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Relearning, While Writing Oak and Stone by Dave Duggan

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Dave Duggan © 30 May 2019.
Posted in the Magazine ( · Crime · Interviews ).

Can you say you’ve learned a lesson if it’s not something new? If it’s something you learned the very first time you wrote for readers other than yourself If it’s almost a cliché among writers, a truism that is repeated and repeated by writers, agents, publishers and readers, who say things like “it was confusing” or “what happened to the woman who brought the gun?” or “what was all that stuff in the castle about?” or “the ending made no sense”? Who damn your work with the line: should have had a re-write.

If it’s not a new lesson, then I can say that the truth that “writing is re-writing” was driven home to me, again, in the process of writing my latest novel, Oak and Stone. When the persistent images that brought the story to the top of my ‘to do’ pile led to the itchy, sweaty palms that I recognise as telling symptoms that the story has infected me and I’d better set about purging it on to paper, when I sat down and faced into writing, I knew that before I got up and stood away from it, I would have re-written and re-drafted it.

I’m with Dorothy Parker, who said in The Art of Fiction, “I would write a book, or a short story, at least three times–once to understand it, the second time to improve the prose, and a third to compel it to say what it still must say.” John Irving (The World according to Garp) talks about not having unusual talent, but having mighty stamina. For re-writing.

I knew that, even before I read Dorothy Parker’s version and John Irving’s confession. Each time I undertake to write something I know that the rewriting is ahead of me. With Oak and Stone, once I got it underway, pauses and restarts were made, until a first draft hung together in a file on my computer. I generally write a first draft with pen on paper, then type that work into a computer, thus producing a dodgy second draft, perhaps more realistically called an advanced first draft. So the re-writing began.

Pieces were cut. Sections were moved about. Ideas binned. Characters renamed. And all of that material was held, offside, apart from, but connected to, the work in hand. For my novel Oak and Stone, that work is in a file called “Oak and Stone remnants”. I don’t bin drafts or notes, until quite the while after the work is out in the world, because I have learned that those pieces may prove to be part of other work; work that develops later on or gets onto another platform altogether. If you search my blog, breathingwithalimp.blogspot.com, using the word ‘Remnant’ as a title, you’ll find posts that are sections I cut from early drafts of Oak and Stone. You can make up your own mind whether you think what I did was wise.

I once wrote an anti-war prose poem called The Old Contemptible, about a veteran of the British Army in World War One. It wasn’t published, but I read it publicly and a number of people spoke warmly about it. Almost ten years after it was first written, it became – re-written – a key scene in a stage-play, The Shopper and the Boy, which was produced and toured widely. The re-written prose poem appeared in the play text, published as one of my Plays in a Peace Process (Guildhall Press, 2008).

Perhaps that’s the confirmation of a second lesson; “rewrite and don’t throw away”.

Both lessons, revised, revisited and re-used, were with me when I wrote Oak and Stone: “writing is re-writing” and “re-write and don’t throw away”. I’ll keep using those lessons as I move onto new work.

I was in Antibes, in the south of France, soon after I passed the corrected proofs of Oak and Stone to the publisher for finalising and getting off to the printers, so that the book could begin its life in the world. I was reading Graham Greene’s Ways of Escape, which is part-memoir, part writer’s guide, written when he lived in Antibes. I visited places associated with the English writer; the block of flats where he lived, Café Felix at the old port, where he took guests like Orson Welles to lunch. I felt good, if slightly ill at ease. Had I done enough? Had I used the lessons learned and re-learned? I tucked into my plat du jour and read: “Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.”

(c) Dave Duggan

About Oak and Stone:

For fans of Jo Nesbo, Steig Larsson, Adrian McKinty, David Peace.

Part of an experimental and controversial recruitment project, ex-IRA member Eddie Slevin is fast-tracked through the ranks of a revamped police force in Northern Ireland. His peculiar ability to solve even the most complex cases is grudgingly applauded by colleagues and superior officers.

But, when a star footballer is found shot dead, face down on the penalty spot of the local football club, Eddie’s professional and personal lives become intertwined in a whirlpool of ghosts from the past, adversaries in the present, and a looming dread in the future.

What writers and critics are saying about Oak and Stone:

“Dave Duggan has created a tough as rubber bullets terrorist turned policeman in a peace processed Northern Ireland. A poster boy for top brass on TV, but still a target investigating the striker found shot dead on the penalty spot.” – Liam Murphy, Munster Express.

“Sardonically playful and deadly serious, Dave Duggan’s deft subversion of the thriller genre combines sharp wit with astute humanity in a narrative that speeds forward like a crime novel while drawing us back into the unescapable emotional consequences of the past. Oak and Stone is richly original.” – Dermot Bolger, author of An Ark of Light.

Order your copy online here.


Dave Duggan is a novelist and playwright born in London, raised in Waterford, and living in Derry. He is the author of the novels The Greening of Larry Mahon (Guildhall Press, 1996), A Sudden Sun (Guildhall Press, 2012), and Makaronik (Cló Iar Chonnacht, 2018). His film work includes the Oscar nominated Dance Lexie Dance (Raw Nerve Productions, 1996). Dave’s theatre work has played throughout Ireland and in Edinburgh, Liverpool, New York and Afghanistan. He won the Stewart Parker Trust Award in 2007 for Gruagairí and has published a collection of plays written between 1994 and 2007 entitled Plays in a Peace Process (Guildhall Press, 2008). Dave has also written an imagined memoir, Related Lives (Guildhall Press, 2016), based on a set of family anecdotes. Oak and Stone is Dave’s fourth novel and his first with Merdog Books.