A Writing Life

A Writing Life

Chuck Ross submitted a freshly typed copy of Jerzy Kosinski’s 1969 National Book Award winner, Steps, to fourteen publishers and thirteen agents as an unsolicited manuscript. All twenty-seven failed to recognise it and all twenty-seven rejected it.”

The Cynic’s Handbook, p. 63

Apart from a streak of cynicism like that shown by Chuck Ross, what’s really required for a writing life? Anybody that’s interested will be familiar with the usual advice from how-to books and features: try to write something every day, get an agent and be prepared for all the rejection slips. To my mind, though, it would be much better if all those books and advisers started off with the following quotation. It doesn’t matter how pretentious or down-to-earth the writing ambition is. We all think we have something to say and we want the world to hear it.

“The creative artist seems to be almost the only kind of man that you could never meet on neutral ground. You can only meet him as an artist. He sees nothing objectively because his own ego is in the foreground of every picture. (…) If he is a writer, he tends to associate only with other writers and with the various parasitic growths which batten on writing. To all these people literature is more or less the central fact of existence. Whereas to vast numbers of reasonably intelligent people it is an unimportant sideline, a relaxation, an escape, a source of information and sometimes an inspiration. But they could do without it far more easily than they could do without coffee or whiskey.”

– Raymond Chandler

If you can stand that much detachment, you then have some questions to ask yourself. For example, would you really like to spend most of your time, when you’re out of the house, attending literary lunches and book festivals, seeing the same kinds of faces, hearing the same conversations and answering the same old questions? Would you cope with sitting for hours in bookshops, waiting to sign something, anything? Could you take it if a customer finally came up and you lifted your pen and then the person only asked if the bookshop had a toilet? Even prize-winning scribblers have endured that… and worse.

Right now I’d like you to try and see the writing life from the point of view of a witness to a couple of literary bigwigs in live action. In this case, I was only present to help a book dealer friend get stuff signed. In 2006, in Listowel in Kerry, the Nobel Laureate J. M. Coetzee made a rare festival appearance. It was hot enough in the hotel function room already but his first reading – a piece about agri-tourism in an arid region of South Africa – did not encourage the will to live. It was hardly accidental when audience applause filled a gap between sheets of paper, when he was slow to turn a page. Next Coetzee read from his then work in progress (“Diary 2005”). In other words, these were his musings from the year before. He seemed to be preoccupied by George W. Bush, as many people were at the time, I suppose.

The next day, in the hotel, John Banville worked the same crowd with some dry self-deprecation. When a woman near the front got up and left without a word he felt obliged to ask, “Was it something I said?” The only time he smiled was when he quoted something he’d written at the age of twelve. I wondered if it was sheer coincidence then, or just a writerly dig, when he mentioned he might have sold the kiddie stuff to the University of Texas in Austin – the place where Coetzee had studied, according to the festival programme.

By then it was well into question time and many present were no longer listening. Some of the elderly were dozing in the heat, while the people sitting by the windows had already been diverted by an incident on the racecourse, just across the river, where a horse ambulance had to be called to the scene. Banville is known to ask, “Why do we do it?” and “Certainly not for the money” is one of his answers but, of all the people there that day, my dealer pal at least was in it for the extra money that the writer’s signature would bring.

I was there to carry up half the large stack of books. To lessen the bad impression, in other words, but, assuming the writer got paid for his appearance, why would anyone in their right mind have been there otherwise, especially on a hot day? The most sensible answer, to my knowledge, comes from Bret Easton Ellis, who said he only went to such events as an unknown because he wanted to make contacts. Evidently he could stand the bullshit. For getting involved in such stuff is, in the end, a matter of temperament.

