Paul Carson is a medical doctor and international bestselling author living in south Dublin. His first thriller, Scalpel was an Irish Times Number 1 Bestseller. His other books include Cold Steel, Final Duty, Ambush and Betrayal. He has also written a plethora of articles for medical journals, magazines and newspapers. In this exclusive guest article for Eason, Paul talks about his latest medical thriller ‘Inquest’.
It’s good to be back. It is close on nine years since my last novel Betrayal was published and almost sixteen years since my first novel Scalpel (Irish Times Number 1 Bestseller for 17 consecutive weeks and a total of 33 consecutive weeks in the top 5) was released.
What happened to stop the flow? Ill health mainly (let’s not talk about that now) but also the struggle to bring Dr Mike Wilson, Dublin City Coroner, to life through the pages of my new book Inquest. Wilson is a stubborn Northerner with a troubled past (and no, there are no similarities between him and me). He’s the newly installed Dublin City Coroner (more on that office below) and a right pain-in-the-arse for the Gardaí. He doesn’t trust their handling of a suspicious death and sets out to prove why.
And that’s where this writer’s crisis first surfaced. The coroner only deals with death and some are so raw that writing about them raises emotional responses, often irrational. The suspicious death in Inquest is a suicide, which is a very sensitive issue in this (and other countries). Could I handle it with sympathy or was I prepared to walk over a lot graves just to create a thriller? Considering how close I came to an early grave with my battle with leukaemia the latter wasn’t an option.
I did struggle to create an exciting story line (to satisfy the thriller reader’s appetite) but at the same time not offend. Time will tell if I succeeded. But it took many, many drafts to get the final version right. And as I was taking the reader to the climax, in the book I wrote of the coroner’s court ‘listening with bated breath’ as the truth unfolded. This is pretty much how I felt when writing that scene. It’s chilling, it’s graphic and it’s dramatic. It’s Love/Hate multiplied by ten. It scared me and it’ll scare the hell out of readers. Too close to the bone? Too true to be considered fiction? No.
Inquest is based on events in and around the collapse of the Irish economy and the final days of the Celtic Tiger. I drew on first-hand accounts of what happened around that time, how the upheaval impacted on everyday folk and how the big players behaved. Many of the real inquests I listened to doing research were the direct result of that crisis. So, in truth, I didn’t have to create too much, it was all there just waiting to be plumbed. Like the ghosts in the Dublin City Coroner’s Court, that tale was waiting to be told.
And two friends helped bring the final MSS to Random House: Simon Hess and Declan Heeney. Thanks lads.
The Dublin City Coroner and his office
The Dublin City Coroner’s Court is a three storey red bricked Victorian complex close to the river Liffey in Dublin’s north inner city. Facing the building to the left is a deserted building site where the (now demolished) City Morgue once stood. It was a national treasure (if a morgue could ever be described a treasure) with white tiled floors and walls, wire strengthened glass ceiling flooding three autopsy tables with natural light. In one corner was a bricked up fireplace so that post mortems could be conducted even in the coldest winter days. The doors creaked, draughts whistled and moaned through cracks in the masonry. It was a real spooky place. On my website paulcarson.ie there’s a detailed account with photos of my visit to the facility before it was knocked down.
The scratched front door of the Coroner’s Court office is dark blue, the entrance porchway tiled. Since completing Inquest significant renovations have been completed and much of the internal layout changed forever. In the book I’ve dubbed the court ‘the chamber of ghosts’and it’s hard not to feel the presence of the dead when sitting through inquests. While none of the inquiries mentioned are real, equally they could have been taken from any of the files opened daily. The issues recur with a depressing regularity. Drug addiction and consequences. Alcoholism and how it finally takes its toll. Suicide triggered by the economic crash. Depression. Anxiety. Stress. Psychiatric illness. You’d need a heart of stone not to be moved. And while a vivid imagination is a big help sensing ghosts of the departed listening on is not an exaggeration. You can almost touch them.
The real Dublin City Coroner, Dr Brian Farrell (a lawyer as well as a pathologist) handles inquiries with sensitivity and sympathy. More often than not the deceased’s relatives are resigned and passive, nodding their heads as details of their loved one’s final hours are recounted. They’ve long since adjusted to the sudden loss, the inquest a delayed but necessary re-telling of the reasons behind the death. Occasionally they are animated and agitated and angry, usually when the death is in controversial circumstances and they believe someone is trying to evade responsibility for involvement. This is most dramatic when fatalities occur in police custody or prison. Then the tension, anger and hostility in the chamber can be close to riot status. On one occasion officers from an armed services unit gave evidence behind screens, their identities not disclosed for fear of retaliation (the inquiry related to the death of an armed robber, shot by the officers at the scene of the crime).
The Dublin City Coroner’s Court is one of the most important, yet least known facilities, in the capital. The coroner (unkindly referred to as ‘the man nobody wants to meet’ in an Irish Times article) has a remarkably low profile considering the position he holds.
I suspect he prefers this.
The Master of Horror, Darren Shan shares his views on babies (both Zom-b and otherwise) in this exclusive guest article for Eason.
As a horror writer, I often get asked what scares me most. I give different answers at different times — spiders, snakes, or some of the many other things that make me shiver. But up there near the top of the list, at this moment in time, I would have to add… babies!
I’ve come to a dangerous point in my life, where Mrs Shan is getting broody. For the last few years there has been a lot of talk of “trying for a kid.” In my dreams I sometimes hear the pitter-patter of tiny feet, and wake in a cold sweat.
