Collins Press in Ireland are going to publish my book on the postcards of Cork (October 2013) and for marketing and PR purposes they sent me a questionnaire which I reproduce below along with my responses. Filling it out has been an interesting exercise—making me feel all grown up as a commercial writer—to which (for the purposes of this blog-post) I’ve added a scatter of pics.
1. Tell us about what made you want to become a writer?
The best of schooling for me was in primary school where we had this story-loving schoolteacher—Michael Hennessy. Whenever he got bored with teaching the donkey-konk National School curriculum he would turn to story-telling—which he would initiate by saying, “OK, boys, put away your books for a while”—and thereafter a whole chunk of the day would be given over to the narration of some galloping adventure: an historical episode—the Earl of Tyrone and the last stand of the old Gaelic order, the rise and demise of Bonnie Prince Charlie, Robert Emmett’s rebellion—or a mythological saga—Finn McCool and his wolfhound in the frozen northlands—or biblical stuff, the Israelites and the Babylonians (or Egyptians) or what have you.
Or he would read to us. I remember in particular his reading of a novel called Blackcock’s Feather, set in Elizabethan Ireland—which took most of a week (five afternoons)—a sort of Irish Walter Scott romance. Master Hennessy was a very good reader—gifted at characterization—charismatic—Ballineen National School in West Cork his Drury Lane.
Forty years on and Issa still a sucker for the grand epic—the king of Spain’s daughter, the Blackamoor’s Head, and white ships on saltwater, confessors and assassins and popes and pearls and whatever you’re having yourself—up to and including modern forms of same, The Sopranos and the like.
I spent all of December 2012 reading George R.R. Martin’s ‘Song of Ice & Fire’ series of novels, for example—because of the HBO television series, I suppose, now better known now as Game of Thrones. And I mean all of December, from the end of November to some time just after New Year’s Day—seven big books (5 novels in 7 books, each book 7-to-800 pages). It made for one of the best of Christmas-times.
I’m interested in writing because I would love to have the same effect on others as George R.R. Martin or Master Hennessy-in-story-telling-mode have had on me—which is (for blocks of time) to be swept away Dorothy-like out of dung-hill Kansas into other worlds, strange lands in which life-or-death journeys need to be undertaken, pathways to destiny through chuckling rivers and eerie forests, through realms with egregious and fabulous rulers in which are experienced both the kindness of strangers and the twisted viciousness of the damned—stories in which characters are profoundly transformed by their trials and tribulations and never ever defeated by sad sack setbacks along the way.
2. How did you start off as a writer?
I started off by writing low-grade short stories about episodes in my not so adventurous life. Followed by longer stories about the adventurous lives of others—none the better (I confess) for their pumped-up length or redressed POVs.
With writing I’ve had a scutter of starts and flourishes followed by dreadful never-ever-agains. Several times I’ve abandoned the craft altogether, throwing out everything I’ve ever written. However, by one means or another I’ve always returned to the workshop, tinkering again with absurdly high hopes for my wonky inventions.
A decade or so ago was the most recent of these cultural revolutions. And this time not only did I destroy everything—every story, every draft of every novel, every sketch and folder and notebook—but I got rid of all my books as well—a lifetime’s worth of reading. The most thorough-going revolution of all: a personal Year Zero.
Three or four years later, however, without being aware of it, I found myself writing again. The way it came about was like a slight of hand; I had written the thing before I realised. At the time I sought only to help out a friend (who needed half a broadsheet newspaper page for a spread for Heritage Week), and I did it without thinking too much about it, writing completely off the cuff.
And would you adam-and-eve it, the result—as it seemed to me—was really good! And with that I was back in harness again. But something was different this time: there was an unselfconsciousness to my produce which was new, an unaffectedness—I’d unearthed my voice (so to say)—and with that almost everything became new and true (and surprisingly easy too once I get myself out of the way).
3. What elements of being a writer make it so enjoyable?
I write early in the mornings. I try to get to my desk and start tapety-tap-tapping on the keyboard before sun-up—often in bare feet and pjs.
When everything’s running smoothly there’s no finer feeling I know of. And yet it’s almost impossible to describe—because you’re not really there—afterall, the whole point is to get yourself into that space where you’re unselfconscious. One minute it’s 5.40AM and next you know its 8.50 or maybe 9.30 (and you think you’ve been at it for only 50 minutes or so). At the end of it you may have 800 words, or a thousand words, or twice that amount—whatever—but hopefully you’ll have moved forward a little bit what you’re working on, and be reasonably happy with it (and enthusiastic about what you’re going to do the following sit).
