My writing and me – Signing off with a Writing Process Blog Hop

So, this isn’t really working out, is it?

It’s not you, it’s me. Yeah, yeah, that old cliché, I know. But the thing is, just now, the timing isn’t right. I mean it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? I only come here once in a blue moon these days – and whilst my lack of commitment plays heavily on my mind, there are other priorities which need my full attention at the moment.

First off – I’m writing! I mean writing writing. The Possibilities of Elizabeth is moving along nicely, and I need to have a tidy first draft finished by October. I’m on course, but the more I write the more I realise that Elizabeth is going to require a lot of organisation, leaving no spare time for blogging (or, more accurately  in my case, thinking about blogging). More of that in a minute.

Then there’s work. My other writing. For a host of reasons I need to focus more on my work this year – which basically means get more of it. I recently took myself on as a client and put together a (very humble) work website to promote my copywriting – I’m pleased enough with the result – but I tell you what, I don’t pay well, and I wouldn’t be one of my favourite clients ever! Have a wee peek if you like and let me know what you think. I’d appreciate that. After all, we’ve come through quite a lot together these past couple of years, and I value your opinion.

So, with one thing and another, I’m aware that I’ve been chronically neglecting my Naked Blog of late – and to abate the nagging discomfort I feel as a result, I thought it best to call a temporary halt to proceedings. It’s more of a sabbatical than a break up. And even if it ends up being a gap year, I’ll definitely be back – with good news, I promise!

I’m signing off with another blog hop – a good one to bow out on I think, as it focuses on writing. It’s called My Writing Process, and was passed on to me by the very lovely Valerie Francis, a Canadian author who’s hoping that her own debut novel will soon be published. You can read Valerie’s own writing blog hop here.

So, my task is to answer four questions about my writing.

1)    What are you working on?

Well, if you’ve been here before, you’ll know that I’m currently working on my novel, The Possibilities of Elizabeth. In a nutshell, it is narrated by Elizabeth Rose – a young woman who lies in a coma, the result of an accident which may or may not have been an attempt to end her own life. She can’t remember. As she tries to choose between life or death, a collection of her former selves bring her on ‘trips’ back to her past: seemingly insignificant moments in time which gradually reveal an astonishing family secret, and ultimately guide her decision. (If you haven’t done so before, you can read a chapter from the book here.)


2)    How does your work differ from others of its genre?

Blimey – this is a tricky one! I suppose ‘because it isn’t published yet’ is the obvious answer, if a somewhat flippant one. But, just for a moment, let’s pretend that the deal for my first novel, Biddy Weirdo, didn’t fall through – that it’s already out there, taking up prime spots on bookshop shelves, being read (and loved, obviously) by book groups, top of the Richard and Judy Summer Booklist, tipped for a Costa First Novel nod. (I’m loving this little fantasy!) And, of course, Elizabeth is number two in the three book arrangement I secured when I signed my (five figure, naturally) deal for Biddy. (What the hell, make that six!) Oh, I forgot about the movie deal for Biddy. MGM, I think it was!

Right, now that we’ve set the scene, imagine that I’m being interviewed by a respected (female) journalist for a feature in, say, The Guardian, or The Sunday Times Culture magazine, or maybe even The Culture Show.  (Don’t know why the journalist is female – she just is, okay! My fantasy, remember.) Oh no, wait – it’s Jenni Murray on Woman’s Hour!

So, the conversation goes like this:

Jenni: (after a lavish introduction where she has gushed about the literary and commercial merits of Biddy Weirdo)

Tell us, Lesley, how would you say your work differs from others of its genre?


Well, Jenni, that’s a really difficult question to answer. Funnily enough, I was asked it once before and it stumped me a bit then too. I suppose it’s the issue of how my writing is categorised: which ‘genre’ it slots into. My agent describes it as Literary Fiction – which fits, certainly, although it has also been labelled as Young Adult fiction, which I don’t believe it is. I’d say it sits somewhere between the two: contemporary literary adult fiction, which could be read and appreciated by young adults too – a ‘genre’ shelf which the publishing world seems oddly reluctant to fill. In fact, we had a hard time getting Biddy Weirdo published at first because, whilst many publishers loved it, they couldn’t find a ‘home’ for it on any of their regimented lists.

Personally, the audience I write for is me. If there were millions of mes out there, I’d have been an international best seller years ago. What I mean is that I write the type of fiction I like to read. And I read avidly. If I don’t have at least two novels in waiting I get twitchy. I’m constantly researching debut writers so that I can see what’s new out there: what the publishers are going for. And if I fall in love with a writer’s style or voice, I’ll get hold of their other work if I can. This is primarily how I learn about writing – by reading. And reading, and reading and reading.

There are a few books I would definitely compare Biddy to, in terms of style, story and approach – and potential audience too: When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman, What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn, Eve Green by Susan Fletcher, to name just a few. All of these books were published as adult novels, but with a strong young adult undercurrent – and all deal with at least once catastrophic event from a central character’s childhood. But they are all uniquely individual too. Isn’t that the point? So, Jenni, that’s a very long way of saying I really don’t know how my work differs. Actually, if you don’t mind me saying so, it’s a bit of a stupid question. And, really – screw genre anyway!

And at that point I am ushered out of the Radio 4 studio, never to return. Ah well – my fantasy was good while it lasted!


3)    Why do you write what you do?

Okay, no Jenni this time. Just you and me. But, as I told her – I write what I like to read. Don’t all writers? I have been asked, on several occasions, ‘why can’t you just write about romance? Or vampires? Or sex? Or crime? Or whatever-the-fuck is selling at that particular time? Err…because, frankly, it doesn’t work that way. At least not in my head. The stories in my head are very dark, and pain, on various levels, seems to be a recurring feature. The characters who tell them are dangerously damaged, or deeply flawed. They exist, rather than live. I have no idea why, but that’s what I write – although I try to inject moments of humour, even if they’re black ones, and the possibility of hope is always hovering, just out of sight. But to introduce love and romance and sex to their stories, or thrown in a witch or two, or a couple of bloodsucking gnomes, would be, well, a lie. And if I were to write about romance or sex or vampires, it’d be shit.


4)    How does your writing process work?

                                                                                                              Well, as you’ll know if you’ve been to my Naked blog before, obviously with a huge amount of procrastination, and a hefty dose of crippling self-doubt! But when I’m on a roll – which I am just now (I know, halle-freaking-lujah) – I’d say my writing process is, hmm, eclectic. I have no specific routine. No rituals. No talismans. I don’t pray, or ask for guidance from the writing Gods, or meditate or down a slug of gin. I do like to have had a shower, and my breakfast, and applied a dash of mascara – and then settle myself down in front of My View. (Not to brag or anything, but My View is pretty special: garden, followed by landscaped walkway, followed by marina heaving with beautiful boats!)photo (51) I also like to decamp every so often to a coffee shop, and, weather permitting, my gorgeous blue garden table, which sits at the bottom of said garden, has witnessed the penning of a chapter or two.

My tools are my laptop, a notebook or two, and my favourite new gadget – a pocket Noteboard. It’s basically a collapsible white board, which opens out into 35 double sided 5” x 3” rectangles. ( I LOVE it. I started using it last year when I was working on a re-write of Biddy, and it’s been proving invaluable for Elizabeth, as I’m finally able to keep track of all her comings and goings.

Writing Elizabeth is proving to be an altogether different experience than writing Biddy was. For a start, I’m using first person narrative, or point of view, which is definitely a challenge. With Biddy I used an omniscient point of view technique, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea from a reading perspective, but I love it. It sort of allows you to nip inside almost any character’s head at any given moment. (I actually believe that JK Rowling uses it to great effect in A Casual Vacancy.) I didn’t set out to apply this form of narration to Biddy, but when I started writing her story I had a very strong sense of the voice of Mary Alice – the dead character who narrates the beginning and end of each episode of Desperate Housewives – in my head. That’s where the similarity with Desperate Housewives ends though! Biddy would most certainly never end up on Wysteria Lane!

Telling Elizabeth’s story entirely from her perspective can be a little bit exhausting sometimes – especially when she’s not being very nice! But then I do know what she’s been through in her short life (bloody nightmare – you’ll see) and she is in a coma – so I kind of have to let her off the hook. Sometimes I do find it more difficult to ‘hear’ her though. Her voice has to be crystal clear when she’s talking to me, otherwise I find I’ve written complete clap-trap, which is totally irrelevant to the story and ends up going in my laptop’s bin. And at the moment her story is all over the place (which is where the Noteboard earns its keep). With Biddy the process was much more organic – the story moved from A to B to C, and so on, until we finally got to Z. Right now, Elizabeth’s story is like an alphabet on drugs. There is absolutely no sense of chronological flow – and I’m pretty sure it’s going to stay that way. Which is fine, so long as I don’t lose the plot (literally) in the process. Because there is a plot, you see. I do know that. I’ve known it all along. She came to me with her story fully formed – it’s just the telling of it which is proving tricky. Getting in the bits that count, and leaving out the ones that don’t.

But then again, I suppose that’s writing. And it’s great!

So, enough I think. I’m off for now. By the way, you’ve been brilliant: supportive and encouraging and funny. You’ve made me laugh and cry in equal measure. You’ve warmed my heart and kicked by backside – and I love you for it. Thank you!

See you around…x x

PS: My own tags in this Writing Process Blog Hop are two fabulous writer friends and all round lovely people. The first, Bernie McGill, is already a successful and renowned author, with an abundance of awards and accolades to her name, and a whole lot more to come. The second, Jackie Buxton, is, like me, a lady-in-waiting. But when she does take centre stage (as she will) she’ll set the damn thing on fire!

Bernie McGill is the author of Sleepwalkers, a collection of short stories long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in 2013, and of The Butterfly Cabinet (named in 2012 by Downton creator Julian Fellowes as his novel of the year). Her short fiction has been shortlisted for numerous prizes and she won the Zoetrope:All-Story Award in the US in 2010. She is the recipient of a number of Arts Council of Northern Ireland Awards and was awarded a research grant in 2013 from the Society of Authors for work on a second novel set on Rathlin at the time of the Marconi experiments. She lives in Portstewart in Northern Ireland with her family.

Jackie Buxton is the author of short story, A Life with Additives which is published in Stories for Homes, an anthology based on the theme of ‘home’ and A Time to Push, published in They Lied, an anthology of short stories focusing on the ‘humorous’ side of childbirth. Her stories have also been published in Chase Magazine in which Jackie also has a regular two page slot featuring book reviews and other articles. Her novels, Glass Houses and Misguidance have both won first chapter competitions and were runner up and shortlisted respectively in the Oxford Editors’ First Chapter Competition 2013.  Jackie also teaches creative writing, edits novels and short stories and is the world’s worst PA to her long-suffering husband. When not writing or reading, Jackie can generally be found on a bicycle, in a pair of trainers or holding a cappuccino. Find out more at




















































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Finally – a lottery win!

arts council lottery logoHas it really been that long? Four months?! Shit. I need an excuse. Okay, emm, err, … has to be something credible; or maybe a little bit mysterious would be better?

Let’s see…I’ve been away on an extended luxury holiday – financed by the massive advance I received from the wise and wonderful publishing house who agreed to publish my book. After a massive bidding war, of course!

