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  • Denise Inge

    Thu, 07 May 2009 03:47

    Denise Inge is Hon. Fellow in Early Modern Research at the University of Worcester and a leading authority on Thomas Traherne. One of the first people in the world to transcribe his lost manuscripts, she has written three books on Traherne and is at the forefront of getting his unread manuscripts into the public arena.

    Mark Thwaite: Before we get to Traherne, Denise, tell us a little bit about yourself. You are an Hon. Fellow in Early Modern Research at the University of Worcester -- so, what is an average day at work like for you?

    Denise Inge: As an Honorary Fellow, I act as a kind of advisor and visitor to the department. I will go in and do a talk on my specific area of expertise or help to supervise a doctoral thesis, that kind of thing. My average day is spent in research and writing, often in my own home office, which is very cold, so the day starts with hauling coal and getting the fire lit! Then I sit down and read one of Shakespeare's sonnets, to warm my brain up while the computer gets its socks on. I have several projects on the go at the same time, articles, books, research, talks to prepare. I love it because I am free to organise my time and free to explore the ideas that interest me most.

    Mark Thwaite: For those who don't know him, who was Thomas Traherne?

    Denise Inge: Thomas Traherne (1637-74) was an affable and energetic 17c. cleric who lived most of his life in rural Herefordshire. He grew up during the Civil War and lived through disturbing times of violence and political upheaval, but ended up writing about happiness. He wrote like mad and tried everything: poetry, socio/political polemic, treatises, essays, epics, meditations, advice on living, even encyclopaedia entries. He was game for anything and might have tried novels if they had been invented.

    Mark Thwaite: When and where did you first come across his work Denise?

    Denise Inge: I first met him as an undergraduate in the United States (I was the undergraduate; he was a few hundred years dead by then). He was in the usual anthologies of metaphysical poets alongside John Donne and George Herbert, Crashaw, Milton, all the big names of the period. But most people, my professors included, didn't think his poetry was as good as theirs. He was a kind of second division player.

    Mark Thwaite: What fascinates you so much about Traherne and his writing?

    Denise Inge: There are many things that fascinate me, but one of the most intriguing is how his work laid undiscovered for so many years. Although he was a prolific writer he only published two works in his lifetime. They were popular enough in their time but were not strong enough to carve out a place for him in posterity, and he disappeared from view for a few hundred years. Then at the turn of the twentieth century two of his unnamed manuscripts were found on bargain bookbarrows in London. He was hailed as a "new poet" though already several hundred years old! A second major discovery happened at the turn of the twenty-first century. Two manuscripts one in London and one in Washington, DC. That this should happen twice in the history of a writer is really remarkable, and it has been completely compelling and thrilling to be one of the first people in the world to transcribe this work and get it into the public arena. A real privilege.

    Mark Thwaite: What kind of readers fall for Traherne? What can he teach us today?

    Denise Inge: Readers with imagination fall for Traherne. He takes you on unexpected interior journeys into desire and lack, infinity, time and eternity. Reading him isn't always easy since the language of his day is so different from ours and his world view sometimes challenges the assumptions of our time, but he will thrill, surprise and exhaust you. If you are the kind of person who wonders what life is about, if you like to stop and think about the meaning of things and like a challenge, you will find Traherne engaging. There is so much he can teach us today. This is what is utterly amazing to me -- his ideas are so of the moment. It is almost as if they were just waiting to be discovered now when we need them or are ready to hear them. He writes about happiness, about longing and aspiration, about our deep relatedness to all things and about how the most treasured things are not the rare but the common -- air, water, earth, the regularity of seasons. Where once this might have sounded romantic it begins in our age of global environmental concern to sound seriously wise, almost prophetic.

    Mark Thwaite: Was he really a kind of early psychotherapist?

    Denise Inge: PJ Kavanagh described him that way in a recent review of the book and there is some truth in it. Of course, psychotherapy wasn't invented in his day. But the insights of modern psychotherapy that suggest for instance that we must love and accept ourselves are insights he shares. Where other writers of his day saw the human condition as doomed by original sin inherited from our parents he wrote boldy "It is our parents lives not our parents loins that ensnare us." And "you are as prone to love as the sun is to shine." His invitation to choose happiness is very much like what we now call cognitive therapy.

    Mark Thwaite: We are very, very lucky even to have some of Traherne's writing. Tell us about the discovery of the Commentaries of Heaven and the more recent American discoveries?

    Denise Inge: Oh gosh, that is really one of the most amazing of the discoveries. Commentaries of Heaven, which is a kind of philosophical and theological encyclopaedia, was found on a burning rubbish heap in Lancashire in the 1970s by a man who had gone to the tip to look for spare car parts. He saw this kind of interesting old leather bound book and lifted it from the fire, batted out the flames and took it home with him since nobody else apparently wanted it. It is now in the British library. The most recent discovery in America was an epic poem which is in the Folger Shakespeare library; it is a fragment, but 120 pages long. The Lambeth Manuscript, a huge discovery containing five new mainly prose works happened because the discoverer was in London on a rainy day with time to kill, went into the library and perused an old catalogue of acquisitions, and called up a curious unnamed one which turned out to be Traherne's. Who knows what else might be lurking in one of the ancient libraries of the world.

    Mark Thwaite: Please tell us what is in Happiness and Holiness and why you chose these particular works to showcase Traherne's talents.

    Denise Inge: Happiness and Holiness is the only publication in the world to offer selections from all of Traherne's writings in a single volume. The introduction includes an up-to-date biography, a bit of social and historical context, a bit on his philosophical and theological sources (as you know, in the 17c politics, science, philosophy, religion were inextricably linked -- if you wrote about one you were involved with the others too). There is a brief introduction to each of his works and a description of their concerns and salient ideas. Then the main part of the book is a range of readings from those works arranged according to themes that look at questions like -- What kind of creatures are we in what kind of world? How may we find happiness? How free are we? For anyone who has heard that there is something afoot with Traherne but isn't sure what the discoveries are, or who is just interested in different people's take on life, this is the perfect book. It is the best concise introduction to his life and work available. There are hundreds of readings, but I chose the ones that I found the most striking, engaging, challenging and representative of his major themes. I wanted to showcase his ideas; they are his strongest point.

