Book Review: Home Stretch by Graham Norton.

Home Stretch: A Novel

Image of Home Stretch: A Novel

Author(s): Graham NortonRelease Date: June 22, 2021Publisher/Imprint: HarperViaPages: 368Buy on AmazonReviewed by: Claire Fullerton for The New York Journal of Books

Home Stretch by Graham Norton is a vibrantly written, delightful story with coming-of-age elements operating within a family saga’s network that begins in small-town Ireland, travels to New York, spans 32 years, and sweeps back to where it started.

It is 1987 Ireland, and Dan and Chrissie Hayes own a local pub in Mullinmore, not far from Cork City. As the tight-knit community prepares for the wedding of two young locals, 22-year-old Connor Hayes agrees to join the bride, groom, and three others on a trip to the beach the day before the wedding.

Tragedy strikes on Barry’s roundabout when the car flips on the way home and three of the six youths are killed. In a community whose citizens live like threads in a fabric, Mullinmore is blindsided, and when word spreads that Connor Hayes was driving, the stage is set for this intricately entwined story involving the ramifications of that fateful car crash.

Connor’s parents arrange for Connor to take a construction job in Liverpool, thinking the day will come when Connor’s presence doesn’t serve as constant reminder of the town’s tragedy, that one day it will be safe for Connor to come back, but Connor’s motivation is influenced by Ireland’s cultural mores and his return to Mullinmore is a decades-long journey.  

The fully realized characters in this cause-and-effect story are written sympathetically; the drama that unfolds is due to the times. Connor is a young man grappling with identity issues, and as he comes to terms with his sexuality, he fears bringing shame to his family and cuts all ties with his past, including communication with his parents and sister.

Leaving Liverpool for London without telling his family, Connor settles in and finds a new family. He thinks in hindsight, “If he hadn’t been forced to run away, who knows how long it would have taken to become this man?” His confidence builds, and he wonders, “Had this life that he was now living been available to him all along?”

Connor’s elder sister, Ellen, wants to distance herself from her family’s stigma, and doesn’t suspect the attentions of Martin Coulter are divisive. The son of the Mullinmore’ s doctor, Martin Coulter is connected to Connor as one of the survivors of the car crash, and when he marries Ellen Hayes, the marriage swiftly becomes unhappy. “The change was so abrupt, she doubted herself. The young bride wondered what she had done wrong. What had changed?” In time, Martin follows in his father’s professional footsteps and two children come along, but “Marriage, it seemed to Ellen, wasn’t about being happy or making someone happy. It turned out it was just a matter of deciding whose unhappiness was easiest to deal with. It was hers.”

In London, Connor crosses paths with an international businessman named Tim and moves with him to America. The years transpire, Connor is 44 in the year 2012, and a twist of fate comes in New York City when “Two Irish men walked into a bar.”

Finbarr Coulter is newly arrived in New York from Ireland. Twenty-two, he lands a bartending job and on his first week of employment, when Connor walks in to drown the sorrows of his 16-year relationship ending, it comes to uncanny light after a few too many that the two are related. Connor wonders, “What version of the story did Finbarr know? He knew he was afraid—but of what precisely? He felt he could bear hearing about the town still blaming him for what had happened,” but “what terrified him was the idea of discovering that everyone had simply forgotten him and gone on with their lives.”

A trajectory begins that leads Connor home to Ireland, and wheels are set in motion to repair the past. The Irish culture has changed, and with it the minds of Mullimore’s locals, and the truth behind the car crash 32 years before brings all characters in the story to alignment.

Author Graham Norton is a masterful storyteller. The layered crafting of Home Stretch is rife with pithy innuendo and story-driving personality. His sharp eye captures the nuance of small-town Ireland in the process of evolution as he unfurls this interconnected story with spellbinding verve and finesse.

    

Claire Fullerton’s most recent novels are Little Tea and multiple award winner, Mourning Dove. Honors include the Independent Book Publishers Book Award Silver Medal for Regional Fiction, the Reader’s Favorite for Southern Fiction Bronze Medal and various other literary awards.

Graham Norton – Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graham_Norton

Graham William Walker (born 4 April 1963), better known by his stage name Graham Norton, is an Irish actor, author, comedian, commentator, and presenter. Well known for his work in the UK, he is a five-time BAFTA TV Award winner for his comedy chat show The Graham Norton Show (2007-present) and an eight-time award winner overall. Originally shown on BBC Two before moving to other slots on BBC One, his chat show succeeded Friday Night with Jonathan Ross in BBC One’s prestigious late-Friday-evening slot in 2010. From 2010 to 2020 Norton presented the Saturday morning slot on BBC Radio 2 and since 2021 has presented on Saturdays and Sundays on Virgin Radio UK. Since 2009, he has been the BBC’s television commentator for the Eurovision Song Contest, which led Hot Press to describe him as “the 21st century’s answer to Terry Wogan”. He has been noted for his innuendo-laden dialogue and flamboyant presentation style. In 2012 he sold his production company So Television to IT

https://linktr.ee/cffullerton

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

​You’ll see in this photographs that I’m standing against a gray stone wall on a windswept day in the middle of an Irish field, with what are obviously the ruins of a monastery behind me.

Observant people might ask why the monastery is behind me, and I am holding a set of keys in my hand as if it were the bigger focal point. Here’s the story.

We kind of knew where we were heading, my friend Tama and I, and by this I mean we had a loose plan with regard to how we were going to spend the afternoon in Gort, Ireland. We’d been freewheeling across the countryside in a rented car the size of a match box, with its steering wheel on the right side, while we drove on the left of the two-lane road as if trying to best a test for dyslexia. Tama is a devout Catholic, who has a thing about historic churches, which is why we couldn’t have adhered to a plan had we had one. “Stop,” Tama would shout every time we spied one of the dim, ominous structures off in the distance. We’d scratch the gravel driveway and wander inside, our solitary footsteps crossing the marble floor in a tread- ye- lightly and humble yourself echo off the cavernous vaulted ceiling. We did this so many times that after yet another sweep inside a church, I’d take to wandering the halcyon graveyards to read the Irish tombstone inscriptions, while Tama would light a red votive candle and fall to her pious knees.

