Rozz Lewis A Q and A Session with the editor of Rozz.ie
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Author Bio of Rozz Lewis
She is a primary school principal who is a third level tutor with Hibernia College where she gives professional development courses for student teachers in English, technology, professional practices and Social, Personal and Health Education.
She has written for the Irish Times, Sunday Times, INTouch magazine, writing.ie and co-edits and also.writes and co-edits anseo.net, a well known educational opinion piece and review blog.
She has authored several primary school textbooks and these have been published by Folens Publishing Company.
She is a member of the Carlow Writers Co-Operative Group and gave her first reading of her short stories at the Eigse Arts Festival in Carlow Library in 2012. Two of her two short stories are being published in the group anthology "What champagne was like" and due to be launched by Jamie O Connell, author at Eigse Arts Festival.
She had written 3 novels by the time she had left primary school in the genre of “Boarding school girls”.
She is part of the review panel for the Under 30 writing project in conjunction with Stephen Doherty.
She was longlisted for the Fish Publishing Flash Fiction Prize 2013. She was also shortlisted for the Radio RTE One “New Planet Cabaret” creative program.
Her favourite Irish short story writer at the minute is Kevin Barry. Noone can say a bad word about him in her presence.
How and when did you begin to write?
I cannot remember the first time I started to write but in my last few years of primary school (abut age 8), my teacher encouraged me to write. He did this, I think because I was an incredibly busy child and a constant, early finisher. I finished 5 novels with him and still have them stowed away! I was always a child whose reason for being was to communicate, either on fake radio shows, award ceremonies of telling stories to entertain my cousins at night. Writing was another tool for me to communicate.
Who are some of your favorite contemporary short story writers? What classic writers do you find you’re self-drawn to reread. If a neophyte short story writer were to ask you who to read, what might you suggest?
I am quite obsessed with Kevin Barry, he has two collections of short stories published and for me, and there is no one like him. In terms of the style, content, humour and darkness that he gives to the reader. He also gets Irish, where we are now. I would recommend to any neophyte short story reader to try to get to a Kevin Barry reading. I go t many readings and he is completely unique in this way too. I liken my love for Kevin (literary love, I am married!) Barry due to my childhood obsession with the original Kevin Barry-Eddie Lenihan.
Eddie had a couple of TV shows on Irish National TV when I was growing up. Storyteller and10 minute tales. He was and still is a fascinating storyteller, visually and aurally. He was aSeanchai or an old Irish folklore storyteller and I think Kevin models (he may not be aware of this!) himself on him! Eddie has written over 17 books and 12 recordings and you can find him at www.eddielenihan.com
Frank O'Connor in The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story said short stories seem to be about marginalized people, the lonely, those with with little voice in society. Do you think he is on to something illuminating about the format? Why is there so much loneliness in the Irish short story?
I agree with Frank O’ Connor and love his thoughts on the short story and they still ring true.
I think because one of the story’s aims is to show people in a flux, conflict or problem situation and then have them wrestle to get out of it. They may reach resolution but the reader doesn’t want a happy, perfect character. That’s not what short fiction is for me. Look at Mary Costello, Colin Barrett and Kevin Barry. All of their characters are lost in some way and struggling.
This may seem like a silly question but I pose it anyway-do you believe in Fairies? -This quote from Declain Kiberd sort of explains why I am asking this:" One 1916 veteran recalled, in old age, his youthful conviction that the rebellion would “put an end to the rule of the fairies in Ireland”. In this it was notably unsuccessful: during the 1920s, a young student named Samuel Beckett reported seeing a fairy-man in the New Square of Trinity College Dublin; and two decades later a Galway woman, when asked by an American anthropologist whether she really believed in the “little people”, replied with terse sophistication: “I do not, sir – but they’re there." In general how do you feel Ireland's extensive mythology impacts the literature?
I used to believe in fairies and searched for their forts when I was little. Eddie Lenihan, in fact has written and collected stories on this very theme for over 40 years s there is a definite connection between fairies and Irish literature. Eilis Ni Dhuibhne’s interlaces folklore into contemporary tales in her collection Shelter of Neighbours and this would be one of her trademarks. As a reader now, I don’t especially enjoy reading stories with a strong undertoneof Irish mythology in a story. I am not sure if it’s especially relevant.
