Tuesday, 27 November 2007

About the novel JOHN by Niall Williams

It begins like this. I am sitting in the front room looking down the garden. It is a day in early summer. My mind is idling. I am in the kind of lazy stillness where I am not thinking anything at all, just looking out through the long windows on the coming blossoms of the Japanese maple. Down in front of me stretches the view I have been looking at for twenty years, the big green valley that dips away from Kiltumper, where now there are rising the tips of a spruce plantation that will one day take the view. Right now I can still make out the steeple of the church down in the village three miles away. I look to it, not because it is a church I attend very often, but it is directly in the centre of the view on the horizon and I like the link that exists somehow between the dot-cattle moving in the green fields to the left and right and the still point of that church in the distance. I am looking so, no different to any other day, laptop open in front of me where I am finishing a novel I am writing called BOY IN THE WORLD. I am writing it for my teenage son, and have been sending him the chapters in boarding school. Now he is home for the holidays and I am at the last chapter. In one of those gaps in time that come in the course of a morning’s writing, when I seem to come to a stop for no particular reason, I stare out into the coming summer. A good while passes. I am no hurry. I treasure the empty fullness of such time the writing life affords; that in this life it is all right to just sit and look out. To look out long enough until you are looking in would be overstating it. I am not aware of any inwardness. I am just paused, as it were, when a phrase comes to me. It has nothing to do with the book I am writing. It has no apparent connection to anything, and comes almost literally out of the blue. It is this question: what was John doing the day before he wrote the gospel?

The question is so clear, so surprising, that I lean over and find a small notebook I keep and write it down. Just that. I write the question mark and draw a line under it. Then, to return my mind to where it should be, I read back the last four or five pages of BOY IN THE WORLD, and work on to finish it.

This was two years ago.

A couple of clarifications. First, I am not in the habit of having such questions float into my mind. Second, I had not been thinking in any conscious way of the John gospel prior tot hat day. I had not even read it fully. Nor had I read all of any of the others. I knew nothing of the possible answer to the question. But its hook became embedded. Later, I would find all kinds of prompts and hints in my earlier work that would seem to have been leading me here. An editor-in-chief would read the first hundred pages of the book I started and tell me this was the one I was born to write. But in the beginning there was a sense of mystery. I began the research not yet knowing that it would lead me to a novel. At the time, BOY IN THE WORLD finished, I was looking at the year ahead for working on my fourth play. ‘THAT WE MIGHT SING’ had been commissioned by the Abbey Theatre under Ben Barnes, and its third draft had received a wonderful response, and was now scheduled to move toward production. I didn’t know then that the new administration would after a year’s wait return the play to me praising its ambition and craft but saying no place could be found for it in the theatre’s program. In the hurt that followed I would find myself despairing a little of theatre, and thinking again of the question.

I started by sitting in the front room and reading the John gospel. Then I read it again. What I was looking for was the man not the Apostle. I was drawn to the human dimension, the idea that John was most likely the youngest of the Apostles, maybe even a teenager, and that the most significant event of his life happened then, that everything else is aftermath. His is by most agreed accounts the last of the four main gospels written. So, why does he wait so long? Why does he wait until old age to write of an event in his youth? Such questions kept coming. I read widely among the very many resources on John and the Johnanine community in the first century after Christ. I found—as any who do even minimal research into this period will—innumerable contradictions. To some there are two distinct Johns, the Apostle and the Evangelist, to others these are certainly the same person. To some the gospel is the culmination of years of preaching, to others it is the work of a committee. I spent week after week in the front room of Kiltumper overlooking the green valley while away in the thousands of pages of Raymond Brown, the acknowledged expert on the John gospel.

And somewhere along the way, realising that the research quickly reaches a place of speculation, I stopped reading further in the commentaries and theological studies. Instead I sat and tried to imagine. As Colum McCann wrote in the summer issue of The Irish Book Review,’ instead of writing what we know, we write towards what we want to know.’ SO I began with an image of an ancient man banished on the island of Patmos. I began to invent my own answer to the question.

In the nearly two years that followed there was scarcely a day that I did not ask myself what was I doing writing this book. I am no expert. I know little of theology. One evening, on the phone to a relative in America, I made the mistake of answering the fatal question: ‘What are you writing about now?’
‘The Apostle John.’
Silence on the other end.
Then: ‘You think people will want to read about that?’

