girl in the middle

the mattress (1)
A quirky short story about a woman who discovers that not all heroes wear capes… some of them don’t even have a pulse. But they do have a name. Gerald.

I wrote a short story! girl in the middle And you can download it, for free, on whatever device you use.

Nook  ~ Kobo ~ Kindle ~ Apple

Now, don’t labour under the misapprehension that I wrote this during lockdown. No siree. All I’ve done during lockdown is watch Poldark (because… I’m really interested in 18th century mining?!), curse my sinuses and basically fall apart, in an orderly fashion.

Writing during this time has been like everything else during this time – a mixture of extremes. Either I’m feeling really creative and motivated or I can’t even muster up the enthusiasm to switch on my laptop. I wrote this story last year with the full intention of submitting it for a short story award, but being the success-driven, laser-focused, ambitious writer that I am, I didn’t get around to it 🙂 But I’m so glad I didn’t, because finding it now feels like perfect timing. A gift from past-me to present-me. When I read it again, I found myself laughing out loud and enjoying the quirky characters I created. So I thought, what’s the best way to get this out into the world? Self-publish of course!

Also, it’s been a long time since I’ve released anything and the stuff I’m currently working on is more contemporary and more comedy. That’s the thing with novels – there is sooooooooooooooo much time in between, where your readers probably think you’re dead or off spending your royalties in Mauritius. When really, you’re writing TWO new novels, submitting, waiting, writing, reading, editing, deleting and repeating until another year has gone by and you’ve nothing to show for it. So releasing a little story is a great way to remind people that you’re alive and still writing stories.

And people do love a free book! It’s a great way to discover a new author. Betwixt – my first short story – which is consistently in the Amazon Top 5, is flying off the virtual shelves at the moment. So it’s a win-win, I get to share a bite-size piece of creativity and readers get a free story.

So please share, read, download, whatever it is you crazy kids do and help me to get this story out there. At a very short and sweet 15 pages, girl in the middle is fun, free and uplifting – and we could all do with a bit of that right now.

 

The Calm and The Storm

I’m a worrier, by nature. I tend to say ‘What if’ a lot. But I also tend to over-compensate for this by cracking jokes and making people laugh. So, welcome to my blog where I swing wildly from one emotion to the other and attempt to make some sort of sense out of the last few weeks, peoples’ reactions to it and how I’m coping/not coping.

Firstly, I never thought it was possible, but social media has managed to turn quarantining into a competition! Some people seem to be really thriving at this complete and utter ARMAGEDDON that has literally come out of nowhere and they are sharing this wonderfulness, to cheer everyone else up. People are baking, hiking, taking up new hobbies, fucking sky-diving (well, maybe not that last bit, but I wouldn’t be surprised). So now I feel like I’m failing at quarantining. I’ve not had any instagrammable moments, or read all my books on the shelf. I haven’t made buns or joined an online yoga class. My paints and brushes lie idle and the only gardening I’ve managed to do is to stand under the laurel tree listening to the blackbird (which I should have recorded for Insta – dammit!!) In our weird online world, everything has to be the best experience EVER, even this shitbox of a time can’t be wasted. You have to be doing something with it. Being positive about it.


I reacted like many people do; privately freaking out while at the same time, sharing what I hoped were soothing artworks and poems. Then I finally accepted that, actually, no – I wasn’t over-reacting and the world is in total turmoil (zoinks!) What’s the picture for that? The Scream?! No-one wants to see that. So I took to the bed, as we say in Ireland, and had a good cry for myself whilst listening to some sad AF music. Honestly, that was the most positive thing I’ve done so far and would highly recommend it.

If I had a dog I’d be putting up cute dog pics, but as it is, I live alone and have to make my own entertainment (steady). So really, I should be perfectly placed to deal with this. I know how to work from home, how to be unsociable and shop online. But it’s the unknown I can’t deal with. How can you prepare for something when the rules keep changing every day? Nobody really knows what to do and I guess that’s why one minute we’re being over-enthusiastic about how well we can handle it and the next, completely overwhelmed.

As for me, I did the only thing that made sense to me – I made masks! Yep, I did wonder if I was being a bit OTT, but guess what, everyone’s at it! All around the world.  Even the governor of New York sent out a call for people to start making them for hospitals. There are lots of tutorials online, so even if you are a rubbish seamstress like me, you can probably cobble one together. They do not guarantee 100% protection from the virus, but they’re better than nothing I guess and I wanted to give my parents (who are in their seventies) something as a precaution if they have to go somewhere.

All the official advice here is that you don’t need a mask, and I can see why. There are no masks available to buy anyway and whatever protective gear they do have in stock needs to be kept for medical staff.  But there’s no harm in making your own. You don’t even need a sewing machine. Obviously, the best option is to just stay at home and stay safe, but I wonder if more people wore these, would it make a difference? I don’t know, I’m not a virologist, but they’re washable and reusable and making them gave me something proactive to do and took away that yucky feeling of helplessness.

So if you want to give it a go, check out #millionmaskchallenge on Twitter, try this tutorial on Instructables  or have a read of this article on Forbes.  At the very least, they will stop you touching your face! And I made mine using material with miniature dachshunds on the front, so, I mean, what’s not to love about that?! Anyway, that’s what I’m doing. Apart from worrying, binge-watching The Crown, eating stuff and wondering if what I think is a toothache is actually the beginnings of a stroke! That’s how I roll folks.

I really hope you are all minding each other and doing whatever you need to to feel okay (or just be okay with not feeling okay). I hope we treat ourselves and our planet with a little more care when we get to the other side of this. Life isn’t a race to the finish line – a game of Monopoly where you simply produce and consume. It’s an experience and we can all help to make it a good one for the majority of people, rather than just the few.  People can be so kind and community-minded – it’s amazing how it takes something like this to see it. I hope we will view things differently, through a lens of common good rather than self-interest. Also, where would we be without our arts & culture?! Through this time I relied heavily on actors, artists, musicians and of course, writers. We need their work to comfort us, to help us escape, to offer hope.

