The Twinkle in Edna’s Eye

Edna O’ Brien told the audience gathered for the Frank O'Connor Award ceremony at the Metropole Hotel in Cork last night that she had gone to Mass yesterday morning. Maybe she goes every Sunday, or maybe this was a once-off and she was praying to win. She was her usual eloquent self as she accepted the award for her short story collection, Saints and Sinners, graciously showing concern for the other five nominees, Colm Tóibín and Yiyun Li among them, but admitted to being delighted for herself. She is not accustomed to winning awards, she said, so she has no qualms about winning this one. Writing is her fortress and, the award (worth €35,000) will allow her to continue to write with ease.

Edna always mesmerises. She has a presence, a touching vulnerability. When she says she did ‘a little pondering’ I know that one minute of an Edna ponder is worth an hour of most others’. She is in person, like her writing, open and trusting, searingly honest, gleeful, mischievous too. At a National Library lecture on Yeats a couple of years ago she briefly alluded to his Steinach procedure, saying he became the ‘gland old man of letters’ and then flashed us a gamey little wink. On Saturday night she read a story called ‘Old Wounds’ from the collection to an audience enthralled by her vibrant theatrical delivery. She’s eighty now, still tall and elegant, needing a little assistance but with the same twinkle in her eye. The festival director, Pat Cotter, looking boyish in her presence, linked her tenderly onto the stage, and for the duration of the story, stood behind her with his hands on the back of her seat, very still, meek, cherubic.

Kathleen Murray and her summer holiday affair (with the New Yorker)

I was on holidays for the last two weeks in Glencolumcille and Kilkee and have not been writing. Lots of reading going on but no writing and no kindles. I spent time with sisters and brothers-in-law and friends and cousins and second cousins and aunts from Canada and Atlanta and London, and I thought someone would be bundled up on the beach behind a wind breaker with their kindles but no, just lots of books.

Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture got a thumbs up, Kevin Barry’s City of Bohane was a big hit in Limerick-by-the-sea and my cousin said Emma Donoghue’s Room was unputdownable at home in Winnipeg; children left waiting at the school gate and piano lessons abandoned. A significant part of Maggie O’Farrell’s and Patrick Gale’s works was read, verdict mixed but the later books are better apparently. I read Molly McCloskey’s memoir about her brother, Circles Around the Sun, and found it fascinating and thoughtful.

I get a pile of New Yorker magazines every year before my August holiday from the Fly Boy. It’s my summer holiday affair, sneaking up to my bedroom to finish an article, or sitting on the beach, leaving disappointed children to their half-built sandcastles so I can finish a story.

Dave Lordan on prehistoric raves, the Irish Spoken Word scene, and why it's best to have no plans...

Tens of thousands of years ago tribes from all over South-Western Europe gathered annually in the area now known as Lascaux to engage in music, dancing, singing, drumming, whistling, howling, screeching and sex-magic – that is, in all the then conceivable kinds of artistic and bodily collectivism and individual expression. The cave paintings were perhaps only the jaded afterthoughts of these prolonged collective derangements during which Living Transcendence was the unashamed goal of all. Everyone’s intention was to break through the quotidian and the visible and on into to a realm of hallucination, enchantment, vision.

These Pre-historic mass-raves were the original festivals. Every festival since has been their more or less cracked, more or less warped reflection.

The free festival movement of the 1960s, which inspired Woodstock and The Isle of Wight, re-popularised the experience of letting go and losing your head while all about you are losing theirs and loving every second of it.

Later on, in the mid 1980s, great convoys of urban refugees known as Crusties or New Age Travellers – communities of resistance born out of Tory-inflicted social disintegration – took to the road. These convoys were mobile autonomous zones within which the free party movement came again into the reformed body of the rave.

That’s the short history of how, at the age of 15, I came to be, for the very first time, stocious-dancing in a smoke-filled tent in a field.

Mary Costello's New York Diary - Part 3

Friday 12th August


Yesterday the guy next to me couldn’t settle. He left his desk repeatedly, called the elevator, disappeared for an hour, returned, adjusted the air-con, made coffee, sighed.  There is nothing to be done. We all have days like this.

I went out to Starbucks with another writer. Two years ago she left her job in the corporate world to write a novel. She’s in the Gotham Writers’ Group. She lives on 106th Street and walks all the way down to 47th each morning, passing through Central Park, down 5th Avenue, crossing at lights, in the thick of the crowds and the traffic. She thinks about her novel as she walks. By the time she gets to the Centre, she’s with her characters, ready to be immersed. She breaks for lunch at 2. She works till 6.

