Print This Post Print This Post

Walked Off To Look For America

August 27, 2009 by  

Down the years my friend Tim O’Grady has been very good to me. He visited me in jail, wrote to me and sent me books, wrote a piece for ‘The Guardian’ about my court case which was rejected at the time; introduced me to the writings of John Berger and Richard Wright; was there at Heathrow Airport to greet me the first time I visited England after being excluded for 14 years under the Prevention of Terrorism Act; persuaded the editor of Lillitput Press to include a chapter by me in ‘My Generation’ [1996], a book of musical reminiscences; got me a bit-part in a film based on his book, ‘I Could Read The Sky’, along with Stephen Rea and Pat McCabe, filmed in Hastings; introduced me to Sinead O’Connor and John Minihan [who took the famous picture of Beckett putting out a cigarette in Le Petit Café, Paris] and who took a ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ pic of Tim and I cycling down Masbro Road with hangovers; and came all the way from Valencia to my wedding in Andersonstown in 1999 [carrying an extremely heavy, engraved tile which to this day hangs on the wall of our dining room] and read from an Apache Wedding Blessing.

Yes, Tim is a true brother.

Last year I read Tim’s travelogue of the USA which was published in hardback in 2008 and paperback a few months ago. The title of his book is from a Walt Whitman quote: ‘Divine, Magnetic Lands’.

It is a fine book about love of his native land, the United States of America. It is also about humanity, things he learns about his late father, about writers and poets, in his reassessment of the America that he left in 1973. I made notes along the margins in pencil and here comment on some.

Tim confesses that as a youth he only knew Catholics, served Mass and was a member of the Future Priests’ Club – something he never confessed to me, even at five in the morning when after being thrown out of his local little Jazz Club in Hammersmith both of us would sit on opposite sofas looking into diminishing glasses of dark elixir and confessing to things that had begot us.

Though Tim’s grandfather or great grandfather hails from Cork and Tim has a gra for Ireland he reassesses the America he left for Europe and revisits the city of his birth, Chicago. About the South Side, Henry Miller wrote: “Reminds me of a diseased jawbone, some of it smashed and pulverized, some of it charred and ulcerated.” The South Side is also home to Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam national headquarters.

‘The road is life,” wrote Jack Kerouac whose book provides Tim with motivation, though my copy still sits unread on the same pile in my study three years after I bought it.

‘Divine, Magnetic Lands’ is full of allusions and nuggets, such as G.K. Chesterton’s comment in 1931: “There is nothing wrong with Americans except their ideals. The real American is all right; it is the ideal American who is all wrong.” Or, William Burroughs’ description of a paranoid as “someone in full possession of the facts.” Or Simone de Beauvoir’s extraordinarily prescient remarks from 1947 as she looked out towards the Manhattan skyline and thought, “What a field day a bomber would have!”

There are facts and figures including that there are a million lawyers in the US – one for every 280 people.

Tim can also be very funny. He switched on the radio one morning and notes: “I woke to the news that Conan the Barbarian had been elected Governor of California.”

In Mississippi, referring to slavery, a liquor-store owner tells him: “I can’t keep paying for things my great grandfather did”, without realising that he does and that we do.

Tim meets Jill Cutler, who had been his boss when he was teaching at Yale, a woman who had been once or twice propositioned by Bob Dylan but had turned him down. Imagine that. Even I would have lain across his big brass bed. She was now writing a biography of her body through the clothes she had put on it.

He meets people like William Kennedy whose books I love. I remember my friend the late Siobhan O’Hanlon, Gerry Adams’s secretary, as an afterthought one night when her and her partner Pat and my partner Leslie and I were having dinner, her saying, “I was thinking that we should have invited you along.” This was in reference to the entourage that had accompanied President Bill Clinton during a visit to the North.

“There was this writer, William Kennedy, there whom you might have wanted to talk to.”

I couldn’t believe it! William Kennedy was here and I never got a chance to meet him.

About Kennedy, Tim says: “I can think of no other city of comparable size with a chronicler so knowledgeable, so inclusive and so artful.”