Speaking of, look at what this artist Mathieu Persan made – a gorgeous poster with a simple message. Free to use as you please. We’re in this together. x

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by Mathieu Persan

How To Measure Happiness

Tom Toro for The New Yorker

Are we happy? And if so, why does it feel like we’re all going to hell in a handcart? I look around me and all I see are people who are disenfranchised, angry and struggling. But everything should be great though, right? We’ve never had it so good, or is that just how it looks on paper?

Image result for david pilling the growth delusionI’ve just finished reading The Growth Delusion: The Wealth and Well-being of Nations by David Pilling, an economic journalist, who speaks to people like me that tend to glaze over whenever they hear anything to do with figures.  I was instantly drawn by the title, especially after my last post all about decluttering and the adverse affects of consumerism on our health and our environment. It just feels like it’s all getting out of hand.

For our economies to keep moving forward, we must be insatiable. The basis of modern economics is that our desire for stuff is limitless’

 

A growing economy has long been the way to define success, or how well we are doing as a country. Finance ministers can’t wait to tell us how great our GDP is, but what does it mean and does it really reflect our lived experience?  Essentially, Gross Domestic Product measures the economic activity of a country –  the value of all goods and services produced in a given time. Now that’s all well and good, but what it doesn’t tell you is how well we are doing as a society when it comes to things like equality, the environment or most importantly, well-being. It also assumes that limitless growth is a good thing.

Only in economics is endless expansion seen as a virtue. In biology it is called cancer.

It feels like there is a change coming, a revolution perhaps, that will seek to overthrow this idea that everything should be sacrificed in the name of GDP. Whether it is the new generation of protesters inspired by Greta Thunberg and her calls for action on the environment, or people like historian Rutger Bregman who gave that now infamous speech on taxes in Davos. (Here’s a link if you’ve missed it, which also includes the Executive Director of Oxfam, Winnie Byanyima talking about developping countries and the effects of globalisation.)

Pilling is calling for a move beyond GDP and new ways of measuring our progress, as much of what we care about as human beings is left out of our economic calculations. The length of time we spend commuting, healthcare, volunteer work, pollution and unpaid housework just don’t feature in this magical number. However it is GDP that drives government policy and ultimately shapes our society, and maybe that’s why there is such a sense of inequality when it comes to the distribution of wealth. When the measurements the experts use to measure it do not reflect our economic reality, there will always be a discrepancy.

And it’s this gulf that might explain the discord among ‘the working poor’,who are constantly being told that things are great, and yet they cannot afford to buy a home or access the healthcare they need.

If your country’s economy is growing solely because the rich are getting richer and if you are working harder and harder just to maintain your living standard, then you are entitled to ask what, precisely, is all this growth for?

All of this disillusionment might go some way towards explaining why people voted for Trump and why people voted for Brexit. We all know the money is going somewhere, but we don’t know where, and that whole idea of ‘trickle down economics’ is clearly not working. So we try to use our democratic vote to change things, only to discover we might have gone from the frying pan into the fire. Pilling’s book also talks about ‘deaths of despair’ and the rising rate of suicide. If it’s all about the economy stupid (as Bill Clinton once said) then why do people feel so hopeless at a time when things have never been better?

The expanding economy has not benefited workers who produced that growth, but rather the owners of capital.

But speaking of Britain, I came across this article in the Guardian recently which could give cause for hope:  ‘Wellbeing should replace growth as ‘main aim of UK spending’

Personal well-being rather than economic growth should be the primary aim of government spending, according to a report by the former head of the civil service and politicians.

This is so heartening to read and reinforces the need for change. Of course it’s difficult to get people on board with the happiness factor when dealing in dollars, pounds and euros, and anyone suggesting more holistic alternatives are labelled as leftie snowflakes (or whatever derogatory term is now en vogue for people who genuinely care for the well-being of society.) But if we’re not working for the betterment of society and our fellow woman, then what are we doing all of this for? To make the rich richer, some might say. The government’s job is to do what is best for the majority of its citizens. I’m not sure that’s what happened here during the banking crisis, when the government decided to bail out the banks – saddling Irish citizens with years of debt. As Pilling puts it:

Banking is socialism for the wealthy and capitalism for everyone else.

As you can tell, this book got me all fired up! It’s a really eye-opening read and looks past all of the jargon that tends to put people off economics (which is probably what those in charge are counting on!). We need to be informed so we can make better choices and demand more from our governments. Whether it’s an overhaul of our welfare system (and where would the creative arts sector be without that) and introducing a basic income like Finland (which – surprise,surprise – made people happier!) or introducing a four day work week, we need to make changes that will lead to a greater sense of fulfillment, dignity and happiness. This is only the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a good place to start.

Be Creative – It’s not a waste of time

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With the Oscars coming up, I’m reminded of one of my favourite speeches by composer Michael Giacchino for (coincidentally) one of my favourite animation features, UP.

Of all the things he could have said, he spoke about the pervading myth/belief that doing something creative is a waste of time.  Sure, we honour those at the top and authors are often on the receiving end of comments like, ‘Why don’t you write something like Harry Potter?’  Either your creativity wins you fame and fortune, or you’re wasting your time.

Since time immemorial, parents have been telling their kids to get a ‘real job’, so there’s nothing new there, but that doesn’t mean we have to discourage them from exploring their creative side.  It’s all well and good plastering the fridge with abstract works of art in the early years, but what’s the real message from society when we try to carry this creative spirit forward in our lives?  In an article I wrote for the Irish Times last year, I considered the impact of paying lip service to creativity.

When our children are very young, we teach them that they can be anything they want to be. Yet at some point, this wonderful sense of openness and opportunity changes. We ask them to pick courses that will lead to good job opportunities. We even have “feeder schools” for universities, which sound more like something out of a dystopian novel than an inclusive education system. The artistic talent you showed as a child is suddenly frowned upon as you edge ever closer to the first round of state exams. Facing into adulthood, we are told to put away childish things.

