“Writing a novel is hard work… getting stuck somewhere in the middle and losing your way is normal.”
John MacKenna is the author of sixteen books – novels, short stories, memoir and poetry. His novel Clare, on the life of the English poet John Clare, will be republished in May 2014 to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the poet’s death. His latest novel, Joseph, will be published this autumn. He is also a regular contributor to RTE’s Sunday Miscellany. He is a winner of the Hennessy, Irish Times, Cecil Day Lewis and Jacob’s Awards.
A. I’m not sure that I knew I would be but I know I loved books and reading. The person who turned me to writing and an interest in the idea of being a writer or certainly of committing to the idea of writing was my English teacher at St Clement’s College in Limerick. His name is Ray Kearns and he encouraged me all the time. When I wrote he commented, suggested, pointed me in different directions and encouraged me to push myself. I wrote a couple of short plays and they were staged in the school, I wrote some poems and they were published – all with Ray’s encouragement. So that was the genesis of my belief in writing as a way of saying things.
Q. Who were your early influences?
A. My parents influenced me, insofar as they encouraged me to read. They were both great readers and the house was full of books. As I’ve said, Ray Kearns was a pivotal influence. My friend Richard Ball – who is a fine writer himself – encouraged me. The writers who influenced me were Hemingway and Steinbeck and Lawrence. When I read them, I felt a door open and a breeze of possibility and aspiration blow through my life. And Frank O Connor’s Guests of the Nation and Joyce’s The Dead – they gave me a passion for the short-story.
Q. Do you have a favourite fiction writer? Who would that be and why?
A. That’s a tough one. Bit of the Desert Island Discs about it. I have a favourite writer and that’s Raymond Carver. I love his stories but, even moreso, I love his poems. I love the fact that every poem seems (only seems) effortless and every poem is a story. There’s no pretension in there – just life and passion and loss and regret – the real things, the things that matter. But there are, of course, others – the ones I mentioned in the previous answer and H E Bates and Alan Sillitoe and Leonard Cohen (yes he writes prose too!) and I love the four gospels in the New Testament – now there’s a story.
Q. Describe your daily schedule.
A. When I’m working on a book I don’t read prose – but I read poetry all the time. The daily schedule is, more or less – have breakfast; walk Leonard, the dog; write from ten till one; have lunch; walk Leonard; work on the morning’s writing till about four and then prepare dinner for the family. Sometimes I get back to writing for an hour at night. I tend to be quite disciplined about the writing. And I love having music on while I write – normally I concentrate on one artist when I’m working on a book. I also tend only to write between September and May – summer is for being outside or for working with Mend & Makedo Theatre Co.
Q. Have you been to Listowel Writers’ Week before?
A. I have, many, many times, and always felt welcome – it has an extraordinarily welcoming feel – the whole town – like people are actually glad to see you. And I love the democracy of the Listowel Arms. No prima-donnas (or if there are their behaviour is ignored) and no bullshit.
Q. What, for you, are the highlights of Listowel Writers’ Week?
A. I love the workshops because you meet great people – leaders and participants. I love St John’s Theatre – Vicar Joe is THE MAN (and I say that as someone involved in theatre, too – he is an extraordinary supporter of theatre in this country). And it’s great to get to hear the readers … you live, you learn.
Q. Briefly, what will you be covering in the Novel – Intermediate Workshop?
A. Hopefully, I’ll be helping people get across the river. It’s normal to get stuck half way, to be intrigued by the next idea and the next. Frost said he wrote to find out what he didn’t know he knew – so I’ll be encouraging people to keep going; loooking at ways to solve problems; looking at plot development and resolution and at character development. And, most of all, dealing with the specific problems people bring to the workshop. Oh, and having a laugh as well!
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