Best of Literary Happenings 2016

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Last night Hilary and I took a quick run down to Dublin for the “Long Night of the Short Story.” This is an annual event hosted by Irish Laureate for Fiction, Anne Enright. It always takes place on the shortest day of the year. As soon as the last song is sung and the last story read the days automatically start getting longer again. I am going to choose to believe this will prove to be the exact moment when everything in the world started to become a little more bearable again. Good words and music have been one of the few things we’ve had to hold on to during this last difficult year and last night’s performance featured some fabulous -mostly new- stories from Mike McCormack, Danielle McLaughlin, Lisa McInerney, Colm Toibin and Anne herself, (in cracking form), plus beautiful musical responses from singer songwriter Lisa O’Neill. It was a pretty magical wee evening and left Hilary and I sort of floating back up the motorway, inspired and full of Christmassy spirit.

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2016 is almost over and, save for reading the kids their Christmas Eve stories, last night will be my last literary event of the year. It’s been a shit year for almost everything else but a truly brilliant year for readings. I’ve heard writers I never thought I’d get the chance to hear in person and even had the opportunity to meet a few of them, (George Saunders, George Saunders, George Saunders). I’ve been to some brilliant Literary festivals, (Edinburgh, Belfast, Dalkey, Cork, Dublin), taken part in some great little hybrid music/art/literature collaborations and had the opportunity to interview a lot of people I really admire. I’ve also sat through a fair amount of terrible readings about cats and war and nature. But, even then, I’d say the quality of local cat/war/nature writing has improved slightly this year. I’ve launched enough books to fill a library, bought enough books to necessitate buying a new house with a library wing, and had so many incredible before, after, (and even during), reading conversations which have shaped my writing practice just as much as the readings themselves.

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Looking back over 2016 I reckon I’ve been to around 200 readings. (Worryingly this probably also equates to approximately 200 free glasses of wine). I can’t remember most of them -after a while one evening in the upstairs bar of the Sunflower listening intently to a man in a tweedy blazer, begins to feel very much like the next- but the ones I do remember have stayed with me because each has left me wanting to rush home and write. Bad readings feel like ploughing through soup but good readings of good writing, even those which are almost most intimidatingly perfect, (George Saunders, George Saunders, George Saunders), will always make me hungry to get my laptop out and have a go myself.

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So here’s to two hundred more wonderful literary happenings in 2017. Here’s to the frequent coming and going of writers over a very fluid North/South border, (fingers crossed). Here’s to new literary friends, and complimentary wine and buying so many books you’ll never get time to read them all. Here’s to remembering how fortunate we are to have such a robust literary community and doing whatever it takes to hold on to it. Here’s my list of the best readings I attended this year. I’m pretty sure I’m missing a few, (blame it on the complimentary wine).

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Launches: In recent years books have replaced ships when it comes to Belfast-based launchings. I feel like we’ve launched at least one book for every three residents this year. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come. Much mention must be made of The Glass Shore launch in early October, not least for the way so many women writers from the South came up to show solidarity with the Northern writers whose work had been included in this wonderful and, dare I say it, timely anthology. Something has shifted in Ireland’s literary community this year and for the first time since my return to Belfast I’ve felt a tremendous sense of belonging to the Island as a whole. Other writers from the North have voiced similar feelings. Perhaps it has something to do with Brexit and the fear of how this might negatively impact artistic relationships across the border. Solidarity is vital right now. I choose to believe it also has a lot to do with Northern-focused anthologies like The Glass Shore, the forthcoming 2017 version of The Female Line and our recent anthology of New Poets from the North of Ireland, (The Future Always Makes Me Feel Thirsty). The launch for Thirsty, (as I’m now calling it), was another raucous affair with so many people crammed into the John Hewitt it felt more like a punk gig than a book launch, (it is rare for me to break a sweat at a literary event, but I think we all left that one drenched). Sinead Morrissey was warm and incredibly witty in her opening remarks, Stephen Connolly was commanding, and afterwards there was a kind of clamour for Thirsty poet signatures, as many of them as you could collect, like poets were things you might want to actually claim ownership of. The birth of the Lifeboat Press‘s poetry pamphlets also gave us the excuse for two really special launch evenings celebrating Andy Eaton and Padraig Regan’s outstanding work, and we had a jolly old night in No Alibis with Kevin, Olivia and the Winter Papers team, giving the most beautiful of Irish journals a proper Belfast launch, (you know you’re at a truly classy book launch when the contributors sign their work in gold pen). Though it’s barely forty eight hours old I must also salute the editorial team behind Northern Ireland’s newest print journal, The Tangerine which launched in orange-themed style at The Sunflower on Tuesday night. Perhaps, more than any of the other launches this year, The  Tangerine is significant for it meets a really pertinent need within the Northern Irish literary scene. With so many people writing, and writing well, we need more places to publish our work. In a world where austerity has tried to force writing online, it’s great to have another avenue for print, and such a swanky one at that.

