September 30, 2013

Getting Into Character

Tomorrow marks the beginning of Children’s Book Festival in libraries and schools across Ireland. For people like me, it’s easily the busiest time of the year for events, and this year I’m booked up for just about every school day (and a few weekend days) between now and the mid-term break.

This month, I’ll be a in few different places in Dublin, as well as Ardee and Drogheda, Skerries, Cashel, Thurles, Nenagh and Roscrea, Ballywaltrim and Bray, Castletymon, Manorhamilton, Cavan, Galway, Ashford and a few different places in Meath.

It’s a weird time, when you’re often exhausted but buzzing, and a couple of years ago, I wrote a piece to try and capture that feeling in the morning when you’re setting out, having already spent about two weeks on the road to different places.

This was a piece I originally wrote as a guest blog for the Children’s Book Ireland blog in 2011. It’s a bit dated, as I haven’t changed anything, but basically it’s an accurate depiction of the feeling mid-festival:

An early start. It’s dark, but the kids are already up. Our youngest, just turned one, isn’t sleeping. So neither are my wife and I. October is mental for both of us – a different kind of day every day. Our two toddlers are confused by our lack of routine. I rise like a zombie. Shower myself into something more human.

Try to remember where I am today. Monaghan? Louth? Leitrim? For places that are further away, I’ll wake in a hotel. A travelling salesman. As our two-year-old says: ‘Dada’s going to tell the girls and boys about books!’. I’m a couple of weeks into the month (which starts for me in September). Early in the morning, the exhaustion feels like it will never lift. Coffee. The kids help me wake up, but often I’m gone before they can jump-start my addled senses.

I have my two cases. One for the novels; one for the easel, the drawing materials, the Mad Grandad story-sheets. Always packed and ready to go. Sometimes I don’t even bother taking them out of the car. Notebook in the pocket of my combats. I’m almost always wearing combats. I like having that pocket.

Get into the car. A chance to sit in the quiet before I go. Take a couple of minutes to look at the map. Recheck the route. Then drive. The radio is always on, or some of my music, or an audio-book, helping eat up the miles. Get there early. Know you’re there, then pull in somewhere nearby and chill for a while. Have a coffee at a garage or in a café. Maybe a sandwich if breakfast was a long time ago. I’ll buy grapes if I can find them in a shop, if they look good. A good compromise snack for travelling.

I have a lap-tray in the car. I can work there if I want, or read, or listen to the radio. I always give myself some time, but that’s time to think about what’s coming. How many different places have I visited? Hundreds, anyway. How many individual sessions? Oisin McGann at Ennistymon LibraryAnd still the little edge of dread, the tension. A bit of a knot in my stomach. It’s not a reading, or a talk. It’s a one-man show. Time to get into character.

Every visit is a first impression. Every session for me, is the one and only time this particular bunch of kids is likely to meet me. You get one chance to have an effect – the right effect. The same applies when meeting the staff. Be nice to everybody. Remember names! Even if it’s just till you leave. Hundreds of new names every year. Staff rooms and cups of coffee. Turning down offers of scones or biscuits (most of the time). They add up. I used to treat myself to a fry-up any time I travelled. I gave that up pretty quickly.

It’s almost time. Always try and walk in about ten or fifteen minutes early. Time to say hello and shake hands. Use the loo. A bit of time to have a look at the place if I can, before I meet the kids. Check that things are set up right. Sort them if they’re not. But sometimes I’m just walked into a packed classroom and I have to wing it. Looking around and picking out the best place to set up.

Still in the car. I’m dawdling now. Putting it off. Time to go in. That turning in the pit of my stomach. I open the door and get out. Take my cases from the back. The air’s got a chill to it.

I look at the outside of the place. Trying to get a sense of it. Maybe there’s already some faces at the windows, looking out. I’m not so tired now. Almost ready. Meeting the kids, seeing their expectant faces, will kick me into gear – it always does. It’s a privilege to be here, to do what I do. To be the reason they’re having a special day. And yet, you can’t take their respect for granted. If you don’t get their attention in the first five minutes, you may not get it at all. But I’m fine with that – it’s part of the deal. I might be knackered, but I know I’ll be charged up, wired by the end. They have that effect on you.

With a case in each hand, I walk through the front door. Time to tell the girls and boys about books.

