Generation by Paula McGrath

Congratulations to my sister, Paula McGrath, on the publication of her debut novel, Generation, published by JM Originals.

I’ve had the privilege of reading raw first drafts of most of these stories some time ago and watched them slowly evolve into the beautiful novel that was launched last week in the Gutter Bookshop in Cow’s Lane, Dublin.

Generation is a short novel that contains a huge amount, taking place over eighty years, three continents and three generations.

At its heart is Áine, a recently divorced woman in her thirties who wants some kind of escape from her life in Ireland: from her ex-husband and his pregnant girlfriend, her mundane job and unexciting love life. So she goes to stay for a few weeks on an organic farm near Chicago, with her six-year-old daughter Daisy. The trip doesn’t turn out as she imagined it would, and that summer will have unforeseeable consequences for everyone involved.

Ambitious and gripping, Generation moves effortlessly from the smallest of details to the largest of canvases, as the repercussions of the decisions taken by parents play out in the lives of their children for years to come.

Source: hodder.co.uk

This is a book that leaves you reflecting about many of the peripheral characters. I have a soft spot for Carlos, and for Yehudit. And the first chapter about the Irish miner going to Canada still gives me a lump in my throat no matter how many times I read it.

It was exciting to be in Dublin on publication day. We managed to drop into a few bookshops to see if we could spot it in the wild fending for itself. We found it first in Hodges Figgis: Here’s Paula looking slightly embarrassed at the paparazzi who followed her in.

Launched by Lia Mills, who had nothing but nice things to say, and Tom Morris from The Stinging Fly was there to say a few words on behalf of editor Mark Richards.

Lia Mills
 

And the reviews are coming in and saying all the nicest things. Christina Patterson from The Sunday Times says ‘The voices are beautifully woven together, and the prose has a weight and resonance way beyond the book’s slender length’ and compares the prose to Raymond Carver’s which is something to cut out and pin over the writing desk.

The structure of this novel is what makes it unique in my opinion. Jane Housham of The Guardian sums this up nicely:

‘It’s as if McGrath has spun her novel in a centrifuge, separating out the narrative elements and shearing off any remaining scraps of padding. What’s left is a sequence of verbal portraits, a clutch of individuals drawn to America over several decades, some of them Irish like the novelist herself, some from other diasporas. At first these characters seem disparate, unconnected, but gradually threads of attachment are strung between them, ultimately binding them into a coherent whole.’

Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

I listened to To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman back to back this week.

 
Mockingbird was a delight to experience again after all these years. Having discovered, and accepted, that Watchman is neither a prequel nor a sequel (It’s the first draft of the same novel – a draft that was rejected) I relaxed into Reese Witherspoon’s southern accent and tried to enjoy it for what it was.
 
Watchman is a bit weak on story. I found it preachy and annoying towards the end where the perspicacious author’s voice comes through in a sequence of final speeches. The editor, I imagine, might have said: ‘You have an interesting subject (black man on trial for rape of white girl in 1930s south) but didn’t make enough of it, and an interesting voice (Scout in the flashbacks) and should use those to frame your rewrite.’
 
In order to mould it into her bestselling classic, Harper Lee cut many irrelevant episodes (including Jean Louise’s boring love interest and uninspired coming-of-age anecdotes). She changed the point of view – it was no longer an adult looking back at her childhood, but a story written from the child’s point of view. The new version centred around the court case where Atticus is not an anomaly among white men – he does have a black maid and only takes the case because he is asked to. He fights for Tom Robinson even though he knows he will lose. He may not speak down to black people but he does consider himself as a step above.
 
As a reader it’s a mediocre book.
 
As a writer, it’s fascinating how Harper Lee rewrote and turned it around. It’s interesting that she kept whole chunks of text (that appear almost word for word in both versions), like the history of the feud between two families, or the history of how the town was founded. She had obviously done the research and wanted to keep the words.
 
I found an interesting piece by Brilliant Books here:

“We suggest you view this work as an academic insight rather than as a nice summer novel. This situation is comparable to James Joyce’s stunning work ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man‘, and his original draft ‘Stephen Hero‘. ‘Hero’ was initially rejected, and Joyce reworked it into the classic ‘Portrait’. ‘Hero’ was eventually released as an academic piece for scholars and fans—not as a new ‘Joyce novel’. We would have been delighted to see “Go Set A Watchman” receive a similar fate.”


In conclusion, I’m not sorry I spent a week in Alabama with Scout/Jean Louise but I do feel that publishing this book was a huge swindle on the part of the publisher. Large profits were made by misleading the public that this was a prequel/sequel. How many of us purchased Mockingbird for the second time too? I couldn’t possibly know what state of mind Harper Lee is currently in, but I know I wouldn’t want any of my early drafts to be released like this.

I’m inclined to agree with Salman Rushdie on this:

Salman Rushdie

@SalmanRushdie

Don’t think I’ll be reading Go Set Your Watch or whatever it’s called. I have unpublished juvenilia too; would cringe if it got published.

