All aboard a different kind of writing school – The Irish Times

December 15, 2021 by No Comments

After a few years of working in the hectic business of advertising in London, Hong Kong and New York, writing for a living came as a sweet relief. Further to the quiet success of my first novel, Becoming Strangers, which was longlisted for the Dublin International Literary Award, I was ready to tackle something entirely different to that modestly charming novel set in Barbados.

As a family we moved from Brooklyn to Provence, and as I started to think about the next novel, unexpectedly Belfast came calling. Soon enough I was one of the few people taking the EasyJet flight from the south of France to Northern Ireland to get away from it all. (All that rosé drinking, playing boules after lunch on a Sunday, the olive groves and swimming pools, it can wear you down.)

The story I wrote tells of the blanket protest from both a Catholic mother’s point of view, with a son in Long Kesh, and from that of a former British soldier, then prison officer on the H blocks, John Dunn. Dunn describes his relationship with Northern Ireland as “the love affair that was bad for him”.

I spent nine months researching, drank a lot of tea and smoked a few cigarettes with those from both sides who had so much experience in common. When I wrote the novel I was entirely immersed in it to the point that when I laid my pen down to write the ending one morning at dawn, I wept.

I say to the writers I teach now that as much as we write novels, they write us. But when they’re done they’re done; like the love affair that’s bad for us, we have to go home to the family. I have always found it hard to speak about the novel which garnered good reviews and kind praise from the Nobel laureate JM Coetzee and from writers like Ali Smith. In fact, in one radio interview, when asked to sum it up in under a minute, I said no, and left the studio. The book left its mark on me, as do all experiences, and life took its turns thereafter and over the years that followed writing alone became writing lonely and I wonder in retrospect whether the warmth of the communities in Belfast and their need to tell their side of the story, didn’t somehow hold me up.

Ten years after that book was published, I felt like an old seafaring junk capsized on the shore. Too many years solo. I …….



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