I love when books that so deserve to be published are out in the hands of the readers of the world.
One which I am looking forward to in 2018 is Ireland’s Green Larder by Galway-based writer and artist Margaret Hickey. Her publishers Unbound describe it as ” A glorious ramble down the centuries telling the story of food and drink in Ireland.” How wonderful. It also has recipes which I’m really excited about.
Consider supporting Margaret’s book here. And below, a little more information on Ireland’s Green Larder.
Margaret Hickey’s book, Ireland’s Green Larder, tells for the first time the story of food and drink in Ireland from the ancient field system of the Ceide Fields, established a thousand years before the Pyramids were built, right up to today’s thriving food scene. Rather than focusing on battles and rulers, she digs down to what has formed the day-to-day life of the people. It’s a glorious ramble down the centuries, drawing on diaries, letters, legal texts, ballads, government records, folklore and more. The story of how Queen Maeve died after being hit by a piece of hard cheese sits alongside a contemporary interview with one of Ireland’s magnificent cheese makers, and Jonathan Swift’s complaint about dubiously fresh salmon is countered by the tale of the writer’s day trip on the wild Atlantic coast, collecting the world’s freshest native oysters.
Recipes are dotted throughout the book and there’s a chapter on the Irish rituals and superstitions associated with food and drink. In no country has the contrast between feast and famine been greater than in Ireland. Margaret Hickey has written a lively, stimulating book with the daily human experience at its heart – in it you’ll find a larderful of food for thought.
I am delighted to welcome back Nuala O’Connor for a Q&A session on her new collection of short stories, the wonderfully titled Joyride to Jupiter. (Check out other interviews with O’Connor here and here).
Thank you, Nuala, for having me as part of the Virtual Book Tour for Joyride to Jupiter and to New Island Books for offering one lucky reader a fab ‘jupiter’ purse and a signed copy the book. See below to enter!
Many congratulations on the wonderful reviews that this book is getting including the Sunday Times saying that your “language is clean and conscientious as well as poetic and lyrical”. You also gave a great radio interview on RTE’s Arena.
Shauna: Let’s start right away with the title story ‘Joyride to Jupiter’ first published in the anthology Town and Country, New Irish Short Stories (Faber & Faber). It has a very powerful ending which I won’t name because people should really read the story. For me it wasn’t just about Teresa’s Alzheimer’s; it also spoke of the depths of relationships, and what it means to love someone – who that ‘some’ one is – and the lengths people can go to so that person remains.
There has always been a softness about Teresa and me. Some couples look like they’d break each other in bed but not us; we always left our spiky selves at the bedroom door.
Nuala: I started to write that story on a long bus trip in Croatia, five years ago. I had bought an eyeshadow called ‘Joyride to Jupiter’ in Zagreb and the gorgeous, zingy name of it was looping around in my head, begging to be used. The first line came to me and I wrote and wrote on that bus. About a month after that, in Little Rock Arkansas of all places, I met an Irish wolfhound called Mary Kate and she gets a mention because, like all writers, I’m constantly accruing details from the world around me and I’m on particularly high alert when I go abroad. So the story was written and honed over that summer, with the central relationship blossoming and earthing as I wrote.
I’d seen a TV programme about spousal carers of people with dementia and one elderly man talked about the way his wife’s face lit up when they made love. Her mind was gone but her body remembered that joy and I found it very moving. So, in the story, the couple’s physical relationship is still important but, of course, an inevitable chasm has opened, complicated by Mr Halpin’s self-focus and lack of control.
My loved ones are ageing – I’m ageing – so it’s a subject matter that’s become fascinating to me.
Shauna: I was particularly moved by ‘Room 313’ which I found spoke to me as much about powerlessness as power, interchanged by a sexually charged kiss on the neck. I felt that it was the type of story that had to be told in the second person, a perspective which often works in your stories, and indeed, in your first novel You. Can you comment on that?
Nuala: I’m a big fan of the second person voice. My writing steers naturally into it and I often stop myself using it – in favour of the first person – because I don’t want to wear out readers’ patience with me. ‘Oh here she goes again with her second person POV…’ I shouldn’t care.
For me it’s a seductive POV and clearly it’s integral to me as a writer, maybe because I had early success with it. I find it a very natural way to tell a story, a very Irish way, which has a lot to do with the fact that it’s both intimate and at a remove. The narrator is at a small distance but uses the cajoling, close voice of a confidante, inviting the reader to get on board. It’s like a voice in your ear, which is how all good fiction should be. Second person makes the reader walk the tightrope with the narrator, there’s a sense of being suspended between reality and fiction, with an added abyss below. It suits those urgent, melancholic stories like ‘Room 313’.