It’s not that I don’t like children. On the contrary, I love kids, playing games with them, reading them stories, scaring them out of their wits. But a baby of my own is a game-changer.
I’ve been very lucky with my career. I’ve got to travel all round the world and dine out a lot. I go to lots of football matches, the theatre, the cinema. I have my work day perfectly worked out when I’m at home, a few hours of writing, a TV show when I’m having lunch, some more writing, a film in the afternoon when I’m eating dinner, then a nice long night of reading, watching TV and relaxing.
If Mrs Shan gets her way, and Shan Jnr makes his or her entry, all that will change. Chaos will be the order of the day. My world will revolve around nappies, feeding and cleaning, and trying to squeeze in a few hours of sleep when the little monster — sorry, when the cute little baby is dozing.
As someone who has been living a carefree, big boy’s life for the last fifteen or so years, that level or responsibility terrifies me. I mean, sure, I know I’ll love a baby if we have one, and that it will enrich my life in so many ways. I hope I’ll be a good parent, and there are loads of things about it that I’m looking forward to… such as kicking the kid out once it’s an adult, so that I can get my house back the way I want it!
But, yeah, it’s scary too. Good scary… but scary nonetheless.
There’s a saying that writing is always autobiographical, that every writer is using the medium of fiction to explore their day-to-day lives and make sense of the world as they perceive it. Some people disagree with that, but the older I get, the more inclined I am to accept it. As evidence, let’s look at my latest book — Zom-B Baby.
Without giving too much away, the book features a monstrous and eerie infant, one who generates mayhem that results in bloodshed and death. The baby is a diabolical and destructive figure, and after their encounter, my main character, B Smith, will never be the same again.
Is it a coincidence that such a book has come along at this stage of my life? Well, as long-time readers of my work will know, in the fictional worlds of Darren Shan, nothing happens by chance. Everything is linked. And I think the real world is usually a lot like that too.
Zom-B Baby is coming.
Be bloody petrified!
But be prepared to love it too, as I do. Because every baby is loveable in its own way, even a Baby as sinister and nightmarish as this one.
Darren Shan will be signing copies of his new book at:
Eason Patrick St Cork, Friday 27th September 4:30pm
Eason Dundrum, Saturday 28th September 2pm
Already a huge hit in the US, the New York Times best-selling Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore is a charming and lovable first novel of mysterious books and dusty bookshops. Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a San Francisco web-design drone and serendipity has landed him a new job working the night shift at the eponymous bookstore. After just a few days, Clay begins to realise that this store is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few customers, but they come in repeatedly and never seem to actually buy anything. Instead, they simply borrow impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store, all according to some elaborate, long-standing arrangement with the owner, Mr. Penumbra. The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he’s embarked on a complex analysis of the customers’ behaviour and roped his friends into helping to figure out just what’s going on…
Author Robin Sloan grew up near Detroit and has worked for various media companies, including Twitter. As he explains in the following exclusive blog, it was actually a tweet that first gave him the idea for the book:
I’m interested in the ways that novels begin — the ways that little seeds of story get planted and grow into rich, complicated narratives.
So, in that spirit, I’ll offer up the tale behind my own novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
Before it was a book from Atlantic, it was a short story, and even before it was a short story, it was merely a tweet. And not even my own!
In late 2008, my friend Rachel Leow tweeted: “Just misread ’24hr bookdrop’ as ’24hr bookshop’. The disappointment is beyond words.” I was walking down a sidewalk here in San Francisco when I saw it; it made me laugh; I copied the text into the notes app on my phone.
Just a few months later, I sat down at my desk to begin a new short story. I didn’t know what it was going to be about; I just knew I wanted to start something fresh. When I went rifling through my notes, I saw the tweet’s text again, and I wondered: why would a person run a 24-hour bookstore? What would it look like? And who would visit in the middle of the night? With that, I was off. The scene was set; the story began.
That was early 2009. I published the story on the internet just a few weeks later. It wasn’t the first one I would publish that year, but none of the others produced the same swift, sure reception. Somehow, this particular story’s voice and tone, its combination of subjects — new technology, old books – struck a chord out there in the world.
Now, I’ve worked at a couple of tech and media companies here in San Francisco, and in the process I have learned about the value of prototypes. I didn’t realise it in early 2009 but the Penumbra short story was just that: a prototype. A small-scale test of something potentially much larger. By the end of the year, it was clear: there was a deeper story waiting in this weird little shop. People wanted to read it, and – importantly – I wanted to write it.
So, in 2010, I began the work of writing a full-length novel: something I’d never done before. It took about a year to come up with a first draft; I fit my writing sessions into evenings, weekends, holidays. After that, there was editing to do, followed by the initial U.S. release in 2012. Now, finally, in the summer of 2013, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, the novel, is available in print in the U.K. and Ireland as well.
But I am still mindful of that tweet, way back in 2008. I am still amazed by the fact that the smallest scraps of language can blossom into whole books. And, above all, I am still taking notes. After all, who knows which one might grow into my next novel?
- Robin Sloan
I recently sat down to write my tenth novel. Ten novels in ten years. You would think it gets easier. You would think that your confidence would grow with each book. You would imagine that facing a blank screen is no longer daunting…you would be mistaken!
