2017 Year in Review

If you follow my blog, you’ll know I haven’t posted for some while [the last post was in May]. 2017 has been some year and I’ve barely had time to catch my breath. Now, as the year draws to a close, it’s lovely to look back at some of the highlights.

April – June 2017 Big Telly Theatre Company’s stage version of The Faerie Thorn completed a 27-date tour, playing the UK, Ireland and Dresden. It was a joy to be part of the creative team and to collaborate with so many talented people. I loved every minute of the development process and I learned a huge amount. The resulting show really honoured the spirit of my stories and brought a vibrant energy to them too. If I ever have grandchildren, the story of how granny went hunting for faeries [and how those faeries put stories into her dreams and how those stories came to life on the stage] will be told over and over again 😉 .

May 2017 You may remember that I founded Women Aloud NI, an organisation to raise the profile of the women’s writing scene in Northern Ireland, back in December 2015. In May 2017, the organisation won two prestigious Saboteur Awards: Best Wildcard [for Women Aloud NI 2017]; and Best Collaborative Work [for Women X Borders, a collaboration with the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin]. With a solid constitution now in place, and a robust organisational structure supported by a committed team of volunteers, Women Aloud NI is set to go from strength to strength. The programme for Women Aloud NI 2018 has already been launched and the buzz is … well … buzzing.

August 2017 For three weeks in August, I was the artist-in-residence at Bressay lighthouse, Shetland. I can’t tell you how lovely it was to be able to ‘get away from it all’ and focus on writing and collecting ideas for new stories. My daily routine was: walk, write, walk, cook, read, sleep. Once a week I took the day off and visited places on mainland Shetland: beaches with not a soul on them, archaeological sites, museums and places from Anne Cleeves’ Shetland book series [I read the first book while I was on Bressay]. It was the trip of a lifetime, I’d say. I’d also say that I brought a little bit of Shetland back with me somehow. That place has worked its way into my bones.

September 2017 Not only did I get to perform my one-woman storytelling show at Aspects Festival this September, but I also started Tinderbox Theatre Company’s Play Machine, an intensive 7-month-long theatre-training programme for performers, writers and theatre-makers. Expertly facilitated by actor, theatre-maker and artistic director Patrick O’Reilly, the sessions have been playful, challenging and productive. It’s been brilliant to put myself in the shoes of actors – and I’ve even begun to see myself as an actor and theatre-maker too! It’s also been great to get into the habit of making new things quickly, of trying things out, of not getting too hung up on perfection, of doing things – rather than just talking about things, and of getting out of my head and into my body.

The energy of the group is amazing and I’m learning a huge amount from the other participants too. Collaborating with artists who have a genuine commitment to improving their craft, and to creating new work, is both satisfying and inspiring. Oh, and I must mention that a) I’ve done actual cartwheels on this programme b) my bird landings and bird take-offs are really quite something to see [I’d be tempted to use the word ‘legendary’] c) this programme has changed the way I think about writing and storytelling in profound ways. [Image credit: Carrie Davenport]

October 2017 In October 2017, I signed a contract with the Australian publisher, Serenity Press. I’ve been commissioned to write a collection of feminist faerie tales for a series of YA books. I’m thrilled to be in the company of authors Kate Forsyth and Sharon Blackie, and I’m so excited to be working with such forward-thinking and committed publishing professionals as Monique Mulligan and Karen McDermott. The icing on the cake is that Lorena Carrington will be illustrating my work!

November 2017 I was thrilled to be the recipient of an ACES award from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. The award will be used to support a collaboration with sound designer and composer, Garth McConaghie [he wrote the score for the stage production on The Faerie Thorn and we collaborated on the songs for the show]. Garth and I are going to co-write an album of songs to go with my next short-story collection: I’m writing the lyrics and he’s writing the music!

December 2017 December’s been a lovely month for two reasons. Firstly, I got to perform in Belfast’s Grand Opera House [in the Baby Grand] with actor, storyteller and theatre-maker, Noel Harron. I met Noel on Tinderbox’s Play Machine programme and I’m looking forward to performing with him in The Wonder Tales next summer.

Secondly, I got to work with the fabulous folk at Big Telly Theatre company AGAIN! This time I was a writer for one of their famous interactive adventures. A Quirky Tale of Quality Streets, set in Coleraine, sent players/audience members on a high-octane quest to save Kitty of Coleraine. There was an Ice Queen, a real horse, a myopic psychic, a boat-ride on the Bann and a whole lot more [yeah, and there were trolls, obviously 😉 ]. You know what? Writing it was so much fun, I’m doing it again! I’ll be working with the unstoppable Zoe Seaton, Big Telly’s artistic director, to create a new adventure for next summer. [I’ll keep you posted about that 🙂 ].