He interviews Studs Terkel [who died last October]. At the age of 14 Studs saw Lucy Parsons, widow of Albert Parsons. He was one of the Haymarket Martyrs who was executed for his part in a demonstration in Chicago in 1886 protesting for an eight-hour day. During the demonstration a policeman was killed by an unidentified bomber [possibly an agent provocateur]. Eight leaders of the demonstration were executed and the world’s May Day celebrations were established to commemorate the Haymarket Martyrs.

Tim meets a man in a bar who brags that he had “sixty-two registered kills in Vietnam.”

A man in the Rockies tells Tim that “Guns are popular out here. There are people in the wilderness with arsenals in their houses waiting for the black helicopters of the United Nations to invade” This reminded me of Martin Fletcher’s comments in his US travel book, ‘Almost Heaven’ (1999). Fletcher interviewed members of the apocalyptic movements and ‘covenant communities’, tax resisters who hate federal government and who have fled “a civilisation they consider doomed” and gone to live in the mountains. Some of these people believe that the government is planning to implant microchips in the brains of the population so that it can monitor what people think and do. Others believe that it has already planted computer chips in road signs, enabling it to keep tabs on all its citizens. He was also told that a group of tremendously wealthy Jewish-led international bankers – known as the Illuminati (chaired by the Queen Elizabeth II!) – are surreptitiously taking over the world; that the government knows how to produce free energy and make cars run on water, but were suppressing these technologies because oil was a means of control; and that the government itself bombed the federal building in Oklahoma in order to blame and discredit the militias.

One of the saddest pieces in the book is a quote from Chief Seattle, a speech he made before the governor of the Washington Territory in 1853, about the transience of any one tribe:

“It matters little where we pass the remnant of our days. They will not be many. The Indian’s night promises to be dark… A few more moons. A few more winters – and not one of the descendants of the mighty hosts that once moved over this land…will remain to mourn over the graves of a people – once more powerful and hopeful than yours. But why should I mourn at the untimely fate of my people. Tribe follows tribe, nation follows nation, like the waves of the sea. It is the order of nature, and regret is useless. Your time may be distant, but it will surely come, for even the white man whose God walked and talked with him as a friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny. We may be brothers after all. We will see.”

‘Divine, Magnetic Lands’ is a wonderful book about a seriously flawed but wonderful country.


Print This Post Print This Post

Hesse And Suicide

August 19, 2009 by  

Finished ‘The Glass Bead Game’ by Hesse a few weeks ago but am only now getting around to saying something about it. It was not enjoyable, though parts were. The book improves once Joseph Knecht leaves the ‘ivory tower’ that is Castillia. Following a section of ‘Knecht’s’ poetry there are three stories, also attributed to him.

The story, ‘The Father Confessor’, is about Josephus Famulus, a worldly man who sees the light and becomes a penitent and famous confessor. But then many years later he experiences despair, considers giving up his life and considers suicide. The narrator says: “Certainly a Christian ought to be no enemy of death; certainly a penitent and saint ought to regard his life as an offering; but the thought of suicide was utterly diabolic and could arise only in a soul no longer ruled and guarded by God’s angels, but by evil demons.”

For help he seeks out a Father Dion Pugil, another famous confessor, without realising that Pugil is similarly facing disillusionment, and their paths cross, with positive results. They rediscover their faith and work together. It is only at the end that Pugil confesses that all those years before he had felt the same way as Josephus and he comments about suicide.

“It is not merely a folly and a sin to inflict such a death on oneself, although our Redeemer can well forgive even such a sin. But is also a terrible pity for a man to die in despair. God sends us despair not to kill us; He sends it to us to awaken new life in us.”

Hesse himself contemplated suicide and it is no surprise that the subject turns up in several of his novels.

In ‘Demian’, Demian’s mother tells Sinclair, who admitted contemplating suicide: “Was it only difficult? Wasn’t it beautiful, too? Can you think of a more beautiful and easier way?”

In ‘Siddartha’ the eponymous hero attempts suicide.

In ‘Steppenwolf’ Harry Haller has suicidal tendencies, though in this part of the novel there is a great last line which I have used in my novel, ‘Rudi’:

“On the other hand, all suicides are familiar with the struggle against the temptation of suicide. Every one of them knows very well in some corner of his soul that suicide, though a way out, is rather a mean and shabby one, and that it is nobler and finer to be felled by life than by one’s own hand.”

