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Belinda McKeon’s debut novel Solace won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and was the Irish Book of the Year for 2011. I first read it in Ireland during a visit home — where it was displayed prominently alongside the big names in supermarket book displays, a reflection of its popularity — and loved it. On rereading, Solace proved even better, richer and more nuanced.

Solace by Belinda McKeon (Irish cover -- Picador)

Solace by Belinda McKeon
(Irish cover — Picador)

At its core, like all great fiction, Solace is a family story, a tale of disfunction and inter-generational misunderstanding.  Mark Casey is a graduate student in literature at Trinity College in Dublin; approaching thirty, he teaches dull undergrads and has grown bored by his dissertation subject. He needs a kick in the pants, and his father is all too willing to give him one.

Mark’s father, Tom Casey, is a small farmer from Co. Longford; a practical man, he struggles to accept Mark’s seemingly never-ending student life. Constantly badgering his son to come down to the farm to help him with the “real work” of running the place. Mark’s mother, Maura, runs interference between them and keeps the peace. It’s a family dynamic that will be familiar to anybody who ever left their hometown or resisted joining a family business.

In the novel, Mark’s life is jolted from his comfortable rut by Joanne, a trainee solicitor he meets in a dingy pub. Before they have time to fall in love properly, she is pregnant, and they’re setting up home together and learning how to raise a baby. Joanne has her own issues with parental pressure and expectation, but it’s the story of Mark and his father, that dominates this novel — although their passive-aggressive arguments, quintessentially Irish, may seem alien to readers from other backgrounds. Solace is a book about home, and the inevitable struggle to escape it and to define yourself in your own terms; but, McKeon knows that the struggle is at best illusory, and eventually we have to reconcile ourselves with that home. The fight is not so much to escape it, but to come to terms with it.

Solace also captures an interesting point in Irish life: it takes place as the economic boom was at its peak, and ends just as everyone was waking up to the bust. The main characters in Solace, students and small farmers, were not reaping the benefits of the Celtic Tiger, nor do they initially notice the bust making much difference to their lives. But they display a reticence about the stability of the good times that perhaps many felt during those years, but did not articulate. In the pub one night Tom Casey reflects that nobody wants to reminisce about the old days: “There were things nobody thanked you for reminding them of. There were years that had slipped so far into the past that it was better not to mention them…. they acted now as though they had been happy in a way that they would never be happy again.” This in the middle of an unprecedented economic boom! In passing, McKeon seems to sketch a pub full of people who should be on top of the world, but who harbor this unmentioned dread. The old refrain of things being better in the old days feels completely out of place among the triumphalism of land exchanging hands for millions, houses going up like they were made of Lego, and everyone spending like there was no tomorrow. But it remained in people’s mind, unsaid perhaps, but present.

Mark’s mother Maura reflects that other parents have the same experience of their children not visiting enough, only those children’s distance was ostensibly because of their high-pressure jobs, their new financial success, rather than because they were working fitfully on a dissertation and avoiding their father. She sees the trappings of these children’s material success, fancy suits, big cars, foreign holidays, but wonders uneasily if “she should want those things for Mark, whether she should feel disappointed in him for not having them”? Again, the rural perspective in Solace reflects a distrust (but perhaps it’s only the typical Irish melancholy) of the flashy new world, coupled with the outsider’s feeling of powerlessness — who were they to articulate their doubts in the face of the official narrative of prosperity?

Towards the end of the novel, Tom Casey is prevailed upon to make a very unsound investment, and you realize that McKeon has been slowly sowing the seeds of a financial enmity throughout the book. Tom has been a small farmer all his life, instinctively distrustful of financial institutions and big talk. Now — like Jude in Julian Gough’s recent novella “Crash” — the steady Celtic Tiger drum beat of investment and prosperity has slipped under his skin, and he makes a poor decision. It’s a decision that forces Mark to grow up once more, a decision that makes him realize his father is aging, and the push-pull of the parent-child relationship has shifted, perhaps irrevocably.