Or maybe I’ve been on a very long business trip – Apple commissioned me for a huge copywriting project. No, actually, it was Naked Wines. Their regular copywriter was suddenly incapacitated, and the only person they would contemplate as a replacement was me! (Have you read the Naked Wines copy? It’s achingly fabulous.) And naturally I had to drink copious amounts of their very fine and uber-delicious wines in the process.

Or perhaps I spent a wee spell in prison for – what? Ah, I know – a Justin Bieber-style egging of all of the Blog Award Ireland judges!

I know – after years of biting and picking, I finally grew my fingernails so long it became impossible to type.

Or could it be that I was been stricken down with a severe case of anxiety related procrastination – brought on by, oh, stuff?

Okay – one of the above statements is completely true. Another has an element of truth in it. I have fantasised about three them. And one is an utter pile of cack.

So, now that we’ve got the excuses out of the way – I have some news. Bad news and good news. Might as well get the bad news of out the way first – actually, it’s kind of old news now, but I feel I need to address it. I didn’t win the Blog Awards Ireland Best Blog Post gong. Oh, except I did! Confused? Me too. Well, you see, my post, An Unconventional Death, topped the public vote with 1224 votes – almost 300 votes ahead of the post in second position, and close to 500 votes above the winner (who, by the way, finished sixth in the public poll). Are you still with me? So, basically, despite the fact that I was, as many of my supporters repeatedly emphasised, “The People’s Choice”, the judges decided that The People know nothing – and flicked me off the podium with a “that’ll teach you to be so smug” sneer. Ouch. It definitely hurt – I’m not going to lie. And I was utterly mortified for all the wonderful people who had bothered their asses to vote for me, and those who took it upon themselves to relentlessly, selflessly, drum up support for my post. But, once I’d picked myself up, wiped the mud off my face and plucked the chip out of my shoulder, I realised that, actually, I’d much prefer to be the People’s Choice, thank you very much! It has quite a nice ring to it, don’t you think? So (thumbs in ears, fingers wiggling, tongue stuck out) nah-nah-na-na-nah to the judges, and (fingertips to lips, hand moving backwards and forwards) big kisses to everyone who made me the (real) winner!

Right. Moving onto the better news. The brilliant news. The fantastic news, which is only a little bit less great than the Bloody Fantastic News which I hope to be sharing with you at some point in the future (two words: first word – three syllables – first syllable, somewhere you drink – second syllable, something a dog wears for walkies – third syllable, sing minus the ‘s’; second word – sounds like seal). The wonderfully gorgeous people at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland have awarded me another grant, to complete my manuscript-(not) in-progress, The Possibilities of Elizabeth! (See, Blog Award Ireland judges – nah-nah-na-na-nah!)

It was the Arts Council who got me going on Elizabeth back in (wince) 2010. At the time I was working on another story about a girl called Melanie Monroe, but this Elizabeth character kept butting in. To begin with I thought she wanted to be included in Melanie’s story, but I couldn’t figure out how she slotted into the picture. Bugger off, I told her. Shut up and leave me alone. I’m busy. But she wouldn’t shut up. She kept on goading me – whispering in my ear about some car she’d crashed and that she was in hospital and that something weird was going on. She told me about her brother, Jamie, and how she’d just seen him – even though he was dead. But it was the teenage Jamie she’d seen – and he’d died when he was in his thirties. And then I realised that she was telling me all this mumbo-jumbo from a coma, and that, actually, she was asking for my help. She had nothing to do with Melanie Monroe whatsoever. She wasn’t interested in her story. She wanted to tell me her own.

So poor old Melanie got the heave-ho (though maybe someday I’ll get back to her, if she’ll let me) and I begrudgingly let Elizabeth take her place. I say begrudgingly only because of all those words I had ‘wasted’. Swapping a nicely developing word-count for a big fat 0, in the middle of a funding supported year, was not the plan. But I needn’t have worried, to begin with anyway, as Elizabeth’s story quickly took shape, and the word count was soon zooming back up the ladder. But just when we were getting somewhere, Elizabeth and I, we sort of stopped.

I have to admit, when I finally started book two (after many, many discarded attempts, including Melanie) I smugly thought I would write my second novel in no time. I could do it in a year, I thought. Well, maybe two. But that would be tops – and fully formed at that:  trimmed, edited and neatly deposited to my agent. But… it’salmostthreeyearssinceIstartedElizabeth (if I say/write that quickly, in one breath, it doesn’t hurt so much), and we’re not even at completed first draft stage. Nowhere near it, if I’m honest. The ridiculous thing is, I know the story. Elizabeth talks to me all the time, all the bloody time. I know what happened to her – I know what happens to her. And I like it. It’s a good story. I’m sure it is. It’s a story I would like to read. It’s a story I actually, truly, believe might just get read by others. SO WHAT IS MY PROBLEM?

Well, ME, obviously.

I do have sporadic flurries of productivity, when things happen, and the conversations I have with Elizabeth in my head actually make it onto my computer screen. But then I’ll spend days reworking those chunks, deleting, fine-tuning, and over-editing. Then I’ll decide that it’s all a load of crap, and walk away for a while, burying myself in the rest of my life – which, frankly, has been something of a test in resilience this past while.  Lately I’ve been contemplating throwing in the towel – not writing per say, but Elizabeth.  There are elements of her story (connected to that resilience test) that I just wasn’t sure I could tell. But this morning I sat down and read some of the existing chapters and I realised that of course I couldn’t walk away. I’ve invested too much in this project already. I’m just being a winge. In an Anthony Bourdain-style kick up the ass pep-talk, I need to ‘man the fuck up’! (First episode of The Taste – Nigella hugs a crying contestant, Anthony utters his words of wisdom. The hug would be nice, but it’s the words that will do the trick.)

And, of course, there’s the small (okay, huge) matter of the National Lottery funded Arts Council grant (knew I’d score a lottery win one day) – a significant, confidence-boosting act of recognition from Damian Smyth, the truly wonderful man who is Head of Literature and Drama at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.  If that isn’t an incentive injection, then what the hell is? I was awarded the grant to complete Elizabeth in 2014 – and if I have any self respect at all then that’s what I damn well have to do.  I owe it to Damian, I owe it to myself – and, of course, I owe it to Elizabeth.

So … I’m going to let you read a little bit of Elizabeth’s story. If you want to, that is. I mean, you don’t have to or anything. And I won’t be offended if you don’t. (Just so you know – right now I am completely flipping starkers, and the bus stop is bloody packed!) The extract is from chapter three, and I’ve chosen this particular piece because I’ve already read it in public. Yes – in public. To my surprise, I was invited to participate in the Titancon Literature Night event last September, where I was both honoured and terrified to be sharing the stage with a bunch of talented “proper” writers: i.e. published ones. I felt like such a charlatan, but it seemed to go down well. Mind you, the bar had been open for quite a while before the event got underway!

Anyway, if you’ve nothing better to do for the next ten minutes, you can download it here.

I’m off to hide. But I’ll be back soon, I promise.

Oh, and will you do me a favour? If you like what you read, and you want to read more – will you pester me until I finish it? Please?

And one more thing: if any of you are even remotely considering nominating me in any of the Blog Awards Ireland categories this year, thanks very much, but bugger off! ;)





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Facing the Public Vote

blog_awards_2013_badge_finalistsmIf you’re already familiar with my blog then you’ll know my Big News. I’m facing a public vote. Two of my blog posts have been nominated in the Best Post category of the Blog Awards Ireland contest, and one of them, An Unconventional Death, is doing rather nicely thank you!

The last time I faced a public vote – actually, the only time I have ever faced a public vote before – was 33 years ago. It was September 1980; the location – Mr Dunne’s Music Room; the purpose – to select the new Abbey House Captain. Most of the Abbey sixth-formers approached the task with a yawn, to be honest, as everyone knew who was going to win.  For the purposes of discretion, I’ll call her CJ. CJ was, I suppose, way back then, when the term hadn’t yet been coined, the IT girl of our year group – a role wholly created and lovingly nurtured by her. Yes, she was probably the best looking girl in the class, and yes, she was the one who always had a boyfriend, and, okay, yes, it was definitely CJ who knew all about style and make up and panache before the rest of us could even spell the word. But she did work bloody damn hard at it.

CJ had worked out pretty early on in her school career that she would never become Head Girl, as, despite her physical merits, she just didn’t cut the mustard when it came to academic achievement. But House Captain, now that she was born for. Unfortunately, I also quite liked the idea – but I never spoke of it, of course, because, obviously, it was CJ’s for the taking. She had been preparing for the title since first form. It was her rightful destiny. In fact, some of my fellow classmates, and a few of the teachers into the bargain, believed this was the only reason she returned to school to complete her A levels.  So, as the day of the election dawned, everyone knew that CJ had it in the bag. It was merely a formality. I had been told to nominate CJ – by CJ herself, naturally – and no one expected her to face any competition. As all the girls from Abbey House squeezed into the music suite for the Big Vote, CJ stood at the front, gushing her greetings and beaming confidently, the metaphorical crown already firmly placed on her perfectly coiffed head. But then, from somewhere in the throng, someone shouted out another name: mine. The look on CJ’s face was a mixture of horror and amusement: she was both outraged that someone had dared to challenge her rightful place, and delighted by the prospect of publicly humiliating me with a landslide victory. (She liked to humiliate, did CJ. She was good at it too.)

We had to retire to the music store while the votes were cast and counted. “Don’t worry,” she smiled sweetly, “you can be my deputy”.

It was indeed a landslide victory. For me. Yep, me. And, honestly, 33 years on, it still shocks me. And delights me too, of course.

I have no expectations of victory, landslide or otherwise, this time round. I’m just happy to be there in the first place. Genuinely, properly thrilled. From the beginning, my objective has been to make it through to the final stage of the awards – when an independent panel will chose the overall winner from the top 10 posts in the public vote. And every time I see another vote notch up for me on the stats table, I pretty much get the same feeling I had back in that music room: Wow! Really? Thank you! Are you sure? It ties in very neatly with the whole naked thing.

When I realised that this was the only category in the BAI to face the dreaded public vote, I knew I’d have to focus my attention on just one of the posts – choose one to champion, so to speak. Both are extremely close to my heart, each one poignantly personal in its own way. An Unconventional Death is a tribute to my dad, who endured a dramatic death from cancer four years ago, and was nominated by my blogger friend Yvonne Watterstone. (Yvonne’s own brilliant blog, Time to Consider the Lilies, has been nominated for the Best Diaspora award, which isn’t open to a public vote, otherwise I’d be ordering you to do just that! But it’s a shoe-in to win anyway, as, quite simply, it’s exquisite – so please check her out!)

A Personal Tribute to the Last Name on the List was nominated by my talented friend and fellow novelist-waiting-in-the-wings, Natasha Geary. (Remember the name, as I know she’ll be standing centre stage waving her delicious debut novel in the air long before I am!) The post pays homage to Igor Zukelman – the last name on the alphabetical list of people who died on 9.11. Obviously Igor’s story is particularly meaningful right now – as yesterday was the 12th anniversary of 9.11. And as I was preparing dinner last night, half way across the world, the aforementioned Yvonne was tying a copy of my letter to Igor to his flag in the 9.11 Field of Hope Memorial in Tempe, Arizona. I’m proud of that post, and I’m thrilled to bits that it was nominated for this award – but, really, it was always going to be An Unconventional Death.