When does a writer first become an unknown? It’s when he or she decides to write. In my case, the age was seventeen and the genre was poetry. At eighteen, I got my first rejection slip. It came from the old Irish Press newspaper, in early 1983, the year I started keeping a diary. Later, the most interesting period of my younger life came between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-six, when I wrote diaries about, among other things, my adventures in various jobs in Belfast, Dublin and London. A variety of jobs is good for a writer, as it is good for any person, but the point of such reminiscing is that as late as 2012 I was still fussing with those diaries, thinking there’s a novel, a book there, somewhere.

A Hollywood lawyer called Fred Leopold once said real people as characters in films can have lattes and muffins but cannot say, “Let’s go and have sex in the bushes” and you may get positive comments from traditional publishers about your writing about your own life but, unless that life is a horror story and/or a triumph of the human spirit, nobody else will publish it.

Then you may be tempted to become your own publisher. After all, it’s a long-established practice in the music business, with no stigma of vanity attached. New technology has made even paper book production cheaper – no printer should manage to con you into paying for printing plates any more, for instance – so you shouldn’t have to risk your life savings on your masterpiece either, not least because you now have the option of e-books.

So, what kind of writer are you? If you manage to restrain your urge to tell your whole life story, you might pick a subject that allows you to express your view of the world in a way that just might possibly be of interest to others.

Another key question is, if you are a writer, is that all you are? Now we are getting down to the business of books. According to Samuel Johnson, no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money. I first got into self-publishing in 2002 but mention of that year means a digression about protecting one’s interests. It was then that I had to act on the upshot of one of many false dawns. There is never any shortage of what Samuel Beckett called “discourteous bastards who won’t let you know where you stand” so let’s talk for a while about silence.

In 2000 I submitted a play script to a Tony-Award-winning theatre company (i.e. Druid) in Ireland. Then one of the company’s representatives asked to meet me in Dublin, in April 2001. At this meeting the chap described the script as like a middle-class version of British TV’s The Royle Family and he said they wanted to do it later that year. At the same time, though, my driving instructor – he was an actor – warned me not to expect too much from that quarter and he was right. In March 2002 I got back in touch.

“You may rest assured of the lasting impression made by the lack of courtesy shown me by you and your company. I’d ask for my script back only I couldn’t see the point, given that an e-mail costs less than the price of a stamp and I haven’t received even that minimum after almost a year. Such casual, arrogant rudeness may seem to cost little or nothing when dealing with someone who is unknown and without the influence that can command prudent good manners. That would be a short-sighted view. Whatever fortunes rise and fall in the future, the fact that I was misled and shabbily treated will remain uppermost in my mind.”


In the end the excuse was they hadn’t the money and so I didn’t make my dramatic writing debut there. I finally got another play, called Happy Nights, professionally produced, in both senses of the word, by another Irish company (the late Red Kettle) in 2007. Based on a real-life break-in at Samuel Beckett’s country cottage in 1961, when thieves stole his wine and even his old underpants, this short play imagined two tramps burgling their creator’s house. John Hurt showed up and he liked it but nothing grew out of it afterwards. But what really could have come of it, theatrically or financially? Of sixteen new plays by established writers that were put on in London’s West End in 2005, only two made any money.


At other times, the silence can be sinister as well as discourteous. In late 2007 I submitted a proposal for a TV history documentary, backed by extensive research, to an Irish production company that took it up with enthusiasm. For a year or so I thought I was in the loop. Then silence descended again, due to funding issues, I thought, until I discovered by accident that the thing had been commissioned and was in production. Legal advisers were then called in and happily the project soon got put back on the rails, contractually. Plus I got paid, even if I had to pay a lawyer out of that. The legal lesson was that copyright isn’t just about plagiarism, it also covers adaptation, and it was nice to win one for a change.


Anyway, let’s get back to self-publishing: in 2002 I had a couple of partners and we were all in it for the money. By the way, if possible you should avoid collaborators who don’t contribute to improving your material. Otherwise, the only partners worth having for paper books are your printer, your wholesaler and your media contacts, if any. Wholesalers are useful for getting your book to places you cannot get to yourself but don’t rely on them to flag your product to booksellers. If a wholesaler takes it on, your book will appear on a list of titles and it’s up to the shops to spot it and ask, “Um, what’s this?”

