Friday, 21 June 2019

High Hopes for the Hopeless - an interview with Tom Brown

Where and what is Hopeless, Maine

So far, it has manifested as a webcomic, a paperback and interactive weblog, before becoming a series of luscious graphic novels and is still growing, currently in the process of being developed as a roleplaying game, a tarot deck, a cuddly ‘spoonwalker’… It has become a many-tentacled beautiful beast and grown into forms that creators Tom and Nimue Brown had not envisaged when they first created the island as a refuge in imagination and settled there to live... 

Tom and Nimue Brown in the middle of Hopeless, Maine

Comic creator, Tom Brown kindly gives Remy Dean a guided tour of the island and chats about steampunk, demons, poetry and pictures. 

Welcome to Hopeless, Maine.

REMY: I know you have been asked this before, but here at Scrawl we are interested in process, so how does the creative collaboration between you and Nimue generally work out? 

TOM: “Well, there’s perhaps less ‘generally’ for us than there is for most for a start. We started out on opposite sides of the Atlantic which put some restrictions on how we could work together. At that point it was Nimue doing the writing and me doing the art, pretty much across the board.

“We would have ‘What if?’ and ‘What even is this?’ conversations a lot. Now, as we work at the same table, things have evolved - and continue to change. Nimue now hand-colours the pages, and though the script for the series has been written for years, we still tinker with each volume as we work on it, and there is the question of what do we do with the chapter covers and two page spreads. They’re always present and used to tell another story, augmenting or filling-in detail to provide information that is not in the scripted pages.

“It's back and forth, really, and though the script is already written, things evolve. For example, I needed some eye candy for a background on a two-page spread, and I drew a giant decaying Victorian industrial site. We then wondered what this was, and how it fit into the history of the island. Nimue ‘discovered’ that this was the abandoned Great Oceanic Gnii refinery.”

OK, for the uninitiated, can you explain what Gnii are?

“Gnii are tentacled creatures native to the island. They lash themselves to bits of stone, often gravestone, and put a lit candle on top to fill their gossamer balloon and float in the skies over the island. Great Oceanic Gnii are their behemoth cousins which no longer visit the island as they have no wish to be pressed for their oil!”

Sometimes, there is a lot going on, visually, in the backgrounds… Do words disappear from the script as the pictures take over telling the stories, so you find you can then strip back the text? 

“Not often, no. Nimue has a very tight writing style and usually the only things edited out of the script are scenes - which though lovely - are not necessary to the plot, or don't move things forward.

“Nimue's original scripts are like scripts for a radio play with little setting information in them, as she relied on me mostly at that point, for the visual ideas. Now that we’re working together in the same place, we sit down and work out the thumbnail drawings for the pages and figure out settings and visual details as we go.”

Hopeless, Maine Book Two: Sinners

Many writers use visual stimulus to spark story ideas - are there images that come to you, including those from within imagination, that then just have to be worked into the story? 

“Yes! Easiest example of that - aside from the time that I did the cover before Nimue had even started the script. Erm... is coming to the UK and seeing teasels for the first time. It became obvious that they belonged on the island, where they became teaselheads... Buildings, landscapes, people, graveyards, that we find interesting or moving usually end up getting into the story, in one way or another.”

The dialogue has a really lovely, sparse rhythm to it and unlike many comics, the characters seem to establish their own distinct voices very quickly. Do you act out the speech and develop the characters in a kind of roleplay ‘rehearsal’ or are they lifted from other sources, like real people or favourite characters in TV shows?

“The truth is that these are people who live in our heads, and Nimue just ‘hears’ them and writes it down. The sparse rhythm may be partly explained by Nimue's interest in flash fiction. She also studies people and thinks a lot about language-use and… pretty much everything. In this way, she’s really working all of the time. Even when asleep!

Is there a typical ‘routine’ to writing days?

“The short answer is, no. We are easily bored creatures and are constantly finding new ways of working.”

Where do you generally write and draw?

“All of the actual ‘work’ happens here, in the flat.”

Do you go on research visits, or do you ever seek out certain environments in which to write?

“We walk for pleasure, and transport, and we frequently do long walks on weekends - 12 to 20 miles… This gives us plenty of input and inspiration, as well as a chance to discuss things as they come up.”

How was the narrow-boat as a studio?

“Bloody awful!

“It was damp, there was no reliable internet, electricity had to come from wind, solar, or running the engine - which I had to do while scanning pages - the boat moved constantly and violently when a large plastic boat came by. I was using watercolours at that point, because computer colouring used too much electricity. When the boat was shoved about, the brush would slip and I would mutter ‘alright, those can be crows, then’.”

OK, so why Maine? 

“Much of the inspiration for the setting comes from my growing up and spending most of my life in Maine, and I have stored up enough from that to keep me going for some time.

“I absorbed the folklore, history, landscape and sense of the place on a deep level, consciously and unconsciously. There is a sort of literary tradition of strange tales set in New England and that was the water that I wanted to swim in.

“I spent much of my life walking the woods, coast and graveyards of Maine - and decorated my home with gravestone rubbings. The setting is really a central character in Hopeless, Maine. Nimue came to visit me there before I moved to marry her, and she was able to see some of the charm and strangeness of the place.”

Artwork for the forthcoming Hopeless Maine Role-playing Game,
the pencils and coloured stages of production... click image for more info

You get the H P Lovecraft comparison quite a bit, which I see as a good thing, but I’m feeling resonances with other media too – and you have name-dropped Clive Barker. You are now dabbling in transmedia storytelling with some music and purely prose stories on the way. Who have been your favourite creatives and what have you learnt from them? 

“I'm glad you mention the music crossover. One of our early fellow travellers has been Walter Sickert and The Army of Broken Toys - one of our favourite bands of all time-ever! I feel that we have sort of evolved together from opposite sides of the Atlantic. Walter has even written and recorded a Hopeless, Maine song - which will have to be part of the soundtrack if there is ever any sort of film treatment of the story. Walter has also done a drawing of Sal which appeared in The Gathering. We take a lot of inspiration from them! Also, Barry Dodd's crew who produced Maine-set web-series Ragged Isle. Which has been compared to Twin Peaks.

“There has been a fair amount of creative DNA swapping between us and mutual support.

“Hiyao Miyazaki has had a serious impact on us. Also, the folklore of the UK, and folk music in general are very much part of Nimue's creative life - and mine. Finding the Steampunk community has certainly influenced us in all sorts of ways and given us another place where we can be ourselves in community. I could make a nearly endless list of other comics and other sorts of creators we admire. Edward Gorey is probably a grandfather of tradition for us.”