The more you immerse yourself in the writing of a book the more you lose perspective. In my experience, while you bring every ounce of concentration, sheer utter focus, you don’t really know where you are or where you are going. You are trying to do the absolute best you can do. It is your life. And you are entirely alone. So then, day after day, I try to imagine John. I find the John I am writing is a man full of yearning. I find he is waiting all his life for the return of Jesus. I find it is a love story.

I work on the book here in Kiltumper and in the course of the writing feel more powerfully than before the cross-currents of doubt and rapture. Sometimes I come from the white screen thinking what I have written is not only the best I have ever written, but will ever write. Sometimes I am lost utterly. The book is hopeless, worse, pointless. I lose all faith while writing about faith.

In the big quiet where you go as a writer engaged on a novel there are always such transports of joy and despair, but this time they feel more extreme. Perhaps it is the outside world pressing, the knowledge the book is bigger gamble than any, that two years are gone into it, and finances dwindling. One day, in a fit of panic or rationality, I am not sure which, I decide I need some support in carrying on. I call the Arts Council to ask about ‘writers in residence’ schemes. I have never called the Arts Council before. Living twenty years in west Clare I mostly feel, in Seamus Heaney’s phrase, an ‘inner √©migr√©.’ On the phone I am told I need to speak to the Literature Officer. I am put through and get an answering machine and leave a message, sounding exactly like a novelist in the mire of mid-novel, when its hard to explain what you are doing, and you feel you need to find an excuse. To the machine I mumble something about circumstances and writers in residence and leave my number. But no one ever calls back, and I don’t call again.

Instead I return to the strange comfort of the isolation. I am writing John’s experience of banishment, his disappointments in the world, and his long enduring. I am writing of belief from the inside where the doubts are. As, at last, I approach the ending, the galleys of BOY IN THE WORLD arrive. As always, for the four weeks or so around publication I will buy no newspapers and avoid anything that might have a review. I will try to keep my own faith, my own valuation of the strengths and weaknesses. This religion of one. But here, I rise from the front room where the postman hands me the book. I take it and give it to my son. My heart lifts as I watch his smile.

Friday, 2 November 2007

November News

First of all... many thanks to all the readers who are wondering and waiting patiently to receive our Kiltumper Newsletter. (I'm wondering myself where it is.) In the meantime, until we get our act together, this blog will have to suffice. And don't be shy. Go ahead and write your comments.

Niall has two novels coming out next year. John is due out in February in the US and Canada(you can already order on Amazon) and it comes out in September in the UK and Ireland, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. The sequel to Boy in the World, called Boy and Man is scheduled for publication in June 2008. Meanwhile a new paperback of Boy in the World comes out in January.

For any of you who have read what we call our 'Kiltumper Books', which are in short supply or weak demand now judging from our last royalty cheque you'll know about our children. Our daughter is a third year student at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin studying fashion and our son is a fifth year student in secondary school. Two terrific people and the loves of our lives.

When I'm not in the garden or nagging the Husband about something or another I'm at the computer writing. I write bi monthly columns for The Clare People: one on health and one on gardening and a monthly book column. It keeps me busy and lets me believe I am communicating with the world from what feels like the middle of nowhere. Also, I am hanging out my shingle again to say that I am once again a practicing homeopath. Next month should see me working one day at week at The Henry Street Clinic in Kilrush.

So there you go. That's what we're up to. Watching the leaves fall. November here sees Rudbeckia and Sedum and Nasturtiums highlighting the garden. The delphiniums are fooling themselves into thinking they can bloom again. Will they beat the first frost? The hopeless summer redeemed itself in the glasshouse where tomatoes are ripening faster than we can harvest them. It'll be pasta and tomato sauce from now until Spring....