    Mark Thwaite: There is an 11 volume Complete Works -- what were you most disappointed that you had to leave out of Happiness and Holiness?

    Denise Inge: I didn't leave out any of the works. But I would have liked to have been able to include some things in full that I had to edit down. I would especially liked to have more time to explore his writings on desire.

    Mark Thwaite: How long did it take you to compile, edit and research your book Denise?

    Denise Inge: Oh goodness. Well, the book took me about 3 years, but I have been working on Traherne for 10. So in a way it has taken me all that time to be the person to write this book. All the years spent transcribing from his tiny handwriting are behind the final product.

    Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now?

    Denise Inge: I'm working on a critical study of Traherne. It will be the first full length study since the new material was found and it is called Wanting Like a God: Desire and Freedom in the Work of Thomas Traherne. I am also working on some life writing -- observations of the everyday, what is interesting and poignant around us, that kind of thing. In a way that too is inspired perhaps by Traherne's way of seeing the world as being full of meaning. I am very excited about this new work.

    Mark Thwaite: Aside from Traherne, who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    Denise Inge: I am a bit of a butterfly when it comes to that -- always alighting on some new leaf. Old favourites are Jane Austen, Carol Shields, Tolstoy, Margaret Atwood, Annie Dillard. But at the moment I am in love with the American poet Mary Oliver, reading a bit of Thoreau, Roger Deakin's books, some essays of my old professor Thomas Howard, Richard Mabey's Nature Cure and I like Sara Maitland's Book of Silence.

  • Caroline Smailes

    Fri, 01 May 2009 03:11

    Caroline Smailes was born in Newcastle in 1973. A chance remark on a daytime chat show spurred her to enrol on an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. Caroline graduated in 2007 with distinction and won the Michael Schmidt Prize for the best novel portfolio of the year. Her first novel, In Search of Adam, was published in 2007 and her most recent book is Black Boxes.

    Mark Thwaite: What first gave you the idea for writing Black Boxes?

    Caroline Smailes: I was driving and found that a paragraph, all about a teenage girl who was thinking about hanging herself using her dog's lead, had formed in my head. I pulled over and wrote the paragraph in really tiny writing on the back of a pay-and-display ticket.

    Mark Thwaite: Tell us some more about the concept of these black boxes and how they help you shape and structure your novel.

    Caroline Smailes: The original seed for the use of the black box came after I'd written 10,000 words. I'd used a turn of phrase and then found myself pulling on the concept of an aircraft black box. The idea was to apply that model to human beings, a mother and daughter relationship, to see why their bond had crashed and to record their thoughts and memories in an unusual way. The layout of Black Boxes is dotted with soundbites to give an additional texture to the story. The actual structure is also influenced by the concept, as the book is split into black box one and black box two in an attempt to pull the reader right into the emotional heart of the story.

    Mark Thwaite: Your novel is about how relationships build and crack and fail, between lovers and between parents and children. Was it difficult to write about how communication can break down so catastrophically?

    Caroline Smailes: Black Boxes was extremely difficult to write. The process was disturbing and often thorny. Writing about depression, about failed communication and the actual pulling on my own experiences, left me disturbed and feeling exposed. The mother's (Ana's) monologue was written quickly. I think that I simply wanted to 'get it out'. By writing the story from two different character perspectives, I tried to give a sense of how deeply depression and mental illness can affect everyone. It is very much about how things crack and fail. I had hoped that the two viewpoints would offer the reader a unique position on events. I wanted to explore action and consequence, I wanted to offer a sense of invasion, of destruction, of loss and to show the devastating end results of undetected mental illness.

    Mark Thwaite: Pip, Ana's daughter, is a particularly raw and real character: how did you go about finding her -- and your other characters -- such an authentic persona?

    Caroline Smailes: Like Pip, I was severely bullied in High School and her voice was influenced by my diaries written during that time. Within Black Boxes I pulled on individual thoughts, on individual aspects of my life and of a deprived High School life and then warped them into a narrative. Pip is not me, but her voice and her language choices are influenced by secret scribbles from many (many) years ago. For Ana, I needed her voice to be educated and for her to be shown to deteriorate as the novel progressed. I worked and worked and took advice from my editor and publisher to create a distinct, but accessible voice.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you know how Black Boxes would end when you began, or was writing a journey of discovery for you?

    Caroline Smailes: No, not at all. I write in such a chaotic way! I initially wrote the story through Pip's voice. I began to write, allowing her to emerge. I simply wrote and wrote, with little concern for the story or plot. Then, when I reached a point of total confusion, I stepped back to consider what events could have moulded her into such a distressed and vulnerable teenager. Then I wrote Ana's story and I had no idea where she would take me. I didn't write the ending in my first draft, I think that it was written in the third or even the fourth draft. Then, finally, there was the inclusion of the sign language drawings (after a chance meeting with a psychic!) so that the reader could consider the inability of Davie (Ana's son) to communicate. So, yes, my writing is always a journey of discovery for me.

    Mark Thwaite: How long did it take you to write your novel Caroline?

    Caroline Smailes: From initial paragraph whilst driving to final draft, it took ten months of full time writing.

    Mark Thwaite: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    Caroline Smailes: Black Boxes is my first and only novel to have been written directly onto a computer and is also my only novel to not have a notebook full of notes. All research was written into a Word document. The novel that I am writing now is a mix of longhand and straight onto the computer. I always write straight off and then edit and edit and edit.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing your novel? How did you overcome it?