Print This Post Print This Post

Knowing When to Say When

August 16, 2009 by  


Yet another interesting feature on writing from the pages of today’s ‘Washington Post’. ‘Knowing When to Say When’, in which a writer of crime novels contemplates killing her ace PI.

By Laura Lippman
‘Washington Post’, Sunday, August 16, 2009

Would-be novelists need to bring equal parts arrogance and ignorance to the task before them. The arrogance is almost self-explanatory. Walk into any bookstore or library, calculate how many lifetimes the average person would need to read all the fiction contained therein. To think that one has anything to contribute, to any genre or tradition, takes genuine hubris.

But the beginning writer requires ignorance, too, especially when it comes to the long odds of a long life in publishing. (And I’m afraid I’m one of those old-fashioned types who thinks a novel should be edited and published by a third party and that the writer should receive payment for the enterprise.) I’ve been publishing for more than a decade and actually had a pretty good time of it, but the industry seems perpetually insistent on telling new writers that they have arrived very, very late for what was never a great party to begin with. No, ignorance really is bliss when it comes to the business side of publishing. In fact, if you’re an aspiring novelist who knows what co-op and sell-through are, I’m afraid all hope is lost. It’s a bit like being a cow who has studied the building specs for the slaughterhouse, or been asked to proofread the menu copy for the steakhouse. Oh, I am going to taste lovely!

Lucky me, I had arrogance and ignorance in endless supply when I sat down in the spare bedroom of my small North Baltimore house to create Tess Monaghan. I still own the Roaring Spring composition book in which Tess first appeared. In that version, we are the same age (32), and she addresses the reader directly. Tess later shed the first person and several years, while demonstrating an uncanny talent for aging at her own leisurely pace. Yet in all other respects, she is in that draft as she would be when she appeared in print six years later, in 1997. Bullheaded, loyal, mouthy, with a rower’s broad shoulders and a long braid that required no upkeep.

“My name is Theresa Esther Monaghan,” she announces. “In childhood I was Tesser or Tester, sometimes Testy. At home, I was Theresa Esther. Now I am just Tess. . . . At 32, my life is still defined by what I am not, what I don’t have. I am not Jewish, nor Catholic. Not: married. Not: a newspaper reporter, which is all I could imagine being once. Not: successful.”

Since I inked those words onto the lined pages of my notebook, I have written 10 novels, one novella, six short stories and an ersatz profile of Tess, about a million words in all. The books have been translated into almost 20 languages. I have seen her as imagined by the French (shapely, gorgeous), the Japanese (a wry cartoon figure) and the Russians (a Photoshopped Tiffani Thiessen). She has literally kept a roof over my head and even thrown in the kitchen of my dreams. I spend more time with her than almost anyone in my life, with the possible exception of my spouse. She is the childish thing that too many adults are duped into putting away: a very satisfactory imaginary friend.

And yet — many would have me abandon her. “I know people who would be very happy if you never wrote another Tess Monaghan novel,” said a well-respected critic who is also a friend. An interviewer, perhaps cognizant of Arthur Conan Doyle’s failed attempt to kill Sherlock Holmes, asked: “Is [she] a burden or a blessing?”

You see, in addition to those million words about Tess, I’ve written another almost half-million about a world that has nothing to do with her. While Tess works the grimy streets of Baltimore with palpable affection for her hometown in all its glorious dysfunction, a handful of beleaguered cops and lawyers and social workers roam the area’s suburbs with considerably less joie de vivre. These works are called stand-alones, an industry term for crime novels that don’t fall within a series.

It’s hard to say which is more successful. Actually, it’s not. Commercially, my best-performing book is clearly the non-Tess title What The Dead Know. And although I’ve always enjoyed a fairly pleasant relationship with reviewers, the critical notices for the stand-alones tend to top Tess’s. Hence, the suggestion that I drop Tess, the concern that she’s a burden.

The conventional wisdom is that writers must choose between series or stand-alones. Only a handful of crime novelists get to do both, and, for some reason, I’m one of them, at least for now. When other writers ask me how I managed this feat, I fall back on a joke: The trick, I tell them, is to not be too successful at either.

