Thursday, February 15, 2018

A Writer’s Life with Kevin O’Connell

I'm honored to host Kevin O'Connell and introduce his latest novel in The Derrynane Saga series, Two Journeys Home: A Novel of Eighteenth Century Europe. He writes about Irish nobility and a relatively unknown aspect of Irish and European history (at least to me). The fallen Irish aristocracy served at the courts and in the armies of Catholic Europe. And, yes, they got to visit Vienna and Versailles. Tell us about your journey as a writer, Kevin.

As Beyond Derrynane and Two Journeys Home continue to be more widely-read, a number of questions have been posed to me, about writing them as well as about my writing in general. I have chosen to elaborate on several of the more intriguing ones.

     What are my goals as a writer.

 At the outset, unlike many later-on-in-life beginning authors, it was not a long-deferred dream of mine to write – certainly not novels.  Yet, once I began – on rather a lark, I must admit – it quickly became a passion, and, as “the first book” became the first book in what is now the Derrynane Saga, with the second one now recently published and the third underway – the passion has evolved into what I have now come to regard as being my life’s work.
Quite candidly, my initial goal – once I had the barest of story lines – was to see if I could indeed do it, that is, to actually write fiction, create characters and give them lives and voices, and tell their stories. The first reviews were very good and my goal has evolved into creating a series of books, a lengthy saga, worthy of the complex, colourful characters and of the tumultuous time and the challenging, oft-times dangerous settings in which they dwell.  
An equally important goal remains to do all of this – and more – as a storyteller, in a manner so as to make the books an enjoyable experience for both the casual reader as well as the true devotee of historical fiction. Especially in terms of the latter audience, my aim remains to have the history and the fictional tales meld well, such that it would be virtually impossible for the majority of readers to successfully parse which events actually occurred or did not.
Lastly, my hopes and my goals remain to have the books – and, indeed, once the Derrynane Saga is finally completed, the further work that I plan to undertake –  continue to be well-regarded as quality, accessible historical fiction, recognised as being meticulously-researched, beautifully-written and enjoyable.

   What are the boundaries you have pushed as a writer? 

Whilst I do not believe, nor do I pretend that my work has shattered any significant literary boundaries, in that the Derrynane Saga is the first fictional treatment, relating stories of members, and of families of what was referred to by then as the fallen Gaelic Aristocracy, as they served at the courts and in the armies of Catholic Europe in the Eighteenth Century. Though understanding that the topic is narrow I was indeed rather surprised to discover that it had never before been treated in fiction.
Whilst the books are not a specific chronicle of all courts – nor anything approaching an exhaustive even fictional treatment of the subject, I believe the Saga does succeed in opening a literary door onto a relatively unknown aspect of Irish and European history in the Eighteenth Century.

What is my writing style and how I have adapted it to work for my story?

At the risk of appearing glib, this is relatively easy– I had no distinguishable writing style before I began to work on these books, so I was not compelled to adapt any in-place pre-existing style to writing the books of the Saga.
This said, in reflecting on how I wished the reader to experience the stories, from the very beginning I had consciously decided to write “formally” (some would say “archaically”) – in some approximative suggestion of Eighteenth Century written communications, such that the gap between the descriptive text written in the Twenty-first Century and the dialogue of the characters would not be quite so jarring. Consistent with this decision, I write in “Irish (or “English”) English – both in terms of spelling (“colour”) and usage “whilst”).
In terms of dialogue, I make every effort to have the characters – be they Irish at the courts in Vienna or Versailles – or the nobility or royalty at those locations – speak and interact the way I believe they did. In the same vein, servants – whether at Derrynane or Versailles – may be viewed as subtly speaking differently than educated courtiers.
I frequently use correspondence as one means of telling the story, providing details and insights into what is occurring or the thoughts, hopes, concerns of the writer; in doing so I have worked hard to reasonably assure that any such letter is written as it would have been by the writer in the time and place of its composition.
I have, I believe successfully, largely avoided verbal stereotypes, I have employed the Irish “lilt” sparingly, recognising that, for example, that, despite that they were native Irish speakers and possessed at least to some natural degree the “brogue”,  the O’Connells were, for their station, sophisticate and highly-educated; they thus most likely spoke in tone and manner little different than similar lesser aristocrats would in England at the time.
I have selectively used non-English – Irish Gaelic, French and German – language for emphasis and./or to set the mood or tone of a scene or setting.  In replicating, in English, the cadence or manner of a native-French or German speaker, I have been as subtle as possible in choosing phraseology, such that an English-speaking reader could easily conclude that the character was speaking wholly in German, for example. (I find this to be less invasive than constantly reminding the reader “. . . she said in French . . .”
Comments made by an individual who’d read literally the first fifty pages of the original manuscript, “I can see the setting, where the characters are! I can hear them speaking!” had a profound impact on me as I was attempting to determine the importance, the appropriate degree of descriptive language to use. My conclusion was, especially in this genre – where virtually everything is different from life in the current century – that descriptions were critical and that details – from the largest, to the smallest – provide readers with the opportunity to say what had been said to me, “I can see the people, where they are, I can hear them.” As I write,  I make every effort to use vivid language so as to make the setting visible to the reader, permitting her to sense that she is at a ball, aboard a ship or in the saddle.
I have thus come to employ significant vividly-descriptive language to place the reader on the beach at Derrynane, in the courtyards and the interior of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, amongst the riders on a journey by horseback and in carriages, coaches:

The horses’ bells gaily marked their progress to the huge, ornate white building that housed the renowned Winter Riding School, also known as the Spanish Riding School, as it had thus been named for the horses that originated from the Iberian Peninsula during the sixteenth century and were considered especially noble and spirited, as well as willing and suited for the art of classical horsemanship. Eileen learnt that, in 1729,the empress’s father, Emperor Charles VI, had commissioned the magnificent structure in which they rode, and it finally had been completed in 1735. She had immediately fallen in love with the edifice, its history and all that went on within, to the extent that she had come to regularly smile at the massive portrait of the monarch, mounted on a magnificent white charger, which gracedone end of the splendid riding hall. . .

From her first days in Vienna Eileen had found herself frequently employing the term magnificent to the buildings, rooms,churches, opera house—somuch so that she’d inquired as to the appropriate German usage; advised that there were some thirteen—some tongue-twisting—ways of expressing the characterisation, she settled. It was as a result of her near instantaneous feelings for the Riding School that she would quickly learn to, meaning truly magnificent. The phrase came to mind virtually every time she entered the riding hall itself: its galleries buttressed by,despite their size, almost delicate Corinthian columns, massive and dazzlingly white, the hall illuminated on gloomy winter afternoons by a series of extraordinary crystal chandeliers, their dozens of candles flickering, as if each flame danced to its own unique tune. The crowning intricately-fashioned vaulted ceiling above the lights was an extraordinary work of art in itself.

In this vein, to the extent I deem necessary, and, thus on more than a few occasions I employ a minute level of description – including sounds,odours, the weather:

Mainly, however, she rode in blissful silence, the immediate atmospherealive with the soft creaking of coach wheels and springs, jangling tack and the steady rhythm of thudding hooves—the gentle squeak of her own body,her bottom, her thighs against the thick leather of Bull’s saddle, all to her comforting, timeless sounds. A light wind came up as they were perhaps two miles gone from the Hofburg, diffusing the morning’s thin cloud cover; the sun was growing brighter, warmer. More than once, she lifted her face to it, feeling the rays on her cheeks, the gentle breeze tossing her hair,sensing her spirits rising—beginning to feel in a way as frisky as Bull continued to behave.

Thank you, Kevn. I look forward to your next book in the series. 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

All the Things Wrong with the World are Made Right With You

My son usually introduces me to new music on road trips. This time he navigated hwy 22 to Memphis and we talked about the future of the planet. Gerald has done quite a bit of research on global warming and said we have reached the point of no return: life as we've known it will not be the same for future generations of humans.

We were commuting from his law school in Tuscaloosa to Memphis, where my husband's family will gather for simultaneous celebrations of birthdays and Mother's Day.  I leaned toward him, hanging on every word, while at the same time admiring the vibrant green trees and pasture land we passed.  There had been frequent showers in the area and his dire warnings ran counter to the verdant zone through which we drove. 

"People take all this for granted," he said. "We abuse it." 

He's living in an area of fervent unbelievers . . . in global warming. They do believe in hell fire, though, so maybe a convincing argument could be made from the pulpit.  If preachers got on the side of science they'd just have to get creative, convince people that the Lord Almighty wanted them to choose to live now.  Emphasis being their choice not the Lord's.  Gerald said it would never happen, and that's why he felt hopeless about our future.

The earth underlined his words with a blinding downpour and punctuated his hopelessness with thunder. Cars flashed emergency lights or pulled over to the side of the road. We kept moving, and talking, the Honda a tiny world of its own. Long haul trucks sped past us, fearless and mighty above our puny vehicles.  Seizing the opportunity to gain time in their individual and corporate pursuits-the American way-they pounded us with highway surf. 

I love you, honey. Your ideas are good. Now let's see if we can change the world.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Device and Conquer