I thought I was alone in the yard when a voice came sailing from behind me. “Have you found your way to Kilmacduagh monastery?” it queried. I turned to find a young woman taking in my outlander attire of three quarter down jacket and rubber soled shoes. “It’s just up the road there,” she continued, pointing. “Just knock on the door of the middle house across the road and ask Lily for the keys.”

I was standing behind Tama when she knocked on the front door of a low slung house on a sparsely populated lane. Across the lane, placid fields of damp clover shimmered in the afternoon mist as far as the eye could see. On one verdant field, a series of interspersed ruins jutted in damp metal-gray; some without roofs, some with wrought-iron gates, and one in particular beside an impressively tall stone spire, which had two windows cut in vertical slashes above a narrow door raised high from the ground.

Immediately the front door opened, and a pair of blue water eyes gave us the once over with an inquisitive, “Yes?”​”Are you Lily? We’re here for the keys,” Tama said.​”The keys, is it? Just a moment there,” the woman said, and after closing the door, she opened it seconds later and handed us a set of long metal keys. “Just slip them through the door slot when you’re through,” she said, closing the door with a quick nod.I can’t say there was any indication of which key went to what, among the cluster of gates and doors throughout the 7th century monastery called Kilmacduagh, but we figured it out. I was so tickled over the keys that I couldn’t get over it. “Is this weird?” I said to Tama. “We could be anybody. It’s not that there’s anything anybody could steal, but that’s not the point.” I could wax rhapsody over the hours we spent unlocking gates and pushing through doors in the eerie, hallowed grounds, but that’s not my point either. My point is that’s Ireland for you: a stranger offering directions without being asked, Lily handing over the keys like an afterthought, and Tama and I trolling the grounds of sacred space when nobody else was around. But suddenly a German couple appeared as we were on our way back up the lane. They looked at us wide eyed and queried, “What is this place?”

“It’s a 7th century monastery,” I said, “here, take the keys and slip them through Lily’s door when you’re through.”

https://linktr.ee/cffullerton

March 14, Irish Parade on Facebook!

An unprecedented, live event will take place on Sunday, March 14 from 8:00 AM Eastern Standard Time on Facebook. 8 Book Pages will coordinate to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, and the idea is for attendees to join the group pages ahead of time then hop from page to page as events happen! You can see the Book Pages here, at the right of the image below.

I will have the great pleasure of being “in conversation” with my favorite author, Billy O’Callaghan, who hails from Douglas, County Cork, Ireland, and who is the author of 4 short story collections and 3 novels, his latest being the newly released, Life Sentences, which I loved!

The Irish Echo released the article below yesterday. Below the image is the actual link!

FB book clubs combine for virtual event | Arts & Leisure | Irish Echo

Here are some of the panelists who will appear during the all-day event. Come by and meet those of us with Irish connections!

There will be giveaways and a live Irish band playing on all book pages simultaneously!

I hope to see you there!

https://linktr.ee/cffullerton

An Irish Story

Every March, I look forward to St. Patrick’s Day because it triggers the memory of when I lived on the west coast of Ireland. As an American with 48% Irish DNA, I felt right at home in Inverin, which is a small village in Connemara, 2.7. miles up the road from the village of Spiddal, the next significant town being Clifden, fifty miles or so up the same road.

I lived in Ireland for more than a year and loved every minute of it.. Connemara is a land separated into geometric prisms by grey-stone walls leading down to the rock encrusted shores of the Atlantic on one side of the coast road and bog-land that stretches out forever on the other. Alongside the novelty of discovering Ireland was a curious sense of familiarity that gave way to a sense of belonging. Between the time I arrived in Ireland and the time I left, I managed to ingratiate myself into the rhythm of a land that has more soul and character than any place I’d ever imagined.

In an Inverin field.

Inverin really isn’t much more than a stretch of the coast road at the gateway to the Gaeltacht, which is an area on the west coast of Ireland where Irish is spoken as a first language. Inverin is moody, pastoral, a bit desolate, and those that reside there have deep generational ties. Inverin is 13 miles up the coast road from Galway City. Here are some photographs to give you an idea of Inverin’s atmosphere:

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I lived within a short walk of this graveyard. It’s down a gravel road not far from The Centra, which, for all intent and purposes, is the lone gas station/grocery store in Inverin. I have a thing about graveyards that’s hard to explain. They speak to me of the significance of human existence–of love and life and history, with indelible, reverential resonance indicative of a region’s culture. Ireland takes its cemeteries seriously, and walking through an Irish graveyard has always given me an anchored sense of place. They are lonely, haunting, and beautiful, and what I love about the graveyard pictured above is that the headstones all face the sea.

Inverin was my home base, and during the week, I took the bus from Inverin into Galway, where I worked on New Road at the Galway Music Centre. Galway is a college town, which makes it feel youthful and vibrant. Here are some photographs that illustrate my point:

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Shop Street.
Taaffes is a 150-year-old pub in a 400-year-old building on Galway’s Shop Street.
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St. Nicholas Cathedral, Galway.

The Claddagh, Galway, a port for anglers on Galway Bay.

As a writer by nature, I walk through life with a running commentary in my head, and keep a journal. I took the experience of living in Ireland and used it as a basis to write a novel about a single American female who leaves the record business in Los Angeles and relocates to rural Ireland, where she meets an Irish traditional musician who won’t come closer nor completely go away. The novel is titled “Dancing to an Irish Reel.” I went out of my way not to patronize anything about Ireland, particularly its people. I wanted to refrain from bringing an American frame of reference to the book because I felt it had been done before and somehow cheated what I wanted to be the point of the story, which concerns the ambiguity of a budding love relationship, with its attendant excitement, hope and doubt. On the one hand, this story could have happened anywhere (I know of very few people who haven’t been thrown into confusion as they navigate the minefield of new found attraction) but because this story takes place in Ireland, I had the opportunity to highlight a setting in possession of unfathomable beauty, with a history of cultural nuances worth the singing of deep praise. In writing “Dancing to an Irish Reel,” I did what all novelists do: tell about how they find the world through the vehicle of one painstakingly crafted case in point story.

