Tuesday, April 28, 2009

How to write a damn good query letter

A sickle shaped moon is lying on its back beyond the window. I’ve spent the past two hours trying to ‘research’ literary agents on the internet, and instead ending up being sidetracked by blogs on what not to write, how to write well, how to write damn well, how not to write a query letter, how to write a query letter, and how to write a damn good query letter. (http://www.nathanbransford.blogspot.com/) or http://www.poewar.com/how-to-write-a-query-letter/ or http://www.writing-world.com/basics/query.shtml or http://www.agentquery.com/writer_hq.aspx . . . and lots more.
I used to think my novel was pretty good, in a sparse, relentless ‘l’etranger’ sort of way. Now I’m not so sure. I’ve just realised it doesn’t really have a plot. And I still haven’t quite pinned down the concluding chapters, which I suppose could be linked to the plot problem. Trying to summarise a non-existent plot in two sentences kind of highlighted the whole thing.

I found some mysterious receipts of Aunt Dee’s in the process of clearing out the dresser in the parlour yesterday, along with a faded black and white postcard addressed to Fr John. Apparently she visited America several times in the late fifties and early 60’s, staying in the Hollywood Boulevard Hotel, California, on seven different occasions between 1960 and 1966.
Not once, in the whole time I knew her, did she mention visiting America.
What was she doing there? Was she drawn to the town because of its glamorous associations? Or was there something deeper going on?
Was Aunt Dee, a middle-aged single lady who worked as a priest’s housekeeper for over forty years, leading a secret other life?
I don’t know. But I’m going to find out.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

An exceptional night

It all started when Michael, the editor’s right hand man, told me he writes poetry. So I told him I did too. I also told him my poems were not very good.
The only time they’re any good at all is when I’ve just finished writing one. In the brief afterglow that follows my new poem is ‘possibly the best poem in the world.’
I could open a book of Kavanagh’s, or Séamus Heaney’s, or Paula Meehan’s and I could even scan one or two of the poems and I would still say to myself ‘Hmmmmm. I like it well enough. . but I’m still not sure it’s quite as good as my new poem.’

When I look at my new poem the next day what I feel is probably similar to what someone feels when they wake up next to a one night stand, and the gorgeous creature they met the previous night has vanished, leaving in their place a strange, lumpen figure, sporting novelty socks, with red-wine stained lips.

Which brings me to The Whitehouse, where I ended up last night after Michael asked me if I wanted to come along. (Note: One night stands do not feature in this tale) We drove for what felt like hours, then ended up getting stuck in Limerick’s strange grid system before finally stumbling across the Whitehouse pub.

What an astonishing place. Firstly, everyone there was kind and generous. Secondly, many many brilliant poems were read.
What made it even more unique was the setting: a beautiful high-ceilinged old-fashioned pub with stained-glass windows. In the corner sat a booth draped with a velvet curtain, and under the curtain stood the most extraordinarily welcoming, jockey of a man in a dickie-bow.

Michael read a poem about a fish. It was very clever and I suspect very deep. After much persuasion I read my newest poem, about an evil man who drowns in a bog-hole in West Wicklow. I’m not sure if it went down very well - afterwards there was a long silence, which Michael broke by clapping loudly.
But people were so genuinely friendly and encouraging that by the end of the night it didn’t matter if I’d made a fool of myself. Like one reader said, sometimes, as a poet (or someone who just writes poetry) you have to make a fool of yourself. It’s part of the process. That’s all.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Broadbeans and talking slugs

The broadbeans, while not exactly bigger, have shrunk no further. I’m hoping their lack of shrinkage might be related to a piece I stumbled across on the internet about Taoist farming.
The Taoist farmers make a pact with the slugs. They say something like, look, let’s try and get along together, okay? If I let you eat a small portion of my lettuce, you have to agree to leave the rest of the plants for me. How does that sound?