The original idea – not mine – was to write a series of history books about the Irish in America, with each volume covering a different Irish county. I wrote the text for four of these books in what we called the Journeys in America series. These covered Dublin, Cork, Waterford and Clare. Two of them – the Cork and Waterford books – made a modest profit, selling over 2,000 copies between them, while the other two were an expensive waste of time despite some good reviews, such as in the Irish Times, where “innovative and useful” was the verdict.

Our venture, High Table Publishing, was conscientious about administrative matters – such as getting a tax number and registering a business name – but we lacked experience in the book trade. There are many books about Dublin and the population of that city doesn’t care too much about its history in the first place, so printing 2,000 copies of Dublin Journeys in America was an exercise in cultural futility. Less than 250 were sold and I ended up depositing many of them in charity shops in the city, just to shift some boxes.

When it came to writing about Clare, geography came into play. I left Dublin for Waterford on the south coast in 2004 and found I could even sell my books in supermarkets there, and in Cork, but Clare turned out to be simply too far away. Our wholesaler had in the meantime lost interest. After a while it wasn’t a new title any more and it certainly wasn’t Harry Potter. We had also found out the shops at Clare’s many heritage sites were a state-owned brick wall so the Clare book was doomed, logistically. Three-quarters of 1,000 copies still sit in their boxes.

Nonetheless if you’re still confident and determined and you go ahead with your idea, don’t be mean with free copies to the media. It’s a hit-and-miss approach but it’s unavoidable. Otherwise, you will probably know enough about the world already to assume a degree of critical stupidity. It’s less likely that you will fail to assume critical fairness but remember that the critic almost certainly hasn’t picked up your book as a fan. It is work, to be done in a hurry, and it is your tough luck if you get a smart-arse on top of that.



When it came out in 2010, the then deputy editor of the Irish Independent called The Cynic’s Handbook “smart, funny and illuminating” but sales were neither good nor bad. In the meantime I’ve continued to get out of the house and make a living and maintain the discipline of writing things that other people can understand.

The most recent project that made it to this world was Fiddlers Cross, a film about a new banker in town, making his name, scorching the earth around distressed loans. After another busy day working the guillotine for his employers, he heads down to a local pub to unwind. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it, someone with ambition, and now he needs something stronger than fishing. Silence descends when he walks in past the creaking door. Then, through a random act of kindness from a fellow stranger, with whom he finds he shares a love of angling, our banker turns up a further business opportunity. It will involve a touch of moonlighting but, if he plays his cards right, he’s in for a major bonus. First he needs to borrow some cash that’s just resting in the vault and that no one will miss between two working days.

Starring Gerry O’Brien of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, King Arthur, The Tudors and Father Ted, this short film was the work of first-time director Michael McMahon, with whom I wrote the script. It won first prize in the Best Screenplay category at the Rhode Island International Film Festival in August 2014.

November 2016



The Joker of Vienna

The Joker of Vienna

In one sense immortal after the dramatic monologue Der Herr Karl (1961), Helmut Qualtinger died in 1986 soon after giving a memorable film performance as the heretical monk Remigio da Varagine in The Name of the Rose. Apart from his career as writer, actor and cabaret singer, he was a genius mimic and hoaxer, sometimes at a serious personal cost, at least before he developed his art of mischief.


One thing he craved professionally as an adult was to be taken seriously as a writer. His case echoes in part the jailing of Kenneth Halliwell and Joe Orton in 1962 for their campaign of altering London library books with funny collages and false blurbs. Reports on their trial included a banner headline in the Daily Mirror (“Gorilla in the Roses” referred to a monkey’s head pasted to the cover of the Collins Guide to Roses) and news of it even made it as far as the pages of the Reader’s Digest. As Orton’s biographer John Lahr wrote

Rejected by the literary world, they made a spectacle of published books and the public that evaded them. They turned the library into a little theatre where they watched people reacting to their productions. It was one way of getting into print and making their statement.


