Swirl and Thread: Irish Writers Wednesday

It was an absolute pleasure to chat to Mairead from Swirl and Thread.

Grab a cuppa tea or coffee, put the feet up and check out her lovely blog, with lots of great book reviews, author features and guest posts.


On Writing: A Heroine’s Journey – writing through the dark tangle

Honoured to be featured in booksbywomen.org with my piece on writing a heroine’s journey.


@womenwriters @CarolineAuthor


Doing it with Passion! Writers in Ireland Series: Nuala Ní Chonchúir

Nuala Ní Chonchúir was born in Dublin, and lives in East Galway. She has published four short story collections, the most recent Mother America appeared from New Island in 2012. Nuala’s critically acclaimed second novel The Closet of Savage Mementos appeared in 2014, also from New Island; it was shortlisted for the Kerry Irish Novel of the Year Award 2015. Under the name Nuala O’Connor, Penguin USA, Penguin Canada and Sandstone (UK) published Nuala’s third novel, Miss Emily, about the poet Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid, in summer 2015.

Congratulations on the success on Miss Emily, Nuala. You must have done a huge amount of research for this book, can you tell us about that?

I read about thirty books of research by and about Emily: poems, letters, biographies, books on food and dress pertaining to the Dickinsons. I did the research as I wrote. When I had a first draft written, I visited Emily’s home in Amherst, Massachusetts; I saw her white dress on display in the Amherst History Museum and I went to Harvard University, which holds many Dickinson artefacts, including Emily’s original cherrywood desk. The research is ongoing – she gets hold of you!

And what drew you to the subject of Emily in the first place?

Poetry and cake. I loved her poetry at school and, later, I heard she loved to bake. I love baking too so I made some of her cakes (Coconut Cake and Black Cake, for example). I wrote a poem about that but couldn’t let the subject go and began to think of the Irish domestics she had and the whole thing just blossomed from there.

Back to the beginning, Nuala – to when you first began writing?

I’ve been writing since I was a little kid, I still have my first notebook of poems. Naturally, they are appalling and sentimental. Subjects range from a blind sister (all my sisters have their sight) to James Dean. But I didn’t get serious about my writing until my mid twenties when I moved from Dublin to Galway to work in a theatre company. Meeting real live writers helped me push myself along.

And how long were you writing before you were published for the first time?

I was serious about it for about a year, I suppose, when I had some poems published in literary mags in Galway, such as The Cúirt Journal and Burning Bush. My first collection of poems came out in 2003 – there was about six years worth of stuff to draw on for that.

Do you write every day?

I write five days a week, 9am to 2pm, pretty much. I don’t write creatively for all that time: I write first, then edit or write articles/interviews, do my mentoring work with the BA in Writing students at NUI Galway, write reviews etc.

How long does it take you to complete a book?

The first draft of a novel takes about a year, then the editing with agent and various editors might go on for another year (depending on the publisher’s schedule). Short story collections are different as you gather stories over a period of years.

Do you think an agent is necessary?

You need an agent if you want to be published outside of Ireland, but you don’t if you plan to publish in Ireland alone. I am on agent number three now and I hope she is the lifer. It took me a while to find the right agent for me, one who I could communicate openly and freely with and who is definitely prepared to work hard on my behalf.

And on marketing and PR of your work, do you contribute?

Yes, hugely. My novel Miss Emily has just been published by Penguin – my first time with a really big publisher – in the USA and Canada. Naively I thought I would have less PR stuff to do as they would do so much. Wrong! I have never been as busy on the PR side of things: they have drummed up huge amounts of notice for the book so I have 3 or 4 radio interviews a week with North America; I’m writing article after article on subjects pertaining to the book or directly about it; I have a book tour in the USA; I was in Scotland yesterday for a newspaper interview and I’ve lots of appearances in Ireland at lit fests and so forth. And the same novel comes out in the UK in late August so I am now on the PR whirl for that too. I am lucky in that I enjoy social media so it is not a trial for me to keep blogging and tweeting about the book and all that’s happening. It’s like this, you spend two years writing and editing a book, the least you can do is support it out into the world by doing PR stuff for a few months. Yes, it’s time consuming and it wears you out a bit but, hopefully, it will be worth it in terms of readership and sales.

What is your opinion on the importance [or not] of literary competitions and awards?