In the strangest way, each book becomes more difficult to write. Why? I think it’s because as a writer you want each book to be better. You strive to grow as a writer. You want to engage your reader. You want to grab their attention and keep it. You want them to turn the page and the next one and the next one…
Starting a new book can take a while. You often hear of writers, cleaning out their offices, clearing their desks, tidying their attics. We have so many avoidance techniques. The sight of a blank screen or blank page is just as daunting now as it was when I started my first book thirteen years ago.
My first two attempts at novels were turned down by everyone. But instead of letting it stop me in my tracks, I dusted my very bruised ego down and started a new book. I think it’s very important to keep writing. When I’m working, whether it’s on a novel or a column for the Irish Independent, I’m happy. I find I’m quite grumpy when I’m not working on something. I need writing; it’s like eating and drinking to me. I realise that may sound a bit ‘hippy-dippy’ but it’s how I feel.
I am happiest and calmest and most at peace when I’m in the middle of a book and consumed by my characters, my plotlines and my writing. There is no greater feeling than the one after a constructive writing day. But every high has a low and there is no worse feeling than the one after one of the days when the words just will not flow. Those days when writing is like dragging blood from a stone. You go to bed feeling depleted and despondent.
But…the good news is that often, you’ll wake up the next day and find the words will flow and you will once again be in your happy place. Writing, like all jobs involves a lot of hard graft. It’s not all creativity and inspiration, it’s a lot of hard work, focus and discipline.
My new book, Mad About You, deals with the theme of trust. How much do you really trust your partner? What would you think if your husband began to get sex texts from a strange number? When he protests his innocence and seems genuinely upset, would you believe him? Or would a seed of doubt be planted in your mind? Would that seed grow bigger and would it eventually destroy your relationship?
The idea for the book came to me when I called over to a friend’s house for coffee and her neighbour called in. She began to tell me the story of what had happened in her life when her husband had been stalked by a ‘stranger’. She said it had affected their marriage and as things got progressively worse and the stalking became more aggressive, that it affected her physically as well as emotionally. She ended up becoming completely paranoid and having panic attacks. They eventually found out who the stalker was. It turned out it was someone they knew but would never, in a million years, have suspected.
The couple in Mad About You, Emma and James, have been married for over ten years and have two children. Their marriage has become a bit stale. They take each other for granted and they’ve stopped making an effort with each other. Like so many marriages, when children come along, your relationship takes a backseat. Children can be all consuming and suddenly you find that weeks (and even months) have gone by during which you haven’t had a proper conversation. So when James begins getting sex texts from an unknown number, the trust in their marriage is tested to the limit.
Whenever I have a book that is about to be published I always want to run away and hide. A month in the Witness Protection Programme sounds like a good idea. Even though this is my 9th book to be published, the nerves never subside. I think they actually get worse.
But the book is finished, it’s printed and it’s about to go into the shops and so I have to set it free and just cross my fingers and hope for the best.
Evan Doyle and Biddy White Lennon have been lifelong fans of foraging and now they want to share their passion in their new book Wild Food. They have put together a fantastic guide to foraging which reveals the secrets of how to identify, pick, preserve and cook the most common wild foods that grow in our hedgerows and woodlands and on our hillsides and seashores. Packed with helpful tips and advice on gathering, preparing and cooking foraged foods, it’s ideal for both beginner and experienced foragers alike. This combined field guide and cookbook was inspired by the increasing interest in wild food and is the perfect introduction to foraging in Ireland today.
Here’s a sneak peek from the book detailing best practice for foragers and some delicious in season recipes! Plus, we’ve three copies of the book to give away! Just complete the competition form at the bottom of this post to enter the draw.
What are you waiting for? Get out and forage!
(Remember if any doubt as to identification, do not eat the wild food.)
Best Practice for Foraging
- DO leave at least a third of the blossom, flowers, berries, seed heads, nuts, leaves, seashore vegetables and seaweeds on the plant and cut, don’t pull.
- DON’T break branches to make gathering easier.
- DON’T pick or bring home fungi that are over mature.
- DON’T venture onto private land without permission.
- DON’T pick plants in conservation areas where there is a Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government notice that states you should not do so.
- DO take care where you park your car.
- DON’T block farm gates.
- DO close all farm gates after you.
- DO bring all your litter home.
- DON’T dig up wild plants.
WILD NETTLE AND POTATO SOUP
At the beginning of 2007, I was at death’s door. I had been diagnosed with Hepatitis C, Type 1, Subtype (a), along with cirrhosis of the liver. I was given a maximum of 18 months to live. My mind was completely gone, ravaged by alcoholism.
I would wake up on a Monday feeling that I didn’t want to drink and I didn’t want to die: I just wanted to live a normal human life. Then I’d wake up on a Tuesday and I wanted to drink myself to death, go out with a bang. I felt I was a useless human being and of no earthly good to anyone. Eventually, I made the decision to end my life.
Four failed suicide attempts later, I woke up in Beaumont Hospital and glanced around the unlit ward. Two beds up from me was a lady called Ginny, a member of the Travelling community. For some reason I poured my heart out to that woman, and she listened very intently to everything I had to say.
I was transferred from Beaumont to St Ita’s psychiatric hospital in Portrane. It was like hell on earth but as the days passed I began to have some clarity. I wanted to stop drinking. After I was discharged, I spent two weeks over Christmas in Cuan Mhuire’s alcohol rehabilitation centre in Athy.
