I was delighted to be asked to read at an event to celebrate five years of Banshee, one of Ireland’s most exciting literary journals (Ireland has a lot of literary journals, for our size, so the competition is stiff), alongside Kevin Power, Bebe Ashley, Marie Gethins and Tom Vowler, with Eimear Ryan hosting. Kevin and Tom read excerpts from their novels, Bebe from her new poetry collection Gold Light Shining (available from Banshee Press here!) and Marie from her flash fiction. All are gifted writers who are very much worth your time.
I read from an essay that I haven’t finished yet, which is about a period earlier this year when my mother was admitted to hospital during the early days of Ireland’s first Covid-19 lockdown. Thankfully she is fine now, but any essayist will tell you that a happy ending isn’t enough to stop is reflecting and pondering and drawing conclusions, even if we do so from a place of deep gratitude.
My piece is about Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery, which I strongly recommend everyone should visit when Dublin emerges from the current Covid-19 restrictions and it’s safe again.
Here is a short quote from my essay, Among the Bullets and the Angels:
Glasnevin Cemetery is three kilometres north of Dublin city centre. The high walls of the cemetery are studded with watchtowers built in the 1800s, during the golden age of bodysnatching, the one era of history for which you’ll never need to produce a themed costume on short notice for a party. Behind the walls you can see the O’Connell Monument: a tall, elegant round tower which looks as though it was transplanted from the more famous Glendalough to the south, a fantasy of early Christian Ireland commemorating Daniel O’Connell. The sacred and the profane, the bodysnatcher and the Liberator. Welcome to Glasnevin.
I’m delighted to have a new essay in Banshee Issue 10! It’s always an honour to make it into Banshee, and I’m especially honoured to be there alongside two of the most exciting writers working today – Germany-based American poet Demi Anter, and novelist, essayist and rocker of blue hair, E.R Murray. There are so many other amazing voices in this issue, some of them new to me, and I’m eagerly watching the postbox for my issue so I can get stuck in.
My essay, Violets, is one of the most personal I’ve written, as it deals with the death of my father. It lived on my hard drive for a long time before I was ready to send it out into the world and see if it found a home. Violets was strange to write because my dad’s death isn’t my story, and it belongs in part to everyone who loved him. I write a lot about death, and I listen to “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” on the Hamilton album a lot too, but no definitive statement has emerged yet. I’ll keep you posted.
I read Violets at an open-mic event in the Irish Writers’ Centre a while back. Afterwards, an audience member approached me and said “I wasn’t sure if I should laugh, but in parts I wanted to. I hope that’s OK.”
For the purpose of clarity, I hereby confirm: it is OK.
I hope you enjoy it. It is strange to say “I hope you enjoy my sad words about my dad dying; I hope my pain makes your day better”, but what the hell else is there in life, but trying to make each other’s day better? Sometimes we do that with sad words, so that people join with us in fellowship, or empathy, or head-nodding, or the Holy Grail I chase as a writer – “I thought I was the only one…” Better doesn’t always mean cheerier. Someday I will write a happy essay about cheerful things, I promise. In the meantime, have this photo of some bright, sweet greengage plums.
I spent some of 2018 working on an essay collection (loading. . . ) so it’s no surprise that I dived into a lot of non-fiction. Essay collections I loved: Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments, not least because it allowed me to say things like “daringly inventive with the very form of the essay” in various pubs, Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, not least because it was written by Cheryl Strayed, and of course, as a bookish Irishwoman I devoured Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self . My personal favourite essay-read from 2018 was Leslie Jamison’s new-to-me The Empathy Exams. Her addiction and recovery memoir is on my shelf thanks to Dublin City Libraries and I’m very excited to read it.
When is an essay collection not a memoir? When you read enough of either that lumping them together becomes ungainly, of course!
The most enjoyable memoir I read in 2018 was Helene Hanff’s Underfoot in Show Business. If you’re a creative person, just read it. Please trust me on this.
It’s often hard to call a memoir enjoyable, especially if it was written from a period of great trauma (“sorry you were sad, nice book tho”), but I am very glad that I read Poorna Bell’s Chase the Rainbow while being immensely sorry for everything she went through. It made me better.
