J.R.R. Tolkien was famously inspired to write The Lord of the Rings because England did not have a mythology to call its own. Had Tolkien been born a few hundred kilometers to the west, he might have created something more akin to Frank Delaney's Ireland: A Novel.
Set in the country of Delaney's birth, Ireland is, according to Publisher's Weekly, a "sprawling, riveting read, a book of stories melding into a novel wrapped up in an Irish history text." Although the length and subject matter of Delaney's novel invites comparisons to the work of James Michener, Delaney's book aims for the heart rather than the intellect. As opposed to Michener's meticulously researched histories, Ireland is steeped in the Irish storytelling tradition, in which fact and fiction intertwine in the pursuit of a good story.
Ireland is Delaney's first novel to be released in the United States, but he has been a well-known writer and broadcaster in the United Kingdom for many years. In addition to writing seven other novels and a number of nonfiction works, he hosted a long-running and highly-rated series on BBC radio called Word of Mouth. His interest in Irish culture led him to create The Celts, a six-part BBC television series on Celtic history that is notable for giving the musical artist Enya her first popular exposure.
The seeds for Ireland were planted in early 1990, during breakfast with a literary agent and friend named Ed Ficter. Delaney loved the idea of writing an epic history of Ireland, but his busy schedule left him with little time to work on the project. Over the years, Delaney continued to meet with Ficter, and every time, Ficter would leave the conversation with, "Don't forget Ireland: A Novel." After 12 years, Ficter finally managed to wear Delaney down. He dropped his agent, signed up with Ficter, and began work on Ireland.
The basis of many of the stories in the novel were informed by Delaney's extensive travels around his home country. When Delaney was working as a bank clerk in his early 20s, he would often hitchhike around Ireland during holidays, visiting small, forgotten villages and having long conversations with the locals. It was during these travels that Delaney fell in love with Ireland and the people who live there.
Although critical response to Ireland has been highly favorable, Delaney balks when asked if this is his masterpiece. "Oh, God no," he told British bookseller The Book Place, "this is just the start of a new phase. I do want to write a series of big novels about Ireland, and this is the first of them." Fans of Delaney's magical, moving novel eagerly await the forthcoming results of this "new phase."
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In our interview, Delaney shared some fun and fascinating insights with us:
"For a startling period of my life I reported the Troubles in Ireland for the BBC. I lived in Dublin and was called out to all sorts of incidents that, if taken together, add up to a war -- bombings, assassinations, riots, shootings, robberies, jailbreaks, kidnappings, and sieges. It was a 24/7 life, lived on the road, or so it felt, with never a still moment, never knowing what was going to happen next. I've touched on it in a novel called Desire & Pursuit, but the vast portion of the experience is still in there, somewhere in my unconscious mind; and I expect it will emerge one day."
"As an arts journalist in London, working mainly for the BBC, I interviewed hundreds if not thousands of authors. From them I gleaned a great deal of passing instruction in writing and I observed one fascinating detail: no two writers approach their work -- physically -- in the same way. Some write longhand in pencil; some have voice-trained their computers -- and in between lies the world of authorship. As for an interesting moment -- Harold Robbins emerging from his hotel bathroom for an interview with a pretty, bikinied blonde girl on each arm; talk about true to type!"
"No country impresses me as much as the USA. ‘Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?' you think -- to which I answer, 'Well, no I wouldn't.' The fact is -- if you want to know how warm Americans, are all you have to do is stand on a sidewalk and open a map. Within seconds, passers-by will gather, offering to help. If you think it happens everywhere else -- it doesn't."
"Writers have opinions -- that, in part, is why they write. Therefore they have strong likes and dislikes. I love hamburgers but hate beets. (Note: I'm using the word 'love,' not 'like.') I love baseball, hate reality shows (all that licensing of people to behave badly). I love libraries, hate noise in public spaces. I'll stop there -- this could become an endless list!"
"Interests and hobbies: Writing -- and reading about writing; renovating houses (I've done three so far); sport, in most forms; great music -- anything from harmonica to harpsichord. In fact, I'd have to struggle to find a subject in which I can't get some kind of interested pulse started."