So yesterday evening I went out to the back garden and had a word with the slugs.
Me: Ahem . . . ahem (feeling a little silly) Ummmm . . .hello. Can anyone hear me?
Slugs: silence.
Me: No . .okay - Well . . anyway . . I just wanted to ask you if you wouldn’t mind leaving my broadbean plants alone.
Slugs: Heavy silence now, as though several hundred slugs had uncurled their tiny tentacles and were suddenly listening intently.
Me: (now feeling very self conscious) You can have the last two plants at either end of the bed. Otherwise I’ll have to kill you.
Slugs: You’d kill us?
Me (gobsmacked): Hello? You can speak?
There's a splutter from behind and I spin around to find Dómhnall and Seanie beag doubled over in the back doorway, locked in silent laughter.
'Classic,' Dómhnall sighs happily, wiping the tears from his eyes.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A sense of place

Yesterday I woke up to find two trays of plants labeled ‘broadbeans’ on my front doorstep. I planted them out after consulting ‘The Organic Gardener’ and this morning skipped straight from bed to back garden to see how much they’d grown.
They hadn’t grown at all. In fact they’d shrunk, and two of the plants seemed to have disappeared altogether. Slugs, I decided, after angrily consulting the dog-eared ‘Organic Gardener’ again.

I sat at the kitchen table and had a cup of coffee. I thought about slugs. I went out to look at the once virgin broadbeans again and considered how many bites the slugs had taken.

I went back inside and googled slugs.
Slugs can live for up to two years. They are hermaphrodites. They have a sense of place.

I went outside to inspect the broadbeans again. They seemed to have shrunk a little more.

I cursed slugs. I cursed god for inventing slugs, before retracting it, and instead asking him why, in god’s name, did you give them a sense of place? How on earth am I supposed to kill them now, knowing that they will cross huge fields and oceans of grass, to return to where they’re from?

Then I thought about my ex-husband. As long as he had a nice big house, plenty of food and wine, a little bit of sex now and then, and Sky Sports, he honestly couldn’t have cared less where he lived.
I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take from that thought. I mean, I obviously don’t wish I’d married a slug. But is it possible that a slug may in some ways be more evolved than my ex-husband? A sense of place to my mind is a very important thing.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Drinks at Roundy's Bar

This evening I’m feeling happy after a visit to Roundy’s Bar.
It’s a funny jumbled pub a few doors down from the newspaper office, littered with dark corners and ancient moulting armchairs – and cats. I almost sat on a huge orange tom when I joined the group at one of the tables.
I can’t remember the last time I sat in a pub, or anywhere else, without being the other half of a couple. But after I took a few sips of gin and tonic and Michael told me he thought the editor was megalomaniac slave driver I started to feel a little more at home.
I told Marie about Aunt Dee’s vegetable garden. She says Aunt Dee seems like a very mysterious character, and after seeing the autographed picture of Jane Russell I found, she wonders if maybe, as well as being a priest’s housekeeper, Aunt Dee led a secret other-life.
Tomorrow I’m going to have a root through her papers and see if I can find anything else unusual.

I bought some onward pea seeds on my lunch-hour today. In between ransacking Aunt Dee's writing desk and doing some long overdue cleaning, I plan to plant them in the newly cleared backyard.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Burglars and a lost garden

After a long day in work I got home to find the front gate wide open. Burglars, I decided shakily, (but not without a tiny frisson of excitement). I grabbed a wrench from the car-boot as a snatch of conversation floated towards me from the back garden.
Men’s voices, I decided. Two of them – if not more.
I inched around the side of the house.
Something was wrong. Terribly wrong. Where an impenetrable jungle of nettles, thistles, dock-weeds and brambles once stood there was now just an empty space.
‘How’s it going,’ someone murmured, and as my eyes grew accustomed to the unexpected sunlight flooding the back of the house, I recognised Dómhnall, sitting on an upturned terracotta pot drinking a can of 7-up. Another lad lounged next to him on an upturned wheelbarrow, and perched next to him sat an angelic looking blonde-haired boy, smoking a cigarette.
‘Fitzie and Seánie beag,’ Dómhnall murmured, waving a vague hand at the other two.
Huge swathes of brambles and tangled grass were piled in one corner. Rakes, shovels, spades and forks were propped neatly against the creeper covered wooden shed.

