I took part in a Words Ireland diversity and inclusion online meeting earlier in the week – well, more properly, the excellent speakers did, while I wrote long ranty questions in the chat margins 🙂 It was chaired by Chandrika Narayanan-Mohan and participants included the Trans Writers Union and Small Trans Library, Poetry Ireland, Skein Press, Melanie from Darshan Bold and Sasha de Buyl from Cuirt Literary Festival.
I was really impressed with the meeting. It included real, measurable and practical ways of opening up the arts world for people who find the gates shut against them – and to be honest this benefits everyone, not just the marginalised folk who are shut out. This is because there is a cultural richness in this art – I don’t want to use the colonial extractive language such as “untapped” – perhaps “overlooked” is a better term?
Engaging with this meeting, I felt for the first time in a long time like a participant in the arts community and a serious practitioner whose opinions were not mocked or pooh-poohed. I really enjoyed listening to the contributors and how they endeavoured, from both inside and on the edges of the business, to create safety, community and just practices while also working on their art. It was a candid and morale-boosting discussion and if you’re in a space to have a listen to something longer, I’d really recommend listening back – and then joining in the good fight! Closed captioning has now been added too.
To mark Black History Month in the UK, I am putting Lucia’s War free on Amazon Kindle for 5 days. Click on the picture above to download!
People might ask me why I would put it out there and incur no royalties. The reason is that at present I do not have a financial relationship with my writing life. I do not make my money from my books, though thankfully I do make enough. Lucia’s War is self-published, so it is harder for me to have that marketing push, simply because it’s time-consuming and involves having a lot of time, and the clout of a powerful and focused publishing company – which I am not 🙂
Also, it’s been a hard and demanding season at the moment and if I have the chance to spread a bit of joy, escape and hope (and some emotional roller coastering!) I really feel the urge to do so. Not to mention that this is a labour of pure love, densely researched, intensely and professionally edited, fully sensitivity-read and the cover designed professionally also. It is probably of a higher standard than some traditionally published historical fiction. The only thing I lack is the ability to get the word out. To have people reading, enjoying and reviewing my work will help immensely. So everyone wins.
Delighted to receive the Bulgarian paperback edition of White Feathers (entitled “Beli Pera”) in the post today. So exciting to see the book in a different language and a *very* different cover but it looks fantastic. Surprised that I don’t entirely dis-resemble the cover pic! This is my joy and I’m delighted to share it. Thanks to O’Brien Press, Literature Ireland and Aviana Publishing for making this possible. And a *special* thanks to Dobromira Kirova, the translator for this book!
Susan Lanigan, Launch of White Feathers, 27/8/2014
Today is the day after the night before. And I am still processing, as one does after a major life event.
Last night, in Dubray Bookshop in Grafton St, O’Brien Press gave White Feathers the send-off of a lifetime. To a packed ensemble (I’d been generous with the invitations and there was a great turnout!) Michael O’Brien, founder, gave a rousing speech where he pledged his support for the novel and expressed his belief in me as a writer. It’s a great feeling to have the support and interest from one’s publisher and the speech filled me with good cheer.
Then Arlene Hunt, crime novelist and Novel Fair judge, was the guest speaker. She hit the ball out the park – i.e. was magnificent. She talked about reading the initial partial when adjudicating the Novel Fair, then going to bed, then picking it…
Hello, a quick update on my earlier post about the Trans Writers’ Union petition to boycott the Irish Times until they stop endorsing conversation therapy of trans people and use more compassionate and respectful language when referring to same. It’s been moved here to avoid the abusive language used by TERFs on the previous page. It’s heartening to see so many genuine voices speaking up, and some quite close to the internal core of the Irish literary milieu.
(I signed it again. Sign early, and sign often :D)
I have mentioned the Trans Writers Union before in the context of their complaint to the Press Ombudsman regarding a review of a contentious book in the Independent. Then, I expressed concern that authors weren’t sufficiently speaking up against bad behaviour against trans people in the Irish media, promptly got TERF-swarmed, and locked my account until they got bored.
