Viva Alice and the Karate Kid at the West Cork Literary Festival

July 13, 2014

          We hear a lot about the importance of living a balanced life.       

          I like the sound of that but it is way too hard for me.

          Any success I’ve managed to achieve has always followed an intense period of  extremely unbalanced living. Take nailing down the first draft of a novel. I run as fast as I can with a great big baying wolf nipping at my heels until I fling all my weight against a wooden door hoping like hell that I will crash through to other side. In the meantime other writers stroll up to the door, open it by turning the handle, and step politely over my bruised body.

          My first drafts don’t come with door handles. Only brute force will do. For me, the process of writing a first draft is the same as that Big Push study month before the Leaving Cert or college finals or any other important exams except you’re making up an entirely new subject as you go along. I’ve been off the radar for a while holed up in West Cork, writing the first draft of an adult novel. The working title changes on a regular basis. This week I think I’m calling it My Fractured Family in Law. It’s about two New York families. The father in one family arrives home from work to find that he’s barred by a court order from entering his own apartment building. The book is written from the point of view of the second family, the work family, the team of lawyers that take on the father’s case. It’s kind of a legal thriller for women. It’s the ‘thrill’ part that I’m finding most challenging. So far it’s a pretty dark book but it has a lot of humour in it.

          I like writing humour. I first read the fantastically funny Pride and Prejudice when I was twelve. Jane Austen gave Mr. Bennett the line that became a tenet of my life philosophy:

          “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?’

          The second tenet I also picked up when I was twelve. This one came from the mouth of Mr. Miyagi in the Karake Kid and it was about the importance of having a balanced mind. Hmm, that’s a bit disturbing because I’ve just Googled to find the exact quote and apparently Mr. Miyagi actually said, “Whole life have a balance, everything be better.’ Right, so my second life tenet is based on my mishearing Mr. Miyagi. It was difficult to understand him. I couldn’t be bothered to change philosophies now. Humour and balanced mind it is.

          The problem with the Big Push first draft method is that sooner or later, your mind is going to start to slide off balance. I mean, you go a little bonkers. That’s where anchors come in. They are lots of different kinds of anchor you can use to rein your brain in. Animals are a strong one for me.

          I was waiting at the local vet’s in Skibbereen with my dog last week when I fell into conversation with a woman shepherding a dog the size of a small pony.

          ‘What’s the matter with your dog?’ I asked.

          ‘She’s grown an extra pair,’ replied the woman.

          ‘Excuse me?’ I said.

          ‘Suddenly, practically overnight, she grew an extra pair of teats. Here, have a look. The vet is going to snip them off.’

           ‘God, I hope that doesn’t happen to me.’ I said, and we had a good laugh.

          I’m definitely storing up the episode to throw into an Evie Brooks book. I can totally picture Evie’s veterinary uncle Scott handling that one with some choice remarks.

          The woman and I continued to chat and eventually, I walked out of the vet’s office not just with a chapter of a future book but also with a new friend and a little, part-time job. What freakishly good luck! I drove straight to the post office where I was involved in a minor collision. That’s the thing about luck; it has the unattractive habit of dipping in and out. It’s like a flaky boyfriend.

          Still, I am loving my new job. It’s exactly what I need to pull back my over-engaged mind.  It’s at a small, mountain farm and stables overlooking Baltimore Harbour. The farm is like something straight out of a storybook …if the book was written by Neil Gaiman.  We’ve got horses, a gaggle of very noisy geese (why are geese so damn scary?), Lulu, a black saddleback pig the size of a hatchback car who enjoys apples and having her back scratched, four dogs and some hens. I’m not putting down an exact number for the hens because two foxes are currently engaged in local population control. My job is to groom and ride the horses and help out with the other animals. I love the smell and feel of horses. I understand why equine therapy is so successful. Horses soothe my over-engaged mind. I can almost feel it slip back into balance.

          If all else fails, I can usually count on reading to drive my brain back into sync. But I didn’t make an ideal reading choice last week. Don’t get me wrong. The book is fantastic. It’s the brilliantly written biography of a British maths prodigy named Simon Norton who went from being the genius most likely to radically change the field of group theory to a middle-aged man living in a basement on tins of sardines, consumed with collecting and memorizing bus time-tables.  The book is a fascinating read, and the author does an amazing job of explaining the maths. You should definitely buy it. It’s called ‘Simon, the Genius in my Basement’ and it’s written by another genius, Alexander Masters. But Simon didn’t help me rein in my flailing mind. Quite the reverse.

          A friend stepped into the breach. Sarah Webb, mega-author and the Frank Capra of the Irish book world, took me on a joyride to the West Cork Literary festival.

          First up was Judi Curtin, one of the top Irish children’s authors.  On September 1st, my second book will be published. Around the same time, Judi’s twenty-first book, Viva Alice, will be published. Yep, twenty-one published books. I know lots of people who haven’t even read 21 books. I’ve been hearing about Judi for a long time. Everyone says how great she is. Almost every time I went to a book store to do a reading, the manager would sigh wistfully and say,

          ‘Judi Curtin did an event here. She was GREAT.  A very tough act to follow. Yes, actually an impossible act to follow. Judi’s a real pro. Look, don’t worry, just try do the best you can.’ 

          After quite a bit of this, I started half-hoping that Judi Curtin would maybe develop a minor drinking problem or at least be more considerate and stop going around being so great all the time. And then I met Judi and she was … GREAT and super kind to a rookie like me.  I understand why her fans adore her. I want to read the whole Alice and Megan series before the latest one, Viva Alice, comes out.

          We rounded off the day with going to hear the American author, Karen Joy Fowler, probably best known for her novel, The Jane Austen Book Club.  This year she won the PEN/Faulkner Award for her new novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. The book was inspired by the Kellogg experiment in the 1930s.  The Kellogs, a pair of scientists brought home a baby chimp and raised her as though she were a human child alongside their own infant son Donald. They wanted to see if the chimp would start to adopt human behaviour. The experiment came to an end when Donald started to imitate chimp behaviour.  I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who has a gripe about their parents. It might offer some perspective. Donald committed suicide when he was forty-one. The author told us that she received a letter from his sister telling her that the experiment had destroyed their family.

          It was very interesting and inspiring to listen to Karen Joy Fowler, a very smart and witty writer. She was just one of very many amazing authors that I got to meet at the festival.  Much thanks to the organizers for doing such a wonderful job.

          With my brain back in something resembling balance, I’m ready to tackle the third act of my draft and crash through that door. 

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