Yet, for so many of us, that hunger to create persists.

It doesn’t matter if we don’t go on to become Oscar-winning performers.  Creativity leaks into everything, how you play with your kids, how you approach a project at work, your relationships.  The ability to think creatively isn’t just a soundbyte for your CV, it’s a way of life that brings an element of playfulness and lateral thinking to everything you do.  As children, we learn through play.  Why does that have to stop when we get older?

One of the hardest parts about starting out as a writer is not giving up.  We always hear the same rhetoric; there’s no money in it, it’s impossible to get published, you’re not good enough anyway.  It’s really hard to persist with something when everyone and everything is telling you that it’s a waste of time and that it’ll never go anywhere.  We are compared and compare ourselves with people who are at the pinnacle of their career and see our own efforts as falling miserably short of these standards.  And yet, there are so many of us, persisting, creating.  Why?  For me, it was simple.  It made me happy.  No, not happy, fulfilled.  It was a kind of compulsion.  First, I wanted to see if I could do it.  Then, I wanted to see if I could do it better.

My whole life I have been inspired by other peoples’ creative expression, in the movies I’ve watched, music I’ve listened to and books I’ve read.  More recently I’ve been inspired by visual artists and sometimes I wonder what it is that they have given me, by pursuing their creative passions…  And I suppose, at the end of the day, we’re sharing parts of ourselves and our experience of the world.  When I see a beautiful painting that resonates with me, I can’t say exactly why it does, it just does.  And it connects me to the artist, to humanity.  It makes me feel like I belong.

That’s how important creativity is.  I can only hope that my books make people feel something and I know every author is the same – when you get a review from a reader that says, ‘I loved that character’, or ‘The story really stayed with me’, it’s such a wonderful sense of connection.  Then there is the sense of fulfillment, purpose and self-expression that I feel when I write – I know myself better through writing and painting.  Making stuff gives us a better understanding of ourselves and the world.  Of possibility.  So I guess it depends on your definition of value and worth, but for me, creativity is most certainly not a waste of time.  You need to give yourself permission to express who you are creatively, even if those around you do not.

 

Finding The Otherworld

Life is funny.  I never thought I’d find myself down an old country lane, asking a tatooed mechanic, “Is this the right way for the portal to the Otherworld?”  Only in Ireland, as they say.  But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

As anyone who has read my stories will know, I have a bit of a thing for magic, mystery and the unseen.  Maybe it’s down to my over-active imagination, or it could be my love of folklore, but either way, Ireland is fertile ground for superstition.  Of course it was the Irish who invented Halloween (need proof? here) or what we call Samhain.  It is the time of year when the veil between worlds is at its thinnest and beings from the Otherworld can cross over and scare the bejesus out of us.

But surely this is all myth and not really grounded in reality?  Well, being cursed with a nose for curiosity, I found myself on a bit of a road trip recently, in search of the real portal to the Otherworld ~ Oweynagat.  Oweyna-what I hear you ask?  Well, this is the anglicised version of Uaimh na gCait, which translates as Cave Of The Cats and can be found in Rathcroghan, a Royal Site in County Roscommon, where the Kings and Queens of Connacht reigned and were buried.  Rathcroghan (Crúachan Aí) is a unique complex of archaeological sites and is believed to have been the birthplace of Queen Medb, Connacht’s Warrior Queen (waaaay before Beyonce).

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Copyright M. Casey

As with many things in the West of Ireland, directions are all relative.  The signs are there, but good luck seeing them.  Rathcroghan is said to be one of the most significant but least appreciated archaeological landscapes on the island of Ireland, so while you won’t find as many tourists here as compared to Tara and Newgrange, you mightn’t find the site either!  A series of mounds are spread out across the townland of Tulsk and the fact that most of them are on private land which is currently being farmed, you could quite easily drive past.  Thankfully, there is a lovely new visitor’s centre to keep you on the straight and narrow, but you will still have to run the gauntlet of some menacing sheep to get to the top of the mound.

Rathcroghan
A really helpful sign that we spotted on the way back!

But getting back to the cave and its historical connections with Samhain.  Oweynagat is said to be the portal to the Otherworld and to prove its credentials, when Christianity came to Ireland, this cave was referred to as The Hellmouth of Ireland.  Now that’s a reputation to be proud of!  It is said that The Morrigan (an ancient goddess of war in Irish mythology) emerges from this cave on Halloween night on a chariot pulled by a one-legged chestnut horse, along with various creatures such as three-headed monsters and red birds that wither plants on sight.  Luckily, I visited during the height of summer, so it didn’t get too scary.

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Enter at your peril!

Needless to say, my companion and I drove in circles for quite a while before ending up on a long and winding road to what can only be described as middle earth.  Unsure as to how we should proceed (see my previous point about the lack of signs), I spotted a guy fixing cars in his shed and had the dubious honour of asking him whether this was the place where we could find the portal to the Otherworld.  As you do.

‘Ah, the wee man is it?’ he replied in a Donegal accent.

‘Erm, I guess so,’ I responded.

All we had to do was open the gate into the adjoining field and there we would find (let this not be underestimated) A GATEWAY TO ANOTHER DIMENSION.  It’s not everyday you do that, so I was glad I’d brought a flask of tea and some tuna wraps!  Thanks to hundreds of years of under-investment in the west, many of our archaeological treasures have been left untouched, and to be honest, that’s part of the charm.  This unassuming place has a magical atmosphere that you can sense immediately.  The entrance to the cave is guarded over by a hawthorn tree, a sacred tree in Irish folklore, so I knew we were on the right track.  The entrance has a stone lintel, inscribed in Ogham (the ancient Irish alphabet) with the text that translates as “Frach, son of Medb”, referring to the queen associated with the area.  Resembling what the mountaineer Dermot Somers terms as a “crack in the floor of time”, the narrow entrance to Uaimh na gCait, or Cave of the Cats, consists of a man-made souterrain and a natural limestone cavern.

