Sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll – hold the drugs, side order of poetry: the John W. Sexton Interview

John WJohn W. Sexton was born in 1958 and is the author of four poetry collections: The Prince’s Brief Career, (Cairn Mountain Press, 1995), Shadows Bloom / Scáthanna Faoi Bhláth, a book of haiku with translations into Irish by Gabriel Rosenstock (Doghouse, 2004), Vortex (Doghouse, 2005), and Petit Mal (Revival Press, 2009). He also created and wrote The Ivory Tower for RTÉ radio, which ran to over one hundred half-hour episodes from 1999 to 2002.  Two novels based on the characters from this series have been published by the O’Brien Press: The Johnny Coffin Diaries and Johnny Coffin School-Dazed, which have been translated into both Italian and Serbian. He is also the blog poet Jack Brae Curtingstall. He is a past nominee for The Hennessy Literary Award and his poem The Green Owl won the Listowel Poetry Prize 2007. In 2007 he was awarded a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship in Poetry. His fifth collection, The Offspring of the Moon, is due from Salmon Poetry in spring 2013.

Tell me one little known fact about John W. Sexton.

I suppose I could tell you a few things that would make me look both marvellous and intellectually credible, but most interviews are full of that sort of stuff. So I’ll just trust you to give me the opportunity to make myself look marvellous later on. Not many people might know that in 2001 I appeared on RTE’s Children’s TV show The Den, where I Dustin+The+Turkey+PNG
exchanged jibes with Dustin the Turkey; and it was the considered opinion of viewers to the programme that it was one of the few occasions in which Dustin was outsmarted. However, I think I may have gotten lucky. At the time of the interview I still had young children and as a result I’d actually previously seen the show; that meant I was forewarned as to what to expect. It’s a rule in this business that you should never appear on the same show as a puppet. The reason for this is simple, for there are only two types of puppet: puppets that are complete bastards or puppets that are operated by complete bastards. It came about because I’d been walked into the programme by my publisher, in an attempt to publicise my first novel; under normal circumstances I would have avoided such a gig, but in this instance it would have been too awkward to have backed down. As it turned out, everything went well, but that was only because both the bastard of a puppet and the bastard behind the bastard of a puppet decided they kind of liked me. Getting them to the actual point where they liked me though, on live TV, was a bit of a challenge.

I know you were born in England but I get the impression that you feel 100% Irish. Tell me about that.

I don’t feel 100% Irish, I am 100% Irish. I don’t recognise the term second-generation Irish. Simply being born in Ireland doesn’t make you Irish. What makes you anything is a combination of genetic factors combined with cultural upbringing. My parents left Ireland merely because there was no future for them here. They did not consider themselves non-Irish once they left its shores however. They took their Irish identity with them and passed it on to me and my brothers. All my cousins in England were Irish, the neighbours were either Irish or Jamaican, half the school teachers in my London schools were Irish, most of the congregation in our local Catholic churches were Irish and all the priests were Irish. I have an old school photograph taken of my class in junior school. I’m in second class and the photograph was taken in a North London Protestant school in the early 1960’s. There was no room in the local Catholic school at that time and a new school was in the process of being built. There are about twenty-two kids in the class. Not all of them were Irish, that’s not what I’m about to say. Only four of us were Irish. Of the rest, there was a combination of Indian, Pakistani, Jamaican, Nigerian, Kenyan, Polish, Italian, Hungarian, Greek, Turkish, and both Greek and Turkish Cypriot. There was only one English pupil and that was a boy. There was no English girl in that class. The boy’s name was Colin. There was no English upbringing in England in the 1960’s, unless you happened to live in the East End of London! All those kids in that class, including us Irish, were brought up within our own cultures and were given a strong and urgent sense of personal identity. Mine was Irish. Every year of our childhoods we came home to Ireland for the full summer holidays. We called it “coming home” and that’s what it was for us.  When I came home permanently to live in Ireland as an adult at the beginning of the 1980’s I was shocked at how few people knew who the fuck Pádraic Ó Conaire was, or how few knew anything of the work of W. B. Yeats beyond the few poems they learnt by rote in school; how few had actually read anything by Joyce; at how little most of them knew about Irish history beyond the narrow political hagiographies. Being born outside my country I had made it my business to learn as much about it and its culture as I could; but when I got home to Ireland at that time I had barely anyone to talk to about it. They simply didn’t know, or else weren’t particularly interested to find out. But I did notice that many of them felt somehow superior to me because they were born here and I was a mere blow-in. But let me tell you this: during the IRA campaign in England, none of us London-born Irish denied our Irishness. We never condoned the mindless killing, but we never denied our country and we openly declared our pride in our history, our literary heritage, and our culture. We did that in a country that looked upon us with suspicion and sometimes with a sneering superiority, but it didn’t intimidate us into denying our origins. So no, I don’t feel Irish; I am Irish. I was born Irish and then I made an effort at consolidating that identity. Feeling has only a little to do with it; it’s a complete state of being. All cultural identity is like that. And it’s important to realize that fact as well. Because I was reared in a multi-cultural environment, being neighbours with individuals from other cultures but ones who had a similar pride in their cultures as we had in ours, I came to respect and take an interest in other cultural viewpoints. This is where my interest in European and Black literature came from. In London I not only sought out my own culture, but other cultures too. Not far from where I lived, just a few stops on the bus, was the New Beacon Bookshop in Stroud Green, where you could buy any book by any Black writer from any part of the world. In Manor House there was BOOK MARX, the Marxist bookshop, where you could get books on Communism and Irish Political History. Down the road from it was an Anarchist Bookshop where you could just about get anything, even arrested. I frequented all of them. Identity starts inside yourself; but if you’re wise you will go outside of yourself to find ways of enhancing it with new ideas. That was my upbringing.

So, despite being English… Only kidding. You stress the multi-culturalism of your upbringing. How did that compare to the Ireland you returned to in the eighties?

I came back home to a country not only in recession, but one that was politically and culturally reactionary. To compound my problems I had relocated to south Kerry and in those days it really was a backwater. The only non-National inhabitants in the whole of Kerry (but “foreigners” was the word used at the time to describe them) were two black Americans and one Turk, all three of whom had been brought over to play for some dumb-arse basketball team in Tralee. People would gawk at them in the street as if they had arrived from Venus in a cloud of green steam. It was fucking ridiculous. The nearest bookshop of any quality at that time was to be found two hours away in Cork city. I had come home with notions of committing myself to poetry and short fiction, but one of the most essential seedbeds for such an ambition is to have a constant flow of new reading material. Nowadays it would be difficult for younger readers to comprehend how this could have been a problem, but this was pre-internet. The only reading matter available back then was in printed form. Not only was the nearest bookshop so far away, but when you got to it there was nothing left-field or unusual to be had. In London I’d been used to buying individual Thomas Pynchon short stories (long before he’d consented to a paperback collection) in bootlegged chapbooks from the wire racks in the alternative bookstores. I was in the habit of strolling in and buying American science fiction journals like Fantastic (edited in those days by Ted White) and The Journal of Fantasy and Science Fiction (with Ed Ferman at the helm); I was used to buying poetry journals like Ambit and Stand straight off the shelves whenever I had the money; I even regularly bought Spare Rib, a feminist journal aimed solely at women, because it was the home of some amazing critical writing. Here in Kerry, however, there was no access to anything like that and nothing home-grown that I could find. And you must understand, I was far too poor to be able to take out a subscription for anything. I was totally dependent on what I could buy straight off the shelf. At that time also there was no current Irish literary journal that I could get any access to; they were to come a few years later, (like Tracks, edited by John F Deane and Jack Harte; and Stet, edited by Thomas McCarthy). But those later journals lasted but a few issues and then were gone, so the wait for them to arrive was doubly bitter. The only thing that saved my sanity was the daily newspaper The Irish Press. Every week, under the banner of NEW IRISH WRITING, they featured a full broadsheet page devoted entirely to short fiction and poetry. The editor, David Marcus, had made it a condition when he took up the post that the page would carry no advertising – every single word was devoted to new literary pieces. But the environment otherwise was oppressive compared to what I was used to in London. On every street corner in Killarney it seemed to me you’d find groups of nuns and priests, like they were in fucking gangs. I’d never seen so many priests in the one place in all my life, and the people appeared to worship their every idiotic utterance. It was as if I had arrived in Hell. Having said that, Hell was Ireland, so I was determined to stick it out. My plan was to do the reverse of Joyce and Beckett, and to give the country a shot. I was initially unemployed here for nearly three months and had no access to the dole. I had been wrongly advised in England that I could just sign on after I’d arrived here; but in Kenmare the dole officer had the position as an agent, and he was a foul, miserable creature who delighted in making “foreigners” beg. He told me to my face that I was nothing but an “English Hippy” and that I’d get no money from him. When my savings were just about depleted I landed a job in Killarney, working in a Department Store. I stayed there for eleven miserable years, privately learning and plying my craft in the evenings and weekends, balancing the few acceptances from journals with the countless rejections. I was isolated, totally devoid of any contact with other writers; yet I was constantly writing, devoted absolutely to the writer’s life. In my mind there was a kingdom comprised of nothing but poetry and fiction, and I retreated there and learnt how to live in it.

Did you start writing while you were still living in England?

