Nineteenth Century Gothic

I’m listening to Patricia Cornwell’s forensic crime novel, ‘Cause of Death’ on audiobook on my phone at the moment, but I am otherwise on a nineteenth century kick, having recently finished ‘Flashman and the Redskins’, which, like other Flashman books, I read with relish. I’ve also just read the ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ by Washington Irving on my eReader. Sleepy Hollow PosterFor those who don’t know, this short story is the original tale of the headless horseman, and the basis for Tim Burton’s gloriously gothic film ‘Sleepy Hollow’.

My upcoming ebook, ‘The Vile Desire to Scream’, is now written and about to be edited. It’s a novella featuring the Wildenstern family from ‘Ancient Appetites’ and ‘The Wisdom of Dead Men’. It will be available, for free, on this site and blog soon. TWODM Cover-Low ResBut I’m also going back to work on the third Wildenstern novel, ‘Merciless Reason’ in the next couple of weeks (I had started it and got waylaid with a load of other stuff including ‘The-Project-That-Dare-Not-Speak-Its-Name’) and I’m immersing myself once again in those dark and deeply descriptive nineteenth century stories to get in the mood. I’ll be back on Edgar Allan Poe next. Wordy, rather linear in plot at times, but masterful exercises in atmosphere.

Fiscal Responsibility, Going Forward in the Medium to Long Term

Ah, the business of writing. Nothing yanks you out of the heady heights of imaginative flight like having to sort out your accounts and fill out your tax return. And this year, we have these new income levies to take into account when working out how much we owe in preliminary tax – and what dastardly financial maniac came up with the insidious idea of paying tax in ADVANCE? Where’s our preliminary health service, that’s what I want to know.

The government has brought in these new emergency levies to try and plug the holes in the financial Titanic that is the Irish economy. I knew they were going to cost me money (they’ll cost just about everyone money) but I didn’t understand them, so I went on the Revenue Commissioner’s website.

Their helpful explanations confused me even more, so I rang up the local tax office. The man there listened to my questions, wasn’t sure how to answer them, went on the website himself and then he got confused too. He put down the phone and went and talked to his boss. He came back and explained the levies to me in small words and I repeated it back in even smaller words. Then he directed me to a web page that explained how to do my preliminary tax.

I hung up the phone and read through the page. Then I read through it again. And then a third time, cursing through my tears. This is what they put on their website to help people understand what they’re looking for:

‘ . . . in calculating the amount of preliminary tax, the liability for 2008 must be increased by an amount which is equal to the income levy that would have been payable if income levy had applied for 2008 at the same rates and bands as apply for 2009. (Section 531H(3) TCA 1997).

‘In calculating the amount of income levy due, credit for levy on relevant emoluments should be allowed in the following manner:

‘Income levy as calculated on 2008 aggregate income using composite rates
‘Income Levy as calculated on 2008 relevant emoluments using composite rates’

Lamenting my obviously poor grasp of English, I rang the tax office. The same man replied, a note of trepidation in his voice when I told him who I was. I read out the excerpt to him. He read it himself. There was a long silence. Then he put the phone down and went and talked to his boss.

Eventually he came back and explained it as best he could, or at least in a manner that I was able to decipher meaning from in my own simple way. And as I put down the phone, feeling suddenly alone, I wondered how many Irish writers recoil from trying to make a living from writing because they’re reading skills aren’t up to the task.

Tomorrow, I’m going to finish ‘The Vile Desire to Scream’ and get it out to my reading circle and my editor. It’s about a murderous family of villains and their brooding, labyrinthine castle full of booby-traps and secrets. Because I need something to pick me up.

Taking the Cold on the Road

My nose is blocked, my chest is tight, I’ve been getting dizzy spells and I’m suffering a severe lack of concentration. It’s hard to hold the attention of a gang of kids when  you can’t even hold our OWN attention. Every now and then I cough, but it’s not very satisfying. It’s not swine flu, because I can still stand up, walk around and do my usual pacing, ranting and squealing in front the kids. It’s amazing what passes for entertainment these days.