To me it doesn’t seem a far cry from the Little House on the Prairie books – bear with me here – I’m thinking the historical backdrop, and the darker side of things… Their little homestead is beset with troubles and disasters, plagues of locusts, diseases that leave lasting damage… and similarly, it seems there is a sort of real historical backdrop to Hopeless that places it within a sort of American idea of the past.

“Absolutely. I have already mentioned my immersion in New England history and culture, and Nimue has read and studied Hawthorne. I wanted to do some sort of thing in that tradition, but updated. Also, as way of looking at human experience in general.

“Immersion for me, and reading victorian literature for Nimue. We do go poking around into New England folklore still from time to time, just because it's fascinating stuff!”

Welcome to... Hopeless, Maine

So, how have your interests in folklore and magic fed into the stories – do you strive to be true to the research, or is it all simply made up? I think I spotted allusions to witch-bottles and witch-balls? But what of the ‘creatures’ and ‘demons’?

“Well, we are both Druids, and so, have a wealth of information to borrow from. We have a lot of Wiccan friends and Nimue works for a Pagan publishing house. No shortage of magical thought in our environment! The creatures and demons are largely made up but are the sort of things that we think would be out there in this setting. The sort of things you might see out of the corner of your eye, if you will.

“Well spotted on the witch balls! I'm just strangely fascinated by bottles for no readily apparent reason."

Do you have a Hopeless Maine bible?

“No. Though as there is now a Hopeless, Maine RPG, Travels in Hopeless by Keith Healing. There has been some discussion of whether or not there might need to be something along those lines in the future. This also gives me a chance to talk about the fact that we have opened up the island to other creatives and have a growing creative tribe.

“On our website, the Hopeless, Vendetta, there are regular columns, art and all manner of offerings from people who have come to play in our rather strange playground. Nimue's father Martin Pearson brings us regular Tales from the Squid and Teapot – the Hopeless, Maine “local”, and another series of tales by Keith Errington is soon to be collected into an illustrated prose book that will, hopefully, be the first in a series of such things.

“There have been stories on the Vendetta which have been inspired by other tales and inventions by other authors on the site, to the point where some of them contain only things that we had no hand in whatsoever!”

Dead dogs don't die...

How did the visual style come about – is this just what looks cool to you, or is there a conscious Dark Kawaii approach?

“I had already drawn all of the first book of Hopeless, Maine, and then I discovered Manga. I knew I needed some of that style in the visual mix. Face stylisation especially, but other elements as well. It was a very conscious decision. Also, Blade of The Immortal was a revelation because it showed that finished comics work could be in pencil.

“Otherwise, I just sort of wander off on my own, or rather now, we wander on our own, as Nimue has become part of the art team and hand-colours all of the pages and has an equal – at least – part in the visual storytelling decisions. I see new things literally every day that influence current and future art for Hopeless, Maine.”

I’m a hardcore horror aficionado, an old goth, and it really appealed to me, but my 14-year-old daughter also enjoyed the comics – her other favourite comic universe being My Little Pony… Who do you think of as your typical reader whilst you are creating?

“People, and others - we like to be inclusive!

“We're mostly making the sort of thing we would want to read. I think it's dangerous to imagine an audience too clearly. You may end up doing some sort of box-ticker that has no real life of its own that way. We do think of some of our friends while doing certain scenes and put in things that we think will please them, but only if it's fun.”

I feel that the poetic often lies outside words, and I have often found truly poetic moments in films and in music that do not have any dialogue or lyric – but I maintain they derive from a form of writing. In Hopeless Maine, there are definitely poetic moments, but I feel they are not solely in the images or the words… do you know what I’m talking about? I’m on a quest to explore what ‘the poetic’ is and would like to hear any thoughts you have on this.

“What an utterly gorgeous comment-question! That is pretty much exactly what we are setting out to achieve. Poetry, is, among other things, a way of getting across something that is more than is, or can be, contained in words. The whole being so much more than the sum of its parts, a distillation of life, dreams, and experience. We are very interested in the numinous, it's the well that we draw from, and if some of that comes though, that is serious success for us.”

Hopeless Maine Book Three: Victims

Volume 3, Victims is imminent, so without giving too much away, what else can we expect to come out of Hopeless Maine in the near future? Such as those transmedia spin-offs…

“The Hopeless, Maine RPG is now in print. We may do a kickstarter for a deluxe edition this year. The series of illustrated prose, I mentioned above, including two Novellas from Nimue, a Tarot deck is nearly complete. I'm the bottleneck here. Apologies to Laura Perry who has created something really amazing and so very much in the spirit of the setting.

“Our next Small Strange Book For People - tiny books which can be sent as cards if people desire, will be “How To Find Hopeless, Maine” by Meredith Debonnaire, which I will decorate with singing snails and similar strangeness.

“We are hoping that the Hopeless, Maine music scene will continue to grow. It is very likely that there will be a HM themed album from Madeline Harwood next year, which will join Utterly Hopeless by Johnny Benson, the Hopeless, Maine song from Walter Sickert and The Army of Broken Toys and the Hopeless, Maine track Professor Elemental wrote and performed. It's on his Nervous EP. The Role Play game continues to grow with scenarios and other extra tentacles. I'm sure there will be more than this. We seem to be in rather a fertile period, just now."

Thank you, Tom Brown, for your time and a lovely chat! 
Hopeless, Manie is my kinda place...

“Thank you! This has been rather a lot of fun!”

Tom Brown was talking to Remy Dean

Hopeless Maine is published by Sloth Comics

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Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Heather Dyer - Brought to Book

Heather Dyer is an award-winning writer and academic whose books for children have been adapted for BBC Radio and are now studied in schools. She is also a Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund and has designed and led courses for Aberystwyth University, Bristol University and the University of Worcester. Her area of interest is the psychology of creativity and how this can be understood and applied to art, writing, education and life in general. She has recently been involved with delivering workshops as part of the Arts Council of Wales Lead Creative Schools scheme. 

Here she talks to Remy Dean for The Scrawl about writing for children, letting go of our preconceptions, revealing truths and making new connections…

Heather Dyer
 (author photo by Kona Mcphee)

Having recently read and enjoyed The Girl with the Broken Wing, I was wondering what you might have been reading when you were the age of your intended readers?

That’s nice to hear! I loved books that took characters from their real world into a magical world via a door in a garden wall, or a magic wardrobe, or a chair that flew. I wanted to escape along with them. So, I loved writers like C S Lewis, E Nesbit, Enid Blyton – and I loved The Ogre Downstairs by Diana Wynne Jones.