In anticipation of St. Patrick’s Day, there is a Goodreads Giveaway running until March 20 of Dancing to an Irish Reel.

The Goodreads Give Away Link for Dancing to an Irish Reel is here: https://bit.ly/38aOEDm

There’s another link to the giveaway as well as my social media platforms, and I’d love to align with you there!

https://linktr.ee/cffullerton

And this will be fun, as well as unprecedented! On Sunday, March 14, I’ll have the immense pleasure of being a part of a Facebook, multiple book page St. Patrick’s Day Parade. I’ll be in conversation with Irish author, Billy O’Callaghan, at noon, Eastern Standard Time on the Facebook page, The Write Review. We plan to talk about Irish culture, the influence of Ireland on our writing, and whatever else comes to mind. I hope to see you there! You can find all the book pages involved in this celebration on the graphic below, so if you’re on Facebook, simply go to the book pages to join in the fun!

Truth in Fiction?

Truth in Fiction?

I can’t say I didn’t see it coming. Now that my book, ‘’Dancing to Irish Reel” is out, I’m being asked the inevitable question, “How much of the story is true?” Everyone who knows me personally knows I picked up and moved to the west coast of Ireland without much of a plan, and that I stayed for a year. Add that to the fact that the book is written in the first person, that the narrator’s interior monologues in the story are unabashedly confessional to the point of unnecessary risk. I’ve been told the book reads like a memoir, and for that, I can only say I’m glad because this was my intention. I can see why readers might think the entire story is true.


But writers make a choice in how to lay out a story, and in my case, I wrote the book based on the kind of books I like to read. I’m a one-trick pony kind of a reader. I want an intimate narrator’s voice with which I can connect. I want to know exactly whom I’m listening to, so that I can align with a premise that makes the story’s swinging pendulum of cause and effect plausible. The way I see it, there are always bread crumbs along the path to the chaotic predicaments people find themselves in, and although many are blind to their own contributions, when I read a book, I want to be the one who divines how the character got there.


What fascinates me about people are their backstories. Oh, people will tell you their highlights, but they rarely reveal their churning cauldron of attendant emotions; they rarely confess to carrying acquired fears. We all want to appear bigger than our own confusion, and the key word here is “appear,” because when it comes to faces, most people like to save theirs. This is the point I wanted to make in the story, but I also wanted “Dancing to an Irish Reel,” to be about discovery, so I started with a narrator who is a fish out of water: a twenty-five year old American ensconced in a specific culture she uncovers like the dance of seven veils. In the midst of this there enters an Irish traditional musician named Liam Hennessey. He is from the region, of the region, and therefore it can only be said he is because of the region in a way that is emblematic. From a writer’s point of view, the supposition offers the gift of built-in conflict, most poignantly being the clash of the male-female dynamic set upon the stage of differing cultures trying to find a bridge. And I can think of no better culture clash than America and Ireland. I say this because I happen to know to the Irish, we Americans are a bit brazen, that we have the annoying habit of being direct. But the Irish are a discreet lot, culled from a set of delicate social manners that seem to dance around everything, leaving an American such as me with much guesswork.


No matter how they shake it, writers write about what they know, even if it has to be extracted from varying quadrants that have no good reason for being congealed. “Dancing to an Irish Reel” is a good example of this: it came to me as a strategy for commenting on the complexities of human beings inherent longing to connect—the way we do and say things that are at variance with how we really feel, in the interest of appearances, and how this quandary sometimes dictates how we handle opportunities in life. In my opinion, there is no better playing field on which to illustrate this point than the arena of new found attraction. I’m convinced the ambiguity of new love is a universal experience, and since the universe is a big wide place, and since ‘”Dancing to an Irish Reel” has something to say about hope and fear and the uncertainty of attraction, it occurred to me that I might as well make my point set upon the verdant fields of Ireland because everything about the land fascinated me when I lived there, and I wanted to take any reader that would have me to the region I experienced as cacophonous and proud: that mysterious, constant, quirky, soul-infused island that lays in the middle of the Atlantic, covered in a blanket of green, misty velvet.

Excerpt from “Dancing to an Irish Reel”

The distance between Inverin and Clifden is approximately sixty kilometers. It’s a visually inspiring hour-long ride through undulating midlands with grass as soft as velvet, gray stone walls that split the landscape, and bubbling intermittent streams as you glide along a two-lane road that cuts through a terrain devoid of street markers, stop signs, or any other indication the area has been previously trodden. There is little suggestion of civilization anywhere in sight and it is a quiet, unobstructed journey through the heart of Connemara with nothing in store, save for the destination of Clifden.

​​Driving into Clifden, one is abruptly thrust into the center of a thriving village that hosts an annual, three-day music festival wherein every pub door is invitingly open with signs outside announcing which Irish traditional musicians will be playing within the standing-room-only venues. A rudimentary chalkboard sat on the sidewalk outside of Mannion’s Pub with “Welcome Liam Hennessey” sprawled across in large, eye-catching cursive.

​I followed Liam into the middle of a waiting crowd, which parted ceremoniously as he made his way to the old man seated against the wall across from the bar. Wind-tossed and toothless, the man sat on a battered wooden chair, tuning a fiddle and nodding his greeting while Liam opened his accordion case and settled in beside him. When a flute player joined them, the crowd fell into an anticipatory hush, ready for the music to begin. I stationed myself in front of the bar, minding my own business, but that soon became short-lived.

​“Are you here with Liam?” asked a middle-aged man who was standing too close to me.

​“Yes.” I took a step back.

​“She’s here with Liam,” the man announced, turning to the man beside him.

​“Ah,” the second man gasped, “she is, so!”

​“Where did you get that blond hair on your head?” The first man eyed me.

​“I brought it with me from America,” I said.

​“She’s from America!” The man turned to the other man, his eyes opened wide.

