Memory Is a Slippery Mistress

Reality: Travellers and the casual animal cruelty I witnessed.

Reality: Travellers and the casual animal cruelty I witnessed.

By Lisa Alber

Jet lag, my friends! I’m living it right now. I returned to Portland from an Ireland novel research trip last night, so I’m really eight hours ahead of myself. It had been thirteen (13!) years since I’d last visited. That shows how long it took me to get my debut novel, Kilmoon, published.

A lot can happen in thirteen years, especially when it comes to our memories. I arrived in County Clare with pictures in my head, with the reality of the place crystal clear, I thought. I ended up driving around for the first few days feeling shell-shocked, disillusioned, disappointed, aghast, and outraged.

Some of the changes to my so-called reality of County Clare were due to what most would refer to as “progress,” which I didn’t like. Not at all. My ideal County Clare ruined by improved infrastructure! I liked it wild, wooly, and rugged. I liked the narrow roads with no painted whites lines on them telling us when we’re allowed to pass. I liked feeling like a race car driver at a whopping 80 km/hour (50 mph). I liked the Neolithic and Medieval ruins sitting in cow fields without any indication of what they were.

Reality: Lots of empty shopfronts. Clare hasn't recovered from the recession.

Reality: Lots of empty shopfronts. Clare hasn’t recovered from the recession.

And the tourism. Well! Never mind that I’m a tourist—I was appalled that the Cliffs of Moher charged a fee, sported a gigantic parking lot and paved walkways and guard rails along the cliffs. I preferred the slippery dirt paths and rusty little signs that depicted a man falling over the edge and a message that went something like: Warning: Unstable Edge.

I was just, I don’t know, weirded out by the whole thing …

But then I got to thinking about why I’d returned to County Clare. It wasn’t to relive some grand memory, which I’d mistaken for reality. I’d returned to research the novel I’m writing now, the third in the County Clare series. This meant seeing Clare as it really is. It meant yanking the rosy-tinted memory glasses off and taking a look around me with an open heart.

I saw the gravel quarries (those weren’t there before, I knew they weren’t … but was that true or just my memory talking?) and the clear-cutting of the forestry lands and all the new houses along the main roads that diminished distances and the tourist signage that trivialized the wondrous and the new big hotels and the summer homes …

Reality: Need I say more?

Reality: Need I say more?

I was thirteen years out of date in my notions of life in County Clare. My books need to reflect some semblance of this reality.

It took a few – three, four, five – days, but I acclimated. I started to see the beauty again. Rolling hills with their drystone walls. Fabulous vistas on the coast. Spring lambs jumping around green velvet fields. Quaint storefronts in a town called Ennistymon. Vibrant yellow furze growing along the roads.

Before I knew it, I was no longer seeing the quarries and the clear cuts. After awhile, they didn’t exist for me anymore, and, I suppose, this is how memory works, doesn’t it? Whatever imprints the most, moves us the most, is what sticks for the long term.

After another little while, I realized that my dissonance wasn’t all due to progress. My brain played its part all on its own.

Reality: Falling apart, abandoned houses everywhere.

Reality: Falling apart, abandoned houses everywhere.

Memory is a slippery mistress for sure, and the dissonance between reality and memory might be worse when you’re a fiction writer. You go from reality to memory, and then from memory to the imaginative. And let’s face it, we novelists may base our novels in a contemporary world, but we amp it up in different ways to suit our stories.

No wonder I was so disoriented at first. The Clare of my memories had become the Clare of my fiction, another gigantic step removed from real reality.

As the outrage and disorientation dissipated, I fell in love with Clare all over again. I’m already in danger of losing touch with real reality, and I’ve only been home for about twelve hours. Ah well, I expect the next time I travel to Clare, I’ll revisit the same weirdness. On the up side, I’ll rediscover Clare all over again, in a new way.

Have you ever faced the dissonance between reality and memory? I remember

Reality: Gruesome meat delivery

Reality: Gruesome meat delivery

feeling the same disorientation when I visited my first childhood home. Everything about the neighborhood felt so small somehow.

 

Merry Christmas, Poor Wren of Irish Lore

wrenBy Lisa Alber

Last week, Christina’s post about Krampus, St. Nick’s demon companion, filled me with a strange kind of glee. I love a little scary, and let’s be honest, if we’re talking the holiday season and harkening back to the Old Testament — talk about some scary shite! Those stories aren’t for sissies.

