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Tell Your Own Story

When Things Were Great! The Writing of the Novel by Eamonn Francis Kelly

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Article by Eamonn Francis Kelly ©.
Posted in the Magazine (Tell Your Own Story: , ).
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When Things Were Great! arose from a short story I had written called Notton Doon which was based on a character or “voice” that I used to do for fun. The character was a faux Irish storyteller who told tales of normal, modern experience in the epic form of classic Irish storytellers; like the epic tale of getting a taxi home drunk; or cycling into town and meeting a hail-storm. My background is in theatre and comedy.

The initial idea for the novel was to go in the style of the Irish storyteller, in a first-person narrative, but the plotting became too complex to sustain that, and as a joke it became a bit tiresome. So, I pulled back into the omniscient author mode, though a flavour of the storyteller still informs much of the narrative style of the novel.

Once the frame of the playing area was defined – a complete fictional region of Ireland – the place became a receptacle for several years of characters, storylines, jokes and quips, inspired by the ongoing comedy of life in Ireland. The idea of the novel as a box or container for disparate ideas came from Milan Kundera’s book, The Art of the Novel. I found this to be a useful way of looking at the creation of a novel.

Early on in the writing, I also had a concept that a book is like carpentry, like building a table, and the first thing you need is raw material. Could a carpenter build a table without having a tree to hand? So, I set out to create as much raw material as possible with the intention of somehow shaping it into a book. This is not really the classical approach to writing a book, nor even the best approach. I’ve heard that some writers, particularly thriller writers, get the ending first and work up to it. But in this case, all the writing was probably justified, since I was fleshing out a fictional world. I ended up with a lot of backstory material that never features directly in the novel, but still informs it.

One of the ways I gathered raw material was to switch on the radio and wait for the first thing to strike me as odd or funny or typical, which I would then pass to a group of characters in a pub to gossip about in their own style, that style having evolved from the voice of the faux storyteller. This would then develop as a subplot or maybe as a standalone piece. This is how, for example, I picked up on the idea of the “young people problem”. This was actually an issue one summer in 2007 or 2008 – I neglected to record the exact year in my notes- on the Joe Duffy radio talk show. With the emigration trail dried up, the young people were running wild in all the small towns of Ireland. They had hot rod cars and drank far too much, pissing and humping and fighting one another in all the small towns of Celtic Tiger Ireland every weekend. The young people problem was mercifully solved shortly after with the economic collapse and they all emigrated returning Irleand to its pre-boom quietude.

When I pitched the idea of the young people problem to my pub characters and improvised around the idea, one of them came up with a very good explanation. It seems that Ireland, after generations of emigration, was simply not used to having young people around the place. They were one of the downsides of affluence. All the wild behaviors Ireland was witnessing normally took place overseas. The conclusion was that Irleand had no experience of a generation gap, which, up until the boom, had been traditionally filled by the Irish Sea and the Atlantic Ocean.

I had to stop listening to the radio for ideas after a while because the plotting ramifications can become unmanageable. I discovered that adding an ingredient to a novel had to be accounted for all the way through. There was a ripple effect. The same is true for the removal of things. It’s like pulling a string in your sweater only to discover the whole thing is beginning to unravel. Besides, there is a limit to what a novel can contain, and I realized at a certain point that I would now have to stop pouring stuff in and start shaping the material.

Anyhow, I did all that, it took a few years on and off and no one I sent it to was in the least bit interested. I found it difficult to synopsize the thing, and publishing is very busy and very corporate and hasn’t a whole lot of time for writers who happen to be a little obscure in both name and synopsis. They want the idea described in two lines, because everyone’s so busy. But if you could effectively relay the idea in two lines, what’s the point in writing a novel? Anyhow, I decided this thing has to be put out of the house because it’s hanging around like unfinished business, so I thought I’d release it as an eBook. Later I might print it. Who knows? The point is, from my perspective, the job is kind of done and here it is.

Funnily enough, when I was preparing the eBook, a neat little synopsis came to mind: Oisín Landers returns home to Ireland after 20 years to find the country in the grip of an uncharacteristic economic boom. Everything has changed, except Mick Lowry’s Bar, which has remained frozen in time, in a deep sepia hue, inspiring Oisín to a whole new depression similar to the one that caused him to emigrate in the first place. How will Oisín survive the mental ravages of small-town Ireland?

(c) Eamonn Francis Kelly

About When Things Were Great!:

Oisin Landers returns home to Ireland after 20 years to find the country in the grip of an uncharacteristic economic boom. Everything has changed, except Mick Lowry’s Bar, which remains frozen in time, in a deep sepia hue, inspiring Oisin to a whole new depression similar to the one that caused him to emigrate in the first place. How will Oisin survive the mental ravages of small town Ireland?

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Eamonn Kelly is an award-winning Irish playwright and short story writer. His stage comedies have engaged with social and political dilemmas peculiar to Ireland, from the brutalising educational methods of the Christian Brothers in “Religious Knowledge/Parental Guidance”, to Ireland's ongoing and unsolvable unemployment/emigration conundrum in “Frugal Comforts” and the novella “The Franz Kafka Centre for the Uninvolved”. “When Things Were Great!” is his first novel.
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