After Cuan Mhuire, I began attending Alcoholics Anonymous. The fifth step of AA’s 12-step programme involves revealing to yourself, God and another human being the exact nature of all of your wrongs. I did my fifth step with a Jesuit priest, Fr. Jim Smyth. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done but I knew if I wanted to get better, I had to do it and I had to be honest.
After my fifth step, Fr. Jim asked me would I mind coming up to see him the following week for a chat. During our conversation, I happened to mention that I’d been in Portrane. Fr. Jim asked when I had been there. I told him. He told me that the only time he’d ever been to Portrane was in December 2007 – while I was there. He had met a Traveller lady in Beaumont who had asked him if he would go out to Portrane to give a young man a blessing.
My mind lit up: “I remember you! You were wearing a long black mac and you walked up to the foot of my bed and you were carrying something like a Sam Browne gun case, but inside it was a cross.”
Some four months after Fr. Jim’s visit, I went to see my liver specialist. As I walked into his surgery he spun around on his swivel chair and said, “Ah, the miracle man.” He told me that my liver bloods had completely normalised. He’d never seen anything like it in a Hep C patient. I said, “I want that in writing, doctor!” And he did give it to me in writing, on headed hospital paper.
Since I stopped drinking, on the 10th of December 2007, I have not done anything that would harm another person. I have tried to make amends to everyone I ever hurt. It is all I can do.
The message of my book, Disorganised Crime, is that no matter who you are or where you find yourself, there is a way out – and it is most certainly not at the end of a bed-sheet, a drug overdose or the slicing of your veins.
- Alan Croghan
What makes a crime novel really great? The ones that stay with you, the ones you come back to and the ones that stand head and shoulders above the rest. Critical to success is an engaging, clever, sometimes misguided, sometimes debonair main character. Whether it is Rebus, Wallander or Reacher, if you’re on the side of the ‘good’ guy you’re on the right track.
But what leads an author to create such epic heroes? Where does the inspiration come from? We asked award-winning author Mark O’Sullivan, who’s new to writing in crime fiction, how he went about creating his new Detective – Leo Woods.
Detective Inspector Leo Woods took quite a long time to get on my case. For me, at least, he’s been worth the wait. As the Flannery O’Connor short story title goes, ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ – as is a slightly dodgy one. Leo came to me by way of Michael Dibdin, Kate Atkinson and Ian Rankin: James L. Cain, David Goodis and Walter Mosely. Dark-humoured loners and sceptics, life-chastened but unbowed detectives. For years, I dreamt idly of creating my own DI or PD. Then, two events coincided. The Great Scandinavian Crime Wave reached our shores. And some ghosts reappeared from my past.
I’d learned my trade writing Young Adult novels among other things. By learning I don’t mean gaining knowledge or practising tricks. I mean learning instincts – and then learning to trust them. Such things as a sense of shape, proportion and structure in a narrative, a sense of momentum, the art of concealment, a sense of Greene’s ‘human factor’. To these I would add a willingness to follow Ruth Rendell’s suggestion that ‘the writer’s duty is to stay confused for as long as possible’ – easily done in my case. These same instincts apply to all narrative fiction and especially to Crime Fiction.
And so, to those coinciding events that led me to Leo Woods. The Scandinavians came in the form of TV adaptations of Wallander and ‘The Killing’. I was hooked from the start on the mood, the development of character, the cumulative power of the extended story-lines. I began to read crime fiction again after a long hiatus. DIs surfaced from my imagination, sidekicks tagged along. The trouble was I couldn’t actually see any of them, they held no reality for me, they were dimensionless. Then the ghosts came.
Through the years, I’ve known three people who contracted Bell’s Palsy, a potentially disfiguring condition. One of them was cured and never experienced a recurrence. The other two weren’t so lucky. Both suffered serious facial disfigurement but their ability to cope with the condition couldn’t have been more different. One got along with a mixture of dark humour, contrariness and a pugnacious refusal to tolerate pity or any hint of the touchy-feely. The other couldn’t get his life back together again – and lost it. Every hero needs at least two faces. These were Leo’s. I’d found my DI. I hope you enjoy meeting him for the first time as much as I did.
- Mark O’Sullivan
Meet Leo Woods for yourself in Crocodile Tears.
Mary Beth Keane, author of Fever – about an Irish immigrant battling her way through life in 1900s New York – explains why character detail trumps historical and cultural precision when writing historical fiction.
I never expected to write historical fiction, though some of my favourite novels of all time are in that category. Never great with names and dates, I figured historical fiction was for people whose minds work in a more straightforward fashion. Once, taking an American History exam when I was in high school, I couldn’t remember the exact dates of James Madison’s presidency but I remembered that Dolly Madison, his wife, was said to have a ritual of peeking from an upper floor window whenever his carriage departed their home for the Capitol. I offered up this titbit in exchange for hard facts. I did not get an A.
When it first occurred to me that Mary Mallon, who was better known to history as “Typhoid Mary,” would make a fascinating character, it wasn’t immediately clear to me that I should be the one to write her story. Everything about early 20th century New York was sepia-toned in my imagination. The clip-clop of horses on the avenues, the long skirts of the women brushing the sidewalks – it all seemed too distant, too quaint. I began by reading about the politics of the period, the manoeuvres of politicians and their staff, but how much did that tell me about what the average person thought and felt? Nothing. In order to get my arms around Mary’s story I had to walk alongside the people making their way in this world and not just observe them doing so. I had to understand their worries and their hopes. If they harboured secret ambitions, I had to discover them. Thinking back to high school, I knew that I remembered that detail about Dolly because it I found it moving that even a President’s wife peeks out of windows. I identified with Dolly, saw myself in her, and recognised her vulnerability. I had to get there with Mary Mallon.
