaiman I’ve been a fan for so long, like years and I’ve read everything you’ve ever written and you’re omigod amazing and I love you so much you’re just an absolute and utter genius,’ I may have said, in a voice like a hamster on helium.

‘My dear,’ purred Neil Gaiman, with a smile. ‘You’re too kind.’

And so, my book was signed. I was told what a lovely name I had. I was thanked for coming. I was thanked for being a fan, and for buying the books, and – in short – rewarded for my devotion. And all of that was fantastic.

But then, Neil Gaiman did an even more awesome thing.

I attended this particular book signing with a good friend of mine, a woman who has impaired vision, speech and mobility, and who is also hard of hearing. She is one of the cleverest and best-read people I know, and she is also a huge fan of Neil Gaiman. I introduced her to Neil, telling him her first name, and then I stepped back so as not to interfere with her moment with her hero – and he could not have been more kind. My friend’s difficulties were unmistakeable, and because of that he spoke to her slowly and clearly, looking her right in the eye, and he spent longer with her than he did with anyone else. He asked her about her favourite of his books, and which characters she liked and disliked, and then he did a special, unique doodle in her book along with his signature and a message designed just for her.

My friend – and me, I have to admit – came away from that experience walking on air.

So – sure. Neil Gaiman dresses in black. He talks about death a lot – but then, she’s one of his best-loved characters, right?

Image: comicsalliance.com

Image: comicsalliance.com

His books tend to be a little odd – but brilliant with it. I can sort of see what my husband meant by saying he came across as ‘creepy’ – but I think that’s a stage presence, something he does for effect.

All I know is, my experience of meeting Neil Gaiman showed me a kind, patient, caring person who took the time to talk to a devoted fan, a fan who came away from his signing table with a grin that didn’t fade for weeks. That’s the mark of a good human being, in my book.

Have you ever met any of your heroes? Did you have a good or bad experience? I’d love to hear all about it.


Growing a Story

Image: strawberryindigo.wordpress.com

Image: strawberryindigo.wordpress.com

Ah! *Deep breath* It’s good to be back.

I hope your weekend was full of glitter and cocktails and dancing, and that it’s now a pleasantly fading memory. Mine was wonderful – full of family, great food and lots of laughter – and, as well as that, it was almost entirely computer-free. I think it’s necessary, every once in a while, to step away from the screen.

That doesn’t mean my mind didn’t live in stories, just because I was away from the computer, though. Of course.

Sometimes it seems like your brain works overtime to create story ideas when it knows you have no way of taking note of them. You’re in the middle of a meal, perhaps, or on a long car journey, when the Best Idea Ever whacks you between the eyes. When that happens, you can find yourself repeating the idea over and over to yourself until you manage to find a pen and paper, or your phone, or whatever it is you use to keep track of your ramblings; hopefully, by the time you get to do this, your idea hasn’t lost all semblance of coherence, and still sounds like the Best Idea Ever. Also, hopefully, the people who have been trying to hold a conversation with you while you’ve been trying to hold a whole world inside your head aren’t too peeved at your apparent absent-mindedness.

While we’re on this topic: I think it’s important to stay faithful to these ideas, the ones that come at you out of nowhere. If something strikes you as exciting or interesting, then don’t let your enthusiasm for it fade while you search for something to make a note with. I fear many a wonderful idea has been lost down the dark crevasse of that particular form of self-doubt.

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here... Image: gutenberg.org

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here…
Image: gutenberg.org

It’s funny how the human brain can talk itself into most things, and out of nearly everything. Have you ever had the experience where a word you use all the time suddenly starts to look ‘wrong’ or weird, like you’ve misspelled it or are using it incorrectly? It happens to me all the time. Common words, if repeated often enough, can eventually seem like gibberish, so it stands to reason that the more familiar your brain is with something, the more nonsensical it can seem. If this starts happening with your ideas, and you start to convince yourself that they’re no good just because you’ve been focusing strongly on them for a while, then try to bear in mind that all you’re doing is talking yourself out of your own process of inspiration.

And that, I’m sure we can all agree, is a bit silly.

Sometimes, though, a story can grow in unexpected ways. It can grow slowly, out of a single image or a fleeting impression, and years can pass before anything changes. It’s not a bolt from the blue, leaving you scrambling for a pen; it’s a far longer and more gentle process, like a flower blooming inside your mind. Something like this happened to me at the weekend, and I’m quite pleased about it. It feels like a warm scarf, which I can’t stop tucking gently around myself. I feel like I’ve found the next step in a long-unsolved puzzle, and that a story seed I’ve been nurturing for a long time is a tiny bit closer to coming to fruition.