I swear to you, I have been overwhelmed by the response so far. Blown away. Much of my support has come from familiar sources: family, friends, fellow writers and blogger buddies – but I’ve been staggered by the amount of complete strangers my post has reached and touched too. Every message I’ve received, each personal reaction I have been privy too, and all of the re-tweeting and re-posting and texting and emailing that I know has been going on, has truly humbled me.  Some responses have made me smile all day, some have made my heart leap, and several have left me balling into my cornflakes. (I eat a lot of cornflakes.) And every time I refresh the page to see how many votes I have (yes, okay, I’m obsessed) I sense my dad’s brown eyes looking at the screen from over my shoulder, brimming with pride.

So, thank you – from the very tips of my (currently pale blue) toenails to the curliest curl on the top of my head – to everyone who has read the post, voted for it, and helped to spread the word. If you’re reading this wondering what all the fuss is about, here’s the link to the post and here’s the link to the Blog Awards Ireland site. If you fancy giving me your vote, fantastic! If my post or writing style doesn’t tickle your fancy, then check out the entries from two of my competitors, The Clothesline and Lisa de Jong. Both of these posts are brilliantly written and, at the moment, they’re not getting enough votes. Hell, check them out anyway, even if you are voting for me.

I think the public voting part of the process will continue for another week or so before the finalists are announced. And yes, I know I said at the top of this post that I’ll be happy just to make that top 10 – but in truth, as time passes, the whole blooming thing is becoming more and more important to me. So, (deep breath) I’m just going to put it out there (face grimaced, eyes squeezed shut, another deep breath): achlyidrlylvtwin. (Whispers: Actually, I’d really love to win.)

Oh, and by the way, CJ was a rubbish deputy! ;)

POSTSCRIPT – 4th October 2013

In my head I’m cartwheeling across the living room right now. It has to be in my head, as I’ve never managed a cartwheel, handstand or back flip in my life. Hell, I can’t even touch my toes. Anyway, the reason for my metaphorical blast of gymnastic energy is that I’ve made the final 10! And…not only that…I CAME TOP OF THE PUBLIC VOTE! Yup! And by quite a margin too. I don’t often get the opportunity to blow my own trumpet (another thing I can’t actually do) – but I’m blooming blasting it to the heavens right now, loud enough for my dad to hear! So thank you to everyone who took the time, and used up precious energy, to give me their vote. Even if I don’t win the judging part of the process, I’ve scored a little personal victory – actually, a flipping massive one. And for once, I don’t feel remotely naked at all! 

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A wee while ago (okay, a fairly big while ago) my blogger friend Valerie Francis invited me to write a post about my top five favourite books. Ever. Valerie had blogged about her own top five after being invited to do so by a fellow Canadian writer. You can read her post here.

Around that time I was planning a playlist for my Big Birthday. I wanted the music to include tracks from all five of the decades I’ve been around so far: tunes I danced to (or tried to), fell in love to, cried over, celebrated with, sang along to with my hairbrush. Songs that saw me through broken hearts, helped me through exams, and were responsible for some dreadful fashion faux pas. Music that reminded me of summers, winters, school days, university, singledom, good jobs, bad jobs, marriage, motherhood, friendships, love, loss… in effect I wanted the soundtrack to my life.

Of course it absolutely had to include that song from my first boyfriend, dream-boy Donny. And my second boyfriend, dishy David, well, he had to get a look in too with I think I Love You, the song he sang just to me! As for my next boyfriend, dangerous David, well, he’d get two: probably Gonna Make You a Star and Hold me Close. Hell, with his Romany looks and bad boy charm he deserved it!

Yeah, yeah, whatever – I hear you! You want to know what any of this old boyfriend malarkey has to do with books, don’t you? Well, nothing really.  Except that as I was compiling my very own personal tracks of my years playlist (which, I promise you, included some bloody good stuff not in any way connected to any of the great loves of my life: Teenage Kicks, Atomic, Story of the Blues) I began to idly wonder what the booklist of my life would be.  So when Valerie emailed me asking me to take part in the Favourite Five blog hop, I was already prepared.

Except, of course, I wasn’t. Five? Five books? How in the name of Jane Austen was I going to chose just five books from fifty years of reading?  (Fear not – my Mills & Boon ‘blip’ referred to in a previous post was automatically excluded. Still can’t believe I actually admitted to that.)

So, I started randomly listing books which I have read and loved at some point in my life. By the time I got to 100, I realised I was in trouble. It was time to get ruthless: fifty had to go.  It was tough, but I did it – then promptly abandoned the exercise due to exhaustion.

Then, finally, fifty became twenty five. God, this was hard work. I needed another break. Many days later, twenty five became ten – but then crept back up to twelve because, really, it was too unfair of me to have dropped Peter Pan and Notes on a Scandal from the list. And then what about The Book Thief? I was all over the place. I needed a system, I realised. I needed to establish some boundaries, or else, frankly, this was never, ever going to work. I thought again about my birthday playlist and how I’d assembled a mottled musical mix from each decade of my life and realised that the solution had been staring me in the face all along – I just needed to apply the same formula to my book choices. Easy.

Aye, right – as we say in these parts.

So, I’ve amended the criteria slightly to suit my own dilemma, indecision, general crapness – call it what you will (sorry, Valerie). And as we’re now playing by my rules (sorry again, Valerie) I’ve included a winner and two runners up in each of my newly decreed categories.

You’ll be pleased to hear that none of my favourite books were written by any of my old boyfriends – though Robert, the man I was supposed to marry, did star in the original movie version of one of them. (Leo, who starred in the re-make, just doesn’t do it for me. Sorry, Leo. You win some, you lose some.) And the book by the man I did marry (he asked me before Robert realised I was The One) is non-fiction, so that’s my get-out-of-jail-free card for this particular task!


Childhood years

As a child my nose was never out of a book. Under the bedcovers with a torch late at night and locking myself in the bathroom for complete peace and quiet were my two preferred reading environments, but I literally would read anytime, anyplace, anywhere. The highlight of my week was the Thursday evening trip I made to our local library with my dad – well, that and the arrival of my Twinkle/Bunty/Jackie magazine. So many books from those early years of mine made that final 50 list and most survived the cull to 25. But, after a lot of mind changing, and way too much angst than should ever be necessary for a task as joyful as this one, I finally settled on my top three.


Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Oh, how I ached with love for this book. I poured over every word, laughed, cried, held my breath and felt the first stirrings of feminism thanks to the fearless, feisty, ferocious Jo March. I knew that one day if I had a daughter she was bound to be called Meg, Jo, Amy or Beth – and I’m chuffed to bits that today my very own Aimee is a huge Little Women fan herself!

Runners up:

Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret by Judy Blume

I’m not religious, but when I was 11, on the cusp of teendom, I too wanted to know the answer to every question Margaret asks ‘God’ about periods and bras and boys. I clearly remember thinking that Judy Blume wrote that book for me, and me alone. How did she know? I wondered. How did she know?

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

I fell in love with Peter, wanted to be Wendy and was furiously jealous of Tinkerbell. As with Are You There God, I still have the copy I read when I was about ten. A magical, timeless classic, this book represents storytelling in its purest, most delicious form.



This was the time of my reading life when a whole big brilliant world of literature was revealed.  It was during my teens that I discovered many of ‘the classics’, met literary legends like Austen, the Brontes, Hardy and Dickens, fell in love with Fitzgerald, swooned over the genius of Sallinger, and first experienced the ‘wish I could write like that’ feeling when I encountered Harper Lee. This was a tough category, and I might just change my mind again tomorrow, but here goes (and as I’m starting to bore myself – which means I’m bound to be boring you too – I’m restricting my reasons for choosing these books to one name only).


The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald

Nick Carraway – of course!

Runners up:

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Scout – obviously.

Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy

Eustacia Vye – what a woman.

(To be honest, four books were slugging it out for this final spot: Native plus Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles along with Austen’s Emma, and Du Maurier’s Rebecca. But Return of the Native shoved the others out of the way with a final push by the feisty Miss Vye.)



This period represented the best of times and the worst of times in my reading life.  The reading list for the English Lit part of my degree introduced me to some of the masterpieces by other literary Gods: Plaith’s The Bell Jar, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. I discovered, to my joy, that Fitzgerald was not a one trick pony with both Tender is the Night and The Beautiful and the Damned enthralling me as much as Gatsby had.  In these years I also discovered Waugh and Steinbeck and Forster and Capote, and read hip modern classics such as The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Catch 22 and Bonfire of the Vanities.

But then came the candy-floss phase, the, you know (gulp) M&B thing. And (gulp again, eyes closed, breathe in – breathe out) perhaps a bit of Miss Cookson and co. Maybe a Collins or two. Definitely a few Jilly Coopers. Not that there’s anything wrong with a bit of candy floss fiction now and again – hell, it’s probably good for the soul.  And obviously I’d rather a person was reading something rather than nothing at all (afraid I DO draw the line at 50 Shades tough – I’d actually rather you played Candy Crush, or did some knitting), but coming on the back of a degree in English and Drama, and all those books I’ve just been gushing about…well, let’s just say it was a little surprising.  To me, at any rate. I didn’t really recognise myself for a while – who was I turning into?  But then I read The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien, and to my relief, normal services resumed.

There are two good memories I carry from that phase, however: Maeve Binchy, and – this one will really shock you – Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, by the insufferable Jeffrey Archer. Binchy is pretty obvious – she spun a glorious yarn – Archer, less so. I detest the man, and I can’t remember why I ever read it in the first place; but I had to admit, and still maintain, that Not a Penny More… is a master class in storytelling, detail and plot. So there!


Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier

The winner of this section was the easiest of all my choices. In fact, when Valerie first contacted me about the favourite five thing, I immediately knew that Le Grand Meaulnes would be there – top of the pile, sitting proudly on the winning podium.

I read this book at college in the final year of my degree course, and it swept me off my feet, brazenly seducing me in a way no other book came close to – until I read the winner of my ‘Forties’ section. I was mesmerised, entranced, completely and utterly captivated by the dreamlike tale of youthful obsession. It reminded me of Gatsby, but with a more ethereal charm – and then, of course, I discovered that Fitzgerald had most likely modelled his Nick Carraway on Fournier’s narrator, François Seurel, and his Gatsby on Meaulnes. The book has influenced many other great writers too: Sal Paradise carries a copy with him in Kerouac’s in On the Road, John Fowles claims it influenced everything he wrote, and Henry Miller also fell under its spell.

Whilst I have never re-read this work of art, I do think about it often, and occasionally I’ll pick up my tattered old copy and flip through the pages, breathing in the memory of it. The thing is, I don’t think I ever will read it again. I’m terrified that in some way I’ll be disappointed. My memory of reading Meaulnes is so precious, so intimately special that I know the experience could never be repeated – a bit like the perfect holiday romance, or the best live gig you’ve ever been to, or a day that was so flawless from beginning to end that you want to pause time half way through so that you can walk around it, stand back and admire it, look at it from the outside in. Some encounters, or occasions, or experiences should stay in your memory box, wrapped up gently in soft white tissue paper, only taken out from time to time to be peeked at or gently caressed. That’s the way it is for me with Meaulnes.

