Saturday 28 July 2012

Shauna Gilligan and 'Happiness Comes from Nowhere'.

Shauna Gilligan

Some years ago, I was accepted for a good writing course that I hoped would help me tame the unruly beast of a novel I had been struggling with for a couple of years. I lasted about five minutes, sadly, as I was told to stop writing it, and do something different - and that wasn’t an option. My decision entirely. 
However - every cloud, etc etc. During the five minutes I was there, some very good things happened. 
Firstly, I had some wonderful feedback about the voice as it then was, which was more than helpful as I battled on with what would eventually become ‘The Coward’s Tale’. 
And secondly, I was introduced in the one workshop session I attended, to to a writer whose work I found very exciting. Her name was Shauna Gilligan, and she came from Ireland. I remember being struck by the style, the lucidity, and thinking, ‘this writer will be published, no question.’ I wasn’t wrong. We kept in touch, on and off, mostly via good old facebook.
Shauna’s debut novel, ‘Happiness Comes from Nowhere’ (Ward Wood Publishing,  July 2012) is a novel of intertwined stories, following the fortunes of the fabulously named Dirk Horn. But don't start thinking this  character is as his name suggests... for absolutely nothing in Shauna’s novel is predictable. She has a unique vision. When we first meet Dirk he is on the point of committing suicide, a fitting start, I thought, as I ventured further and further into these strong, strongly-voiced pieces that build a kaleidoscope vision of a family, friends, acquaintances set against a backdrop of the ever-changing city of Dublin. 
Writing colleague and friend, the Irish short story writer, novelist and poet Nuala Ni Chonchuir endorsed the book thus:
'In Shauna Gilligan’s unsettling novel-in-stories, Dirk has troubles that his mother Mary may not be able to right, much as she tries. Gilligan writes intimately of one mother’s possessiveness, devotion and ambition for her son. Rich with insight, this is a book that informs as much as it haunts. As a d├ębut it is a very fine piece of work.’
 and another Irish novelist and short story writer, Eillis ni Dhubihne,  says it is:
'A refreshingly thoughtful novel, poised and unpredictable. Delicious in its sensuous details and mischievous sense of humour. Happiness Comes from Nowhere is a truly impressive debut from a writer of exceptional talent.'
The thread that tugs through all the interlinked but very different stories, is Dirk Horn and his struggles. But please don't think this is a book without humour - many of the pieces here zip and zing throughout with sharp dialogue between utterly believable characters. Like life, they and indeed the whole novel, show up multi-faceted, multi-shaded. 
       It is academic, poet and novelist Sheenagh Pugh who best summarises the underlying themes of this novel, on her review, when she says the fundamental question it poses is surprisingly, an unusual one:
“...what is it that causes happiness? Why is Dirk sometimes experiencing moments of pure happiness and at other times plunged in despair, when there does not seem to be that much difference in the conditions of his life? And if one could find what causes it, would there be a way of inducing it?
These are questions which don't perhaps crop up in novels as often as one might expect.”
It’s true, isn’t it? Think about it - what other novels have you read that explore this one?
Shauna’s novel is sharply observant, very well-written, with characters who pull you in and won't quite let you go. I’d say it is a highly recommended read. 
       So now, before you whizz off and get your copy, from all the usuals, but do consider getting it from Ward Wood, or an indie bookshop...Shauna kindly answered a few questions, including which scene she’d like painted. 
Vanessa: Welcome to the blog. Firstly, can you tell me about the structure of the novel - as ours both have stories as the basis of their structure - was it planned, or did the novel appear as you wrote the different pieces?

Shauna: The structure wasn’t planned from the start but grew during my editing. I wanted to see the main characters from different angles, through different lenses. 
VG: At what point were you aware that the city was going to become a character? Did that change the way you approached the subsequent pieces?
SG: For me, place is vital to both character creation and narrative story to the extent that it is automatically part and parcel. I became consciously aware of the strong presence of Dublin when I finished my first draft. It didn’t change the way I approached the editing, though. 
VG:  If you could have a painting of one scene from the novel, which would you choose, and who would you want to paint it? Or would it be best as a photo? In which case, colour or black and white?
Climbing Croagh Patrick
SG: What a wonderful question! I think I’d like a painting of Dirk and Angela on the top of Croagh Patrick, their hair blown by the wind, tourists in the background, the sky wild with clouds. The painting would have to reflect the beauty of the landscape, Dirk’s pain and Angela’s joy. I’d like Tracey Emin to paint it. Or if it were possible, Chagall. 
Statue of St Patrick, Croagh Patrick in the background. 
VG:  If you could write a postcard to Dirk, with three quick messages on it, what would they be? (write it...).
SG: The question is, which Dirk? Dirk as a child or Dirk at the end of the book? Let’s take Dirk at the end of the book. The postcard would be a to-do list for him:
     Take German lessons.
     Go running early every morning – down by the river in Bamberg.
     Sit naked in a sauna.
VG: Lovely! Tell me -  I am very taken by the different voices in the book - which was the easiest voice to get right, and which the hardest, and why do you think that is?
SG: I wouldn’t say any of the voices were easy to get right (if indeed, they are right) but Sheila was one I particularly enjoyed writing. Mary’s voice grew as the novel grew and I found her character became more complex in this regard. I suppose one of the tricky things about the different voices in this novel is that they span over time and exist in different places. So each voice had to reflect and be authentic to, not only character, but also be faithful to the time and society in which it exists.
VG:  Not easy - but however you did it - it works. So - what next?
SG: I don’t quite know, Vanessa. I’m working on a number of novels and short stories. It may be any one or none of these and something completely new!
Well, whatever it be, I wish you every success with ‘Happiness Comes from Nowhere’ - it’s already getting quite a buzz round it - and rightly so! Thanks for answering my questions.