The more accurate answer would be that a writer who wants to balance a life between series and non-series books needs them to be equally strong, like complementary muscles, lest one throw the other out of whack. This, however, is primarily a commercial consideration, shaped by the indifferent computers that track sales records. What if the writer needs to produce both kinds of books for — I cannot believe I am about to type these words — artistic reasons? What if I am genuinely torn between the ruefully optimistic perspective of Tess Monaghan and the bleaker sensibility that haunts what I think of as my suburban noir novels? I could not have gone straight from “What the Dead Know” to another stand-alone because I never would have stopped weeping. Yet if I wrote nothing but Tess novels, I would feel a similar imbalance.

Ultimately, the relationship between a writer and series character is personal, not unlike a marriage, and perhaps it would be wise for others to refrain from comment. I will write about Tess — or not write about Tess — as I see fit. Those books will be published — or not published — according to market vagaries outside my control. But I will forever be linked to that young woman who began life in a Roaring Spring composition book. I am her Dr. Watson, her Sancho Panza, her Boswell, and a million words don’t begin to tell her story.

Make that: Our story.



Print This Post Print This Post

Radio Free Belfast

August 15, 2009 by  

This is me [aged 16] on the left, operating Radio Free Belfast which was set up in August 1969 behind the barricades. This forty-year old clipping is from the ‘Irish News’. Earlier this year I was interviewed by BBC Radio Ulster and I think the interview might be broadcast in a programme this Sunday at 1.30pm, ‘The Night The Troubles Started’. I also wrote a piece about August ’69 and Radio Free Belfast in the prologue to my book, ‘All The Dead Voices’.




Print This Post Print This Post

Féile Over At Last!

August 13, 2009 by  

13th August. Just came across a brilliant site where you can access over two hundred short stories by Anton Chekhov .

12th August. Did interview with Ben Williams, a post-graduate student/researcher based at the University of Liverpool who is studying a thesis on “the impact of international relations on the Northern Ireland peace process”.

10th August.  Reading again ‘The Mental’ by Bobbie Hanvey which I would like to adapt for the stage. Am writing to him seeking permission.

9th August.  Last day of August Féile, thank God! Neil Hannon concert in Andersonstown Leisure Centre.

8th August. Chaired meeting on the Basque Country with panellists Inaki de Juana and Arturo ‘Benat’ Villanueva, who are fighting attempts by the Spanish government to have them extradited from the North.

7th August. With poet Levi Tafari at festival event, St Mary’s University College.

6th August. Introduce Scribes at the West with Alexei Sayle, Pauline McLynn, Ann Zell and Tim Brannigan, chaired by Robert McMillen.

5th August. Attend West Belfast Youth Talks Back and, later, West Belfast Talks Back.

4th August.  Introduce President Mary McAleese to give the P.J. McGrory Human Rights Lecture.

3rd August. Introduce Sean Hillen at Falls Library to give lecture on Bram Stoker’s ‘Count Dracula’.


30th July. Introduce Deputy Mayor Danny Lavery to officially launch exhibition by Sean Donaghy in Falls Library.

27th July. Meet with President Mary McAleese’s protocol people and security people to show them around St Mary’s University College.

24th July. Wrote 700 word feature on Schubert and submitted it to RTE’s ‘Sunday Miscellany’.

23rd July. Did interview with Aila Matanock, a PhD candidate at Stanford (USA), who is writing her dissertation on “why armed groups participate in elections, either in addition to or instead of using violence.”

22nd July.  Did interview with Maria Armoudian from Los Angeles, a political scientist and journalist who is working on a book about the media’s impact on conflict and inter-group relationships.

20th July. Gave John Cusack, actor and political activist, a tour of Belfast and later had dinner with him before he left for a family holiday in the west of Ireland.

14th July. Did interview with RoseMarie FitzSimons from the US who is researching a film on the Irish peace process.

13th July. Interviewed by Joe Austin on Féile FM re the forthcoming festival.


Print This Post Print This Post

I Remember It Well

August 10, 2009 by  


Fascinating feature in today’s ‘Washington Post’ about the way memory works and the decisions a writer takes when creating a memoir [as allegedly distinct, of course, from an autobiography where the rules are supposed to be of a higher standard].