    Caroline Smailes: Some of the scenes left me feeling drained and emotional. Writing in first person, for me, means that I have to become that person and I think that I often carried Ana into my home life. I became distracted and was probably a complete nightmare to live with. I overcome this by writing quickly, then I walked away from my computer and tried to connect with the real world.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with the responses to your books? What have you learned from them?

    Caroline Smailes: Many of my readers email me with their responses. I think that because I blog, I can be accessed easily and I welcome response and feedback in that way. I have been thrilled. I don't read any other reviews. This is a personal choice and simply because I take everything to heart and am far too sensitive. I am working on thickening my skin.

    Mark Thwaite: What do you do in your free time!?

    Caroline Smailes: I try to sleep!

    Mark Thwaite: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    Caroline Smailes: I don't write with a reader in mind. In fact I try not to think about publication and readership when I'm writing. I'm truly scared that if I think about people actually reading my books, then I'll freeze and I won't write the story that is within me.

    Black Boxes and In Search of Adam were both influenced by comic book heroes and the original fairytale characters, those people who suffered, who overcame and who tried to battled against the odds. It was never about happily ever after, in a traditional sense, rather about fighting back. I have no doubt that my ideal reader has to love modern fiction and not be 'put off' by unusual layout. But on a deeper level my ideal reader is open minded, can truly understand loss and perhaps has experienced a moment of not belonging. My writing is about regrets and my happily ever afters never involve a prince on a horse.

    Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now?

    Caroline Smailes: I've finished my third novel (Like Bees to Honey) and my agent is currently negotiating a deal. In the meantime, I've been working on my (still untitled) fourth novel. I'm expecting to finish my first draft within the next few weeks. I'm loving writing it because I have absolutely no idea where it will end and it's taken me back to New Lymouth which was the setting of In Search of Adam.

    Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    Caroline Smailes: My all time favourite writers are Neil Gaiman, Jeanette Winterson and Margaret Atwood. But my absolute most favourite book is Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    Caroline Smailes: Never ever ever give up.

    Mark Thwaite: Anything else you would like to say?

    Caroline Smailes: Do you, in any way, know Simon Cowell?

  • Seb Hunter

    Wed, 15 Apr 2009 03:13

    Seb Hunter is married to Faye and they live in a house in Winchester, in Hampshire, with their young son Reuben. Seb is the author of Hell Bent for Leather: Confessions of a Heavy Metal Addict, Rock Me Amadeus: When Ignorance Meets High Art, Things Can Get Messy and, most recently, How To Be a Better Person.

    Mark Thwaite: You book is called How to be a Better Person, what made you think you were a bad person to begin with!?

    Seb Hunter: I am a child of the 80s. My hardfought passage into adult consciousness was unwittingly drenched in the newfangled self-serving myopia of Thatcherism. No matter how benevolent and/or warm-hearted my generation might subsequently consider ourselves, the fact remains that we all offer significantly less to our communities-at-large than our parents' generation did and, indeed, continue -- even often whilst crippled -- to do. Neither myself nor anybody I know has ever really done any volunteer work. Sadly it's anathema. And there's no moral pressure to do so either. It's considered ethically acceptable to remain in your own cynical, consumerist bubble for your whole life. And it was this fatalistic ennui that I set out to address in my book. With hilarious results.

    Mark Thwaite: What first gave you the idea for writing down your adventures to become a better person?

    Seb Hunter: It started after I picked up a cold call and agreed to deliver some charity envelopes in my own street, which I was then supposed to collect a week later, hopefully stuffed full of cash. But in the end I couldn't be bothered to go out and actually deliver them. Which was spineless and pathetic. And so the idea for the book rose directly out of the metaphysical fallout (self-loathing) that followed this incident. I decided to grossly overcompensate by spending two years doing as much and as varied volunteer work as I could find. Which turned out to be rather a lot. With hilarious results.

    Mark Thwaite: How long did it take you to write your book Seb? How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    Seb Hunter: It took about two years to write. There was a big gap in the middle when my son was born, and it was hard to motivate myself after that. Far easier to just sleep.

    As to how I write, well, first of all I use a dreamcatcher, which is like a big, diaphanous net that hangs above my bed. This gathers up most of my initial subconscious activity. Then in the morning I sift through the contents of the net and transcribe the solidified dreams into a yellow legal pad, in longhand, using my left hand (even though I'm usually righthanded) with a Parker pen that I've had for about twenty-eight years. Only after that do I convert the work onto my computer, where instantly it is transformed back into its initial substandard condition. Then I pare obsessively away at my transmogrified mogadon prose until it fairly glistens with wit, charm and hubris.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing your book? How did you overcome it?

    Seb Hunter: I'd anticipated tonal issues writing humorously about do-gooders, but thankfully in the end it wasn't an issue, since in my writing the joke is invariably on me. And where it's not on me, I just changed people's names and put it back onto them. This seems to have worked out fine. In fact with hilarious results.

    One of my volunteer activities in the book was working as an Independent Custody Visitor, and the Police Authority in question demanded access to my manuscript pre-publication. They then demanded I anonymize pretty much everything and everyone, including the name of the actual Police Authority itself. As a result, some text ended up being blacked-out on the page. And, seeing as I'd already used this (text blacking-out) device -- humorously -- very humorously in fact -- in my custody visiting sections, these scenes have ended up using gallons and gallons of blocks of solid black ink. These are some of the best-written parts of the book, actually. It's a device I plan to use again in the future, as it makes the whole process of writing books significantly less difficult.

    Mark Thwaite: What did you most get out of all the volunteering?

    Seb Hunter: An innate sense of superiority and self-righteousness, followed by -- thankfully -- a book deal with Atlantic. Otherwise it would have all been completely pointless.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the strangest thing you encountered during your two years of being embedded? Where was the weirdest place you "worked"?

