The writing road can be a long and meandering one. I’ve been writing in earnest for many years alongside raising my four children, I’ve had short stories published and shortlisted – including a Hennessy New Irish Writing shortlist and I’ve written several novels and been beguiled by ideas for many more. There is always a novel in progress. Similar to many writers there is no question of not writing, it is an energy zings through me, a song I have to sing. I’ve been submitting work for many years and in 2019 my novel Eat! was shortlisted in the John McGahern Prize and long-listed in the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair. The intervening year has been a process of metamorphosis – my first-born started college and alongside my writing and family life I became a librarian in the largest public library in Ireland – The Lexicon in Dun Laoghaire in Dublin (a dream job – surrounded by books and readers every day!) Still hungry to become a published author and connect with readers, last September I submitted The Exhibit of Held Breaths to the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair and found myself one of the 12 finalists who get a chance to speak with agents and publishers on February 14th2020. Next year the Novel Fair will celebrate a decade since its inception and it’s a tremendous honour to have been selected by the Irish Writers Centre to take part in this year’s ‘Dragon’s Den’ of publishing.
Art and belief collide when the strange Exhibit of Held Breaths and its twin exhibit Sighs take apart 1980s Rivenstown and the life of reluctant curator Norman White.
Featuring a Miss Havishameque Mrs Reeves, the reviled aristocrat of a failing 1980s town, and her protégée, The Exhibit of Held Breaths follows the quest of an ordinary man to explore the exaltation of art and burn bright beyond his usual existence. Through her own warped motives, Mrs Reeves ignites the fire in him and raises up the town, but at what cost to Norman, his wife Jenny and children and the people of Rivenstown? The sinister influence of the exhibits begins to unravel it all. Art reveals more about Norman and his past and his future than he’s prepared for.
Set alongside the moving statue phenomenon and political unrest of 1980s Ireland The Exhibit of Held Breaths explores the surreal power of art and belief. I was there in the 80s when – all over Ireland – people flocked to pray and wait to witness statues at various Marian grottos move or shed tears. I was a young person in Cahirciveen when the Kerry baby was found on the White Strand, our class formed the guard of honour for the funeral, in 1984 a girl, Ann Lovett, not far from my own age died after giving birth in the grounds of a church. It was a time when there was huge political unrest and violence in Ireland and Britain, a time when we felt the H-Bomb might be dropped at any moment, when on one day in July 1985 the extraordinary Live Aid connected music lovers all over the world and inspired people to donate to help famine victims in Africa. Unemployment and economic uncertainty were high. Later, in college I took a degree in Communication Studies as it combined my two loves – Writing and Psychology and after that completed a Postgraduate Diploma (fast track undergraduate degree) in Psychology. My main fascination is in Social Psychology – looking at how people behave in groups, create meaning socially and are influenced by each other. Social Psychology explains how people can be influenced to conform, to follow instructions even to the point of evil and how stress and uncertainty can push people into looking for meaning and identity in the strangest of places. The Exhibit of Held Breaths is rooted in these fascinations.
As a writer who tends towards the more literary and poetic but embraces styles from the traditional right through to speculative, my thematic engine is Belief – exploring the interplay between a person’s environment, their psychological landscape with its trip hazards and chasms and what they put their faith in to survive.
In my work-in-progress Unusual Flashes of Light it’s about a community’s reaction to three lights in the sky – were they real or did people really need to believe and why? In last year’s Novel Fair Longlisted book Eat! did a girl running through the town eating bricks and flowers cause a mass hysteria of consumption in boomtime Ireland? In the Exhibit of Held Breaths the feedback loop explored is that between an observer – in particular the reluctant curator – and Art. Questions are asked about Art in a broader sense and – borrowing the concerns of quantum physics – looking at whether Art -and life itself – can ever be separate from its observer and his or her preconceptions and reactions to it.
In the book Norman White begins knowing nothing about Art but through the course of the book becomes entangled in the symbolism of The Exhibits of Held Breaths and Sighs “I had not chosen them, as it happened, as curator but perhaps they had chosen me, shown me everything that art, everything that an exhibit among the people could be.” However it is his pursuit throughout the novel of the more naïve painting Child with Balloons that hints at childhood losses he has buried deep in his subconscious. Ironically, it is his obsession with the exhibits and in obtaining Child with Balloons (he believes for his wife, rather than himself) that the drives him to destroy those around him and the family life he truly needs. The Exhibit of Held Breaths explores how we curate the stories of our own lives and sees how a mysterious curator of letters and accounts of the exhibit’s power tries to save Norman White from himself.
As I prepare to meet sixteen agents and publisher on February 14th at the Irish Writers Centre, I am thrilled by the glorious coincidence of having an incident in my book occurring on the steps of the Hugh Lane gallery only a few doors away from the Irish Writers Centre and having included mention of Harry Clarke whose work is exhibited in the gallery. My Novel Fair experience to date has been wonderful from the first friendly phone call from Betty Stenson to say I’d been selected. The twelve selected authors were treated to a fantastic information day on February 1st where we had a chance to rehearse our pitches with Novel Fair Judges Niamh Boyce, Kevin Curran and Anthony Glavin and receive tips and advice from them and from last year’s finalist Michelle Gallen whose novel fair selected novel Big Girl, Small Town will be launched shortly. We were warmly congratulated at and welcomed to the event organised by Betty and provided with every assistance to make our experience of the Novel Fair a fulfilling and exciting one. We owe it to ourselves as writers to keep trying, to keep writing and to keep submitting but often don’t get the chance to make the personal connections with the people we submit to, the Novel Fair allows the selected authors to do that.
The Exhibit of Held Breaths is not my most recently finished novel, in fact it emerged out of a short story written in 2010 in which the entire blueprint of the eventual novel was encapsulated. Like every writer I can be hypercritical of my work and never complacent that it will be well received. However this story within this book has lived with me ever since its completion and elements of it surprise and delight after all time. As well as being a writer, I am also a reader and on the Novel Fair on Feb 14th I hope to impart my reader’s enthusiasm for my book to the agents and publishers I meet that day. I’ll be sure to let you know what happens!
(c) Alison Wells