Mysterious cat murderer provides intriguing subject for creative writing workshop at Belfast Book Festival

Illustrating the wide span of activities at Belfast’s Crescent Arts Centre, walking to Room 3 on the second floor earlier this week where I was hosting a workshop on creative writing at the city’s annual book festival, I passed a book club meeting, a dance class, an event hosted by a UN group and even a music lesson for people learning the tin whistle.
To say this well-known arts centre located a short walk from Queens University provides an impressive range of cultural and educational activities for city residents and visitors alike may be an understatement.

Under the skilled directorship of Keith Acheson as well as staff members such as Peter McCloskey, the centre maintains its position as a popular community venue by reaching out to people of all ages, genders, faiths and nationalities.

The week-long annual Belfast Book Festival, which ends in a few days, is a prime example. Dwarfing many such festivals in other countries for sheer diversity, it comprises around 100 different events and activities, ranging from children’s literature to crime, with multiple author presentations in many genres and lively discussions and debates.

I was delighted to be asked to host a two-hour workshop entitled ‘IQ for Creative Writers’ in which, through a combination of practical writing exercises and a multi-media presentation,

The workshop allowed me to demonstrate the links between rules of journalism and creative writing, as well as the importance of asking questions (thus IQ, meaning ‘I Question’) to develop strong characters, plot-lines and locations, indeed all aspects of a novel or short story.

Using the classic five Ws of journalism, ‘who, what, why, where, when’ plus the all-important sixth ‘W’ – ‘what-if’ – workshop participants, including an experienced teacher, a qualified solicitor and an actor, produced vivid stories based on a recent intriguing newspaper article I found that focused on a mysterious murderer of cats in small-town France. One such story written by one of the participants featured a unique character – an astute detective – a cat.

Other stories developed during the workshop included an intriguing tale of “promises, praise and half-truths” about the shenanigans of a corrupt chemical company whose products caused widespread illness and a tension-filled story about a woman’s momentous decision in the dead of night to follow her husband whom she suspects of being a cat murderer.

Participants also discussed the qualitative difference between open and closed questions for critical information gathering.

I also showed how I utilized my own background experience in print and broadcast journalism in Europe and the US to help me develop scenery, drama and key characters for my novel, ‘Pretty Ugly.’

The Belfast Book Festival continues this weekend. Don’t miss your last chance to enjoy a wealth of interesting talks on the wide world of literature.

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Whirlwind US ‘Pretty Ugly’ book tour: Tucson, New York, Kansas City, Fredericksburg…

Speaking recently before audiences of high-level academics, medical leaders and journalists and editors in diverse settings across the United States about my novel, ‘Pretty Ugly,’ has been a most exhilarating and gratifying experience.

Even more gratifying was the positive response from Americans about Donegal. Most – including those who had been to Ireland almost every year for decades – had never been to the ‘Forgotten County.’ Hearing about northwest Ireland’s key location role in my novel’s drama, many said they were intrigued to visit the region. One up for literary tourism.

Now back in the quiet, bucolic landscape of Bloody Foreland right behind my house, I find myself remembering many of the enjoyable and challenging moments during those pivotal weeks, from Kansas cornfields to Big Apple skyscrapers, while of course, internally evaluating what I consider I did right and what I could have done better.

And ultimately, thanking my lucky stars for the opportunity to embark on such a whirlwind tour that took me from Tucson, Arizona to Kansas City, Missouri to Fredericksburg, Virginia, with Florida and New York sandwiched between.

In Tucson, I had the privilege to talk before an august gathering of some of the best women doctors in Arizona in an event organized by Dr. Sandra Katz, three-term president of the of the Tucson Society of Women Physicians. Ranging from cardiologists and gynecologists to neurologists and orthopedic surgeons, they were all deeply interested in the potential dangers from nanoparticles in everyday cosmetics and discussed openly during question time and among their peers beside them afterwards over dinner, what health problems such tiny particles could cause within the human body. Most of the doctors were intrigued and delighted that such a real-life, and somewhat controversial medical theme, could be the central thread of a novel.

