Thursday, 26 November 2020

New Book meets Readers

I’ve had a lot to do this week. And at times I wished I had a house-elf to help me. I’d offered to sign my new book, The Skylark’s Call, with a personal dedication for anyone who bought it through my website. And many people have taken me up on this. I’ve got skilled at signing my name with a flourish, and adept at writing the dedications. Most people have asked for the book to be dedicated to someone in particular, perhaps as a Christmas present. The most unusual request, and the most gratifying, was to be asked to write two lines from a poem in my first book as the dedication.

The house-elf could have put each of the books in an envelope, addressed it and sellotaped it closed. Then the house-elf could have gathered the envelopes up and carried them all to the Post Office. But I’m not complaining. I’m delighted, because for each book that has been sold, £1 is being donated to help local cancer survivors and their families. And in just a few days, I’ve raised over £40 for Cancer Focus Northern Ireland.

Because my book is now out, I’ve also begun to get feedback on my work from readers. When you write, you work in a sort of vacuum. Yes, you can discuss early drafts and work in progress with other writers. But you don’t encounter real readers until the book is completed and actually published. I’m absolutely delighted with what has been posted by readers of the The Skylark’s Call on Facebook.

‘Paul Jeffcutt’s poetry is searing, current, humorous and mournful. He emphasizes world news, political issues, the environment and migrant crisis with pain and wit.’ Fiona Murphy McCormack.

‘I can thoroughly recommend this latest book of poetry by Paul Jeffcutt. It has a great variety of themes, styles and voices. It’s a tribute to his persistence that all these poems were written during his three serious bouts of cancer. An amazing achievement.’ Paul Burrows.

The Skylark’s Call is priced at £10 and can be bought online from www.dempseyandwindle.com and from www.pauljeffcutt.net  And if you buy the book through my website, I’d be delighted to sign it for you. The Skylark’s Call is also stocked by No Alibis bookstore in Belfast. For every copy of my book that is sold, £1 will be donated to Cancer Focus. In these difficult times, it’s important that we continue to give support to those suffering from cancer.



Wednesday, 18 November 2020

The Skylark's Call and Cancer Focus


I am a cancer survivor and I’d like to support the work of Cancer Focus through the launch of my new book, The Skylark’s Call. During my years of cancer treatment I got a lot of help from this charity, especially from their counselling service and from the Sing for Life Choir. Now I want to give something in return. For every copy of my book that is sold, £1 will be donated to Cancer Focus. The Skylark’s Call is priced at £10 and can be bought online from www.dempseyandwindle.com and from www.pauljeffcutt.net And if you buy the book through my website, I’d be delighted to sign it for you. The Skylark’s Call is also stocked by No Alibis bookshop in Belfast. In these difficult times, it’s important that we continue to give support to those suffering from cancer.

As you know, I first got cancer in 2011. It came back in 2015 and again in 2016. I wasn’t expected to live for very long. I didn’t think I would write poetry again and I certainly never imagined that I would complete a second collection. I learned to live for each day. I’m delighted, of course, that all these and plenty more good things have come to pass. Life has so many and varied ways of surprising us.

The theme of the The Skylark’s Call is the vitality and impermanence of everyday life. All of the poems in the book were written during my years of treatment for, and recovery from, advanced cancer. The poems don’t seek to address my cancer experience directly, but reflect on the memories and meanings that surround a cluster of places, people and artefacts. Together the poems explore the fragile and often invisible boundary between life and death. In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, this is a territory we are all now having to deal with.

Cancer Focus is a very worthy cause. In 2019 they celebrated 50 years of working to reduce the impact of cancer on people’s lives in Northern Ireland. They provide care and support services for cancer patients and their families; offer a range of cancer prevention programmes to help people lessen their risk of getting cancer; fund scientific research into the causes and treatment of the disease and campaign for better health policy to protect our community and its future. www.cancerfocusni.org




 

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

The Skylark's Call

A box of books has arrived on my doorstep. It contains my new collection of poetry, The Skylark’s Call, published by Dempsey & Windle. I’m delighted of course. And I think it looks great. But I am a bit biased. It’s almost ten years since my first collection, Latch, was published by Lagan Press. That seems an absolute lifetime ago. So much has happened to me over the past decade. The negatives are clear: three large cancerous tumours and four major operations. The positives, similarly so: being together with T for seven happy years and being clear of cancer for almost four.

The theme of the book is the vitality and impermanence of everyday life. This is a subject I know intimately. All of the poems were written during my years of treatment for and recovery from cancer. The poems don’t seek to address my cancer experience directly, but reflect on the memories and meanings that surround a cluster of places, people and artefacts. Together the poems explore the fragile and often invisible boundary between life and death. In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, this is a territory we are all now having to deal with.

The manuscript was in development for the best part of two years. In particular, I’d like to acknowledge the debt of gratitude I have to the late Ciaran Carson. He read and commented on an early draft of the manuscript and led the Queen’s Writers’ Group in his own inimitable fashion, where early drafts of all of the poems in the book were discussed.

