This week sees writer Lisa Burkitt achieve a rare publishing double when her short story ‘A Pinch of Tarragon’appears in the ‘Best Paris Stories’ anthology of winning international short stories and her debut novel, The Memory of Scent, is released by The History Press Ireland’s exciting new fiction line.
Writing.ie caught up with Lisa who lives in the wilds of beautiful Donegal, and asked her when she started writing. She revealed that she still remembers the pride she felt as a nine year old when a poem that she had written was chosen by the teacher to be displayed on the wall. She told us, ‘I recently found an earnest diary that I began writing just after my thirteenth birthday. I apparently was going through a serious fascination with the Kennedy clan and had just realised that Robert Kennedy had actually been shot too. This seemed to have had a profound effect on me….well, for a while anyway, but my attention was soon diverted by a good looking boy who used to smile at me at the local swimming pool…A thirteen-year-old girl’s diary is a hysterical thing.
Lisa continued to keep up the diary entries even as a seventeen year old hitching around Europe, (though she described the smiling boys as being much older, worldly-wise and exotic.) She said, “It is easy to discount diary writing but many writers that I know began life as fervent diary scribblers who then went on to hone their craft”.
“For me the most enjoyable part of school was when we were given essays to write in English class. It was why from a very young age – as my diary can attest – I only wanted to be a journalist, although my young teenage self was thinking in terms of war zones around the world. I tried and failed to get into Rathmines College. I can still see and almost smell the room that I was interviewed in. I remember because I had taken the bus from Donegal and had my little overnight bag with me to the interview.’
Lisa was instead invited to be part of the initial intake of a new ‘Communications’ course that was being established in Rathmines, but for financial reasons, she was not able to take up the offer. This, she said, niggled at her for years. ‘I think that this course went on to spawn many of those who now straddle the media world. I did, in a very circuitous way, end up working in the media, first in print journalism and then broadcast journalism on Highland radio. But I think many journalists are actually frustrated writers!’
Staying with Highland Radio for around fourteen years working both on and off air, Lisa produced the award winning ‘Shaun Doherty Show’ and produced and presented several well-received documentary programmes. Her final stint was as host of ‘The Red Room’ an all-female, panel-based current affairs/magazine show. It began life as a holiday filler and gained momentum until it secured a regular slot on the schedule. Citing ‘budgetary reasons’ and cutbacks, the show was axed at the start of the year. ‘It was a pity, because it was a show that we nurtured to encourage more women from all walks of life and backgrounds to get their voices and opinions on air. Still, with the times that are in it, everyone is in lock-down mode trying to reign in resources. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for experimentation or creativity. Understandably, it’s all about the bottom line and advertisers are a shrinking pool that all media across the board are trying to dip into. This has a knock-on effect.’
Lisa Burkitt was born in America of a Cork father and Donegal mother and along with her three siblings, she was brought back to Donegal by her mother as a nine year old. Her father stayed on to finish off a year’s work in New York and then re-joined the family. It was a short lived, however, as having spent only one Christmas together as a family back in Ireland, her mother was killed in a car accident before the following year was out.
Looking back, Lisa said that she can’t understand how she did not take more solace from escaping into writing. She looked for references to her mother’s death in her diary, but nothing exists. ‘It is strange to flick through it because I was very open about everything else that was going on in my life – but I must have been in complete shutdown about the death of my mother.’
As a twenty year old living in Jerusalem Lisa was still writing and sent off stories chronicling daily life there to the now defunct ‘Irish Press’. She received a ‘thanks, but no thanks’ letter in response telling her they did not do ‘colour pieces’. The concept of ‘researching your market’ and fitting your work to the publication was lost on her and she shelved her stories.
Over the years, Lisa confesses she has taken various stabs at different writing formats and attended a wide range of classes; from a master-class in poetry given by Brendan Kennelly, to scriptwriting with Ronan Bennett. She firmly believes that writing is a trade and that it can only be a good thing to expose yourself to its more experienced practitioners when the opportunities arise.
A short script of hers was selected and made into a Derry based film as part of a Northern Ireland Film Commission/UTV collaboration. ‘Surfing with William’ features a very young Nadine Coyle as an extra. Lisa still remembers the excitement of seeing her name credited as ‘Writer’ in huge letters across the screen – even though it was a small, light-hearted film.
But the desire to write a novel was always there and having moved back to America, more than twenty years ago, Lisa was nagged by an idea to focus a story on a young woman living in Paris in the 1800s on the fringes of the Impressionist movement. Lisa wanted the character to be a model, but to also have ambitions to be an artist herself.
This was pre-internet, so Lisa took herself off to the library where she trawled through books of the period. While cross-referencing the key painters of the time, one name kept popping up; Suzanne Valadon and Lisa realised that her fictional character actually existed in real life. It should have been a break through moment, but when we asked what she did next, Lisa laughed, “Absolutely nothing. Around ten years later a book came out about Suzanne Valadon, then another. I would periodically kick myself for not just going ahead and writing the book myself.’
Finally Lisa decided to just sit down and focus on writing a novel. Having become attached Suzanne Valadon, she chose to re-visit the same historical period, deciding to keep Suzanne as a minor character in her novel, which was to become; ‘The Memory of Scent’.
During the drafting and re-drafting of it, and at that stage where she said ‘you wonder; is there any point to this?’ Lisa decided to take an extract from it and re-shape it into a short story for a competition she discovered on the Inkwell Writers website – it was an international competition in search of short stories with Paris as their theme.
Lisa admits she was testing herself, and told us that declared aloud that if her short story was not shortlisted, she would take it as a sign that she was not meant to write. She concedes now that this was ridiculously dramatic, but made the news that her story; ‘A Pinch of Tarragon’ was indeed shortlisted and ultimately selected for the final anthology; ‘Best Paris Stories’ all the more exciting.
Lisa has been invited to Paris for the anthology launch at the American Library on the 29th May and describes it as a ‘happy accident of timing’ that both the anthology and the novel; The Memory of Scent are being released within the same week.
Lisa has firm advice for other writers: ‘That I didn’t begin in earnest on my writing journey more than twenty years ago, when I first felt compelled to, is a source of regret. I’d urge people to just sit down and get on with it.’ She said, however, that ‘the flip side of that is – it’s never too late either’.
Although there is no set date yet for a Dublin launch, the Donegal launch for The Memory of Scent is planned for the 22nd June in Rathmullan House, an idyllic hotel just a few steps from the beach. A local festival called ‘SeaFest’ is on over the same weekend and Lisa advises anyone who has ever fancied a trip to Donegal, that this would be an ideal weekend to consider it. It is a weekend of celebrations on the water, on the shore and at the table. Everyone is welcome!