McKeon is excellent at writing Irish men, particularly older men. Both Mark and Tom are alive and fairly leap off the page — even though Mark can be a frustratingly passive character, rent with indecision and content to bumble along in his laddish ways. To be fair, Mark is a very representative example of the twenty-something Irish male singleton, and the passivity is not so much a lack of imagination on the author’s part, but an accurate reflection of her source material. Children in Ireland are taught early on that it’s not good to stand out, not advisable to go first, or risk failure. Mark is a typical clever plodder, trusting to slow work and fulfillment of basic expectations to take him inoffensively to where he hopes to end up. Tom is wise in practical ways, reflective if not expressive, and can be wryly humorous, but his outlook is curtailed by the limits of his experience.

Solace is a book that haunts the reader in its assured power. It demonstrates the raw emotions and fierce clashes that are played out under the surface when families gather, and captures the way that youth is an essential process of fleeing from then returning to a family with clarity, nuance, and understanding. I have a feeling that Solace is a book I will delve into again and again over the years.

–Rich

 

Notes

Buy Solace in the UK from The Book Depository… (free shipping worldwide)

Buy Solace in the US

Support the Irish economy by buying Solace from Kennys.ie… (free shipping worldwide)

 

 

Mary Costello’s debut book of short stories, The China Factory, is a contemplative collection of inward-looking characters that seem almost too sensitive for this world. When the stories work (which is most of the time) they are beautifully written, sensitive portrayals of individuals at the end of something: a marriage, a life, or their rope.

china factory largeA representative example is “Sleeping With a Stranger,” the tale of a man who has let his marriage drift and stagnate. He lives in a reverie of lost possibility: remembering a brief affair that charged his soul, but that he feels caused him to abandon his marriage emotionally, as the everyday can never capture the emotional highs of the unique, the once-off, the unexpected. This situation represents the knife edge many Mary Costello’s stories walk in the reader’s mind: whether or not to damn the protagonist for wallowing in self-pity and regret, or be carried along by Costello’s ability to pull us into her character’s worlds so completely that it’s only in retrospect that we begin to harbor the uncharitable thoughts that if we knew some of these people in real life we’d probably slap them and tell them to pull themselves together.  Read the rest of this entry »

Donal Ryan’s debut novel, The Spinning Heart, is a triumph, capturing a snapshot of a contemporary Ireland reeling from the economic downturn in a kaleidoscope of different voices.

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan (US paperback cover)

The Spinning Heart
by Donal Ryan
(US paperback cover)

Set in a small western community, The Spinning Heart paints its picture one voice at a time. Each character is given one chapter, and one chapter only, to give their take on events that affect them all. We start with the story of local boy Bobby Mahon, a tough site foreman whose boss — an unscrupulous developer, one half of the twin demons on whose shoulders are being laid all of the blame for Ireland’s financial crisis (the other half being the bankers, of course) — has just shafted him and all the workers under him, disappearing and leaving houses unfinished, and taking his employee’s stamp money (what would be social security payments in the US) with him. Dealing with the sudden reality of no work, no social security payments, and no prospect of other work after years when even high-school dropouts could earn big money building houses is shattering to Bobby’s confidence. This chapter is almost too hard to read, as it captures the raw emotion, sadness, and desperate sense of not knowing what to do next incredibly well.

As the book goes on we see the community react to him; less-attractive Irish traits like begrudgery and an eagerness to pull the successful down to size come out in revisionism of Bobby’s standing in the community, suspicions are voiced about his faithfulness, his toughness, and his honesty.

We go on to hear from a selection of the leading lights of the community, and also the bystanders: the foreign building workers who loved the country and stayed; the gormless, overgrown boys who find themselves unmarried fathers before they’ve left home; the people left living in the one or two inhabited houses in a ghost estate; and the fundamentally decent father of an unscrupulous son left to face their disapproving community. Some are stories we read in the papers everyday, others have been largely absent from the national dialogue.

The gradual effect of this chorus of voices is to build up the mosaic picture of a community in the throes of immense change; a community grappling with the questions of how they let this calamity happen — not from the point of view of monetary policy and oversight, as the political class has been doing ineffectually for the past several years, but from the personal standpoint: How could these people have let themselves be fooled like that? How could seemingly decent people that were raised within the community turn out to be so untrustworthy? Why didn’t they suspect it was too good to be true all along? Wasn’t it madness to think the good times would continue indefinitely?  And, how are they ever going to get out of this mess?