September 23, 2013

It’s a Festival, Jim, But Not as You Know It

This post is for people in the children’s book industry who’ve never been to a sci-fi/fantasy convention and for regular attendees of those conventions. I think it might be of interest to both, centred as it is around the strangeness and peculiar charm, not of the attendees, but the way in which cons are organized.

And if you’ve never been to one of these conventions, you should give one a try. They’re not as off-the-wall as people think, as I’ve written about in the past, and more often than not, they’re a lot of fun. In some ways, they have a lot in common with festivals celebrating children’s and YA books. Humour, passion, intelligence, progressive thought and stimulating discussion are all there in abundance. In terms of understanding the digital revolution, they can be an excellent place to find out what’s on the horizon and who’s doing what about it.

But there are some very striking differences between the way the sci-fi/fantasy people run an event, compared to that run by the children’s/YA crowd (or anyone else, in fact).

I read a blog post by Cheryl Morgan yesterday, about the problems of running one of these conventions – in her case, Worldcon, one of the biggest – and was surprised at the amount of aggravation and stress that seemed to be involved.LONCON3 (Worldcon) Logo I’ve come across vague controversies about Worldcon online, but have yet to hear anything specific – and to be honest, I’m not that interested. I’ve been to one Worldcon, years ago in Glasgow, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’ll be going to the one in London next year (also known as LonCon 3 – I don’t know why there are two names), and I’m really looking forward to it.

I’m not a regular visitor to conventions, but I have been to quite a few. And though I’ve enjoyed all of them, I can understand how easily disputes might arise over the details of how they’re run.

I’ve been published for ten years as an author and worked for an additional ten years on top of that as an illustrator. Since my first book was published, I’ve probably done a couple of thousand individual events in hundreds of different venues, festivals, conferences, seminars and conventions in a few different countries.

So when I tell you that sci-fi cons do things a little differently to every other type of festival or conference, I’m speaking from experience. Actually, ‘sci-fi’ or ‘fantasy’ are misleading terms where these cons are concerned, as the topics that are covered can often include genres from fantasy through to historical fiction, crime to horror – a swathe of stories all wrapped up in the umbrella term ‘Genre’.

I’m not sure what ‘non-Genre’ is, though it tends to be what other people call ‘literary’ writing. Although ‘literary’ writing to me, just means a story told as well as it could be, which is not necessarily the type that wins the Booker Prize . . . anyway, let’s not get started on that.

I posted a few weeks back about the whole thing of how the creators of books are sometimes asked to do events purely for the publicity, and why it was so wrong. But then I give you . . . the science fiction or fantasy convention.

In most cases, these are set up by volunteers, passionate fans who often endure a seat-of-their-pants process as far as funding is concerned, where the audience pays a membership of the con, instead of buying tickets for talks. It’s this approach of treating the attendees as members rather than a paying audience where the big difference lies between conventions and other book festivals. Pocket PlannerThey also treat guests as a kind of higher rank of member – which includes not paying them a fee or expenses.

I like going to cons, but it can be a bit hard to justify. To give you an idea, here’s the kind of conversation I’d have with my wife, Maedhbh – who knows a thing or two about running events. She organizes the Children’s Book Festival for Meath every year, this year featuring nearly ninety separate events in libraries across the county.

Now, let me preface this by saying two things:

Firstly, for anyone on the con circuit who may not know it, most full-time children’s authors (and many part-time ones) do a lot of travelling around the country to promote our books, doing sessions – sessions that we are paid for. We’re expected to be able to stand up, from cold, in front of a room full of kids (or indeed, adults) and speak for anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour or more, and be entertaining, educational, knowledgeable, insightful and, eh . . . entertaining.

Secondly, Maedhbh is not what you’d call a die-hard sci-fi or fantasy fan.

So . . .

O: ‘I have to leave you on your own with the kids this weekend. I have to go to a sci-fi convention.’

M: ‘Is this for work?’

O: ‘Oh, yes. Definitely.’

M: ‘Are you getting paid for it?’

O: ‘No.’

M: ‘Are they paying any travel expenses? Covering parking fees? Are they buying you lunch?’

O: ‘Eh, no.’

M: ‘And you’ll be gone for the whole weekend? You must be getting loads of publicity out of it. Will there be a lot of media coverage?’

O: ‘No, probably none. Well, somebody’ll blog about it, I’m sure. There’ll be some influential bloggers there, I’d say.’