oweynagat

It’s a bit of a squeeze to get in and in the end I slid into it (rather gracefully) on my backside.  I had such a sense of anticipation, bearing in mind that I was still wondering, ‘Is this the right place?’ and ‘Will I be cursed for trying to enter the Otherworld?’  There’s something so visceral about returning to the earth; a sensation that defies language and yet calls to our subconscious in a very primal way.  The history of the place, the myth and lore surrounding it and the fact that there was no-one else there but us, made it feel very special indeed.  Stupidly, I forgot to bring a torch and my companion revealed at the eleventh hour that they suffered from severe claustrophobia, (hardly a crack team!) so I didn’t get very far into the cave, but it didn’t matter.  Just being there, in that ancient spot, imagining all of the comings and goings sent my creative juices into overdrive!  All of the great believers have been here, even Dr. Douglas Hyde, our late president, carved his name in the stone.  Bloody vandal.

So next time I’m going to bring a torch, a chisel and an even bigger flask to see me through to the other side.  I would highly recommend a visit, if you’re in the West of Ireland.  These places have been relatively untouched over the years, so if you’re looking for an authentic experience of Ireland’s ancient past, Rathcroghan is a gem.

And if you like all things otherworldly, keep an eye out for my new novel, The Story Collector, which will be published by Urbane Publications in June 2018.  Pre-order here.

 

eBooks – The Illegal Download

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Fame costs, as the 80’s TV show Fame once claimed, in all its leg-warmer glory.  You know what else costs?  Illegal downloading of books.  They might not cost the person downloading them, or the scumbags who stole the content in the first place, but it costs the one person who should really be rewarded for their work, the author.

Rowan Coleman is the most recent author to raise the issue, with this tweet:

 

There can hardly be a more disheartening moment for an author, than seeing years of hard work made available for free on the Internet.  But what, if anything, can be done about it?

I was scrolling through Rick O’Shea’s Bookclub on Facebook when I came across a post where someone had just bought their first Kindle and was asking how it all worked.  People were responding with useful information like how much eBooks cost on average, where to get good deals, bundles and even how to borrow from the library.  However, to my absolute horror, someone recommend an illegal downloading site where they get all their books for free.  How could anyone who values books, reading and consequently the people who write them, support a system that steals their work?

This followed on from another Facebook post, where the author Louise Jensen revealed how she came across her book on an illegal website (you can read her post on eBook piracy here).  I felt her pain.  I’ve also discovered my books available via torrent sites and let me tell you, the feeling is absolutely gutting.  My overriding sense was one of powerlessness – what could I do to stop this piracy on my own?  I shut down the page and just tried to pretend I hadn’t seen it.

In this digital age, there is no escaping the reality that file sharing has become a part of the landscape.  But does that mean we shouldn’t try to change the culture and prevent it becoming even more mainstream?

It’s not just about the potential loss of earnings (which is bad enough in itself) but what people don’t realise is that years of work have gone into making that book.  The chances of getting published are similar to those of winning the lottery, so most authors spend years writing, submitting, editing, honing, resubmitting, receiving rejection letters, giving up, starting again, writing, writing, writing.  If you are lucky enough to get published, or choose the independent route and publish the book yourself, there is still more work (and expense) involved in promoting and getting the finished product to the reader, but all of those long hours are worth it to see your book on the shelf.  Even a digital one.  So to see someone take all of that hard work, without your permission and make it freely available online… it’s indescribable.  It’s theft.  Yet, people don’t seem to care, as long as they’re getting a free book.

But there’s always a cost.  Most writers are already struggling to make a living out of writing and many have full time jobs outside of writing.  We don’t earn a wage; we work for free and hope that someone (many someones!) will buy our book once its published.

If people aren’t prepared to pay for books anymore, what will that mean for the future of writing?

An author’s career depends on sales and if the figures don’t add up, they get dropped.  Becoming an author will be relegated to the hobbies and other interests section of your CV.  And without fresh new writing voices coming through, our shelves will be dominated by celebrity autobiographies and cookbooks!  Of course some people assume that writers are making lots of money already and a couple of free downloads won’t hurt, but nothing could be further from the truth.  The average income for authors in Ireland is about €1,000 per year.  I can see the logic in thinking that big name authors won’t be affected by a few lost sales.  I can see the logic, but I don’t agree with it, because it’s still theft.

Digital publishing has democratised the industry in such a way that the majority of authors now are lower to middle class, ordinary people who one day hope to making a living from selling their books.  It can take years to start seeing any kind of income from writing, so to see someone swoop in and profit from your hard earned success, is infuriating.  I know money is tight, but as a society, I think we really need to consider the long-term implications of expecting something for nothing.  To add insult to injury, eBooks are often priced cheaper than a cup of coffee and yet they still wind up on these sites.

I understand that new releases can be expensive, but there are so many other ways to read cheaply.  Join NetGalley.  Get free books and in return, leave a review (another way of paying an author for their work).  Borrow from the library.  Use a subscription service like Amazon Prime.  Pick up some second-hand books in a charity shop.  Use the ‘Look Inside’ feature on Amazon to get a free preview of the book, if you don’t want to waste your money on a book you won’t like.  Just please don’t support these pirate sites and their illegal content.

Don’t make free books the norm.

I have read articles where some authors say they don’t get upset about illegal downloads anymore, because it means people are reading their books.  They also argue that it’s not a lost sale because these people would never have paid for their book anyway.  Neil Gaiman sees it as the modern equivalent of people lending books and that it’s a good way for readers to discover authors; a kind of reverse marketing strategy.  Perhaps they have achieved some kind of quasi-religious detachment that I’ve yet to master, but I can’t see how anyone can be okay with having their work pirated.  Maybe it’s more to do with the fact that there doesn’t seem to be anything that can be done to stop it and so they’ve just resigned themselves to the inevitability of it all.  I have even see people argue that, if you’re being pirated, you must be doing well.  So an author should be flattered at having their work stolen?