When you write, do you picture and audience or do you just write?
I generally think of writing group as they are the people entrusted with listening to my stories but that doesn’t mean I write for them. I write for myself and what I think is happening and current. So, as I am thinking about members of my group and how they might take it, it generally doesn’t influence me, as the group is a diverse group of poets, storytellers and memory makers. I could never please them all and they would notice it straight away!
Assuming this applies to you, how do you get past creative "dry spells", periods when you have a hard time coming up with ideas or when things seem futile?
I have been fortunate to have been awarded mentoring from the poet and lovely lady, Grace Wells. She encouraged me to write on any topic in free hand with a pen and not to self-edit. Just to let it go. This has worked well for me. Other times, I work well to prompts but prompts can be hit or miss for me. We use prompts within my writing group, which ensures I always have something to read and work on. I don’t worry when I cannot think of anything as I generally have a pool of ideas that I am working on any given time.
What are the last three novels you read? Last three movies? Do you have any favorite TV shows?
The last three novels were Testament of Mary, Barracuda and The Undertaking. I generally read short stories but I have been sent a lot of novels to review for my blog recently, which is a refreshing change for me but I need to get back to my beloved form!
The last three movies I saw were Twelve Years a Slave, August: Orange County and Dallas Buyers’ Club. I found the first two average and loved and was affected by Dallas Buyers’ Club.
We actually don’t watch much TV. I don’t know why we have a TV apart from when we watch films or box sets we have bought. My all-time favourite show would be The Sopranos. I was so affected by this series ending that I dreamt about it and find it hard to talk about the finale without getting emotional. Just perfect TV. I also enjoy Mad Men, Sherlock Holmes, Breaking Bad and The Americans. I binge on box sets of these! Brilliant characters dialogue and stories. One can learn a lot from them!
If you could live any where in the past for six months, or forever, and be rich and safe, where would you pick and why?
New York City or London! I would love the vitality, multi-culturalism and multi-personalism of those cities. Both have a massive arts scene so I can imagine I would be out every night, soaking up the energy and talent. Dreams.
When out of Ireland, besides family and friends, what do you miss most? What are you glad to be away from for a while?
I am glad to be away from negative media about our economy. I miss my bedroom with its cooling temperature and sheets. Hotel rooms give me headaches. The heat and the noise ofTV and people next door. I sleep very lightly so I miss the stillness and whiteness of my room. So, I guess when I am away from Ireland, I miss the fresh air, as clichéd as it sounds. I am not a fan of heat or the sun so I crave that fresh, spring weather and the crispy, leaf type autumns we get. The seasons are outstanding in the way they switch when our attention spans have shifted and want to move on.
Why do you think the short story is so popular in Ireland?
I have no sales figures to back up the notion that the short story is so popular amongst readers. It depressed me when I look at the Top 20 books sold in Ireland, as they are generally 50 shades of Grey type things, cookbooks or celebrity autobiographies. However, the short story in Ireland is renowned because the history of oral storytelling in Ireland goes way back. Every Irish person likes to tell a story about someone, gossiping about his or herneighbours, politicians or generally just entertaining in the local, public house. We are a nation of plamassers or comedians who like to entertain. We are also blessed with fine, fine artists within the short story form. For a small nation, we have many excellent short story writers, modern and traditional.
A while ago I read and posted on a long biography of Hart Crane, author of the Bridge-few read it but many known of his life style as one of the first Gay poets living out a life of rough trade and wealthy older benefactors-he lived a very chaotic life and died young from suicide by jumping off a cruise ship. His father invented Life Saver Candy and wanted Hart to go in the Candy business with him-so if Hart had done this and died at 75 rich living in ohio fat bald and married would he still be even much thought about let alone read? One of the most referenced poets by Irish writers last year was Arthur Rimbaud who likewise had a short and chaotic life. Does a poet need or naturally tend to a chaotic life? Why so much seeming admiration for writers like Jack Kerouac and others who died way to young from alcohol abuse. If Ezra Pound had not gone mad, would he still be a role model for the contemporary poet? (I know this is long, please just respond to it as you will.). Some of this may just be a story about a poet with a stable marriage; a job and no substance issues may seem dull compared to wilder lives.
