DENYSE Woods is the artistic director of the West Cork Literary Festival, which runs in Bantry in July.
Woods is also an author. Born in Boston in 1958, the daughter of an Irish diplomat, she studied English and Arabic at UCD. Her travels in the Middle East included a stint as a translator in Iraq; she has lived in Belgium, Italy, Australia and the UK, and now lives with her family in Cork.
Although part-time, the role of artistic director is time-consuming, and relegates Ms Woods’s writing to the back burner. Writing is her passion. “There is a saying that you don’t become a writer; you either are one or you aren’t,” she says. “As a writer, you are always scribbling, it is an itch you are always trying to scratch. I had a great career, but I never really wanted to do anything else except write; it has always been there, and there comes a time when you have to give up the day job despite the risks involved.”
Woods’s first novel, Overnight To Innsbruck, was published in 2002, and her second, Like Nowhere Else, in 2005. Like Nowhere Else reflected her love of the Middle East and was set in Yemen. Her third novel, If Not Now, published in 2008, delves into relationships. “I still love the Arab world; it is a very special place and we should look after it,” she says. “It is tragic what’s happening at present, with so many young people being tortured and killed despite their great courage. Iraq is also a complete mess and we must accept some of the responsibility for that. The transition to democracy takes time, particularly when there are no civic structures in place ... My favourite place in the Middle East is Yemen, because it remains to true to itself and so resolutely Yemini. Hopefully, it can avoid the fate of some of its neighbours.”
For aspiring writers, Ms Woods’s advice is straightforward: keep writing and keep what you write. “I listened to the writer Anne Tyler give a talk recently, and she recalls whispering stories to herself from the age of four. Her brother complained continuously that the sound of her voice kept him awake. It is good to go into the world in your 20s, and that forms the ground work for what you write in later life. If you are a storyteller, then there is little you can do to make that compulsion go away.
“It doesn’t even matter that much what you write. My training came from writing letters, because I moved around so much. A good letter requires the same discipline as a novel in terms of characters, humour, evoking emotion or describing places,” she says.
Writing is not a guaranteed route to riches, and even the big names in literature can struggle. “It can be hard and certainly you need a thick skin,” Ms Woods says. “You have to get used to rejection and if you do get published, then bad reviews are always a possibility. You can’t be precious about your work, and actually it helps to fall out of love with your own writing and become your own harshest critic. You might believe that your editor will be blown away by your amazing descriptive powers and sense of humour, but chances are he or she won’t be.
“One of the interesting events at the West Cork Literary Festival this year is ‘writer idol,’ where anyone can anonymously submit a page of their work, which will be read aloud by Kate Thompson. A panel of judges will hold up their hands when they have had enough. It is like Graham Norton’s red chair and should be good fun. We also have one-to-one sessions, for aspiring writers, with Suzanne Baboneau, who is a senior publishing executive with Simon & Schuster in the UK.”
E-books will hugely change publishing. Does Woods fear for writing and the ability of writers to survive in this digital age? “Facebook and texting are helping the language to develop, but I do worry that the next generation will lose the ability to concentrate and write longer pieces,” she says. “There was an article in The Guardian lately which noted everything that goes online ends up free in the end, and that could have huge ramifications for us all. The only thing we can do is to support publishers who have the ability to protect copyright.”
* The West Cork Literary Festival runs from Sunday, Jul 8 to Saturday Jul 14: www.westcorkliteraryfestival.ie.
DESAI, SHREVE LEAD DISTINGUISHED LIST OF READERS
THE festival begins on Sunday, Jul 8. That evening there will be readings by John MacCarthy who has written a new book on Palestine, and Indian writer Anita Desai, whose recent book of three novellas has received considerable critical acclaim. Other high profile readings include American novelist Anita Shreve, (inset), Norwegian writer Kjersti Skomsvold and crime writing partnership Nicci French. Look out also for Nigerian author Noo Saro-Wiwa, who returned to her native country more than a decade after her father Ken Saro-Wiwa was killed by the government. Irish authors include popular poet Paul Muldoon, Irish poet Doireann Ní Ghríofa, the novelists Dermot Healy and Glenn Patterson, and travel writer Mary Russell.
The Bantry Bay Series of Maritime Lectures in association with the Bantry Bay Harbour Commissioners is a series of talks based on a maritime theme and will include contributions from Dava Solbel, author of Longitude; irrepressible sailor and writer Theo Dorgan; and D Mac Síthigh and Paddy Bushe as Gaeilge. On a different note, Andrew Lambert will give a talk focusing on naval history and the development of naval historical writing.
On Thursday, Jul 12, Michael Parkinson will reminisce on his long career in broadcasting with Miriam O’Callaghan, and there will be a talk by Dr Maureen Gaffney on ‘flourishing’ on Monday, Jul 9.
There will be a number of workshops during the festival with writers such as Dermot Healy, Claire Kilroy, Lorna Siggins and Michael Harding.
For those with a competitive edge, the JG Farrell Award will be presented for the outstanding first chapter of a novel, and there will also be a return of the FISH Flash Fiction Competition.
Throw in a Heritage Walk, Editor-in-Residence Session, Writer Idol and readings for children, and there should be something for just about everyone.