Shauna: Much of your collection deals with female desire and sexuality. For example, generational attitudes in the story ‘Mayo Oh Mayo’ where the protagonist is judged by her grandmother for displaying her affair with a married American man – ‘Walking him down Main Street like a prize bull.’ There’s a touch of sadness or perhaps it’s more that the protagonist is yearning for something. Tell me about the process in writing this story which skips over time and flits from place to place as much as the narrator’s feelings waiver for Conrad, ‘this man of America’ who is ‘well put together’.
Nuala: The first process was that I had a deadline. Granta wanted something for its Irish issue and I had been dithering with this story while writing a novel. That is to say, I had an opening paragraph featuring the moon, a star and a lake. Suddenly I had to write the rest and finish it. There’s nothing like a deadline to light a fire under your arse.
So, as the story is set in Knock, I drove to Mayo and walked around, taking photos and gathering as much detail as I could. I hadn’t been in Knock in years and found it as kitschy and weird as ever. I have a mild obsession with the Blessed Virgin Mary, which I thought I was over, but clearly not – she makes a few appearances in this book.
The story is about Siobhán and a doomed relationship with a married man, Conrad. She’s lonely, a young teacher back living in her hometown and feeling stuck. I’m vastly interested in the subject of loneliness and how debasing it can be, how it can prompt bad decisions.
Shauna: Quite a number of the stories in the collection are quirky, humorous and spiky short pieces. ‘Fish’ springs to mind – I read that several times and each time found myself smiling, just like the characters. ‘The Donor’ felt like something of the perfect story. However, some of the longer ones leave the reader with a weight of emotion. ‘Squidinky’, for example, in how it looks at grief and connection, and has that universal emotional feel to it:
Mourning is hard work, it is long work; every twenty-four hours is a new lesson in learning the proper way to grieve.
Nuala: I had a plan, back in 2014, to write a book of funny stories, as I was sick of earnestness. But I have a big old melancholic heart so I just wrote what I generally write and some funny stuff crept in. I was pleased, though, that Houman Barekat mentioned the humour in his Irish Times review of the book. Sometimes it feels like an easy, show-offy thing to do so I avoid it, but I embrace it other times. I like bold, dark humour.
Shauna: I loved how you build up the relationship between the young French Hélène and the feisty Irish woman Kitty Boyle in ‘Shut your mouth, Hélène’ – and also how the story is about so much more than that. There’s the movement of peoples – again another theme threaded through the collection – and there’s the consideration of ‘difference’. What inspired this story?
Nuala: The story is based on a song. It had been on my mind for years to tease out the lyrics of Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s ‘Jacques et Gilles’ and try to write a story about it. I didn’t find a way until I had the axe of a deadline to my neck for The Long Gaze Back anthology. I think I hate deadlines, that they’re not a conducive way for me to write but, in fact, they seem to work.
I’m interested in social history, migration and integration and how those things affect people and the song – and now the story – explores that.
Shauna: Many of the stories in this collection have appeared elsewhere and indeed have been translated. Did this have any impact on the order of the published collection and, in particular, on naming it? I have to ask, as well, about the beautiful cover which captures much of the mood of this collection – it draws you in with its eerie airiness and surprises you with the sharp teeth of reality.
Nuala: I try to bookend a collection with stories I like and then mix up the stories in terms of POV, gender of the narrator, length of story and tone. The book’s title, as you see above, came from an eyeshadow.
The cover was designed by Mariel Deegan in New Island. She is very collaborative and the cover went through many iterations and ideas – women in crinoline suspended on strings, the motif of the apple, hot air balloons – but I love the image that we settled on. I’m obsessed with clouds and I love that they’re on my cover.
Shauna: Nuala, you gave a wonderful reading at the Dublin in The Gutter Book Shop, Dublin, Wednesday 14th June. For those who missed that launch and your appearance at the Belfast Book Festival, where else can we hear you read from Joyride to Jupiter?