         “In my day we had two tin cans and a string,” Reuben, 83, said. We were discussing electronic devices for children.
         “I tried those,” I said, “but the service was always down.”
         Reuben and I met at the local Coffee Bean and bonded over my dog, Joey. He’s there every day and I’d seen him either snoozing in the corner or talking with other old guys. One day, I tied Joey up to a meter and went inside to order my double cappuccino. He started to bark. Came outside to find Reuben feeding him something he'd dug out of his pocket: cookies and chips. Joey was captivated.
         We three sat on chairs outside and got to know each other. Reuben is from Romania. He’s been here 48 years and has two adult children living in Calabasas, a 45-minute drive which he can no longer do. His daughter brings the grandchildren over, which used to delight him. They'd play games, run around the yard. Now 9 and 11, they're only interested in their smartphones and don't interact with him.      
         I see very young children with these phones and even toddlers being pushed in their strollers with a smartphone or an iPad attached for their viewing pleasure. This is not a recent development. Thirty years ago I was horrified when a pediatrician friend hooked up a video player in her minivan for a road trip with her two kids. Two years later you could buy a car with its own screen. No "are we there yet?" for those parents. During that same period, I bought Suspense radio shows on cassette and played the stories on a drive to Utah with my sons. They had to use their imagination to visualize the scenes. When I pulled over for gas, they asked me to keep playing the tape.
         I’ve read complaints dating back 60 years about the corrupting influence of watching too much TV. True, our black & white TV was a babysitter of sorts. But we only had three channels in Santa Fe and at least two of them stopped broadcasting by 10:30 p.m. My mom worked nights and I waited up for her. I was forced to pick up a book and read.
         Posted an abbreviated version of this piece on Facebook for discussion and got a variety of responses. Here are three of the best:

“We have two grandkids the same ages. If I don't play their video games or can talk them into going for a bike ride, I am just an old adult, Grandpa, who they have a hard time relating to. The question that I ask is not, "When is introducing the 21st century tools too early?" Now I ask, "How can I interact with them and have us all engaged?” Mushroom Montoya.

This how we end up with a ‘media mogul’ as president!” Tom Pa

“It's the future get used to it. Human/machine integration will be commonplace.” Carlos Encinas


Monday, December 04, 2017

And Then There Was White

And Then There Was White

White eyebrow hairs. Mom said this would happen.
White hairs at hairline. Sophisticated look for the distant future.
White nostril hairs. Crap.
White pubic hairs. OMG.
White eyelash. End times.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

I Love Yoga

The old lady in yoga looked familiar. She’d lived on Maui she said, and her name was Shifra which means beautiful in Hebrew. Her name resounded in my memory. 

She arrived for yoga class every week with a longhaired dude whose clothes reeked of weed. Another trigger. Forty years ago, a beautiful hippie with flowers in her hair approached me on the beach in Maui. “Bud?” she said and smiled. 

“I think you sold me some weed when I was in Maui,” I told her today. She laughed and reached for me to give me a big hug. I had to stoop over to squeeze her. She whispered in my ear, “I can still sell you some.”

Saturday, November 25, 2017


The new light streaming through the windows at dawn colors my quiet time. Family still comatose, but I hear stirring, like static on the consciousness line. Alone, the world is as I imagine it. No other agendas. Made room for restless spirits when my children were young. Then, the moody years arrived and just as quickly were gone. My empty nest is filled with a resurgence of my senses and a recognition of blessings: a husband I love, adult children making their way, new friends saying what they mean and meaning what they say.

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Suburbicon Movie Review

            Matt Damon and Julianne Moore starring. George Clooney directing.  A Coen Brothers script. What’s not to like? Well according to most reviews and the effervescent Rotten Tomatoes, quite a bit.
            Thank goodness I didn’t read any of the reviews before going to the movie. The game for me with books and movies is if I can guess what’s going to happen next. The twists in Suburbicon took me by surprise, not just once, but several times.
            I liked the movie. There weren't a lot of laughs, but I left the theater smiling.
            The plot seems straightforward. Set in the 50s in a "planned" community, twin sisters, Rose and Maggie (both played by Moore), sit on the Lodge family backyard porch with Nicky (Noah Jupe), Rose’s young son. A black middle-class family, the Meyers, has moved into the house on the street behind them and their backyards converge, separated by a short, flimsy fence. Neighbors have voiced their concern over the new family. They’re worried about a rise in crime and devaluation of their homes.
            A boy, about the same age as Nicky, steps out of the Meyers’ house with a baseball glove and ball, and tosses it into the air. Nicky’s Aunt Maggie tells him to invite their new neighbor to play catch.
            Nice, huh?
            Well, don’t get too comfortable with your assumptions. The movie unwinds with what seems to be a tale of two families: the black family and the white Lodge family. But except for the boys who become friends, the two families never cross paths. As unruly crowds gather in front of the Meyers’ house, a robbery and murder occurs in the Lodge home. The perps are white, and one of them is scary mean (Glenn Fleshler). They chloroform the entire family, holding the cloth on Rose’s face for a long time. She dies, leaving a grieving husband, Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon) and Nicky.
            Aunt Maggie steps into the role of caretaker for the family, only she quickly transitions into mean Auntie, all the while speaking in her soft, amenable voice. Moore’s acting is brilliant. She comes across as compliant, even when she’s grinding up lye for a white bread sandwich. I’m not gonna tell you who the intended victim is . . . that’s one of the surprises.
            The murders in the Lodge home multiply while the police fight off the angry white mob at the Meyers home. We see evil played out on two stages: Unthinking mob violence on one and Coen Brothers inspired psychopathology on another. The black family doesn’t fight back or seek to incite confrontation. The white family tries to solve its problems with more murders.

            In the end we’re left with the innocence of children, who guilelessly reach out to each other again.