M: ‘Is there a big audience at this thing?’

O: ‘Maybe a hundred at the whole thing, although there’ll be more than one stream of panels, so probably less than fifty at each panel. Maybe less, ‘cos some people will just hang out in the bar of the hotel. Or just talk outside in the corridor.’

M: ‘And you’re not getting paid for this? How many panels are you doing?’

O: ‘Probably two or three each day. I might try and get in on an extra one if it’s interesting.’

M: ‘And which of your books do they want you to talk about?’

O: ‘Actually, we’re not really asked much about our books. Mostly, we talk about Genre-related topics set by the organizers.’

M: ‘You’re doing three panels a day, but you’re not talking about your books? Will any of these people have met you before? Do they know your work?’

O: ‘I’m not sure. It’ll probably be most of the same people as last year, so they’ll know who I am.’

M: ‘Are these hardcore fans of yours?’

O: ‘No, they’re just people who read this kind of stuff. We have really interesting conversations.’

M: ‘Really interesting conversations? Excellent. Will you be selling your books?’

O: ‘I don’t know, they don’t always have a book stall.’

M: ‘So let me be clear about this. You want to leave me on my own with the kids for the weekend, so you can go and do some events where you don’t get paid, you don’t get expenses, you don’t get to talk directly about your books, you get almost no publicity or media attention, you’re speaking several times a day, but to the same audience – a small audience – and one full of people who’ve heard you speak before and have probably already decided if they’re going to try your books or not. But you get to have really interesting conversations. Have I got that right?’

O: ‘Eh . . . yeah.’

M: ‘And this is work?’

O: ‘Eh . . .’

M: ‘Unfortunately, I’ve got a work commitment on this weekend. I have to go to the pub to watch the Meath match on Saturday. Then we’re going back the next day to talk it over again. So if you want to go to this convention thing, you’ll need to find someone who can take the kids for the weekend.’

Which is why I don’t go to more conventions.

But this is not really a gripe about not getting paid to be a guest at conventions. I’ve had that rant already. Nor do I want to try and get at any one person who runs festivals. I’ve met Cheryl Morgan, and I don’t know her well, but when I hear of her and others like her – the ones who do all the work – taking a lot of grief over what someone did or didn’t like about a con, I think of our 13-year-old and his football.

He plays GAA and soccer, and the days and times of training are always changing and we hear about upcoming matches at very short notice. It’s a pain in the ass. But we can’t really complain too much about it, because these teams are run by dads who are doing it for free, for the love of it. They’re the ones doing the time and putting in all the effort, so it would be churlish to criticize things when we’re inconvenienced sometimes. It’s easy to stand back and make comments when someone else is doing all the work.

But it’s the membership versus audience tickets thing that I think really needs looking at – and most conventions are run along these lines. Conventions are effectively festivals. They are run to bring people together to celebrate a certain type of book, comic, film etc. But there seems to be a determination to run them as if they’re a sports club. There’s a real amateur ethic – where it’s frowned upon by some to have paid staff working on a convention. In many cases, there is minimal sponsorship. I find this bizarre, particularly with the huge amount of work needed for bigger conventions, especially given the increasingly professional approach to running other kinds of book festivals.

And once you reach a certain scale, you’re expected to be professional whether you’re getting paid or not. Once you’re charging a hundred quid a head membership and you’re taking people’s credit card details, you need to be well organized, contactable, responsible to your audience. If I’m handing over my credit card details to you, there’s only so much slack I can cut you because you’re a volunteer. But running a professional festival is very hard to do unless someone’s manning an office somewhere with regular hours. Convention organizers have to take this responsibility on themselves, at great cost to them in time and expense. Why shouldn’t they get paid for it?

But where’s the money going to come from? These things are often run on a shoestring and I get a definite impression from con organizers that they’re constantly stressed about balancing the books.

I think that comes back to the ‘sports club’ mentality. Granted, it does make for a very warm, friendly atmosphere. Members are treated as people who are expected to get involved, help spread the word, to show loyalty – to be invested in the process. What this means a lot of the time is that there is a lot of interaction between the organizers and audience members who are already on board, and not enough time and effort put into reaching people outside of the club. You don’t get many new members in every year; you’re preaching to the converted. This approach also means that members who’ve been around a long time have opinions about how it all should be run – and expect to be obeyed – even if they don’t do any of the work. And I know I might seem to be doing just that here, but it’s not the people, it’s the whole system I wonder about.