21st July Ennis Book Shop – reading with Lisa Carey
28th July Boyle Arts Festival – with Sinéad Gleeson and Christine Dwyer Hickey
30th July Fiction at the Friary, Cork – Flash panel w/ Marie Gethins & Denyse Woods
10th August Farmleigh – reading and panel with Mia Gallagher & John Boyne
18th August Terryglass Arts Festival, reading and Q&A
15th Sep. Cork Short Story Festival – with Tania Hershman (Culture Night)
23rd/24th Sep Bray Literary Festival with Alan McMonagle & Catherine Dunne
And now for the opportunity to win a signed copy of Joyride To Jupiter and a fab ‘jupiter’ purse (see pics above) – delivered worldwide! Thanks again to New Island Books. Simply add a comment below along with your name (first name will do) and an email address so we can contact you if you win. The winner will be picked out of a hat on Monday 24th July at 8pm.
You can stay in touch with Nuala O’Connor via her blog and website.
Want a signed copy of Miss Emily delivered to you? Then read on, comment on the blog and the draw will take place at 9am on 28th August, the official launch date!
I start this blog post with a confession. I have always considered my tastes to reside in the modern. Miss Emily, set in the late nineteenth century however, is written in O’Connor’s beautiful lyrical prose with feminist leanings. The novel not only brings us into the world of the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson, but also Ada Concannon, a feisty Dubliner who follows in the footsteps of her aunt and uncle in the hope of better prospects in Amherst, Massachusetts.
I raise my hands, humbly, and declare that I was hooked from the first page with the complex characters of Emily and Ada, the lush imagery and bountiful senses, and a story that, from the start, gets you asking questions, and reading on. As a fan of Dickinson’s poetry, Miss Emily gave me a unique glimpse into her sense of self as a writer. Many of Emily’s sections are poetic in themselves, beautiful prose. Consider these musings, for example:
“I write by night now, when nothing thrums but my lamp…The house sleeps; Amherst sleeps. Only I endure. And when my pencil tires of flicking word arrows onto the page, there is the moon to admire, full-faced and lovely, a bright coin…”
Miss Emily, however, could also be enjoyed and relished by readers not familiar with – or even interested in – Dickinson as a writer. Here’s quite an accomplishment: O’Connor manages to hook you into this well-paced story while also providing convincing and fascinating glimpses into the life – imagined – of such a known poet.
Thank you, Nuala, for a wonderful read – on a northern Spanish beach (as per above photo!). I’m delighted to be part of Miss Emily Blog Tour!
READ ON – and post a comment to be in with a chance to win a copy of Miss Emily!
There is a wonderful sense of place in Miss Emily from the Dublin Liffey and life as a maid downstairs to the workings of the kitchen, the stables, and herb garden in the Dickinson household in Amherst.
“The goddess Pomona has been around the orchard scattering her goodness: everything is floral and abundant, while the apple maggots and cabbage worm do their best to undo it all.”
The sense of place – and the atmosphere throughout the novel – seems to me to be as connected to the characters – Ada and Miss Emily – as it is to their respective countries – Ireland and America. In some way, Ada echoes Emily’s attachment to the indoors, how rushes of homesickness hit her at times. It strikes me that Miss Emily is not just about Emily Dickinson.
NUALA: Ada, the young maid, is the active character in the story, given Emily’s reclusiveness, which is beginning to be her preferred state by 1866, when the novel is set. The novel is about cross-generational friendship, the maid-mistress relationship, emigration and loyalty. It’s also about what it means to be a female maverick in the nineteenth century and what the consequences of that can be. And, yes, it’s about place – setting is important to me in fiction. For my own sake I need to inhabit the places I write about and really feel the setting loom large around me. The research for that – flora, fauna, architecture – is part of the thrill of writing for me.
I was enthralled by the day-to-day detail of living, and working – of course reflected in the beautiful covers of the US and UK editions, and in the novel from the instructional gift Ada receives from Mrs Dickinson (The Frugal Housewife by Mrs Child) and all the advice it gives, to the vision of Emily Dickinson lowering a basket full of delicious gingerbread for the children. Did you have fun researching and playing around with historical details such as these?
NUALA: The research was a joy. I research as I write, mostly, and unearthing new and interesting details about domestic life in the nineteenth century was always a pleasure. I baked Emily’s recipes, I bought myself an old glass churn and made butter, I (squeamishly) watched YouTube videos on how to skin hares. I studied The Frugal Housewife and made it, as Mrs Dickinson suggested, Ada’s second Bible. I read close on thirty books by or about Emily in the course of the research – about her relationships, her poetry, her life in general. I wanted to get things right, to be loyal to her; I fell deeply for her warmth and wit while writing the book.
