Monday, October 24, 2016

Shedding her Skin Like the Chameleon - An Interview with Geraldine Mills

The first author I'm delighted to interview for the new ‘featured writer’ section on my blog is multi award-winning poet, short-story writer and now novelist, Geraldine Mills. Galway-native, Geraldine has been a poet and short-story writer for many years and has already published several books. 

Gold is her first novel, and her first book for children.

Gold by Geraldine Mills - see below for a list of stockists

1.    Hi Geraldine, thanks for taking the time for this interview. There is a popular perception that when poets aren’t writing poetry they are doing something else. As someone who is perhaps primarily known for poetry, and is now moving from short stories to the novel, can you tell me about how you see your identity as a writer changing with this move toward the longer narrative?

For me, story comes first; I am constantly looking for what is hidden behind an image, a piece of dialogue, a phrase that comes my way. I then have to be faithful to the genre that gives the greatest scope to that idea.

A writer must always be growing and developing, wherever that may take them. Otherwise they die. I have written novels before but they never saw the light of day and are now being worked over by worms in the compost bin. Gold is the first one to be published. Writing a novel, when you are not sure what you are doing, certainly moves you out of your comfort zone. The longer narrative is more demanding simply because of its size but when a writer is given the gift of an idea, it behoves him/her to tell it in the best medium possible. Gold had to be a novel; once I heard the voices of Starn and Esper that is what the story demanded.

One obvious difference I have seen since publication is that I have become more visible. Poetry has a much smaller audience and can often alienate rather than draw readers in. There is the misconception that it is a loftier calling, that a poet’s work is hermetically sealed and not accessible to them which is a great pity and not the case at all. People are happier to engage with me on the novel rather than they ever did with poetry. And of course, children now engage with me in a way they didn’t before. I am having a real adventure talking to schools, libraries and children’s book clubs. They are not afraid to ask why the story goes in a certain way or if I based a nasty character on Mr Trump. While my next project will be the longer narrative, there is a sequence of poems waiting in the wings as well as a number of short stories, crying out to be heard. Like the chameleon I will shed my skin and change genres depending very much on where the Muse sends me.
Geraldine Mills
2.    That's an interesting insight, and sad, that poetry can be perceived as a 'hermetically sealed' space... Theme for a whole other discussion there I think... You marry digital culture, or the suggestion of it, very effectively with the natural world in the book in ways that many young adult readers will be able to identify with. For example, Esper and Starn ‘cloud-grab’ stories for their ‘E-pistles’, etc. Writing for a young adult audience for the first time must bring with it some unique challenges. Can you tell us something about how you prepared for engaging with young adult readers and for tapping into their particular frames of reference? What drew you to the Young Adult fiction sphere?

The only preparation was having already developed the discipline to go to the blank page and put one word after the other. Of course, 50,000 words is a longer piece of string than a haiku but I approached it in the same way as I do most of my writing by diving straight in, legs flapping, mouth and nose filling with water, not knowing what on earth I am doing but splashing away anyway. I see Gold more as a preteen story rather than a young adult though all ages seem to be reading it. I was interested in working with a plot-driven story rather than a character-driven one and therefore ‘what happens next’ played a huge part in the unfolding of the narrative. The idea chose me rather than the other way around. I live on the edge of Connemara and one year a gorse fire on the mountain became completely out of control, burning everything in sight. When we walked those hills months later it looked like that little part of our world had been involved in some cataclysmic event. I tried to imagine the outcome if something more powerful hit us, something even more calamitous than the volcanic eruptions of Iceland that, in 2010, had forced our skies silent.

I had an abandoned children’s novel from about ten years previously. I played over and over again the possible scenario of taking the two boys in search of adventure from that unpublished story and time-travelling them into the future imaginary world of no trees or animals. When I got the image of the twins in pollination suits the plot began to take wings and I just followed.

Once I was on that path I started to read children’s books. I wasn’t sure if what I was doing was ever going to engage with my young audience. But I never let that stop me. I just got completely involved in the boys’ lives and went with it. The fact that children and adults like the story is a great joy to me.

3.     There are many potent images in your book, like 'wand-swishing pollinators', that rise up like mini poems. There are also a few nice nods to the poetry universe. I would love to be able to spread 'Pindar' on my own bread, for example – it might help with my odes! I also notice that themes of weather, the environment, travel and flight occur in your poetry collections too. Did the story and images in Gold arrive as poetry initially or did you know from the outset that you would write a longer narrative? 

There are a whole number of elements at play here. My love of nature and the environment are certainly themes that run through my work. But this never started out as a poem. All of those images were born as I was writing. I suppose by osmosis the poetic language seeped through. The most important task for me was to create a believable world: that of Orchard, something that was familiar to the boys but not to me, while the reverse happens in Part Two, The Islands, where my familiar world is alien to Starn and Esper. There was a certain amount of research as well as inventiveness needed to create that world.

There is no greater fun than to be the inventor of words and giving them a new meaning such as E-pistle and Visage or discovering harran bread which was used in the seventeenth century and is a mixture of barley and peas. There is also, as you rightly point out, the play on Pindar. It was great fun to discover that ‘pindar’ is also another word for peanut as is goober so I was able to bring that in. I was almost having too much fun with it all. Where I couldn’t find the word to describe what I wanted, I just made it up. One young boy who read it said that he liked not knowing straight away what a word meant but waited for it to reveal itself as the story went along.