So what can be done about it?  There are websites and apps out there, similar to Google Alerts, that will let you know if your book has been pirated.  But, as an author, do you really want to spend a big chunk of your time and energy chasing down these sites, trying to get your book removed, only to have it reappear a few hours later?  Should publishers be doing more or the industry as a whole?  Could the removal of DRM (digital rights management) have an impact, freeing up readers from being locked into one format?  Or is education the key to preventing readers from downloading books illegally?    Whatever your position, it is copyright infringement; it is illegal and it is a crime.

 

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The Power

Missy Elliot may have been the first woman to rap about flipping and reversing, but in her book, The Power, Naomi Alderman takes this to a whole new level, writing a story of gender role reversal for a new generation, that has won her The Baileys Women’s Prize For Fiction.

This is such a thought-provoking, insightful, clever, satirical book, (akin to 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale) and The Power has left its mark.  This novel has brought up so much for me, with all roads leading back to gender inequality.  A work of speculative fiction, this story seeks to redress the balance of power between men and women, and it is fitting that it harks back to biblical references for the founding of this new world order.  In Alderman’s book, young girls have developed a unique physical power, an electrical current, that can harm and even kill.  It has drastic consequences for our historically patriarchal society and asks the question –

What if the balance of power shifted from men to women?

This book has come at a very important time and feels like the culmination of a ground swell, that has found an international, border-free voice on the Internet.  I have learned more about gender equality and feminism from the last couple of years on Twitter than I ever did at school or in society.  Women are sharing their stories with hashtags like #EverydaySexism, they are uniting in their shared experiences and turning the tables.  If you don’t follow @manwhohasitall start now.  This twitter account expertly flips and reverses the entire gender issue with maximum effect.

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A whole new language of ‘mansplaining’ has sprung up, as women find a new vocabulary to express their experience of this man’s world.  But not everyone is a fan.

As the gender pay gap was yet again highlighted by a recent report into the BBC payroll, ‘journo’ Kevin Myers took it upon himself to blame women for the fact that they are paid less for doing the same work as men.  According to Myers, men are paid more than women because they  “work harder, get sick less frequently and seldom get pregnant”.   As  columnist Fintan O’Toole pointed out, a woman can’t win with this kind of misogynistic mindset.  Myers claimed women weren’t as eager as men, but when they are, they are called cold-hearted bitches.  Putting career before family.  Power hungry ice queens.  It’s heartening to see sexist drivel like this being called out, but let’s not kid ourselves.  Myers lost his job because of his anti-Semitic remarks, not because of his misogyny.

When women protest for equal rights and equal pay, we are too often dismissed as ‘whining women’, ‘feminazis’, ‘men-haters’, when really, we just want to be treated equally.  Yet, for some reason, we just aren’t being listened to, or taken seriously.  Incredulously, we are being blamed for that too.  This is a recent tweet by correspondent Will Saletan, in which he referred to a video of a female politician, who was repeatedly ignored/talked over/disregarded by a male colleague .

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It’s this kind of ‘advice’ and twisted logic that, yet again, puts the blame on women for men’s behaviour.  Unsurprisingly,  women responded to his tweet in their hundreds and thousands, pointing this out.

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Ironically, he proved their point by completely disregarding their opinion, because after all, what would women know about it?!  He wanted women to be more assertive, only, not against him.  He could not see that using language like ‘women’s willingness to yield’ is dangerous and just plain wrong.  Putting the onus on the woman for a man’s inability to listen and accept that, no means no.  Classic.  But he was completely blind to the flaw in his argument, despite the fact that hundreds of women were ‘firmly’ pointing it out to him.  Instead, he referred to their response as ‘twitter rage’.  I guess it was easier for him to label their opinion as hysterical, rather than review his position, learn through listening to women or admit he was wrong.  So you see, sometimes you just can’t win for losing.

Like everyone else, I have been raised in a patriarchal society and have learned that this is just the way things are.  But that is the genius of The Power; by simply reversing roles, we can see that just because this is the way things are, doesn’t mean that’s the way they should be.  Tradition, culture and religion have played their part in forming our roles as men and women, the burden of which has been heavier to carry for one half of the population.

I believed them in catholic school when they said we were all equal in God’s eyes.  I believed them in university when they said we were all entitled to equal opportunities.  They were wrong.  In Christianity, God only speaks to the men.  God is seen as a man (say otherwise and wait for the sniggers).  Jesus was a man.  I grew up believing Mary Magdalene was the worst thing a woman can be; a whore and a prostitute.  More baseless lies.  Before her, there was Eve, that sinful woman who corrupted Adam and tempted him away from Eden.  The only other woman who features, Mary, got to be a virgin AND a mother.  Who could ever live up to that?  I have grown up in the aftermath of Magdalene laundries (a fitting name for ‘fallen women’), where unmarried mothers were banished to bear the fruit of their sin.  Not the fathers mind you, they didn’t get punished.  As we speak, there is still an investigation into the bodies of babies who were found buried in a septic tank on a site that was once a mother and baby home, run by the church and funded by the state.  In my city.  And this unforgiving, patriarchal union of church and state is also responsible for the 8th amendment, a part of the Irish constitution that takes a woman’s bodily autonomy away the moment she becomes pregnant.

My first summer job after college was in an office as a receptionist.  After a few weeks, a new guy began working there and thought that as well as a company car, he had also acquired a teas-maid in me.  It was minor really, I introduced him to the kitchen, the kettle and a thing called gender stereotype.  I say it was minor, because a couple of weeks before I was due to finish my contract, the boss phoned me and asked me to meet him in a hotel.  He’d booked a room.  I was nineteen years old, he was in his forties and married with children.  I was shocked, probably apologised for the fact that no, I wouldn’t be meeting him and wondered if I would get the sack.  He never spoke of it again.  I told a female colleague (who didn’t seem surprised) and we made sure that I was never left on my own in the office with him.