It reminded me of writing a letter from prison to my partner in which I said the following:

“When I changed the radio station an old song was playing from a film you once recommended in 1982 and which I eagerly went to see in Dublin and reviewed.

Do you remember ‘Reds’, about the American journalist John Reed, the legendary playboy who became the legendary revolutionary? Towards the end of the film, Louise Bryant is sitting in a rocking chair, bereaved, lost to the world, in sad reverie, singing a lullaby:

I’ll be your sweetheart

If you will be mine.

All your life

I’ll be your Valentine


Bluebells I’ve gathered,

Keep them and be true.

When I’m a man, my plan

Will be to marry you…


“Do you remember that scene? Sad and beautiful. It seems no two people can have an equal relationship. Bryant lived in Reed’s shadow. But listen to me – there is joy and happiness before us. After all, wasn’t I born with a caul on my head? Haven’t we been blessed and lucky so far. I am the eternal optimist, as you know. My Uncle Harry was sentenced to death by hanging in 1946 but within three years was walking free! That is life. So don’t be depressed and never despair.”

Nine years later – after I was out of prison – I published a selection of my letters as a book, ‘Then The Walls Came Down’. However, when checking the lyrics didn’t I discover that it was a completely different song, one called, ‘I Don’t Want To Play In Your Yard’, which is featured at the end of the film! Now, I could have simply changed the lyrics for the sake of fidelity to the actual film or stayed with what false memory had suggested, a completely different song. I decided to publish what was in the original letter because hearing the song on the radio had triggered my memory of ‘Reds’.

Following, is the article from the ‘Washington Post’

The Writing Life: Karl Taro Greenfeld

From a Memory Comes a Memoir

In which an author questions whether the unforgettable moments of his life really happened.

By Karl Taro Greenfeld

Friday, July 12, 2019

Every memoir needs a story. And every story starts with memory — an image, an idea, a fragment of a conversation, that is added to or subtracted from, until finally some version that feels like the truth emerges. Truth here is relative — if we don’t have an accurate, contemporaneous record of the events we are describing, then truth is the most plausible story our memory, or collective memories, conjure. I have an example. I believed, until a few years ago, that my first memory was of being in my grandmother’s arms, watching mosquitoes getting zapped in one of those high-intensity, black-light bug catchers. I was sure this was in Japan, where I was born, and I even recalled what my grandmother was wearing — a scratchy wool dress that smelled of mothballs. I even wrote that memory down as part of a story about my grandmother’s passing. However, we moved from Japan to Ossining, N.Y., when I was about eight months old. So, either I remember something from before I was eight months, which is unlikely, or, it happened later and I misplaced it in my own chronology, or it never happened. It feels real — more real to me, in fact, than my memory of breakfast this morning — but did it happen? And, from the memoirist’s standpoint, does it matter?

Memory, neuroscientists now believe, is a pattern or grouping of neighboring neurons firing in the brain in reproduction of the initial pattern that fired when the actual experience happened. Each time that experience is recalled, it triggers a similar pattern of neurons, thus strengthening the memory while at the same time altering it; the grouping may lose a few neurons and gain a few new ones. A memory, in other words, is nothing more than a chemical reaction that is subject to the same variations and inconsistencies as any other human endeavor; we can be no more sure of the accuracy of our recollections than we can be of, say, the accuracy of the next foul shot in basketball. A falsehood can be deposited in the brain and reinforced almost as easily as a true-life experience. Memory is fallible, we all acknowledge that, yet a memoirist is expected to report a version that is true to life.

I am in my grandmother’s arms and watching those mosquitoes fly to their deaths in that blue light.

But how is that possible? It isn’t. How could an eight-month old comprehend what was happening? It could not have happened the way I remember it. Yet that pattern of neurons fires over and over, the same grouping telling me that it happened, that it is true.

So, if a memoirist’s job, on some level, is to sift through and filter those experiences that somehow added up to the person the writer is today, and to present those in some form, chronological or categorical or geographical, that has an internal or narrative logic, then what does one make of a memory — that is, the chemical processes that create a memory — that simply could not have happened? Perhaps that process influenced the memoirist even more than the actual events. Putting aside for a second the need to entertain the reader and the murkier issues of commerce that can also influence a writer’s decision to include or exclude material, and assuming that I am acting in good faith here, then what do I do with the memory that simply could not have happened? In this case, I have to admit, that I am mistaken. Yet . . .