​“America indeed!” The second man drew in his breath.

​“All I want in the world is for me brother to come in and see me standing here talking to you,” said the first man. “I wouldn’t care if a pooka came for me after that. Will you have a pint? Get her a pint, Tom,” he directed.

​“Tom, make that a half-pint,” I said, trying not to laugh. I looked over at an obviously amused Liam, who smiled and winked as if to say he knew what was happening.

​I looked toward the door and noticed an unusually small woman walking in with what appeared to be members of her family due to their similarity in stature. I’d met her in Galway before: she was a musician named Deanna Rader who played guitar and sang anything from Irish traditional music to her own compositions. I’d heard her sing in her low, husky voice a few times before, and because she was a friend of Declan’s, I’d exchanged pleasantries with her a few times as well. From the looks of things, she was in Mannion’s with her father and two sisters. She came smiling to my side instantly.

​“Well then, you’ve made your way out here now, have you?” She looked up at me.

​“I came here with Liam,” I said, grateful to know someone in the crowd.

“I knew you must have. So, it’s the two of you now, is it?”

​“Well, I don’t know if I’d put it that way,” I said, diverting the implication. I couldn’t recall if I’d seen Deanna while I was out with Liam, or if she asked this because she’d heard people talking.

​“You’re a long way from home yourself,” I said. “Is this festival a big deal?”

​“Oh God, yes. People look forward every year. Luckily my parents live in Letterfrack, just up the road. I’ve been spending the last couple of nights with them. We’ve all come ’round tonight for the craic.”

​“Well, it’s nice to know someone here,” I said.

​“My sister came out to sing tonight. Would you mind asking Liam if she could give us a song?”

​“Sure,” I said. “I’ll ask him when they take a break.”

​“They probably won’t do that, so you’d be waiting for ages,” Deanna said. “You’ll just have to lean over and ask, like.”

​“When?” I asked.

​“How about now?” she said.

​“Right now?”

​“If it wouldn’t be too much trouble,” she smiled sweetly.

I looked over at the musicians, who were in full swing. There was no way I was going to butt in, even though Deanna kept standing there looking up at me expectantly. Just then, a man at the bar stepped forward enthusiastically. He leaned into the musicians circle, grabbed Liam by the arm, and shouted loudly, “The young lady here wants to give us a song.” With that, the music came to a screeching halt, and a whirlwind of preparation commenced. Liam leaned over and whispered to the two musicians beside him, instruments were set down, a microphone was raised, a path spontaneously cleared, and into the arena stepped Deanna’s sister. It was like the infamous scene of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy.

​There was a hush in the room as all eyes riveted upon the girl. She stood all of five foot two, but within that minuscule framework there was a lot going on: thick, raven hair fell in loose waves across her forehead and down her back. Large green oval eyes slanted and squinted catlike beneath thick, dark lashes. Turn by turn, her eyes focused and held one man in the room after another. She stood with her right hand on her hip and her voluptuous weight shifted to the left. With great histrionics, she crooned out a song in the Irish language I’d never heard before.

​When she finally stopped, she sashayed over to Liam, totally aware everybody was watching. With grand theatrics, she threw both her arms around his neck and kissed him square on the mouth, nearly knocking him over with her forward advance. All hands in the room clapped loudly, wolf whistles erupted, and a few eyes turned my way.

​“I imagine you’d have something to say about this passionate display,” said Deanna’s father, who had materialized beside me.

​“Not really,” I said. “Do you?”

​“You have to watch that one is all. She’ll be the death of me one day, he said, cocking his head toward her.

“I hope not,” I said.

“No harm done then?”

“No harm at all,” I said.

Dancing to an Irish Reel is available where books are sold!

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Irish Keys


I’ve had many people ask me about a certain picture on my website, where I’m standing against a gray stone wall on a windswept day in the middle of an Irish field, with what are obviously the ruins of a monastery behind me. Observant people have thought, “Wait, there’s a ruined monastery behind her, why is her back turned as she looks into the camera, holding a set of keys in her hand as if it were the bigger focal point?” I’m glad for the opportunity to explain that picture here.

We kind of knew where we were heading, my friend Tama and I, and by this I mean we had a loose plan with regard to how we were going to spend the afternoon in Gort, Ireland. We’d been freewheeling across the countryside in a rented car the size of a matchbox,  its steering wheel on the right side while we drove on the left of the two-lane road as if trying to best a test for dyslexia.
Tama is a devout Catholic, who has a thing about historic churches, which is why we couldn’t have adhered to a plan had we made one. “Stop,” Tama would shout each time we spied one of the dim, ominous structures in the distance. We’d scratch the gravel driveway and wander inside, our solitary footsteps crossing the marble floor in a tread lightly and humble yourself echo off the cavernous vaulted ceiling. We did this so many times that after yet another sweep inside a church, I’d leave Tama to light a red votive candle and fall to her pious knees while I wandered the graveyards and read the tombstone inscriptions thinking about impermanence;  knowing I was passing through in more ways than one.

I thought I was alone in the graveyard when a voice sailed from behind me. “Have you found your way to Kilmacduagh monastery?” it queried. I turned to find a young woman taking in my outlander attire of all-weather jacket and rubber-soled shoes. “It’s just up the road there,” she pointed. “You’ll want to knock on the door of the middle house across the road and ask Lily for the keys.”
I was standing behind Tama when she knocked on the front door of a low slung house on a sparsely populated lane. Across the lane, placid fields of damp clover shimmered in the afternoon mist as far as the eye could see. On one verdant field, a series of interspersed ruins jutted in damp metal-gray; some without roofs, some with wrought-iron gates, one in particular beside a towering stone spire with two windows cut in vertical slashes above a narrow door.  When the front door opened, a pair of blue water eyes gave us the once over with a suspicious, “Yes?”

“Are you Lily?” Tama asked.

“I am,” the woman stated.

“We’re here for the keys,” Tama said.

