Category: Books

William Trevor, my father, and me

William Trevor and I have connections, via a small town in Ireland, and two men. One of them was my father, another is now a friend, and was a catalyst for uncovering my past and a wealth of material that was to feed my writing for many years.

In 2007, a William Trevor story appeared in The Guardian, and in the biog it said that he was born in Mitchelstown, Co. Cork in 1928. In the same town and the in same year of birth as my father. It was a town I had never visited, and as my father had been dead for seven years by then, I had no cause to visit. We had few connections with that side of the family: Dad rarely mentioned his childhood, and his silence spoke of sadness.

I had not seen or spoken to my father for several years before his death, for reasons that I won’t go into here; stories that are not mine to tell. The truth is, you can never cut off entirely from your past, and my curiosity about my father’s past grew. I held on to The Guardian short story supplement for some months, spoke to a friend about writing to William Trevor, and the impossibility of doing so. I’m not sure what was holding me back from sending a letter, from writing the letter, but my friend said, ‘What do you have to lose?’

I found out that there was a short story competition to be judged by William Trevor, part of the William Trevor Literary Festival to be held in Mitchelstown. So I wrote a letter to William Trevor, care of the administrator of the competition, Liam Cusack. I left the letter to Trevor unsealed, placed it in another envelope, and enclosed a note to the administrator, asking him to forward it, and saying that he was welcome to read the letter before sending it on. I didn’t keep a copy, but from what I remember I asked if he might have known my father. Perhaps they had gone to school together. My dad knew William Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ by heart, and perhaps they had learned the poem together. I expected no reply.

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Liam Cusack, Jim Parker and Maria in O’Callaghan’s, Mitchelstown

A few days later, I had a telephone call from Ireland. Liam Cusack had read my letter. He said that Trevor had previously received ‘crank letters’, so he had opened mine. There was no point forwarding it, though, as Trevor had left Mitchelstown when he was five years old, and would not have gone to school with my dad. He would, however, do a bit of research for me, about my dad, as he thought there was a man who would have known my dad.

This led to a visit to Mitchelstown in 2007, and twice more, the last being in 2014 when I read a story from my collection As Long as it Takes at a Culture Night event, in the company of both Liam Cusack and Jim Parker, the man who knew my father, and with whom I exchange long, handwritten letters once or twice a year.

In 2008, I spent two days at the Small Wonder Short Story Festival in the beautiful setting of Charleston. William Trevor was making a rare appearance, a reading and a book signing. It was sold out, but I hung around the desk in the hope of ticket returns. Five minutes before the event, a few tickets were released, which had been reserved by people in the USA, and had not been collected. I took my place, and listened to a story set in a small town in Ireland, not unlike Mitchelstown, read in the same accent that I had heard throughout my childhood.

I queued to have my book signed, and had a few moments with the man. He looked frail, and the organisers were protective of him becoming too tired, and aware of the long queue of people waiting. I told him that my father was born in Mitchelstown, too, and in the same year, and that Trevor and I had a mutual friend, Liam Cusack, in Mitchelstown. ‘Oh, how is he? I’ve heard he’s not been well,’ he said, but I was moved along before I could say more.

William Trevor only lived in Mitchelstown for five years. His father was a bank manager in the town, and bank managers were moved from town to town. Then Trevor left Ireland, as my father did, as a young man, to go to England to find work, and never returned to live there. He was an outsider, a Protestant in a Catholic country, an Irishman in Devon, and this gave him a different perspective on the world he lived in. Liam Cusack told me that Trevor came back to Mitchelstown often, and was to be found sitting on a bench in the square, looking towards the Knockmealdown mountains, or watching people, making up stories in his head about small town people.

I would not dare to put my own writing in the same class as William Trevor, but we do have a connection. We cannot quite escape our past, even a past that is ours only tentatively, or is it in the blood, in the psyche? What do I know, really, of Ireland, having grown up in England, having visited, for only weeks at a time, the Ireland my parents were born in? Yet Richard Skinner wrote this of my stories, when he reviewed As Long as it Takes on Writers’ Hub:

McCarthy shares with William Trevor a profound melancholy and her tales, like the Irish landscape eternally showered with soft yet invasive rain, are similarly saturated in shame, sacrifice, and secret sorrow.