Tragically, Alain-Fournier lost his young life in the early months of World War One – and the world lost all of the glittering, glorious stories he would surely have gone on to tell.

Runners up:

The bell Jar by Sylvia Plaith

Brilliantly devastating, shockingly fabulous, this book had a profound effect on me when I read it as a naïve, angst-riddled, 20 year old girl. There were times I may have thought I was going mad myself, or couldn’t cope, or didn’t want to try. The bell jar made me realise I most definitely wasn’t, I completely could, and I absolutely must. It remains a literary rite of passage – a masterpiece that all young women should read.

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

My dad gave it to me. He told me I would love it – and I did. Enough said!



At the very start of my thirties I was a single career girl with my very own mortgage who liked to party and could write a mean press release. By the end of that decade, I was a married mum who had left my job to become a freelancer. I still liked to party, but was growing tired of writing press releases. I felt an itch somewhere deep within that I couldn’t quite reach, an increasingly unsettling irritation. And then I read my winning book in this section – and finally I could scratch.


The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

This was the book that made me want to write. Well, I’d always secretly wanted to write, but I’d buried that childhood ambition so deep within – folded it up and tucked right inside my ribcage – that I didn’t recognise the ache when it started to unravel.  But the Lovely Bones dragged it out and slapped me around the face with it.

I don’t know exactly what it was about the book that triggered such a physical reaction. Perhaps, as murdered Susie Salmon narrates the tale from Sebold’s intriguing interpretation of heaven, it was the realisation that with fiction, anything is possible. It still took me a while to get going, but that book made me realise I couldn’t ignore my dream forever. Of course it hasn’t quite worked out the way I’d imagined, as I’m still writing press releases (along with lots of other copy formats, and honestly, I do love my job). But, hey, there’s always my 50’s…

Runners Up:

The Crow Road by Iain Banks

My favourite Banks novel – I think – and the first novel my husband and I read back to back for our own wee mini book-club.

I Love You Blue Kangaroo by Emma Chichester Clarke

Okay – it’s not a novel, but this exquisitely beautiful picture book was Aimee’s absolute favourite when she was tiny, and retains a very special place in our family’s heart today. By the time she was six, Aimee could well have set up her very own library, and, like me, she finds it difficult to let a book go. This one will never go. It will become a pass-down book, I hope, for generations to come.



I possibly read more books in this decade than in all of the others put together – probably because once I started writing fiction myself, the need to read became more of an obsession than ever before. It’s a bit like a drug habit: if I don’t have at least three new reads lined up at any given time, I feel anxious, jittery and a little bit panicked. And because the past ten years represent the most recent phase of my reading life, I remember more of them. Which made choosing just three so flaming difficult.


The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson

Quite simply, this epic fantastical mystery took me on a journey that no other book has done.  If I had to compare it to anything, I’d say it’s a bit like Le Grande Meaulnes – on acid. Like a wild kiss on a drunken night, it leaves you utterly breathless – euphoric, even, yet with an unsettling sense of uncertainty: did that really happen? Still, to this day, I sometimes find myself thinking ‘did I really read that?’ I have recommended this book to so many people – and if you’re reading this now and you haven’t yet had the Gargoyle experience, I implore you to do so. A word of warning though: the first 100 pages or so are gruesome, so grisly in fact that you may feel like giving up. I know I did. But hang in there – the ride you’re about to embark on is so worth it!

Joint winner: (my rules!)

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

Everyone should read this remarkable book. Everyone. It is achingly beautiful, exquisitely written and mesmerizingly clever. Devastating yet uplifting, heartbreaking yet triumphant, it is, quite simply a glorious work of art, and once read it will live with you forever. That’s all I can say. That’s all I need to say.

Runner up:

One Day by David Nicholls

This is perhaps one of my more predictable choices, but I absolutely loved it. The premise is cute, yes, but clever and intoxicating too – and I think it has been unfairly labelled as a gimmick by some up-their-own-arses literary elitists. I wish I’d thought of it! It’s also my era, so I loved following Emma and Dex through the years, my memory ignited by so many poignant references. And then, of course, there is ‘the thing’: the event that you absolutely mustn’t tell anyone about so that it hits them like a bus. It certainly floored me. I read it at a kids playground just a couple of weeks after my dad passed away, and whilst my daughter and nieces and nephew played merrily on the swings, I sat and bawled big guffawing sobs, completely paralysed by grief. My husband had read it just before me, and he knew I’d love it – but he was concerned about my reaction to ‘the thing’ given my recent bereavement. I called him from the playground, unable to speak. “Ah,” he said, “so you’ve read it.” For a moment I hated him for making me read this compellingly brilliant, un-put-downable book – but I’ve been grateful ever since.

So there you have it – the stories of my story so far. If you’re not drunk by now, or haven’t gone to bed with a migraine, or taken up yoga – thanks for sticking with me. Bet you’re glad I’m not 60, though!

Some of my best ever books - a few of which have been with me most of my life!
Some of my best ever books – a few of which have been with me most of my life!


I’d really love to hear about your own personal favourites, so do please tell me, but I’m officially tagging my blogger friend, Jackie Buxton, for the next leg of this fabulous game.  Jackie is a brilliant blogger and a talented writer, and I’m pretty sure she’ll have a few crackers on her list, whether she sticks to Valerie’s rules, follows mine, or re-writes them herself!



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A Tribute Worth Cheating For

Ta-dah! I’m back. Don’t ask where I’ve been. Please. I’ll only be forced to lie. Some stories are better left untold, believe me! Well, maybe one day I’ll tell you – we’ll see which way the next bend turns. But for now, back to the task in hand – a new post.

Except it isn’t. I’m about to cheat, you see. But I hope you’ll agree that on this occasion it’s kind of okay to do so. Exactly this day last year I posted a tribute to my dad, Ronnie Allen, who had died three years previously from a particularly hideous cancer (though I don’t suppose there is any other form, really). It’s now four years since my dear daddy died, and whilst the missing of him isn’t quite so painful these days, the awful memory of his last few hours is just as intense. The post I wrote last year about dad’s war with cancer received more views and comments than anything else I’ve written since I started standing at my bus stop last May – and so in honour of him I’m running it again.

I’ll be back soon with more writing and book based chat, I promise, but, in the meantime, here’s my tribute worth cheating for:

Ronnie Allen, my lovely dad.
Ronnie Allen, my lovely dad.

An Unconventional Death

by ADMIN posted on JULY 20, 2012 [EDIT]

Three years ago this week, my father died. He’d been ill for some time. Cancer.  Actually, a conglomerate of cancers, a medley of the bastard diseases which mutated together and formed a vicious alliance, such was their determination to kill him. His illness had been brutal; unremitting, and merciless, but we expected his passing, when it finally came, to be peaceful and calm. Ethereal, even.  Well, it wasn’t. He left this world in a rage, furious with death for getting the better of him, thrashing against it with every microscopic scrap of energy he could muster, until his very last breath. And even then, even when he exhaled his final, agonising howl and they said he’s gone, his body continued to contort and protest on his behalf with such hostility that he came back. Twice.

At the end we were spent, my mother, my sister and I, not quite believing what we had just witnessed. Even the (wonderful) nurses were stunned. Neither they, nor the doctors, nor the palliative team could offer a clear-cut explanation, during or after the experience. On a ward used to death, they’d never encountered one quite like this. Over the course of six long, torturous hours, my dad ‘died’ three times. Finally, with all three of us cradling him, whispering that we loved him, that we were so very, very, proud of him, that we’d all be fine, that, really, it was time to go, he listened.

The thing is, we never expected him to react that way; to fight. We thought he’d hold his hands up when death came to get him, quietly succumb. We thought he’d be ready. Throughout his life my father had been a committed hypochondriac. I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t something or other wrong with him. Often his maladies were genuine (a collapsed lung, appendicitis, slipped disc) but generally they were run-of-the-mill, everyday ailments. He never just had a cold. In fact, he probably invented man-flu. And as for his ‘wind’, well, I won’t burden you with the details. His health ‘issues’ were a long standing, eye rolling, tut-tutting joke in our family. And then, one day, when one of his infamous colds turned out to be glandular fever, we finally gave him a little bit of sympathy. But when he didn’t get better quickly, and continued to mooch around in his woe-is-me cardigan, our patience soon waned. For Christ’s sake, we thought (at least I did) it’s only bloody glandular fever. Except it wasn’t. It was Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

The diagnosis was a shock, of course, to all of us, but thankfully the prognosis was good.  His cancer was low grade, the treatment an initial dose of tablet form chemotherapy followed by regular intravenous shots of immunoglobulin. He was told he would most likely die with the disease, and not from it. So, he carried on with the business of living. For a time his diagnosis almost invigorated him. He joined the Lymphoma Society, informed himself about the disease and talked about it to anyone who would listen. Which was fine. He had an incurable illness, after all, even if, as we’d been told, it wasn’t going to kill him. The years passed, yes, years, and somehow we forgot about NHL. At least we did, his family. And when he wandered back to his old ‘oh, my stomach, oh, my blocked nose, oh my sinus pain’ ways, we rolled our eyes again, or tut-tutted, or ignored him.

A year or so before dad’s illness seemed to bypass gears two, three and four to leap with ruthless speed straight to five, we noticed a change in him. He was sluggish, grumpy, agitated. His pallor paled. His confidence diminished. A nasty bout of shingles left him with restricted feeling in his leg. He stopped playing golf. He didn’t drive so much. Lethargic and easily irritated his enthusiasm for life, for his life, appeared to wane. He wasn’t like this all the time, but when he was it was difficult to witness. And we, as was our way, responded with frustrated irritation. Of course we know now that his illness was shifting gear, subtly, quietly, with malevolent intent.

Then suddenly it pounced. One day he felt an uncomfortable tingling sensation in his arms and fingers. A few days later he had something in his eye. They thought it was an ulcer or a boil of some sort. Then an unsightly welt appeared on one of his legs. By this time we knew that something was wrong, very wrong, and at last he had our full attention.  The start of a gruelling, heartbreaking period in all our lives had begun. I’ll bypass the exasperating details of our struggle to get a definitive diagnosis, suffice to say eventually we knew that the welt on his leg, which rapidly materialized all over his body, was Peripheral T Cell Lymphoma, a rare and particularly sadistic cancer which infiltrated his central nervous system causing motor problems. The thing in his eye – well, that turned out to be leukaemia. His slow burning NHL had been taken hostage by this bandit Peripheral T Cell thing and then invited leukaemia to join the gang. None of his doctors, and there were many, had ever seen the like of it before.

Dad spent most of the next nine months, the last of his life, in hospital. His ward, the Haematology Unit, became a second home for all of us, the nursing staff our extended family. He quickly became something of a novelty within the hospital as his condition was so rare that treating it was something of a conundrum. Without hesitation he agreed to become a test case, a guinea pig for whatever innovative treatments they could throw his way. As his sight deteriorated, his beautiful brown eyes (which I’ve always wished I’d inherited) clouded with white leukemic deposits, he was offered more chemotherapy – but this time the liquid would be injected directly into his eyes.  The pioneering procedure hadn’t been done before, at least not in Northern Ireland, and only once or twice in the rest of the UK. It would be uncomfortable. There were no guarantees. In fact, it would most likely make no lasting difference at all. But it would be ground-breaking and hopefully the knowledge gained would help others in the future. We winced, dad nodded. He had nothing to lose, but what a legacy to leave.