2017 has been packed with fun, new adventures and enriching experiences. I’m all set for 2018. BRING IT ON 🙂 🙂 🙂

New Work for the Stage Production of The Faerie Thorn

With less than four months to go until opening night, and with rehearsals starting in March, the excitement about Big Telly Theatre Company’s stage production of The Faerie Thorn is building. The cast is in place. The script is well on its way. There’s music. There are songs. There’s a set and lighting design team. The tour schedule is ready to be confirmed.

And there’s something else: there’s a piece of new work being adapted for the production! The original idea was to adapt two stories from my collection of short stories (The Faerie Thorn and The Merrow of Murlough Bay). However, an interesting question arose about one of the key ideas in The Faerie Thorn (sorry – no spoilers here!) and Zoe Seaton, the Artistic Director, asked me to write a third story to explore that particular idea in more depth.

Writing the new story has been an interesting experience for two reasons. Firstly, I wrote most of the story whilst I was on the Hebridean island of Iona. My main reason for being in the Hebrides was to do the research for my next book and so it was quite a challenge to switch between ‘being in’ the new story for Big Telly and being present to my surroundings and all the ingredients for my next book.

I have a good understanding of my own writing process and I know that, for me, a connection with the settings for my stories is all-important. It seemed ironic that I was holed up in a tiny bothy a short boat-ride away from Staffa (an island that sits at one end of The Giant’s Causeway), writing a story set on Plaiskin Head (a place which overlooks the other end of The Giant’s Causeway).

When I sat down to write every morning, I imagined myself rowing over to Staffa and then stepping onto the basalt causeway, using it as a magic short-cut home. At the end of my writing sessions, I imagined myself scrambling down to the shoreline at the Antrim end of the causeway and making the return trip to Staffa, rowing back to Iona in time for lunch.

I thought my cunning plan had worked – and, to the untrained eye, it has: the new story is drenched in northcoastness 😉 . However, what I hadn’t accounted for were the stowaways I took with me every time I made the ‘psychic journey’ across to Staffa and over to the Antrim coast. Stitched into every seam of the new story is something of Iona’s mysteriousness, something of the strange feeling that comes off the places I was drawn to: the faerie mound (Sithean Mor), the White Strand of the Monks, the well on Dun-I, the inside of Saint Odhran’s chapel, the screaming face carved into one of the pillars in the abbey, and the graves that looked like whoever they were holding were not all-the-way-dead. And in the very fabric of the new story is a ghost from Reilig Odhrain (the graveyard surrounding Saint Odhran’s chapel).

Iona’s impact on this third piece reminded me how powerful ‘place’ is and how stories are held by places – and how a story that’s held by a powerful place has an instinct to survive and make itself  heard (even if that means cuckooing its way into another story).

The second reason that writing the new story has been interesting is because something has changed as a result of working with the theatre company: what goes on in my head while I’m writing.

Normally stories come to me in a voice. It’s a very distinctive voice, a voice from Here-There-And-Everywhere. The owner of the voice has a disregard for standard grammar and a penchant for making words up. I listen to the voice and if his (and it is a he) opening gambit grabs my attention, I start to transcribe his words. He’ll stay with me until the story is done. He might allow a character to sit next to me and offer suggestions now and again, but, in the main, he just talks and I listen. I don’t really see anything in my mind’s eye. Even if I write a description of something, it’s not something I see first and then describe. It’s something I hear.

When I started to write the new story, the voice was still there, but this time I saw everything being played out. This time the voice offered alternative scenarios for audition (this is in keeping with the devising process I mentioned in an earlier post) and the associated images came as rapidly as you’d see them generated in a devising session with actors. This time I noticed how the characters held the story in their bodies and not just in their words (this is in keeping with physical theatre) and how mesmerising it was to watch them move – or stay still. This time I noticed where the opportunity for play was to be found in the story because I could see it staring me in the face.

Writing this new story, which I’ve called Hauflin, has been a rewarding experience. It’s shown me how searching for stories isn’t always necessary because, if you’re in the right place, stories will search for you – and find you in the end. It’s shown me how working with Big Telly has had an impact on my own creative process – and I think the impact has been a positive one. There’s something really visceral about Hauflin. I like that about it.

Find out more about the devising process on The Guardian’s website.
Find out more about physical theatre on the BBC’s website.
Keep an eye on Big Telly’s website for details of the UK/Ireland tour schedule (to be issued shortly).