Now that the book is written, many of the responses I’ve gotten have been about the research, how it must have been overwhelming, difficult to keep track of. It was those things at times, but research was also a crutch when I didn’t want to do the truly difficult work of writing fiction. I knew, when I was getting too focused on how many buttons a woman might have on her corset, or what route, precisely, the subway took when it first opened, that I was avoiding the task at hand, which was getting to the centre of Mary’s life – the confusion, fear, and frustration she must have felt, and later, a battle-worn sort of peace. The heart of a good novel must always be character, and where is the most important research for character done but inside the writer? Advice to those embarking on historical fiction? Close the books and face the blank page. Begin.
- Mary Beth Keane
With his debut book, Red Sky in Morning, Paul Lynch has made the transition from prolific film writer to novelist in spectacular fashion. Writing exclusively for the Easons.com Blog, he describes how he dreamed up his first novel.
Red Sky in Morning came to me in snatches of dreams: dreams in broad daylight; dreams on the edge of that cliff-fall into the dark of sleep. A book must be dreamed into being. The good stuff in writing comes from those liminal moments when you are held in that timeless space, that mind’s drift outside the present moment. Being a writer means learning to cultivate this. As children we are told by parents and teachers to stop daydreaming. This is nonsense. Tell children to keep dreaming. Some of them will become dreamers for a living.
Novel dreams rise into consciousness like effervescence in sparking water. You must always be receptive to these gifts. You must be willing to write every thought down. This is not without its problems. Often, during the writing of a book, ideas flash into my mind during conversation, a thought sparked by something somebody has said. They arrive during dinner in a restaurant. They arrive while reading a book. They come in the middle of the night when you are stumbling blindly to the loo. It doesn’t matter — you must always be catching those butterflies in your net. To forgo writing them down means you will lose most of them to the white sky of your mind. So I take notes wherever I go. I have walked into bins on the street while putting notes into my phone. I have been almost clipped by traffic. People say writing is not a dangerous occupation. It is.
Red Sky in Morning took just under three years to write. For the first two years I was gainfully employed, so my life then was about time management. I would write on holidays. Write on weekends. Write at night during bone-tiredness, hoping that what I put down would later make sense. I learned that it doesn’t matter what you put down, so long as you put down something. Once you have committed your consciousness to the page, it can always be rewritten. And the art of writing a book is less about that first draft, than it is about the rewriting of it — over and over and over again. And when you think you are finished, going at it again and again until it has found its perfect shape.
I found my best moments writing Red Sky in Morning were often writing in the dawn. To write in that deep quiet is like breathing mountain air. An uncluttered mind is the writer’s best tool. Some say they find it late at night, but most writers agree it is best to write in the morning, to hit the desk with coffee and dream shadow still snaking about you. You must step into that shadow and make it your friend, be guided by its whisperings, before it shrinks from the light of day.
- Paul Lynch
Guest Article: Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World – How the Book Came to Be, by Janet E. Cameron
Last summer I got the news: Hachette Ireland wanted to publish my first novel. I was overjoyed, but dazed – part of me couldn’t quite believe that this was happening. Then gradually everything started to make sense. Of course! The Mayans! The book was scheduled to appear in 2013, and that date would never arrive, in fact my contract with a publisher was probably one of the signs of the End of Days. But January came and went safely and by March I was holding a printed copy of Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World in my hands.
I’ve wanted this for as long as I can remember, but life kept getting in the way. I was a confident child who wrote and told stories because it was easy and fun. (I still have one, a science-fiction saga that was really just Star Trek with cats.) Then I was a miserable teenager who didn’t write at all because I was sure that it would be lousy. Later I became a confused twenty-something who wrote plays as a ‘hobby’ while training to be a teacher, specialising in English as a second language. In my early thirties I moved to Japan, where I taught at a girls’ high school and churned out educational material and adaptations for the school drama club. ‘We need a cast of forty, and everyone must have at least one line and wear a pretty dress.’ That kind of thing.
Everything changed when I met an Irish journalist who was in Tokyo for the 2002 Soccer World Cup. I never could have predicted that I’d one day be living in Ireland, but three years later there I was: married, semi-employed, and looking out the window at a lot of rain. But rainy days and a relaxed schedule are very good for writing, and Ireland turned out to be the perfect place for me. I switched to prose, took part in writing groups and classes, taught English to Chinese students at Dublin Business School. In the first few weeks of 2010 I got up the nerve to apply to Trinity’s creative writing programme. By the time the first semester started I had 70,000 words of a novel finished.
Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World came about through a homework assignment from a class I’d taken in 2006. I started with an image – two teenage boys having a violent argument on a cliff by a river, and the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. I wrote it as a flash fiction piece. I wrote it as a novella. A virus erased it from my computer. Four years later I was at it again, reconstructing the story from memory. Soon it became clear that this was going to be bigger than a novella, in fact it was going to be a book.
I worked on the story obsessively. I’d been a person who enjoyed spending hours in the kitchen, someone who dusted the curtain rods. When the novel took over I left the cooking to my husband, or the microwave. I let the apartment get filthy around me and barely noticed. I carried notebooks and scribbled in them like a maniac, no matter where I was. If I thought of something in the middle of the night, I’d write in the dark. It was the greatest thing that had ever happened to me.