The structure of Ryan’s novel seems to suggest a third way of analyzing the crisis, halfway between between the impersonal considerations of monetary policy, and the sensationalist chatter of talk radio, eternally searching for scapegoats and single causes on which to focus and lay blame. Despite the sadness and dire straits of many of the characters, Ryan’s skill at developing the different voices and his perceptiveness in articulating the different viewpoints and factors at play makes the novel a joy to read, with new developments forcing us to reexamine our earlier views and sympathies, and keeping the reading experience from becoming formulaic or predictable. Take this passage in which Réaltín, a single mum living in one of the only two occupied houses in one ghost estate, muses on the her desperation to buy a house before it was beyond her ability to get a mortgage:

“When Daddy and me went in to the auctioneers to ask about these houses, they let on that they were nearly all sold. I wanted a corner house with a bigger garden, but the guy started fake-laughing, as if I was after asking for a solid gold toilet or something…. He said he couldn’t promise us any of the houses would still be available the next day. I believed him, even though I should have known better. Daddy got all flustered and worried then, and drove like a madman back to the Credit Union to get me the cash. I’d love to go in to that auctioneer now and kick him in the balls.”

We can feel her frustration at having to live with that catastrophic decision, and also glimpse her father’s nervousness dealing with circumstances that must have been so far removed from his own experience of home buying a generation before.

We gradually come to understand the individual stories, not from one perspective, but from many. Single-mum Réaltín is far from a statistic; hard-nosed business-woman Kate may be giddy that the one good thing to come out of the recession is that “people will work for less than the minimum wage,” but she’s tortured by the fear that her unemployed electrician husband might be looking for a bit on the side because she’s too stressed to be unsympathetic to his situation; and, the much beleaguered local Garda sergeant may not have the over-riding ambition and management savvy of his superiors, but he knows his community and notices the small clues that lead to the right conclusion.

The Spinning Heart is a powerful debut novel from a new Irish writer, and one which bears witness to the current moment in Irish life as only a novel can.
–Rich

Notes
  • The Spinning Heart is available as a paperback or ebook in Ireland and the UK from Transworld.
  • A signed, limited-edition hardcover is also available from Lilliputt Press in Ireland.
  • I ordered my copy of The Spinning Heart from Kennys.ie, and I recommend them for international customers. (I receive no kickbacks for that endorsement.)
  • The Spinning Heart was released in the USA by Steerforth Press in March 2014.

 

Kevin Barry is the must-read Irish writer of the moment, and for good reason: his short stories feature the mad, the bad, and the dangerous to know, and his language is deliciously quotable and musical. I think of him as an Irish Coen Brother, writing dialogue so crisp and perfect you long for people to actually talk like that, even though you know that nobody really does.

Irish Literature Expert

City of Bohane by Kevin Barry (US paperback cover)

City of Bohane has done nothing to dispel the cult growing up around its author. Barry’s recent triumph in capturing the Impac Award has capped a string of stellar reviews and ecstatic notices.

At its black, twisted heart, City of Bohane is a gangster noir. Set in an imaginary Irish city some 40 years in the future, City of Bohane tells the story of the struggle for control of a crime family. Logan Hartnett has control of the Hartnett Fancy, the gang who has been in control of the Bohane trace, the quarter containing all the dens of iniquity, and thus effective control of the city, for 25 years, an immense span of years in gangland. At the opening of the novel the first stirrings of gang warfare appears, as rival factions begin to agitate for more power. But as the feud plays out, the real power struggle emerges: which of Logan Hartnett’s deputies is going to succeed him?

The Ireland of Barry’s novel is one that has regressed into rule by local fixers, crime bosses who allow the veneer of society to function as long as the appropriate palms are greased. It’s an Ireland not hard to imagine in light of the country’s current machine politics, dynastic political families, and increasing levels of gangland violence.

Barry’s signature inventive language and vivid characters are on full display, and to these virtues he adds a confident world-building comparable to any first-rank science-fiction or fantasy author. However, over the course of the novel, it’s noticeable that there’s little character development — something that the brevity of a short story rarely allows. We have vivid characters, but they each do one thing well, rather than grow and change with experience. It’s a trait familiar from super-hero movies, where everything you need to know about a character can be seen on the poster.