I disagree with this, a successful writer needs to be organised enough to write, draft, publicise, read and generally get their name out there. The chaos can be freed within the writing, if they need to. People always admire the rebel or the tortured artist. For example, in Ireland, we have Shane Mc Gowan, lead singer of the Pogues, an Irish rock band. Shane has cultivated an image of the alcoholic addict and generally tortured soul successfully. We went to one of his gigs and I saw him in action. Note the word “action” It was definitely a determination on his part to appear to be wilder, drunker and more chaotic on stage as he could be. I don’t believe it. I have read his books, heard him in interviews and now singing on stage. He is a very intelligent man who did not get where he is today by being chaotic. Some of his song lyrics are incredibly articulate. It may not be true for all artists or writers but the work of the writing, observation, thinking and drafting will not get done without some sort of organization but the public like to think otherwise as everyone thinks they can write and everyone thinks they have a book in them.
Please explain to total outsiders like me how important government grants to writers are to Irish literature? Who decided who gets a grant?
They are extremely important for artists that are not in full-time employment, I would imagine. The Arts Council or section within each county/town network takes applications for funding. I applied for mentoring last year and was awarded as was my husband and several members of my group. There are several tiers to funding form smaller amounts for beginning writers like me to more established writers getting a bigger piece of the pie, so to speak. The Arts Council decides who gets what. Eilis Ni Dhuibhne’s has written a very funny story about this whole thing called A Literary Lunch. It’s in the Shelter of Neighbours collection I referred to above. I think that might shed some insight into the whole process or perhaps she was truly writing fiction!
Have you attended creative writing workshops and if you have share your experiences a bit please.
I have attended many writing workshops. I am a qualified primary school teacher who has been teaching for 13 years now and also lecturing and facilitating tutorials with student teacher and professional development for teachers for 9 years. So, because of this, I am acutely aware of teaching and learning styles. Some of the courses I have attended leave a lot to be desired. I think for someone to be an excellent teacher, the pedagogical and learning experiences need to be understood. It is harder to just stand up and be a teacher even if you have written several masterpieces. To convey your messages and facilitate true learning and assess that learning has taken place has taken me years to perfect alongside my teaching degree. The teacher is the facilitator of learning and needs to use methodologies that have the student be an active learner.
Not long ago I was sent several very hostile messages from Irish writers demanding to know why I had posted on the works of other writers and not them. Some suggested I had been influenced by some sort of shadowy group to ignore their work. I was informed there is a small elite group who decides who gets reviewed, published or receives grants and it was also suggested they had sent me negative feedback on writers I should ignore. What in the Irish literary scene is behind this?
I am not aware of any of these shadowy groups! But, the comment above interests me!
First of all, instead of sending hostile messages to you, Mel, perhaps they should have asked could their work feature? You are a very open blogger and man. You are constantly asking for people and writers to interact on your blog so why didn’t they ask? Also, are you not entitled to blog about whichever stories that take your fancy? I review many books but sometimes, I find it hard to give a favourable review as in the content or style may not be my area so I politely decline. I prefer to find something good in what the book is trying to say.
The small, shadowy group the hostile writers were referring to is clear to me. This happens everywhere in Ireland. It is why our government is so localized and is often referred to as “Parish-pump” politics. Things get done in Ireland by scratching each other’s backs a lot of the time. If you do me a favour, I will do you one. I have seen many writers raving about great a book is and then find they are in the same publishing company! This may be put down to the possibility that those writers probably interact a lot together and their writing audiences are similar. But, it does help to be known and get your name out there. It is not enough now to simply write and naturally, there are some agencies or magazines that maintain a group of close friends that appear in their publications. Again, I don’t have a huge problem with it, as it is a natural thing that Irish people do. I wonder is it a worldwide problem?
Tell us a bit about your non-academic non-literary work experience please. Tell us something about your educational background, please.
I moved from England to an all Irish speaking area called a Gaeltacht when I was seven and attended an all-Irish primary and secondary school.
I then qualified in University College Dublin with a degree in English, Irish and Classics and then a Masters in Classics and Latin. I loved my uni days and dream about them constantly! I then qualified as a teacher. There is a great tradition of teachers being authors in Ireland. Maybe, it’s the niceness of the holidays where teachers can write. Maybe, it’s the creativeatmosphere we work in every day (the children and their imagination can be hugely stimulating!) or maybe, it’s because teachers value literacy. No matter what the reasons are I am privileged to work with young learners and love lighting their fires!