"Favorite ways to unwind: I like to sprawl in front of the television -- but it has to be good! Good political comment, good drama, good documentary, good drama. One of the mysteries of life is why television is so frequently so bad -- it doesn't have to be, and many have proven that fact. I also like gardening and general pottering and organizing things and walking -- all of these give me good thinking time."
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In the winter of 2005, Frank Delaney took some time out to talk with us about some of his favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Ulysses by James Joyce; in it, Joyce showed that, to a writer, anything is possible -- but also that the best books have wonderful secrets hidden in the material, i.e., in the author's heart, and that such secrets bring great rewards when you go looking for them. Thus, a novel (Ulysses), which for so long has had the reputation of being obscure, can prove tremendously enjoyable if, for example, it's read aloud and the words are savored.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Ten favorites? A hundred, surely -- and I'm going to presume that I am not allowed to cite the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary!
Let's start with Ulysses and see my remarks above.
Next comes Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, probably the first "novel" I ever read; it still compels me and I love it for its immediacy and its vividness and its moral ambiguity; as in life, nobody here is perfect and even the great villain, Long John Silver, is an attractive character.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is a novel I reread every few years or so. It feels to me to have perfect form; to use a movie term, it "arcs" beautifully and we are concerned for each and every character. How interesting that Fitzgerald is able to take uncaring characters such as Tom Buchanan and his beautiful wife, Daisy, and make us care about what happens to them.
Now, a French novel, Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert which, in some regions of France, is often given as a as a cautionary-tale wedding gift by the mayor of the town to the bride whose wedding he's conducting. This tragedy plays out in front of our eyes and we cannot take our eyes off it. I was even more drawn to the book when I discovered how much of it is based on real events -- there was a Charles and there was an Emma.
A switch to nonfiction; I always have to keep at least four books "live" at the same time and at the moment I am reading two of the very best books I have ever encountered; they are Arthur Miller's autobiography, Timebends a wonderful, thoughtful, sweeping, funny and utterly revelatory book. He does this marvelous thing of "payoff" -- by which I mean he discusses, say, his mother or his aunts or his uncles or family furniture, and then, as a kind of summary, tells you how the people or events he has been describing have appeared in his plays. And he is so dignified and heartbreakingly tender about Marilyn Monroe.
As a contrast I am reading David McCullough's glorious biography of Founding Father John Adams. This has to be the textbook on how historical biography is written -- humorous, understanding, wise and generously accessible to the reader. And, as a professional writer, I know just how much research he has had to do for each and every sentence -- but he never makes his reader feel the labor.
A third biography -- Matisse, Volume One by Hilary Spurling: English biographer on French painter. I read more and more slowly because I didn't want it to end.
So far, then -- 3 biographies, 4 novels, 7 down, 3 to go; let me choose a collection of short stories, a poetry anthology and an "oddity."
The short story collection is The Collected Stories of William Trevor, the great Irish master, who can sometimes suspend the entire life of the story until the very last paragraph or sentence. He writes about real observations, how people respond under pressure, and pressure can be as "small" as an unreturned telephone call or a visit from a half-remembered lover.
My poetry anthology is the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, the annotated verse collection they aimed at colleges. Published in 1973, edited and annotated by Richard Ellmann (James Joyce's biographer) and Robert O'Clair, its notes on a varied assortment, from Walt Whitman to Leonard Cohen are a repeating joy. On T. S. Eliot – "better equipped than any other poet to bring verse fully into the twentieth century."
And lastly I come to the "oddity," if I may call it that. All writing is a "performance" -- you sit there and perform the act of writing. To survive this you need leaders and I love reading books about writing -- I have many on my shelves. Among my favorites, even though not strictly or solely about writing, is Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. It reveals Hemingway, the young writer, naked and open about seeing writing from a romantic and solitary point of view. You can feel and see and sniff his atmosphere; you can taste and handle the texture of his prose as he ponders openly what it is like to write with the world all around.
