6th November 2018

Today is the day of the US midterm elections. These are probably the most important elections in the voters’ lifetime. They matter here too. I have the strange feeling that with this tremendous event, and then the Armistice anniversary, we are entering a “thin space” where the gap between humanity and the numinous world is not so vast, and where we get a steer on the wheel of Fate, some great guidance or warning.

I wrote a little historical story a year ago which I would encourage people to read, share and enjoy on this day. It is relevant to current events, and has a little twist which I think will amuse, and perhaps bring some hope.

What is Written, is Written

 

#WhyImVotingYes – Writing A Woman’s Choice

repeal

In Ireland, we are due to vote on Friday on whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. This piece of text was introduced in 1983 by secretive, right-wing, Catholic pressure groups who exerted all the leverage they could on the government and the people in an attempt to copperfasten the Constitution against any attempts to introduce termination of pregnancy. In the decades since, this unnecessary clause has caused women’s deaths, not to mention untold misery to thousands, while the very act it is trying to ban is merely exported.

So many women have testified here about the damage the Eighth has done. As a citizen, a woman, and a person of conscience, I can only vote Yes to repealing it. A wonderful community has galvanised around our cause. We have Together for Yes, Doctors For Yes, Lawyers for Choice, Psychologists for Yes, Men for Yes, and now Farmers For Yes bringing up the cavalry. (Thanks Lorna. Anyone Irish and on the fence about their vote, check out her post!) For my part, I want to talk about my experience writing abortion in my work.

Writing Women’s Choices

In 2014, I had a novel published which did something then unusual in Irish literature: it contained a storyline where a character under extreme duress seeks an abortion, then undergoes it, and continues with her life without major regret. Up till very recently, this was quite rare; the only other case I could think of was Maeve Binchy’s Light a Penny Candle (supremely ironic, given her brother, a law professor, is one of the founding members and leading lights of the anti-choice movement in Ireland!) To my mind, Binchy handles the scene between Elizabeth, who is procuring an illegal abortion, and Aisling, who in spite of her disapproval offers her support, with nuance and thought. There was wistfulness on Elizabeth’s part, rather than sentimentality; she does not doubt her decision, but sometimes thinks about what would have happened if her partner had been more supportive.

In White Feathers, the abortion takes place during wartime England in 1915. I was going to say that laws there were much harsher than the present, but actually…not in Ireland. The legislation that affected Eva and Lucia would have been Section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. Having an abortion, or procuring one, could be punished with life imprisonment. This statute was not repealed in Ireland until May 2013, when a ramshackle Act was passed through – ramshackle because the root of the poisonous tree, the Eighth Amendment, was still in place. It was like putting a dressing on an infected wound.

The same law, 100 years on

I got my offer of publication on August 4, 2013. I had submitted my last unassisted draft in April of that year. From the very start of writing the novel to the day I hit “send” on the last draft to my agent, the provisions of the 1861 act on abortion were still law in Ireland. Both then and now, Eva and Lucia would have broken the law – and both would be liable to heavy sentences, heavier than rape. I think it really says something when I’m writing a novel set 100 years in the past and we were still stuck under the same law! Historical fiction is meant to be historical, lads. The clue is in the name.

When I got my notes back from the editor, she and I worked very hard on those scenes, to get the right amount of nuance and conflicting emotions. To establish, in a nutshell, that such an experience, being so physically difficult, was not nothing, but did not have to cast a shadow over everything else either. That the girl in my story very much wanted an abortion and did not, on balance, regret it. I also found it hard to write the part where she had to confide in someone she loved and valued. I had to run through his reaction in my mind, balancing the need to not be burdened with judgement with the requirement to be true to the customs and worldview of wartime England in the early twentieth century. Which would have viewed abortion as quite shocking.

Reaction

I did not receive much post-publication feedback on that particular storyline, though I suspect it might have “marked my card” behind the scenes. A few friends told me that they appreciated the sensitivity and even-handedness of it. One powerful medium obliquely rebuked me for it, chiding me for allowing the character a jocular thought about being pregnant “after all she has been through”. The idea that she might not be haunted day and night, that she might have felt like a prisoner while pregnant, that she have been able to look back on the whole episode with wry relief and even joke about it – this was obviously still not an acceptable viewpoint to hold in Irish literature, even three and a half years ago, never mind back in the good old days. I still had to pay a penalty for putting it out there, earning a harsher dressing down than many of my colleagues lauching their debuts.

