V is for Volunteers: Valued, Vivacious and Vital to our Vitality

Over the years we have been very fortunate to attract a huge number of helpful, dedicated volunteers who devote their time and their energy to make sure that each of our events run successfully and smoothly. They’re the folks who greet you with a smile, check your ticket, hold the mic for Q&A’s, and look after a dozen other little details to ensure that a positive experience is had by all in attendance. Anyone who attended the Emma Donoghue event in The Printworks last Saturday would have been greeted one of three volunteers: Elizabeth, Dorothy and Philip. Their professional and courteous conduct helped to make the afternoon’s event a great success. Afterwards they very kindly agreed to answer a few of our questions to let us know why it is they choose to volunteer and what attracted them to the Dublin Writers Festival specifically.

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DWF: Had any of you volunteered before at other festivals/events?

Philip: 10 Days in Dublin, Dublin Theatre Festival, Dublin Beatles Festival, Bram Stoker Festival, Dublin Book Festival, First Fortnight, Temple Bar Tradfest, Jameson Dublin International Film Festival.

Dorothy: At the Dublin Theatre Festival last year.

Elizabeth: I was a volunteer bookseller at the Dalkey Book Festival last year for the Gutter Bookshop. It was just one day, but I sold books at one event and then in the pop up bookshop after that.

DWF: Had you volunteered with us at the Dublin Writers Festival in previous years?

Dorothy: No.

Elizabeth: I have never volunteered for the Dublin Writers’ Festival before this year.

Phillip: 2014 will be my third year volunteering at DWF

DWF: Why do you choose to volunteer?

Philip: I find that volunteering has been a great way for me to catch up with what’s happening in the Arts. DWF is a great opportunity to get up close with writers and their work.

Elizabeth: I don’t volunteer for many things; I volunteer when I am interested in the event, campaign or issue. I think it’s important to be involved in what’s going on in the city, whether that is a book festival or something else. To be connected to the heart of the city, its culture and heritage is important for a sense of belonging, for both the volunteer and the attendees. So I volunteer for cultural events like the DWF to ensure that we don’t lose occasions like this and in the hope that with more people attending and talking about Emma Donoghue or Anita Shreve, more people will venture into their local bookshop and peruse the fiction section or, dare I say it, the non-fiction corner.

Dorothy: I was interested in the possibility of working in a more creative field and I thought of it is a good way of getting an idea of how these events are run. My main reason though is the social aspect of the events.

DWF: And why did you choose to volunteer at the Dublin Writers Festival specifically?

Philip: After I retired in 2012, DWF was literally the first volunteering opportunity I became aware of – I think I read a small piece in the Irish Times Weekend magazine – and I thought, why not? That proved to be a very enjoyable experience – I even got to meet author Jeanette Winterson at Brooks Hotel and walk with her to the Gate Theatre for her reading there.

Dorothy: One of the volunteers at the Dublin Theatre Festival said he had volunteered at the DWF last year, and it was very enjoyable and excellently run, so he recommended I volunteer this year.

Elizabeth: I was at an event last year, at Smock Alley (Kevin Powers and Ben Fountain), and I really enjoyed it. I was looking out for the festival this year and when I saw that the festival needed volunteers I thought I would put myself forward. I work in publishing at the moment (part time) and like to get involved in cultural events in the city, and I would also like to hear the authors speak about their books and careers and the inspiration they need in order to sit at their laptop for months on end to finish their manuscript. Volunteering seems like the perfect way to do just that.

DWF: How did you find volunteering at the Emma Donoghue event on Saturday, any favourite moment(s) that you’d like to share?

Philip: I thought this was a very good pre-Festival taster and I have no doubt the standard will be maintained throughout the Festival. I enjoyed the event on Saturday – Emma Donoghue is an excellent and very engaging speaker and the Q&A session was particularly lively.

Dorothy: I can’t pick any particular favourite moment. I enjoy dealing with the public and am always happy to help with the roving mikes, so I enjoyed the whole afternoon.

Elizabeth: I really enjoyed the event on Saturday. I enjoyed hearing Emma Donoghue talking about her writing process and her previous books. I haven’t read any of her books yet, but I would be inspired to pick up a copy of Frog Music after hearing about it. I thought the Q&A was wonderful. The questions covered a range of topics and the author was quite happy to go into detail about whatever was asked.

DWF: Would you recommend volunteering at the Dublin Writers Festival to other people?

Philip: Yes indeed! One gets to know other volunteers and recommendations are passed back and forth. I know that two of this year’s volunteers have signed up on the basis of my recommendation.

