IN the summer of 1983, as I was working on that novel in a hotel room in the Algarve region of Portugal, I came to an impasse. The two main characters had followed my trajectory; they had left Enniscorthy and landed in Barcelona, where they had lived. I had written chapters about the enigma of arrival, about the excitement of the new city, and then about settling there, and also about a sort of unsettlement that came with being away from your own country in a new place of choice. I had written my chapters on the legacy of the civil war in Catalonia. But the novel wasn’t finished; it needed something else, but I had no idea what. I remembered what the Irish painter Barrie Cooke had said to me about starting a painting; he said “you just make a mark.” I was working on a manual typewriter. I thought I would close my eyes for a while, think of nothing, open them and type a word, any word, and then see where that word led. I wrote: “The sea.” An then I wrote: “A grey shine on the sea.” Suddenly, I was back in an Irish landscape, with Irish weather, and not only that, but in a very precise place – the strand at Ballyconnigar on the Wexford coast. I moved my characters there, and I found a calm, stable, melancholy tone to work with. I could see the shore stretching south to Curracloe in many types of Irish summer weather, including days when the haze so easily becomes mist and when soft clouds so easily darken and become rain. Somehow, writing about it was easier than writing about Spain, and the sentences came with less strain….
Novels and stories come only for me when an idea, a memory, or an image move into rhythm. This happens almost of its own accord, and the work can only happen when the initial impulse and the rhythm become nearly inseparable. In the past thirty years as I worked on fiction, the impulse and the rhythm have pulled me from home – Spain, Argentina, the United States, the Holy Land – and then have also nudged me, forced me, pulled me, dragged me, back home to the damp air and the dulled light of the south east of Ireland, closer and closer to things that happened there, to the place of loss, to the loss itself, to minute details, to the very spaces.
Com Toibin, On Elizabeth Bishop
Roald Dahl, Going Solo
“I had never before encountered that peculiar Empire-building breed of Englishman who spends his whole life working in distant corners of British territory. Please do not forget that in the 1930s the British Empire was still very much the British Empire, and the men and women who kept it going were a race of people that most of you have never encountered and now you never will. I consider myself very lucky to have caught a glimpse of this rare species while it still roamed the forests and foot-hills of the earth, for today it is totally extinct. More English than the English, more Scottish than the Scots, there were the craziest bunch of humans I shall ever meet. For one thing, they spoke a language of their own… An evening drink was always a sundowner. A drink at any other time was a chota peg. One’s wife was the memsahib. T have a look at something was to have a shufti. And from that one, interestingly enough, RAF/Middle Eastern slang for a reconnaissance plane in the last war was a shufti kite. Something of poor quality was shenzi. Supper was tiffin and so on and so forth. The Empire-builders’ jargon would have filled a dictionary. All in all, it was rather wonderful for me, a conventional young lad from the suburbs, to be thrust suddenly into the middle of this pack of sinewy sunburnt gophers and their bright bony little wives, and what I liked best of all about them was their eccentricities.”
Hello Esteemed readers, all twenty nine of you. (Only kidding, I have a few more these days, thank you lovely readers.)
In July 2015 my new novel, The Photographer’s Wife, will be published in the UK and the US by Bloomsbury. I am unspeakably happy about this. I have been writing this novel for four years or so, and researching parts of it for even longer. In due course I will be putting up additional information about the story and the inspiration behind it, but for now a few photographs which form ingredients for my book.
At the moment I am editing The Photographer’s Wife, preparing to do a guest slot at the gorgeous Lumb Bank for the Arvon Foundation and devising a writing workshop and outline of a plan for a week-long residency in the Yellow Mountains, Huangshan, China which is happening in September. Busy times for the jobbing writer. Soon, the strange process of a novel emerging from the innermost inners of my mind to be sent out into the world to find readers will begin again. Before all of that, though, this August is a private, pottering, editing and gardening sort of month before the great voyage begins. Which brings to mind Edna O’Brien’s novel, August is a Wicked Month. A book I loved almost all of. The end didn’t work for me, but the rest was sublime.
Recently I have been reading Italian author Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan books. They are tremendous. I advise anyone reading this to go and get a copy immediately. I was lucky enough to get a copy of Book 3, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay*, in advance and I can reveal that it is ABSOLUTELY WONDERFUL.
* A title that sums up the central theme to everything I’ve ever written in seven words.
A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar continues to amaze me by being read in diverse and wide ranging parts of the world. I have emails from Brazil, Canada, and many other places and recently I heard that it will be coming out in Japan in December and also in China next year. I feel very lucky.
Onwards and upwards dear readers.