There have been a lot of frightened rumours about the swine flu, but if you ask me, the way we’re going, we’re more likely to die of antiseptic. Soon, they’ll have us wading through pools of the stuff like sheep in a dip.

It’s been a busy week, with sessions in Navan, Dunboyne, Ashbourne and Dunshauglin in County Meath. In Leitrim, I visited Manorhamilton and Dromahair – a tiny, but pleasant, library where the audience squeezed in like sardines that would prefer to be vacuum-packed than return to school. I also did sessions in the libraries in Dundalk and Ardee in the wee county of Louth. I think Dundalk has one of the finest library buildings in the country, combining the best of old and new.

In all the venues, the kids were bright, lively, good-natured souls who never suspected the man doing the funny voices and drawing scribbly pictures was trying not to exhale too many germs.  If you work in schools, you get used to hearing a chorus of coughs and sneezes and wondering which ones you’ll catch, but that didn’t make me feel any less guilty as I spread my own evil germs across the country.

Doppelganger-SketchI did get to do the pencils for the cover of ‘Mad Grandad’s Doppelganger’ this week, you can see part of the sketch here. This will be discussed in a meeting in O’Brien Press, the publisher, in case it needs any changes before it goes to finished artwork. So once everybody’s happy with it, I’ll trace it onto a new sheet of painting paper and finish it up with ink and paint. The back and front covers are drawn up at the same time, because the frame on the front of the book is taken from the ‘wallpaper’ illustration on the back cover.

The Oisin McGann Travelling Show

This being Children’s Book Festival, I’m out doing my variety act a lot. If you want to make a living from children’s books, it’s not enough to sit at home and write your stories; you’ve got to go back to the roots of storytelling, to the oral tradition, learning how to tell tales out loud again, so you can take it on tour.

Yesterday it was talking to 5th and 6th class kids in libraries in Dundrum and Stillorgan. To get there, I can either set out and catch rush hour and sit in traffic, or head out a little after 6am, beat the worst of the traffic, have a leisurely breakfast in Dundrum and catch up on my reading. I haven’t slept too well, so I wake up like a corpse and drive in a near-hallucinatory state, promising myself I’ll skip the decaf and indulge in a high octane coffee at breakfast. When you drink decaf most of the time, a real coffee is like a cattle-prod to the brain.Farewell My Lovely Cover

I listen to Raymond Chandler’s book,  ‘Farewell My Lovely’  all the way there, played on my phone through the car stereo. For those who don’t know, he set the standard for the hard-boiled crime novel. I’ve been reading a lot of his stuff lately and I love it, but this time I’ve opted for the audio-book, read by serrated voice of Elliot Gould.

The Dundrum session goes fine, but in the Stillorgan library, my fine oration is interrupted by a woman driving up and down the road beeping her horn. Perhaps she’s trying to get someone’s attention, but doesn’t know which house they’re in. But it looks more like she’s lost, and she’s beeping the horn as if it will tell her the way to go, like some kind of satnav for the perpetually frustrated. BEEP BEEP! Where am I?! As if she can find her way by echo location or something. Like a silly bat. It can be hard enough to keep kids’ attention as it is, without that racket, so I take the mickey out of her instead, (though not in nasty way, of course) which goes down well. They’re a nice bunch of lads (just one girl in a group of nearly sixty boys, for reasons that are never explained). I’m flattered when one kid says to me that I could be a comedian, but he advises me that I should jump up and down more, like Lee Evans.

I have events over most of next week, in Meath, Leitrim and Louth. I’ll fuel up the car, start a new audio-book, work out my routes and load up my session case. I’ll probably leave each morning while my wife and kids are still asleep. All over Ireland, writers and illustrators will be doing the same. There is a buzz across the country, a hectic connection of professional imaginations and young, hungry minds. Writing is only part of this game. If we have one really useful purpose during this book season, it’s to convince the writers of tomorrow that books are written by normal people and that anyone can do it if they try hard enough and get just a little bit lucky. And if we can have a bit of a laugh along the way, all well and good.