Anti-trans activists take great pains to paint themselves, to quote transgender poet Harry Josie Giles, as “the reasonable people”. They say they are parents who are concerned, women who want “women’s spaces”, that what they are asking for is not too much. That the “trans activists” – dehumanised into an entity known as the “twitter mob” for having the nerve to speak up – seek to deny them that. They are loud in British media, getting louder in Irish media, and are fite fuaite (interwoven) with the Irish literary world to such an extent that detachment would be painful and difficult.
But not impossible. The latest initiative by the Trans Writers Union is to boycott the Irish Times until they stop describing trans people in hateful and dehumanising terms. (I’ve read and signed. I’m in the unique position of having little to lose.) This is a request that strikes at the very heart of the literary world nexus and its tightly-knit power structure, which is centred around that paper*, so unsurprisingly, the central core of Irish writerhood is silent. But many people are breaking ranks, speaking up and signing.
Which is why it’s rather galling to note that several of these “reasonable” individuals previously mentioned have rocked up to the petition and signed transphobic slurs, deadnamed many prominent trans people, and made disgusting puns that would not be seen scribbled on the back of a schoolboy’s textbook. It’s like when psychologist Stella O’Malley, who is “gender critical, was all about “addressing concerns” about transitioning and then next thing she is retweeting white feather propaganda from WWI. (I’m agin that, incidentally, haha.)
One could well argue that “the reasonable people” are not showing themselves in a very flattering light here.
Unfortunately there is little the TWU can do until they alert the host to the problem, since the site does not appear to afford them a dashboard for approving comments. But perhaps what might be useful is if authors stopped worrying about whether they’ll wreck their careers if they go agin the Irish Times and its embedded media, spoke up and signed the bloody thing. Because it appears the paper has gone down the wrong road, and if this sort of behaviour is connected with its ethos…that’s not good.
*By natural process rather than detailed plotting, but centred, nonetheless. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say there are several nexi, since it’s a complicated system historically based on patronage, dynasty, loyalty and patriarchy.
I’ve been inactive on twitter for the last while. I just took the app off my phone 2 weeks ago and haven’t logged back in. I’ve spent that time cycling (a fair bit of that!), knitting, baking, writing and a fair bit of pottering about. I haven’t been promoting in a while either – I just found it too hard and exhausting to keep pushing my work.
Then last weekend, on a complete whim, I made Lucia’s War available for free on Kindle. I set the promotion from midnight Saturday to midnight Tuesday. Didn’t tweet, didn’t blog, didn’t Facebook. Didn’t tell anyone. Checked my dashboard a few times on Saturday night and Sunday morning and it was the usual small number. I forgot about it and we went to visit relatives. In the middle of the visit, I had a look at my phone and discovered to my considerable surprise that since that morning, I’d had 150 downloads. Throughout the afternoon the total continued to rise and rise. I updated family members as it increased – the eagerness to know on their part might not have been as much as mine, but still I was fascinated. Over that 24 hour period until Monday morning, I had 381 downloads, the vast majority being from the US.
To date, there are 500 free downloads – and counting.
What really surprised me was that all I did was drop the price to 0. No promotion, no services, nothing. By allowing generosity, I boosted my reader numbers. Who knows why it happened – could have been a longing on the part of an underserved readership, could have been luck, timing, whatever. Either way, it happened. And it forced me to realise that the rationale I had for using Twitter – that it helped me boost my sales – is, the data tell me, a pile of horse manure.
I’m looking forward to finding out what all these new readers will think of Lucia’s War. 🙂
Last week, while I was working from home, my mother texted me to thank me for the book I sent her. “It went all round the houses,” she said cheerfully, “but got there in the end.”
“Sorry, what book?” I responded.
She meant my latest novel, Lucia’s War. For a moment, I was confused. I had not sent her a copy, since she already had one. Then, a dark foreboding overcame me. I had recycled a post office padded envelope she had used to send me something else, earlier, sticking sheets of paper and sellotape over it to conceal her address. The post office staff must have found it nonetheless, and sent it on. That meant the package had failed to reach its original destination, the home of my old secondary school English and Latin teacher. I had sent it to him as a gift.
Sitting on the couch with my laptop, in the middle of workflows and logistics and software, I wondered if he were dead. He would not have been young – when he taught me, in the late Eighties, he was already past forty. I had last communicated with him six years ago, when my first novel, White Feathers, was published. Since then I had moved from Dublin to east Cork and life had moved on. I had not checked on any site or search engine before sending Lucia’s War on to him. I had not wanted to know.
