This Friday's Book Review will feature Orla McAlinden's new book The Accidental Wife. She is an award winning Irish author (her new book won the Eludia award in 2014) and she has written several book reviews for Sacred Chickens.
The following blog post is published here with her permission. It's a lovely rumination on writing and grief. Please check back in for the review and the link to her book on Friday. The link to her new book is also found throughout and at the end of this essay.
Guest Post by Orla McAlinden
Burial to book launch…
I never intended to write a book (or three) it just kind of happened. Now that the launch for my first published book, entitled The Accidental Wife is organised and confirmed for Wednesday 21st September, in Barker and Jones Bookshop Naas, I thought I’d share an essay I wrote a few years ago about how the floodgates opened and the words poured out. I should of course have shared this two weeks ago, on my dad’s birthday, but that’s me…the genius idea always comes a bit too late.
So here’s the essay, written three years ago when I hardly knew how to switch on a laptop!
My father’s parting gift
365 days ago, I had no idea that one year later I would have written a memoir. I have always known that I can make words leap and soar and bounce around, but I never felt I had anything about which to write. “How many books about Teenage Mutant Ninja Vampires does the world actually need?” I wondered.
My father and I, 1970s Armagh, clip-clopping along. We shared many interests: a passion for horses, history, old books, peace and quiet. These shared hobbies drove us out into the highways and by-ways of rural Armagh. He taught me to ride. He walked beside me, holding a long rope, for years, until I was judged safe, and released. During these long, self-indulgent trips a relationship grew that transcended the hero-worship small girls have for their fathers. We were friends.
My father died a year ago today, after an accident from which he was recovering slowly but satisfactorily. We re-arranged the furniture, on Friday, to facilitate his return from hospital on Monday. He died on Sunday morning.
The early, numb weeks passed in a straightforward fashion. I had four very young children, and a husband to organise. Women whispered at the school gates. “Isn’t she doing well? Isn’t she coping great?” I wondered what all the fuss was about. Friendly people commiserated and I would reply, “Yes indeed, he was a very elderly man. Yes, it was for the best. Yes, things could be a lot worse.” I really thought I meant it!
Afterwards? What I’d call ‘the lost weeks’. I would spend a morning full of murderous rage and frustration; tearing the house apart looking for my wallet, only to find it in the salad drawer of the fridge. I would return from Tesco to feed my family of six for a week, with a half-dozen unripe, unwanted mangoes, and no milk. I leapt to my feet, cursing, late for the school run, having sat down for five minutes, two hours previously.
As always, in times of crisis, I turned to the written word. I ploughed through heavy tomes by eminent psychologists and sociologists. Eventually I landed, by chance, upon ‘You’ll get over it’ by Virginia Ironside. She was full of wise advice and sympathy. I was not going mad; I was grieving!
A little secret tribute
On 27th July 2012, I opened my rarely used laptop. I would write a story, a family history. It would be a secret tribute to my father. I would show nobody. Three hours later, I looked at the work. It was a dusty, half-remembered family legend, passed on to me, probably accidentally, while he re-told and embellished it for his own friends. The piece was finished. It was whole and complete. I did not think, or pause for breath. I submitted it everywhere, I didn’t know any better, didn’t know that you shouldn’t submit your first story, didn’t know it’s supposed to be rubbish and live in a drawer forever.
It was published in January 2013, by The Chatahoochee Review in Georgia, USA.
Then I couldn’t stop
The writing continues. I sit down alone. Two hours later I read my new story. It spills out, fizzing, on to the screen, while I type, five or six disorganised fingers flailing, struggling to keep up with the words. Fiction, scripts, memoir, family tales.
A precious child-free hour, snatched here and there, equals a thousand words vomited into the open maw of a blank screen. During the other 160 hours per week the stories jostle and fight for position, shrieking to be released next from their incarceration. “Write me!” they plead. “Tell me.”
I edit in the kitchen, lunch-boxing a thousand ham sandwiches or stirring bolognese. Insomnia is my constant companion. I lie unquiet in the small hours; stories flash and streak across my mind until I long to clamp my hands over my brain’s ears, and scream “Enough! Let me be!”
My stories and memoirs whirl across the internet; a prize here, a shortlist there, hundreds of rejections. A short story which has arrived in a blur of busy fingers, unprovoked, uninvited, lurks in my hard drive. Each time I log on, that story- a young woman deceived by an American GI during the war- screams its rage and its indignation. “I am not a story!” it yells; “I am a PROLOGUE, get me out of here!”
And the tears have come too. I cry constantly. I cry, listening to the news. I sob at adverts for cheese, and at Tom and Jerry. I weep when my children laugh. Thank God for Virginia Ironside!
How long can this exquisite torture last? If the beehive of buzzing words sinks back into hibernation, leaving me sane again, I will be ever grateful that I, briefly, wrote. My hope is that I have been permanently blessed; my father’s parting gift.
Deep breath, everyone
Wow! I really wrote that. The extravagance of the words and the melodrama makes me cringe. Reviewing that piece makes me realise how far I’ve come, in a fairly short space of time. Endless, hypercritical revision has cut thousands of adjectives, adverbs and exclamations out of The Accidental Wife.
If I wrote that essay today it would be half as long, and a lot less hysterical. But the American GI has sneaked into The Accidental Wife, and the world can breathe more easily, because the long-form memoir is safely where it belongs, on a hard-drive, never to see the light of day.