Dr. Katz thanked me on behalf of the medical society for what she described as “an enlightening and fascinating presentation,” adding, “You had a room full of physicians of every specialty- from family practice, anesthesia, dermatology, obstetrics/gynecology, ophthalmology, plastic surgery, general surgery, orthopedics, oncology – and we were all spellbound by the facts you presented about the dangers of toxins in cosmetics.  Hopefully, your book will have an impact on the regulation of the cosmetic industry and will educate the public on the health risks.”

Meanwhile, my talk in Missouri allowed me the chance to re-visit the place where I had lived for ten years working as the medical and science correspondent for the main morning newspaper, The Kansas City Times. Warm memories flooded back of wonderful people I had met, including highly-skilled journalists such as Pulitzer-prize winning Dunstan ‘Dusty’ McNichol (now sadly departed and for whom I offer a dedication in ‘Pretty Ugly’) and Chicago-born Mike Kennedy who still plies his trade skillfully there and who, to me delightful, was able to attend my presentation.

The event itself also give me the chance to honor two other highly-regarded individuals who have had a marked effect on me during my life. The evening took place in the Diastole International Scholar’s Center beside the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine, which like Diastole, was established by Dr. E. Grey Dimond, a most astute man that I had the great pleasure of meeting while I was a newly-emigrated, 20-something reporter.  Such was E. Grey’s influence on me as both a close personal friend and an educator, I used his persona for one of the lead characters in my novel – a kind-hearted doctor concerned about the health and well-being of ordinary people.

The second person is Cuban-born Felix Sabates, a leading ophthalmologist who founded the Eye Department at the medical school, the Eye Foundation and also the Sabates Eye Centers. I knew very little about the complex internal workings of that most important of human organs until I interviewed Felix many years ago. The valuable knowledge I gained then came in very useful as I began to write ‘Pretty Ugly’ and decided the eye would be the crucial organ that is badly affected by toxic nanoparticles in cosmetics in a key female character.

Warm thanks must also be given to Nancy Hill, the center’s president, without whose tireless organizational skills the whole evening soiree could not have taken place and to Phil and Kathy Chaney for being such kind and generous hosts.

As for Fredericksburg, full credit there goes to Dr. Stephen Farnsworth, journalist, political commentator, Fulbright professor, author of multiple books and founder of the Center for Leadership and Media Studies at the University of Mary Washington, who arranged my talk before students, staff and member of the local community. I was delighted that so many of them wanted more details from me after the lecture about this ongoing healthcare controversy and were puzzled and concerned that US politicians hadn’t done more to protect peoples’ health from such potential dangers as nanoparticles about which few clinical efficacy tests have been conducted.

All in all, my three-week US tour was not only a most gratifying one but one that helped me as an author strengthen my skills in presenting my novel in an interesting and attention-grabbing way, a challenging task for any author and one I hope to talk more about at this year’s ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ in west Donegal, the very place where much of the action of ‘Pretty Ugly’ happens.

Also, I’m delighted to announce that I have been asked to teach a practical workshop – IQ (I Question) for Creative Writersat this year’s Belfast Book Festival linking techniques in journalism to creative writing, particularly the art of asking questions

I hope to see you there.

Launch of suspense novel linking Ireland, the US and Romania attracts arts, business and diplomatic leaders

I’m now enjoying the satisfaction of a successful official launch last night in Dublin, designated European City of Literature, of ‘Pretty Ugly,’ a novel I ‘ve been working on for a number of years that links Donegal and Belfast with the US and Romania.

I’m even more delighted that the celebratory event brought together diverse leaders in business, arts and diplomacy including Tony Canavan, editor of Books Ireland, the foremost literary organization supporting publishing here; Richard Moat, CEO of national telecoms company, eir; and the Ambassador of Romania to Ireland, Manuela Breazu, who all gave short speeches, with much-appreciated compliments about my book.

A perfect complement to my readings was the rich voice and fine guitar-playing of well-known musician Pat Gallagher, lead singer of ‘Goats Don’t Shave,’ including a song he wrote inspired by the tradition of turf-cutting in Donegal, entitled ‘Turf Man Blues,’ which matched several dramatic scenes that take place in the ‘Pretty Ugly’ linked to the bogs of Donegal.

The book launch event at The Gutter Book Shop near Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre even included a fun ‘test tasting’ of the first whisky made in Donegal in over 100 years, ‘Silkie’ from the new Sliabh Liag Distillery. With Boston, New York, Washington and Kansas City playing location roles in ‘Pretty Ugly,’ it was terrific US Embassy representatives could come along, as well as members of the Donegal Association and the Arts Council, all obviously enjoying themselves.