A quick search on the main funeral website yielded nothing. My spirits lifted as I went back year by year and he remained undead – until I discovered I had the first name and surname reversed in the search fields. His name is extremely common in Ireland, so when I corrected my mistake, I added in county as well. And there it was. Just over a year ago. From the information supplied, there could be no doubt: the particulars of his job and life were unmistakeable. Predeceased by his wife fourteen years before. Died in hospice. My money is on cancer – he was one of the most incorrigible and prolific smokers I ever met. Between classes he used to retreat to his Ford Escort, close the door, and inhale industrial quantities of nicotine.
My instant reaction was to feel suddenly ungrounded, as if I were in a room which turned out to be a moving elevator and I had thought the floor fixed. As if everything I had written had become…orphaned. It is difficult to convey that jolt, what it is like. Not to mention that this was all happening in the middle of a strict lockdown which made the course of life relentless. Between my day job as a software developer, then defrosting meatballs and dealing with laundry (more backlogged than a post-Brexit lorry park in Kent) I couldn’t find an ounce of space to process my feelings.
Returning to the death announcement, I clicked a button marked Condolences. Many past pupils testified to his goodness as a man, his aptitude as a teacher. His initials had turned into a nickname which was affectionately invoked several times. Here, I shall call him Marcus, after Cicero and Marcus Aurelius. I know my purpose is to honour a dead man rather than defame a living one, yet still the urge for at least a fig leaf of privacy prevails.
I should add my own message, I thought – No, too soon. I had yet to absorb the reality of Marcus’s not reading it; that he would never read another word written by anyone. He could know nothing of Lucia’s War or Unfortunate Stars, a novella of mine self-published and just released in audiobook format. Listening to the part where soldiers on opposite sides of the trenches trade badinage in English, German and Latin, including De bello Gallico, would now be bittersweet to my ears. It would have pleased him to hear it. Placet mihi: it pleases me. Marcus had taught me the accusative infinitive and the ablative absolute. This latest construction, mine, would never reach him.
But that wasn’t the only reason I felt briefly self-estranged. Marcus was not just a mentor and a teacher. He was a muse for one of the major characters in my fictional universe.
More than ten years ago, when living in the airy first floor of a Victorian house in Dun Laoghaire and working on a miserable project for an insurance company, I sat down and started a new novel. This much I knew: the story would involve a white feather of cowardice, a very loaded object in WWI history. There would be pressure on my protagonist, Eva, to bestow one on a man who refused to enlist. The poet Rupert Brooke had long fascinated me: his beauty and premature death, his long, overwrought letters, and the Bohemian life he lived with his friends. My vision for Eva, second-generation Irish hoi polloi, was that she would somehow earn a place in the Grantchester clique, that she too would idle about naked with the Bedales girls, until the advent of war and thwarted love drove her to the ultimate shaming act – presenting the white feather to this Rupert Brooke figure in a fit of jealousy after he fell for someone else.
It didn’t work out that way.
This summer of love and jealousy had one catch: to hold her own, Eva would need a way into that society. So, I added a section where, against all odds, she receives a scholarship to attend a finishing school. There, she encounters a girl connected to those elite artistic circles. Then another hurdle: she would need enough confidence to discuss philosophy, literature and politics. Who would impart her the tools?
Out of my subconscious came her teacher, an almost carbon copy of Marcus: thin, irritable, dark-haired, hollow-cheeked, sallow, volatile, sardonic; handsome at base but unkempt in person, and (in the book only) the alleged owner of only two suits. In a pathetic attempt at differentiation, I gave this character green eyes, rather than Marcus’s flashing dark brown. But as the chapter progressed, id won out; they soon reverted to brown once more.
(The one feature I did not transmit from fact to fiction was Marcus’s left-handedness. That honour eventually went to Lucia, and came in useful for her too! While speaking about Lucia, who is a woman of colour making her way in a white empire nation, I should mention that when a group of us went to a schools debating competition, several members of the opposing team commented on Marcus’s dark good looks and enquired if he were a Spaniard. His features, in the one photo I have of him, are defiantly un-Caucasian, and that too made its way, eventually, into the canon.)