I was nineteen when I began to seriously desire to write and be published. My original ambitions at that time lay largely with fiction, even though I was already writing poetry and considered myself a poet. At that time I’d been reading a lot of science fiction and came to think that the realm of the fantastic was a better way to express ideas. Even in mainstream literature there appeared to be a trend that confirmed this, for I was also reading Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, Borges, Emma Tennant, Angela Carter and Beckett, all of whom seemed to work aspects of the fantastic into what they did. Ballard’s short fiction, especially, had an elevated hallucinatory effect in terms of how he seemed to treat time and space in a psychological way. He brought you inside his fictions in such a subjective, interactive way that was truly subversive; and all this was achieved largely through the manipulation of language. When I read that Ballard had said that “science fiction is the poetry of the 20th century” I bought completely into the idea. So, although I was writing fiction I still saw it as part of the poet’s vocation. This is when I discovered the short fictions of Harlan Ellison, who frequently experimented with new ways of writing stories, many of which to me seemed to mimic techniques found in poetry, from repetitive patterning to prose poetry to concrete design of the page. At that time I was regularly buying the science fiction journals and also a few British literary journals, the most exciting of which was Ambit. Ambit, having Ballard on the editorial board, frequently featured writers who were card-carrying fabulists, so the concept of a literature of the fantastic was all-pervasive in what I was then reading. All these journals, however, looked very daunting in terms of sending off work to. At first I decided to try to get a name for myself and also make some money by trying a regular market that might be a bit more accessible. Of course, to the beginning writer all markets are equally inaccessible, but I didn’t realise that at the time. Every day of the week, from Monday to Saturday, there was a new short story featured in a daily newspaper called the London Evening News. We got that at home every evening and so I began to think this was a market I could try. The stories that were featured were only a thousand words maximum and the market was opened to everyone. Professional writers could have a story there on one day, and for the very next you’d have a story by some ordinary person. If it was somebody’s first publication, the paper would mention that, so the whole thing seemed extremely democratic. So, anyway, that was the first market I aimed for. Firstly, it was a good one to try to write to, because I immediately discovered how difficult it was to fit a complete story, with character and motivation and a solid plot, into a mere thousand words. It suddenly dawned on me that a thousand words wasn’t easy because of being few, but was actually possibly a more difficult discipline. Writing in that tight format was therefore a perfect beginner’s apprenticeship. Anyway, my first story was a ridiculous piece of nonsense about a man who misses his own funeral. I was nineteen years of age when I slipped it into the post-box. When it was rejected by the Evening News in the space of three days I was crushed; I’m now, however, somewhat relieved. To my credit I acted quite professionally and immediately sent the story out to several other markets, all of which promptly rejected it. I even sent it to the old London Mystery Magazine. They returned the story with a hand-written rejection slip, but the slip itself was a thing of beauty, containing as it did the magazine’s masthead: an enormous Gojira-type dinosaur rearing high over Big Ben, the City of London miniscule beneath him. In the meantime, I was writing other stories. It was a consequence of this continued writing, by which I suppose I was slowly improving and learning, that I was able after a few months to see why my first story was so terrible. With that realisation the story was torn to shreds and binned. I struggled for over a year, accumulating rejection slip after rejection slip and then I became impatient. I decided I’d cheat. Instead of sending my work to journals I thought it smarter to just go straight to a publisher. So I devised a sequence of stories, a kind of prose-poem concoction, and sent this off to a publisher. Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull was a big hit at this time, so that was the kind of effect I was aiming for.  Anyway, the book went off and began to collect rejections. Many of these were actually letters; all of them encouraging. Hodder & Stoughton told me they loved the book but that it had no discernible market that they could see. Allison and Busby said the same. The letter from the last was so encouraging that I did something that you should never do: I phoned the publisher. I had a lovely chat for about ten minutes with Clive Allison who advised me to break the book up and send it to journals. He said that no publisher was in a position to publish something like that from a writer with no publishing constituency and he told me I needed to get one. When I rather naively told him that I’d just sent out a collection of poems that had no publishing credits he was horrified. “Young man,” he said, “this isn’t the way it’s done; there are simply no short-cuts. Look, let me tell you, I have a second novel on my desk here from Ishmael Reed and it’s absolutely fantastic. But if it’s anything like his last one, which was also fantastic, then it won’t sell. I have no choice but to send it back to his agent in the States but I don’t want to. I will, though. We haven’t a bob here at the moment, and I need something that might actually at least get back the money I’ll have to spend on it.” The chance of an unknown writer having such a helpful conversation today with a publisher is probably nil. Regardless of the sound advice, I ignored it all and continued to send out my two books, both of which came back to me with depressing regularity. I began to dread the sound of the manuscripts falling onto the landing from the letterbox. They each fell like a dead lump, more like a small corpse, and I began to refer to each book as “the lump”. Suddenly it all seemed very negative. You could tell immediately that the work was returned because the envelope was obviously bulked up with your manuscript. In those days you couldn’t send “copies”. Only original manuscripts, because everything was done by typewriter and the copies were created by the use of carbon paper, so they were a blurred blue. Many magazines also prohibited getting photocopies, because in those days they weren’t much better either, often being blurred and smudged with black photographic ghostly smudges. Typing up a fresh manuscript for each submission was therefore not feasible, so the same one was recycled for every submission. After several rejections it would become not only extremely grubby, but it was also obvious, to anyone reading it, that it’d been round the block and rejected by several previous editors. (I once got a story returned that actually had cigarette burns and ash all through the pages. Either the editor was telling me something, or he smoked a pipe, spluttering embers over everything that came into him!) Unlike the prose sequence, the poetry collection garnered no letters, only cold rejection slips. Nearly a further two years went by and I was writing less and less; all my hopes were riding on these two hopeless books. In the finish I realised that I had become somehow paralysed by them. I looked at them dispassionately and could now see that they were bloody awful. I needed a new approach. My relocation to Ireland was imminent around this time so I thought I’d make a fresh start when I got to Kerry. I packed up all of my books and manuscripts and headed off for a new beginning.

So who was the first poor idiot (have you noticed how close idiot and editor are as words) to actually publish you? If they didn’t pay when was your first sale?

My first published short story was also a sale. As soon as I arrived in Ireland in 1982 I decided to write a story for New Irish Writing, the weekly literary supplement of The Irish Press newspaper. I worked on the story for about eight months. The maximum wordage for a full-page story in The Irish Press was 2,000 words, and I decided I’d use the maximum. My problem was, after the previous years of rejection I realised that my technique was fairly awful; so I had been studying short stories non-stop for about a year, pulling them to pieces to see how they really worked. Listening to theory is a complete waste of time, I had all that anyway and it hadn’t helped one iota in enabling me to write; the only way to do it is to take the story of another writer and rip it apart yourself, then you can see the living innards of it and you’ll soon get the idea of how it ticks. By this stage I’d analysed hundreds of stories in this way and I was beginning to get a real feel for it. I was yet to write a successful one of my own, however. Anyway, for my new task in hand I started by constructing a plot and then I laid it out on a sheet of paper. Once that was done I started it write it up. It was slow work, and inspiration wasn’t manifesting. I remember once sitting down for a solid two hours, actually writing continuously all that time, but at the end of it I’d written only a single serviceable sentence. I then began to take a hard look at my past writing. All the stories I’d done, including the tentative beginning of a ridiculous novel, were so truly awful that one evening I just put the whole lot into the open fire and watched the pages disappear into flame. It was actually a liberating moment. I felt strangely free, as if now there was no evidence of my past failure. I then reached for my piles and piles of unpublished poems, ready to throw them in too. But as I looked at the poems I realised that there was a lot of fairly good descriptive writing in there that I might be able to recycle for the current story, so I cannibalized some of that material. This was exactly what I needed to get back into the flow of the writing again and the story began to take shape. The writing was still slow, and I did it mainly in the evenings after work, but I always sat down to work on it every day. I went back and forth on it, polishing the sentences, tweaking paragraphs until it worked as fluidly as I could get it. When it was done, all those months later, I sent it off to David Marcus, the Literary Editor at the Press. I was expecting maybe not to hear for months, but I heard within a fortnight. When the envelope came through the letterbox my heart nearly exploded, because I could see that it was a small business envelope with a cellophane panel and the logo of The Irish Press in the corner, and not my entire manuscript being returned. The letter inside thanked me for sending such a strong piece of work and told me that I was being paid 70 Irish punts for it. That was a fortune of money in those days. I sat down and read the letter over and over again; I was like a small child getting his first letter from Santa. There was also a request to send a short biographical note. In the covering letter that I sent with the note I mentioned that I did the odd bit of reviewing “whenever I can get the work”. This of course was a total lie, but it was effectively a calculated attempt at dropping a hint to a literary editor. By prompt return I got a lovely little note from David Marcus asking for a list of my interests, with a promise that he’d do his best to send work my way. He added, however, that he was fairly over-subscribed with fiction reviewers, and suggested that I might stand a better chance if I was prepared to review anything other than fiction. Within three weeks I received a small parcel of books, all poetry, and was asked to write a 600-word notice. I did the review and received the truly princely sum of 40 punts. Over the next 18 months I became one of the paper’s most frequent reviewers, writing on anything from poetry to folklore to comparative religion. I also began to place my own poetry with David on the New Irish Writingpage. I was now earning fairly regular money as a writer, doing reviews and, just as importantly, getting my by-line on the books pages. It wasn’t enough on a regular basis to earn a living by itself, but it boosted my self-confidence and made me feel like a real writer. There was one other writer living near Kenmare at that time, Tomas O Murchadha, who wrote mainly in Irish but also did wonderful lyrical pieces in English for the weekly Arts page of The Cork Examiner. He’d just had a novella published in a collection called Triad, along with James Liddy and Ronit Lentin, which was brought out by The Wolfhound Press. But the thing was, when I was finally introduced to him he began immediately to treat me as an equal, and I realised that in a relatively short time I’d actually managed to gain a local reputation as “a writer”.

I feel you are primarily a poet (argue this one if you feel like it) but one that also works in prose. Would I be correct in thinking that prose is where the money (and therefore the profession) might lie?

I think that’s a fair description because poetry is hardly ever a profession, it’s more a calling. Some might even consider it an affliction, (and some poets actually do). I would consider poetry my vocation, but writing my profession. However, a calling still demands full professional standards of craft. I would also like to add that being a poet still requires the ability to construct coherent and elegant sentences; the fundamental elements of good prose-practice are essential before you can even dream to imagine you should be writing poetry. The only substantial money, generally speaking, to be earned from poetry is from bursaries and prizes, and every poet under the sun is angling for those. Poetry collections do not earn advances or any kind of payments for most poets. Prose, on the other hand, can earn money. Writing fact or fiction books, writing for radio or television, writing any kind of saleable prose, is really where the potential income is. Outside of any direct income from writing poetry, a poet’s other earnings will be fairly minimal. Fees for festival readings are generally quite small, and hundreds of poets are jostling for such work in the same marketplace. The best income potential for poets outside of poetry is usually from teaching, but that can be exhausting and certainly draining of creative energy. But the same is indisputably true, to a large extent, for prose writers as well. Unless you can turn out a book a year, or manage to produce a hot property or a best-selling series, or sell movie rights, then most prose writers are on the same competitive treadmill as the average poet. Foreign-language rights for novels, a few of which I have under my own belt, are usually sold for fairly modest amounts of money, and as glamourous as they may appear on paper the fact remains that short money is always short money. The amounts that most fiction writers earn is generally spent fairly quickly as the figures aren’t large for most of us. Sadly, there’s also a perception out there, certainly in terms of performance and readings, that poets are prepared to do things for free. This notion simply undermines the writer’s value. Contrary to what people might naively imagine, “publicity” isn’t worth much on its own. And as any writer will tell you (and as you know very well yourself from personal experience), selling books at readings and festivals is a hard, sometimes soul-destroying slog. Books sell at such events, if they manage to sell at all, mostly in ones and twos, not by the dozen. But even in teaching, poetry is a fairly hard one to sell. I get a substantial amount of teaching work through the writers-in-schools scheme (which is administered, as it happens, by Poetry Ireland/Éigse Éireann), but for the majority of it I’m asked by schools to teach plotting and story construction. I feel there is often an unrealistic expectation amongst beginning and younger poets that there is an income stream for them somewhere out beyond the blue ocean. The only thing out beyond the blue ocean is more blue ocean.

Tell me about your career as a poet.