But that time in which you are gone from the world like that, merged totally in the Matrix of the work in hand, re-surfacing some time later (to the sound of the postman clattering the letterbox or children shreiking in the schoolyard outside) is simply the best: no better life-juice under the sun.
4. If you were having a dinner party who would you invite and why?
If I could have anyone I want?
Graham Linehan, the guy who wrote ‘Father Ted’ and ‘Black Books’, etc—funny man and a nice fellow.
The American actress Meryl Streep—I really admire her work—but also I’m very attracted to (what I think is) her personality type.
Selina Guinness, author of The Crocodile by the Door—I’m liking everything I see by this woman (see also, for examples, her Dublin Review contributions)
Cenk Uygur and Ben Mankiewicz from the The Young Turks, which is a leftist American politics show on YouTube—they’re just my kind of people, intelligent, funny, on the good side of issues without being doctrinaire.
Cara Santa Maria, Huffington Post science correspondent and occasional contributor to the Young Turks (smart and sexy; a sound feminist without being all warty about it, and a really good contributor, someone who makes knowledge and learning smart and hip).
Boris Johnson: I simply like the guy (even though I wouldn’t agree with him about lots of things), he’s clever and funny, and capable, and again his is a personality type I enjoy.
5. What is your favourite book and why?
No way could I say XYZ is my favourite book and here’s why, and just leave it at that; I need to give a range of them, I do not think I could single one out—although I might do a ‘first among equals’:
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel: love this book so much, wonderful achievement (one of those books which I read, turned over, and read again immediately—only a handful of books have I done that with).
The Great Melody, Conor Cruise O’Brien’s biography of Edmund Burke (possibly a Desert Island book)
Music and Silence, by Rose Tremain: set in the court of the king of Denmark in the winter of 1629; I’d love to have written this novel (even though it falls away badly at the very end)
Primary Colors, [by Joe Klein]: I love politics and this is great political story-telling
However, if I had to have a Desert Island book—only one book for the foreseeable future—I think it would be Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds: I’ve read it many times and enjoyed it more each time, and, of course, it is a story about story-telling.
6. What lengths did you have to go to, to write the book?
“A BOOK ON THE POSTCARDS OF CORK”, says I to anyone who’d listen at the outset “—one’s never been done [a book on the postcards of Cork, that is]—take a postcard and put a caption with it, move on to the next….pissa piss….a couple of postcards per page, two or three hundred pages….bish-bosh, bish-bosh—wonga, wonga—lovely jubbly.”
That was back in 2011—hence, I’ve been working on the book for the meat and potatoes of two years now! I’ve written a couple of things for the Irish Times and I’ve edited a fully re-typeset reproduction of George Bennett’s History of Bandon, but other than these, it’s been postcards-postcards-postcards all the time with me (except, of course, for my 2012 Christmas in Essos and Westeros, and a two-week walk from Mount Brandon to Bantry Bay last summer).
Once I got into it, however, I thought “Well, if I’m going to do this, let’s make it something that will be a credit to me” [ie, not something that will cause me to groan with shame every time I see it in a charity shop], and by this way got to want the product to be as beautiful and as comprehensive as I could make it.
So, to answer your question, once I realized that what I thought was going to be a quick job was not going to be a quick job (unless I wanted to do a crap-job), I had to dig deep to see it through and make something of which I could be proud.
7. Who is your favourite person from history?
Edmund Burke—I think—at least, the Edmund Burke portrayed in Conor Cruise O’Brien’s epic biography (Burke is not without flaws, I recognise, but almost every “great” historical figure I can think of is seriously flawed—and/or septically wounded—in some way)
8. What’s next for you?
A novel—a series of historical novels (as I presently conceive of the project): Irish history
9. Which character in a book do you most identify with and why?
I think I am nearly always drawn to the person who makes something of himself (or herself); someone who may not be dealt a great hand but who, by one means or another, plays a great game—Edmund Burke, Thomas Cromwell, Vito Corleone. In the ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ novels, for example, Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, and Arya Stark are the characters I’m drawn to—people who, despite all opposition, despite the set-backs, despite defects of mind or body or circumstance, make something of their lot and leave in their wake celebrated play-books.
10. What is your favorite postcard and why?
The Bandon policeman one (Love from Cork, p. 65), I think, just because it is genuinely funny (mostly those Edwardian cartoon ones are not funny at all, as it seems to me). Also I like the picture—it’s simple and well composed and nicely coloured.
See also (related posts) the extract from the introduction to the postcards book and the post on my writing space (click through by clicking on the underlined). For more on the postcards of Cork visit the ‘Postcards‘ page on this blog and see also other items under the ‘Postcards of Cork‘ blog-post heading.