Damien B. Donnelly was born in Dublin but moved to Paris to spend a year writing. He is a pattern maker, a poet, a hopeful novelist, photographer and baker of exceedingly delicious cakes. He is on the third draft of his first novel and has had his work featured in 2015 short story anthology ‘Second Chance’, and online journals ‘The Fable Online’ and ‘FireFly Magazine’.
At what age did you realise writing was going to mean something in your life?
I’m a baby of 1975 and as I grew up in 80s Dublin writing became my cathartic release from everything that was going on around me and within me; being adopted, being gay (I did think I was the only one in the village) and family breakups. It was all fuel for the pages of my early self analysis. Being an only child gave me a certain freedom at home to listen to what was going on in my head, it just happened that it came out in the form of verse, poetic ramblings of self expression and reading back over it helped to understand what was going on in the jumble of my mind, so it took off from there. With poetry, there was a certain wonder in its limitations, its requirement to carefully select your words, get to the point, express the feeling without the frills while still sounding fanciful. Later on, it developed into short stories and slowly the idea for a novel, while turning the voices in my head into characters, living and breathing on the page, arrived.
What is your writing routine?
I have a blog, mostly poetry and short stories, which I try and publish at least two new pieces a week on. At the same time, I work on my novel and look around to see what literary competitions are of interest to me. I tend to write the novel in the daylight but the poetry seems to find more feeling in the shadows of night.
I have notebooks full of ideas, my notebook is always on hand on the metro, in the cafes, ready to take down whatever captures my attention. Inspiration comes when least expected so I’m always ready, even if it’s the middle of the night and I wake up with a vision or just a word; sleep can always be found, ideas are harder to come by, so I jump up and jot them down.
Now that the novel I am working on is mostly down on the page, I usually sit behind the computer for about five hours a day and work away at it; like it’s a sculpture that needs chiseling – this takes up a huge part of the day but I find it completely rewarding, even if it means spending hours over one paragraph.
When you get one page right you feel ready to take on the next. I now know the beginning and end of the book and understand the journeys my characters are undertaking so now I can tease them midstream. Poetry fills up the other hours of the day, I usually have about ten on the go, waiting to be developed and I pick and choose as the mood takes me.
You recently took a year off to live in Paris and give yourself a year to write. How has it been? Are you living the dream?
It certainly feels that way. Every day and night is filled with writing, every genre covered, every thought explored to see where it ends up. And in this city, inspiration is literally on your doorstep. I live in the 14th arrondissement of Paris which is riddled with glorious ghosts of the past from Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein to the French greats of Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir who are buried in Cemetery Montparnasse just down the road. Every now and then I pop into La Rotonde or La Select, cafes where these writers once sat and spun tales and created new ones. Their proximity to me now is both daunting and illuminating.
It was a scary step coming back. I lived in Paris for two years in my early twenties and was haunted by it from the moment I left it but somehow life gets in between, although I always knew I would return. I just hoped it would be as I remembered it and thankfully it was, it felt like coming home. In my first few months here I had a short story published in a book and two other pieces published in online journals which added to the feeling that it had been the right choice or the Write choice! Life as a writer does not always pay the bills and sometimes luxury needs to be put on hold, but having this time to develop my writing skills is an essential part of the progression and, for the first time in my life, I can call myself a writer, mean it and be proud of it.
Do you know many writers in Paris?
Yes, Paris is a wonderful place for writers, a wonderful place for creation in general; every street offers something to inspire and it has a huge literary community, especially the ExPat community. This city has a long tradition of independent publishers stemming from its blend of national and international writers drawing inspiration from its streets, from the American influence of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, to the Irish greats of Wilde and Beckett. There are a number of Open Mike nights in the city including ‘Spoken Word’, a literary institution offering writers a platform for expression and an audience to be heard, and ‘Poet’s Live’ at the ‘Berkeley Books of Paris’, a charming bookstore that opens its doors in the evening to writers from around the world. A very close community has developed for international writers here to share their experiences and encourage each other’s growth.
You have been busy entering writing competitions and sending to literary journals. How important is this in building confidence and setting goals or deadlines?
In looking at possible publishers and their requirements for submissions, many ask for a list of literary journals or competitions where you have been featured before you submit to them. I used to think this was elitist but there is a world of hopeful writers out there and only a certain number of positions on the bookstand so I appreciate that being featured in a magazine already gives you credit and makes it more advantageous for publishers to take a further look at your work.
For me, having a blog, I am always hopeful that people are reading me and liking me, and I must say that the online community of fellow bloggers becomes like a family, both supportive and encouraging, but when you are selected by a journal, it gives an immediate nod to your talent which, of course, boosts your confidence and with all the blood, sweat and tears that you pour into manuscripts, ideas and dreams, you need every nod you can get.
Writing is subjective, one person’s Gatsby is another person’s Mills and Boon but you have to get used to criticism, hopefully positive, but criticism nonetheless. Entering competitions also gives you an understanding of deadlines. Writing for yourself, where the only pressure is to build your masterpiece, is a slight step away from the reality of the world and its constant deadlines. It’s important to be able to balance your time and creativity and submitting to journals and competitions certainly teaches you this.
Have you ever suffered from writers’ block?
I’m not sure I suffered from writers block, more from Creative Curiosity, as I call it. I graduated with a degree in fashion design and have worked as a pattern maker for various brands including G-Star, Pepe Jeans and Calvin Klein. My fix is creating, I’m a creative junkie (a chocolate junkie too) so I like to dabble. I will often take a break from writing for a few days and make something, be it a coat or a shirt, or paint a painting, take a singing class, bake cakes or just spent time photographing this city, anything that gets the juices flowing. Joni Mitchell, a huge influence on me, always had a period of painting and a period of writing, never knowing which came first. Being an artist is limitless and I believe that all mediums flow into each other, adding textures, shades and sparks of inspiration. A lot of my poetry comes from my photographs, moments caught on camera while going for a walk or running in the park.