What is your earliest memory of reading a book that really wrapped you up and carried you off into its world?

Once you start remembering, more memories surface, don’t they?

I remember being taken to ballet lessons when I was about five, hating it, and noticing an open picture book that had fallen down behind some chairs. I longed for it, but I wasn’t allowed to pick it up for some reason. The lesson was probably starting. I remember being read to at school at the end of the day,

 ...and I remember sitting alone, reading The Five Children and It when I was seven or eight, and laughing out loud. My laugh shocked me out of the story and I started flicking through the pages, marvelling that all those words had been put down in a certain order, and that they could take me somewhere else and make me forget where I really was.

The Fish in Room 11 and The Girl with the Broken Wing by Heather Dyer

The Fish in Room 11 won the Highland Council Children’s Book Award in 2004, then The Girl With the Broken Wing was listed as one of 'Richard and Judy's Best Children's Books Ever' in 2007 – quite an accolade! How has this affected your attitude to writing and your follow-up books for children?

I don’t know if I can blame it on publication, but I developed a long writer’s block after The Girl with the Broken Wing, which lasted years. I wrote every day but found I could no longer intuit a storyline that held together. I couldn’t understand it – neither could my publisher.

I began reading about creativity and practicing mindfulness, and that was the start of my research into the psychology of creativity. My creativity returned only when I’d surrendered all ambition, and the children’s book I’m writing now has a different theme to my previous books. It’s a time travel adventure.

So, you have been researching the psychology of creativity for some time now and are a consultant fellow for the Royal Literary Fund, and also teach courses you have designed for both academic writing and creative writing for several universities, including the well-respected Living Creatively course at Aberystwyth University… 

My doctoral research was about the links between the creative process and mindful awareness. In both, there’s a moment where the ‘self’ is lost or forgotten. It’s as though our egoic self - or conditioned thinking - must momentarily stop in order to allow new insights to appear and growth to happen.

How do you go about teaching that?

In my workshops, I help people generate creative insights by giving them activities that allow them to step outside of what they already know and let go of what they’re attached to. I help them tap into their unconscious and make new connections.

I believe that mindfulness and meditation helps by allowing us to step outside of our conditioned thinking, and gain new insights.

Was there a time when you ‘woke up’ to being a writer? 

Even now, it feels a bit uncomfortable to say ‘I’m a writer’. I’m not sure what it means, really. Are you only a writer if you’re writing a book that’s going to be published? If so, saying ‘I’m a writer’ feels like tempting fate, because the book I’m writing now may never get published.

Having lived in Scotland, Wales and Canada, how much would say your environment affects your creative writing, and in what ways?

I always draw on places I’ve been for locations in my books, so Wales features quite a bit – directly or indirectly.

Do you have any kind of ‘tried-and-tested’ writing ritual or regimen?

I just try to put in an hour in the morning, before all my other jobs. It’s always hard. But I find by doing a little bit each morning, ideas keep surfacing in bits of downtime throughout the rest of the day. It’s about keeping it near.

Is there a favourite tipple or treat when writing?

I’m trying ‘mate’ teabags at the moment. Mate is drunk a lot in South America, I believe, and it’s supposed to be a healthier alternative to coffee. It’s like strong green tea.

Where do you do most of your writing?

I write at an awful desk that’s just a folding table…

Can you describe what you can see from there?

I have a view that looks out over the oil tank in my backyard. In the other direction I have uninterrupted views of the mountains. But when writing, the view doesn’t seem matter, you only need to see the landscape of the story. It is nice to look up now and then and see a long view, though, to rest the eyes and the mind. I think the transition from narrow to wide focus helps creative insights happen.

What, if any, do you think are the duties or responsibilities of a writer?

To try and reveal truths? Or perhaps more accurately, to try and feel the ‘truth’ sentence by sentence and allow it to reveal itself to you.

Regardless of the genre in which you working - for children, poetry, academic, etc. are there any basic ‘rules’ that you feel always seem to apply?

Being truthful and accurate. Sidestepping one’s own ego.

Thank you, Heather Dyer!

Magic in the City by Heather Dyer

Heather Dyer was talking with Remy Dean

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Sunday, 4 November 2018

Candid Schott - Ben Schott is Brought to Book

Ben Schott is a man of many talents – he is a brand strategist, public speaker, photographer, journalist and author. He created a range of quirky, informative reference books (the first, Schott’s Original Miscellany, was published in 2002) that were an immediate success, and became bestsellers translated into 21 languages.

Jeeves and The King of Clubs is his first novel, in homage to his literary hero the late, great P G Wodehouse. It is a fresh tale of Jeeves and Wooster which involves - among other things - the secret corridors of Whitehall, espionage and what really goes on behind the closed doors of St James’s Clubs. It is fully approved by the Wodehouse Estate. 

Kim Vertue asks Ben Schott some questions for The Scrawl...  

Ben Schott
(author photo courtesy Hutchinson)

In the acknowledgements for your book, you describe what it was like to be given your first Wodehouse book, and the lasting impression it left. What was the first book you remember that really ‘hooked’ you, transported you, as a child? 

Almost certainly something by Roald Dahl, and quite probably Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I remain dazzled by Dahl’s ability to write like an adult for children, and to create so many diversely fantastical worlds that, decades later, remain fresh and vivid and real.

Did your decision to write fiction, after your success with the non-fiction Schott’s Almanacs, arise mainly from your admiration for P G Wodehouse? I note that your comments are quoted on some of the reprints of his books... 

I approached Jeeves and The King of Clubs not with a grand, personal vision, but as a deadly serious frivolity. My aim was to create a fabulous, literary 'Heath Robinson machine' – deploying all of the pulleys, levers, gears, cranks, and lengths of knotted rope offered by the Woodhouse oeuvre to create the finest, funniest, and most charming Jeeves and Wooster novel possible. In this endeavour, I was aided immeasurably by fifteen years of researching and writing Miscellanies, which goes to explain why there are a dozen pages of endnotes at the back of the novel. You can’t keep a Miscellanist down!

Which is your favourite P G Wodehouse book?

Ah… well, this is like being asked to pick a favourite nephew – especially in the Jeeves & Wooster cannon. Outside of that milieu, probably Psmith in the City, or one of the many golfing stories. Plum nails the irrepressible optimism (and baffled disappointment) of all duffer golfers, of which I am one.

Who are the authors - other than P G Wodehouse - that have inspired you, and what have you learned from them?

Where to begin?