I guess they shine a spotlight on books that is welcome if your book is on the shortlist! But you cannot compare like with like, so it’s the personal taste and the group dynamic of the judging panel that determines the winner. It would certainly be nice to win one of the biggies as it would get you a wider readership and welcome sales. But prizes shouldn’t be the be-all and end-all of judgement on the merits of literature.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Read like a loon – voraciously, widely. Write every day. Join a writers’ group. Go to literary festivals. Be friendly.

Is there a book by another writer that you wish you had written?

Probably hundreds. But there’s certainly a short story I read recently that I wish I had written: Joyce Carol Oates’s ‘EDickinsonRepliLuxe’ about a couple who buy an Emily Dickinson robot and the madness that ensues. It’s poignant and weird – true Oatsian shenanigans ensue between the couple and the robot. I wish I had come up with that story, so badly.

And finally, Nuala, can you share with us what you are working on now?

A Victorian novel set in London and Ballinasloe (where I live), based on the true life of the local Viscount and his dancehall girl bride.

Miss Emily UK cover

Miss Emily is published in Ireland and the UK on August 20th. Keep up-to-date with Nuala’s writing on her website and her Blog

Doing it with Passion! Writers in Ireland Series – John MacKenna

John MacKenna is the author of 16 books, short-story collections, memoir, biography and poetry. An accomplished playwright, Breathless, Redemption Song, Lucinda Sly, his novels include, The Space Between Us, The Last Fine Summer, Clare, and his latest work, Joseph. He is a winner of the Hennessy, Irish Times and Cecil Day Lewis awards and was nominated for the Irish Fiction Laureate award.

When did you first begin to write, John, and how long before you were first published?

I began writing in secondary school – encouraged by my brilliant and very open English teacher Ray Kearns. I had my first poem published in The Young Citizen magazine when I was 15 and that was such an exciting time….to see my name in print. While in secondary school I had three short plays staged – again with Ray Kearns’ encouragement. My first serious break came after Blackstaff Books had taken individual stories for collections. Then they took my short-story collection The Fallen. That was the breakthrough for me. That book won the Irish Times award and, from not being able to get an agent, I had approaches from four agents.

Speaking of agents, do you have one, and do you think it necessary for a writer to have one?

I do. I didn’t. Then I did. Then I didn’t. Now I do. I think it’s a great help in dealing with British publishers.

What’s your opinion of the current world of publishing?

Tending more and more towards “celebrity” (often ghost written) books and a very small and repetitive pool in Ireland.

Have you, or would you, consider self-publishing?

I did with my first two (non-fiction) books but not now.

Do you also contribute to the marketing and PR of your work, John?

I do….though it’s not something I’m mad about. I like writing and I like reading but the rest isn’t really something I can say I enjoy. I do it but not with any great enjoyment.

And your feelings on social media for authors ?

A necessary evil.

Did anyone [famous or not] inspire you to write?

Ray Kearns and D H Lawrence. The teacher and the writer whose work I loved.

Do you write every day?

When I’m working on a book I do. Normally ten to one and two to four and maybe a reread in the evening.

And your preferred genre?

I suppose it’s literary fiction and what draws me to it is the attempt to write quiet, well-written and short books.

How long does it take you to complete a book?

Probably two years from conception to last edit. Though with Things You Should Know it was ten years and the book I’m currently working on has been in the mix for almost ten years – though I’ve done other books in the meantime

What is your opinion on the importance [or not] of literary awards?

Potential food on the table.

If you’ve ever had any: How to you handle negative reviews?

Badly. In the sense that they stay in my head and make me doubt the value of the work.

Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Write, write, write. Read and then write, write, write. And reread your work aloud and don’t send it out too soon. Oh, and never ask family/friends for opinions unless you value that opinion.

Is there a book by another writer that you wish you had written?

Swimmer in the Secret Sea by William Kotzwinkle – a short and beautiful novella.

Can you share with us what you are working on now?

A book of memoir about my brother who died ten years ago.

And finally, six people, living or not, that you would like to share your favourite beverage with?!

My wife, Angela; Raymond Carver; Judy Collins; Leonard Cohen; H E Bates and Robert Frost.


You can find some of John’s works here: http://newisland.ie/product-category/authors/authors-john-mackenna/



Doing it with Passion! Writers in Ireland Series: Niamh Boyce

Niamh’s novel The Herbalist was nominated for an IMPAC, and won ‘Newcomer of the Year’ at the Irish Book Awards. Her unpublished poetry collection was highly commended by the Patrick Kavanagh Award and she won The Hennessy ‘New Irish Writer of the Year’ in 2012.

