1. Máire, you are facilitating our “A Sense of Place” fiction workshop during the festival, and have mentioned using samples of work from writers such as Daphne Du Maurier and Elif Shafak to illustrate the importance of place. Could you tell us how important setting is in your own work?
Setting is hugely important in my work. My first novel, Skin Paper Stone, is set in contemporary Galway City and it’s a kind of love letter to the place. My current novel-in-progress is set in New York City in the first half of the 1900’s, a time and place I have a particular fascination with. Obviously, setting is important in order to provide an atmospheric world for the reader, but it can also inform every element of the story: plot, theme, mood, character, even dialogue. I’m particularly interested in the relationship between setting and point of view. In fiction, no setting is ever really neutral because you are examining place through a specific lens. I’m looking forward to exploring some of these ideas in the workshop.
2. What do you think are typical mistakes made by writers setting out, and how might they avoid them?
Writers need to be free to make their own mistakes and find their own path. They should take didactic writing advice or “rules” for writers with a heavy pinch of salt. (And yes, that statement is technically advice, so feel free to also ignore me.) I’m constantly seeing the same boring stuff trotted out about not using adverbs or semicolons or whatever. The thing is, not everyone wants to be Hemingway. Let’s be honest, Hemingway probably didn’t even want to be Hemingway.
“Kill your darlings” is another oft-cited one that always struck me as particularly abysmal advice. At the very least you should copy and paste your darlings into a separate word document and then email it to yourself for safekeeping.
3. I see from your academic background that you completed a Film Studies degree, and then went on to do an MA in Creative Writing. Do you think that studying writing formally has helped you? Would you recommend it to those starting out or could they serve their apprenticeship just as well through extensive reading?
I can’t in good faith say yeah, go ahead and do a Masters in Writing because the cost of these kinds of programmes can be prohibitive for many people. Luckily, I qualified for a grant so was exempt from course fees and received a small stipend. Through that and working part-time I was able to cover my costs. Otherwise I couldn’t have done it at all. This was in 2007/2008 when rent wasn’t as ludicrous as it is now either.
The financial aspect aside, yes, studying writing helped me a lot. The best thing about it was meeting other fiction writers. It seems bizarre to me now, but at the time I didn’t know any. I became reassured that sitting at a desk and creating imaginary people wasn’t such a strange thing to want to do with my life after all. Another positive was having time to read and discovering new books. I read constantly, fell in love with short stories, and tentatively began to write my own.
So, I think a Masters is worth doing if it’s an option for you, but it’s by no means a necessity. The positive aspects: meeting other writers, getting feedback on work, finding out about the publishing industry, etc., are all things you can do outside of a third level course. There are a range of brilliant short-term writing courses available these days. The whole publishing industry has been demystified in recent years thanks to the internet, and Twitter in particular, where publishers and literary agents have public profiles.
As for serving an apprenticeship through reading, yes, this is non-negotiable whether you go the Masters route or not. Reading is central to becoming a writer. But my advice would be not to approach it as a chore with a big list of books you feel you “should” read. (Even the term “tbr pile” strikes me as kind of guilt-inducing and joyless.) I’ve always loved the Emily Dickinson quote: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry”. That’s the spark you’re looking for, the connection, in discovering the work of writers that speaks to you and the work you want to create yourself. You have to follow the thread of your own writerly obsessions. It’s a massively subjective thing.
Máire is facilitating our “A Sense of Place” fiction workshop on Saturday 28th September: 10.00-12.00 in St Cronan’s BNS, Vevay Cresecent (off Vevay road)
To book, email: firstname.lastname@example.org