Doing it with Passion! Writers in Ireland Series: Lissa Oliver

Author Lissa Oliver’s published books include Nero – The Last Caesar, Gala Day, Chantilly Dawns and a collection of short stories Tales Of The Turf & Other Worlds. She regularly facilitates creative writing classes, is a Director of the Irish Copyright Licensing Agency and is a long-serving Executive Officer of the Irish Writers’ Union. Lissa is also an award-winning freelance horseracing journalist and broadcaster. Based in Kildare, she writes for The Irish Field, International Thoroughbred, Racetrack, European Bloodstock News and European Trainer, among others. She has twice been a Finalist for the prestigious ‘Derby Awards’ in the UK and was named ‘2014 Person of the Year’ in Libya for services to the racing industry.

Welcome to the series, Lissa! Can you tell us when you first began to write?

The moment I could hold a pencil and form letters. Older relations tell me they never remember me not writing and my earliest primary school books are full of my little stories about all my teddies! I began my first serious adult novel at 16.

And your first time to be published?

I had a poem published in the Brownie magazine when I was 7, and things published in the kiddies’ section of Woman’s Realm around that same time, but I don’t think they count! An article published in an Australian horseracing magazine at 16 got me started, but it was a long wait – my full-time journalist career began when I was 40 and my first novel was published when I was 36.

So how did your ‘breakthrough’ opportunity come about?

After a few articles submitted here and there, another Australian horseracing publication accepted an article and begged for more. These were seen by other editors, who requested articles. This quickly snowballed and all English language (and one Chinese!) horseracing publications now commission me for articles on a permanent basis.

My novels were not so easy. I self-published the first two, then finally had number three published and that same publisher bought the rights of my second, previously self-published, novel. I’m currently writing my fourth novel for that publisher. I believe being well-known within my niche market of horseracing made a big difference in securing a publisher. As an unknown writer, they just couldn’t take a risk, regardless of the actual manuscript.

Being immersed in the world of horseracing then, is your writing genre specific?

My first novel was a fictionalised biography of the Roman Emperor Nero, simply because I love reading the first and second century Roman authors and had an interest in the Caesar family, of which Nero was the last. I have an idea for a second Roman novel, whenever I finally get the time!

Since then, however, all my work has centred on horseracing, as that is another of my consuming passions and my full-time ‘day job’ is as a horseracing journalist and broadcaster. It’s a unique world, due to the horse itself. Those involved work a seven-day week all year round and are out working in the yard from 6am, if not earlier in some cases, so it’s a case of being in bed by 9-10pm at the latest. From stable yard to racecourse to bed, that’s pretty much the existence of most, so it’s a little bubble of a world, separate to the outside world! That alone provides plenty of plot opportunities and the all-important “What If..?” trigger for a story. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a corrupt world, it’s very tightly policed, so the Dick Francis plots are all imagination and pretty much used up by now, so I look more to the psychological aspect for drama, rather than straight thriller.

 

Lissa Oliver 2

And in that context, do you agree that authors should write what they know?

Definitely agree! I couldn’t imagine not writing about the horseracing world at this point in my life! I don’t have to think about the details, they’re second nature. However, I did enjoy writing about first century Rome and would like to do so again. It took a lot of research, but I enjoyed that, and one could argue that, after successful research, I was writing about what I know! Ultimately, the reader has to believe in the world you have created and your story must be credible. Whether that comes through personal knowledge or research is entirely up to you.

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

Probably my first English teacher at secondary school, Mrs Malenczk (Haling Manor, Croydon), who really saw something and encouraged me. I have always been a great reader and devour novels, but it was only Winston Graham’s books that I connected with on a practical basis. I’d already completed one novel by then, but recognised similarities in his method of handling time that reassured me I was doing it right. The minute I first read Interview With A Vampire by Anne Rice was the minute everything I’ve written since has been inspired by. I just aspire to write my own ‘Interview’ book one day. The whole technical aspect, craft, tools were inspirational, even without getting into plot, character or drama.

Sticking with the theme of inspiration, give us the names of six people, living or not, that you would like to share your favourite beverage with?!