Other parts of my research included visiting a cave, studying wolves in a reserve in Spain and taking a ride in a hot air balloon over Albuquerque. One day I was in Wooden Heart Stores in Galway and came across a cardboard kit of boys with parachutes. I bought it and made up two of the boys and hung them from the ceiling. That way I could visualise them as I was writing the flight scene.

4.     Oooh lovely idea! Wooden Heart is certainly an inspiring shop.. As a poet moving into the larger space of the novel, can I ask about how your technique developed? For example, how did you find the experience of crafting dialogue and threading the narratives together? Was it similar to the way you approach your poetry or was it an altogether different process?

I forget who said that you write a novel in the same way you eat an elephant: bite by bite. This was a very different process; here I was working with a plot-driven structure as opposed to the character-driven narrative of a short story or the developing levels of a poem. Without the expert guidance of Siobhan Parkinson and Gráinne Clear at Little Island, it would not be the book it is today. I was working in the dark, some passages were too long, too poetic, structurally, there were big holes in it. Siobhán and Gráinne held my hand and got me to write and rewrite until it was more cohesive, the tone and the pace balanced and the dialogue was doing its job when it needed to by moving the story along. And then something magical happened and it all came together. That’s the alchemy of writing that give me the real buzz and keeps me going as I wallpaper the bathroom with rejection slips.

 5.     There are interesting examples in Gold of self-reliance, critical thinking, resilience and hope winning out over antagonistic forces. For example, Starn overcomes much adversity with the help of his tiny talisman, General Yacobe, and the memories of his mother’s advice and his father’s kindness. He resists becoming brutalized and keeps his promise never to inflict harm on another. Do you think there is a need now, perhaps more than ever, to inscribe a note of hope and to offer positive perspectives in YA fiction?

Social realism in YA fiction is something that has really taken off in the last number of years with such hard hitting themes as racism, discrimination, disability. Because I wanted to reach a younger audience, I was writing an adventure story rather than a social commentary and any issues of hardship that come through in the story, I wanted to be hinted at rather than being the main nub of the story. I also wanted it to have the elements of a classic adventure story where things come good at the end.

There should always be hope. I would have found it very difficult to have written a completely dystopian story as I always look for the chink of light in the bleakest of situations. A child who is resilient will overcome all obstacles. Of course I didn’t deliberately build in those tenets but they came from the characters themselves. I also believe in the innate goodness of the human spirit and that is why the story goes from the darkness of Orchard and the Sagittars to the light of the islands. In my poetry collection Urgency of Stars, published by Arlen House in 2011, the very last words in the book are: ‘It all comes down to light’. I want to keep that burning in the hearts of all readers.

6.     Yes, I completely agree with you about the need for hope. Lastly, on a totally different note now, it’s desert island disc time. Can you name a few of your favourite writers and tell us what you enjoy most about their work?

Beloved by Toni Morrison that continues to haunt me years after reading it.

Anything by Colum McCann but especially Thirteen ways of Looking.

It must be something to do with hauntings, Michael Mc Cormack Solar Bones, a beautifully written book, mature and full of risk-taking that works. Deserving of being shortlisted for the Goldsmith Award.

The Book of Embraces by Eduardo Galeano, a gift from Alan McMonagle and I love its magical realism and the use of drawings that give the pages wings.

Thank you very much Geraldine and I wish you every success with Gold!

My great pleasure, Emily. It is you I should thank for taking the time to prepare all these questions.

Gold by Geraldine Mills is available at all good bookstores and online at the following: Kenny's, Little Island Books, Dubray Books, Charlie Byrne's and the Book Depository.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Free talk and reading on theme of revolutionary poetry at Galway City Museum tomorrow

Thank you to Brendan Mc Gowan and the team at the Galway City Museum for inviting me to give a talk on the theme of 'revolutionary poetry' this Saturday, 22 October at 2pm. This is a free event and I'm delighted that Ndrek Gjini, a wonderful Galway-based Albanian poet, is able to join me to read from his poetry as part of this presentation, as well as speak on the subject of Communism in the Balkans as well as the poetry of Visar Zhiti and Vaclav Havel. I will be talking about Patrick Pearse, Thomas MacDonagh, Joseph Mary Plunkett, Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, Pablo Neruda, Rafael Ziadah and contemporary Afghan women's poetry. Phew! It's a very broad topic and limitations of time mean that we won't be able to cover everyone but where would we be without a good challenge every now and then, eh? Come and join in the lively discussion, aimed for a general audience 15 years+. All welcome! Vive la revolution!

Here is the official promotional piece about our talk from the Galway City Museum website:

Saturday, 22 October, 2pm – 4pm 
TALK & READINGS: Revolutionary Poetry

The 1916 Rising is often referred to as a ‘poet’s revolution’. Taking this as her starting point, poet Emily Cullen will introduce the work of international poets of revolution – historic and contemporary – including Anna Akhmatova, Vaclav Havel, Osip Mandelstam and Rafeef Ziadah. Galway-based Albanian poet Ndrek Gjini, who lived through the oppressive Enver Hoxha regime in the 1980s, will also read from his work.
 Age 15+
Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966)