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Big Stars: This year I ventured out of Belfast and heard some of my literary heroes read for the first time: Zadie Smith, Tobias Wolff and, the oft-mentioned, George Saunders were all particularly memorable at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Zadie Smith’s lecture on why we write was a personal highlight, while Saunders’ reading of “The Semplica Girl Diaries” instantly became my all time favourite live reading of anything. I’ve never felt anyone hold an audience captive like that, coaxing the laughter out, then quickly spinning full circle to make grown adults sniff into their sweater sleeves. For such an unimposing little man he sure knows how to pitch a word correctly. Hearing George Saunders read and talk about his writing has completely changed how I read his books and, if I felt the need to track him down afterwards and tell him this in an incredibly gushy and slightly creepy way, I stand over the belief that such a response was entirely merited. At the other end of the spectrum I heard Alexander McCall-Smith read at Edinburgh Book Festival in August. Now, I know how to read in front of approximately one million elderly people. Seemingly the secret is to greet as many audience members as possible by name, then deliver a rapid fire series of dinner party anecdotes and finally bring some chums on stage with an accordion. This was an interesting, if not entirely pleasant, experience. Everything’s a learning curve these days. Also somewhat baffling was Marilynne Robinson’s appearance at Queen’s in April. I’m still not entirely sure what she said, or what she meant to say, but how marvellous it was to be in the same room as Marilynne for over an hour, just looking at her in all her etherealness and thinking, she who wrote Gilead and Housekeeping is actually here in Belfast, talking to us. Finally, we had Kate Tempest at least twice, possibly three times, (I lost count). On the first occasion I talked to her myself. It was at Belfast Book Festival. I will confess to not knowing who Kate Tempest was one month before the reading and, having read her work, not being terribly interested in getting to know who she was until about one hour before the interview when I finally met her in the Green Room and found her surprisingly charming. However, it’s fair to say the girl blew me out of the water. For literary snobs like me it’s always a humbling experience to admit that you like something everyone else likes. Sometimes art is popular because it’s actually good. It was necessary to experience Kate Tempest live to understand this. It’s amazing how much a well-executed reading can open up a piece of writing. Sadly, the opposite is also true. I won’t mention any such readings but there we re a fair few this year.

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Special Moments: I’m going to restrict myself here and pick just two readings which left me absolutely reeling this year. (It would be three but I’ve already mentioned Mr. Saunders quite enough for one blog). The first was Sinead Morrissey’s reading of her new long poem on the expedition to Greenland at the Seamus Heaney Summer School. About two sentences into this reading I became aware that the entire room was leaning into the poetry. This was an actual physical sensation. I have never experienced this before with words, only music, and immediately concluded that I should learn how to do this. Then I remembered that I am not Sinead Morrissey and will probably never write anything that feels like a firework going off just behind the listener’s eyes. Thereafter I just leaned into the reading like everyone else in the room and enjoyed the sensation of finding myself, by fortuitous chance, in the best place in Belfast at this precise moment. My second, lose track of time and wonder if you have fallen down a black hole moment, was Vahni Capildeo’s absolutely mesmerising reading for the Seamus Heaney Centre in October. I’m not sure whether Vahni’s writes poetry or prose and I don’t really care. The space she creates around words, the way her voice is a kind of hook climbing out of each sentence, the playful solemnity of her work: it’s a little like being underwater for a very long time, but in a really good way. I have been raving about her collection ever since.

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Moderating: 2016 was the year I got to move to the other side of the stage and ask the questions for a change. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to interview lots of really brilliant writers. Each of these experiences has been a steep learning curve as I try to  keep my nosiness in check, hold the audience’s interest and attempt, not always successfully, to keep the writer from going off piste. Thankfully everyone I’ve hosted this year has been both incredibly gracious and an absolute joy to interview. I have yet to experience a one word answerer/too many glasses of wine in the Green Roomer/onethe defensive from the off setter. Thank goodness. No doubt they’ll be plenty of opportunity to meet these particular blessings in 2017. It’s hard to pick favourites but I have to say I really enjoyed talking about faith and meaning with Donal Ryan at the John Hewitt Summer School. Anna Pavord at the Heaney Homeplace was also particularly memorable for the incredible depth and wisdom she brought to discussing her own relationship with the landscape and, (though I probably enjoyed the chips and chat in the car post-show just as much as the onstage interview), Lisa McInerney was unbelievably fun to talk with at the Belfast International Arts Festival. At times I forgot we were having a conversation in front of a live audience and just lapsed into asking her about things I actually wanted to know. I’m slowly learning this is the key to facilitating a good interview.

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Hybrid Happenings: Is it a reading? Is it a gig? Is it something there isn’t yet a name for but someone has made cake to go with it? The answer is yes to all of the above in 2016. From the glorious oddness of our Belle and Sebastian themed Poetry Picnic at the Ulster Hall to Orla McAdam’s gorgeous art exhibition, “Everything Leaves Marks” based on the short stories in Children’s Children and the now legendary John Hewitt Society Literary Pub Quiz, (where the answer to every question is either Dickens or Lord of the Rings and the grand prize is a pallet of tea bags), this year has been a wonderful year for collaboration, imagination and allowing live literature to creep out from between the confines of the traditional to have a little fun. I enjoyed returning the favour with local singer-songwriter Hannah McPhillimy who wrote a series of songs based on the characters in my first novel Malcolm Orange Disappears, and wrote a new short story based on “Ruins,” a song from her latest Ep. I worked on a special Book Show for Radio Ulster with the irrepressible Steven Rainey and had the most magical evening helping to facilitate a candlelit community reading in the Victorian Palm Houses in Botanic Gardens as part of our “Writing the Ravine” workshop programme. Occasionally it can be nice to get away from other writers and work with people who don’t necessarily see the world in sentences and couplets. I’m looking forward to  more collaboration  in 2017. I have a couple of projects in the pipeline already and can’t wait to elaborate in the New Year. 2017 is already shaping up to be a very good year for literature.

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