My Review of DWF 2014

Over the course of nine days in May, the Dublin Writers Festival captured the attention of the city, treating it to tales of trials and tribulations, weaving wonderful worlds for its people to explore – and seizing the chance to show us that the art of writing is very much alive and well.

This year, I was lucky enough to be a part of it. I took in four events throughout the festival, all of which covered vastly different topics; all of which helped me to realise that there’s a whole world of writers/weirdos out there that are just like me.

I was wooed to a “Date With An Agent”, taught a lesson in the school of crime-writing, enlightened into the story of the infamous whistleblower, Edward Snowden – and given a deep insight into the mind of a once-troubled comedian in Johnny Vegas.

Pretty varied, right?

Here’s a review of what I saw, witnessed and experienced, broken up into nice, sweet bunches of literary liquorish for you to enjoy… or, at least, to distract you until something more interesting comes along.

Day 1: Date With An Agent

Dating has never really been my strong point, so when I learned that I was to be a part of “Date With An Agent”, I began to worry about all those silly little things one associates with dating: what to wear, what to bring and, of course, what to talk about.

What to talk about? The answer should have been obvious: my book. It was the reason I was invited to attend after all. But there I was, fretting about which elements were the most important, which parts needed work – and what would make the agent I was meeting sit up and go: “I need to sell this”.

The event, hosted by The Inkwell Group’s Vanessa O’Loughlin, took place in Dublin Castle. Throughout the day, we were treated to writing workshops, given tasks and, not unexpectedly as prospective authors, told how to deal with the inevitable rejections coming our way. (In fact, the first hand-out we were given was emblazoned with the words, “COPING WITH REJECTION”, which raised more than a few uncomfortable laughs in the crowd.)

However, the focus of the day was, of course, the agents. We 75 would-be writers were here to pitch to them our books, our ideas and, in some cases, our very souls. They were here to listen to us, to critique us and, in some cases, take our ideas that little bit closer to reality.

Although I wouldn’t call my own “date” a resounding success, I definitely took some invaluable information from it. Being told that I wrote well was encouraging; being informed that my main character was a bit passive was, unfortunately, a truth I hadn’t really confronted before.

Overall, the event was worth attending. I met blossoming writers of all ages, all of whom wanted to tell their story; none of whom were so insular as to fail to ask me questions about my own book.

Whether phony or not, it was gratifying to hear their positive opinions on my story. I realised that we were all in the same boat: full of passion and hope, mixed in with a healthy dose of pragmatism.

The future of Irish novel-writing was sitting in that room with me and, I promise you, we have a lot to look forward to over the coming years.

Day 3: The State of Crime (with Arne Dahl, Brian McGilloway and Sinead Crowley)

One day you’re sitting in a room with 74 people just like you; two days later, you’re sitting listening to the musings of three of the most respected crime writers in Ireland and Europe.

I was live-tweeting this event on behalf of the Dublin Writers Festival – and, such were the fantastic insights given by the writers, boy were my fingers sore at the end!

Dahl, McGilloway and Crowley discussed their own books, the difference between crime-writing and other types of writing – and took questions from the crowd (like why so many crime writers feel the necessity to cram an irrelevant love story into an already packed novel!)

The event, despite the seriousness of the subject matter contained within crime novels, was light-hearted and jovial, with McGilloway in particular impressing, with his insights into how one writes a crime novel: “As a writer, you do the same as a detective: you work backwards.”

Dahl, more considered and thoughtful in his approach, tended to elongate his answers to questions, but endearingly so. In fact, some of the most profound points of the discussion came from his mouth: “It is a necessary pre-condition in crime novels to have a good plot, but it is not enough.”

Crowley, the only female member of the panel, was also an engaging presence, succinctly summing up how most writers feel from the beginning of a novel to the end: “Something I learned when writing my first book was how much things change as you’re writing.”

I’m not much of a crime reader, but after seeing such an esteemed group of bestselling writers in person, I can’t help but feel that I’m missing a trick by not taking advantage of what appears to be some of the most compelling contemporary writing out there.