I hadn’t even known there was a shed.

‘We thought you might need some help with getting it cleared,’ he added, nodding at the huge square of freshly dug earth at his feet.
‘Thank you,’ I whispered finally. ‘Thank you very much.’
Four rounds of ham sandwiches, two pots of Barry’s tea, a large packet of Mikado biscuits and two menthol cigarettes later (both smoked by Seánie beag), Dómhnall let it slip that his mother, the eccentric red-haired lady who had stalked me and attacked me with a tomato, had suggested they help me out with the garden.
‘You mean she’s not paying us?’ blurted Fitzie, half a ham sandwich frozen en-route to his mouth. ‘For feck’s sake man, you told me she was paying us,’ he muttered, shaking his head dolefully before Dómhnall elbowed him in the ribs.
‘Your mother’s paying you? To work in my garden,’ I asked Dómhnall, dumbfounded.
‘She wants to make up for things – for what happened’ Dómhnall mumbled.
Then he drained his cup of tea and unfolded himself from the chair, his friends trailing out the front door after him.
'Thanks for the tea,' Seánie beag said as he passed.

Later I went out to inspect the back. Standing on the damp soil watching the sky darken, I suddenly remembered what Aunt Dee's vegetable garden had been like.
Tee-pees of red-flowering climbers had lined the far-wall, overlooking blowsy swathes of flowers and rows of onions and lettuces. The air, I remember, had smelt sweet, and I had eaten freshly podded peas as I trailed back and forth along a narrow gravelled path that wound its way towards the shed.

This evening I miss her. I miss the place she created.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Guilt free chocolate and Seamus Heaney

So. Seamus Heaney.
I still love him, of course.
But there is a point where enough is enough.

Yesterday evening while I tried to tackle the never-ending wall of brambles and nettles in the back garden (see pic above) the doorbell rang. By the time I’d yanked off my boots and reached the front hall all I found on the front step was a beautifully wrapped easter egg and a tattered copy of a book called ‘The Organic Gardener.’
I examined the Easter egg carefully for signs of tampering and then ate it.

According to the box, the co-operative of farmers who supplied the cocoa beans for the chocolate were paid above average wages for their product, and the chocolate covered brazil nuts included with the egg were plucked from the Amazon jungle floor by happy and contented co-operative workers. It was an odd experience, eating chocolate while being encouraged to feel good about it.

I am writing this in work. The Editor is at a meeting. He left an hour ago, wearing a candy pink v-neck jumper and pale beige trousers, carrying a bag of golf clubs, after telling me he sincerely hoped I would not make a habit of getting sick.
Three reporters are lounging outside the back door drinking coffee. Someone has strung a teddy-bear from one of the light-fittings and two of the compositors are throwing rolled up newslists at it. The one who fails to hit it the most will buy a round of scones for the newsroom.

Last night I dreamt I bumped into Dómhnall’s mother on the beach. She was crying and clutching an easter egg that turned into a chicken which subsequently grew into a child, a little boy with soft blonde hair and pale grey eyes that tottered towards me, growing as it neared into a lanky adolescent with sombre eyes and pale brown hair who shoved food into his mouth as he approached, fruitcake and nutella and creamcrackers and cuisine de france baguettes.
I woke up feeling sick, the house huge and silent, a tiny dash of person in the space.

Which serves me right for eating an entire easter egg in one sitting, I suppose.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Saturday afternoon with Seamus Heaney

Five days after ‘the day of shame,’ and I’ve just returned from my first trip outdoors.
Day of shame or not, I couldn’t let this be the first Saturday in nineteen years where I didn’t get my Irish Times. And fancy that. When I opened the paper, there, like a gift, was a supplement celebrating Séamus Heaney, who’s just turned 70.

Seamus Heaney.