While living in Canada, I was walking down the street one afternoon to meet my boyfriend after work.  A guy on a bike came from behind and grabbed my breasts.  I tried to fight him off (my heart is beating fast now, just thinking about it), kept shouting ‘No, no, STOP‘ and after what seemed like a long time, he cycled off, leaving me stunned and powerless.  He did turn around though and laughed at me.  I’ll never forget that grin on his face.  It said, I’ll take what I want, when I want.

There have been other incidents.  Every girl has had her fair share of it.  I feel like I’ve gotten off quite lightly, to be honest, but even that way of thinking doesn’t seem right.  It changes your behaviour.  You become acutely aware of your vulnerability, so you always act with that fear in the back of your mind.  Threatened.  But like I said, I feel lucky.  Just a quick glance at the statistics for sex trafficking, rape and domestic violence on the Womens Aid website makes for sobering viewing.

1 in 5 women in Ireland who have been in a relationship have been abused by a current or former partner.

In Britain, one incidence of domestic violence is reported to the police every minute.

There were 695 disclosures of sexual abuse made to the Women’s Aid services in 2016, including 316 disclosures of rape.

1 in 7 women in Ireland compared to 1 in 17 men experience severe domestic violence. Women are over twice as likely as men to have experienced severe physical abuse, seven times more likely to have experienced sexual abuse, and are more likely to experience serious injuries than men.

90% of domestic abuse offenders in 2003 were male, whilst 93% of complainants were female. Of the 1,418 arrests made in relation to domestic abuse, 1,203 were charged and 650 were convicted.

Approximately 800,000 people are trafficked across national borders. Approximately 80% of these people are women and girls and up to 50% are minors. The majority of these women and girls are trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation.

And these figures are from the developed world.

Obviously, it is not just women who suffer from inequality and gender stereotyping.  I feel a lot of men are restricted by the idea of what it means to be a man.  People the world over are constantly discriminated against for their race, religious beliefs and sexual orientation.  How liberating it would be to be free from these limiting stereotypes and learn to see each other as people, first and foremost.  We all have different strengths and vulnerabilities, but these are not necessarily dictated by our gender.

So, this is why The Power is so powerful.  It makes you think, what if things were different?  What if men were made to feel how we feel?  What if women held the balance of power?  Would the world change for the better, or as the British politician Lord Acton once said,

Would absolute power corrupt absolutely?  

A recurring thought that I had whilst reading it was how women, with this new power, wouldn’t have to be ‘nice’ anymore.  Implicitly, I think young girls are brought up to be ‘nice’ as some kind of defense mechanism, so on the rare and wonderful occasions when a woman isn’t nice, especially in the public eye, it almost challenges the status quo.  We may not develop an electrifying touch at the tips of our fingers, but books like this can impart a different kind of power… the power to see things differently.  Imagine, for a moment, a world where God is a woman, church and state are governed by women and men are the ‘weaker sex’.  Is it a little bit frightening?  A little bit exhilarating?  However it makes you feel, it’s simply a reversal (albeit a science fiction one with super powers) of what is reality today for 50% of the population.

I don’t think women want to take over the world (who’s got time for that?!).  But I do think we want to share it.  And what’s more, I think there are men who want to share it with us.  More and more I see men calling other men out on issues ranging from sexist comments to gender balance and through campaigns like White Ribbon, a male-led initiative to end violence against women.  This is the future that our sons and daughters deserve, a world that they can shape and enjoy, equally.

Thank you Naomi for writing such an ‘electrifying’ book that has sparked my imagination and asked some very interesting questions.  And to the Bailey’s Prize, for championing female authors.  One woman who definitely doesn’t try to be nice and always seeks to challenge society’s view of what is acceptable behaviour for a woman, is Madonna (a coincidence or a sign?!) and I couldn’t help but be reminded of this song and video while reading this book.

A Party Of One

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The lovely Eva Green contemplating the futility of it all……           classic writer pose

The other day I read a tweet about preparing for festival season.  I assumed that it was related to Electric Picnic or Glastonbury, advising us to get our ‘festival on’ by donning the obligatory uniform of wellies, trilby and cut off shorts.  But imagine my surprise, dear reader, when I realised the tweet was referring to literary festivals and directed at authors who want to start booking their summer appearances now.  When did this happen?  When did authors become a troupe of travelling minstrels and what happened to the idea that writing is a solitary pursuit?

Writer Jason Guriel wrote a really interesting article this month ‘What Happens When Authors Are Afraid To Stand Alone?’  addressing this shift from what was always seen as an individual sport, to a community endeavour, and why he feels we are the worse off for it.

“writers have become more entangled than ever. Workshops, readings, book launches, conferences, artists’ colonies, and other glorified mixers increasingly press literary types upon one another.”

It’s a controversial argument, but a very interesting one.  Are all of these gatherings, talks, residencies and teaching gigs taking away from the one job we’re supposed to be doing – writing?  As authors, we have been tasked with the job of getting our work ‘out there’ and I think the writing community has grown from that.  But while many authors really enjoy engaging with the community, Guriel argues that if everyone is being pushed in the same direction, what happens to the independent spirit?

It is true that we need time alone to develop our own ideas – it’s hard enough not to be influenced by trends and seduced by mainstream ideas.  In order to really create something truly original, we need to be alone with our thoughts and in order to do this, we need to guard our privacy.  It’s nice to share, but writers need to keep a certain amount to themselves (namely, their selves).  There is a risk that if you become too much of a spokesperson for your work, or a writing personality, the authentic voice of your work could get diluted.  Not every writer is a loner, but they do tend to seek solitude in order to hear their own voice.

“Let’s not share. Really. Go off in your own direction way too far, get lost, test the metal of your work in your own acids.”  Kay Ryan, poet.

When I began writing, the buzz words were ‘author platform’ and if you didn’t have one, you’d never make it.  So I made it my business to build my platform, one blog/tweet/post at a time.  I got to know the main players and believed that I was on the right road to success.  But then, I would see a complete unknown, an outsider if you will, speed past me to publishing fame with no platform whatsoever.  No social media accounts, no blogs, no ground-works to speak of.  While I was busy networking and making connections, they were writing and submitting.  So you see, there really are no hard and fast rules when it comes to being a writer, you’ve got to do what’s right for you and more importantly, what works for you.