Guest speakers, to a lesser extent, are treated with the same familiarity. If you’re running a smaller con and you don’t pay a fee or expenses (you may even ask the guests to pay membership), then the guests you have are most likely local authors who are there because they’re into it and they know the crowd, or someone who’s new and eager, but not a known name, or a more serious mid-list author whose publisher has covered their costs (which is becoming less and less likely), or who forks out their own money to visit conventions a lot, which means that your audience may well have seen them a number of times before.

If you don’t have a large enough audience, you can’t attract the big names. If you don’t even have enough mid-list names, you can’t attract the audience – or sponsors – so you don’t get in enough money to cover your costs. If it costs your speakers money to come to these things, when they get paid to attend other festivals, they’re much less likely to come to yours. WexWorlds-Science Gallery-4If you have the same guests every year, even your loyal members get jaded. And when you get right down to it, the success of anything like this is judged on the experience of the audience.

But in ten years of being published as a writer, most of those years spent working at it full-time, I’ve seen the culture of book festivals flourish. There are many more, in Ireland at least, than there have ever been before. Even with arts budgets being slashed, these festivals are professionally run, well promoted, supported by their local communities and they can often attract big audiences, proper sponsorship and big name authors. Some can now boast a dedicated full-time staff and a permanent office. Normally, they’re in league with their local arts office or library, both of whom have the potential to source a venue for free. And if con organizers think that these people are all less passionate or motivated about their work, then they’ve never been to one of these festivals.

There is so much ability and experience among convention organizers, and they have such a passionate audience, it seems strange to me that the process is so stressful that organizers often get burned out after a few years. And yet the model for doing these conventions differently is already being used and used successfully elsewhere. Wexworlds was the first attempt to combine the eclectic quirkiness of a sci-fi con with the energy and fun of a children’s festival and I thought it worked really well, but it was run by an arts office facing budget cuts and only ran for a couple of years. I’d love to see something like that done again.

There’s huge potential in combining the experience of con organizers with the resources of libraries and arts offices, while taking a more professional approach to sponsorship, promotion and audience building. I like conventions, but I’d love to see them run more as a festival, a celebration of the work they centre round, rather than as a club for fans, some of whom clearly don’t appreciate the work the organizers have to put in and whose work sometimes seems as if it’s something to be endured, rather than enjoyed.

November 15, 2012

And . . . . Breeeeathe!

Okay, so October’s over and I’m winding down events in November, so I thought I’d run over what I’ve been up to and where I’ve been, along with a few other bits of news.

Children’s Book Festival brought its usual hectic schedule. I’ll keep just to that month, where I did (deep breath): an Ideas Shop event with Sarah Webb and Judi Curtin in Tallaght library, then four different libraries in Meath, Skerries Community College, I interviewed Anthony Horowitz in the Solstice Theatre in Navan, had to miss the Octocon convention in Dublin, four different libraries in Kildare, two more Ideas Shop events in Tipperary, St Molaga’s NS in Balbriggan, Bailieborough and Cootehill libraries in Cavan, St Colmcille’s Junior School in Knocklyon and Kishogue Travellers’ Community Centre for South Dublin libraries, Loreto College in Foxrock . . . and finally, two sessions (one with Derek Landy and Will Hill) in Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin for the Bram Stoker Festival.

So, I was thoroughly knackered by the beginning of November. Add in the fact Maedhbh’s been very ill, and the kids have been conspiring to ensure we never get a full night’s sleep, and my brain has been in danger of losing its higher functions.

I’ve also just wrapped up a night course I was teaching in a local college, and did a weekend course for the Irish Writers’ Centre at the end of September. I did a talk for Irish PEN on YA fantasy last week, with Celine Kiernan and Conor Kostick, I was in Tallaght again today with Sarah Webb, and tomorrow I’m in St Michael’s College in D4, talking to the first years. On Sunday, I’ll be back in Smock Alley with the ubiquitous David Maybury (author of ‘Frankenkids’) doing a Nightmare Club Event. That’ll be it, for the moment . . . I think.

October also marked the launch of my book for Little Island’s Nightmare Club series, ‘Wolfling’s Bite’, and my sister Erika’s excellent new book, ‘The Demon Notebook’. Like my other sister, Kunak, Erika seems to have knocked out a cracking read just to prove to their big brother that this publishing lark is a piece of piss, really.