“The keys, is it? Just a moment there,” Lily said, and after she closed the door, Tama and I stood on the doorstep wordlessly, waiting for the next thing to happen.  Seconds later, the door opened and Lily handed us a set of long metal keys. “Just slip them through the door slot when you’re through,” she said with a quick nod and closed the door.

There was no indication of which key went to what, among the cluster of gates and doors throughout the 7th-century monastery called Kilmacduagh, but after enough scrambling, we figured it out. I was so tickled over being given the keys that I couldn’t get over it. “Is this weird?” I said to Tama. “We could be anybody. It feels like we’ve been given the keys to the kingdom without being vetted. It’s not that there’s anything anybody could steal, but that’s not the point.

I could wax rhapsody over the hours we spent unlocking gates,  pushing through doors and climbing the ruins of the eerie, hallowed grounds, but that’s not my point either. My point is that’s Ireland for you: a stranger offering directions without being asked, Lily handing over the keys like an afterthought, and Tama and I trolling the grounds of historic, sacred space when nobody else was around.

A German couple appeared as we made our way back up the lane. They looked at us wide-eyed and queried, “What is this place?”

“It’s a 7th century monastery,” I said, “here, take these keys and slip them through Lily’s door when you’re through.”

 

Claire Fullerton is the author of Dancing to an Irish Reel, A Portal in Time, Mourning Dove, and coming May 1st, Litle Tea.

https://www.clairefullerton

 

Southern Literary Review : Review of Dancing to an Irish Reel.

Reviewed by Johnnie Bernhard
Hans Christian Anderson wrote, “To travel is to live.” His words suggest the underlying theme of Dancing to an Irish Reel by Claire Fullerton. Living, instead of existing, is exactly what protagonist Hailey Crossan does on the west coast of Ireland. Leaving the “soullessness of Los Angeles” and her job in the record industry for Ireland, she discovers a culture and its people far removed from the American lifestyle managed by time and money.
Life in Ireland brings an ethereal dimension to Hailey’s self-discovery, as she dances to reels and waltzes in the unpredictability of a new job and relationship with an Irish musician.
Dancing to an Irish Reel is not a novel of the romance genre. The characters and situations they encounter are more reflective of upmarket fiction. The author has poignantly made a statement on cultural differences, language, and life choices in this novel. There is no formulaic pattern to the plot, particularly the last chapter.
In an interview, author Claire Fullerton explains:
The road to enduring love is never linear. We hit many road blocks and speed bumps on the way to what’s ours, but we always have such hope along the way. I call Dancing to an Irish Reel an anti-romance, in that it is true to how love often goes, before we find the one that stays. It’s the push and pull of relationships that intrigues me.
Hailey is not the typical female protagonist. Like the Irish weather, she is fierce. As a single American female living in Inverin, a village in rural Ireland, she relies on public transportation and yes, the kindness of strangers. Her solitary walks in a graveyard or along the sea create interest among the people of Inverin. She is not a typical tourist. The stares and sidelong glances she receives from them are met with confidence and charm. She wins the respect and friendship of those strangers and the heart of Liam Hennessey.
There are many scenes of fortuity within this novel. Hailey finds a job supporting musicians in the Galway Music Centre, propelling her into a world of characters and situations unlike those found in the village. Those moments are also found in the unfolding relationship with Liam, particularly when Hailey discovers how the Irish love.
The sense of place within the novel is authentic. Fullerton knows what she is writing about. It is best illustrated in the commanding first-person narration. There are no trite descriptions of the setting and the people of Ireland. Readers familiar with the west coast of Ireland will readily recognize it. Fullerton’s sincere admiration for Irish musicians and poets is captured in Hailey’s voice.
Dancing to an Irish Reel is a comfortable, satisfying read. It is a poignant reminder of the differences between living in the moment or being managed by time and the making of money. It is what Hailey Crossan discovers on a trip to Ireland. It is what Claire Fullerton invites us to learn.

 

 

On an Irish Bus/ Dancing to an Irish Reel Kindle Giveaway!

reworked Galway image

He would have stood out anywhere, and standing in front of the entrance to a boutique hotel in Spiddal, wielding a black walking cane with an ivory handle two paces before made him glaringly incongruous to everything I’d come to know about the western coast of Ireland. He wore a three piece suit on his gentle frame: black, with gray stripes the width of angel’s hair, with a fitted vest, tailored trousers, complementary cravat, and a black Fedora angled just so.

I looked out from my window seat on the bus from Carraroe to Galway. It was one of those old kinds that looked as if it once had a life as an elementary school bus, now put out to pasture. With aluminum rails on the seats before, the bus would take off noisily, gravel scattering beneath its wheels before I had a chance to sit down. The bus driver greeted me in awkward English. It took a few rounds of greeting me in Irish before he finally realized I am an American, and his guttural salutation now came out sounding like something a little to the left of “Hiya.”
The bus rolled to its customary stop on the coast road that runs through the heart of Spiddal. There is no sign there; the stop is force of habit because years of driving this rolling route through Connemara told the driver where travelers would be standing, shielded from the vagaries of Irish weather.
Heads turned as the dapper, elderly man mounted the bus. He steadied his gait with his cane and favored his right foot up the three steps then halted beside the bus driver to beam his greeting. Out of the corner of my eye, trying not to stare, I saw the man tip his hat repeatedly to the right and left as he made his way down the aisle to the vacant seat beside me.

“Nice day,” he said to me as he took off his hat and placed it on his lap. “Going into town, is it? Where you go every day?”
“Yes,” I said caught by surprise and thinking nothing gets by anybody around here.

“Kearney’s the name, Seamus Kearney,” he offered himself. “You’re an American, yah?” he asked in that way the Irish have of answering their own question.

“Yes,” I answered.

“From the South, is it?” he continued.

“That’s a good ear you have. Yes, I’m from Memphis, Tennessee, but I spent the last five years living in Los Angeles,” I clarified.

“God helps us all,” he said with a wink. “And what is your name, then?” he prodded.

“Claire Fullerton.” I shook his offered hand.

“And your middle name then? Have you Irish connections?”

“Yes, I have Irish connections on both sides. My middle name is Ford,” I said.