I’m not sure that career is a useful term when talking about poetry. If, as some poets have come to think, poetry is a disease, then the terms “medical history” and “prognosis” are probably more applicable. In that case, as a poet, my medical history is bad and my prognosis is probably even worse. This might seem flippant but it’s actually a far more useful way of looking at the “career path” of the average poet. My first beginnings, with regard to publishing, was when a poem of mine at the age of nearly but not quite nine was pinned to the schoolroom wall, right next to the blackboard, by our teacher Sister Eugenia. The poem was called The Fly and had three four-line rhyming verses, the first two of which I can still remember, but which I have no intention of relating here. What’s interesting is that the metre was a deformed twin of Three Blind Mice, yet was unrecognisable as such because it moved at a different velocity. When I realised that, in much later years, I came to see that I had an innate ear for rhythm and balance. I mention this because this is the first start in the poet’s vocation. We start with an innate gift. Many poets don’t go beyond that point. They settle for the gift; but whereas such an unformed gift might be charming in an eight-year-old, in an adult it is merely childish. The next step is to develop that gift, and at first we tend to do that on our own, without any focussed direction or guidance. We begin to discover things for ourselves and one of the first things we discover is failure. From that point I wrote little verses on into my mid-teens, by which time I was writing impressionistic pieces of condensed prose. At the time I considered these to be poems but my teachers, for whom I submitted them as homework assignments, merely took them as half-formed and unfinished stories and considered me lazy. It was only at the age of sixteen that one of my English teachers, Miss O’Sullivan, began to encourage me. She’d write notes at the end like : “excellent quality, but needs more quantity”. It wasn’t really until I was about twenty, and in a dry patch with my prose, that I began to focus seriously on poems, and even began to send them out. I met with rejection after rejection but during this negative period I began to go back to prose poetry. From that I got the idea of constructing short stories in a similar fashion to the way folktales are structured: in imagistic runs or sections. At this exact moment I began to see a direct relationship between poetry and prose narrative. Of course, although I was forming theories I had neither the ability or the knowledge to apply them in practice and my writing was fairly dismal. Despite this I persevered and continued to send out work, despite accumulating rejections. In those days it was arguably more difficult than it is now because there simply weren’t that many literary and poetry journals out there. In those days you sent to American journals, rarely having much idea about such things as “reading periods”, simply because there were more journals to send to there. However, this is the first level of the writers apprenticeship: perseverance in the face of constant knock-backs. Once I received my first acceptance for a piece of short fiction things began to open up a bit and I started to place more work, but this was more likely due to the fact that my writing was better honed by that stage. Now, though I always considered myself a poet by principal vocation, I always endeavoured to keep my short fiction and prose in the marketplace, and this always earned a modest, if somewhat sporadic income. Maintaining this presence in prose was actually essential to my well-being as a poet, because it allowed me to hold my head up with proof that I was a published writer. Just on the eve of me throwing caution to the wind at the beginning of 1994, and striking out to write full-time (which I’ve been managing to do, precariously, ever since), I had obtained a commission to write a children’s serial for a weekly Cork newspaper, The Muskerry Leader. In the space of thirty-seven weeks, by weekly instalment, I produced a 55,000-word children’s fantasy novel called The Boy Who Fell Into The Hedge. Although seemingly modest now, at the time I received 10 Irish punts a week for each chapter, which garnered me a sum total of 370 pounds. I received this payment essentially on publication of the last chapter, but by the standards of the day that was more than most writers were getting from Irish publishers as an advance on a published novel! During this period, from October 1993 to July 1994, I earned something just short of 400 pounds from this single newspaper – for the novel, various short stories and poetry. At that stage I’d been a published writer and poet for ten years, contributing poetry and book reviews on top of it all. In those days I’d been a book reviewer for both The Irish Press and The Catholic Herald, both of which were paying markets. The point I’m making is that in my case, and very much in my mind, the career of poet and paid jobbing-writer went hand-in-hand. Without the self-confidence I acquired as a paid prose writer I would have been unable to manage as well as I did with the constant unpaid slog of being a poet. By the time I began to focus singly on only sending out poetry, (this was late in 1994), I had acquired a publishing cv that was quite impressive by the standards around me. By the late ‘90’s, determined to be more single-minded with poetry, I began to find markets in broadcasting, mainly with RTE’s The Living Word, for which slot I contributed prose poems and which paid quite nicely. Because I was good, and produced good radio, the producer took me on as a regular.  Because radio is a national medium this increased my profile as a writer and also gave me a wider audience. This led to other work on radio but also to my radio serial and hence to the children’s novels. With the increase in poetry credits and with the publication of a book or two, I was able to acquire a place on the Writers-in-Schools scheme and eventually, through pure slog and determination, a regular income through teaching that could keep the bills paid. However, and this is the essential point, all those income streams, from RTE to local papers to work-shopping and working in schools, earned money that was largely for anything but poetry. But the regular income gave me the time to spend writing and submitting poetry. Most poets do not earn an income directly from their craft; and if they intend to earn a living from writing then they must write other things as well as poetry. By the mid and late Noughties I was picking up favourable reviews and in 2007 was granted a Patrick and Katherine Kavanagh Fellowship in Poetry. This was possibly the most important point at that stage in my career as a poet, because it indicated a vote of credibility from the field. Thus today my standing as a poet is this: I have no regular wage, no pension, no savings, no discernible idea of what the future will bring, but I have a thirty-plus-year career behind me as a published poet and writer and the burden that today and tomorrow and the day after I must continue to write.

If prose is where the money was, tell me about how that area of your work developed.

Essentially a writer learns to follow the best possibilities as they arise and that’s more or less what happened to me. But in the middle of all the possibilities there will always be periods where work suddenly dries up. It’s happened to me in the past and generally speaking it’s a common cycle that I think most writers are familiar with. And when the income streams don’t actually dry up, there are other factors that will rear their heads, such as competition from other writers trying to squeeze into an already overcrowded market. One must always recognise, of course, that before they squeezed in on you, that you had squeezed in on somebody else. Things can also be compounded simply by a writer getting tired or creatively burnt out from doing the same thing for far too long. In the late eighties I managed to survive both changes of editorial staff and the presence of newer, fresher writers, and keep a hold of the reviewing work I was getting at The Irish Press. It was a constant battle and the strain of that can be draining in itself. But then The Irish Press went into receivership and that particular golden goose was plucked and gone. I cast around in the following years and usually got something, like that brief but regular work from The Muskerry Leader, but the money was always small. The secret is to try and land something where the money is good and where there’s no direct competition so that you can stay in employment for as long as possible. From the late eighties to the late nineties I lurched from one cackling goose to another, never quite getting a golden egg, but sometimes a silver one, and oftentimes just a fistful of feathers. Then, in 1998 I shared a poetry reading in Killarney with the poet Mary O’Malley. This was on a Friday and I thought that things had gone well and that I’d left a good account of myself, but really nothing more than that. A few days later, at the beginning of the following week, I received a phone call out of the blue from a producer in the regional Waterford studios of RTE, by the name of Jacqui Corcoran. Jacqui said that my name had been mentioned to her by Mary O’Malley who, after reading with me on the Friday, felt that I would be very good bet for contributing and reading radio pieces. It just so happened that Jacqui was at that time the producer for The Living Word, which broadcasts a two-minute radio talk each weekday. Essentially a writer is expected to write five two-minute talks, usually of a contemplative nature, and then read them for broadcast on a given week. I’m quite fond of writing short lyrical pieces and took to it very easily. Jacqui also took to my writing and my style of reading and gave me regular work for the programme for several months. At that time my two sons were very young, and my youngest son was at that phase where young children are always asking strange and even sometimes profound questions, so a lot of my pieces were about these conversations and even sometimes simply reminiscences of my own childhood. The pieces apparently went down very well with the audience, who thankfully responded by sending in their responses. Anyway, some months into this Jacqui was charged with getting together a radio programme for children. She was kind of lumbered with the job I think, as all the other RTE producers with clout expressed no enthusiasm for the project themselves. Jacqui’s dilemma was that she didn’t really know any children’s writers as such and she needed to turn something round very quickly, so she phoned me up and asked me, largely on the strength of my childhood pieces for The Living Word, if I’d be interested. I said yes without hesitation. In taking this on I set out three goals for myself: to write a classic radio show; to keep myself in employment for as long as possible; and to try to somehow turn all of this into a book deal. Written down like that, in cold print, such ambitions look big-headed and hopelessly aspirational, but it’s only through ambitions that we can ever hope to be ambitious, and I always try to set myself high goals whenever I get a fecund opportunity. And this opportunity, to write a radio show all on my own, seemed pregnant with possibility. The resultant show, a comedy science fiction drama called The Ivory Tower, garnered not only a cult following, but also a regular listenership and good reviews. I realised very early on that our success would lie not only in appealing to children, but also to adults. My intention therefore was to maximise our audience as much as possible; in order to achieve this I wrote scripts that worked on two levels. On one level they spoke directly to young kids and teens, but at another lever they also addressed themselves to adults. After only the seventh episode was aired on radio we received a glowing review from Tom Widger in the Sunday Tribune, who even took the unusual step of naming the scriptwriter by name, which of course was me. Initially we were told that we would have ten episodes, but within a few weeks we were ordered to take the show up to Christmas and stretch it to sixteen. Before that first run was finished we were also firmly informed to prepare to come back after the Christmas break with a new season. That second season ran to thirty-six episodes. In the finish we went for over two years and ran to four seasons, with a total of 103 half-hour episodes, all of them scripted by myself. This amounts to over fifty hours of radio-time and is a record for Irish radio for a single show of its type. By the time we got to the second season the buzz went round that this wasn’t just a kid’s show and we had an extensive write-up in The Evening Herald where Philip Nolan called us “Irish Radio’s most subversive programme”.  By the third season I was contributing, through Jacqui’s producership, to other radio work and earning a steady income. On the foot of the series, as I had initially planned, I managed to secure a book deal with The O’Brien Press and two novels were issued over the next eighteen months. Once the radio show dried up, and quite frankly I couldn’t have kept going for another season at the quality of script I’d been attempting to turn out, other work began to emerge on the back of the show itself and also following on from the novels. From this point I began to work in schools, giving talks and then writing workshops, and that eventually evolved into the position I find myself in today, spending much of my time teaching creative writing and editing anthologies of writing by teenage students, such as annual The Unfinished Book and the Graphic Novel projects, facilitated in Cork City by the Arts Office there and also by Cork City Library.

With all that going on how did you decide to concentrate on poetry – or what decided for you?

Writers who are desperate for work can never quite understand why writers who are constantly in demand complain so much about their lot. Certainly when nobody was knocking upon my own door did I ever imagine that plenty of work could, at some crucial stage, be a negative thing rather than a positive one. However, over the years, being one of the few lucky writers whose phone will often ring, I have come to understand only too well some of the paradoxes and illusions associated with being in demand. My own experience with the initial success of the radio show and the children’s novels is a case in point. It is often remarked upon that working in children’s fiction can be something of a poisoned chalice, and my own experience really proved that to be very true. In the first eighteen months following the launch of the children’s novels, boosted by the popularity of the radio show, I was offered work that hadn’t previously been open to me, but this consisted largely of library visits where I’d give an hour’s talk to classes from a local national school. This work was relatively well-paid and was fairly frequent, but no writer really sets out to do this kind of thing as an ultimate aim, it’s always seen as a first step onto work that’s more satisfying.  Because I was very good at what I did, and because word spread from teacher to teacher, I began to get invites to visit the schools themselves and to teach in a schoolroom setting. This kind of work was far more satisfying to do by comparison, so the classroom gigs began to replace the library work. At that time I was already on the Writers-In-Schools list that’s administered by Poetry Ireland, so this ensured that I was paid for my work at professional and decent rates. During this period I was also contacted by various Arts and Literary Festivals in order to facilitate workshops for children and young writers. Of course, because writing for children wasn’t my principal calling, and was really only something I’d gotten into in order to keep food in the larder and pay the bills, I also had the hope that this new exposure would also give me opportunities to push my poetry and adult writing as well. Unfortunately, the former proved to be an obstacle to the latter. Literary festivals were very happy to have me give children’s readings and workshops but were reluctant to offer me anything else. This wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been compounded by a common prejudice that children’s writers often encounter, which is usually revealed by phrases like “well, so-and-so is a real poet, who writes for adults” or “but you only write for children really, don’t you?”; after a while you begin to get the very strong suspicion that you’re not really respected and have only been brought into the festival so that no parent can complain that their children are being discriminated against by having nothing provided for them. Faced with this kind of nonsense, children’s writers quite understandably begin to feel a bit demeaned. The other very real problem with being on the children’s programme of any festival is that the children’s writers often feel segregated from the other writers. After a while many children’s writers, especially those who are accomplished and widely published in other areas, begin to resent this exclusion. After about three years of having to deal with this kind of thing I just felt I had to cut down on the children’s events and get back to writing and publishing poetry. Trying to get a foothold on the adult reading circuit proved difficult at first, because instead of opening doors the children’s work had often caused the doorkeepers to bolt the doors on me on the grounds that I was “really just another children’s writer”. Nowadays I ten d to keep the children’s writing very much in the background but this causes an added difficulty because the children’s writing earns money, whereas poetry rarely does. My principal vocation however, my true calling as a writer, is in poetry; so I dedicate myself to that no matter what. At the moment my principal income comes from teaching and editing writing projects, mainly in secondary schools or with groups of teen writers; but, although many say that I am a born teacher by both instinct and flair, teaching is not my vocation and never can be. I am a poet.

Is there a model whereby poets could make a living in the modern world – as the commercial, capitalist model just doesn’t work for poetry?

No. Any idea that a poet can access income-streams other than teaching (which becomes increasingly gruelling the more you do it) is naïve. Poetry is, for the most part, a vocation. Its usefulness, being emotional and metaphysical, is not easily demonstrated, so no one is really prepared to pay for it. In ancient times, when poets told fortunes and could transform themselves into animals and birds, poetry was respected far more. These days poets are seen largely as drunkards and pains in the arse; we’re greatly underappreciated. Until poets relearn the skills of charming away evil and foretelling destiny, the demand for them will wither. Far too much contemporary poetry is ordinary, far too many poets are mundane; the call of poetry is now seen as something open to everyone. With everyone doing it there is no essential alchemy imbuing it with power, and therefore no pressing need for poets anymore. And now, in a bankrupt world economy, there is no financial backup. The only model for poets is the one where we step off the edge of a building. All we can do these days is simply fall, but the total abandonment in which we do so often fills others with awe or surprise. What we do now is largely intangible; we have once  more become magicians, true Fools of the Tarot. Unable to earn a living all we can do is become slaves to our obsession with words. First there is language; then all else will follow.