I’m going to post a bit about my upcoming book, ‘Rat-Runners’ when I get a chance, but I’ve also started work on a TOP SECRET PROJECT that I can’t talk about (yet), except to say that it’s going to keep me busy writing for the next few months. The deadline’s ridiculously tight, which actually suits me for the moment – I do love the events, but a bit of enforced sitting-down-and-writing will be nice. And the dog will start getting proper walks again. Oh, and the painting I was meant to do for Maedhbh’s birthday is REALLY late, so I need to get that finished too.

Right, I’m off to bed. Wake me at the end of the month.

October 12, 2012

I Know What I Did Last Summer

I’ve just realized how long it’s been since I posted anything – thank you Facebook, for diverting my online attention elsewhere. It’s just been easier to stick bits and pieces up as I went, rather than writing something at greater length . . . you know . . . say a few hundred words. Who’d have thought blogging would end up being considered ‘long-winded’. And let’s not even talk about Twitter.

Anyway, time for a bit of catch-up as I’m sucked into Children’s Book Festival. This summer, I did a couple of sessions at the Electric Picnic – the two pictures of sculptures are  just random choices among the weird and wonderful sights to be seen there among the various stages. It was a fantastic spectacle, and because I was starting early on the Friday (I only went for the day), I got to see a lot of the stuff being set up, which – nerd that I am – I found almost as interesting as some of the shows that were on. There was muck, but not too much of it, and the widest range of food I’ve ever seen at an entertainment event. There was a lot of music playing, but to be honest, I just kind of drifted between the different areas for most of the day, taking it all in.

You could indulge in spa treatments, heated jacuzzis, various relaxation zones, literature events, a small fairground, a large family area with plenty to do for kids and, of course, a wide menu of gigs, from small indie acts to international stars.

Maedhbh and I got to go with our twelve-year old to the London Olympics too, thanks to Maedhbh’s savvy approach to buying tickets. We stayed with a mate of mine over there, and got a morning of athletics at the stadium, and . . . wait for it . . . a morning session of women’s boxing, including seeing Katie Taylor in the semi-final! That was absolutely brilliant, as good an atmosphere as I’ve ever felt anywhere. There was a chance to catch up with my agent while I was in London too. With Frankfurt Book Fair – arguably the biggest book fair in the world – on this week, she’ll have been run off her feet, and I’ve a number of different books being pitched at the moment, so we had a lot of stuff to talk out while I was in the neighbourhood.

As far as work is concerned, the last few months have been hectic, in a varied, patchy way. It’s been a real reflection of what it’s like to be a professional writer – at least one who does well enough to make a living, but hasn’t reached the stratosphere of success that challenges you with problems like juggling international flights (okay, there was London, but it doesn’t count if it’s not book-related) and fighting off the paparazzi. The summer months are normally when I get time to write for prolonged periods, but that just didn’t seem to happen this time, so I’ve been fitting in the writing when and where I could.

Given that it’s now time to get stuck into Children’s Book Festival, taking me to places like Dublin, Kildare, Cavan and Tipperary among others, I should should really be further along with the writing, and things have been coming along. I’ll post a bit about what I’ve been up to in the next week or so.

November 10, 2011

Chairing and Blogging for CBI

Children’s Book Festival has come to a close, and I’m starting to catch up on all the things that have piled up on the desk while I’ve been running around like a blue-arsed fly, and shouting at defenceless children. One of the things I’ve got to swot up for is the Green Inking Comic Event this Saturday. I’ll be chairing the proceedings.

This half-day seminar will take as its inspiration the increased visibility of graphic novels and comic books by Irish creators and/or concerning Irish themes. The event will take place at the Seminar Room in the National Library of Ireland from 10am until 1pm.

Here’s the schedule for the day:

10.30 – Luis Bustos
CBI and Instituto Cervantes are delighted to welcome Spanish graphic artist Luis Bustos, creator of Endurance, which chronicles Ernest Shackleton’s voyage.

11.15 – The O’Brien Press
The O’Brien Press introduce their new collections of graphic novels for young readers.

12.00 – Panel Discussion
Irish graphic novel/comic book panel with Rob Curley of Sub-City and Atomic Diner, Tomm Moore of Cartoon Saloon and illustrator, animator and printmaker Cliodhna Lyons.

