A True Wordsmith: Patricia Forde
I have always been involved in telling stories. I was born and grew up in Galway, and I have lived there all my life, bar one year that I took out to study in Dublin.
I started acting in An Taibhdhearc , the National Irish Language Theatre when I was ten years old. There, I watched plays as old as the story of Diarmuid and Gráinne, and as new as the plays from Criostóir O’Floinn and Brian Friel. I watched Mozart’s opera Cossi Fan Tutti in Irish, and acted in Brecht’s Theepenny Opera also in Irish.
Technically, I studied Old Irish and English in NUIG, though really I studied how to run a dramatic society and how to write your own plays, and direct them, and act in them! We were blessed with an education that let us run wild and didn’t anchor us to the ground with too many exams. Our academic pursuits played second fiddle to our discovery of ourselves and our own talents. Out of that madness came Druid, Galway Arts Festival, Macnas and some of the most creative people I have ever met.
I was involved with Macnas almost from its beginnings and went on to write three plays with them. My friends were creators, actors, writers. I thought that was the norm. It’s only now I realise how lucky we were.
After university, I did a teaching diploma and for ten years I taught in primary schools in my own town. I used stories to teach everything. One day we were a team of scientists charged with investigating other planets, next we were curators of the past and built our own museum with artefacts borrowed from grandparents and elderly neighbours. I was passionate about children’s literature and loved getting the children excited about books. I still do.
I gave up teaching to take over as director of Galway Arts Festival. This job sent me all over the world ferreting out other people’s stories and bringing them to Galway. It was challenging work and I enjoyed it, but after five years I was ready to move on.
I had harboured a dream to write a novel for children for some time, and had started a few different stories and abandoned them half way. After the festival, I got work writing for television and there, I learnt to write all kinds of stories on demand. It was a great training, but I always knew I would go back to writing for children. I had, after all, spent my entire childhood stuck in a book. I read everything and anything I could find. From Enid Blyton to Jane Austen, I wasn’t terribly fussy. When I started to write books for children, I wanted to write for the child I was. She was the child I knew best. I started by writing picture books and early readers, but I was constantly trying to write a novel. I wrote three in full, that never saw the light of a publisher’s approval. And then I wrote The Wordsmith. I wrote it and rewrote it, and then wrote it again, before I sent it out. When Little Island rang to say they were interested in publishing it, I was madly excited. I got notes from Siobhán and Grainne that threw up other questions, challenged things I thought were clear, and forced me to rethink the last third of the book. When I read my earlier drafts now, I am enormously grateful to them.
The Wordsmith is a novel set in the future, but it also looks to the past. I have been bi-lingual for most of my life, speaking Irish and English. When I worked as a television writer, writing through the medium of Irish, I was in a very strange place. Irish is, after all, a dying language, and sometimes it felt like we were the last survivors, clinging to words that were fast disappearing. I have sat at meetings in Spiddal, where my colleagues and I realised, that we didn’t have a word for something. Emergency phone calls were made to mothers or grandfathers, and the word was pulled out of the dark waters of oblivion, and handed up to us. It was occasions like this that inspired me to write this novel.
The Wordsmith is set in a time after the Melting, in a place called Ark. The protagonist is fourteen year old Letta, the wordsmith’s apprentice. The ruler of Ark is John Noa. The language of Ark is List: a list of five hundred words.
This is a place that doesn’t trust language anymore. A shadowy place where art and music are banned, and language itself is the enemy.
But beneath the rules and regulations, artists still exist. Noa calls them Desecrators. They see themselves as Creators. They are the ones who question what is happening in Ark, and they are the greatest threat to the new regime.
I like the idea of words as objects, things that can be bought and sold, kept or forsaken. Letta sees them as beautiful, wild creatures.
‘She remembered lying in bed with all the words she’d learnt in school flying about her head, fireflies from some magical place, red electric fireflies.’
John Noa sees them as weapons, dangerous things, volatile and unreliable. He remembers how words were used as Earth hovered on the brink of disaster:
‘Torrents of words had followed. Words from politicians assuring people that there was no such thing as Global Warming. Words from industrialists who justified their emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere. Words to hide behind. Words to deceive. Useless, dangerous, destructive words…’
When Letta has to face the possibility that human kind will be left with no words at all, she knows she has to act.
There are a lot of big ideas in the novel; global warming, the importance of the arts, the power of language and community living, but, at its heart, it’s a story about a young girl growing up and coming to terms with the world she lives in.
The Wordsmith will have two launches, one in Galway and one in Dublin. In Galway, on May 12th, we are meeting up in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop, where Dr. Lelia Doolan will do the honours, and in Dublin on May 14th, we will be in The National Library. Dr. Amanda Piesse will do the Dublin launch and our master of ceremonies will be former Little Island editor, and current CBI director, Elaine O’Neill. I’ve heard there might be cake…
The Wordsmith is Little Island’s fiftieth book and it is a great privilege to be published by them. Much as I loved reading about ginger beer as a child, I also yearned to meet people like me, and my family, in the pages of a book. Today, Little Island reflects the country we live in back to its youngest citizens. They speak to all children, translating the best of world fiction and creating new work with Irish writers, in a lively stream of glorious covers.
They have made fifty wonderful books. Here’s to the next fifty! Or to borrow a few words from this side of the country…go maire siad an céad!
(c) Patricia Forde
On the death of her master, Letta is suddenly promoted from apprentice to wordsmith, charged with collecting and archiving words in post-apocalyptic, neo-medieval Ark. When she uncovers a sinister plan to suppress language and rob the people of Ark of the power of speech, she realises that she has to save not only words, but the culture itself.
Wordsmith is available in bookshops or pick up your copy online here!