What other media – apart from those you work in – give you inspiration?

Art, especially painting, has been an inspiration and I often look to artwork, even photographs, for ideas. When I was younger it was the fusion of story and artwork in American comic books that fuelled my imagination and I like to think that this was the seed that led to the focus on imagery in my own work. I’ve been told that my writing is extremely visual and I believe that the image is central to poetry. Image is the source of metaphor. When I was around nine I came across Marvel comic books for the first time and was exposed to the visual story-telling of Jack Kirby in particular. His visionary and extrapolative visualisation of story is something that has stayed with me. But art inspired me in another way as well, and that was in the realisation that the image could be a vehicle for wit and concept. Abstraction doesn’t really propel ideas, just mires them in processes of circular and pointless, endless thinking; but the image can capture many ideas all at once and resonate through different levels simultaneously. So artwork, the visual image, is a major foundation for me.

So where does the future lie for John W. Sexton?

As Ireland, in line with most of the world, is currently struggling with a bankrupt economy, it is unlikely that arts funding for either poetry or for the continuance of the Writers-In-Schools Scheme will continue much more into the future. This will leave most of us quite seriously adrift but our only recourse is to continue writing regardless. In March of next year my fifth poetry collection, The Offspring of the Moon, will be published by Salmon, and that impending event is something I’ll be holding up as a lamp for the darkness. In the meantime I’ll be doing what every poet does and will simply be writing new poems and sending them off to literary magazines. Yesterday I received an acceptance from an American poetry journal which will pay me twenty dollars. Hardly enough to keep me in luxury, but it’s more than I’ve received for any of the other poems I’ve placed in journals over the past few weeks. The payment for poetry is usually nil and the future for most poets is generally bleak even at the best of times. I can’t imagine anything changing in that regard but, paradoxically, that’s the normality of the poet’s life; so the future can truly be said to be stable. That’s the poet’s lot, and that’s about it.

What about a change of career to rock star? 

Funny you should bring that up. In 1998, just a short while before my fortieth birthday, I got introduced to the British guitarist and Stranglers frontman, Hugh Cornwell. At that Hugh Cornwelltime we had both been approached, separately, by Candy Records with a view to taking part in an arts projects they were intending to undertake with independent art publishers Booth-Clibborn. The idea, essentially, was to get writers and artists to collaborate with rock musicians and create tracks for a cd. The cd would be part of a coffee-table arts book that would also contain writing and artwork. It was quite an ambitious project and most of the budget was used up between the rock stars and the artists. It was a modest enough budget and no one was coming away with big money, they were doing it largely because it was interesting, but by the time the money was almost depleted they realized that they had nothing left in the kitty to include writers and poets. Coinciding with this was a fortuitous moment which impacted on me directly. Through some agency (largely just sheer luck) someone at Candy Records had come across my poem “Mantra of the Awoken Powers” and felt this would be eminently suitable for the project. Luckily for me they had contacted me about it fairly early in the proceedings, so the long and the short of it was that I ended up being the only poet, or indeed writer, who got into the finished project. They did feel, for some reason, that my name, John W. Sexton, wasn’t quite rock’n’roll enough, so they asked me if, ahem, I happened to have another name that I could use. I immediately turned my real name into an anagram and said, “you can call me Sex W. Johnston”. What happened next was that they sent the poem to the ex-Stranglers frontman Hugh Cornwell, appended with the name of Sex W. Johnston, and asked him if he liked it enough to turn it into a track. Hugh, I’m happy to report, absolutely loved it. I was hoping at the time that I might get to do the vocals on the track, but Booth-Clibborn were keen to have an artist involved, so they came up with the idea of asking the Irish sculptor Barry Flannagan to render the vocal on the track. Barry, being quite old at the time, was actually perfect for the vocal, because his voice had that unsettling hint of the ancient about it which thus gave an added resonance to the track. When the track had been cut Hugh asked Candy Records what we were going to be called, as he very much felt we should have a name like a band. Candy Records duly phoned me up then and asked me to furnish a name, so, off the top of my head I just said “you can call us Servants of the Vortex”, which I thought was fairly cool. Candy Records then phoned Hugh straight back and said, “Sex wants to call the project “Servants of the Vortex”.  Hugh immediately agreed and said he’d send on the fully mastered track. When the track arrived, however, it became immediately apparent that he’d misheard the name, for the track was labelled Serpents of the Vortex. We all felt that was actually better, so we kept that version of the name for the record. I was then drafted in to work on some of the text for the coffee-table book, and so I had a further involvement in the project as a whole. The book and cd were eventually released under the album title of We Love You, and featured most of the British Sensationalist School of British artists, including Tracy Emmin. During this period I met Hugh for the first time, at the Graucho Club in Soho, and we just got on like a house on fire. I then met up with Hugh a few more times after that and on one of the occasions he suggested that we make an entire album together, with myself furnishing the lyrics. I sent him a few dozen poems and bits of text and to my surprise he loved all of the material. About three days after posting him the work he phoned me up one morning and said, “Sex, I’m sitting in the garden reading your poems and my mind is filling with music”. It was from that moment that our collaborative album was really begun. We put the tracks together over a few short months and the album was fairly quick finished. I ended up doing the vocals on the entire thing, which was a great experience. Before the album was completed Hugh turned around and said that he felt we should use a different name for this project, so we came up with The Sons of Shiva, (Shiva being the god of the Cosmic Dance). In the finish we named the album eponymously. Eventually we got signed to Track Records. The album has picked up a cult following over the years but I like to think of it as a sleeper; my hope is that one day it’ll just catch on universally and my pension will be secured! Hugh and myself considered a second album but we both just got caught up in other projects. Hugh is very much like myself and doesn’t like to do the same thing twice, so I suppose we just moved on into other things. A thing we both have in common is that we’re both restless spirits, forever reinventing ourselves through new projects. In recent times I’ve been playing with the idea of a new musical project, but would like to do something that’s more easily portable. Travelling on the road with an entire band is fraught with expense and troubles, so I’m thinking of maybe just collaborating with a dubstep dj or possibly even a bass guitarist, but at the moment that’s just an idea. If the right collaborator turns up then I might do something yet. A second musical project that fuses my poetry and vocals would be quite exciting and I’m in the appropriate frame of mind for that now, but it would all depend of finding the right person to work with.

On a light note, two questions to finish up with: You are on death row convicted of murder (in error) but tomorrow you die. What is your last meal?

I see this as a serious question and will attempt a serious answer. No one should have the power of life and death over anybody else, and I’ve always seen this idea of a last request or a last meal as a sop to the executioner’s and the jailor’s conscience. If I was condemned to die by another’s hand I would in no way enable their excuses for killing me and I would in no way allow them the idea that they had somehow given me a mercy. I would eat no last meal. I would go to death hungry. I may well indeed go there that way yet.

If you were an artist in any other discipline (painter, singer, actor, sculptor etc.) and you were to be a one-hit-wonder, what single piece of art (existing, by another artist) would you be content to have as your legacy?

The only work of art by another artist that I would have any interest in claiming as my own no longer exists, so you’ll simply have to be satisfied with that. No other work of art created before or since that particular piece has been so profound, though it probably lasted but a short time. The piece of art I have in mind was a sculpture, I think that’s the best way to describe it, and it was created by Michelangelo. In his “Lives of the Artists”, Giorgio Visari recorded that the ruler of Florence, Piero de’ Medici, after a great deal of snow fell in Florence, had commanded Michelangelo to make in his courtyard a snowman. The idea of a work of art that is fleeting and destructible, recorded only by hearsay and folk memory, appeals to me greatly. That’s the kind of thing all artists should aspire to, for it transcends the artistic ego. The idea of writing a poem that no one can remember, but at the same time one the effect of which is so memorable that everyone speaks of it through all of subsequent history, enchants me completely.

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The Lovechild of Anne of Green Gables – an interview with Kari Sperring

kari maundeFantasy Author Kari Sperring comes from Coventry (England).

She says that is “possibly that’s why I am so in love with words and communication, having come out of that city that is so improbably associated with silence. I was born there and lived there for the first seven years of my life: I spent the rest of my childhood in various parts of the British Midlands. Between the ages of 7 and 38, I just kept on moving, backwards and forwards across the centre of Britain -‘ I’ve lived in Dublin and Cardiff, Bangor and Leicester and Nottingham. But since the early 80s my sense of home has been tied to the city of Cambridge and that is where I live now. I’m a transplant, a migrant, a graft into the East Anglian landscape. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why I end up writing about characters who are rootless or displaced.

I’m mongrel, a mixture of Welsh and English: my ancestors come from North Wales and the Southern Welsh mining valleys, Herefordshire and Shropshire and Somerset and Birmingham.  I have grown my roots into Cambridge, a city to which my ancestry has no ties. Home is where my partner and my cats and my (too many) books are.”

I’m a historian. I have a PhD in mediaeval British history and my first career was university lecturer. While my specialisation is early mediaeval Wales (that’s the period between around 400 CE and the Edwardian Conquest in 1283), I’ve also worked on early mediaeval Ireland, on Anglo-Saxon England and on the Vikings. Other than that, I’ve been a barmaid, a tax officer, an administrator, a charity shop worker and a Personal Assistant.

I’m a fan – of books, of science fiction and fantasy, of Hong Kong cinema, of folk music and Hindi films and manga and swashbucklers. I am a creature of obsessions: I love to learn, to explore, to immerse myself in new subjects and passions. Wherever and whenever I am, I am always in the grip of some new fascination. I have books on Chinese history and language, on film theory and printing, on the Arthur stories and on France in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, on Alexandre Dumas and silent movie stars. I’m interested in clocks and swords and orreries and architecture and travelling, in prison-camp memoirs and ferrets, cats and sharks and the Welsh language. There is always something new and fascinating to find and study.

And I’m a writer. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to create stories. I wrote my first “novel” when I was 8, and illustrated it, too – it was eight pages long and about ponies. In my teens I wrote new adventures for my favourite characters from books and television and films: somewhere I still have my tale about Sir Gawain written in an excruciating imitation of the style of Sir Thomas Mallory. I started writing original stories in my late teens, which is when I also started my first attempts at novels. My obsessions and my training, my personal history and the histories I’ve studied all feed back into my writing.

I live in Cambridge, England, with my partner and (currently) three cats. He is tolerant of and patient with my eccentricities and foibles. The cats are resigned.”

Tell me one little-known fact about Kari Sperring.

Last winter I skied the 2 km Piculin black run in Italy, which has an average steepness of 1 in 4, and whose steepest section — which is about 500m, has steepness of 48 degrees.
I didn’t fall over.
Given that I’m an intermediate level skier, I still don’t quite believe I let Phil talk me into this.

I was hoping for something along the lines of ‘I’m the lovechild of J. Alfred Prufrock’ but here are so few of them about these days.

 First real question:

 What started your interest in all things Celtic?

Prufrock? Certainly not. I’m the lovechild of Anne of Green Gables!

As to the Celts… I am one, or around 75% of me is. My mother is Welsh, my father is of Welsh descent on his mother’s side, and comes from Herefordshire which has been mixed Celtic-English at least as far back as the 6th century. My real surname is attested back to the 7th century as the name of a mixed Welsh and Anglo-Saxon population group in what is now the Shropshire borders and the area around Brecon. I grew up with Welsh folk tales told me by my mother and her sisters, and, to the age of 7, spent a great deal of time with the Welsh side of the family (after that, sadly, we moved away from where they were settled). So, even though I was born in Coventry, I’ve always had strong ties to Wales and the Welsh.

Which came first, the history or the fantasy?