But please take into account William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad, William Gaddis, Nabokov, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Ford, John O'Hara, John Steinbeck, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Heinrich Boll, Balzac, Zola -- wonderful, sprawling Zola -- the Wolfes, Tom and Thomas, and a few hundred others.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
All the standard favorites are here: Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, Great Expectations, the Godfather trilogy, and when I run my finger down my brain, I see that I like narrative films, movies with a good story -- such as The Shawshank Redemption, most of Hitchcock; The Day of the Jackal, The English Patient, All About Eve. In other words, I like movies that cause me to ask the age-old question wrought by storytellers: "What's going to happen next?"
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
First of all, I can't listen to music when I'm writing -- it's too distracting because I'm always trying to figure out why this was written, or why that harmony line comes in there, and so on. And as for taste, I can't choose one form above another: Mozart, Keith Jarrett, Artie Shaw, Quincy Jones, Hoyt Axton, Van Morrison, James Taylor, Wagner, Carly Simon, Paul Simon, Scriabin, Mussorgsky, bluegrass, pipe bands, good country (meaning Johnny Cash and Bonnie Raitt), Chopin, great Irish music, the Chieftains, the great rock 'n roll bands such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks -- it's an endless and kaleidoscopic list and always, always, always there's Elvis -- and Schubert.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading -- and why?
It would spend a year reading nothing but the novels of Cormac McCarthy, to study how prose works, how characters are built, how tension is created and how atmosphere is conveyed. No need to say more.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
I love reference books -- for obvious reasons; and for a less-than-obvious reason too. If I have a day when the story isn't flowing I turn to reference books and in there, whether it's a history of art or music or a thesaurus, I'm always stimulated and the writing cranks up again.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
No rituals -- except for the fact that I have to start in total silence. Any interruption within the first half-hour and I could lose the thread for the day. Temperamental? I guess you could call it that; I would call it an attempt to establish deep concentration.
On my desk right now: a silver paperknife given to me as a gift in 1973, a jar that sometimes contains nuts and sometimes contains M&Ms, a telephone; an "electric" stapler in which you can see all the works moving (another gift), a cooking timer, by which I work, setting it to the number of hours I mean to write without lifting my head, a slab of Post-it notes, a paperweight from Monticello (also a gift) in the form of the little brass dumbbell Thomas Jefferson made for himself; a box of paper clips, a little wooden tray of pens, and a brass lamp.
What are you working on now?
A novel of approximately the same length as Ireland -- to address what happened to the English in Ireland -- not quite a sequel to Ireland but it does move from a general picture to a particular strand of history. I intend it to be a big, powerful novel, centered on a girl who, as the novel begins, is 18 years old and discovers that she has a remarkable and beautiful heritage to claim -- but others want it too. It feels important to me to write books that are "necessary" -- that have a place in the world. And it feels very important to me to write books that hook the reader nonstop while delivering interesting knowledge told in the lives of arresting characters. This novel meets both of those criteria; while being a (I hope) highly readable and moving universal story of challenge and survival, it is located in the most fascinating period of Irish history.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I can't answer this question in a satisfying way -- because I am still developing, still getting to "where I am today" -- still traveling hopefully, never wishing to arrive -- in other words, changing and trying to grow all the time. My intention is to keep learning how to write; that is the wonderful thing about authorship -- my next book is always going to be my best (so far).
Horror stories? No, I've been lucky -- although, as a young journalist, one news editor did set fire to something I had written and told me to "go away and write it better."
Inspirational anecdotes? William Saroyan sent a story a week to The Saturday Evening Post for something like 14 years before he got published -- and then became very successful.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
I'm reading a book at the moment called Young Men and Fire by Norman Maclean, who also wrote A River Runs Through It (the movie starred Brad Pitt). Young Men won the National Book Critics Prize in 1992 but I've only come to it now. This truly is a lesson in how to write from a first-person, nonfiction point of view. Every time I finish reading a passage I put the book down and praise the author aloud.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
I have one piece of advice: write the next sentence. Whatever it is, whatever it is about, write it -- write a complete and total sentence that makes sense of the emotion you're trying to express, of the scene you're trying to describe. Afterwards, you can do all the polishing, and apply all of the lessons that you've gleaned from here, there and everywhere.
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