    Seb Hunter: Ferroequinologists; i.e. those (men) stricken by a "whimsical love of locomotives". I'd rather not talk about it, because they're still after me. Or rather my uniform. Or rather the specific buttons on my uniform. It's a long story.

    The weirdest place I volunteered was probably inspecting these police stations -- checking the welfare of those cellbound. It was pretty easy actually -- all they ever asked for was a little bit of heroin. Sadly we were unable to help, though we could suggest an alternative -- i.e. a warm plastic glass of water and a detainee ready meal (meals which I officially Taste Test in the book, by the way).

    Also weird was walking 23 miles with a hippy folk band who were touring the UK carrying all their own instruments in an attempt to draw attention to climate change ( I carried the drum kit). Especially since that night's gig came this close to ending in a fight with the other band on the bill. It was great.

    Being a hospital radio DJ was weird too. I kept getting told off for reading out the answer to the Brain Tickler straight after I'd read out the question. We would broadcast live from the wards, just like DLT and Simon Bates, only without any of the listeners. Actually we did have listeners, only they were unconscious.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most unexpected thing you learned about yourself?

    Seb Hunter: Things I learned:

    That you shouldn't say thank you when someone comes in to donate a big bag of clothes at Oxfam. (It's complicated.)

    That every organization, no matter how apparently benign, is only ever a whisker away from total collapse due to perpetual insider power struggles.

    That asylum seekers are completely fucked by the system (funnily enough).

    That volunteering is a complete piece of piss, and everybody should do at least some.

    And it's fun!

    And rewarding!

    And easy!

    That 70-somethings can be really bad bullies actually.

    That I don't know how to use Microsoft Excel.

    That I shouldn't run, ever again, not even for a bus.

    That homeless people are exactly the same as us, only more so.

    That working for no money is just like normal work except for the tea breaks. How long should you take for a tea break?

    It's also more forgiving.

    And that there are more pensioners than usual.

    I learned how to tong vomit.

    Of the hypocrisy of zoos.

    And that stigmata is real.

    Mark Thwaite: Now that you've finished your book, will you keep volunteering?

    Seb Hunter: No. I mean yes. I'm still very much involved with the Southampton and Winchester Visitors Group, which helps asylum seekers in the Hampshire area. As well as client visiting, I'm also now a member of the Money Allocation Group. I hope to be able to continue doing this for a long time.

    Mark Thwaite: Have you learned to love classical music yet?

    Seb Hunter: Yes I did in the end. Classical music now takes up approximately 25% of my music-listening time. Having spent two years trying to get to the bottom of classical music (from a standing start), I'm relieved that now -- three years later -- I can still actually listen to the stuff, albeit in moderation, and stripped of any Romantic Nonsense. I'm currently particularly passionate about Morton Feldman.

    Mark Thwaite: What do you do when you are not writing Seb?

    Seb Hunter: Look after our three-year-old son Reuben.

    Read.

    Mess about online.

    Illegally download music.

    Walk.

    Play guitar in an improv group: www.myspace.com/crateruk.

    Drink.

    Mark Thwaite: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    Seb Hunter: The very idea horrifies me. I'm more of an unreconstructed forelock-tugger, really. I'm grateful for anybody. I can't imagine what they must think. I also deal with praise very badly -- very violently. But this hasn't been a problem in my writing career so far.

    Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now?

    Seb Hunter: I'm writing an unauthorized biography of Noel Edmonds. Noel has always fascinated me -- he is a very complex man, and somewhat misunderstood. I'm currently on the Swap Shop years. Believe me, when this gets published, it's going to cause a few major ripples, especially among the Noel Edmonds-following community and so on.

    Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    Seb Hunter: I like German writers (Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, WG Sebald).

    And Jewish writers (Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Bob Dylan).

    And Irish, French and Russian writers and Sylvia Smith and Julian Cope.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    Seb Hunter: Learn to take criticism. And I mean take it. And bounce back accordingly. As many times as it takes.

    Mark Thwaite: Anything else you would like to say?

    Seb Hunter: I don't like peacocks much, but they're OK.

  • Charlotte Moerman

    Tue, 07 Apr 2009 03:42

    Charlotte Moerman has spent six years at the coalface of motherhood. Two years ago she began writing The Buggy Blog on raisingkids.co.uk where she charts her experiences as a full-time mum. Charlotte lives in Highbury with her husband, three sons and an ebb and flow of assorted plastic tat. Instructions Not Included is her first book.

    Mark Thwaite: You came to motherhood from out of the business world: did you see parenting as another job, but just a very different one to what you'd previously been used to?

    Charlotte Moerman: Superficially I suppose you could say so. Entering into motherhood is a bit like taking on a teenage paper round. You saw the ad in the window and everyone reckoned it'd Do You Good. You quite fancied it yourself. The change. The chance to widen your BMX horizons, have something new to show for yourself. Oh and the lure of promised pay-backs didn't sound too bad either. A change is as good as a rest, as they always say. (Rest. Ha ha ha.)

    It is only once you've got yourself into it that you realise how hard it is. The early alarm calls are unforgiving. The pay is shocking. And the clients are simply nothing but "take take take". You sometimes feel it's a bit lonely. You sometimes wonder what you did to find yourself so often out in the cold. It is not like they led you to believe when they said, all gushing, "you'll love it. It's so you. It'll look just great on your CV!"

    Don't get me wrong, the rewards offset the worries by far. For me, motherhood was absolutely the right choice. Yet even as time passes, and I feel properly established in my stay-at-home maternal role, there are undoubtedly elements of it that are eerily similar to a business job. Every day brings a fresh barrage of chores which come round with hamster-wheel like regularity. Your inner skills and resource stash is put repeatedly under siege. The hours are long and the clients demanding in new and often head-scratching ways.