For years now, I have had a character in my head. He stalks the corners of my consciousness, raising a scornful eyebrow at me every once in a while. ‘I will have a story for you soon, I promise,’ I keep telling him; ‘yeah, right,’ he seems to reply. I can see him, tall and skinny and besuited, his face long and his smile beguiling, darkness flowing off him like radiation. He is a blood-chilling character, and he deserves a story to match.

Well, I think I might have found the first step in the tale of my unsettling man.

It all happened because of something I misread in a book at my in-laws’ house. The book was a compendium of local folklore and mythology, and the words I read were Irish. They were ‘Féar Gorta’, which means something like ‘Hunger Grass,’ or ‘Famine Grass’; to my eye, though, they first appeared as ‘Fear Gorta,’ which means ‘Man of Hunger,’ or ‘Man of Famine.’ The only difference between the word ‘féar’ and the word ‘fear’ (pronounced ‘fair’ and ‘far’ respectively) is the diacritical mark known as a ‘fada’ which appears over the ‘e’ in ‘Féar’; this little mark changes the word completely, though. As I read the words which I thought were ‘fear gorta,’ my slender, dark and smiling man popped into my head, and took a bow. I thought: Wow. So, now I know what he is. He’s a Man of Hunger – or, at least, a version of one.

A Man of Hunger is, apparently, a folkloric figure in Ireland, a wraith who appears at your door seemingly on the point of starving to death; you’re supposed to show him mercy, and give him whatever food you have to spare. If you do, you’ll never know another hungry day, but if you don’t… well. If you don’t, hunger itself will never be far from you. ‘Féar Gorta’, or hunger grass, is a patch of innocent-looking grass which has dried up and died, but if a person walks over it they’re afflicted with dreadful, life-threatening hunger and must be given something to eat immediately or face death; the legends say that patches of hunger grass sprang up at the places where people dying of starvation during the Famine fell and were left unburied, or where the fairies have cursed the ground.

Ireland, eh? Cheery place.

Image: musingthetrauma.blogspot.com

Image: musingthetrauma.blogspot.com

Lots of legends like this sprang up in Ireland after the Gorta Mór, the Great Famine, and even though they’re no longer believed, they still have a powerful cultural resonance. I love stories which take elements of folklore and weave them into new and interesting stories, and which bring ancient ideas back to life, and I’m quite delighted with my little misreading, the one which brought me from Hunger Grass to Man of Hunger. It has given me – ironically, perhaps – a little meat to put on the bones of my mysterious character. I already have a story beginning to weave itself around him, and it’s exciting to watch it grow.

Of course, another thing the mind does is give you a good idea for your next project while you’re still working on your current project. It will be a while before I get to actually write any of this, but until then, my subconscious mind can churn away at it. Hopefully by the time I’m preparing my first draft, the story will flow with ease – but if this sly and smiling man inside my head is anything to go by, nothing will go to plan…



Wynter, How I Love Thee

Good morning, all.

This is not the view from my window. I wish it was, though.

This is not the view from my window. I wish it was, though.

I haven’t gone crazy and started misspelling the word ‘Winter’ (see blog title), and this isn’t another blog post about how much I love the season that comes at the end of the year. So, have no fear. Trust me, gentle reader. Today, I want to write about my love for another kind of winter – Protector Lady Wynter Moorehawke, to be precise. She is the central character in Celine Kiernan’s ‘Moorehawke Trilogy’, which I finished reading a few days ago. I’m not quite sure what took me so long to get to these books, but I suppose it’s better late than never!

I first came across Celine Kiernan’s writing when I picked up her standalone novel ‘Into the Grey’ some time ago; this book is such a masterful piece of work that I read it twice, straight through, before surfacing for air. Telling the story of twin boys in 1970s Ireland struggling to cope with being uprooted after their house burns down, and who then have to deal with a visitor of the otherworldly variety, it’s an amazing story. It has one foot in the First World War, bringing that period of history face to face with the boys’ own lives; they suffer what it was like to ‘go over the top’, and to face mortal terror, in their own version of a battlefield. It describes the unbreakable love between siblings, and shows how far into danger the love of a brother can bring you. It’s not only brilliantly and evocatively written, but I found myself deeply moved by it, too – possibly because anything to do with the First World War touches my heart, but mainly because of the rich, believable characterisation and the relationships between the two sets of brothers at the heart of the story. I highly recommend it, whether you’re a young reader or not!