“‘What is the role of the writer to her society?’ was a question Wallace Stevens took up and his answer was: none,” says poet Souvankham Thammavongsa. A writer’s real responsibility, she suggests, is “to build a voice and to keep building that voice.” This stands in stark contrast to the civic-minded suggestion that writers apply their bricks and mortar to some cloud-city of togetherness.

Then there’s the whole ‘totes awky momo’ when someone you’ve been palling around with (in the literary sense) asks you to review their book and you don’t really like it… what do you do then?  I know book bloggers (unfairly) get stick for this all the time, but it’s not just bloggers who get caught in this web of networking that make it increasingly difficult to go against the pack.  I’ve noticed even with online bookclubs, when there is over-whelming support for a particular writer, anyone who feels differently is almost afraid to speak up.  I have seen people apologise for not liking a book!

“It becomes harder to file an honest review of a book if you’re always rubbing shoulders.”

Still, I don’t believe in throwing out the baby with the bath water (I think there are laws against that now anyway).  I believe that there is more integrity in the community than this article suggests, but I agree that we do need to challenge the status quo and question the prevailing wisdom around promoting the writing ‘scene’ as opposed to the community.

Personally, I love the community I have found, particularly online because I don’t have to dress up for them!  Pretty much all of the writing opportunities I have found have been through social media.  There is great support there, people share information on all sorts of things, particularly in the indie community and it’s good to meet people who are experiencing the same things.  I love when other writers talk about how difficult it is to stay sitting down, or how your writing can seem like genius one minute and drivel the next.  I feel a sense of solidarity.  But I don’t discuss writing techniques with these people.  I don’t learn my craft by talking to authors, I learn by reading their books.  I learn how they deal with different challenges in their writing between the pages.  Talk, as they say, is cheap, but if you really want to further your writing career, read.

While you’re here, The Heirloom is just 99p on Kindle all this week.  Eva Green said she couldn’t put it down*

*Might have made that bit up

The Failed Novelist

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Oh writers, what’s with all the judgement?  And where is all the tolerance??  This week saw the anonymous letter from a ‘failed novelist’ in The Guardian in which (what we assume) a female writer described her experience of trying to get published.

Years of work and emotional investment wasted, I finally gave up, to save my sanity.

But I’m scarred.

Despite having an agent and interest from publishers, in the end, a deal never materialised for a ‘bewildering’ number of reasons.  It was stark, bitter and sad – all of the things you feel when you watch your dreams shatter.  My first thought was, another one bites the dust and all thanks to the seemingly arbitrary process of submitting to publishers.  She is not the first writer to give up and I’m sure she won’t be the last.  To be honest, I would have given up too, if not for self-publishing, but more on that anon.

Reaction was mixed.  It’s obviously a topic that exercised a lot of established writers who have been through the rejection process and got to the other side.  Female authors such as J K Rowling and Joanne Harris offered encouragement, telling authors never to give up, because the next book might just be the one to bring success.  Also, not to view all of the hard work, countless manuscripts and years of honing your craft as a waste.  But then came the riposte, again in The Guardian, from a male author, David Barnett.

Dear Anonymous, you’re not a failure. You’re a quitter.

Wow.  That’s one hell of a back-handed compliment!  Can you imagine reading that after  writing such an honest and soul-baring piece about your disillusionment with the publishing world?  From a ‘successfully published’ author?  Obviously a student from the school of tough love, it seemed this author was taking the opportunity to tell everybody about how brilliant he was at sucking up rejection and that ‘real’ writers need to embrace it, or how will they ever cope with bad reviews?  I found his approach a bit predictable and dare I say it, ‘mansplainey’, but he did go on to make some very valid points.

Yes, there are those hip young writers who get picked up for a three-book deal on the basis of a single chapter – but they make the news because they are the exception, not the rule.

It’s true, the papers love a six-figure publishing deal and can’t wait to tell us all about it.  And why are they always the age at which I was probably playing drinking games and wearing a toga?  He’s right, this is absolutely the exception, so indulging in the Cinderella complex that you will somehow be spotted and picked-up by one of the big five (or is it six) is like sitting around waiting to win the publishing lottery, without having bought a ticket!

It is no one’s “destiny” to be a published author.

Again, so true.  Most author bios (including my own) talk about how we’ve been writing stories since we were kids.  Just because you love (and have always loved) writing, does not mean the publishing industry will grant your wishes.  They have their own agenda and a seemingly unlimited pool of talent to choose from.  They might take on as few as one or two new authors per year.  They might have had enough of girls on public transport, just as you’re putting the finishing touches to your story about a girl on a bus (or is she?  do we really believe her??)  A lot of it is luck and timing, the rest is hard work and resilience.  But the part I can absolutely empathise with is the loss of control.  If you want writing to become your career, it’s very difficult (and frustrating) to put your destiny in the hands of other people.  It’s not like any other profession because the application process is a complete guessing game.  And the waiting, great Odin’s raven, the waiting!!  All of that time, wondering if you’re life is going to be changed, or if you dreams will be shot down by a rejection.

This is why the self-publishing revolution is the most important thing to happen to the publishing industry.  Of course, it’s nothing new.  Authors have been self-publishing for years (Dickens, Whitman, Proust, Potter), but the digital age has made it so much easier to reach your audience and to become a professional authorpreneur.  In fact, numerous people mentioned self-publishing in the comments section, but some writers still see it as a failure greater than not being published at all.  I find this attitude bemusing and to use one of Barnett’s words ‘entitled’.  I’m sure there are many traditionally published authors who look down their noses at self-published authors (just like they are doing to this woman, who hasn’t kept calm and carried on in the face of rejection) and like to perpetuate the myth that there’s so much rubbish out there (which is equally true of traditionally published books).  However, self-publishing is simply another avenue for authors to get their work out there, to build their audience and if successful, perhaps even sign with a traditional publisher for their subsequent books.  Many authors have taken this route and become hybrid authors, using each platform as equally valid routes to market.