Dorothy: Maybe too early to say from my own point of view, but I am doing it on someone else’s recommendation and I was delighted to hear it is well run.  Easier to volunteer with a well organised festival.

Elizabeth: Would I recommend someone volunteer at the festival? Absolutely. Someone who has an interest in books (of course) and the writing process would benefit from participating in the festival. It wasn’t a very stressful event for me and the attendees were lovely. And I got to hear a very successful writer speak about her writing process. It was perfect.

DWF: And finally, what books are you reading now or what was the last book that you read?

Dorothy: Last book I read was David Norris’ A Kick Against the Pr**ks. Very interesting to learn about his early family life.

Philip: That’s a bit complicated as not so long ago I had several books on the go! I’m currently involved (as a volunteer) in a Trinity College History Project called Letters of 1916 (if you’re interested in learning more about this project, click here) which involves uploading and transcribing letters written circa 1915/1916 and donated by the public or certain archives. This work has given me an appetite for history so I have been reading up on WW1 and the 1916 Rising. My current reading is All in the Blood by Geraldine Plunkett Dillon and next up is 1916 What the People Saw by Mick O’Farrell.

After that it’s back to Midnight in Sicily by Peter Robb and The Boys by Christopher Fitz-Simon.

At last Saturday’s event I bought a copy of Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music for my wife as a Mother’s Day treat – I hope she finishes it quickly because I think I’ll slip it in to the queue ahead of some of the others!

Elizabeth: At the moment, I am reading American Rust by Philipp Meyer. His second book The Son was nominated at last year’s Irish Book Awards. This one, American Rust, is equally as wonderful and bloody. I can see why he is being compared to Steinbeck. The situations the characters find themselves in are painfully desperate. The American Dream certainly is dead.

After that, I will start Dave Eggers A heartbreaking tale of staggering genius‘. I can’t wait!

 ***

Well, Elizabeth can’t wait for her next book and we can’t wait until the festival kicks off on May 17th, which is only 6 weeks away now! Anyone attending any of our events over the nine days will be greeted by Elizabeth, Dorothy, Philip or one of our many other faithful volunteers. We’d like to take this opportunity to thank all the volunteers through the years for their commitment and also those who will be dedicating their time at this year’s festival.

If you are interested in volunteering for this year’s festival and would like to get in touch then you can send us an email to volunteer@dublinwritersfestival.com.

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Frog Music and collaborative harmony: an interview with Emma Donoghue

ED2013bw“One very Irish theme I explore through this odd story (Frog Music) is the lingering, multi-generation effect of the neglect and abuse of children.”

Emma Donoghue discusses bringing Room to the big screen and how only obsessive dedication to research produces a thick enough texture, as the author becomes a reporter from another time and place.

With Lenny Abrahamson set to direct the movie adaptation of Room, how do you expect his vision of the book will translate to the screen and how have you been involved in that process?

I’m involved up to my eyeballs – as an executive producer with a say in everything from location to casting (which is already underway), but mostly as the scriptwriter. Working with Lenny is teaching me so much about film: a whole other art form. I think he’s got just the right combination of artistic purity and down-to-earth populism to make Room the film just as good as the book.  It’s also proving to be one of the most harmonious and indeed hilarious collaborative relationships of my career.  So far, that is – ultimately he’s the boss, so I may hate him by the time the final cuts are made! But I doubt it.

Having come from an academic background, bringing a great deal of research to your fictional works, how did you prepare to create the setting of San Francisco in 1876 for your latest novel, Frog Music?

I always do too much research, because only too much is enough.  Meaning, that I have to follow my curiosity down every little trail, and become a temporary expert in things that may not even end up being shown in the book.  In my experience, only that kind of obsessive dedication produces a thick enough texture – a sense that the author is a sort of reporter from another time and place.  What was new about Frog Music was that I used so many online sources (genealogical databases, local newspapers, ships’ passenger lists, census returns) that would have been almost impossible for me to access ten or twenty years ago.

Were you inspired or influenced by an actual murder case from that time in writing the book?

Yes, I drew on about sixty newspaper articles about the San Miguel Mystery, which was the term of the day for the unsolved shooting of a young cross-dressing frog catcher called Jenny Bonnet.

You’ve mentioned previously that you assume nothing about the people who will read your books and that “the real value of telling a freakish story is to illuminate the normal and universal”, have you continued with that approach with Frog Music?