Back To Basics

I was working on an illustration today – a private job – fiddling around with pen, brush, ink and white paint trying to nail down the likenesses of two people’s faces.  It’s a simple black and white pic, but because I change styles a lot, it can take time for me to get back in gear when I’m working on something new. But it felt good to get back to basics – just me and the materials at a drawing desk. Clever image software is all very well, but there’s no feeling like having original artwork under your fingertips.

I had to do it in a bit of  a rush too, as things have been backing up lately. I had to send in a written interview for the Sci-Fi London website (an annual film festival), to go with an article I wrote for them. I had another article to do for Flipside Magazine in the UK. Both were about how to survive at science fiction conventions – aimed at people who would normally run a mile from such things. I’ll put both pieces in the Articles section when I get a chance. I also have to do some editing on two stories tomorrow and hopefully some writing too.

I’ll be starting on the pencil rough of the new Mad Grandad book in the next couple of days. Looking forward to seeing old Grandad again.

It’s a Long way to Tipperary . . . But Further To Dingle.

Last weekend saw me running a workshop from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon on the beautiful, craggy coast of Dingle. I maintain that I ran the course with the usual airy grace one would expect from someone with my sunny disposition. Dingle Pic for BlogBut the eleven wordsmiths doing the course assured me it was more akin to a creative boot camp, groaning as they clutched their aching brains (better them than me, I say). We agreed to differ. They produced some excellent work over the three days and came up with some fantastic ideas. I hope each came away from it inspired to write their opus . . . and not severely disillusioned with the fickle and lunatic-strewn world of children’s publishing.

On Wednesday and Thursday I was in Tipperary, doing a session in the library in Nenagh and a school in Roscrea on the first day and then a school in Borrisokane (sounds like an Irish 1960’s horror actor, doesn’t it?) and the spanking new library in Templemore on the second day. The kids were good craic and the staff in all four venues were friendly and welcoming. In Templemore, I also purchased some of the best grapes I have ever tasted (not in the library obviously, I bought those in a shop).

On Monday, I’ll be spectating at a conference on the importance of the arts to society, attended by big noises such as Director of the Arts Council and the Minister for Transport. It’s entitled ‘Féach’ (the Irish for ‘Look’, for all you non-Irish bods), although given the way the arts are about to have all their money taken off them, ‘Oh Feck’ might be more appropriate.

On Thursday, I’ll be in Dundrum and Stillorgan Libraries where I’ll be doing my usual to audiences who hopefully haven’t heard my tired old jokes before – there have to be a few people still left out there.

Work has sort of ground to a halt, as it so often does during Children’s Book Festival (I can get tired just THINKING about October sometimes), but I’m getting bits done here and there. Writing ‘The Vile Desire to Scream’, editing the first two books in the ‘The Top Secret Can’t-Tell-You-Or-I’d-Have-To-Kill-You Project’ (need a shorter name for that) and will soon start editing and illustrating ‘Mad Grandad’s Doppelganger’. I’m working on a couple of new articles too.

On Friday (tomorrow) I’ll be voting on the Lisbon Treaty. If you’re too young to vote, you’re lucky – enjoy your youth. But bear in mind that someday people your age will be in charge. Some of them will be complete prats, but others will be okay. I’m sure you’d like to have a say in who takes charge and what they do.

If you don’t care about the Lisbon Treaty because it bores or confuses you, I can’t really blame you – the arguments certainly confound me. If you can vote, you should, whichever side you take. I’m voting yes because the treaty will make the EU more democratic, it means more of the politicians’ decisions will have to be made out in the open and it keeps a growing Europe workable. That’s all I have to say about that, because it’s politics and it bores most young people to death (which is a problem if they’re going to be taking over, isn’t it?).