Free lunches, or the freedom of the freelance life?

Nearly seven years ago, my husband came home from work one day and said, ‘I don’t think I can work under her for much longer,’ meaning his line manager. Nine months prior to this, we had taken on a mortgage on the basis of his salary. Some nine months after this moment, we agreed that he should resign from the job, after several months off work with anxiety and depression. His supervisor had been micro-managing him, finding fault at every opportunity. The last straw was an appraisal, filled with negative feedback, which he was then asked to write up.

Work-based counselling, talk of mediation – any benefits were cancelled out when, on a phased return to work, the first thing she asked of him was to complete the appraisal process. The very thing that his counsellor said should not be raised at this time, as it was the trigger for his illness. We realised that there would be no positive changes as long as he worked under this manager. The only way was out.

So, for some five years plus, my husband has been working freelance, pursuing the work he loves – commissioning and editing books. (The paid employment had not been so interesting, editing examination questions.) The work is often speculative, and there is no income while book projects are in development; they may or may not be taken up by publishers. In short, some of the work does not pay at all. And outlets for the kind of books that he commissions are in decline, with some of the big players pulling out of that area of publishing (Science, Technical and Medical). When he does get a book accepted, or does a piece of editorial work, it often takes several months of chasing up invoices to receive the money.

He has no sick pay, no holiday pay as a freelancer, even on some of the long-term contracts. He has worked through sickness, and if we have taken a holiday, it has been in the knowledge that there would be no money coming in that week.  One ’employer’ ended his contract the same day as he sent notice of termination, with no financial recompense; he had worked for this publisher for eighteen months. Legally, the contract should have been on a direct employment basis, as regular work of the same kind for the same employer. He should have received the same rights as an employee, but who would argue this point when the work could easily go to another freelancer? We had discussed approaching the publisher about this, to put my husband’s work on a more permanent footing. Then came the termination notice. He saw a solicitor about pay in lieu of notice – the contract gave two months. The employer said that he was giving this notice, but had no work for my husband during this time, and payment was only due for work actually carried out. The solicitor thought my husband had a case, but when he approached the employer with this information, asking for two months’ pay, the scoundrel threatened him with bad-mouthing his work publicly.

As for myself, I have worked in a very stressful environment and found it hard to stop the speeding waltzer that was my working life. It felt more dangerous to jump off than to cling on tight and carry on. I was brought to a halt by ill health. That was sixteen years ago, and despite periods of extreme poverty (as a single parent on sickness and disability benefits), and relative poverty (still on benefits, married to a freelancer, growing older, and with a mortgage outstanding), I would not go back to that life, employed and relatively well off financially, impoverished in health and leisure time.

Were we right, my husband and I, to decide that he should resign from that job? From sick and holiday pay, from the free lunches (no such thing as…) in the staff dining room, a perk of that job? Hell, yes! He now chooses his work, his hours, his commute is from the living room to his study, in the cellar. If we want to  go off to the seaside on a summer’s day, he can decide to do that. He is free to pursue his music, to potter in his shed, to spend time with our granddaughter. The lunches might not be so good, but he can eat them in his armchair, in my company.

Every so often, we have ‘the conversation’ about whether he should apply for jobs in London, which would bring in twice his freelance income. The money seems attractive. The commute, about three hours per day, the unknown nature of management, the fact that he reaches sixty this month, and deserves to be slowing down … it’s a no-brainer.

Wellbeing versus a reasonable income – it shouldn’t be a choice. And low income, money worries, can affect your wellbeing. My closest friends and family regularly listen to me talk about money, the lack of it, particularly when unexpected expenses come up. We recently had a leaky roof. Rain was dripping through the bedroom ceiling onto the bed. We were bailed out by a loan from a friend to pay a roofer, spared some of the cost by using a scaffolding platform owned by another friend. We often wonder if we can carry on living in our house, whether we should sell it and rent another property. One friend reminded me that she had heard me say this before, a couple of years previously, and yet we were still there.