I’ve also just done a guest post for Children’s Books Ireland, telling the story of a typical morning for me during Children’s Book Festival. I’ll have to do a proper round-up for myself soon (now that I’ve mostly recovered), but in the meantime, you can check out my piece on the CBI blog.

September 23, 2011

Gearing Up for October

Children’s Book Festival – in terms of events, it’s the busiest time in the year for most children’s book authors (and to a lesser extent, illustrators) in Ireland. Officially, it runs from the beginning to the end of October, although it tends to bleed into September and November too. Libraries, schools and bookshops all over the country will be running all kinds of events to celebrate children’s books. There are also bigger gigs, staged in theatres, run by the libraries or by Children’s Books Ireland. CBI produce Bookfest, collating reviews on the latest books, as well as the posters and other marketing material. They also act as hub for the festival, helping connect up the country and make this a national thing.

For any writer or illustrator who does talks, workshops or shows, this is the time everybody wants you to come and visit. World Book Day in March is the next busiest part of the year, but it’s just not the same as facing into the marathon month that is CBF.

I’ve had a few events since the beginning of September, but in October, it’s going to be a bit mental. I can start getting inquiries for CBF as early as March or April – sometimes earlier.

I normally need a few sessions to get me warmed up after the summer break. So far I’ve done the Monster Book Lunch in Dun Laoghaire for the Mountains to Sea Festival, I’ve been to Bush Post Primary near Dundalk and Skerries Educate Together. Yesterday I gave a talk to student teachers in Froebel College in Blackrock. All four of these were different types of events, so I should have well and truly shaken the rust off by the time I kick off CBF with two days in libraries in County Clare next week.

Over the next month, I’ll also be travelling to Tipperary, Cavan, Kildare, Monaghan, Kerry and Leitrim.

I don’t get much writing or illustrating done in October.

I’m grateful that the invitations are still coming in, because libraries and schools are having a really tough time of it. But it’s a testament to the importance given to children’s books that in many counties, they’re making a real effort to keep their part of the festival running even though they’ve got much less money to do it with.

So now I’m making sure I’ve sharpened my pencils, I’ve got my drawing materials, my easel and my books packed in my sessions case. I’ve a few new t-shirts and  some new notebook-enabled combats in the wardrobe. The roadmaps sit ready in the car – which stands cleaned out and scrubbed up, as it’s going to be my mobile command centre for much of the next month. I keep promising myself I’ll learn some voice exercises to keep my throat in order through the month – which I have yet again failed to do.

I’m taking on a few different things this time round too, so I’ve some more prep work to do yet: some comics workshops for primary school kids in Meath; ‘The Ideas Shop’ theatre show with Sarah Webb and Judi Curtin in Bray and Navan; a workshop on plot and structure, in the beginning of November, at a seminar run in Swords by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I find that, most of the time, I have to think just few days ahead at any one time. I have to deal with October in manageable chunks.

I remember when I first got published, and I had visions of me sitting in quiet contemplation all day, writing and drawing and painting. Happily shutting the world out so I could produce my masterpieces. Since then, I’ve seen more of Ireland, and the UK, then I’d ever seen before. It’s cool, and exhausting, and stimulating, and bewildering, and it flattens you, but lifts you onto your toes again. And it’s all to get kids to read books. My books, obviously, but any books too. To get them to look into other people’s heads and find all the brilliant stuff that lies within. And really, that’s what it’s about.

And maybe out there, just every now and again, some kid will see what I and others do and will say to themselves in that quite, resolved, determined way: ‘I’m going to do that too, some day.’ And that would be pretty cool too.

March 21, 2011

The Oisin McGann Travelling Show

I do sessions to promote my books – as well as a few workshops and residencies – throughout the year, but it normally doesn’t get too mad except for round October, when Ireland is overrun by the Children’s Book Festival. Lately though, I’ve taken on a lot of sessions, and with World Book Day (or at least the one we celebrate in Ireland and the UK) just gone past, it’s been a bit mental.

I think the last visit I’d mentioned in a blog was the Royal School in Dungannon in December, and then finishing up before Christmas with Story Spark for the Ark in Temple Bar. I tried to keep January as clear as I could, so I’d get some work done, but still managed to start a residency in Bessbrook, near Newry and an online writing course for Creative Writing Ink.