Throughout those final months the cancer ravaged dad; reduced my tall, strong, handsome father to a physical ship wreck of a man. But of all the pain and trauma and indignity he had to endure, the loss of his sight was what devastated him the most. A life-long fanatical reader, the joy of losing time trapped in a brilliant book was stolen from him, just when he needed it the most. We tried Talking Books, but as he couldn’t operate the CD player due to the loss of power in his fingers, that didn’t work. He couldn’t watch television either, or switch the radio on and off. He couldn’t even feed himself. But not being able to look at his family; his wife of almost fifty years, his daughters, his darling grand children who were growing up daily before his eyes that couldn’t see, that was what truly broke his heart, and ours.

But what he could do was talk, and so he did. To the hospital staff, to his visitors, to us. He talked and he reminisced and he laughed and, now and again, he cried. Talking became his saviour, visitors his last remaining joy. And there were many. The scores of people who wanted to spend time with dad in his last few months, and the hundreds who attended his funeral, were a wonderful affirmation of just how loved he was.  That was no real surprise, but dad’s attitude was. Through it all, through the daily, hourly torture of slowly dying, he barely complained. My father, the man who couldn’t handle a head cold, who told the world about his wind, who took himself to bed if he had a toothache, confronted cancer with the decorum of a king and the courage of a lion. And although by the end his life was virtually unbearable, he still didn’t want to let it go. He didn’t want to leave, and he let death know that in no uncertain terms.

Dad’s final hours were horrendous to witness, his death a traumatic experience we will never forget. Initially it haunted us, consumed us even. But now three years have passed and I’m beginning to look at it from a different perspective. For the first time, while writing this post, I’ve been able to smile at the memory, grin at the thought of my father holding two fingers up to death and punching the fucker in the face. Even after a long and harrowing illness, why should you go gently? Why should your passing be passive? My dad was bloody minded, determined and unyielding to the end. And I love him all the more for it.

My dad dancing with my sister at an old friend's wedding. He loved a wee dance, he loved a wee dram, he loved to laugh and he loved us.
My dad dancing with my sister at an old friend’s wedding. He loved a wee dance, he loved a wee dram, he loved to laugh and he loved us.






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Versatility, Fibs, and the case of the Disappearing Blog

A month or so ago, I was awarded a Versatile Blogger gong by my blogger friend, Jackie Buxton over at

Blog 88 versatile-blogger-award

Now, I’m the first to admit I’m not actually that versatile when it comes to blogging; or regular, for that matter, which you’ll know if you follow this bog. A regular poster, that is. I’m pretty regular in that other matter which the word regular generally refers to. That was too much information, wasn’t it? Sorry!

Anyway, I was chuffed to bits with Jackie’s kind nomination. It still baffles me that anyone actually bothers to read my blog at all, never mind consider it worthy of an award. Jackie herself epitomises versatility. Her brilliant, funny, honest, heartfelt and unassuming posts can make the reader laugh, cry and contemplate in equal measure. You can check out her own Versatile Blogger post out here:

One day, a week or so after I received Jackie’s nomination, I decided to write my “acceptance speech” – which basically requires the recipient to list seven hitherto unknown facts about themselves and then pass on the Versatile mantle to a few other bloggers.  I’d struggled for a day or so to come up with one interesting thing about myself, never mind seven. (Actually, that could be one: I detest the word thing. Just a personal fixation, but every time I write it I feel slightly sick.) After all, I reckoned you already know all the “interesting” stuff, much of which isn’t even about me: my daughter, the Game of Thrones actress; my husband, the successful author whose book Dream On is being made into a movie; my disappearing book deal. I’ve told you before about my head-butt list and my dog-stealing days and wetting myself once on a Big Dipper ride. Really, what more was there?

I came up with one or two little ditties, which genuinely are worth the telling, but that was it. I was well and truly stuck. Then, bingo, my light-bulb moment: I’d make some up! After all, that’s what I’m supposed to be – a writer who makes stuff up. It’d be a good wee craft-honing exercise for me, I reasoned, and nobody would be any the wiser.  I’d get around the folk reading my blog who actually do know me by telling them in a very shocked voice that I was genuinely hurt/astonished/concerned that they couldn’t remember the time I … or the day we … or the fact that I really … Come to think of it, I have a friend who does this all the time – I’d just be taking a leaf out of her rather chunky and somewhat baffling fantasy book!

So, feeling ridiculously excited and giggling stupidly to myself, I opened up my blog to start penning my side-splittingly hilarious and stunningly fascinating lies. Except I couldn’t. Not that I was overcome by guilt or remorse, or felt a sense of self doubt about my intended deceit; I literally couldn’t write my post, because my blog, it appeared, had vanished. There was literally nothing there but a blank page welcoming me to WordPress and inviting me to make my first post!

I felt sick. I nearly cried. I swore at Herbie, my cat, because there was no one else in the house to swear at. I shut down my laptop, walked around the room for a minute, breathed deeply, apologised to Herbie, sat back down at my desk and calmly switched the computer back on.

Still nothing but a blank page and that stupid, smug invitation to get going on my blog. No matter what I did (and I have to admit that, being completely witless when it comes to anything technical, I didn’t really do much, apart from panic) I couldn’t find anything. No posts, no comments, no header, no links: absolutely sweet F all. I had a Dorothy moment when I fleetingly wondered if the past nine months had all been a dream, and I’d never actually created a blog at all.

Then I had another, somewhat longer, moment when I thought that somehow, somewhere, someone must have taken exception to my blog; thought it was a pile of poo, didn’t like the name, was repulsed by the actual thought of me physically standing naked at a bus stop – and had hacked in and wiped my entire body of work. Yes, I am acutely aware of how ludicrous and lofty that last comment now sounds: body of work! Tsk!

WordPress itself was no flaming use whatsoever. Once I managed to find out how to actually ask a question on one of the Help Boards, the only answer I got was: “This sounds really odd”. Too frigging right, you moron! shutterstock_38625685I got more help and support from friends on Twitter, which was hugely appreciated and kept me from putting my fist through my computer screen, but sadly no one came up with a magic solution.

After a mini nervous breakdown followed by a pretty full on nervous breakdown; tears; many, many swear words; many, many sentences made up solely of swear words; more tears; I finally resigned myself to the fact that my blog had apparently buggered off for good. And really, it was only a blog; not a completed manuscript, or an off-shore bank account. And I still had all of my posts saved in Word. So, no big deal. I could just start again. Still… *$~#&^<!

The following day, inexplicably and as quickly as it had vanished, part of my blog came back. Just like that. And by way of an apology, it brought back over 9,000 spam comments as a souvenir of its little trip. *$~#&^<! But, hey, at least it was back. Well, the main page, anyway. My relief and excitement diluted somewhat when I discovered that I couldn’t access comments, see beyond my last two posts, click into anything on my banner, or make a new post.

I was busy, and simply couldn’t afford another nervous breakdown, so I gave it two fingers from both hands and walked away.

I did check in every now and again, just out of curiosity, but resolved to remain calm and rational. If it never came back, then obviously we weren’t meant to be together. I’d build another blog. A better one. And screw you, mister.

Then out of the blue, a week or so ago, it came back. All of it. Everything in place. All as it should be. See: treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen.

I don’t suppose I’ll ever know what happened, where it went, or why it finally decided to return; but I did resolve never to even contemplate fabricating my blog posts again.

So, with that in mind, here are my seven fascinating facts, and not a fib amongst them.

1: I’ve been nominated for a Fringe First at the Edinburgh festival – along with the rest of my College Drama Group. It was August 1982. The play in question was the first ever dramatisation of Spike Milligan’s genius book, Puckoon; and I performed for the whole week with a broken jaw – sustained three days before the Festival began in a random, unprovoked, street attack, whilst rehearsing in Liverpool. (Does that count as two facts?) The broken jaw did present problems, and restricted my ability to play some of the six or so characters I’d been assigned; but it unequivocally enhanced my performance as Stan, the bar room singer. I’ve always secretly suspected that’s what nabbed the nomination! 

2: After completing my degree, I became addicted to Mills & Boon books. Now, if my degree had been in say, PE, or Maths, or Bio Chemistry; or anything which had nothing to do with literature, then this might not seem so shocking. But no: it was English and Drama. So, after years spent reading the works of literary geniuses such as Plath and Conrad and Kafka and Waugh and Shakespeare and Ibsen and Brecht, I marched off into the sunset with my degree tucked into my feminist bosom, filled with a lust for life which had been fuelled by these masters of their craft, determined to make something of myself, excited by the prospect of all the books I had still to read – and turned to sickly, romantic, sludge. The literary equivalent of Slush Puppies. I have to admit, it all went downhill for a while after that.

 3: Between the ages of 5 and 18, I participated every year in my home town’s annual Speech and Drama Festival. Over the years I won many classes – usually the Inventive Storytelling ones (three words, five minutes to prepare, stand on stage and tell your story) – but I always hankered after a Cup. Or a trophy. Or a shield. Any old piece of silverware would have sufficed; hell I’d have been happy with a fork by the end. But the shiny silver things always eluded me: until my last year at the festival before departing for University, when I won five! Yep, 5! This year my daughter entered the Festival, and she won two cups – one for her Sonnet  (Wordsworth’s At Sunset), the second for a Shakespeare performance (Juliet’s The clock struck nine). My pride was through the roof; but a tincy, wincy, weeny part of me did think how come it took me 13 years?






4: Graham Reid, who wrote the Billy Plays which launched Sir Kenneth Brannagh’s career, taught me history for a while at school. He was an inspirational teacher who saw stardust in every pupil he taught. And if he didn’t, he soon made sure he sprinkled it.

5: I’m hugely allergic to red peppers – not particularly interesting, but useful to know if you ever invite me to dinner.

6: I’m 50 – that’s definitely not interesting, I’m just getting used to saying it. And I partied until 4.30am on my 50th birthday – that’s not interesting either, but I’m very, very proud of it!

7: I can’t dance – well, according to my husband, my daughter, and all of my friends. Actually, that is a fib – but this time, they’re the ones who are lying!                                                                                              .







Now it’s time for me to announce my own nominees for a Versatile Blogger Award. They’re all brilliant bloggers and damn fine writers, each with a very individual story to tell. If I told you exactly why I love each of  their blogs, we’d be in for another full post: just trust me – and check them out yourself. Your life will be better for it, I promise!

So, in no particular order we have:


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No – I’m not blowing my own trumpet. I’m Blog Hopping!

A few weeks ago, my friend, the writer, Bernie McGill, contacted me to ask if I’d be interested in participating in a blog hop that’s doing the rounds at the moment called The Next Big Thing. Two things happened. I instantly had a mental image of a swarm of writers sporting bunny teeth and ears, bouncing along in hessian sacks towards a finishing line marked by a huge banner proclaiming IT’S YOU! Why this picture flashed before me, I have no idea. But then, as I re-read her email I felt a glow of pride. I consider Bernie to be something of a mentor to me, and was touched, flattered and humbled that she considered worthy of a tag in her own brilliant blog piece which you can read here.