We begin 2016 overdrawn, like many people. In 2015, we borrowed off Peter to pay Paul, so that we could keep up with the mortgage. It’s something I learned from working alongside a debt advice service – meet your housing costs before anything else. Holidays were dropped, as were meals out, takeaways, concert tickets, gym memberships. It’s felt grim sometimes, but we are better off than some.

Hopping Down In Kent. Freelancer Bob Carling, on guitar.  Area 51 Photography

Hopping Down In Kent. Freelancer Bob Carling, on guitar. Area 51 Photography

On New Year’s Day, we went for a walk, ending up at a pub. ‘Let’s pretend we are rich people, ‘ I said, and we had lunch at the pub, toasted the new year. And remembered the amazing things we had achieved in the last year: publishing eleven books with Cultured Llama, my husband producing Hopping Down in Kent, a community-based folk opera from scratch, in less than three months. And we were thankful for our families, friends, and the freedom of the freelance life.

Bob Carling is a freelance commissioning editor, editorial consultant, publisher, science journalist, and typographical designer. He is also Managing Editor of Cultured Llama Publishing. See his website here.

From ‘Kidney bingo?’ to selling books by Rochester Castle

Stephen Morris signs a copy of his book for Elaine Woodhams

Stephen Morris signs a copy of his book for Elaine Woodhams

I’ve been a punter at Rochester Sweeps Festival for some 25 years, starting when my children were small through to now being the grandmother of an 18-month-old. This year, for the first time, I was stallholder, helping to sell books for Cultured Llama Publishing. We at Cultured Llama have just published Do It Yourself: A History of Music in Medway by Stephen H Morris, so we set up alongside stalls selling musical instruments and records in a car park by the moat of Rochester Castle. It brought me back to some happy days in my teens.

My first job was selling fundraising bingo cards door to door, when I was about 12 or 13, for a charity supporting kidney patients. My line to my regulars as they opened the door was, ‘Kidney bingo?’ I wondered if, after carefully tearing the perforations on three sides of their pale mauve bingo cards, their numbers matched those in the winners’ brochure, they might win a new kidney for themselves.

The council house customers on my round were quick to find the money for their weekly gamble-in-a-good-cause. The few in what we called the ‘private houses’ in Castle Road, especially the harrased-looking woman in the house that gave the road its name (it had a mini-tower with castellations), often did not have the change to pay for their tickets.

From there, I followed on to serving on the sweets counter at Woolworth’s, after school and on Saturdays, then graduated to International Stores. After serving my time shelving and on the tills, I gained the role of Saturday chief cashier, working in the office, getting change bags for the tills from the heavy-doored safe, which stood in the front window of the shop. Anyone who was so inclined could have challenged me with a knife, a shotgun, or just the threat of violence as I stood with the safe door open exchanging bags of ten pence pieces for ten pound notes, or storing the till drawers in there at the end of the day. But no one ever bothered me.

Of all the jobs I’ve ever had, I had the most fun working in a shop. I made friends who I met outside of work, going underage drinking in the pubs of Epsom, off to discos and parties. Although the work was hard, I preferred being busy all day, as it made the time go fast.

What I loved most was the brown paypacket with actual cash in it, and a little payslip on thin paper with pale numbers printed in the boxes marking hours worked, pounds and pence earned.

So when it came to being a stallholder at the Sweeps (if only for a day or two), I was quite excited. Laying out the stall, pricing up with coloured stickers. Preparing the float for the cash tin. Marking down sales and giving change.

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Daughter Rachel and granddaughter Caitlin lend a hand on the Cultured Llama stall

It all came back to me – customer service, as we didn’t call it back in the ’70s, and with the bonus of having a part in the production of the books we were selling. I was able to tell people about our stable of Scottish poets, for instance, and even introduce some of our authors who dropped by to the customers who were looking at their books.

Not everyone bought a book. Some chatted a while and left empty handed, some scanned the book table at high speed, not even noticing that there was a human being sitting behind it. For some of the time, I sat with my granddaughter on my lap as I waited for customers. Georgie on a neighbouring stall shared homemade lemon drizzle cake with the other stallholders at quiet times. Customers on the Hobgoblin stand offered virtuoso performances on melodeons, guitars and mandolins (husband Bob included) and my granddaughter danced with joy to a reggae band on a nearby stage. My daughter and I joined in with her; three generations dancing at my favourite festival.