    Yet there are other bits that don't quite match up. For a mother there is no helpful job description to guide her along the way, no KPIs or appraisals. There is no training. No time off. No pay. Still, trying to look on the bright side, the commute's not too bad at least.

    But then of course in all seriousness, being a mum is so much more than just another job. Beyond the superficial enumeration of demands on your time and your resources, being a mum is something elemental to the core of your being. It is about who you are as a woman, not just your livelihood. It is also -- just to set the record straight -- so much more than a list of tasks and hard graft. It is really quite often exceptionally worthwhile and fun.

    When I worked in the business world, I'd run around managing projects, producing tangible outputs for which... on a good day at least... I felt a sense of ownership and pride. But I could never feel for them what I feel about my children, that deep instinctive connection the strength of which you can only fully appreciate when you yourself become a parent. I have never felt a visceral connection with a spreadsheet or set of Powerpoint slides, and I would certainly not coo over, caress and/or wipe the snot off a Word document of my own producing. (I would just print off another one instead.)

    Mark Thwaite: You have 3 children -- and you describe the difficulties of juggling your life and theirs wonderfully well -- why didn't you just stop at one? Or stick with none!?

    Charlotte Moerman: Oh, I always knew that I wanted children. And -- fully functioning downstairs departments permitting -- I'd hoped and expected to have more than just one. It was always part of the game plan and luckily, when my husband came along, he was thinking along the same lines.

    So, without much ado (give or take seven years), along came our three children, in impressively quick succession too. In for a penny, in for a pound. I feel incredibly gifted and lucky to have them all. And also often rushed off my feet. Juggling the demands of multiple small children, your relationships, your house, your social and community commitments, and your own personal needs is pretty full on at the best of times.

    It is like a game of Keepie Uppie with several different balls on the go at once. You try your best, but sometimes you drop a ball. Occasionally two. Sometimes one ball gets inexplicably heavier or you lose sight of another entirely. Sometimes it all goes a bit blurry. Sometimes you want to put everything temporarily down just to go to the loo, though you soon realise that this is impossible. One, or sometimes three, of the small balls do have this habit of bouncing in after you -- tsk, you never thought you'd be able to go alone did you?

    That is not to say that I in any way regret having any one of my sons. Because hectic though it might sometimes be, the whole package is also often wonderful. The point about the book is that it is not a whinge about having children. It is a celebration of motherhood and about our achievements in the face of often challenging circumstances. Yes, there are hard bits like adapting to the changes in your own identity, your relationships, your body and so on. But the rewards far outweigh the pressures. And I wouldn't change what I have for the world. Life would have been a whole lot less fun -- though potentially less messy -- if I had "just stuck with none."

    Mark Thwaite: Motherhood has a very real affect not only on you as a person, but on you in your role as a wife: how do you successfully juggle being a mum and being their father's partner?

    Charlotte Moerman: Since becoming a mum I've felt a kind of new affinity with Madonna. No, I didn't flaunt myself as a Material Girl by splurging on a fleet of Bugaboos in every available colour, or trawl the Mothercare lingerie section for a conical feeding bra. I can just wholeheartedly relate to that whole reinvention thing of hers.

    As we grow older, we go through various key stages of reinvention. One being the switch from schoolchild to member of the grown-up workforce. Another being the metamorphosis from childlessness to parenthood. At the same time for me, there was also the substitution of career for fulltime motherhood. It was a double-whammy status change, one to which as a couple we both needed to adapt.

    Things would never be the same again. Our horizons and our expectations from life changed. Our house, once a quiet haven to escape to after a hectic day in the office or a night out on the tiles, is now an epicentre of chaos and noise. Our rooms are filled with boisterous boys, abandoned shoes and an ebb and flow of assorted plastic tat. Our lives are peppered with a back-track of calls for stories, bottom-wiping and yet another set of replacement batteries. Domestically, we are now living out the storm after the calm.

    And our relationship itself has of course been affected. We used to have a lot of time for each other. Now time alone is like hens teeth. Our grown-up conversations were once punctuated with office politics, a possible bonus, booking leave for our next foreign holiday. Now they meander over the latest mad or marvellous thing one of our offspring has said, the cause of a current tummy ache ("when did he last do a poo?") and the outrageous going rate for the Tooth Fairy. They also veer occasionally into books, films, current affairs -- proper grown-up chat -- but the weird thing is once you become a parent you do so enjoy talking about the kids...

    Until you are a parent yourself, you just don't get it. But once you have children of your own you understand and indeed thrive off that weird combination of feelings. The unmitigated love for these small people that you have created and find yourself unutterably bound to. And the companionable groaning of shared shell shock -- finding that life as you hitherto knew it will never be the same again and adapting together to the brave new world that has your children in it.

    And in our case? Well if two's company, and three's a crowd, five can be something of an unwieldy throng and it doesn't take a genius to work out that this set up can sometimes present the odd challenge. At the end of a long day when my husband is tired from work and I am tired from tantruming kids, maintaining household harmony is not always as easy as ABC. Neither is deciding whose turn it is to empty the vile-smelling nappy bin when each of us is convinced that we did it last. Or me spending money when I'm not actually earning any. Though trust me, I am working hard on this one and gradually learning to cope.

    How do we juggle it? Well, that's all part of Keepie Uppie of course. But you just do, You get on with it. We try to remain open to each other, recognising the challenges that face us and above all try to keep talking -- tricky admittedly when you've been up half the night with vomiting kids and you can only muster the odd one syllable grunt between the two of you.

    We also try to ring-fence some "us" time. Cooking together when the kids are in bed. Occasional nights out. Which reminds me, it's been a while. Must book a babysitter soon. After all, what with the book, there's a chance I might be bringing in a little something to cover the cost of a bottle of fizz. Or if not, I can claim, as I knock back another glass of something he has paid for, that it is all part of my learning to cope strategy. Needs must eh?