Now that this minor character was here, I would have to call him Mr Something. I gave him a last name, Shandlin. He hardly needed more, since he would only be in one scene, wouldn’t he? Oh yes, up till the point a few hundred words into his first appearance, where Eva takes her classmates to task over Edmund Spenser’s virulently anti-Irish sentiments. After they mock and scoff like Brexiteers-in-training, he consoles her with a grin, saying “Try to get out of here, if you can help it.”
That was supposed to be the cue to let me skip the rest of the school bit and move her on to the Rupert Brooke clique. Except that I was posting this excerpt to an online writing group. That sentence was near the bottom of the snippet. The other writers in the group immediately warmed to this Shandlin character whose role was going to be vanishingly minor…oh, who was I kidding? Neither Eva nor I was ready to get out of there quite yet.
The entire narrative turned sharp left. Gone was Rupert, except embodied in a minor antagonist; gone, too, the house in Grantchester, the long hot summer, the jealousies of that artistic coterie. I gave Shandlin, my new hero, a name I had wanted to reserve for another character: Christopher. Here, now, was someone Eva could connect with, fall in love with and be loved by. A hero who seemed to enhance himself in each scene. This raised the stakes. It is one thing to give a white feather to someone you resent out of spite because he prefers someone else. It is quite another to be forced to do that to someone you love, who loves you in return.
Now, I was down off the lofty platform and in the field of battle, writing romance. Writing with urgency and obsession. Even as I planned the lovers’ trajectory, my heart still jumped a little every time I re-did a particular scene, though I had already written its outcome. My hands could not type fast enough.
Why use Marcus as my model for a hero, though? By the time the novel had coalesced into its published form, I was past thirty-five, old enough to have at least a few Augenblicke available I could draw from. In the last twenty years, I had seen Marcus once, and as for the situation where we first met, that was as far from romantic as one could get. I was fourteen then fifteen, in a Catholic girls’ boarding school, stocked with daughters of cattle dealers, TDs, doctors, lawyers and hotel magnates. Marcus was happily married, at least twenty-five years older, and never, I must emphasise, behaved with any impropriety. Perhaps it was simply that he was the first male figure outside family to provide me with a fierce intellectual engagement.
Because I was moved up a year and still enjoyed Latin after everyone else had abandoned it, I took solo classes with him in that subject. The inevitable teasing ensued. The atmosphere in the school was generally hot-housy and odd. Like Eva in the book, I had to deal with some bullying. Not entirely surprising, as I am not by nature a fitter-inner. My greasy, lank hair never came to life in those lukewarm showers, and it took me a while to master the act of taking a menstrual product out of a drawer adeptly enough to avoid being observed. It was truly the place of hothoused fetor and mandatorily invisible periods. To this day, I am still a dab hand at removing a bra while keeping my top on, a skill which is these days largely useless to me.
Recalling the solo classes, I recall also that slit of a room where these Latin lessons happened: an afterthought, barely more than a metre wide, the walls painted a dull cream. Used mostly for watching Neighbours and Home and Away, or hosting the weekly tuck-shop, it was a poor choice for an impromptu classroom, but there was nowhere else to go. At one end, a sashed window and mounted television with a tiny table for the remote, at the other a door with glass panelling looking out onto a long corridor with lino tiles. The aesthetic could be best described as McQuaid Redbrick & Magnolia.
The room was stuffy and airless. Both walls were lined with foam-cushioned chairs, their rubbery maroon covers cracked and worn. Their presence made the space even narrower, so that Marcus and I could not pass each other in an appropriate manner. (We tacitly both avoided such a situation.) The corridor continued past the staff room down the stairs to a long refectory. The odours of cigarette and pipe smoke from the staff room, and dinner smells from below, permeated the place.
In that small, unprepossessing chamber, seated diagonally across from each other, Marcus and I would go through the Aeneid. I remember almost none of the experience of reading the Latin, except finding out that “circumspexit” was one of the rare line-endings that was a spondee. But I do remember the grammatical tropes: the subjunctive, the gerund – “requiring to be written”. Mirabile dictu. Horribile visu. The locative case that so implausibly stumped the elite students in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. All these are like prayer chants to me now, as I invoke, and yet again invoke, the memory of a muse, as if saying them often enough could reanimate his corpse.