Life has changed since my teens, when I could lift boxes off warehouse shelves, stack them in a trolley cage, and wheel it out to the shop floor. A bad back prevents me from carrying much more than a tea tray; chronic ill health means that a day selling books must be followed by several days of rest. But, for a short time, I was taken back to my shopgirl days. Next time, I fancy one of those aprons with zipped pockets for the change.

‘Saturday Girl’ is a story based on my experiences working in Woolworth’s. Here is an extract:

Sharon looked at the clock above the centre checkout as she dashed to the sweet counter: one minute to nine; just on time. She hated that clock. In the last hour on a Saturday afternoon the minute hand seemed frozen, moving at the rate of the glaciers she’d learned about in geography. Now it meant an hour and half until tea break.

Steve answered her smile with a nod and a ‘Morning, Sharon.’ She wondered when it would be all right to say, ‘Steve and I are going out together.’ She wasn’t expecting a full-on snog in the staff canteen, but some acknowledgement – a wink, a glint in the eye.

She pulled a box of chocolate-covered brazil nuts from below the counter, and tipped some into the Perspex container next to the Quality Street. Paul whizzed by, dipped into the chocolate brazils and pocketed a handful. She flushed and glanced around. Steve was bundling a box of toothpaste onto toiletries; Mrs Harris was demonstrating the Avery pricing machine to a new girl. Both dashed to the records’ counter as The Stranglers clashed across the shop floor. Ralph had broken the rule of playing only the latest Top-of-the-Pops not-by-the-original-artists album. Everyone who had the good fortune to be on records gave it a try, playing their favourite record. No one, so far, had got beyond track one. Meanwhile, Paul bounded up the stairs with a brazil nut-shaped bulge in his cheek, looking like her brother’s hamster.

Steve came over as she was laying out the scoops on the loose sweets. He picked one up and ran it over the top of the chocolate brazils, as if to smooth them. ‘Lou’s favourite, these,’ he said, and wandered off with a pained look. Sharon took the scoop and dug it into the back of the display.

‘Saturday Girl’ is available in my collection of linked short stories, As Long as It Takes.

Famous first words

“You got a lotta nerve/ To say you are my friend” – doesn’t this set the scene for what is to come in the acid lyrics of Bob Dylan’s ‘Positively 4th Street’?  Forget famous last words, what about famous first words: “Let us be lovers we’ll marry our fortunes together” (Paul Simon); “I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour/ but heaven knows I’m miserable now” (Morrissey/ The Smiths), “You walked into the party like you were walking onto a yacht” (Carly Simon); even the Spice Girls gave us the unforgettable:

Yo, I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want

“The Owl and the Pussycat went to sea in a beautiful pea green boat”; “I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky”; “Matilda told such Dreadful Lies/ it made one Gasp and Stretch ones Eyes” – the first lines of poems I learned by heart as a child (by Edward Lear, John Masefield and Hilaire Belloc). “Call me Ishmael”, the unforgettable opening line of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” opens Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: both sentences have become as famous as the books themselves. In fact many people who have not read the novels will know these first sentences.

Julian Cope from The Guardian 10/1/15

What started this train of thought was a quote by the musician Julian Cope in The Guardian (10/1/2015):

I grew up mostly with poetry books and my mother’s fascination for an index of first lines. She thought every great poem must reveal itself in the first line and I’ve written every rock’n’roll song with that in mind. When my first hit came out [with The Teardrop Explodes], the first line was “Bless my cotton socks I’m in the news” – it was written with my mother in mind. I want to go to my grave with a colossal index of first lines.

For writers, the first line of a poem, song, story, novel or article may be the last thing they decide upon. It often is for me; I can think of only one poem where the first line of the first draft remained the same: “A drought is declared and it rains for a week”. Usually I draft and redraft and look at the strength of the first and last lines much later on. The last line is the strongest statement; the first line the second strongest. If you don’t engage the reader/listener from the start, you’ve lost them.