Definitely.  Gender-benders like Jenny, for instance, show what it was like for everyone else to follow the laws of masculinity and femininity. One very Irish theme I explore through this odd story is the lingering, multi-generation effect of the neglect and abuse of children.

How would you describe the main characters and the crux of the story? Love gone sour, friendship wreaking havoc, bohemian fun leading to bloodshed and horror.

Do you feel you used your own life for fiction in any aspects of Frog Music? Oh yes: all my bad-mother moments helped me channel the narrator Blanche, a thorough selfish pleasure-seeker unprepared for motherhood. She was a particular relief to write after the heroic young mother in Room.

Are you currently working on any new plays or novels? I’m writing a children’s book – another new genre for me, right after trying the murder mystery in Frog Music.  (It’s very humbling, feeling like a complete beginner every time.)

Interview by Lynne Nolan

Emma Donoghue will be speaking at a special preview event for Dublin Writers Festival at The Printworks (Dublin Castle) on March 29. For further details and to book tickets click here

Interview with Dorian Lynskey

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Dorian Lynskey is a music writer for The Guardian, and over the years has contributed to publications such as Word and Blender. His book 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs was published by Faber in 2011. He will be appearing at Liberty Hall on Saturday (8.30pm).

SK: 33 Revolutions Per Minute is a great book. How long had the idea been clattering around your head, and did you find it a difficult book to write?

DL: In 2004-5 I covered political music stories in Kenya, Israel and Ukraine, which gave me the idea to write a book about protest songs around the world today but I couldn’t find a publisher. One publisher, however, suggested he’d like to read a history of protest songs. At first that seemed way too big a topic – and it’s still a big book – but one day the 33 Revolutions idea popped into my head as a way of organising the material and making it accessible both for the reader and for me as a writer. For me music is inextricably linked with my political awakening at the age of 16 so I loved the idea of exploring how songs introduce listeners to political ideas and events, and I realised that the book could serve the same purpose. It’s not just about the records but the historical context.

SK: Its sweep is huge, but it must have been a painstaking editing process, surely you could have had a second, and third volume?

DL: It was surprisingly easy to choose the 33 songs, although I do now wish I’d been able to deal with feminism in music prior to Riot Grrrl, and perhaps Irish music. Other than that, it felt I was able to cover what I wanted to without making it too diffuse. But the first draft was about 50,000 words longer and cutting that material was hard. But then who wants to read a 1000+ pages? [I do – SK]

SK:How did your love of music begin, and were you quite acutely aware, for example, as a teenager, at the radiant, and sometimes strained relationship between politics and music?

DL:The first song I was ever obsessed with was Rent by Pet Shop Boys when I was 13. It can’t quite explain why – it just flicked a switch that turned ordinary curiosity about the Top 40 into a lifelong passion. Then when I was 16 and thinking more about politics I had Public Enemy, Ice Cube, New Model Army, etc – a little later there was Riot Grrrl and Rage Against the Machine. It always felt to me that music was a great gateway into other things, including politics. While writing the book I was reminded that the first time I grasped the concept of nuclear war was while listening to the 12″ of Two Tribes by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. That’s a pretty heavy revelation to get from a pop song, let alone one that was number one for nine weeks. I think lots of people have that experience, whether it’s hearing about apartheid through Free Nelson Mandela or racial politics in the US via hip hop. It didn’t seem problematic to me then – it just felt like one of the things pop music can do. I think it’s a shame that younger listeners don’t have as many mainstream artists who can make them excited about politics and dissent.

SK:Folk music has always harnessed protest, and the oral tradition handed down, honouring stories that have gone before, but which remain topical. There are so many different kinds of protests, and preoccupations within protest  – is that what you have found with your research?

DL: That’s a very broad question but yes, it’s the variety that keeps it interesting. Some songs are great because they’re so specific and describe a particular person or incident, but other are equally great because they’re vague and universally applicable.

SK: Hip-hop harnessed my imagination quite early on, and I am still drawn to it, the love of language, the verve. Do you think it has gone away from its early touchstone of social change, and a restless kind of need to speak about what is genuinely happening on the streets?