I love the detail and structure of Virginia Woolf; the profane absurdism of Tom Sharp; the comic complexity of John Finnemore; the linguistic acrobatics of Tom Stoppard; the dark farce of Evelyn Waugh; the languid calm of Anthony Powell; the ear for dialogue of Victoria Wood (and Alan Bennett); and, well, I could go on. Indeed, there’s a scene in Jeeves & The King of Clubs inspired by Edward Gorey’s The Curious Sofa.

As a photographer, do you use visuals to inspire your writing process?

When planning Jeeves & The King of Clubs I did create a complex, multi-coloured fold-out schematic of the plot – detailing what would take place at every point of every day during the week in which the action occurs. Also, I doodle quite a bit when thinking.

Jeeves & the King of Clubs
by Ben Schott

Do you have a favourite treat or tipple while writing is under way? Perhaps a Jeeves restorative cocktail - just for research purposes? 

Coffee. Coffee. And, coffee. Did I mention coffee?

Also, when words are flowing, Champagne. And when words get sticky, Champagne.

What is your writing ritual and regimen? Do you have a daily routine, are you a ‘panster’ or ‘plotter’? Do you write by hand or by smartphone, etc? 

I tend to do my best writing in bed - with coffee - before the day has started. The lion's share of writing is done on a laptop, but I hand-write scenes I find particularly tricky. I use my phone to jot down ideas, words, or phrases when I am out and about, and something even dictate short passages as a voicemail to myself. I set myself no word-count targets, and am deeply suspicious of the 'daily routines of famous authors' infographics that populate the web.

What manner of research did you undertake for this homage to the late, great P G Wodehouse?

The central seam of my research was into the language of the period. I pored over dictionaries of historical slang, and trawled through the Oxford English Dictionary for words and phrases that captured the cadence and rhythm of the 1910s, ’20s, and early ’30s.

They key to Wodehouse, I believe, lies in the choice of every single word, and my aim was to evoke each character’s unique vocabulary and tone. There is, for example, a world of difference between Jeeves saying “Sir.” and “Sir?” – and when he utters an “Indeed, sir?” the floorboards should tremble a little. I also delved deep into the history of London’s Clubland, private banking, bespoke tailoring, auction houses, and transient gambling establishments. All feature in the book.

What message do you think the life, times and books of P G Wodehouse have for today? 

What the world needs now, is laughs, sweet laughs … to coin a lyric.

P G Wodehouse was given the Mark Twain Prize in 1936 ‘for having made an outstanding and lasting contribution to the happiness of the world’ – do you think the world needs more happiness in these exciting times? As someone who gives inspirational talks for business, can you offer us any reasons to be cheerful over the next few years?

I’m not sure anyone who has heard me speak would describe my presentations as “inspirational”, and I can think of few reasons to be cheerful now or in the near future. All the more reason, then, to escape at speed into the sunlit uplands of Wodehouse and Wooster.

What are your writing plans and ambitions for the future?

Plans? Ambitions? Oh, dear me no.

Thank you, Mr Ben Schott!

For more Ben Schott  news, updates and info check-out his 

Thursday, 11 October 2018

History, Hearsay and Heresy – an interview with Dee Dee Chainey and Willow Winsham

Folklore Thursday has become a weekly highlight for well over 30,000 'followers' around the world. The twitter feed regularly breaks the internet - well not literally, but it does often hit the limit of 2,400 tweets per day, that is roughly a speed of 100 tweets per-hour… 

It all started back in 2015 and within a year it became one of the fastest growing hashtags, attracting the attention of the national press with articles in The Independent and on the BBC… It is a social media success story built on love, not money, by a small group of friends dedicated to the gathering, sharing and preserving of folklore from around the world. The Folklore Thursday webzine has grown into the hub of a global community and whilst its content may be great fun to browse, it has also become and invaluable repository of folklore wit and wisdom…

So, what is folklore and why are we still fascinating with it in our modern high-tech world? The stories we want to see and hear again and again, in best-selling novels and blockbuster movies, more often than not, have their roots in the traditional age-old tales re-told down the generations. Knowingly or inadvertently, most horror and fantasy writers are drawing upon folklore. Folklore begins as a way of preserving ideas and knowledge but, a little like Chinese whispers, often gets weirder and more interesting through the ages.

In this extended Brought to Book special for The Scrawl, Remy Dean, an occasional contributor to the Folklore Thursday webzine himself, talks to its co-founders, Dee Dee Chainey (above left) and Willow Winsham (right), both popular writers with academic backgrounds and an evident enduring enthusiasm for folklore…

Dee Dee is the author of A Treasury of British Folklore: Maypoles, Mandrakes and Mistletoe, which was published by National Trust Books earlier this year, and Willow’s second book on the history of witches, England's Witchcraft Trials, is out now in paperback.

REMY: Hello Dee Dee and Willow! Can you introduce yourselves and tell us a little bit about your backgrounds?

DEE DEE: Hi, great to talk to you today, I’m co-founder of the Twitter hashtag day, #FolkloreThursday, and the associated website, which we like to call an online magazine. I’m also a writer, mostly working on folklore projects.

Before my work in writing and folklore, I was actually a heritage education manager, working in schools, and also with charities and museums. One of my favourite projects was working with the Liverpool International Nordic Community, a local cultural heritage initiative which involved promoting Scandinavian heritage within Liverpool schools and the wider community, since a huge number of people from all over Scandinavia settled in the region as it was a port, and there’s a long history of Viking links too. The other was as outdoor education manager for a forest school – it was a lovely place, based on the Scandinavian nursery model, so we spent most of our days outside in the forest garden and woodlands looking at all kinds of heritage: tangible, cultural and natural. A good few years ago now, I injured my knee while walking and ended up with a long-term injury, which meant I couldn’t do any active, outdoor work for around two years. All things have an upside though, as this is what led me to refocus on writing – things usually work out in the end!

WILLOW: Writing-wise, I’ve been scribbling down stories and things that caught my interest since I can remember; my first epic written at the age of five charting the adventures of Cat and Dog has been lost to time, which is probably for the best!

Later on, due to some really inspiring history teachers at school, I developed a passion for the subject, but never saw it as more than a hobby, despite taking two history courses at college. I was all set to start a Social Work degree but had a change of heart at the last moment – I took a year out to travel, then enrolled on a history degree programme and, academically, never looked back.

After uni, I worked with adults and children with autism and other special needs, but continued to write and research in my 'spare-time'. After leaving work when my daughter was born, I realized writing was what I really wanted to do, and have spent the best part of the last decade slowly but surely making that a reality!