Some years ago, I sent a piece to BBC Radio 4’s Home Truths, and for a short time I became a columnist for the programme. This was my first experience of being professionally edited, and it came as a shock. The producer told me that the first page and half of what I had sent needed to be cut; that she had found the first line of what was to be broadcast on the second page. With a few editing suggestions, this line became: “I had him plastered on my teenage bedroom wall; hair flying and shirt ripped open.”  It was a good lesson for editing my own work; the first things that you write are often just warming up before getting to the good stuff. They might be good words in their own right, but belong elsewhere in the piece. The line you are looking for may not be in the first draft at all, but it may well be halfway down the second page or even at the end.

The same caveats apply for first line suggestions from other people as for any editing suggestions: is it what you want or what the editor or workshop member would have written if it were their work? I am not part of a workshopping group for writers at present, and have had mixed experiences in former groups. Some negative suggestions absolutely floored me, almost made me give up on poems and stories I was working on. You need to have a strong belief in your work, be open to suggestions and also be prepared to reject those suggestions. But that’s a whole other blog post.

Opening lines are important for public readings and talks. All too often, I have heard a poet or singer at an open mic apologise for how rubbish their poem or song is, or over-explain the roots of it or what it means. If you’re too shy to do anything but read your own poem, then just do that – introduce it by its title, then hit the audience with the first line.

Wear it well but wear it lightly – research for writers

When I started my MA in creative writing, we had a seminar about research. What I remember most is that the tutor, Scarlett Thomas, suggested we buy a big notebook just for research. I need no encouragement to indulge in a bit of stationery buying; I also have a thing about notebooks being gifts to me, a kind of writer’s superstition, so I expect I asked someone to buy one for me. For me, the best journals for everyday writing, free-writing and drafts are A5, preferably spiral-bound. Research notebooks are A4. They need to be big enough to make plans, write mind-maps, to paste in cuttings from newspapers and so on. But I digress into stationery, when my topic is research.

Research or a notebook obsession?

Research or a notebook obsession?

I like to write a first draft, and check my research later. For my story collection As Long as it Takes, I did a lot of reading, collected all sorts of things to paste into my research book, took note of details that might or might not end up in the stories.

When writing the story ‘More Katharine than Audrey’, I saw a dress on a tailor’s dummy in an antiques market in Harrogate together with some yellow enamel jewellery. It was exactly the kind of dress that my character Noreen would wear to a dance, along with the necklace and earrings. I jotted down the details in my research notebook and had the dress in mind as I wrote. A description of it ended up in the story, but the jewellery didn’t, even though I pictured her wearing the jewellery too. I would like to think that my full imaginary outfit for Noreen comes through in the writing, brings her to life.

When I was working on that story, I showed it to a tutor on an Arvon retreat. Noreen, the protagonist, is in a long-stay hospital, and it doesn’t become clear until the end of the story why she is there. The tutor said I needed to plant some clues in the early part of the story and to research the symptoms and treatment of her illness at the time when the story was set. Fortunately for me, my husband was working as an editor of exams for the Royal College of Physicians, and he did the research for me.

I had to place the details lightly. Rather than have Noreen say ‘There were no antibiotics then so they couldn’t cure me when I first became ill, but there are now, but they don’t work for everyone. And this is what it was like when I first got it.’ I had her say:

And here’s me in Long Grove with Rosina Bryars and the nurses. No gold cure for me. No Peter Finch. But it won’t be long before they find the right combination of drugs for me, as they did for the others.

Pea soup it said in the books: six to eight motions a day, and it looks like pea soup. That’s just how it was when I had the fever. I can’t eat it to this day: that and rhubarb. Mammy used to boil it up to clean the pans; I worried it would strip the lining of my stomach.

You can read ‘More Katharine than Audrey’ here, and a blog piece on how I came to write the story: ‘From Norah to Noreen’. Both are on the Writers’ Hub website.