Reading about him today was like drinking a tall ice-cold glass of water after weeks of thirst.

It’s not just his poetry.
It’s the way he looks . . . so robust and just a tiny bit amused. And the reaction he inspires in people - a warm feeling that makes people want to like him, or aspire to be him.
And then, of course, there is his poetry, which at first didn’t appeal to me, and it was only when I snuck off to a lunchtime reading when I should have been doing the shopping that I began to understand why people loved it, and him, and now I can’t read it without hearing his clay-capped northern voice.
And after reading about Seamus Heaney and how much people admire him and his work, I’ve started to feel better.
I’m finally ready to ready to rise above the three days of embarrassment induced fever and nausea I’ve gone through and put the day of shame behind me.
Which is why I don’t think I want to go into much more detail about what happened, other than to say I now know the eccentric red-haired lady is actually Dómhnall’s mother.
I also know that she was not always red-haired or eccentric and that she was, in fact, until recently a pale-eyed, pale-haired woman who slipped from the house to the car now and then and was rarely seen to smile.
I also now know that the oddly attractive garda’s name (who I no longer find even the tiniest bit attractive) is Seán, and that when he questioned Dómhnall’s mother about her ‘harassment’ of me, she told him . . .
No. I can’t write it.
I’m starting to feel nauseous again . . .
I think I might just go and read some more about Séamus Heaney.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

oohhhh the shame

My first full time job in over six years and I ring in sick in my third week - or is it my fourth?

Twelve sleepless hours later and it's still too awful to contemplate writing about what happened yesterday. I am stupid and moronic and idiotic. I'm not sure I'll ever be able to leave the house again.

I'm going back to bed, to bury myself under Aunt Dee's homemade quilt and try, yet again, to forget about what happened.

Ohhhhhh the shame.

At least I know nothing's wrong with Dómhnall. And I know why his father was acting so strangely. And why the red-haired lady shouted at me.

It wasn't bagel-masher - or ladlebasher she was shouting. It was . . . . . no. I can't write it. How she could have thought that I . . that he . . then again I should have known - of course I should have known. I'm a grown woman . . . .

I can't think about it anymore. Otherwise I might explode with embarassment.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Something far too embarrassing to write about just happened

Something so humiliating, so toe-curlingly embarrassing has just happened, that I can't bring myself to write about it.
Instead I'm going to bury myself in bed and try not to think about it. And tomorrow maybe I'll get up able to face the day.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

All very odd

I called in next door.
It was all very odd.
Dómhnall’s dad answered the door in a pair of jeans that looked too big for him, wearing a tie as a belt, and a faded red sweat-shirt with Cocaine scrawled across the chest. I’m guessing he hadn’t shaved in a while and his new beard was a strange gingery sort of colour that didn’t match his salt-and-pepper hair.
Until recently he left the house at 8.45am, Monday to Friday, in a charcoal suit, clean-shaven and perfectly groomed. I realised when he was standing in the door in front of me that I hadn’t seen him, or his wife, leaving the house for quite a while.
For a second he looked at me blankly. Then he glanced behind him and sidled a little closer to the door.
‘Hello,’ I said. ‘Sorry for bothering you. I was just wondering if Dómhnall was around? I haven’t seen him for a couple of days . .’
‘Dómhnall,’ he said, as though he wasn’t quite sure who I was talking about.
‘Yes,’ I said finally. ‘Your son - Dómhnall. He’s been helping me . . with the computer . . and stuff. Normally he calls in (and eats all my food, I thought, but I didn’t say that bit out loud). I was just wondering if he’s okay - which is stupid - of course he is, but normally he’d call in, and I just thought, you know, what if something’s happened, -‘
Dómhnall’s father backed a little further inside.
‘Dómhnall’s grand,’ he mumbled finally. ‘He’s . . he’s gone to stay . .with some friends of his for a couple of days.’
‘Oh,’ I murmured, feeling like a fool. ‘Okay . .thanks.’
I wandered back over to Aunt Dee’s house and sat on the front step.
He hadn’t said anything about going away.