The Skylark’s Call has received endorsements from Moyra Donaldson, Kevin Higgins, Damian Smyth and Ian Sansom. I’m grateful for their well chosen words and generous comments on my poetry. The book does contain my best work to date. Individual poems have been published in well regarded journals, such as, Agenda, The Honest Ulsterman, Ink, Sweat & Tears, The Interpreter’s House, Magma, Orbis, Oxford Poetry, Poetry Ireland Review, Poetry Salzburg Review, The Stony Thursday Book and Vallum.  In the book are fifteen poems that have won awards in Ireland, the UK and the USA. There will be a launch via Zoom in December, to which you will all be invited.



The front cover photo is of Machrie Moor on the Isle of Arran. Many thanks to Stuart Waugh of www.jaggythistlephotography.com

Saturday, 24 October 2020

Finished First Draft

I’ve just finished the first draft of my new novel. For three months, I’ve been writing every day. I've gained a new dimension to my writing and I’ve enjoyed it a lot. The first draft is 155,000 words. That’s an average of 1700 words a day. Although, some days I only wrote a few hundred words. My maximum in one day was 4000 words. And that evening, my brain was well and truly fried. When I set out I didn’t really have a plot. All I had was a sketch of a main character and the notion that the novel would involve some crime and some romance. I started writing and just kept going, making it up as I went along. Now I have a raft of characters, two settings that are twenty years apart, plenty of interwoven plot lines and enough loose ends to set the scene for another novel.

Over the past three months, I’ve neglected almost all other things, including this blog. Some days I only wrote the novel, ate and slept. My inbox overflowed, I didn’t deal with correspondence, I didn’t engage in social media and even Ginger Dog began to wonder who I was.

Now I’ve got to the end of the novel, I must admit I’m feeling a slight sense of loss. But this is only the first draft and there is plenty still to do. As I went along, I made changes to the characters and the various plot lines. But I didn’t go back and alter earlier chapters, because that would have interrupted the momentum of writing the story. I just kept a set of notes on the alterations that I would have to make. These now run to twenty pages.

All the advice I’ve seen recommends that you leave the first draft for a number of weeks before you begin to make any alterations. You need to look at the first draft again with fresh eyes, so that you can more clearly see the flaws and the opportunities to improve it.  After all, 155,000 words makes the novel a bit longer than average. So I’ll probably need to cut some of the characters and the plot lines too. That won’t matter too much if it improves the novel. Indeed, when you’ve got to the end, you’re better able to work out how the story should start and unfold.

This is a good time for a gap before beginning work on the second draft. When I began the novel in late July, I was also making final corrections to the manuscript of my second poetry collection, ‘The Skylark’s Call.’ My book will shortly be published by Dempsey & Windle and I now have plenty of work to do for that.



Monday, 21 September 2020

Novel Writing and Ginger Dog

My new novel is going well. I’m almost at the milestone of 100,000 words. I’ve been writing every day for eight weeks. It’s been very intensive so far, with plenty of early starts as well as often getting up in the middle of the night to write notes. I’m a long way through the story now, but I keep getting new ideas. So I’m going to keep writing until I either run out of ideas or I become completely exhausted. During my many hours at the computer, I’m grateful to have a writing companion. His name is Ginger Dog.

Ginger Dog likes to lie on the corner of my desk wedged between the computer screen, my diary and the telephone. Despite his name, Ginger Dog is a cat. I’ve written about him before. You may recall he arrived here a little over two years ago, just after our dog died. He was small, thin and very wary. We since discovered that he wasn’t a true feral cat. He must have had experience of people as a kitten. But then he was abandoned.

Over time, Ginger Dog became used to us and came to the back door regularly to get food. He now spends most of his time in and around the house. From an early age, he began to follow me around. So we called him Ginger Dog. I don’t know why he does it. Perhaps he sees me as a parent or a provider. He also likes to lie down next to me when I’m doing my stretching exercises. He never does any of the the exercises himself (see photo), as he’s flexible enough already.

When he isn’t asleep on my desk, Ginger Dog is writing his own novel. He often feels the urge to stretch out and tap the keyboard with his paws. And when inspired, he stands up and presses the keys. I have no idea what he’s writing, because it is in Cat. But I can give you an exclusive extract below. If you know someone who can translate Cat into English, please get in touch.

ssssssggggggggyyyyyyyyeeeeeennnnnnnnooooooollllllllllllllllllllllllllllllppppppppppppppppppkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvvxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx........................’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’’////////////////////////////////////////////////88888888888888888rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww4444444444444444444444444477777777777777777777777777xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx




 

Monday, 31 August 2020

Writing a New Novel

For the past five weeks I’ve been writing a novel. It’s been going well. I’ve written 64,000 words so far and I’m enjoying it. There seems to be more freedom in writing prose, compared to writing poetry. But it’s just as compulsive. The story is in my head pretty much all of the time. But novel writing is more tiring, because it is so sustained. Usually it would take me only a couple of days to produce the first draft of a poem (which would then be revised over the ensuing weeks and months). I’ve been writing intensively every day for six weeks now, but I’m still only about halfway through the first draft of the novel. I just hope my creative energy and momentum keeps going.