However on balance – I wouldn’t change a word. Not one word. I’m proud of that storyline and glad I wrote it. And I hope that come Friday, the conditions that surrounded the characters in a historical novel…will be relegated to history in Ireland, for once and for all.

This One Didn’t Make It Into the Stinging Fly Anthology

 I do not generally consider myself a blind man, rather one with full sensory function who is hampered by living in an invisible universe which keeps banging into him and reminding him of its irritating reality as he goes about his day to day life.

– “Sight Reading”

I just learned – through the time honoured method of “faffing mindlessly on my phone” – that yesterday marked the launch of the Stinging Fly Stories anthology. I recognise and enjoy many of the writers on the list. I like The Stinging Fly a lot. It’s an engaging magazine, plus they sent me the funniest rejection ever of my career thanks to Declan Meade. I can’t recall exactly it but a precis: with one murder, one possible rape, a dangerous operation and (something else I can’t recall) the short story might just be a bit, well, busy. Probably a good idea to pivot to being a novelist 🙂

Before that occasion, they accepted a story of mine in 2003. This did not make it into the anthology. (Don’t ask me why I think that is: I would give a clear, definitive but possibly unfair answer. Let’s just go with the usual response that “there are many wonderful stories out there and it’s hard to whittle it down.” SMDH.)

Anyway, this coming to my attention made me dig up the story, and do you know what, it holds up well. Some technological lagging, but I’m pleasantly surprised that one of my juvenilia is of this standard. If nothing else, I’m glad of the chance to reacquaint myself with “Sight Reading”. In honour of the twentieth anniversary of The Stinging Fly, I’m proud to republish it here.

On Being An Opinionated Novelist

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Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I’ve often wondered how appropriate it is for a writer to share opinions on issues unrelated to their work. Particularly ones of a political nature. Specifically I wonder if I share too readily and express my opinion too often. Recent crises, particularly Brexit but not limited to that sequence of events, have brought this thought to my mind.

Continue reading “On Being An Opinionated Novelist”

Wexford Literary Festival

I’ve just had a wonderful Friday night and Saturday down in Enniscorthy at the Wexford Literary Festival, at the invitation of its organiser, novelist Carmel Harrington. I can heartily recommend it for aspiring and working authors. I came down on the Friday by train and stayed in the most wonderful, peaceful guesthouse a short distance from the station, which had the deepest carpets I’d ever had the pleasure of sinking my feet into. If you’re hiking or holidaying or festivalling in the area, I can strongly recommend the Anam Cara Guesthouse for both luxury accommodation at a reasonable price and a lovely hostess for whom nothing was too much trouble!

It was particularly nice because I knew it would be a safe place for me – which after previous experiences (protected post) was a crucially important consideration. All the novelists coming along were people I already knew, or had the pleasure of getting to know, and who wrote genre and not literary fiction. There was no secret door being opened for them, no backslapping or old-boy support, just sheer hard work on their part. Hardworking, successful novelists of every genre who distilled their information into some great panel discussions on the publishing industry (traditional and self), YA, crime and the particular issues faced by debut authors. I was “off duty” and as a member of the audience paid attention to all the points made and learned a lot about all the genres. The panels were well structured, with the moderators always taking care to seek contributions from the other members (No names, but this does not always happen on literary festival panels, as I’ve witnessed!) And it was fun. And there were biscuits!

I can’t possibly name everyone because I will end up leaving somebody out and putting my foot in it, but I had a wonderful time meeting everyone and just relaxing in a supportive and stimulating atmosphere. Well done Carmel for putting such a great package together – something this well run takes work, as I know. I can’t wait to see all you guys again next year!

Launch of To Shape The Dark 1st May

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Hello all, here is where I make a foray into the world of science fiction! Pleased to announce that To Shape The Dark, an anthology of feminist science fiction compiled and edited by Athena Andreadis and featuring my Chekhovesque (well I can only hope!) story “Ward 7”, is being welcomed to the world on 1st May.

It’s already been very warmly reviewed by Analog SF and given its predecessor, The Other Half of the Sky, has done very well, I’d love to create awareness of it in Ireland. If any sci-fi periodicals or book bloggers of any genre (particularly those I’ve interacted with before) would be interested in reviewing the anthology, please drop me a line via the contact form and I will pass your enquiry on.

Many thanks – and if you are interested in having a read yourself, it’s on Goodreads too.