February was still pretty quiet. I started another residency in Clonee in Meath, visited St Wolstan’s Community School in Celbridge, and Sperrin Integrated College in Magherafelt, Co. Derry. With Poetry Ireland running their ‘Border Crossings’ project with the Northern Ireland Arts Council, I’ve started to get a lot of requests from schools in Northern Ireland. That’s a good thing, as the bureaucracy involved in doing sessions in Northern Ireland can get a bit much, and I had been put off going up there much. I was once registered as an employee and fired on the same day (including receiving a P45) just so I could do two sessions in a library up the north. An employment tribunal then contacted me to see if I wanted to appeal my dismissal. I’m not kidding.

With the Border Crossings Scheme, I only have to deal with Poetry Ireland’s paperwork, and that’s pretty minimal. For anyone who doesn’t know, PI have been running the Writers-in-Schools Scheme in Ireland for decades, and it’s hugely successful.

Speaking of borders – and stupid procedures – here’s a picture I took when I was out and about in February. Your eyes do not deceive you. It is indeed a parking space with a kerb around it. I can think of no better illustration of Ireland’s approach to planning building projects. Perhaps this space was reserved for four-wheel-drives.

Things really kicked off in March, with Tallaght Library for World Book Day, a session in the National Library for the Dublin Book Festival and a short talk and drawing for the ceremony to celebrate the winner of the O’Brien Press’s Design-a-Book-Cover Competition. The aim of the competition was to produce a new cover for Michael Scott’s ‘October Moon’. Congrats to all the runners-up on their excellent work, but particularly to the winner, Adina McNulty from Ballina. Her design is now the cover for the new edition of the book.

Then I attended the Phoenix Sci-Fi and Fantasy Convention in Dublin, before hauling my arse over to London to do two days of sessions for the Irish Literary Festival there, held by the Irish Cultural Centre. While I was there, I also did a visit the following day to Bexleyheath school, in association with Random House and WH Smith.

Last week, I took part in a day of Speculative Fiction workshops for the Big Smoke Writing Factory and visited St Michael’s College on Ailesbury Road. And that brings me just about up to date on the sessions. I took a break over the long weekend, although I spent much of St Patrick’s day in the car (just for the sheer novelty of driving). We attended two parades. Just before one, our two youngest kids fell asleep and I kept driving so that our budding Liverpool striker could take his place in the parade with his GAA club, and Maedhbh could look on proudly, while soaking up the atmosphere.

Small town parades may lack the glamour and splendour of Dublin’s, but they have their own unique character.

Yes, that is a marching accordion band. One of the best in the country, apparently. And on that note, I’m going to sign off. Talk to you again soon.

November 18, 2010

Back in the World

Okay, so you know how they say never have a new baby and move house at the same time? Well, I’d go one further than that. Absolutely never move house to a place that needs a thorough renovation, when your nation’s banks are in financial meltdown and have gone completely schizo, when you’ve just had a new baby and you’ve already got a hyperactive toddler.

That said, we are delighted with our new home. And I finally have a decent-sized garage I can eventually fit out as a studio! I don’t even have to shift other people’s furniture out of it (I just chucked all the junk in a skip)! I do need some time, and some money, and a little energy boost would help . . . The last couple of months have been a bit of a struggle (to put it lightly). Yes, by outfitting this house from scratch, we’re ‘putting our stamp on it’, and some have suggested that it must be our dream house.

Dream house? I would have to say . . . not quite.

My dream house would be somewhere in the Wicklow Mountains, with one door out to a London street, a second door somewhere in the south of France and a third into the the Austrian Alps and a fourth to New York. And it would have a window looking out into the middle of the Great Barrier Reef. And it would have a landing pad for my jet-copter. But that’s the house I’ve been planning since I was eight. I don’t dream small.

I can wait a little longer, but some day . . . Some day . . .

In the meantime, I’ll happily settle for our new central heating system and working toilets. I revel in a house with no exposed electrical wires or protruding pipes, and yet still daydream wistfully of a studio where my box of software discs doesn’t sit beside my laundry basket. And where I don’t have to step over a stack of art folders to reach my underwear drawer. We left the major installation work to professionals (no, nothing to do with my laundry or underwear), but there are still plenty of things to be assembled, hung, cleaned, repaired, screwed into walls, nailed down, drilled, cut, wired up, cleared out, stripped down, sanded, painted, varnished, carved or shoved up into the attic – all of which we’ll have to do ourselves.

