Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Happily ever after?

Once upon a time many of the books I read ended with the tried and true assurance that: ‘they all lived happily ever after.’ For years I really wanted to believe it – that if you were good and nice that life would reward you. Conversely – if things went badly it was your own fault. I was raised in the Irish Catholic regime where guilt was encouraged and unworthiness was the birthright of Original Sin.

My early life was not always a rose garden. Far too often it was buffeted by the storms that erupted in those around me and I looked to books for some reassurance and I preferred those stories with strong morals and happy endings.

Since then, my views have changed.

But this remains an issue for anyone who would consider writing because a great many people will expect their investment in reading a story be rewarded and that reward must meet predetermined expectations. Never mind the idea that a good book could open doors and show things from a new perspective – when we consume we want guaranteed satisfaction. I understand that. We live in chaos and will grasp at anything that might help us deny that. I am convinced that too often we read to reinforce our convictions and shun opportunities to broaden or change our views.

That said there is nothing worse that struggling through the mental gyrations of some overly-complex work that cannot make up its mind what it is but there has to be some middle ground in this and in all things.

For me, finding this is the role of good Fiction. It should entice us to take the opportunity to step out from all that we insulate ourselves with and wander through worlds that we would never visit physically. It should challenge us and it should make us different. But too often books are measured by their popularity rather than their effect.

And for many years books that were not popular simply vanished from the shelves – consigned to discount bins and dusty warehouses. Thankfully that is changing. One of the great advantages of ebooks is that there is no cost in keeping the book around until it finds a loving audience. This was the history of Jane Austen’s writing – her early sales were unspectacular but back then, Publishing was more elegant and committed to promoting Literature in all of its forms. Since then, like most human effort, it has become dominated by the instant gratification of immediate profit.

But with change comes challenge and I wonder which path I will take. The responses to my first novel, Lagan Love, have reinforced much of what I have said – some love it for the questions and reflections it provokes and others are uncomfortable with what confronts them in its pages.

Should I be brave and push on and out into all the Fiction can allow or should I find a niche and serve up the same fare over and over?

In the rest of my life I have made a career of saying that; ‘the Emperor has no clothes,’ so I doubt that will change too much but writers, just like the rest of us, do need to eat on a regular basis. But for now my second novel is shaping up much like the first and I look forward to the reactions it evokes. Perhaps, if the Gods and Fate are not offended, I might still have a chance at a ‘happily ever after!’

Sunday, 22 January 2012

About Brian O’Nolan/ Flann O’Brien/ Myles na gCopaleen

Brian O’Nolan, who wrote under the pseudonyms of Flann O’Brien and Myles na gCopaleen (among others) was born on October 5th, 1911 in Strabane, Co. Tyrone

He went to school at Blackrock College and University College, Dublin where he was active in the Literary & Historical Society. He contributed to Comhthrom Féinne, the student magazine and completed an MA thesis.

O’Nolan launched Blather magazine with his brother Ciarán and contributed to it under various pseudonyms. He entered Civil Service in 1935, serving as the Private Secretary to the Minister of Local Government and later as Principal Officer for town planning before retiring under pressure on February 19, 1953.

At Swim-Two-Birds was an immediate critical success on publication in 1939 although this soon dampened as the publisher’s, Longmans’ warehouse was bombed and most of the edition lost. O’Nolan commenced writing his ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ column for the Irish Times under Editor R. M. Smyllie using the pseudonym ‘Myles na gCopaleen’ after the character in Bouccicault. The columns appeared (from October4 1940 until April 1,1960), for the first year in Irish and afterwards in English, in a series of raids on solecisms and pretensions.

He unsuccessfully submitted The Third Policeman to various publishers and concocted various stories to explain publishers lack of interest in it. He wrote a play, Faustus Kelly (Abbey Theatre, January 25, 1943), and then another, The Insect Play(also 1943). An Béal Bocht (1941) was published using the Myles na gCopaleen pen name.

O’Nolan married Evelyn McDonnell on December 2, 1948 He published stories and articles including ‘The Martyr’s Crown’ (Envoy 1950); lambasted ‘Titostalinatarianism’ of Tostal Festival, 1953; contributed ‘A Bash in the Tunnel’ in the "James Joyce Special Number" of Envoy(April 1951). He made the first modern Bloomsday pilgrimage with John Ryan, Patrick Kavanagh, and Anthony Cronin on June 16,1954.

As Flann O’Brien, O’Nolan issued The Hard Life (1961);An Béal Bocht was reissued as The Poor Mouth (1964). He issued The Dalkey Archive (1965), incorporating material rescued from The Third Policeman. It was dramatised by Hugh Leonard as The Saints Go Cycling In (1965).

He wrote sporadically for Radio Teilifís Éireann; TV dramas included, ‘The Dead Spit of Kelly’, ‘Flight’, and ‘The Time Freddy Retired’. He also scripted ‘O’Dea’s Yer Man’. He left a novel, ‘Slattery’s Sago Saga’ unfinished at the time of his death on 1 April 1966. The Third Policeman (1967) was issued posthumously and has resurrected O’Nolan’s reputation latterly being featured on the television series Lost.