Quick Pick Questions
A. Tablets or laptops? Both. IPad mini for my handbag and writing or reading n coffee shops and laptop for home and more longer periods of work.
B. E readers or traditional books?
E-readers for holidays and traditional books all the way apart from that.
C. Synge or Beckett?
Synge. Beckett weirdness fascinates me but I can’t connect with his drama.
D. Cats or dogs?
Both. Though, we own a very vocal cat, a dog is very high maintenance and needs more attention than a dog.
E. Best city to inspire a writer- Paris, London, Dublin, or?
London, Galway and New York.
F. Walt Whitman or William Butler Yeats?
Enjoy both but my current favourite poem is O me, O life so got to pick Walt Whitman.
G. RTE or BBC?
Don’t really watch TV much but RTE for news and BBC for excellent drama.
H. Irish Full Breakfast or English?
I never know the difference though I have seen potato wedges creeping into the Irishbreakfast, which scares me. I’ll choose Irish, as I love the white pudding and proper, Irish rashers and sausages.
Would you rather witness opening night for Waiting for Godot, King Lear, Playboy of the Western World or Ubo Roi?
King Lear. Shakespeare on stage cannot be beaten.
How important is social media in the development of the career of writers? Do you have your own web page and if so why? Do you think it is good business savvy to post free samples of your work online?
It is important to have a social media presence though there are as many successful writers without one that still thrive like Kevin BaNuala Ni Chonchuir keeps a blog at womenrulewriter and I have no idea how she manages to write, teach, read, keep a blog and a family! Multi-tasker alert! Nuala is an example of the organised, non-chaotic writer I would imagine. I don’t like the idea of giving work away for free, but perhaps a sample and then a link to download the rest. Authors earn very little so it is a bit unfair to give their time and work away for free.
I keep a writing and reading and general lit-blog at www.rozz.ie. I have met so many people through this. Only last week, I was at an educational technology (another area I love!) conference and one of the teachers came up to me and said that he had rad my review of Ron Rash’s (a brilliant, poetic, American short story writer) latest short story collection. I never would have connected as fellow reader if only for this. Same as you, Mel. I am sure your blog brings you to places you never could have reached.
Related to question above, recently Guinness sponsored a creative writing program and set up a grant system for writers and artist. A number of my Irish Facebook friends said they would repudiate a grant from Guinness and art festivals and programs should refuse their sponsorship. This was in part because of the perceived terrible social cost of alcoholism on Irish families. It was also stated that Guinnesswas trying to get people to see drinking as associated with creativity. Would you refuse a grant from Guinness? Are their sponsorship efforts insidious? When I facetiously suggested I would take on the burden of these malicious grants, I was taken to task as an outsider who needs to mind his own business.
This decision is up to the individual but I do think alcoholism is a scourge on young and older people’s lives in Ireland. It makes me sad to see so many people addicted to alcohol.
Artists have to make their own decision to which companies or messages they are to be aligned with but it is definitely something the artist needs to question as your public face is there forever. It depends on your convictions and what you believe in. I personally wouldn’t apply for a grant from Guinness but I don’t like it or drink it so it would be pointless.
I love coffee though. Costa coffee being one of favourites. They run some brilliant competitions and initiatives for new writers every year. But, someone might be offended that I associate writing with coffee, which I do…. My one addiction…
It is important that everyone can express his or her views without getting too passionate or aggressive, I guess. Everyone has a side to their story and I can imagine the person who is anti-Guinness and creativity has a story to tell but is entitled to express that in a healthy way too. There is room for healthy debate as long as no one feels upset or overwhelmed.
On that note, Mel, I thank you for your thought-provoking questions and your great work in publicizing Irish short story writers. You will have to visit us during one of our literary festivals. Bantry, Listowel and the Cork International Short Story Festival will keep your fire lit for Irish literature!
End of Guest Post
I am very grateful to Rozz Lewis for taking the time and serious effort to provide us with such excellent responses. I have been following her blog for a long time and highly recommend it to anyone interested in Irish literature. I hope to read more of her work in the future.