Monday, 11 June 2007

June Days

The past few weeks have given us Mediterrean like weather making The view from Kiltumper, quite stunning. The Husband says we no longer need to go to France for our holidays because here the sun is blazing away upon flower and human alike. The Son has returned from his 2 month exchange in Maredsous in Belguim. His French is nearly perfect and the Daughter, who has just finished her second year studying Fashion at NCAD, (The National College of Art and Design in Dublin) is happily working away on Oxford Street in London as an intern for Harpers Bazaar. She says it's not at all like Ugly Betty or The Devil Wears Prada. In fact she is sitting on the floor in an unairconditioned room tagging clothes and returning them to Bond Street. I remind her that we all started somewhere, most of us at the bottom. The Husband is busy writing on his laptop as he sits at the long table overlooking the garden. Last year this time he was conjuring images of a sun-soaked landscape for his characters who walk sandal-footed across herb encrusted hills somehere on a Turkish island. ('John' comes out in the US in February 2008 and in the UK/Ireland the followng autumn.) Now the characters of his next book 'Boy and Man', the sequel to 'Boy in the World', (Harper Collins, UK) are in Ethiopia.

Meanwhile in Kiltumper’s garden the last of the poppies are fading. Their petals scatter on the flower bed like discarded coloured tissue paper that has been left too long in the sun. They leave as big a mess behind them as the great show they perform in the month of June. Truth is they are a bit sloppy after their grand appearance but the garden wouldn’t be the same without them, especially this season when they held the setting sun in their crimson cups.

I took a walk one evening when the cottage was quiet. Everyone was away. I followed the small road that borders the big meadow behind us and climbed over the gate into the field known locally as ‘Lower Tumper’. Before most of the lower hill field was planted with hardwood trees and spruce, the field was home to our grazing cows and their calves. Back in the days when the Husband and I tried our hand at farming we walked up these hill fields to count our small stock and stand amongst them, listening to the bird song. It was a different time in our life. It was a different view. I never thought I’d be thankful for that massive monument of metal that stands in the corner of the big meadow but I am. It has saved a remnant of the field-that-was as a long swath beneath the wires of the pylon. A fifty yard path separates an emerging forest on either side. Without the pylon the field would be total plantation. It occurred to me that as the rest of the country is becoming more developed, here things are becoming more wild. You can sense wildlife everywhere. I was walking across the thistle and tall grass into the heart of the hardwoods when some movement in the edge of my vision made me stop. I turned in time to see a fox climbing over the stone wall and into the field at the back of the house where two brown horses stay for summer grazing. Sensing me, the fox stopped still. Then it turned and looked at me, and I looked at it, both of us perhaps marvelling like neighbours at the stillness and beauty of the warm evening. In a snapshot second it was pastoral picture perfect. Sometimes everything comes together, and alone on the hill I recalled last year when the Husband and the Student were discussing Robert Frost’s poem, 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening' for his honour english Junior Cert exam. And now here I was, a single and yet not so single viewer in the silent landscape of ash and oak, of fox and horse, of meadow and sky. My brother, Stephen, who passed away under the first full moon of May, would have loved that image. He would have loved the idea of me standing alone in the field of my ancestors and thinking not of Yeats but of Frost.

Friday, 1 June 2007


The cuckoo and the swallows arrived in Kiltumper in the last week of April. We had been waiting for them, those cheery harbingers of summer, with the kind of expectation that one holds for much-loved guests. For weeks we listened to the skies, asking our neighbours, ‘have you heard the cuckoo?’ While out in the garden we watched the skies for the swallows. The anticipation of their flight promising, surer than anything, that summer was on their wings. When the cuckoo did finally arrive, he circumnavigated the townland, calling down to Mary Breen’s and then across Downes’ farm. He flew above the fairy fort at Behan’s, then back across Hehir’s forest, past our cottage garden, and settled somewhere near Coughlan’s bog. Summer had justly arrived. The same day, the 26th of April, the barn swallows returned to our cabin and boldly resumed their flight patterns in a fashion that suggested a fundamental faith in the great, grand design. From the top of the rafters, where they are rebuilding their nests, diving down through the opening of the stone-framed passageway they flew out into the garden like travellers returned from a long journey. Their swooping flight would cheer an aching heart. Each time I walk into the cabin to find some garden tool they startle and leave their perches, thrilling me as they daringly dart past. I find myself wondering what our African counterpart looks like, what their winter home is like, and what they think of Kiltumper.