Bernie McGill is a short story writer and author of The Butterfly Cabinet which was named by Julian Fellowes (creator and writer of Downton Abbey) as his novel of the year in 2012. She was the winner in 2008 of the Zoetrope:All-Story Contest in the US. Her short fiction has been shortlisted for numerous prizes including the Bridport, the Fish, the Asham, the Michael McLaverty and the Seán O’Faóláin short story awards. A short story collection is forthcoming in 2013 from Whittrick Press. You can visit her website/blog here, follow her on twitter and like The Butterfly Cabinet on Facebook. You can also read her blog at Simon & Schuster.

So, now it’s my turn to hop towards that Next Big Thing finishing line by answering the blog hop questions.

1)What is the working title of your next book?  

It’s called The Possibilities of Elizabeth – and I’m pretty certain that the title will stick. Mind you, if a publisher comes along and says ‘we’ll publish your fantastic novel and give you half a million pounds for a multi book deal, but only on the condition that you re-name it Confessions from a Coma’ or some other cheesy title, well, who am I to question their wisdom? See, no integrity whatsoever – I’m only in this game for the big bucks!

(Actually, a couple of quid would work just as well. Or nothing, even. Here, publishers, just take it…)

2) Where did the idea come from for the book? 

Hmm, well in the story, Elizabeth, my central character, drives her car into a brick wall at the bottom of a hill and almost kills herself. The wall is a real wall at the bottom of a real hill in my home town, and for very many years I have absentmindedly wondered what would happen if someone drove their car into it. Now I must be clear and say that I do not have a death wish – I’ve never actually considered trying it out myself – and I thoroughly recommend that no one else give it a go either. When I was trying to get a second book underway I had many false starts. Very many. But one day I realised that all my terrible and deservedly abandoned attempts had one thing in common – a central character called Elizabeth. There was the Elizabeth who woke up one morning to find a very handsome ghost in bed beside her, the Elizabeth who spoke in a different accent every day, the Elizabeth who believed she was an exact reincarnation of Elizabeth Taylor. I know; awful. And that’s not the worst of them. Then one day as I was driving down that hill, I had a vision of another Elizabeth, Elizabeth Rose, smashing her Citroen 2CV into the wall. And that was it. Finally I’d found the right Elizabeth.

3) What genre does your book fall under?  

Well, if it ever makes the hallowed pages of (my favourite book lovers resource), I imagine it will be listed in the Literary/Contemporary category. I imagine that a lot!

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition? 

My favourite question – this has kept me awake for nights thinking about it! First off I have to say that getting the accent right would be crucial, as listening to actors deliver bad Nrothern Irish accents on screen is like a fork scraping up a plate. Most of the actors I’ve chosen, however, won’t have a problem at all.

There would need to be several Elizabeths as we meet her at various ages of her life. But the main Elizabeth, Elizabeth as a young woman, would have to be played by Saoirse Ronan. At almost 19 she’s a tad too young, but could act up a few years no problem. Teenage Elizabeth would definitely be played by Aimee Richardson, a young actress from Northern Ireland who plays Princess Myrcella in HBO’s Game of Thrones. (Of course the fact that Aimee just happens to be my daughter bears no relevance here whatsoever! A mere coincidence. Honest!)myrcella-baratheon-1024




I’m afraid I’m borrowing from the cast of Game of Thrones again for Elizabeth’s brother, Jamie – though this time with no ulterior motive! Jamie also makes several appearances at various ages, but adult Jamie would have to be the gorgeous Kit Harrington who plays Jon Snow in Thrones, and younger Jamie none other than the exceptionally talented Isaac Hempstead-Wright who plays Jon Snow’s young brother, Bran Stark, in the show.

The beautiful Orla Brady would do a grand job as Elizabeth’s neurotic mother, Sara. My one big indulgence (okay, second, I get that casting my own child is indulgent) has to be Rob Lowe – who would be just unbelievably, deliciously perfect for Elizabeth’s darling, doting dad, Joe. He’s the only one who may struggle with the accent though, so I’d be happy to give him some private tuition, if I had to!






5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?  

As she lies in a coma, struggling to choose between life or death, Elizabeth Rose’s younger self takes her on a journey of her life, unravelling a shocking family secret which will influence her ultimate decision.

Ugh, awful sentence. Too long. Honestly, it’s better than that!

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency? 

I dearly hope that my agent, Susan Feldstein, will still be speaking to me by the time I finish it, as my tardiness must be driving her mad. If she is, and she likes it, and still wants to represent me, then I sincerely hope it will be second time lucky for both of us.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript? 

Ask me that question again in a year’s time! (Code for I haven’t actually finished it yet. But I will. This year. You have my permission to punch me if I don’t – if my husband doesn’t get there first. That sounded so, so wrong, didn’t it?)

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre? 

Well I’m obviously aware that the book will automatically be compared to other ‘coma’ books such as Broken by Daniel Clay, Maggie O’Farrell’s After You’d Gone, The Ninth Life of Louis Drax, by Liz Jensen, and, most recently, Oh Dear Sylvia by Dawn French. The latter is the only one I haven’t read but I hugely enjoyed all of the others. I’d read Broken and The Ninth Life of Louis Drax many years before starting to write Elizabeth, but made the mistake of reading After You’d Gone some months into the process. I say mistake because it floored me. It was so utterly brilliant, so beautifully crafted and so, well, so very much like my own roughly sketched out plot: a young woman who has lost someone she loves lies in a coma, the result of a car accident which may have been an attempt to end her own life; a deeply buried family secret which is gradually revealed; the reader made privy to fragments of memories and episodes from her past. I was stunned, and put Elizabeth away for a long time after that. After all, what was the point? I wouldn’t want to be branded a copy cat, and anyway, I could never tell Elizabeth’s story the way O’Farrell told Alice’s. But of course Elizabeth coaxed me back, and if her story ever does make it into print I imagine I’ll have to prepare myself for a hurl of abuse from O’Farrell fans.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

Well obviously the aforementioned wall; but receiving a grant from The Arts Council of Northern Ireland to pen my second novel was what really inspired me to start writing again following the collapse of a publishing deal for my first book. And other people who believed in my ability to write: Susan, my agent, John, my husband and a couple of good friends who had read my first manuscript.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Let’s see, Elizabeth likes to change her name a lot. Does that sound interesting? There are more derivatives of Elizabeth than any other female name, you see, which enables her to flit from being Lizzie to Betty to Eliza and so forth with remarkable frivolity. That’s why her mother named her Elizabeth in the first place: to give her possibilities. She’s also blessed with an incredible singing voice; despite the fact the rest of her family can’t sing a note. Other characters of interest include her adored brother, his easy going American boyfriend, her beautiful but always anxious mother, and her best friend, Deidra Florence Frances Conroy, otherwise known as Dee. Oh, and it’s quite dark: there’s a fair bit of death as well as depression, terminal illness and alcoholism. Plus a very unusual crime is committed. But there are a few laughs too – I promise!

That’s it from me folks – I’m now tagging four other brilliant Next Big Thing writers who will answer the ten set questions next week on 6th February. So get hopping Natasha Geary, Laurence Donaghy, Alana Agerbo and Valerie Francis – you’re ‘it’!

Natasha Geary is a script editor from Hillsborough, County Down,  ‘What You Don’t Know Won’t Hurt‘ is her first full length novel.  Represented by Caroline Hardman from the Hardman and Swainson Literary Agency in London, she hopes to find a publisher in 2013, meanwhile she is mustering the energy to start on her second novel, ‘Julia Price’. Natasha tweets and is on facebook too and you can browse her website here.

Laurence Donaghy is a writer slash civil servant, which isn’t nearly as violent as it sounds. He’s written two ebooks published by Last Passage, Folk’d and Folk’d Up Beyond All Recognition, about scary faeries in modern-day Belfast. He suspects this is somewhat of a niche market. The third and final book, Completely Folk’d, will be out in 2013, and a short story collection may follow. Laurence blogs here, and tweets here, and you can view his agent, Last Passage, here.

Alana Agerbo lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada. She began her blog in March of last year in an attempt to pin down the words skittering through her mind and it has inspired her to write on an almost daily basis. She has a dusty old manuscript lying in drawer, complete with more than a few letters of rejection. She is hopeful to see her work on a shelf one day, not a speck of dust to be found. Alana has had some works published on which can be found here.  She blogs brilliantly here and here, tweets here and is on facebook too. 

Valerie Francis is another Canadian writer, this time from St. John’s, Newfoundland, and is currently working on a fantasy novel for young adults.  Valerie began writing short stories and poems as a child and completed her first book at the age of seven.  After fifteen-year career as a business and political writer Valerie returned to her first love, children’s literature in 2008.  You can follow her online through her fabulous blog and on twitter.

Good luck guys, looking forward to reading your answers.





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Back at the Bus Stop with my Best Books of 2012

I’m hiding behind my metaphorical bus stop as I write this, peeking, hesitantly, around the corner; partly to shelter from the sod awful weather we’re having here (it’s been raining or sleeting or snowing around the clock for the past two weeks) and partly to hide my shame  and guilt. As some of you lovely fully clothed people who read my blog have noticed (thanks for the pokes, prods and gentle cajoles), I’ve been awol for a while, and my lack of activity has been depressing me as much as the weather. But, just like the rain, I seemed to be stuck in a pattern I couldn’t shift. I have had several words with myself, believe me, but no matter how cross I got, the urge to write just wouldn’t come.  So today, in sheer desperation, I turned to a higher authority.

Forgive me Blog God, I whimpered, head down, eyes fixed on my equally neglected toe nails, it’s been three months since my last post. Get outa here Missy, he snarled (in wild-west cowboy drawl, no idea why). Go write two posts – at least – in the next three weeks and delete all a yer 8,500 spam comments. That’ll teach ya. An while yer at it, get goin’ ag’in on that novel yer a ‘spose a be writin’. (He spits out a piece of chewed tobacco here!) What are ya anyways, a proper, practicin’,  true-blooded writer, or one a those pretendy folks a jus plays a bein’ one ?

Okay, I need to stop this now before it gets out of hand and my fantasy Blog God takes over the entire post. I might come back to him sometime though. I kind of like him.

So, to cut to the chase, after my hiatus, I’m back, and I’m waving, albeit slightly sheepishly. I never even said Merry Christmas, or wished you a Happy New Year, or asked if you managed to escape the flu/norovirus/crap-present-return-itis. It was very rude of me, and I’m sorry, and I truly hope you weren’t troubled by any of these seasonal afflictions. I, thankfully, escaped them all.

I should have lied there; should have said that, actually, I had them all, back to back, inside out and round the clock. That could have been my excuse. The truth is, that whilst I haven’t been ill, or lost days queuing to return unwanted gifts, I have had to tackle a couple of unexpected curveballs of late. A decade ago, if you’d asked me to write down some challenges I might expect to face in the coming years as a wife/mother/daughter/sister/friend/working person/aspiring writer,  I’m pretty sure that the recent  complicated situations I’ve had to deal with wouldn’t have made the list. Not even the longlist. I’m not going to go into the details as, A, it’s genuinely too personal, and, B, it would bore the pants of you if you’re wearing any; suffice to say that recent events have affected my ability to write. So blogging was tossed out the window and my novel was stuffed under a carpet. Thankfully I didn’t flush either of them down the toilet – that would have been catastrophic.