The fantasy, definitely. My first ever favourite book, aged 3, was Alice in Wonderland, and by five or six I’d discovered C S Lewis. From there, I moved on to Alan Garner, Tolkien, Lynette Muir, Roger Lancelyn Green’s collections of myths and Andrew Lang’s fairy books, — any book with magic or a fantasy feel was a must read. I was also an sf fan from an early age, courtesy of Dr Who, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Star Trek — I loved Andre Norton, Hugh Walters, Heinlein’s juveniles, John Christpher and John Wyndham. In my teens I discovered wider sf — Clarke, Asimov, McCaffrey, Zelazny, Delany, along with the early fantasy writers like H Warner Munn and William Morris (and Sir Thomas Malory). I set out to become a Celtic philologist, in fact, under the influence of Tolkien — he was my pattern for how to become a fantasy writer. But I discovered at university that while I could do the philology, I enjoyed the historical material far more, and in the end, that’s what I specialised in.

What led you into writing?

I don’t know. I’ve wanted to write — and have been writing — for as long as I can remember. I learnt fairly early on that books — which were magical — were produced by people called authors and I made up my mind that that was what I was going to do by the age of around 5.

When and what did you first submit, and to whom?

The very first story I submitted was a short piece called Autumn Is The Dying Time, to a small press magazine that my mother had seen advertised somewhere, which was asking for fiction by women. I was 17: the story was rejected, but nicely, as I remember. I’ve long forgotten the name of the magazine.

And where/when was your first publication?

My very  first publication was a little thing called ‘Cynan ab Iago and the killing of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn’ in Cambridge Mediaeval Celtic Studies 10 *1985). But I suspect you mean first professional fiction sale, which was a story called ‘Strong Brown God’, in the anthology Glorifying Terrorism, ed. Farah Mendlesohn (2007).

How long from your first sale to your first novel sale? And tell me about the journey to that landmark.

 

Living With Ghosts 2Ah, now that is complicated.
I’d written the first version of Living With Ghosts in 1990-91, while I was living in Dublin, and revised it extensively between 91 and 94, when I started submitting it to publishers. It was bounced as not commercial enough by several UK publishers and one US one, and sat unresponded-to with another US publisher for some years. In the mean time, I concentrated on non-fiction. In around 1999 or 2000, my friend Lisanne Norman introduced me to Sheila Gilbert at DAW, and said very, very supportive and nice things about LWG, which Sheila asked to see. I sent it to her, and heard nothing for some years (though Lisanne kept asking them about it). In 2008, I dug LWG out of a drawer, reread it, rewrote some parts and sent it to small press publisher Immanion Press, on the grounds that I knew them, I liked the sort of books they did and I thought it might fit. They accepted it, but asked me to write to the two larger publishers who still had it to let thewm know I was withdrawing it. One never responded. The other –DAW– asked for two weeks to look at it, which Immanion kindly granted. At the end of that time, they made an offer. Immanion very graciously told me to go with the bigger publisher. That was in May 2009. So this book owes a lot to other writers — Lisanne, who introduced me to DAW, Ian Watson, who pushed me to go back to fiction writing in 2006, and Storm Constantine of Immanion.

Do you write fantasy exclusively now?

I haven’t written a book-length work of non-fiction since 2006, but I still write articles on the Celts, on Dumas, and other things that are based on my academic background, Right now, along with rewrites on my 3rd book, I’m working on a piece on the poet Carol Ann Duffy for poetry magazine Stone Telling, for interest. And I’m writing a mystery novel, set in 9th century Wales as a blue-skies project.

What about short fiction?

I don’t write a lot of short fiction, but I have done a few stories, all for anthologies, including Fabulous Whitby, Myth/Understandings, After Hours: Tales from the UR Bar; The Modern Fay’s Guide to Surviving Humanity, and, most recently, The Feathered Edge.

What fiction/writers influenced you to being with?

Above all, Alexandre Dumas pere, who is my all time favourite author. The Three Musketeers is the book of my heart, and the book I always go back to. Otherwise, the usual suspects, I suspect — Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, Heinlein, Delany, Tanith Lee, in terms of genre. In terms of style, several rather out-of-fashion writers – above all Rumer Godden, who to me has the most beautiful, lyrical prose style, Elizabeth Goudge, and the poet T S Eliot. (I read him in my teens and he won’t go away.) Oh and some mediaeval writers, too: Sir Thomas Mallory, the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the author(s) of the Mabinogi. As as historian, my influences are my PhD supervisor, D. N. Dumville, the Anglo-Saxon scholar Frank Barlow, and the great Peter H Sawyer, all of whom taught me in one way or another to write clean, clear, complex prose.

What other media inspires or influences you?

I’m not one of those writers who writes to music and builds play-lists for particular books — I find music distracting when I’m working, in fact. I write to BBC Radio 4, which is a consequence of working for years in universities, which are noisy — you can hear people talking all the time and I’m used to them.
Having said that, radio is something of an influence: every once in a while a sentence will catch my attention or wind its way into my head and inspire an image or an idea. And I learn a  lot about all sorts of random things, too, which can be surprisingly useful.
Otherwise, there are songs which cued something for me about a character or a story sometimes — Alice Cooper’s ‘Poison’ was the cue song for the character Gracielis in Living WithGhosts, for instance, and the Sandy Denny song ‘Late November’ has an atmosphere to it that is the sort of thing I’m aiming for in my book-in-progress.
And then there’s film. I’m a lifelong film fan, though I prefer older Hollywood films to the more recent ones (I love old black and white melodramas and any kind of swashbuckler). I particularly love swordplay films — Hong Kong makes the best ones — and I’m very influenced by the image of the honourable swordsman fighting against the odds and the system, like d’Artagnan or Scaramouche.

You mention Sandy Denny for atmosphere – do you think you would write very different books if you moved out of the UK?

I don’t think so, given how little my books are affected by where I live. I was living in Dublin when I wrote the first draft of Living With Ghosts, and it’s more French influenced than anything else. Grass King is influenced by a whole mixture of very diverse things, Grass King's Concubinefrom academic folklore studies to Chinese wu-tang films to the Alhambra to book-keeping to the French revolution. My current new project is Welsh-inspired, which is a bit of a first for me (I regard anything to do with Celtic and Gaelic cultures as part of my other work, usually), but that’s more to do with an image that occurred to me, rather than a conscious move.

If you could choose any place, and time, in which to live what would they be?

Either Paris under Louis XIII (I always wanted to be musketeer), or else the imperial court in Tang dynasty China  — there were women historians in its internal hierarchy.

Now, some whimsy to finish.

You are on death row, convicted of murder (wrongly, of course) but tomorrow you hang. What is your final meal?

Food doesn’t interest me that much, alas. I’d probably want a family size package of good quality cheese and onion crisps, a glass of dry pink champagne and some houmous.

If you were an artist in any other discipline (actor, painter, singer etc.) and you were to be a one-hit-wonder what is the single work of art for which you would be proud to be remembered?

I’ve never wanted to be famous, so in a way I’d like to be one of the myriads who are ‘anon’, and for a beautiful embroidery of some kind — a wall hanging, perhaps.

 

 

 

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Lord of Film – an interview with Randal Plunkett

Randal PlunkettRandal Plunkett, the 21st Lord Dunsany, is an award winning director and producer hailing from one of the oldest and most prominent families in Ireland, the Plunketts. From a young age Randal was brought up surrounded by culture which has heavily influenced him to create the complex characters found in his films. He studied film at Kingston University in London and then moved on to study digital media and digital video at SAE in Amsterdam and in London. He currently works as CEO of Dunsany Productions, an Irish film company based in Co. Meath, Ireland.

Tell me a little-known fact about Randal Plunkett.

A lot of people don’t know that when I finished my film degree; I came back to Ireland to help my mum look after my father who was suffering from a neurological condition. While helping my parents run their estate, the future of my career looked bleak for the film industry because my estate needed constant attention and so did my father. So I started a very different career in sport science through the ISSA, with the idea to create a career as a personal trainer or perhaps open up my own gyms here in Ireland. Although my parents were very encouraging, they thought my talent would be wasted. Being that my father was in the arts, he felt that it was his duty to encourage me anyway he could to keep me in film. He was not well and didn’t have any connection with the film industry himself. He pushed me anyway he could, which in this case was to go to Europe to study digital video at SAE in Amsterdam. He figured that once I got a taste of making a film myself, the addiction would be too great to ever think about having a normal career. He was right and here I am now.

It’s terrific to have the encouragement of one’s parents. Were there any others who helped or inspired you to a career in film?

I used to go to a really posh international school in Switzerland (I was very bad at school, I must add). I was extremely dyslexic and eventually they asked me to leave as they were adopting a new curriculum and they didn’t want myself and others lowering their school average. Anyway, that’s another story. But my dad was not upset, instead he found me a great college to go to in Oxford. There I got the support I needed to make the grade and my academics flourished. I started doing classics, civilizations, English literature and sociology.

My Sociology teacher was called Louise Longson. I had great talks with her in class. She was a wild teacher, who lived the life of rock roll when she was a student!! She used to tell me about all her adventures going to rock concerts and crazy parties. One day, I came into the classroom and I noticed that on the board behind her was a reference to French new wave cinema. And to her surprise, I had a very good discussion about it. This was all because when I was five, I lived in America. My dad was an extremely cultured man and so the notion of his son watching rubbish American TV was too much for him. So my father used to go down the street to the video rental store and rent all these wonderful classic films from Europe. The deal was, I was allowed to rent cartoons so long as I watched one piece of cultural cinema beforehand. It wasn’t long before cartoons were put aside and it become all cultural. My personal favourite film that my dad showed me was ‘Le Ballon Rouge’ by Albert Lamorisse. There actually came a time where I rented that film every weekend for a year!!!! It was the most tragic story I had ever seen. I spent days crying over the kids balloon!!!

Getting back to the original question, being that I had the opportunity from a young age to be exposed to so much quality cinema; I had developed a very wide spectrum of film taste. I was able to hold my own in a discussion with my teacher, over her notes on the board. Her face dropped and by the end of class she had convinced me to switch courses to film, which she also taught. Finally, I had found something I actually enjoyed learning about. In fact I even enjoyed studying! As much as I thought I knew about cinema; Louise Longson opened my eyes to some new titles I had not seen before. These were films like ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ and Dario Argento’s ‘Susperia’. These films later become big influences on me and my career and my movies to date. So I think my professor Louise Longson would need to be mentioned as a big influencer.

Describe the type/genre of films you are making currently.

I tend to spend a lot of time cooking up dark macabre story lines in my castle; so it tends to be a great deal of horror. As you can imagine, living in a place as remote and dark tends to lead one’s mind to strange unusual places. But I must say, I try very hard to create something a little different in my films. I always try and bring beauty to the screen as much I can. The horror genre is very open when it comes to independent films, it is one of the few genres where cheap and tackiness can be a benefit to a film. I try as best I can, to not fall into the trap of creating low brow entertainment because I feel the stories I wish to tell have importance and its not about throwing blood all over the place. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of those kind of films but I feel that to create something so simple which deals with a subject at face value is perhaps too easy for me. I feel the need to de-construct everything I do and create story lines based on metaphor. Every film I make is full of hidden messages and sub texts below the surface. Take ‘Out There’ for example; on the surface it is a zombie film, but it isn’t. The zombies are just a product of the environment, in order to create a visual medium for me to discuss what I really want to express in the film. It explores my personal fear of responsibility and growing up. Very recently, my father died leaving me the responsibility of protecting Dunsany Castle and its lands from becoming another fossil of what it used to represent. There is a huge amount of pressure and self-sacrifice to this. We are now the oldest family in Ireland, the last of the Norman families who are still where they landed nearly a 1000 years ago. I must carry on and protect my heritage. The zombies in this film where my representation of my struggle to protect it. The relationship between the two characters, are also full of hidden meanings. For example; in the first scene where you see the beautiful actress Emma Eliza Regan in the garden, it looks like a paradise full of white flowers. The garden represents the beauty of what I am fortunate to be part of. The next scene we see  her in is the bathroom under candle light. She is in the bath and she tells Marren’s character that she is Emma Eliza Reganpregnant. This was also no accident, Emma Eliza Regan (pictured) in the bath represents purity and cleanliness; her naked body suggests vulnerability. Her pregnancy is a metaphor for my responsibility to my heritage and history. Their last scene together in the car for me was the final stage of acceptance. Acceptance to what my life will have to be. My film ‘Walt’ was much the same. The father and son relationship at the beginning of the film was based on my father’s guidance when I was young, which was so fundamental to my direction in life. Later on in the film, the kind old man becomes monster. But what he truly wants is to just live, which is why he consumes the children. This is all in the hope that their youth will sustain his life. This was a metaphor for my dad’s last days, as my family struggled to sustain his dwindling existence with our own struggle and efforts.
I put much of myself in each film, which is why I take so much time with the details like production design and cinematography. Myself and my cinematographer, will at an early stage in the films pre production study artwork to help stimulate our visual ideas which we will later incorporate into the film. In ‘Out There’ my talented Italian cinematographer Stefano Battarola and I were heavily influenced by some of the works we had recently been enjoying by Monet. A lot of the forest scenes we attempted to mimic the lighting and angles present in the works we had been looking at.