REMY: What were the first books you can remember reading that really grabbed you and carried you along?

DEE DEE: I’d have to say a group of books: the Ladybird series of fairy tales. I remember reading those, and having them read to me, when I was really small. Two of my favourites were The Tinder Box and The Little Mermaid. I was fascinated by the hidden rooms under the tree in the first, and the ‘Daughters of Air’ in the latter. Strange, the things that grab you as a child and stay with you!

WILLOW: My first favourite reads as a child were the Ladybird fairy tale books, too! Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Red Riding Hood... I had them read to me, over and over, and continued to read them when I could do so myself. The illustrations have stuck with me for years, and I’ve managed to track down some of the same editions to share with my own children.

REMY: Do you have an all-time favourite book, or one that you have re-read a few times?

WILLOW: Now that is a hard one! If I had to pick just one, it would probably have to be Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. It’s the book I’ve read most out of any, and I’ve come back to it over and over again throughout the years. It’s my reading equivalent of comfort food! The message I took from it as a child was that girls and women should strive to be and do whatever they want and shouldn’t be held back by expectations – later on, discovering a little more of the struggles the author faced throughout her life, that central message became all the more poignant, and one I never forgot. I’m Looking forward to my daughter reading it when she’s ready, and the boys too!

DEE DEE: Yes, a really difficult one! A few that I’ve read as an adult come to mind, but I’d be hard pushed to choose just one, since they’re all so different. I seem to keep buying copies of Dolmens for the Dead, and I think Lefebvre’s The Production of Space is just incredible; I also love His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, and Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle...

My favourite as a child was The Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton – I was just entranced by the idea that you could pop your head up at the top of the tree and be in a different land each time. I think I’ve probably carried that idea with me through life, and maybe taken it a little too far – I’ve lived in so many places, and travelled around for such long periods, it does seem a little like living up at the top of the Faraway Tree sometimes! I think books do really change your way of thinking, and can really define so many things about a person and their life. You can learn so much about someone – their dreams and fears – from the books they read.

REMY: What recent books have you read and thoroughly enjoyed?

DEE DEE: That’s also really difficult! I tend to read different types of books at once, at different times of day. One I’ve just finished – my evening and weekend reading – was Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley, a novel set in Suffolk, just before the Second World War. It’s a tale of how a rural community deals with changing times, the gradual disappearance of traditional culture, and how folk culture can be appropriated by certain unsavoury ideologies. Really brilliant stuff. My morning reading is currently Shanon Sinn’s The Haunting of Vancouver Island. It’s a series of ghost stories, written from a research angle and looking at the historical perspective, but the thing I like most about it is how it gives an insight into such different landscapes and cultures from those in Britain, from First Nations history to the colonisation of British Columbia. It’s also surprisingly spiritual.

WILLOW: I’ve recently finished two books. The first was Swansong by Kerry Andrew. It follows a young woman, Polly, who is attempting to escape her demons by taking a trip to the highlands of Scotland. What she doesn’t count on however is becoming entangled in a web of myth, folklore and legend in an increasingly terrifying chain of events that unfolds around her. I won’t spoil the ending, but you won’t be disappointed – my only complaint is I lost a lot of sleep as I couldn’t bring myself to put it down several nights in a row!

On the non-fiction front was Ghosts of Wales by Mark Rees. It is a superb look at tales of ghosts and haunting from the Victorian archives, and Mark’s depth of research and knowledge, along with his passion for the subject, really shines through. Definitely one for anyone with an interest in things that go bump in the night!

REMY: Who have been your favourite authors, and what have you learnt from them?

DEE DEE: I love fantasy authors like Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, but also Terry Pratchett – mostly for the magic in their writing, but also their skill with making the language twist and turn in such clever ways. My favourite non-fiction author has to be Aubrey Burl, as he delves into the world of archaeology, something which can be really dry if done badly, and he keeps it all so factual and sensible while still imbuing the world with such magic. So timeless.

In terms of what I’ve learnt from them, I’d say for sure that even facts can have feeling, and need to be put in a social, personal and emotional framework – that’s the only thing that makes writing unique. And to never be afraid to put yourself in your writing – to bend the rules and try new ways of doing things – that’s the only way to find your authentic voice and say something that matters.

WILLOW: Another tough one to call, but Enid Blyton definitely has to be on the list; I devoured many of her books as a child, and I think those instilled a love for adventure and the magical in writing – along with the importance of a good midnight feast!

More recently, Ben Aaronovitch is a firm favourite – as well as writing a cracking series filled with folkloric references, he is a master at peppering seemingly innocuous clues throughout his work that then turn out to be major plot points later on.

Green Man illustration by Joe McLaren
from A Treasury of British Folklore
by Dee Dee Chainey

REMY: Do you have writing rituals, or a tried and tested process?

DEE DEE: I write every day since it’s my day job, but I think the thing I’d have to say is constantly reminding myself that 70% of writing is in the editing, so the first draft doesn’t need to be perfect. If you aim for perfection your writing is always stilted, and often never finished.

I tend to write things twice: a dry, factual version just to get down my ideas and the bits and pieces that need to go in – but always read your sources first, and then write; you can check the facts later. This way your writing is more natural, and you emphasise the bits that stuck with you, rather than merely rewriting your sources bit by bit!

Then I go back and rewrite it in a more ‘human’ way, and try to add-in how I really feel about the topic, which I hope brings a little more emotion and magic to my writing – I think it’s important to always try to write with honesty and passion. Who wants to read something that doesn’t really say anything about the world, or why your topic is worth writing or reading about?

WILLOW: One thing I have learned over the years is that waiting for the “right” moment to write really doesn’t work for me! Especially since becoming a mother I’ve really had to hone the ability to snatch any little moment that presents itself, for instance, while my toddler naps, and my big two are doing their maths work. I’ll often email ideas or rough paragraphs to myself on my phone when on the bus or the kids are at a class. I’m a firm believer in the throw words at the page approach. If you have something down – anything – you have something to work with and mould and tidy later. There is nothing more daunting than the blank page!

REMY: What motivates you to write?

WILLOW: It sounds utterly cliched but it’s true – I don’t think I could not write? If I had no way of recording them, I would just write the words in my head! Some people knit, or make cards, or paint – my creative outlet is - crafting words - which is lucky really, because I am utterly terrible at making anything with my hands!

There are days, obviously, when it’s harder to get those words down on the page than others. At those times, the satisfaction of seeing a piece of writing grow and take shape as it edges towards completion spurs me on – being able to fashion the words into something that is meaningful and enjoyable to other people is a lovely motivation when things are tough.

