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Blessed by a Swan – Liz McManus on ‘A Shadow in the Yard’

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It had taken me twenty-four years to write my second novel. The first novel, Acts Of Subversion found a publisher relatively easily. It was nominated for an Irish Times/Aer Lingus first book award, sold a few thousand copies and then disappeared – as novels do – into the ether.

Meanwhile I was well and truly stuck.

Nowadays, there is a view that there is no such thing as writer’s block. Then it was common to complain about it. I suspect that lack of confidence, isolation and fear stopped me from writing another novel. Instead I wrote a weekly column for The Sunday Tribune which became so challenging that, coming up to the deadline, I suffered from a kind of mental pre-menstrual tension every week.

Who needs this hassle? I asked myself, and went into politics to get away from the stress…

Being a TD is a 24 hour a day job. It stretches you in every way possible – physically, mentally, emotionally, intellectually. For twenty years I wrote press statements, speeches, eulogies, articles for school magazines and active retirement groups but I never wrote anything for myself except the odd bit of flash fiction or a very occasional short story.

Then time caught with me. I had always sworn that I would not be a TD with a free travel pass. Politics needs young people – women especially – and I felt I was in danger of hanging on past my sell-by date.

So I retired from the Dail. It was the best decision I ever made. Fortunately I knew what I wanted to do and I applied to the MPhil course in Creative Writing at TCD. I didn’t get accepted on the first round and I was lucky enough to get in on the second.

liz_mcm_photo 140x210For anyone who wonders whether these courses are worthwhile I can only reply that for me, the MPhil created a rich, nurturing milieu in which I found the courage to write my second novel A Shadow in the Yard. Professor Gerald Dawe is the director of the Oscar Wilde Centre. He is an inspiring teacher and mentor. I learnt a great deal from him and was astonished that he believed in the novel I was writing even before I did. During that year we met a lot of writers and the American writer Richard Ford spent a week with us. That was a defining experience – not just for me as a writer but for everyone else in our class.

I’ve just been elected to chair the Board of the Irish Writers Centre. It is an honour that I was very happy to take up. So much has changed for writers since I wrote my first novel. I see the important role of the IWC as a resource for Irish writing and writers, how it helps to platform the work of emerging writers and create a sustaining environment.

In the end, of course, we all write alone. Alone, that is, except for the people who tramp around in our heads, making noise and doing things we hadn’t intended when we set out to write a novel. In A Shadow in the Yard I wanted to write about a young woman living along the Border, and who ends up dead. It wasn’t much to begin with but once I got going, the characters took hold. At one point I was stymied. I wanted to set up a meeting between my heroine and her neighbour – an old man who had a farm next to her house. Every situation I concocted seemed banal and dull until, one day, a swan flew into the backyard of my house and couldn’t get out again. There is a flock of swans in the harbour close to my house but, as a rule, swans aren’t inclined to land in people’s yards. But this one did and suddenly I had the inspiration I needed. My character goes into her yard and finds a swan stranded on the cobbles. She heads over to her neighbour to ask for help and that is how they meet. He, – just like my partner Sean did, in real life – scoops up the swan, carries it into the front garden and sets it free.

The swan became a motif throughout the novel. I didn’t plan it that way – I tend to write by instinct rather than by stratagem. Once the book was finished my agent Jonathan Williams began to hunt down a publisher. Like Professor Dawe, he believed in the novel, something for which I am eternally grateful. Ward River Press took it on. Then began the slow, tortuous work of editing and tweaking the novel, agreeing the cover design, doing spellchecks and filling in biographical detail until I was getting heartily sick of the whole venture.

At last everyone was happy – the editor, the publisher, the agent, even me. I closed down my computer with relief, grabbed my coat and ran down the stairs because I was late for an appointment. I opened my front door to an extraordinary sight.

There, in front of me, on the driveway, was a swan.

A swan in my backyard is one thing. A big, beautiful bird standing at my porch and looking straight into my eyes – that was unprecedented. I don’t know how it came to be standing outside my front door because such an event has never happened before. But I do know my novel was blessed that day. By a swan.

How lucky is that ?

(c) Liz McManus

About A Shadow in the Yard

When a swan lands in the yard of Rosaleen McAvady’s home on Lough Swilly, it is trapped by its narrow confines and cannot escape. She asks her elderly neighbour, Tom Mundy, for help, and unwittingly sets off a chain of events that will have far-reaching repercussions.

After a brief career as an architect, Rosaleen has settled for marriage and children. Life is secure and predictable, but she now finds herself longing to stretch her wings.

Dramatic political upheaval in Northern Ireland soon casts its shadow and, though such events seem to have no relevance to her life, Rosaleen realizes that, beneath the placid surface of her world, violence and betrayal threaten all she holds dear.

Like the swan in the yard, can she hope for escape or must she be trapped forever?

‘This is a book to be read with care as well as pleasure. She has packed so many of our 20th century Irish problems into it that at moments you become breathless with anxiety. However, she has an optimism in her writing that is infectious and makes you turn the pages with pleasure.’ Jennifer Johnston

A Shadow in the Yard is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here.

About Liz McManus

Liz McManus is a novelist and short fiction writer. Her awards include Listowel, Irish Pen and the Hennessy Award for New Irish Writing. Her first novel Acts of Subversion was shortlisted for the Aer Lingus/Irish Times award. She has also been a newspaper columnist. She has an MPhil with Distinction in Creative Writing (TCD 2012). Residencies include the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig and the Hienrich Boll cottage on Achill Island.

Liz was a TD for County Wicklow for eighteen years and a Minister of State for Housing and Urban Renewal in the Rainbow Government. She chaired the National Taskforce of the Needs of the Travelling Community and the Monitoring Group on UN Resolution 1325. Currently she is a member of the board of the Irish Writers’ Centre. She trained and worked as an architect for a number of years in Derry, Galway and Dublin. She lives at 1 Martello Terrace, Bray – the childhood home of James Joyce.




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