Goodness! Even the favourite beverage is a hard one! Just nosing out a pot of tea is a good room temperature pint of real ale! So sitting in a British pub with me somewhere are… well, do we want to relax and chat? Have an energetic debate? Or do I just sit and listen to my heroes?! There are 18 people already! Shall we just settle for Ernesto (Che) Guevara, Sir Peter O’Sullevan (racing commentator, writer), Marcus Otho (1st Century Roman Emperor), Nanny Ogg (fictional character from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld), George Fordham (Victorian jockey) and Andrew Eldritch (The Sisters Of Mercy rock band). Could my husband and daughter join us, too, please?!

Interesting group! And the more the merrier, Lissa! Now, tell us, do you write every day?

I do write every day, though not always on what I term ‘my own thing’. I get a few household chores out of the way first thing, unless a deadline defers chores to another day, then settle down on the laptop and will usually get a 1,500-word article done in a day. I often have 3,000-word features to do and they could take a day, too, depending on what else is being done at the same time. I have no structured day, I just write when I can and would keep on doing so until I’m made to stop! Generally, though, I begin at around 10am and just keep going.

The journalism is my full-time work, so I have to fit in the novels when I can. Even given all day, I couldn’t produce 1,500 words a day of fiction. My fiction writing process is 80% thought, 15% typing and 5% deleting. If I can get a page or two done in a day, I’m very happy. I’ll visualise it first (observe and listen to the characters in each scenario in my mind), then write ‘what I see’ as it happens.

How long does it take you to complete a book?

Ahh, four-five years and also nine months would both be correct answers! It takes me at least two years to get a novel created in my head, to get to know intimately the characters and then for them to suggest a plot to me. Only then do I begin writing. But I’ll get a first chapter written, which is crucial to engaging the reader, and I’ll edit it and edit it and could work on just that single chapter for a year. Then a second chapter, same process. When I type that final full stop of the third chapter, then I’m away. At that point, the characters have been introduced, the plot set up, and the reader engaged to the best of my ability. From then on, it’s up to the characters to take me on my journey, I just follow their progress and record it. From the fourth chapter on, I write at every available opportunity. I still edit meticulously as I go, but I can’t put it down or walk away, I have to keep going to the end. I’ve found with each book so far, from that point when I finally make a start, chapter four, it takes me nine months. Kind of appropriate, really…

Advice on handling negative reviews – if they arise? 

If you can take something from it, then it’s very helpful. However, I’m pleased to say I haven’t yet had a negative review. I tell myself it’s all down to personal taste, so when a reviewer dislikes something, I’ll take comfort from that!

Would you deem it necessary to have an agent, Lissa?

I don’t have an agent and they seem harder to get than a publisher! But here in Ireland I don’t think they’re necessary. The Irish Writers’ Union provides free contract advice to members and most Irish publishers accept unsolicited submissions. Many UK publishers only accept submissions via an agent, however.

Do you contribute to the marketing / PR of your work?

Yes, a great deal. I haven’t found that side of things too much different to self-publishing and going it alone. My publisher comes up with ideas and markets and so do I, we work together.

What are your feelings on social media for authors?

Social media is a great form of marketing and engaging with your audience. I’m not very good at it, as I don’t have the time, but even just a simple posting on Facebook that I’d completed a chapter resulted in umpteen requests to be included in the book! That certainly opens your eyes to the audience you’re reaching and how you can promote your work.

How do you view the current world of publishing, nationally and internationally?

I can’t comment internationally, but in Britain and Ireland for the last good few years 76% of publications each year have been non-fiction, including children’s books. As the vast majority of children’s books are fiction, this means even fewer published books are adult fiction. The weak fiction market has for many years deterred publishers from taking a risk on new authors, leading to a catch 22 situation. However, the digital era now provides authors with self-publication and eBook options that will hopefully bridge that gap between ‘unknown’ and ‘established’.