Ambassador of Romania to Ireland, Manuela Breazu, Sean Hillen

Her Excellency Ambassador of Romania to Ireland, Manuela Breazu

With my working as a reporter and editor in print, television and radio journalism in the US and Europe for so many years, I was keen to point out that – while such experience didn’t qualify me to write a novel – basic rules do link journalism and creative writing, especially adherence to the five ‘Ws’ – who, what, why, where and when. Adding another ‘W’ – the ‘what-if’ factor – to the equation can help make for interesting ideas for novels, as happened with ‘Pretty Ugly,’ when I learned how many people had been injured by chemicals in cosmetics yet the law regulating them had not been changed since 1938.

Sean Hillen author book launch, Pretty Ugly book launch Dublin

I was also delighted to mention the annual June international ‘Ireland Writing Retreat’ in Gaoth Dobhair and hopes that ‘Pretty Ugly’ and novels by other authors in Donegal could help kick-start the concept of ‘literary tourism’ in the county. Everyone agrees. Donegal deserves a much stronger tourism industry than it has right now, one dynamic enough to support local hotels, B&Bs, pubs, cafes. It’s my fervent belief that literary tourism can help achieve this – if Donegal County Council, Failte Ireland, Discover Ireland, and other relevant organizations would simply take note of the success of this concept in other countries, particularly the US.

Book launch Pretty Ugly Dublin, Sean Hillen author

Sometimes, tourism promotion in Donegal is so far behind the curve, it borders on tragedy, as many frustrated tour tourism operators in the aptly-named ‘Forgotten County’ keep telling me. Novels written by authors of all kinds can provide intriguing literary road-maps to places of interest for people who come to visit, an added dimension to any trip.

Pat Gallagher musician

Much of the drama in ‘Pretty Ugly,’ which pits an unlikely trio of a skin specialist, a celebrity model and an investigative journalist against the might of a rich and powerful corporation in the American cosmetic industry, with high-level political and media intrigue, features such Donegal locations as the Poison Glen, Errigal, Cnoc Fola (Bloody Foreland) and Gola Island.

Sean Hillen book launch Dublin, best Irish books, best Irish writers

On the links between journalism and creative writing, I’m proud to have the chance to teach a special workshop entitled ‘IQ for Creative Writing’ at this year’s upcoming writing retreat at Teac Jack in Glassagh.

Pat Gallagher, Tony Canavan, Sean Hillen

Donegal Connections – festival of books

For me living in the Gaeltacht region of Gaoth Dobhair in northwestern Ireland, the most surprising thing emerging from the recent, well-organised and stimulating ‘Belfast Book Festival was the number of novels set or inspired by little ol’ Donegal, the so-called ‘Forgotten County.’

Until then, I had been used to reading locally about publication of novels in our native language being funded by the various cultural groups such as Foras na Gaeilge, but hadn’t really thought too much about the diversity of English-language novels set or inspired by the beauty of the county (aside from Brian Friel’s plays), nor the use of phrases ‘as Gaeilge’ in such novels.

I know I’ll be accused of heresy and probably burned under a heather bush on the shadow of Lugh’s Mountain (otherwise known under its Christian name, Errigal) for suggesting this, but with the use of Irish diminishing in everyday conversation, should the various language groups not ease their overly-tight qualification criteria and fund publication of English-language novels that have some Irish phrasing in them?

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Author Emma Heatherington (seated left) and family, with evening event host, broadcaster, Sarah Travers, (seated right) and festival director, Keith Acheson (back right).

To my mind, it seems like not just a very reasonable suggestion, but a most innovative one that delivers many benefits. Books in Irish, by their nature, are for people who already speak and read our native language. Yet what we desperately need is to encourage non-Irish speaking people to become interested in our language and hunger to learn more. As English is one of the world’s leading languages, are not novels in this language not a perfect place for Irish phrases to be included to help achieve this aim? Will that not help expand use of Irish, both domestically and abroad? Such a linguistic/literary initiative would also help support economic development, especially through tourism, by attracting more visitors to Donegal and other such Gaeltachts. Such areas – while on the whole, providing inspiring land and seascapes – tend to be marginalized, unemployment black spots on the map of Ireland.