Friday, 20 January 2012

fiction studio books

Fiction Studio Books celebrates its first anniversary today. As part of the festivities, we’re offering the e-book version of Jeremy Burns’s new novel From the Ashes free, and our entire 2011 e-book catalog for either $.99 or $1.99 at several online booksellers. Just click on the links on any of our book pages to seek out the deal at the bookseller of your choice.

A year ago, I published my novel Blue under my newly created imprint. To tell you the truth, the only thing I had in mind when I created this imprint was providing a home for Blue. Having spent my entire adult life in book publishing, I had a clear idea of how I wanted to publish that novel, so I didn't feel the need to approach anyone else about doing it for me. All I needed was an infrastructure, something my friends at National Book Network were willing to provide. I decided to call the imprint Fiction Studio Books because I'd been running a company called The Fiction Studio for ten years.

That was really as far as my initial thoughts went. That phase lasted about four hours. Then my imagination caught up. I knew plenty of very good writers who felt either disenfranchised by or disenchanted over traditional book publishing. What if I opened Fiction Studio Books up to them as well? What if I let a trusted handful of colleagues know that I was open to writers they knew who might feel the same way? What if, instead of a vertically structured publishing house, I instead set this thing up as a horizontally structured writers collective?

Fiction Studio Books began to take form at that point. I would be its curator. I had to love every book on the list, but that certainly left a great deal of room, because I have ridiculously broad tastes. I would also be its publisher, lending my thirty-plus years of study about the book publishing world to the process. And the other authors on the list would be my collaborators. We were at a true inflection point in the industry, and it made far more sense to have many keen minds working through this stage than just mine (especially since mine was often so far from keen).

In 2011, Fiction Studio Books published fourteen titles, and I think we have much to celebrate as we come upon our first anniversary. We can celebrate our commercial success: three of those books were national bestsellers and a fourth reached the top 100 on the Kindle bestseller list. We can celebrate our critical success – our books regularly receive acclaim from reviewers, bloggers, literary luminaries, and New York Times bestselling authors. We can celebrate our range: among those fourteen titles were literary novels, thrillers, fantasy stories, and historical fiction. We published a book set in a psychiatric facility, another at LAX, one in a small town in Canada, and another in a small town in Italy – 14th Century Italy, a novel of the near future, and one that involves the distant past. We can celebrate our characters, which have included a hunted serial killer, a haunted artist, and a haunting seer. I'd certainly like to celebrate the collegiality between Fiction Studio's authors, evident publicly in their lusty participation in this blog and the way they cheer each other on from our Facebook page.

I have no idea how many books we'll publish in 2012. One of the benefits of the new publishing paradigm is that publishers don't need nearly as much prep time as they once did, so the list can stay unformed much longer. We've published three titles in the first three weeks of the year, again reflecting the range of the program: Jessica Keener's gorgeous, lyrical Night Swim; Jeremy Burns' complex and chilling From the Ashes; and Thérèse’s funny and wise India's Summer. I can promise you that this doesn't mean that we're going to publish fifty-two books this year – I invest a great deal of myself in every book, and there's only so much of me to go around – but I think there's a very good chance we'll wind up with more than fourteen. There are several very fine books in the pipeline (including new titles from some of our 2011 authors), and just today I read another that I think is simply beautiful. There will even be another one from me.

While I can't be clear on the specifics, I can tell you that every book on this list will be here because it touched me in some way and I therefore think it might touch you. I've been offered the opportunity grow the list quickly by acquiring large collections of books, and I've resisted this, choosing instead to let the list grow organically. This publishing program might never be huge, but I think our books will continue to carry a great deal of weight.

Anniversaries are arbitrary events. The first anniversary of Fiction Studio Books is no less arbitrary than any other. Anniversaries do, however, allow for reflection. And when I reflect on what we've done in our first year, I come away feeling very satisfied.

* The title of this post, by the way is from the Little River Band’s “Happy Anniversary.”

Monday, 16 January 2012

What can you say about women?

Since my first novel, Lagan Love, was published there is one question I have been asked a number of times: Was it difficult to write female characters?

I have often wondered at that. Is it because I am a man and therefore it is assumed that I would have difficulty in understanding women? Or is it because my female characters are so compelling that they engender amazement? I would prefer to think it was the latter but that would fan vanity and I have learned to be cautious about that.

I believe that good writers ‘create’ characters through observation. We meet all kinds of wonderful characters every day and, with a little bit of imagination, some of them can find their way onto the pages of a book. (This is another reason why we should behave ourselves with consideration for others because who wants to see their selfish, rude or indifferent, selves in public.)