Non-fiction – other
I re-read And the Band Played On, by the late fearless journalist Randy Shilts, about AIDS in Reagan’s America. The passage of time has debunked some of the book’s assertions (Gaetan Dugas did not, in fact deliberately infect people with HIV), but it’s still a fine piece of journalism that will break your heart.
When I’m not writing essays, I write YA, and when I’m not reading essays, I read a lot of YA. It’s the category I come back to most often. This year I dug into Coe Booth‘s back catalogue and absolutely loved her work – would strongly recommend that any fans of Angie Thomas check out Booth. Brian Conaghan’s The Weight of a Thousand Feathers (now an An Post Irish Book Award winner) was also excellent.
I read a lot of great YA this year (Cethan Leahy’s debut, Tuesdays Are Just As Bad, has my hands-down favourite book title of 2018, Juno Dawson’s Clean is fabulous, and if you didn’t love Sandhya Menon’s When Dimple Met Rishi, seek help). However, for some reason the YA reads that resonated the most with me in 2018 – Conaghan and Booth – were about the working-class teen experience, which is so often absent (especially from American YA – the exception springing to mind is Dumplin‘, which I re-read before the film came out and loved both). I am making an effort to read under-represented voices and so far it’s been a total delight, but I am conscious that class and wealth cannot be excluded from the discourse on marginalisation and I’m pleased to have the chance to read these stories. And on that note, it’s almost time for On The Come Up you guys!!
Putney was unsettling, but wonderfully written, evocative and unflinching (I wanted to throw a lot of punches that week), and was one of the stand-outs of the year for me. I also loved Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere.
Catherine Ryan Howard’s The Liar’s Girlwas so good that I bought it for my highly discerning aunt, and it’s now Edgar Award-nominated! I read very little else in this category this year, although I did finally finish Hannibal Rising, the Hannibal Lecter origin story, and I was underwhelmed.
For 2019, I’m most eager to read the aforementioned On the Come Up (which one of my book clubs has chosen!), Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering, Sinead Gleeson’s essay collection Constellations, and Deirdre Sullivan’s Perfectly Preventable Deaths, a YA that totally won me over when I snagged a sampler at Deptcon. It’s looking like a good book year…
A few years ago, on Christmas week (my favourite time of the year for excessive, indulgent reading), I caught myself in the act of choosing my next Kindle read based on length, so I could dispatch it quickly and add it to my ambitious Goodreads Challenge.
That’s no way to live, so I re-thought my relationship with Goodreads Challenges.
I also realised that, although I’d read an unprecedented number of new books that year, I remembered very little about them. I’m a very fast reader and (possibly as a result of this) I read every book twice, unless I hate it. But I hadn’t been counting re-reads towards my challenge, so they became superfluous.
That’s also no way to live.
I’ve made a few changes to how I record books on Goodreads. I now count re-reads but not comfort re-reads – I know Tiffany Reisz’s Original Sinners series almost by heart (Nora Sutherlin is my problematic patronus), so I never count those, but I realised this year that I couldn’t remember the name of the love interest in one of Sarra Manning’s Fashionistas books, so I counted that. I wish I could count the books I beta-read for talented friends, but I am so confident that they’ll make their way out into the world that I consider them “banked” against future challenges.
As you can tell, I take all of this box-ticky stuff quite seriously. I have an honour code.
All of which comes in handy when I want to post a round-up of what I read in 2018. Coming soon!
This is a dote of a book, lads. It starts and ends there.
I will read almost any variety of YA fiction, but I have a special fondness for romances. My YA gateway drug was Sarra Manning’s Diary of a Crush series, which was full of wisecracks and pop culture references and joy and kisses and sleeping security guards in the Louvre and vintage dresses (I thought all vintage dresses would be so beautiful after reading Edie’s adventures – I didn’t anticipate so many years of wading through puffed sleeves and polyester) and ice cream and paddling pools in the backyard and music festivals and summer jobs in cafes and and and and and….