A red-orange poppy, bright as an African sora, has opened above a sea of green in the flower bed in front of the house, shocking everything else in sight like some electrifying force and clashing with the red tulips in a minor collision of colour. Like the first call of a cuckoo and the first sight of a swallow, the first pop of a poppy breathes new life into me because it means some summer-like weather is around the corner and, like the poppy shedding its shell, I can de-cloak. Meanwhile, the Japanese cherry is festooned with layers of blossoms much like the soft bustle gowns in the painting ‘Women in the Garden’ by Claude Monet, with petals billowing in the May wind. The colour blue zigzags its way across the border with the tiny belled flowers of Jacob’s ladder, forget-me-nots and aquilegia, pansies and bluebells. The swelling of greenness bursting into leaf is, thankfully, unrelenting this time of year making the boxwood hedge neon green with its new growth--rapidly in need of clipping before the month is out. Above the boxwood knot garden sits the small glasshouse. Planted with tomatoes and cucumbers, lettuces and carrots, and early strawberries, it becomes the favourite place for our cat, Neidin, who relaxes on the warm soil. She winks at me with lazy eyes as I pot on the delphiniums and dahlias that I’ve been protecting from the slugs. Do I dare to plant them out?

I love this time of year maybe more than any other. The energy in the garden is steady and determined and nearly every day there is some new marvel to notice. Likewise, I the gardener am steady and determined, but trying to keep pace with the tireless blitz of growth can be a challenge. I have to stop myself and sit down to enjoy it. I should be taking a note from Neidin’s diary--‘today I lounged inside in yer one’s warm glasshouse, closed my eyes and soil-bathed until dinnertime’--or whatever it is that cats think about when they’re not hunting. The garden tasks are as plentiful as the harvest they bestow, however, and although I have elected the Husband as Chief Groundsman I am largely responsible for the garden’s upkeep. To give him his due, the Husband graciously accepts the chores I assign him—hedging mowing, transplanting, barrowing—the kind of jobs where I know his mind is still half in the book he is writing.

In Kevin Danaher’s wonderful book, The Year in Ireland, he writes about Bealtaine and the many May-day and May-time beliefs and customs. I didn’t know this, but seemingly May is the time of year when women gathered the May dew, believing in its virtues as a medicine and beauty aid--“Bringing immunity from freckles, sunburn, chapping and wrinkles during the coming year.” It also cured, or prevented, headaches, skin ailments and sore eyes.” What you do is: in the early morning go to the meadow and knock the dew off the grass with your hands. Collect it in a jar or a plate. Let it rest in the sunbeams and once the dregs have settled pour off the good stuff until you have clear but whitish dew. Danaher says to walk barefoot in the dew will cure all sorts foot ailments. Better still, if you’re daring, roll naked into the morning meadow and be assured of good health and a fair complexion for the coming year.

Lately, I’ve come to the conclusion that working in the garden is being in the garden and being in the garden is enjoying the garden. Something akin to understanding that the journey is the destination, or as the American singer/songwriter Harry Chapin sang, ‘it’s the going, not the getting there, that’s good.’ So out I go. May in the Kiltumper garden will see us harvesting lettuces and scallions and rocket and spinach, and bringing in bouquets of blue flowers. And before the month is out, who knows, the swallows and the cuckoo that arrived from Africa just might see two naked humans out rolling and bathing in the morning dew of a Kiltumper meadow.

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

Volunteering in South Africa

Volunteering in the New South Africa

So, we are back in Clare. But for a time, and maybe a long time, our hearts are still in Africa.
My son, a transition year student, participated with me in a month-long volunteer project with an organisation called help2read, a project based in a suburb of Cape Town called Muizenberg. At the moment it is a pilot programme but the director tells me she will soon will be operating in schools in the townships of Masiphumelele and Hout Bay (where the Mellon Foundation, known as ‘Irishtown’ in the Cape Peninsula, has built hundreds of houses). Every day for a month we worked with six primary schoolchildren. For half an hour each we read to them and encouraged them to read to us. We played cards sometimes and drew pictures of pirates and kings and butterflies. Our children, the students of Muizenberg Junior School, came from the local community and from places like Mitchell’s Plain, a coloured settlement from where it takes two hours to travel to school, and Grassy Park and even Khayelitsha—the township on the edge of the Indian Ocean, home to over a million. Some of our students like Esther, Rejoice, Joyful, and Fleming were refugees from Burundi and Rwanda and the Congo. Some of our students like Tyler were disadvantaged white South Africans. In the days before apartheid the school catered only for whites. Now it is 90 percent black and coloured, although the majority of teachers are white. While the infrastructure of the school is excellent, a legacy of pre-apartheid, the student body is bursting into every available space and the resources are stretched to breaking point. If the arrive at the door of the school, the school will take them in as long as they buy a blue uniform and white shirts and socks and black shoes. The school has tried to make a policy of not turning children away. These students were quite possibly among the luckiest of students and the school itself one of the most racially integrated in the country. It is the face of the new South Africa. It is putting its best foot forward. It is the model of education, and the contribution of volunteers like ourselves only make it better.

