The torture of birthing a book
context of other themes. Why indeed? It’s a good question. But why do anything you do? All I can care about right now is: is it any good? I’ll address the other issues later…
Then I met the woman I mentioned above and felt an immediate connection, maybe because she’s from a small-farm background too. She read the chunk. It chimed with her; I was reassured I was on the right track, and then she shared her story. Her name is Helen O’Leary, she’s a professor of art at Penn State University, and among her many awards is a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. When I
‘In Pennsylvania, life was all sleepovers and brownies. In Ireland, 14-year-old
girls were talking about their sex lives’
read the introductory page on her website — ‘I work from memoir, stories of growing up on the farm… and my life now in the States…’ — I felt as if fate had a hand in the fact of meeting her right at this point of being frozen with doubt. Talking with her pushed the defrost button.
Helen’s 23-year-old daughter, Eva, is a stunning photographer. Her images are Ireland as you’ve never seen it — very clear, precise, simple, abstract but not pretentious — none of the mountains/ sheep/ big, rainy sky/ bicycle agin’ the cottage gable usual. They depict ghost estates, but Eva’s eye is drawn to the ‘weird black mould’ that’s forming on all these abandoned houses, as if, she says, ‘they were built of paper’. There’s the camping canvas windbreaker in Achill that’s printed with a picture of dry stone wall; pictures of passing young people that have an unusual, iconic feel to them. She shoots with a ‘field camera’ on large-format film, a technique that ‘forces you to go slow’. The final selection will be displayed as a book, as part of a larger exhibition of Helen’s work, during the 2013 Wexford Festival Opera.
Eva’s take is interesting because she has a dual perspective, having spent much time here growing up. When she was 14, she spent a year in school in Leitrim. And what was that like? In Pennsylvania, she says, her life was sleepovers and brownies; in Ireland, it was suddenly girls her age talking about the sexual acts they’d notched up with boys; discovering that her friend had a bong for smoking ‘weed’ in her bedroom, and — in one memorable description — turning up to a birthday party that boasted a bouncy castle, later to be offered Bulmers from an illicit stash. Suffice it to say, she doesn’t come with ‘Old Country’ emerald-tinted glasses.
And just now — down for a cup of tea in the kitchen — I met Belfast playwright Marie Jones, ( Women On The Verge Of HRT; Stones In His Pockets; A Night In November). She has a new play — Fly Me To The Moon, a comic romp about two care workers, a corpse and moral dilemmas — opening in New York on September 5th, and is here in Monaghan writing the screenplay for Stones In His Pockets, which is scheduled to shoot next year. Meanwhile, her husband, Ian McElhinney, is up in Iceland directing that play, in Icelandic, and starring the ( Icelandic) actor who plays Robbie Rotten in Lazy Town on kids’ TV (obscure fact). The play ran for three years in Iceland previously.
As if talking to Helen wasn’t inspiration enough, a chat with the buzzy, prolific Jones has pinged me back into ‘Ah, get on with it’ mode.
And PS: Yes, I know I’m lucky.