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On The Table Read Magazine, “the best book magazine in the UK“, author Martin Connolly talks about the inspiration behind his new book, Belfast, With Dinosaurs, 1979.
Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed Martin Connolly about his life and career, what inspired him to start writing, and the inspiration behind his new book, Belfast, With Dinosaurs, 1979.
Tell me a bit about who you are.
I’m a Professor of Irish literature at Tsurumi University, Yokohama. Been living in Japan for the past thirty years. I’m from Belfast. Academically, I’m best known for my Joyce studies, but I’ve also published quite a bit in Late Medieval English literature, which I studied at university. I am a bit of a magpie, though. When I see something shiny, I go for it. Hence, I have written academically on the Beatles, Star Trek and Pirates of the Caribbean.
Regarding the last, I send my paper to the director, Gore Verbinski, and, to my great surprise and delight, he loved it, and even sent me a film poster of film number 3, signed by him. Regarding the Beatles, it was inspired by seeing Paul McCartney in Tokyo a few years ago. I was knocked for six, as they used to say, with Beatlemania! Of course I love music, but not only to listen to, but to play. I play guitar and have released two albums under the artist’s name of Machrijam. I’m into jazz and blues.
Should I say I have a jazz website called ‘Jim’s Garage’?’ OK, I’ll say it! Here’s the website: https://jimsgarage007.weebly.com/
When did you first WANT to write a book?
When I was about 20 years old. I wrote poems. I imagined creating enough to make a book someday… I always wanted to be a writer.
When did you take a step to start writing?
In my early twenties. Poems.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
It took me no less than twenty years to produce my first book, Eri, a Japanese ghost story. Yes, I threw the manuscript up into the attic one day and didn’t look at it again for two decades. It was eventually published in 2015, and it is loved by Japanese people. Note that in 2016, I published my first book of poetry, which was entitled Labournight. It was highly acclaimed. Some of the poems contained in that book go back to when I was in my early twenties. Hence…. You could say it took me no less than forty years (!) to complete my first book (of poetry). I’ve since become a little quicker at producing my stuff!
What made you want to write Belfast, With Dinosaurs, 1979?
It’s about Belfast, because I grew up there. I wanted to travel back to that city I grew up in. Writing can provide such a vehicle, which traverses time and distance with no problem. Distance is a great inspiration to write. Yeats wrote The Lake Isle of Innisfree when he was in London, as did Ted Hughes when he penned The Thought-Fox.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Belfast, With Dinosaurs, 1979?
I have a pretty bad memory, so I had to ask many people many things and of course I had to use a wide range of resources, from old books and period-correct books and online newspapers to Facebook groups, to see how things were in a 1979 Belfast. I am accustomed to researching writers and their works at great temporal distance (especially with the medieval stuff), but this time I was researching where I grew up, and researching myself! My brother Jim helped a lot.
It was a huge undertaking, but an incredibly enriching one. You can be sure that all of the background historical detail in my book is accurate, even down to the weather on the particular days each chapter is set. I should shout out a big thanks to the Facebook group called ‘Images and Memories of Old Northern Ireland, pre-2000’. Their many contributors helped with their memories and images. It was a valuable resource, as was ‘Glengormley As It Was’ -many thanks to those from my old town who helped me so much. Such groups are wonderful resources for local history.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Protagonist?
There are many protagonists in my book, but I suppose Christopher must be the main one. Why? Because he’s based on little ole moi! But also my friend from childhood, Michael McDonald, was an inspiration. The book is a story of our friendship, and how it survived down the years.
Who or what inspired you when creating your Antagonist?
There is no set antagonist in this book, except for a particularly nasty fellow who makes a dramatic appearance in one chapter. It’s not really a novel of good against bad etc. It’s more of a portrait of a time and a place and a people.
What is the inciting incident of Belfast, With Dinosaurs, 1979?
By ‘inciting’, you mean the incident which triggered the writing, or inspired me to put pen to paper? I’m not sure which I could choose, but there was one bomb explosion near my house which I did want to depict. In order to do so, I had to trawl the ancient newspapers and ask many people on various Facebook groups.
It turns out that my understanding of that event was completely incorrect, so I’m glad I discovered the truth. Memory can play tricks on us, or maybe just on me. I might add that when thinking how to write about Belfast, I wanted to add something fantastical to the mix, and yet I didn’t want to make a fantasy. I wanted it to be real. I found that dinosaur fossils had been discovered in a town near Belfast. I was hooked.
What is the main conflict of Belfast, With Dinosaurs, 1979?
The main conflict, as such, concerns the problems caused by a hapless journalist who publishes an incorrect story about the discovery of dinosaur fossils in a place near Belfast. He suggests, erroneously, that they belonged to two fighting dinosaurs. This embarrasses the professors in charge of the dig and lands him in a lot of trouble. It also creates great general hilarity.
Did you plot Belfast, With Dinosaurs, 1979 in advance, or fly by the seat of your pants and write freely?
I like to have a strong idea to begin with, but never to plan too much. If the opening is strong and good, then I believe it will lead somewhere. I know the basic ideas or shape of something, but I have no real idea of how I will proceed. It is up to the characters and the handling of those characters to determine the true course of the writing. The characters tell me what to do next. I never tell them. I have a filter when writing: the next part has to be incredibly interesting, in my evaluation, or it ain’t going in.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Belfast, With Dinosaurs, 1979 need?
I didn’t get any support for this project and didn’t have an editor, but the publisher at Shanway Press did make some useful suggestions. In some of my previous books, I would send an early manuscript to my brother Jim and he would send me back his thoughts. He was a brilliant reader, and his comments were always insightful. Alas, he passed away last year. I was able to send him the first section of this book (Belfast, with Dinosaurs), however. We were able to talk a little and he was very positive, but it was only when I retrieved the manuscript I had sent him that I could read -with tearful delight- the comments (all positive and constructive) he made… I miss him so much. As regards my editing…. it was EXTENSIVE and INTENSE !
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a story?
I teach Creative Writing at Keio University in Tokyo, so I give such advice on a regular basis in my classroom. The advice I would give is: if you are going to create some situation, make sure you see and know all the details before you write. OR, get the vague idea first, that’s ok, but flesh it out with non-generic and very particular detail before you write it up properly. Why? Because a scene involves real things, even fantasy real things, so you should know what these are, and the place and even the weather.
Physical detail is of course only one part of it. The psychological detail regarding your character(s) also needs to be known. Now, at the end of the day, the writer needs to know all these things, but whether he/she needs to tell the reader all these things is a different story.
Holding back detail is also essential. And drama is everything. Oh, and description isn’t the same as explanation…. I could go on…
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
Recently, I’ve created a number of long narrative poems. Ongoing. I’m also thinking of revisiting Belfast, in the early 1980s, a time of great upheaval, re-entering my life there, but fictionalizing it. Belfast is an interesting place, especially for the purposes of literary investigation and exploration.
And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
Very, very, very. It is the best expression of my thoughts and feelings in novelistic form. It is also my greatest gift to Belfast and its people.
Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:
Dedicated Shanway Press website for Belfast, with Dinosaurs, 1979:
Review of book in The Belfast Telegraph (Northern Ireland’s biggest newspaper:
Martin Connolly’s Twitter account: Machrijam@C71916499
Please note that the book has now been reissued for the global market and is available on all Amazons and at half the original price. It’s also now on Kindle.
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