Monday 9 July 2012

Book Groups in Bantry, in Frinton, in US, and Welsh Cakes in West Meon - the joys of taking your book out there...

Table decoration at the wonderful West Meon WI Tea! Just for 'The Coward's Tale' -  what lovely ladies!
Great indie bookshops and public libraries don’t just supply books for loan or purchase any more - many of them organise and inspire and support literary events, and I have been lucky enough to attend three such events in the last month.  
First, Bantry, West Cork, Ireland. 
On Thursday June 6th, I travelled from Eyeries, where I was warming up for the short story course at Anam Cara Writers and Artist’s Retreat, and drove the hour or so back to the town of Bantry. The Bantry Library Book Group had read ‘The Coward’s Tale’ and invited me to attend their meeting. 
The rather lovely building, Bantry Library, waterwheel in front.
Great to revisit the library. Last time I was in Bantry at the West Cork Lit Fest, I heard Kevin Barry read a short story from his collection  ‘These Are Little Kingdoms’  in this place - I also heard Selma Dabbagh interviewed by Carlo Gebler here. So to be meeting a dozen or so of my readers, answering questions, listening to their discussion, and reading for a few minutes - this was a wonderful thing. Much enjoyed - I left for lunch at a local restaurant, glowing. ‘The Coward’s Tale’ was doing the rounds - three further books groups in the Cork County Library service were reading it too. Many thanks to the organisers, the librarian from Bantry in particular.

Next, Frinton, Essex. Saturday 30th June saw me driving up to Frinton (the day after driving all the way back from a  family week in Cornwall...) to attend a wonderful event organised by Caxton Books of Connaught Avenue, Frinton - the annual Book Groups get-together.  
Judith and Sally in their wonderful bookshop!
 It is a brilliant idea, thought up by Max Bridgewater of Bloomsbury. Each year there are two novels selected. This year it was mine, and Stephen May’s ‘Life, Death, Prizes!’.  

Stephen May
Members of reading groups in the locality buy a ticket to the event - which gets them one of the novels,  a reduction off the other, and entry to the event. Stephen and I were there, to talk and read  - then we joined each of half a dozen book groups at their tables, to be grilled, and listen to comments about our work. Such a valuable time! Important to hear comments, positive and a few - not negative exactly, but asking questions - why this was so, or that. Food for thought for the next! So many thank yous to Judith and Sally of Caxton Books, Max, and to Bloomsbury for making it possible for us to travel all that way and stay over. 
Welsh cakes - delicious!

Last but not least, West Meon, Hampshire. The West Meon Literary Festival is held with the support of One Tree Books of Petersfield, who are on hand selling books. I was lucky enough, not just to be invited to attend, but to take The Coward’s Tale to what must be one of the best events of the festival - the WI Tea! 

Well. Suffice it to say we had a tea never to forget - wonderful - a themed tea to go with the novel. So, there were welsh cakes, bara brith, sandwiches galore, there were Welsh dragon flags, flowers in the same colours, and tables crammed with eaters and listeners. I decided to talk about food in the novel, tea at my grandmother’s, (sandwich spread sarnies, jelly with tinned mandarins and evaporated milk) - and I had lots of wise nods and cried of ‘Oh yes, I remember that!’. 

The lovely lady who made the best bara brith Ive tasted in ages...

Smashing. It was great. Then I read the hardest scene to read - well ring the changes - and signed books.  Sigh. It was lovely to meet up with Imogen Robertson  and have lunch. Imogen also won The Daily Telegraph Novel in a Year competition in 2007... and is now well-established and on to her fifth novel.  Also enjoyed seeing Tania Hershman and fellow Bloomsbury author Marika Cobbold -  both of whom were doing lit fest sessions - a wonderful festival indeed.  And here are a few more pics of cakes, dragons, flowers, from the West Meon Tea!

And finally, also reading my novel this last week, was a group in the US. Sent the book by friend and writing colleague Beverly Jackson, they sent me questions to answer in advance of their meeting, so I almost felt like I was there. Wonderful to know it is being read all that way away. Can't tell you how nice that is. 
Thank you all.