Saturday 13th August


When I left the Centre yesterday I took my 20-year-old niece, who’s here for the summer, to the Guggenheim and then she took me to a vintage shop in the Village whose Turkish owner finds her Irish charm so appealing that he knocked $30 off a ring for her last week.

'Tell me about this writers’ place,’ she said to me over a beer on Carmine St. 'What did you do today?'

I looked at her. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘I got there about 10.30, the first to arrive. The place was boiling. I went over to turn on the air-conditioning. The switch is on the wall right next to the desk holding the printer and a notice-board. I needed to go up on my tippy toes to read the settings and I put my right hand out on the desk to steady myself, just for balance, you know...'

Mary Costello's New York Diary – Part 2

Tuesday 9th August 2011

The Art of Lingering

I drop into a deli on Madison for water and salad for later. At the Centre I stop off on the second floor Reading Room for a quick peek at today’s New York Times. Big mistake!! Every literary journal and quarterly in North America is laid out on the mahogany table and display shelves. My greedy beady eyes scan them all - the New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, Glimmer Train, The Yale Review, the New England Review, The Southern Review, the latest New Yorker, and my first ever sighting of a hard copy of McSweeney’s. The London Review of Books and Granta too. And now, resting among the lot, is The Stinging Fly.

I take the NY Times and McSweeney’s to a table around the corner. On the table, by chance, sits a beautiful hardback book, entitled Writers. On the cover, a photograph of a young Saul Bellow. The book is a collection of photos of writers taken by Nancy Crampton. I read the intro by poet Mark Strand and turn the pages and am hooked.

Each writer’s photo is paired with a short paragraph on the writing life. I check my watch, it’s almost 11. I turn the pages: Updike, William Maxwell, Sam Shepherd, Heaney. The younger ones are here too—Franzen, Junot Diaz, David Foster Wallace—but it’s to the old and the dead I am drawn. I lose myself in the pages and go deeper into their faces and minds, and my own mind starts to swirl and I feel that delicious thrill one gets reading the interior thoughts and work habits of other writers. On the table beside me, untouched, McSweeney’s waits, and all around me shelves groan with books and journals that I covet. What great luck, I think, to have fallen on this book, left here randomly. I turn the pages slowly. There’s John Cheever sitting at the bottom of stone steps, looking pensive—no, desolate—while his dog looks down from a few steps above. I devour his words and my heart hops with the rightness of each one.

I glance at my watch, feel the compulsion to keep turning. One more page, I say, and I turn and there’s Philip Roth, and one more and it’s Alice Munro and the greedy eyes are triumphant and... one last turn...  and it’s our own Edna, speaking directly to a heart and mind already in orbit... ‘Writing is an obsession ... that derives from an intensity of feeling which normal life cannot accommodate…’ and I almost bow down to this most feeling of Irishwomen on the page before me.


Mary Costello's New York Diary

Monday, August 8th 2011

I’m in New York for a couple of weeks, and for a few hours each day I occupy a desk on the 8th floor of the Centre for Fiction, on 47th Street between 5th Avenue and Madison. New York writers can apply for a ‘work space’—the use of a desk, a printer, free wi-fi, the run of an extensive library and reading room, coffee making and shower room facilities and a key to come and go late on weekdays and at weekends. The building is old and quite grand—at street level there’s an ‘indie’ bookshop. I mailed them a few weeks ago. They don’t normally take visitors in their writers’ space but August is a quiet month.

There are about eight desks set along a wall and in corners at each end of the long skylit room. Japanese type screens provide privacy between desks, and there is one separate office space. The elegant conference room at the end can be used too. Usually it’s full, Kristin, the programs director, told me. There are four or five writers here today. The ubiquitous water bottle sits on every desk. Everyone works in silence, with an occasional smile as someone passes by to make coffee. One girl comes over when the others leave at lunch time and introduces herself briefly and then leaves saying, as she points to my laptop—‘Make it happen!’

I just know that something good is going to happen

This here, good people, is the first entry in our shiny new blog on our still relatively shiny new website.

Over the coming months we're going to try and develop the space into something lively and interesting—but for now it's just me sitting here looking out at another dull Dublin day and thinking about all I need to get done before I can go with a fairly clear conscience to Kilkenny tomorrow for the Tobias Wolff and David Vann reading.

The lively and interesting bits will more than likely not be coming from me at all—I'll duck in every now and again when the spirit moves me. We plan to entrust the serious business of informing, enlivening, provoking and entertaining to a few guest-blogger-types. Thomas Morris will be the one charged with keeping the house in order - and he'll be providing a regular round-up of literary news on the blog too.

If you have any suggestons as to topics you'd like to see covered on the blog, please get in touch.

I now declare this blog open… and rather than smash this here bottle, I suggest I just pour myself a nice big glass instead… ah yes… that's much better already.