Day 8: The Snowden Files (with Luke Harding)

After a work-enforced break from festival proceedings (damn you, financial commitments!), I returned to action, live-tweeting again, this time from the Smock Alley Theatre. This was, by far and away, my favourite event of the week.

Luke Harding, journalist with The Guardian and writer of “The Snowden Files”, captivated the large audience; not only with the description of his book, but also by providing insights into one of most intriguing people in the world, Edward Snowden.

For those who don’t know anything about Snowden (how was that rock you were living under?),he is, essentially, the person who exposed the NSA for the sneaky, underhanded, corrupt, shady organisation we and Hollywood think they are.

Over a number of months, Snowden, who had worked at the NSA, leaked important documents to journalists, all of which detailed that ‘Mericaw was not only spying on potential terrorists, but also its own people.

In this absorbing discussion, Harding, an eloquent speaker and all-round nice fellow, described Snowden’s journey from high school dropout to one of the most wanted men in the world.

What was most interesting was discovering that, although Snowden’s acts were bound to attract headlines, he was not like Julian Assange, the world’s most prominent “platinum-haired” whistleblower, in that he did not want to be famous; fame was thrust upon him.

I think it’s fair to say that those in the audience would have stayed listening to Harding talk for hours more – and his book, “The Snowden Files” is sure to be one of the most sought-after texts when history eventually examines these monumental events.

Day 9: Johnny Vegas in Conversation

The headline is misleading. This show was not about seeing Johnny Vegas in person. No, it was, in the end, about something much more profound, much more absorbing – and much more real.

On the last night of the festival, with live-tweeting privileges bestowed upon another, I was able to focus on what turned out to be one of the strangest events I have ever been at.

Johnny Vegas did not show up, primarily because Johnny Vegas is not real. He is the alter-ego of Michael Pennington, a very funny, very warm man, who created Vegas to confront his own fears and I haven’t read Pennington’s book yet (“Being Johnny Vegas”), so I hope I am not horribly wrong when I suggest that Pennington’s creation came about as a result of serious inflictions on his childhood. Although Pennington never used the term, “clerical abuse”, nor the word, “schizophrenia”, they are topics at which he heavily hints in his efforts to explain the story behind Vegas’s existence.

Interviewed by the (frankly, annoying) Pauline McLynn, Pennington proceeded to explain how Vegas became a part of him when he was at his most fragile. It is not Pennington we see on stage, but Vegas, a much more confident and indomitable personality than he.

Although the event was marred by some disruptive interviewing by McLynn – and the double sleeping couples on either side of me – it achieved its purpose. What I thought was going to be a run-of-the-mill comedy session was actually a much more insightful look into the psyche of a person whose worst experiences brought about the arrival of someone who gave joy to so many people. I now want to read Pennington’s book, something I would never have thought before I arrived at the National Concert Hall that night.


Nothing worth having is easy, which is why the Dublin Writers Festival must be commended. To co-ordinate such an array of writing talent all around the city, all within the space of nine days, could not have been a simple task. I was not involved in it as much as I would have liked, but what I saw, I loved.

The fate of Irish writing lies within the people I came across during the week – and I know that we have nothing to fear in the future. We have Yeats and Wilde in us, but festivals like this instil within me the belief that there will be more Irish names on the tips of the tongues of future generations.

Watch this space – and come back for more next year.

By David Rafferty

Mark Graham’s Year of Festivals in Ireland

If you’re a fan of festivals, you’ve probably heard of Mark Graham. You might have read his column in the Irish Times or come across his blog online. He’s the guy who spent a year going to three festivals in Ireland every week. Graham, who is more hipster than hippie, was in Culture Box last week to talk about his book A Year of Festivals in Ireland. The idea came to him after a rejected mortgage application. He had managed to get the 10% deposit together and was told his application might be considered if he had 20% deposit. Disappointed and angry, he asked himself why was he letting a financial institute with a worse credit rating than his own tell him what to do? Instead of taking the bank’s advice, he bought a fourth-hand VW camper van and decided to see if it was possible to go to three festivals a week in Ireland, every week, for a year. He also started to write about it – first on the blog, then he was asked to write a column for The Ticket in the Irish Times, and then the book for New Island. Graham said that he had never written anything before starting the blog, and one of the joys of writing was that he discovered how pleasing a well-chosen simile could be. Talking about doing the pilgrimage on Lough Derg he wrote “Donegal in June has all the warmth of Twink with a hangover.”