The characters were what kept me hooked. First of all, there’s my hero, seventeen-year-old Stephen Shulevitz – bright, funny, impulsive, sarcastic, vulnerable, and in love with his straight best friend Mark, who grows up dyslexic and abused and learns quickly to be the toughest kid on the playground. Stephen also has to deal with his mother Maryna, who is dreamy, disorganised, and stuck in a dead end job in a small town – the one bright spot in her life seems to be her son. Stephen’s father Stanley is a self-absorbed academic who remains irritatingly calm in a crisis, especially if it’s one he’s created himself. Then there’s Stephen’s big-hearted, Goth-punk friend Lana, with an unfortunate crush of her own. I had to keep going to find out what would happen to them all.
I worked on the novel through the year at Trinity, and when I was sure I’d gotten the manuscript into shape, I entered it in a competition sponsored by the Irish Writers’ Centre and eventually was chosen as one of twenty winners.
The Novel Fair was nerve-wracking, exhilarating and a lot of fun. The twenty of us sat at tables with our stacks of sample chapters and prepared to pitch our stories to a selection of publishers and agents. I can’t remember much of what I said – by the end of the day I’d repeated the same information so many times that I felt like a bit of a dingbat. But I must have been at least partially coherent, because a few months later I got the news that Hachette Ireland were interested in seeing the rest of the book. Now it’s in bookstores all over Ireland.
This still feels like a miracle, and for me at least, a lot more impressive than anything the Mayans could have predicted.
Writing exclusively for the Easons.com Blog, Melissa Hill (Please Forgive Me, The Charm Bracelet and, most recently, The Guest List) catalogues the most common species of traveller that can be found in the concrete wilderness of airport terminals.
I have a confession to make. Well more of a declaration really – I love airports. Not in a nerdy, sit at the end of the runway with a flask of tea and a copy of Aviation Weekly ogling incoming aircraft and thinking hmm, the AA123 approaching the south runway has an unusually low trajectory kind of way.
What I love is the sense of the impending journey, the promise of adventure.
As a writer, I need to travel a lot for work and over the years, the airport has become one of my favourite places to spend time. There is plenty to do, shopping for one, people watching for another. I always liken it to being on safari, there are so many different species of traveller roaming around the terminals.
One such species is the Solo Business Traveller with their determined ‘I just want to get going, let me through’ expressions and demeanour. I suspect they must hate waiting in line behind those once-a-year flyers that arrive slack-jawed at security as if they have just walked into an operating theatre in the middle of a delicate procedure. The Once-a-Years usually have metal in every pocket and enough liquid, gels and pastes (none of which have been placed in the mandatory plastic bag) to bring down an Airbus A380.
But, using their keen eye for spotting the shortest queue and the line with the least potential delays, once the Solo Business Traveller gets past the Once-a-Years, they sail though security with a military precision that goes hand in hand with frequent flying. Belt, watch, bag coins into tray one. Laptop, mobile phone and jacket into tray two, before breezing unfazed through the metal detector.
Another member of the airport ‘Big Five’ are The Lads on Tour. They are especially easy to spot from the broad rictus grins they sport on their faces. It’s the kind of unsustainable smile that starts to hurt after a couple of minutes and suggests: ‘I can’t believe I have no responsibilities for the next few days only to drink/watch sports/play sports/eat/score’ in any combination or order. You will always hear them in the bar drinking and laughing loudly, slagging each other off.
A very different species of traveller is the Shiny Ringed Honeymooners – most common throughout the summer months. Alone as a couple for the first time since they said ‘I do’, they only have eyes for one another, don’t seem bothered by anything or anybody and are easily identified by their bright, shiny wedding rings.
Then, you have The Hen Nighters, a rowdy crew who all sport identical bright pink T-shirts displaying a photo of one of their group as a child. You can always pick out the ‘Hen’ by looking for the one displaying ‘L’ plates, mini wedding veil and fake male genitalia.
I’m certain the BBC will do a ‘wildlife’ style documentary on it all at some stage. In fact, I can already imagine David Attenborough’s seasoned, knowledgeable tones doing the voice over: ‘Here we find the common Irish Snowy White Sun-worshipper. Once a year these magnificent creatures migrate south in search of sunshine and cheap booze. Within a few hours of reaching their destination they will try to absorb a years’ worth of vitamin D by basking in the sun, eventually turning an angry shade of red. Yet, these amazing creatures have even found a naturally occurring and readily available source of painkiller for such an injury – cheap lager.’
We all react differently to airports, some are relaxed as the trip has just begun and the airport is actually part of the holiday. Others are anxious and nervous perhaps because of a simple fear of flying, or a fear of the friendly little customs dog walking over, sitting down and barking his head off or nuzzling the groin area – cueing a cavity search.
Inevitably once you find yourself amongst your flightmates at the boarding gate, you often start to recognise certain characters: the loud bickering couple that sat on the car-park bus in front of you, the laden-down family with the seat-kicking screaming toddler at the next table in the terminal restaurant.
Like safari animals, our destinies seem to merge as we all migrate towards our mutual journey.
And you just know where that seat kicking toddler is going to be sitting…
- Melissa Hill
The Guest List by Melissa Hill, published by Hodder Books, is out now.