What is your next project?

Well I’m pretty busy with my new film called ‘The Tower’, which is early stages of pre production. The film is a sort of fairy tale horror, so it is in keeping with the rest of my work but I hope to be moving on to try and find a producer to help make it. I’m still in debate whether to go at it alone and raise capital privately or try and go through a film board. I’m still weighing up all my options with it. You see with a film board co-production, I could probably do something more elaborate but at the cost of some of my control. The other option is to go at it alone and do it low budget and completely independent, raising money with investors. That is what I did for my last few films.

As it stands, I want to focus on features only now because no one takes you very seriously with shorts, even if they are brilliant. This is normally because there are so few possibilities with shorts. If you play at a big festival, most the time they stick you in the morning. But who gets up early to run to the cinema to check out the shorts program at 10 in the morning?! Just other film makers who are usually have films in there themselves. Everyone wants to see features, so with that in mind I’m planning for ‘Out There’ to be my last short for the foreseeable future. Speaking about ‘Out There’, we are currently in pre production for a continuation of the franchise with a feature version also due next year.

If you were teaching a class of horror film students what film would you use to demonstrate the elements required- script, structure, pacing, dialogue etc.?

Well horror is such a large genre, with so many styles. It would be hard to focus on just one film. But if I was pushed, I would pick ‘The Birds’ by Alfred Hitchcock. The reason why I think ‘The Birds’ is such a good example, is that it cultivates a very real fear prominent in humanity and that is the fear of what we do not understand. In ‘The Birds’ the monster is nature itself. Its motivations are kept secret from the viewer; there is no real explanation to why nature( in form of the black crows) has become violent. It just does so. This removes a lot of complication from the story and makes the film a straight forward survival horror. The human race given enough time, can deal with almost any situation. The only thing that makes us totally powerless is our struggle against nature. The unknown leaves the viewer uncomfortable; more so then having knowledge. Knowledge leads to analysis and with analysis comes the tearing apart of ideas. This causes the viewer to understand and become unafraid. A monster is more terrifying when it is unexplained. Take the alien in ‘Alien’, there is no explanation; the audience does not know really what it wants. But the audience knows to be scared. The Shining also does this. The audience do not really know the motivation of the hotel; all we know is that it is something that should be feared.

Getting back to ‘The Birds’, the film follows all the traditional aspects of horror. It uses tense music, symbolic images of death in the form of the black crows and an animal commonly associated with doom. This is almost a clear reference to the bible. The bible always terrified society by using plagues brought on by nature to encourage people to succumb to its ideals. ‘Birds’ essentially capitalizes on this fear in the same way. The film keeps the viewer in a constant state of tension. Tension for me, has always been the foundation of horror. My films do not focus on blood and guts. I always try to use tension and surprise as my weapons of fear. Monsters in time become less scary, violence increases with every decade. The only thing which does not lose its value over time, regardless of increases of budgets or technology is old fashion tension. Tension, is the most powerful weapon in horror, and requires no budget, just skilful editing and pacing. Hitchcock said that the most horrific thing in the world is not a bomb, but the bomb ticking under a table while a child plays with a ball. What he meant by this was the anticipation of what is to come, is far more horrifying then the act itself. So the idea of a child kicking a ball near an explosive device while the clock is ticking gets every one excited. The explosion ends is a moment, but the build up last much longer and engages your viewer in a far more gripping way. So I would say this a fundamental piece of cinema for any horror director to study.

How important is the script to your films?

Script and story are the most crucial part of any film. If you haven’t got a good story, you have nothing. I do not class myself as much of a writer. I am extremely dyslexic and this gets in the way a great deal with my work. But I am a fighter and as hard as it is, I do produce scripts and stories. I’ve always been keen on creating concepts and scenarios. When I write a script, I do not stay loyal necessarily to the dialogue. A great deal gets developed and changed with the actors. I am only loyal to the subtext, the meaning behind the words. It is the meaning that drives me..

It is so important to have meanings behind your work, and in my case it is crucial to challenge an idea or an issue. Films, which do not criticize or reflect issues important to the film maker have no soul and cannot be good. Some of the simplest films can have the most interesting sub text. Take George Romero’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’; on the surface it is just a low budget zombie film. But it’s not, it’s an extremely interesting critic on modern consumerism and capitalist society. The fact that the zombies, even post mortem are flooding back to department stores is a very good criticism of western ideals and our society’s addiction for the mall. Many people who saw that film, only really focused on the zombies and did not understand the sub text. My film ‘Out There’ will no doubt have the same issue. Both in ‘Dawn of the Dead’ and ‘Out There’, use zombies as a metaphor. The genre and style I use is just window dressing. It’s a vehicle in which I can express my feeling and theory’s in a way, which can be easily enjoyed by my audience. That all starts with the script!

How do you choose your next subject? Do you prefer an original subject or do you adapt other people’s work?

I normally prefer to choose my own. Normally, when I have an idea, it comes from something I may have seen or experienced. Often, what I will do is pick an issue that I am interested in. I will take something within my own personality and find a way of expressing it using fictional characters and a plot. I try and embody feelings or worries into drama. As I said before my film ‘Out There’ , was all a metaphor for my own worries about replacing my father as head of the Dunsany family and dealing with the pressures of responsibility. I took these worries I had and tried to create a fictional film embodying it in the form of a zombie apocalypse and throwing a relationship amidst the chaos. I find this has always been the easiest way to write. By using metaphors; it allows me to create fantasy concepts, which can be seen very superficially. But below the surface, it deals with parts of my own identity.

On occasion I have adapted stories. But I will always try and incorporate parts of my own personality within the structure of the narrative. One such story, was my film ‘Kiss Kiss’. ‘Kiss Kiss’ was an adaptation of a cautionary tale my co-producer at the time Helen Serruya told me. The story was about a woman who contracted a sexually transmitted disease from her husband. This disease could only be caused by having sexual contact with a corpse. The urban legend goes, that her husband was breaking into morgues to molest the dead. He eventually was discovered when she began to show symptoms her doctor managed to identify as symptoms of this unique bacteria . The story quickly caught my interest, due to its dark theme. It was also the year of the swine flu and the fear of contracting the disease was very prominent in London, where we were living. Myself and Serruya found it to be perfect story which dealt with themes which were very prominent in the media at the time, it quickly became my first short.

How do you feel about remakes?

If you were offered a huge Hollywood contract and budget but it had to be for a remake what film would you choose?

I’ve always been a supporter of remakes, its something which has never really bothered me about Hollywood. Take the remake of ‘Cape Fear’ or ‘Scarface’, they actually turned out even better then the originals! In my opinion, a remake can be a fantastic thing, particularly when its a re imagining of the original subject. One of my favourite films of all time was ‘Solaris’ by the great Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky. In that film Tarkovsky adapted the book by Stanislaw Lem and created one of the most important pieces of science fiction cinema of all time. But the film was very stylized, visually and narratively. It was nearly two and half hours long! It was very much in the vein of Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ in its pacing and rhythm. Then in 2002, Steven Soderbergh remade it with George Clooney and it was fantastic. Soderbergh created a very noirish adaptation with a beautiful soundtrack and created a magnificent piece of cinema. He compressed the story down and created a far more atmospheric film. But both films stand alone in their own right. They cannot be compared, as they are too different. In a situation such as this, I have huge amounts of respect for Hollywood. They are able to bring some very high quality revamps. But it only works when the story is transformed and developed in a different way. I would be very severe on remakes like ‘The last House on the Left’ and ‘Psycho’, which in my opinion were complete wastes of time. ‘Psycho’ was a shot by shot remake which was completely pointless. ‘Last House on the Left’ brought nothing new either. In fact, what was so shocking about the original was the ferocity of the violence perpetrated by the villains. It managed to give every parent in America fear of letting their teenage daughter out on a Friday night. The remake, instead of being clever and going for a much more atmospheric build up to the story, they tried to use the same formula as the 70s classic. The problem with that was they didn’t make it darker. They made the villains caricatures of typical stock Hollywood bad guys. They tried to engross every one with their graphic violence, but at the same time not allowing the violence to be too harsh so that it didn’t get censored or have difficulty getting wider distribution. They ended up with a mediocre rehash of a great film without the great aspects of the original. All they had in the remake was the violence, which was not even worse then the uncut version of the original. They didn’t even have that shock value!

If I was offered a budget from Hollywood for a remake, I guess I would have to pick ‘Stalker’ by Tarkovsky . It was such a fantastic film for its time and still has the ability to create a huge amount of tension and mystery. But it was very Russian and I think a lot of people missed out on it because of that fact. I also think it was a bit slow and tedious because very little actually happens in it, but that’s why I think a re-imagining of it would not take away from the original. With a modern day remake it could be visually darker to fit the styles of today without losing the meaning. Plus the original had so many things that were touched on but were never explained or developed. With a remake, it could try and develop these areas more. Soderbergh was so successful with ‘Solaris’ it was encouraging to see that it could be done to such a high level.

What films (in horror specifically or any genres) are hitting the spot for you now?

Well there is lots happening in cinema at the moment, but there is one film which caught my attention; The Danish drama called “Teddy Bear’ by Mads Matthiesen. I think, Matthisesen is going to the next big Nordic director. ‘Teddy Bear’ revolves around a pro-bodybuilder called Dennis, played by Kim Kold. Dennis is a shy and insecure giant, living with his mother. Dennis dreams to find the love of a women but unfortunately is socially awkward and has no success. After one of his family members marries a Thai girl that he met while on holiday, Dennis decides to look himself for a bride overseas. He ventures over to Thailand on vacation, there he commences his search. At first, all he gets are prostitutes, who are trying to hustle him for money. He is disappointed and soon gives up his search. He decides for the last few days of his holiday that he will find a gym to train at. While at the gym, he meets a wonderful women; who is completely different from the frisky prostitutes he finds in the tourist part of town. He falls for her and a beautiful relationship is formed. The film is so gentle and poetic, it reminded me a great deal of the films of Wong Kar Wai. I found it very refreshing to find an uncommon protagonist, in the form of a sensitive bodybuilder. Kim Kold performance as Dennis is spectacular! I think this film that will be a modern classic in years to come, I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in drama.

You have been convicted of murder (wrongly) but you’re on death row and going to hang in the morning. What’s your last meal?

That’s a tough one. I would have to mix the cuisines a little. First French, I would need to start with Steak Tartare. I should state at this point that I love raw meat! I would continue the meal with Japanese, I would have a light main course of a Sashimi platter. On this platter it would contain a selection of the freshest raw fish including tuna, salmon, squid and eel. It would come on a bed of Japanese pickled salad. Then to finish, I would demand the most chocolaty cake Bewleys has to offer, accompanied by ice cream and whipped cream. I would then be ready for death

You planning on ending up in a Michelin starred prison?

