Recently I was approached by my friend, award winning writer and last years recipient of the Jonathan Swift Creative Writing Award, Susan Condon as she wanted to tag me in an on-line blogging chain – The Next Big Thing – a way for writers to promote their work-in-progress through a series of questions. Susan is a soon to be famous crime novelist and is already well known in short story and poetry circles and if you haven’t already read any of her work then you are in for a special treat. I was honoured to be asked to follow such writers as Valerie Sirr, Brian Kirk and Susan among others and to be honest more than a little aprehensive but then these are the events that make you sit up.
So here goes!
My Next Big Thing:
Well, as Susan will tell you, I’ve been working on two projects really. The first is my debut novel – a historical based fiction narrative – which I have been researching and writing for most of the last five years. As a historian I am used to writing historical books and articles – fact based theories etc- but I also enjoy the portrayal of peoples lives on screen and in books, the hidden people of the past – the hidden stories. There are plenty of facts on social histories but only the rich, famous and the victorious were really ever written about in any great detail, which leaves the multitudes of ordinary people, who experienced sizemic events of the past, out in the darkness as regards modernities view of their existences. I like to pin major events in the past to the impact they had on ordinary people, even if the people are fictitious in the telling of the story, sometimes the creation of character brings out what’s lost in facts. I find that I now want to tell stories that thread human emotion through our evolution, that’s why fiction can be so very compelling. Joining the Virginia House Creative Writers and Platform 1 Writers in Tallaght a few years ago has helped me in many ways to this, especially having other writer friends to read my work honestly.
My second and currently most prominent project that I am working on is the culmination, (I think I’m getting there), of a poetry collection, which I have been writing for the last three or so years about my experiences and memories as a United Nations Peacekeeper with the Irish Defence Forces in South Lebanon and Kosovo during the conflicts in those countries. I was delighted to have had a number of these poems published in literary magazines such as The Moth & Cyphers and also to have been placed as ‘Joint 2nd Winner’ in the Patrick Kavanagh International Poetry Award 2011 with a collection titled Against The Black Sky, We Listen: An Irish Peacekeepers Poems (also short-listed 2012).
In between, I’ve managed to produce a few short stories, a couple of which have been published, I’ve been selected as a reader in the Eigse Eireann/Poetry Ireland Introductions Series 2012 and won 3rd Prize in the Jonathan Swift Creative Writing Awards 2012 in the poetry section (short-listed 2011). I was also listed in the recent Inaugural Doire Press International Poetry Competition and the Cork Literary Review Poetry Manuscript Competition , so I think my work is resonating with some people.
What is the working title of your book?
My title, for the novel, I want to keep to myself for now as I think it’s unique and a lot of the process in my thinking and creating is still very much hinged to it and I don’t want too move too fast to soon, just yet…. so sorry about that!
As for the poetry I have sent off some drafts to publishers to see how they react as this is a newish type of poetry subject in Ireland or so I have been told, ‘modern Irish soldiers are not really known for writing about their experiences in poems’ so I hope the poems get a good response.. I may go with the title of the collection that won the Kavanagh prize ‘Against The Black Sky, We Listen: An Irish Peacekeepers Poems,’ they are not strictly war poems (I haven’t been at war though I have been in some warzones during conflicts ) but they are very much about war.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I had no idea when I was serving with the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces that one day I would be writing about it. The idea for the poetry book came from my writing of the poems, something that seems to have been a long time in the creating, fermenting so to speak. I started writing poetry when my mother passed away, she had always told me to write these things down and once I began it seemed to keep coming. The title comes from a line from one of my poems titled HILL 880, which was prominant Irish UN position in South Lebanon and at times could be a very dangerous and volatile place. The poem itself describes a night of heavy shelling in the Irish Battalion area where the peacekeepers are caught in the middle and coming under hostile fire. (Some poems and stories are available to read on my Blog)
The idea for the book is pinned to historical events and characters but the antagonist and main protagonist are purely fictitious. The main thread of an idea I suppose came after I had written a history book about Ex-British soldiers who had served in the Irish Volunteers, IRA and Irish National Army during the period of the Irish Revolution and Civil War 1913-1924. I was fascinated by the perceptions of loyalty and the divided loyalties of friends and families against the backdrop of the Great War and the Revolution in Ireland. Many Irishmen fought in the British Army during the Great War for the promise of Ireland only to return home to join the Volunteers and fight for Irish Independence from Britain and then in the National Army against the IRA. Their allegiances changed regularly and as events dictated but always they were serving their country though little of this is understood or even remembered now. But one can imagine all the possible threads and narratives that could be conjoured up when examining those situations…well whatever can be imagined believe me it all happened it’s just been forgotten to a great extent. Guilt can be a major factor in the human psyche and the conditioning of individuals and in my story the protagonist is carrying family secrets, a promise he is destined not to keep and a remorse that slowly destroys him and all set in a very parochial Catholic Ireland.
What genre does your book fall under?
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
My main characters in the novel are followed from early childhood into adulthood, through family tragedies, wars, political upheaval and perceived disloyalty and the loss of friendships so if there was to be actors involved in a movie rendition I think I would like Michael Fassbender to play the protagonist, …..maybe… but please do get back to me when we are doing the script, he he!
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
For the novel: The Call to Arms leads to the stifling of the promise of love, the breaking of the bonds of friendships and the destruction of a family with demanded loyalties and the burden of a haunting past.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
For the novel…well…I’m still writing the first Draft. I’m still in the defence forces, running a military museum and I have a young family so with this and the poetry and other other projects it’s taken about five years to get this far but I am getting there. Recently I visited some of the locations, which are portrayed in the book and which are almost as equal in character to the main characters in many ways ie the landscapes of Gallipoli, Flanders and the Somme battlefields so a little re-writing is occurring! To be honest I’m always listening to the characters conversing in my head, the plot-lines etc playing out in regard to my own understanding of history. Now that I have walked the famous ground I understand my story much better. This is my strength, always has been when writing historical pieces so I want to get it right the same way with the fiction.