DEE DEE: Hmm, difficult! I’m one of those people who is always thinking a million things at once, I often say I have 8 different thought tracks running in my head at once (although I’ll admit at least track 8 is gibberish!) I tend to constantly analyse things, and make connections, while also thinking about some sort of myth or strange place I read about, with a whole track dedicated to cake and what I’m having for dinner. I’ve always told myself stories as I‘m walking, or even pottering round the house, whether it’s about the landscape I’m in, or just watching ideas lead on to the next like tree branches. It’s probably just a natural thing to put those down on paper, to capture them, and also to take some of the things out of my head – once I’ve written them down I can file them away to be used later and then forget about them. I actually have tens of Trello boards with different themes for snippets and ideas that I come across. It’s a great way of mapping the ideas, and physically dragging them round to make different patterns and connections. I used to use post-it notes, but I can’t always read my own handwriting! Did that even answer the question? I’ve probably jumped from track three to six without realising – it tends to happen a lot!

REMY: What are you working on at the moment?

DEE DEE: Are we letting the cat out of the bag yet Willow? I’m assuming we’re not! What I can say is that we’re working on a project together at the moment, and we’re very excited about it, so watch this space!

WILLOW: As Dee says, we’re keeping quiet on our joint endeavour for a while longer!

DEE DEE: I’m also putting something together myself about folklore and landscape. Again, it’s too early to say too much, but it’s something I’ve wanted to write about for a long time, and I’m finally getting round to it!

REMY: Can you tell us about your involvement with Folklore Thursday and how that came about?

DEE DEE: I think it probably came about from Willow and I spending too much time thinking about folklore in all honesty! We were on Twitter, joking about running off to the Efteling fairy tale theme park. That got us thinking about how, while there were quite a few existing hashtags to share general tales and writing, there was no central place to share or find out about folklore. We just decided to create that place, as we knew a lot of people on Twitter were already passionate about it. We were surprised how much it took off, but pleased, obviously!

WILLOW: Founding #FolkloreThursday with Dee Dee was one of those happy accidents that you look back on years later and can’t imagine things being any different. As she’s already explained, the idea came about from an initial conversation, and since then the project has developed and thrived in a quite thrilling fashion. It still amazes me daily how many people take part and the huge show of enthusiasm and support the hashtag has received over the last three years – we are looking forward to hopefully many more to come!


You have written A Treasury of British Folklore: Maypoles, Mandrakes and Mistletoe for the National Trust – how did that come about?

I did! They actually emailed me, and asked if I knew anyone that might like to write it. I replied with: I would! Luckily, they didn’t see that as too churlish, and seemed quite happy with the idea, so the project went from there.

A Treasury of British Folklore by Dee Dee Cainey
(click image for preview or to purchase)

Why do you think people are so interested in folklore? …and becoming more interested, it seems!

I think folklore really taps in to something primal in all of us. We are often told stories from when we’re tiny, so I think hearing folk and fairy tales can be quite comforting in one sense. I also think the symbolism and tales really tap in to something that we all share, and teach us the social norms of our own cultures and humanity as a whole – it’s a way of learning the do’s and don’ts of life, and we all like a bit of drama with that!

There are also many other types of folklore too, like foodways and crafts, and I think people still love those. Often recipes are something that are passed through families, or are specific to a region or town. Because of that they really tie us to other people, and even bring back memories of ‘our gran’s pies’, or ‘granddad’s stew’, and when we cook them for ourselves it’s an opportunity to share that cooking with other people, and then share the food we’ve prepared (my favourite bit!) In essence, I think folklore gives us a sense of belonging: to a community, both local and global, but also a sense of place – it locates us in the world, and helps us negotiate our identity, as well as giving a sense of how to navigate the world.

What gave you the confidence to write as ‘an authority’ on the subject?

To be honest, I think for a lot of my younger days, I thought people were better skilled than me, better equipped, more prepared. One of the major things I’ve learned as I got older is that’s just nonsense!

We are all just as able as everyone else if we put our minds to doing something; that’s the only secret to confidence – choosing to have it! And I think that with that realisation also comes the awareness that since we’re all able, we all have a responsibility to contribute and give our voice to the conversation, in the areas where we have something to offer.

Heritage is something I’ve always been passionate about – I remember making labels for my ‘museum’ and charging people an entrance fee when I was about 6 years old, and I’ve been obsessed with it, in all its forms, since then. I studied archaeology at university, along with aspects of mythology, theology and cultural heritage, and ended up specialising in two things: how landscapes are linked with the creation of personal and social identities, and how heritage should be ‘presented’ and interpreted for the public –community education, to sum it up more simply. In essence, this is at the root of my approach to heritage in general, and probably why #FolkloreThursday came about, as it’s about trying to get people involved in their own cultural heritage, and share that with other people. Writing a book on the cultural heritage of Britain – from tales to traditions and beliefs – is really just putting down what I’ve always worked with on paper. The biggest challenge was actually trying to be comprehensive enough to make everyone feel included in the book, and find something relevant to them and the places they know with such a small word count!

It was also quite difficult to summarise some of the more complex mythologies and debates into something bite sized, without ignoring the fact that folklore morphs and changes over the centuries, and there’s often more than one version. I feel that, in the end, the book isn’t telling a story of Britain, it’s there to draw people in to their own story, and do something with the things within the pages – folklore is never static or done with, it’s a living thing, so the book should be seen in that way: as a resource and a starting point.

illustration by Joe McLaren from A Treasury of British Folklore

What is folklore?

Gosh, there’s a question! We’ve asked a lot of different people to write articles about this for us for, as there’s no one definition to rule them all, unfortunately. Many people interpret it differently, but it basically covers tales, beliefs, traditions and practices passed on from one person to another throughout a community. So that can mean fairy tales or folk tales, but also myths and legends – including sacred stories.

What folklore definitely doesn’t mean is that something isn’t true, or is just nonsense – calling a sacred story or religious text folklore is in no way taking away from its value, validity or sacred nature, it’s just saying it’s a shared belief that is passed on.

Folklore also covers things like folk art, traditional crafts, dress, and recipes, also urban legends, and even things like ghosts and internet memes. It’s so many things! I’d recommend taking a look at some of the articles on site written by some folklore academics like: Lyne S McNeillPaul Cowdell and Jeana Jorgensen 

Folk Horror is a genre that really seems to be taking hold again (after its 1970s heyday) what would you say are defining features of that genre and do you have any tips for what to read or watch to get an idea of what it’s all about?