What is your proudest writing moment?
Being published in last year’s OriginalWriting.ie short story anthology ‘Second Chance’ was mind blowing, having your story in a book that you can hold; it’s every writers dream, so that was a great highlight. With the blog, it’s every time I write something and people, total strangers, a million miles from me, take the time to read it and enjoy it, that’s incredible. My fellow bloggers on WordPress.com are as encouraging as they are talented. From being a shy kid, scribbling my dramas on a page in my bedroom to having people around the world be touched by words I have pieced together is fantastic. Being able to touch a person you’ve never met makes me proud to be a writer. But it’s never what you think. I’ll write an epic poem, get excited about it, can’t wait to publish it and then it goes online and nothing happens. Then I write something that I like, not thinking it’s anything above average, but the minute it goes on the site, people rave about it. Like I said, writing is subjective. You never know if you’ll fly or fall.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
I’m on the third edit of my first novel, currently entitled ‘The Journey Home’ (it wasn’t the first title and probably won’t be the last). It’s lived in my head for almost a decade and last year I decided it needed nurturing. Writing is tough, whether it’s 500 words or 11,000 words but the editing process is equally exhausting. You truly have to believe in what you’re writing and where your characters are headed so that you can edit them cleverly while still keeping their essence. If your story is not interesting enough then even you, as the writer, will not be able to go over it again and again to perfect it.
It may be the third edit, but I’ve read it more than a hundred times and with each reread I discover something missing or something that needs expanding or reducing. I now understand the drive behind my characters which gives me more freedom to move them about on the page. It’s funny, I know I wrote the characters, but they still make me laugh and cry at times as if someone else wrote it. Sometimes you get so caught up in the story and dialogue that it’s only when you go back over it that you really hear it, as if for the first time.
For the rest, the blog is constantly ongoing; exploring different ways to write poetry, how to express it on the page, playing with layout, background and incorporating my own photographs into the pieces to enhance it. I use Twitter, Tumbler, Instagram, Facebook and WordPress as platforms for expression and want to keep building up my following while also taking more time to follow my followers; learning is never ending.
Do you have a plan for your book once it is written?
I’m well aware that if a publisher picks the book up, then it will face possibly another year of rewrites and edits so that will be a continuing challenge. I have loved writing this book, its been a huge adventure, to give life to characters and sustain them and their interest for the reader, so I would love for their story to be told. They have become my family. Writing does that, it settles in under the skin which makes you terrified at the thought of setting them free and releasing them to the scrutiny from the world. It’s like giving away your child.
I think the next book idea (my second child) is already festering in my head so at some point that will need time to bear fruit. In the meantime, I will continue with the poetry and whatever comes along to inspire me. I will certainly work again in the fashion arena and continue to discover new cakes to bake, meaning a lot more running in the park to burn them off.
What do you like to read?
Just like the writing, baking and painting, I go through periods of reading. I try and keep it varied. Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ and Dean R. Koontz’s ‘Lightening’ were two of the first grown-up books I remember reading as a boy, discovering new worlds that existed within the pages I held in my hands. They could not have been more different but they were both magical all the same. I read Ernest Hemingway’s ‘A Moveable Feast’ when I first lived in Paris at 22 and read the lines, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” That was monumental, I thought he was talking directly to me so quickly bought everything else he’d written (turned out he wasn’t just talking to me!).
Tales of the City, chronicling the lives of San Francisco’s residents over four decades by Amistead Maupin is a constant set of reread-me books, showcasing a beautiful evolution of characters. I love the disturbing beauty of modern day Italian life captured by Niccolo Amaniti, especially in ‘Steal you Away’ and ‘I’m not Scared’ while adoring the charm of Jostein Gaarder, from ‘Through a glass, Darkly’ and ‘Sophie’s World’. There is always a poetry book somewhere lying around, begging to be opened on any page, ranging from Walt Whitman, Ted Hughes to modern writers I’ve discovered here in Paris like the passionately provocative Kimberly Campanello, Steven Dalachinsky and the short stories of Sven Hansen Love, all previous performers in the ‘Poets Live’ series.
Where do you write?
Sitting on my laptop with a cup of green tea in my living room and Ludovico Einaudi’s sweeping piano music playing in the background (I think it has become the score for my novel), nestled up on pillows in bed in the late hours of the night or on scribbling in a notebook on the terrace of a cafe, watching life go by and trying my best to capture the fleeting moments. Inspiration is everywhere but it passes in an instant – lucky is the person who can grab it and hold it a little longer. There are scraps of thoughts and ideas in drawers and notebooks all around the apartment which become starting points later on when I pick them up randomly.
LadyNicci comment: A year in Paris, writing. I’m sure I dreamt of this at some point in my early 20s! I love that in this interview Damien describes in detail where writing inspiration comes from – noticing people, taking notes, visiting busy streets or cafes, waking up in the middle of the night to write. His quote about setting his characters free into the world is very poignant – writing is like giving away your child. The pride you feel in your work and the possibility that someone might criticise it is very daunting as a writer – sometimes it’s easier to just keep it to yourself. His comments about having literary work published are interesting. I think it’s always good to have an accomplished CV, but literary journals can be difficult or outside what a writer normally writes. I’d love to hear what you think on this point.
How I write is a blog post series published on Sundays on www.ladynicci.com. The posts aim to give a voice to writers, published, unpublished and everywhere in between, to help and encourage other writers. If you would like to take part email firstname.lastname@example.org with How I Write in the subject line.