His red-inked comments on my essays are also worth recalling: to my sentimental “I imagine my parents growing senescent and degenerate” he responded “sequitur?” and on another page, presumably on discovering some logical fallacy, he wrote “By avoiding Charybdis, you have fallen into Scylla.” He had got them the wrong way around: Scylla is the monster, Charybdis the whirlpool. On page 185 of White Feathers, with Eva pitched into a horrible dilemma, I corrected his mistake, still fresh in my mind decades later. Christopher exclaims, “It’s like dodging Scylla by throwing oneself into Charybdis!” I am sure this ongoing dialogue between author and muse has a critical name, but damned, alas, if I know what it is.
Anyway, Marcus, like his counterpart, had a temper and was often impatient. More than once I saw him stride angrily out of our prefab classes when students were too disruptive, his feet on the gravel going crunch, crunch. I remember his arms would swing back and forth as he walked; he looked like an angry clockwork figure who had been wound up too much. One student’s obduracy annoyed him so much that he shouted “Stulta!” (ignorant girl), picked up a chair and waved it at her threateningly; she quit his classes soon afterwards, though I believe they reconciled somewhat. His mind was like quicksilver, a powerful element and not easy to regulate.
I left that school at fifteen, largely because I was miserable. Marcus and I did exchange a few letters straight afterwards, one of which I sent without a stamp, much to his amusement. I told him I was reading the letters of Evelyn Waugh, a writer Marcus made clear in his replies he had zero time for. We discussed Yeats and he sternly quoted “Irish poets learn your trade” (underlining his.) But then years, decades went by, and we mostly lost touch.
To answer the “why him?” question – well, I think it was his weirdness, and how I resonated with that since I was a bit weird myself. At any rate, somewhere deep in my subconscious mind, his details were filed away, waiting for the moment to be instantly recalled. After his transmutation into White Feathers, the online writers’ group was inflicted with snippet after snippet. At the point where I finished my snippet and somebody said, “Could you put up another one? My day just doesn’t feel the same without them” I realised publication was a strong possibility.
Eventually the deal did get signed, and a little while after I handed in the final proofs nine months later, I wrote to Marcus. The letter did not begin, “hey I put you in the book and turned you into a love interest” – I was not brave enough. To tell the truth, I can’t recall what I wrote, but it was probably a bit arch and coy, with vague warnings attached. Receiving no immediate answer after publication, I comforted myself with the likelihood that he would never encounter the book.
And he might not have done, if it had not been for an event two months later, in November 2014. My book got a review in the most prominent national newspaper. Marcus saw my photograph; following that he read the review, headed down to his local bookshop, and bought it.
Shortly after the review came out, I went off to England to visit friends and promote the book. This trip included a visit to Eastbourne where I retraced Eva’s steps, and found the very site of the real-life Links school upon which my fictional counterpart was based. Later that month, as I was in an airport for the second last time in my life, a notification popped up on my phone. It was an e-mail from Marcus, subject: “reply to your letter”.
Ohhhhhhh shit. He’s read the book. He’s angry. He’s going to sue. (I had been faithful to the original!) I texted my friends in a panic. “I can’t open it!” I declared. “Go on,” one of them replied. “Don’t be a coward.”
So I opened it, read the first few sentences, and breathed.
His email explained how he’d come across White Feathers, and then said how much he had enjoyed the story. “Why? It would be bad manners to explain!” Oh, Marcus. In that poky departure lounge in Leeds airport, I breathed out with relief. Not only was he not going to sue, he was flattered and pleased. He wanted to read the next one, he said. Incredibly, I was forgiven for my exploitative act. They never mind if they’re the hero, that was what I learned.
He did not need me to tell him how much he was esteemed and admired, nor did he die ignorant of how he affected my life. He read the book. He knew.
I have never publicly written about this before. Feeling lucky that he’d been so understanding, I wanted to protect his privacy. I also felt a reluctance to reveal anything so autobiographical. I remember being on a visit to Donegal and the convenor of the event I was at had a list of questions for me. One of them was “Where does Christopher come from?” and I was not ready yet to answer her honestly.