Obligatory opening question, Niamh – when did you first begin to write?

I always wrote diaries full of fragments, poems and drawings, but that was a very private way of writing – I didn’t start writing to be read, or consider that possibility, until around 2008 after I’d taken some short story workshops with John MacKenna and got hooked on the form. Soon after one of my stories was nominated for a ‘Hennessy Award’ which encouraged me to keep going.

And how long were you writing for before you were published for the first time?

My first story ‘Wild Cats Buffet’ was published by Crannog Magazine in Spring 2009, I’d been writing for a few months at that stage. My first novel, The Herbalist, was published in 2013, which was five years after I began to write, and three years after I’d written it. The Herbalist was one of the winners of the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair Competition in 2012.  The Novel fair involved meeting twenty different agents and publishers and pitching your work to each of them for a short period of time. My novel was picked up by Penguin Ireland as a result of that fair, and published in June the following year.

With regard to your writing practice, Niamh, do you write every day?

No, I wish I did! I write for a few hours, four days a week. I fit writing in around my paid job and family commitments. Once the school holidays start I’ll probably switch to writing either very early in the morning or very late at night. I’ve learnt to be flexible though it can be frustrating.

And how long does it take you to complete a book?

They are all different, some are slower than others. First drafts of novels – I write quickly (a matter of months) and second drafts take (much, much) longer. I write short stories quite quickly, a day or two, but revise them over a couple of weeks, the same with poetry.

Is your work genre specific?

I write in a variety of genres, short story, poetry, novels. My favorite form is the short story, I find them very satisfying to write. I like the fact that every word has to do its work.

On representation, do you have an agent and do you think it necessary to have one?

I don’t have an agent at the moment, but I’ll probably be looking later in the year. I think they’re necessary for some writers, especially those who want to be traditionally published, but perhaps not for others. It all depends on the genre, the publishers you’re aiming to work with, and what kind of rights you want to sell.

Then you probably contribute to the marketing / PR of your work?

When my book was published I did a lot of readings, interviews, workshops, articles, panels, and blog tours. I decided that for six months I’d say yes to everything I was asked to do. Luckily lots of booklovers and arts administrators from various libraries, bookshops, literary festivals, writing groups invited me to work with them. Awareness of the book was high due to the fact that I’d won the IWC Novel Fair, and The Hennessy XO Writer of the Year in the previous months. Lots of the PR was done by my publishers. Cliona Lewis, Penguin’s PR, organised interviews on RTE and Newstalk radio, TV3, and with journalists, and was great to work with.

Are you comfortable with the social media side of PR?

It’s a good way of being connected, especially if you live in a rural area. That’s why I started blogging, to find out about submission opportunities and connect with other writers. That has changed, people don’t interact by commenting on blogs anymore. Perhaps Facebook has taken over – FB can be a good resource, and a bit of fun, but a little addictive. Social media has given everyone a free platform to market their work, which can make it a repetitive place to be, when there is always someone pushing their work. On the other hand, I’ve found poetry and novels I’d never have come across otherwise. I like that there are no gatekeepers.

You’ve won some prestigious awards, Niamh. Do you think they are important?

They generate interest in the book, The Herbalist won Newcomer of the Year at the Irish Book Awards, and was nominated for an IMPAC, both of which were very positive things. Awards keep books and writers in the newspapers, and literary competitions give writers encouragement to keep writing.

What’s your opinion of the current world of publishing?

I’m new to publishing, but I get the impression its in a state of flux – I like that writers can self-publish if they want to, there seem to be a lot of creative options, but I do wish bookshops were doing better.

And Indie publishing?

I think it’s very positive for writers, and readers.

Have you, or would you, consider self-publishing your own work?

I self-published a book of poetry and prose dedicated to my uncle, Tom English, through Lulu.com – friends and family contributed and I edited and wrote some poems. It was very easy, and really rewarding.

If you’ve ever had any – how do you handle negative reviews?

I’ve never had a negative review from a professional reviewer, but I’ve had the odd one or two on amazon which were rather spiteful, and wrongheaded – I just complain to my partner, and then forget about them.

Write what you know? Agree or Disagree?

Disagree, write what you please! Let nothing limit you.

Is there a book by another writer that you wish you had written?

