‘Just write the feckin’ thing’ was the advice I was given by my father. Sons often ignore paternal wisdom. These five words were left to me by favourite writer John B Keane, who happens to be my dad. I took notice, eventually. Then one June morning about three years ago, I started to write my new novel, The Ballad of Mo and G.
It’s all about bum on seat. Just get started.
Too much planning is as bad as none at all. Do not be afraid to write quickly. Go with the flow and there’s nothing much wrong with writing the way you speak. Grammar and spelling can be sorted out later on. Don’t get it perfect get it written.
That’s what first drafts are for. I must have made five drafts of The Ballad of Mo and G before I submitted the novel for publication. That first effort is merely an undercoat.
I usually write in bed, with the pillows propped up. Sometimes I doze off after working late into the night in my bar, John B Keane’s. I often write in our old bedroom over the family pub here in Listowel. My 84 and a half year old mother tiptoes around the upstairs. She knows better than to disturb writers.
I say to her ‘Mam, call me only if the house is on fire’. I have written many newspaper articles for The Irish Independent during big matches, with all sorts of screechings and roarings going on but for Mo and G I needed the quiet. Sports pieces write themselves because you don’t have to make anything up but very often the people of Ireland and beyond will write your novel for you, or at least parts of it. So it was with The Ballad of Mo and G.
It was on the morning my dad died, about 11 years ago that I was looking out the front window of John B’s, sad that dad and myself would never share a pint here ever again. This elderly man was being interviewed by a newspaper reporter. The old man moved on and one of the neighbours, Ned O’Sullivan, was also interviewed by the reporter.
Ned couldn’t wait to tell me.
‘What it was that made John B such a great writer?’ was the question put by the reporter to the old man. The elder thought for a minute, took stock and his earnest reply was ‘sure isn’t John B the smartest man of them all. He takes down what we says and then he charges us to read it.’
So there you have it. The Keane secret. The stories and dialogue are walking around the streets before your very eyes.
It takes a while to get to know the style that suits you best. I write early in the mornings before the house wakes up for school. Here’s my mad theory. There are millions of workers busy repairing the wear and tear in our brain cells while we sleep. I write best when fresh. Ideas come from nowhere and by noon I’m wasted.
I am not a planner. I go day by day. That way may not be for you. Most people need structure. I thrive on the haphazard and the serendipitous. I would advise any writer just to go for it occasionally and write without planning. Write and see what happens. Maybe it comes from being a newspaper columnist. I construct about 120 pieces a year – enough to fill two good sized books and that’s the way this writer’s episodic style has evolved. When I was writing The Ballad of Mo and G I let the story take me on a journey.
Yes, writing a book is a journey and I’m sure you are asking the question I’m always asked when I do interviews. ‘What’s it like to follow in the footsteps of a father who was a wonderful writer?’ I do not walk in my beloved dad’s footsteps, I walk beside him. So it is that we must retain our individuality and freedom. Be yourself. Write your own story. Be brave. My namesake and colleague Billy Shakespeare used to say ‘to thine own self be true’. Everywhere we go we are subjected to rules made by other people. Writers own the destiny of the pages we write. Already I’m planning to make soup of out a critic who gave me a bad review – in the next book, that is. You’d do time for that in real life.
Writing The Ballad of Mo and G is the nearest I can ever get to giving birth. The two most beautiful aromas are that of a new book and a new-born baby. Write as if your life depends on it. Don’t worry about getting published. The true measure is in getting the work done and finished, that in itself is a remarkable achievement. Your testimony will be there forever: the story of you, a writer turned alchemist, who made a book of gold out of the air we live and breathe.
(c) Billy Keane
Billy Keane is a columnist with the Irish Independent. The son of John B. Keane, he runs the world-famous John B. Keane’s pub in Listowel in his native County Kerry. His previous books include the novel The Last of the Heroes and Rucks, Mauls and Gaelic Football, which he co-wrote with Moss Keane.
The Ballad of Mo and G is available in all good booksellers and online here.