 

Shortlisted ICB short story competition

Good news from the International Club of Bordeaux: My story ‘Well Done’ has been shortlisted in their 1st Annual Short Story Competition, judged by Amanda Hodgkinson. And I’m delighted that my fellow Writing Group member, Jane Cooper, is shortlisted too with ‘The Competition.’ Congratulations to the winners in each category.

Looking forward to reading all the shortlisted stories and the winners in the forthcoming e-book.

The Incubator Journal

My short story ‘No Such Thing’ appears in Issue 3 (December 2014) of The Incubator, another great literary journal, featuring writing from Northern Ireland and Ireland. Have a browse; the pdf version is free to download. I’ve enjoyed ‘Sparta’ by Heather Richardson and look forward to reading the rest when I receive my hard copy.

Short Story: What Happened to Us by Dan Chaon

What Happened to Us by Dan Chaon

The Spring 2014 edition of Ploughshares Literary Magazine contains this gem: A story about Rusty Bickers and the family that takes him in as a foster child. Joseph is the narrator and is eight years old. Rusty is fourteen. We know little of what happened to Rusty before he arrived into Joseph’s home except a few hushed conversations between Joseph’s parents, where we hear that ‘unspeakable things… happened to Rusty in his family home,’ and Joseph’s mother’s comment, ‘How long does it take to get over something like that?’


Rusty does talk to Joseph about his past at one stage:

‘Do you know what would happen if a kid like you got sent to a foster home?’

‘No.’ And Joseph breathed as Rusty’s eyes held him, without blinking.

‘They do really nasty things to the little kids. And if you try to scream, they put your own dirty underwear in your mouth, to gag you.’



Although Rusty’s past was disturbing, we follow his summer in Joseph’s home with a little optimism. We are lulled into the meandering narrative, peppered with humour, especially when Joseph’s father dances with his prosthetic arm.

‘After he got drunk, Joseph’s father would go around touching the ladies on the back of the neck with his hook, surprising them, making them scream. Sometimes he would take off his arm and dance with it.’


But this humour is followed by raw understated emotion:

‘Sometimes he would cry about Billy Merritt.’

The story contains some great descriptive passages.

‘Rusty…watching Joseph’s family as they ate their breakfast, his shaggy hair hanging lank about his face, his long arms dangling from slumped shoulders, his eyes like someone who had been marched a long way to a place where they were going to shoot him.’


The story gets progressively more disturbing as the summer passes and we sense that Rusty is a deeply troubled teenager.

‘You could kill the little kids first, while they were sleeping. It wouldn’t hurt them, you know. It wouldn’t mattter. And then, with the gunshots, your mom and dad would come running in, and you could shoot them when they came through the door…’


An excellent and enjoyable story.

Dan Chaon is the author of the short-story collection Stay Awake, the novel Await Your Reply and other works of fiction. He lives in Cleveland.

Authors in France: Amanda Hodgkinson

 22 Britannia Road by Amanda Hodgkinson

In the small village of Labatut Rivière in the lovely south west of France a group of readers and writers welcomed Amanda Hodgkinson, author, to talk about her first novel: 22 Britannia Road.
 
In preparation, I did some strenuous research on my sunlounger…
 
 
Here’s the blurb:

It is 1946 and Silvana and eight-year-old Aurek board a ship that will take them from Poland to England. Silvana has not seen her husband Janusz in six years, but, they are assured, he has made a home for them in Ipswich.

However, after living wild in the forests for years, carrying a terrible secret, all Silvana knows is that she and Aurek are survivors. Everything else is lost. While Janusz, a Polish soldier who has crisscrossed Europe during the war, hopes his family will help him put his own dark past behind him.

But the war and the years apart will always haunt each of them, unless together they confront what they were compelled to do to survive. 

 
Amanda read an extract from the points of view of the three main characters and I enjoyed (as she suggested everybody does) being read to in the glorious sunshine with a glass of rosé and only next door’s cockerel to punctuate the silences.
 
Then Amanda spoke about her motivation for writing the book – her attempt to capture something of  the relationships between families who were separated during the war and, although reunited, are never the same.
 

The discussion then moved on to her journey to publication: One query letter (I said ‘one’ there in case you missed that), several bids which led to an auction, and the novel went straight onto the New York Times bestseller list. A dream for many, but good to hear it can, and does, happen.

 

Amanda’s second novel Spilt Milk was released earlier this year and has been very well received:

‘Hogkinson’s second novel is simply but elegantly written, its subtle charms emerging as her gentle, bittersweet story shows history repeating itself over the generations’ Sunday Times

She also spoke about the Grand Central, an anthology to be released in July which sounds very intriguing:

Now, ten bestselling authors inspired by this iconic landmark have created their own stories, set on the same day, just after the end of World War II, in a time of hope, uncertainty, change, and renewal…

 Thanks to Jane who hosted the lunch in her beautiful garden. I returned home with garden envy and road-to-publication envy. But it was an enjoyable day and great to meet so many book lovers.