Same with the poetry collection though I feel I’m nearly there. In a way I’m telling a story with the poems too!
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
For the novel I think ‘Regeneration‘ by Pat Barker would have similarities with the psychological effects of violence on the characters in my story also but other than that I’m hoping that my book will be different in a lot of ways to others especially as I’m telling the story of Irishmen in the wars of the early 20th Century both abroad and at home, which is something not greatly examined. The landscapes of war are in the mind and on the ground too and so…
for the poetry: I have been drawn lately to two collections Here, Bullet & Phantom Noise by poet Brian Turner who writes about his experiences as a US soldier in the recent Iraq Wars. I have also read the Great War poetry of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and Francis Ledwidge and although the conflicts that these poets wrote about occurred along time before and after the ones that I was involved in they still resonate with me and helped me to transfer images into words on paper. I hope that my poems will still be able to do that in a hundred years time!
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
For the novel I think being annoyed sometimes at the portrayal of history by the media and film industry or lack of it and then other times my sampling of transcripts and reading them to other writers and friends who showed interest etc as for the poetry: it’s the memories, faces and stories of a part of my life that are only now trying to get out….I think!
What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
The novel is based in the rural and city scapes of Dublin, Cork, France, Belgium, Gallipoli and Britain between the 1890s and the 1920s against the backdrop and carnage of the trenches of war and the political emergence of Irish identity and bloody idealism. It’s a whole lot of Strumpet City meets Birdsong meets a more modern version of the Braveheart type nationalism story that collides with The Wind That Shakes The Barley, all the stories I grew up with or I have read that shaped my view of history because of how it was portrayed on the screen or on the page and led me to where I am now. I want to show people the real story of Ireland in this period and maybe they will understand a little better how it came to be what it is now and who we are….maybe!
The poetry collection will be an insight I suppose into the work of Irish soldiers on peacekeeping duty abroad. Many have died on that service and a lot of good work has been done but sometimes it takes years to feel that you have had a positive impact. Mostly I’m rediscovering and talking to that younger version of myself, in a way I’m coming home, in a way some part of me will always stay over there!
When and how will it be published?
Well, first I need to finish the poetry collection because that is having more of an effect on my emotions and my thinking at present, which means that I will complete that and commit myself fully to the novel all within the next couple of months. I would really like to have a poetry collection published this year and a first draft of the novel written by the end of 2013 as there is a lot of state commemorations coming up over the next ten years that all of my books will have relevance to as will the new ones. So by the 100th Anniversary of the beginning of the First World War and Ireland’s commemorations of Irish troops going off to fight, 1914 (2014), I will have my novel published……a promise!
And now it’s time to tag two very busy and quite different writers and creators in their own fields, who I believe are part of Ireland’s great cultural export to the literary and academic worlds – Stephen James Smith and Damien Shiels who will hopefully be telling us about their ‘Next Big Thing’ on Wednesday 16th January, so make sure to keep an eye open and an ear out for them in the future.
Stephen James Smith is a poet, playwright from Dublin. He won the Cúirt International Literary Festival Poetry Grand Slam and his ABSOLUTE Fringe play ‘Three Men Talking About Things They Kinda Know About’ (co-written with Colm Keegan & Kalle Ryan) was shortlisted for the Bewley’s ‘Little Gem Award 2011.’ In 2009 he represented Ireland at the Vilenica Literary Festival Slovenia and in 2010 at Wiersze w Metrze Poland. Stephen is a founder of The Glór Sessions – a weekly event of poetry and music. In April 2011 he was invited by Culture Ireland to recite in the iconicNuyorican Poetry Café New York. ‘Arise and Go!’ his debut album with musician Enda Reilly was selected by Hot Press as one of the best albums of 2011. In 2012 he performed his poetry inFrankfurt, Paris and in London where he was invited by The Irish Olympic House to perform for the Irish Olympians. He work has been translated into six languages and published all over the globe. He is a regular contributor to RTÉ Radio 1’s Arts Show Arena, and has featured on RTÉ’s The Works. He can be found at http://twitter.com/StephenJSPoet, on his webpage http://www.stephenjamessmith.com and also on www.facebook.com/TheGlórSessions
Damian Shiels is a professional archaeologist who specialises in ‘conflict archaeology’, particularly where it relates to Ireland. He currently works with a commercial archaeology company, Rubicon Heritage Services Ltd, but has also spent time as one of the curatorial staff at the National Museum of Ireland where he worked with the military collections and in the preparation of the Soldiers and Chiefs military history exhibition and spent much of his career around historical documents interpreting them from an archaeological and museum standpoint.
He has had a long standing interest in the Irish experience of conflict regardless of period or location, and the American Civil War is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating topics in this sphere. The sheer scale of the Irish involvement in the conflict and its affects not only on the soldiers at the front but the Irish civilians at home has captivated his attention. Although the Irish experience of the Civil War is a relatively popular topic in the United States, there remains little understanding in Ireland of either the event itself or how it impacted on the Irish in America or indeed the Irish in Ireland.
Damians blog has been set-up to fulfill a number of aims. He hopes to tell the stories of Irish men and women caught up in the Civil War in an engaging and informative manner, along the way providing information on different people, units and places. It is also intended that resources for those interested in the Irish experience will be built up over time, to act as an aid for those who wish to find out more and to raise awareness in Ireland of the Irish experience of the American Civil War, particularly in light of the 150th anniversary. You can find Damian at irishamericancivilwar.com and on Twitter at @irishacw.