    Mark Thwaite: What first made you want to write about your experiences as a mother?

    Charlotte Moerman: This is where I should say something about my creative urge and feeling destined to write in some way, shape or form. The truth is less poetic. I am not a Jedi Writer who was always fated to it, I am just a sucker who was flattered to be asked to write and bribed with the promise of some freebies.

    A friend of mine is Editor at raisingkids.co.uk, a high profile parenting website. They were looking for someone to write a blog charting what it is like to be the parent of several small children. Upon being asked, I initially thought -- heck no, where would I find the time? But then I thought, actually, I had secretly always fancied writing. Here was an opportunity to simply have a go. At best it might lead to something more (though at the time I severely doubted it). At worse I'd have kept a diary of what is a very precious and interesting time of life. So I signed on the dotted line and the Buggy Blog was born.

    The blog then grew and grew and the entries gradually accumulated. I think it is fair to say I rather learned on the job. My style changed as I went along and got more comfortable with the voice I now use which I hope sounds friendly, sharing the ups and downs of parenthood without being too "woe is me." The stats showed that people were reading it. I hoped this meant that they liked it and were getting something out of it too. So I just kind of carried on.

    And by the by, it was seen by an agent and then it all took off from there into a book. Suddenly my "might lead to something more" morphed into "well off you go and do it then".

    Mark Thwaite: What do you hope your book will achieve?

    Charlotte Moerman: Two things really. First off, a bit of something for myself which as many a busy mother will know is a rare and beautiful thing. A meaty project to give me a sense of personal fulfilment, bring some old brain cells out of retirement and create something above and beyond (I hesitate to say it) "just" being a mum.

    Secondly, I hope that by sharing my own experiences, I can reach out to other mums in similar positions. I hope to in some way make sense of the chaos of mothering multiple small children as well as celebrating the fun and fantastic bits. I hope that others might see themselves in my story as I navigate the precarious path of adapting to my identity as mum and stay-at-home wife, at the same time as trying to bring up decent, well-mannered children who eat up all their greens. Oh and I hope to provide a few laughs along the way.

    Mark Thwaite: How on earth did you find the time to write it!?

    Charlotte Moerman: Good question and you're by no means the first to ask. The book was commissioned late April last year. I had an Autumn deadline with the summer holidays looming in the middle. I was also told by friends in the know that a book of this sort would normally take a year or so to compose. It was no small undertaking from the outset, but I guess I like a challenge.

    I started with a target of 80,000 words which I had roughly six months to write. That was 80,000 "Good" words rather than 80,000 words of complete and utter blather. I was, to be honest, more than a little daunted. But I had a great, calming Editor who soothingly assured me that all would be OK. And I chose, instead of having a meltdown, to believe her.

    I didn't start at the start. I just sat down and began typing at what is now the middlish point of the book. I wrote and I wrote. And in the end, I topped 120,000 words which then had to be considerably chopped down. And when did I do it? In the evenings, in the weekends, during our summer holiday and... blimey... I even Set the Alarm to get up before the kids. Complete madness in retrospect.

    I should also said that my other half was great in terms of cooking meals and looking after the kids, especially in the final stages when the deadline loomed. Which is ironic really as in the book I have rather sent him up for never being around to help.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspect of writing your book? How did you overcome it?

    Charlotte Moerman: As the book is a blog-to-book narrative based on real events, I found myself frequently writing about personal things. Tricky at the time of writing. Butterflies-in-stomach inducing now that the book is out. I still sometimes wake up in the night a bit and think "did I really write that?"

    To make things easier on myself, I changed the names of some of the characters. This helped me to disassociate what I was writing with the real people. That said, however, it was and still is a little odd to be married to a different man.

    I also found delivery difficult. I'd imagined that the hardest bit was the actual composition and tooth-comb editing. But when I delivered the book to the publishers, it was also unexpectedly hard. To a certain extent, there was relief that it was all done. But at the same time, I kind of felt a bit lost. And anxious. It was done now. I couldn't change anything. Those things that I had written about the people I know and love. Have I done them justice? Would they be happy or miffed? And is the writing itself "good enough?"

    I just hope now that my family and friends will read and like it. They'd better do. Or they'd better tell me they do at least!

    Mark Thwaite: How do you write? Longhand or directly onto a computer, straight off or with lots and lots of editing?

    Charlotte Moerman: I began with a crisp white notepad and wrote lots of small spidery notes. I used a good black pen and brainstormed under theme and chapter headings. There is something very therapeutic about penning thoughts onto a piece of paper and somehow it doesn't feel so "real" while you're still chewing over early ideas.

    From the notepad, I went onto the PC and typed furiously. I'd bash out an episode fairly freely and come back at it for editing later. Some bits came slowly, some were out incredibly fast. The bits that came fast and furious are the ones I'm generally proudest of. I feel happiest with the last third of the book which is the text I was writing when hard up against the deadline!

    Mark Thwaite: What do you do when you are not writing -- or does parenting take up all the rest of your spare time?

    Charlotte Moerman: Ha ha ha! Well during the spare twenty minutes I get every second Tuesday when there's an R in the month...

    Actually, now that my youngest is in pre-school five mornings a week, I am beginning to claw back a little bit of time for myself. Of course, there's always something to do... grocery shopping, mending trouser knees, running some Bloo round the loo etc. But when I allow myself some proper "me" time, what I'm really enjoying right now is swimming. It's an opportunity to unwind from the stresses of managing a houseful of boisterous boys and I find it a great time to think of new ideas for the next book...

    Mark Thwaite: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    Charlotte Moerman: The ideal reader is a woman with youngish children. It could also be someone who is expecting to have one soon. It might even be a partner. I would suggest Madonna again, but I think the key is that it should appeal to the average Everywoman on the street.