Emma Hannigan, bestselling author of Perfect Wives, gives her take on the role of a wife in the modern household.
When I think of the word wife what springs to mind? Even though I wasn’t even born then, I always seem to picture a 1950’s lay-dee dressed in a shirt-waister with a frilly floral pinny, putty-coloured stockings and court shoes. Like one of those old style caption postcards this ‘wife’ should be holding a saucepan in one hand and a wooden spoon in the other. I imagine her skipping to the cooker to make a nutritious meal for her suit-clad husband who will appear at exactly the same time each evening brandishing his leather satchel-style briefcase and calling out, ‘Honey I’m home!’
I envisage her day would be broken up into carefully worked out sessions of cleaning, ironing, tending to the beautifully behaved children and awaiting with baited breath for the arrival of her beloved husband.
I don’t know about you, but none of that goes on in my house. I’ve been married for fifteen years in June and Cian would probably duck if he came into the house to find me brandishing a frying pan with a fixed plastic smile and my head tilted to one side blinking.
Now don’t get me wrong, I cook. In fact I trained as a chef and love my food. But the day-to-day chore of churning out dinners is quite a different thing to being part of a paid team and producing gourmet delights.
The fact I work full time puts a kybosh on the cleaning and ironing routine too. Instead of drafting a housework schedule that takes me from breakfast to bedtime where I gleefully rejoice as each wrinkle leaves the clothes or each speck of dirt and stray cat hair is vacuumed away, I selfishly sit at a desk and write.
My children are not of the ‘being seen and not heard’ variety. They are opinionated and able to think outside the box. I know if I’m on a deadline or up to my tonsils that they won’t starve. They’re capable of putting on a pot of pasta or sticking a pizza in the oven.
All this leads me to the belief that we have a much better scenario than our 1950s counterparts right? Do you know what? I’m not convinced.
Although many women are no longer chained to the kitchen sink and have the potential to earn as much as men, on the whole we’re still the glue that holds most homes together. Our moods are contagious. If we portray that things are tickety-boo the remainder of the household believes it too. If I am stressed and cranky not only will my children start fighting but the two cats even start spitting at one another. Honestly.
Sometimes I threaten to go on strike. I say I’m so fed up of being taken for granted and treated like an unpaid slave. I vow that I’ll up sticks and move into a five star hotel for a week. But I think we all know I’d never do that. Firstly I can’t afford it and secondly I’d be totally miserable. Who would I argue with? Underneath it all I wouldn’t change my family for anything. I’d miss clearing away the breakfast stuff before I cook the dinner at night. Imagine if I was denied the fun of changing the bed linen or scrubbing the bathrooms? I reckon if enough time passed I’d miss the lilting drone of the Hoover…
The stressful times are always outweighed by the sunny. The fights are overshadowed by the fun. The slagging, bantering and belly-laughing between me my hubby and our children could never be replicated elsewhere.
Above all I’ve learned that owning an un-ironed pile of washing isn’t life-threatening. Nobody will die if we have Nutella toasted sandwiches for dinner every once in a while. As long as we’re happy, healthy and able to enjoy the important things in life then I think we’ve achieved a lot. What makes a perfect wife? In my humble opinion, it’s a happy wife!
- Emma Hannigan
When I was growing up there was a young woman who lived on our road who had a disability. I remember that she used to stand outside her house and search the pockets of younger children returning from the shop, looking for sweets. I remember peering down the street to see if she was waiting on me and if so, crossing the road to avoid her. I can still see myself holding my breath as I quickened my pace, anxious to avoid eye contact with her until I turned the corner to my home. The adult writing this feels deeply ashamed by my actions. However, given that I was very young and had not been exposed to people with disabilities, my reaction was understandable. I simply did not know how to be her friend. Many adults, too, do not know how to react around people with special needs and this is also understandable, especially for those whose lives have not been touched by disability. Today, many children with special needs quite rightly attend their local school, enriching the school experience for both them and their peers. These are the lucky generation because exposure to difference creates acceptance and understanding in the general population.
When I wrote my first novel, The Butterfly State, I wanted to bring the world of the autistic child to a wider population but not in a “rain man” sense. Most people with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder do not have special gifts or abilities, or at least no more than the general population does. I wanted to give the cold hard facts of autism but to envelop it in a story that would warm people to the plight of those living with this often crippling social disability. I realised that I achieved my goal when I received comments from people who said they found the story fascinating and that they inadvertently learnt a lot about autism in the process. Most people have neither the time nor perhaps the interest to read a text book on disability and they certainly don’t want to read a book filled with specialised terminology that requires the reader to put down the book every five minutes and reach for the dictionary!
Writing about disability through fiction has given me an opportunity to bring my knowledge to a wider audience. I have worked in the field of disability for almost thirty years. I began my career as a teenager working in a psychiatric hospital with young adults who had mental health difficulties and learning disabilities. After five interesting years, I left this job for Australia where I completed my degree while working in institutions for people with challenging behaviour. The work there was harrowing – each morning when you set out to work you didn’t know if you were going to be hurt that day … but it was always very fulfilling.
Later, I taught children with a variety of disabilities, including children who had severe behavioural problems. I also worked in nursing homes where I was lucky enough to meet interesting characters who had led full and eventful lives. I used some of those experiences in Australia to write my second book, The Penance Room whose main character was a young deaf boy, Christopher, who lived in the outback nursing home run by his parents. I wanted to portray the isolation deaf people endure. People often ignore deaf people or shout at them but this is because they don’t know how to communicate with them. In this novel, Christopher, ignored by his parents and isolated from his peers, becomes obsessed with the memories of the nursing home’s residents and sets about helping them come to terms with their pasts. The book has an unexpected twist at the end which I won’t give away here!