I’ve come across a couple of instances of research either being too evident or lacking. I read Human Traces by Sebastian Faulks a few years back. The novel is set in the early days of psychiatry. Boy, did Faulks know his subject, but I felt he wanted to let us know all of his research. It was a bit too detailed for my liking. In contrast, I’ve picked up anachronisms and mistakes whilst editing that could have easily been checked with a bit of research on the part of the writer. A reference to Ninja Turtles in a story set in the 1970s; describing frets on a violin’s fingerboard in a poem; characters dressing in fashions that are not correct for the time. This is why editors are important as well as research on the part of the writer. These kind of mistakes leap out of the page for those readers who spot them, and take them out of the world that the writer has created.

I’d be interested to hear others’ ideas on research. Do you research before writing or after? Do you, like me, use notebooks for research or even gather physical objects around you? Do you write character sketches, take your characters shopping to see what they might buy? Whatever you do, remember to use your research with care: wear it well but wear it lightly.

If it’s Saturday, it must be Sittingbourne

A month on from the publication of As Long as it Takes, and it’s been a whirlwind of events, press attention ( the Sittingbourne News Extra, no less), signing and stuffing books in envelopes and taking them to the post box. Oh, the glamour! Read the news article, by Andy Gray, on how I came to write the book: here.

I have been delighted by the responses to the book and to my readings. Here is one:

The world you build is complete with its own unique atmosphere, partly, I think, as a result of the some of the same characters recurring at different ages throughout the book. I also found that I could completely relate to the feeling of living in a place that can never be home.

I found the last story, ‘Combing out the Tangles,’ utterly heart breaking; in fact, all the stories are written with a restraint that adds to their emotional power.

And another, from a former creative writing tutor, Patricia Debney:

There’s so much sex in it, Maria! And so much nylon underwear!

This was in response to my comments about the fates conspiring against me for the book launch at the University of Kent. There was wind, rain, and closure of the M2 due to a sink hole appearing in the central reservation. People were cancelling; it was doubtful whether I could get there, since all the M2 traffic had been diverted past my front door. Setting up a tea trolley by the side of the A2 seemed a good idea, as that traffic was going nowhere fast.

I said to Patricia that God was punishing me for writing about my family. Her response was that it was to do with all the sex in the book.  Before you get too excited, the sex is mostly of the disappointing teenage variety, and there was a lot of nylon underwear in the ’70s.

There’s a lovely blog piece from Sonia Overall about the launch. She describes it as ‘more Tipperary tavern than literary salon’, due to the musical input of my talented brother, Jamie McCarthy, who sang and played violin as well as riffing with me about the Irish Catholic childhood that we shared. Read it here.

From a university to a shopping centre in Sittingbourne – the next event was at the Swale Arts Forum pART project, a temporary shop displaying the work of local artists and inviting people to take part in art. Until last Saturday, I had never performed at a shopping centre, and it was a totally different experience from the university. I like to mix things up a little, so the event had music as well as my story readings and guest poets, as well as an open mic. Some people came especially for the event; others walked in out of curiosity. By the end, we had a Police Community Support Officer in attendance (drawn in by Andy Wiggins‘ singing) and 94 year old Florrie who recited a poem by heart at the open mic.

And so to my favourite comment of the afternoon from an elderly woman who popped in with her shopping trolley just as I was reading. She was reacting to a reading from my story ‘A Coffee and a Smoke’, about Maura, who has one child after another – the lot of the Catholic woman in the 1950s and ’60s. She said that it was like that in her family, that her father worked away and whenever he came home, her mother ended up with another baby. And then she said:

Alan Titchmarsh writes stories like that.

Until that point, likening my poetry to that of Pam Ayres had been my least favourite comparison.

Val Tyler, Barry Fentiman-Hall, Fiona Sinclair, SM Jenkin, Maria, Mark Holihan, Andy Wiggins and Sienna-Janae Hoilhan

Val Tyler, Barry Fentiman-Hall, Fiona Sinclair, SM Jenkin, Maria, Mark Holihan, Andy Wiggins and Sienna-Janae Hoilhan

I have been adding many photos to my Friends’ Gallery – too many to share here. The group photo shows many of my friends who took part at the pART project.

The next event is at Jittermugs coffee shop, Preston St, Faversham, on St Patrick’s Day, 17 March, 3.00 – 5.00 pm. I shall be signing books and reading stories on request. There will be some St Patrick’s Day goodies to eat and drink.