“Ford,” he considered, wrinkling his brow. “That’s an odd middle name for a girl.”

“Yes, perhaps,” I said. “But I’m not an odd girl; I promise.”

“Now the Fords, they’re from around these parts. They’re old as the hills and Irish as the soil. Many are up the road in that old graveyard by The Centra,” Seamus Kearney said. “So they called you here, they did,” he said in more of a statement than a question.

“No, actually it was a whim that brought me here. I never knew any of my Ford relatives. Most of them died before I was born.”

Seamus drew in his breath in that audible sigh the Irish do, when they’re getting ready to say something poignant. It is a sound with a world of understanding contained: one part camaraderie, the other commiseration. “So, they called you here, they did,” he reiterated patiently. His white eyebrows raised encouragingly, as if leading a child along the road to good reason.

“Yes, definitely,” I complied.

“Ah then, there it is, so. We in Connemara don’t see the need in being parted by a little thing like death,” he said.

I couldn’t wait a second longer; I couldn’t help but ask, “Do you always dress like this?”

“Like what?” he asked genuinely unaware, which made me wonder if I’d put my foot in my mouth.

“You look so nice; I was only thinking that,” I said, the heat rising to my face.

“Pride of person’s not an unpardonable sin,” he said. “Now let me ask you what it is you do in town.”

The next thing I knew, I was explaining everything I did at my job in Galway, while Seamus gave me his rapt attention, with a pleased look on his face. Had I still been living in Los Angeles, a conversation like this one would have never taken place. One simply did not divulge personal information to a stranger in Los Angeles without thinking it would come back to haunt. But this was Connemara, and the Irish have a way of exchanging pleasantries in a manner that is somewhere between an exploration of and commentary on this business of living. It is an art so subtle you have to narrow your eyes or you’ll miss it; it comes creeping softly wearing white cotton socks and sensible shoes.

The bus rolled to a stop at the Spanish Arch, down by the quays in Galway. I stood up to disembark. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Kearney,” I said.
“Call me Seamus, please,” he returned. “I live just by the church there in Spiddal. I’d love for you to call out any time for a cup of tea,” he said, with his blue eyes smiling.

“Thank you so much, I will,” I returned, and as I got off the bus to head over the River Corrib’s bridge, I turned to wave to Seamus Kearney, and knew without question I would.

Enter to Win Dancing to an Irish Reel on Kindle !  Amazon: https://giveaway.amazon.com/p/04bacbd72e9b9b35

Interview with author Billy O’Callaghan

When one writer encounters another that blindsides them with staggering awe, the inclination is to rush out and spread the joy with those who love the written word. I feel this way about Billy O’Callaghan. I’ve been an avid fan of his work since discovering him last year, and recently had the pleasure of interviewing him for the online Irish community, The Wild Geese.Irish.  It is my great joy to share the interview here.

First, a little background on Billy O’Callaghan:

Billy O’Callaghan was born in Cork in 1974, and is the author of three short story collections: In Exile, In Too Deep, and The Things We Loose, The Things we Leave Behind, which was honored with a Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Award. Almost a hundred of his stories have appeared in literary journals and magazines around the world, including Absinthe, The Kenyon Review, and the Los Angeles Review. His short piece, A Death in the Family is a current Ploughshares Solo, and his debut novel, The Dead House was published in the UK by Brandon Books in May, 2017, with a scheduled US release by Arcade, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, in April, 2018.

Questions for Billy O’Callaghan:

When you hear yourself described as an Irish writer, from your perspective, what does this imply?

The world needs boxes, I think, in order to make sense of things, and I don’t really give much thought to how I am perceived or described. I write, I suppose, to get to grips with the stuff going on in my life and in my head, and to gain some understanding of my own place in the world. Most of the time, life just confuses me, and I long ago turned to writing as a way of ordering my thoughts and to help me function.
If people want to describe me as an Irish writer then I am happy about that, because it’s what I am. And I am grateful that somebody has noticed!

 

Do you think being Irish flavors your way of seeing the world? If so, how?

I think so, yes. Even when I have written about other places, it is almost always through Irish eyes. We can’t change who and what we are, and everything I really know (however little that might amount to) has been shaped by my homeplace and my upbringing. The landscape, with its proximity to the sea, feels like a part of me at this point in my life. My natural state is probably one of stillness. As I get older, I find that I am most comfortable in solitude, and feeling small within my surround. It’s hard to explain, but it gives me a sense of eternity. And in rural places, especially, down around West Cork, history feels immense and very close to the surface. I can almost taste the stories of such places.

 

Who are the Irish authors, living and dead, that you admire?

Oh, there are many, and they are the ones everyone talks about, the touchstones. But the Irish writers I hold most dear, the ones I suppose that I’ve best been able to connect with in my life, are the likes of John McGahern, William Trevor, Liam O’Flaherty. And since childhood, I’ve had a fondness for John B. Keane’s books. The poetry of Patrick Kavanagh and Seamus Heaney, too. I like writing that sets a scene in stone and dirt, so that I can feel and taste what’s going on. These are the writers that do it for me. And as regards living writers, John Banville is the one whose work I hold in the very highest esteem. When I write a sentence, he’s the benchmark, and I think we’re all in his shadow. He has left a deep enough mark that I think people will be reading him a hundred or two hundred years from now.

 

In your stories, is it ever your aim to offer statements or claims on being Irish, or perhaps on the Irish experience, as it were?