Into the Grey Book cover

But, to business. The Moorehawke books are also mind-bogglingly good, if completely different to ‘Into the Grey’. Wynter Moorehawke, daughter of the marvellously-described Lorcan Moorehawke, Protector Lord and right-hand man to King Jonathon, is our heroine. We read of her life as she learns about a secret and deadly ‘Machine’, the use for which is kept tantalisingly under wraps until the very last book. She’s intrigued by this, and wants to learn more about it, despite the fact that her normally fearless father dreads to even hear it mentioned. Meanwhile, Jonathon’s kingdom, which he has worked diligently to build up, is under threat – his heir, Alberon, has disappeared, and rumbling rumours are coming back to court that he is planning to topple his father. In the first book, ‘The Poison Throne’, we’re introduced to court life and the delicacies of protocol needed to manage a kingdom, including the difficulties that arise when the ‘legitimate’ heir disappears. Wynter is a Lady, and very close to the King and his family, but not technically part of it. This is a wonderful way to allow the reader close access to the heart of the kingdom, while still allowing her the distance to be a critical voice.

Book Two (‘The Crowded Shadows’) sees Wynter, her friend Razi and the strange, yet enticing Christopher Garron set off in search of Alberon. Razi is Alberon’s older, but illegitimate brother, and is an unpopular choice as heir because he is a ‘Musulman’, or of Arabic origin. It turns out that Alberon is drawing all the disparate tribes of the region together, including those which are normally mortal enemies, apparently to march on his father – something his friends can’t bring themselves to believe. Book Three (‘The Rebel Prince’) brings the story together in a rich and complex way, finally allowing us to see Alberon’s true purpose, and we follow the friends as they race against time to reunify the kingdom. The power of the terrifying ‘Machine’ first mentioned in Book One is finally revealed, and in the final battle, I read with my breath held, the book trembling in my grip, waiting to see who would live and who would be lost.

These books are brilliant. I loved them, particularly ‘Poison Throne’ and ‘Rebel Prince’ (‘Crowded Shadows’, I felt, dragged a little in the time it spent describing the characters’ time among the Merron, one of the tribes of people in the kingdom whose existence is threatened by the political manoeuvring), and I fell in love with Wynter Moorehawke straight away. For me, a girl who can talk to cats, see ghosts, wield a carpenter’s toolbelt and also sit, ladylike, at a state dinner while being completely aware of which lord wants to murder the others, is a girl worth loving. She’s brave, passionate, loyal, skilled, funny, compassionate… I could go on. But what I love the most is that she’s just a girl – she’s not the prettiest, most delicate, most wonderful little flower of the kingdom. Kiernan describes her in earthy terms sometimes – she has bodily functions, she swears, she gets dirty, she sweats, she struggles to cope with being a woman on a long, dusty campaign trail among a bunch of men, and I can’t tell you how much I loved this. The narrative doesn’t linger on her physical appearance (this tendency to describe women through their physicality really got to me when reading ‘1Q84’, for instance – every female character in that book is described by the size of their breasts, no matter what, and it really grated on me); we know she’s considered pretty by some of the men, and we know she’s loved and desired. But that doesn’t define her. She’s a rounded, real character, able to perform the duties of a courtly lady on one hand, yet also capable of lacing on her workboots as a carpenter’s apprentice on the other.

There are things I wish I could change. Wynter’s ability to talk to cats isn’t used enough, I think, and I wish her father’s story had ended differently – this is possibly because I was a bit in love with Lorcan Moorehawke, too. I loved the fact that she could see ghosts, and I know this couldn’t carry on beyond the first book, but it doesn’t stop me wishing for it. I was a bit confused by the Machine (perhaps this was the intention), and I think I sort of got it mixed up with something else mentioned in the first book; when the Machine is finally revealed, then, I was a bit confused. But that might be just me. I was thrilled by the use of the Irish language all the way through these books, and I thought the love story was expertly judged and delicately described. I loved Razi’s character, and the complexities of being ‘other’, and a dark-skinned man in a light-skinned court.

If you’re looking for books for teenagers (or, indeed, anyone) which are complex, multi-levelled, historical (albeit an alternative history!), layered, funny, moving and marvellously written, ‘The Moorehawke Trilogy’ can’t fail to deliver. I really recommend them.

If you’ve also read them, and feel like sharing your opinion, I’d love to hear it!