Harnett is our aging mafia don: tall, immaculately tailored, suave, and striking. He may be getting long in the tooth, but he’s ruthless, and still fit to rumble. In a tight-fitting, white leather jacket, tight black pants, and high, sharp boots, we have Hartnett’s manipulative asian deputy, Jenny Ching. Equally ready to take out a rival with the knife, or use her body to gain an edge; she’s a Tarantino heroine transposed to the rain-soaked streets of the west of Ireland. Logan’s other deputies are tough-guy support roles, and would be played by former teen heart-throbs trying to establish their credentials as tough-guy leading men if this were a movie (and it would make a good one).

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Barry uses cinematic effects throughout the novel, to generally good effect: scenes are set with birds-eye views, the camera floating overhead to describe the movement of crowds, the lay of the land, or the emotional state of a city about to erupt into violence.  The antagonists’ clothes are described in lingering detail, sartorial choices being character in many cases. The affect is generally pleasing as spectacle, the mood of menace and inevitable showdown is built beautifully, until the violent denouement.

Here the cinematic influences of the novel fail to reach the same heights on paper as they can on-screen. Barry aims for a Godfather-esque finale of cutting between multiple scenes — there’s even a song that attempts to pull them all together — but the tension can’t be sustained in this way on paper, and truth-be-told, the outcome has long been certain by that point, so much of the hoped-for drama fails to materialize.

However, this over-reliance on cinematic devices does not lessen the novel’s joys or creativity in the slightest. Barry has proven he can sustain the mood and tone of his maddest stories at novel length, and hold the reader rapt. The intricacy of the world of Bohane, and its idiosyncratic dialect is fully realized, and never flags or fails to convince the reader. City of Bohane deserves all the plaudits and awards it’s earned. The most-apt comparisons for City of Bohane may be the fabulist world-building of China Miéville, rather than the usual suspects of Barry’s Irish literary forefathers.  Kevin Barry continues to be a breath of fresh air through the Irish literary landscape, and City of Bohane will provide Irish writers and readers with much to argue over and much to champion.

–Rich

 

Notes

Buy City of Bohane in the US from Barnes & Noble…

Buy City of Bohane in the UK from The Book Depository… (free shipping worldwide)

Buy City of Bohane in IRL from Kennys.ie…  (free shipping worldwide)

Read my review of Kevin Barry’s second short story collection, Dark Lies the Island

 

I savored every word of Colum McCann’s elegant new novel, TransAtlantic. McCann has always been a writer who aims for a perfect image or a poetic turn of phrase, TransAtlantic is told in a gentle, unhurried style, almost a series of reminiscences, and the format allows McCann to give full play to his poetry.

New Irish fiction, Irish authors

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (US Cover)
–source: www.colummccann.com

The novel is anchored by three historical events (in the order they appear in the novel: Alcock and Brown’s first transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to Ireland, Frederick Douglass’s reading tour of Ireland during the great famine, and Senator George Mitchell’s negotiations that lead to the Good Friday Agreement that enabled power-sharing in Northern Ireland and brought about the apparent disarming of paramilitary organizations), but the meat is in the story of four generations of Irish women whose lives intersect with these famous men and events briefly (the herstory to balance the history, if you like).

If any novel can be said to have a single theme, or central focus, perhaps the unifying factor behind the stories in TransAtlantic is the individual’s desire for a freedom from external hinderances. The characters work for the abolition of slavery, the defeat of the Germans in two world wars, the end of religious strife in Ireland, economic independence, equal rights for women, the right of a woman to publish under her own name, the freedom to be accepted as an unmarried mother, the right to have ones’ children and grandchildren grow up safely, and centrally, the abolition of distance (physical and metaphorical): the normalization of crossing the Atlantic and the vast improvement in humanity’s ability to understand and help each other that this represented.

In 1845, Frederick Douglass inadvertently inspires a young woman, a maid named Lily Duggan, to leave Ireland and go to America in search of a better life. Lily survives a horrific passage on a coffin ship, to find life in the teeming streets of New York City much less hospitable than she hoped for. A survivor, Lily eventually marries an ice-farmer in the upper mid-west, and becomes the matriarch of a line of women whose story drives the novel. Her daughter, Emily, who lives to write, yet must publish under a male pseudonym for years; her daughter Lottie, who takes to photography as her art; and finally Hannah, who must deal with both the death of her son during the troubles, and the economic ruin of the current financial crisis.

