Banville interview and other matters

I was delighted to have the chance to interview John Banville for on the release of his latest novel.

In Ancient Light Alexander Cleave revisits both the memory of a teenage affair with a much older woman and looks further into the enigma of his daughter Cass’ fate previously touched on in Eclipse (2000) and Shroud (2002). I was keen to talk to John Banville about Ancient Light and the tricky art for the writer, of negotiating memory and invention.

On reading Ancient Light I felt that it had the cohesion and integrity of a short story. I asked Banville how he achieved this, but he is sceptical that Ancient Light had that kind of coherence. “I’m not sure that any novel could have. I think of the short story as something like Zen archery, or Japanese print-making: a long period of reflection and preparation, then a rapid, fluid gesture and the thing is done. The writing of a novel is a far messier, more incoherent process. But I’ll accept your flattering judgement,” he says. Whether or not he believes he has achieved this intensity and clarity of message, he tells me that he does try to make his “novels as dense and demanding as poems” (Apparently his publishers despair when he says this) “but it’s true – and perhaps a poem is rather like a short story, with the same kind of thereness.”

Click here for the rest of the interview

I also chatted to busy writer and mum of four Mary Vensel White about how her novel The Qualities of Wood was picked up by Harper Collin’s after she uploaded it to the writing site Authonomy. Click here for more

A nice writing boost to find that I was shortlisted for this Anam Cara writing retreat competition.

One of my favourite writers Tania Hershman chats about her new short story collection here on Nuala Ni Chonchuir’s blog. And another new writer Mary Costello that I’ve just discovered through the Stinging Fly is interviewed here by E.R. Murray.

And don’t forget that the Sean O’ Faolain short story prize deadline is July 31st. I was longlisted a while back and hope enter again.

In the meantime I’m like Niamh Boyce, wondering how to write in the summer with all the kids about. I’m adding words to my latest book The Exhibit of Held Breaths  while also taking an objective look at my completed (I think) book The Book of Remembered Possibilities which I hope to submit shortly. What about you, how are you finding the summer writing and living wise? Is it time to live, have fun and store up ideas or are there ways of doing everything, and should we?


Do writing retreats make a difference?

I’ve just come back from my writing retreat of 9 days in Ballinskelligs, at the side of a cliff in a remote part and beautiful part of Kerry. This was a place where you could choose complete isolation if you wanted. There was a meeting house but it was discretionary as to whether you and the other artists wanted to meet. During the course of my stay, there were three such convivial gathering, good conversation by candle and firelight about art and writing related things, funny stories in general, sheep, fish, dolphins, scuba diving.

There was a beautiful walk climbing higher and higher above the panorama of sea. Clover, grass, sheep and sea smells. Then back to the cottage and the novel, structuring, adding words, then food, reading, silence, radio, a look at the sea from the bedroom window, solid sleeps.

All the time in the world to write, all the silence necessary. But I’ve written here on my  post more fully about what I achieved, what I learned about my writing process, about how many of the things I was able to do on retreat are things that I can do in daily life. There is, for me, only so much writing I can churn out in a day, others might differ. Writing needs focus, something that often requires my own self-discipline more than anything else. If I need silence I can get up early. What a retreat allowed me to do was to mull and recuperate, to slow down.

What I think having done a retreat is that yes, we might as busy people yearn for a complete break, for that elusive silence and freedom from responsibility but we can build in many of the benefits of retreat into our own lives. We can switch off, step back, walk, watch interesting programmes. We can pick an hour or two within the day when there are no demands or clamour to write and build up our work over time. We can maybe, do more by doing less, or at least be less frantic, don’t say yes to everything, but say yes to more of the things we really love doing and thinking about and let that feed into our writing.

Having gone on retreat and having returned to having the children at home until the school holidays end, there is a perfect opportunity to discover how to pace things and still be able to move ahead with the novel as well as liviing and enjoying the summer. The writing retreat has refocused my mind and I’m hoping I can hang on to the new perspective.

Self-published book in the national paper

Yesterday the Higgs Boson & today Housewife with a Half-Life gets a mention as a beach read in the Irish Independent. Not bad for a self-published book eh? Is there no end to the excitement? And all while I’m off on a quiet retreat.

Take heart self-publishers, all sorts of things are possible!

Meanwhile back to my traditional agent seeking literary self. I’m working on The Exhibit of Held Breaths on writing retreat and I think it could be something good.

Ebook (extremely reasonably priced!) 