 Well one has to be murdered in style, I could also handle a burrito, if they felt my death was not worth the gourmet meal!

If you were an artist in any other discipline – actor, painter, novelist – and you had to be remembered for only one work (one hit wonder) what would that work be – an existing piece by another artist?

 I think if I wasn’t a film maker, I would have to be a writer. The writer I would be, would have to be Philip K. Dick. The book that I would wish to have written is ‘Do Androids Dream of Electrical Sheep’. I loved this book as a kid because it was so ahead of its time. Even the film version (Blade Runner) was fantastic. I grew up during the time when genetically modified food and cloning was in the press and there was a lot of fear in my house where that would take us. This book for me was perhaps a sad vision of how the future could turn out if we as a society did not change its ways. It was a sort of prophecy much like George Orwell’s ‘Brave New World’, which is actually closer to the way our society is going with all the extreme privacy abuse and constant information gathering. Orwell’s book was always the more likely one to come true but I’ve always been partial to a bit of fantasy and the concept that we all one day we will be charging up our pets with a plug socket was too much to miss.

 

 

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Something New Under The Sun?

I received an interesting email from Harper Collins the other day. Startlingly, it contained something new (to me) and on top of that the idea was actually interesting and unusual. Now perhaps I’m simply beeing naive and have allowed the business of writing pass me by without watching carefully, but I thought Authonomy was a good idea and decided to throw my two cent opinion behind it.

According to James Pursaill of Harper Collins, Authonomy is an innovative Digital imprint from HarperCollins that publishes talent from our website, www.authonomy.com – completely bypassing the traditional agent model. In essence, it crowdsources great writing. Users submit their own work – then read, review and rate the writing of other users – with the strongest material floating to the top of the online slushpile. This allows us to published innovative titles that are chosen by readers, for readers in an increasingly crowded and competitive market.

They’ve just published the third ebook sourced in this way: Brotherhood of Shades by Dawn Finch. I can’t speak for the quality of the novel – it’s YA and I’m looking for a reviewer for it – but I love the innovation and hope that this turns out to be a decent market for new writers – one that is badly needed.

As to the author, again I quote Harper Collins:

Dawn Finch grew up in a book filled house on the river’s edge of a tough London-overspill council estate. When she was ten her dad gave her a collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories and this launched a lifetime fascination with the macabre and the unexplained. At the age of eleven a fierce librarian refused to lend her a copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula on the grounds that she was too young to read it. She vowed that if she was ever a librarian she would never deny a child a great book. At twelve Dawn told her careers advisor that she wanted to be either a writer or a librarian, and she was dismayed to be told to stop ‘pointless dreaming’. After many years of study and hard work, and a range of jobs – from reading unsolicited slush-pile manuscripts, to dressing as a Benedictine monk to take children on cathedral tours – Dawn carved out a successful career as a Children’s Librarian and Reader Development Consultant. With the publication of her first book, Brotherhood of Shades, she is thrilled to be able to add Writer to her CV as well.

I wish both Dawn and Authonomy well and hope they both go on to many future successes.

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Sensory Overload – A European Perspective on Dragoncon

I’m back home from Dragoncon a couple of days now and have had time for mature reflection. Anything I say must be prefaced by the stats – an average Irish con these days gets about 300 visitors. The largest con I’ve been to previously was Worldcon in Mortreal, where the numbers were in the five to six thousand region. Somewhere in the region of forty-five thousand visitors passed through the doors of Dragoncon last week in under four days. So you can understand that I was blown away bt the sher scale of the event.

Crowd Scene

I brought my camera – maybe I could snap a famous writer or take some shots of my friends, I thought. Instead I shot off snap after snap of ordinary people in extraordinary garb (costumes) and the hordes that trampled through the hotels at all hours of the day and night.

Not Sure About the Casting of Dorothy.

The panels were a blur. I attended several in the Anne McCaffrey’s Worlds stream. They were great fun. I also went to one in the YA track giving advice to young writers. Now even my best friends would not claim I was young, my detractors would question the writer bit, but the advice that was given was top notch, as you would expect, and applicable to young writers of every age. I was astonished how many of the teenagers present were working on novels – not always their first.

It’s a Red Dalek, what’s not to like.

All in all, there was simply too much going on to take it all in at the first attempt. I will have to go again and, hopefully, they will again let me in. (I usually have to go everywhere twice – second time to apologise).

If they're recasting Peter Pan these guys have got a real shout.

He clanked when he walked!

Don’t know what he was supposed to be, but definitely my favourite costume.

The highlight for me, in a purely personal way, was the awards banquet. I got to sit at the table beside some very famous people and some of them even shook my hand. And though it was the sad part of the evening, no matter how much host John Ringo protested to the opposite, I won’t quickly forget his speech about those icons of science fiction (without the fiction in one notable case) who passed on this year. Three were named and eulogised at length. Neil Armstong who, as long as history is read and taught, will ever be remembered for his heroic trip onto our sattelite and his Giant Leap, was first up. Then came Ray Bradbury, the man who turned middle America into something weird, wonderful and often creepy. But held for last, like the lead act at a rock concert was Anne McCaffrey.

The Mad Hatter and his bitches.

I was fortunate enough to know Annie and lived close to her home in Co. Wicklow for many years. Her son Todd was sitting beside me litening to John Ringo remembering for us all, his wonderful mother and ordering him, not too successfully, not to cry. Afterwards I felt moved to shake John by the hand and, in a firm, manly voice, thank him for his wonderful speech. Unfortunately a lump in the throat intervened and I delivered only half my message.

Thanks, John, Annie would have been proud and delighted to hear your kind and heartfelt words as you channeled the feelings of the entire audience.

This stormtrooper family are friends of Todd (no it’s not a euphamism).

But check out the costumes, aren’t they awesome (not a word I use with any regularity, but the only one I truly felt would fit here). And thanks to all the hordes of fans who took the time and spent their hard-earned cash on this feast for the eyes. I’ve never been a fan of costumes but I was truly blown away by the variety and quality on show in Atlanta.

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Resident Alien (He’s from Cork) – an interview with David Murphy

David Murphy is the author of a well-received novel LONGEVITY CITY (USA 2005), novellas ARKON CHRONICLES (2003) and BIRD OF PREY (2011), and several volumes of award-winning short stories (most recently LOST NOTES – Ireland 2004). He is a founder editor of Albedo One. Visit his website at http://davidmurph.wordpress.com/

Tell me one little-known fact about David Murphy?

I did a lot of hitch-hiking back in the seventies. That was in the days when hitching was so popular books about it were in the bestseller lists. I travelled the roads of Europe over three or four months one summer.  The most I hitched in any one day on that trip was over 400 miles from Salonika to Belgrade. This caused a delay at the Greek-Yugoslav border because the guards had never seen an Irish passport before! – this was back in 1975 when Irish people did not travel much. How things have changed.

Tell me a little about your published work .

LONGEVITY CITY is probably the best of my novels and novellas in that it was published by an imprint of a big US publisher and has sold more copies than any of my other books, also getting a lot of good reviews along the way. It seems to be the best of my longer works and I enjoyed writing it but to be honest short stories seem to come more naturally to me. I’m more drawn to the idea of creating a perfect slice of fiction in three or four thousand words rather than in a novel of a hundred thousand. Getting the fiction perfect though is a very tricky thing to achieve. The writer Sean O Faolain once said that a short story is like a little bird. Get it right and it will soar. If you don’t get it right, your story is stuck on the ground like a flightless sparrow. I like trying to make little birds that, hopefully, will take wing and fly – if only occasionally.

How many of your short stories, do you think, achieve that flight? Are your favourite stories necessarily the most popular?

That first bit is a 64,000 dollar question. It’s hard for a writer to look objectively at his or her own work. Publishers, magazine editors and reviewers are perhaps the best judges of what works and what does not. Sometimes a story that the writer doesn’t rate much gets taken and turns out to be the most popular story in the issue of whatever magazine it’s in. That’s happened me once or twice.

A few years ago I was approached about a film option for a story I wouldn’t even put in my own top thirty stories, so you can’t always tell what’s going to be popular or not. It’s all down to taste and whatever strikes a chord at a particular time. As regards the best though – the very best – I think a writer knows when they’ve cracked it with a really good one. Don’t ask me, though, to put a percentage success rate on the seventy or so short stories I’ve written so far – I might be tempted to exaggerate. Sometimes you have to write bad stuff out of the system to let the good flow through.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve written very little genre material over the past two years. A handful of short stories including “Night of Our Red Eye” in Albedo issue 42 – that’s about it. Instead I find myself concentrating on the sort of stuff I never dreamed I’d write just a couple of years ago. Non-fiction for instance, and poetry. Where the poems come from I’ve no idea but I’ve been writing them a while now and find them a good way of getting the lyrical juices going, which is something I’ve been striving to inject a lot of into my recent prose.

I use that awful word ‘prose’ because I don’t know how else to describe a recent  book I’ve just finished. It’s short, coming in at over 36,000 words, and is a strange amalgam of fiction and fact, a hybrid which is part travelogue, part memoir, part fiction. It’s ostensibly about angling but in fact it’s about everything. Five of the eleven chapters are fictionalised accounts of fish or fishing or sea-related activities, including “Lost Notes” the story that won the Maurice Walsh Award. All of the eleven chapters are linked thematically; dealing with the art of fishing, but overall, the book is about a lot more than angling. The factual chapters act as a unifying force that binds the whole into a unit greater than the sum of the parts, or so I hope! It’s a very Irish book but has appeal that I believe would be broader than that. Whether I can interest a publisher or agent in it or not is a different matter – as you might imagine this new manuscript is a very strange fish indeed.

Do you see yourself moving completely away from writing SF?

No, I wouldn’t say I’m moving completely away from SF although the focus of my writing has shifted  from it over the last few years. They say things should come in threes so it would be nice to have a third genre novella published to go along with ARKON CHRONICLES and BIRD OF PREY. It’s something I think I will definitely write, and ideally would like to see the three novellas in a one book format at some stage. However I don’t see myself committing to a full-length genre novel, not at the moment anyway. But you know what they say – never say never. I’ll continue to write short stories and they all contain some element of genre within them. I find it next to impossible to write a story without at least some hint of the fantastical creeping into the pages somewhere.

Is there any genre element to your poetry?

There isn’t – and I find if I try to introduce a genre element, it falls flat. Mainstream seems to be my focus there, of that there’s no doubt, but then these are basically a sideline – writing exercises, you could call them.

These writing exercises – do you submit them for publication?

Yes and a few have sneaked into semi-reputable, or even reputable, publications. Put it like this: it’s all about what keeps the fire burning in the writer’s belly. It can be hard to keep those embers burning when you’re not engaged in a major piece of work – like a novel, for instance – so you’ve got to keep the fire stoked in other ways. You can do it by writing various bits and pieces as I’ve been doing with these ‘exercises’ as I’ve called them. But of course the best way of retaining that fire in the belly is by writing about what inspires or excites you, or even what upsets and infuriates, as long as you control these emotions and filter them through a good story with a good situation, good conflict and good characters.

Do you find it easy to channel real-world concerns into your SF?

Sometimes too easily. Back in the nineties a lot of my best stories, near-future tales such as “Broken Heroes” and “Something Small”, were about the power of the church which was a very powerful institution in the Ireland of that time. Thankfully that has now changed so I no longer find myself writing about it. Most writers go through phases where certain themes come to the forefront of their work. Themes can be politically motivated or personally motivated depending on what’s happening in your life or in the world around you at any given point.

In recent years I’ve centred stories around things that concern me such as advertising and media. I have concerns right now about the growing prevalence of social networking, communications technology and the loss of individuality – though that last one has been a bit of a recurring theme. Not to mention the economic mess we find ourselves in because property speculators and developers in cahoots with politicians have ruined our country and economy so thoroughly that who’s picking up the bill and paying to bail out the bankers, builders and other chancers? The ordinary Joe Soap is, the guy who had nothing to do with creating the mess in the first place. Now all the debt accrued by reckless bankers and their cronies has been turned into sovereign debt so that the payment of it can be imposed on every single Irish citizen. Meantime those who caused it all get away with it all and continue on their merry way with little or no sanction. Now that’s a theme I’d like to address but at the moment I feel too angry about it and therefore would be unable to channel it correctly – it’s too raw.