Oranges aren’t the only fruit (Jeannette Winterson), Wuthering Heights, Breaking the Waves, and The Bog of Cats (Marina Carr)

Name six people, living or not, that you would like to share your favourite beverage with?

I’d like a pint of Guinness or two with Louise Bourgeois, Bette Davis, Robert Mitchum, Joyce Carol Oates, Angela Carter and John Lennon.

Any advice for aspiring writers?

Don’t seek feedback too early, trust your own gut and finish your novel, don’t seek approval. Hold on tight to the enjoyment you get from words. Remember why you write.

Can you share with us what you are working on now?

Not yet, sorry 🙂

Thanks Niamh, that last question was worth a try anyway!

Keep up-to-date with Niamh via her blog: http://niamhboyce.blogspot.com/


Doing it with passion! Writers in Ireland Series: Martin Duffy

Martin Duffy describes himself as a storyteller. He is a film director, a writer and an editor. Martin’s work includes the feature films, The Boy from Mercury and Summer of the Flying Saucer. He has written several non-fiction books, novels for young people, and also writes songs.

Great to connect with you, Martin, and as always, I’ll start by asking you when you first began to write?

I first started applying myself seriously as a writer in my early twenties – around 1974/5 – when I was a young married man and father and a postman. It was an attempt to fight off the boredom of my work.

And the initial breakthrough?

I wrote a few articles that were published in ‘The Postal Worker’, including an article about George Orwell. And through that I got the nickname ‘Georgie Orwell’ among my fellow postmen. After about five years of writing unpublishable novels I wrote a TV play and that was bought and produced by RTE in 1978. The play was ‘Your Favourite Funny Man’ and starred Jim Bartley. It was about a guy who works in a boring job by day and is a failing stand-up comic by night. No idea where I got the idea from…1978 was a key year for me. My second son, Steven, was born, I got a job in RTE as a trainee assistant film editor and I sold my first TV play. The sale of the play came about through Eoghan Harris who, at the time, had been made head of comedy development in RTE. I think I was one of the few comedy writers he felt had any promise.

Did anyone, famous or not, inspire you to write?

I have always aspired to write with a sense of lightness and openness. My earliest writing influences would have been detective novels (Chandler, Hammett etc) and – Georgie Orwell. Dialogue is my thing and film is my natural habitat. Billy Wilder is my idol.

And do you write every day?

I do write every day. Sometimes it is practical work (such as edit jobs or script report jobs) but when I am doing my own thing I am very disciplined. I just about fall out of bed to my desk: starting by 8am at the very latest. I usually work through until about 1pm. Then I stop, maybe take a walk, certainly take a nap at some point in the afternoon, and then mull over the work (and catch up a bit with the outside world). My problem is that I tend not to know how to stop. I often put in a few hours in the evening.

Write what you know? Agree or Disagree?

I have a brother (Bill) who is an extremely successful businessman. Many years ago he asked me ‘what is the one thing you do? There has to be one thing you do.’ I gave him a list of this and that: editing, directing, books. Now, however, I am concentrating on one thing: comedy. A dear late friend of mine was New York poet Sam Menashe and one of his last books was titled ‘The Niche Narrows’. I now think that’s where I am.

Does your writing lean towards a specific genre?

My first break was with writing bitter comedy and I find that now I am a bitter old man I am returning to that old well. I have learned late that I am not Billy Wilder – who could move from genre to genre – so now I am concentrating my failing sight on comedy. It is a bit of an easy way out. If you have written something that makes an audience laugh, you know you have done your job.

Comparing books to scripts, how long does it take you to complete either?

I am often a jobbing writer and have done family history books (I like writing non-fiction books and I like research). Such a book would take me at least six months. Writing a screenplay is a different animal. Idea, plotting, outline etc might take up to a year (floating around in the back of my head) but I would write a first draft of a feature screenplay in maximum two weeks once the ducks have been lined up in my head.

The ‘Agent’ Question? Do you have one?

I have an agent again as of middle last year – Linda Langton in New York. I had an agent for a few years in Germany (I live in Berlin) but agents here do not pursue work for their clients. They simply do the deals. Linda looks for work for me and is representing right now my biography of the late rocker Tony Sheridan. I think an agent is crucial. It is the element of credibility above all else. As it happens, Linda also sends some script and book editing work my way.

What is your opinion on the importance of literary/Film competitions and awards?

Very, very important. I wish I had more awards and had been more conscious of their importance. They are the poor (wo)man’s marketing. The toughest thing is to get the public aware of you. And as most writers are anti-social (or is that just me?) the awards process makes all the difference.

