Eagle-eyed regular readers may have noticed something particular about my weekly news round-up – it isn’t exactly what you might call weekly. In my defence, The Utterly-Random-Whenever-I-Feel-Inclined Herding really doesn’t have the same ring to it. But as we’re here now, we might as well look at some interesting writing bits and bobs I’ve seen knocking about the internet.
Building Lincoln in the Bardo
The Guardian website this week featured an excellent article by George Saunders attempting to discuss the process of writing his hugely anticipated first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. Though considered one of the finest contemporary short story writers around, Saunders was daunted by the prospect of tackling the novel, which centres around the death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son Willie during his presidency. Saunders had once been told that Lincoln was said to have made repeated visits to the crypt where the child was temporarily interred to hold the boy’s body (three of Lincoln’s four children died in childhood, and he is believed to have suffered from depression as a result):
‘I carried that image around for the next 20-odd years, too scared to try something that seemed so profound, and then finally, in 2012, noticing that I wasn’t getting any younger, not wanting to be the guy whose own gravestone would read “Afraid to Embark on Scary Artistic Project He Desperately Longed to Attempt”, decided to take a run at it, in exploratory fashion, no commitments. My novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, is the result of that attempt, and now I find myself in the familiar writerly fix of trying to talk about that process as if I were in control of it.’
In attempting to explain it nonetheless, he looks at the broader picture of what writers ‘do’, if that can be explained at all. And he explains how he applied his usual short story approach to the huge, terrifying novel:
‘It was as if, over the years, I’d become adept at setting up tents and then a very large tent showed up: bigger frame, more fabric, same procedure. Or, to be more precise (yet stay within my “temporary housing” motif): it was as if I’d spent my life designing custom yurts and then got a commission to build a mansion. At first I thought “Not sure I can do that.” But then it occurred to me that a mansion of sorts might be constructed from a series of connected yurts – each small unit built by the usual rules of construction, their interconnection creating new opportunities for beauty.’
As you’d expect, the feature is warmly and beautifully written and he offers such profound insight that it’s hard to summarise the nuts and bolts of it – honestly, it’s far better if you just go and savour it.
It takes a village
One of the revelations (to me, anyway) in becoming a writer is just how collaborative it is. There’s a tendency to think of the novelist beavering away in their solitary study, and then emerging with their polished, completed work ready for submitting to publishers and agents. In a recent interview with the Irish Times, writer Alan McMonagle discusses how many hands were on deck to help him to the point of releasing his debut Ithaca:
‘…it was about dragging myself to the desk (especially on the days I didn’t feel like it) until I had churned out a novel-length manuscript. Again, it was about the necessity of an ecosystem of supports (bursaries, residencies, courses, publishers, festivals, other writers) to provide me with the space, time, money, and that oh-so timely confidence to keep going.’
And this is just the group effort that goes into producing a finished first draft, let alone the first readers, editors, agents and publishers required thereafter. He also offers great words of encouragement to others on the writing path, gleaned from his own experience:
‘Writing is a long way. It is a minority sport. It is a game you lose almost all the time. You must learn how not to give up.’
Hard act to follow
The talented Sara Baume was recently faced with a different set of challenges – how to follow up an award-winning debut? In an interview with the Independent, she discusses her new book A Line Made By Walking, the tale of a young woman recovering from a breakdown. It deals with the disappointment of not making it in the arts, where hard work is definitely no guarantee of success or financial reward – a pretty hot topic for writers at the moment and something she has first-hand experience of. Loosely based on her attempts at becoming an artist in her 20s, she recalls:
‘”I really believed that if I worked hard, I’d make it,” she says. “My boyfriend and I still talk about this because he’s an artist – and not a successful artist – and he was the same in college. His phrase was “hard work makes magic”. And that’s not true. And it took until my mid-twenties for me to realise that, and then I struggled to cope with it. I was like, ‘Well what do I do now? Am I just ordinary?'”‘
This leads on to larger questions of identity and existence, life and death. Though I haven’t yet read Baume’s new book, I expect these fundamental issues will be dealt with in the same sensitive, lyrical way as in the beautiful Spill Simmer Falter Wither.
Short story competition
There’s no shortage of competitions with deadlines coming up at the end of this month, but one that has just recently opened for submissions is the Colm Tóibín International Short Story Award 2017. Part of the Wexford Literary Festival (this year taking place May 19-21), it’s a lovely competition which offers shortlisted writers the opportunity to attend the award ceremony in Enniscorthy (I wrote about last year’s one here if you’d like a taster of what it’s like).First prize is €1,000, second place €500 and third place €300. Stories should be 1,800-2,000 words in length on any theme, and the entry fee is €10. The closing date is April 1.
In addition, the festival has three other competition categories, two of them new – the International Poetry Award, the One-Act Play Competition and the Children’s Book Trailer Award, which invites school children to film their own book promotion. Further details are on the website.