I have a weakness for trivia about famous writers, and especially about how they actually did the business, in other words how they physically went about transferring their ideas to paper. Over the years I’ve learned for instance that Virginia Wolf, Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway had a penchant for writing standing up, while James Joyce preferred to scribble in a supine position on a bed. Vladimir Nabokov meanwhile liked writing in stationary cars while Friedrich von Schiller, the great German Romantic poet, needed a drawerful of rotten apples in his workroom to stimulate the muse. These sorts of facts might help to liven up a wet Sunday afternoon in the pub but none of them are going to help you pen a bestseller or win the Booker prize.
On the other hand this mild obsession with celebrity writers attained a new relevance for me when New Island bought one of my novels and I was suddenly propelled from struggling wannabe novelist to published author. For the first time, I was forced to reflect on how I create copy myself if for no other reason than because it’s one of these questions both readers and journalists like to ask.
So how do I write? Strangely enough, despite a three year gestation period, I have only the dimmest recollections of how I put together my own book. What I do clearly remember are the hundreds of hours of research that went into its production. And perhaps that is the rub. During the three years it took me to complete the novel, the actual writing became a part of an established routine, like eating breakfast or brushing one’s teeth, and thereby faded into the recesses of my life, while the research constantly propagated new and original thoughts about where the story was going.
At times I was so satisfied with this process that I wondered if my motivation for writing a historical novel—it takes place in 1937—was merely for the sake of carrying out research on the period. Did I overdo it? Could I have written something as good or better without having spent so much time looking up the price of an Irish breakfast in a Dublin eatery in the 1930s or which tram routes ran through Rathmines? On reflection, the simple answer is no. Perhaps I didn’t get to use more than a fraction of the thousands of facts I gleaned about pre-war Irish and British society, but this accumulated lore made me feel at home in this milieu. Which is really the whole point of the exercise. All those hours of poring over train timetables, local history books, accounts of IRA activists, police records, newspaper articles, diaries from the period, contemporary novels and travel guides, motorcar, fashion and food advertisements, and of course films and photographs made me feel that I was there. I could step into that world, and while standing there could look around, breathe in the smoggy air of 1930s Dublin, and construct the story I wanted.
Even more importantly, I gained insight into my characters and could safely locate them inside this fictionalised if historically accurate universe. My own stock of players evolved naturally from my research. To be more specific the three IRA activists at the centre of the novel emerged from my study of a privately published book entitled ’The IRA in the Twilight Years’ compiled by Uinseann MacEoin. MacEoin’s republican sympathies gave him unprecedented access to members of the Old IRA, who spoke to him with what seems to be total candour. Immersed in their words, these verbatim interviews about the IRA from the 1920s to the 1940s, my characters and the novel gradually took shape. Not based on actual people, these characters were not composites of them either, but something new. Fiction, in other words.
Along with the trivia about famous authors, come the inevitable lists of dos and don’ts that these authors also supplied. Most of them offer excellent advice, i.e.: write in longhand first, keep a diary, always keep a notebook on hand, don’t rely on inspiration striking but stick to a fixed routine and write a fixed quota every day. And inevitably, edit, edit and re-edit what you have written.
But despite all the wisdom contained in these lists—useful as they might be—they tend to leave one thing out of the equation. Or rather they mention it but with a big red warning sign attached. And that dangerous ’it’ is inspiration, which might sound like a woolly ethereal concept from the 18th century Romantics, but deep down is probably the reason you’re writing in the first place. And more importantly it’s also going to be the reason that anyone will want to read whatever it is you create. In more concrete terms: it’s hard to imagine the genesis of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, one of the most influential novels of the 19th century, without the nightmare that motivated the story.
For me inspiration is everything and it makes no difference how disciplined and productive you are unless the story itself has enough air under its wings to take off and fly. I was inspired by imagining how I would have acted if I had been a young and footloose Republican in 1930s Ireland and fell in love with Jewish refugee and that thought was compelling enough to keep me toiling away for three years. But your inspiration could come from almost anywhere. A particular smell, a photograph, a dream or just an unforgettable idea may be enough to engage your imagination and set you off. Whatever it is, concentrate fully on that sensation, do not allow it to be watered down or compromised, and the rest will take care of itself. And then of course you must write, whether you do this standing up, lying down or, as my preference is, sitting at a desk.
(c) Brendan John Sweeney
Raised in County Cavan, by an Irish-speaking father from Donegal and a Scottish mother, Brendan Sweeney has always felt slightly out of place.
After studying journalism at Rathmines, and a spell working as a feature writer for the now-defunct Sunday Press and other Irish publications, Brendan headed for the Continent where he wandered between countries as diverse as Spain, Germany, Denmark and Norway picking up languages and generally refusing to settle down. En route he taught English to the Spanish Olympic team, washed dishes in Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen, worked as a news presenter for Deutsche Welle in Cologne, and ran human rights projects for a Danish organisation in Yemen and Iraq.
In the meantime he wrote a wide range of articles on subjects as diverse as violence in Danish supermarkets and the influence of Celtic myths on Scandinavian literature. Brendan’s first fictional work Once In Another World was inspired by his MA dissertation at the University of Copenhagen on the topic of IRA films, and by his abiding interest in myth, nationalism and the roots of political violence.
About Once In Another World
Dublin, March 1937. Holland, an idealistic young IRA recruit, is offered a strange assignment. He is told to guard and spy on a sinister Hungarian businessman and Sabine his secretary – a Jewish refugee.
The mission tests Holland’s loyalties and his idealism to the utmost and ends with a sordid shooting match in a field in England. Holland finds himself fleeing with Sabine into the depths of the Irish countryside, where treacherous swamps and dense woods protect them from their pursuers. An intense love affair between two young people from vastly different worlds suddenly becomes possible.
But Holland’s closest friend in the Movement knows his mind too well, and seeks him out, leading to a confrontation as fateful and tragic as any Irish myth.
Once in Another World is available in all good bookshops and online here.