The eBook and self-publishing route, admittedly, can lead to a glut of very poorly written, proofed and edited books that just shouldn’t be out there; but ultimately the cream will rise to the top. The public now have a wider choice than that which fashion dictates and good reviews will boost a book’s sales, if it’s good enough. Mainstream publishers can only safely go with what’s in vogue, so book buyers are only offered what’s in vogue – another catch 22! Self-published titles offer the public a much greater range of choices, which can only be a good thing for both reader and writer.

What’s your opinion on the importance of literary awards?

Mixed. While literary awards can be influential, there are very few for the emerging writer, so of little help to a career. The successful authors scoop the awards, while it’s the struggling emerging author who could do with that non-existent boost! As to literary competitions, I suppose by entering as many as possible it can get your name noticed, if only by attending every award ceremony, even if you’re never a finalist. Mixing in the right circles could land you in the right place at the right time or gain a useful introduction. However, it’s very costly to be entering, and only three stories will ultimately win and those are purely down to the personal taste of the judge – yours could be fourth and you’ll never know, so it’s no reflection on the quality of your work. Plus, on a personal level, short story competitions tend to set limits of up to 1,500 words and I find it hard to complete a story in under 3,000 words! 80,000 is more my comfort zone!

The obligatory question – any advice for aspiring writers?

Enjoy what you are doing, writing should be a passion, a labour of love. Develop a thick skin and doggedness. Don’t ever give up, don’t take rejections personally, simply collect them as badges of honour. If you believe in your work and are proud of it, then persevere with it. The story alone isn’t enough, you won’t be forgiven for typos or poor editing, so do give your work the attention it deserves – edit, edit and edit again.

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

A pretty complex psychological drama, which sometimes seems more than I can chew! I’m weaving a lot of threads, but so far inching them out without getting hopelessly tangled! The basic plot is that a successful racehorse trainer has just hired a new jockey, but odd little accidents and mishaps and even deaths are threatening their partnership. The trainer, a widower, has the added problem of an amoral teenage son who casts a sinister shadow over all that he does. I aim to have it finished by September, working title is ‘Sainte Bastien’.

 

Find out more about Lissa here: www.lissaoliver.ie Facebook:  www.facebook.com/lissa.oliver.16

The Librarian’s Cellar: Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

When I choose to purchase a book, it is because I connect with it in some way, and often for reasons that I can’t quite explain early on. Put simply, the magic is in the writing, and I’m captivated. I’ve read a lot of books on the craft of writing, and while some remain classic bibles and helpful tomes, I’ve learned to avoid the formulaic drones from the ‘experts’. You know the ones – telling us how to ‘DO IT’ but actually, ‘DOING’ fuck all themselves. [Other than keep flogging the ‘how to’!]

Now and again, I discover a book that gives me that warm, fuzzy feeling, like I’ve made a new friend. A frisson of connection that makes me look forward to getting back there, spending more time there, all cosied up between the pages as sentence upon sentence layer up to enlighten and soothe my senses. Opening up new ideas to me while also affirming what I know, what I feel, and articulating it in language that appeals to me; in language that matters to me.

Bird by bird, some instructions on writing and life by Anne Lamott is one such book. It’s funny, it’s helpful, it’s a kick in the arse and it is honest – probably the most important quality of all. As a self-confessed perfectionist, I balked, squirmed but ultimately laughed out loud at the following passage…

“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and your shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.” 

And hallelujah to this brilliant insight!

“The other voices are banshees and drunken monkeys. They are the voices of anxiety, judgement, doom, guilt. Also, there is hypochondria. There may be a Nurse Ratched-like listing of things that must be done right this moment: foods that must come out of the freezer, appointments that must be canceled or made, hairs that must be tweezed. But you hold an imaginary gun to your head and make yourself stay at the desk. There is a vague pain at the base of your neck. It crosses your mind that you may have meningitis. Then the phone rings and you look up at the ceiling with fury, summon every ounce of noblesse oblige, and answer the call politely, with maybe just the merest hint of irritation. The caller asks if you’re working, and you say yeah, because you are.”

Bird by bird

Whether you are just starting out, or like me, have been scribbling away for years, you are bound to get something meaningful from this book. So do yourself a favour – don’t pass it by, and of course,  it will be all the easier to spot if you quit looking at your feet!