But whilst I couldn’t write, I could still read, thank God, and as it has been my whole life through, books kept me sane. At several points in December I did start a blog post about my books of the year, but never seemed to have the time or energy to finish it. So, before the first month of 2013 slides away, I reckon it isn’t too late just yet! I read many, many books last year, some brilliant, some good, some so-so, and one or two real hum-dingers. Below are my favourites, all of which I highly recommend. I’m not reviewing them as such: there’s little or no detail of plot, characterisation or narrative structure – just a note or two on why they touched me.



Solace by Belinda McKeon

I read this multi-award winning debut during a writing retreat to the fabulous Tyrone Guthrie Centre in County Monaghan last February, and felt an instant connection with McKeon when I realised she’d written part of it there. As I commented in a previous post, this is an intensely emotional, yet sparingly unsentimental work of art. Genius in the making, I’d say, and I can’t wait to read more from McKeon. I like her name too! Belinda: springy, bright and individual.


This is How it Ends by Kathleen MacMahon

Oh, I just loved this. A gorgeously written, quirky, tear-jerker of a love story. The characters voices were so real, so clear, I swear at times I was hiding round a corner, eavesdropping on their actual conversations. I was lost. And I had major writing envy. McaMahon’s style is utterly effortless. I heard Kathleen read from her book at a local literary festival and was heartened to discover that her first novel, though greeted with enthusiasm from the publishing world, never actually secured a deal. This one netted her a mere €684,000. Yes, you did read that correctly. So I started to think that maybe, perhaps, just possibly, with a following wind, the same thing could happen to me with my second attempt. Of course I’d need to finish the bloody book first. Just a small hurdle!



Folk’d by Laurence Donaghy

I downloaded Folk’d, the first book in a Science Fiction trilogy, after meeting Laurence on twitter. To tell the truth, even though I thought he was a good bloke, I wasn’t desperate to read it. Sci-Fi is not my thing, and up until that point I’d stubbornly refused to use the Kindle app on my ipad. But Danny Morrigan, Donaghy’s mishap of a hero, quickly drew me in, and before I knew it I was hooked. The book is a rollercoaster ride of madness, mayhem and surreal plot twists. But despite all the chaos, you buy into Danny’s bewildering predicament pretty quickly, and what on the surface seems ludicrously impossible suddenly becomes positively plausible. And that is the strength of Donaghy’s storytelling. It will have you roaring with laughter and reading into the wee small hours, annoying the person you share a bed with who’ll just want you to hurry up and finish the thing so they can get their hands on it! The second book in the trilogy, Folk’d Up Beyond All Recognition was released in December and is high up on my To Read list for 2013.

Poets are Eaten as a Delicacy in Japan by Tara West

I have to confess here that I know Tara. She’s a fellow Feldstein Agency author and I’ve been lucky enough to share a stage with her at a couple of literary events. I’ve always been a bit in awe of Tara as her first book, Fodder, blew me away with its honest and graphic Belfast street humour. I could have been nervous about starting Poets, as reading the work of a friend can be daunting: what if you hate it? But as I’d heard her read some extracts before she secured her e-deal with Untreed Reads, I already knew I was in for a treat. Achingly funny in places, the humour is almost Python-esqe in its brilliance.  With a cast of deliciously crazy characters, poignant doses of pathos, and the tickle of mystery which trickles through the narrative, this is a dazzling second book from Tara, and, quite simply, a must-read! If you don’t fancy the kindle edition, don’t fret – it will be published by Liberties Press this autumn. Hurrah!



The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling

I’m a huge JK fan. Not necessarily of her writing – at least not before I read this – but of what she did for reading. Millions of kids throughout the world fell in love with stories thanks to Ms Rowling and her Harry Potter books; kids who would most likely never have considered reading as a form of entertainment if Harry hadn’t come along. I have to confess, though, that I didn’t really read the books. I dipped in an out of them as my daughter read, then re-read every one; then read them all again. And whilst I loved the expanse of Rowling’s imagination and her radiant creativity, I wasn’t that keen on the writing. I honestly didn’t think I’d bother to read Vacancy when my husband (who did read all the Potter books and loved them) bought it to take away on a business trip. But one evening when I finished a book and, unusually, didn’t have a pile of reads-in-waiting stacked up on my bedside table, I picked it up more in desperation than anything else. I really can’t do the book justice in this brief little commentary; suffice to say that, much to his annoyance, my husband didn’t get to take it on his business trip!

The Meeting Point by Lucy Caldwell

I knew of Lucy Caldwell as she’s a successful and award winning playwright and novelist who hails from Belfast, but I’m a tad ashamed to admit that until recently, I’d never read her work. Lucy contacted me a couple of months ago after reading my last post, Deal Then no Deal, to offer some words of encouragement. I was so flattered that such an accomplished author would take the time to, A, read my blog and, B, make personal contact with me, that I cried when I read her email – proper snivelley, sobbing tears. I immediately ordered one of her books, of course: The Meeting Point, her most recent publication. I had the nervous niggle thing – what if I didn’t like it? Not because I actually knew Lucy, but because she’d been nice to me! But I needn’t have worried; The Meeting Point turned out to be compelling – a proper page turner. Beautifully written, it simmered with tension, desire, betrayal, doubt and passion. It was the last book I read in 2012, and one of the very best.  Lucy’s latest book, All The Beggars Riding, will be published in a couple of weeks by Faber & Faber (February 7th, to be precise) – and mine’s on pre-order!



It was a toss-up between several of the above, but for surprising me, for making me laugh, cry, gasp, swear out loud using the C word, and generally consuming my mind with a world that wasn’t my own during a truly shitty time, it has to be The Casual Vacancy.


So, there you have it, my best books of last year. I hope that one or two tickle your fancy and that you’ll tell me about your own favourite reads of 2012.

As for me, I’m blowing the leaves off my blog and the dust off my own novel, and I’m back at my bus stop again. I’m cautiously hopeful about the journey ahead, excited even. Who knows, I may even put on a raincoat.

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From elation to despair – how I reacted to The Call and The Other Call

Last week I went to see two emerging Irish writers read from their work at Aspects Literary Festival, one of Ireland’s foremost literature events, which just happens to take place in my home town of Bangor, County Down.  The writers, Kevin Barry and Kathleen MacMahon, kicked off the five day festival with their sell out event, Dazzling Debuts. Barry’s debut novel, City of Bohane, was shortlisted for the Costa first novel award last year, and earlier this year he won the Sunday Times short story award.

But in truth it was Kathleen MacMahon I went to see; the woman who last year landed one of the biggest publishing deals in recent years when her debut novel, This is How it Ends, was bought at the 2011 London Book Fair by Little, Brown. A gorgeous book, exquisitely written, it is smooth and bumpy, funny and thought provoking, uplifting and, ultimately, heartbreaking, each character perfectly crafted and vividly voiced.

During the Q&A session after the readings, MacMahon admitted that it was, in fact, the second novel she had written. The first secured her an agent, but no publishing deal. My ears pricked up. She had come close to a deal, she revealed, but then it didn’t happen. A near miss, she said. Were you devastated, someone asked? Not a bit, she smiled, I was relieved. I nearly fell off my chair. Relieved? Relieved? Did she really, truthfully say that? My companion (Natasha Geary @scriptsmart, another talented writer who’s on the verge of landing a debut deal herself) nodded. Apparently she had.

I didn’t feel any sense of relief when it happened to me. Not a morsel of it. I was devastated. Unequivocally, absolutely and, I can see now, somewhat absurdly.

Since I launched this blog back in May, my ‘deal and then no deal’ story has been hanging over me like a bad smell, poking at my shoulder, lingering like one of those irritating colds that never really comes to anything but won’t go away. I knew I’d have to address it sometime. I couldn’t admit to the whole naked feeling thing and then not tell the tale of the day my clothes fell off.

It was four years ago, almost exactly. My novel, Biddy Weirdo, had been submitted for publication by my agent. Initial responses were positive; a few rejections tinged with regret that, for whatever reason, they couldn’t or wouldn’t make a bid, mostly because they didn’t know where to place it. It was obvious pretty quickly that my book was difficult to position; for some it was too adult for their YA list, for others too YA for their adult list. A couple of publishers were properly keen, but my novel clashed with a recent acquisition or another book on their list.  A couple of others made notes of interest, which eventually came to nothing. At least we weren’t getting ‘sorry, but this is shit,’ replies, or ‘tell Ms Richardson to go work in a butcher’s as she seems to be at home with tripe’. It will happen, my agent reassured me. We’re close.

At the same time, my husband’s non-fiction book was also in submission. His had been doing the rounds a bit longer than mine and had also come frustratingly close to getting a deal on a couple of occasions only for his hopes to be crushed. We were beginning to lose faith that either one would ever make it onto a book shelf. Then, out of the blue, one sunny autumn morning in 2008, John got The Call. We whooped and rejoiced, and hand on heart I was thrilled for him. I can genuinely say I never thought, you jammy bastard, not even fleetingly! Then, a few hours later, just as the champagne was chilling in the fridge, I got The Call too. I was sorting socks at the time. When Susan said the words, those words that every writer longs to hear, I cried so much my terrified daughter ran for her dad gasping, something’s wrong with mum. And then, of course, we were all crying, hugging, whooping and toasting an incredible day. It was one of those rare, serendipitous moments of total symmetry and unabated joy.  The kind of thing you read about in soppy, romantic novels. The twist at the end of a Nora Ephron Rom Com. We were writing our very own happy ending.

The next few weeks were spent in a flurry of exciting activity, agreeing terms, fine tuning contracts, getting our heads around the fact that we were both going to be published at the same time. John had already published a successful business book a couple of years previously, so his elation didn’t quite meet the heady heights of mine, and in truth he was probably more excited for me than for himself. After all, this was my game changer. From now on I would be known as Lesley Richardson, published author. Not a copywriter, but a novelist. A proper writer. I’d been given the validation I had craved and my life was about to change forever. I wouldn’t be able to quit my bread and butter copywriting work immediately, of course, wave ta-ra to my clients overnight. As both our deals were with small independent publishing companies, the advances were extremely modest. But that was fine. It would take time to mould, this new life of mine, a while for everything to shift into place. Publication was set for the following spring; hardback first, followed by paperback release a few months later. All I had to do now was sign the contract, and while we waited on that, I carried on with everyday life, a few feet taller in a haze of happy mist.

I was doing the weekly shop in Tesco when The Other Call came. Standing at the fish section, a packet of cut price smoked salmon in my hand. Should I or should I not add it to the trolley? It would do grand for scrambled egg brunch on Sunday. Then again, what if it was stinking? My mobile rang and I tossed the salmon into the trolley and pulled the phone out of my bag. Susan, my agent. It isn’t everyone’s call I will accept whilst grocery shopping, for fear that chatting will prolong the agony, but Susan has instant access, wherever, whenever. Of course I knew at once, just the way she said my name; the grimace over the ‘Les’, the extension of the ‘ley’. Lezleeeeeee. I looked at the salmon and immediately knew I didn’t want it.