Paperback of Housewife with a Half-Life on,, Barnes and Noble and the Book Depository

Celebrating its announcement: a Higgs Boson short story

I have leapt out of my retreat upon the news that scientists at CERN are announcing results consistent with the discovery of the Higgs Boson. My school level Physics means that I’ll have to leave it to others to explain but here is a story based around the concept of the Higgs Boson, the particle that is said to add matter to other particles and here’s a link. What is the Higgs Boson.

This story was part of the Higgs Boson anthology, the brainchild of writer Marcella O’ Connor.

Supersymmetric: Almost but not quite

The particular memory of Alice was enduring, like a rock carved out with a hammer and chisel, inconsequential shards stripped away to reveal only the essential. There was nothing that she and Noel had liked more than sitting down together on the seafront with a big bag of fish and chips watching the waves.

She was a beauty, inside and out. They had married young, stayed together. They had settled, Noel supposed, for life, for each other, but it was the settling of earth, of something substantial and comforting, soil spilling into crevices, ready. They’d had a daughter, Ava, born in the Spring, right at the start of their marriage. All beginnings.

Alice had believed in ghosts. She saw them early on the landing or in one of the east facing bedrooms. She told him that she could walk through the ghosts or that they streamed through her on bright mornings as she stood looking out of the window at the long, quiet fields of strong grass and meaty ploughed ground. He thought that it was just those dust motes, fairies – Ava called them – but Alice insisted that they existed, though, unseen. It was how he felt about God. You didn’t need to search for him.

He was just there, omniscient, as the catechism said, ‘I am with you always, yes, even till the end of time.’

Money was tight; he’d worked at a variety of things, changing his stated occupation like a man shedding skins. His Dad was almost at retirement age. He’d used to work in the Switzers store back in the 1980’s before it became another entity entirely although remaining in the same location. Lately he and his Dad did odd jobs for people, had a van, moved stuff from A to B and back again like fireflies zipping across the Irish evening.

It was one March that the van was involved in a large head-on collision on the M50 that nearly took him from Alice. Well it did for a while. He spent a month in a coma, an in between place where he was neither dead nor truly alive. And she sat by his bedside knowing that anything could still happen, that he could be returned to her, whole and healed, that one morning he might open his eyes, move his dry lips and pin himself to the world and to her with the weight of lucid words, of recognition. Alternatively he might just disappear, untraceably sinking into the void without giving off any evidence of existence. Once it was all over and he was back home, she confided in him that each time she went into the hospital – a massive, sprawling building – she could hear her heart thudding in her head because she never knew exactly what she was going to find.

Alice was the kind of woman who saw the positive in everything. She made the best of imperfection, regarded it, and consequently him, with a wry compassion.  So she made a policy of encouragement and care. As they sat together in the evenings she would often take both of his hands and tell him what a fine man she thought he was. But all he had done worth doing was loving her enough to stay faithful and make the most of what the world threw at him.

But she left him. Cancer, of course. Good cells and bad cells faced in opposition. It was only months, quicker than either of them had expected.

He lost weight, although he thought that he was eating round about the same as usual. Noel and his daughter kept the same mealtime routines. They laid the table with the placemats and coasters, the way Alice used to, took glasses from the cabinet that she had put away, exchanging her touch for theirs. They went on as if nothing at all had changed, as if she would show up at any minute. They made lasangna, roast chicken and stew and ate it. But still he grew thinner. It was as if Alice had somehow given him mass just by being there.

Time went forward, against logic almost, he didn’t know if the ticking of the clock brought him further from her, or closer. Despite the catastrophe of losing her, the kind of person Alice had been, and all that she had been to him remained and the fire of sunsets did not enrage him or wring tears. And the dusk was a soft blanket of nostalgia, cosying up the impending night.

The night was black though. Black like the coal Noel’s grandad used to hock around Dublin on a horse and cart back in the 50’s, as black as his hands and face before his wife handed him the soap, ironically coal tar. As black as the ink of a startled octopus from those David Attenborough shows Alice had been fond off. As black as his socks with a hole in them she used to sew while watching. The octopus has three hearts you know. Yes, No and Maybe.

