Well, the journey begins.
I’m off to America for the summer and it’s a trip that has been in the planning stages for so long that I almost thought it would never happen.
But here I am.
This journey began back in those glorious summer days in West Cork exactly one year ago. The West Cork Literary Festival was about to get underway and that year, 2013, I was really looking forward to the week-long event, which would be filled with writers, poets and celebrities from all walks of life.
This week was, it turned out, going to be a bit different to all the other festival weeks. Little did I know that this week was about to change my writing life forever.
I’m new to all this writing lark. At 40, I was the oldest ‘cub reporter’ at the Evening Echo and the Carlow Nationalist. All the others were bright young things in their 20s and 30s but I decided not to let the fact that I was old enough to have fathered one or two of them to put me off and I loved every minute of it.
Graduating, I moved to the voice of North Cork, The Avondhu, where I continued my career as the very vision of a ‘jaded ole’ hack’ until my wife came up with a brilliant idea.
‘Let’s move to West Cork,’ she said. ‘It’ll be grand,’ she said.
She was right. So we packed in our good jobs and decided to make it in West Cork. We’re lucky we can both work wherever we find a desk and passable internet access, so off we went.
Now, three years later, we are well dug in. Me, freelancing for the local newspaper and several other publications and my wife using her PhD researching rural development issues as well as starting her own food business and looking after me, Leo (psychotic cat) and Fred (chilled-out lab).
But back to the events that overtook everything else in 2013.
I had tried writing a few short stories and really enjoyed the process when one day, while flicking through the brochure for the West Cork Literary Festival (WCLF), I came across the JG Farrell Award for a novel-in-progress.
‘Why don’t you enter something,’ my wife said.
I had considered sending something into the competition but at that point I didn’t have a story, a plot, a character, nothing. What I had was, literally, a blank page.
For some reason, which to this day I can’t explain, an idea came to me. It started, like all these story ideas, when I was reading about a subject that suddenly became very, for some reason, real to me. I could see my story unfold, my main character was born in front of my eyes and after some more reading, a plot developed out of the foggy, but clearing-all-the-time, story line.
So, I quickly wrote my opening chapter, scrapped it, wrote it again, scrapped it again and finally submitted 3,000 words to my live-in-editor.
After one more re-write, I finally felt ready to submit and so off went my attempt at a novel, the beginning of a novel anyway, to the judges at the WCLF.
With the entry off my desk, I quickly forgot about the whole competition and went back to writing about rural council meetings, community events and anything else my editors sent my way.
The weeks went by and with the WCLF nearly underway, I went about planning events for the summer … when that email arrived.
At first, I didn’t believe it; the email that is.
‘I appear to have won the JG Farrell award,’ I said to my wife as calmly as possible.
Following this ‘calm’ delivery, I quickly became what was described later on as ‘an hysterical 16-year-old girl’. Not very flattering, but I will admit I did get a little excited.
Next, everything went by in a blur. I met the brilliant Richard Skinner, director of fiction at Faber & Faber who was the judge for the JG Farrell award. Richard encouraged me to continue writing the novel and after a week of being treated like a celebrity, I got down to researching and developing my characters, storyline, and plot.
Today, as I type this, I am sitting in a café in Lancaster, PA, about to undertake two months of research, traveling from Pennsylvania, to New York, then on down to Maryland and Virginia and on through North Carolina to Charleston, South Carolina where my story begins.
Along the way, I will see battlefields, hear the sound of 150-year-old cannons firing again on the same ground where they once inflicted so much death and suffering. I know I will see beautiful places, peaceful places. I will meet interesting people and start to feel something of the life my characters lived. I want to get the ‘feel’ of the ground they traveled over, the heat (it was 32o C / 90o F yesterday and the humidity was at almost 60%), even the food they ate. All these things are possible thanks to the many living history events and museums that I have appointments to visit.
I will visit the US Military Academy at West Point, walk the ground at Gettysburg and Antietam, visit a working plantation in South Carolina and hear, feel and see the effects of some of the epic and bloodiest battles of the Civil War.
All that is about to get underway at the end of the month; but for now, I have a date with three ladies who are whisking me off to the shores of Chesapeake Bay where I will relax and get ready for the journey ahead. Well, that’s what I’m telling myself.
Oh, and it’s Lan-kiss-ter, not Lancaster, and for some reason most people here think I’m from Scotland. Indeed, one lady asked if I knew anybody in “Downton Abbey”.
It’s going to be a hell of a journey.