So what was it like, people ask when you come back. Well, really the experience is so profound, so different to your usual life that you could speak about it for days on end and still not quite capture it. Picture arriving after a 12-hour flight in Africa. It’s 6 in the morning, the January sun is dazzlingly hot, and you are there waiting four hours for your pick-up from the volunteer organisation with no idea of what lies ahead. At even that first moment we had stepped out of Western, Northern Hemisphere lives and into a slower pace. When a South African says ‘now now’ to you don’t expect it mean now as in double time. (Expect it to mean today, tomorrow or sometime next week.) Driving directly from the airport you see the township of Langa—one the biggest townships in the country. What strikes you is the rolling sea of tin roofs, thousands of tiny shacks, painted different colours. Some are collapsing. But most, amazingly so, are sustainable homes. Not long gone from the days of the ‘one family/one bed’ rule, the townships are slowly transforming into more acceptable housing. When you talk to people about township living you begin to understand that it is their ‘home’. Ask a person from a township to move into a wealthier neighbourhood and they will most likely refuse. A few weeks after our arrival we met a white South African couple, living in a wealthy suburb on the coast of the Indian Ocean who explained to us that their maid travelled two hours a day, each way, to work at their home. She was invited to stay for month while the couple went on holiday but she refused point blank. Didn’t even consider it. Why? Because where the whites lived was isolated. No community. No camaraderie. No neighbours living a shared experience. Not ‘now now’, she very likely said, ‘not ever’. Her employers take care of her expenses and have bought her second shack-cum-house in her township. If everyone did this, if the haves continue to give to the have-nots, then the new South Africa may be able to lead Africa itself, eventually, out of poverty.

Our own accommodation was on the edge of the Indian Ocean in a hostel where we shared living and cooking arrangements with other volunteers, surfing fans, and long-term residents, most of them from the Congo or in transit from the townships. With only five working hot plates being shared among 30 plus residents, dinnertime was chaotic. If you suffered from insomnia, then the beach hostel was not the place to lay your head at night. There was Willie, the oddest of characters, who wiped his face and arms and counters with the same dish-rag, keeping the place tidy albeit not germ free it must be said. There was Kweze and Ryan the young black surfing stars and Patrick the sharkspotter. There was Alex whose children and their mother lived in a township and he elsewhere because he was unable to marry her until he had given a dowry to the father, part of the Xhosa culture. Occasionally his beautiful children visited him at the hostel. There was Dom, a barefoot blond dreadlocked 19 yr old from Manchester with spider tattoos and wearing his board shorts down around his ankles looking for his passport and wallet that had been taken after another binge of heavy drinking. There was red-headed Una from Scotland on her way to India, after two months assisting in an orphanage in a suburb called Athlone, to work in another orphanage. And there was Aine, a 40 year old teacher from Limerick, taking a gap year and volunteering in the same reading project as ourselves. She was a teacher of Irish and French and my son practiced his French with her and occasionally his Irish, laughing together sometimes when no one else understood what they were saying.

We were looking for an opportunity to give something back and we found it through volunteering in South Africa. That we got to also experience a different place in the world at the same time was a bonus. The idea of ‘Meaningful Travel’ sums it up quite well: Volunteering and travelling. Within an hour from the township outside Port Elizabeth, where Sr Normoyle intends to urge volunteers to build a hospice for the Missionvale Centre, the elephants and giraffes and lions and cheetahs roam free inside private game reserves. But outside, in the streets, the new South Africa is breathing new life into itself. My son and I were part of that breathing life, a life full of contrasts, of tremendous beauty and poverty. The memories of the springbok on the grassy plains and the girl in the blue dress, Rachel Kunda from the Congo, on the sidewalk in Muizenberg are etched in hearts and minds forever.