The landscape of the Outer Hebrides, with its stark cliffs, ghostly mists and lonely beaches, has become a definitive character of Peter May’s Lewis trilogy entitled ‘Hebrides’ and has helped revitalize tourism in that part of Scotland.

Food for thought.

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Crime fiction writer, Claire McGowan, with David Torrans of Belfast’s ‘No Alibis’ Bookstore at the Ulster Hall, talking about her genre and her work.

Anyway, back to the most enjoyable ‘Belfast Book Festival’ and novels set in the beautiful countryside of Donegal. Take the delightfully funny writing of Emma Heatherington and her book ‘One Night Only’ about four desperate housewives who take off in a car for an outing to the ‘Forgotten County’ and the hilarious, and poignant, consequences. Emma, who is due to speak next week at Ireland’s newest Writing Retreat in west Donegal is a multi-talented woman whose work ranges from novels to short stories to scripts and screenplays, including ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ and ‘Playing the Field.’ Her personal ‘growing up’ story of having to become ‘Mum’ to her siblings as a young teenager after her own mother’s untimely death is touching. Aside from her literary output, one can’t help but admire Emma greatly. And she’s a natural, engrossing speaker to boot.

Then there’s Kenneth Gregory, fantasy novelist and mythologist extraordinaire with character names as Gaeilge, perhaps Ireland’s answer to the R.A. Salvatore/ Robert Jordan/ Marion Zimmer Bradley combo. His debut novel ‘The Polaris Whisper,’ the first in a trilogy, was published by Blackstaff Press. He will also speak and teach at Donegal’s ‘Forgotten County, Remembered Wordswriting retreat. Negotiations are now underway for the novel to be turned into a television series with a movie option. His second novel in the series is ‘The Poison of Newgrange.’ ‘Shahryár’s Heir: A Prince among Thieves’ is his first fantasy novel in a re-invention of the Arabian Nights’ stories.

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Blackstaff Press authors Laurence Donaghy and Kenneth Gregory discuss the art of writing, Celtic mythology and fusing fantasy with historical fact with journalist and author, Leona O’Neill at Belfast’s Crescent Arts Centre.

Speaking together, he told me, “It is an honor to speak at such an event as the Ireland Writing Retreat. Northwestern Donegal is an awe-inspiring place, with an intriguing, colorful history packed with legends. So enthralled am I by the area that the third book in my trilogy, a modern-day thriller, has the working title of ‘Brinlack,’ a place beside Bloody Foreland. My best editor, my brother, Mark, lives there and I visit often.”

Then there’s the lady who shares my name, Sophia Hillan, former associate director of Belfast’s Institute of Irish Studies and director of the International Summer School in Irish Studies. During an hour-long interview, Sophia told me about how she came upon a scrap of paper that led her to produce a most fascinating Donegal-based, non-fiction book entitled ‘May, Lou and Cass: Jane Austen’s Nieces in Ireland,’ published by Blackstaff Press in 2011. Her first novel ‘The Friday Tree’ has now just been published by the same publishing group and is set within a stone’s throw of where I grew up and lived for many years in Andersonstown, west Belfast.

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Two intelligent beautiful ladies, leaders in their respective fields – (l to r), author, Emma Heatherington and broadcaster, Sarah Travers.

That’s a lot of Donegal-based writing crossing so many genres, not to mention the many books written about Donegal’s very own mystic monk – Columba – including those by authors Máire Herbert  and Brian Lacey  – more of which will be written about in my next blog.