Bird by Bird : some instructions on writing and life / Anne Lamott. Anchor Books. A division of Random House, Inc. New York. 1995

Taking stock as a writer – with some help from my Nemesis

Writing, for all of us scribblers, is a necessary pain in the arse. Thinking about writing, as opposed to doing it, is the big, weeping boil that sits on top of that pain in the arse, throbbing away until action is taken and the lancing begins. Thinking about why we write, and what we choose to write about, is…well, think of the most pain-filled analogy you can imagine and place it firmly on the top of that weeping boil…

Of late, my nemesis, that little bastard aka procrastination, has come to visit again, and has not been kind, cruelly and mischievously pushing me, unawares at first, through the gawd-awful door of reflective thinking. Once there, I am finding it nigh impossible to break away from analysing almost every thought and action, and not just my own.

Bewares, people, I is watching yiz!

Seriously though, it’s uncomfortable, painful even, and at times, probably akin to the navel-gazing that I generally abhor so much, but it is all helping me to finally ‘get it’. To understand stuff, personally, historically and socially; and to fully realise that through this reflective, and mostly silent, journey, I can finally accept where my personal, creative and social vision is rooted.

Taking stock of my own experience, from where I have come to where I am now, I am also forced to examine the why.  In realizing the why, I can make meaning of it all; the way I look at the world, my every action and reaction, and my sometimes frustratingly innate sense of responsibility that is relational, though built around a strictly selective connectedness that can be at once liberating, but also, an invisibly lethal thread of confinement and inertia.

In her book, The Heroine’s Journey, written from the view of a feminist in response to Joseph Campbell’s, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Maureen Murdock wrote on the difficulties of our life path as women.

“It has no well-defined guideposts nor recognizable tour guides. There is no map, no navigational chart, no chronological age when the journey begins. It follows no straight lines”.

Yes, of course, this sentiment applies to men also, and is an appropriate description of the pathways towards transformation and self-realization for all of us. In response to Murdock’s book, Campbell said,

“Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.”

Yikes!

Whatever you believe, the truth is that very few of us come out into the world as adults, unscathed and perfectly intact, but by God, we learn from the experiential!

I cannot imagine a way of expressing my visions without understanding a life journey that so far has run the gamut of experiences and emotions that have offered me unimaginable joy. But there have also been the far from positive aspects. And in looking back, there is fear, there is disappointment, there is anger and there is regret, though I firmly believe that out of every dark place comes a glimmer of light.  The best we can hope for is that we, as scribblers, can look back on these sequences of our personal journeys and know intuitively that these learning processes have helped us to rise to the challenge of becoming critically reflective writers; authentic voices, and at the very least, empathic ones.

Sincerity and intention are not enough.  So thanks for that, I say begrudgingly, to my Nemesis.

Featured Quote from:  Neil GaimanThe Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections 

On Reflection 2012…

For most of us, I would imagine, 2012 was a bit of a rollercoaster of mixed experiences. Mine certainly was. No personal tales to be told here, but suffice it to say that I took a large cup of pure joy, followed by a bitter smattering of deep sadness. Throw into the mix the odd crisis and a couple of heaped tablespoons of the old reliable stressful situations, and yes, I am guessing that many of you are nodding your heads in recognition of that familiar recipe right now.

And to the artist, it’s all copy, after all. Lived experience and inspiration for future work…

Whatever 2012 brought, [here comes the cheesy bit!] it is wise to remember that 2013 is as yet, an unspoiled page in the book of time, and as hopeful creatures, we shall creep, leap, stagger or dance into it with all the blind optimism that never fails to invoke some much-needed anticipation at this time of the year.

Not just from a writing perspective, but certainly intrinsic to it, reflection must be a component of the process of moving forward; knowledge gained to put into practice what you have learned, realising what you need to change, nailing down what you most desire, and naming what you hope to achieve in the coming twelve months.

The voyage of 2013 is about to begin, and though I cannot control many elements of it, it will not go uncharted…regarding all of the above, I think I have it sussed. I know what I want to change, I know what I most desire, and by jaysus, I know what I want to achieve.

And only Mother Faith and Father Time will tell the outcome.