I think when people talk about Folk Horror people automatically look to films and books, but I think there’s so much more than that now; it’s pervading so many areas of art, music, and there a whole new depth to it – it’s almost becoming an identity. There’s a huge conversation about what people are calling ‘the English Eerie’, and Robert MacFarlane wrote a great piece on this a few years ago. Melissa Harrison definitely needs another mention here.

Adam Scovell is the go-to guy for this, he’s the folk horror film expert, for sure, and has written the defining book: Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange. Also Folk Horror Revival is a main hub, obviously – do check out Andy Paciorek. Thom Burgess creates amazing graphic novels, and you should definitely rate John Reppion and Leah Moore’s work as part of the genre, and John’s Spirits of Place project. David Southwell’s Hookland is just amazing, you can find a lot out about that from his Twitter account. And of course Paul Watson for photography and art. Hare and Tabor too. The music from the scene is quite amazing, like The Hare and the Moon, The Heartwood Institute and Revbjelde.

It’s very much linked to psychogeography, which some people prefer to call ‘landscape punk’ – check out Gary Budden and Influx Press, also Cat Vincent, and Gareth E. Rees.

I’ve probably missed out loads of names, and I’ll kick myself later! I’ll just end with saying that if you haven’t watched The Wicker Man, you haven’t lived!

I think rather than give you a quick definition I’ve just pointed you in different directions, haven’t I?

Plenty to be going on with - thank you!


You have written two books about witches can - Accused: British Witches Throughout History and England's Witchcraft Trials – can you tell us a little bit about how you approached the subject?

My interest in history has always stemmed from a fascination with the characters within – the details of their lives, whether dramatic or ordinary. As a reader, I cut my teeth on historical biographies and so I guess it only follows that would influence my approach in my own work. From the outset, where the witch trials were concerned, the lack of focus on the individuals became glaringly apparent – these deeply fascinating women and men were being shown in flashes to illustrate wider trends and themes in the history of the witch trials, but very rarely presented as central to the text. I wanted to turn that around, making the accused and the accusers themselves the focus of my books.

Why do you think people are interested in witches?

I think people are drawn to witches for a number of different reasons. The tragedy of so many of the cases holds an undeniable fascination, as does the dramatic nature of some of the better publicised trials. The lure of magic and mystery also draws people in. A lot of people also identify with the plight of those persecuted, I’ve had several people tell me they feel a connection with these cases in one way or another. I think, ultimately, once you strip away the glamour, what you have is ordinary people, living ordinary lives, caught up in situations and events beyond their control – that is going to speak to people and draw them to the subject.

Did you have a ‘mission’ when you set-out to write the books? (I’m assuming you may think that witches have been much maligned and misrepresented in some accounts.)

As a historian, the facts and getting it “right” are hugely important to me; striving for that, even if I don’t always achieve it, is at the centre of my work. As an extension of that, in these two books, I wanted to address the huge amount of sensationalism that has been written about witches and witch trials over the years. Such grossly over-inflated figures and claims really muddy the waters, doing the individuals involved a great disservice as they are obscured behind assumptions and exaggerations. I wanted add something to the steadily growing body of work out there that attempts to redress the balance.

I also had a personal curiosity to satisfy, to see if my concept for the books would work, to see if I could pull off writing a whole book, if I could pull it all together. I like to hope that I have been mostly successful in that aim, but only time will tell!

(click cover images for previews or to purchase)

What makes your two books different from each other?

Accused focuses on the stories of 11 different women who were accused of witchcraft across Britain’s history, from the 14th century through to the 20th. Each chapter acts as a telling of her story, not just the accusations made against her and the outcome, but also an exploration of her life as a whole. By extension, it allows comparisons and contrasts to be drawn across several centuries of British history, between beliefs in magic and witchcraft, and also society and communities as a whole.

England’s Witchcraft Trials looks at five of England’s major witch trials from the 16th and 17th centuries, the ones people are most likely to have heard of, such as the Pendle Witches and the atrocities committed under Matthew Hopkins. There’s still the biographical element though within each case, exploring the backgrounds of the main players. This books is, due to its subject matter, a study of a shorter period of time, looking more closely at the main period of witchcraft prosecution in England.

Is there a third witchy book on the way?

Personally, I’d love to do something with the growing collection of accounts of 19th century witchcraft accusations I’ve been amassing over the last couple of years. People tend to assume that all that stopped with the passing of the 1736 Witchcraft Act, but belief in witches and accusations went on well into the 20th century, and the material out there makes for fascinating yet harrowing reading. It’s definitely something I want to explore more in the near future.

Media – particularly movies – seem saturated with witchcraft and witches. Which witch flicks would you say have got it ‘right’, or closest to?

To be totally honest, I tend to avoid media portrayals of the subject! If I do watch, I look at a film or show for what it is – if its primary aim is entertainment, I try to go along for the ride, not sit and pick it apart – and if I can’t, I quickly switch off!

I’m also an utter wuss and easily freak myself out – I’m fine when I’m watching something, but that night is another matter. I still can’t look in a mirror after dark thanks to an episode of Supernatural – I’ve learned my lesson!

One exception however is The Witch. It was a really gripping movie that has stayed with me months later and is definitely on my re-watch list. It operated on so many different levels, taking the viewer on a journey through a blend of history, folklore and belief – one that I’m happy to break a habit for and sit and dissect!

Sounds a bit like a description of Folklore Thursday!

- Thank you, Dee Dee and Willow!

Huge thanks to you for inviting us!

Click logo above to visit the 

Dee Dee Chainey and Willow Winsham were talking with Remy Dean

and you can read Remy's contributions to Folklore Thursday - HERE

Thursday, 23 August 2018

Profit and Punishment - an interview with Conor O’Clery

Conor O’Clery is a respected journalist who worked for the Irish Times for thirty years and was twice awarded Irish Journalist of the Year. He reported on the 9/11 attacks in New York which he witnessed from three blocks away. He is the author of a dozen books, some tackling complex aspects of political history.

He was a resident correspondent in Moscow for the last four years of the Soviet Union and has written a book centred around the very last day of the Soviet Union, Moscow December 25 1991. He married into a Russian-Armenian family and to write his latest book, The Shoemaker and His Daughter, he draws upon the personal history of his wife and her family as a unique perspective on 80 years of Russian History since Stalin, through the administrations of Kruschev, Brezhnev, Gorbachev to perestroika and Putin.

Conor O'Clery
(author photograph courtesy Transworld)

He talks to Kim Vertue for The Scrawl, about his process, and his writing life...