Although he found the writing satisfying, the real joy was the project itself. Graham enjoyed travelling around Ireland and meeting new . He found lots of people doing small but amazing things to make their communities a bit more fun. He took in an eclectic mix of festivals from the All Ireland Culchie & Egg Throwing Championship in Co. Leitrim, to the Hen Racing Championships in Co. Waterford and the National Ploughing Championships in Laois. There was match-making in Lisdoonvarna, cloud appreciation in West Cork and story-telling on Sieve Bloom, plus a host of music festivals from Dingle’s Other Voices, the Fleadh Ceol in Derry and the biggies – Electric Picnic, Body & Soul, etc. And of course of own Dublin Writers Festival.

Graham is a man who likes a drink and talked candidly about the relationship between festivals and alcohol. He admits that some festivals are enhanced by having a few drinks; you wouldn’t have same experience, the same conversations or even encounter the same sort of people if you were not having a pint with them. He also mentioned Buckfast as the festival drink of choice because of its caffeine content, and shared a few Buckfast recipes which all sound fairly lethal. The Craggy Island Iced Tea, for example is equal parts Buckfast and Bulmers.

But there are over 850 festivals in Ireland, including 65 walking festivals, and it’s possible to meet odd and interesting people at all of them. As Graham says “It’s impossible to walk up a mountain with an Irish person without them finding out everything about your life”. For him, the people are really what make festivals in Ireland special. A festival allows like-minded people to come together, they create a shared sense of community and it gives people a chance to let their hair down. He cited this as reason why big businesses are still keen to invest in festivals – they know they can make money because festivals are recession proof. People want to escape the depressing reality of the economic doom and gloom but they can’t afford a week in sun. Instead they’ll make do with three days in a field with a bottle of Buckfast or a weekend climbing up a mountain. Festivals provide an escape and the Irish are good at making that escape special.

His year travelling the country has left Graham optimistic about our prospects as a country. His enthusiasm in describing the festivals he’s been to is pretty infectious. Asked for his top festival picks, he said the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival was hard to beat for sheer feckless abandon and he thinks that Failte Ireland is missing a trick by not sending tourists to the Ballinasloe Horse Fair.

A Year of Festivals in Ireland, which sounds like a very positive and life-affirming read is available from The Gutter Bookshop, Amazon and New Island.

Selina Guinness’s Interviews John Carey

If you know John Carey your heart beat a little faster when you heard he was coming to Dublin for the Writers’ Festival. If you don’t know John Carey you haven’t been paying attention.

Professor Carey is a literary critic, author, and Merton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford. He has chaired the committee for the Booker Prize, reviews books for the Sunday Times and is a frequent guest on television and radio. In her introduction, interviewer Selena Guinness (author of “The Crocodile at the Door”) described her guest as an iconoclast writer and figure in literature. All true. Yet in person he isn’t at all what one expects. An iconoclast ought to be gigantic, imposing, a bit, well, in your face. Not so Professor Carey. He is softly spoken and genial. His intelligence and critical skills hum like a dynamo in the background, but are never showy. In many ways he is a perfect example of his message, which is: the real worth of anything, whether it’s a human being or a work of art, is not always immediately apparent to the casual eye.

For a man who has spent his career challenging elitism both in terms of class and of education, Professor Carey sadly admits that some of his own literary heroes were elitists. Carey cites a letter D.H. Lawrence wrote in 1908, in which he fantasised about building ‘a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace’ for ‘all the sick, the halt and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the “Hallelujah Chorus”.’ Lawrence further suggested that ‘All schools be closed at once’ because ‘The great mass of humanity should never learn to read and write.’ Carey sums up this philosophy, saying, “His ideas lead straight to Auschwitz.”