No. To do that would probably be to imply that Irishness could be so distilled. My stories do probably attempt to depict authentic Irish experiences, but that happens organically.
When I sit down to write a story, I am thinking about nothing beyond the characters and their situation. That’s what matters. I always try to imbed truth within the fiction, because I am usually writing them in an attempt to explain or make sense of something to myself, and my only agenda in writing the stories is that they will seem real on the page. That’s my goal.
I’ve been writing stories a long time now, and I still work to the notion that nobody will ever read what I am putting down. It’s an insecurity, of course, a fear that I really don’t know what I’m doing. We can’t change who we are, and I think that, at this stage, the self-doubt is probably a good thing because it helps keep me from being too easily accepting of what I write. Anyway, it is an approach that has served me well enough, and can be immensely freeing because with no expectation of an audience there is no temptation towards self-censorship.
I usually carry the stories around with me for quite a while before writing them. They usually take the form of themes at first, in the vaguest way possible, and emerge and shape themselves very slowly. My novel, The Dead House, was one I had in my head for probably twenty years before I got to work on it. The missing piece was the setting, the Beara Peninsula in West Cork, which I realized while touring there with a friend in 2011. Once I had that, I knew that I could write the book. And another long short story, A Death in the Family, which has recently been published as a Ploughshares Solo (and which will appear in my next short story collection, due for publication in 2020), was one I’ve lived with since I was about four years old, a story told to me by my grandmother about an incident in her own young life.

 

What about Ireland inspires you?

The landscape, the countryside, the people I’ve known and seen, the stories I’ve been told. Stories were my education. They’re the first thing I remember. I was gifted a love of stories from my grandmother, who I lived with, up to the age of six or seven. For most of that time I was the only child in the house, and she was ailing, a frail creature, at sixty-two already ancient as the hills. We were company for one another, I suppose, and on many a wet winter’s morning she’d keep me home from school, under the pretext of some cough or cold, and we’d pass those long, slow hours together beside the fire on stories plucked from her own childhood, of fairy forts, the Black and Tans and the banshee. It was listening to her, and dreaming about the worlds she forged, that first lit the fire within me, the curiosity and the passion.
Music is important to me, and poetry, and I strive to suggest both within my sentences. And I love the lonesome quality of the sea on a winter’s day, and old places. Isolated spots, famine-era ruins or the ancient standing stones that so beautifully litter the countryside. Standing in these places at a quiet hour, it’s hard not to feel the weight of the past all around you, and the sense of mystery.

 

Do you think that being Irish has inculcated you with a love of language influenced by those around you?

This is not something I think too much about, but if pressed I’d say that music and poetry are my big influences when it comes to crafting sentences. Books. Banville, I mentioned. Heaney, and Kavanagh. But Yeats, Joyce, Beckett and hordes of writers who aren’t Irish at all. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, V.S. Naipaul, John Updike, Ray Bradbury. Bob Dylan. Hemingway, for revealing to me, in stories such as ‘Hills Like White Elephants’, the value of things unsaid. The Japanese writer, Kawabata, for this, too. Endless others.
The spoken language I hear all around me has a rich and vibrant music to it, and I suppose I must have absorbed some lessons from that because I listen hard for rhythms in my own sentences. I write entirely by feel, working by instinct, and can usually hear when a sentence is wrong.

 

The American author, Ron Rash, has often said, “Land is destiny.” How can you apply this statement to your story settings in Ireland?

Ron Rash has it right, I think. I once had a long conversation with the late great Canadian writer, Alistair MacLeod. His short stories set in his native Cape Breton, are truly remarkable, and he said that if you are not writing with a strong sense of place then you are missing a trick.
Quite a bit of my writing deals with exile, isolation and disconnection, people who have either been torn from or who have abandoned the place in which they properly belong. I strongly believe that our surroundings shape us, especially if we are generations’ attached to a place. I try, as much as possible, to have my characters reflect their homeplace, so that when their anchor has slipped they seem thoroughly lost in the world.

 

Can you tell us something about your writing habits/schedule and a little something about your favorite writing space?

For years, I have kept to a rock solid routine of at least five hours writing every day. Up at six, writing by seven, through until noon or so. In the evenings I’d usually spend an hour or two going back over the morning’s work.
This year, because of a lot of distractions (the publication of The Dead House meant quite a few readings around Ireland, as well as requests for articles and interviews from newspapers), and my routine was shaken a bit. But I have started work on a new novel now, so I’ve had to get serious again. Without a strict routine, nothing gets done.
I live in a nice one-bedroom apartment in a quiet housing estate about twenty minutes’ walk from Douglas village, a suburb of Cork city. Douglas is where I grew up, and where I feel that I most belong. I have traveled a lot in my life, and that’s one of my great joys, but I wouldn’t want to live anywhere other than Douglas. My people have lived here for generations, and even though it’s changed significantly from the way it was when I was a boy, it’s still the place I feel most comfortable.
My workspace is a small corner of my living room, a desktop computer tucked into a narrow space beside my balcony. My balcony is full of flowers and hanging baskets, and birds come every day – sparrows, wrens, robins and the occasional bullfinch. My most regular visitors are two beautiful magpies. I’ve grown very attached to them. So I write, with all of that filling the corner of my eye.

 

Can you tell us what you’re working on now?

Things are hectic at the moment. As I mentioned, I recently had a long short story (or novella), A Death in the Family, published by Ploughshares as a stand-alone Kindle release, and my novel, The Dead House, will be published in the U.S. in May 2018, by Arcade, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, which is very exciting. And I have two more books coming out in the UK and the United States in 2019 and 2020: a novel, entitled: Goodbye, My Coney Island Baby, and a short story collection called Even On Our Longest Days.
These books are done, apart from some minor editing, so now I am onto a new novel. I don’t want to say too much about it because it’s a long way from being in any kind of shape yet, but it will be a novel set in Douglas village across a span of probably 150 years, a book about memory, identity and blood connections. Writing A Death in the Family opened a door for me, and while the structure is probably the most complex and challenging that I have yet attempted, I am excited about what lies ahead with it.

 

You’ve published three short story collections, your debut novel, The Dead House, is well received, you’ve won impressive awards, and I’m curious about what your friends think of your success? Do they treat you differently, or will you forever be treated as one of the lads?