Irish Fiction Expert

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann (UK/Irish cover)
–source: Bloomsbury.com

The novel looks at a long series of characters trying to better themselves and their fellows, often in some way that unites Ireland and America: Douglass raising awareness of the cause of emancipation, Mitchell negotiating for peace, Lily making a better life for her children, Lottie quietly working to support the peace process. But it is the final characters who enter the tale, a very modern Irish family — an inter-racial marriage, never mind an inter-denominational one — that wraps up the story, and brings it firmly into the present day. In this, McCann with his characteristic hope and optimism points out the small but potentially significant seeds of change being sown in modern Ireland: a nation now absorbing an increasing number of immigrants, with new ideas, bonds, and possibilities taking root under the surface. In his more-inclusive conception of family, McCann seems to be observing that the future will depend less on family solidarity and dynastic inheritance (the cornerstone of Irish politics and community), and more on communal support, the exchange of new ideas, and an enlarged sense of community, beyond religion, beyond race, beyond blood ties.

The last lines of his early story “Wood,” (from his excellent book Everything in this Country Must) in which a young boy watches trees “going mad in the wind,” the branches mindlessly “slapping each other around like people,” before the 12th of July marching season, have always struck me as one of the most apt metaphors for the discord in Northern Ireland ever put to paper. That McCann can now write a novel that is so optimistic, and chronicles such change a mere 15 years or so later, speaks volumes for how vast the changes in the political climate in Ireland have been. If novelists truly hold a mirror up to society, then it appears that the society McCann is reflecting in TransAtlantic is becoming a much less polarized one than he had to depict two decades ago. In TransAtlantic, McCann captures the great arc of globalization that increasingly shapes our age through the lens of one family’s history and some of the pivotal events that helped shape it, and leaves the reader with the hope that a corner has been turned, that Lily Duggan’s dream of a better life is finally coming to pass.

— Rich

 

Notes
Visit Colum McCann’s official website
Buy the US edition of TransAtlantic
Buy the UK edition of TransAtlantic from The Book Depository… (free shipping worldwide)
Buy the IRL edition of TransAtlantic from Kennys.ie… (free shipping worldwide)

The Guardian has a great collection of authors’ annotations on hard copies of some of their books, revealing roads not taken, regrets, and the motivations behind some creative choices. Here are the Irish writers:

 

Irish Writers, Irish authors, Irish literatureSeamus Heaney on Death of a Naturalist

John Banville on The Sea

Sebastian Barry on A Long Way Home

Anne Enright on The Gathering

Colm Tóibín on The Heather Blazing

 

And one foreign writer who’s apparently taken to life in Leitrim so well that we may as well adopt him as honorary Irish:

DBC Pierre on Vernon God Little

 

And J.K. Rowling, who’s just awesome:

J.K. Rowling on Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Annotations on first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

Annotations on first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

 

Notes
You may also be interested in these future award-winning Irish authors:
Review of Solace by Belinda McKeon…
Review of The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan…
Review of City of Bohane by Kevin Barry…
Review of You by Nuala Ní Chonchúir…

Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack is an inventive and very unusual novel that strives to break many of the ‘rules’ of novel writing and gets away with it.

Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack

Notes from a Coma by Mike McCormack (US edition/Soho Press)

On the surface, Notes from a Coma is about a troubled young man who decides to volunteer to be placed in a coma for three months as part of a public test of an experimental new form of imprisonment. But underneath, it’s a story about so much more: the slow strangulation of small rural communities through lack of opportunity; a commentary on the pervasive culture of low expectations in Irish life; and, an astute observation of the subtle ways a European legislative agenda has come to almost seamlessly and invisibly overwrite Ireland’s political life and process.