Since I’m of Irish descent rather than Czech, I decided to check out whether the Celts had a nice holiday demon in its pantheon of mythological creatures. Alas, I couldn’t find one. Maybe this just means the Celts had more obedient kids?

In any case, I had fun reading up on creatures such as the vampire called Dearg Due, which means “red blood sucker” and is a female demon who seduces men and then drains them of their blood. (I hadn’t realized that Bram Stoker, Dracula’s creator, was Irish — makes sense.) And, Leanan Sidhe, the beautiful and evil fairy-muse who was said to give inspiration to poets and musicians before killing them.

I'm not the only one who thinks this is creepy, right?

I’m not the only one who thinks this is creepy, right?

The creepiest holiday-related thing I found is called the “wren boy procession.” To the ancient Celts, the wren was a powerful positive symbol — the king of the birds. Wrens were believed to be a link between this world and the next. When I read between the lines of the various websites I perused, the wren only turned evil — “the devil bird” — about the time that Christianity took over the “pagan” Celts (no surprise — always seemed to happen that way, eh?).

Still part of the popular culture.

Still part of the popular culture.

After that, the poor wren was said to have betrayed Irish soldiers who were fighting Norsemen by beating their wings on the Norse shields. The wren was also blamed for betraying St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. As a result, the wren was hunted and then nailed to a pole at the head of St. Stephens Day (wren boy) processions every December 26th.

wrenboysNice one, that — the ritualistic slaughter of wrens. There were parades and much merriment while the poor birds where basically tortured. Thank god killing wrens has died out as a tradition, but there are still some areas of Ireland where you’ll see the processions and hear this poem:

The wren the wren the kings of all birds,
On St. Stephen’s Day it was caught in the furze
Up with the kettle and down with the pan
Give me a penny to bury the wren.

I love the holiday season, and I also loves me some cool symbolism — but man — I guess I asked for it when I decided to drill down into dark holiday themes. On a sweeter note, I found this tale written by the former National Poet of Wales.

wren-cover-300x456Happy Holidays from all of us at ShadowSpinners!

Killer Matchmaker, or Is He?

By Lisa Alber

I’d planned to respond to Christina’s post about her dark-man dreams, but then I remembered that I haven’t mentioned my debut novel (March 2014! Yay!) on the ShadowSpinners blog yet. Self-interest trumps soulful introspection this week.

My novel, KILMOON, features a dark man, but he hides behind a charismatic smile and his role as a celebrated matchmaker in Ireland. He’s not your warm and fuzzy matchmaker, that’s for sure, and that’s what I love about him. In literary parlance, he goes “against type.” I didn’t set out to do this. I didn’t say to myself, Hey, I need to turn a stereotype on its head so that my story will stand out, be original, and answer the question, What’s special about your novel?

Pfft. I liked the idea of a purveyor of love and matrimony and happily-ever-afters who has a murky past, who might be guilty of something, who might tend toward sociopathy.

Or maybe he’s just a flawed man with a tattered but good heart. I’m not telling.

The notion of a dark-man matchmaker got me started on the novel, and I’d forgotten about that until I read an essay about one-sentence elevator pitches. I was intrigued by the essay writer’s #1 tip for creating an elevator pitch: try to remember what originally excited you about the story. Your original idea before the story took on a life of its own.

It’s basically the “What if…” question. For me, the what-if began in Ireland. I happened to be in Lisdoonvarna village for its annual matchmaking festival. Talk about randy, Guinness-drinking Irishmen. It took me awhile to discover that most of them were about the unencumbered shagging, not the matrimony. That said, the matchmaker was, probably still is, a celebrated figure in County Clare.

It didn’t take long for my thoughts to wander to the dark side. What if the matchmaker had a murky past? What if he wasn’t what he seemed? Bingo! The matchmaking festival might have inspired another novelist to write a tale of romance or maybe women’s fiction. Not me, no, I’ve gotta get a little of that sociopathy in there.

So what’s my elevator pitch for Kilmoon? Hah! You kidding me? There’s nothing more excruciating than creating an elevator pitch. But, OK, off-the-cuff? Here it goes:

Desperate to mend her troubled past, Merrit Chase seeks out a celebrated Irish matchmaker–the father she never knew–only to get ensnared in his deadly past instead.

For a proper description of Kilmoon, check out this page.