Father Time illustrated by Edmund Dulac

Father Time illustrated by Edmund Dulac

I’ve done okay with the scribbling in 2012. Have placed well in some writing competitions, and was shortlisted for an Irish Film Board Gearrscannain Award. I got into the Second Round at the Austin Film Festival [Couldn’t manage the trip over, but I’ll get there in person this year, no stopping me!] and was shortlisted for best Arts and Culture Blog at the Blog Awards Ireland.

I continued to work towards the development of two feature scripts, LADY BETH, and THE CAPTIVES, and have seen two of my short scripts, ADAM,  almost locked, and IN RIBBONS, due to begin shooting in April, 2013, take leaps in terms of development. I look forward to working on these projects, collaborating with some talented, like-minded and exciting people attached.

And then, there is always the novels, three of them..but enough about them for now.

So, I will leave you all [In the 193 countries that 2012 WordPress Report has indicated my visitors come from!] with the sincerest good wishes and the best intentions for the new year, by imparting some seriously profound and learned advice…

BACK UP YOUR FILES, PEOPLE!

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Computer Hard Drives, much like the human brain, are labyrinthian networks of mystery, prone to short-circuit now and again, and for no identifiable reason, to malfunction with complete loss of memory, and to fold and shut down under the pressure of too much information and / or neglect. Treat both with tender, loving care…

I never did cheesecake; I just used my hair…

What defines ‘sexy’ in a woman?

From a female writer’s perspective, I ponder this question time and time again. Now, I’m sure that if I carried out a survey, I would be overwhelmed with varied and perhaps, batshit crazy responses from both sexes, and would probably be none the wiser at the end of the process.

It’s personal, after all.

And while I know it when I see it, it can be hard to define. It’s intriguing that while physical appearance has a huge role to play in the make-up of sexual allure and magnetism, I’m sure we can all name at least one symmetrically, flawlessly-formed specimen of human perfection that is the furthest from sexy as you can imagine…I’ll mention no names on that one…so, perhaps it is more about attitude, a way of walking, talking, glancing, or even, a flick of the hair…

The title for this article is a quote from1940’s icon, Veronica Lake. Famous for roles such as Jennifer in I Married a Witch and Ellen in This Gun for Hire, she is almost as equally famous for her peekaboo hairstyle… a classically sexy look, and one which is constantly emulated by women to this day.

Though her life was full of tragedy and upheaval, for the camera, Veronica Lake carried herself with an air of beauty and mystique. She died aged 51, having experienced a troubled childhood, several broken marriages, the death of her infant child, alcoholism and periods of mental illness. A year before her death, she is quoted as saying, “I was always a rebel and probably could have got much further had I changed my attitude. But when you think about it, I got pretty far without changing attitudes. I’m happier with that.”

So then, if it worked for Veronica, the mystery is no mystery at all…the secret is in the doing. Of simply being confident enough in one’s skin to get the glad rags on and face the world, no matter what…and to meet, full on, the challenge, and in the film industry certainly, the rewards, of the unrelenting ‘male gaze’…

Which makes me think of Marlene Dietrich, who famously said, “Darling, the legs aren’t so beautiful, I just know what to do with them.”

Enough said.

King, Kubrick and The Ahwahnee Hotel

Stanley Kubrick’s film The Shining, forever deemed a classic of the horror genre, is nonetheless, a thing of contradictions and theories that run a gamut of themes and ambiguities. The talented legend that is Stephen King, who has admitted that while writing the novel, he was an alcoholic with tendencies of rage, was exploring the themes of the disintegration of the family and the dangers of alcoholism through the medium of the supernatural.

It is suggested that he was not happy with the downplaying of the supernatural element of the film, which he felt “took the “bite” out of the story and made Jack a less sympathetic character.” [Quoted from an interview with Laurent Bouzerau for a television production, A Night at the Movies: The Horrors of Stephen King.] According to King, he viewed Jack as being victimized by the genuinely external supernatural forces haunting the hotel, whereas Kubrick’s take viewed the haunting and its resulting malignancy as coming from within Jack himself.