Still no sign of Dómhnall

Still no sign of Dómhnall all weekend. I wonder if something’s happened? I’m starting to get a little worried. I might call in next door.

Friday, April 3, 2009

A visit to the garda station

I had a word with the oddly attractive garda on my way to work this morning. The first thing he said when I walked into the station was ‘your face is better.’ Then he blushed and dropped his pen.
I told him haltingly what had happened on the beach (very conscious of the fact that the last time he saw me I was slumped over a desk in my threadbare teddy-bear pyjamas) and he suddenly looked all serious and garda-ish and started asking pertinent questions like ‘and what time of the morning was this?’ and ‘Have you noticed her behaving strangely before?’
So then I told him about the tomato throwing. And the shouting.
‘But sure . . that’s as good as harassment,’ he said finally, looking very serious now, and concerned.
I nodded. I couldn’t speak I was so awash with gratitude. He was worried. About me.
‘I’ll have a word with the lady in question today,’ he said finally.
‘You mean – you know her?’ I mumbled as he shepherded me out of the station.
‘I do. She has her own problems. But that’s no excuse,’ he said firmly, and I suddenly found myself standing out on the pavement, the oddly attractive garda (who is also very tall) holding my car door open for me.
Which was nice.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Strange events on an early morning walk

I took an early morning walk on the beach today.
At the far end of the curved strand I heard shouting from the dunes above. Framed against the pale blue sky was the eccentric red-haired lady, shaking her fist in my direction and yelling something incomprehensible.
A trail of footsteps leading from the dunes caught my eye and I noticed, almost at my feet, a collection of pebbles and shells arranged into something that looked like letters.
I could just about make out the first three, which looked like cra, but the rest of it had already been washed away by the tide.
The red-haired lady watched from the dunes, her red hair whipping angrily round her face until I turned around and crept back to the car.

I think she might be stalking me. First there were the tomatoes and the cries of bagel-smasher - then the stones left on the pavement outside my gate. And now this. Is she trying to tell me something? And why is she so angry?
I’m beginning to feel very uneasy about the whole thing.

I suppose I could have a word with the oddly attractive garda, but I’m not sure I have the nerve. The last time he saw me I was wearing my Dunnes Stores teddy-bear pyjamas and I had crunchy nut cornflakes stuck to my face.
Oh dear.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

You sure are one hell of a dame

Marie in work took one look at Aunt Dee’s photo and said, ‘that’s Jane Russell, you big eejit.’
‘Who?’ I said.
‘Jane Russell – Hollywood actress, appeared alongside Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes? Eccentric American millionaire Howard Hughes was in love with her? He even designed a special bra to accommodate and enhance her enormous chest?’
‘Right,’ was all I could say, ‘you seem to know a lot about her?’
‘I like musicals,’ Marie said as she scanned the image into her computer.
After she’d finished she just stared at the screen, saying nothing. Then she started clicking furiously on her mouse and typing instructions into the computer like a madwoman. Then she stopped and stared at the screen again.
‘What does it say? What does it say?’ I babbled.
‘Look for yourself,’ she said quietly, turning the monitor screen to face me.
Written in a flamboyant scrawl across the screen was:

you sure are one hell of a dame,
See you in Acapulco,
J x

‘But . . . what does it mean,’ I murmured. Marie removed the photograph from the scanner and handed it reverently to me.
‘If that inscription is genuine, which I think it is,’ Marie said softly ‘it means, that in Jane Russell’s considered opinion, your great aunt was one hell of a dame.’
Right. . . ..

Someone had left a collection of pebbles on the pavement outside the gate when I got home. It looked like they’d been arranged in some sort of order, possibly words, but by the time I noticed them, between trying to open the gate without dropping my shopping and locking the car, I’d scattered them all over the place. The only thing I could make out was a cr and something that looked like an l. The second word was completely obliterated.
No sign of Dómhnall the last couple of days. I wonder where he’s got to?