I’m not complaining or anything, but at the moment, my studio door is a stair-gate. And my toddler has almost figured out the latch. She looks over the top at me, smiling. Soon I’ll find a way in, Da-da. Very soon.

I haven’t been online for a while, and as I emerge into the world of the web once more, blinking in the dazzling daylight, I must reflect on all that has happened since I last posted.

With a complete disregard for my overloaded schedule, Children’s Book Festival in October went full steam ahead. And as usual, it started in September, and didn’t really stop when October came to an end. Over the last couple of months, I’ve done sessions in (deep breath): Dun Laoghaire; the Aspects Festival in Bangor; Tallaght; I put in a VERY brief appearance at Culture Night in the Ark, meeting Mary Hanifin; Castlepollard Library in Westmeath; Castletymon Library in Dublin; Dromineer Literary Festival; I ran art workshops in Rathcairn, Slane, Nobber and Athboy Libraries in Meath;  Strabane Library; Cootehill and Bailieborough Libraries in Cavan; Coolock and Donaghmede in Dublin; Celbridge, Maynooth and Leixlip Libraries in Kildare; Strangford College in Down; Rath NS in Offaly; Timahoe and Portlaoise for their Literary Festival; Billis NS in Cavan and St Paul’s in Ratoath.

That about brings me up to date on the sessions. I need to get my tired, filthy and roof-box-laden car in for a well-deserved service, and then get back to the writing. Next week I have one more school visit, and then I’m off to WexWorlds Festival in Wexford, which I’m well looking forward to – last year was a great laugh.

So what else happened while I was offline? Well, I was sorry to hear that Stephen J Cannell had died. Like most kids my age, I watched too much television growing up. The man responsible for a lot of that television was Mr Cannell, creator of shows such as: ‘The Rockford Files’, ‘The Greatest American Hero’ and, of course, ‘The A-Team’. My taste for this type of telly when I was young, prompted my parents’ response when they were asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. ‘An American’, they replied.

I got to see Sting in concert in the O2. Younger readers of my blog – such as those in, say, their twenties – might ask who Sting is. Google him, that’s all I can say. Check him out on iTunes. He was performing with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and it was fantastic. Some pop music doesn’t translate well when given the classical treatment, but Sting’s stuff is ripe for it. His numbers from the Police were good, but I think his solo stuff came off better. Songs like ‘Englishman in New York’, ‘Moon Over Bourbon Street’ and ‘The Shape of My Heart’ were every bit as brilliant as when I first heard them, and ‘Russians’ had my hairs standing on end. And the man himself stood out in front of all that orchestration and carried the show like a guy who was just having a good time.

I got to have dinner with Tom Donegan, of CBI and Steve Cole, author of ‘Astrosaurs’, ‘Cows in Action’ (and about a thousand other books, it seems like). Steve was a sound guy, who had also had recent house renovation stories and was in Ireland to launch his latest collection of titles. In his blog, he gives the impression I’m some kind of adrenaline junkie. On the contrary, I would argue that taking part in thrilling experiences, but never doing them more than once would suggest definite scaredy-cat tendencies on my part. David Maybury showed up in time for dessert (doesn’t he always?) and lowered the tone with his talk of all things tech and showing off how many books he’s read.

‘The Dandy’ has recently gone through its own overhaul with a brand new look. Badly needed, I think, as it seemed to be getting confused as to what kind of comic/magazine it was. When I do my sessions, it’s one of the titles that kids often mention, and is definitely still one of the most popular comics out there, even up to the end of primary school. I’ve seen and heard mixed reactions to the revamp (mainly from adults) but my stepson has given it an enthusiastic thumbs-up, so that’s good enough for me.

One of the things I found interesting was the number of references in the stories to mainstream entertainment: Harry Hill, X-Factor, Top Gear – not stuff you’d normally count as entertainment for young kids. Presumably the comic refers to them because this is what the comic’s readership is watching. It makes a bit of a mockery of the occasionally-prudish concerns of publishers, and the book industry in general, over the content of young children’s books. If they can see it on the telly, which anyone can watch, why are we more worried about putting it in books, which you have to be able to read in order to consume their content?

Anyway, that’s enough to be getting on with for one post. There’ll be a slightly shorter wait for the next one.