There are also many social interpretations and references in the film that could allude to Kubrick’s concern for The Holocaust (the flowing of blood scenes and the motif of the number 42) and also of the genocide of the Native American Indians ( the rich tapestry of motifs throughout the hotel set), and the reference that The Overlook was built on an ancient burial ground.

All of these theories are well documented and are open to discovery and further interpretation, so let’s leave that forum to run on and on…

In this article, there are three photographs, not, as Shining fans might first presume, of images of the fictional Overlook Hotel, they are in fact, from the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park. The Ahwahnee, built in 1927,  and named from an Indian word meaning “deep, grassy valley” is now an American national historic landmark building, which I had the pleasure of visiting during a recent trip there.

At the time, though I can admit to a slight sense of déjá vu, while warming up in front of the gigantic open fire, and walking through the big old generous spaces, steeped in native american imagery, rich heritage and art deco, I had no idea of the connection of the place to the film, but have since learnt that Kubrick based some of the interiors used in the film on this very hotel.

Although neither is an exact likeness, Kubrick modelled the lobby and the great lounge for the movie’s Overlook Hotel set, and the Ahwahnee’s lobby elevator doors, with their vivid black-and-red frame, are very clearly featured in the film.

The Ahwahnee is no stranger to Hollywood, having also been featured in the movies, The Caine Mutiny (1954) and  Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day (1996) and has also been host to guests such as Walt Disney, Charlie Chaplin, Gertrude Stein, Ansel Adams, Lucille Ball, Will Rogers, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Greta Garbo. In 1943, the US Navy used the hotel for the convalescence of war veterans…

In the script, written by Kubrick with Diane Johnson, the character of Halloran, played by the wonderful Scatman Crothers, explains to the telepathic young Danny, played by the amazing child actor, Danny Lloyd, of the mystery of The Overlook Hotel…

Not things that anyone can notice,  but things that people who shine can see.  Just like they can see things that haven’t happened yet. Well, sometimes they can see things that happened a long time ago,  right here in this particular hotel – over the years, and not all  of them was good.”

Good or bad, I can’t help but feel that The Ahwahnee itself must harbour many secrets from its interesting past, that perhaps only people who shine can see!

Apart from my personal journal, for this article, I have also researched information from wikipedia.org, and yosemitepark.com and I do not own the copyright to the images reproduced here.

Welcome ladies, to the psychological playground of the horror genre…

As a writer of ghostly and supernatural stories, one of my earliest literary influences as a young teenager came from the classic world of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Later, I became obsessed with the vampire chronicles of Anne Rice, the wonderfully gothic and ghostly tales of Susan Hill, and the everyday magic that lyrically dances from the pages of the novels of Alice Hoffman.

So it is very satisfying now, to see a resurgence in the popularity of the genre as more and more female writers delve into what Helen Dunmore refers to as a  “psychological playground”. An apt description, and where I am also quite happy to play, literally!

Although I do write drama, I am always drawn back to mixing up the gothic and the dark fairytale with the horror elements, and many of my stories, The Lupii, Evanescence, Iona’s House, Spinning with the Devil,  and of course, Vampire of Arkyne, all stem from this genre.  I can only aspire to reach the levels of the great ladies mentioned above, but I fully intend to keep trying, and to keep playing!

Anne Rice’s latest novel, The Wolf Gift, to be released on Valentine’s Day, will be my next read…

Alcatraz…and a spoiler alert…of sorts!

Scheduled for release this year, Fox TV have slated in the upcoming Alcatraz, a brand new series, described as a chilling thriller centered on the most infamous prison in America, the one-time home to the most notorious criminals in the United States. Coming from executive producer J.J. Abrams and writer and executive producer Elizabeth Sarnoff, the series stars Sarah Jones, Jeffrey Pierce, Robert Forster, Sam Neill, Jorge Garcia, Jonny Coyne and Jason Butler Harner.

This is the latest in a catalogue of film and television offerings based on or about the prison. Other well-known titles include The Rock, The Birdman of Alcatraz, Escape from Alcatraz…and many, many more. For some lesser known titles, see posters at foot of this article.