Of course, not all the authors and books at the ‘Belfast Book Festival’ were linked to Donegal. Head honcho of the Crescent Arts Centre and festival director Keith Acheson and his hardworking team, including marketing director Tracy O’Toole and outreach and education director, Ann Feely, as well as community arts development officer, Jan Carson, (her novel is entitled ‘Malcolm Orange Disappears’) and her colleagues at the Ulster Hall, deserve full praise. They brought together a diverse collection of writers in various genres who spoke on such wide-ranging subjects as ageing and sexual politics (Lynne Segal – ‘Out of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of Ageing,’ ‘Is the Future Female?,’ ‘Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities, Changing Men,’ and ‘Straight Sex: The Politics of Desire’); murder most foul (Claire McGowan – ‘The Fall,’ ‘The Lost’ and ‘The Dead Ground,’ some of which use phrases ‘as Gaeilge’); matters of the heart and mind (Joseph O’ConnorInishowen,’ ‘Ghost Light,’ ‘The Thrill Of It All’ and ’Star of the Sea’); and guardian angels (Carolyn Jess-Cooke – ‘The Guardian Angel’s Journey’ and ‘The Boy Who Could See Demons’), as well as providing publishing and public speaking advice through guests such as the lovely actress and teacher Rosie Pelan; the inimitable Ian Sansom (Mobile Library Series including ‘The Case of the Missing Books’ and ‘Mr. Dixon Disappears;’ and self-publishing guru, Alison Baverstock (‘Is There A Book in You’ and ‘Marketing Your Book: an author’s guide.’).

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Agents and publishers, including Clare Alexander of Aitken Alexander (r), Patsy Horton (c) and Alice Kate Mullen (l) of Carcanet Press, discuss their roles and responsibilities in the writing field.

In terms of diversity of writer and subjects, the week-long series of events surpassed most such festivals I have attended – and I have been to many, including both the Salon du livre Paris and the London Book Fair. Also – beyond just the world of books – the festival reflects the emergence of Belfast from its enforced dormancy as a dynamic and attractive city with many options for would-be visitors, from cozy, atmospheric cafes, terrific restaurants and avantgarde and traditional theatres such as The MAC and the Lyric.

By the way, other speakers at the Donegal writing retreat which begins formally on Sunday, June 28th between An Bun Beag and Bun an Leaca (on which there are only four places left) include ‘Antony-Cleopatra’ expert Rachael Kelly and award-winning author Anthony Quinn and former detective-cum-writer Martin Ridge who lives near Falcarragh.

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As fiesty and stimulating as ever, author, socialist, feminist and civic leader, Lynne Segal greets her avid admirers.

Rachael, a native of Belfast has become the foremost expert on the age-old romance between Roman leader, Mark Antony, and Egyptian Queen Cleopatra (made famous on-screen by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) after completing her doctorate in film studies on it. Rachael has also penned the first novel in a trilogy on the two historical figures entitled ‘Queen of the Nile,’ set in 1st-century-BC Alexandria. Rachael’s earlier novel, ‘The Edge of Heaven,’ won the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair Competition 2014, while her short story, Blumelena, was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize 2012. Her ‘Long Anna River’ won the Orange Northern Woman Short Story Award and was later featured in an anthology called ‘The Barefoot Nuns of Barcelona,’ while ‘The Night Sky In November’ was runner-up in the White Tower Publishing Short Story Competition. Her poem, ‘A Five Yard Odyssey,’ won ‘The Battle of the Bards.’

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Alison Baverstock, publisher, trainer and writer, talks about the advantages and pit-falls of self-publishing, accompanied by successful self-publishers at Belfast’s Crescent Arts Centre.

Anthony Quinn was born in 1971 in Tyrone and his short stories have been short-listed twice for a Hennessy/New Irish Writing Award. He was also the runner-up in the Sunday Times New Food Writer competition. ‘Disappeared‘ is the title of his first novel. Published by Otto Penzler’s Mysterious Press in 2012, it was was shortlisted for a Strand Literary Award, as judged by book critics from the LA Times, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, CNN and the Guardian. It was also selected by Kirkus Reviews as one of the top ten thrillers of 2012. BORDER ANGELS, the sequel, was published by Mysterious Press last year.

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Actress and teacher, Rosie Pelan, instructs writers how to best speak their words in public.

Martin Ridge, from Galway but living in Donegal for many years, is a retired Garda officer. He almost single-handedly took on the might of the Catholic Church when he investigated rumors – that soon became distressing facts – about the horrific rape and sexual abuse of young boys by members of the clergy in northwest Donegal, in and around the towns of Gortahork and Falcarragh. His brilliantly-written book ‘Breaking the Silence’ tells a tragic story of the carnage such abuse created in the lives of the boys, now men, many still living in the area, and the arrogance of the church towards that abuse in refusing to co-operate with investigations or offer appropriate compensation. This particular rural area now has the ignominy of being the worse area for clerical abuse record in all Ireland. For more information on the Ireland Writing Retreat see http://www.irelandwritingretreat.com/