Florrie recites her poem at the open mic

Florrie recites her poem at the open mic

 

As Long as it Takes – is any of it true?

The first review of As Long as it Takes has been published on London Grip. Fiona Sinclair’s review is headed that she finds the stories “harrowing but hopeful”. Sounds like my life story! Seriously, though, I am delighted that Fiona has read the stories in such depth and has absolutely ‘got’ the themes of these Irish women’s lives. She ends the review:

Whilst this is a collection of short stories focusing particularly on the lives of Irish women, their struggles are in fact universal. This is a celebration of women with indomitable spirits who are devoted to their families and above all are survivors.

For those of you that don’t want just “harrowing”, there is  quite a lot of humour in these stories, but they will make you think and make you cry – or so I have been told by the first readers of the book. Read Fiona Sinclair’s full review on London Grip

I am awaiting more of the kind of questions I was asked when I read one of the stories, ‘A Tea Party’, at Seasonally Effected in Rochester: “Is that you; did that happen?” The story is in the voice of a child who tries to make sense of meeting her father’s misstress by acting it out in the form of a tea party with her toys. Was that me? I was given a tea set by an Irish uncle; it was the best present I had ever had. I did used to buy sugar mice from a sweet shop called Stebbings, and suck all the sugar until only the string tail was left. I was one of five children, like the narrator of the story. But the children in these stories are not my brothers and sisters. The parents in the stories are not my parents. My father did many things but, to my knowledge, he did not have an affair.

So, if people ask if these stories are true, I’ll say, ‘Yes, I had a Saturday job working on the sweet counter at Woolworth’s’, or ‘I did look with envy on my best friend’s Russian Dolls’, or ‘I did have a holiday romance with a boy in Ireland’, but the rest is imagination.

Here’s another for the Friends’ Gallery, my mission to get photos taken with as many of my friends as possible in 2014. This is me with Sam Pengelly, my hairdresser. I believe that a woman’s relationship with her hairdresser is an intimate one – Sam and I know quite a lot about each other. We laugh a lot together. And when I once burst into tears when Sam asked how I was, she held my hand and said, ‘I’m not just your hairdresser, I’m your friend.’ Sam more than qualifies for my Friends’ Gallery.

Maria and Sam

Maria and Sam

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Morning pages may not be the artist’s way

I’ve been writing morning pages for several years, using Julia Cameron’s guidelines in The Artist’s Way: write first thing in the morning; three A4 pages (though I use an A5 notebook, and three pages of that is enough for me); and whatever comes out of your head goes on to the page. Then I went to a journalling session with poet John Siddique at the Wise Words festival in Canterbury. This was a chance to get together with other writers in a coffee shop. John led the session with a short talk, then we all wrote in our journals for half an hour or so.

John’s talk turned my thinking about morning pages right around. He had followed Julia Cameron’s advice and had pages of negativity, covering the same ground over and over again. I too have notebooks mostly full of negative and angry stuff as a result of tipping anything in my head onto the page. I look back on these notebooks and wonder who this angry person is. I can do nothing with this material. It does not bring me on creatively.

John went on to talk about how he had been journalling around the book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey. How he journals about the roles in his life, and how well he is fulfilling them. Some of my roles are mother, wife, friend, sister, grandmother, stepmother, writer, editor etc.

John’s talk changed my thinking and my life. I got hold of the book, read it, and began using my journal in this way. No more negativity or covering old hurts again and again. I spoke to my counsellor about it, and she wondered whether the early morning negativity is to do with the bad thoughts that can invade if you are awake for long periods in the night. I have long-term sleep problems, and regularly battle with this problem. Maybe by writing first thing, these night demons are still around.

I felt angry with Julia Cameron for pushing her way as the best way. As well as the ‘write anything at all’ commandment, there are the write by hand and for three A4 pages commandments. I don’t think my writer friend with severe cerebral palsy would be able to follow this advice, as she can only write using a keyboard. Those of us with fatigue can perhaps write a page, or half a page on bad days.

I have been using my journal in the way suggested by John Siddique for four months now, and there has been a big change in my mental health. This may be coincidental, but I don’t think so.