That joy really comes through in the novel, Nuala. Now tell me about the baking. I just adored the scenes with Emily and Ada in the kitchen, the dynamics between them and how each of their personalities seem to shine, and their friendship bloom, as they bake.
“I take dried pears from their jar; they were as pink as plums when picked, with crinoline hips and the flesh of candies. Now they curl – silenced yellow tongues – in my hand. I glance at Ada, and she is smiling roundly, forgetting now her Daniel and his saving of her from the lion. She uses her hands to mix together raisins and citron rind; the smell is glorious.”
In fact, I wished there were recipes at the back of the book – perhaps there will be on your website?
NUALA: I love to cook and bake, and that was what drew me back to Emily later in life, having studied her poetry at school. Some of the articles I have written, for Reader’s Digest in Canada for example, featured recipes, as does the Penguin Book Club Guide to the book. Some of Emily’s recipes (tweaked by me) can also be found at my cooking blog, The Hungry Veggie Her Coconut Cake is a sweet, buttery, easy cake – I make it all the time now for visitors. My cousin Clodagh and I are going to bake some of Emily’s cakes for the launch (details below).
How wonderful – I’ll try those recipies out and look forward to samples at your launch! I relished the way the themes of gender and equality are peppered through the book, and with Ada as our perceptive observer, some of the expectations of women can be seen – tenderly – in the relationship between Emily and Susan, her sister-in-law, and how, through her poetry and solitude, Emily manages to escape some of these expectations.
“I simply do not feel comfortable in a throng; my head gets addled, and I long for peace. And Sue may not comprehend either the writer’s absolute need for quiet and retreat, the solace of it…I put my lips to her cheek and tell the curl of ear, ‘I prefer to have you alone. That way you are all mine.’”
NUALA: Women were expected to marry in nineteenth century Amherst, so Emily and her sister Vinnie were an unusual pair of spinsters. But they were well-to-do – their father was a lawyer and when he died their lawyer brother looked after them. So, in a sense, they had the luxury of being rebels. The Dickinson family were eccentric, they were clever and good leaders, important in the town, but they did things in their own way. Emily loved her sister-in-law Sue fervently – Sue was editor, friend and confidante to her.
I really enjoyed the way their relationship developed so tenderly over the course of the book. Yet there are also strong, and complex, male characters in Miss Emily: Emily’s brother Austin is an interesting character who, I can say, without revealing the plot, grows and changes through the novel; Patrick seems to be the antithesis to Daniel yet both are believable characters who provide yet another kind of insight into the Dickinsons, and, interestingly, reveal certain views of the Irish and class.
NUALA: I made Austin Dickinson quite anti-Irish in the novel – he may not have been as racist as I portrayed him. Ada and Emily are both such sweet, decent creatures, I needed the contrast of the fiery Austin, blowing in and out with his mad red hair, negative opinions and grumpy face. He and Emily were very close as children but once he became a responsible citizen and husband, Austin became more serious.
Patrick and Daniel are two sides of the Irish emigrant: the drunken layabout and the hard-working, go-ahead type.
And a question more than a comment, will we discover, in the future, what became of Ada and Daniel?
NUALA: I was asked this question a lot on my American book tour – I think it’s a good sign because it means people like the characters, and care enough about them, to hope for a good future for them. I have no plans to return to Ada and Daniel but I feel that life went well for them in the end: deep love, happiness – the whole shebang!
Sounds great! Nuala, I’d love to hear you read from Miss Emily. I know you have already given some readings (for example at the West Cork Literary Festival), where might we next find you with Miss Emily in hand?
NUALA: I will read a little from the book at my launch in The Gutter Book Shop, Dublin, Friday 28th August, 6.30pm. (All welcome!)
Other confirmed appearances:
Thursday 3rd September: Shorelines Arts Festival, Portumna, Co. Galway
Saturday 19th September: Spirit of Folk Festival, Co. Meath
Sunday 18th October: Kildare Reader’s Festival, Riverside Arts Centre, Newbridge, Co. Kildare
Wednesday 25th November: Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast
I’ll be there on Friday 28th! And of course, we can keep up to date with your blog and website. Thanks again, Nuala, and I wish you continued and further success with the wonderful Miss Emily.
Readers – please post a comment to be in with a chance to win a copy of Miss Emily. The draw will take place a week from today – on the launch date – and the winner will receive their signed copy through the post!