However, most people would agree that men and women have difficulty in understanding each other. (I believe this is because women have a tendency to feel while men think or not think. This of course is a generality in lieu of a much longer discourse – perhaps the material for a future book!) Perhaps this is why we are inundated with one dimensional, or stereotypical, characters. Men in romance stories are too often cast in a mould; tall, dark, handsome, brooding or injured, but putty in the heroine’s long slender, manicured fingers – the stuff of fantasies – not unlike the large-breasted females who wear their hair tightly-bunned and frown through thick framed glasses until some guy unlocks their sensuous butterfly with a kiss.

While all of this is delightful in its own place – much like having delicate French pastries for breakfast – it can be fattening to the mind. Many of the women I have known in my life are far more interesting and I consider myself lucky in being able to see that.

My mother set me straight from the beginning. She was raised by her father who was a senior police officer during Ireland’s Civil War. He moved constantly so my mother was packed off to a convent school where she developed her brilliant mind. In the 1930’s she went to University – a feat in any country at that time and remarkable in Ireland.

How she met and married my father is another story but, after raising 6 boys single handed, she returned to her prime passion – intellectualism!

She ran with an interesting crowd too; one of Ireland’s most prominent female novelists, Ireland’s first female President and, for balance, two priests. One was a noted historian and the other a poet! What impressed me about all of this was how she could hold her own in any conversation. Nothing was beyond her and while my friends only got to see their mothers as cleaners, cooks and nursemaids, I saw mine as a power in the world.

From all of this I realised that women range from angels to succubi – if you believe in such things. They have all the complexities, virtues and vices,insecurities and assuredness, ambitions and considerations that you might associate with men – only for me, women are far more interesting.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Being Irish is not as easy as it looks!

In the multiculturalism of Canada, all of us can celebrate what we were while taking our place in the unified mosaic of what we might all become. It sounds wonderful in theory but for me, it wasn’t that easy. You see I am Irish – born and raised there and exported to Canada in my early twenties.

When I arrived I probably did not match most people’s expectations of Irishness as I did not have red hair and I did not wear a little green bowler nor carry a shillelagh. I never uttered the phrase; ‘Faith and Begorrah,’ and I couldn’t Riverdance to save my life. Nor did I use ‘Irish Spring’ toiletries as I never heard of them until I came here. Back in the auld sod I used ‘Old Spice’ and ‘Lifebuoy.’

When I got off the plane in Malton, I was under pressure from the beginning. Ireland’s contributions to Canada were many; both great and small. I was following in the footsteps of the likes of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, who Wikipedia describes as: an Irish Nationalist, Catholic spokesman, journalist, and a Father of Canadian confederation. He fought for the development of Irish and Canadian national identities that would transcend their component groups.

Less well remembered was Patrick J. Whelan who was accused and hung for the murder of the aforementioned McGee and who gave Canada its first, and to date, only political assassination. That some say Whelan was framed is the point I am trying to make. When you are Irish you come with certain expectations regardless.

I am reminded of this every year on the eve of Sheila’s day – or as most people would say: Saint Patrick’s Day. (Note: short form is St. Paddy’s Day and never St. Patty’s Day which is, as far as I know, some hamburger chain’s promotion of green meat and probably should be avoided!)

Every year, on the 17th of March, Canadians of all colours and stripes dress up in green and act a little foolishly, in a manner they presume to be Irish. I am offended by that. Most real Irish people of my acquaintance would never do things in such fashion and when acting foolishly would do it on a grand scale – like bailing out a bankrupt banking system or lining up in their thousands to welcome Brian Mulroney to Dublin. (But, in defence of my race, we did refrain from hosting the ‘Shamrock Summit’ that featured Mulroney and Ronald O’ Reagan warbling through ‘When Irish eyes are smiling!’)

For many years I played music in Irish bars and for Irish Musicians, Saint Patrick’s Day was like Christmas – Green Christmas. Every bar in town wanted Irish Musicians and we could actually make some money – the green that makes all eyes smile!

My adventures playing music in Irish bars were many and I hope a few will find their way into my second novel but one is worth mentioning in this context. During a break we were approached by a swaying bleary-eyed young student type who insisted on buying us a round of green beers despite the fact that we were drinking Guinness – a dark stout. Burdened as we were by the strict rules around accepting hospitality we drank his beer as we listened to him ramble on about his Irishness. He was, he assured us: “One 64th Irish blood on his great-great grandfather’s side.” We advised him to avoid nosebleeds and went back to singing about Unicorns and Whiskey in the Jar.

It is the curse of my race that we are burdened by images of Leapin’ Leprechauns and crocks of gold; drunken pishogeries and beguiling charms that we learn in school at the behest of the Irish Tourist Board – to lighten the purses of dollar laden visitors!

The reality is very different and this was one of the driving forces behind my first novel Lagan Love. Through it I wanted to let the reader wander the streets of Dublin, back in the nineteen-eighties, before the Celtic Tiger came and changed everything. I wanted to let the reader in on a way of life that tolerated the future while suffering the past. Check it out – you might like it.