Such things don’t matter. I am as ordinary a person as you will ever meet. I come from an ordinary background, I left school when I was seventeen and never went to university. So, no, nobody treats me any differently. Writing is just something I do, but it doesn’t make me in any way remarkable. And it’s such an intensely personal thing that the process, at least, isn’t something which can be shared. Most people don’t get to see how the sausage is made, and wouldn’t want to. I shut myself away and write, keeping to my routine, because the stories are what matter, and by the time one is done (and even short stories can take months to get right) then there’s always another brimming the surface.
I could talk all day about books, but writing isn’t really something to talk about. Sometimes people will read some mention of me in the newspaper, or might hear something about an award or a new book, and
if I meet them they’ll say something. But, really, everyone is caught up with their own lives. Which is as it should be. Anyway, success is relative. I am doing okay now, but I can get by largely because I live such a simple existence. The joy, for me, is in being about to do what I want to do. Which is fortunate because I’m not really much good at anything else.

The Thing About Galway

Even on the best of days, when the weather is temperate and the sky soft and cloudless, Galway City has a worn, secondhand feel to it: an historic, pensive, erudite quality everywhere you roam down its serpentine streets. But there’s also an energetic undercurrent to Galway that seems to thrive on the idea of opposites, which lends the atmosphere a certain air of unpredictability. In many ways, Galway seems like a lively college town, bordered on one side by the dark gray patina of Galway Cathedral, and the ever turbulent River Corrib on the other, which flows straight to Galway Bay on its way through the Claddagh. It’s an undefinable, mood-setting, soul-stirring town with a split personality; it is vividly animated by its youthful culture, yet deeply haunted by its storied past.

To Debra Wallace, who was born and reared in Letterfrack, 50 miles north in rural Connemara, Galway was the pinnacle of urban grandeur. At the age of 27, she’d blown into town carrying her dreams and her guitar to set up house in a two-story rental, on the edge of lower Galway’s Henry Street. She was an accomplished musician with a whisky-edged singing voice, and her dreams involved joining Galway’s vibrant music scene. The second I met her, I thought she embodied everything it meant to be Irish: She was big eyed, russet-haired, quick-witted, nobody’s fool, howlingly funny, and spiritually attuned. She gave our friendship no probation period when we first met at The Galway Music Centre, for there was nothing suspicious or cynical about her, though she was disarmingly shrewd. Upon learning that I am an American, she put her hand on her hip, narrowed her eyes to a slit, and give me the once over. Then she set her guitar case down and invited me to call out to her house for a cup of tea.

I had no idea what to expect as I made my way to Debra Wallace’s blue-painted door. It rose up from the sidewalk, sandwiched in a row of matching gray structures, each with a pitched roof emitting turf smoke that permeated the residential area in an aroma so redolent it made my eyes water. I rapped thrice on the door, and it swung wide immediately. Stepping onto the uneven cobbled brick floor, it took a minute for my eyes to adjust in the shadowy room, for it had only one window and it seemed the haphazardly arranged turf in the fireplace had reached its crescendo and now glowed in a burnt orange aftermath. The heat in the small room was stifling. I took off my raincoat and made to set it aside on the folded futon against the wall, just as I brought the four chairs before it into focus, where three figures looked up at me expectantly. Debra lowered herself onto the fourth chair and motioned for me to take the futon as a voice disrupted the damp air.

“Well, you weren’t telling a tale about that blonde hair of hers, God bless it; must have taken ages to grow,” the voice said.

“Claire, this is my mother; Da sits there, and this is my sister Breda,” Debra introduced, handing me a cup of tea.
“Nice to meet you,” I said. It was then I recognized where Debra had acquired her penchant for the once over, for all three Wallace’s studied me head to foot.

“You’re an American,” Mr. Wallace stated. He was short and stout and leaned forward in his chair, with his hands on his knees and his steady stare beaming beneath his tweed flat cap.

“Yes, I’m from Memphis, Tennessee,” I confirmed.

“Ah, Elvis and all that,” Mrs. Wallace said, who looked to be, in tandem with her husband, the second installment of a pair of square, blue-eyed bookends.

“That’s right,” I said, then I searched for a way to escape their scrutiny. I knew I could turn the tables if I could use the standard Irish conversational stand-by. “It looks like it’ll rain any minute,” I said, looking at Mr. Wallace.

“It does, yah. We brought the weather with us all the way from Letterfrack, so we did. If you haven’t been there, you should come see us. It’s God’s country up there; not much chance for the young ones to run the streets.”

“So I moved here,” Debra said with a wink.”

“Speaking of streets, we should get going,” Breda said. “We’ve only come to town for the one day.”

We all stood simultaneously, making our farewells, and after Debra closed the door behind her family, she asked me if I wanted to accompany her to the epicenter of Galway City, which is an area known as Eyre Square.

“There’s a card reader up there, her name is Harriet,” she said. “As long as you’re one of us now, I think you should see her.”

“Don’t you have to make an appointment?” I asked.

“For what?” Debra said. “Don’t be so American. Let’s just walk up the road and call out.”

What could have been a 10-minute walk up Shop Street took 45 minutes, for such is the nature of Galway. There is no way to set out from point A to point B within the confines of scheduled time because there are too many people milling around, everybody knows everybody, and it is a crime against Irish society not to stop and chat to the point of exhaustion. I stood idly by as Debra engaged in Irish banter time and again, which is to say that each exchange felt like joining a running joke that had been going on for a while, and we had simply stumbled into its midst. It is a game of wit-topping one-upmanship, this business of Irish banter, and as we made our way to Eyre Square, I was starting to catch the rhythm.

Two heavy wooden doors led the way into the back of an atrium on the north side of Eyre Square. Debra heaved the doors apart and ushered me inside to where a canvas marquee had a chalkboard before it, which read, “Readings with Harriet: 12 euros.”

What happened next is another story.

But the thing about that day is that it was exemplary of the spirit of Galway, where anything can and does happen, on any given day. This wasn’t the first or last time I’d slid into the day thinking it would go one way only to discover it had segued into quite another. Because there’s an energy to Galway that will catch the unsuspecting unaware. It emanates from the dichotomy of its nature, its marriage of opposites, its union of past and present, and at its foundation are the fluid Irish people, who know a thing or two about embracing the flow.

Claire is the author of contemporary fiction set in Connemara, “Dancing to an Irish Reel”  Http://www.clairefullerton.com