Mike McCormack tells the story brilliantly through the voices of five participants in the events described, but not through the eyes of the central character, JJ O’Malley  — something that appears to be a sly comment on the individual’s ability to influence their own life in the modern world, as well as breaking one of the cardinal rules of the novel.  We get JJ’s father’s concerned bewilderment, the voice of a well-meaning older generation unable to understand the half of their children’s world; his neighbor’s essential decency, the voice of the community in a sense; his old teacher’s tolerant hope, the (naturally clichéd) voice of modernism, of progress; his girlfriend’s approving passivity, the voice of hopeful but clueless youth; and the local politician’s cynical choreography of the whole situation so it reflects well on himself, without requiring him to actually poke his neck out of his profoundly conservative shell. The storytellers are wonderfully written, verbally colorful, distinct, even funny, and they give the voice of the novel the light, humane, entertaining feel that is the hallmark of good conversation in Ireland. As the old joke goes, the Irish can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you’re actually looking forward to the trip, and Mike McCormack has this ability in spades.

The other ‘half’ of the novel (although it probably accounts for less than 5% of the word-count) is made up of the ‘notes’ from the coma, footnotes that take a more academic, higher-level view of the coma project: an experiment to test the viability of putting prisoners into comas for the duration of their sentences, thus removing the ability of prisons to harden their population into master criminals, and reducing to overall cost of incarceration to the government. The voice of these footnotes is that of a slightly unhinged academic gleefully commenting on his work. Why many reviewers have praised the novel but felt the need to caution readers that it’s necessary to push through these footnotes as if they’re your necessary daily dose of fiber is beyond me. McCormack finds an erudition and lightness to this strand of the tale that belies the cold calculus of the economics of incarceration, and enables to novel to succeed as entertainment where it could have felt didactic.

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The story of JJ O’Malley’s life that gently emerges is a sly mirror image of modern Ireland’s relationship with Europe: his adoption from central Europe, acceptance into the local community, the adoption of Irish ways and perspectives, leading to a existential struggle to know what to do with himself, indeed how to even think of himself. The Irish adapted to the great European experiment quickly, gratefully accepting the money and resources that flowed into the economy, but carried on as they always had done. Ireland is now struggling with the bill for those years, and must confront questions of national identity in a way that it hasn’t since independence.

JJ O‘Malley is blessed/cursed with an strong mind, but nothing particular to turn it to, except himself, and the riddles of his own existence. While others numb themselves with work, drink, or religion, JJ voices the endless questions and drives himself to a nervous breakdown. There’s probably a lot of Irish people who would welcome a few months away from worrying about their mortgage, their debts, their failing business. JJ O’Malley doesn’t offer a way out of our economic crisis, but he is an apt metaphor for the post-boom Irish psyche.

Irish lit is full of what I think of as “Directionless-young-bollixs-on-the-tear” novels. Inarticulate young men with nothing much to do, except feign cynicism and drown their uncertainty in drink. Every Irish male writer seems to need to get one of these books out of his system before going on to more original things. McCormack turns the genre on its head in many subtle and refreshing ways: JJ isn’t cynical at all, he’s disarmingly earnest; he’s a profoundly gentle soul, who turns the impotent rage inwards and thinks himself into an asylum, rather than going on a destructive rampage; and he has perhaps the most-decent father in the history of Irish literature. JJ is far more articulate than the average directionless-young-bollix, but perhaps his articulacy, coupled with his ability to appreciate every side of the story, every point of view, is as much of a problem as the inability to express himself?

Ireland has a suicide problem; whether to a greater or lesser degree than other countries I have no idea, nor do such comparisons matter. The apparent causes change from era to era — currently these can be summarized roughly as jobless young men in rural counties, farmers at the end of their credit, and teenage girls suffering online bullying — but the state of affairs has endured at least since the exodus from the countryside to the growing cities began, and probably much longer. You can read JJ’s decision as a temporary suicide, and the agonizing of his family and friends reads much like that of the bereaved, only without the raw, inescapable pain. The feeling is that the family, the community, even the enjoyment of life itself is diminished for those left behind when one person chooses to leave their company prematurely. That this leave-taking is not permanent, nor even the strange indefinite absence of emigration, appears to leave no less confusion. JJ’s enigmatic explanation for his decision (“I want to take my mind off my mind for a while.”) is as difficult for his family and friends to understand as silence. After suicide, everyone asks “Why?” McCormack’s novel seems to suggest that even if suicides could answer, we might not understand their reasoning any better.

