2016 is being hailed as a brutal year for so many reasons, and for me personally it was also very mixed. My first book was published making a life-long dream come true. But sadly my lovely mum died on the publication day of the book about her. Daughter, Mother, Me: a memoir of love, loss and dirty dishes follows my story of being caught in as tsunami of care, after my mum had a stroke just four days after my third baby was born, and became a bestseller.
The year ends however, with the excitement of the paperback coming out on January 5th. Dressed with a new name – The Sandwich Years – and a new cover, it also contains an additional Afterward, which brings the story to conclusion. I am so thrilled to be doing lots publicity over the next few weeks, and really delighted to be appearing on BBC’s magnificent Women’s Hour, being interviewed by the fabulous Jenny Murray (can you tell I’m a huge fan of her and the show!). All being well with my red-eye flight in the morning, I’ll be sitting in the London studio feeling like a freaky fan. I listen to Women’s Hour podcasts when I go running so how fun to be able to listen to myself next time I am struggling up the hill!
The year has been filled with lots of magical writing experiences. From the thrill of having a book published, to the fear of starting again with a blank page: to retreating to wonderful havens for creative concentrate in Casa Ana in Spain, and Tyrone Guthrie in Monaghan, to meeting some wonderful writers; to giving talks on writing at the Dalkey Creates festival to learning from the best at a Niall William’s workshop and hearing Emma Donoghue speak; from playing with an idea like a rubix cube until all the pieces slot into place to finding the voice that has set my fingers tapping; from writing lots of new avenues to reading lots of amazing books (post to follow on my best reads of 2016) it has been a wicked writing year.
And as we all know, when the world gets crazy and frightening, there is nothing more comforting than the whisper of pages turning. Happy reading and happy writing.
Some books grab us with plot, while others seduce us with connection, littered with words that seep through our skin and into our minds where they nestle for a while. We are changed by them.
Niall William’s books are like that.I remember reading Four Letters of Love, and when I quietly closed the back cover over it’s read pages, something was different in me. I had been moved.More of his books did the same – As it Was in Heaven, and recently the Man Booker Prize longlist novel History of the Rain. When I finished this last book, I was so moved by the words, that I sought out the author’s email address and wrote to him. Having never done this before, I didn’t have a fan-mail formula. Instead I took his inspiring words and wrote my inspired words and before I knew it, I’d poured my literary heart out.Graciously he replied, told me to keep writing, and mentioned a workshop he was running. It took two years and three attempts before I finally drove over the ‘mohicaned lane’ in Kiltumper in Clare (he once described an Irish road in one of his books as having a green mohican hair style running up the middle and it wasn’t until I saw his road with a central line of grass that I realised how perfectly apt it was) and into the driveway of Niall William’s house. The kitchen is warmed by a smell-drenched Aga and Christine, Niall’s author wife, her smile and her cooking as enchanting as the books that have been written at the kitchen table.
glasses were clinked as a scraggy crew of writers gathered in the warmth. I know enough about intense writing retreats and workshops that despite not being able to remember anyones name that first night, we would all become close by the end of the weekend.
We had been warned that Niall liked to start on time, so when I and a wonderful American woman who had flown over especially to attend the workshop were cavorting over every imaginable hill and turn in search of the little school we were looking for, it seemed we might be late. Our AirB&B was worth the drive though… I could write a post about it alone –but if anyone wants a glorious place to write (or party) check out The Safe House.
We got there eventually, and twelve of us crammed into a classroom, semi-circled around Niall who spoke in a voice like his books, soft and strong.
He started by telling us we were all going to write rubbish.Sure doesn’t everyone? So anything we wrote over the next two days was not going to be the standard we knew we could write as we’d be writing under pressure and out of context so to let go of our egos and just write. It was such a relief.
Then he began to wind his words of well-lived wisdom around themes such as character, scene, dialogue, interaction. I have read so many books and attended many a class, but never have I been taken so deeply, yet so simply into these subjects.To learn from someone who has agonised over words, has let an idea take root and then grow it with exquisite dedication of every action, every word nuanced to move the story and depth of connection along, has felt the pressure of perfection and written anyway, has learned from the business of books, should be a goal of every writer.
What was a really interesting technique was for us to read our pieces and then for Niall to ask the others what they learned from them, teaching us how much we write in our heads and don’t explain / reveal to the listener.Sure I could see her perfectly in my head…. but the reader didn’t unless I actually described her. Realising how much someone gleans from reading your work, is an amazing way to understand what you need to put in.He also, of course, taught us what to take out… how many times, and in how many ways are we saying the same thing? As the weekend progressed, it was obvious how much we all improved in just 48 hours.As is the case with many of these things, your group of fellow writers plays a huge part of the experience. We were as disparate as we were desperate for a glass of wine after the first day.Spanning several countries, ages and backgrounds, it’s like chicken soup for the soul (or should I say, a Dickens description for the reader) for a writer to be surrounded by other writers. It can be such a lonely business, that writing, listening, reading, and discussing how words work with others is uplifting.
Each lunchtime we congregated round Christine and the Aga again, and although only two short days had past, long literary lessons were learned that won’t be forgotten by any of those who took part.I can honestly say, that I am a better writer as a result of this workshop, and a better reader.Niall is a tough teacher, led with gritty determination, softened by generosity and love of language. The remote beauty of the Clare countryside and soul-nourishing meals were just a bonus.
What a year! In February, my first book, Daughter, Mother, Me; a memoir of love, loss and dirty dishes, was published. That in itself was such a dream, that I still can feel the thrill in my belly when I walked into the shop for the first time and saw it sitting on the shelf. Growing up, many of my friends dreamt of their names in lights, but I only ever dreamt of my name on the front cover of a book. It sort of happened by accident. I had submitted a novel to publisher and they loved my writing but noticed a blog I had been writing for years about my sandwich years, trapped in a tsunami of care looking after my mum and my children.
I was offered a book deal, and four frantic months of writing followed where I learned more about myself and writing than I ever thought possible.I often wonder if I hadn’t run a marathon the year before, would I have known that if you just keep going, even when you’re in pain, and crying and hate everything and eat three tonnes of chocolate that you’ll get there eventually and the pain will all be worth it? I’ve written before about the pleasure of working with editors and the thrill of watching a draft turn into a manuscript, but watching my words become a book was incredible.
Amid publicity, writing for newspapers, interviews on TV and radio, the book went onto the best seller list and my little girl self beamed in happiness as my little girl daughters ran into every book shop we passed and pointed out my book (and on more than one occasion moved it to the front shelf. Sorry Easons.)
It has now been translated into Czech and is being launched there shortly. The paperback version of my book is coming out in January – with a new title The Sandwich Years, with an added chapter.My lovely mum died on the publication date of the book that was about her, and so I have added an Afterward to bring the story up to date and bring my sandwich years to a final close.
So it was doubly thrilling when two packages arrived the other day with my new books, new version of the old, but the same thrill.
It has been such an adventure, and it keeps going. In the meantime, I have bought another three tons of chocolate as I work on another, and there are tears and pain, but so many thrills.