    Did I write specifically for them? Well, I think that the whole subject matter of the book pre-defines the readership. So I guess, yes, it was written purposely with the mummy market in mind.

    Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now Charlotte?

    Charlotte Moerman: I am still writing the Buggy Blog on raisingkids.co.uk. Having slipped the tempo a little when the final flurry of the book deadline approached, I feel I owe my readers a bit of a catch up.

    In terms of other books, I would love to write a work of fiction next. I've got a few ideas mulling in back of head, but for the moment I'm spending time doing the odd interview and writing features to help publicise the book. That just about fills up the remainder of time outside running around after the boys, taking time to remember who my husband is and front-crawling up and down the swimming pool three times a week.

    Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    Charlotte Moerman: Funny you should ask, I recently had to answer a similar question put to me by my six year old as part of a programme of events for World Book Day. Clearly he expected me to come up with a resoundingly sure and preferably not too long answer as he had to write it all down on a piece of paper for his homework.

    Unfortunately, it's not as easy as that. For me it is impossible to name but one author, one book. There are so many that I admire as our eclectic mix on the bookshelves bears witness. But, to nail a few, I'd say I love some of the old classics; any Austen, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary. I also adore Rohinton Mistry's Fine Balance. Contemporary authors who have also written on parenthood and whose writing has influenced my style would include Andrew Clover and Judith O'Reilly.

    Oh and then there are all the children's books which are an intrinsic part of daily family life. Thomas the Tank Engine (the entire library), Trouble at the Dinosaur Cafe, Fix it Duck, anything by Roahl Dahl or Dick King-Smith (who I can't help thinking sounds a bit like a swear word) and my youngest's current favourite, "Annie and the Notions" which translates as Commotion in the Ocean but I prefer his version which sounds like a rather cool band.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?

    Charlotte Moerman: Well, from the very beginning of this whole adventure, I'd say the best thing for me was practice practice practice. Certainly the discipline of regularly writing the blog really helped me come along in terms of confidence and style. And then when it came to start the book itself, I tried not to be overawed by the size of the bigger-picture project before me. I just began anywhere, imagining I was composing another blog, and wrote wrote wrote. I kicked off with what is now the roughly middle of the book, and then filled in the gaps. I ended up over-writing enormously and then editing down hard. I think the process was an important journey for me, especially in a first book which has been an enormous learning curve.

    And then I guess that for me it was a shock how fast-paced everything turned out to be. I thought, if you'd ever told me I'd be writing a book, that I would be sitting down and carefully crafting my words for days, nay months before releasing it for publication. In my case, there simply wasn't the luxury of time to do that and I often felt I was flying by the seat of my pants. So in this context, another top tip would be to find a great Editor who can counsel you along the way. I was incredibly lucky with mine... can I name names?... Louisa Joyner of Virgin Books who has been a tower of strength -- enthusiastic, encouraging and reassuring whenever I had a wobble. Oh and more than happy to join me in a toast when the book was finally done.

    Mark Thwaite: Anything else you would like to say?

    Charlotte Moerman: Thank you for inviting me onto your site. It's been fun!

  • Dennis O'Driscoll

    Fri, 03 Apr 2009 02:47

    Dennis O'Driscoll was born in Co Tipperary, Ireland in 1954. His eight books of poetry include Weather Permitting, which was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and was shortlisted for the Irish Times Poetry Prize, Exemplary Damages, and New and Selected Poems, a Poetry Book Society Special Commendation. His latest collection of poems is Reality Check, shortlisted for the Irish Times/Poetry Now Prize 2008. A selection of his essays and reviews, Troubled Thoughts, Majestic Dreams, was published in 2001. He is editor of the Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations. His most recent book, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, was published in 2008. He received a Lannan Literary Award in 1999, the E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2005 and the O'Shaughnessy Award for Poetry from the Center for Irish Studies (Minnesota) in 2006. A member of Aosdána, the Irish academy of artists, and an Honorary Member of the Royal Hibernian Academy, he has worked as a civil servant since the age of 16.

    Mark Thwaite: Have you known Seamus Heaney for long, Dennis? How did you become friends?

    Dennis O'Driscoll: Years ago, I wrote that "Heaney's lack of self-importance makes those he meets feel important, and there can scarcely be a reader left in Ireland who does not claim (based on a single encounter) to know him, or even to know him well (a status earned by a second meeting)." Although Seamus Heaney and I have known each other for a long time -- I attended the launch of his third collection, Wintering Out (1972), when I was eighteen; I interviewed him for a Dublin weekly journal at the time of his fortieth birthday in 1979 -- I keep my distance in Stepping Stones. The book is about him, not about 'us', and, so, I am as invisible, as impersonal, as unobtrusive as possible in its pages.

    Mark Thwaite: What first gave you the idea for writing Stepping Stones?

    Dennis O'Driscoll: I have a strong archival impulse -- as was demonstrated by my two voluminous collections of contemporary quotations about poetry: The Bloodaxe Book of Poetry Quotations and its American counterpart Quote Poet Unquote. Those books -- in which Seamus Heaney is well represented -- snatch from oblivion a plethora of definitions, ruminations and witticisms that would otherwise vanish on the airwaves or moulder in obscure little literary magazines. A similar motivation operated for Stepping Stones. Is there a more wise, profound and eloquent interviewee in poetry than Seamus Heaney? I wanted to capture his ideas at much greater length than other interviews had; to rescue reflections or recollections that would be absent from the record otherwise. My hope was that the book would present a three-dimensional portrait of the artist, a biography in all but name; by doing so in his own words, it would amount to a Heaney autobiography also.

    Mark Thwaite: Can you tell us how the interviews in Stepping Stones were conducted and over what time period?