You’ve got to be careful if you’re writing about something that’s exercising you politically though. You can’t preach in fiction. The subject has to inform your writing in a very filtered way for it to work. The message, if there is to be one in a story, has to be subtle and subservient to character and setting. You’ve got to find the right peg to hang your message on. Anyone could write a short story about the influence of the Murdochs, for instance, so you have to be extra thoughtful if you want a story such as that to work successfully – you guessed it by the way, I’ve written about Rupert Murdoch, too.

What writers (or novels) have influenced you over the course of your career?

I read plenty of mainstream novels and short stories in my youth including a lot of the very best such as Joyce, de Maupassant, Rabelais, etc. A moment of epiphany came when I walked into the Cork city library one day and borrowed one of those big old yellow Gollancz editions of RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA. This was around the time of the release of “2001” so Clarke was hot. It just blew me away that a writer could spend maybe three pages basically just describing a cylinder in space but doing so brilliantly. That was the start of my interest in literary SF rather than just any old literary stuff.

Some of my favourite novels would be THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV and THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES and short stories by Philip K Dick, though my all-time favourite short story collection is Hermann Hesse’s STRANGE NEWS FROM ANOTHER STAR. I also have favourite reads by writers who are still alive! Michael Cunningham, Cormac McCarthy, Jonathan Safran Foer, Michel Houellebecq, to name a few.

What other media have influenced your writing?

Well I suppose the aforementioned “2001” brings us to films. Movies like “Fahrenheit 451” and the “Planet of the Apes” series and lots more, all of these had an influence on me in my student days. For some reason the Nic Roeg film “Walkabout” stayed with me, too. Why I’m not sure – and no, it wasn’t the Jenny Agutter factor. It was more the atmosphere, the visual poetry of the whole thing on the big screen.

Sam Beckett had an influence also, not through seeing his plays on stage – I’m not much of a theatre-goer and have only seen one live performance of a play of his and that was “Ag Tnuth Le Godot”, an Irish language production, but I’ve read extracts of his work in one of my favourite books, John Calder’s “A Samuel Beckett Reader”. Of course television is unavoidable, as evidenced by those 80’s cold war classics “The Day After” and “On the Eighth Day”. These definitely coloured my writing as did the surreal and off-the-wall – Monty Python, for instance.

I used to read Marvel and DC comics as a child. There was a shop on Shandon Street in Cork that always had a supply of them. I don’t know where the shopkeeper got them from. Years – decades – later someone told me that bales of comics were used as ballast on banana boats and the like and then off-loaded for a few pence to second-hand book dealers in whatever port the boat happened to dock in. I don’t know if that’s true but it’s a good story. Don’t tell fans of graphic SF that I used to deface and destroy the comics by cutting out pictures of spacecraft and keeping them in a little scrapbook.

You mentioned writing poetry earlier – any poets whose work stays with you?

One of the poems I like best is “Song of Wandering Aengus” by Yeats. Another is by Sam Beckett. Not a lot of people know that Beckett wrote poems. I particularly like a short one of his called “Dieppe”. I also like some English beat poetry I suppose you’d call it, from the seventies. One of my favourites is called “Breaking Bread in Bedlam”. Then there’s TS Elliott’s “Prufrock”. But most of my favourite poetry is in another medium entirely – music. The likes of Leonard Cohen, Warren Zevon, Paul Simon, John Fogerty, Jim Morrison, Dylan, Springsteen, I regard their work as poetry. Not to forget a particular track, and this really is a poem that does stay with me – I can recite it at the drop of a hat. It’s by Graeme Edge of the Moody Blues and is the title track from “On the Threshold of a Dream”. Now the Moodies were much maligned for their quasi-mystical pretentiousness, in particular the poetry of Edge (he had one poem on each album) but the funny thing is that sometimes the poems actually worked – for me anyway.

Ah, the poetry of music – you’re obviously a big fan. Give me a quick top five – CD/LP. And a top five songs.

Ok. Albums first and in no particular order: Camel “Moonmadness”, Fruupp “The Prince of Heaven’s Eyes”, Springsteen “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, Mike Nesmith “Nevada Fighter”, Granham Parker “Howlin’ Wind”. Most people regard the Parker as not even being his best album but to me it’s the nearest thing to a live performance, which I had the pleasure of witnessing once.

Songs: Strawberry Fields, Famous Blue Raincoat, Blister on the Moon (Taste), Watching and Waiting (Moody Blues) and Septimus (Loudest Whisper). That last one is, in my opinion, the best prog-rock song ever written. I could go on about music, you know.

Do you listen to music while you write?

Now that’s something I’ve tried to do once or twice but it doesn’t work. I used to think that if I put on music, for instance a Van Morrison album or even a bit of classical like Mahler or Bach’s Brandenburg concertos, that I’d be somehow inspired to write better. Instead I found myself being drawn by the music and just sitting there listening like an eegit rather than writing. I guess I’m a traditionalist in that I like to sit alone in a small, quiet upstairs room at the back of the house with the PC in front of me and no distractions. In that situation I can hear a creak on the bottom of the stairs at a thousand paces so music would be a no-no. My computer is on a desk in front of a north-facing window. I love sitting there on dull or rainy days, which of course in Ireland means most days, and writing away. On rare occasions when the sun shines I go outside as I like outdoor pursuits such as walking with Marie and fishing, even kayaking and golf. Sometimes I scribble a few notes or write a para or two on paper downstairs on the sofa or sitting on the bus going into town, but for anything sustained I have to use the PC. We’ve a holiday home on the south coast and I do some writing on a keyboard down there as well. Who knows, I might even invest in a laptop one of these days.

Has getting into poetry affected how you write or what you write (prose)?

Not really. Although there’s no doubt but that it’s eaten into my writing time. I’ve probably written fewer stories in the last couple of years than I might otherwise have, but on the other hand the quality of the stories I now write may have improved as a result of dabbling in poetry. Poetry does takes up writing time, it takes up writing energy, but I find that those are the only senses in which my main writing has been affected. It’s not like I’m moving away from fiction and am glad to say I’ve just started – well, two days ago – began a new short story and a proper little dark fantasy it is too that seems to be writing itself well, so far anyway.

You say the story is writing itself – how much work do you have to do once the iece is down on paper initially?

Depends on the piece. In the case of this new story it is pretty much writing itself in that the plot is straightforward and traditional with a beginning, middle and end. It demands to be told in a simple, linear fashion. When the first draft is done I’ll trim it back – I’m a great believer in throwing in everything, including the kitchen sink, at the first draft stage (on the basis that it’s easier to take stuff out than it is to put stuff in). I don’t think there’ll be much to do after that. Not with this story, anyway. But then, who knows? I may get someone to cast an eye on it for me and they may say, ‘you should start at the end and work your way back’. In that case I’ll grimace and thank them profusely! However I don’t believe that will happen with this story.

There are other times when a short story can be very convoluted, not linear at all, where structuring can be challenging and demanding. In those cases the initial drafts may only be the beginning with lots of re-writing called for. Usually, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a rule of thumb, the more drafts you have to go through the greater the possibility is that you’re not getting the words right, and the thing just isn’t working. In that scenario maybe it’s time to move on to the next project. I don’t mean you should abandon it altogether, but sometimes it’s best to let something stew for a while before going back to it. Happily though, this new story is of the get-it-down-on-the-page-quick variety.

How long does it take you from conception to finished work for a story in general?

Again, it varies from one story to another. There are no hard and fast rules. Sometimes a story arrives fully formed. On other occasions it starts out with just the germ of an idea. Very often writers who are starting out in their careers get an idea for a story and just write the idea. An American editor, whose name escapes me now, came up with an acronym for that type of short story: A.N.I.T.E. – A Nice Idea The End. Orson Scott Card in his book on writing science fiction says that when you get a Nice Idea don’t be happy. Take it to a higher level. Twist it for all that it’s worth. Make the most of it.

Too often at Albedo we get stories submitted to us that are A.N.I.T.E. They inariably get rejected because the writers just wrote the idea and failed to give it that extra shake, that extra twist, to get the most out of it. They allowed themselves to be satisfied too easily. I can think of several stories of mine that, initially, were Nice Ideas. But when I’m writing something new I always try to think of Card’s dictum – I think every writer should carve the words ‘don’t be happy’ on their desks or laptops! Sometimes it may take days, weeks, for that twist to suggest itself to you that brings the story up a notch. Other stories arrive complete, like that one I’m writing now, hopefully.

We’re approaching the end. Two more (trivial, fun) questions.

You’ve been convicted of murder (wrongly) and will be executed in the morning. What is your final meal?

A good hot chicken curry, so hot it would make my eyes water – as if I wouldn’t be crying already. And maybe a big bottle of cider and a pint glass full of ice to wash it all down. And followed by a big sundae with lots of strawberry sauce. And I almost forgot, a strong Irish coffee.

If you were an artist (musician, painter, actor, film directoretc.) in a discipline other than you currently operate, and you were going to be remembered for only one piece of work (a one-hit wonder), what would that piece (song, painting, movie) be? One single piece of existing ‘art’ by someone else.

That’s a hard one. I had the good fortune earlier this year to see Picasso’s Guernica in a gallery in Madrid. It’s a huge painting about seven metres long and about half that in height. Guernica is constantly being examined and x-rayed and re-examined by an array of cameras and scanning equipment because, apparently, Picasso hid a lot of details under the surface by painting over them. It’s extraordinary to see a painting take up almost an entire gallery wall and to witness the emotion it wrought in the faces of those looking at it. As a painting it’s childishly drawn, yet profound in what it says. It’s so simple yet full of symbolism. It says everything that needs to be said about war, greed and the world – the whole caboodle expressed on a canvas. I found it very moving, perhaps more so than any other art form I’ve ever seen. Now that, or its literary/cinematic equivalent, who wouldn’t give their right arm to produce something like that?

 

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Two out of two

I have mentioned before – here – that I am writing a novel at present. One of the side-effects is that everything seems to be giving me short story ideas. Normally this would be a good thing, but it’s really just my sub-conscious (lazy bastard doesn’t like the hard graft and lack of instant gratification of a 130,00 word story) trying to get some time off from the real work.

However, I have written two short stories this year, both for anthologies by editors that have bought previous stories who are exploring territory that I love to work in. So, a couple of days ago I got an acceptance for the second of these – Steampunk Cthulhu edited by Brian M. Sammons and Glynn Owen Barrass for Chaosium. They have bought my story Happy Birthday, Dear Cthulhu despite the fact that I misspelled Cthulhu all the way through my submission (doh!).

The TOC, in no particular order apparantly, is as follows:

The Blackwold Horror – Adam Bolivar  Carnacki – The Island of D. Munroe – William Meikle  The Promised Messiah – DJ Tyrer  The Strange Company – Peter Rawlik  Those Above – Jeffrey Thomas  The Reverend Mr. Goodworks and the Yeggs of Yigg – Ed Erdelac  Unfathomable – Christine Morgan  No Hand to Turn the Key – Carrie Cuinn  Pain Wears No Mask – John Goodrich  Before the Least of These Stars – Lee Clark Zumpe  Steel and Bones – Lois Gresh  Mr Brass and the City of Devils – Josh Reynolds  The Source – DL Snell  The Flower – Chris Geeson  The Baying of the Hounds – Leigh Kimmel  Tentacular Spectacular – Thana Niveau  Happy Birthday, Dear Cthulu – Robert Neilson

Honestly, I don’t mind being last on the list. I’m just glad to be there at all. Really, it’s okay. I like being last. It’s a superstition…

My subconscious is working on me again, saying I really should submit something to Atomic Age Cthulhu. Damn you, subconscious. Leave me alone.

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