Shortly after I discovered that Marcus had passed away, I messaged a friend of mine, an artist and musician, trying to find context for how strange I felt. She expressed sympathy and added that on a soul level, “this teacher/muse will still be reading/evoking your work.” I smiled and thought, yes, you understand. Her words tie in nicely with a podcast episode I listened to recently featuring Fr Richard Rohr talking about the Universal Christ in deep time, which sits below chronological time. I am not denying the laws of entropy, but I do wonder if some things can be intuitively grasped that don’t make sense on a level of conventional reasoning. It feels uncanny that I learned – from his obituary – that when I moved to Cork county, I returned to live in the very town he grew up in as a boy. Death and birth, end and beginning. It feels very circular.
Whatever about these esoteric musings, what remains is that Marcus inspired one of my most enduring characters and was a worthy model. He wrote in my last report before I left the school, “She will be missed”. I would like to return the sentiment. I miss you, Marcus. I hope my friend is right and that phrase I hear whispered on the wind is you murmuring: non omnis moriar. I do not altogether die. Exegi Monumentum aere perennius… You have fashioned a monument more enduring than bronze. Rest well, Marcus.
I meant to make this blog entry on June 5th, which was the date a year ago today that Lucia’s War made its entry into a turbulent world. Mary Anne Yarde of the Coffee Pot Book Club made a wonderful observation about Lucia – that she was a character who “dared to present herself to a world not ready for her” and it felt as if that was still the case at the launch!
I want to thank everyone who has supported this book on its journey and those who have reviewed it and spread the word. Strange to think of that Zoom launch at a time when we were all virtually confined to our homes. Strange also to think of a historical novel featuring a Black woman battling a racist order coming out when poor George Floyd was not yet cold in his grave. It was surely a strange, hard time. But then again, so was 1917-18.
It has not been easy for me to have time to write lately. I work full-time and have family and political commitments. But I want to share what I already have with you kind people. To that end, I am going to have a worldwide giveaway of four sets of my complete works:
A paperback copy of White Feathers
A paperback copy of Lucia’s War
A giveaway code for the audiobook of Unfortunate Stars.
I will put up the giveaway posts on my twitter and Facebook shortly, so keep an eye out 🙂
I have to remind myself that whatever it might feel like, I’m past the worst of it.
The Arts Council just declined my third application for a literary bursary. Yet, the previous year they awarded a (second) bursary to the critic-turned-author who used a national platform to express egregiously scathing opinions of my debut novel. This money was to help her pursue writing hers, which I must emphasise she had the absolute right to apply for and spend as needed.
I would have liked a little cushion to pursue my writing, which is stalling because of demands on my time.
Yes, I feel grief and sadness at the disparity. That choosing of one person coupled with the rejecting of the other. Of losing trust in the state arts bodies altogether because I cannot trust their criteria. At the same time, I cannot deny the reality that many deserving people whom I know and respect have finally received the support and acknowledgement that they deserved all along. I am not bitter about that, or even about the original award mentioned previously. It’s not about the money. It’s about acknowledgement, and it hurts. It hurts even more when people come into my messages and mentions and tell me I’m not to talk about it.
I am a serious artist. I have two published novels, the first shortlisted for a major award in the UK, the second warmly reviewed by the Historical Novel Society, the Yorkshire Times and Books Ireland. I’ve been shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing Award *three times* and published in The Stinging Fly once, though my story does not appear in any anthologies (clue: check out who edited the latest anthology. Refusing to take the high road was not something *I* started.) I’ve had my work censored (!) just like O’Brien and Joyce, though I’m not going to compare myself with them as a writer.
I have so much more to say and express. I have a novel in progress that integrates my political and writing life, which I intend to traditionally publish, a story out in submission that is fierce activism and that I know will get published eventually, as well as an essay on my mentor-muse who inspired so much of White Feathers. I will have to push on without help, but that’s ok. So many other of my peers have had to do the same, so while it’s a complicated grief, it will eventually blow over as I return to the page again. And I have built such a wonderful community around others who do similar all the time, without hoopla or sufficient acknowledgement. I am not friendless.
I would like to thank Alan Hayes of Arlen House for including me in his essay in the forthcoming anthology Oh Look, It’s a Woman Writer! He also acknowledges the wonderful Rose Servitova who has quietly and without fuss built a niche for herself in the writing world taking up the baton where Jane Austen left off.
I’m past the worst of it. I won’t be relying on the scene any more so I won’t be disappointed. I’ll get there eventually, with the grace of God at my back to help me 🙂