It wasn’t me, they said, it was the climate. The downturn had changed everything. They were experiencing problems. They couldn’t commit after all. Sorry.  The crash had turned into a pile up and I was one of the victims. Granted, compared to thousands of others I walked away relatively unscathed; just a fractured dream, a badly bruised ego, and a few bottles of champagne I felt obliged to return along with the congratulations cards. I hadn’t actually signed yet, so the book was still mine. Apparently I was lucky. Only I didn’t feel lucky. The lucky I had felt for three short weeks stuck two fingers up my nose, shoved them straight through my eye sockets, and laughed in my face. Only joking you stupid twit, it roared. When I started this blog I promised myself that I would be completely and utterly honest, always, no matter what, regardless of how stark raving naked that honesty made me feel.  So here you have it – when my book deal fell though I was devastated, mentally and physically shattered, literally poleaxed with grief. Now, I’m fully aware how ridiculously ridiculous that sounds, it was only a book deal, after all, but honestly my heart was broken. I felt as though I’d been jilted at the altar. Actually, I felt bereaved.

And then I really was bereaved. Not long afterwards a dear friend lost her battle with cancer. Within weeks my dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer and, after a horrendous few months, he too lost his fight. And shortly before his death a cousin, a beautiful, vibrant girl who had just turned 40 also lost her life. Cancer, again. All I’d lost was a bloody book deal.

I did get over myself, pretty quickly once I proper heartbreak to deal with, but my confidence was wrecked and my ability to write seemed paralysed. A combination of all the real grief coupled with some other personal garbage (a hysterectomy, the betrayal of a friend) stifled me. My agent continued to send Biddy out to publishers, but in truth I think we both felt like it was damaged goods. She encouraged me to write something new, and I tried, I really did, but each time I came up with a new idea for a novel the story sank like a brick, or stank like a stink bomb. I have several drafts of stories begun and discarded, sometimes after a few hundred words, sometimes thousands. Then one day I realised that they all had one thing in common: a central character named Elizabeth. Suddenly I saw a possibility, and The possibilities of Elizabeth was born. Now all I have to do is finish the damn thing.

My reaction to the failure of my first novel to make it into a book shop was the polar opposite of Kathleen MacMahon’s. Hers was relief, mine distress.  She was energised, I was dejected. She wrote, I didn’t. Kathleen MacMahon is the one who now has a bestselling novel with a £600,000 two book deal. I don’t. Simples, as that furry little meerkat fellow would say. As I sat in that room listening to Kathleen read with her glorious Irish lilt, I felt like such a fool.  I’m not saying that I’d be in Kathleen’s very expensive shoes right now, but if I’d only adopted an iota of her drive and committed properly to The Possibilities of Elizabeth, I might just be wearing one of her pop socks. So, I’ll say it again, now I just need to finish the damn thing, and, well, you never know.

And by the way, my husband’s book did make it into print, was quite a hit, and still sells very well. Bastard! ;-)

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A Personal Tribute To The Last Name On The List

How a 9:11 victim helped me find my voice

I know, I know, I’ve been a naughty girl. I haven’t been blogging. I haven’t even been writing, well, apart from work writing which categorically doesn’t count.

I’ve been a tad distracted, you see. The work thing (a tricky, time consuming project). Family stuff. Stuff stuff. Frankly, I’ve lost my mojo and for a while there I couldn’t even be bothered to look for it. Then yesterday the date gripped me by the throat and started to choke me. The eleventh of September. 9:11. A momentous date for the world and a personally significant one for me too. On 11th September 2002 I started to write. Well, write for myself. I’d been writing for years for other people: first teachers, then lecturers, then clients. But on that day, like a nervous little kitten, I attended my first creative writing class. I loved it. The exercises we were given during the session were challenging, fun and invigorating. This is grand, I thought, I can do this.

But then we were given homework and I thought, okay, maybe I can’t.

We had to write a letter. It could be to anyone, about anything. Great, I thought. Brilliant. Excellent guidelines. Not. There was a brief discussion amongst the group about who they might write to and the general consensus was a family member or a close friend. But that didn’t sit well with me. I couldn’t choose one over another to write to, and anyway, what would I say? I cringed with embarrassment at the very thought of exposing anything remotely resembling an honest emotion.

I returned home confused. I’d enjoyed the session, tremendously, but I didn’t see how I could possibly complete the assignment. And if I couldn’t do it, then, obviously I couldn’t go back. Stupid idea anyway, this notion of writing ‘creatively’. Stick to what you know. Concentrate on focusing on your clients voices and forget about trying to find your own.

I switched the television on and started to watch the memorial service for the first anniversary of 9:11, and my tears soon washed away my selfish frustrations. Of all the names I heard that day, one stuck with me and has been with me ever since. Igor Zukelman, the last name on the list. I didn’t get his name right to begin with, but I know it now. I wrote my letter to Igor, and went back to class the following week, and the rest is my own little personal history.

So thank you, Mr Zukelman, for helping me to find my voice – both then, and now. It’s a little stronger these days than that shaky, innocent, indulgent tone of a decade ago, and I’m still learning how to use it. If I’d written this letter yesterday the structure might be better, the words more carefully arranged; but the sentiment would remain exactly the same.


A Letter to Igor


September 15 2002

Dear Igor Zuckerman

Please excuse me if I haven’t quite got your name right. It’s been running around in my head for the past few days, haunting me almost, but I’m not quite sure if it’s Zuckerman or Ziberman. Or maybe it’s Zuckleman. I do remember though, quite clearly, that your surname began with a Z. Apart from that I know nothing at all about you; except that you lost your life a year ago, on September 11 2001. You see yours was the very last name on the list of almost 3,000 people who died with you on that beautiful sunny morning to be read out at the memorial service on Wednesday. I didn’t hear all of the names, but of those I did catch, yours has particularly affected me; probably because it took over two and a half hours to get to you. Two and a half hours of dead people. Two and a half hours before your friends and family heard someone they probably didn’t know confirm to the world that you were gone.

I’ve been wondering how you died, Igor. I know it sounds morbid, but since I heard your name, the last name, I’ve become somewhat obsessed by your death. Were you in one of the towers, or on a plane or at the Pentagon? If you were in a tower, which one was it? What floor were you on? Why were you there? Were you a businessman, a janitor, a tourist, a fireman? Did you go there every day, or was there a special reason for your visit that morning? Did you know what was happening? Did you realise that you weren’t going to get out, or were you confident that you would? Did you manage, like hundreds of others, to make contact with your loved ones? Did your death come in a lift, on the stairwell, by your desk? Or did you jump?

Perhaps you were a passenger on one of the planes. That bothers me even more, Igor. Everyone has their own personal horror of that day – a moment, a memory, a story, a name, an image that will haunt them forever and flash before them for years to come when they think about that date. 9:11, a date which started off as a normal day and ended as one the world will never forget, embedded forever in history. My demon, the one that still visits me every time I see a jumbo jet soaring high above in a clear blue sky, is the image of the planes crashing into the towers. As a nervous flyer, the thought of the innocent people on all four of the planes involved in the attacks will distress me for the rest of my life. And, as a mother, the fact that there were children on board some of the flights has made me howl with rage.

But I’ve also been thinking about your life, Igor. What age were you? Where did you come from? Where did you live? Did you have a wife, a girlfriend, a boyfriend, a dog? Were you a father? A brother? An uncle? What were your passions? Your favourite film? Your favourite food? Was there a book you re-read time and time again? Were you a sportsman, Igor, or an artist; or both? Did you like to cook? Sing? Dance? Run? Were you smiling on your way to wherever you were going that morning, happy to be doing whatever you were doing? Did you look up at the deep blue sky and feel glad to be alive on such a beautiful autumn day?  

And your family, Igor. Your family. I’ve been thinking about them too. Did they walk the streets of Manhattan for days with your photograph? Did they get to bury your body? How long did they have to wait before they knew you were never coming home? And how are they now; one shockingly short but painfully long year on? 

I’ve been wondering what you would have made of your death, of all the deaths, and the aftermath of that catastrophic and grotesquely historic couple of hours. I come from a place that has been tarnished by terrorism for over 30 years. My country has lived with death, hatred and evil for almost as long as I can remember, and many of the atrocities we have witnessed have left wounds that for some will never heal. Perhaps the saddest thing that I have learnt from living here is that hate breeds hate, ignorance breeds intolerance and, for those who are locked in their insular beliefs, forgiveness is not an option.

Some people here have been cross at the exposure of 9:11 and many didn’t want to be reminded about it last week when most of the world mourned the first anniversary. ‘What about our dead?’ they shouted. ‘What about us?’ But they’re so wrapped up in their own self pity that they’re missing the point: the dead of 9:11 are our dead. This wasn’t just an attack on the USA; it wasn’t only meant to harm Americans, rock the US administration, threaten the land of the free. It was a message to the world. It was meant to hurt us all. It was the most obvious and orchestrated single act of terrorism the human race has ever witnessed; because that is exactly what happened – the world witnessed it, with bewildered and disbelieving horror.  

But perhaps that same world can turn it around, recycle the shock and fear and grief and anger to produce a global climate of trust, friendship, tolerance and respect. Wouldn’t it be great if, after that cataclysmic day, the world had said ‘stop’, ‘enough’, ‘no more’? If the terrorists themselves had become the terrified, frightened that their ultimate objective had failed? If people who hate had started to love and blame became forgiveness, and intolerance became compassion? Do you think that’s possible, Igor, my fantasy vision of a fairy tale future? It certainly doesn’t look like it right now. War is a frightening possibility, looming closer every day, and world peace seems further away than ever. I don’t know what our future holds, Igor, but I do know it’s different than the one that was lining up for us on the morning last September when you made your way towards your death under a bright blue sky.

I plan to visit New York for the second time next summer. On my first trip to the city, almost four years ago, my favourite place, the only ‘tourist attraction’ I went to twice, was the World Trade Centre. I had lunch in Windows on the World and it was honestly one of those rare ‘wow’ moments that stay with you forever. I vividly remember looking out at the myriad of buildings and bridges across Manhattan thinking: ‘it’s a Saturday afternoon and I’m here in New York drinking wine and having the time of my life.’ I literally felt on top of the world. There was something surreal and altogether magical about being there, and after that trip I always told friends who were visiting the city to go to Windows. It was my number one tip.

When I return, I will go to Ground Zero, and pay my respects to everyone who died. And I’ll whisper your name Igor, and hope the wind will carry my blessing to you.

Wherever you are now, I hope you are at peace.

Lesley Richardson.


I subsequently discovered that Igor Zukelman was just 29 when he died in the South Tower on September 11 2001. He was born in the Ukraine in 1972 and immigrated to the US in 1992 to make a better life for himself, finally becoming an American citizen just a few months before his death. Igor worked as a computer analyst for the Fiduciary Trust Company, on the 97th floor of 2 World Trade Center. He was married with a three year old son.

I have returned to New York twice in the intervening years and on both occasions went to Ground Zero to whisper Igor’s name – say to him; ‘I’m sorry, Igor, but the world is not a better place. There was a war. There is still a war. There will always be a war. Somewhere.’

Igor Zukelman. 25/06/72 – 11/09/01




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