    Dennis O'Driscoll: Some parts of the book (Chapter 13, for instance) are transcripts of oral conversations, but most of the interviews were conducted in short written bursts between 2002 and 2007. At a time when Seamus Heaney was intensely preoccupied with more important things than dialoguing with me (he was composing the poems in District and Circle, drafting and delivering lectures, travelling abroad on literary and teaching duties, translating Sophocles' Antigone for the Abbey Theatre as The Burial at Thebes, assembling his essays for Finders Keepers), it was not feasible to proceed in any other way. But each time the rare opportunity presented itself, he responded to my latest volley of questions at precisely the kind of fleet-footed, improvisatory pace that marks the best oral interviews. In any event, the written (usually e-mail) interview is now increasingly prevalent and has become the norm on literary websites. Long before the internet, some of the most enjoyable interviews came in written form: Philip Larkin's Paris Review gem, for example, and Vladimir Nabokov's masquerade.

    Mark Thwaite: Seamus Heaney is a poetic giant of our times -- were you ever star-struck!?

    Dennis O'Driscoll: Was and am. But I would opt for 'awe-struck' rather than 'star-struck' because his fame was most certainly not the spur that impelled me to retrace the trajectory of his life. I was every bit as much in awe of his genius when I interviewed him in his seventieth year as I was when I interviewed him as he was about to turn forty and publish Field Work. More so, actually -- because, by the time of Stepping Stones, there was a much greater bibliography to marvel at.

    Mark Thwaite: Presumably you knew Heaney's poetry intimately before you began interviewing him? To you, what are his great strengths as a poet?

    Dennis O'Driscoll: His superlative gift for matching words with things, things with emotions. Possession of the richest and most individual vocabulary of any living writer helps, as does the capacity to constantly recreate himself as a poet -- he cultivates fresh new laurels rather than resting on old, dry, brittle ones.

    Mark Thwaite: What were you most surprised to learn about the man and the poet as your interviews progressed?

    Dennis O'Driscoll: Every page of Stepping Stones contains surprises -- of description, reflection or recollection. Revelation? There are revelations aplenty too -- Heaney's passport not having been 'green' until he moved to the Republic of Ireland in the 1970s; his having been sounded out for the poet laureateship... But Stepping Stones is not so much The Book of Revelations as The Book of Impressions. It is dotted with pointillist clusters of evocative detail that gradually cohere into a life-size colour portrait.

    Mark Thwaite: Is Heaney an Irish poet? By that I mean is trying to understand something that we call Ireland essential to understanding Heaney's work?

    Dennis O'Driscoll: He is not just an Irish poet or a Northern Irish poet but a south County Derry poet, steeped in local lore, language and memories. Ulster dialect words, that have no currency in Tipperary where I grew up, are his gold standard for living language, against which other Englishes are judged, just as his apprehension of the eternal verities is grounded in the experiences of his Derry childhood. At the same time, Seamus Heaney is no more Irish than that other poet of the local, universal and eternal, James Joyce. Both men think locally and write globally.

    Mark Thwaite: What was the most difficult aspects of bringing Stepping Stones to life? How did you overcome them?

    Dennis O'Driscoll: The most time-consuming part -- and it is too trivial to merit more than the briefest of mentions -- was the preparation of the editorial apparatus: dialect glossary, chronology, bibliography, biographical glossary. Fact-checking is as tedious as it is essential: an inaccuracy in a biography is as catastrophic as a misprint in a poem.

    Mark Thwaite: You are a poet yourself Dennis -- is poetry inspiration or perspiration in your experience!?

    Dennis O'Driscoll: 99% inspiration and 1% perspiration. Philip Larkin, with his usual gnomic brilliance, encapsulates the matter with less sweat: "You cannot write a poem unless you have a poem to write."

    Mark Thwaite: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?

    Dennis O'Driscoll: The essential part (the 99% bit) of writing a poem -- seizing on the initial revelation of form, rhythm, image -- is over so quickly that there is no time for thought of 'the reader' to enter into the process. 'The reader' may make an appearance in the course of revision (the 1% bit), if issues of clarity and comprehensibility arise as one begins to wonder how baffled or otherwise people will be by the more recondite aspects of the poem.

    Mark Thwaite: What do you do when you are not writing?

    Dennis O'Driscoll: I edit a magazine. Not quite an anti-poetry magazine, but most certainly not a literary one: Tax Briefing, the technical journal of Ireland's Revenue and Customs service, which analyses current developments in tax legislation and administration. Very popular with tax advisors and accountants, they phone me frequently to ask when the next issue is due. I wonder if poetry magazines attract such eager readers.

    Mark Thwaite: What are you working on now Dennis?

    Dennis O'Driscoll: Michael Hamburger, who died in 2007, was one of my earliest and most revered literary mentors and friends. His translations are known but his other writings are unjustly overlooked. I have begun curating a Michael Hamburger Reader, with a view to exhibiting his most permanent work. That archival drive again!

    Mark Thwaite: Who is your favourite poet and who is your favourite prose writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?

    Dennis O'Driscoll: My favourite modern poet is Bertolt Brecht, to whose Buckow Elegies Michael Hamburger introduced me.

    My favourite poetry anthologies are The New Oxford Book of Sixteenth-Century Verse, edited by Emrys Jones, and Daniel Weissbort's The Poetry of Survival.

    My favourite prose writers include Herman Melville, George Eliot and Henry James. A contemporary novel I admire is Beat Sterchi's Blösch (dubbed 'the Ulysses of the dairy cow' by one of my friends); it has been translated from German by Michael Hofmann, one of the very best poets of my generation.

    Mark Thwaite: Do you have any tips for the aspiring poet!?

    Dennis O'Driscoll: Poetry is a form of play. Play is a diversion from work. All play and no work will make Jack a dull poet.

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