So I often wondered why the place continues to hold such allure for authors, screenwriters, film and television viewers, not to mention the many thousands of tourists and visitors whom flock there every year. And just like them, I recently took the boat to the infamous, island prison museum. Or rather, I took the tourist cruise.

It is what it is, and to be honest, initially, I was a little underwhelmed. Sure, it must have been a frighteningly harsh reality for the men, some as young as eighteen, whom landed there to face the communal showers and the naked walk of shame to the tiny, five foot wide, nine foot deep cells, where nothing but a steel bed, an uncovered toilet, a tiny sink, and a table and stool, fixed to the wall, complete with the “regulation rule book”, awaited them.

Though a minority few did allow the streaming warm rays of sun that beamed across the San Francisco Bay to filter down from the high-up, fortified windows of the cellblock, most of the cells did not allow natural daylight. The threat and reality of solitary confinement was very real for unruly souls incarcerated there, but no inmate ever had to share a cell, and Alcatraz offered every prisoner three square meals a day, all they could eat, as long as they ate it and didn’t waste food. One of the aspects of the tour of the prison is a story of how all 200 and odd inmates upturned their tables because their spaghetti sauce tasted so bad. A couple of discharges from a prison officer’s rifle was enough to restore order, and later, the quality of the dish! They had access to medical treatment, which the likes of raving, syphilis-riddled Al Capone and the dangerous psychopath, the Birdman, Robert Franklin Stroud, availed of, spending most of their prison terms there in the slightly more comfortable infirmary.

A rehabilitative approach came later, when prisoners at Alcatraz could sketch, paint, crochet (yes, you read that right!) had music hours when they could play instruments, had a library and could read as many books as they wanted, none of a violent nature, obviously. They could study academic courses, earn visitation rights, albeit through a partitioned glass, as well as the opportunity to work in the surrounding island gardens. Some of the prisoners even worked on cleaning and cooking duties in the Wardens house.

Perhaps the Native American Indian, Mexican and Black American prisoners received the harshest treatment, which was mainly perpetuated by other redneck, hick prisoners, forcing segregation that added a further punitive layer for those particular men. This says more about the racism that was reflecting in the society of the time as a whole, rather than a unique Alcatraz experience. In its lifetime as a federal penitentiary, 1934 to 1963, there were eight prisoners murdered by their fellow inmates on Alcatraz, five committed suicide, and fifteen died from natural causes. There is no record of any inmate having died through ill-treatment at the hands of the prison officers.

Harsh is the reality of any punitive system, and based on what I learned from my visit, the practices at Alcatraz seem no worse than anything that you cannot see today in prisons all over the world, where systems are failing miserably in their approaches to punishment and rehabilitation. For instance, the statistics for our very own Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison make grim reading: http://www.amnesty.ie/sites/default/files/HRII/UPR12,%20Amnesty%20International%20submission%20for%20the%20UPR%20of%20Ireland,%20March%202011.pdf  And need I mention Quantánomo? http://amnesty.ie/news/ten-years-guantánamo-–-decade-failure

I’m not painting Alcatraz as a picture of an idyllic prison environment here, far from it, but I am differentiating between the myth of movies and the reality that was. On the wall of the bookshop, there is a quote from an ex-prison officer, that alludes to the movie myth of the twitchy-eyed Governor and the sadistic prison warden…but the reality is that, apart from the unruly few, for the most part, and in the context of the time period, age of the building (The building that exists now was erected in 1906 from a fort that was built in 1859) and its unsheltered, weathered exposure to the damp-inducing elements, prisoners were treated in humane conditions, with inmates and wardens getting along just fine.

So to my earlier question as to why the place continues to hold such allure? Perhaps, as I stood there, on the inside, looking out, and so encased in that ugly, decayed beast that juts out from the belly of such beauty, and the pleasing-to-the-eye skyline of the city so near and yet so far…my imagining of times past and of festive, celebratory nights there gave me an answer. Nights such as New Year’s Eve, when the teasing, haunting sounds of the revellers must have carried over that mass of water and in through the barred windows, and indeed, still do.