Not just you, Martin! And with that in mind, do you contribute to the marketing / PR of your work?

I tried and failed. My eldest son, Bernard, set up a website for me but after a few years I gave it up because I didn’t know how to change it and he had no time to update it. I have a blog I don’t update and I have an Amazon Author’s page. My inability to market myself may be why major success has eluded me. That, and lack of talent

Scratch that last sentence! So, what are your thoughts on social media?

I know it is vital, but I don’t know how it works. My agent says she wants to find a ‘platform’ for me. By which she means something that identifies me with readers. Several years ago my brother-in-law Derek happened to notice a Bill Bryson book (‘A Walk in the Woods’) and, being a hill walker, he bought it. He enjoyed the book so much he went back to said book shop and simply bought every other Bryson title on the shelf. Social media is that connection between writer and reader, between filmmaker and undiscovered audience. Marketing is bonding.

As an author and filmmaker, what’s your opinion of the current business of both publishing and film?

It has taken me a couple of years to realize that while I was catching bits of work here and there (books published, screenplays not produced) there has been a huge shift going on. By this stage in my life I have two hats I most often wear. I have been writing non-fiction (such as ‘The Trade Union Pint’, published a couple of years ago by Liberties Press or ‘Vagabond’, my Tony Sheridan biography) or screenplays of films I want to make (such as the comedy ‘The Mistress’ or the ghost story ‘Little Boy Priest’). It seems to me that with publishing you maybe find a niche and that is where an agent comes in. As for my scripts, the film business has changed so much that they get tougher to make because they don’t make financial sense. Damn you, Marvel Comics!

And on Indie Film?

It’s a mystery. As I mention elsewhere here, I am in the process of making a micro-budget film. I contacted two distributor friends of mine in the UK about my plan and both said ‘don’t do it! The world is awash with them!’

Have you considered crowd-funding your film project?

I haven’t tried any form of crowd funding but I am working on a micro-budget comedy feature film project right now and I might try – later this year – to see if I can drum up some crowd funding to complete it. I am writing, directing, doing most of the camera work (with my own gear) and editing.

You have self-published your books?

I went Kindle a couple of years ago with a selection of books of mine that either never found a publisher or had fallen out of print. I also put some un-produced screenplays out there. Last year I resurrected a crime/comedy novel of mine called HANRAHAN and this year I did it as an audiobook (even with me on guitar in bridges between chapters). I have earned very little money from those ventures, but at least the work is there and available.

If you’ve ever had any: How to you handle negative reviews?

I drink. No. Just kidding. I drink to celebrate positive reviews also. Everybody has their own opinion. Some people think I am a handsomely ageing Adonis. Some say ‘look at that fat bald guy’. Your work – film, book, whatever – stands and the review, good or bad, will be wrapping fish and chips tomorrow. Or would have done in the old days. Now it remains forever on the internet. Oh well.

Is there a book or film script by another writer that you wish you had written?

Simple answer: anything by Billy Wilder. Although Herr Wilder never wrote alone, actually. And then several books by Bryson and Orwell.

Can you share with us what you are working on now?

At the moment the focus is on comedy. A producer here in Germany is developing a sitcom of mine. I wrote the concept, the plot outlines and three scripts in English and he has brought in two German comedy writers. I am also writing and making a micro-budget comedy feature (mentioned above) that has already had a few shooting days. Plus I am maybe half way through plotting a script that would be a German/English language comedy script set in Berlin.I cannot reveal any of the plots, though!

Six people, living or not, that you would like to share your favourite beverage with?!

My Dad, Stephen Fry, Billy Wilder, Bill Bryson, Steven Spielberg (for the networking) … and Georgie Orwell.

Last request, Martin! Any advice for aspiring writers?

I honestly think that being creative is our highest level. I think also that it can be a lottery. I didn’t win the lottery, but it has been an interesting ride. Advice? It’s a schizophrenic job. You have to look inside yourself and sit alone in your room to write, then you have to go out there and sell yourself and find your audience. So I guess my advice is ’embrace your inner schizophrenic’. And don’t give up – the work is what matters.


Visit Martin’s page on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/author/www.duffyberlin.com/

BLOG: http://martinduffyberlin.blogspot.de/

Feature Film Showreel: https://vimeo.com/83748803
Photograph courtesy of Jens Winter.