Qualtinger’s desire to turn the world into his playground began much sooner. Quasi, as he was later known, was a lonely child but he got a puppet theatre as a present and entertained other kids with it while on holiday in Styria. There he’d perform fairy tales but, like the anarchist he already was, he omitted the moral lessons at his own whim. Back in Vienna, some envious classmates ambushed him on the street, smashed the lot and broke his hand in the struggle, having earlier warned him not to bring it to school anymore.

Not yet seventeen, he made his first real public appearance in Vienna in May 1945. He wore a large red star pinned to his chest and a red armband with Cyrillic letters sewn onto it. This was part of an attempt to pass himself off as a ‘culture kommissar’ while improvising Russian-sounding gibberish and carrying a poorly forged letter of recommendation. He was still only sixteen, after all, and was soon imprisoned for three months for commandeering a villa in the suburb of Währing as a base for his proposed communist theatre. By the time his mother returned to Vienna and got him out, his weight had dropped to seven and a half stone.

Nonetheless he wasn’t finished pretending to be a Russian. When a friend couldn’t get paid by a newspaper editor, Quasi ‘borrowed’ a Russian officer’s uniform and marched boldly through the American sector of Vienna towards his quarry. Improvising more Russian mutterings, he confronted the editor in his office. The guy quickly grasped the mentions of Siberia before paying up on the spot.

In 1951 Qualtinger pilfered some stationery from the Austrian branch of the international writers’ association PEN. On it, he notified the press and radio about the imminent arrival in Vienna of the famous Eskimo author Kobuk, whose Greenland trilogy Nordlicht über Iviktut was being filmed by MGM as Of Ice and Men.

On the rest of Kobuk’s impressive CV, it is something of a pity that the masterpiece sometimes rendered as The Burning Igloo was actually two separate classics. These were Brennende Arktis (‘Burning Arctic’) and Einsames Iglu (‘Lonesome Igloo’) but how nobody in Vienna copped on to the incongruity of the title of Kobuk’s drama, The Republic of the Penguins, remains a mystery.

At any rate, a crowd of reporters gathered on 3 July 1951 at Vienna’s Westbahnhof. Instead of the great Kobuk, it was Quasi himself, concealed by a fur jacket, a fur cap and sunglasses, who got off the train. Asked for his first impression of Vienna, he broke the spell by answering the throng in Viennese dialect. “Haaß is’!” (‘It’s hot!’).

Quasi mirror

Perhaps his most god-like prank played out over thirty years later in America. Quasi, still in Vienna, phoned the celebrated Austrian psychiatrist Friedrich Hacker, who spent most of his time in California. Pretending to be Ronald Reagan’s private secretary, Helene von Damm, who was also Austrian, he told Hacker that the President had suddenly gone mad and needed his help. Hacker got on the next plane to Washington and reported to a mystified Frau von Damm at the White House.

Our last anarchic moment does not really involve Quasi at all, except that he got on the phone to God about it afterwards, in total admiration. It concerns the aftermath of an evening at the Gutruf bar, when his friend Otto Kobalek turned up at a performance of Waiting for Godot. In the theatre Kobalek suddenly appeared on stage, with a plastic bag in his hand. It held a copy of an old futuristic novel, set in that same year. The future had finally become the present.

Waving the contents of the bag, he addressed the astonished actors and audience. Godot ist da. Sie müssen nicht mehr warten (‘Godot is here. You mustn’t wait any longer.’) Then he vanished back into the wings. A tickled Qualtinger called Samuel Beckett himself in Paris with the news. Beckett turned out to be very happy to hear it and sent his warm regards, as he too had always been waiting for this to happen.

PS … for more on Der Herr Karl, go to …