Who have been your favourite authors and what have you learned from them?

In general, Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Voltaire, Graham Green, Hubert Butler – an Irish essayist of mid-20th century. I learned from the Grimm brothers a love of the forests and mysteries of European imagination, from Voltaire insights in the human condition, from Graham Greene the power of story-telling and from Butler the beauty of an elegantly-written essay on politics and conflict.

What motivates you as a writer?

I am basically a story-teller. I like telling people news and bringing news or historical events to life with anecdotes, detail and historical background, and bringing people to life with deft use of dialogue.

The type of books you write must demand a bit of a juggling act between research skills and writing in an accessible way. Do you have a preferred writing approach, ritual or regimen? Do you interview, transcribe, write long-hand, or is it all straight into a PC?

For this book I transcribed all interviews longhand into an interview book. Separately, I compiled a chronology. I also created a bulky file of downloads from the Internet. Moreover, I acquired about seventy-five books for background information, including books on social and political life in the Soviet Union, biographies of Soviet leaders, histories of the Russian, Chechen and Armenian peoples, a work on trial law in the USSR, and, believe it or not, I unearthed a book on the life of the Soviet Automobile, called Comrade Cars.

Did the desire to write The Shoemaker and His Daughter arise as a result of extensive family history research, or was it conceived as a way to tackle the story of Russia since Stalin, from the outset?

The idea came from Brian Langan, then of Transworld, who, along with his colleague Eoin McHugh, pitched it to me over coffee in 2016. They knew the outlines of the story from what I had written in my preface to Moscow, December 25, 1991, The Last Day of the Soviet Union (European edition published by Transworld). The concept was developed through family research and was envisaged from the start as a social history of the Soviet Union and Russia told through the experiences of Zhanna's family, and it became of course a comprehensive family memoir.

The research, and collation of this into cohesive structure, would have been a challenge. How did you tackle this?

I visited Krasnoyarsk and spoke extensively to family members, especially Marietta [Zhanna's mother]. I called Marietta regularly. For other descriptive material I visited Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia and Romania, and I had already extensive experience of the old Soviet Union through living there for more than four years and visiting Grozny and Nagorno-Karabakh in the course of my reporting. Of course, I had my own experiences upon which to draw as a member of the family for the last 26 years and an occasional visitor to their home and dacha.

How did you balance this – with the hindsight of the historian, and as an eye-witness to the latter events in particular?

I compiled a family memoir first. Then I researched and expanded and enriched the telling by adding and interweaving the social and historical landscape into the text.

The great humanity of your father and mother in-law shines through, their personal integrity and family loyalty offers a beacon through the upheaval of recent history. One is also struck by how they embraced their new Siberian home, the taiga, and its austere beauty. The description of a meal shared at their dacha is particularly evocative. One has a sense of timeless things, like a feast shared and family events celebrated, are the constants that can overcome so much suffering. Is your wife and her family pleased at your portrait of their history? 

Yes, they are. Marietta was rather touched to have her family's story told, but I detected concern at the start about resurrecting the family secret - Stanislav's imprisonment [Stanislav Suvorov, the shoemaker and Zhanna's father]. She was relieved that my research established the injustice of his imprisonment. Indeed, the book rehabilitates Stanislav. Zhanna found it painful to recall some events, particularly pertaining to her husband Viktor's death, but she was committed - once the decision to go ahead with the book was made - that it should be a full and honest account.

Propaganda poster from the era of Stalin

Will it be translated into Russia and made available there? 

Not yet known. I hope so.

The personal hardship of so many Russians, and the story of the Armenians and Chechens in particular, are made vivid by this story. It seems the forced movement of peoples within Russia was one way Stalin sought to dilute national identities, yet these are still an important factor in understanding modern Russia. Currently Brexit is underway here in the UK following some baffling political decisions, while Lithuania Latvia and Estonia all embrace their EC membership. Clearly, there is still much focus of National borders and integrity within the melting pots of Europe, Asia, America. After writing this book do you have any opinions on how this may reach resolution so that ultimately more global concerns, such as climate change and food production, can be addressed in a way to help the future of humans and the world in general?

If the UK had a large and aggressive neighbour, as have Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, there would be no question of separating from a protective entity like the EU or NATO. Conversely, a Christian country like Armenia has to look to Russia for last-course protection because of its isolation in an unfriendly Moslem world.

Did you recognize any parallels between the history of Russia and that of Ireland?

Both countries had for centuries a peasantry ruled by a small elite, and had revolutions at roughly the same time, but Ireland opted for the democratic structures inherited from Britain, rather than communism. There are some striking social similarities between the two. People in both countries know their poets. Also both have a fondness for alcohol, story-telling and anecdotes.

What Irish tradition or attitude do you feel you have exported to Russia?

I’ll assume that the 'you' in your question refers to Ireland. Well, there are Irish bars in every Russian city - several in Krasnoyarsk - which have conveyed a rather faux Irish drinking tradition and there are St. Patrick's Day parades in Petersburg and Moscow…

What is your favourite, essentially Russian, food that you may crave?

Pancakes with caviar.

What is the most positive thing you have learned from your research and knowledge of political history?

I learned that sometimes, in the words of a centuries-old Irish ballad, The Man from God Knows Where, that "the wrong does cease and the right does prevail". These words ran through my head when I was reporting on the successful efforts of the suppressed East Timorese to end a cruel Indonesian occupation.

In general, the most positive thing I have learned is the resilience and the basic decency of the vast majority of people in the world.

Finally, what ‘in-a-nut-shell’ could you offer young journalists or historians beginning their careers?

Get out of the office.

Meet people rather than communicate by telephone.

Go to events, rather than monitoring news on other media.

Never assume anything- it is one of the great sins of journalism.

If reporting abroad pay people the basic courtesy of trying to speak their language.

Never miss a deadline.

Most of all make your writing interesting - detail and colour are everything.

Thank you, Conor O’Clery.

Conor O’Clery was talking with KimVertue

is published 23 August 2018 (hardback) by Doubleday Ireland.

The Shoemaker and His Daughter
by Conor O'Clery

This is the story of an ordinary family who bear witness to extraordinary times as the slow demise of communism and the chaotic embrace of capitalism batters and shapes their lives. A powerful tale of this secretive world, spanning more than eighty years of Soviet and Russian history. Husband to the shoemaker’s daughter, Zhanna, Conor provides a beautiful insight into the hardships of life during this time, the compelling tale of some exceptional women, and the remarkable relationships of the Suvorov family.