Other greats of the modernist period, Woolf, Eliot and Pound, were also intellectual snobs and it is this sense of the perceived superiority (by themselves, at least) of the elite that raise Carey’s hackles. And yet, he tells us, one can enjoy the works of Lawrence or Woolf yet remain appalled by their elitism.

Carey related a story about fellow university student, Sir Roy Howard, who once dismissed him as ‘nobody’. The term rankled and, one suspects, continues to wound. It was this elitism both in terms of class and of education that has made Carey a determined advocate for art that speak to everyone. It was a philosophy he brought with him to Keble University, where he first taught. He made it his mission to bring in grammar school children rather than those who had been nurtured exclusively in public schools. This attempt to change the class system met with some degree of success, Carey says matter-of-factly. That such actions should ever have been considered extraordinary seems bewildering now, decades later.

In books like “What Good are the Arts” and his current work, “The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life”, Professor Carey has removed much of the mystique from both the institutions in which he functions and the artists he has spent his life studying. Art, he tells us, should be accessible to all. Taste is relative and is determined by education and background, by what we’ve been taught.

He denies that it is impossible for a work to be both literary and popular. “Lord of the Flies” was popular with 20m copies sold, he says. But it also won the Nobel Prize for Literature. What better example of a work that is both literary and popular? He adds that many people consider Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to be major poets.

The sum of the event served as no more than a teaser for John Carey’s work as an erudite and highly educated man whose life’s mission is to make art accessible to all comers, regardless of background, education or social status.

Interviewer Selena Guinness did a fine job of introducing the audience to the professor’s life and career. They share a history and an easy rapport. One in of her final questions was obviously designed for those students who were present. Ms Guinness posed a question about heuristics touching on Barthes and New Historicism. No doubt the students were delighted. Still, it was evident more than a few of the non-elite members of the audience were bewildered by the question.

Oh, the irony.

The City was Us

The City was Us: 1000 Years of Dubliners at Smock Alley Theatre last Wednesday wasn’t so much a reading as an event.

Author David Dickson, Professor of History at Trinity College, introduced the audience to this extraordinary portrait of the city as told by its citizens. These were, for the most part, ordinary men and women who lived in Dublin at various times over the past millennium. There were business men and convicts; politicians and satirists. We heard twenty-two excerpts from speeches, letters, articles, and diaries. The tales they told were, by turn, hilarious, terrifying, and sad. One wonders how the author narrowed his selection from the vast store that fills his book.

Professor Dickson related the background of each of these people and put their stories into context, while the excerpts were brought to life by Melissa Nolan and Cathal Quinn. It would be unfair to call Ms Nolan and Mr Quinn mere readers. They gave us performances full of verve and wit. Through them, the voices of these individuals came fully alive and left me longing for a fuller account of these feckless and fervent Dubliners of the past. Isn’t that exactly what you want from a book reading?

Cathal began by speaking as Richard Stanihurst whose contributions to Holinshed’s Chronicles dated to 1577. Cathal’s delivery reminded me of a young Donal McCann. I can give no higher praise.

His other characters included Sir Edward Newenham, John Beresford, poet Maurice Craig and many more.

I was pleased to see women had a fair representation too and these voices fell to the very talented Melissa Nolan. She was, by turn, Anne Pepper, a woman about to be executed (by strangling and being burned at the stake, no less); satirist May Laffan; and ‘Patsy’, a young mother whose joy at being offered a flat in Ballymun during the 1970s withered in the reality of high-rise living.

The event was pretty well attended for a lunchtime offering. I was intrigued enough by the work to add The City was Us not only to my reading list, but also to my Christmas list for several friends and a couple of sisters. Now if I could only find a way of getting Cathal and Melissa to read it to us too…

Interactive Fiction: Read it, write it, share it!