Most importantly, it gives the author some modicum of control over their destiny.  Your book might still bomb, just as it might with a publisher, but at least you are not locked out of the party entirely.  I know how she feels, but pursuing your dreams means being flexible and finding more than one way to skin a cat.  Yes, failure is a part of the process and it can be the catalyst to push you on to fail better.  But that doesn’t need to be where the story ends.  I have a feeling this writer will be back, a little bruised but a lot more determined.  I commend her for writing that article and for being so honest about her feelings.  Obviously, it’s quite a while since Barnett has been rejected by a publisher, so perhaps he has forgotten how raw those feelings can be, when you’re just at the beginning of your career and feeling as though you’re going nowhere, while watching other people make it.  It’s hard, let’s be honest.  But he’s right; for most writers, this is the journey.

All in all, I think it’s a good discussion to have, because new writers need to be made more aware of what is actually involved in the process.  We are blinded by the ‘supermodels’ of writing, who get those haute couture deals before the age of 21.  We do need to ground ourselves in reality and the only way to do that is by taking the mystique out of the writing and publishing process, by having conversations like this.  But we also need to respect each other’s journey and stop explaining to people how they should feel about something.  One thing is for sure, being a writer is not an easy road to riches, fame or success.  So yes, you do need to love it and most importantly, (as translated in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale) Nolite te bastardes carborundorum – Don’t let the bastards grind you down!

The Future Of Libraries

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In a recent Irish Times article, I read that library staff voted against co-operating with the new government initiative of ‘staffless’ libraries.  Many authors have come out against the scheme and at first, I thought I agreed, but having considered the benefits, now I’m not so sure.

The other day, I was in town and thought, ooh, I wonder if they have that new book in I’ve been looking for.  I threw my full weight against the door, assuming it was open, but my unstoppable force met an immovable object.  This was 11:30 am.  Galway City Library doesn’t open until 2pm on a Monday.

Here’s the timetable:

Monday 2.00pm to 5.00pm
Tuesday 11.00am to 8.00pm*
Wednesday 11.00am to 8.00pm*
Thursday 11.00am to 8.00pm*
Friday 11.00am to 5.00pm
Saturday 11.00am to 5.00pm

Now, I have to say it’s great that they stay open until 8:oo pm on three evenings, but wouldn’t it be great to pop into the library on a Sunday afternoon?  Or what if you want a quiet place to read/write/study on a Monday morning?  What if your idea of the perfect Saturday night is to spend a few quiet hours searching the spines of the non-fiction supernatural section of your local library?  (Sounds like the perfect meet cute if you ask me!)  We have become so  accustomed to having unlimited access to things, so why not libraries?  As I see it (and I am prepared to be corrected on this) staff would still continue to work their regular hours, however patrons could use a key code to access the library out of hours.  The fear seems to be that this initiative would eventually make their jobs obsolete, but I’m not sure that necessarily follows.  I recall the same reaction to the introduction self-service checkouts, but did they actually replace people?  I don’t think so, they just gave customers another option.  I still prefer to deal with an actual person, but sometimes convenience wins the day.

The fact is that libraries need to adapt in order to remain relevant in a world where life online seems to be taking over.  So rather than hold fast to the way things have always been done out of fear of the unknown and change, I think we should embrace it and allow our public spaces to evolve.    Public libraries are just that – PUBLIC.  They are public spaces that should be open to the communities they serve.  If staffless libraries are an extension of library services, rather than a replacement, then I fully support them.  To be honest, I’m pleasantly surprised that our government is trying to encourage people to make more use of the library, rather than announcing a raft of library closures.  I understand that staff members are concerned about what this might mean for their jobs in the future, and maybe I’m being naive here, but I don’t see how keeping the doors open (in a manner of speaking) after they leave for the day, will threaten their livelihoods.  Librarians do a lot more work than simply checking out your latest Liane Moriarty, and I have no doubt that this work will continue regardless.

My main concern would be one of security.  I suppose, as a woman, I would have reservations about entering an unmanned (or unwomanned?) building with a locked door.  Then again, I’m not sure how many black-belt librarians there are, even if trouble broke out during normal business hours.  I guess it’s something that needs to be looked at, but it does seem to be proving a success in Scandanavian countries, the part of the world we all seem to be looking to nowadays for hygge, furniture and crime novels.

It’s a controversial idea and people have very polarised views on the subject.  It’s quite similar to the mass hysteria that greeted the arrival of eBooks.  People lamented the death of the book as we know it, but as it turned out, nothing could have been further from the truth.  Yes, it shook things up a bit, but the fact is that bookshops still exist, readers still read paperbacks and best of all, readers have a choice that they didn’t have before.  eBooks and eReaders have got more people reading, which is what really matters, in my opinion.  I recently joined an online bookclub and it soon became clear to me that the vast majority of members hardly ever visited their local library.  People seemed clueless about BorrowBox and the eBook lending scheme that has been running for quite some time now.  For some, it was almost a revelation that you could read books for free!  I think we need to encourage people back to the library and this scheme might do just that.

I have read the most wonderful testimonies from people who have a very good relationship with their local librarian, but for me, it’s all about the space.  A library is one of the most sacred spaces we have in our towns and cities, where anyone, from any social background, can enter for free and spend as long as they like nourishing their mind and their soul in the company of books.  It’s one of the last escapes that exist; a quiet and special place, where you are not expected to do anything, be anything or buy anything and I really believe that increased access to such an amenity can only be a good thing for society.

 

Meanwhile, you can download both of my novels here:

new heirloom1+1 Amazon (Paperback)Kindle

 

The Mysterious Bakery On Rue de Paris (7) - Copy Amazon (Paperback) ~Kindle ~Nook ~ iTunes ~ Kobo