And from that sense of place and emotion, I came to understand, sort of, true isolation and the solitary meaning of being completely unfree…and no matter how fantastical the myths of Alcatraz become, that this one devastating glimpse into the essence of humanity must linger in every crack and crevice of that ancient cellblock, prickling the intuitive mind, and taunting the imagination of those very same authors and screenwriters that I mentioned earlier…a mecca for story inspiration, and a haven for the ghosts that surely linger there…immortalised in fiction, but immortalised nonetheless…

Salutations and Resolutions…

My New Year greeting to all.

Fate will have its way, but for the most part, how it plays out, is up to you…so get down to it and make this your best writing year ever! Have a great one…and to quote Vonnegut…

“But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it is so human. So she was turned to a pillar of salt. So it goes. People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.”

From Slaughterhouse Five.

Nope, me neither.

On Reflection 2011…

Last post of 2011, and like all seriously driven writers and artists should, time to reflect on work done and results of same that will hopefully lead to bigger and better for 2012.

Most of us can be rather critical of our offerings, and I am no exception, so this exercise is really about savouring the good stuff that has been generated this year, acknowledging the talent that I am collaborating with, and also those who have inspired and encouraged me to move forward, do better and most importantly, to keep the faith!

So, the year kicked off with a meeting with Irish/Italian Director, Vittoria Colonna, a powerhouse of talent, beauty and creative energy, and between us, our collaborative project The Captives, which is set in Florence, Italy, has emerged. The first draft was longlisted for the BAFTA Rocliffe New Writing Forum, Edinburgh 2011, and though there is still some way to go with it, we are getting there…

The Literary Journal, REVIVAL, published an extract from my as yet, unfinished novel, LADY BETH. This is also a screenplay that continues to be close to my heart, and one that I intend to keep pushing towards development. In July, IFTA, in collaboration with the Galway Film Festival, awarded the screenplay a one-to-one consultation with Gill Dennis, Master of the American Film Institute and screenwriter of Walk The Line, amongst others. He has mentored a new  generation of filmmakers, including Jonathan Levine (The Wackness), Jacob Estes (Mean Creek) and Goran Dukic (Wristcutters). A true professional and a gentleman, Gill was highly supportive of LADY BETH, and subsequently put me in touch with a very talented, emerging director, whom Gill has also mentored through the AFI. I am very grateful to Gill for his encouragement, and for making those connections with great people and their continuing work to bring the project forward…exciting stuff…

I have still to master the art of the pitch document, so when two of my projects, Arkyne and Lady Beth, were longlisted for the Fresh Voices Pitch Awards, I was pretty chuffed. Particularly with Arkyne, which was the first screenplay I wrote, and began as such an epic tale, I have decided to finally stop faffing around and complete the novel version, Vampire of Arkyne. I should have the draft ready sometime in 2012…

In August, you can just picture the happy gig when my family fantasy script, PIXER KNOWS!, was awarded the Altantis Prize at the Moondance International Film Festival. Another labour of love, it is a big-budget concept, but so far, despite the win, it has been difficult to get the attention of producers, but, I shall persevere…

Two of my screenplays, both of the horror genre, were placed in international competitions, The Lupii, a quarter-finalist in Write Movies Competition, and Evanescence, a second round qualifier of the PAGE International Screenplay awards. Both are early drafts, so I will be doing some work on them in 2012. For whatever reason, I get a real kick out of writing the horror stuff…for those who know me well, that ain’t no surprise at all…

My blog post on Irish Director Terry McMahon’s abrasively brilliant indie film, Charlie Casanova, went far and wide, mainly due to the fact that Terry posted it on his facebook page…great comments on the post, and indeed, the film, of which praise is certainly well deserved!

Also, I need to give a shout out to the members of my Screenwriting Group for their support and endurance of my meanderings, and to Dermot Tynan of Claddagh Films, for his positive actions, as opposed to just talking encouragement…much appreciated…

So, all and all, on the writing front, it has been a positively productive year, which generated work and new relationships that I hope, will carry on into 2012…and as I contemplate the beginnings of, as yet, undreamed worlds, I will end on the wisdom of Shakespeare…

To unpathed waters, undreamed shores.