I then used my experience working with children from dysfunctional backgrounds and the knowledge I gained while completing my master’s degree in emotional disturbance to write Winter Flowers. This novel, which is set in Dublin, focuses on the lives of two young brothers whose mother, Hazel’s, difficult upbringing results in the boys being raised in a less than perfect environment. The story does have a happy ending though as Hazel tries to put her past behind her in order to ensure her sons have a future.
My fourth novel, which is out now, is to some degree also about emotional disturbance. The Incredible Life of Jonathan Doe is set in America and is about a homeless man trying to get home to a place where he once belonged but can no longer find.
I hope to continue writing about people who are different and that my novels continue to be an enjoyable and interesting experience for readers.
- Carol Coffey
I have always loved bringing the words from my head to life on paper. I was a huge reader as a child and have memories of writing books by tearing sheets of paper out of copybooks and stapling them all together. I recently found a diary I had kept when I was eleven, describing my first time on a plane. It had riveting entries such as this:
“We got a snack of peanuts and a can of Pepsi. Then we got our own meal, which consists of green beans, meat, small potatoes, carrots. Two half crackers, 1 cheese spread, 1 butter spread, a roll, a salad cream spread, orange juice, lettuce, cucumber, tomato, a bun, apple tart and another can of Pepsi.”
And it pretty much continues to describe the holiday in the same excruciating detail. I hope my writing has improved since then…
Unlike a lot of writers who study English in college, I went on to study biotechnology. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I considered writing a novel. I attended a creative writing course by night in a local secondary school, which gave me the encouragement to keep going. After a few false starts, I wrote half a story and sent off a synopsis and three chapters to agents and publishers. Deep down I knew it wasn’t ready so it wasn’t really a surprise when the rejections came piling through the post-box. I learnt that if I knew my book wasn’t good enough, a publisher certainly wasn’t going to think it was.
I kept writing bits and pieces. I had a short story published in an anthology and I was short-listed for the RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland short story competition. Then I had the idea to write In a Moment. It was 2009 and I had just had my first child and it came out of nowhere one day while I was driving my car. Before you have a baby everyone tells you how it is the most amazing feeling but I didn’t really understand it until she was born. I was blown away by the strength of the feelings that I had for her but also a bit frightened by how much I wanted to protect her and that planted the seed.
In a Moment is the story of Adam and Emma, a couple who are being torn apart by their past. They are on the brink of splitting-up and their relationship is only held together by a thread. But what has brought them to this point? And why is Adam having recurring nightmares? Meanwhile Jean McParland is a single mother living in terror in her own home. But in just one moment Adam, Emma and Jean’s lives become inextricably linked and are changed forever…
I started to write it while I was still on maternity leave and then I went back to work and it took me over a year to write half of it between working full time, being a mum and that thing called ‘life’ that gets in the way sometimes. Then I heard about the Poolbeg/TV3 ‘Write a Bestseller’ competition and I thought what a brilliant opportunity for anyone like me, who dreamed of seeing his or her book on the shelves. So I finished the other half in three months by writing it after work in the evenings or at the weekends. I sent it off and crossed everything (fingers, toes, hair plaited etc…)
The following February the brilliant The Lingerie Designer by Siobhan McKenna was announced as the winner and that was the end of that or so I thought. You can imagine my shock when Paula Campbell from Poolbeg called me to say that she had liked In a Moment and that they would like to offer me a three-book deal! I’ll never forget the day I got that call – I was 34 weeks pregnant with my twins and I had promised my then two-year old daughter that we’d take a trip on a train and then a bus. In the middle of all that I had a voicemail from Paula asking me to call her. Anyway I’m sure it was one of Paula’s most bizarre phone-calls involving me standing at a bus-stop in the howling wind, trying to stop my two-year old from running into the traffic. After that conversation I was sure that I wouldn’t hear from her again but sure enough she sent the contract through and here I am.
My writing process is chaotic at the moment with a three-year old and one-year old twins. I write whenever I have five minutes free but I do the bulk of my writing when they’ve gone to bed in the evenings or at weekends, when my husband will take the three of them off for a couple of hours.
When I have an idea for a story, I’m usually like a horse chomping at the bit, dying to get out of the stalls and into the story. However, I’m currently doing the edits for my second book A Small Hand in Mine, which will be released this summer and I’m learning that if I plotted more to begin with, I could save myself a lot of heartache down the line. So my resolution with my third book is to make myself plot it in the same minute detail as my diary above before I even put pen to paper.
This time last year I was gearing up for publication of my first book and even then I had no idea what a brilliant feeling it would be. I have to pinch myself when I go into a store and see my book there on the shelves. I also owe a big thank you to some of the lovely booksellers who I’ve met along the way who are so enthusiastic about the work that they do.
I hope that anyone reading this who also dreams of being published just takes the plunge and puts the words on the page. Don’t get disheartened by your first drafts and don’t compare your work to other authors that you admire. Just keep at it, edit it until you feel it’s the best you can possibly make it. But self-belief is probably the most important thing an aspiring writer could have. I really believe if you want it badly enough and work hard, you will achieve it.