The novel is set in 1961 and in a fictional place. So I suppose that makes it a historical novel of sorts. The place is based on the small country town where I grew up in Gloucestershire. I was inspired to choose 1961 by the Philip Larkin poem ‘Annus Mirabilis’, the first two stanzas of which are below (although he wrote the poem in 1967). The beginning of the 1960’s is interesting to me because it is a cusp between an older social order that has been marked by wartime and rationing and a nascent social order that is in search of new freedoms. Although the Larkin poem focuses on sexual freedom, the novel is concerned with a broader range of issues. That time was also the heyday of British social realist novels, plays and films.

I‘ve been doing little else than writing, eating, sleeping and cycling, for the past six weeks. It’s been much more exhausting than I expected. One day I wrote 3,500 words and my brain was fried. But I still woke up in the middle of the night with ideas for the plot and had to get up and write them down. If I hadn’t I wouldn’t have got back to sleep at all. I began the novel with only a very sketchy plot, which has become deepened and massively altered as I’ve moved along through the story. As I’ve been writing one chapter, the next couple have also been in my head. But I’ve not been working a lot further ahead than that. This gives you more freedom to insert plot twists and turns. I’m thinking that any plot problems can be fixed in the second draft. However, I’ve just been able to envision the end of the book. All I have to do now is to get the characters there.

Annus Mirabilis

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

Up to then there'd only been
A sort of bargaining,
A wrangle for the ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.


Philip Larkin

Sunday, 16 August 2020

Doing the 101

‘Did you enjoy the summer?’ asked the newsagent this morning, as I walked into the shop from the rain. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘pity it was just for one week’. We both smiled, knowing that summer here is often brief and fleeting. At least we’d had an unbroken week of fine and warm weather, before grey skies and rain had returned. I told him that on the last day of summer (yesterday) I’d gone for an all day bike ride and had done 101 miles, my longest ride since 1997. ‘That’s some ride,’ he said, ‘you don’t look knackered, you must have been doing plenty of freewheeling.’ I laughed and told him that I was feeling reasonably okay today. ‘Weren’t you in hospital again recently?’ he said. ‘That was almost three years ago,’ I said. I told him that I was completely recovered from all my cancer treatment and that, strangely enough, I felt I’d even gained things from the ordeal. ‘Well done,’ he said, ‘that bike ride proves it.’

Riding for 100 miles is an endurance challenge, which has two main aspects: physical and mental. The physical challenge is to be healthy enough to keep going at a good pace for eight hours. Here the series of major operations I had was more of a disadvantage. I was chopped open three times in two and a half years, which left lots of internal scar tissue, muscle and nerve damage. Some of these limitations have been overcome with the help of physiotherapy and regular stretching; some just have to be lived with. The other problem was that each time I recovered and built myself back to health after one operation, I was put back to zero by having to return to hospital for yet another operation. This meant that I experienced an accumulated loss of physical health that has taken several years of uninterrupted building up to regain. During my long ride I’m glad to say that I had no major aches and pains, just a few niggles from time to time.

Nutrition is obviously very important too. When I returned, I calculated that I had burnt 4320 calories on the ride. However, I reckon that what I ate during the day came to almost 4000 calories, for I stopped every 20 miles to eat. I began the day with a big bowl of porridge with maple syrup. During the ride I ate one and half malt loaves, eight cereal bars, six bananas and four mini-cheeses. At the end of the ride, I demolished a big slab of pannetone before I drove home for a huge pasta meal. It wasn’t cow pie, but I might well have managed one.

The mental aspect of an endurance event is probably the greater challenge. Keeping up a high level of physical activity for eight hours does require significant determination. This is where I think the ordeal of the cancer treatment, particularly the series of operations, has helped me. Coping with all the setbacks of my treatment required great resilience and mental strength. I had these qualities beforehand, but I know they developed significantly during this ordeal. I experienced two very severe operations with several years of significant post-operative pain. But I found the resources to survive these and to rebuild my health. So I know I have the resources to cope with an eight hour bike ride.

Oddly enough, the most difficult time mentally was from 50 to 60 miles. At 50 miles I stopped to refill my water bottle after completing the hilliest section of the ride. I was starting to feel tired and it suddenly struck me, I now have to do all that again. In a flash, the end of the ride became an extremely long way away. Drawing on my cancer survivorship skills, I broke the challenge down into smaller parts. I didn’t think of 100 miles, but of another ten miles, to get me 60. When I got there, I had a short break, ate some food and relaxed. I was sitting beside the River Blackwater, on the border between Armagh and Tyrone. The sun was shining, no-one was about and it was pleasantly warm. Just before I left, a fella drove down to the riverside in his car, wound the window down and spoke to me. ‘It’s too damn hot,’ he said, turned the car around and drove away. Typical, I thought, we’ve only had one week of summer and people are already complaining.