Anyone who attended the excellent “Writing for Games” talk last Saturday as part of the Dublin Writers Festival will remember the writers (Rob Morgan, Antony Johnston and Joe Griffin) onstage talking about the rise in literary games. While “literary video games” may seem like an oxymoron to the uninitiated, personal experience attests that they really are out there, and one tiny branch of this mighty tree holds the games classified as “interactive fiction.” On this delightfully sunny day in Ireland, I’d like to open a window into the world of interactive fiction for you:

So, what is interactive fiction?
In the struggle for a definition, an easy gateway is to think of interactive fiction today as the evolution of choose-your-own-adventure books that many children of the 1980s will remember. That is, interactive fiction tells a story that changes depending on the choices you make during your reading of it. This makes interactive fiction a fertile ground for many types of experimental writing and intensely personal explorations in which themes of sex and identity feature strongly.

Over the past few years, the global game development community has latched onto the potential of interactive fiction, especially as a “gateway drug” into game design. We can find visual novels, hypertext fiction and more complex forms that use player text input to determine the next steps of the game … and all of these can be classified as interactive fiction. To ease our way in, we’ll focus on hypertext fiction for today. As I’ll show you later, the most popular tools for creating hypertext fiction are free and so simple that a novice user can create and publish their first game within a day.

I’d like to read some interactive fiction, where should I start?
My interests skew experimental, so I’m going to point you towards three of my favourites in that arena (all are free and playable/readable in your browser without the need to download anything):
Howling Dogs” by Porpentine
Sacrilege” by Cara Ellison
Even Cowgirls Bleed” by Christine Love
Of course, there is so much out there across all genres, that the pieces that speak to me may not resonate with you at all, in which case you can take a look at Emily Short’s comprehensive list that will help you to find a piece that speaks to what you personally are interested in.

OK, I like this! How can I get started and make some interactive fiction myself?
The most popular entry-level tool is called Twine. It’s free, open-source, works on both PC and Mac and is relatively simple to use. By simple, I mean that if you are familiar with using Microsoft Word and have any experience at all with HTML/code, the learning curve is not steep. You create branching stories in a diagrammatic way, and when you are ready to publish, you can upload your game or story as a simple HTML file either to your own website, or for free on

Once you have a basic grasp of Twine and are bitten by the interactive fiction bug, there are many other established formats for creating more complex interactive fiction, including Ren’py, Inform and ChoiceScript. There’s also a wonderful new way of creating graphical interactive fiction called Fungus, created by Irish designer Chris Gregan who has put the time into creating some seriously helpful learning resources to help newcomers.

If you need a bit of help getting started, I’ll be teaching an interactive fiction workshop at the Circa Words experimental writing festival taking place on June 15th, so get in touch with the Irish Writers Centre if you would like to attend. After that, my friends and I held a day-long Twine-based game jam last year in Dublin and it was so much fun we are likely to run another one over the summer, so if you try Twine out and enjoy it, let me know and I’ll add you to the contact list for the event.

Can I adapt something I wrote already to interactive fiction?
Absolutely! By doing this, you can learn a new way of presenting your work in addition to increasing the chance of your work being read by others. Creating interactive fiction is free, easy and brings immersive, experimental writing to many people who would never buy a poetry chapbook, even if the contents are exactly the same. To show this, check out the contrasting experiences of Dan Waber (who wrote “A Kiss“), between the response he got to the same work via literary journals versus the viral promotion of it through the interactive fiction community.

I hope I’ve convinced you that giving interactive fiction a try is well worth the effort. If you do go ahead to make something in Twine, please do send it to me, I’d love to be immersed in your story!




Tonight: Ray Davies in Conversation with Joseph O’Connor!

For all those heading to see Ray Davies speak later tonight at the National Concert Hall we hope you will have a great time and here is a tune to get your excitement levels a little higher. The Kinks released the song, “You Really Got Me”, on August 4th, 1964. Speaking in the documentary, Imaginary Man, Ray responds to a question about the song by saying, “64, the end of 64, that’s when I was born. I was literally born when that was a hit.” In that case this year will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Ray Davies’ rebirth as the artist, icon and rock legend that we have all known him as. So Happy Fiftieth Birthday, Mr. Davies!