I recommend The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. It’s mainly offered as a business book, but has a lot of significance for everyone. It has changed the way I interact with people too.

I have added a lot more non-fiction to my reading, and find many of these books spark my creativity in a way that reading other people’s poetry and fiction may not. For example Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. You can watch her TED talk on the power of vulnerability here.

Maybe it’s the recovering Catholic in me – I don’t do dogma. Julia Cameron’s way is not this artist’s way. 

 

Gearing up for a book launch and more from the Friends’ Gallery

As Long as it Takes has now been uploaded to the printers, and I await the first shipment of books. Meanwhile, I’ve been organising some events to promote the book, beginning with the launch at the University of Kent on Wednesday 12 February (see Events page). This is where the stories began, when I was studying for an MA in creative writing, with a pair of stories linked by character and theme. My tutor Patricia Debney said that I had something that could run, and sure enough these two stories grew into fourteen, creating a community of Irish migrant women living in England and their daughters. Each of the stories stands alone, but as Susan Wicks writes:

…characters recur and situations illuminate one another, so that when we read them together we find ourselves inside the story of a whole community of Irish immigrants, suddenly faced, as the protagonists are, with the tellingly displaced expectations and longings of a generation of women and their legacy to the generations that succeeded them.

As well as the Kent University launch, there are further events at the Swale Arts Forum pART shop, Sittingbourne at 2.00 p.m. on 1 March and at the Jolly Sailor, Canterbury, at 6.30 p.m. on Sunday 13 April, where I shall be the guest of Save As Writers. Go the Events page for more details.

Maria with Sam and Barry Fentiman-Hall

Maria and Sarah March

Not a resolution, a mission – two more pictures for my Friends’ Gallery, a mission to get photos taken with my friends in 2014. On the right, I am with newlyweds Sam and Barry Fentiman-Hall of ME4 Writers whose latest publication is City Without a Head.

To the left, I am with Sarah March, writer, Kundalini yoga teacher and sister-sheddie. I met Sarah on Facebook, and she made a suggestion that we could hold literary events in our sheds. And we did, holding two shed happenings with poetry, stories, music and films projected on the shed walls.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Long as it Takes

9780992648510-Perfect-MH cropped FRONT COVER

The cover of As Long as it Takes can now be revealed! I love it. Image by Maggie Drury and design by Mark Holihan. The book can now be ordered from Cultured Llama, and will be dispatched soon after publication.

Here’s some info about the book:

As Long as it Takes gives voice to the lost generation of Irish women who sailed to England to look for work in the middle of the twentieth century. Maura Flaherty and her daughters struggle with identity, belonging, love, sexuality and grief – and dilemmas such as whether to like punk or Elvis.

With no concessions to nostalgia or sentimentality, this deeply moving and beautifully written book, by a second-generation Irish writer, tells the interwoven stories of an immigrant family. Maria C. McCarthy skilfully weaves the historical and cultural significance of Anglo-Irish relations into a half-century of family life.

Dark, impeccably minimalistic stories about immigrant Irish mothers and their English-born daughters. The mothers belong to the ‘lost generation’ of Irish workers who emigrated to England in the middle of the last century. They call Ireland ‘home’ and inflict old-fashioned Catholic morals on their English daughters growing up in a more liberated time and culture. Out of this tension comes a series of stories written from the perspective of several women family members, transcending these painful differences with their courageous humour and absolute refusal to look away. The stories reinforce each other and create memorable echoes, reverberating in the mind long after the book is closed.

Martina Evans, author of Petrol (Anvil 2012)

Read individually, these stories might seem modest: each cuts its small piece of cloth and lays it out with truthfulness, understanding and warmth. But characters recur and situations illuminate one another, so that when we read them together we find ourselves inside the story of a whole community of Irish immigrants, suddenly faced, as the protagonists are, with the tellingly displaced expectations and longings of a generation of women and their legacy to the generations that succeeded them. Maria C. McCarthy knows how to tell this complex story, and she tells it with humanity and imagination. The thoughts, speech and actions of her characters make them intensely alive.

Susan Wicks, author of A Place to Stop (Salt 2012)

Order the book here.

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