Originally published before the Celtic Tiger sickened and died, Notes from a Coma reflects some of the contemporary undercurrents that the Irish are now bemoaning: a political system that strives to maintain the status quo and appease Europe, the dearth of opportunity for an educated population, an uncritical mass media that avoids uncomfortable questions. In those respects, Notes from a Coma now reads like a novel ahead of its time. It’s interesting that the book received a strong critical reception on publication (during the boom years), but poor sales. Five years later — after the bust of 2008 — it was being hailed by some as “the greatest Irish novel of the decade.” Now Mike McCormack is experiencing a bit of a comeback, with his first book, the collection of short stories Getting it in the Head, being republishing, a new volume of stories, Forensic Songs, out now, and Notes from a Coma finding a publisher in the US for the first time. Perhaps in the future this will come of be regarded as one of the touchstone novels of this period of Irish life?

An interview with Mike McCormack

This short interview was recorded as part of Poitics & Prose Bookstore’s reading series.

 

Notes:

Buy Notes from a Coma in the US from Barnes & Noble…

Buy Notes from a Coma in the UK from The Book Depository… (free shipping worldwide)

Support the Irish economy by buying Notes from a Coma from Kennys.ie… (free shipping worldwide)

 

[I try to keep this as personal blog, but by trade I am a book promoter. As most of the people I engage with both in real life and online are writers and book people, I thought I should share a few observations about the trade. This is the first in an occasional series of posts.]

map

Local Bookstores vs. “Local” Authors.

One thing that comes up over and over again when self-published or small press authors responsible for their own publicity/marketing discuss bookstores is a level of anger that it’s often difficult to get their books into indie bookstores (either on the shelves or for an event). I often see writers comment online (and hear it at festivals) that “even” their local stores “make it hard” for them and that local stores should want to work with local authors, and somewhere along the way I’ve realized there’s a disconnect between many fledgling writers and bookstores about what exactly a local author is.  Newsflash: it’s about a lot more than your ZIP code.

Let’s start with the obvious factor: physical proximity. Do you live a short drive or walk from the bookstore? This is an essential part of the equation, but it’s not the only relevant consideration. Another question is even more vital: do you shop at this bookstore regularly?  The key difference is between someplace being a local bookstore and it being your local bookstore.

From there the questions go on: How many booksellers do you know on a first name basis? Do they smile or grimace when you walk in? How many events have you attended there? Have you ever ended up in a bar, after hours, boozing it up with a touring author friend, a couple of booksellers from the store, and a sales rep for a publishing company who you still can’t see at a party without blushing?  How many times has the manager pulled a book from under the counter and said, “You’re gonna love this!” the moment you crossed the threshold?

I’m not saying you have to be best friends with the owner and blow your kids’ college savings at the bookstore, but you have to use it. You should be a known face — not necessarily a confidant — and part of the local literary community. If you’ve been working away in beautiful isolation and ordering all your own reading material from Amazon, then how can you expect your local bookstore to regard you as a local author? You’re a local, certainly, and you’re an author, but neither alone is a compelling reason for any bookstore to want to work with you. (They are swamped with authors asking them to carry their books or host events.) They need to know you the individual, and know you have a level of respect and support for their mission before they might consider supporting yours.

Your local store should be the one in the community where you live, where your children go to school, where you and your friends shop, the one with the cafe where you meet for safe first dates, and the place you bring out-of-town family when they visit. If you do not have a local store like this, find one. Pick a store, shop there, chat with the booksellers, ask for recommendations, buy birthday gifts there, attend events, get to know the staff and let them get to know you. It’ll make your literary life more interesting, more varied, and more eventful, and when you finish your manuscript and finally have a book to promote, your local booksellers will be much more enthusiastic and supportive because your success will be personal for them. During the writing process there’s a time for isolation and contemplation, for quiet work and freedom from distractions, but everyone needs a literary community to present their work to, and your local bookstore can be the cornerstone of that.

Bear this in mind: one of the criteria bookstores use in deciding whether to carry your book or to host an event is the question “Does this author have a local network to mobilize in support of their book?” If you haven’t even bothered to get to know people at the area bookstore, this doesn’t suggest you’ll be any better at networking in any other aspect of your life.