Back In The World

After a fairly productive but public-free summer, I’m back doing events again. And it’s been a busy start to the season. Things kicked off on Sunday the 13th with the Mountains to the Sea Festival in Dun Laoghaire, a lovely gathering in a park there, with loads of food stalls offering everything from Lebanese to fudge. I’m a fool for exotic junk food and this didn’t help at all. Other children’s writers there over the weekend included Sarah Webb, Joe O’Brien, Justin Somper, David Maybury, Judy Curtin and Derek Landy. It was a great crowd and a rare day of sunshine to crown it all. Seriously, was that our summer that pissed on us for three straight months?

Next, I had the Aspects Festival in Bangor on the Monday and Tuesday. Four sessions in schools in Bangor and Hollywood, all of whom gave me a great welcome and were good craic. Bangor’s a nice place to hang around and I got to treat myself to a film at the cinema – ‘District 9’, an absolutely brilliant sci-fi thriller set in South Africa. Though I’ll never look at a prawn the same way again. Plus I’ve been wandering around aimlessly listening to Ian Rankin’s ‘Fleshmarket Close’ on audio book as well as reading George MacDonald Fraser’s ‘Flashman and the Redskins’ in paperback. That’s a weird combination of images to have in your head, I can tell you.

On Friday the 18th, I was on ICE, the children’s TV magazine show on RTE to promote the MS Readathon. As well as the Readathon, I got to talk (quickly) about my books and some of my artwork, and give away four signed copies of ‘The Wisdom of Dead Men’.

I’m gradually learning how to handle television – you really need to be ready with what you want to say and look for the opportunity to say it. . . fast! That way you stand less chance of looking like a tongue-tied eejit. Notice how politicians often ignore interviewers’ questions and annoy you by delivering their set lines no matter what? Like that. There’s hardly any rehearsing on ICE, it’s a live show, and everything gets said in a rush. Mind you, I’ve been on with Dustin the Turkey a couple of times – at least on ICE they let you answer the questions instead of belching and telling you to shut up.

On Saturday, I gave a talk at a seminar entitled ‘Paths to Publication’ for up and coming writers. The children’s books industry is a great environment to work in and the spirit in Pearse Street Library that day was a good example of it. Other speakers included editors Sine Quinn and Eoin Purcell, and agents Faith O’Grady and Julia Churchill. These four probably gave the eager audience a bit of a wake-up call (but in a nice way) with regard to life in the publishing world – and I’m sure my talk set a few nerves jangling too.

Niamh Sharkey and her designer at Walker Books, Deirdre McDermott, gave an enlightening talk on how picture books are made and Sarah Webb stepped up to the pulpit in a very pretty dress and delivered a blunt and entertaining sermon on the importance of hard work, persistence and imagination when it came to marketing and publicity. She challenged the audience on their choice of outfits and demanded they show more character if they hoped to succeed. Paddy O’Doherty was there early on in the day too, a long-serving member of CBI . . . and now the new head of Puffin Ireland (Congrats Paddy!), in danger of being buried by a barrage of hopeful kid’s books. Children’s Books Ireland and the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators deserve a pat on the back for a positive, bracing and colourful seminar.

For more information on how to get published, visit cb info on the CBI website.

One group from the day that I should especially mention were Naoise, Lauren, Ryan, Amy, Keelan, Sarah and Lucy, a willful gaggle of young readers from Celbridge and Leixlip Libraries, who sat in front of a room of adults and gave us the lowdown on WHAT YOUNG PEOPLE ACTUALLY WANT TO READ AND HOW. Which included the fact that they hate being told what to read in school and would rather choose themselves. David Maybury and I had lunch with them during the seminar and they were a lively and opinionated bunch. And they probably read far more than I do now.

That brings us up to speed on my events diary – sorry, there was something of a backlog. Tomorrow, I’m chairing a panel (which sort of sounds like I’m doing some kind of misguided DIY) discussing digital publishing. It’s taking place in Navan Library. There’s a new world out there. Kids are now reading more off screens than they do off paper. I think things are changing in a big way in publishing and it’ll be the kids who steer that change. I hope us old farts can keep up.