DL: Well hip hop started off “stupid” so to speak with Rappers Delight, didn’t touch on politics until The Message, and only really had a big political phase circa 1988-92. I think that’s the period that people get nostalgic about, and not just because the music was great. It’s tempting to fetishise the “sound of the streets” and want it to be socially conscious but there were factors at play, from the popularity of the Nation of Islam to old-fashioned bandwagon-jumping, that don’t exist now. Even Mos Def and Talib Kweli, when they first arrived, were marginal by comparison. You can still find political lyrics coming from artists as big as Jay-Z, Kanye and Lil Wayne but they’re not central to their identity in the same way they were to Public Enemy. But there are ways of exploring moral complexity and social problems without self-identifying as political. I think Kendrick Lamar’s last album engages with the problems of growing up poor and tempted by a life of crime with far more elegance and empathy than NWA ever did – he just doesn’t have a song like Fuck Tha Police to rally around.

SK: I really enjoyed the recent film Good Vibrations, not only because of Terri Hooley’s boundless enthusiasm for music, but because it was such a love-letter to those people in Northern Ireland who needed music to protest a life outside of the Troubles, to say that Belfast, or Derry, or wherever, should not only be synonymous with violence, unrest and pain – but creativity, fun, and good music – and The Undertones being played twice by John Peel – that “teenage dreams so hard to beat” still existed in the North. Music becomes a life force, a saviour – another example of art outweighing a lot of other concerns. What do you think?

DL: Absolutely. I tried to make clear in the book – but perhaps it could be clearer – that I was writing about explicit protest songs but there are countless other ways in which music can reflect its political context and respond to its listener’s needs, whether for escapism or catharsis. That was the message of the disco chapter.

SK: You have always been a very literary music writer – what is your relationship like to literature, and who are some of your favourite writers?

DL: Thank you! I’m not sure I see myself that way but I do try to keep the language and ideas interesting and I did study English Literature at university. Off the top of my head I like Philip Roth, F Scott Fitzgerald, Joseph Conrad, Harold Pinter, Ibsen, Shelley, Larkin, Kazuo Ishiguro, John Dos Passos, Milan Kundera and Lorrie Moore. In terms of cultural journalism, Joan Didion, Robert Christgau, Jon Savage and Greil Marcus are all good at seeing the big picture as well as the details. And the biggest influence on the writing of 33rpm was Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland. He has a knack of making you feel as if you’re present at key historical events, his research is faultless and he has a sharp sense of humour.

SK: What do you think about musicians who say they don’t see songwriting as a “real” form of writing? For me, some of the greatest writers have been songwriters, the best language has its own rhythm, its own music – what do you think?

DL: Of course songwriting is real writing, just as poetry is. I don’t know why anyone would say it wasn’t. To pick a very recent example, the lyrics on the new Vampire Weekend album are as sharp and evocative as a novel.

SK: Where do you think protest music is right now? In terms of popular culture, you feel that in the sixties and seventies, the trickling into the mainstream seemed more real, more alive – now it seems more fragmented. Who are our great young protest singers now? Who are our brilliant minds in pop music?

DL: This is a topic for the event and too big for me to address here!

SK: I believe that David Margolick’s Strange Fruit was an interesting touchstone for your book – was it because of its placing the song so carefully in its political context, and its exploration of the variety of reactions? What was the most surprising thing for you, reading that book, and how do you think it has informed your own?

DL: That was the book that made me realise you could tell a huge story about a period in history by starting with just one song. If not for that I’m not sure I would have believed my book could work. And Strange Fruit was a natural starting point for me because of the tense collision of nightclub entertainment and brutally vivid subject matter.

SK: You formed a band when you were younger, what kind of music was it, was it based around a kind of incoherent protesting, or more coherent?

DL: Well we thought it was coherent! We were called Vida Loca – after the Love & Rockets comic book, not the Ricky Martin song that came along later – and our demo tape was called Apathy Kills. We wrote songs about the Iraq war, the LA riots and other early 90s topics. It was all rather gauche, and we shouldn’t have tried rapping, but it was fun and well-intentioned and I’m still quite proud of the way we used samples, albeit in a very primitive way.

SK: Who have been some of your favourite musicians to interview, and why?

DL: I’ve been lucky enough to conduct multiple interviews with Neil Tennant, Bono, Wayne Coyne, John Grant and the Manic Street Preachers. They’re all very different and some of them probably hate each other but each one is funny, clever, gracious and full of theories and ideas. It’s actually hard not to come away with a great interview. But most musicians are pleasant and interesting and some of those that aren’t, like Morrissey, are entertaining in their hostility.

SK: What are you watching, reading, and listening?

DL: Reading: Patrimony by Philip Roth

Watching: Mad Men, Parks and Recreation

Listening: New albums by Vampire Weekend, John Grant, Pet Shop Boys and These New Puritans. I’m also in a big Paul Simon phase.