Bottom line: No bookstore is compelled to work with an author, especially not one who claims to be local, but whom they’ve never seen or heard from before. Take the time to get involved in your local literary community and support your local bookstore, your life will be the richer for it, and the booksellers will be more inclined to support your book in turn.

This is not to say that cultivating a good relationship with your local bookstore is the only thing you need to make a successful book. It’s just one part of your overall marketing plan — I’ll try to write about some of the others shortly. But, it’s a key relationship, and new writers should not take it for granted.

I’m not, by nature, a new-agey person. Although I live in the hippy mecca of Asheville, NC, I usually feel I’m the most conservative person in any gathering. So, when my better half began reading and acting on a book about de-cluttering with Feng Shui, I rolled my eyes a little and went back to whatever I was doing—until she began reading choice paragraphs and insights to me and (Shock! Horror!) they all seemed very relevant to my life. De-cluttering it seems (with or without Feng Shui) can be a process of letting go of things that have been holding you back or distracting you from your current life. If you view life as a journey, a process of change, you realize that most of your stuff was acquired before you grew into who you are currently. So much of this stuff will inevitably no longer be relevant to the job you currently have, lifestyle you currently follow, or interests you currently pursue.

To give a more concrete example: my family has literally thousands of books in our house. Most are titles I read (or wanted to read) at one point or another. There are, for example, shelves of fantasy & science-fiction (also science fact) from when I read a lot of SF, was actively trying to write that kind of fiction, and had a day-job where I needed to review and write about SF all the time. These days, my writing ambitions and practice are proceeding down different paths and reading Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui helped me realize that most of these books are never going to be used again by me. The very fact of their being around, taking up shelf space, the unread quietly guilting me, and the overflowing shelves having to be tidied, dusted and dealt with from time to time all takes mental energy and focus that I could be using more profitably elsewhere. Off to Goodwill with them all…

I began organizing our books on the shelves by interest areas—previously I had no organizing factor. At work, everything was categorized and alphabetical by author, but at home chaos reigned. Indian fiction initially took up a lot of space, but I’m no longer as intensely hungry for fiction from India and Pakistan as when I had first graduated from college (nearly 15 years ago), traveled in SE Asia and those authors were new and exciting to me. So I culled a great deal of older, already read and digested books from this section.

Naturally, Irish literature takes up a large section, but contained much more history and nonfiction than I realized. I decided to drop much of the random fiction and “flavor-of-the-moment” books I’d accumulated over the years (usually spur-of-the-moment purchases on trips back to my homeland) in favor of the more-serious history and literature, which is what I’m really interested in now.

The process of categorization and assigning shelf space revealed my current big literary/cultural passion to be what I’ll broadly call “the twentieth century European experience” (covering everything from Bloomsbury, Irish independence, and two world wars, through the multi-national ex-patriot experience in Europe between the wars, to the current facts of life in the EU). These are the kind of books I can’t read without opening two or three others to check references, compare and contrast, etc., so they needed to be shelved together for easy access. This wasn’t how I necessarily viewed my reading habits, but once I could see the amount of shelf space occupied by these books I began to reframe how I think about my reading time and any end goals or purpose those hours may have. So an unexpected benefit of this de-cluttering has been a mental shift in how I think about my reading habits/preferences and fresh understanding of how I’ve been choosing to use my free time.

We keep learning and growing in real time, but sometimes our mental image of ourselves, the one-line bio we assign ourselves in our heads, can’t keep up with our rate of growth, our changing focus. Our self image remains frozen in time like an obsolete mission statement or a long-neglected MySpace page. This whole de-cluttering kick helped me understand where my interests now lie and where they might take me. As I’m a very visual learner, I needed to see the amount of shelf space categories and subject areas took up, to weigh the bulk of old interests against new. This was easy to do once I gathered the physical books together — I can’t imagine how I’d do anything similar with ebooks on an ereader. (I have about 30 ebooks on my phone, but I can barely remember what they are. They’re out of sight and completely out of mind.)

Overall, we’ve probably only got rid of 20% of our books so far, with maybe another 10% that could easily be culled once I have the time and energy again. I think we still have too many books, and that’s probably the greatest testament to the influence of Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui; a couple of months ago I never would have thought one could have too many books.

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