As black as inkpots, inkjets, as black as typewriter ribbons and the Gutenberg press, as black as the ink of a trillion writers documenting humanity. As black as old blood, as black as if it was a night without stars, without the cold rock of the moon shining, as black and long as a suicidal Scandinavian’s midwinter night, without the aurora, because with the aurora, everything changed. There was pole dancing, magnetic strips, a feather boa trailed seductively across the skies with a raunchy joie de vivre. But extinguish the remembrance of light from your mind. Flip the mirror. See the old black and white TV make your entertainment disappear through a collapsing pinprick. As black as space. Zero gravity. Where there is nothing left but the sense of your own fear. Nothing sucks. Black nothing.

The astronaut flailing in the solar wind. Cut adrift. ‘Like that song’ Leon was thinking –  David Bowie in his Ziggy phase. Space Oddity. Celia used to be crazy about it. The guy was never going to make it home. Hope crumbling in the insides of him, his courage inverts to reckless abandon. His silences shrieking across the Anti-verse. Black like the Goth Leon used to be, listing to the Cure on the floor of dimly lit bedsits with his hand in spilt oil tresses of aging Morticia Addams lookalikes. Though black was night the

mornings made Leon angry, shepherds warnings shaking their ripped fists through the flimsy curtains. Mornings at the end of unslept nights, clock ticking nights, stopped clocks, writing publishable and citable papers, wrestling concepts, elucidating. Head on hands. In the dreaded dead of, losing Celia was like tearing a hole in the fabric of the universe. She would have laughed at that, with her hand on her hip and her lipstick like an on fire sunset. What had she been to him? He couldn’t grasp it. He didn’t know.

Working at the university, he’d put on weight over time, although he didn’t know how, he skipped lunch, had crisps for dinners and slept through breakfast. He drank coffee, black, with three sugars instead. But usually, instead of glucose, he fed on quark-gluon plasma, the primordial soup from which all particles emerged. They were looking for the Higgs Boson, the mass particle, the particle that lends weight to all other particles.

They were like two opposing forces, him and Celia. He was a Cancer, she was Aries. Neither of them believed in astrology but it gave her yet another reason to dump him, quicker than expected. It was only months.

She had a way of bringing people down, undermining what was good. To her, he was a yawn inducing boffin. He took her hands and tried to explain his fervour, how Feynman’s legendary work had brought him into the field. She let go of his hands. ‘Be Feynman then, she said, if you want, another passionless man chasing after proofs.’ He wanted to prove her wrong, to say how ardently Feynman had loved his first wife, his childhood sweetheart who died early, how he had put the heart into science. Because of him Leon had wanted to achieve something extraordinary.

Passion, paid off, out of several Phd students in his year, he was the man who became involved in the collision project in Switzerland. He’d phoned his Dad to share the good news but his Dad didn’t really get it, or want to, they’d never been that close. His Dad was loaded; spending money was his ultimate satisfaction. He couldn’t see what pleasure there could possibly be in just finding things out.

In March they started up the Large Hadron Collidor. Physicists were attempting to break up the quark-glucon plasma and find a spectrum of particles and sub atomic particles that could answer fundamental questions about the forces and interactions between electrons, quarks, neutrinos and other sub atomic particles. They were hoping to gain evidence for supersymmetric particles which mirrored The Standard Model particles. These supersymmetric particles might even include possible candidates for dark matter. Leon had entered CERN’s massive building each day with his heartstrings strumming the tune of possibility, never knowing what had or was about to be found.

When things were good between Leon and Celia, they would stand leaning against each other on the landing or in the bedroom in the early morning before she left for work. He would tell her that 50 trillion solar neutrinos pass through the human body every second. And you couldn’t feel a thing. It was the closest thing to spirits from another world. Leon thought it was pretty bloody awesome, although Celia took some convincing. Now he was looking for the God particle and he would keep looking, they all would, until they found it, until they could be sure it existed.

They had already found the first particle they were looking for. It was known as a beauty quark. Then the first sub atomic particle, W, became evident. Things emerging, coming out of the soup. At one point there’d been a question mark whether Celia was pregnant. It was Autumn, the leaves thickening on the ground, sweet rotting. They must have been mistaken, he couldn’t even remember the details now, the idea just faded away as if it had never been real. When they split up he felt old, jaded. With Celia it had always been about endings.

If Celia had still been around, she and Leon could have sat chilling, riffing about particle waves, enjoying the concept of fission chips, where the hammer and chisel of the LHC split shards from the Universe’s stone, shards that flew and held the light for instances, revealing everything – but nothing about Celia – before they quickly disappeared into particle dust.

[Copyright & all rights you could possibly conceive of strictly belong to Alison Wells]