But so many lovely YA romances have one thing in common. Boy meets Girl. Rarely Boy meets Boy, and even less often, Girl meets Girl.
The Summer of Jordi Perez is Abby meets Jordi – two smart, talented, creative and likeable teen girls are chosen for a summer internship that leads to a coveted senior-year part-time job. They both want the job, but they also both want each other. It’s summer, it’s LA, Abby doesn’t know how to drive, Jordi has a passion for photography and wears too much black, Abby is a plus-size fashion blogger and Jordi is Mexican-American. And everything unfolds just as you hope it would.
Abby’s identity as a plus-size young woman and her relationship with her mother (a health food guru) is depicted well, but for me the novel had two strengths. One was that it is the f/f summer romance of my dreams, and the other is that it handles the nature of change really well. Abby’s sister has left for college and hasn’t returned for the summer (she’s also interning), her best friend is in her first serious relationship and disapproves of Jordi, and she knows that the sea-change of graduation is only a year away.
If some of this brings to mind Leah on the Offbeat, it’s different enough to feel fresh – in spite of a few similarities, Abby and Leah are very different girls – but I suspect fans of one will enjoy the other. A few elements of the ending felt a little anti-climactic to me, but not enough to dent my enjoyment of this. Looking forward to more from Amy Spalding.
Confession time: I have never completed The Artist’s Way. I have read it all, but I’ve never sat down and done all of the exercises. I can’t pretend I have a smart reason for this – the truth is that I do all of the exercises up to Week 3 in a single weekend and then forget about it for six months. It’s probably fair to assume that I’m never going to take over the world.
But I’ve always quite liked Cameron’s approach and her methods. The one element of The Artist’s Way that has resonated with me is morning pages – the practice of completing three pages of free writing every morning. Again, it’s not something I do consistently (blame working a full-time job with flexi time, and who I am as a person), but it has worked for me in the past.
There was a lot to like about Floor Sample – subtitled ‘A Creative Memoir’, there’s probably less salacious stuff about Martin Scorsese (Cameron’s ex-husband and the father of her daughter) than some readers might like, as the focus remains firmly on her writing with a slight detour into her history of addiction (Cameron is a long-term sober alcoholic). There is a lovely feeling of joy about Cameron’s writing – whether she’s hustling for stories for the Washington Post or shooting indie movies with her toddler and neighbour in the local park, you sense that this woman has fun with her work. In fact, against the backdrop of her alcoholism and later mental illnesses, you sense that there were times that creative work was one of the most pure sources of happiness she had.
However, it’s also quite clear that in her creative life, Julia Cameron has been astoundingly fortunate. Since graduating from college, she has never worked at anything that was not writing, or teaching writing, or filmmaking. If you are hoping for the tale of how a writing guru kept the faith while waiting tables and selling books, then I’d suggest Natalie Goldberg (or Tiffany Reisz, who sadly hasn’t written a book about her writing methods yet, but the FAQ on her website and her answers to writing questions on Goodreads have some solid advice. She wrote her first novel while working in a book shop and now writes full-time, free of student loan debt). Throughout her memoir, Cameron seems to have a network of ever-helpful friends to draw on for work, cheap rent, and crash space, but she doesn’t explicitly acknowledge – or explain how she came by – that privilege.
Which, for me, throws a somewhat different light on her earlier work on The Artist’s Way. I suspect that it’s probably quite easy to preach how great the creative life is when you’ve never had to balance it with making enough money to eat. Not that Cameron didn’t face, and overcome, other astonishing challenges – if she writes a memoir of her addiction and recovery, I’ll be first in line to read it. And I am not suggesting that The Artist’s Way lacks value because Julia Cameron never had to work a lunch shift in Eddie Rockets on South Anne Street – it’s helped millions of people (TAW, not Eddie’s).
But I am suggesting that the environment which enabled you to create your art cannot be separated from the art itself – if you position yourself as a teacher or a guide.
Interestingly, Cameron and her ex-husband Mark Bryan co-authored a book on money addiction. I may need to dig that out to see if it sheds any light on what I learned from Floor Sample.