I am there, in my grandmothers’ arms, cheek pressed against that scratchy wool . . .

There is another troubling category of personal history for the memoirist: the memory that you believe is your own but that turns out to have been implanted by someone else. In writing “Boy Alone,” my most recent book, about my family and my autistic younger brother Noah, I came up against this problem frequently because my father, Josh Greenfeld, had written three books about our family, the best known being “A Child Called Noah.” He had been writing about my childhood throughout my childhood, so there it was, a record, supposedly, of what had happened. I had not reread those books since I was a boy myself — in fact, “A Child Called Noah” was published when I was 7 years old and was perhaps the first grown-up book I ever read.

As I looked again at my father’s books, for the first time in decades, I was struck by how the events he describes — a day trip to the Croton-on-Hudson Dam, an afternoon playing football in the backyard where I became frustrated because I dropped a pass — were remarkably similar to my own versions of those occasions and places, so similar, in fact, that I had to wonder if I was simply remembering having read his books as a child. Had some of my earliest memories actually been implanted by reading my father’s book about our family as a very young child?

Many of us have recollections that turn out to have been created or nurtured by family photos we have seen or stories we have been told. But most of us aren’t writers setting down a life’s story. One could argue that the more fortunate memoirist is the one who doesn’t have another writer also weighing in on his childhood, who doesn’t measure his own memories against those of some external, recorded source. My father’s books were invaluable on the whereabouts of our family, the dates and places and names. I found confusion, however, when my father’s version of events was at variance with my own. His seemed more tangible: there it is, written down, in diary format even. (He, though, has even admitted to me that his editor had him move a few entries around, because there were some blank periods where not much was going on with our family. In other words, even this diary of our family was a little modified for the sake of clarity and story.)

My own memories, against this published account, may have seemed less substantial initially, but they were, I ultimately concluded, my memories. And this was my book about my family, and I felt that if I didn’t stay loyal to my own versions of events, then why bother to tell this story? I made a decision: I would adhere to my father’s chronology and geography — hence my admission that watching those mosquitoes in my grandmother’s arms could not have happened when it did. I would also use his recounting of the various treatment and therapy options that were explored for my autistic brother — and even here, remarkably, I have differing recollections of where we were and who treated Noah.

Yet in some instances, I had to give credence to my memory over my father’s or my mother’s versions of events. For example, in the early 1970s, when 5-year-old Noah was in the pioneering autism treatment program administered by the psychologist O. Ivar Lovaas, UCLA would send undergraduate psychology majors to our house. They would earn a few credits teaching Noah and would provide my parents with an hour or two of respite. The behavioral program Lovaas was developing included the use of aversives, light slaps, spanks, pinches and, in the most extreme cases electric shock, to get the autistic child to focus. (My parents forbade the “shock stick.”)

One afternoon, while a tall, brown-haired student in a short-sleeve, button-up, light blue shirt was at our house, I was the one acting out instead of Noah. I was having a tantrum about my dinner; I had my heart set on something I didn’t get. My parents and this student stood at the doorway to my room, and my mother jokingly suggested, “Why don’t you condition him?” — a reference to the fact that these students were sometimes applying physical aversives to Noah. The student misunderstood my mother’s joke, strode over and began spanking me on the butt. She quickly stopped him, and he was ordered to leave. I believe I was able to have whatever I wanted that night for dinner. My father never wrote about that afternoon; my mother doesn’t recall it. Yet I am sure that it happened: You remember being hit by strangers. In this case, I am unwilling to credit any other version but my own.

It happened. Ah yes, I remember it well.

The memoirist’s ultimate responsibility is to himself, his own version of his life, his truth and reality. If he does not stay faithful to that story, then why is he bothering to write it at all? So . . .

I am in my grandmother’s arms, held fast, gazing at mosquitoes and blue light and fascinated by the abrupt sizzle of bug hitting current.

Karl Taro Greenfeld, a journalist and fiction writer, is the author of “Boy Alone,” “Speed Tribes” and “Standard Deviations.”